Monday, October 27, 2008

Big Ten Geeks will run a lot this year: a followup

KJ over at Spartans Weblog has a response to my earlier post on the uptempo promises that one hears in the fall, and my further assertion that Tom Izzo probably shouldn't be playing 10 or 11 guys with any regularity:
  • The pace numbers for the early Final Four teams may be somewhat understated due to the rock solid brand of man-to-man defense those teams played, which would have forced opponents to use more time to create good shots. (We need a time-of-possession stat to control for this.)
  • There’s a pretty clear correlation between Izzo’s ability to play more guys regularly and MSU’s conference and postseason success.
  • Playing a deeper rotation may have more benefits on defense and the boards than it does on offense. Players are always going to go all-out when a fast break opportunity presents itself. They may not exert maximum effort on every loose ball or rebounding opportunity if they’re playing 35 minutes/game rather than 25 minutes/game.
  • A 10-man playing rotation is feasible for MSU without sacrificing the amount talent on the floor if the freshmen are all ready to contribute at least 10 minutes per game, which initial indications would say they are: (1) Lucas, (2) Allen, (3) Summers, (4) Morgan, (5) Suton, (6) Walton, (7) Lucious, (8) Green, (9) Roe, (10) Gray–and maybe Dahlman
Let's take a look at each of these one by one, because KJ raises some good points:

Pace is artificially deflated because of solid defense: Undoubtedly, there is some truth to this, but unfortunately, it's hard to say how much. That would be an interesting topic for someone to tackle. But this inexactness does not cut against kj's point. What does, however, is that this is true for every above-average defensive team, and there are a heck of a lot of those (nearly half of all D-1 programs!). Now we could give the Spartans a small "bump" for their excellent defense, but then that recalculated pace means nothing unless we give a similar bump (of varying degrees, based on defensive capability) to every other above average defensive team. I fear the end result of this exercise would still rate the Spartans as an average to slightly below average in terms of pace.

Izzo's Depth: KJ's earlier analysis on "Izzo depth" is solid, but it doesn't really speak to the usage of the 10th or 11th man. Here are the Min% of the 10th most-used players on Izzo-coached MSU teams:

Min Percentage

I have to admit - I'm a little surprised here - I really didn't expect to see anyone in the 20's (to give a reference - Delco Rowley's 20.5 Min% was achieved through a 9.5 MPG average over 29 out of 33 games played in). And yes, both of those seasons did occur in Final Four campaigns. But there other than those two, I don't see a pattern here. Here's the 10th Man Min% charted against offensive efficiency.

Clearly, those two upper-right numbers, which represent the 2nd and 3rd most offensively-efficient Izzo teams, support the 10/11 man rotation thesis. But the rest of the graph? Not really. In fact, other than the three most efficient MSU teams, the rest of the graph appears to be downward-sloping.

Moreover, halfway through this exercise, I got to thinking - would a highly efficient MSU team with lots of minutes for the 10th man prove that Izzo teams thrive on depth, or would it prove that depth thrives on highly efficient Izzo teams? Most coaches don't run up the score, and it stands to reason that there's more mop-up duty when the team is blowing out opponents. I don't know how we go about this, but just something to think about.

Depth is Really About Defense:

Ok, how does the defensive chart look?
If Izzo's teams played better defense if the 10th man got more minutes, we'd see a clear downward trend. Well, aside from the out outlier (geez, that 99-00 team was good), I see an upward trend, if any.

MSU's Rotation looks fine on paper: I agree that there are 10, maybe 11 guys, that MSU could play each at least 10 MPG, and this would be a pretty capable team. I just disagree that's the optimum strategy here. Some guys are better than others, even if everyone is better than most. In college basketball, upperclassmen tend to outperform their younger counterparts. MSU will feature three freshmen this season - one of which promises to be a game-changer (ranked #10 RSCI). The other two bring a more modest ranking (87 and 95). I don't know how these guys will perform, but I think it's unlikely that both will see significant minutes, and it's more than a remote possibility that neither will. Of course, not seeing much of the floor on a team that looks primed to go on a Final Four run is nothing to be ashamed about.

KJ's research does bring out one conclusion that's heightened my curiosity about other teams - heavy reliance on one or two players. I suppose like all things, it depends on the player, but it would nonetheless be interesting to see if those teams suffered or prospered, on average. Izzo's teams are clearly more successful if they're more "teams" and less "guys who pass the ball to Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager," but it will be interesting to see where everyone else stacks up.

Another hypothesis that's been forwarded is that MSU wants to run, but the slow Big 10 is holding them back. I actually agree with this, but I disagree that it makes a big difference. After all, MSU is just barely in the upper-half of the Big 10 in terms of pace. Thus, on average, they're being slowed down, but not by all that much. But is MSU nonetheless playing a different style of ball in the non-conference season?

The blue line represents a 5th-order polynomial regression (which fit the data best). Did MSU change-up their style of play in the conference season? Undoubtedly, the conference slate was slower than non-conference play. The three slowest games of MSU's season were conference games. But I think it depends on the narrative you want to tell. Did MSU slow down for the conference? Or had things already slowed down by that time? Was the slowness a reaction to the opposition, or was it merely the fading of the uptempo agenda? I can't answer that question at this point, but at least there's some plausible data here no matter what story you want to believe.


Anonymous said...

I think depth does help MSU win, but it would help any team win. Having a bunch of good players is always preferable to having only one or two good players.

As for pace, I can't figure that one out. I don't know if Izzo likes teams to think he wants to run when he doesn't, or whether he wants to run but hasn't figured out a way to impose his will on the other team a la North Carolina. They WILL run whether you want them to or not.

With MSU, as evidenced by their final four showdown with NC a couple years back (not to mention the national championship game with Florida), they are perfectly happy to run if the other team wants to. However, they do so inconsistently, and if the other team is run averse, MSU usually plays at their pace rather than forcing the tempo. I guess I just can't figure out why Tom Izzo professes an intention to run year after year without seeing it actually happen on a consistent basis.

kj (spartans weblog) said...

Yikes! More data. A couple comments on the graphs:

1) I see a downward trend in the second graph: All four teams whose 10th guy was playing at least 15% of the team's minutes had defensive efficiency numbers of 96 or better.

2) On the third graph, I think you have to chalk the decline in pace going into conference season up to MSU's opposition, rather than MSU itself. They were running on all cylinders in their final major nonconference tune-up vs. Texas (68 possessions - lowered some by forcing Texas to work on offense, as I recall).

Also, the mop-up thing may make some difference, but I think the effect is fairly small. There aren't many games where the scrubs get in for more than about 2 minutes, even on a dominant team.

Anyway, thanks for pulling more data. Makes for more interesting conversation.