Monday, December 31, 2012

Bobcats End Losing Streak, Clippers Seek to Extend Winning Streak

As of this morning, two long NBA streaks were ongoing, the L.A. Clippers' 17-game winning stretch and the Charlotte Bobcats' string of 18 consecutive losses. The Clippers are off until a Tuesday night game at Denver, whereas the Bobcats played this afternoon at Chicago.

Thinking this morning that Charlotte's losing streak was likely to be extended in Chicago, I began work on the following chart to track how far the Clippers would rise in the annals of all-time NBA winning streaks and how far the Bobcats would fall in the ranks of all-time NBA losing streaks. You may click on the graphic to enlarge it.


A funny thing happened at the United Center, however, as the Bobcats shocked the Bulls, 91-81, to bring the Charlotte losing streak to an end at 18. After the Bulls had rallied to tie the game 65-65 after three quarters, Chicago proceeded to miss its first six field-goal attempts of the fourth quarter as Charlotte took a 75-65 lead. The Bulls never seriously challenged thereafter.

Tomorrow, the Clippers will have the opportunity to extend their streak.

UPDATE 1/1/2013: The Clippers had their winning streak ended by Denver.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tennessee Men's Three-Point Shooting Crashes!

After catching parts of yesterday's Tennessee vs. Xavier men's basketball game -- one in which the Volunteers shot a dreadful 3-of-20 from behind the arc -- on television, I did a little research and discovered what can only be considered a collapse of Tennessee's outside game. Below, I've plotted the Vols' three-point shooting percentages in each of their games thus far (game-by-game log). The original raw data are shown in the black curve, whereas a smoothed "Loess" curve that emphasizes the larger trend rather than short-term fluctuations, appears in white (see bottom of this post for an explanation of curve-smoothing). You may click on the following graph to enlarge it.


As shown, Tennessee actually started out pretty well, exceeding .400 from three-point land in three of its first four games (against Kennesaw State, UNC-Asheville, and Massachusetts). From there, things went downhill, with the exception of the Vols' ninth game, against Presbyterian.

Two games in particular in which Tennessee's offense entered the deep freeze were those against Georgetown and Virginia. In losing to Georgetown by a 37-36 score, the Vols not only had a bad outing on threes, but also struggled horribly on free throws (3-of-11). Then, against Virginia, Tennessee scored only 38 points, losing 46-38.

At this point, the Volunteers have shot .200 or below from downtown in five of their last six games. As of this writing, Tennessee is tied for 317th out of 347 in the nation in three-point shooting percentage (.280, 51/182).

In a situation like this, one might ask whether, perhaps, Tennessee had a good three-point shooter get injured after the first few games. That does not appear to be the case. In the opener vs. Kennesaw State, for example, guards Skylar McBee (4-of-7) and Jordan McRae (3-of-4) shot well from behind the arc. Both have played in all 11 of the Vols' games thus far this season.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Texas Tech Football Defense Not Getting Takeaways

As Texas Tech's football team heads into its bowl game Friday night against Minnesota, the Gophers have to be fairly confident about not getting the ball swiped when they're on offense. As I learned yesterday from a local radio sports station, the Tech defense has not registered a takeaway (i.e., defensive fumble recovery or interception) in its last five games.

That seemed to me like a long dry spell, but whenever one hears a number (in this case, the Red Raiders' five straight takeaway-free games), he or she should always ask, "Compared to what?" To answer this question, I examined the statistics for all Big 12 games this year to see how often other conference teams went takeaway-free. The results appear in the following chart, with takeaway-free games shown in white font. For each row, the focal team is listed in the left-hand column. Then, for each of its nine Big 12 games (listed across sequentially), we see the takeaways (defensive fumble recoveries, followed by interceptions) against each opponent.*

TAKEAWAYS (Def. Fumble Recoveries/Interceptions)

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Game 5 Game 6 Game 7 Game 8 Game 9
Baylor
(vs Opp.)
0/0
WVU
0/0
TCU
0/0
TEX
1/1
ISU
0/2
KU
1/1
OU
0/3
KSU
1/3
TTU
0/2
OSU
Iowa St.
(vs Opp.)
0/2
TTU
2/3
TCU
1/0
KSU
2/0
OSU
3/1
BAY
0/2
OU
0/0
TEX
3/1
KU
0/0
WVU
Kansas
(vs Opp.)
4/0
TCU
0/0
KSU
0/1
OSU
1/0
OU
0/2
TEX
0/0
BAY
0/1
TTU
1/0
ISU
0/1
WVU
K-State
(vs Opp.)
2/1
OU
2/3
KU
0/1
ISU
0/2
WVU
2/1
TTU
1/4
OSU
1/1
TCU
0/2
BAY
1/2
TEX
Okla.
(vs Opp.)
0/0
KSU
0/3
TTU
1/2
TEX
1/2
KU
0/1
ISU
0/0
BAY
0/2
WVU
0/1
OSU
1/0
TCU
OSU
(vs Opp.)
0/1
TEX
0/0
KU
1/1
ISU
1/2
TCU
0/0
KSU
2/0
WVU
1/2
TTU
1/1
OU
1/0
BAY
Texas
(vs Opp.)
0/1
OSU
2/0
WVU
0/1
OU
1/1
BAY
1/0
KU
0/0
TTU
0/2
ISU
0/1
TCU
0/1
KSU
TCU
(vs Opp.)
1/1
KU
0/1
ISU
2/4
BAY
0/0
TTU
1/1
OSU
1/1
WVU
1/1
KSU
1/3
TEX
1/1
OU
TexTech
(vs Opp.)
1/3
ISU
1/0
OU
0/0
WVU
1/2
TCU
0/0
KSU
0/0
TEX
0/0
KU
0/0
OSU
0/0
BAY
WVU
(vs Opp.)
0/1
BAY
1/0
TEX
1/1
TTU
0/0
KSU
2/1
TCU
0/1
OSU
1/1
OU
1/0
ISU
0/1
KU

Texas Tech's five straight games without a takeaway are shown in yellow. The Red Raiders had one other takeaway-free game earlier (against West Virginia) for a total of six. The next closest team to Texas Tech in not purloining the ball was Baylor, who had three straight games (and three total) sans takeaway. At the other extreme, Kansas State took the ball away in all of its Big 12 games, for zero takeaway-free games.

Tommy Tuberville, who coached the Red Raiders during the regular season before bolting for Cincinnati, speculated in this article that, "I think we set a national record of six games without a [defensive] turnover..." However, the article could not pinpoint whether the five-game streak was an NCAA record.

UPDATE: After failing for roughly 59 minutes of their bowl game to get a takeaway, the Red Raiders intercepted a Minnesota pass in the final minute to set up the game-winning field-goal, as Texas Tech won 34-31 (stats and play-by-play).

