Friday, May 25, 2012

42 Years of (Mostly) Winning

I want to start by looking at one of the simplest measures of success of a basketball team, winning percentage, or the percent of games in which the Cats were victorious over the course of a season. I took these data from Wikipedia, although I only included the seasons since 1970. I have nothing against the team's earlier history, but for my purposes, the 1907-08 coachless team who won 1 of 3 games does not seem particularly germane.

It's also worth keeping in mind that there have been some important rule changes in college hoops that make it difficult to compare data from long ago with those of recent times. The most important of those are perhaps the use of the shot clock, initially 45 seconds when adopted in 1985 and changed to its modern 35 second version in 1993, and the addition of the three-point shot which was first used nationally in 1986. Also, since I've included NCAA tournament years below, it's worth noting that the first use of the 64 team format occurred in the 85-86 season, Lute Olson's third season as head coach. No doubt, some of Fred Snowden's teams that did not make the tournament at the time would have a good shot today.

The graph above (click on it to enlarge) shows the team's winning percentage from 1970 through 2012, or 42 seasons of NCAA basketball. Over this time, the team has had seven different coaches, although Lute Olson and Fred Snowden account for 81% of this time. In all the Cats have won a respectable 67.5% percent of their games (882-424), or just over two wins for every loss. In 42 years, the Cats have only had seven losing seasons (winning fewer than 50% of their games), the most recent being Lute Olson's first year as coach, the 83-84 season. This is why it has been good be an Arizona fan, at least over the last three decades. Like Olson, Sean Miller almost joined the list of losing coaches in his first year when the Cats went 16-15 just three seasons ago.

For obvious reasons, the major dips in winning percentage correlate with coaching changes, and the hiring of Snowden, Olson, and Miller all resulted in positive changes for the team. Sean Miller's bounce appears to be smaller, but it's important to keep in mind that by contrast, Snowden and Olson inherited the team in much worse shape than Miller, meaning that there was a lot more room for improvement. Lute Olson became the coach of a Ben Lindsey-coached team that had won only 4 of 28 games. Things could not have gotten much worse.

In the case of both Olson and Snowden, success came quickly after getting the job. Fred Snowden acquired a 6-20 team and in three seasons turned it into a 24-9 WAC powerhouse that took 1st place in the conference. Olson's winning percentage peaked in his fifth season in 87-88 when the Cats went 35-3, winning 92.1% of their games with the trio of Lofton, Kerr, and Elliot. Interestingly, the success of both coaches tailed off after their early years. For Snowden, the drop was precipitous. For Olson, it was present but almost imperceptible, and the "drop off" included a National Championship, National Runner-up, and nearly 20 more years of NCAA tournament berths.

The future of Miller's tenure is tough to predict, but the team has clearly improved under his direction, and with a highly touted recruiting class coming, expectations are high. In the following post, I'll look at these data a bit more to examine to what to what extent we can predict how next year's team will fare.

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