What Arizona did well: Win on the road.
I think people generally associate winning on the road with toughness. You go into a hostile environment and get a win, and you must possess some degree of mental fortitude, right? It is sort of interesting, then, that Arizona was one of the best road teams in the country, because I don't recall anyone describing the Wildcats as tough. They went 6-3 in Pac-10 play away from Tucson, but just 5-4 at home. Just 18 other teams won the majority of their conference games away from home, and none of them resided in power conferences. It's an interesting distinction for a team that was labeled as soft and selfish.
However, a closer look at their performance reveals that Arizona outscored opponents by a total of 60 points in their nine home games and just 16 on the road, so they were pretty fortunate to win two-thirds of their road games.
Pardon the tangent, but there are a few notable items to mention regarding road/home splits across the country.
- Home teams won 62.4% of their games in conference play.
- Even though 19 teams had better road records, based on points scored and allowed just nine teams deserved to have a better road record.
- The SWAC's Texas Southern was the only team to win three more conference games on the road than they won at home. They also had the biggest scoring differential split, outscoring road opponents.
- Louisiana Tech was the biggest overachiever at home, outscoring home opponents by 7.8 points per game and being outscored by 13.8 ppg on the road. Louisiana Tech also happens to host some of the longest conference road trips in the nation.
- Air Force and Wyoming ranked 3rd and 5th, respectively, in conference home-court advantage. They play at the two highest (in terms of elevation) courts in the nation.
Home-court advantage is due to some combination of crowd, travel and altitude. It wouldn't surprise me if that's not the order of importance. There's a lot more research to be done in that area, but one thing is known: there's a heck of a lot of noise in the data. Even over an 18-game conference schedule, the home court can appear to be a disadvantage for a few teams. In the case of Arizona, it's very unlikely they'll win six Pac-10 games on the road again in '08, so they better protect the McKale Center a little better.
What we learned in 2007: You have to play some defense to be an elite team.
This isn't necessarily headline material, but it is amazing how every season there is a team or two that possesses an unstoppable offense and yet ends their season early. (Note that the same applies to the other side of the ball: a stellar defense on its own does not a title contender make.) The 'Zona offense did sputter occasionally over the second half of the season, but the defense was never what you'd call "good" for a nationally ranked team. In 14 of 18 conference games, the Wildcats allowed opponents to breach the magic threshold of a point per possession.
Let's break down the defense further to find out why the defense was broken down so frequently on the court. Arizona did a lot of things poorer than your average power conference team, but two factors tell the story: the Wildcats never forced turnovers (ranking fifth-worst in the nation with a 17.0% forced turnover percentage) and never sent opponents to the line (a nation's best opponents' free-throw rate). Not sending teams to the line is generally a good thing. Ohio State, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin all shared this trait and had Final Four-caliber defenses even without forcing a lot of turnovers. All four of those teams force shots that will be generally be of the low-percentage challenged variety. Arizona was different than those teams. Much different. In 2007, their defense was less based on positioning and more based on imitating a matador. They didn't have an inside presence on defense and they hardly ever forced a turnover. Opponents got lots of shots on the Wildcats and made far too many of them. Arizona's defensive eFG% was 50.9. That's not terrible; it was 138th-worst nationally, and 24th-worst out of 73 power conference teams when only considering regular-season conference play. But given the sheer volume of shots opponents were getting, that figure was too high for the offense to consistently overcome.
What's in store for 2008: While '07 was a train wreck, there are some reasons to believe that Arizona could surprise in 2008. First, it's not Lute Olson's style to put a defense on the court that refuses to force turnovers. In 2006, Arizona had the 10th-best turnover rate in the country. So Coach Olson is no Bo Ryan when it comes to position defense. He'll take advantage of an athletic ball-hawking backcourt when he has it. Unfortunately, Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers are not coming back from the '06 team (although center Kirk Walters is). At the same time, Mustafa Shakur, Ivan Radenovic and Marcus Williams aren't coming back from the '07 team, and that's a good thing for the '08 defense. Only Shakur wasn't regarded as a defensive liability among the trio, and that's not necessarily a compliment about Shakur's D.