---

*You'll notice what appear to be a few scheduling oddities. For example, TCU appears in the chart as the second conference opponent for both Baylor and Iowa State. No, the Horned Frogs were not playing at the same time in two games. Baylor and Iowa State each began conference play on September 29. The Cyclones played TCU a week later, on October 6. The Bears had a bye on October 6, so their second conference game was played on October 13, also against TCU.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sun Devils Scorch Texas Tech on Three-Point Shots

I attended Saturday afternoon's Arizona State at Texas Tech men's basketball game. The Red Raiders are trying to rebuild with a young coach after a few down seasons and were looking for a win over a major-conference opponent. However, it was not to be, as the Sun Devils put on a three-point shooting exhibition, en route to a 77-62 victory. ASU shot 14-of-27 (.519) behind the arc for the game, but did particular damage in the first half.

I have charted the outcomes of ASU's 17 first-half three-point attempts, of which the Sun Devils made 10, from the play-by-play sheet . Each row represents a particular three-point attempt.

Successful Threes Time Remaining   Missed Threes 
Gilling 18:14 ---
Felix 17:31 ---
--- 16:35 Gordon
Gordon 16:15 ---
Gilling 15:59 ---
Gilling 15:21 ---
--- 14:46 Gilling
Gordon 13:03 ---
Gordon 12:50 ---
--- 11:55 Gilling
--- 7:11 Carson
Gordon 5:09 ---
Gilling 3:01 ---
--- 2:17 Felix
Gilling 1:20 ---
--- 0:12 Gilling
--- 0:01 Gordon

Forward Jonathan Gilling, a sophomore from Denmark, led the way for ASU, hitting 5-of-8 from downtown in the first half and 6-of-12 overall on the day. He came into Lubbock hitting only .358 on threes (24-of-67) for the season. Guard Evan Gordon added four treys in the first half, on six attempts; he went 4-of-7 on the day. He came in shooting .309  (21-of-68) this season from long distance.

In addition to the Sun Devils' high three-point accuracy rate, the way they produced flurries of treys was impressive. All told, as the chart shows, ASU made seven of its first nine three-point attempts. The first two made threes came less than a minute apart (with 18:14 and 17:31 remaining in the first half). A bit later came a torrent of three treys within less than a minute (between the 16:15 and 15:21 marks). A couple minutes later, Gordon hit a pair 13 seconds apart (13:03 and 12:50).

Friday, December 14, 2012

O.J. Mayo Off to Fast Start on Three-Point Shooting

After 22 games this season, O.J. Mayo of the Dallas Mavericks is currently hitting three-pointers at a torrid .525 percentage (64-of-122). The New York Knicks' Jason Kidd actually leads Mayo slightly in this statistical category, .527-.525, as of this writing, but Kidd has taken roughly 50 fewer shots than Mayo from downtown. Mayo's career shooting percentage from behind the arc, based on four seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies before this fall's arrival in Dallas, is .388. That's an excellent success rate, but this season he's taking his outside game to a new level.

In looking at the list of annual NBA leaders in three-point shooting percentage, there have been some players who have managed to maintain a hit rate of .500 or greater for a full season. Most recently, Kyle Korver shot .536 (59-of-110) from long-distance during the 2009–10 season and Jason Kapono, .514 (108-210) in 2006–07. However, these percentages were achieved on a lot fewer shots than Mayo would be projected to take over the entire season (roughly 450), based on his shots per game thus far.

Taking number of shots into account, arguably the most impressive three-point shooting season since the NBA introduced the trey in 1979-80 was by Glen Rice in 1996-97, when he shot .470 (207-of-440). Whether Mayo can surpass Rice's percentage -- or better yet .500 -- over a comparable number of attempts, of course, remains to be seen.

Periodically, I'll track Mayo's progress toward a .500 season on three-point shots. Below are two graphs I made, the first looking at Mayo's game-specific three-point shooting and the second looking at his cumulative percentage. (You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.)


The first graph shows that Mayo hit 50% or more of his three-point attempts in 11 of his first 12 games this season, the only exception being a 1-for-3 outing against Washington in Game 9. He then went into a brief slump, including three games in which he missed all of his attempts from behind the arc (.000 percentages). Lately, however, he's gotten pretty hot again.


The second graph shows his cumulative three-point shooting perecentage after each game. Let's focus first on the blue curve, which presents Mayo's actual raw data. Mayo went 2-for-4 in the opening game, hence the blue curve is at .500 on the vertical axis. He then shot 3-for-5 in the second game, giving him a combined 5 made threes on 9 attempts, for a cumulative percentage of .556 after two games. His peak cumulative three-point shooting percentage thus far came after four games, at .667 (18-for-27).

The red curve in the second graph represents a "smoothing out" of the trend to avoid slight game-to-game fluctuations and focus on the larger picture.* The smoothed curve makes it clear that Mayo has settled into a cumulative shooting percentage of roughly .52 over his last several games (in contrast to the blue, raw-data curve, which shows some slight fluctuations above and below .52 over the same span of games). Another point worth noting is that, as the season moves along and Mayo's cumulative shooting percentage reflects increasing numbers of shots, his performance in any one game (or small set of games) will have less and less effect.**

----------

*TECHNICAL POINT: The official name of the smoothing technique is loess (also known as lowess) regression, which refers to "local" estimation in different segments of the sequence. Further information on the technique is available here and here (the second article links to a free downloadable Excel add-on to do loess regression). Loess regression requires the user to submit a value for what is called the "smoothing parameter." With a low value, such as .25, the smoothed curve really does not get too smoothed out at all, closely following the twists and turns of the data (i.e., the loess curve is highly sensitive to tiny changes in the trend being plotted). In contrast, a smoothing parameter of 1.0 generates essentially a straight line, showing very little sensitivity to small ups-and-downs in the raw data. I ultimately chose a .50 smoothing parameter, which is at the high end of what the Excel software add-on said was the typical range.

**UPDATE: In the Mavericks' 23rd game of the season, tonight at Toronto, neither Mayo nor any of his Dallas teammates made a three-pointer. Quoting from the game article: "The Mavericks went 0 for 13 from 3-point range, coming up empty for the first time since February 1999. Their stretch of 1,108 games had been the longest active streak in the NBA."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Garnett's Long Streak on Rebounds is Over

This is the kind of streak that is impressive not because of brilliance or fortitude, but due to its longevity. After all, if you're 6-foot-11 and one of the great players of the NBA's modern era, getting one rebound (or more) in a game is not that difficult.

However, when the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett failed to get a single rebound against the Philadelphia 76ers this past Saturday, according to ESPN Boston, he "was shut out on the glass for the first time since Jan. 21, 1997 -- when he was a mere 20 years old." Garnett only played 23 minutes out of a possible 48 against Philly, thus hindering his chances for a rebound somewhat. Nevertheless, the streak is over, as I learned today watching ESPN's show "Around the Horn."

