First, Jimmy Dykes whined about the lack of national respect given to Southeastern Conference basketball. He called us crazy if we truly believed that the basketball teams in the 2008-2009 SEC were generally inferior to those in the other major conferences. Based on nothing but regionalism and selective memory, he assured us that teams like Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, LSU and even Arkansas could compete with any team in the more highly-touted conferences. “Just you wait and see,” he said.
Time passed, and college basketball somehow managed to survive without any nationally ranked SEC teams. Unquestionably driven to his wits’ end by this inconceivable development, he promised us that five SEC teams would make the NCAA tournament – three from the SEC East, one from the SEC West, and a fifth from some magical faraway division. It was not the prediction itself that was ridiculous (at the time, it wasn’t), but the total lack of justification for making such an assertion. His guarantee wasn’t born of the careful merging of subjective (scouting) and objective (data) analysis, but of unprovoked defensiveness and regional bias. Dykes’ statement read less like useful insight and more like propaganda issued by a desperate leader as his regime is about to fall. Sure enough, three SEC teams made the NCAA tournament, including one that never would have been considered if not for winning the conference tournament.
Then, the coup de grace. In the same broadcast, Dykes claimed that not only would these five unnamed SEC teams make the NCAA tournament, but they would also thrive. Perpetually walking the line between self-assured and vague, he told us to wait and see how many SEC teams made it past that first weekend into the Sweet 16. Because – and this is a direct quote – “that’s how you really tell what the good teams are.”
Fortunately for those of us who have been following this prediction, the NCAA tournament field has been narrowed down to sixteen teams. “That first weekend” is over. And, as you no doubt know by now, all three SEC teams have been eliminated. Mississippi State lost by 13 to Washington. The outcome was never in doubt, as the Huskies led by double-digits for nearly the entire game. Tennessee lost by 2 to Oklahoma State in what was admittedly a close game throughout. LSU won its first round game against Butler, thereby emerging as Dykes’ sole hope. Their second round opponent, however, was North Carolina, which did what North Carolina usually does and beat the Tigers by 14. Thus, the SEC was vanquished.
As this brief but glorious saga comes to a close, it’s important for me to reiterate the reason for my outrage. An analyst’s job is to gather objective and subjective information, weigh them appropriately, and produce intelligent, well-reasoned thoughts that both engage the audience and improve the quality of the discussion. In this particular case, Dykes fell woefully short of fulfilling his duties. He completely ignored the objective indicators of SEC mediocrity, choosing instead to focus solely on the subjective variety. He looked at the SEC basketball players on the court in front of him and thought “these guys look like they can play with anyone.” He looked at recent NCAA tournament history and decided “there’s no way so few SEC teams will get in, because it’s never happened before.” Then, in one broad stroke of professional negligence, he combined these two conclusions with his own regionalism and made a guarantee that insulted the audience’s intelligence more than increased its basketball knowledge.
This is precisely what an analyst shouldn’t do. ESPN did not hire Jimmy Dykes because SEC basketball needed a bodyguard. They hired him to draw on his wealth of playing and coaching experience. Ultimately, this is the problem with former players and – to some extent – former coaches doing macro-level analysis. Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan touched on this very topic a couple weeks ago. Former players and coaches are fantastic at explaining the mechanics and strategies of the game. I want Jimmy Dykes to explain to me proper boxing-out technique, or why a 1-3-1 zone defense would work poorly against certain teams. That’s valuable insight that I would have a difficult time gleaning on my own. I do not, however, want Jimmy Dykes or any other former player discussing big-picture trends, statistical measures of efficiency, or anything else that requires an objectivity that eludes those who are buried deep within the game. The best kind of analysis is a combination of the two. Until that becomes the norm, predictions like Dykes’ will continue to go unchecked.