Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What Do We Know Now?

November is a curious time for college basketball. Most of the non-conference slate is filled with gimme games against cupcakes. The fundamental purpose for these games is money. The good teams can make money off them by filling the home stadium with fans eager to see a sure win. And that's even after paying off the bad teams to make the trip to be a sacrificial lamb. Oh sure, upsets happen, but it's relatively rare.

But we also get a smattering of games against worthy opponents, almost always on a neutral court and usually as a part of some "tournament" where no matter the outcome of the opening round games, the teams that end up at the final location are pre-determined. These games are basically the opposite of the non-conference matchups described above. There's no home team, the stadiums are usually far from full, and the outcome is much more in doubt. And, further, these games are actually meaningful from a NCAA Tournament perspective.

They are resume builders, and that's not a bad analogy. By the time we get to March, the predictive information to be discerned from these games has dropped to about nill. It's like a job you had 3 jobs ago. Who you were then is not who you are now, but the job you had then will be used to evaluate your next gig. Two years ago, Wisconsin was housed at Florida and dropped games to Creighton, Virginia, and Marquette in the non-conference slate. The Badgers then proceeded to go 12-6 in Big Ten play. Despite that impressive conference record, Wisconsin ended up with a middling 5-seed. Last year, the Fighting Illini beat Baylor, an eventual 3-seed, by 8 in Las Vegas. But Illinois missed on out the Tournament after finishing the year at 19-13.

Beating Baylor did not portend Illinois to have a fantastic season any more than Wisconsin dropping 4 games meant the Badgers were pretenders. Coaches are still figuring out roles, and players are still adjusting to them. But these games will nonetheless be scrutinized come March, just like that assistant manager position you had 8 years ago.

On that note, Michigan State padded the resume by rallying to take down Kansas. The Jayhawks are the 2016 Big XII Champions, after all (technically the title has yet to be awarded, but you can go ahead and mark it now). I've been saying these Spartans are underrated, and last night was a great data point supporting that argument. Sure, Denzel Valentine was other-worldly, and he's not going to triple-double the Spartans to victory (and consume 36 percent of the possessions with a solitary turnover to show for it) every game. But he likely won't have to. He did last night because 1) Kansas and 2) his teammates didn't help all that much. Consider: 
  • Eron Harris, who averaged a very efficient 17.2 PPG at West Virginia, had more fouls (3) than points (2) in his 10 minutes; 
  • Harris and Colby Wollenman, who played just 13 minutes, were the only assertive players on the floor besides Valentine; 
  • While Valentine committed just one foul in his 38 minutes, his teammates committed 24 in their 162 minutes (about 6 fouls per 40 minutes); and
  • Non-Valentine players committed 15 turnovers, which works out to a turnover rate of about 32 percent. 
I'm not trying to dog this team, I actually think it's an extremely talented group. And that's why what Michigan State did was so impressive—this was an off game for Tom Izzo's team. And they beat Kansas. 

Speaking of off games, Maryland fans are hoping that's what they saw last night as well. It's not that Georgetown is a bad team, per se, but the Hoyas are likely not going to be on the short list of #1-seed candidates come March. But that's precisely where the Terrapins plan on posting up. It took a furious rally for the Terps to pull out the home victory. 

Sure, there might have been some bad luck in that Georgetown made 40 percent of its three-pointers. But Maryland was nearly identical from long range. Both teams shot just as well from inside the arc as well. More troubling is the fact that the Hoyas got a higher percentage of attempts at the rim, which was more than balanced out by the fact that Maryland attempted 20 more free throws than Georgetown. Yes, good teams get to the line, but even Melo Trimble cannot be expected to routinely see 18 free throw attempts on a night where he registers just 3 attempts from two-point range. 

Look, bad games happen (just ask Georgetown). I'm perfectly fine with putting this game into that category and revisiting the issue when Maryland visits Chapel Hill on December 1st. But sometimes, a bad game is very telling. 

Which brings us to Illinois. First, let's dispense with the caveats: North Florida and North Dakota State were both NCAA Tournament teams that brought back most of their rotations this season. Illinois is playing its early-season home games in Springfield, Illinois while the State Farm Center is undergoing renovations. The Illini also have injured players, or players just coming back from injury. And finally, those two opponents shot a collective 47 percent on numerous 3s and 83 percent at the free throw line (though that's just a combined 18 FTAs). 

