Friday, January 29, 2016

What's up with Maryland's offense?

With last night's win over Iowa, the Maryland Terrapins find themselves at 7-2 at the halfway point in the conference season. That's not first place, but they're pretty much right there with Iowa and Indiana. But there is something a bit puzzling about this team, specifically, how can a team consisting of Melo Trimble, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon, Diamond Stone, and Jake Layman sport just the 7th-best offense in the Big Ten?

Well, let's get the low-hanging fruit out of the way. Three-point shooting has been an issue in Big Ten play, with the Terps clocking in at just 31.2 percent from the outside. Yes, Layman and Trimble are a bit colder than usual, but the big outlier is Jared Nickens:

3PM Percentage

Suffice to say, that's going to distort things. As a freshman last season, Nickens made 39 percent of his 3s, and he was most accurate in conference play (40 percent). So overall, this seems like a problem that's likely to work itself out. If Nickens can't return to form, that's not insignificant even though he is a role player offensively, and he's basically one-dimensional on that end. There just aren't a lot of players with size that can make 3s, although it's worth noting that Maryland has an embarrassment of riches there. 

So we can chalk up one problem to some cold shooting from one player. But what about shot selection—anything wrong there? According to Shot Analytics, no: 

The Terps have been great about minimizing mid-range attempts, and they've been solid on converting around the hoop. 

So Maryland is shooting the right shots, and they're making (or will start making) the shots they're taking. But unfortunately they're not taking as many shots as they should. Despite the steady hands of Trimble, the Terrapins are turning the ball over on 18 percent of their conference possessions, which is the second-worst mark in the Big Ten (in 2002, that rate would have been the best in the Big Ten. How things have changed). 

One might explain this as simply the price of admission for a team that puts three players standing 6-9 or taller on the floor for the majority of the time. And sure, Layman's turnovers are slightly higher than the team average. And backup center Damonte Dodd is a mess when you ask him to move in space—with or without the ball. 

But I think the bigger issue here is Sulaimon. Your backup center usually isn't going to help keep the turnovers down, and Maryland's big men, in general, are doing relatively well in that department.

But Sulaimon's turnover rate is high, particularly for a non-point guard (18.8 in conference games). He didn't have these issues at Duke, but that was a different offense as well. I don't know if that's the cause, or if it's something else, but Sulaimon needs to be much more reliable with the ball if Maryland's offense is going to reach its potential. That probably does not have to happen for Maryland to win the Big Ten, but I suspect it will if this team wants to still be playing on the final weekend of the season.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Can Iowa keep this up?

Currently, Iowa sits at #2 in the Pomeroy rankings. The team has already swept Michigan State and beat Purdue in West Lafayette by 7. Fran McCaffery's clipboard supply has never been higher.

How did this happen?

The obvious answer is offense, as the Hawkeyes sport the league's best efficiency in conference games. That offense is fueled by a minuscule turnover rate and deadly-accurate three-point shooting.

Will Iowa continue to make 43 percent of its three-pointers? Probably not. I can safely guess that Dom Uhl, in particular, will not keep up his torrid pace of 82 percent on his shots from deep. But there's more to Iowa's shooting success than making 3-pointers:

That's Iowa's shooting accuracy (yellow) and shooting distribution (black) for this season so far in conference games. The team is pretty even across the board, with at-the-rim shots slightly edging out mid-range shots. That's a good thing, even if Iowa is only making 58 percent of it's at-rim shots (which is, generally, slightly below the Division I average).

But those ratios aren't too far off from last season—effectively, 2 percent of what used to be mid-range shots for Iowa are now 3-pointers. So you have slightly better shots being taken by slightly better shooters. The easiest explanation for that is that Mike Gesell used to shoot a lot more than he does now, and the additional shots he used to take weren't all that good:

Of course, this trick only works if there's someone to pick up the slack, and that's been a combination of Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, who collectively attempt nearly two-thirds of Iowa's shots when they're on the floor (which is a lot). And Jok in particular has been excellent in converting his attempts (54.1 eFG in conference play).

