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Zen Shorts and Thinking Probalistically: A Pitt Preview

Maybe. We'll see.

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The last time I tried a meta "preview" of an upcoming road Pitt game, things turned out pretty well. That's one of my favorite posts I wrote for this site, and I enjoyed re-reading it with the benefit of knowing everything that happened afterwards.

In the 3 years and a couple days since that game, we have won more games than any program in college basketball, not lost a conference tournament game, not lost an NCAA tournament game to a team other than a team that played in the title game and either won the title or lost to a team that's last two losses were to us. Oh, and we've been to two Final Fours and won only the third national championship in our program's history and the first in the real memory of the vast majority of readers of this site. We are 15-3 this season with all of our losses to preseason top 10 teams.

If the post of January 21, 2012 had included all those predictions, the author would have been banned for lunacy.  So why, after all of that, do we find ourselves back in the same place we were 3 years ago?  Why does that post ring almost as true today as it did back then, right down to questioning the College Gameday decisions?

I wish the answer was more complicated than the UK thing. If we had lost to Kansas in the 2012 Final Four and an undefeated Wichita State last season, how different would things be? I chose not to attend the UK game this year and had no regrets because, thinking probabilistically, the way the game went was the most probable outcome.  No regrets, except in the larger sense that thinking probabilistically about games and during games has taken away a lot of the joy of following college sports. It has taken away a lot of the downsides of fandom too, like the stress, the way games negatively affect real life, and how much time and emotional energy gets devoted to sports over other things.  Can you have one without the other?  Is it worth it?  What does thinking probabilistically even mean?

The Farmer's Luck

My oldest son's preschool recommended some books by Jon Muth, who takes Zen philosophy and other more complicated life lessons and puts them into stories for children, mainly through a lovable Panda Bear named Stillwater.  "Zen Shorts" is my son's favorite, and we read it basically every night I'm with him. In "Zen Shorts," Addy and her brothers Michael and Karl meet Stillwater and each have their own visit in which he tells them a short Zen-based story. Michael comes to visit Stillwater and, as they climb a tree, they talk about what would happen if they fell down. You might break your arm, says Stillwater. That would be bad, says Michael. Maybe, says Stillwater. We'll see, I add, because of Charlie Wilson's War. Maybe? asks Michael.  So Stillwater tells the story of the Farmer's Luck.

One day a farmer's horse runs away and his neighbor says, such bad luck.  Maybe, we'll see, says the farmer.  The next day the horse comes back and has two wild horses with him.  Such good luck, says his neighbor.  Maybe, we'll see, says the farmer.  The next day the farmer's son falls off one of the wild horses and breaks his leg.  Such bad luck, says a neighbor.  Maybe, we'll see. The next day the army came to draft able-bodied young men to fight in a war....

You see.  So Michael tells Stillwater he understands - maybe good luck and bad luck are all mixed up.  Because you never know what will happen next.  Yes Stillwater agrees, you never know.

Thinking this way can be a good way to cope with life - it's impossible to know the future.  Something that seems bad can turn out to be a blessing in disguise, something that seems good can turn out to have unintended consequences.  But while we can't know the future, we can assign probabilities to things based on all the available information and similar situations in the past.  Like when you are up by 8 points with 51 seconds left - obviously that's a game where, thinking probabilistically, you are going to win.  But 1 out of every 100 games, a kid scores 12 points in 47 seconds and the game goes to 5 OTs and you lose.  We are up by 8 with 51 seconds, such good fortune, we are good to win - maybe, we'll see.  We are down by 12 points and are playing horrible in the biggest game of the season, and the other team has completely figured out our press and stymied our offense.  Thinking probabilistically, looking at the game in front of you, the feel of the game - it's highly unlikely we are going to win, and that realization sucks.  It's excruciating to experience.  But 1 out of 100 times, Tim Henderson.  Maybe, we'll see.

Those are two games that I experienced in real time and without this sort of attitude.  They were so excruciating, and not really enjoyable. After that, and for a lot of other reasons, it's been a lot harder to get as into games on a play-by-play basis - the win probability charts for those games (or, for instance, this sick sick chart from Sunday's NFC Championship) - I mean, you really never know what will happen next. After experiencing those two games, can we ever really know how a game is going to turn out until it's really over?

Same with football.  Get up 21-0 on Florida State?  Boom, such good fortune.  I kinda wish I could have been more into that game, be more certain of victory, enjoy the moment and enjoy the feeling of winning - but whether it's good or bad or neither, if there's anything the last few years have taught me is that until the clock strikes 0:00, and until the season is over, over, over, you never know what will happen next.  So that loss didn't hurt so much - the internal win probability chart never really got higher than 60%.  That's not so bad of a loss.  Even the UNC game two weeks ago - even up 13, how high was our win probability?  It would have been great to win, but really, was being up 13 and losing really worse than being down as much as we were down and coming back and then still losing?

The lows are not as bad, the highs not as good.  Sometimes that's good, but you miss out on a lot.  I'm starting to not be as into Louisville games as I was, not letting it affect me so much.  What good fortune.  Maybe, we'll see.

A Heavy Load

The last story in Zen Shorts is Michael's little brother Karl going to see Stillwater and carrying with him an overloaded wagon of pool toys. Karl tells Stillwater his brother is bossy and told him he was bringing too much stuff, so he brought everything he owned. All of the toys fit in the pool, but there was no room for Stillwater and Karl to go swimming.  ]So when they emptied it, Karl and Stillwater play in the water, and the whole time Karl is mad at Michael, grumbling all day and imagining what he'd do to Michael if Michael were there. At the end of the day, Stillwater tells Michael, you spent the whole day being angry at Michael. Did you notice how much fun we had? Karl, needless to say, had not noticed.