Even with those caveats, it's fair to say that Illinois should not be making a habit of taking double-digit deficits into the locker room during halftime of home games. Illinois made 41 percent of its 3s and attempted 17 more free throws than the Bison on Sunday—so John Groce's team cannot claim a monopoly on bad beats. Simply put, the defense has been bad, and the offense isn't getting enough easy shots to compensate. This shot distribution isn't going to cut it: 

John Groce gets another opportunity to get his team on the right track against Providence at the Dunkin' Donuts Center tonight. The good news is that the Friars gave up a substantial amount of looks at the rim against Tommy Amaker's Harvard squad, so it's definitely tenable. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

2015-16 Season Preview

It’s fall already? In comparison to past offseasons, this one offered little intrigue for the Big Ten. While college basketball was preoccupied learning about the ragers thrown at Louisville, and chuckling at Larry Brown’s inability to keep a school out of trouble, the Big Ten was collectively surveying their expanding riches.

Maryland is the popular choice to sit atop the standings come March, and for good reason. The Terps were a 3-seed last year, and lost very little from that team. Oh, and quite a bit of that talent returns this year in the form of sophomores, which is the single best way any team can improve, outside of landing top-10 recruits. But Maryland also did that. Oh, and they landed impact transfers (Robert Carter from Georgia Tech, Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke) as well. All of this is to say that the Terps will almost surely be very good this season, and expectations for Mark Turgeon could not be higher. If he’s going to bring a Final Four banner to College Park, you have to figure this will be the season.

But should Maryland really be the top pick? After all, the Terps were insanely fortunate last season in close games. On a per possession basis, UMD was closer to a 10-win team than the 14-wins that they actually garnered in conference play. While noting that 10 wins is still quite the lofty perch from which to launch with Turgeon’s shiny new toys, I submit that we should not be so quick to discount others in this race. My primary contender would be Michigan State. After all, Tom Izzo’s team was clearly superior on a per possession basis than the Terps last season, and MSU boasts its own incoming 5-star talent as well. And as far as transfer talent goes, the Spartans welcome the best addition to the conference in Eron Harris, who was last season at West Virginia a couple seasons ago as a highly accurate, high-volume sharpshooter. And lest you forget, this is a Final Four team that is returning over two-thirds of last year’s minutes. Sure, the pieces that did leave (notably Travis Trice and Branden Dawson) were critical to that team’s success, but it’s not hard to imagine that a Denzel Valentine/Harris/Bryn Forbes backcourt could well end up as the best in the conference.

I know Indiana is a popular pick for one of the top spots, but I’m unconvinced. The argument goes something like this: (1) Indiana had a great offense last year, even while playing a lot of freshmen; (2) those freshmen are back; and (3) the defense just has to get to “respectable” to make this team extremely good. I don’t disagree with any of those things, but I think (3) ranks as more elusive than people are willing to credit. Consider the Big Ten defensive efficiency rankings for Indiana under Tom Crean:


“Respectable” has been the high end of things for Crean, and those years coincided with the presence of stout defenders Victor Oladipo or Noah Vonleh. I certainly didn’t see a budding Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on last year’s roster, and given the fact that incoming freshman Thomas Bryant was merely the third-best shotblocker on his AAU team (to be fair, this guy was on that team), I suspect he isn’t ready to be one, either. So I don’t think Indiana’s defense will be much to write home about.

What’s strange to me is that others don’t disagree with that assessment of the defense, yet still manage to squeeze the Hoosiers near the top of the standings. Dan Hanner’s model says IU’s defense will finish 12th in the conference, yet that translates to a 2nd place finish? They were 13th last season, and that netted a 9-9 finish. Sure the offense should be better. But how much better? This was the 9th-best offense in the country last year, and the team finished in a virtual tie for 2nd in the Big Ten to Wisconsin’s scorched-earth attack. Are the Hoosiers going to Wisconsin everyone this season? Because in this year’s Big Ten, that’s the only way that a 12th-ranked defense finishes that high. Put me down as a skeptic.

One team that does look a touch underrated, however, is Michigan.

Michigan’s presence on the far-right of the graph indicates just how many of last year’s minutes are coming back. The larger size of the blob indicates that a large percentage of those minutes were freshmen last year, and thus statistically more likely to improve by larger amounts. And it’s worth noting that the Wolverines weren’t exactly a bad team last year, though they were clearly not Tournament-caliber.