(By the way, Jok has scored 77 points in 5 games while committing just 3 turnovers. Why isn't he getting more Player of the Year talk?)

If it isn't clear already, Iowa's offense has only made slight adjustments from last year's version. And that's not too surprising, considering Iowa's offense was really good last year (2nd to Wisconsin's scorched-Earth attack).

But what about defense? Last year's Hawkeyes were 8th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, this year's team is 4th. Can McCaffery's team keep that up?

There, I'm less certain. I do think that Iowa will continue to defend without fouling (this is a consistent strength for McCaffery's teams), but it's the two-point defense that bugs me. Despite a conference-leading block percentage (fueled by Uthoff's conference-leading 18 blocks), Iowa ranks just 8th in two-point defense. That's largely the result of the last two games, where Michigan and Michigan State each made over 55 percent of their 2s. Not coincidentally, Uthoff registered just 3 blocks across those games.

So what did the Spartans and Wolverines do?

Well, the Spartans didn't seem to do a lot, it was really about what Iowa did.

Here's Uthoff guarding Alvin Ellis on a possession Matt Costello scored on.

Here's Uthoff picking up Eron Harris in transition. Costello with another layup.

Here's Uthoff doing some olé defense on a Denzel Valentine layup.
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Overall, it just seemed like the gameplan was to protect Uthoff. And hey, he drew one foul, scored 15 points, and Iowa won. So it's hard to fault McCaffery for that. Of course, if they lost, the counterargument is that Uthoff had four fouls to give.

As for Michigan, it's no secret what John Beilein does—he sticks 4 guys out on the perimeter, with one big man in the paint that often comes out to set a ball screen. More times than not, that big man will be guarded by the other team's center (i.e., Adam Woodbury, though sometimes Uhl or Nicholas Baer). With Michigan's dangerous shooters, that means Uthoff has to stay at home.

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So it's been a combination of Iowa being cautious and Michigan running its stuff. The good news for Iowa is that there's just one Michigan, the bad news is that there are plenty of other teams with a capable two-point attack. The matchup with Purdue this Sunday looms large for that reason, and also because should Iowa win, it will be extremely difficult to deny the Hawkeyes at least a share of the conference title.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Curious Case of Josh Reaves

Penn State is one of the worst outside shooting teams in the country, and it's basically one person's fault.

Too much of this

Josh Reaves is shooting 9 percent on three-point attempts. That in and of itself is not such a big deal. But coupled with the fact that he's attempted 33 three-pointers to this point (halfway, assuming Penn State plays just one Big Ten Tournament game), it's rather remarkable.

There are plenty of poor outside shooters in college basketball, and many are demonstrably worse than Reaves. But what's hard to find is someone who has been as unsuccessful from deep as Reaves who continues to attempt 3-pointers at a healthy rate. Usually, poor shooters don't take a lot of outside shots. Failing that, once enough shots miss, they slow down. Failing that, the coach stops playing them so much. But Reaves is firmly in Penn State's rotation, logging an average of just under 22 minutes per game on average in PSU's first three conference games.

This tells me two things, namely that neither Josh nor head coach Pat Chambers thinks the inaccuracy is likely to continue. If it did, it would be something of at least recent historic note:

That data comes courtesy of Ken Pomeroy, and shows all of the Division I shooters since 2006 that attempted at least 49 3-pointers and converted on fewer than 20 percent of them. That big blue dot toward the bottom is where Reaves would finish if things continue as they are.

More likely, Reaves will start to see some shots fall, and he'll avoid this infamy. Or he'll stop shooting 3s and/or stop playing as much. I'm not sure which of those is best for Penn State—after all, Reaves only needs to make 15 percent of his 3s (at his current shooting pace) from here on out to avoid finishing last on the list. That's better than 9, but it's not exactly good, either.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Five Questions for Conference Play

Just a handful of meaningful games left before conference play begins on December 29th, but it seems like there's still a lot of uncertainty for this time of year. Here are the five most-pressing questions I have about Big Ten teams:

1. How will Michigan State cope without Valentine?

There are a lot of high-usage players in the Big Ten, to be sure, but no player consumes as many possessions for his team as Denzel Valentine. Not only that, but the senior also happens to be the most efficient player in the Spartans' rotation. There's no one person that can replace Valentine, perhaps in all of college basketball. Certainly there's no one else at Tom Izzo's disposal. So how will the team change?