Though we know that Garnett went nearly 16 years between rebound-less games, I could not find any articles that gave the exact number of consecutive games in which he had secured at least one rebound. Thanks to the abundant resources at Basketball Reference, I was able to answer this question without too much difficulty. One can simply go to the page on Garnett, scroll down a bit until a grey horizontal links bar appears, and then click on "Game Logs."

There, I found that KG had pulled down at least one board in his final 42 games of 1996-97. Next, I needed to find out how many games Garnett had played in each season from 1997-98 to 2011-12, as we know he got a rebound in each game he played during that span. Finally, I ascertained that Garnett had gotten at least one rebound in his first 19 games of 2012-13, before being shut out vs. the 76ers. Here are all the consecutive games in which Garnett had gotten a rebound.

1996-97: 42 2002-03: 82 2008-09: 57
1997-98: 82 2003-04: 82 2009-10: 69
1998-99: 47 2004-05: 82 2010-11: 71
1999-00: 81 2005-06: 76 2011-12: 60
2000-01: 81 2006-07: 76 2012-13: 19
2001-02: 81 2007-08: 71 TOTAL: 1,159

Garnett thus had grabbed at least one rebound in 1,159 straight games. No wonder he was exasperated (seemingly in a humorous way) after the Philly game upon learning he had come up empty on the boards. This page has videos of both Garnett's post-game statement (warning: salty language) and the play on which Garnett claimed he should have been credited with a rebound. Unfortunately for KG, a teammate pulled the rebound away from him!

Another thing to note from the above chart is Garnett's durability. For several seasons, he played in all or nearly all of his team's 82 games (the 1998-99 season was shortened to 50 games due to an owners' lockout).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wizards Get First Win After 0-12 Start

Earlier today, I put up a poll question asking readers to predict how long the Washington Wizards' season-opening losing streak in the National Basketball Association would continue. It didn't take long for the poll to become moot (and be removed), as the Wizards went and won their first game hours later. With tonight's 84-82 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the DC squad is now 1-12.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grinnell College's Jack Taylor Scores a Whopping 138 Points in a Single Game!

A basketball player scoring 100 points in a single game, as Wilt Chamberlain did in the NBA 50 years ago and a small number of college players have done as well, is a mind-boggling occurrence. Last night, however, Jack Taylor of Iowa's Grinnell College took things to a new level, scoring an unfathomable 138 points in an NCAA Division III (small-school) win over Faith Baptist Bible, 179-104.

Now, Grinnell's style of play is conducive to the launching of lots of shots. A year ago, another Grinnell player scored 89 in a game. But Taylor scored nearly 50 points more than that 89! According to this 2009 profile of the team's offensive approach:

Grinnell coach David Arseneault employs a scheme known only as “The System.” Sometimes referred to as the anti-Princeton offense, “The System” emphasizes a torrid pace of play where offensive possesions last about 5 seconds and typically end with a three-pointer. 

The Grinnell defense is a chaotic, full-court trap that either forces an immediate turnover or degenerates into [an offensive advantage for the other team]. 

It’s so chaotic, Arseneault has to use platoons, substituting all five players every 45 seconds to keep legs fresh.

Taylor's shooting statistics from last night break down as follows: 25-of-37 on two-point attempts; 27-of-71 on three-point attempts; and 7-of-10 on free throws. He played 36 minutes.

From a hot-hand perspective, the question is whether Taylor actually "got hot" or whether his gigantic point total resulted simply from a mediocre shooting percentage on a huge number of shots (108). I would say it's some of both.

Let's focus on Taylor's three-point attempts, as the distance of the shots is held relatively constant and long-distance shots get the crowd excited. Based on the box score and play-by-play sheet from the game, here are his shooting sequences behind the arc in the first and second half (H = hit, M = miss; shots are grouped into sets of five to simplify viewing):

1st half (9-of-32)

MMMMM  HMMMM  HMMHM  MHHMM  MHHHM  MHMMM  MM 

2nd half (18-of-39)

HMMMH  HMMMH  MHMMM  HMHHM  MMMMM  MHMMH  HMHHH  HHHH

As shown, for most of the game, Taylor was not hitting more than one or two straight. Any long streaks were of misses. However, to close the game, Taylor hit his last seven three-pointers in a row.

Using this online calculator, I conducted a runs test to detect possible streakiness in Taylor's second-half shooting (I didn't think there would be any in the first half). Each consecutive sequence of hits or misses is considered a "run." The hit to open the second half is one run. The stretch of three straight misses is a second run. The following two straight hits form a third run, etc. Streakiness is characterized by few runs (i.e., staying in long "grooves" of hitting or missing), as compared to what could be generated at random. Here is a screen capture of the results (on which you may click to enlarge; 1 = hit, 0 = miss):


There were 17 runs, which are too many in this context for there to be streakiness. The associated probability (p) level tells us further that there is a 13% chance that a random process (e.g., flipping a coin and looking for runs of heads and tails) could have generated Taylor's second-half sequence of hits and misses from three-point land. Under statistical convention, we would need this probability to be 5% or less (i.e., p < .05).

One thing that I found really interesting about Taylor's final burst of seven straight successful three-pointers is the quickness of the barrage. Below is a screen capture of the play-by-play sheet, to which I've added red arrows to identify Taylor's made threes.


If you click on the graphic, you'll see that Taylor's seven hits all occurred within roughly two minutes of game time (from 3:54 remaining to 1:57). Several times, either a Grinnell steal or a Faith Baptist Bible layup was followed within 3 to 10 seconds later by a Taylor trey.

In my book, I discuss a late-game barrage by Iowa's Justin Johnson, who made six three-pointers in the final 1:56 against Indiana in 2008 to bring his team within two points.

The fact that Grinnell's game against FBB was not close raises another issue, namely the propriety of continuing to launch three-pointers in the closing minutes when leading by roughly 60 points. The desire to let Taylor finish his performance for the ages is understandable. One could argue, however, that it might have been better for Grinnell to start dribbling out the clock once Taylor had surpassed the previous college record of 116 points.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The "Imperfect Casino" Analogy to Hot Hand Perceptions: A Guest Contribution by Mark Lloyd

Mark Lloyd of Seattle, Washington recently e-mailed me the following essay of his. I invited him to let me post it here on the blog as a guest contribution, and he agreed. Here it is, with light editing.

A couple of years ago I wrote a computer program simulating a basketball team with players' shooting percentages varying on different days according to distributions with a mean of 50 percent, but with different variances. I then tested the strategy of giving the ball to players who made two shots in a row compared to giving the ball to players randomly. In the long term giving the ball to the hot hand was a winning strategy.

Thinking about this recently I came up with an analogy that makes clear the difference between the casino and hot hand theory and the mistakes many statisticians make assuming that believing in the hot hand is just the same as the gambler's fallacy of believing that one should bet on a roulette wheel that has shown a streak of results.

