Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A History Lesson: The Stars Do Not Always Come Out

Basketball All-Star Teams Mislead Because of Unstated Selection Criteria (i.e. Biases)

I've probably whined about all-tournament teams as much as I have the sorry state of Minnesota's signature programs. Some of you find that to be pretty backwards. Who cares who is on the all-tournament team, or the all-state team, or any all-star team, you ask? It's a team game, etc. etc. etc.

Well, it's simple, really. If you're going to have an all-star team of some kind, then the biggest stars should be on it. Period. You will never convince me otherwise. And they already give team awards. We don't need to make all-star teams into another.

But in addition to this being a matter of principle, as far as I'm concerned, it's also a matter of history. I've read every Minneapolis Tribune or StarTribune sports page during basketball season since 1892., trying to figure out the true shape of Minnesota basketball history. And, that's not an easy thing to do. The problem is that sports history is so...full of @#$%^&*! I mean, seriously, the cliches and platitudes are like a haze that smothers truth and light. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

And, if you're trying to understand who the best players have been, all-star teams (all-state, all-conference including all-Big Ten, all-MIAC, all-Northern) are your ticket. And, these all-star teams are and always have been just loaded full of bias and misinformation. You have to be a forensic scientist to decipher what they mean.

Now, at least I know what the biases are today. But I don't know what the biases were 100 years ago. And, 100 years from now, basketball fans won't know what today's biases are. And so they won't necessarily be able to tell who we really thought the best players were.

By biases I mean criteria that determine the membership of all-star teams that are not stated out loud or understood by any but the most astute observer. Here are the most blatant and confusing of them all.

1. Regional biases. The boys AP all-state team that was published today is a good case in point. Seth Hinrichs of MACCRAY made the 1st team, and Cole Olstad of Plainview/Elgin/Millville made the 2nd. No other greater Minnesota player made the 1st or 2nd team. This is clearly a case of regional bias. But what kind? Some say that one out-state player on each team, at a minimum, represents a quota and therefore is biased in favor of greater Minnesota. They are too many. Others say they are not enough, and the fact that there are only 2 greater Minnesota players represents a bias against greater Minnesota.

How would you know which it is? Maybe there's a 3rd explanation. Hinrichs is 1 of the top 5 players in the state, and Olstad is 1 of the top 10. They got it just right.

But this seems a little naive and flies in the face of the fact that every year there are more greater Minnesota players on the AP team, which is voted on by statewide media, than there are on other all-state teams. Again, this represents clear bias, but which way the bias flows is in the eye of the beholder.

Because greater Minnesota players may be perceived as being slighted in other selections, such as Mr. Basketball and the Pioneer Press all-state team, there tends to be a bandwagon effect. A few years ago a sophomore girl from Alexandria, Angela Christenson, created a sensation by scoring 50 points in 1 game. She came out of nowhere to make the AP all-state team which, based on her body of work throughout the year, was premature. She became a great player and 1 worthy of all-state recognition, but not in her sophomore year.

Then, in her senior year when she surely did deserve such recognition, Christenson didn't even make the 2nd team. The greater Minnesota bandwagon had moved on by this time, to Sari Noga, who was elected as the AP player of the year, an honor that every other authority was busily bestowing on Rachel Banham of Lakeville North. And freshman Rebekah Dahlman, whose main claim to fame had been a highly publicized encounter with Iowa Hawkeye coach Lisa Bluder in Braham and a hysterical response by Minnesota Gopher faithful, made the top 5 which, similarly, seemed much premature. Granted, she led her team to the state class AA championship game, but there her limitations were severely exploited by Minnehaha Academy and its honorable mention guard Rachel Hansen and its not-even-honorable-mention post Katelyn Adams.

Which brings us to the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association selections. In Class AAAA, where 28 of 30 state championship finalists over 15 years have been from the metro area, 100 percent of the all-state selections the past 2 years have come from the metro area. (Metro vs. greater Minnesota finalists is meant as a very quick and dirty measure of the relative strength of the 2 geographic areas. The question is whether their all-state selections seem to be informed by the relative strength of the 2 areas, or not.)