It won't be a cakewalk over the next couple of weeks, either, as the Spartans will face a Tournament-caliber Oakland team tonight before beginning conference play. The good news is that Valentine should be back before MSU faces either Purdue or Maryland, the would-be challengers to the title, so Izzo's team still figures to be the team to beat.

2. Is Northwestern any good?

The computers haven't liked the Cats this much since the John Shurna/Drew Crawford days. But by the end of January in those seasons, the Cats were staring up at the Big Ten standings, and never reached .500 in conference play. And really, with this year's non-conference schedule (per Pomeroy, one of the 5 easiest non-conference schedules of any power conference team), that is likely a hard requirement for reaching the Dance. That's no small feat at this school—the last time a Northwestern team  went .500 in the Big Ten and also had an overall winning record was 1968.

This year's team seems like it can get there, but it's only played one team in the Pomeroy top-100 (and lost by 11). What's more, three of the cupcakes took the Wildcats to overtime (though two were true road games). On the other hand, Northwestern is uncharacteristically strong on two-point offense and two-point defense, which are difficult things to fake, even this early in the season.

3. How big of an upset will Ohio State's win over Kentucky be come March?

Sure, the Wildcats led a spirited run that brought them to within three points of the Buckeyes, but make no mistake—for much of the game OSU was running a clinic. And it would have been ugly but for what could be the best game of Jamal Murray's brief collegiate career.

Ohio State is one of the youngest teams in all of Division-I, and it's showing in the turnover rate. This is far from scientific, but it makes for a great Hot Take:

Historically (and by that, I mean as far back as Pomeroy has experience data, which is the 2006-07 season) OSU has minimized turnover problems when the experience has been 1.5 seasons (weighted for playing time). Between 1.0 and 1.5 has been a mixed bag, and 1.0 and below (this season is the upper left) have been problematic. Maybe this is a real trend, maybe not, but turnovers are clearly the weak link of this team. We saw how good the Buckeyes can be when they take care of the basketball—if they keep doing that, the Kentucky win could bolster the case for a protected seed, rather than for a spot in the play-in game.

4. Will anyone counter Purdue's skyline defense?

Purdue is the tallest (by Effective Height) team in the country that does not feature a 7-6 player in the rotation, and the two-point defense speaks to that. The Boilermakers are holding opponents to just 36.7 percent shooting inside the arc, which is bolstered by the fact that Purdue's overplay defenses generally encourages more 2s. Indeed, teams are not shooting many 3s against Purdue, nor making them (27.3 percent).

In Purdue's sole loss, Butler managed to eclipse the PPP mark not just by minimizing turnovers (which is no great feat against Purdue), but also by drawing plenty of fouls (though oddly, not against the big men). The good news for Purdue is that the only team that fits that profile in the Big Ten is Minnesota, and I don't think the Gophers are up to the task.

5. How different will Greg Gard's Badgers look? 

There's no way to sugarcoat this—it is highly unlikely Gard will be able to replace Bo Ryan. I say that as no slight to Gard, but as a compliment to Bo. Prior to Ryan, Wisconsin had 6 seasons since 1960 with an above-.500 winning percentage in the Big Ten. Bo did that in each of his 14 seasons in Madison. Mike Krzyzewski gets a lot of deserved praise for building the Duke program into the monster it is today, but even before Coach K arrived, Duke was perennially an ACC power (albeit not an annual national title contender).

Wisconsin, on the other hand, was a basement-dweller of the Big Ten. For example, between 1981 and 1988, the team finished no better than 6-12 in conference play, winning a total of 34 Big Ten games across 8 seasons. There's simply no precedent for the transformation of the program under Ryan.

