Friday, October 31, 2008

Exhibition Preview - Florida Southern Mocassins

Tonight, we'll get to see our first Big Ten basketball of the season, albeit in exhibition form. The Florida Southern Mocassins travel to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers. The game begins at 8pm Central time and will be broadcast online by the Big Ten Network.

Florida Southern returns four starters from a team that went 24-9 and won the Sunshine State Conference. They've been picked for the Division II preseason top 10 in two seperate publications, so are probably one of the better opponents on the Big Ten's exhibition schedule.

As you'd expect from a Division II opponent, they have very little size, with one very big exception - 7'0'', 280 lb. Georgia transfer Rashaad Singleton. Singleton played two and a half seasons for the Bulldogs before deciding to transfer midyear in search of more playing time. While at Georgia, Singleton showed excellent shotblocking ability and solid rebounding, but was awful offensively. He'll at least give Florida Southern somebody to make the lane a bit less hospitable.

The Mocs' leading returning scorer is 6'2'' senior Rob Eldridge, who is also a D1 transfer (one season at Wright State). He and the next three returning scorers all shot over 37% from downtown last year - 6'1'' soph Rion Rayfield, 6'2'' soph Brandon Jenkins, and 6'4'' senior Braxton Williams. The starter at PF figures to be 6'5'', 210 lb. senior Zach Smith, who led the team with 7.2 rebounds per game.

Honestly, Florida Southern sounds a lot better than I thought they would, and Singleton might provide enough defense in the lane to keep a hot-shooting Mocs squad close. This is a team that's capable of pulling a Grand Valley State if Purdue and/or Illinois (who the Mocs face on Sunday) don't show up to play. I doubt either game will be close, but you never know.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Non-Conference Preview: Illinois

Believe it or not, but we start playing basketball in a couple of weeks. Not just exhibition games, but real stuff! In an effort to get you prepared for the season, we're going to take a look at each team's non-conference schedule slate. Like the team previews, we're going alphabetically. First up - Illinois.

Eastern Washington
Overview: The Eagles hail from the Big Sky conference, are coming off a 9-19 season, and will probably take a step back from that. Sure, the Eagles return 70.7% of the minutes from last season, but most of the missing minutes were tied up in their best player, Kellen Williams. Williams was one of two players on the team with an ORtg above 100.
What to look for: Bad offense. The Eagles really struggle with putting the ball in the basket, as they carried a 46.9 eFG last season.
Who to watch: 5-11 PG Adris DeLeon is quite the chucker. While on the court last season, he attempted 31% of EWU's shots. Of course, he only converted 32% of his 3s, and 40.9% of his twos. Still, he needs to play, because he's the only thing resembling a PG on this team.
Expect the unexpected: The Eagles were a terrible shooting team last season, sure, but they did convert 72% of their free throws. Maybe their struggles do not stem from a talent deficiency, but rather poor shot selection.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 85%

Texas A&M University at Corpus-Christi
Overview: TAMUCC comes off a 9-20 season, and like all early season cupcakes, figure to be the underdog in this matchup. However, TAMUCC returns 79.1% of their minutes from last season, and could make this game a lot closer than one might expect.
What to look for: Tenacious offensive rebounding. Although TAMUCC loses 7-0, 265 lbs. behemoth Chris Daniels, Daniels was shooting too much to be a dominant offensive rebounder. Freshmen Demond Watt and Justin Reynolds owned the offensive glass last season, and figure to be improved as sophomores. This is where Illinois' thin front line could really hurt. Also, the Islanders were not afraid to use their bench - 10 players had at least a 25% Min%.
Who to watch: A trio of sophomores - the aforementioned Watt and Reynolds, plus Ken Perkins. Outside of Daniels, those were Islanders' best players last season. This could really be a surprise team in the Southland conference.
Expect the unexpected: It's hard to believe the 10th tallest team in the country last season also had one of the worst defenses in basketball, but that's what happens when you give your opponent 45 FTAs for every 100 FGAs. That figures to improve this season, and opponents would be wise not to beat the Islanders on the inside. At 6-4, Shannon Shorter's name is all-too-perfect on a team that consistently features two seven-footers.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%

at Vanderbilt
Overview: The Commodores come off a 26-7 season and bring back one of last season's top freshmen in A.J. Ogilvy. That said, I see Vandy taking a big step back this season. They bring back only 42% of the minutes from last season, and the numbers behind those numbers don't look encouraging. The highest returning Shot% on the team, outside Ogilvy, belongs to George Drake, at 23.0. Of course, Drake converted an eFG of 32.2 (!). After him, the honors belong to Andre Walker, at 14.3.
What to look for: AJ, AJ, and more AJ. Frankly, any possession that does not go through the big fella is a bad one. As for style, the Commodores are a POT, so the lack of a dominating interior presence shouldn't hurt the Illini here (other than, you know, containing Ogilvy).
Who to watch: Besides Ogilvy, of course, the Commodores bring in a decent recruiting class. I expect to see them play early, but none are ranked highly enough that it's a sure thing that they'll be instant impact performers.
Expect the unexpected: If this team is going anywhere, Jermaine Beal needs to score more. He's a reluctant shooter (13.8 Shot%), and his 3P shooting is not pretty (31.3%). However, his FT shooting (75.7%) indicates he might have some ability there. Whether or not this team reaches a postseason tournament might depend upon whether Beal can put points on the board.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 51%

Jackson State
Overview: Jackson State featured some bad basketball last season. Their record was 14-20, and that probably included some lucky breaks. Nationally, this team was 317th in offensive efficiency, and 306th in defensive efficiency. But at least they were fun to watch! - the Tigers routinely average over 70 possessions a game, and next year should be no different.
What to look for: JSU likes to keep things inside the arc. While this team doesn't shoot very well from the perimeter (31.8%), they also have a severe turnover problem (22.0%). But they force turnovers at a pretty blistering rate as well (22.0%).
Who to watch: Senior Darrion Griffin will shoulder the load for this team. He shot well from 2 point range (51.2%), and 3 point range (40.3%), and got to the line like he was Eric Gordon (64.8 FT Rate). Imagine how good he could be if he made more of his free throws (68.4%). Junior Grant Maxey might also give the Illini trouble inside.
Expect the unexpected: Anyone have a guess as to why Edwin Jarrow saw 14.8 minutes per game last season? Despite only taking 6.1% of the available shots (!), Jarrow shot only 28.1% from two point range (!!) and 16.7% from three point range (!!!). Furthermore, despite the fact that he was not creating for his teammates, as evidenced by the 6.6 Assist Rate (!!!!), he was an auto-turnover with a TO Rate of 30.3 (!!!!!!!). And even though he was 6-6, he was the worst defensive rebounder of any regular (8.4 DReb%). And before you ask, the answer is yes, he's always been this bad. Compromising photographs? Insanely good joke-teller? Part-time hypnotist? Whatever the case, he's moved on, but a coach crazy enough to give Jarrow 15 minutes a game cannot be game-planned.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 90%

at Kent (South Padre Invitational)
Overview: Jim Christian quietly built one of the best mid-major programs in the country. The Golden Flashes went 28-6 last season, which included an NCAA appearance (and first round exit). KSU is probably looking for some "in between" competition - the MAC competition does not prepare them for the NCAA games in March, and getting blown out by UNC and Xavier (which happened last year) isn't that helpful either. So Illinois, which figures to be around a top 75 team, is a good fit.
What to look for: The Flashes return 69.3% of the minutes from last year, so we can probably expect they'll be about as good this season. As for style, in a lot of ways, this team is like a poor man's Michigan State. They average around 66 possessions, shoot and rebound very well on offense, rarely attempt three pointers, and they have a bit of a turnover problem. They don't look anything like MSU on defense, but the offensive similarity is there.
Who to watch: Al Fisher will take close to 30% of the team's shots, and with any luck, he'll be better at converting them than he was last season (45.1 eFG). His FT% (83.3%) is a positive indicator. This season also offers our last look at Julian Sullinger, middle brother of former and future Buckeyes J.J. and Jared.
Expect the unexpected: What's strange about the 07-08 season for the Golden Flashes is how lousy their defensive rebounding was (256th in the country). This is usually a strength under Coach Christian. In 05-06 for instance, KSU was 2nd in the nation on the defensive glass. If new head coach Geno Ford rights the rebounding ship, the Illini's thin front line could be in trouble.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 50%

