Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Don't Know. Third Base!

Writing humor when you live in the South is mostly just reporting.

Same goes for writing drama, really.  Do you think if William Faulkner had lived in Brooklyn he could have made up a story about a family trying to take their mother's body home for burial in a horse and wagon across a flooded river because her husband wanted new false teeth?   Trust me, you can't make this stuff up.

Take this morning, for example. My wife and I had coffee and pastries at Weaver Street Market, as we do a few times each week. Our routine is precisely honed. She selects pastries while I grab a tray and two cups of coffee. While I stand in line to pay, she claims a table in the dining room and begins reading the Raleigh newspaper so I can have the New York Times first.

This morning, I got in line behind a middle-aged woman in a long cotton dress who waited until her purchases were completely rung up before beginning to search for her wallet, the paying part of this transaction apparently having come as a complete surprise, and then she began to dig for a small change purse. The change purse was inside a small bag with a zipper that was inside a larger purse stuffed into the bottom of her backpack, which looked quite fashionable with the long cotton dress and white gym socks, I should add.

Now, I have waited for women to search diligently for precise change at checkout stands all over this country. (Men, on the other hand, will throw down a twenty for a pack of gum when they have exact change in their other hand.)

In other parts of the country, this might seem an annoyance. I remember a tightly-strung woman from Northern California ranting a few years back that toll booth signs saying “Exact Change” don’t mean, “do you have exact change?” but rather, “do you have exact change that you might be able to lay your hands on in, oh, the next ten minutes or so?”

I see her point, but Southerners are generally more laid back than that. I haven’t heard a car horn blow in the past five years and we generally just smile at times like this. Worst case, we shake our heads nearly imperceptibly to express total outrage. Getting to tell the story later and laugh about it is an inexpensive and reliable form of entertainment around here.

So is keeping your ears open while you read the paper so you can catch gossip like this little gem I picked up from the nice ladies sitting next to us this morning.

“She was runnin’ short of cash so she sold her banjo to her ex-husband.”

There had to be a story there. I laid down the business section.

“Excuse me, ma’am”, I interrupted, “but could you hold the rest of that story until I refill my coffee?”

My friends know that I spend a lot of time at UNC baseball games and at six bucks, there is no better value for your entertainment dollar. In fact, after the third inning, they stop selling tickets and you get in free.

Midweek games like yesterday’s contest against High Point are frequently laughers, but last night’s was entertainment with a capital “E”. At one point, Coach Fox brought in a reliever in a tight situation with High Point’s power hitter at the plate.

The pitcher promptly skipped his first throw off the top of the batter’s helmet. The hitter was awarded first base, but I suppose that’s better than giving up a home run in a tight game. Seems like the starting pitcher could have done that, too, though. No need to bring in a specialist.

When the kid’s second pitch hit the dirt in front of home plate, Fox practically ran back out to the mound. It’s the first time I’ve seen a pitcher yanked after just two throws, but no one seemed to disagree with the decision. One smart-ass fan even yelled, "What? Did he reach his pitch count?"

The main event occurred a few innings later, though, when Carolina should have easily scored runners from second and third on a single to right field. As the runner from second rounded third with plenty of time to score, Coach Fox stood waving his right arm frantically in a huge circle to send the runner on to home. It’s fun to watch a grown man excitedly imitating a high-speed windmill anytime, but last night’s event was special.

The runner may have made the turn at third a bit wide, but not excessively so, while in his excitement Coach Fox had hopped out of the coach’s box and a bit too close to the base path, again with his right arm flailing in a huge circle. The runner crashed directly into his coach, falling to the ground and having to stumble back into third base instead of scoring the run.

Meanwhile, Coach Fox fell backward into a complete reverse somersault, somehow keeping his cap in place over his silver hair. The fans, at this point, were completely focused on Laurel and Hardy at third base and lost track of the play on the rest of the field.

Had the runner scored instead of being tackled by his own coach at third base, Carolina would have won the game in nine innings, but that wasn’t to be.

Coach Fox walked over to the runner on third, who was bent over at the waist and apparently in some pain, put his arm around his player and whispered to him. I can only imagine the conversation went something like this.

“Son, we just made total asses of ourselves; well, maybe me more than you since you were actually supposed to be on the base path. On the other hand, they announced attendance of just 500 and I’m damned if I can count more than a hundred fans or so, so we have that going for us. YouTube might be a problem; I thought I saw a guy pointing his cell phone at us. Keep acting like you’re a little shook up— people seem reluctant to laugh at someone who’s been injured. OK, I’m going to walk away now. Just nod your head and act like we were talking strategy.”

