Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: What are you talking about coach?

The media — in pre- or post-game instances — gather in a room to press the coach on nuances of a game, and what the coach might consider bringing back to his team in the coming weeks of a basketball season. For the most part, questions can be as basic as asking about the hustle of a specific player or about how easy it was to snag buckets against a struggling team.

Sometimes coaches and players get asked weird questions. But maybe, there’s real sentimental value hidden within the words of coaches.

In October, I’d written about analytical approaches to player psychology. There I’d come across a quirky study that “explores the extent NBA teams can use ‘unstructured’ social media data to further their sports analytics efforts.” In my humble opinion, the study was a great effort to relatively insignificant results. That doesn’t mean the idea itself is totally meaningless or bad, it’s just that further analysis is needed. And maybe Twitter isn’t the best mode of social media for this kind of study since it does preempt a user’s tweet by asking “What’s happening?”, instead of asking “What’s on your mind?”, like Facebook.

Below I’m going to review some press conferences from three NCAA Division I basketball coaches and see what we might be able to infer in relation to point differential. At the end of the piece, I sit down with a coach and ask him his thoughts on him and his team this season. Data comes from transcripts posted on ASAP Sports, Inc. and the Botnik app.

Archie Miller

You can get a sense of how the Indiana Hoosiers have been playing this season here. The team is led by Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan, prolific players that should draw headlines in March. They’re coached by the one and only Archie Miller, the formerly successful head coach from Dayton. He has the Hoosiers on the brink of basking in basketball glory much like the days yore. What does he say during press conferences?

Coach Miller admires how hard his and the opponents’ players play, and he continually emphasizes how his own players need to seize on missed opportunities. However, moving along the lines of the study mentioned above, is Archie Miller a “positive” coach? The following chart depicts a net positivity score based on AFINN text sentiment analysis. Specifically, I took the cumulative score of positive and negative words from each conference and visualized the difference over time.There’s something to keep in mind about this kind of analysis as well. The AFINN dictionary scores all words and not in a way that reflect basketball sentiment. For example, the word “offense” and “offensively” are considered negative words, but in the world of basketball, they’re taken as at worst neutral, but relatively positive.

Anyways, the chart still provides insight into Archie Miller’s feelings week over week. In general, his press conferences are generally positive, and the dips toward neutral or negative scores to come at times when the Hoosiers had either a close game or had lost.

The lowest point in the graph right before the end of November signifies the relatively negative tone of Archie Miller after the Hoosiers’ blowout loss against the Duke Blue Devils. Since that loss the Hoosiers had bounced back nicely, winning four straight close games through the middle of December.

John Calipari

As you could imagine, Coach Cal is an interesting press conference. After the Kentucky Wildcats shoved the Texas A&M Aggies under the couch, John Calipari ended the conference by showing off his Chinese:

This exchange wasn’t included as part of the analysis. What was Coach Cal on about?

Coach Cal is a simple guy, and with the general success he’s had with Kentucky this year, he’s been keeping it easy on technicalities. Compared to Coach Miller, his positivity score is less varied but generally positive. Per above, you could say that “yeah, Coach Cal is pretty happy.”

The lowest points for Calipari’s score were at a time when Kentucky won three out of conference games in a fairly lackluster fashion. On Nov. 9t the Wildcats scored just 71 points against the Southern Illinois Salukis, a 9-7 team that ranks 214th in DRtg in the country. After a blowout win against North Dakota, Kentucky squeaked by the VMI Keydets by just 10 points. For reference, VMI’s ORtg ranks 239th in the nation. Understandably in Coach Cal’s mind, these kinds of games shouldn’t be happening this early in the basketball season. The team eventually finished the end of the 2018 year with just one loss.

The Wildcats lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide on the Jan. 5, and unfortunately, ASAP Sports didn’t have the script for that press conference. Per this video, one can imagine how negative he’d have sounded and would have increased the variation in Calipari’s sentiment throughout the season.

Fran McCaffery

Fran McCaffery coaches the Iowa Hawkeyes and should remind you of Archie Miller’s word cloud above. Both coaches are the epitomes of tough, inspiring, northern midwest basketball. Their go-to words are confidence and hard. They both offer high praise of their opponents while demanding a lot of their own teams.

What differentiates Coach McCaffery from his colleagues is his immense positivity throughout the season. He hasn’t had a single press conference where his positivity score dipped below 0.

Coach McCaffery remained positive about his own players, most notably after a tough loss to the Wisconsin Badgers on Nov. 30.

We talked about it after the game — the good, the bad, challenged some guys. Overall, I was impressed with our fight. It wasn’t a thing of beauty. We didn’t make some plays coming down the stretch we would like to have made, and they did. That’s why they won.

But I thought we fought.

On one hand, it sounds like a lot of typical coach talk. But truly, coaches do have choices to make after tough or bad losses. They can choose to go to the media and let their feelings rip, or stay calm, cool, and collected, like all of the coaches above.

Better and more data would be needed to fully carry out the kind of analysis needed to discern emotion from coaches in press conferences. Which coaches carry their emotions on their sleeves? Meaning, could a negative press conference carry over to the player’s locker room before the next game? I tried to take a glance at what a visualization could look like that could answer the question, but it was too messy — due to a lack of press conference data for each game —  and still proved statistically insignificant.

Next: Nylon Calculus: What’s the best advanced stat?

The Interview

So instead, I bring you a special interview with “Coach.” He’s a smart guy and is made up of every word spoken by his three great colleagues above. I input the compiled text into the great app created by Botnik. I sat with Coach after a recent game and asked him about how he feels about his team in the new year. He’s largely unrestrained, apart from his grammar which I corrected.

Q: Were you happy with your team’s defense last night?

Coach: Yeah, it’s difficult to guard any perimeter guy that can score the ball in his hands. We’ve really tried to build up against them. Defensively, we weren’t aggressive tonight.

Q: Despite that, were you happy with shot selection?

Coach: Robert has been covered by committee. He’s just kind of working in his length offensively. He’s going to have to be ready for those things that aren’t very well.

Q: Sure thing coach.  Why did you call that late timeout at the end of the first half?  Were you looking for a spark?

Coach: Without question. We’re at a higher chemistry after that. Really proud of the approach.

Q: With the new year, you’re heading into battle with conference opponents.  What are you telling your players at this point in the season?

Coach: I tell the guys that we want to play hard without losing. That’s probably going to be in our scrimmages.

Q: How are you going to bring this team to March Madness?

Coach: Yeah, well we have to be ready. Obviously, it’s going to be very difficult. Guarding, really, concentration. We’ve got to play together and then focus. But without question, depending on who is injured and who is not injured, that will determine how much improved the season goes. This is obviously very tough sometimes. I think this team should be a pretty good basketball program.

Q: Do you emphasize offense or defense?

Coach: I think you can watch. This team’s game is defending. Ryan, really, concentration is obviously something he does really well. We’re in general defending throughout the course of the regular season.  Whether it’s a lot of zone, really, just, especially defending.

Q: Any last notes before we break?

Coach: I tell you. It’s got confidence, especially the season. Sometimes seasons go from day one to two and that’s sort of it. We’re going to be individually solid, be honest, and hopefully maybe partly mentally good.

Thanks, Coach!

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