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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quick Take on UConn's Winning Streak

Geno Auriemma's University of Connecticut women's basketball team has won 88 straight games and they are going for win 89 tonight versus Florida State. This is obviously a tremendous accomplishment but it is foolish to compare UConn's record with UCLA's record 88 game winning streak in Division I men's basketball (set from 1971-1974). Anyone who is honest and objective realizes that there is a huge gap between the level of play in Division I men's basketball and Division I women's basketball; UConn's team certainly could not even compete with any top 25 Division I men's team and, because of the significant differential in size and talent, they could not beat even the worst Division I men's team.

I have heard some people say that UConn is setting a basketball record and that therefore UConn's record can be compared with UCLA's record by that standard. That makes no sense. Bobby Fischer set a likely unmatchable standard by winning 20 straight games without a draw versus elite Grandmasters in Interzonal and Candidate Match play (that is roughly equivalent to an NBA team sweeping five straight series at the Conference Finals and NBA Finals level or an NFL team winning three straight Super Bowls); I am a strong amateur chess player (USCF Expert level, which is approximately 95th percentile among U.S. tournament players) but if I win 20 straight games against players rated Expert and below I have not come close to equaling Fischer's accomplishment even though both streaks would be chess streaks. Perhaps one might counter that UConn is competing at a higher level in the women's game than I am competing at in the chess world, so consider this analogy: if a Grandmaster wins 20 straight games at events like the World Open, National Open and Chicago Open that would be a great accomplishment but it still would not be the same as winning 20 straight games against elite Grandmasters (the hypothetical Grandmaster at the World Open, National Open and Chicago Open would have faced some non-GM players along the way, while Fischer faced nothing but the best during his streak).

Auriemma understands this very well; he recently recently told Time magazine, "...it shouldn't be that I'm eclipsing John Wooden. It shouldn't be Geno Auriemma, and the University of Connecticut, owns the longest winning streak in the history of basketball. No. It's men's basketball, and women's basketball. But we've accomplished something that most people can only dream of accomplishing."

Auriemma and his players deserve tremendous praise for setting a great women's record and for raising the bar of excellence in women's basketball--but it is wrong to suggest that their accomplishment has anything to do with the record set by Wooden's UCLA teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 8:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's not analogous to beating inferior chess levels. Uconn womens hoops is subject to the same size and strength limitations as the other teams -- you act as if the Uconn men's team is beating women's teams.

women's hoops arguably lacks the depth of men's hoops, but it's still top-level grandmasters (varsity)... plus you need some stats to prove that women's hoops lacks depth -- e.g., show that top teams typically win a higher % of their games... even then, at some point it becomes more impressive--e.g., what if Uconn wins 1000 straight games? how many is statistically equivalent to 88 mens games?

plus, how deep was men's in 1970s?

plus it's even more impressive for Geno, b/c it's with different players...

not your best stuff, to say the least

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 10:00:00 PM, Blogger Lijo John said...

Hi David,
Long time reader and fan here.
I agree with the comment that it is very different.

But how can it be a good argument that the women's team cannot beat any division I men's team? It's the women's team playing against other female opponents, hence it is noteworthy. (I know you already acknowledged this accomplishment).

The only way to really compare the two streaks is by assigning a sort of strength of schedule to the 2 streaks relative to the Uconn women's team and UCLA men's team. Things like - how many top 10# ranked teams did each play etc.

I realize that beating a top 10 men's team is much different than beating a top 10 womens team - but the men are playing against men, and the women are playing against women - so that should take care of the disparity shouldn't it?

After writing my comment, I have a lot more respect for writers than I did before. Communicating a complex idea is very hard (relative to the person writing), and I am not sure if i am clear.
- Lijo

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 10:39:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

I have to disagree. The question pertains to what, if anything, such records (ap)praise. You seem to concentrate on (absolute) excellence, the level on which an activity is carried out, as that which is appraised. I believe, by contrast, that win records reflect domination of one's field, domination in competition against one's peers.

By 'absolute excellence', I mean something analogous to beauty. That's why I watch men's basketball and dismiss women's as second rate. For beauty, or excellence, you look at single games (for example by Tal), sequences, instances of execution and so forth. You don't look at win streaks which simply reflect success. They are, furthermore, very much dependent on parity in a way you haven't, in my opinion, given adequate weight. Dominating a league where your team is inequitably loaded and the competition very weak is not as valuable (for the value we are trying to capture with records) as great success against equals/peers. This is so, I believe, even when the quality of play in the first, disparate league is higher.

Your chess analogy, in my view, does not work because a beginner, an expert and a GM are, in a basic sense, peers in the chess universe. They are given, as it were, similar tools and are subject to the same constraints. Of course, one win streak on a lower level is put into perpective, even devalued, in light of the very existence of a higher level. That higher level and one's not being able to compete there is in itself a failure or a falling short of sorts. Of course, Fischer's record means more.