Having been Bo's assistant for 23 years, it's hard to imagine that we're going to see a brand new style of play that's been repressed by Gard for over two decades. It will likely be the same 4-out, 1-in triangle set offense, and a strong rebounding defense that encourages long 2s. But just because Wisconsin will continue to try to do the same things does not mean it will achieve them as it did under Ryan. That's where Gard will have to show he's worthy of removal of the "interim" label.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bo Hasn't Checked Out Already, Has He?

After Wisconsin's second embarrassing home loss this season, it's time to start taking seriously the idea that the Badgers are not a Tournament-caliber team. I'm not there yet, but I do think something is rotten in Madison right now:

This is no way to run an offense, which is certainly not news to Bo Ryan. For one, his offenses have eschewed midrange basketball before it was cool. And lest you think he just shows up to church on Christmas and Easter, the guy's defense is built around suckering teams into taking midrange shots.

So I'm sure it pains him more than anyone else to see his own team feasting on mid-range jumpshots. It's hard to blame any one guy for a seismic shift such as this one. That said, Vitto Brown played 33 minutes last night, but that might not continue for much longer if he continues shooting like this:

The only shot he appears to be competent at converting happens to be a bad one, which might explain why he takes so many of them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Can Your Team Be Fixed?

While it's still early, it's not so early that we don't know the problem areas for each Big Ten team. The question is, can those problems be solved? Let's investigate!

Illinois—Too many mid-range shots

I admit, this is an odd diagnosis for a patient that gave up 93 points in 74 possessions to North Florida, but I figured Illinois fans wanted to hear something other than "you're doomed." The defense is not good, and that's even while brushing off opponents' three-point accuracy (38.7%) as bad luck. The team is also allowing teams to make 52.2% of their 2s, and with the only player resembling a basket protector in Mike Thorne out indefinitely, there's very little hope of this defense playing adequately. Oh, and Illinois will be relying on freshmen for a good chunk of minutes, and that's rarely a prescription for keeping opponents from scoring.

But Illinois, in theory, can do something about the shots its offense is taking.

One theory is that the state of Indiana has been dumping its mid-range shots across the border. Over the past 3 seasons, Tom Crean has avoided mid-range jumpers like the poison they are, while John Groce can't seem to get enough. To be fair, there are good offenses that fill up on mid-range jumpers (e.g., North Carolina), but as Illinois' offense hasn't been good in some time, this would be the first place I'd look for improvement.

Indiana—Stop running so much

Duke's eye-popping 1.52 PPP exposed the projections of a decent Indiana defense to be nothing more than wishcasting. And while the three-pointers got the headlines in that game, the real trouble with this defense is that it's been a virtual layup line for other teams. Per hoop-math, roughly 46 percent of IU opponent shots have been attempted at the rim, where they've been converted at a near-average rate of 55 percent. That first number ranks as 16th-worst in all of Division I. Indeed, Indiana is actually doing a pretty good job of chasing three-point shooters off the line, Blue Devil dominance notwithstanding.

Tom Crean does not have a lot of shotblocking options at his disposal, but what he has should be good enough. And very few of IU opponent shots are coming in transition.

But it's the transition in the other direction that concerns me. Indiana likes to run, and Tom Crean has made no secret of that initiative. The Hoosiers run more than any other team in the Big Ten, taking 30 percent of their shot attempts in transition. But one wonders if this team isn't taking off a little too quickly, and IU ranks toward the bottom of all teams in defensive rebounding. Perhaps sending more guards to collect rebounds offers a higher marginal return than hitting the gas.

Will that come at some cost to the offense? Probably, but Indiana has a 61.3 eFG on non-transition FGAs, so it's not like this offense has to run to be effective. I also don't think that defensive rebounding alone can cure the defense of what ails it. But with an offense this good, getting just a mediocre defense can lead to some pretty nice results.

