Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

We've been at this blog thing now for about 7 and a half months, and looking back, I wonder if we would have started it had we known what we know now. Admittedly, there are a lot of great blogs we've come to know about because they found us. In our view, there was a vacuum left by the Retirement of the Wonk as the Wonk, but we soon came to realize how naive that view was. In reality, the glass was nearly full, but we could only see what was missing, not what was there.

Nonetheless, we pressed on, offering up numbers, predictions, rants, aerials, more numbers, more rants, and plenty of bad puns and movie references. We've defended the Big Ten, predicted its mediocrity, and puzzled over its pace. We've been right, we've been wrong, and we've been way wrong.

We've received a lot of email over the season, and we read every single one of them. We responded to most of them as well. Sometimes bloggers would ask us to link them, and our only criteria for this has been regular activity - we don't want to send readers to your post from 2006. Of course, sometimes we get emails from people asking us to link them, but they don't include the link in their email.

And as much fun as we have had with this thing, it's time to stop. At least for now. Barring something unforeseen, we'll be back this fall, though probably October this time. There's a lot of time between September 1 and the opening tip, and trying to come up with something interesting to say every day is difficult, to say the least. We previewed Purdue's exhibition game against the Florida Southern Moccasins, for goodness sake!

The great thing about college basketball is how things don't change. Hoosiers hate Boilermakers. Buckeyes hate Wolverines. Illini hate Hawkeyes. And so forth. We can always count on Tom Izzo to inject the conference with some much-needed offensive rebounding, for Bo Ryan to lean on his seniors, and for Bruce Weber's teams to play defense. The pace of the conference is plodding, and even an injection of one of the nation's foremost teachers in the full-court press cannot change that.

Of course, that story is not really true. Next year, there won't be a Marcus Landry, Craig Moore, or Jamelle Cornley. More generally, we've come to expect that Ohio State's center will leave for the NBA and for Iowa's point guard to transfer to the MVC (at least Indiana's coaching situation looks stable).

The same is true of sports blogs, it seems. Sooner or later, they all shut down. Sometimes it's a promotion to the big leagues, sometimes it's a transfer, and sometimes it's just a sudden death. The day is coming when this blog will become a Stonehenge for the digital age, with remnants of tempo-free basketball stats that will befuddle and confuse our future alien overlords. I don't know how the end will come, only that it will.

But I'm glad to say that day is not today. Perhaps the biggest reason for that is how many unanswered questions we still have about the college game. We will continue to nibble at those unanswered questions, trying to peel back the onion to find how the chaotic order operates. Moreover, we still have commentators talking about "rebounding margin" and measuring defense by points per game. We're a tiny part of the army that's trying to change that, trying to inject new lexicon into the analysis. That change won't happen overnight. There's a reason why the Establishment is the Establishment, after all. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Another reason for our return will be the fact that this blog never crosses the line from hobby to job (we are not above being paid for our hobbies, however). In order to keep it that way, Mike and I are going to take the summer off. I've lived in the Midwest for 10 years now, and I've come to realize that summers are sacred. I'll be catching some games at Wrigley Field, spending some time on the lakefront, and firing up the grill. Mike will be homebrewing, bicycling, and, most importantly, tending to his loving wife as they anticipate their first child. But as July begins to wind down, we will be back to the spreadsheets, trying to come up with new ways to make sense of Dr. Naismith's game. Those thoughts will be unleashed in October, and I hope you'll join us then.

Thanks for reading, and have a great summer.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Steamrolled

UNC demolished Michigan State, 89-72 in a 76 possession game in the National Championship last night. After 10 minutes, UNC held a 20 point lead and the game was virtually over. The reason the Spartans lost last night was because of turnovers - 21 of them - that gave a very talented team even more opportunities to score. There was a lot of talk about this game that Michigan State had to play "flawless" basketball. I don't think that's true at all, but the Spartans did need to play better than this. The most frustrating part for Tom Izzo's team is that the Tar Heels are actually pretty mediocre with respect to forcing opponents to cough the ball up. But in their two meetings this season, Michigan State turned it over on over 25% of their possessions.

On the other side of the ball, UNC had a mere 7 turnovers. That's a 14-possession swing, and it accounts for nearly the entire scoring gap between these teams. Had State held onto the ball last night, we would have had ourselves a game.