Let’s say we have an imperfect casino with five roulette tables that, if in perfect condition, select red and black 50 percent of the time. The casino’s roulette tables however are in disrepair, and further, the casino sits above a subway line that occasionally shakes the tables, causing them to vary their percentage of hitting black or red from 40-60 to 60-40 with a mean of 50-50. There is no way to observe the condition of the roulette wheel except to observe the results of wagering on the tables.

With most visitors not having the time to do a long-term statistical analysis of the tables, is wagering on a table that has hit red or black twice in a row a better strategy than randomly betting on any color on any table? Clearly yes: A table that is hitting red 60 percent of the time will hit red twice in a row 36 percent of the time, while a table hitting 40 percent will only hit two in a row 16 percent of the time. With the tables at some range between 40-60 and 60-40, this two-in-a-row percentage will vary between 16 and 36 percent. More often imperfect tables that hit two in a row will have a higher winning percentage.

If every day you walk in to the casino, wait for a table to hit a color twice in a row, then bet on that table and color, over time you will do better than if you randomly bet on a random table and color.

A real-life non-statistician watching for a hot hand in a basketball game may well be thinking something like: “He hit two in a row, I think he is shooting better than average today.” The non-statistician has also made a correct observation that at least in the case of basketball, daily shooting percentages vary more than one would expect randomly. In the course of a game there is limited information to measure this variance, so looking for shooting streaks is an imperfect way to find players who have a higher underlying skill that day. The statistician's job is to operationalize that observation.

What statisticians will observe is that in the short term on any given day, if you measure any roulette table in the imperfect casino, the percentage of hitting a color after hitting the same color twice in a row will not be different than after any other sequence (unless a subway train passes underneath). This is the same as observing a basketball player on a given day (or a given hour depending on that shooter's pattern of consistency). This observation misleads the statistician into believing the hot hand is no different than a casino winning streak in a perfect casino, but the statistician is asking a different question than the non-statistician.

The statistician should be asking how the percentage of streaks varies from day to day; this will more closely operationalize what the non-statistician is observing and make the statistician wealthier as well.

The world of sports is a world of imperfect casinos. This confounds statisticians.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Yankees' Scoring Drought in ALCS

The Detroit Tigers have now completed a sweep of the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to advance to baseball's World Series. Beyond the fact of the Yankees being swept in a playoff series -- the first time this has happened since 1980 -- an additional noteworthy aspect of the ALCS is New York's extreme difficulty scoring runs.

As shown in the table below (for which I consulted the Yankees' game-by-game log), the New Yorkers put zeroes on the scoreboard for 36 of the 39 innings played. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.) Another way to look at the situation is that the Yankees scored in only around 8% of the innings of the ALCS.


Over the past few minutes, as I've been writing, the announcers on tonight's Giants-Cardinals National League Championship Series game have been discussing the Yankees' demise. According to these announcers, New York's team batting average against Detroit was a woeful .157.

Of course, the Tigers have excellent pitching, led by Justin Verlander. Therefore, the Yankees' poor offense in the ALCS might be understandable to some extent. An interesting comparison (to me at least) would be to look at how the Yankees did against Detroit in the regular season. Listed below are all the Yankee-Tiger regular-season games this season and the number of innings per game in which New York scored.

April 27 -- 6 of 9 innings
April 28 -- 3 of 9
April 29 -- 4 of 8

June 1 -- 4 of 9
June 2 -- 3 of 9
June 3 -- 3 of 9

August 6 -- 1 of 9
August 7 -- 3 of 9
August 8 -- 6 of 9
August 9 -- 2 of 9

So, in contrast to the ALCS, New York scored fairly readily against Detroit in the regular season. In fact, the Yankees scored in 35 of the 89 total innings (39%) in which they batted against Tiger pitching. Thus, the Yankees did not seem to be at an inherent disadvantage against Detroit pitching in the ALCS. New York just got cold.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Smith's INT-Free Streak Persists, But WVU Crushed

Here's a follow-up to my previous posting on West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and his streak of not having his passes intercepted. He attempted 55 passes today, none of which was picked off by Texas Tech (29 of his passes were caught and 26 fell incomplete). Smith thus extends his streak to 312 interception-free throws since he was lasted intercepted, vs. South Florida on December 1, 2011. Today was hardly a good day for the Mountaineers, however, as Texas Tech dominated throughout, 49-14.

UPDATE: Smith avoided an interception for his first 13 passes against Kansas State on October 20 (9 complete, 4 incomplete), before finally being picked off by the Wildcats. His streak of interception-free throws thus ended at 325.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

West Virginia QB Geno Smith Brings Long Interception-Free Streak to Game at Texas Tech

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, whose team plays Saturday here at Texas Tech, has an impressive interception-free streak going. Looking at Smith's player page at ESPN.com, he has played five games this season, attempting 204 passes and completing 166 of them (81.4%), without being picked off a single time.

In Smith's final game of last season, a 70-33 spanking of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, he threw the ball 43 times (completing 32 passes) without an interception. In the game before that, a 30-27 Mountaineer win at South Florida, Smith was picked off twice. Looking at the play-by-play sheet, Smith's final interception came with 9:56 remaining in the fourth quarter, a "pick-six" (interception return for touchdown). Smith rebounded, however, to drive WVU to a touchdown and game-winning field goal. During these two drives, he threw a combined 10 passes, of which 7 were completed. (One West Virginia play was listed as "Team pass incomplete," which may have involved immediately spiking the ball to stop the clock and set up the final field-goal attempt; I'm not including this in Smith's statistics.)

All told, since his last interception, he has attempted 257 passes (204 this season + 43 in the Orange Bowl + 10 at the end of the South Florida game) and completed 205 of them (166 this season + 32 in the Orange Bowl + 7 at the end of the South Florida game).

The NCAA record book for top-tier (Football Bowl Subdivision) programs features this entry:

MOST CONSECUTIVE PASSES ATTEMPTED WITHOUT AN INTERCEPTION

379—Russell Wilson, North Carolina St., 2008-09

Thus, if Smith continues to average around 40 pass attempts per game and doesn't throw any interceptions, he could surpass Wilson in three more games. For Smith's entire collegiate career, he's thrown 15 interceptions in 1,151 passing attempts (a little over 1%). If we assume, accordingly, that each future pass he throws has a .99 probability of not being intercepted, then his probability of throwing another 122 attempts without an interception (to tie Wilson) is .99 to the 122nd power. This yields roughly a .30 chance of Smith tying Wilson.

Some observers may question the value of attempts without an interception, as under this metric a quarterback receives credit for throwing a ball away when no receiver is open. I (and others) have tried to pinpoint the NCAA record for consecutive completions without an interception, without getting final resolution. According to a posting on this West Virginia fan site, Smith is not too far behind some leading figures on consecutive interception-free completions, namely Wilson at 220 and Andre Woodson (Kentucky, 2004-07) at 223. (The fan page lists Smith with 206 straight interception-free completions, a slight discrepancy with my calculation.)

