Those Rarities Against Analytics

In the overall scheme of things, I would definitely consider myself a numbers-oriented person. From my childhood, math and stats and percentages have been a guiding force. In most of the columns I type for this site, I throw all kinds of decimals out for consumption. That doesn't count the times that I make some type of chart to fortify those digits. Integers, measurements, odds ... they've been constant presence in my thinking. But I may be done with it all. Okay, I admit that's overdramatic. However, I believe we've reached critical mass on the "new way of things" in many sports.

Analytics is more than a buzz word in the world of high-end athletics. Whether it's Exit Velocity, Usage Percentage, or Defense Adjusted Value over Average, sports has taken a much deeper dive into the numbers that shape and mold those athletic endeavors. They've helped some teams improve to the point of championship contention and achievement. There can be a downside, though, if the strict numbers take over for trust and common sense.

It apparently reared its ugly head when the Houston Rockets took their "Distance or Dunk" (my phrase for it) philosophy to the postseason extreme. Over a two-quarter stretch of game time, an 0-27 streak from 3 helped hand Golden State a victory in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals.

It apparently reared its ugly head during the 2020 Fall Classic. The Tampa Bay Rays, possibly more known than any team in North American major sports for their embrace of advanced analytics, pulled former Cy Young winner Blake Snell in the bottom of the 6th of a must-win Game 6 (after only throwing 73 pitches). The L.A. Dodgers pushed 2 runs across that half-inning and kept on truckin' to that elusive World Series title.

Following the numbers has bled over in college football, too. It shows up regarding when to go for it on fourth downs. It shows up regarding when to go for two-point conversions. And, in the ultimate stroke of finality, it shows up during endgame situations. It's that last factor that could help two programs lose out on coveted bowl bids this postseason.

In late September, Missouri was trying to find some direction. After getting routed by Kansas State, M-I-Z hoped to turn things around to start SEC play. Their matchup with similarly struggling Auburn was a slog, but the MO Tigers came back from a 14-point deficit to hold the upper-hand late. In a tie game, they drove inside Auburn's 5, then bled the clock to attempt a game-winning field goal at the gun. The kicker missed the chippy. Then, Mizzou made one of those bizarre losing type of plays from the 1990s that fans of the team (like myself) dreaded reliving (you know, Fifth Down, Fleakicker, etc.).

Last weekend, analytics struck again. After a quick start, Michigan State found a real rough patch of road, losing four straight and five out of six. An upset of Illinois began to flip the tide in a positive direction. The impossibility of reaching six wins now seemed feasible. The Spartans took it to heart, racing out to two 17-point leads over Indiana.

However, the Hoosiers fought back. By late in the fourth, the game evened up at 31. With 5:36 on the clock, MSU started to drive. Sparty settled at the Indiana 5 for a game-winning kick. Unfortunately, as in the Missouri/Auburn game, State's kicker was inaccurate on an attempt that was barely longer than an extra point. After an overtime period where both teams blocked field goal attempts, the Hoosiers found the end zone and notched the double-overtime win.

In terms of analytics, both Missouri and Michigan State did the right thing. Waste the clock, don't allow any time for your opponents, and get the game-clinching points with 0:00 on the scoreboard. In theory, it's sound. In practice, it works most of the time. But there are those cases that end in complete disaster.

Going into the final weekend of the regular season, both Missouri and Michigan State stand at 5-6. Now, both schools may have a case for bowl eligibility at 5-7. However, even with 40-plus postseason contests, 76 teams have already earned bowl eligibility (including Miami of Ohio's Tuesday night victory over fellow hopeful Ball State). Another 14 squads can do so with a win. Missouri hosts an Arkansas team that just manhandled a top-15 opponent in Ole Miss. Michigan State goes on the road to battle 11-ranked Penn State. A berth is within their grasp. And, yes, these teams could have been better more consistently. But to know that a single analytics call may be the one moment of the whole season preventing a bowl bid is pretty cruel.

Numbers help us all get through life, whether they're presented to your face or floating in the background. Sometimes, though, we should ignore that noise of numbers for the greater good, or, in this case, the joy of going bowling.

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