Clemson
Overview: Clemson was 23-9 last season, but man, that was a good 23-9. Consider that they were the 29th most efficient offense, and the 12th most efficient defense, and if you add it all up, it's the 13th best team in the country according to Pythagoras. So that 1st round loss to Villanova is a deceiving one, and it's probably what's kept Clemson out of most preseason polls. But a top 15 team that returns 65.9% of the minutes from a season ago is a formidable opponent. Clemson is dangerous, underrated, and probably every bit as good as they were last year, when they beat Duke, Purdue, and took UNC to three overtimes in three games.
What to look for: We'll find out exactly how good Illinois' backcourt is in this game. Clemson routinely forces opponents into turnovers about 25% of the time. Last year was no different, (24.3%), but there was also the added bonus of holding opponents to 30.4% three point shooting - and that's when there was a shot enticing enough to take, which wasn't often (Clemson opponents dedicated only 28.6% of their FGAs to threes).
Who to watch: On offense, the man is KC Rivers. He's a 6-5 guard who hits 40% of his three pointers, and never turns it over (9.9% TO Rate). On defense, it's Trevor Booker, who has put up Block% of 8.7 and 6.9 since he arrived on campus, and now has a 20+ DReb% as well. I'm not sure which player is more impressive.
Expect the unexpected: Terrence Oglesby looks like a player. He was only a freshman last season, but he took an impressive 28.8% of the shots while on the floor in significant time, and put up an eFG of 53.2, which was fueled by 40.3% on his three pointers. His 85% FT Rate suggests it was no fluke. He could be the best player on this time by the end of the season.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 30%

Georgia (at the United Center)
Overview: Georgia's sort of been a doormat of the SEC for a while now, and I'm not sure anything will change this season, even after their unlikely run in the SEC Tournament. The Bulldogs return 53.6% of the minutes from a team that wasn't exactly dominant last year. Expect little progress from that.
What to look for: While Illinois should still be the favorite, this will be a good test for them because Georgia routinely has excellent offensive rebounding. The Illini big men will be challenged.
Who to watch: This section would look a lot different if Billy Humphrey could stay out of trouble. He didn't, so now Georgia is without its top 4 minutes-grabbers from last season. None of the returning players appear to be locks for a breakout, so I'll go with #24 RSCI PF Howard Thompkins.
Expect the unexpected: Georgia could take a bigger step back than people might otherwise expect. Their FT defense was among the best in the country last season (64.8%).
Chance of an Illinois victory: 70%

Hawaii
Overview: This is the return game from a fairly entertaining 2 point contest in Honolulu last season. That said, the Warriors were a mere 11-19 last season, and they lose 7 seniors from last year's team. They're rebuilding.
What to look for: Last season was Bob Nash's first at Hawaii, so it's hard to get a read on what he's looking to do out there. Nash's defense forced a lot of TOs last season, and didn't take a lot of three pointers.
Who to watch: I'll go with the returnee that played the most minutes last year, Bill Amis. The 6-9 C was gifted at putting the ball in the hoop (56.3 eFG), but now he's going to have to do it on a much larger shot diet (19.6% last year).
Expect the unexpected: Interestingly enough, Hawaii's opponents also kept things inside the perimeter, despite the fact that the Warriors were the 12th tallest team in the country last year.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 85%

Chicago State
Overview: The Cougars haven't finished with more than 12 wins since, well, I don't know. Statsheet only goes back to the 1989-90 season. Although I don't expect Chicago State to be good this season, they have a reasonable shot of ending that streak this year.
What to look for: Head Coach Benjy Taylor ran quite a bit in his first season at the helm. The Cougars averaged 73 possessions a game, good for 15th in the nation. Again, fast basketball is not necessarily good basketball.
Who to watch: Senior David Holston and Junior John Cantrell combined to take over 60% of the shots while they were on the floor. And what's more, they were highly efficient. Cantrell shot over 40% on his 3s, and put up Jamar Butler-esque assist and turnover rates (34.3/19.8). Cantrell's a tougher nut to crack - despite the fact that he stands at only 6-2, he rarely took 3s (and didn't convert them when he did - 29.4%), but shot over 55% on over 300 two-point attempts. It's not unreasonable to suspect that he would struggle to keep up that shooting against BCS opponents that feature tall shotblockers.
Expect the unexpected: While Holston and Cantrell should improve the offense, the defense might be in trouble. Chicago State was the 3rd shortest team in the country last season (the team featured 3 players in the rotation under six feet), and with an outgoing 7-0 senior, that situation doesn't figure to change much.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 95%

Detroit
Overview: Detroit is the beneficiary of the Kelvin Sampson fallout, as former assistant Ray McCallum is now the head coach for the Titans. While this is likely just a stepping stone to bigger and better things, it's likely McCallum will advance the program in his tenure. Already, the Titans have scored one big catch (hide the flower pots).
What to look for: McCallum used to be the head coach at Ball State, from 1993 to 2000, so we can get a sense of his coaching style by looking at those teams...if there was a pattern to be seen. But there's not. Some years they were fast, sometimes slow, sometimes they forced TOs, sometimes they rebounded well, sometimes they made their 3s, etc. If McCallum had a style, I'm not seeing it.
Who to watch: The team will revolve around senior Chris Hayes, but this team will struggle to replace sharpshooter Jon Goode, who coverted 33% of the available shots with ruthless efficiency.
Expect the unexpected: Keep an eye on 7-3 former super-recruit (and former Kansas State Wildcat) Jason Bennett. Open looks in the middle will be tough to come by.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%

at Missouri (in St. Louis)
Overview: Missouri fans will likely wonder "what if?" this season. Although they were only 16-16 last year, they were more like a 20-win team according to their efficiency. And they were set to bring back three efficient seniors in Matt Lawrence, DeMarre Carroll, and Leo Lyons. Well, that all happened, but they also lost Keon Lawrence, who transferred to Seton Hall. Lawrence was no superstar, but he played more than anyone, and his replacement will likely be a downgrade. As it stands, Missouri was a good team last year, but one that only returns 49.6% of those minutes.
What to look for: This one is easy. Missouri thrives off of forcing turnovers, and likes to run. They're like the Tennessee of the Big 12.
Who to watch: Those three seniors will still lead this team, only with less of a supporting cast. Lyons and Carroll each have a shot at earning postseason All Big 12 honors. Although they're about the same height, Lawrence is the perimeter player, and Carroll battles on the inside.
Expect the unexpected: Stefhon Hannah had a troubled final season in Columbia, and as a result, the Tigers played without a true PG for much of the year. Someone's going to need to handle the ball, but there are no obvious candidates. If nobody steps up, Mizzou's sparkling 17.7 TO% is in jeopardy.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 60%