When, if ever, will Smith's collegiate interception-free streak come to an end? Vote in the poll in the right-hand column.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Koji Uehara's 25 Straight Retired Batters

A few nights ago, as the Texas Rangers brought in pitcher Koji Uehara for a late-inning appearance, one of the announcers on the telecast I was watching argued that Uehara was as hot a pitcher as was currently going in Major League Baseball. Naturally, when I hear a claim like that, I have to check it out!

After a few days had gone by, I examined ESPN.com's statistical page for Uehara. I also searched for recent articles, one of which confirmed that before the streak ended (on October 1), Uehara had retired 25 consecutive batters. To put things in perspective, a perfect game involves retiring 27 straight batters (i.e., 3 batters in each of 9 innings).

In honor of Uehara's accomplishment, I have listed the 25 batters that he sat down consecutively (along with the type of out each made) to the right.

As I discuss in my book Hot Hand, then-Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle holds the record for consecutive batters retired, at 45. The leaders in this category include starters (such as Buehrle) and relievers such as Bobby Jenks (41). In my book, I asked whether a streak of consecutive batters retired would be easier for a starter or reliever to achieve, citing the following considerations:

"A starter can... build up the streak in fewer games, but must have the stamina to keep pitching at a high level throughout the game.  A reliever, on the other hand, may know that he is only going to pitch an inning or two on a given night, which would allow him to concentrate on retiring just a few opposing batters (going “all guns a blazing” with each one). A reliever, though, would have to keep this up for perhaps 20, 30, or more appearances to contend for this record" (p. 93).

I invite readers to share their views on this matter, in the Comments.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Baseball Streaks in Regular Season's Final Days

With only five days left (including today) in Major League Baseball's regular season, a number of hot and cold streaky performances are adding to the excitement down the stretch.

The Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is threatening to become the first Triple Crown winner in either league since 1967. As of Saturday morning, he leads the American League in batting average (.327, to .322 for his nearest competitor) and runs batted in (133, with his closest rival at 125). Cabrera's 42 home runs put him one behind the leader, Texas's Josh Hamilton. However, Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion also has 42 homers and there are players with 41 and 40. Thus, a homer outburst by any of Cabrera's rivals could sink his Triple Crown hopes. Here's a link to ESPN.com's baseball statistics page, for monitoring the situation. As can be seen on this page of Cabrera's personal statistics, he has raised his performance in some categories from before the All-Star break (taken as a rough marker of the season's halfway point) to after. Before the break, he had 18 homers in 343 at-bats; after the break, he's hit 24 round-trippers in only 262 AB. His batting average is also somewhat higher post- than pre-All Star break (.332 to .324). However, in the past seven days, he has hit only .226 and homered only once. He had a recent 0-for-8 slump that he ended on Thursday. Stay tuned!

The Pittsburgh Pirates, whose bid to end their streak of 19 straight seasons with a losing (sub-.500) record we've been following, are now 76-81. The best they can do is finish 81-81. It wouldn't be a winning record, but it would be a non-losing mark. Honestly, though, it seems highly unlikely the Pirates can win out the rest of the way, so their streak of losing seasons is almost certain to reach 20.

Last night's opener of a series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago White Sox featured teams going in the opposite direction. The White Sox had lost 8 of their last 9 to fall behind Detroit in the AL Central standings (with virtually no hope for a wild-card path to the playoffs), whereas the Rays had won 8 straight to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Sox won last night's game, however, by a 3-1 score. The win keeps Chicago in contention for the division title, 1 game behind the Tigers.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are keeping the pressure on the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A's, the teams currently positioned for the AL's two wild-card slots. The Angels, having won 25 of their last 35, are only 2 games behind the O's and A's in the wild-card standings. The Angels' talent -- free-agent superstar acquisition Albert Pujols, top youngsters Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout, and stellar pitchers Jered Weaver and Zack Greinke (a late-season acquisition) -- make them a team no one wants (potentially) to face in the playoffs.

The Chicago Cubs are ending a dismal season in a dismal way, dropping 10 of their last 11 games. One small measure of glory for the Cubs was the immaculate fielding of second-baseman Darwin Barney, who had a major streak going for consecutive error-free games. However, after tying the record for his position at 141 straight games without an error, he made one last night!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Orioles' 15-Game Winning Streak in Extra-Inning Contests

With Wednesday's 11-inning victory at Seattle, the Baltimore Orioles have won their last 15 extra-inning games, the longest such streak since 1949. One might hypothesize that an extra-inning game is like a coin-flip, with each team having close to a 50/50 chance to win.

Once a game goes beyond nine innings, it can be decided by as little as one extra frame, where one swing of the bat can be decisive. Perhaps the home team is at a little bit of an advantage, but baseball in general has one of the smallest home-field advantages among popular team sports.

If one flipped a coin in series of some defined length (e.g., sets of 10 or 15 flips) and then plotted a histogram of how frequently different breakdowns of heads and tails occurred (e.g., 50% heads/50% tails; 20% heads/80% tails), the most common occurrence in the long run would be 50/50. Other divisions close to 50/50, such as 49/51, 51/49, 48/52, and 52/48 would also be fairly common, though progressively less so the further one moved away from 50/50. As long as the number of tosses in each series was not too small, extreme breakdowns such as 0% heads/100% tails and vice versa would be very rare. This pattern of outcomes yields the familiar "normal" or "bell-shaped" curve

To see if the outcomes of extra-inning baseball games are like coin flips, therefore, we can examine teams' winning percentages in extra-inning games and see if the frequencies of different winning percentages resemble the bell-shaped distribution of coin-flips.

Using ESPN.com's "expanded standings" from 2012 (as of last night), 2011, and 2010, I generated 90 team-year winning percentages in extra-inning games (see column with the heading "XTRA"). In other words, the 2012 Orioles, 2011 Orioles, and 2010 Orioles would be three separate data points, as would the 2012 Yankees, 2011 Yankees, and 2010 Yankees, and so forth.

For the 2012 season to date, Baltimore's extra-inning record is 15-2 (.882), as shown in the far right-hand side of the following graph (which you can click to enlarge). As the graph shows, .500 is the most common extra-inning record in the past three seasons, which occurred 15 times among the 90 team-specific data points. This result is consistent with extra-inning games being like coin-tosses, as is the general tapering off of the curve in both directions from 50/50.


Under a prior assumption of a 50/50 success rate in extra-inning games, the probability of a team (in this case, the Orioles) winning 15 or more out of 17 is about 1 or 2 in 1,000, according to this online binomial calculator from Vassar College. Such an occurrence would thus be rare, but would be expected to happen every several decades.