With women's basketball, however, I fail to see the falling short aspect. If the size and talent differences are due to sexual/biological differences, then men and women are not peers, are not subject to the same constraints. Without intending to denigrate either party, comparing women's basketball to men's is not so much unlike comparing wheelchair basketball to basketball from the point of view of competition. One cannot easily say that winning or dominating in wheelchair basketball is easier or harder than doing the same in basketball, unless one imagines oneself participating as unconstrained. But that is exactly what is done in your argument. We take the position of a male and compare how hard it would be (in a man's body) to play against women to how hard it would be against men. That does not make sense, since women compete against women, and men against men. It is trivial and irrelevant (to the quality of competition) that any men's team on the same age group would annihilate a women's team. What is relevant is how difficult it is to dominate one's (paritable and competitive) field.

Given parity (and sameness of constraint), why assume that the (competitive) achievements in the two cases are easily compared in favor of the men's case? I think what you are saying is a cogent argument for not watching women's basketball or for not caring enough about it to keep records. It is simply the same game played on a much lower level (unlike wheelchair basketball which is not the same game). I think the same conclusions follow for college basketball in general if we care ONLY about excellence, skill, etc. But once games are played and records are kept, I fail to see how your argument establishes claims of superiority apropos competitive achievement. I assume, of course, as I said at the beginning, competitive achievement is that which is appraised by win records.

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 10:52:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

One more thing: In the previous looong comment, I talked of biological constraint. This is but one among many types of constraint. You have written extensively about the difficulty of comparing figures across eras for basketball, tennis, swimming. Consider historical constraints. Variations in accumulated knowledge, training techniques, equipment, technology, diet and so on. You wouldn't, I presume, be comfortable in claiming superiority for Anand over Morphy, Phelps over Spitz, Djokovic over Capablanca; although, in each case, the latter would have no chance against the former in hypothetical competitions. You would be, again I presume, very reluctant to claim superiority either in terms of competitive achievement, or in terms of "greatness". So why do it for women's basketball?

Again, I write as someone who cannot stand women's basketball. I just find the tension between excellence and competition intriguing. It is also very much relevant for discussions about who should be in the Hall of Fame. And also for discussions concerning parity in the NBA, seeing that a league of "super friends" is on our doorstep.

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 11:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I made it very clear that UConn's streak is a great accomplishment in its own right. All I am saying is that, unless you believe that women's basketball today is played at a higher level than men's basketball today and/or men's basketball during the Wooden era, it is wrong to compare UConn's winning streak with UCLA's; UCLA's winning streak was forged against much stronger competition. I am rejecting the commentary of those who say "basketball is basketball" and that all 88 game winning streaks are comparable; an 88 game winning streak in YMCA basketball (to cite an extreme example) is not equivalent to an 88 game winning streak in men's Division I basketball and an 88 game winning streak in women's Division I basketball is not equivalent to an 88 game winning streak in men's Division I basketball. There is a yawning gap in the level of competition involved.

The issue is not just the relative depth of the competition in men's basketball versus women's basketball--though I think a good case could be made that men's basketball in the 1970s was more competitive relatively speaking than women's basketball today--but rather the absolute strength of competition. Women's basketball is simply not played at the same level of athletic or technical expertise as men's basketball and it should be obvious that any Division I men's basketball team would overwhelm the UConn women's team.

This takes nothing away from UConn's remarkable accomplishment; I just think that people should stop comparing UConn to Wooden's teams. We don't compare Wooden's teams to Division III men's teams and the bottom line is that women's Division I basketball is, at best, contested at the level of Division III men's basketball (and that is probably being generous). Mind you, I am not foolish enough to say that any group of guys could beat the UConn team; the UConn team could surely beat many men's teams but they would struggle against any men's team comprised of players from at least the DIII ranks.

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 11:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Lijo John:

My contention is that a record from women's Division I basketball should not be equated with a record from men's Division I basketball because the level of competition is vastly different. It does not matter how many ranked teams UConn played or how many ranked teams UCLA played; the level of competition in men's Division I basketball is much, much higher than the level of competition in women's Division I basketball: the best female player in Division I basketball likely could not earn a roster spot on a men's Division I team and certainly could not start for any men's Division I basketball team. Consider someone like Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a Hall of Famer who some consider the best female basketball player ever; she could not come close to earning an NBA roster spot and even in the men's minor leagues she was just a role player. The differences in size, speed, athleticism and talent are simply too great between elite male athletes and elite female athletes.

UConn's feat should be celebrated as a marvelous historical accomplishment but it cannot rightly be compared with a winning streak that was accomplished in a higher level league.

