Friday, June 28, 2013

Stanford Wins Director's Cup (Overall Athletic Performance) for 19th Straight Year

Stanford has won the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup, the long-established marker of overall athletic-department performance, for the 19th straight year. Cardinal sports teams accumulated 1261.25 points, just slightly ahead of Florida's 1244.75. However, Stanford's score was limited more than Florida's by the fact that only a school's 20 best sports (10 men's and 10 women's) can count. The Cardinal had four potential point-scoring sports excluded, whereas the Gators only had one.

Stanford fields teams in 36 sports, far more than most schools, so the cap on the number of sports in which a  school can receive Directors' Cup points seems fair. Another aspect of the scoring, which seems to benefit Stanford, is that each sport is treated equally in terms of points. Cardinal squads tend to do well in sports such as golf, tennis, and water polo, and less so in "big ticket" sports such as football and men's basketball. Women's basketball, which arguably might be the third most-followed college sport in the U.S., is a perennial Cardinal strong suit.

(A competing award, the Capital One Cup, weights what appear to be the more popular sports more heavily than other sports, as well as having separate men's and women's prizes; this year's winners were UCLA in men's sports and North Carolina in women's. Stanford was No.2 in the Capital One women's standings and outside the Top 10 in the men's. The Capital One Cup is only in its third year.)        

Back to the Director's Cup, an NCAA team championship is worth 100 points, second-place worth 90, and so forth, regardless of sport. In sports that have a tournament, such as the women's basketball 64-team competition, all teams in the field receive some points. In other sports, such as track and field, where more than 64 schools appear at the national meet, points are awarded even further down the ladder. For example, Idaho State, which finished 77th in men's outdoor track, received 5 points.

As a Michigan alum (Ph.D., 1989), I was hoping that NCAA titles by the men's swimming and gymnastics teams, the national runner-up finish in men's basketball, and appearances in the women's volleyball Final Four and softball Women's College World Series might give Wolverine athletics a chance to end Stanford's long streak of Directors' Cup titles. However, Michigan finished fourth. UCLA was third.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hawks Join Heat in Winning Title to Cap Off Streaky Season

The Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup-clinching win tonight creates a hockey parallel with last week's NBA championship by the Miami Heat. The teams' shared feat is capping off a regular season notable for a long winning/unbeaten streak with a league championship. 

The Heat, of course, had a 27-game winning streak during the regular season, the second-longest in league history and the longest since the L.A. Lakers won 33 straight, 41 years earlier.

Similarly, the Hawks enjoyed a lengthy streak this year, opening the lockout-shortened NHL season on a spurt of 24 straight games without a regulation-time loss. During this stretch, Chicago had 14 regulation-time wins, seven overtime/shoot-out wins, and three shoot-out losses.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Trying to Close Out an NBA Final Series on the Road After Winning Game 5 at Home to Go Up 3-2

With last night's Game-5 victory over the Miami Heat to take a 3-2 series lead, the San Antonio Spurs now need only a single victory to claim the NBA crown. However, Tuesday's Game 6 and (if necessary) Thursday's Game 7 will be played in Miami. Thus, the Spurs have the momentum, whereas the Heat has the home court. How much are these respective, putative advantages worth in an NBA final series?

The sample size of historical NBA finals matching the circumstances of this year's Heat-Spurs match-up is small. Still, let's take a look at similar series over the years. It should first be noted that the current 2-3-2 finals format (i.e., two games at the home of the team with the better regular-season record, the next three games at the opponent's home, and the final two back in the first city) began with the finals of the 1984-85 season. Here are the final series since then in which a team has won Game 5 (abbreviated "G5") at home to take a 3-2 lead, and then sought to win the title on the road (data from here).

Year Won G5 @ Home Opponent Series Outcome
1984-85 Lakers Celtics Lakers in 6
1987-88 Pistons Lakers Lakers in 7
1993-94 Knicks Rockets Rockets in 7
2005-06 Heat Mavericks Heat in 6
2009-10 Celtics Lakers Lakers in 7
2010-11 Mavericks Heat Mavericks in 6

As seen in the table, it's a wash: Three teams (shown in red) used their home Game-5 victory as a springboard to close out the series on the road in six games, whereas another three Game-5 winners at home (shown in blue) never got the clinching fourth win.