Eastern Michigan
Overview: The Eagles were 14-17 last season, but they weren't your typical mid-major pushover. If Coach Ramsey wanted, he probably could have had this team in the NIT. Instead, they lost games against Notre Dame, Temple, and Rhode Island. This season, the Eagles are touring the Big Ten, with games at Purdue, Michigan, and Illinois.
What to look for: Status quo. The Eagles lost enough minutes (they return 56.2% of the minutes from last year) that we shouldn't expect improvement, just more of the same. While there was a hiccup in 06-07, Coach Ramsey's teams generally do an excellent job at getting to the free throw line. In 04-05, they led the nation in this category. It's a good thing Brian Randle has graduated.
Who to watch: Carlos Medlock is the undisputed leader of the team. The 6-0 PG has a bit of a turnover problem (24.1% TO Rate), but makes up for it with his scoring ability. As you probably wouldn't expect, Medlock especially excels at getting to the FT line (54.7 FT Rate). We don't normally think of six foot point guards as players that draw fouls - especially those that attempt more three pointers (186) than two pointers (136).
Expect the unexpected: Eastern Michigan is a little bizzaro. They were 39th in the country in FT Rate, yet they attempted threes on 45.3% of their FGAs. Furthermore, FT Rate, for offense, is the number of made free throws per 100 FGAs. Thus, if we plug in the free throw percentage (72.9), we find that EMU averaged 40.3 FTAs per 100 FGAs. Now, it's probably safe to assume that very few of their FTAs came off three point attempts - it happens, but not often - so if we make that assumption, we find that EMU sees 73.8 FTAs per 100 two point attempts (somebody check my math here)! For reference, D.J. White averaged 83.7 last season. That said, this was likely a fluke - EMU has never pulled off a similar feat in any of the four seasons prior.
Chance of an Illinois victory: 75%

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Five Year Trends - Illinois

Now that we've examined the Big Ten as a whole for offensive and defensive trends, we'll start going team-by-team. First up, Illinois. Coincidentally, this five year period covers the entirety of Bruce Weber's career in Champaign. As always, the most important trend is the overall team quality, measured by national Pomeroy rank:


Illinois had great success in Weber's first three seasons, including the run to the National Title game in 2005. The team has seen a drop-off since, but still has yet to finish outside of Pomeroy's top 40 under Weber. This season may very well be a test of that run.

Here's the efficiency components that go into the Pomeroy rating (offense in blue, defense in pink):

Clearly, Illinois' drop-off has come primarily on the offensive end as the defense has remained solid. The 2007 Illini managed to win ugly with one of the nation's best defenses. 2008 saw a marginally improved offense, but Illinois couldn't maintain that outstanding defense (not to mention their awful "Luck," which we'll examine in a later post). I do feel that this year's squad will be better offensively, but the defense (especially defensive rebounding) doesn't look to be as solid as in years past.

One of the major components of offensive efficiency is making shots, measured by eFG%:


Illinois has been remarkably consistent at forcing opponents to miss. On the other side, the shooting in Champaign has been headed steeply downhill ever since that great 2005 squad. I do expect the shooting to improve this season, but how much will be a big determinant of whether Illinois manages to be a bubble NCAA team or not.

Another increasing problem for the Illinois offense has been turnovers:

Illinois crossed the threshold last season of committing more turnovers than they forced - a dangerous place to be. Again, I expect offensive improvement in this area - a sophomore Demetri McCamey should be much better at PG than last year's combination of Chester Frazier and a freshman McCamey. Just keeping the ball out of Frazier's hands should help immensely in this regard.

As far as forcing turnovers, I'm not sure how to explain the big drop-off from 2007 to 2008; neither Warren Carter nor Rich McBride were seen as guys that would force a lot of turnovers, although both were solid defenders. It could be that the influx of newcomers forced Weber to focus more on position defense and less on pressure defense.

Next, a consistent strength at Illinois, rebounding:

This is a chart that could look very different after the 2008-09 season. As discussed in our Illinois preview, rebounding might be the main concern for Weber's team this year, and will likely make the difference between a good season and a mediocre one.



As we'll see in the next graph, this is a bit misleading. Remember, when we talk about an offensive FTR, we generally mean free throws made per 100 field goals attempted. Illinois was actually getting to the line more as of late, but simply was not taking advantage.

There's perhaps no better graph that illustrates the frustrations in Champaign than this one. Two point and three point shooting is partially dependent upon teammates setting up open looks, or defense leading to easy buckets, etc. But this one is all about skill. It's just a shooter and 13 feet, and Illinois has not had very good shooters in recent years.


No surprise here. As worse shooters replace better ones in Champaign, shooting is going to suffer all over the place. With the return of McCamey and Trent Meacham, as well as the injection of Alex Legion, this figures to improve.



More of the same - the Illini defense has held steady, and even improved in recent years. But the offense has really suffered.


Don't let the spike fool you - Illinois has not been a great shot-blocking team in the past five seasons. Even in 06-07, this team ranked a mere 144th in the nation. However, the Block% numbers of Illinois' returning big men give them hope this might improve:

Player
Block Pct
Mike Tisdale
5.0
Mike Davis
4.8
Bill Cole
9.0


Like blocks, this is another area where Illinois does not generally excel. However, notice that the superior guard play in 04-05 led to an uptick in steals, as well as a decline in opponent steals.



Illinois has generally been a POT (perimeter oriented team) under Bruce Weber, but that tendency fell off last season to a more average distribution. Given the Illini's shooting woes, that was a good move.


Although this stat is of limited value for judging team quality, it is descriptive of style. Weber's teams share the sugar quite a bit, none more than the stellar 04-05 team.

So, overall, the Illini have shown great consistency in rebounding and defense over the past 5 seasons. Their overall team success has been determined by the quality of the offense, which has been pretty bad as of late. It will be interesting to see if Bruce Weber can put an improved offense on the floor this season without damaging the sacred cows of defense and rebounding. If nothing else, the Illini should be a more entertaining team this year, if not a better one.

Next up, the team whose five year trends have basically no relevance to the upcoming season - Indiana.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Big Ten Five Year Trends - Defense

Today, we'll take a look at the past five seasons on the defensive side of the ball. As before, the numbers are for the entire season, including nonconference games.

First, the most important number - Adjusted Defensive Efficiency:

Again, each blue dot represents a Big Ten team, and the pink dot is the average of all teams for that season. Remember that, for Defensive Efficiency, a lower number means better defense. That incredibly low dot in 2008 is Wisconsin - the Badgers had the second best defense in the nation last year, behind only the National Champion Kansas Jayhawks (they've earned all that capitalization). In fact, the Big Ten has placed a defense in the top 3 nationally each of the past three seasons (Iowa in 2006, Illinois in 2007).

At the other end of the spectrum, Northwestern in 2008 sported the worst Big Ten defense of this timeframe. As for all those other dots above 100, they belong almost exclusively to Penn State, save for an awful 2004 Ohio State defense. If Penn State is to become anything more than mediocre, their consistently bad defense will have to improve.

