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'They could go Final Four' - stats guru predicted Auburn basketball's breakout season
Not surprised: Before the season, college basketball statistical analyst John Pudner projected Auburn as No. 11 nationally, calling the Tigers, 'the most balanced team in the country.' Photo: Cat Wofford/Auburn Athletics
Not surprised: Before the season, college basketball statistical analyst John Pudner projected Auburn as No. 11 nationally, calling the Tigers, 'the most balanced team in the country.' Photo: Cat Wofford/Auburn Athletics
Feb. 13, 2018

By Jeff Shearer
AuburnTigers.com

AUBURN, Ala. - While reporters at SEC Media Day picked Auburn to finish ninth in the conference and one pundit famously forecast a 4-14 season, John Pudner saw something else.

"That this Auburn team was maybe the deepest in the country," said Pudner, whose Value Add Basketball website projected Auburn as No. 11 nationally in September.

"It didn't have a great player. It had a team of incredibly good players," he said. "We assign a point value per player, and when you add them all up, they were the 11th best team in the country before the season started."

Auburn's depth allowed the Tigers to overcome the absence of two key players, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.

"They literally had eight players who were all up there, who were all so strong, that I don't think there's any team in the country that could have afforded two lose two players because they were so balanced," Pudner said. "The replacement was going to be so close to whoever was lost."

Ever since Michael Lewis published Moneyball 15 years ago, sports fans have become increasingly receptive to analytics -- the reliance on advanced statistics to evaluate and project performance.

Pudner's formula is an extension of that trend, similar to baseball's acceptance of WAR, or Wins Above Replacement.

"The greatest strength is it dummies it down to one figure," he said. "It takes all of the stats and says, `Here's how many points you are worth, more than if you were not playing.' A 6.0 means, `If I lose this guy, we're going to be 6 points worse.' A 3-point win turns into a 3-point loss.

"As great as the stat nerds love Ken Pomeroy and all of these 58 different stats, this adds them all up so you can just look at one, and say, `Oh, that's what it's worth.'"

 

 

Crunching the numbers is a hobby for Pudner, whose full-time gig is running a campaign finance reform non-profit called Take Back Our Republic.

"This is my golf," he said. "I don't play golf. I never had time. I'm a 60-hour-a-week work guy. It takes a lot of time, a lot of travel. This is my break."

Living in Auburn, Pudner has a rooting interest in the Tigers, but his passion resides with Marquette, his alma mater. When it comes to his rankings, however, fandom has no place.

"This is really pure number based," he said. "I don't adjust for anything."

Seven years ago, Pudner's formula identified Marquette's Jimmy Butler as one of college basketball's best players, even though many considered him the third best player on his team.

Owning the No. 30 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls called Pudner to ask what he saw, and if he'd be willing to go easy on hyping Butler in the months leading up to the draft.

"They got him with the 30th pick," he said. "Within three years, he was All-NBA."

Last March, Pudner alone projected South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell as the best player in the NCAA Tournament. Thornwell led the Gamecocks to the Final Four, averaging 23.6 points in the process.

The numbers may never lie, but sometimes they have trouble telling the truth. Pudner's process, alas, is not foolproof.

"One year, for some reason, the numbers showed that South Carolina Upstate was going to have this incredible breakthrough, and they just weren't that good," he said. "I don't know what happened. They all projected well."

Which brings us to this special Auburn basketball season, one Pudner saw coming. Just how high is the ceiling?

"I really thought they were a Sweet 16 team all the way from the beginning of the season to now," he said. "I think this team can run. I think they can go Elite Eight. I think they could go Final Four, but do they get that one 7-footer underneath who they just can't keep away? If they do that, [Auburn coach Bruce] Pearl is so good at throwing a press on though that he could mitigate it.

"Every team has a vulnerability. For other teams, it's they can't handle speed. They could find a great mid-major with a 7-footer and suddenly have a battle to get through."

Quoting Celtics coach Brad Stevens, famous for leading Butler on deep postseason runs, Pudner said every six games, a college team will struggle once to play its best.

"Are you good enough to get through that one? And does that occur in the second round, or does that come in the Elite Eight? You're going to have to survive a bad night. But I think Auburn's good enough to do it, and Pearl's good enough at pressing, that unless he has foul trouble, it seems like he can mitigate that weakness in a matchup."

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter:

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