But sometimes number-crunching isn’t the most convincing argument. I think that’s true here. To settle the “Indiana vs. Michigan” argument, let’s examine the case of Max Bielfeldt. The 6-7 center played a capable 15 minutes per game in Michigan’s rotation last year, highlighted by some solid performances in the second half of the season, albeit mostly against the bottom half of the conference. Still, it wasn’t enough for him to secure a spot at Michigan. Effectively, John Beilein was going to use Bielfeldt’s scholarship on another player after the Peoria native had stayed his four years. It’s not a leap to conclude that Bielfeldt did not figure very much into the Wolverines’ rotation for the upcoming season.

But Max will be playing in the Big Ten this year, but at Indiana, a team with a frontcourt that has taken a lot of hits in the offseason. I bring this up because it’s not hard to make the case that both teams have very good backcourts (reasonable minds can disagree on which is better, but the point is that neither team has an overwhelming edge). But a player that was in Michigan’s frontcourt rotation last year had very little chance of doing so again this season has found another team in the Big Ten welcome him with open arms. Again, it’s easy to conclude that he stands a reasonable shot at getting rotation minutes at IU.

So it nets out to even backcourts, and a sizable edge to Michigan in the frontcourt. Advantage, Wolverines.

Another team getting some talk as a potential contender is Purdue. The Boilermakers recovered quite nicely last year, but that success seemed like it was on a razor’s edge. This was a Big Man Team last year with A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas patrolling the paint, and while that approach has obvious upsides (best 2-point defense in the Big Ten, 2nd-best 2-point offense), there are downsides to lacking ball skills. No Big Ten team turned the ball over more than Purdue, and that was with the Herculean, rarely-spotten, senior leap from an up-transfer that did not have much in terms of excess usage to trade. Now, maybe it’s the case that Johnny Hill can pull a Jon Octeus and do the same thing. But Hill was pretty bad at UT-Arlington (albeit in a large role), and his skillset might not translate to a power conference:

Type of Shot
% of Shots Taken
FG Pct
At the rim
2P Jumpers

Hill’s game is predicated on his ability to finish at the rim, which is a tough way to make a living as a 6-3 guard in the Big Ten. And while he’s played point guard before, he’s always been turnover-prone in that role. Purdue does have a lot of talent, but perhaps the most talented three-players on team play the same position (even if we wanted to pretend that 5-star center Caleb Swanigan is really a power forward—and further, pretend that designation means anything—is a team struggling to find a primary ballhandler really the place to deploy two space-eaters that shouldn’t take more than three consecutive dribbles?).

Purdue’s success will really come down to whether Kendall Stephens, Vince Edwards, Rapheal Davis, Dakota Mathias, and Johnny Hill can provide enough ballhandling to enable possessions to go long enough to get Hammons et al. the ball on the block. Of those, Edwards’ potential for a sophomore leap is the most intriguing to this observer.

Is this the year that Bo Ryan learns how the other half lives? After years of developing an enviable pipeline of players ready to step up and lead just as the last batch of stars completed their eligibility, Wisconsin suddenly finds itself with a “two guys and who else?” situation after losing two players to the NBA Draft lottery. Everyone knows that Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig will be good, but the question is whether that’s enough. Well, once upon a time it was Alando Tucker and Mike Wilkinson and Who Else?, and Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes and Who Else?, and then later it was Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor and Who Else?, and more recently Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans and Who Else?.

Eventually, we need to stop treating this as some happy accident. Since 1987, Bo Ryan has finished lower than 4th in his conference only once, and never since taking over in Madison. He may stop squatting in front of Wisconsin’s bench one of these days, or he may still be coaching long after we’re all cold in the ground. I don’t know; I’m not a scientist. All I do know is that picking Wisconsin to finish 4th or higher in the Big Ten has been a winning strategy, and I like winning.

Next up on the tour is Iowa, and I think the Hawkeyes will look pretty much like last year’s team if you subtract Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni, and Josh Oglesby. The Hawkeyes have a large incoming freshmen class, but none project as instant impact players. The only returning sophomore that played any meaningful minutes is Dom Uhl, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season. I’m firmly in the camp that White was an extremely underrated offensive player, and ditto that for Olaseni on defense. It’s enough that Iowa may end up on the wrong side of the bubble. The good news is that, for the second year in a row, Fran McCaffrey has eschewed the non-conference cupcake buffet that his earlier Iowa teams so frequently visited. That can only help.