The next few innings might have been a little boring except for a pitch to a Carolina hitter that crossed the plate about two inches above the ground and that the umpire inexplicably called a strike. The “crowd” went crazy and Coach Fox began arguing with the plate umpire. Arguing balls and strikes is a no-no and Fox was quickly ejected.

In that strange tradition of baseball, coaches who have been ejected reserve the right to argue a while longer, figuring they have nothing further to lose. One advantage of the pathetic attendance was the fans’ ability to hear every word of the tirade and they became eerily quiet to take advantage of the opportunity.

Coach Fox kept screaming at the umpire that he should be ashamed to eject a coach over so minor an objection and that the umpire was now going to have to “wear that”. He said it several times, but I never quite got it. As Fox walked off the field, the fans roared their approval and began shouting, “Wear it, Blue!” The fact that we had no idea what it meant made it that much more fun to yell.

Having had no ejections, unintentional beanings, two-pitch outings or physical comedy on the base paths for two entire innings, our boredom was broken in the seventh when a UNC fan got into a screaming match with the popcorn vendor and again, since the crowd was so thin, we got to witness every word.

The fan involved is a regular, an older gentleman with a huge paunch and an entire wardrobe of UNC Tar Heels paraphernalia, including stadium seat with shoulder strap, all in powder blue.  His regular seat is near the popcorn stand and his constant yelling at umpires and players seems to irritate the vendor, who apparently feels the need to remind the fan at every opportunity, night after night, that it’s “just a game”.  F-bombs and threats by the fan to stick the vendor’s popcorn machine where the sun don’t shine ensued and Security had to ask the fan to leave.

By the way, women love a really big fella in all baby blue, which explains why Tar Heel defensive linemen get the pretty girlfriends.  I bought a three-piece suit in that hue with matching suede shoes and belt and a light blue print tie, but I wore it with a white shirt.  (You don't want to overdo it.)  All I got from the ladies were rolled eyes and grimaces.  The look just doesn't work for a skinny guy.

Coach Fox having. . . shall we say, “held up” the earlier potential go-ahead run at third, we entered extra innings with the score tied at 2.  High Point’s pitcher gave up two singles and Carolina’s third batter in the bottom of the 10th reached on an error.  With the bases loaded, the pitcher ran the count to 3 and 2 against Ryan Graepel.

With the bases loaded in extra innings, a walk would have ended the game.  High Point’s pitcher had to throw a strike and “Grape” jacked a walk-off grand slam over the left field fence.

I was telling all this to the lady at Weaver Street Market this morning while she searched interminably for her change purse at the checkout stand.

“You really should go to a game," I told her.  "It’s hard to find three hours of comparable entertainment anywhere for six bucks. . . and, if you can’t find your wallet by the fourth inning, they’ll let you in free!”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Can Inexperienced NBA Prospects Win A Title?

The 2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats, among the youngest basketball teams in Division I, “only” made it as far as the Elite 8 in this year’s NCAA Tournament.  With five players apparently headed for the NBA and four of them freshmen, the team generated a lot of speculation about whether an inexperienced team, even one loaded with NBA talent, can win the championship.

Kentucky was, to say the least, young and inexperienced.  Ken Pomeroy calculated an experience factor for all 347 Division I teams and posted them on his website,  He weights the player’s class in school by the number of minutes actually played to obtain not just an indication of how many upperclassmen are on the team, but which one’s actually played.  UK ranked 341st, with just six teams in all of Division I having less experience playing in the NCAA.

Referring to UK’s loss to West Virginia, one of the more uninformed posts I’ve read said, “UK lost the first time they had to play an experienced team.”  Since UK didn’t play any of the six teams ranked less experienced than themselves, every single game they played in the 2009-10 season was against a more experienced opponent, yet they ended the season with a record of 35-3.

UK beat UCONN, Auburn, Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee during the regular season and all of those teams were more experienced than the Mountaineers.

UK also soundly defeated Cornell in the third round of the NCAA tournament, a quality team with a Pomeroy experience ranking of 8— about the same distance from the top of the experience ranking as UK was from the bottom.  In this year’s tournament, only Arkansas-Pine Bluff (6) and Notre Dame (3) were more experienced than Cornell (8).

(Numbers in parentheses are Pomeroy Experience Rankings for 2009-2010.  Lower numbers indicate greater experience.)

Ironically, A-PB and ND, the most experienced teams in the field, both lost in the first round.

The argument that UK was too inexperienced to win the tournament is also weakened by the fact that only four of the tournament’s 64 entrants made it farther in the tourney than did the Wildcats.  So, while many argue that UK didn’t win the championship despite all that talent because they lacked experience, one might also argue that 62 other teams didn’t win the tournament, either, and UK came as close or closer than 97% of them.

