The GMU Economics Department and Moneyball (Yes, Them Too):

One fun thing about GMU's Final Four run is that it has caused the national spotlight to fall on some of the centers of excellence here at GMU that had previously been little-known, including, of course the law school, but other programs as well.

Another area, known to VC readers through our co-conspirator Tyler Cowen, is the GMU Economics Department. There have been a number of excellent articles about our colleagues in the Econ Department in recent days. Two especially good articles describing the rise of GMU's Economics Department are in the Washington Post (focusing on Peter Boettke, Robin Hanson, and Vernon Smith's work) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (focusing on Jim Buchanan's work). Many readers may have already seen Peter Boettke and Alex Tabarrok's article in Slate that explains the success of GMU's Economics Department as well.

Given the close relationships between the Law School and the Economics Department (we often co-teach classes and several Econ professor teach in the law school), readers will not be surprised to learn that Boettke and Tabarrok attribute the success of GMU's Economics Department to following a Moneyball strategy, a model that at least one GMU Law Professor extolled as the secret to the Law School's success (the full text of John J. Miller's article on GMU Law is now available here). In fact, I was the guy who first lent Pete a copy of Moneyball to read a few years ago, so I figure I am allowed to chime in a bit here. While I might quibble a bit with some of their application of the model I think their analysis is basically sound.

I would add just one further point of elaboration to their Moneyball analysis of the basketball program. I heard Coach Larranaga on the radio this week addressing the precise question of how he managed to find these kids on the team who were overlooked by the larger schools. Larranaga suggested that he just looks for something different from what the big programs are looking for in a player. Larranaga says that rather than just looking for kids with the best individual skills, who all the big-name programs focus on, he looks for kids who come from winning high school programs. The idea is to find kids who are know how to win and are willing to do what it takes to win, which means working hard, listening to the coach, and playing as a team. First he mentioned this stunning statistic that Will Thomas and Rudy Gay both went to high school in Baltimore and that Thomas's teams are now 8-0 playing against Gay's teams in their careers. He then proceeded to list the key players on the team, noting that every one of them (if I remember correctly) had played for a state champion or major city champion in high school. Larranaga indicated that he thought that it was this intangible commitment to winning that accounts for the selflessness of the team in terms of sharing the ball, running the game plan, playing defense, and doing the hard work to win. If this is true, it is a fascinating observation that commitment to winning (versus raw talent) is an undervalued attribute in the modern basketball marketplace.

So I think that the interesting point here is that Larranaga suggests that even now the big-time programs probably wouldn't really want any of these GMU kids because they are not the individual superstars with brilliant talent that those teams are looking for. So it is not that somehow those programs "missed" these kids, but rather that those programs have a different model of talent acquisition. It is only when melded together in Larranaga's system, with the emphasis on the way in which their individual skills complement one another within the system, that their total value is maximized.

Those interested in the relatively new JD-PhD Economics Joint Degree Program and the LLM in Law & Economics Progra at George Mason can find more information here.

As for me, I am off tomorrow for Indianapolis and the Final Four. Thanks for indulging my occasional sports post around here over the past week or two.

Go Mason!