Now, Effective FG% Allowed:



The trend here is basically identical to Defensive Efficiency, which makes sense - if you keep your opponents from making shots, you're keeping them from scoring, unless your rebounding is absolutely terrible. The serious outlier here (way up there in the stratosphere) is that 2008 Northwestern squad. We've pegged Northwestern for improvement this season, but they've first got to force their opponents to miss on occasion.

So, if you're forcing opponents to miss, the next step is to prevent them from getting an offensive rebound:



A lower number means better defensive rebounding. The best defensive rebounding team of the era - by a fairly large margin - was Wisconsin in 2005, led by Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley.

Northwestern owns the three worst seasons of the timeframe, in 2004, 2007, and 2008. So not only is Northwestern allowing opponents to shoot at extremely high percentages, they're also letting those rare misses turn into offensive rebounds. Of course, a shot made available by an offensive rebound is often a high percentage look (a putback or dunk), so maybe Northwestern's eFG% problems are just a sympton of their serious rebounding problem. This season brings some bigger bodies to Evanston, so we may see marked improvement in both areas.

Instead of forcing a miss and rebounding it, there's another path to a successful defensive possession - force a TO:

The conference has remained fairly steady in this regard, although three teams really seperated themselves from the pack in 2008 - Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern (the latter two teams had the exact same value, so they appear as one dot in the chart). It's not surprising to see Purdue and Minnesota at the top - they both thrive on pressure defense - but Northwestern is a bit of a shock. This ability to force turnovers may mean that a decent Northwestern defense is just a few rebounds away.

Now, a look at how often Big Ten teams are putting opponents at the foul line:
I don't see a lot of trends here, but it's interesting to note those three dots across the very bottom -of course, that's Wisconsin and the amazing no-foul defense. Except it's not - it's actually Ohio State! Each of the past three seasons, the Buckeyes have finished either 1st or 2nd in the nation at preventing FT attempts. Penn State also surprises here - they were in the top 10 nationally in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The only top 10 finish for Wisconsin occurred in 2008, when they finished 8th.

It certainly seems like the Big Ten has more no-foul teams than you'd expect, especially given the physical reputation of the conference. This is another idea that might demand further investigation.

Next, let's break down the eFG% into its components:
The outliers in 2008 were Michigan and Northwestern. It's really difficult to keep your opponent's eFG% low when you're allowing them to shoot over 38% from downtown. Both teams ranked near the worst in the country - only 24 Division I teams allowed opponents to shoot a higher 3-point percentage than Northwestern, and only one of those teams was from a BCS conference - DePaul. What is it about the windy city that gets visiting teams "heating up" like a rogue programmer in NBA Jam?
There's actually something of a downward trend here. Those dominant teams on the bottom are Iowa (2006), Michigan State (2007), and Wisconsin (2008). That incredibly awful dot in 2008 is - you guessed it - Northwestern. They were the worst BCS-conference team in the nation last year, and were pretty close to being the worst team, period. As I said before, I imagine that their awful defensive rebounding is contributing to this insanely high 2-point FG% - opponents generally convert dunks and putbacks.
A good way to limit your opponent's 2-point FG% is to just get that #$%^ outta here:


The conference has had an uptick of blocked shots the past two seasons - Michigan and Ohio State have led the charge, with 2007 Michigan State chipping in as well. The best shotblockers of the past two seasons are all gone - Greg Oden, Ekpe Udoh, Drew Naymick, Kurt Looby, Kosta Koufos, D.J. White, Othello Hunter... the list goes on and on. It appears that the lane will be a much more hospitable place for offensive players in 2008-09 than it has been for awhile.

Finally, here's that wonderful subset of turnovers, the Steal:



As with turnovers in general, the best steal defenses of 2008 were Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern. In fact, those three teams own the 10 best Steal seasons of this timeframe. The overall trend is fairly flat.

Next up, we'll start going team-by-team to look closer at their individual trends.

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:

Player
Min Percentage
Ibok
9.7
Ducre
7.9
Ibok
5.6
Rowley
20.5
Trannon
9.5
Johnson
10.3
Ishbia
3.2
Wolfe
10.4
Ballinger
24.3
Smith
2.7
Davis
16.5
Thomas
16.6

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.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Big Ten Five Year Trends - Offense

Sometimes, the best way to know where you're headed is to look at where you've been. In a series of posts, starting today, we'll look at statistical 5-year trends - first for the conference as a whole, then for each individual team. Today, we'll look at the offensive numbers for the conference as a whole.

For all of these charts, the numbers are for the entire season, including non-conference games. I felt that this larger sample size could give us a better idea of the nature of each team. Just looking at conference games would give us a great idea of how the teams relate to each other, but would tell us very little about their standing nationally.

First, Adjusted Offensive Efficiency:


Each blue dot represents a Big Ten team; the pink dot is the average of all teams for that season. On the whole, the Big Ten has been slightly better offensively the last two seasons than the three seasons before. We can see some outliers - in 2004 and 2005, Illinois and Michigan State were dominant offenses, well above the rest of the conference. Ohio State in 2007 (of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, et al) was the other dominant offense of the past 5 years and posted the best efficiency over that timeframe.

On the negative side, we see a truly awful 2004 Penn State squad. No other team even came close to that level of offensive futility.

Now, Effective FG%:



It's interesting to see the way the teams are converging over the past 5 years. Almost every team was within that 48-53% range in 2008, except for those pesky Wolverines. With Michigan expected to improve in this area, it will be interesting to see if the bunching continues, although I could see the depleted Hoosiers being the ones to spoil the party in 2009.

Next is Turnover%:



Again, 2008 showed a lot of parity in this area, except for one awful outlier. In this case, that offender was Iowa. As a coach that emphasizes taking care of the ball, Todd Lickliter must have been tearing his hair out. I expect Iowa to improve in this area in 2009, partly because they can't get much worse, and partly because Lickliter has the track record for it.

It's somewhat amazing to me how consistent the conference average has remained over the past 5 years. It will be interesting to see if the average begins to dip as low-TO coaches Lickliter and Beilein build their programs.

Here's Offensive Rebounding:

This is an area where the conference has shown marked improvement over the past two seasons, and it hasn't really been driven by one dominant team. One thing to note - all those dots across the bottom belong to Northwestern, which has finished worst in this area each of the last 5 years. The only teams that have crossed the 38% threshold are Michigan State (2005, 2007, 2008) and, surprisingly, Michigan (2007). Note that three of those four instances occured in the past two seasons.

Next is Free Throw Rate - a measure of a team's ability to get to the foul line:


This number has been all over the place, but the conference average is trending downward. I have a feeling this is related to the increased proportion of 3-point shots taken:

Looks like a pretty nice correlation between the two averages - notice how 2007 was a temporary break from the trend in both charts? Again, with Beilein and Lickliter bringing their perimeter-oriented offensives into the conference, I would expect these trends to continue, but the new 3-point line may throw a wrench into that glidepath.

So, if Big Ten teams are shooting outside more and, consequently, getting to the free throw line less and less, are they at least converting free throws when they get them?



Interestingly, FT% is following the same trend as Free Throw Rate. Are teams intentionally avoiding penetration and contact - and taking more threes - partly because of their FT shooting struggles? I'd venture to say no, but this may be worth further investigation.

