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Blogger Spotlight: Harvard, the Ivy and tempo-free stats with John Ezekowitz


We’re going Ancient Eight in this week’s blogger spotlight. And the timing couldn’t be better with our guest and his school.

John Ezekowitz is a sophomore at Harvard, who also writes for the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (and College Hoops Journal). Just last night, he came up with a new tempo-free stat called Free Throw +, which has already received mention in one of the web’s most-read college hoops stories of the week. (What did you do during your sophomore year? Drink stale beer and watch re-runs of ‘Seinfeld’? Yeah, me too.)

But more on that a little later. He’s also a college student who’s watching his school reach basketball heights it never dreamed of. And tonight, it plays longtime Ivy League bully Princeton. John’ll be there, cheering.

Q: This must the Golden Age of Harvard hoops. A 15-3 start after last season’s 21-8 record and national notoriety for Jeremy Lin? Surely it doesn’t get any better for a school with one NCAA tournament appearance.

A: It certainly has been a very good few years for Harvard basketball. When I first went to a Harvard home game in 2009, there were maybe 50 students in the crowd. Worse, no one knew there was a game. Now, Ivy League home games regularly sell out the student ticket allotment and the games are events on campus.

Jeremy Lin was huge for Harvard’s profile nationally, but the continued success without him this year has done wonders on Harvard’s campus.

Q: Describe this season’s squad. All anyone heard about was Lin, Lin and Lin last season. But between Keith Wright and some talented underclassmen, this is a team built to win for a while.

A: The watchword for Harvard this year has to be balance. The Crimson have six legitimate scoring options. Keith Wright is certainly the anchor in the middle, but point guards Oliver McNally and Brandyn Curry really make this team go. Sharpshooters Christian Webster and Laurent Rivard (probably the favorite for Ivy League ROY) light it up from three.

The X-factor, though, is sophomore forward Kyle Casey. Casey was the Ivy League ROY last year, but has been hampered by injuries this year. He seemed to break out last weekend however, averaging a double-double and two monstrous dunks a game in wins over Columbia and Cornell. The scary thing for the rest of the Ivies is that Harvard doesn’t have a senior on the roster. They are 297th in Division-I in experience this year (according to KenPom).

Q: How’s Tommy Amaker perceived around campus? More than just a hired gun?

A: It’s tough to disentangle the Athletic Department’s decision to commit more resources to basketball and Amaker’s role, as they go hand in hand. Tommy is definitely very well liked around campus, and is revered by his players. The student body as a whole is still really waking up to having a good basketball program, however.

Harvard has always traditionally been a football and hockey school, but under Amaker’s watch, basketball is making a push for the hearts and minds. It has certainly worked so far (and would be hugely helped by a tournament berth), but there’s always the lingering question on campus of what happens if and when Tommy decides to leave.

Q: Are you convinced Amaker will stay at Harvard for any length of time? He was mentioned as a St. John’s candidate during the summer. The better the Crimson do, the more often his name will pop up for other jobs.

A: It’s really hard for me to speculate on Amaker’s future because the Crimson are in the middle of a season that could swing the chances he leaves dramatically and because I simply don’t know. With that caveat, I’m hopeful that he will stay for some time to come. The program rebuild is by no means finished, and Amaker continues to sell recruits on the Harvard experience. He has brought in two excellent classes in a row, and has another highly ranked class lined up for next year (it must be said that he is probably helped by Harvard somewhat relaxing its stringent academic standards).

Most of all, Amaker seems to enjoy it here. The program is emerging on campus and has been buoyed by more funds from the athletic department. I think it will take a fantastic opportunity to pry him away from Harvard in the immediate future. Five years from now, who can say?

Q: Describe what the atmosphere is at Friday night games. Is it hard to fill gyms when students are ready to blow off steam from a week of classes? Are the Saturday games more raucous?

