Thursday, February 19, 2015

Let's talk Coach of the Year

In just a little over two weeks, the regular season will be over and we'll begin the best month in all of sports, where over 300 teams will essentially enter a tournament where a national champion will be decided by results on the court. It's a comfort to know that all those weekly polls, power rankings, and quasi-scientific indexes will all fall into the trash bin of irrelevance as we decide a singular winner on the basis of having won the final game of the season. The riddle I can't solve, however, is why those things continue to exist in the first place—every argument I've heard from the defenders ultimately boils down to the contention that these made-up rankings "generate discussion," which is A Good Thing. My retort has always been that college basketball is plenty entertaining in its own right, and examining the extreme nature of Joe Scott's system holds my attention far longer than the observance that Baylor lost twice last week, so hey, let's knock them down a couple of pegs.

Along with the close of the regular season comes the hardware, and almost all of the awards make sense—putting aside the objections of self-anointed wordsmiths who wax poetic over the difference between "valuable" and "outstanding" (a debate which centers on who played with the biggest collection of bums).

But the one that doesn't sit well with me is Coach of the Year. For one, I suspect that, unlike players, coaches don't really have good years and bad years. These guys have learned their craft over at least a couple of decades, and any changes from one season to the next tend to be marginal. Sometimes what they try works, sometimes it doesn't. That's sports.

Also, it seems like the award tends to be less of an accomplishment for the coach, but rather an indictment of prediction models, experts, and the media, which underrated a team from the outset of the season. Case-in-point: I suspect that Matt Painter is going to be a popular candidate for COY, because many (myself included) figured this team would be a lot worse than its turned out to be (but not everyone. Kudos, Dan.).

And maybe Painter should win it. But then again, Wisconsin is applying income inequality to the Big Ten in a matter we haven't seen since, well, at least the 2005 Illini (although Michigan State was at least in screaming range of that team, efficiency-wise. Today's Badgers are so far ahead of anyone else, it eclipses anything we've seen in the tempo-free era. So I'd be guessing. Flintstones? The 17-1 Calbert Cheaney team?). So does Bo deserve the nod?

There's also John Groce, who is on track to improve on last year's performance despite losing two rotation players for most of the conference slate. And what about someone like Thad Matta? Ohio State probably isn't over-performing relative to preseason expectations (most had the Buckeyes 2nd), but that's largely because Thad Matta has a track record of excellence and because he convinced D'Angelo Russell to attend Ohio State. But because both of those things were accounted for in October, Matta will not be regarded as highly? That seems unfair, so maybe Matta deserves consideration.

All of these interpretations of the award (and others) are entirely fair and defensible, which is really the problem. When the criteria for an award has nothing resembling guidelines, it's not so much an award as it is a psychology experiment. Maybe it's time we stop handing this one out—the merits of discussion generation be damned.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Badgers' Pursuit of History

Thanks to some timely shooting by Rutgers, and a couple of injuries to Wisconsin starters, most of the media probably regards this year's iteration of Bo Ryan Ball as a very good team but not one worthy (barring a deep tournament run) of any lengthy discussion in a historical sense.

That would be a mistake, because this year's Wisconsin team is a sight to behold on offense:
(If you want to design a great offense, have the team wear red. Every little bit counts.)

For years, the 2004-05 Fighting Illini have been the gold standard by which all other offenses should be measured. Barring a late collapse, that changes this season. The Badgers are assaulting defenses to the tune of 1.28 points per possession in conference play, the highest such raw mark in the Tempo Free Era (also known as "as far back as goes"). How have the Badgers achieved such lofty heights? By addressing last year's deficiencies while opting not to indulge in any of the conventional tradeoffs.

Wisconsin 2014
Wisconsin 2015
Off. Reb%
Turnover %
FT Rate
 Generally, if a team wants to make more 2s and get more offensive rebounds, it means it needs it needs taller players that are better at making shots in the paint. These are usually not the same guys that are skilled with ballhandling and making 3s. Presented with these downsides, Bo Ryan apparently gave a pithy "I'm good, thanks" and went on his way. Maybe no facts illustrate this point better—Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes own the highest assist rates on the team in Big Ten play, and they're also shooting a combined 45 percent from three-point range. Exactly who is capable of defending that?