For a further look at shooting:



The conference again appears to be bunching up in a narrower range than in years past. Those last three outliers (below 32%) were Northwestern in 2007 and Michigan and Illinois in 2008. Northwestern has already come up from that level, and I expect both Michigan and Illinois to improve in this area in 2009. Unfortunately, the conference as a whole loses big-time shooters in Armon Bassett (45%), Lawrence McKenzie (43%), Drew Neitzel (40%) and Jamar Butler (38%); each made at least two 3-pointers per game, really lifting the conference average.

One of the more interesting storylines this season will be tracking the effect of the deeper 3-point line. I've got to think that 3-pt FG% and the number of 3-pointers taken will both decline. It remains to be seen what type of teams will benefit most from this rule change, as discussed in our interview with John Gasaway. You can bet we'll be tracking this as the season progesses.

Enough with the long-range bombers - what about the bruisers and slashers working inside the arc?



We've seen the conference average drop the past two seasons, so that strategy of shooting more threes seems to be appropriate. Again, it will be interesting to see how these numbers will be impacted by the deeper 3-point stripe. Will marginal three-point shooters forego the deep shot and instead take it to the basket? Will coaches put more emphasis on getting the ball into the post? Will the deeper stripe pull defenses farther from the basket, opening up the lane? Lots of different angles to consider, and we at Big Ten Geeks will be searching for the effects, both this season and beyond.

One last stat - Assists per Made FG:



Notice the soaring dots across the top - that's Northwestern, which has finished 1st or 2nd in the nation in this category each of the last 5 years. That fact in itself tells you the limited value of this statistic (sorry Wildcats!). The only other Big Ten team to come close to the 70% mark was Michigan State in 2007, at 69.4%.

Up next - a look at the 5-year conference trends in defensive statistics.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ray Floriani on Synergy

The Geeks are taking the day off. We'll be back tomorrow with more number-crunching ramblings. In the meantime, here is a guest column by Ray Floriani, a writer for several sites focused on college hoops.

By Ray Floriani, Basketball Times, Hoopville, College Chalk Talk

In the process of visiting a number of sites I came across this interesting note last Spring. A stat I found on the APBRmetrics board, Synergy, gives a measure of ball distribution. The basic formula is…

Synergy = Field Goal Pct + (assists/Field Goals Made)

The statistic, as noted gives a measure of sharing the ball. The leader in Synergy is not necessarily guaranteed to run the conference table and punch their ticket for the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. It can give you an indication or tendency of a team. A lower synergy suggests they may have more players able and willing to beat you off the dribble. A high synergy rating suggests a team running some kind of motion or flex offense and moving the ball . Following is a rundown of Big Ten teams for the 2007-08 season. Only regular season Big Ten contests are factored.

Big Ten Synergy Results

Team
Synergy
Michigan State
1.171
Minnesota
1.151
Northwestern
1.128
Iowa
1.096
Purdue
1.056
Illinois
1.049
Wisconsin
0.996
Ohio State
0.994
Penn State
0.982
Indiana
0.979
Michigan
0.947

A few quick observations…John Beilein’s offense is very motion oriented with a great deal of passing, cutting and ball movement. His Michigan team was at the bottom for a simple reason. To get an assist a field goal must be made and the Wolverines were the worst shooting team in the conference (.387 percentage). Assists are relied on which brings in scoring subjectivity. Remember the Clemson joke in the Eighties, a Tiger player got an assist for handing a teammate a towel during time out. Seriously, scorers table personnel on the Division I level are better trained and objective than years ago. Scorers make mistakes but so do officials (yes we do we’re human), coaches and players.

Northwestern was ninth in conference field goal percentage (.418) but did have a respectable synergy rating thanks to Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense which requires a great deal of passing and movement, and virtually no transition baskets. The gaudy synergy rating, unfortunately for Carmody & co., didn’t carry over to the won-lost column. Not too surprised Michigan State led the way with synergy given Tom Izzo wanting structure on both ends of the floor. Interestingly, Wisconsin (champion) and Indiana (third) had relatively modest synergy ratings.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Big Ten Geeks will run a lot this year

Every single fall we hear the same thing, and it seems to come from at least two different Big Ten coaches.

"We're going to run a lot this season."

I don't know why they say it. Are coaches letting those media types get to them will all of their slow-basketball bashing? Are these the taglines that recruits want to hear? Fast basketball does not equal good basketball, so it's not as if the coaches are commenting on the likely success of the team. Whatever the motivation behind such proclamations, they show up every year, about the time the leaves change to a beautiful autumn array of colors.

And like the fall foliage, this promised uptempo style tends to have a very short shelf life.

Take Illinois for example - which has not been fast under the Weber regime:
The possessions per game have never broken 65.0. Just for reference, 65.0 would have ranked 240th in the country last season in terms of pace (out of 341 Division I teams - the median pace was 66.6 possessions per game). But that hasn't stopped Weber from proclaiming otherwise. When he got the job, he promised up-tempo. After his great 2004-05 season, it was hinted that the Illini might run more in 05-06. After Brown and Augustine left, Weber stated that they might run a bit more in 2006-07. And coming into this season, well, it's becoming old hat. Heck, Bruce Weber has the words "up-tempo" in his bio.

I don't mean to pick on Coach Weber here - I think he's one of the best in the country - but no matter how many times he says it, the Weber-coached Illini have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, a fast team. And I can't stress this enough - that's not a bad thing. It's not a good thing either - strictly neutral. There are many ways to win a basketball game, and I have yet to see any serious study concluding that faster basketball is better basketball. A lot of bad ingredients can make for a fast team - offensive turnovers, sending the other team to the free throw line, and bad defense that allows for quick, easy shots, for example. No sane coach would adopt these practices in order to move up the pace chart, because pace doesn't win games. Efficiency (scoring more points than your opponent for a given number of possessions) does.

Weber isn't the only one promising a faster pace this season. In fact, the season's main culprit is Tom Izzo. Seth Davis wonders if the Spartans will re-kindle their "need for speed." Tom Izzo seems to think so, promising to push the ball up and down the court, and that he might even engage a 10 or 11 man rotation.

(Huh?)

These are some bizarre things to say. First of all, it's hard to see how going 10 or 11 deep is desirable and possible (it can't be both). I think the idea that most fans have in their head is that a team will run so fast that their opponent, playing a typical 7-8 man rotation, will be sucking wind by the 10 minute mark, and will get run out of the building because they can no longer make it up and down the floor.

For lack of a better term, that's just crazytalk.

It just doesn't happen that way. Even UNC, which averaged 74.0 possessions per game last year (highest among all BCS schools), with some of the finest athletes in basketball, wasn't sending opponents into the training room with cramps. This is for two reasons. First, like it or not, it takes two to determine the pace of any game. UNC can run on offense, but they can't make Washington State (who averaged 59.6 possessions per game) take a quick shot. So when the two played last season, it was a fairly pedestrian 66-possession affair. That was the slowest game UNC was involved in last season, and the 2nd fastest game for WSU. So when Izzo says they will push the ball "up and down" the court, he just means "up," unless he plans a matador-style defense. Secondly, you don't see a lot of fat guys in basketball games. Sure, it's tough, but I'd argue that nearly every team in the country goes through a more demanding two hour affair in the conditioning phase of the offseason than a basketball game against the Tar Heels (one full of TV timeouts, whistles, free throws, substitutions, a halftime, and team timeouts). UNC is tough to beat, but easily survivable.