Keeping in mind that Major League Baseball expanded to 26 teams in 1977, 28 in 1993, and finally 30 in 1998 (history of MLB expansions), one would have to go back 36 years to compile roughly 1,000 team-years. Interestingly, as noted above, one must go back 63 years, to 1949, to find an extra-inning winning streak at least as long as the 2012 Orioles' 15 games. Back in 1949, the Cleveland Indians won 17 straight.  

At the low end of the above distribution stands the 2012 Houston (Dis)Astros. The probability of a team winning 1 or fewer out of 12, given the 50/50 assumption, is around 4 in 1,000.

Further supporting the idea of extra-inning games as coin flips is the finding of non-significant skew (tilt to the right or left) and kurtosis (exaggerated peak) in the plot of teams' extra-inning winning percentages.

UPDATE: On Saturday afternoon, September 22, the Orioles extended their streak to 16 straight wins in extra-inning games, with a 9-6 win over Boston in 12.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Hot Hand" Book to Be in Texas Tech Faculty Exhibit

Hot Hand, the book, will be part of the Texas Tech University library's annual faculty authors exhibit, beginning Wednesday, October 17. I am shown in the upper-right corner of the Brady Bunch-like promotional video, trying my hand at different sports and games. Take a look by clicking here; it's very cute!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hot and Cold Streaks Shape NL Wild-Card Race

At the conclusion of today's play, the race for the second wild-card spot in the National League baseball playoffs is very much up for grabs. This is the first year that each league will have two wild-card teams, who will face each other in a one-game playoff (within each league) to begin the postseason. Barring a major collapse, the Atlanta Braves should capture a wild-card slot without much problem (although the Braves did fall apart in a similar situation a year ago).

As shown in the following table, some of the other wild-card contenders have experienced recent streaks that have either strengthened or weakened their playoff prospects.

Team Record Recent Streak?
Atlanta 84-63
St. Louis 77-70 Lost 8 of 10 (Sept. 5-15)
L.A. Dodgers 76-71 Lost 8 of last 11
Milwaukee 74-72 Won 20 of last 26
Pittsburgh 73-72 Lost 25 of last 35
Philadelphia 73-74 Won 15 of 19 (Aug. 23-Sept. 12),
but lost 3 of 4 in Houston this wkd
Arizona 72-74

Of the teams listed above, the one threatening to make the most dramatic comeback is (or perhaps "was") Philadelphia. The Phillies occupied last place in the NL East until mid-August and were "sellers" at the trading deadline (i.e., trying to build for the future rather than win now), trading away outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. However, any team whose pitching staff includes Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels can win games, and that's exactly what Philadelphia did. Losing 3 of 4 to lowly Houston this weekend has put a serious dent in the Phillies' playoff hopes, though.

Over in the right-hand column,you can vote in a poll regarding who you think will grab the second NL wild-card slot (assuming Atlanta wins the first one). You can examine the contending teams' remaining schedules here.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Does a Defensive "Big Play" in U.S. Football Carry Over to the Offense?

With college and professional football swinging into action, now is a good time to look at a study of whether "psychological momentum" carries over from the same team's defense to its offense. For example, if the Chicago Bears' defense thwarts a Green Bay Packers' attempt to go for it on fourth down, does this development spur the Bears' offense to greater immediate success than it would have achieved absent the big defensive play? Presented by Aaron W. Johnson, Alexander J. Stimpson, and Torin K. Clark at last spring's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the paper is entitled "Turning the Tide: Big Plays and Psychological Momentum in the NFL." A copy of the paper can be found here.

Johnson and colleagues looked at archival records of nearly one-half million plays from almost 3,000 NFL games between 2000-2010. The way defenses ended their opponents' drives were classified into "big plays" (e.g., fourth-down stops, turnovers due to interception or fumble) or routine stops (forcing the opponent to punt). The authors then asked: Do offenses that take the field as a result of a big play by their defensive teammates do better than offenses who take over after a routine defensive stop?

Three criteria of immediate offensive success were used: number of yards gained on the first play of the drive, whether the offense gained a first down (or touchdown) on the drive, and the number of points scored on the drive.

As I understand the authors' approach, they would find in their vast database, one pair at a time, an offensive drive that began immediately following a big defensive play and another offensive drive that followed a routine defensive stop. The authors made sure, within each contrasting pair, that both drives began from roughly the same yard line, to hold constant field position. Ultimately, a huge number of pairs were analyzed.

What the authors found, contrary to the idea of momentum carryover from defense to offense, is that offensive units that took the field after their defensive teammates had made a big play did not produce significantly more yards, first downs, or points than their counterparts who took the field after a routine stop by their defense.

One question, I feel, that would be interesting to address in future research is whether a big defensive play leads to a team's decision to have the offense go for its own big play upon taking possession (e.g., by throwing a long pass or running a double-reverse). Such a play could come to naught, but if the other team's defense comes onto the field with its heads hanging, the offense could catch the defense off guard.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Can Pirates End Streak of Sub-.500 Seasons?

When last we looked in on the Pittsburgh Pirates, they had gone 17-9 in the month of July, putting them in good position to end their streak of 19 straight seasons with a losing (below .500) record. Based on the Pirates' game-by-game log, I created the following chart. It shows that, as late as August 8, Pittsburgh had 16 more wins than losses (63-47) and needed to win only slightly more than one-third of its remaining games to clinch the 82 wins necessary for a winning record. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.)


Since then, however, the Bucs have won only 5 games, while losing 13. I would say Pittsburgh still has a good chance to finish above .500, but now the team must win a little more than 40% of its remaining games.

Working in the Pirates' favor, they have 13 games left against the Cubs (7) and Astros (6), two of the worst teams this year. The floundering New York Mets are also on the schedule for four games.

Will the Pirates finally achieve a winning season? I have created a poll in the right-hand column, so you can let us know what you think.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Final Batch of 2012 Olympic Streaks

With yesterday's 86-50 blowout over France, the U.S. women's basketball team won its fifth straight Olympic gold medal and 41st straight game in Olympic play.

Jamaican track star Usain Bolt became, in the words of this article, "the first athlete ever to win the vaunted 100-200 sprint double in consecutive Olympics."

Finally, when the Bahamas captured the men's 4 X 400 relay, NBC track and field analyst Ato Boldon pointed out that this was the first time the U.S. men had been "beaten on the track" in this event in Olympic competition since the 1952 Helsinki (Finland) Games. If one looks at an all-time results list for this event, one finds three instances between 1952 and this year of the U.S. not winning the 4 X 400:
  • In 1972, Americans Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, who had finished one-two in the 400-meter dash, were dismissed from the remainder of the Games for alleged disrespectful conduct during the medal ceremony. This development, along with an injury to John Smith (a one-time world record-holder in the non-metric 440-yard dash), thus incapacitated the U.S. relay foursome.
  • In 1980, there was the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
  • In 2000, the Americans won the race on the track, but "were stripped of their gold ... because of doping infractions" (link).
Technically, I would say, Boldon is correct. However, at least in 2000, the U.S. was found to have gotten an unfair performance advantage.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

More Olympic Streaks

U.S. beach volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh today concluded their illustrious career, as the duo won the women's gold medal for the third consecutive Olympics. The pair compiled an overall 21-0 match record during these years. The format of each match is 2-out-of-3 games, and May/Walsh dropped only a single game ever (this year) during their three Olympiad.

