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Hokies turn to statistic for answers to NCAA snub

Virginia Tech has been left out of the NCAA tournament the past three seasons, and Coach Seth Greenberg is looking to the numbers for answers as to how to get the Hokies in the bracket.

Scotland Leman, an assistant professor of statistics at Virginia Tech, will be analyzing data pertaining to the dozen or so teams over the past 10 years who have either slipped into the field of 65 or who have been narrowly left out. The goal is to provide Greenberg with a statistical profile of an at-large team and to give him a better idea for how Virginia Tech can position itself better in the eyes of the selection committee.

"What is the metric they’re using?" Leman said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "The committee will never tell you, but it's measurable. They might say it's not true, and we can’t know for sure, but these numbers suggest this is what’s happening."

Leman added, "Once we understand what metrics the committee is using, we think about how to exploit it."

The selection committee operates in a somewhat secretive manner, not allowing reporters to sit in on the bracket-building process. Greenberg has said committees seem to value different factors -- whether its quality wins or strength of schedule -- from year to year.

Virginia Tech was left out of this season's field of 65 largely because of its poor nonconference schedule, which ranked 339th out of 347 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index.

In conducting this study, Leman said he would first try to determine how much a team's RPI weighed in the committee's decision. Then, he said, he would try to predict the type of teams the Hokies should schedule to give themselves the best chance to earn an at-large berth.

In terms of determining a team that would be favorable for Virginia Tech to add to its schedule, Leman said this could be done by looking at the team's record from the previous season, the number of seniors it loses the upcoming season and what conference the team plays in.

A team like William and Mary, for example, might not be the best team to add to the schedule. While it had a strong season this year, the Colonial Athletic Association is not routinely a strong conference. It might be better to schedule a team from a traditional basketball conference.

Without having crunched any numbers, Leman guessed that conference affiliation would have a strong effect on the results.

"A team like William & Mary, they could be totally different next year," Leman said. "But take a team form the Big Ten, their strength of schedule could be very stable. Those are the sorts of things that we’ll be able to say to Seth. 'Teams from these conferences, while they're easy to get and want to play you, they might not be the best to get.' "

Leman acknowledged that there would be intangibles that could not be accounted for, including factors like talent level.

"Obviously, you would want to know the full-network model, where every player is going and their talent level," Leman said. "You can't do that. We’re not going to be able to get that information."

Since Selection Sunday, Virginia Tech's nonconference schedule has been fussed and discussed. Part of the reason the Hokies' nonconference schedule was so weak was because they played teams like North Carolina Central and Longwood, part of the reason was seemingly quality opponents, like Penn State, didn't play well this season.

The idea for this analysis came on Monday, when Leman happened to be eating at a Blacksburg restaurant, Bull and Bones, where Greenberg appeared on a live broadcast of a weekly radio show. Leman was intrigued when he heard Greenberg talk about using statistic to help determine how the Hokies' schedule opponents.

Leman, who received his PhD from Duke in 2007, approached Greenberg after the radio show and said he would analyze the numbers as a "hobby project." Leman, a research professor who specializes in data visualization and also does genetics work, said he might recruit some graduate students to help him with the study.

"At the end of the day, I like statistics and I like basketball," said Leman, who is admittedly a big Blue Devils and Hokies fan. "Getting this and answering this question, it’s a fun conversation."

After analyzing the data, Leman and his students will report back to Greenberg with their findings. If they find something significant, they might even try to publish the study in a sports journal. (Possible title: "On the Bubble: What You Need to Know.")

"The last thing to note is you don’t want to be looking at the Duke's of the world, the Kansas's of the world," Leman said. "They play the best teams and they win. They have an extreme talent pool to select from. This is about finding out why Wake Forest was in, and Virginia Tech was out. It's about quantifying what the committee is about, and it's about playing the game and pandering to the committee."

By Mark Viera  |  March 17, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
 
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