 
At Tuesday, December 21, 2010 11:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

I certainly am concentrating on what you term "absolute excellence." In chess terms, it is great to win a local club championship but it is more impressive to win a state championship, still more impressive to win a national championship and most impressive of all to win the world championship.

It is true that UConn has exhibited a similar dominance in women's Division I basketball to the dominance that UCLA exhibited in men's Division I basketball but no one can seriously contend that women's Division I basketball is the highest level of basketball or that it is even close to being equivalent to men's Division I basketball.

I think that I understand the point that you are trying to make but all you are essentially saying is what I freely acknowledged in my article: UConn's streak is a great accomplishment that should be praised in its own right. My only complaint/objection is that it should not be compared with UCLA's streak. However you want to frame it, elite women's basketball is not played at the same level as elite men's basketball and I just don't think that a winning streak at a lower level of any sport is as impressive as a winning streak at a higher level; it is just an apples and oranges comparison, because from my standpoint it is inherently easier to dominate a lower level of play than it is to dominate a higher level of play. It would be easier for me, as a chess instructor, to train someone to be a 1600 player and construct a long winning streak against 1300s than it would be to train someone to be a 1900 and construct a long winning streak against 1600s.

The flaw in your analogy regarding Spitz/Phelps, etc. is that we know that in the 1970s as well as today that elite women's basketball has never been close to the same level as elite men's basketball; we could have a fascinating discussion about what Phelps might have accomplished swimming under the conditions that Spitz had or what Spitz might have accomplished with today's training methods/apparel but we know that no such comparison can be validly made between elite men's basketball and elite women's basketball.

I think that UConn's streak should simply be praised as the greatest streak in women's Division I history.

 
At Wednesday, December 22, 2010 6:09:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

(Had to divide into two comments due to blogger comment restrictions)

1

Your expanded chess example is nothing short of illuminating. It helped me a lot to see exactly what we disagree about. You, no doubt correctly, say: "It would be easier for me, as a chess instructor, to train someone to be a 1600 player and construct a long winning streak against 1300s than it would be to train someone to be a 1900 and construct a long winning streak against 1600s." This is an important point. If the case of dominating within women's basketball is similarly related to dominating within men's basketball, then you are right. I believe, however, that it is not so related. Here is why.

The difference between such levels in chess is one of knowledge (chess theory, openings, middle game etc.), experience, etc. Let us call this 'external arsenal' in the sense that this can be imparted from the outside, taught by teachers. Merely acquiring such arsenal gives you competitive advantage. As a rule, the higher one goes, simpler acquisition of such knowledge guarantess less and less. In this sense, it is easier to make a 1600 dominate 1300's than to make a 1900 dominate 1600's. I think women's game (of basketball) is *inferior* in the sense that they wouldn't stand to test against their male cognates at the same level, but not inferior in the sense of there being yet more arsenal to be had. Let's take the WNBA so that we can idealize more easily. These women are at the top of their craft. They have more or less realized their potentials and completed their skill sets within the boundaries of their biological constraints. What do I mean by all this talk of constraint. Let us say, for the sake of argument, women have a different relationship to their bodies than men do. This difference consists in - among other things such as a different muscular system - their being worse off with respect to hand-eye coordination or certain motor-skills required for basketball. I am BSing with regards to the details. If we are not to suppose that millions of female basketball players are lazy, uninterested and without talent, then there must be some such deeper account. This is what I mean by biological constraints. Now within these limits, which render them disadvantaged against men of the same level, there is as much competition and selective pressure for women as there is for men. The best of the best find themselves at the WNBA. At that level, there is simply no more external arsenal to be had, which is not accessible to all competitors. Skills are, again within biological constraints, capped out. So how does one win or dominate? I think exactly as one does in the NBA. By virtue of certain competitive virtues: mental strength, a will to win, commitment etc. Since they are all capped out, the best of the best do whatever it is Kobe does to win that one inch against his competitors. If these women were worse dribblers, shooters, jumpers etc. for the same reasons that male college players are (relative to the pros), then I would agree with your analogy. In that case, a top female player need not share the same competitive virtues with Kobe Bryant to distinguish oneself, but merely to acquire something extra. But this is not so. I believe that's why more than one reader has reacted so strongly to your piece.

 
At Wednesday, December 22, 2010 6:22:00 PM, Anonymous Ilhan said...