Iowa—Figure out who can play

All things considered, Iowa has had a pretty solid start to the season. Jarrod Uthoff has become one of the most efficient high-usage players in the country, Peter Jok has progressed into an excellent scorer that can be trusted with the ball, and even Adam Woodbury has embraced who he is (a big man that can dunk, get fouled, and rebound) and discarded who he isn't (someone that can make jumpers, a passer, a shotblocker). I don't know if I'm ready to declare Iowa dance-worthy, but this looks like close to a best-case scenario.

But given Fran McCaffrey's relative preference for uptempo basketball, I'm a bit troubled by the fact that Iowa's rotation appears to be 6 players deep. In the overtime win over Florida State, all five starters played at least 33 minutes, with Dom Uhl the only other player to play at least 10 minutes. What's more, the three other guys who got in the game logged a total of 24 minutes between them, and attempted just four shots collectively.

It's too early to tell which of the other guys is good enough to break into the rotation, but Dom Uhl functioning as a one-man supporting cast probably isn't going to get the job done. It also doesn't help that Dale Jones is now lost for the season. Iowa still has a few cupcakes on the schedule before conference play begins—hopefully we can soon see who can be another asset off the bench.

Maryland—More structure, please

Maryland came into the season with lofty expectations, largely because it was hard to see a lot of holes on a team as deep as this one. That changed when Dion Wiley was lost to injury for the season. Wiley's role in the offense did not figure to be large, but he likely would have been a competent ballhandler in this offense. Now the Terrapins are down to Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon in that regard. Those are both good guards, but asking them to constantly set up the other scoring options on the team might be asking too much, at least when facing top competition. UNC disrupted the Terps by pressuring the ball, which forced entry passes to come out early, which led to Maryland's big men needing several dribbles just to get to the block.

The result has been too many turnovers for a team this talented. Mark Turgeon's motion offense allows for plenty of freedom to let players improvise. But one wonders if you want to give this much improvisation to this lineup. Jake Layman, Robert Carter, and Diamond Stone are very good basketball players, but their best work comes without an abundance of dribbling.

Mind you, this offense is good, but a team that makes 40 percent of its 3s and 64 percent of its 2s should really be better than this.

Michigan-Return all of Beilein Ball

Last year's depleted Michigan squad probably outperformed the available talent, but this year's is a true return to Beilein ball. The 3s are going in, the paint is open for easy 2s, and the turnovers have been banished.

But the defense isn't quite there. Mind you, a John Beilein defensive principles book is not going to be a bestseller, as the coach has exactly zero top-25 defenses in the tempo-free era. But they at least usually minimize freebies by taking free throws out of the equation. Not so this season, as the Wolverines rank 108th in defensive free throw rate, the worst figure on record for Beilein.

The root of the problem is easy—literally every player Michigan tries at the center position. Beilein no doubt is aware of the problem, and I'm sure is ready to hand over starter's minutes just as soon as one of his candidates can play 30 minutes without getting into foul trouble. It's a great gig if one can clear that bar—you get all the rebounds and spend most of your time on offense dunking.

Michigan State—Figure out the 4

This is nitpicking. Tom Izzo's team is doing just about everything right. They make 3s (39%) and 2s (56%). They are perimeter-oriented (37% 3PA) but still collected nearly 40% of their misses. Over 30 percent of their shots come in transition, but this is the 2nd-best defensive rebounding team in the country. Sure, the defense isn't forcing turnovers, but that's by design.

But if you squint real hard, you could see some trouble ahead. Right now, Deyonta Davis and Matt Costello are splitting time at center. Denzel Valentine and Lourawls Nairn are manning the backcourt. And it's freshman Matt McQuaid and transfer Eron Harris backing up Bryn Forbes at the 3. This leaves the 4-spot relatively up in the air. Javon Bess has been getting minutes there, he hasn't played very much or very well against MSU's best opponents thus fair. In an ideal world, Davis and Costello could both start, and you could essentially have 3 ballhandlers surrounding the two centers in Nairn, Forbes/Harris/McQuaid (you have to think Harris will snap out of his slump sooner rather than later), and Valentine. Not a lot of holes in that rotation.


