With the 2018-19 college basketball season tipping off tomorrow night, we spoke to one of the most knowledgable people in the industry, Erik Haslam. Erik runs his own college basketball website called Haslametrics.com that ranks teams, predicts outcomes, and seeds teams based on unique data and algorithms. If you’re a college basketball junkie, you need to check it out! You can follow Erik Haslam on Twitter @Haslametrics. Here’s the Q/A:
Dylan Burd: For people who don’t know, explain what Haslametrics.com is, and why you started the website?
Erik Haslam: Haslametrics.com is a website that I founded about four years ago. Going back to the early 1990s, I have always been a diehard fan of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s easily my favorite sporting “event” of the year. Even back then, I always wanted to find an analytical means to determine the very best teams in the game. I grew tired of relying on others to provide team summaries and wanted more information at my fingertips so I could draw my own independent conclusions. As access to game statistics became more and more prevalent, I began to use my engineering and computer science background to grab this data and use it to mathematically rate/rank Division I teams in a variety of categories. It all started out very small – spreadsheets, Microsoft Access databases, etc. – but it has obviously progressed far beyond that today. There’s been a lot of trial and error over the years, but I believe I’ve finally settled on a model that works very well. What began with a simple ratings system progressed to the website you see today with game projections, bracketology forecasts, and automated team capsules. It’s been a ton of fun building the site, and it still remains one of the primary passions in my life.
Dylan Burd: This ties largely into question one, but what is the model used to rank teams on your website?
Erik Haslam: That’s not an easy question to answer because there’s so much to it. Even if you had the interest to sit down and hear how my algorithms work, I could probably fill three hours or more teaching them to you. In a nutshell, my model primarily focuses on shot selection – how often teams shoot, how close to the basket each shot is, how well teams shoot from different spots on the floor, and how often teams rely/capitalize on “special” scoring situations like second-chance put-backs and breakaway layups. My system is a bit unique in that (a.) it uses information-rich play-by-play data instead of box score data and (b.) it disposes of game data once a contest has been deemed mathematically decided. Furthermore, my algorithms are more interested in overall performance, not wins and losses. A win can still be considered a negative performance, just as a loss can be considered a positive performance. It all depends on how a team performs vs. the expectation.
Dylan Burd: What specifically are you looking forward to during the Michigan State- Kansas and Duke-Kentucky games on Tuesday night?
Erik Haslam: Well, you know the main event is top-shelf quality when Michigan State-Kansas is on the undercard. There are several subplots I’m interested to see unfold on Tuesday. How will Michigan State fare without a true “alpha” on the court now that Bridges and Jackson have moved on? Will Kansas be as improved in the paint as I think they will be with the one-two punch of Lawson and Azubuike? How long will it take the young superstars at Duke (Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish) to come together and perform as a cohesive unit? And after a relatively mediocre season a year ago (despite the incredible young talent they had), is this the year that UK finds themselves back in the Final Four? It’s going to be a lot of fun to absorb it all. That being said, I don’t put a ton of stock in results from mid-November. These games certainly have an impact when it comes to seeding in March, but for now, I’m mostly interested in seeing what teams can eventually be, not what they are today. The NCAA Tournament is still a long four months off; a ton can change between now and then.
Dylan Burd: Who are some of your sleeper teams for 2018-19?
Erik Haslam: Though they were in the title game a season ago, not many people are talking about Michigan this year. I have so much respect for John Beilein’s coaching mentality, especially on the offensive end of the court. The Wolverines did lose a fair amount of impact players from last year, but there’s still plenty of talent and experience to go around. If Brazdeikis can come in and fill some of the gap left by Mo Wagner’s departure, then this Michigan team can once again inflict plenty of damage. Another team I like a lot is Kansas State. They have the three pillars of success in the college game: Experience, adequate depth, and a stubborn defense. If there’s one team who could potentially knock Kansas off their perch in the Big 12, I’d say the Wildcats would be the ones.
Dylan Burd: Who are some of your bust teams for 2018-19?
Erik Haslam: Pick any team from the Pac-12. I’m half kidding, of course, but the fact is that the Pac-12 as a whole has fallen behind the other power conferences over the last couple of years. Not a single Pac-12 team qualified for my season-ending top-25 in 2017-18. And it all makes sense – after all, the Pac-12 didn’t even make it TO the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, let alone past it; the conference was 0-3 and eliminated by the end of the first Friday. This year, I don’t see a lot that’s changed. Oregon is a bit overrated in my opinion, while UCLA has already been gutted by injuries and medical issues. Perhaps Washington steps up and proudly represents the conference this season, but I’m just not seeing the Pac-12 doing much more this year than what they did a season ago.
Dylan Burd: Which conference is the strongest heading into this season, and why?
Erik Haslam: Usually I answer the Big 12 or the ACC; the two are usually right around the same level. This year, I’m going with the ACC. The top of the conference is stacked with the likes of Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina. There’s so much talent there, and all are legit national title contenders. The Big 12 is still powerful, but they’re maybe a step or two behind the ACC in my opinion. The SEC has made the most progress in recent years. That conference isn’t just Kentucky and the rest anymore; there’s Tennessee, there’s Auburn, there’s LSU, there’s Florida, and there’s Mississippi State. The head coaches there read like a regular who’s who. The SEC has been quickly climbing the ladder and is probably in the conversation to determine the second-best conference in all of college basketball.
Dylan Burd: This is a funnier question. I look at rankings and always see the SWAC and MEAC all in the 300s (even the best teams in those conferences). Any idea why those conferences are always that bad?
Erik Haslam: Because when those conferences get the opportunity to cross over and face off against quality opposition from other conferences, they often get steamrolled in a major way. And once a team plays a particular opponent, they are measured from then on out against all other teams that play that same opponent. NC Central may have earned the MEAC bid to the NCAA Tournament a season ago, but their slate included a 17-point loss to #283 UT Martin, a 23-point loss to #337 South Carolina State, an 18-point loss to #277 Bethune-Cookman, and an 18-point loss to #246 Texas Southern. Some of these defeats occurred in conference, others out of conference, but those teams that crushed NC Central in those instances were oftentimes dissected by other opponents higher in the food chain on other days of the year.
Dylan Burd: Who’s your preseason National Championship pick and why?
Erik Haslam: I hate to answer that question because there are so many things that can happen between now and April. But for consistency’s sake, I’ll go with my current #1, Kansas, by default. The frontcourt was a definite weakness for the Jayhawks last year, but now you have Dedric Lawson arriving from Memphis to give Azubuike a much-needed hand down under the basket. Those two together should be a dominant force. Furthermore, the backcourt oozes with talent with the returning Lagerald Vick playing the 3, Cal transfer Charlie Moore manning the point, and five-star recruit Quentin Grimes joining the mix. Keep an eye out for Duke though. If that unbelievable recruiting class comes together as a functional unit (as I think they will sooner than later), they are going to be an extremely tough out in March.