One of the postulates of sports’ quantitative analysis is that “numbers never lie.” Of course, there is truth to this; statistics are as close as we can get to an objective picture of what has happened.But in the words of Mark Twain, there are three sorts of lies: outright lies, even more significant lies, and statistics. There is also truth to this, since there is no catchall statistic; every figure omits something.
The ramifications of these dueling realities are significant, especially in a league and a region that has spent more than a century consumed with basketball. This sport is one of the most quantified in the realm of athletics; using some of the resulting figures can shed quite a bit of light on what has been a largely subpar winter.
On the surface, the Maple Leaf men’s and women’s basketball teams entered last night’s scheduled games with identical 4-20 records. Each team had won once in their first dozen Crossroads League contests. The men are tied with Mount Vernon Nazarene for ninth place, while the women are half a game behind the Cougars in tenth. In both tables, a three-win team holds the eighth and final playoff spot.
With six games left in the conference season, the clear impulse is that Goshen needs to win and get help. But the reality becomes less stark with a look at the schedule. Two of the six remaining men’s games are against the two teams directly in front of them. The women travel to seventh-place Taylor and host a .500 team in Marian, in addition to playing host to ninth-place Mount Vernon Nazarene next week.
Even when the ball is in play, the Leaf men run into statistical anomalies as they did in a 63-53 loss to Marian on Monday. For more than four-fifths of the game, the Knights shot less than 30 percent from the floor. But a five-plus-minute stretch late in the first half, the visitors knocked down six of their seven shots. Despite winning in shooting percentage, 41 percent to 35, Goshen had only two-thirds the number of attempts that Marian did en route to their eventual defeat.
For the women, I see more in the season statistics, although that may be a function of individual games not being as far out of the ordinary as the men’s contest above. The Leafs hold even with their opponents at the foul line, where the difference is about half a percentage point; Goshen gets as many shots as they’re allowed within a quarter of a shot per game. Bigger issues have come up in the foul column, which the Leafs have entered in more than any team in the league, and in the paint, where the Leafs are outrebounded by three a game.
The late sportswriter Grantland Rice once remarked, “when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.” It’s hard to sidestep a season record sixteen games below .500. But with the tools to isolate individual elements, maybe it’s not as bad as it appears.