After last season's Final Four run, the Badgers are getting more respect these days. But I still think the team's slow tempo (58 possessions, slowest in the Big Ten) is doing a yeoman's job of masking just how superb Bo Ryan's crew is on offense. It's been at least 13 years since we've seen an offense this good (Wisconsin also holds the Tempo Free title for best adjusted efficiency for all games—by a much narrower margin over last year's Michigan team). It might be another 13 before we see it again. Skipping over the Badgers because of the perception that they're "boring" or "plodding" would be a mistake—this is offensive perfection.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Fixing Iowa

Iowa really should be better. Not only is Aaron White having an All-Big Ten caliber season, but he has solid frontcourt running mates in Gabe Olaseni and Jarrod Uthoff. The backcourt will not be confused with Notre Dame's anytime soon, but offensively at least Mike Gesell and Peter Jok rank well above-average in the Big Ten (take note—this is something like damning with faint praise. As the backcourts of Michigan & Illinois have not exactly worked out as planned, guardplay is the a primary reason why the Midwestern conference is down this season). And Adam Woodbury—when he isn't running his hack-a-thon camp—has been serviceable in conference play.

It's easy to throw accolades out there when the Hawkeyes trail only the the Best Offense Ever (more on Wisconsin's sizable lead over the 2005 Illini in a later post) in Big Ten efficiency. But defense has been an issue throughout Fran McCaffrey's tenure, in ways that are difficult to characterize as unlucky:

The purple represents the conference averages over the span of McCaffrey's tenure at Iowa. As you can see, there's one season that really stands out (2013), but I honestly have no idea why. The two-point defense was especially improved, but I'm unable to come up with a reason why subbing out Bryce Cartwright and Matt Gatens for Woodbury and Olaseni can hurt one's interior defense.

Indeed, the presence of tall guys willing to block shots can (and probably does) explain why Iowa has never been particularly good at forcing turnovers ever since the tall guys started arriving in 2012. But it's worth noting that Iowa has always ranked 3rd or 4th in the percentage of opponent two-point shots blocked.

Ditto for defensive rebounding. The team has enough athleticism to be elite on the boards at the other end of the floor, so it has to be something other than frontline personnel.

Indeed, if you go back to McCaffrey's later Siena teams, you see a similar issues if you are looking for it. Prior to the 2008-09 season, McCaffrey had a couple of very good defenses fueled by turnovers. Those teams were quick, pressing, and didn't block many shots. In other words, they look nothing like what Iowa looks like today. In 2008-09, that began to change. The team blocked more shots, got fewer steals, and generally started this strange mix of bad 2P defense with solid shotblocking. The defensive rebounding also did not go all that first. The next season, Ryan Rossiter was on the court all the time, and rebounding at DeJuan Blair levels. Indeed, even after McCaffrey left, and just about everything went south under the new regime, the defensive rebounding stayed solid with Rossiter in the paint. After he left, that slipped too.

Iowa's not good at very much on defense. They're dead last in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play. As long as the two-point defense is a mess, the ceiling on this unit is mediocrity. But in order to get there, the Hawkeyes need to rebound with the same fervor on defense that they do on the other side of the court. McCaffrey needs a new Rossiter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Big Ten is Down, And It's Not Rutgers' Fault

I think most expected the Big Ten to take a reputational step back this season, but, speaking for myself, the measure by which the conference has fallen behind its major conference colleagues is surprising. And while it would be nice to blame this entirely on Rutgers, that simply is not accurate.

Pomeroy Ranking, Top-12 Teams of the Big Ten

2014 Pomeroy Rank
2015 Pomeroy Rank

While the bottom of the conference (read: Rutgers and Northwestern) certainly drags down the average, the fact is that if the Big Ten jettisoned those two programs today, the conference would still be worse than it was last season, largely because the top of the conference is not as good as it was last season. 

Obviously, much of the rotation of last year's Michigan and Michigan State teams is now filling out NBA rosters, but that kind of turnover happens every season. I think the bigger issue for the Big Ten was simply that the conference did not restock the cupboard. In 2013-14, there were 14 top-100 freshmen playing for Big Ten teams (this includes Maryland, and technically Rutgers)—of those 14, 11 have returned as sophomores. This stands in stark contrast to the prior year's crop of sophomores: of the 15 top-100 players that stepped onto campus in the fall of 2012 (not counting Maryland or Rutgers), exactly none failed to return to school the following season. Those sophomore leaps helped fuel the Big Ten's supremacy.

That's not the only way to conference superiority, mind you. In 2010-11, the senior-laden rosters of Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State, and Illinois propelled the conference.