In a move that was a bit controversial, Olson moved 18-year assistant Jim Rosborough into an administrative role to make room for Kevin O'Neill. O'Neill was on Olson's bench in the late '80s when Arizona had a defense capable of leading them to a #1 ranking during both the '88 and '89 seasons. He is charged with being the architect of a defensive revival in Tucson. He'll get his first project in Chase Budinger. The 6'7" sophomore lived up to the hype during his freshman season. If there was a national all-freshman team (and how come there isn't?), Budinger likely would have been on it. He was an outstanding scorer, shooting 55.0% (eFG) while being the second-most frequent shooter on the team. With Williams gone, Budinger will be the offensive star of this team, and possibly the entire Pac-10. However, Budinger wasn't a good rebounder for his size, rarely got to the free-throw line and, most importantly, was a defensive liability. He was very similar to Marcus Williams, and another reason why Arizona was labeled soft.
Also returning is Jawann McClellan, who started at the two-guard; his backup, senior Daniel Dillon; and reserve center Jordan Hill, who was one of the best rebounders in the league in his limited minutes. Walters gets a second chance at his senior season after taking a medical redshirt in 2007. He blocked 8.9% of opponents' two-point attempts in '06, a rate that ranked 35th in D-I. Arizona brings in a freshman class of four, and shooting guard Jerryd Bayless and small forward Jamelle Horne are expected to make immediate contributions. Some new blood may be the best thing for this team, both in the coaching staff and on the floor.
What Arizona State did well: Give responsibility to freshmen.
Year One of the Herb Sendek era didn't go so well. In July, point guard Kevin Kruger became the most notable college hoopster to take advantage of a new and bizarre NCAA rule that allowed him to transfer and immediately play at UNLV last season. Three months before the season, wing Bryson Krueger was kicked off the team after being arrested on drug- and gun-possession charges. With that, Sendek unexpectedly lost his two best scorers in his first off-season in Tempe.
Was it really so bad? Sendek was fixing to overhaul ASU basketball with his Princeton-based offense, anyway. With Kruger and Krueger, the Sun Devils' would have been competitive in more games, but they wouldn't have been chasing down a postseason berth. Instead, Sendek was able to give playing time to his guys. Nearly half of ASU's available minutes were used by freshmen. Jerren Shipp, Christian Polk and Derek Glasser were usually starters (Sendek used a few different lineups during the season) and finished as three of the top four Sun Devils in playing time.
What we learned in 2007: The learning curve is never as steep as fans would like it to be.
Playing freshmen who wouldn't have cracked the starting lineup of most other Pac-10 teams has its price. For Arizona State, that price was not winning a conference game until mid-February and finishing with an 8-22 record. It's not like ASU wasn't competitive; just three of their losses by more than 11 points. Offensively, the Sun Devils were especially challenged. Only three power conference teams produced fewer points per possession during conference play than the 0.93 posted by Arizona State. The offensive ineptitude was punctuated by ASU's final win of the season, a 42-41 win at Cal. It was the lowest winning score in D-I by a team not named Northwestern. Even though they weren't getting blown out in most games, the lack of offense made it seem like a lot of games were out of reach even if the deficit never reached double digits in the second half.
What's in store for 2008: The good news is that Herb Sendek proved himself to be an excellent offensive coach during his time at NC State. The 2004 team ranked third nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. If the talent is there, Sendek's team will score with regularity, and talent is making its way to Tempe. It started with the three freshmen that played so much last season and continues with a nationally-ranked class of five freshmen that arrives this season. Among the freshmen, the most is expected of shooting guard James Harden. Harden was Glasser's teammate at Artesia HS in Lakewood, California, and will see immediate playing time. Sendek's offense relies on three-point shooting, and even though the Sun Devils took 39% of their shots from behind the line, second most in the conference, they made just 31.1%, which was second-worst in the Pac-10.
There's also anticipation over Eric Boateng, a 6'10" transfer from Duke who is eligible this season. Boateng played just 50 minutes during his freshman season at Duke, so even though he may get significant minutes, it's unlikely he'll provide much of an impact, especially since he'll be competing with junior Jeff Pendergraph for playing time. Pendergraph was the lone player on the '07 team who put up numbers that were worthy of celebration. He was one of the conference's best all-around rebounders, posting the second-best offensive rebounding percentage and sixth-best defensive rebounding percentage in the league.