A single tournament doesn’t provide a significant statistical sample, but it can provide some interesting observations.  I divided the 347 teams with experience ranked by Pomeroy into quartiles.  Since “quartile” is one of those words that numbs the mind, let’s refer to the most experienced teams, those ranked 1 through 87, as seniors, and the remaining three groups as juniors, sophomores and freshmen. 

Kentucky (341) and Kansas (264) would then be referred to as freshmen, since their weighted class rank falls into the bottom one-fourth of experience of all 2009-10 NCAA Division I teams.  Duke (70) was a senior, Syracuse (181) and Butler (177) juniors, for example.

To win the NCAA tournament, a team first has to make the field.  Two-thirds of the 64 teams invited to the big dance were from the middle of Division I in terms of experience.  Surprisingly, more teams made the tournament from the junior and sophomore classes than from the senior class. This distribution would seem to imply that having some experience is important, but having lots of experience isn’t an additional advantage in reaching the tournament field.

How did inexperienced teams fare in the 2010 tournament?  Perhaps surprisingly, less experienced teams won more than half of the games played in this year’s tournament— 32 of the 63 games, or 51%.  Teams highlighted in yellow in the bracket diagram below won games against more experienced teams.  Considering the entire tournament from round one through the championship game, experience doesn’t seem to have been a huge factor.

The less experienced team actually won 20 of the 32 first-round games (63%).  The first round, however, hosts the greatest discrepancy in seeding (1-seeds play 16-seeds, for example), so a good but inexperienced team like Syracuse defeats a more experienced but weaker Vermont team.  Not that surprising.  Still, five teams with less experience and a worse seed won their first-round games.

The later rounds are more interesting.  As the tournament progresses, the seeding advantage decreases and we end up with 1- through 5-seeds, in other words, teams with better-matched talent.  Less experienced Michigan State (205) beat Tennessee (98) in the Midwest Region. With comparable seeding, the less experienced team won.

Similar results came from the West, where junior team Kansas State (159) was more experienced than sophomore team Butler (177), and was seeded quite a bit stronger at 2 than was Butler at 5.  The less experienced, higher-seeded team won.

In the East Region, UK and West Virginia were seeded 1 and 2 respectively, but the Mountaineers (147) were a junior class to UK’s (341) freshmen.  In the South Region, Duke (70) beat a significantly less experienced team in Baylor (170).  They were seeded 1 and 3 respectively in that region.  The two more experienced teams won.

Interestingly, half of the Final Four teams beat a more experienced team in the regional finals to move on to Indianapolis.

In the championship game, senior Duke beat sophomore Butler, but in a game that went right down to the wire.  Top-seeded Duke beat a significantly less experienced team in Butler, but only by a basket.

So far, from this limited data sample of one tournament, we might deduce that some experience increases a team’s chances of making the tournament field, but additional experience doesn’t seem to add a lot.  Less experienced teams win more often than not in the early rounds, but that is also a time when more experienced teams may simply be over-matched in talent.  Less experienced teams win the regional finals as often as more experienced teams. 

In the Final Four, however, the more experienced team won every game.  Does this suggest that experience is more important in the Final Four than in earlier rounds?

Just for grins, I decided to look back at the last five Final Fours. The Final Four team with the most experience, Duke, won the 2010 tournament.  In 2009, North Carolina (60) won over marginally more experienced Gonzaga (52).  In 2008, Kansas won the title, also with the most experience.

Florida won with the most experience among the four finalists in 2007, but while they were the most experienced among that small group, they were only juniors among the full set of Division I teams.  The entire 2007 Final Four wasn’t especially experienced.

While experience may not be the critical factor to get a team into the tournament, the most experienced of the Final Four teams does seem to have the edge at winning the championship for the past few years.

But does this argue, as many suggest, that a highly talented but inexperienced team like UK fielded this year will never win the title? 

In 2006, Florida won the NCAA tournament with four sophomores and a junior.  Pomeroy doesn’t have experience statistics for that season, but one can be calculated from the team’s individual data.  For the 2005-06 season, the Gators had an experience factor of just 1.26 years.   That would have ranked them around 290th in this year’s Division I and would have positioned them in the least-experienced quartile of any recent season— in fact, in the bottom 15% for 2010.

So, it’s already been done.  At least once.  And recently.

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Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 technology company. Since retiring in 2005, he has researched and published papers on retirement finance, spoken at retirement industry conferences and events, and regularly posted on retirement finance issues at his blog, The Retirement Cafe. He is currently a Thought Leader at APViewpoint, Advisor Perspectives' online community of  investment advisors and financial planners. He provides retirement planning advice as a fee-only financial planner.

Mr. Cotton holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.

He and his family currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write.

Dirk holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.  He attended high school in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.