And now, a few words about Ohio State. It’s only a few because no team returns fewer minutes from last season than the Buckeyes. I could talk about Jae’sean Tate’s glorious shot selection despite his diminutive height:
Jae Sean Tate 14-15 Shot Chart.png

But that speaks for itself. Rather, I’ll just say that the Buckeyes are a touch underrated this year. Despite losing a lot of rotation players, including D’Angelo Russell, this team could improve. Thad Matta’s group is absolutely loaded with sophomore talent that, for the most part, were highly ranked recruits. Consider that last year Matta could not find many minutes for Keita Bates-Diop, a 6-7 freshman with some ballhandling ability, could block shots, and made 46 percent of his 3s. That will change this year, and with Tate, KBD, Marc Loving, and Kam Williams leading the charge, the Buckeyes should very good offensively. The defense does not need to be great for this team to continue its dancing ways—adequate should be just fine. Anything better than that, and Ohio State will be a title contender.

Then there’s Illinois, which has been besieged by injury and off court issues this offseason. Darius Paul is off the team for good, while Tracy Abrams is missing his second consecutive year to injury. Touted freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn’t been able to play all summer, former top-50 recruit and prime sophomore leap candidate Leron Black tore a meniscus, and Kendrick Nunn is now out for a few weeks. The good news is that those three should be back for a substantial portion of the season. The bad news is that Illinois didn’t exactly look like a championship contender at full strength, and the margin for making the Tournament will likely come down to a couple of games. Oh, and did I mention the Illini are playing a good chunk of their non-conference home games in Springfield, Illinois, as the State Farm Center is being renovated?

Sure, it’s possible that with a true big man in Mike Thorne, the Illini will find those shots around the rim that eluded the team last year. And Illinois’ incoming class is quite good, and even perhaps a touch underrated. But signing up a 5th-year point guard that struggled with turnovers and putting the ball in the basket against mid-major competition is not typically the behavior of a coach confident that his team is going places. It’s likely that for the third season in a row, the Illini will head to the NIT ("9-9" is not as impressive when it comes with a "played Rutgers twice" asterisk). The more interesting question is whether Illinois’ tough luck earns Groce another season to try and right the ship.

Speaking of waiting until next season, I wouldn’t blame Penn State fans for reflexively hitting the fast forward button while watching the team this year. (For those that don’t know, Pat Chambers is killing it on the recruiting trail.) With D.J. Newbill (graduation) and Geno Thorpe (transfer because reasons) gone, the team’s only hope this season is a return to form from Brandon Taylor. Taylor’s efficiency fell off a cliff last year, so it wasn’t just one thing, but surely his new shot selection didn’t help:

% Shots at rim
% Shots 2P jumper
% Shots 3P

While he will never be confused with a dunkasaurus, Taylor all but ignored the painted area last year. Not helping matters any was the fact that he made roughly 52% of his attempts around the hoop, down from 65% the year prior. So he took fewer shots at the hoop, and they were likely lower quality looks. And you can’t blame this on lacking Tim Frazier’s passing, as the share of shots at the rim that were assisted went up last season.

This lack of assertiveness around the hoop didn’t just impact Taylor’s two point percentage, Combined with a sudden disappearance in free throw accuracy, it resulted in just 8 free throw conversions last year, compared to 29 in 2014.

Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if Shep Garner took a leap forward as well.

Minnesota’s fortunes likely depend on whether Nate Mason takes a big leap this season. He had a very promising freshman campaign, albeit one in which he did not play like a freshman. That’s a compliment, but I don’t mean it like one in this instance. Mason was exceptional in areas where freshmen typically struggle—turnovers, fouling, defense—but there aren’t a lot of clear areas for improvement. His three-point accuracy (37%) was well ahead of his touch at the free throw line (61%). As a 6-1 guard that shot a fair number of jumpers, I can’t say his 43% two-point percentage was all that low. Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t just get better with some of these things—a narrative is not a prerequisite for improvement—I just can’t take it as a given that he’s going to make a substantial leap.

Joey King is still in school?

Nebraska was bad last year and lost basically everyone outside of Shavon Shields. Tim Miles welcomes a good recruiting class, but it’s not that good. And yes, there’s incoming Kansas transfer Andrew White. But White was pretty much glued to the bench in Lawrence. The “Kansas is Loaded!” argument doesn’t do much for me in that regard, either. Sure, there’s no shame in playing behind Andrew Wiggins. But Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene got more playing time. I don’t think we have quite an Alex Legion situation here, but I’ll be surprised if White ends up being a top Big Ten performer, rather than just an adequate starter. The Huskers are at least a year away from sniffing the bubble.