But not for nothing, I was not particularly enthralled with how that game unfolded last night. UNC's initial blitz was impressive, but the next 30 game minutes resembled something of a free throw contest. Between the two teams, 69 free throws were attempted. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest you'd be hard-pressed to find many games this season with more. Yes, these teams like to go inside, and yes, there were players on the floor last night who are very gifted at getting to the stripe. But Ty Lawson had 18 FTAs on 10 shots. Both UNC and MSU had a FTA for nearly every two point shot attempt. They say the best-officiated games are the ones where you don't notice the officials, but it's hard to see how you couldn't notice these guys last night.

There weren't many of these, but one silver lining for the Spartans was the play of Goran Suton. He continued his sparkling tournament with 17 points on 10 shots, to go with 11 rebounds. He played the best basketball of his life at the most opportune time, and it's a big reason why Michigan State got this far. Box score.

So that's it for the 2008-09 season. We've certainly had fun. We'll be back with some final thoughts tomorrow.

Monday, April 6, 2009

8 Mile

Since the last time Michigan State was in the Final Four in 2005, turnovers have been a source of major frustration. The turnover rate for Spartan teams has always stayed above 20.5, and has even hit such heights as 24.2% in 2006-07. Frankly, it's been the one thing that has held back Izzo's offenses, and even with them they have been pretty good. On Saturday night, UConn learned an important lesson - if you don't turn the Spartans over, they will score a lot of points. In a 75 possession game, Michigan State had its highest scoring output since December, prevailing 82-73. Raymar Morgan was active, scoring 18 points on 13 shots, to go with 9 rebounds. Box score.

Tom Izzo's team only had 11 turnovers in this game (good for a rate under 15% in this fast-paced contest), and quite a bit of that is part of the design of UConn's defense. The Huskies don't take chances trying to get steals, because they know that with their shotblocking monster, it doesn't really matter if the team gets a shot off...for most teams. Unfortunately, that strategy breaks down when facing good offensive rebounding teams. The Huskies haven't lost a game where the opponent has rebounded less than 35% of its misses. They also haven't won a game where the opponent has rebounded more than 40%. MSU fell into the latter category on Saturday.

The same kind of formula is true for Michigan State and turnovers. The Spartans have only lost a single game where their TO Rate was below 19.0 - a game in which the Ohio State Buckeyes shot 56% from 3. Where the TO Rate is 25.0 or higher, the Spartans are 2-3 (one of those losses being against UNC).

Of course, Michigan State is now staring down at those same Tar Heels that dismantled them on the same floor just months earlier. It's hard to break that game down because so many things went wrong for the Spartans - you don't know what needs to be fixed first. Given the fact that it took place over 4 months ago, maybe the best thing to do is to ignore it. Let's face it - it was a much-hyped game, and the Spartans just choked. And even though they have won an outright conference championship and beaten the best of the Big East handily on their way to the championship game, not many have forgotten that performance. So sure, label the Spartans the underdog. Yes, they did lose to Penn State and Northwestern at their own house. Maryland did spank them on a neutral court in front of Mickey Mouse. They do turn it over too much for no good reason, their preseason MVP was sick and hurt all season, their marksman does shoot only 33% from three, and the Big Ten wasn't as good as the ACC. But they're still standing, hoping to put on a show. The question is whether UNC can tell us anything about this team we already don't know.

Tonight, 8:20 PM, Central Time. And don't worry, in the recap, I promise not to rhyme.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Mundane Super Nova

Villanova is definitely the upstart of the Final Four, but that might be a reflection of how chalky things have become since George Mason's incredible run three years ago. In the last two seasons, 6 of the 8 Final Four participants have been one seeds. The other two were two seeds. Suddenly a three seed makes the final weekend, and now people are making comparisons to an 8th-seeded team that made the Final Four 24 years ago. How quickly we forget - in 2006, there was nary a 1 seed in the Final Four, and of course there was George Mason's #11 seed present. But even in 2005, we witnessed a #4 and #5 seed make the Final Four. In fact, to find a Final Four as chalky as either 2007 or 2008, you'd have to go back to 1999 (when three #1 seeds make the semifinals, though there was a #4 seed present as well).

But in the Age of Chalk, where 11 of the last 12 Final Four participants have been #1 or #2 seeds, Villanova is a certified underdog (Query: is the Committee getting better at seeding, or is there something else going on here? Are the rich getting richer? Is the correlation with the one-and-done rule merely a coincidence? Talk amongst yourselves.), if only a relative one. But don't let that fool you, this team is good. At what, well, that's much harder to say.

