The way we get by: Basketball's civil war community of discourse

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer
The way the game is being played, is being analyzed and being received is only getting smarter. (Getty Images)

Another season has come, and damn, does it feel good to see it arrive before us, grand and ornate and full of things we'll need a week or month or two to peel away before understanding. Even then: We'll never reveal it all.

College basketball's got this grip on me (and probably you, if you're taking the time to read this) in a way that I love and hope never dies until I do. Many sports fans don't swing by the party until March, but damn, do I love the way this game rips off the sheath in November. Friday's opening day of games is as strong a case as ever that college basketball -- more than any other sport -- does its sport right.

It's easy to see: Just look at what the game's organizers have assembled on the first day of the season. Yes, more of this, please to go with continued excitement and arrangement of quality matchups throughout November and December. Our opening day doesn't come with a slow-drift of a foot in the water. We are going head-first, bodies splayed, cackling with eagerness over the immediacy of must-watch, worthy basketball from the get-go. Sports can be so fun, and the start of seasons always feel as new and fresh as anything I've ever received in my life.

From all the thousands of tip-offs still ahead of us, there's a symphony of facts and opinion just waiting to be blasted into the atmosphere. The fugue begins today, then builds and builds, one after another, the crescendo a slow and succulent squeeze. Stories remain in the cocoon, still weeks away from ripping the silk. I love that. I love not knowing right now. I love knowing that I'll be wrong, and that I'll always be wrong. What fun is sports if you're always right? Let the game surprise and correct you and you'll never feel old.

With that said, I'd like to address the group about something that's been on my mind. The lead-up to this season brought the continuation of a trend I expected and welcomed. I wasn't alone in feeling this, but the fact is, I was also part of the minority. The continued growth and ubiquity of new-age, tempo-free stats was impossible to ignore.

(This is where I'm going to lose some people -- because they just don't care. That's fine. I'm saying right here and now: Numbers on any level -- traditional stats or newfangled figures -- are not for some people. For the most part, they pay them no mind at all, no matter the source. I don't begrudge such folk, and in some ways, I envy them.)


Nate Silver basically became a rock star and an urban legend this week for being a stats guy who humbly nailed the outcome of the presidential election. This was an epic pwning for Silver after the weeks leading up to the election afforded flat-earth-living nincompoops to attack the guy's credentials and methods (must be biased!). In the wake of Silver's golden forecast, many people wanted to make the correlation between sports and politics in the statistical realm, since Silver has a background in baseball stats and analysis, but the two don't toally jibe. That said, it sparked a discussion that needed to be held, and is still going on as the weekend arrives.

Let's transition that discussion to not just college basketball, but basketball in general.

The new way of basketball interpretation is now spilling into the bloodstream of the mainstream and isn't going away. The reality -- the actuality -- of these numbers and methods being used not just by big websites and perma-referenced in blog posts and columns, but major television networks, is such a positive thing for the sport's culture.

But for those invested in this game, whether writer or speaker or fan or player or coach, the continuation of heightened awareness over sites like and, and tempo-free/per-possession stats: it's a really good thing. It benefits the conversation and oils our arguments. And it allows an ever-growing side to learn more about the game and understand how different styles of play can lead to good or bad things on the floor. Fans of the game, no matter their cloth, are smarter on the whole about basketball than they've ever been.

I unfortunately used the word "side" in the graf above because, naturally, there are those who almost entirely refute the use of per-possession statistics. In doing so, they cast off opinions or objective conclusions from people studying the work -- and that just sucks.

The rejection of this approach, I've never fully understood. The old guard, who either rail against or flat-out, ignorantly dismisses these numbers isn't going to be swayed to the opposite aisle. Nor should they be, necessarily. This isn't an essay about why per-possession stats should matter. That argument has already been made for the past half-decade, and I'm not breaking new ground here by bringing it up. When people are being paid millions of dollars to use this information, the surface debate about tempo-free's relevance has already been decided.

The point of this is, in recent years there's been a bit of a civil war within college basketball's commentariat. Disagreements about the game should never end, but the fact one side continually tries to pigeonhole another is, I'm sorry, even dumber than refuting objective data.

The best type of discussion can and should be borne out of seeing what we watch and using data to help brace or break down an argument. First the eyes, then the whys. I've been ribbed in the past -- most notably by my colleague, Jeff Goodman -- for being a "numbers geek." What does that mean? He'd like it to mean that folks like me use the numbers before trusting or reacting to what we see.

That's not true and not fair, and no one I know actually evaluates basketball like this. The game is simply not conducive to that kind of analysis. Basketball is too free-flowing and improvisational to ever rely on just numbers. But it's also too revealing in macro statistics to ever just rely on eyes and hunches and groupthink or coachspeak.

We can marry the concepts, people! The reason why there's this schism between the two schools of thought is, basically, for about 60 years college basketball fans and writers grew up on one way to think about the game. Watch it, read a box score in the newspaper, and go from there. But the push for more accurate data has brought about this unnecessary and knuckle-dragging mindset of elbowing arguments and proponents of new-age numbers into the margins.

That's not going to happen anymore.

Besides, there's room for all of this. The Internet is infinite, and we've got space for all kinds of storytelling and analysis. Someone can offer up an anecdote about a player or team that brings clarity in a way numbers never could. That's always existed and always will. To quote Drew Magary, NO ONE DENIES THIS. The uplifting thing about the changing of our interpretations is how we're seeing more and more casual discourse of how we talk and write about this beautiful game.

In his KenPom's-numbers-are-finally-here post from last week, my pal and lead-blogger doppelganger Eamonn Brennan wrote, "Ken's numbers will come up a lot in these parts over the next five months, because tempo-free statistics are crucial to understanding what our eyes tell us when we watch so many hours of college basketball."

That's correct. The much-anticipated release of KenPom's rankings, in addition to ace analyst's Dan Hanner's and the equally microscopic TeamRankings' roll call brought about excitement and eagerness to compare where the predictions differ. Within this admittedly nerdy big (not little) world of stat evaluation, dispute is aided with respect and acknowledgement. Who put what teams where and why? What's the reason for disagreement?

Imagine if we could get there, if the Venn diagram for the stat vs. non-stat crowd could overlap almost at all times like an eclipse.

Point is, we've long since crossed the Rubicon on acceptance of per-possession statistics. These numbers are now and forever part of the daily conversation, with the minority of people who know and use them increasing by the year. There are those who want to ignore them, who are happy to not make them part of their basketball universe. That's fine, and idiots like me won't begrudge you for it -- so long as you do the same for your counterparts.

We're all in this together, ultimately loving the game for the same reasons. Let's watch and react and be right and be wrong, playfully rib and rip each other for it, but realize the best way to take the game and make what you want from it is to be open to all forms of evaluation.

With our eyes, with our minds, let's keep loving the game and learning more about how much we really don't know.

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