Speaking of the bubble, there’s an optimistic argument that Northwestern at least stands a reasonable chance of getting there this season. A lot of minutes are back, many of those in sophomore form, and the team welcomes yet another very good class under Chris Collins. Of course, the problem is that a lot of improvement will be needed from last year’s team. After putting together a top-15 defense in 2014, the Wildcats regressed to last in the conference. That this was accomplished with largely the same personnel indicates that either Drew Crawford was a better defender than anyone—including Drew Crawford—gave him credit for, or that 2014 team was a bit fortunate. Indeed, 2014 opponents were equally lousy at hitting three-pointers and two-point jumpers (31.4 and 31.5 respectively), and topped it off by hitting only 66 percent of their free throw attempts. Nothing makes for a good defense like poor shooting, and the reverse is true as well. So when Big Ten teams are making about 40 percent of their 3s, which make up for about 40 percent of opponent field goal attempts, as they did in 2015, the result isn’t pretty.

Ideally for NU fans, bad luck has had its fill with the Wildcats and opponent jumpshooting accuracy can settle into a more reasonable equilibrium. But even if that’s the case, no one will confuse this squad with the Kentuckys or Kansases of the world, meaning the offense needs to get better. And it can. Sophomores turn the ball over less than freshmen, and that was a notable weakness of last year’s team. But for the last two seasons, Collins’ offenses have eschewed offensive rebounds and free throw attempts at alarming rates. Collins has basically thumbed his nose as two of the Four Factors, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for shooting and turnovers. True, you can have a good offense that’s bad at getting second chances and earning trips to the line (e.g., Wisconsin, 2010), but it’s hard to be awful at those things and still put a quality offense on the floor. So until and unless a rebounding foul-drawer shows up in Evanston, or Collins turns over a new leaf and decides these are not such bad things, I think the drought continues.

Bringing up the year is Rutgers. No, that’s not a misprint below, I’m actually predicting zero wins this year. They won two Big Ten games last year (scientists may never discover how they managed to topple Wisconsin), and were in the conversation as the worst-ever Big Ten team in the tempo free era. This offseason, the conference got much better while Rutgers got worse, losing its two best players. Viewer discretion advised.

Predicted Standings

  1. Maryland 14-4
  2. Michigan State 13-5
  3. Wisconsin 12-6
  4. Michigan 12-6
  5. Ohio State 11-7
  6. Purdue 11-7
  7. Indiana 10-8
  8. Iowa 9-9
  9. Illinois 9-9
  10. Minnesota 8-10
  11. Northwestern 7-11
  12. Penn State 6-12
  13. Nebraska 4-14
  14. Rutgers 0-18

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Don't Miss It

Are you having fun yet?

The Badgers are headed to the title game, and once again the story is Offense vs. Defense. Duke's defense has nothing—nothing—on Kentucky's. But today Jahlil Okafor is preparing for what's likely his final college game while Willie Cauley-Stein obviously has some other important business to attend to. And the reason Duke's been so successful in the Tournament has been the unexpected play of the defense, which was not a strength in the regular season.

Wisconsin's Defense vs. Duke's Offense

Of course billing this game as "Offense vs. Defense" seems silly considering we're talking about two top-3 offenses. Duke's offense goes through Okafor, the most devastating two-point weapon in the country. I suspect the Devils will go to him early and often, and Frank Kaminsky will need to be at his best to avoid fouls.

Okafor's sidekick in the offense is Justice Winslow, who looks more like a Wisconsin big man in that he's just as comfortable shooting 3s (making 42 percent of them on the season) as he is scoring in the paint. He's also a plus ballhandler, so he's not easy to pressure into mistakes.

But I'm optimistic that Wisconsin will be able to slow this Duke offense just enough. A team that shares a lot of the same defensive principles (although that team was much better on that side of the ball this year) is Utah. Both teams are very good at forcing opponents to settle for mid-range jumpshots, although the Utes tend to challenge shots more aggressively (with the expected quid pro quo showing up in the rebounding). It might be no coincidence that Utah was the only team that held Duke to under a point per possession in the Tournament.

I expect Wisconsin to pretty much give Okafor whatever he wants outside of 8-10 feet, with some weak side help defense if he establishes position in the post.