The good news is that the Big Ten should be a much more capable conference next season. As best as I can tell right now, the top seniors in the league (in no particular order) are Frank Kaminsky, Aaron White, D.J. Newbill, Travis Trice, and Andre Hollins, with the injured Rayvonte Rice deserving of asterisk status (the fact that he hasn't played much in conference games means that his absence next year places Illinois in the same position it is now). As for early entrants into the draft, only four appear to be in the first round as of now (D'Angelo Russell, Sam Dekker, Jake Layman, and Caris LeVert, though everyone after Russell is borderline/absent in some mocks). I wouldn't dismiss the possibility of an overestimation here or there, scouts falling in love with a 7-0er that can chew gum (Purdue has two of 'em!), or someone like James Blackmon or Melo Trimble playing their way into the first round. All that said, I suspect the vast majority of the early-entry candidates mentioned here make it back to campus next season.

Also, it's worth noting just how good this year's crop of freshmen are:

Conference Games Only

Name, Year of FR season
Offensive Rating
Vonleh, 2014
Hayes, 2014
Nunn, 2014
Walton, Jr., 2014
Stephens, 2014
Russell, 2015
Tate, 2015
Blackmon, 2015
McIntosh, 2015
Trimble, 2015
(Michigan fans—take up the Irvin snub with the Big Ten—I'm merely pulling the all-freshman team)

Last year, precisely one freshman fit the bill of both "go to" and "efficient." This year, that number stands at 5, with plenty of efficient newcomers in less starring roles. Sure, we're only just short of halfway through the conference season, but it's likely this year's freshman class will eclipse last year's by a significant amount. 

So long as they stick around for next season, expect the conference to make a respectable run for the top spot. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Data and the Noise

We're only a handful of games into Big Ten play, so it's hard to take the numbers at face value, at this point in the season. But it's not entirely a fool's errand—some of the numbers make sense, others just don't fit. Bullets!
  • Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten, largely because of its offense. This comes as a surprise to exactly no one, but the Badgers are simply lighting up the rest of the conference to the tune of 1.21 PPP. Even that head-scratching loss at Rutgers was not an offensive issue (1.11 PPP)—at least not Wisconsin's offense. Rutgers, on the other hand, posted an eFG of 57.0 on mid-range and 3-point jumpers. But "shoot really well" has always been a great way to beat Wisconsin, so I don't think we learned very much. 
  • Purdue is going to live—or die—with its center play. While they don't take the court at the same time, Purdue's offense runs through either 7-0 junior A.J. Hammons or 7-2 freshman Isaac Haas. In an ideal world, Matt Painter would surround the center with sharpshooters that could bomb from the perimeter. Unfortunately, he only has one Kendall Stephens, who is shooting 39 percent on 3s in Big Ten play. Stephens' teammates are a mere 19 percent from deep. The offense is therefore played in a space roughly the width of an airplane cabin, with predictable outcomes (best offensive rebounding and highest turnover percentage in the conference). 
  • Illinois has not been watchable for nearly a decade. The last time the Illini's offense ranked better than 5th in offensive efficiency in the Big Ten, Dee Brown was the point guard. What's more is that it's not heading in the right direction. In John Groce's first year, they were 7th. Last year, they were the second-worst, behind a truly awful Northwestern offense that willfully eschewed possession of the basketball. So far this season, Illinois has the worst offense in the Big Ten. What's remarkable about that is the Illini are on pace to set records with their free throw accuracy—if only an appearances at the charity stripe weren't so infrequent (12th in free throw rate). 
  • Indiana's offense is going to get a lot better. The Hoosiers were always going to be a perimeter-oriented team this year, but conference play has not started off with a bang, as IU is connecting on just 24 percent of their 3s, and 23 percent of their mid-range shots. This is a team that connected on 42 percent of its 3s and 39 percent of its mid-range attempts in the non-conference slate. Expect this to straighten out, sooner rather than later. 
  • Conversely, this is Michigan's offense when it's shooting really well. The Wolverines have connected on 41 percent of their mid-range shots and 38 percent of their 3s. This would hardly be the first John Beilein squad that shot the ball well—last year's team had basically the same numbers—but this is probably something like peak shooting. And the team ranks 5th in offensive efficiency. I take that as a bad sign. 
  • That pressure defense still isn't working for Richard Pitino. Second in the conference in steal percentage, 10th in defensive efficiency because the team is mediocre to bad at everything else. It. Will. Not. Work. 
  • Cornhuskers not named Petteway or Shields need to submit photo ID, proof of insurance, and a boarding pass to take a shot outside 5 feet. This is what the supporting cast shot chart looks like: 
  • The Big Ten might have already figured out D'Angelo Russell. Per Shot Analytics, so far in Big Ten play, Russell has attempted 24 shots on the left side of the court, versus 14 shots on the right (not counted—shots at the rim, or middle 3s). He has a 46.0 eFG on his left-side shots, compared to 25.0 on the right. Thus, he's being pickier about his right-side shots, and still can't hit them. He'll either adjust, or see a lot of teams daring him to go right. 
  • There probably is no fixing Penn State's interior defense. The Nittany Lions have been plagued by the fact that their 2 centers collectively commit about 8 fouls per game. There was one notable, recent exception to this: 
      It's probably worth mentioning that the outlier was also the only time Michigan hit 50 percent of its 2s against a power conference opponent this season. If he had any left, I'm sure Pat Chambers would be pulling his hair out. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

