Good Defense, No Whammy, STOP!


Today’s post comes to us from Ryan Koechig.  Thanks, again to Ryan for his help!

Odds are you don’t know Michael Larson. Well, maybe you, personally, know a Michael Larson, but you don’t know The Michael Larson. Some (many?) of you reading this may not even know of the mechanisms used by The Michael Larson to get that “The.” The Michael Larson was a self-described unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio. In May 1984, he used most of his life savings to purchase a plane ticket to LA to appear on the television game show “Press Your Luck.”

“Press Your Luck” had two phases to its gameplay. In the first, the three contestants would sit facing the studio audience while the host would ask a series of questions. The contestant to buzz in first would provide an answer, two other possible answers would be offered and the two contestants who failed to buzz in first would get to choose from the, now, three possible answers. Contestants obtained spins for correct answers; the amount determined by whether they had provided the correct answer upon buzzing in or whether they had chosen the answer from the three choices. Upon finishing the trivia question phase of the program, the contestant platform would spin around so that the three contestants could use their acquired spins on the Big Board, which consisted of 18 monitors arranged in the outline of a square that would display alternating money/prize values, some of which would give you an extra spin. A second outline of a square made of incandescent bulbs (we’re talking 80s here people) would randomly move around the board, highlighting one of the monitors until a contestant yelled “Stop!” and hit a button in front of them. At this point, the board would freeze into place, and the cash/prize that the highlighted monitor displayed would be added to that contestant’s total. If it sounds like there was no way to lose, you’d be wrong. Along with the displayed money/prizes, the monitors would also sometimes display the dreaded Whammy:

Random, random, random. How much prize money was enough? How far would you press your luck while avoiding the Whammy when the board was random? Only, the board wasn’t random. Using the miracle technologies of the VCR and VHS tape, Michael Larson discovered a pattern. Therefore, upon being chosen as a contestant, he went and put his knowledge to use. He hit a Whammy on his first stop, but he then went on to successfully land on cash or a prize for 43 consecutive turns before running out of spins. He took so long in utilizing the spins he had been awarded or won, that the airing of his game, typical 30-minute runtime had to span two nights. He walked away having won a then record of $110,237.

It would be easy, as Drexel embarks on their journey for the CAAT in Charleston, to look at the Dragon’s defensive numbers and possibly eliminate them in their opening round matchup against JMU, and definitely eliminate them against a high noon, Sunday matchup with “host” College of Charleston. However, if you look a little closer at the numbers, or if you watched them on multiple viewings this season, you’d begin to see those numbers move around, as if on the “Press Your Luck” Big Board.

Each game, and in some instances each half, became a spin on the Big Board. The buzzer would sound, we’d see what space we stopped on, and hope for the best.

By my calculations, Drexel’s raw defensive efficiency number was 1.028 PPP against during the OOC portion of the schedule. According to KenPom, this would rank 143rd in the nation for that metric, or top half in the country. Had the Dragons had a little Michael Larson in them, and were able to reproduce that value exactly for each of their CAA games; they’d have finished 13-5. The highest PPP they allowed in a game during the OOC schedule came in their improbable win against Houston. In that game, they gave up 1.111 PPP. Again, playing out the conference season with this value would have seen Drexel go 9-9. Of course, that’s not what happened and Drexel averaged giving up 1.176 PPP in conference games, which raised their season value to 1.128, 303rd in the nation and decidedly not top half, and finished with a 6-12 record. The max 1.111 PPP value given up in the OOC schedule ended up being breached in 12 out of 18 CAA games. Drexel managed only two wins in those games. When they gave up less, they were 4-2. Two-thirds to one-thirds odds are not very good in a lose and go home environment, so let’s return to the pop culture drawer and see what else we can find.

“The One”, “The Dynamic Duo”, “The Three Stooges”, “The Fantastic Four” and “The Furious Five.” We can add to those “The Magnificent Seven.” 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7. Missing one, a group of 6 that can achieve greatness, deliver a population from years of pain and suffering and become…legends. It took this group more than half of the season to come together, there were some bumps at the very beginning of CAA play and a few more towards the end, but they were able to play 14 of the 18 slate of conference games.

Meet “The Spikerific Six”:
Kurk Lee
Alihan Demir
Troy Harper
Tramaine Isabell
Sammy Mojica
Austin Williams

Together, with the rest of the team helping out, they saw their defensive efficiency increase by almost 5 points per 100 possessions to 1.128. “That’s really not all that better,” you might say, and you’re right. That value would move them from 10th to 8th in CAA defensive efficiency and only result in one extra win. But like any opening of a superhero franchise, where the first half is devoted to coming and then learning how to work together, “The Spikerific Six” were no different, featuring three new additions seeing game action this year. Their first seven games together produced an efficiency value close to that which they finished CAA play with, 1.174. Once able to mesh in the last seven games they were together, that number dropped to 1.084. That value would have placed them 4th in the CAA and resulted in 11 wins. That is the number that should give you hope. The home JMU game took place in that last group of seven, and the Dragons held the Dukes to 0.987 PPP in the win. That number would have beaten Charleston, a game they played without Austin and were within 3 with 10 minutes left to play before running out of gas. The William & Mary away game took place in the last group of seven, a win. That number would have beaten Towson at home. Moreover, that number is only an average, they’ve shown they can be better than 1.084. So don’t think this is a lost cause. 34 points wasn’t a lost cause, there’s no reason 4 in 4 should be either.

A good, or at least better, defense is about finding the “pattern.” A group of players that develop the chemistry to know where the others will be out on the court, to have each other’s backs, to pick up their teammates when they’re knocked down. It takes time to develop, and this group needed a lot of the season to find it due to injuries and an early season eligibility wait. That journey has seen many bumps in the road, but that chemistry appears to be there now. “The Spikerific Six” are the “pattern” and Coach Spiker and staff are our Michael Larson. With the “pattern” known and in hand, they just have to hit four times. Larson’s $110,237 payday just so happens to be close to the value of an NCAA Tournament share adjusted for inflation nowadays. Get it.



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