CINCINNATI – Over the summer Xavier assistant Sean Miller read a copy of Michael Lewis' "Moneyball," about the groundbreaking way in which Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane uses stats to make the small market club a consistent winner.
Miller quickly passed the book around Xavier's staff. And while head coach Thad Matta acknowledges the differences in the two sports, the principles of Beane's system stuck with him. He keeps asking himself whether basketball people are missing something also.
"I think we have always been very big on stats," said Matta, who is entering his third season at XU. "We chart everything we do in practice. But [reading "Moneyball"] put an emphasis on what we do with those stats and with our players – even the way we look at recruiting a little bit.
"We aren't trying to sell blue jeans here. We are trying to win basketball games."
Matta is now more stat-obsessed than before, although he has always been willing to gamble a bit.
As an assistant at Butler in 1998 he convinced then head coach Barry Collier to offer a scholarship to a kid named Darnell Archey, who at the time was 6 feet, 140 pounds.
"I went to watch him in high school as a junior and I remember [saying], 'Barry, he doesn't pass the eye test but every time he shoots it, it goes in,'" Matta said. "And he won't miss a free throw."
Archey, of course, hit 8 of 9 free throws last year to lead Butler past Louisville and into the NCAA Tournament.
"I think it is about finding guys who can help you in what you are trying to get done. All avenues of sports [are] so cerebral. You have to have the mental capacity to win at the highest level."
And you thought Moneyball only applied to SEC recruiting.
• Next month when the Big East gets around to officially offering membership to Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and probably South Florida, Bob Huggins believes it will be a historic day.
And not just because the move will put the Bearcats in what will be a truly incredible basketball conference.
"I am excited about it for this reason: I think I'll have a NCAA record," Huggins said. "I will be the coach who coached in the most conferences at the same school. This will be my fourth in 15 years.
"You've got to have a record for something. I won't have any others but I might keep that one for a while."
• We ran into Frank Jesse during dinner Friday night at Cincinnati's Montgomery Inn. Jesse is a former UC assistant and a longtime friend of Huggins who most recently was the athletic director at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary high school, where he had a certain student-athlete named LeBron James.
Jesse took some time to do some magic and card tricks, the best of the best being "The Butler" – about as good a card trick as you'll ever see.
• James "Flight" White was a heck of a player in high school. But in a season and a half at Florida, he never got his game on track. Now set to become eligible at midseason for Cincinnati, the old White is on display in practice. Expect a big, big second half of the year from him.
• Nothing better on fall Saturdays then listening to college football post-game call in (rant) shows, like the one we were treated to as we roared through Ohio. Ohio State had just blown out Indiana – "IU is so bad Mt. Union could beat them," said one caller – but not many people were pleased.
From lamenting the predictable offense to cursing out penalties, you would have no idea this team is 19-1 the last two years.
Although there was the one positive caller who declared, "Hoosier Daddy IU? Papa Buckeye."
• Wheelman Bret Bearup, upon checking into the Cincinnati Riverfront Marriott, when asked whether he wanted a smoking room:
"Yes, apple mesquite please."
• At a coffee stop in Western Pennsylvania we ran into the Wagner football team, who seem like a pretty good group of guys that, unfortunately for them, had just lost to Robert Morris 31-28 on a field goal with nine seconds remaining.
• Name-dropping call-ins of the day, Tim Floyd of the New Orleans Hornets, Tommy Shepard of the Washington Wizards and Dave Pendergraft of the Seattle SuperSonics. We told every one of them that Cincinnati is going to be really, really good.
• Valued Reader email of the day:
Great article on mid-majors. My son is part of the UNC-Wilmington program and I can echo the thoughts and practices that you presented at Butler. UNCW had the highest graduation rate in the country for Div 1 non-football in 2002.
To me that speaks volumes about the focus and values of the athletic department. They don't recruit problems but young men and true Student-Athletes. Let's all hope that the spirit and values that live at some of these schools spread to some of the other "majors."
One of my son's favorite movies is "Hoosiers" and his favorite extended family is truly the coaching staff and his teammates.
He is having a rich and rewarding tenure at UNCW that in my opinion could not have been matched by some of the majors that were recruiting him.
Thanks again. I really enjoyed the article. ...
• We briefly drove through West Virginia, always a tour favorite and without question one of our nation's top 50 states. Actually we love the place for the great scenery, the blue-collar towns such as Wheeling and classic road signs, like the one boasting a store with "50,000 hubcaps."
How many cars still have hubcaps?
• As highway songs go, it is tough to beat "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas
• Not to make a statement about his voice, but when Bearup was singing another song at a tollbooth in Pennsylvania the attendant nearly called 911. "I thought that wailing meant you were sick," she said in all seriousness.
• Total Mileage Thus Far: 1,345.0 miles.
- Thad Matta
- Billy Beane