In Class AAA, 22 of 30 finalists are from metro schools, and 8 of 8 the past 4 years. 13 of 25 all-state selections the past 2 years are from metro schools.

In Class AA, 22 of 30 finalists are from greater Minnesota, and half in the past 2 years. 8 of 30 are metro. 22 of 22 all-state selections the past 2 years are from greater Minnesota. 9 of 73 including honorable mentions are from the metro. In AA in particular, a girl who did not play a single minute this year, AnneMarie Brown of St. Peter, made the coaches all-state team. Meanwhile, a girl who led her team to 2 state title games, Katelyn Adams of Minnehaha Academy, could not wangle an honorable mention a year ago nor a 1st team selection in this, her senior year. Meanwhile, Rachel Hansen, also of Minnehaha, who dominated last year's class AA tournament to a degree unmatched by any player this year, also did not get a 1st team selection a year ago.

In Class A, 28 of 30 are from greater Minnesota, though Maranatha is your 2011 state champion. 22 of 22 all-state selections are from greater Minnesota. 6 of 63, including honorable mentions, are from the metro.

Does all of this add up to a bias toward greater Minnesota on the part of the coaches? Of course it does. Critics would say, of course, that it merely counter-balances a metro bias in many other selections. Maybe. But that doesn't argue that it's not bias, only that it's justified.

And others will say, well, who cares? Rachel Hansen's life nor Katelyn Adams' has probably not been materially negatively impacted by the slight. But, as I said earlier, someday some pundit will want to know who the best ballplayers were circa 2010 and 2011 and, unfortunately, they're unlikely to be able to sort the biases out, on both sides. So, yeah, it misrepresents the history of basketball. And we historians of basketball--both of us--think that's a shame.

2. The MSHSL all-tournament formula. For as long as I can remember--I guess that would be 54 years now--the all-tournament teams have more or less followed the formula: 3-3-2-2. In the old days of the single class it was 3-3-2-2-1-1 for a total of 12. Now it's 3-3-2-2 for a total of 10. Either way, the 1st place team gets 3 selections, 2nd gets 3, 3rd gets 2, and so on. 1st round losers need not apply. The assumption, today, is that the 3rd best player on the 1st place team is better than the best player on a 1st round loser.

Sure, they deviate from the formula maybe once or twice a year. But the fact is that the assumption (that the 3rd best player on the 1st place team is better than the best player on a 1st round loser) is always false. Okay, one in a 100, maybe its accurate. And yet it defines the selection process a good 75 percent of the time. And so the selections are doomed right out of the gate, if picking the best players is your goal.

People bash this argument saying, well, 1st round losers do get named to the all-tournament team from time to time. Cory Mountain made it, they say. Ashlyn Muhl. Well, you make my point for me. Cory Mountain scored an all-time tournament record of 51 points. Ashlyn Muhl was clearly the best player in Class A in 2011 with 33 points and 23 rebounds. Cole Aldrich made it in 2007 with 32 points and 21 rebounds.

But the point is that you can make it with a superhuman effort. Players who are merely better, but not quite superhuman, than their counterparts on the 1st round winners, still can't get selected, and yet history is given the impression that they had a fair chance. For the most part, they did not.

Oddly enough, all of this was thought through at the start of the four class era. But real thought and discussion has long since been shuttled off to the side and mindless formulas allowed to replace real evaluation. But in the 1st year of four-class ball (1997), the MSHSL actually had a rule that said 1st round losers were ineligible--could not be named all-tournament. Now that was fair. The whole world knew that if a 1st round loser was not awarded all-tournament status, it did not mean that they weren't good enough. It meant they were ineligible.

Well, the rule was rescinded in 1998 and 10 of the 160 kids who made all-tournament (boys and girls, 1998 and 1999) were 1st round losers. In 2011, the number was 1. 79 all-tournament players were picked from the 40 1st round winners, 1 from the 1st round losers. Just enough that people say, see, they have a fair chance. Again, they do not have a fair chance.