While the freshmen were Sendek selections, the players inherited from the Rob Evans era were ill-suited for the new coach. One of two seniors gone from last season's squad is the enigmatic Serge Angounou. Angounou, more than any other player, had to adjust to the new offense. In 2006, 2% of his shots were from three-point range. Last season, that figure jumped to 58%. Amazingly, Angounou had the best rebounding year of his career, and was the equal of Pendergraph in that area. ASU also says good-bye to Allen Morrill, a wing who entered his senior season having never taken a three-pointer in 142 field goal attempts. Last season, 25 of his 100 shots were 3's.
Sendek does get back Antwi Atuahene, who will provide some minutes at both guard spots, but when he's on the floor, his value is in defense and distributing the ball. He hasn't demonstrated a jump shot in his two previous D-I seasons.
The sheer gravitational pull of the .500 mark means that this team is almost guaranteed to improve on its two wins in conference play. Over the '04, '05 and '06 seasons, 22 teams won two conference games. They averaged 4.9 conference wins the following season, and only one of the 22 failed to increase its win total. Unfortunately, there aren't many success stories in that group either. Only 2006 Jacksonville State won more than eight games, and they had the benefit of playing four more conference games than they did the previous season.
Every team in the Pac-10 has reason to believe it will be improved this season. A couple of those teams may be stretching the truth, but not by much. The point being that there aren't any easy wins in this conference. (OK, you really should beat Oregon State at home this season.) Fans of this team are going to have to endure a lot of losses for another season. But Sendek is putting enough pieces in place that this team's pre-season prospects won't be hopeless for too much longer.
What California did well: Get assists from their point guards.
Ayinde Ubaka finished up a four-year career as starting point guard at Cal with what was his easily his best season. He posted his best numbers in two-point and three-point shooting while shooting more frequently than in his previous three seasons. He made the transition from being a pass-first, shoot-rarely point guard as a freshman and sophomore to a dynamic offensive threat in his senior season. He wasn't overly selfish, as he managed to assist on about a quarter of his teammates' baskets, also the highest mark of his career.
While Ubaka's career was admirable, his backup last season should end up having a better career. Casual fans, especially ones who don't live in the Pacific time zone, are probably not familiar with Jerome Randle. That will change this season. Randle was able to take some minutes from Ubaka last season, and in his time on the floor he assisted on more of his teammates' made baskets than did the starter. Randle wasn't as efficient as Ubaka on offense--he was only able to shoot 46.1% (eFG)--but an encouraging sign for Cal fans was that Randle was able to take 22.2% of his team's shots while on the court. It's encouraging because Randle is listed at 5'9", so you'd expect him to have some trouble getting off his shot. It's also encouraging because so few freshmen point guards shoot and distribute as much as Randle did. The list from the last three seasons includes only two other point guards from power conferences: Dominic James in 2006 and Javaris Crittenton in 2007.
What we learned in 2007: DeVon Hardin's value is disproportionately on defense.
One of the worst breaks for any Pac-10 team in 2007 was when Cal lost junior center DeVon Hardin to a broken foot 11 games into the season. There was some uncertainty surrounding what Hardin would do during his third season in Berkeley. Cal power forward Leon Powe had the highest usage of any Pac-10 player in 2006, then took off for the NBA. Hardin emerged alongside Powe as an elite defensive rebounder and a very good shot blocker. Hardin also quietly made advances in his offensive game. So with no Powe, what would Hardin's game look like in '07? In what little we saw of him, his defensive game was identical to his sophomore season. (In truth, his sophomore defensive rebounding and blocks numbers weren't a surprise; his rate stats were identical to his freshman season when he played more sparingly.) Offensively, Hardin picked up some of the slack that Powe left in terms of usage, but against a fairly weak non-conference schedule, he still couldn't get his shooting percentage to 50%.
It's clearer to compare Cal's performance in terms of points per possession against the Pac-10 in 2006 and 2007.
Year OE DE
2006 1.02 0.98
2007 1.03 1.12
Cal's offense was about as effective even without Powe, but the defense took a major hit, and was the reason for the Bears' drop in the conference standings in 2007. Powe was an effective defender, but no doubt, the absence of DeVon Hardin was at least equally to blame for Cal's poor defense in '07.