So Stillwater tells Karl a story as they carry all of the toys home.  Two traveling monks - an older monk and a younger monk - come to a town where they see a rich woman being carried by servants on a sedan chair. They come to a puddle and the servants can't help her across because they are carrying packages and can't put them down. So the older monk puts her on his shoulders and carries her across.  When he sets her down, she doesn't thank him and is even rude to him. The older monk and younger monk continue on for a few days, and the young monk is brooding and preoccupied.  Finally he says something to the older monk, who replies, "I set the woman down hours ago.  Why are you still carrying her?"

As they get back to Karl's house, Stillwater asks him, Don't you think you have carried it long enough?  Yes, says Karl.  Good, says Stillwater.

I almost didn't write this because of the little brother/big brother thing that jumps out there.  But that's not the critical part of the story - they could have been twins or cousins or anything else.  But yes, we are angry at UK and it has made us brooding and preoccupied. Sure, we beat OSU but they don't play defense like UK. Sure, we looked awesome in a close loss at UNC, but UK beat them. Sure we have won more games in the last 3 seasons than anyone, been to two final fours, won the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP DO YOU REALIZE HOW HARD THAT IS AND HOW FEW FAN BASES REALLY GET TO EXPERIENCE THAT ONCE IN A LIFETIME MUCH LESS THREE TIMES, but I mean, UK keeps beating us. And my UK co-workers or UK fans I see online are awful.

True.  But have you noticed how much fun we've had?

This Year's Team

Here's something I wrote two seasons ago in early February:

That's what amuses me somewhat when Pitino says that we have to bring in shooters and that he told his assistants if they bring him someone who can't shoot, they are fired. If you bring in shooters to our system, they still have to have the green light to shoot! Watch Rozier's highlight video of the huge game he had here, and count how many of those shots he would get in our offense? Unless there's a change in philosophy on when someone is allowed to shoot, or we adjust to other team's adjustments that are preventing Siva from getting into the lane or Chris Jones gets into the lane and finds open guys better than Siva does, then we are going to have marginal improvement (more likely to make the open shots we are currently getting) but not a total team image makeover (Louisville will out-score you to win because they are so good at shooting!)

The takeaway is, I hope, that Pitino's stat-based philosophy has set up our offense to act a certain way, and in the long-run that is better, even though short-run results sometimes are tough to watch. What is so frustrating is that every team we play against knows that if you clog the lane, Siva and Russ can't score or create for others, and if you protect the ball we can't score in transition. There has to be an adjustment that takes that into account, and it seems like that adjustment always occurs in New York or in the tournament when we start getting open shots. Maybe it is because we are playing against teams and coaches for the first time who have not had 6+ years to learn and prepare to play us. Maybe it's because we actually put new stuff in. Watch the Michigan State and Florida videos from the NCAA or even the Big East tourney videos, and guys are taking shots that we normally don't take.

The 2013 championship team played crappy offense for large portions of the season.  They played incredibly efficient offense in the NCAA tournament and made a ton shots, shots they weren't even getting or taking in the regular season.  We played 2.6 full games against Syracuse's zone defense and then all of a sudden in 15 minutes in the second half of the third game, we went freaking crazy and scored at will against them.  We've all seen this movie before, people: our offense is bad in December and January, we are going to lose in the NCAA tournament, such bad luck.

Maybe, we'll see.

Thinking probabilistically during games and not getting too up or too down after wins or losses define what it's like (for me at least) to be a UofL fan right now, for better or worse.  Because, let's face it, all the wins and losses don't matter except the UK game and the NCAA tournament, and as long as we don't play them in the tournament this year, I'll be happy.  Even if we play them, that's okay too.  We'll see.  The highest probability for this team is to drop into the teens in rankings, be off the radar, then start playing better in February and peaking in March like we always do.  Sure there's a chance everything falls apart (I'm so old I remember when Chris Jones was going to bring down the entire program with his high usage rate/shot selection/attitude) and the team just doesn't ever find it.  And that sucks.  But we aren't going to know until the season is over, and nothing that happens against Pitt or in the next three games or the next month will answer that definitively. It just goes into the formula and changes the probabilities some. It's just math, why get so worked up?

And I've come to peace with the UK thing - that will eventually be over someday. So what if they go undefeated this season? UK fans are still going to be awful even if they lose a game or 3. Nothing is going to change. It's not like they are going to get BETTER recruits. Maybe, we'll see.

Cal came to UK - such bad luck.  His tenure here happened to coincide with the best stretch of Louisville basketball under Pitino.  Maybe they are related, maybe not.  Maybe it wasn't bad luck when Cal came to UK. When he leaves, we'll say, such good fortune, he's finally gone.  But will we know?  Nope.


The madness will eventually end, and when it does, I don't want to look back on this era with anything other than the appreciation for how amazing it has been and how lucky we are. I'm doing what I can to do that now, even if it means not letting losses affect me as much means not enjoying wins as much as I could, during and after them, and not even watching or going to as many games as I did before as other things in life become more important.

I want to enjoy this while we are in it, and I think I am, and and all of this - thinking probabilistically, getting over the UK thing, marveling at the success and not worrying about the losses, waiting until 0:00, is how I'm doing it.

So whatever it is for you that may be preventing you from fully enjoying and appreciating this era, do you think you've carried it long enough?