Besides, even in 1998 and 1999 5 of the 9 boys who made all-tournament despite losing in the 1st round were repeaters from a previous year: Delwyn Holthusen and Gerald Kingbird of Red Lake, Steve Ruda of Long Prairie, Jake Sullivan of Tartan, and Tony Thielke of Hancock. Sullivan, in fact, made all-tournament twice (1998 and 1999) as a 1st round loser. Like Cole Aldrich, he came into the tournament already one of the most recognized players in the state. Again, a mere mortal who did what Sullivan did (in the 1st round) could not have been selected.

Sticking with 1999, then, here is what the 3-3-2-2 formula gets you, even with 5 deviations:

Class AAAA Boys

In--Mickey Anderle, Mounds View, F, 23 pts in 3 games, and not a defensive stopper or primary ball-handler

Out--Chad Virgin, Eagan, G, 23 pts in 1 game

Class AAA Boys

In--Mike VanNevel, Rocori, C, 21 pts in 3 games

Out--Mark Wingo, St. Paul Highland Park, F, 49 pts in 3 games. Here you have the leading scorer on the state championship team failing to make all-tournament (see also Brittani Wiese, St. Michael-Albertville, G, 2009)

Class AA Boys

In--Robert Stieb, DeLaSalle, G, 11 pts in 3 games (11 pts in 3 games !)

Out--Reid Kuschel, Crosby-Ironton, C, 21 points in 1 game

Class AA Girls

In--Emily Peterson, Minnewaska, C, 20 pts in 3 days

Out--Briana Biebieghauser, Pequot Lakes, G, 21 pts in 1 game

You'll have to trust me on this: There are similar picks every year. I hate to name names but this year Hannah Dahlman comes to mind. 19 pts in 3 games, all-tournament. Emily Lueck and Kylie Beltz of Pequot Lakes, 23 and 21 pts, respectively, in 1 game. No go.

It's like Bob Sansevere once wrote. Who are these idiots who insist on validating Taylor Hill's scoring record? Just give her the record, already! (It turned out the Mpls. South was claiming a couple hundred too many points. But, who cares? Who cares when the next super scorer comes along if nobody knows how many points he or she has to score the claim the record? Who cares if someday we no longer know who even holds the record? Anything is better than those point-headed geeks having anything to say about it. Thanks, Bob.)

Similarly, who cares if future generations will have a totally false picture of the relative ability and accomplishments of different players? The all-tournament team is a huge part of the legacy that players leave behind. Either you care about that legacy being more or less accurate, I guess, or you don't.


  1. Great Article/Post. Fun read, and I hope a lot of eyes see it. All-State players should at least PLAY to get that honor.

  2. As a target above, I would like to argue with your statistics, but as anyone on the bus after our championship will recall, I largely agree with your argument as I tried to give my trophy to Mike Leach, our defensive soul who gave us that title.

    I believe what you're missing is that the voting must be done prior to - or at halftime - of the championship game, meaning epic efforts in the penultimate game are often overlooked. Case in point: I was voted in due to a strong semifinal, while a horrible championship game was overlooked.

    That being said, Mark Twain had a saying about statistics that would refute some of your statements above. Namely, Eagan's point guard, who you point out deserved the award, was left to fill the stat sheet in his 1 game performance against a JV opponent once the game was out of hand.

    I enjoyed your article, and agree there are more worthy recipients, but since the game must be played on the court and not on paper, don't overlook the deserving recipients who didn't fill a stat sheet. As for Mike Leach, the trophy is still his whenever he would like to claim it.

    Mickey Anderle
    MVHS 1999

  3. Mickey, thanks, what a great comment. I picked 1999 for my examples for exactly the reason that you have exemplified--that a 1999 high school grad has some distance and perspective and maturity in handling the criticism that a younger person might not have. Thank you for your good humor and thanks for putting the name of Mike Leach out there in front of a few basketball fans one more time.

    You might be interested to know that one game I wrote up this past year, I picked as MVP a player who scored 1 point. So I am not overly dazzled by points, but they are the one stat that is easiest to find.

    The fact that the all-tournament teams are picked at half-time of the final clearly was a factor in the slights given out to Mark Wingo and more recently Brittani Wiese. But I would guess that for every such case there are 10 where the culprit is basically the 3-3-2-2 formula and the inaccurate assumption that a 1st round loser is unworthy.