It's been a long December

It's been a bad month for the Big Ten. Since November 20, here are the losses by Big Ten teams to sub-100 Pomeroy squads:
  • Eastern Washington (102)
  • Charlotte (104)
  • Eastern Michigan (112)
  • Central Michigan (116)
  • St. Francis PA (144)
  • Hawaii (154)
  • St. Peter's (163)
  • North Florida (166)
  • Gardner Webb (173)
  • Incarnate Word (175)
  • Texas Southern (194)
  • NJIT (265)
That list is bad enough, but the context is even worse as all but two of those losses were played at Big Ten home arenas. This also excludes a number of close shaves against the likes of Florida State (119), Clemson (123), USC (150), North Florida (166), Missouri (170), St. Francis NY (172), Virginia Tech (179), Drexel (180), Cornell (187), Duquesne (200), Elon (218), Monmouth (241), New Hampshire (248), Loyola Marymount (251), Marshall (268), and Navy (322).

(There might not be a larger paper tiger in the nation than 12-1 Penn State.)

Last year, the conference had 8 non-conference losses to sub-100 teams, and while the injection of Rutgers does boost that number, it's also clear that this year is not better than the last. 

There are bright spots. Wisconsin is of course rolling along, and the rest of the conference figures to resemble something like a SEC haplessly trying to stay on the court with Kentucky (OK, probably not that bad, but seeing Wisconsin's efficiency margin this season start with a "0.2" should surprise exactly no one).

But aside from the Badgers, both Maryland and Minnesota have my attention. The Terrapins have impressive wins away from home against Iowa State and Oklahoma State, and have a lone blemish against Virginia who, it should be noted, is currently a carbon copy of Kentucky. UM (ugh, another UM? Can I abbreviate them something else, like UM-CP? It's harder to do that for Michigan—UM-AA makes it sound like the school has a drinking problem. And I'll cop to avoiding this issue altogether for Minnesota. UM-TC?) has found success by owning the free throw line—the Terps have made 229 free throws against opponents that have attempted a mere 170.

The defensive side of the equation looks familiar, as Mark Turgeon has a very tall team that likes to mix in some zone. To me, that looks like vintage Thad Matta, whose Buckeyes rarely fouled with the likes of Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens, and Dallas Lauderdale patrolling the paint. Thus far, Maryland (the 6th-tallest team in the country) appears similar.

As for offense, a lot of the success comes down to just one guy, as Melo Trimble has accounted for 30 percent of UM-CP's (I'm going with it, until someone comes up with something better) free throw attempts. A material reason for that is Trimble's relative disregard for all things mid-range, as roughly 20 percent of his attempts fit that description. Of course, that's not the whole story—a guy with the 7th-best free throw rate in Division I surely has more than just tactics on his side—but it's been compelling enough for his teammates to follow suit. Just about everyone that figures to be in heavy rotation in Big Ten play treats a long two as something of a last resort, with one notable exception (per

This makes Dez Wells' return from injury unfortunate, from an analytic perspective. Here we are on the eve of conference play, and Turgeon's offense is hitting on all cylinders by eschewing the worst shot in basketball. Now Wells is back, but if UMCP's offense does hit the skids, the #narrative could just as easily been the familiar tale of reality coming in the form of conference play. C'est la vie, I suppose.

While Maryland already appears to have signature wins, the best Minnesota can offer in that respect is a neutral court win over Georgia. The Bulldogs probably aren't bad this season, but it's also probably too early for Athens to pontificate on seeding scenarios at the Dance. And indeed, I'm not as sold on the Gophers' odds of keeping this up. Although, unlike Penn State, Minnesota is largely beating the pulp out of its candy non-conference slate, the how here is important. As one might expect out of a guy named Pitino, the Gophers have been causing turnovers at a very high rate (3rd in the nation in opponent turnover rate, 2nd in defensive steal percentage).