Minnesota—Develop a defensive identity

I've been a frequent critic of pressing-style defenses in this space before, in large part because I've yet to see it work in a possession-obsessed Big Ten. The Gophers forced more turnovers in conference play than anyone else in the Big Ten, and the defense was nonetheless lousy (10th in efficiency).

This year, Pitino seems to have completely abandoned the pressure defense he learned under his father and implemented at FIU and Minnesota. The Gophers' defensive turnover rate has fallen off a cliff, and one cannot simply pin that on the departures of last year's senior class. Returning starters Carlos Morris and Nate Mason have each seen their steal rates more than halved. No, this has to be the result of a schematic change.

And I'm all for it, with the caveat that I'd like to see what Pitino traded all those turnovers for. This team still isn't rebounding, it still isn't defending the perimeter, and it's still fouling just as much as before.

Nebraska—Let the kids play

Nebraska is a tough team to figure out, in large part because it's played just one game against teams that are ranked lower than 20th in kenpom but higher than 323rd. Essentially, outside a neutral court win over Tennessee, Nebraska has played only really good teams or really bad ones. But it's largely blown out the bad teams and it's played two of the three good teams very close. So that's better than expected.

As has been the case under Tim Miles, Nebraska's struggles tend to be on offense. Shavon Shields and Andrew White have been excellent, but almost everyone else is either too deferential, inefficient, or both. There are notable exceptions, and they happen to be freshmen (Glynn Watson and Jack McVeigh in particular). Providing more playing time to Watson would likely come at the expense of upperclassmen Tai Webster and Benny Parker. Sure, Webster is playing some of his best basketball right now, but that's kind of the point—he still hasn't been very good. These guys have been playing starter's minutes for the past 3-4 seasons, and it has not produced stellar results on offense.

The Cornhuskers have a couple of winnable but challenging games coming up against Creighton and Rhode Island. Those are perfect opportunities to see what the kids are made of.

Northwestern—Someone help Olah

The Bill Carmody Era was defined by above-average offenses and poor defenses. Those offenses were at times great when turnovers became increasingly scarce and the team was accurate with its many three-point attempts. But for some good defensive 3-point luck in the first year under Chris Collins, the ex-Duke assistant has basically kept that going. The Wildcats shoot a ton of 3s, don't turn the ball over much, and all but ignore offensive rebounds and getting free throws. On defense, the team has a bit different identity, preferring to challenge 2s more aggressively but not getting into passing lanes as much as Carmody's teams. So, basically this coaching change has just traded one defensive battleground statistic for the other.

That said, we can't assume Collins has squeezed everything he can out of these Wildcats. I imagine he spends a fair amount of time stressing over his wing positions. The guards are entrenched in Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps, and Alex Olah might be more valuable to his team's success than any other Big Ten center. But what to do with the wings?

Defensive Reb %
Aaron Falzon
Scottie Lindsey
Nathan Taphorn
Sanjay Lumkin
The first three players are highly efficient players that account for close to an average amount of possessions, while Sanjay Lumpkin is an extremely deferential player offensively, but possibly the best rebounder and defender on the team. 

This choice isn't an easy one. While Northwestern can make the most improvement on defense and on the glass (where Olah is the only player besides Lumpkin rebounding with any regularity), any possessions ceded by a role player must go to someone else. Keep in mind, this offense is still only powered by ball control and outside shooting—there isn't a lot to fall back on. 

The Wildcats' cupcake non-conference has it sitting with a 7-1 record, but with no wins that are likely to be credited on Selection Sunday. Thus, the path to the first ever Tournament berth likely will include at least 9 conference wins. Whether they can get there could very well be decided by how much offense Collins has to trade for rebounding. 

Ohio State—Catch the ball

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's wrong with Ohio State's offense. Indeed, the Buckeyes are turning the ball over at unprecedented rates for the Matta regime.

And to these eyes, a lot of the problem stems from post players who seem incapable of catching the ball:

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Yeah, stop doing that.