Wisconsin's Offense vs. Duke's Defense

On the other side of the ball, where Duke has transformed itself from a middling unit to an elite defensive team—let's look at what's changed. For one, we can probably rule out any philosophical about-face—Mike Krzyzewski has been at this a while, and he's actually been a halfway-decent coach. Also, Duke's opponents are getting the exact same shots now as they did across all games:

For those who are not familiar with the Blue Devil defense, the short version is that the Devils have an extreme (though less so, in recent seasons) overplay defense that gets into passing lanes and extends very far into the perimeter. This approach tends to minimize 3-point shots, and create turnovers (though less so on the latter, in recent seasons). Of course, that leaves the perimeter defender susceptible to a blow-by. So what's changed in the postseason? Well, opponents are simply missing their jumpshots.

It's likely that Wisconsin will attempt a fair number of jumpshots. If they make them, they will win (#analysis). But will those shots be open jumpers that are largely behind the three-point line? For that to happen, Wisconsin needs to rotate the ball.

So far, Duke's defense sounds a lot like the basic framework of the Purdue defense. Both are overplay systems that extend the defense well outside the three-point line. But instead of relying on a JaJuan Johnson or A.J. Hammons swat shots, Duke's system employs rotations that step in to take charges.

This possession (at 3:03, action starting at 3:10) highlights a good defensive outcome using Duke's core principles. With the defense extended so far, the offense cannot get a good outside shot, so the ballhandler easily drives past the perimeter defense. But the rotation is there, in part because instead of sticking with his man in the opposite corner, Tyler Thornton spends most of the possession with both feet in the paint, so he's in position to help.

Thus, the challenge for Wisconsin's offense will be whether it can rotate the ball faster than Duke's defense can help and recover. But the Badgers have an advantage here that most teams do not—almost always, all 5 players on the floor have the green light to shoot a 3-pointer. That means Duke's help side defense will be put in a tough situation, as sticking with the defensive plan means leaving a 3-point shooter wide open.

And it doesn't take much—here's a possession against Purdue. Watch as A.J. Hammons shows help defense just a little too much, leaving Hayes open for a 3 (16:06):

Simply put, the best way to beat Duke's defense is to pass the basketball. Heroball is a surefire way to end up with turnovers and empty possessions. But that's why I like this matchup for Wisconsin, this is a team that passes. It's not a surprise, as one of Bo Ryan's sayings is "if you can't pass and catch, you can't play."

But win or lose, this will be your last chance to see the best offense of the past fourteen (or more) seasons. And it's being executed by a bunch of clowns. If this is what a broken sport looks like, please don't fix it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Who invited these guys?

The Final Four consists of the number 1, 3, 4, and 15th-ranked teams by Pomeroy measures. It's not hard to find the ugly duckling, in that context. But even before the ball was tipped in Michigan State's first round matchup against Georgia, this was a curious team. I'm on record that I was dead wrong about the Spartans' prospects coming into the season. I don't think my outlook was borne in I Hate Tom Izzoville, either. MSU lost its three best players from last year (Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Keith Appling), and replaced them with a trio of non-impactful freshmen and a transfer who hit 30 three-pointers in conference play, but didn't do much else (considering Harris, Payne, and Appling combined for 72 three-pointers in Big Ten play last year, that's a deficit). Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis were the only two returning sophomores, and while Schilling definitely improved, we're still talking about a severely foul-prone center that has a scouting report that simply reads "Rebounds. Can Dunk." As for Ellis, he was better as a freshman.

Everyone else on the roster was an upperclassmen, which usually means "known commodity." So I don't think I was terribly off-base when I wrote the following: 
Michigan State is not going to compete for the Big Ten title this season, that much is clear. But we’re still seeing a lot of projections putting the Spartans in the top-25, though I’m not sure I can sign onto that, either. For one, I’m not sure where the improvement comes from. The only returning sophomores are Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis. Schilling had his moments last year, but he, like Ellis, is an extreme role player that seems unlikely to grab a larger share of the offense. Travis Trice is a three-point specialist who sometimes plays a point guard on TV, though Valentine might actually be better-suited for the role. Valentine and Branden Dawson are nice enough players, but I’m not sure there’s a lot more to see out of either of them. Both players were third and fourth options while on the floor last year, but now they’re expected to be the centerpieces of this attack. While Valentine should improve on his finishing (just 49 percent at the rim last season), the added responsibility will likely lead to more bad shots. As for Dawson, he’s incredibly effective around the rim, where over two-thirds of his shots have come from in his career. But he’s not a jumpshooter. When the shot clock is winding down, he’s not someone I want to see with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. 
And ultimately, that’s the problem I see with MSU’s offense this season. A lot of players who are good in the right role, but all role players to be sure. I see a defense first, second, and third team here, and one that appears headed for the bubble.
Obviously, that's quite the miss on both Trice and Valentine. Trice was probably the best point guard in the Big Ten not named "D'Angelo" (sorry, Yogi), and Valentine was good enough to merit comparisons (at least, offensively) to Draymond Green. Trice's leap was especially miraculous, as he increased his usage by 79% while keeping most of his efficiency (a tall task, given that last year he was well suited to the corner marksman role now occupied by Bryn Forbes). Seniors—especially those not regarded as one of the nation's top-100 players in their high school class—generally do not undergo this kind of transformation. It's probably not going to happen for Bryn Forbes, or Anthony Clemmons, or Joey King, or Benny Parker. Travis Trice is a unicorn that rides the Loch Ness Monster to work after feeding his pet Bigfoot. You will not witness such a thing often.