You see, this team isn't exactly great at anything. Rather, they happen to be merely very good at seemingly everything ('cept not fouling. That could get them in trouble against UNC.).

Ok, that's not exactly true. This team has been much better offensively than defensively, at least during conference play:

Team
PPP
eFG
OReb%
TO Rate
FT Rate
Villanova
1.10
52.3
35.6
19.4
43.9
Conf. Opp.
1.01
49.2
33.8
22.1
38.8

In Big East play, the Wildcats would simply outscore opponents. The only thing that was "working" for Nova defensively was forcing turnovers - in every other category they were average, or even bad (FT Rate). But it's been a different story in the Tournament. Offensively, this team is still solid, and not much has changed there. However, two major things have changed which have led to a much improved defense. The first, as Gasaway noted, is the defensive rebounding. It appears the Wildcats have added DeJuan Blair to the roster. But I have my doubts that can continue against UNC.

The second thing that has gone right for Nova is opponents' three point shooting. Generally speaking, their opponents like to shoot 3 pointers (42.3% of their FGA are 3s). And in Big East play, they made them at a 33% clip. Not great, but not bad either. But over the last 4 games, opponents have dedicated 45% of their shots to 3s, and have only made 29% of them. Combined with the rebounding, that explains the sudden defensive prowess.

What's the reason for this? Well, from looking at Nova's tournament opponents, with the exception of American (who gave the Wildcats all they could handle, by the way), there isn't a POT among them. UCLA, Duke, Pitt - none of these teams is particularly inclined to shoot buckets of 3 pointers in a game, but they did against Villanova's defense. The results were not pretty. The Wildcats seem to have harnessed the ability to relegate opponents to perimeter shots - which can be accomplished with some old-fashioned zone - but (and here's the hard part) do so without sacrificing perimeter defense or rebounding. Against a team that doesn't like to shoot 3s, that approach has been kryptonite in the Tournament.

And whaddya know - UNC, MSU, UConn - they all hate shooting 3 pointers.

Look, I'm not saying the Wildcats ought to be favorites here. But they're not plucky underdogs, either.

The Big Ten's dominance of the NIT continues

For the second consecutive season, a Big Ten team took home the NIT trophy. Penn State dominated Baylor in the second half to pull out the 69-63 victory in the 63 possession game. Statistically, there were two areas of dominance for the Nittany Lions. The first was on the offensive glass, where Ed DeChellis' team hauled down 36% of their misses. The second was at the free throw line - Penn State had 28 attempts compared to Baylor's 6. Tournament MVP Jamelle Cornley (an especially impressive honor, considering the senior missed Penn State's second round game, and was very limited in the opener) led the Lions with 18 points on 15 shots to go along with 7 rebounds. Box score.

A few weeks ago there was heartbreak in Happy Valley, but at least there is a happy ending to all of this. That's the silver lining on Penn State's snub - as a result, the Lions ended up as one of the very few teams that gets to end its season with a win. That's especially satisfying given it was Jamelle Cornley's last game in a Penn State uniform. The undersized power forward's personal mission ever since he was a freshman was to bring some enthusiasm to the football school's basketball team. Well, yesterday 30 buses left State College for Madison Square Garden. And maybe the support from the fans, or the excitement from the win was the reason that Talor Battle's half-brother, the highly-touted guard Taran Buie, committed to the Nittany Lions last night. That's a big step for this program, which suddenly has a brighter future than a past. Jamelle Cornley definitely left the program in better condition than he found it in, and I'm happy for him.

Guest blog: Ray Floriani on the NIT Final

Soaking up the action in New York last night was Ray Floriani, a writer for several sites focused on college hoops.

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

NEW YORK CITY – Let the party begin. Or continue.

Penn State defeated Baylor 69-63 to capture their first NIT championship. Observations on the first half…

Baylor used a 2-3 zone that started out 1-1-3 before shifting. “I call it a good defense if it works,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew when asked if it had a terminology. The zone extends and Penn State in the early going used a good part of the clock to get a good shot. Getting the ball into Jamelle Cornley in the high post was crucial as Cornley dished to the weakside or hit shots in the lane.

Baylor’s first half eFG percentage was 52 to Penn State’s 41. The thing that helped the Lions only go into the break with a 4 point (29-25) deficit was rebounding and getting to loose balls. Penn State’s OREB percentage was 39% in comparison to 14% for the Bears.

