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The Media and Probability Distributions

ESPN replayed a little bit of Billy Donovan's post-game press conference Sunday night. In response to an off-camera question that seemed to be about the Gators' struggling to beat Purdue, Donovan offered remarks to the effect:

"The difference between teams like Purdue and us is not big. We're a good basketball team, but so is Purdue. The margin for error in games like this on neutral courts is very small."

His remarks were longer and more extensive but expressed, at least implicitly, two basic points that often escape the talking heads in the media. First, the average average performance level for the better teams in the tournament and those below them is not large. With all of the movement of young players to the NBA in recent years, very few teams have several juniors or seniors likely to play in the NBA. Most of the NBA-bound or NBA-impact players are freshmen or sophomores. With home court (or near home court) advantage removed in most NCAA games, this average performance difference moves even closer.

Second, team performance varies around this average level. That's second nature to people in economics or statistics. Yet, sports media analysts frequently talk as if performance levels are fixed, or, at least, should be if coaches/players were really "focused" or some similar statements. Instead, variations in performance are going to occur for lots of reasons other than lack of preparation. Team-specific match-ups, player health, random bounces of the ball, officiating and other factors create variable performance.

Maybe nowhere do I see this lack of understanding more than when golf analysts talk about Tiger Woods. During some of Tiger's winning streaks, some of these guys have seriously wondered whether anyone will ever beat him again. After his devastating performance in the 2000 U.S. Open, this kind of talk exploded as it again recently. In effect, the observers treated the upper end of his performance distribution as his average (seems to be a common occurrence among amateur golfers, also -- I'm sure it has a cognitive science name).

For those of us who are in economic education, we should be careful not to undersell the value of fundamental ideas like this one or assume that the general point is widely grasped and easily applied to specific contexts.

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