Now given that you won't see a significant inherent advantage in playing 10-11 guys (tiring the other team out), why would you? The 10th and 11th "best" players on the team are significantly worse than the 1st or 2nd. If that wasn't true, well, either your team is looking historically good, or historically bad. Now, we think that MSU is deep, and probably the deepest team in the conference (part of the reason we picked them to win it), but we don't think that Tom Herzog can hold a candle to Goran Suton. So long as Goran says he can play, we say he belongs on the court.

One of the stories being weaved in with this MSU speed story is a supposed return to the style of play that got the Spartans to the Final Four. Hogwash.
The larger numbers are years in which Izzo's teams reached the Final Four. Sure, MSU was uncharacteristically slow in 06-07, but last season's 64.9 was right around two Final Four seasons: 98-99 and 02-03. Izzo's fastest seasons (data only goes back to 96-97, sorry) were the early ones. Since that time, he's settled into a zone between 64 and 67 possessions, roughly. And really, if it was as simple as playing faster, what would that say about Izzo? We'd have to assume then that he was too dumb to see a painfully obvious correlation, and if only he had pushed the ball more, the Spartans' season would have lasted past the round of 16.

The real staple of MSU Final Four teams is turnovers, plain and simple. Izzo's built a reliable offensive machine (which does not require NBA talent!), that becomes superhuman when the players take care of the ball. I feel good about their chances this year because I think the TOs will be down, but I'd be shocked if we saw new heights in MSU's pace.

That goes for everyone. You can't believe things about pace you hear in the fall. Remember that, and don't be fooled by smooth-talking head coaches again!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Interview with John Gasaway, Part Two

From 2004-2007, John Gasaway was the author of the world's best blog focused on 2004-2007 seasons of Big Ten Hoops. Since that time, John has moved to Basketball Prospectus, which has assembled a "Dream Team" of sorts for the tempo-free basketball enthusiast. On October 28, John's book (co-authored with Ken Pomeroy) will be out in stores. We've already reserved our copy, and we really think you ought to as well. It's like $15 on Amazon, and that's a pretty good bargain in today's economy.

Readers of this blog (all six of you!) have presumably noticed that this blog is inspired quite a bit by Gasaway's old site. In that vein, we have adopted one of his maxims: send us stuff and we will blog about you. Well, John was nice enough to sit down and answer a few questions about his book, the Big Ten, and college basketball in general. We'll gladly take the attention from such a tempo free celebrity.


This is part two of the interview. For part one, click here.

How do you see the Big Ten shaping up this season? Is this conference capable of getting more than four NCAA bids?

Capable? Of course, it's just that four sounds about right at the moment: Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

The Boilers look beautiful on paper, of course. When you outscored your conference opponents by a robust 0.11 points per trip the previous season and you have everyone coming back (Scott Martin notwithstanding), recent history says you're poised for a really special year. True, it won't happen automatically: it'll be hard for this team to shoot as well on their threes as they did last year. But there's plenty of room for improvement on their twos and, besides, Robbie Hummel might already be the most versatile player in the conference.

Michigan State's been hampered the past couple years by their turnovers--that is until the TOs ceased with weird suddenness last February. I don't think the Spartans will be world-beaters on D but if they can just stay out of their own way on offense, look out. This is the deepest team in the conference and Raymar Morgan, oddly, gets too little love.

Wisconsin will slip a little this year but they were so incredible last year--really, they were the best in-conference team in the country besides Kansas and Memphis--that they can "slip" and still be very very good. I will go way out on a limb here and predict that the Badgers will take excellent care of the ball, crash the defensive glass, ignore the offensive glass entirely, and never foul. Shocking, I know, but put me on the record.

And what Thad Matta's done at Ohio State is just too incredible to be believed. If B.J. Mullens is as good as advertised, the Buckeyes will again see yet another freshman go in the first round of next summer's NBA draft. OSU is already the only program in the country to have sent freshmen to the NBA in each of the last two drafts. But three in a row? At a football school? With a program that was reeling from an ugly recruiting scandal when Matta was hired? Unbelievable.

What about the rest of the Big Ten? What team will show the most improvement? Can Indiana win two games?

I actually put the Hoosiers down for six wins in the book just to be showily, albeit recklessly, contrary. Point being simply: with my own two eyes I saw Rutgers win by double digits at Pitt last year. (Heck, I saw Northwestern win a conference game.) Anything's possible.

One thing to keep in mind is that in November and December there will undoubtedly be ugly losses, courtesy of the bottom half of the league, that will trigger end-of-the-conference-world pronouncements. But can any losses really be worse than what we saw last year? Michigan losing by 11 at Harvard? Iowa losing at home to Louisiana-Monroe? When those doomsayers come around proclaiming the Big Ten's "worst year ever" in a few weeks, just remember "worst year in a year" would be more accurate.

If you had to take over today as head coach of one Big Ten team, which job would you want? Assume that no players would transfer or decommit because of your hiring.

Without question, Indiana. Strong program, great tradition, absolutely no experience on the roster, absolutely no expectations. Those fans will show up and cheer that team on and if by some miracle they beat Northwestern or Iowa in Assembly Hall said fans will be delighted. And if I get the team to 7-11 I'll probably be national coach of the year. What's not to love?

Do you believe in the "system coach?" By that, we mean not just a coach with a certain style of play, but rather coaches that can do "more with less" because of a certain style of play. Or is it just that these so-called system coaches have underrated players?

I definitely believe in system coaches though under a slightly different definition. I think Bill Self and Ben Howland are system coaches even though their players happen to arrive as highly-ranked recruits. Bo Ryan's a system coach's system coach, of course. Heck if John Calipari decides to stick with this dribble-drive-motion thing for a while you could mark him down as a system coach.

To me, being a really good basketball coach is much more impressive than being a really good football coach or baseball manager. In those other sports, your team checks in with the bench at every single discretionary increment (the pitch in baseball and the playcall in football). It's micro-management carried to an extreme. But in basketball the coach has to be able to build a system, point it in the right direction, and see where it goes. It's much more like real life that way, I think.

John, thanks for stopping by, and best of luck with the book and the upcoming season.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Interview with John Gasaway, Part One

From 2004-2007, John Gasaway was the author of the world's best blog focused on the 2004-2007 seasons of Big Ten Hoops. Since that time, John has moved to Basketball Prospectus, which has assembled a "Dream Team" of sorts for the tempo-free basketball enthusiast. On October 28, John's book (co-authored with Ken Pomeroy) will be out in stores. We've already reserved our copy, and we really think you ought to as well. It's like $15 on Amazon, and that's a pretty good bargain in today's economy.

Readers of this blog (all six of you!) have presumably noticed that this blog is inspired quite a bit by Gasaway's old site. In that vein, we have adopted one of his maxims: send us stuff and we will blog about you. Well, John was nice enough to sit down and answer a few questions about his book, the Big Ten, and college basketball in general. We'll gladly take the attention from such a tempo free celebrity.

John, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about the book? What will it feature?

I think the most important thing to note about College Basketball Prospectus 2008-2009 is that, according to Amazon.com, each copy weighs 1.5 pounds. That's 24 ounces of hearty Pomeroy-Gasaway hoops nutrition straight to you. Better yet, buy two copies and get three full pounds of hoops IQ enhancement. Think of it as a game-changer for your college hoops cred.