2

To cap with a very simple picture: we have competition among a pool of a2390-a2400's and competition among a pool of o2390-o2400's ('a' for apples, 'o' for oranges). I know you are saying that the oranges are rather objectively 1590's-1600's. I can grant you that point. What I tried to indicate with my own analogy was that, regardless of objective assignment of excellence (of skill), if very close competitors have no external arsenal (extra knowledge, skill, technique that is inaccessible to others) to gain an advantage, then they rely on the same competitive virtues as Kobe Bryants of this world. This external arsenal is not there for Spitz or Morphy because they lived in other eras. Morphy did not have modern chess theory, for instance. Hence what I call 'historical constraints'. This external arsenal is not there for women basketball players for their anatomy, motor skills etc. is differently structured. Hence what I call 'biological constraints'. I never meant to say that women could ever compete with men. Where there is parity (dubitable for UConn's case) and where, furthermore, all the competitors have access to the same sources, there win records reflect the same competitive virtues. Again, we agree, this need not reflect the same amount of excellence of skill. You can treat those who confuse excellence of skill with competitive excellence (that is, the possession of competitive virtues), as you treat those who think the scoring champion is the best player. Yet, it is a mistake to say that two individuals cannot have equal/comparable competitive excellence without equal/comparable excellence of skill. This is what you are saying, is it not?

 
At Wednesday, December 22, 2010 6:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

I think that you have made perhaps the most compelling counterargument to my point--but I still disagree with you.

What inspired me to write this article is hearing several commentators say, "Basketball is basketball"--in other words, there is no difference between excelling in men's Division I basketball and excelling in women's Division I basketball. I reject that notion. Men's Division I basketball players are better athletes and more proficient players than women's Division I basketball players are. The issue of biological constraints is just a red herring. Was Bobby Fischer a better chess player than I am because of biological constraints, because he worked harder, because he played tougher competition at a younger age or some combination of those and other factors? For the purposes of this discussion that question is irrelevant: one cannot reasonably compare a 20 game winning streak conducted at Expert level chess with a 20 game winning streak conducted at the elite GM level.

I am not saying or implying that the UConn women are lazy or that they could perform significantly better than they are; I am just saying that it is intrinsically easier to dominate a lower level of any game than it is to dominate a higher level. To put it in your terms, due to the "biological constraints" of women's basketball the maximum achievable level of play is equal to, say, a 2100 chess rating level (very strong amateur); it is easier to get to that level than it is to get to the 2600 level.

 
At Wednesday, December 22, 2010 6:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ilhan:

Also--with all due respect to other commenters--I don't think that most people who disagree with what I wrote are thinking about it in the terms that you described; I think that there is a reflexive reaction assuming that I am denigrating women's sports in some way, but all I am saying is that women's sports records and men's sports records cannot be directly compared. I think that trying to do so actually ends up diminishing the women's records, because any objective person realizes that UCLA's team was much better than UConn's. UConn has just accomplished something that is unprecedented in women's basketball and it is not necessary to try to "validate" this by trying to equate it to a men's record; if I win a tournament or win X number of games in a row I am not going to compare myself with Fischer, nor would I particularly want to hear someone say, "That feat is not close to what Fischer accomplished." All you can do is the best that you are capable of doing within your own competitive milieu: Fischer competed against elite GMs, UCLA competed against top men's Division I teams, UConn competes against top women's Division I teams and I (mostly) compete against Masters, Experts and class level players. Records that anyone sets within his or her milieu are meaningful at that level but cannot really be compared with what someone accomplishes at a higher, more competitive level.

Finally, you are assuming that women are incapable of ever competing on an equal level with male basketball players but I am not making a judgment either way in that regard. All I am saying is that it is indisputable that the UConn women's team would not be able to beat any Division I men's basketball team because the level of play in the women's game is much lower. Fischer used to call women chess players "weakies" and he declared that he could give enormous odds to any woman in the world and still win (which may actually have been true at the time that he said it) but Judit Polgar later emerged as a top 10 player in the world, doing far better against male competitors than any female basketball player has done. So we don't really know what is possible but it is clear that the UConn women's team is not playing basketball at the same level that Wooden's UCLA team did.

It simply is not accurate to say, as many news reports have, that UConn broke UCLA's record. I don't see how that would be much different than if I won 20 games in a row against Experts and said that I tied Fischer's record because we were both playing chess.

 
At Saturday, December 25, 2010 1:34:00 AM, Anonymous dsong said...

I have absolutely no idea why they're even comparing the two streaks.

Comparing Men's and Women's basketball is like comparing baseball and soccer. They're completely different sports and should be treated as such.

By this standard, I suppose the UConn women are now chasing the North Carolina women's soccer team's 92-game winning streak.

In any case, the record was broken when they won their 70th straight game. They probably deserve a bit more attention if they reached 100 and/or win a record-tying 3rd straight NCAA Division I Women's championship.

 
At Saturday, December 25, 2010 5:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dsong:

That is exactly my point--there is no rational basis to compare a record from men's Division I basketball to a record from women's Division I basketball. UConn has accomplished a great feat but this feat should not be compared to UCLA's winning streak.

 

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