The first few minutes of the second half saw the Lions come out strong. Cornley hit two in the paint and David Jackson buried a three. With 16 minutes to go it was 32 all. The game stayed even until midway through the final half. Penn State’s Danny Morrissey then buried consecutive Treys and Jeff Brooks added another. Suddenly the lead was nine. Baylor made a few runs but could never get the deficit under two possessions.

After hitting those threes to get the lead, the Lions went right back into the paint and utilized their inside strength. In the final minutes it was a case of hitting from the charity stripe to seal the verdict.

Penn State shot better in the second half. The Lions attempted 28 free throws to Baylor’s six. Drew spoke but did not complain about the free throw disparity. Simply it was a case of perimeter vs. paint. Baylor attempted 52% of their shots beyond the arc (to Penn State’s 45). The more significant number was offensive rebounding percentage. Lions extended possessions with their board work, especially in the first half. Baylor also was in the fouling mode, to stop the clock and get the ball back, the final minutes.

Cornley led the Lions with 18 points 7 boards and earned MVP honors. LaceDarius Dunn paced Baylor with 18. Talor Battle also earned all tournament and had a solid 12 point 7 assist night for the full 40 minutes. He defended Curtis Jerrells of Baylor well holding him to 14 points on 5 of 16 shooting.

For the final 36 bus loads of students and fans made the trip to MSG. Nice deal as twenty dollars got the fans a bus and game ticket. And of course Joe PA was in attendance and loving every championship minute.

“This team was as committed as any team I’ve ever had...We were disappointed a few weeks ago by not being invited to the other tournament but our kids put that behind us right away and our goal was to win this thing," said Penn State coach Ed DeChellis.

“At the time I had no idea how big that shot would be” commented Talor Battle, whose last second trey forced overtime in the first round win over George Mason.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Guest Blog: Ray Floriani Courtside at the NIT

Soaking up the action in New York last night was Ray Floriani, a writer for several sites focused on college hoops.

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

NEW YORK CITY – The Nittany Lions are in the final. Penn State weathered a second half rally by Notre Dame to defeat the Irish 67-59 in the NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden. The Lions enjoyed a 31-18 at the break largely due to solid defense. On the offensive end the transition game created opportunities and Talor Battle was a defensive problem especially attacking the basket.

Interestingly Jamelle Cornley was limited to two points.On the other end Luke Harangody struggled through a 2 of 10 shooting half for four points. Credit some good physical defense by the Lions.

General observations…

Notre Dame made its run with just under ten minutes to play. The Irish found the range from three point land. In addition Harangody started getting more effective in the paint. Notre Dame also gave Penn State some problems with their full court pressure and half court traps.

Questioned the Penn State offensive philosophy. A game the Lions led by nearly twenty was now a three possession contest with under eight minutes to play. At that point Penn State began eating clock and settling for a poor or rushed shot at the end of the possession. It would have been better to keep attacking.

The scored was 51-47 Penn State with just under four to play when Cornley made a huge , tightly defended short jumper in the paint. That gave the Lions breathing room and allowed them to seal the verdict from the charity stripe.

The final numbers….

Team
PPP
eFG
TO Rate
Penn State
1.05
46.4
9.4
Notre Dame
0.92
40.5
12.5

Harangody paced the Irish with 17 points. Battle paced Penn State with 17 points. Cornley added 16 as did Andrew Jones who also had 15 boards and some tough defense on Harangody down low.

Penn State had a good crowd, in numbers and vocal. They rose to their feet during a time out with 6 minutes to go in the first half when Joe PA made his entrance. Sign spotted behind Penn State bench, ‘you have Jesus we have Joe PA’. Fifteen busloads of fans made the trip from State College to MSG. They’ll be back on Thursday.

Psycho Killer

For what seems like forever (read: three years. That's forever in college basketball. While watching the NCAA Tournament this season, my wife exclaimed "Chase Budinger is still in school?" She about keeled over when I mentioned that Mr. Budinger actually has a year of eligibility after this season) UNC has been the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA Championship. There was even talk that these Heels would go undefeated, and some even wondered if UNC could still win a championship without Tyler Hansbrough.