In women's soccer, Abby Wambach has scored a goal in each of the U.S. team's five games thus far.

Monday, August 06, 2012

One Olympic Track Streak Continues, Another Falls

For the 8th straight Olympiad, Kenya has won the gold medal in the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase.

However, the U.S. streak of 7 straight golds in the men's 400 meters has been dashed -- even before the final of the event. That's because no American runner qualified for the final. Defending Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt pulled up in the qualifying round after re-aggravating a hamstring injury. And the other two U.S. runners just didn't run fast enough in the semi-finals to advance.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Olympic Streak Notes

With the 2012 London Summer Olympics roughly at their halfway point, here are several streak-related items:
  • Before these Games, no male swimmer had ever won the same event three times in a row. Michael Phelps has now accomplished this feat -- twice! Last Thursday, Phelps won the 200-meter individual medley, adding to his 2004 and 2008 titles in the event. Then, last night, Phelps achieved a three-peat in the 100 butterfly, an event in which he's had some close calls. As noted in this USA Today article, "Phelps finished in 51.21 to [South African Chad] le Clos' 51.44. That's a comfortable cushion. Consider this: Phelps won the 100 fly by four-hundredths of a second in Athens — and by one-hundredth in Beijing."
  • Tonight, the US men won the 400 medley relay (with Phelps swimming the butterfly leg). This makes the American men a perfect 13-for-13 in the event (excluding 1980, when the US boycotted the Moscow Games).
  • Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry fell short in her bid to win the women's 200 backstroke for the third straight Olympics. As I noted previously, two female swimmers in history have won the same event three consecutive times, Dawn Fraser (100 freestyle, 1956 through '64) and Krisztina Egerszegi (200 back, 1988 through '96).
  • Women's beach volleyball duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, still undefeated in their quest for a third straight gold medal, lost a game (also known as a set) for the first time ever in Olympic play. Last Wednesday, the US pair dropped the first game 17-21 against Austrian sisters Stefanie and Doris Schwaiger, but rebounded to even the match with a 21-8 rout and then prevailed in the decisive third set, 15-10.
  • In easily winning today's final of the women's tennis singles competition, Serena Williams defeated Russia's Maria Sharapova for the eighth straight time the two have faced each other (click here for list of their head-to-head matches). Sharapova is no pushover, having won a career Grand Slam and been ranked No. 1 in the world at various times.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

MLB Teams in July: The Hot, the Cold, and the Inconsistent

This past month in Major League Baseball, several teams distinguished themselves by playing either really well or really poorly. I'm sure there have been similar months in MLB history, but I can't remember any off the top of my head.

Four teams that were hot in July were the:
  • Oakland A's (19-5 for the month, including a 16-of-18 winning stretch that harked back 10 years to the "Moneyball" A's); 
  • Cincinnati Reds (19-7, including a 10-game winning streak over which longtime Reds announcer Marty Brennaman has promised to shave his head); 
  • Detroit Tigers (16-10, which included a 13-of-15 winning stretch, although the team lost 6 of its final 8 games of the month); and 
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (17-9). Pittsburgh's July play is noteworthy in that it has helped lift the Pirates to a current 60-44 record, as they seek to end a streak of 19 consecutive losing (i.e., sub-.500) seasons. The Pirates must win at least 22 of their final 58 games to ensure a winning record.
The following chart shows how these four teams fared on each of July's 31 days (there were actually only 27 days of play, due to the All-Star Break; days without games are indicated with a slash). You may click on the graphics to enlarge them.


Three teams, for lack of a better term, stunk it up in July:
  • The Houston Astros (3-24), who are in the midst of a "fire sale" to rebuild for the future;
  • New York Mets (7-18), whose 4-14 post-All Star Game stretch sunk a once-promising season; and
  • Colorado Rockies (7-17, including 4-12 after the break).

Finally, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, who are battling for first place in the National League West, each exhibited streakiness in July. Whenever one of these teams won a few games in a row, it would follow-up by losing a few straight.


Monday, July 30, 2012

US Target Shooter Medals in Fifth Straight Olympiad

US target shooter Kimberly Rhode won the gold medal in skeet shooting yesterday. She has now won a medal in five straight Olympiad:

1996: Gold -- Double trap
2000: Bronze -- Double trap
2004: Gold -- Double trap
2008: Silver -- Skeet
2012: Gold -- Skeet

Both skeet (description, video) and trap (description, video) shooting involve targets that are launched into the air. According to this AP article, Rhode has now become "the first American with individual medals in five straight Olympics." Further, she was a model of near perfection yesterday, "tying a world record and setting the Olympic mark with 99 points — meaning she missed once in 100 shots."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is There a Hot Hand in Olympic Archery?

Many Olympic sports got underway today in London and environs. One event that I watched today and that potentially is an excellent candidate for hot-hand analysis is archery. As I discuss in my book and in this video, sports that are most conducive to streakiness are those that consist of relatively simple motions that can be repeated with little delay between attempts.

The event I watched today, specifically, was the men's team archery final, between Italy and the United States. Each team has three shooters or archers. When it's a team's turn, each member will get one shot, so that several minutes will elapse between consecutive shots by any one person. This aspect is not optimal for detecting streakiness. Also, each member gets only eight attempts. Thus, even when aggregating over all six participants, the total number of shots is too small for traditional statistical analysis.

Still, for curiosity's sake, I thought I'd examine the arrow-shooting sequences. Archers receive 10 points for their team by hitting the bullseye, and 9, 8, 7, etc., for landing their arrow in each respective outward ring from the center. As I depict in the following chart, no archer earned below an 8 on any shots. Archery matches (in the team format, at least) are organized into four sets (known as "ends") of six shots each. Because each archer on a three-person team shoots twice in one end, I designate the shots as "1a" for first shot of the first end, "1b" for second shot of the first end, and so forth.


I decided to simplify my little analysis by dividing outcomes into two categories: 10's (bullseyes) and non-10's (i.e., 8 or 9). The "hot hand" concept, in the sense of "success begetting success," suggests that when an archer shoots a bullseye (10-pointer), he or she should have a higher probability than usual of hitting a bullseye on his or her next shot, as well. 

