Blogger Spotlight: Harvard, the Ivy and tempo-free stats with John Ezekowitz

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We’re going Ancient Eight in this week’s blogger spotlight. And the timing couldn’t be better with our guest and his school.

John Ezekowitz is a sophomore at Harvard, who also writes for the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (and College Hoops Journal). Just last night, he came up with a new tempo-free stat called Free Throw +, which has already received mention in one of the web’s most-read college hoops stories of the week. (What did you do during your sophomore year? Drink stale beer and watch re-runs of ‘Seinfeld’? Yeah, me too.)

But more on that a little later. He’s also a college student who’s watching his school reach basketball heights it never dreamed of. And tonight, it plays longtime Ivy League bully Princeton. John’ll be there, cheering.

Q: This must the Golden Age of Harvard hoops. A 15-3 start after last season’s 21-8 record and national notoriety for Jeremy Lin? Surely it doesn’t get any better for a school with one NCAA tournament appearance.

A: It certainly has been a very good few years for Harvard basketball. When I first went to a Harvard home game in 2009, there were maybe 50 students in the crowd. Worse, no one knew there was a game. Now, Ivy League home games regularly sell out the student ticket allotment and the games are events on campus.

Jeremy Lin was huge for Harvard’s profile nationally, but the continued success without him this year has done wonders on Harvard’s campus.

Q: Describe this season’s squad. All anyone heard about was Lin, Lin and Lin last season. But between Keith Wright and some talented underclassmen, this is a team built to win for a while.

A: The watchword for Harvard this year has to be balance. The Crimson have six legitimate scoring options. Keith Wright is certainly the anchor in the middle, but point guards Oliver McNally and Brandyn Curry really make this team go. Sharpshooters Christian Webster and Laurent Rivard (probably the favorite for Ivy League ROY) light it up from three.

The X-factor, though, is sophomore forward Kyle Casey. Casey was the Ivy League ROY last year, but has been hampered by injuries this year. He seemed to break out last weekend however, averaging a double-double and two monstrous dunks a game in wins over Columbia and Cornell. The scary thing for the rest of the Ivies is that Harvard doesn’t have a senior on the roster. They are 297th in Division-I in experience this year (according to KenPom).

Q: How’s Tommy Amaker perceived around campus? More than just a hired gun?

A: It’s tough to disentangle the Athletic Department’s decision to commit more resources to basketball and Amaker’s role, as they go hand in hand. Tommy is definitely very well liked around campus, and is revered by his players. The student body as a whole is still really waking up to having a good basketball program, however.

Harvard has always traditionally been a football and hockey school, but under Amaker’s watch, basketball is making a push for the hearts and minds. It has certainly worked so far (and would be hugely helped by a tournament berth), but there’s always the lingering question on campus of what happens if and when Tommy decides to leave.

Q: Are you convinced Amaker will stay at Harvard for any length of time? He was mentioned as a St. John’s candidate during the summer. The better the Crimson do, the more often his name will pop up for other jobs.

A: It’s really hard for me to speculate on Amaker’s future because the Crimson are in the middle of a season that could swing the chances he leaves dramatically and because I simply don’t know. With that caveat, I’m hopeful that he will stay for some time to come. The program rebuild is by no means finished, and Amaker continues to sell recruits on the Harvard experience. He has brought in two excellent classes in a row, and has another highly ranked class lined up for next year (it must be said that he is probably helped by Harvard somewhat relaxing its stringent academic standards).

Most of all, Amaker seems to enjoy it here. The program is emerging on campus and has been buoyed by more funds from the athletic department. I think it will take a fantastic opportunity to pry him away from Harvard in the immediate future. Five years from now, who can say?

 Q: Describe what the atmosphere is at Friday night games. Is it hard to fill gyms when students are ready to blow off steam from a week of classes? Are the Saturday games more raucous?