Well, at this moment, it appears that neither of those things will happen. UNC has lost 4 times this season (and they didn't need a specific gameplan to do it), all to ACC opponents, and Mr. Hansbrough appears to be in fine form. And that's a good thing for the Heels, because when you talk about UNC, it all starts with Mr. Hansbrough. He is Really Good at everything when it comes to offense. He shoots a lot, makes a lot of them, never turns it over, crashes the offensive glass, but nothing is more debilitating than the work Psycho T does at the free throw line. He shoots about 70 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, and he makes over 80% of them. Even worse, he draws about 8 fouls per 40 minutes. Let me say that again - he draws 8 fouls per 40 minutes. If you guard Tyler all game, you will foul out. Should the Spartans face UNC, above all else, that will be Tom Izzo's challenge. Finding someone who can guard Tyler. Throw someone like Idong Ibok at him, and you sacrifice offense on the other end. Put Goran Suton on him, and you'll have to be prepared to player without your tournament star for half the game. That's an aspect of the game we still haven't figured out how to quantify, but it's nonetheless very real.

Defensively, however, Hansbrough does show signs of weakness, and that is with defensive rebounding (and he's not much of a shot blocker either). The Heels are certainly talented enough to overcome this, but they choose not to, instead looking to run the floor for a quick bucket on the other end. It will be an interesting chess game between Roy Williams and Tom Izzo - crash the glass or run back to the other end?

One more note about Hansbrough - he's been this good since his freshman season. Depending on how you look at it, that's really good or it's disappointing. He's improved a bit with his defensive rebounding, and he's lowered his turnovers, but he doesn't shoot it as well as he did as a freshman (his eFG has dropped in every season), and he actually shot more back then too. Add it all up, and he's been a constant. That probably cost him some money, to be honest. Back in 2006, he was a superstar 20 year old with room to grow. Now he's a superstar 23 year old (24 in November - Tyler is a man among boys) who has an established level of play. Any dreams he had of being selected by an NBA team that fell 20 wins short of the playoffs is probably gone, but Psyco T will likely never have to work at a "real" job for a day in his life. For four years, he lived like a king. And who can put a price on that?

No breakdown would be complete without mentioning that the Spartans and Tar Heels met on the very same court back in December, and that UNC absolutely dismantled MSU. Sure, Goran Suton missed the game with an injury, but it's hard to believe that would have changed the result. At the same time though, who you are in December is not who you are in April. Just ask any team that played Louisville in the Tournament. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Spartans did in the earlier game, so I imagine it will be hard for Izzo to use the film for any purpose beyond simple motivation. There was nothing the Spartans did right, and just about everything they did was wrong.

A game between the Spartans and Tar Heels would feature lots of great matchups as well. Suton vs. Hansbrough is certainly one, but the most intriguing might be Kalin Lucas vs. Ty Lawson. For one, these might be the two fastest guys in basketball, on teams that like to finish in transition. Second, they're both about 6 feet tall but prefer to shoot 2s over 3s (even though both of them are excellent outside shooters). And they both get to, and convert at, the free throw line often. Moreover, they are also both excellent floor generals being backed up by big steps down. Backing up Lawson is the deferential Bobby Frasor, with Lucas it's the young Korie Lucious. If either of the floor generals gets in foul trouble, it will represent a big advantage for the other team.

I have to admit - a game between Michigan State and North Carolina looks like the most intriguing possibility, on paper. But that may not be the matchup we get.

Next year is next year

Penn State continued its run in the NIT with a 67-59 win over Notre Dame in a 64 possession game. Neither team turned it over - the two combined for all of 14 turnovers - but the Nittany Lions shot it just a hair better than the Irish (inside the arc, that is. From deep, the Lions were just 2-17. Yikes.). Leading the charge was (surprise, surprise) Talor Battle, who had 17 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds. In fact, Penn State's Big Three combined for 42 of their 67 points, and 19 of their 32 rebounds. Box score.

Penn State fans are understandably upset with the Selection Committee's snub, but the fact that the Nittany Lions missed the Dance had to be especially tough given what is leaving State College after this season. Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle will head on to other things, leaving Talor Battle to man the ship. Battle is certainly a great player, but even he can't replace the loss of those two all by himself. Without someone else stepping up, it might have been "2009 or Bust" for Penn State's campaign to make the NCAA Tournament. Last night, Andrew Jones put up an impressive 16 point, 15 rebound line - his third game in double figures in PSU's four NIT games. He had all of four in the 33 contests prior. Jones boasted a Shot% of around 10%, so it's unfair to expect him to replace Jamelle Cornley all by himself. But someone has to.

But that's all next year. Penn State still has a tournament to win. Thursday night they take on Baylor for the title.