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.

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.