Highlighted in gold in the above chart are all attempts that immediately followed a 10. For example, USA Shooter A earned a 10 on his 3a shot, so his next cell (for 3b) is highlighted in gold. Shot 3b was also a 10, so 4a is gold. Unshaded white cells represent attempts immediately following a non-10. Each shooter's first attempt (green cells) is excluded from the analysis, because he had no prior attempts at that point.

As described above, the hot hand hypothesis predicts that 10's will be more common (percentagewise) in the gold cells than in the white cells. As shown at the bottom of the chart, this pattern is exactly what was found: Bullseyes occurred on 46% of the arrows fired after the same archer had hit a bullseye on his previous shot. In contrast, bullseyes occurred on only 28% of the arrows fired after the same archer had scored an 8 or 9 on his previous shot.

Given the small sample, the difference between 46% and 28% was not statistically significant, but it was in the direction predicted by hot-hand reasoning. Considering that the archers faced delays of several minutes between their own shots, this result isn't bad!

I will keep my eye out for additional archery events during these games (men's individual, women's team and individual) and I invite readers to do the same. Statistics for all sports are available at NBCOlympics.com. For the men's team archery final, all the shot-by-shot data were available online (albeit organized in a different format than I used), so I was able to verify the scores I wrote down while watching the event against what was listed on the website. However, as a precaution, I would urge readers interested in conducting their own analyses to write down as much data as they can while watching events on television.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Great Olympic Streaks: Basketball

Here is the 10th and final entry of my series on top Summer Olympic streaks and dynasties, leading into tonight's opening ceremonies of the London Games. To see the earlier entries, covering sports such as gymnastics, swimming, track and field, and volleyball, just keep scrolling down the page.

To my mind, no Olympic streak is more noteworthy -- either for its duration or its ending -- than that of the U.S. men's basketball program. As indicated below in a chart I created from Wikipedia data, the American men entered the 1972 gold-medal game against the Soviet Union with the U.S. having won all seven gold medals ever contested in Olympic history and with a 62-game winning streak (some sources list it as a 63-game streak, but they may be counting a first-round forfeit win over Spain in 1936). As the chart also shows, some of the greatest basketball players of all-time, such as Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Bill Bradley played for the U.S. during basketball's early decades as an Olympic sport. (You may click on the chart to enlarge it.)


As many readers will recall, the '72 USA-USSR men's title game is best known for the Soviets, trailing by 1 point with 3 seconds left, receiving three chances to inbound the ball (an original and two do-overs) and finally winning, 51-50. An ESPN Sports Century documentary on the 1972 final is available from YouTube (Part 1, Part 2). If you're too young to remember what happened in that game, the YouTube videos are well worth your time.

Some observers have argued from a U.S. perspective that, even being in a position to lose in a fluke ending by not being well ahead of the Soviet Union reflected poorly on the coaching and preparation of the American team. I would say there's some truth to that.

Of course, in the larger scheme, with the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches during the Munich Olympics (here and here), the results of a basketball game are trivial. I was just shy of 10 years old during the 1972 Olympics. I must say, though, that seeing the video on the '72 US-Soviet basketball game recently, 40 years after the fact, I still found it jarring. Whatever joy the Soviets got out of the game was probably short-lived also. Alexander Below, who scored the winning basket, died of cancer just 6 years later.

(For more pleasant reading on men's Olympic basketball [and other sports], including the Oscar Roberson and Jerry West led U.S. "dream team" of collegians, I would highly recommend the book Rome 1960 by David Maraniss, which came out a few years ago.)   

Whereas the U.S. men won all the early gold medals in basketball and later began to face stiffer opposition (requiring the infusion of NBA players), the U.S. women faced tough hoops competition from the beginning (1976) and then became more dominant over time. As shown on this Wikipedia page that covers both men's and women's Olympic hoops, the Soviet Union (and its 1992 post-break-up conglomeration of republics known as the "Unified Team") won 3 of the first 5 women's gold medals, with the U.S. winning the others (1984 and '88). However, the American women have won the last 4 gold medals (1996-2008), with the margin of victory always reaching double-digits in the 4 finals.

Before closing, I wanted to mention briefly several additional Summer Olympic streaks in sports I did not already write about:
  • Aladar Gerevich, an Hungarian fencer born in 1910, won gold in 6 straight Olympics ('32, '36, '48, '52, '56, '60; with the Games of '40 and '44  being cancelled due to World War II). Teammate Pal Kovacs won gold in 5 straight Olympics.
  • Cuban heavyweight boxers Teofilo Stevenson (1972, '76, and '80) and Felix Savon (1992, 1996, 2000) each won 3 straight Olympic golds. Hungary’s Laszlo Papp, who fought at various times as a middleweight and light middleweight, also won 3 straight golds (1948, '52, '56).
  • Vasily Alexeev, a Soviet weightlifter, won Olympic gold in '72 and '76, along with 8 straight World Championships from 1970-1977.
  • Hungary men’s water polo program won 5 out of 7 golds from 1932-1964 and has captured the last 3 (2000-2008).
  • Asian domination of badminton.
  • Paul Elvstrom, from Denmark, was a four-peat yachting champion from 1948-1960.
  • The German (previously West German) equestrian team dressage program won all 7 gold medals contested from 1984-2008.
On to tonight's opening ceremony!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Great Olympic Streaks: Gymnastics

We're down to the final two entries of our daily series. Today, the sport is gymnastics. We're looking at athletes who have had "unparalleled" success, pardon the pun.

Athletes used to have greater longevity in the sport, which is now dominated by youth (with some exceptions). Some of the best-known gymnasts of the last generation, such as Mary Lou Retton, only competed in one Olympiad. Hence, records for gold medals in consecutive Olympics are held by athletes from earlier eras.

It is hard to match the former Soviet Union for gymnasts who excelled over long Olympic careers. These include the all-time record-holder for most Olympic medals in any sport, "Larisa Latynina, who competed in three Olympic Games (1956 to 1964) and won a staggering total of 18 medals, half of which were of the gold variety;" and Nikolai Andrianov, master of the floor exercise in his era, winning gold in 1972 and ’76, and silver in ’80.

Other gymnasts who performed at an elite level through two or more Olympiad include:
  • Japan’s Sawao Kato, winner of the men’s all-around gold medal in 1968 and ’72, and silver medalist in ‘76.
  • Romania’s Nadia Comaneci (3 golds in ’76, 2 in ‘80), best known as the “first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event.” In addition, Comaneci is married to Bart Conner, a former U.S. gymnastics great.
  • Vera Caslavska (Czech Republic), “one of only two female gymnasts, along with Soviet Larisa Latynina, to win the all-around gold medal at two consecutive Olympics.”
In addition to the athletes' Wikipedia pages (linked to each person's name), a very helpful source is this all-time list.

In tomorrow's final entry of the series, we'll look at what I consider the most impressive Olympic streak, one that came to a most controversial end (hint, hint).