What's in store for 2008: If we could gaze into the crystal ball and know that Coach Ben Braun could count on the health of his roster this season, then there would be reason for optimism in Berkeley. They absolutely need their defense to improve significantly, and that's not going to happen without DeVon Hardin in the lineup for 25-30 minutes per game. With Hardin on the bench (or in the trainer's room), Cal would have to rely on either 7'0" Jordan Wilkes, who sat out last season with an eight minutes a game in '07 while being one of the most reluctant shooters in the conference.
With all the big bodies, the Bears won't have to do what they did last season: play 6'10" Ryan Anderson in the middle, where he struggled defensively. In a throwaway season, Anderson was one of the most productive freshmen in the nation, at least on the offensive end. However, his production dropped after Hardin went down. This was almost surely due to the coinciding increase in competition and improved scouting rather than the nominal change in position. Anderson continued to base much of his game on the perimeter during the conference season, but his three-point FG% dropped from 46 to 34% without Hardin in the lineup. Likewise, his two-point FG% dropped from 57 to 51%. Much is expected of Anderson this season, but there is plenty of room for improvement in his game.
Cal still lacks a dynamic scorer from the wing or shooting guard positions. They'll be looking at some combination of juniors Omar Wilkes and Theo Robertson, and sophomore Patrick Christopher, to get most of the minutes at that position, but none was a very effective scorer in 2006. Wilkes is the most dangerous, posting an eFG% of 55.3 while taking 19.9% of his team's shots. Robertson is recovering from leg surgery that has kept him off the court all summer. Cal also brings in Duke transfer Jamal Boykin, who will be eligible for the second semester. By virtue of his being a Duke transfer, expectations are too high for Boykin. He played 100 minutes during his Duke career, took 19 shots and committed 21 fouls.
Then there's the point position. Randle is a good darkhorse pick to beat out Darren Collison for the conference's assist title. He has a few things going for him. He has already demonstrated the ability to distribute. His two most prolific scoring teammates, Anderson and Hardin, have microscopic assist rates, indicating their singular focus of putting the ball in the hoop when they get it. Finally, Randle should get huge minutes. Two years ago, Ubaka played 37 minutes per game when he was the only point guard Braun trusted. Randle should be in a similar situation in 2008.
Randle's assist total will be a good indicator for Cal's success. If Anderson and Hardin can convert passes into baskets more often than they have previously in their career, Cal's offense will be one of the better ones in the conference, and Randle's assist total will soar. Combine that with a respectable defense, and the Bears season will have some intrigue into March.
What Oregon did well: Get points from the perimeter.
As yet another example that there are many ways to be successful in college basketball, Ernie Kent finally perfected his offensive system at Oregon in 2007. Normally, offenses heavily dependent on the three-pointer are found in programs where signing five-star recruits is a pipe dream. Teams like West Virginia, Air Force, Vanderbilt and Butler have built solid offenses with a system where there are four or five above average long-range shooters on the court. Oregon, a team that sent one of its players (Aaron Brooks) to the pros via the first round of the NBA draft this past summer, and may do so again in 2008 (Malik Hairston), provided D-I with an offense that relied on the three-pointer more than any team this side of Morgantown.
What we learned in 2007: You do need some bench to survive.
Here was the line for the Oregon bench in an 85-77 loss to Florida in the Midwest Regional Final.
PT 2PM-A 3PM-A FTM-A A Stl Blk OR/DR PF Pts
27:33 1-2 1-2 1-2 1 1 1 1/0 10 6
If this was an individual player, we would probably wonder what he was doing getting so much playing time. (I know. With 10 personal fouls, he wouldn't be getting that much playing time.) That's the point: there may have been no other team in the nation that could produce the gap in production between the starters and the bench that Oregon did. I'm not suggesting that had Florida and Oregon traded benches the outcome would have been any different. But Oregon did have one of the least productive benches in major college basketball. Their top-scoring reserve during conference play was Chamberlain Oguchi, who managed just 4.3 ppg in about 16 mpg. Oguchi, by the way, transferred to Illinois State in the offseason.