Penn State—Find someone that can shoot

Sometimes an offense can look fine from a certain viewpoint, but peeking under the surface reveals issues:

This is a perfectly good shot distribution, which should indicate good things for the offense. The problem, however, is that despite this aesthetically-pleasing pie chart, the Nittany Lions rank 266th in eFG in Division I. 

Shot Type
FG Percentage
At rim
2P Jumper

The only shot Pat Chambers' team is near par is with outside shots—and that's with Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner shooting a combined 45 percent on 3s. Taylor is a career 33 percent three-point shooter, and I have my doubts that Garner's 46.7 percent figure holds up as well. The rest of the team is a combined 15/67 (22.4%). What's more troubling is the fact that 6-4 freshman Josh Reaves is the only player that's an above-average finisher at the rim (58.3%). Maybe he's the next Jae'Sean Tate, but that's probably a longshot. 

Surely Donovan Jack, Julian Moore, and Jordan Dickerson will improve their shooting percentages on close-in shots, but the fact that teams know they don't have to worry too much about PSU's perimeter game isn't going to make things in the paint any easier.

Purdue—They are what we thought they were (only way better)

In the season preview, I touted Purdue as an interior-focused team that will be starved for ballhandlers. And that's mostly been right. Purdue is holding opponents to a DI-leading 35.8 percent on two pointers, while it's been dunking its way to 76.2 percent on shots at the hoop (4th in Division I). It's rebounding on both sides of the ball, and—perhaps most impressively—the team is fouling at very low rates despite giving lots of minutes to AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Caleb Swanigan.

Offensive turnovers are the clear weak link of this team, however, and Johnny Hill's high turnover rate suggests that he's not the long-term answer at point guard. However, Vince Edwards has looked very capable in that role, and Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias, and freshman Ryan Cline have provided enough ballhandling to keep the rate at non-horrific levels.

The good news for the Boilers is that they play in the Big Ten, where Shaka Smart does not coach. Nonetheless, I do think we'll see Hill's minutes steadily decline in step with his two-point percentage, which is currently at an unsustainable 77 percent.

Rutgers—Just like Penn State, only Rutgersier

Rutgers is not a good team, and strangely has played a number of non-conference games against probable RPI top-100 opponents (with two more on the way). So that explains why this team might have 7 non-conference losses before opening up Big Ten play against Indiana. But it's not all bad—pop quiz: who attempts more of its shots at the rim than any other Big Ten team?

Well, since this is the Rutgers section, you probably know the answer. And it's not like the Scarlet Knights can't put the ball in the hoop when they take those shots, as they're converting them at an average 55 percent clip. But the team is making just a third of its two-point jumpers, and even while being super selective with its 3s (just 23.5% of all FGAs), it still can't manage to make shots outside 20 feet with any frequency (28.3%).

I'm really at a loss for this one, as there really isn't anyone jumping off the roster as a candidate for in-season improvement. The rebuild is in its 10th season, with no end in sight.

Wisconsin—Fix Nigel

The Badgers seem to have stabilized after a terrible loss at home to Western Illinois to open the season. The drubbing in Norman doesn't look so bad after the Sooners bulldozed Villanova.

But this team is still doing some very un-Bo Ryan things, and chief among them is defensive rebounding. Frank Kaminsky was an outstanding defensive rebounder and Sam Dekker was a capable one for a wing, but Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown have done a great job replacing those two in that respect. However, Nigel Hayes' defensive rebounding has fallen off significantly this season.

But that's not all. His two and three-point shooting has also fallen significantly, with roughly the same shot distribution. Indeed, it's the jumpshooting that's off: 

Last year: 
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This year: 
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This year's release point is clearly lower, and the results have not been pretty:

Nigel, if it ain't broke...


So there, if I haven't fixed your team, I've at least told you what's wrong with it. That's something, right? 

Also, hopefully I'll be posting a bit more frequently in this space, and I may even make good on the blog's plural promise. Stay tuned. 

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.