A: One of the beauties of the Ivy League is its consistency. The rhythm of the Friday-Saturday night homestands is the same every year. For a student body like Harvard, this means that the games get more well-attended as the season goes on. It is not so much about what night it is, but rather what week of Ivy play it is.

I cannot speak to what it was like in the past, but in general I’d say the Saturday games have a different feel because of the rest of the crowd. It certainly seems like more (and louder) non-students come out for the Saturday games.

 Q: Best place to watch an Ivy game?

A: While Lavietes has its charms, including a fantastic kids game every halftime that is treated like the real game by the fans, its not the best Ivy League venue. Payne-Whitney at Yale is unique and ornate, and Jadwin at Princeton has the crazy geodesic moonscape ceiling. But the answer was, is, and will always be the Palestra. I’ll be there on Saturday night and I cannot wait.

 Q: Best rivalry?

A: The best Ivy League basketball rivalry was and still is Penn-Princeton. Those two schools dominated the league for the two decades before Cornell’s recent run, and the strength of the rivalry has not diminished in the last few years. The two games between the Quakers and the Tigers are the only Ivy games not played on Fridays and Saturdays: they are played mid-week in the middle of the conference season. The ability of the rivalry to break the Ivy schedule mold is a testament to its tradition and strength.

 As for Harvard, it’s a bit more complicated. The traditional rivalry with Yale doesn’t mean as much in basketball. Let’s put it this way: no school would identify Harvard as their “basketball rival.” There does appear to be a rivalry with Princeton developing right now. It will be interesting to see how that emerges.

Q: Dream scenario: Harvard makes the NCAA tournament. How far are you willing to travel to watch their first game?

A: I’d go to pretty much any of the sites. Tulsa would be the hardest sell to my family, but this is a once in a lifetime experience. And if Harvard somehow miraculously made the second week? Class would become secondary, for sure.

 Q: The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective produces some fantastic in-depth material about hoops. How did you get into blogging there?

A: Believe it or not, before I got to Harvard I was not a quantitative-heavy person. But then I took a fantastic statistics class and had several friends tell me about “this HSAC thing where you talk about sports and stats.” I figured I’d check it out, and the rest is history. For me, the best thing about HSAC is the support network of other like-minded people it provides. For instance, the Free Throw Plus post that went up yesterday was an idea I posted on the email list that turned into a long thread and discussion at our weekly meeting. It would not have come into life without the input of the other members.

Q: Your new stat – Free Throw + — already got a shout out by Luke Winn of SI and is no doubt being discussed right now in tempo-free enclaves. For the tempo-free dummies out there, explain which teams it’ll affect most during the NCAA tournament.

A: Like most new ideas, this one needs more fleshing out. But what I think it does show is that teams who do not get to the line often and do not make their free throws often when they get there can be in trouble in single-elimination situations (like the NCAA Tournament).

Three teams that come to mind here are San Diego State, Louisville, and Washington State (maybe FT+ has a slight East Coast Bias). All three of those teams have efficient offenses, but do not shoot free throws well or often. That really puts a strain on their offenses to be efficient, as they are not bailed out from the line nearly as much as other teams. One bad shooting night or turnover trouble could spell disaster.

 Q: You ever try to explain tempo-free stats to friends? Or do they look at you like you’re nuts?

A: I am a tempo-free stats evangelist, but in order to keep the peace with my friends I don’t evangelize heavily. The beauty is that tempo-free is a very intuitive concept. The idea that stats like points per game and rebounds per game are biased because they depend on how many possessions a team has is simple and easy. I’d like to think my friends who like basketball have been somewhat edified about tempo-free stats by me. They may not be quoting a team’s turnover rate, but they probably know what a turnover rate is.

Q: What’s your goal after college? Or is that too far down the road?

A: To be honest with you, I really do not know. I love the sports statistics path I’ve been on the last year or so, but I am very lucky to have many different options open to me.

Ultimately, I’d like to be able to create something tangible and attempt to grow that. If I can find a way to work sports into that, even better.

 Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.