The massive leaps made by Valentine and Trice therefore explain how Michigan State maintained its conference efficiency margin from last year. But how did these Spartans make it all the way to Indianapolis? Simple—they stopped played like Michigan State:

For years, it's been a struggle for Tom Izzo's teams to keep its turnovers in check. I'm sure that's as much a function of the style of offense the Spartans usually choose to employ (one that traditionally has included a lot of offensive rebounding and fewer 3s) as anything else, though even when the team plays out of character (for instance, by shooting a lot of 3s last year, or in 2004 when the team's offensive rebounding was relatively poor) it's still a struggle. I suspect the fact that Michigan State runs so many set plays also plays a role, but that's mere conjecture on my part.

In any event, even this season the Spartans just barely were better than average in the Big Ten. This is not unprecedented, nor is it a sign that turnover problems are gone. Keep in mind that "barely better than average" are not words usually associated with Michigan State basketball, and certainly not going to strike fear in the heart of a Final Four opponent.

But in their Tournament run, the Spartans have posted a turnover rate of just 13 percent over 245 possessions. Now sure, Louisville's defense isn't up to Pitino standards this season, and Virginia and Georgia generally don't try to force turnovers, but keep in mind the story the graph above shows. Michigan State wasn't playing VCU for 14 seasons, they were playing Average Big Ten Opponent, who usually is not one for a pressing style of basketball. And yet, too many MSU possessions did not end with a shot attempt.

Is this newfound respect for possessions a mere statistically anomaly? Newly-discovered offensive wrinkle? Something as simple as fewer minutes for the turnover-prone Lourawls Nairn? We'll find out Saturday. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Another One in the Books

The regular season is over, and just like everyone figured, Wisconsin came out on top. And not just in the conference standings:

It's official—the 2015 Badgers had the greatest offense in the Tempo Free Era (since 2002). Now, Michigan fans will undoubtedly claim that the 2014 Wolverines actually bested this year's Wisconsin team in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency over the entire season. But, I would counter, that gap is very slim (much slimmer than Wisconsin's lead over 2014 Michigan in the conference season) and, more importantly, puts us in the precarious position of admitting Frank Haith presided over the 3rd-best offense in that time frame. I'm not comfortable with that.

Speaking of standings, Maryland fans are rather upset with my claim that this year's Big Ten was Wisconsin, and everyone else. After all, there's Maryland, a mere two games back, who beat the Badgers in their only matchup of the season. Well, a few points:

  • That was on Maryland's home floor.
  • Curiously, "beating Wisconsin at home" puts the Terps in a exclusive club with one other member—Rutgers. So maybe that should not be regarded as a trump card. 
  • Maryland is now 10-0 in games decided by 6 points or fewer (yes, that's arbitrary, as any number would be. But it's at least a benchmark—two-possession game—that's tied to the proceedings on the court). 
  • Was Maryland even the 2nd best team in the Big Ten? 

Efficiency Margin, Conference Games
Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

On a per possession basis, Maryland was closer to Nebraska than Wisconsin. That's not a knock on the Terrapins, who had a fine season, but a commentary on how dominating the Badgers were this year. 

Back to that 10-0 mark. I think most on the analytics side would argue that random chance has a lot do to with the success of Turgeon's team in tight games. I certainly would. But I'll allow for the possibility that maybe there's just some It Factor with this year. OK, let's say there is. The problem is that even the best poker players lose a hand every now and again, because they got unlucky. And in the NCAA Tournament, you don't get to play another hand. 