This absurd amount of steals has resulted in a ton of easy looks. Per hoop-math, Minnesota is tied for 5th (with—surprise!—Louisville) in the percentage of shots taking place within the first 10 seconds after a defensive steal (i.e., a fastbreak). But we saw similar success from Minnesota last year as well, but Big Ten teams were not nearly as vulnerable to Pitino's pressure. I see no reason to believe something's changed in that regard. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Circling the Wagons

Over the past week or so, the Big Ten has dropped four games to teams likely to finish outside the top 100 in the RPI. I'm no fan of the RPI or its methodology, but it's still the standard by which all teams are judged, come March. 

(Which, by the way, is insane. From October through January, RPI is rarely mentioned. ESPN does not preview the Big Game by citing each team's RPI, and coaches do not mitigate the opponent's W/L record by citing their very difficult RPI strength of schedule. But sometime in February, we all decide that RPI suddenly matters. Why? We were all getting along perfectly well without it. Humbug.)

But even by Pomeroy standards, the likes of NJIT, North Florida, Incarnate Word, and Eastern Michigan are decidedly not the kinds of teams that Michigan, Nebraska, or even Purdue should be losing to. So perhaps it's time for a checkup on those squads. 

Michigan: They Are Who We Thought They Were

Michigan is not as good as last year's Michigan. Everyone knows this, everyone expected this. And the ways in which 2014-15 Michigan is different are all predictable: 

2P%3P%TO%Off Reb%FT Rate
Michigan 13-1452.740.214.829.434.9
Michigan 14-1546.938.215.328.929.0

Glenn Robinson III made 56% of his 2s, but this season much of his minutes are going to Kameron Chatman, who is just making 33% of his. Jordan Morgan and his 70% accuracy on 2s is gone. Spike Albrecht (38.1% on 2s) is playing a lot this season. As I said before the season began, this roster is set up well to shoot jumpers—and they have shot very well—but there weren't many interior scoring options, even accounting for Beilein's offense. 

This means that improvement will have to come on defense. That may sound like a dicey proposition given that the team recently allowed 1.22 points per possession to NJIT, but the defense is actually, on the whole, better than last year's. Alas, unlike last year, the Wolverines cannot boast the nation's best offense, so that particular bar is too low if Michigan plans to dance in March. 

But the defense should improve. Really, the only weak parts are items that fall firmly into the "unlucky" camp—opponent three-point percentage and opponent free throw percentage. Those will even out, and when they do, we'll resume our regularly-scheduled programming. Of course, those two bad losses are etched in stone, so Michigan's path to an at-large bid looks a lot tougher. Eleven wins might be a necessity. 

Nebraska: Where's Walter?

Last season, Walter Pitchford was a tremendously-efficient player. He hit 41% of his 3s, 54% of his 2s, and almost never turned the ball over. And I'm not exaggerating there—he didn't commit his first turnover of the season until Nebraska's 15th game. He had just 15 turnovers for the entire season. 

He already has 13 this year, and that's the relative good news, as he's hitting just 40% of his 2s and 27% of his 3s. Frankly, Nebraska just doesn't have enough scoring options for Pitchford to take this kind of leave of absence. Opponents can get away with focusing on Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway, knowing that no one else is willing or dangerous enough to deal significant damage. 

If Nebraska still has eyes on making the Dance, then either Pitchford needs to quickly return to form, or Leslie Smith needs to get better, fast. 

Purdue: This Isn't Youth Basketball—You Don't Have to Play Everyone

Matt Painter currently has a 10-man rotation. Maybe John Calipari can get away with that, early in the season, because his team can whip just about anyone even if he picked up lineups out of a hat. But without meaning any offense to the Boilermakers, Painter can't do that. 

Specifically, Painter has two centers and what appears to be eight combo guards all receiving regular minutes. I don't know, it seems like there might be some redundancies there. Also, we should probably question why there are 8 players with assist rates of at least 15 and turnover rates of at least 12.5 in the rotation. That seems like entirely too much dribbling and passing for entirely too many players. Assists are great (Purdue is 6th in the country in assists per field goal), but not when they come with a side dish of turnovers (167th in turnover percentage). Kendall Stephens, for example, seems better suited to run off screens and wait for an open 3 (he's hitting 49.2% of those) than dribbling into traffic looking for a 2 (he's hitting 21.4% of those). 

Overall, this kitchen has entirely too many cooks.