A: One of the beauties of the Ivy League is its consistency. The rhythm of the Friday-Saturday night homestands is the same every year. For a student body like Harvard, this means that the games get more well-attended as the season goes on. It is not so much about what night it is, but rather what week of Ivy play it is.

I cannot speak to what it was like in the past, but in general I’d say the Saturday games have a different feel because of the rest of the crowd. It certainly seems like more (and louder) non-students come out for the Saturday games.

Q: Best place to watch an Ivy game?

A: While Lavietes has its charms, including a fantastic kids game every halftime that is treated like the real game by the fans, its not the best Ivy League venue. Payne-Whitney at Yale is unique and ornate, and Jadwin at Princeton has the crazy geodesic moonscape ceiling. But the answer was, is, and will always be the Palestra. I’ll be there on Saturday night and I cannot wait.

Q: Best rivalry?

A: The best Ivy League basketball rivalry was and still is Penn-Princeton. Those two schools dominated the league for the two decades before Cornell’s recent run, and the strength of the rivalry has not diminished in the last few years. The two games between the Quakers and the Tigers are the only Ivy games not played on Fridays and Saturdays: they are played mid-week in the middle of the conference season. The ability of the rivalry to break the Ivy schedule mold is a testament to its tradition and strength.

As for Harvard, it’s a bit more complicated. The traditional rivalry with Yale doesn’t mean as much in basketball. Let’s put it this way: no school would identify Harvard as their “basketball rival.” There does appear to be a rivalry with Princeton developing right now. It will be interesting to see how that emerges.

Q: Dream scenario: Harvard makes the NCAA tournament. How far are you willing to travel to watch their first game?

A: I’d go to pretty much any of the sites. Tulsa would be the hardest sell to my family, but this is a once in a lifetime experience. And if Harvard somehow miraculously made the second week? Class would become secondary, for sure.

Q: The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective produces some fantastic in-depth material about hoops. How did you get into blogging there?

A: Believe it or not, before I got to Harvard I was not a quantitative-heavy person. But then I took a fantastic statistics class and had several friends tell me about “this HSAC thing where you talk about sports and stats.” I figured I’d check it out, and the rest is history. For me, the best thing about HSAC is the support network of other like-minded people it provides. For instance, the Free Throw Plus post that went up yesterday was an idea I posted on the email list that turned into a long thread and discussion at our weekly meeting. It would not have come into life without the input of the other members.

Q: Your new stat – Free Throw + -- already got a shout out by Luke Winn of SI and is no doubt being discussed right now in tempo-free enclaves. For the tempo-free dummies out there, explain which teams it’ll affect most during the NCAA tournament.

A: Like most new ideas, this one needs more fleshing out. But what I think it does show is that teams who do not get to the line often and do not make their free throws often when they get there can be in trouble in single-elimination situations (like the NCAA Tournament).

Three teams that come to mind here are San Diego State, Louisville, and Washington State (maybe FT+ has a slight East Coast Bias). All three of those teams have efficient offenses, but do not shoot free throws well or often. That really puts a strain on their offenses to be efficient, as they are not bailed out from the line nearly as much as other teams. One bad shooting night or turnover trouble could spell disaster.

Q: You ever try to explain tempo-free stats to friends? Or do they look at you like you’re nuts?

A: I am a tempo-free stats evangelist, but in order to keep the peace with my friends I don’t evangelize heavily. The beauty is that tempo-free is a very intuitive concept. The idea that stats like points per game and rebounds per game are biased because they depend on how many possessions a team has is simple and easy. I’d like to think my friends who like basketball have been somewhat edified about tempo-free stats by me. They may not be quoting a team’s turnover rate, but they probably know what a turnover rate is.

Q: What’s your goal after college? Or is that too far down the road?

A: To be honest with you, I really do not know. I love the sports statistics path I’ve been on the last year or so, but I am very lucky to have many different options open to me.

Ultimately, I’d like to be able to create something tangible and attempt to grow that. If I can find a way to work sports into that, even better.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.