Frankly, I'd rather be in the camp of Wisconsin (2-2 in games decided by 6 or fewer), where almost always, luck will have nothing to do with how the team won.  

While I'm on a roll upsetting Maryland fans, let's take on defense. UMD was, on a per possession basis, the best defensive team in the Big Ten. 

Defensive Efficiency, Conference Games
Ohio State
Michigan State
Penn State

Or were they? Those teams in red—they only had to face the Wisconsin Offense once (or fewer). Of all the ways to praise Wisconsin's offense, this might be my favorite. 

(Also, it's been noted that Wisconsin got to face an easier conference slate than some other teams. Of this, there can be no dispute. After all, Bo Ryan's team had the enviable position of never having to face Wisconsin. What are the odds?)

As for postseason awards, I think this was an easy year for the media and coaches. Frank Kaminsky was excellent all season, and I'm hopeful we'll be able to watch him play in college for another month. Next stop, Chicago. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Three Shots

One theme of tempo-free analysis is that basketball can be distilled into Four Factors: shooting (accounting for point rewards for converting 2s versus 3s), rebounding, turnovers, and free throw attempts. These items are, of course, normalized for opportunities of each—you cannot grab a defensive rebound on a made basket, for example.

But of those four factors, it's no secret that shooting dominates. A decided edge in shooting can and does trump deficiencies in the other three (ask Michigan fans about that). But we can do better than just chalk something up to "shooting," and thanks to Shot Analytics and Hoop Math, we now have the data to do just that (all numbers below courtesy of those two sites).

First, let's talk about the dreaded "mid-range" shot. The biggest issue with that shot is that it counts for just two points, and college players are really no better at making mid-range shots than 3s. They also do not generate as many free throws as shots around the rim (which also have the benefit of higher field goal percentages). In short, if a team is taking a lot of mid-range shots, it needs to make up for that with a very high shooting percentage. And that's the problem with Illinois:

The Illini lead the conference in the percentage of field goal attempts that come from the mid-range. The fact that Illinois is also tied for the worst-shooting team on mid-range shots suggests that Illinois might not be attempting these shots by design (it's a bad shot and the team isn't good at it at this volume—we should give John Groce the benefit of the doubt). 

For Illinois fans, this is sadly nothing new—the final years of the Bruce Weber regime featured offenses that had all of the trappings of a perimeter-oriented team (more on POTs in a bit) except, you know, that extra 50% of scoring that comes with a made shot. 

The Illinois results are interesting in that Groce's team is actually shooting 3s with relative accuracy: 

The Illini rank 6th in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage, which is a departure from Groce's first two teams (ranking 11th and 10th, respectively). This backs the notion that Illinois is not a team without shooting touch, but rather one that is taking too many mid-range shots. This is something like a marginal cost argument, so bear with me—as Illinois attempts more mid-range shots, those "extra" shots become more difficult. There's a baseline number of "open" shots that an offense can generate. But ultimately, every offense includes a number of contested shots. If a team (like, for instance, Wisconsin) has lots of players on the floor that can execute every kind of shot, that team will be in a position to shoot more open shots than others. But not every player can hit every shot, meaning some open shots are passed up. When an open shot is passed up, it increases the likelihood of a contested shot later in the possession. So what kind of shots is Illinois passing up, leaving it with too many difficult two-point jumpers?

Illinois either does not create enough chances at the basket for players that are capable of converting them, or is simply reluctant to take those shots (again, giving John Groce credit, the former seems more likely). The Illini are basically trading shots at the rim (which they convert at a 60 percent rate) for shots in the mid-range (32 percent). That's the biggest reason why the team ranks 10th in offensive efficiency, at present.

Indiana has also made a similar trade, but it's trading mid-range shots for 3s. Here's the mid-range graph again:
IU is "last" in the percentage of its FGAs from the mid-range. But rather than trade those shots for at-the-basket looks, the Hoosiers are playing to their strengths:

A little over 40 percent of IU's field goal attempts are 3s, which the team hits at over a 40 percent rate. No one has hit the 40/40 Club in the Tempo Free Era (Michigan and MSU came close last year, IU almost did it in 2007, the 2005 Illini came the closest), but IU is on pace to do it, with Maryland right there and Northwestern even with a puncher's chance.

The POT Line lies at 38 percent, meaning a team that dedicates 38 percent or more of its field goal attempts to 3s. As far as I know, it's arbitrary and an edict from the digital scrolls of the Wonk, which I think makes it unassailable law at this point.