Certainly the meat in this here sandwich is the previews. Ken and I lavished about a thousand words per team on the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC. We also worked our way through the A-10, C-USA, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West on a team-by-team basis, albeit somewhat more expeditiously. That's 115 previews give or take, at which point today's modern fan will want to close thy Pomaway and open thy Whelliston.

The bread is supplied by essays at the top and stats on the bottom. The latter are a more conference-directed sift of the indispensable knowledge that everyone's come to lean on at Ken's place. And the former are, I think, really interesting. Ken takes a look at what the new three-point line will mean and also uses play-by-play data to explode some hoary old conventional wisdom. (Should you really call timeout to ice the shooter at the line?) NBA guru Kevn Pelton considers which current college players will become the best pros. Two-sport wonder John Perrotto provides a handy overview of this year's top freshmen. Will Carroll brings his expertise to bear on one of my favorite college hoops urban legends: does it really make economic sense for the family of a one-and-done to take out an ostentatiously large insurance policy in case of injury? And I chime in with some thoughts on the one-and-done era, the overlooked yet unmistakable decline in turnovers in major-conference hoops, and what I think should be the happy marriage between disbelief and stats in college basketball.

We know Baseball Prospectus has PECOTA, and Football Prospectus has KUBIAK, what about you guys? Whatever you do, please don't name it EUSTACHY.

Glad you asked. Working furtively in Cheney-level secrecy behind Ken's back, I came up with ONGENAET (Offensive Normalized Gross Effective Net Assist Efficiency Trend), in honor of a certain lanky Belgian at Syracuse. It is poised to take the college basketball world by storm. Heated arguments will erupt this season over whether Tyler Hansbrough or Blake Griffin has a higher ONGENAET. In fact Kristof Ongenaet himself will be hounded by a gotcha mainstream media obsessed with Ongenaet's ONGENAET.

A possibility I allude to in one of my essays is that we lovers of non-baseball sports should probably cease unselfconsciously importing every trick in the sabermetric book. Stats went the furthest the soonest in baseball, of course, but that sport's endearing eccentricities far outnumber its similarities to the other major team sports. For instance, in the book I suggest that basketball is an analytic apple to other sports' oranges because of something I term "play decisiveness." There, that's a tease. Buy my book.

(Ed. Note: The same day this interview was posted, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus introduced SCHOENE, a projection system for NBA players.)

We've talked a bit about the one-year rule. How do you think it has affected the college game?

Speaking of "buy my book," here's an excerpt:
One-and-done is often framed implicitly as a college basketball problem in need of reform when in fact it's an NBA rule of finite duration. It's here. It's not going anywhere for another three or four years until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed. And then one-and-done will quite possibly be gone.

Maybe the next system will go back to the old way of doing things, where high school seniors had the option of going straight into the NBA. Or maybe the new system will require two (two-and-through!) or even three (three-and-flee!) years to have passed since high school graduation before a player can be eligible for the NBA. Whatever the new number of required years is fated to be, however, it seems probable that it will no longer be one. Meaning one-and-done is likely an interregnum. If so it will be remembered as a specific sharply delimited epoch, like John Wooden at UCLA or Larry Brown at wherever he is now.

For college basketball, the impact of one-and-done has been something of a spectacular trickle. In two seasons there have been 20 players who played just one season of college ball and were then drafted.
So in answer to your question I'll stick with "spectacular trickle" for the time being. The other thing to keep in mind about one-and-done is that its birth happened to coincide with the arrival of two successive incredible freshman classes. The conventional wisdom says this year's class, or most any year's class, won't be up to that same standard. If so, we all might be a little less freshman-fixated this season.

For my part I'll be interested to see what happens with Brandon Jennings, now playing professional ball in Rome. Will he have a good season? If not, will he be a lottery pick anyway? Will his example be followed by other recruits who, unlike Jennings, are eligible to play D-I ball?

Other than confusing perimeter players, how will the new three point line affect the college game?


Ken hits that question head-on in the book, so I won't spoil the ending here. I will say this: Luke Winn had an interesting piece over the summer that ransacked Ken's tables on offensive distribution and came to the conclusion that mid-majors that made a lot of threes last year will be hurt the most by the new line. The question I have is whether or not we might also see the exact opposite in some cases: might not a team that excelled at making shots from 19.75 feet be precisely the team best equipped to make shots from 20.75 feet? Just wondering.

OK, one more point. It bears repeating that the widespread perception that threes had "become too easy" with the old line, that today's modern player has somehow progressed to the point where the old distance was a gimme, was just that: perception. In reality three-point FG percentages have remained remarkably stable in D-I for almost 20 years. What did change over that time, of course, was the emphasis on threes: every season set a new record for three-point attempts as a percentage of FGAs.

What's your take on Pomeroy's "Luck" statistic? Is it just a fudge factor for things that aren't measured, or is it truly just the proverbial "way the ball bounces"?


The aforementioned Pomeroy would of course be the first to note that it's really Bill James's stat, honed and repurposed for our own vastly superior sport. Anyway, the problem here is with the English language, not with the stat. "Luck" is just too pejorative. When I was a kid and I'd make a good play on my baseball team, my older brother was always quick to dismiss it as pure luck. Drove me crazy, which of course was precisely the point.

Take Penn State. (Please--har!) Last year the Nittany Lions had what very well might have been the single "luckiest" conference season of any major-conference team over the past three years. PSU was outscored by their conference opponents by 0.14 points per possession. Historically speaking, teams that do that over an 18-game schedule will typically finish 3-15 or perhaps 2-16. Penn State went 7-11. Luck, right?

It's just not the best word. The Nits weren't making half-court bank shots the whole year--nor, for that matter, were they involved in a lot of close games. It's just that when they played good teams they were very soundly beaten on more than one occasion; when they played bad teams, conversely, they usually won but by a much smaller margin. Luck would be one way of putting it. Another would be simply to say they had an extremely funky point distribution.

Clearly, there can be a difference in the way certain statistics are awarded by official scorers - assists are the clearest example. What other statistics have you observed that are greatly influenced by the biases of the official scorer? Any examples of extreme cases?

Actually I think basketball is pretty lucky on this front. Assists are the exception to the rule and even assists are what I call adverbial: they merely describe how a team scores rather than determining whether they do so. NBA general managers should of course be properly wary when looking at college assist rates but the rest of us can carry on without too much worry.

From my chair the bias of stats in hoops is less a product of homer official scorers and more the residue of narrowly consistent coaches. Very rarely does a coach want to revisit an assumption on player personnel and start feeding the ball to someone he thought was going to be a mere role-player. Points are going to happen and to an extent far removed from, say, baseball, the basketball coach gets to decide who gets them. That's one very large grain of salt that stats should be taken with.

That probably goes a long way in explaining our Min% graphs in looking at freshman performance.

Tune in tomorrow as John talks Big Ten...

Midnight Madness

Check out some of my thoughts on the Midnight Madness festivities over at Rush the Court.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Home Cookin'

The Izzone. Orange Krush. The Paint Crew. The Grateful Red. Life on the road is tough in the Big 10. Home teams were 61-38 last season in the Big Ten. That's a 61.6% winning percentage. That sounds like a significant advantage, but is it? Let's see where the Big Ten stacks up against the other BCS conferences.

Big 12: 67.7%
SEC: 66.7%
Big East: 62.5%
Big Ten: 61.6%
ACC: 60.4%
Pac-10: 53.3%

Hmm...not all that impressive. How about 06-07 and 05-06?