Two Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls squads entered a road Game 6 with a 3-2 lead in the finals and won the title in six, both times. However, those two experiences -- vs. Phoenix in 1992-93 and vs. Utah in 1997-98 -- are different from those in the table above. In both cases, the Bulls had led 3-1 and failed to close out the series at home in five.

We can expand the database by looking at years prior to the switch to 2-3-2, in which a 2-2-1-1-1 format (usually) was used for the finals. Under this format, a team that won Game 5 at home to go ahead 3-2 had the opportunity to wrap up the series on the road in Game 6 (although the home team for Game 5 knew that it would also play Game 7 at home, if necessary). Staying within the past 50 years, there were eight series in which a team won Game 5 at home to take a 3-2 lead and then went on the road for Game 6 (but not Game 7). They are as follows.

Year Won G5 @ Home Opponent Won G6 on Road?
1967-68 Celtics Lakers Yes
1968-69 Lakers Celtics No
1969-70 Knicks Lakers No*
1975-76 Celtics Suns Yes
1977-78 Supersonics Bullets (Wizards) No
1979-80 Lakers 76ers Yes
1980-81 Celtics Rockets Yes
1983-84 Celtics Lakers No*
*Winner of Game 5 won Game 7 back at home.

Again, it's a wash. Four teams (shown in dark green) won Game 5 at home to take a 3-2 lead and then captured the title on the road in Game 6. However, another four similarly situated teams (shown in orange) failed to do so.

If we assume that a road team in basketball usually has less than a 50/50 probability of winning, then the fact that a team that won Game 5 at home to take a 3-2 lead won Game 6 on the road 50% of the time in the above years suggests that there may be something to the notion of momentum in this context. There's a (somewhat) complicating factor, however. With the 2-2-1-1-1 format (prior to 1984-85), the road team in Game 6 would have been the team with the better regular-season record and thus arguably the better team. That may be why Game-5 winners may have done well in Game-6 road contests, as much or more so than benefiting from momentum.

In the 2-3-2 era, in contrast, the road team in Game 6 would be the one with the worse regular-season record. Hence, a 50% success rate for such teams in Game 6 speaks well for momentum.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Serena Williams's Tennis Winning Streak

See update after 2015 Australian Open.

Serena Williams brings a career-best 30-match winning streak into tomorrow's women's singles final of the French Open -- and a 12-match winning streak in head-to-head matches against her opponent tomorrow, Maria Sharapova. Williams presumably will be a heavy favorite to win this Grand Slam event, but even if we just look at what she has accomplished in the last few months of non-Grand Slam tournaments, it's still pretty remarkable.

First, Williams is a power player, with the New York Times quoting multiple experts that her serve is the best ever in the women's game. Yet, her 30-match winning streak has occurred mostly on clay, a surface that slows the ball down. In fact, of Williams's 15 Grand Slam titles to date, only one has come at the French Open (2002), which is played on clay. The other 14 have come at the Australian Open, Wimbledon (All-England), and U.S. Open championships, which are played on faster surfaces.

Second, Williams is currently 31 years old, a seemingly advanced age at which to embark on a career-longest winning streak. The study of baseball statistics ("sabermetrics") has produced "age curves" of players' productivity over time. I was not familiar with age curves for tennis, so I created a rough estimate of them for seven all-time great women's tennis players: Serena and her sister Venus Williams, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf. You may click on the following graphic to enlarge it.

To arrive at these players' ages at which they won Grand Slam tournaments, I compared their dates of birth to these rough guidelines of when the finals of the four tourneys are held: Australian, early January; French, early June; Wimbledon, early-mid July; and U.S. Open, early September. The Australian Open has switched back-and-forth between December and January, but I used January throughout my analyses. Thus, it's quite possible that I could be off a year on some of these players' ages.

The main finding appears to be that most of the great women's tennis players of the modern era have tended to tail off beginning in their late twenties. Serena, in contrast, had some (relatively) lean years in her mid-twenties (three Grand Slam titles in the five years from ages 22-26), before experiencing a renaissance from ages 27-30 (six titles in four years).

As far as Serena's current 30-match win streak, she is still quite a ways from the top five women's winning streaks (Evert holds the fifth-longest streak at 55 straight wins), let alone the longest women's winning streak of all time, 74 matches by Navratilova. (A list of the longest women's tennis winning streaks, as of March 2012, is available here.)

The way Williams is playing, and with the upcoming switch to grass-court tournaments leading up to Wimbledon, I wouldn't rule out anything for her.