06-07
SEC: 75%
Big Ten: 70.4%
Big East: 65.6%
ACC: 65.6%
Big 12: 65.6%
Pac 10: 61.1%

05-06
Big Ten: 70.4%
Big 12: 66.7%
Big East: 63.3%
ACC: 62.5%
SEC: 60.4%
Pac 10: 56.7%

Let's add it all up:

SEC: 67.4%
Big Ten: 67.2%
Big 12: 66.7%
Big East: 63.8%
ACC: 62.8%
Pac 10: 57.0%

And because we love charting here...
The SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 are in a class of their own. The Big East and the ACC show a moderate advantage, and one wonders if Pac-10 players are cognizant of whether or not they're playing in a hostile arena.

Now, it would be easy to declare this is a result of superior fans, pat ourselves on the back, and call it a day. But we'll pick this up later.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

As if Indiana Didn't Have Enough Problems

Most stats that have a real impact on the outcome of a game mean something, they're not just dumb, blind, luck. Whether it's shooting, rebounding, turnovers, steals, blocks, etc., these stats not only significantly determine the outcome of a game, but they're also indicative of a team's ability. But there is one big exception: free throw defense. For obvious reasons, this stat has little to do with any abilities the team has, and has more to do with the other teams' skills. And if we look at a scenario where everyone has roughly the same opponents (such as in conference play), large differences in FT defense are fairly attributed to luck.

In other words, we have to count that against them in the coming season. A solid efficiency number that was achieved, in part, through excellent FT defense must be discounted. So if your team had great FT defense last year...that's not good news.

2007-08 FT Defense Leaders (Conference Games)

Team
Opp. FT %
Indiana
63.8
Michigan State
65.5
Michigan
66.0
Wisconsin
68.2
Purdue
69.2
Penn State
70.2
Minnesota
70.6
Northwestern
71.0
Illinois
71.1
Iowa
72.6
Ohio State
73.4

Some good news for Buckeye fans (as well as some aggravation over the fact that some unlucky bounces prevented them from reaching the NCAA Tournament last season).

And just to prove this isn't some sort of home-court phenomena, here are the leaders from the 2006-07 season:

Team
Opp. FT %
Wisconsin
65.3
Iowa
65.6
Penn State
69.0
Michigan
69.6
Ohio State
70.1
Michigan State
70.2
Purdue
70.5
Northwestern
70.9
Minnesota
72.7
Indiana
73.4
Illinois
76.7

If this had something to do with home court advantage, then the Orange Krush really need to step up their game. They were at the bottom of the Big Ten in 2005-06 as well (75.2%). They need to get back to their 2004-05 form (68.7%), but that goes for the whole team, really.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Odds and Ends

We love feedback here, and to encourage more of it, I'm going to try and respond to a few points and questions that we've received.

Pace, Schmace, Revisited


I've previously looked at pace and came to the unsurprising conclusion that the Big 10 is slow. However, I could not explain how or why the Big 10 is slow, beyond "because it's slow." But we're going to look harder here, to see if we can find something to explain this pace predicament.

A commenter wondered whether it was the super-slow teams (such as Northwestern) that were bringing the averages down. A good thought, but this does not appear to be the case:


The teams in red are the Big Ten teams - the teams in blue are the Big 12 teams. Why Big 12? Well, because of the 5 remaining BCS conferences outside of the Big Ten, the Big 12 is the median, pace-wise. As the graph illustrates, the entire conference is pretty slow, and there's not a large gap between most of the teams. In fact, the fastest team in the Big Ten last season, Minnesota, would be in the lower half of the Big 12, pace-wise. My search for meaning continues...

Bo Ryan and the Amazing No Foul Defense


KJ over at Spartans Weblog opined that perhaps the key to the Wisconsin foul gap was in part driven by the swing offense. However, the Badgers really haven't seen much of an increase from 2000-01, the year before Ryan started. In that season, they drew 19 fouls a game. Since Ryan has taken over, they haven't gotten higher than 19.6. That said, the four seasons prior to 00-01 were about two fouls per game lower, so it's possible that 00-01 was just an aberration.

There were also some comments that suggested that Ryan was simply a great teacher of fundamental defense - moving the foot, going "straight up" when contesting shots, etc. But this is too simplistic in my view. After all, what coach out there isn't teaching the same stuff? Are their players dumber than Wisconsin players? Do those coaches not really care about those things, and simply roll the ball out on the court for practice? As much as I admire Ryan and the Wisconsin program, any explanation that paints the rest of the Big Ten (and the rest of the country, for that matter) as simple-minded, lazy, apathetic, or otherwise severely lacking in traits desirable in a college basketball coach or player, does not sit well with me.

Now, this isn't to say that Ryan isn't emphasizing certain things moreso than other coaches - that's precisely how styles are born. But the idea that Ryan is just stressing "play good defense" is too simple and broad. No, I prefer to think he's barking out at his team that they shouldn't reach, or take chances on defense, or other items that would lead to less fouls, and turnovers.

And as much as it might seem like the Badgers are simply going "straight up" on defense, well, they've enjoyed their highest Block% over the past two seasons since 1997-98. So the fouling doesn't seem to have much to do with a change in style there.

Why Can't We Figure Out Marcus Landry


We left him off our Preseason All Big Ten Team, he doesn't get mentioned as a top returning big man, but then we mention him as a top wing in the conference.

This guy confuses us. Not only does he have a unique position - we'll call it "Big Wing" - but he also doesn't have a predictable style. He's a post player with shotblocking ability with a nice touch from the FT line and a good outside shot. To me, that sounds like a John Beilein player or someone like Mike Tisdale. But I don't think it would occur to paint Landry as that style of player, from watching him on the court.

First, let's take a look at the good. Landry took on a large shot diet last season (25.7) on a very good team, so that alone speaks well for him. He made 3s at a pretty good rate for a guy his size (35.7% in conference), has a nice touch from the line (82.4%), and can do some nice things on defense (2.9% Block%).

But what about the not so good (he's not really "bad" in any area, so we'll call it that)? Well, he's only about 50% on two pointers, which makes his eFG a pretty pedestrian 50.8. While he makes his FTs, he doesn't get to the stripe as much as you'd like (29.4 FT Rate), he's not gifted at setting up his teammates (7.7 Assist Rate) and his rebounding isn't dominant. In fact, it's somewhat subpar (7.1/14.6 OReb/DReb) for a PF. But then again, he had a lot of great rebounders on his team last year. It's tough to outboard Brian Butch every night, so we won't count that against him.

The truth is, Landry's a bit above average in some areas, but never seems to be below average in any single area. Not only that, he does it on a high shot diet. So while Raymar Morgan struggles with TOs, and Kevin Coble lacks offensive rebounding ability, Landry keeps it even, everywhere. I guess this explains why we're simultaneously fans and yet cool on his expectations. On the one hand, a player like Landry doesn't hurt you anywhere, and therefore would fit in on every single team in the country. But at the same time, he doesn't have the "fix this, and become a superstar" potential that other players have. Manny Harris had a horrible shooting year that didn't make much sense other than being a freshman. Fix that, and he's great. If Raymar Morgan tightens up on the TOs, he's virtually unstoppable inside 15 feet. But in order for Landry to improve, he needs to make something that's not bad, and make it very good. That seems more difficult than turning something that's bad into something that's just ok. So I don't see the upside with Landry that I do with other players. But that doesn't mean I don't think he's a fine player already.