Oregon's starting lineup went toe-to-toe against Florida capably for 30 minutes. Even with oodles of TV breaks in the modern game, however, it's still beneficial to have a sixth and seventh man who can provide quality minutes.
What's in store for 2008: When you have such a steep drop from the quality of the fifth man to the sixth, it's fairly easy to peg the future. Oregon loses Aaron Brooks, but returns the rest of its starting lineup. It's virtually certain that Ernie Kent has already inked a starting lineup that includes Tajuan Porter, Bryce Taylor, Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen. The bulk of the uncertainty surrounding the Ducks' future concerns the point-guard position. No matter who plays there--and it's not yet clear who will--there's little doubt that the Ducks will suffer a drop-off in their point-guard play. Brooks was one of the best in the business in 2007, making 40% of his threes, 50% of his twos and 85% of his free throws. He used a team-high 24% of Oregon's possessions, and had a solid assist rate of 24%.
The fact that Brooks was able to use so many possessions allowed guys like Bryce Taylor and Maarty Leunen to be uber-efficient as role players, and allowed Porter, at 5'6", to get a ton of good looks from three-point range--252 of them to be exact, of which he made 43.7%. He was the 23rd-most frequent three-point shooter in the country. Among the top 30 players in three-point attempts, Porter was the third most accurate shooter. You may think that with a little guile a short player can get off open shots, but consider that Porter shot just 36.7% inside the three-point line.
Brooks' departure could have far-reaching effects, mainly because there isn't a natural point guard on the roster. Taylor and Porter will have to play some minutes there, but the strength of both is filling up the basket three points at a time. Junior Churchill Odia allegedly can play the point, although I'm not sure who would know since he has spent so few D-I minutes doing it. The only newcomers to the roster who could compete for the job are Kamyron Brown, a 6'2" freshman who most recently played high school ball in southern California, and 6'5" freshman LeKendric Longmire, who redshirted last season and is thought of as another shooting guard.
The most likely scenario is for Ernie Kent to shift away from the three- (and sometimes four-) guard set he relied on last season and go a little bit bigger, or at least go with guys that do things that big guys do. At 6'6", Joevan Catron can play the four and rebound more than capably from there. He should see a jump in minutes this season, and with Leunen up front, he'll be a part of one of the best rebounding duos in the Pac-10. That scenario would allow Hairston to play the bulk of his minutes at the wing and even some at the two, as opposed to occasionally being the fourth guard on the floor last season. Hairston does everything well except get to the free-throw line, which is puzzling considering he gets so many shots in paint. He actually was the team leader in block rate, although that's as much a reflection on the lack of hops and size in Leunen and Catron as anything else.
We can be pretty sure the offense will regress this season, but could the defense improve enough to keep this team in the Pac-10 race? This was a team didn't cause steals (ranking 136th nationally) or block shots (301st). In fact, it appears the only thing they did well defensively was defend the three-point line, holding opponents to 31.6% on the season. That figure was heavily padded against a weak non-conference schedule. Pac-10 opponents shot 35.5% from three-point range, which is actually slightly higher than the average accuracy during power-conference play last season.
While last season's team had surprise written all over it in the preseason for a variety of reasons, this year's edition seems primed for a reversal. They lose one significant contributor off of last season's roster, but when you only had five anyway, and the player you lose was unquestionably your MVP, that's enough to raise serious concerns. Throw in the fact that most of the conference is expected to improve and that Oregon's 11-7 conference record was about a game and a half better than they deserved, and then you can understand why returning to the NCAA Tournament is going to be a struggle.
What Oregon State did well: Lure C.J. Giles to the program.
When you go 11-21, and the best team you beat in non-conference play was Cal Poly, you need to look to the future. In the Beavers' case, the news they received in early January that Kansas transfer Giles would be coming to Corvallis easily qualified as a reason for optimism. The future begins on December 7, when Giles becomes eligible and will be OSU's starting center in a game against UC Davis.
For those not familiar with the 6'11" Giles, this isn't a case of a recruit reluctantly leaving a high-profile program to find a place where he can get playing time. Giles started 13 games as a sophomore for Bill Self in 2006, but was booted off the team early in the 2007 campaign because of a variety of attitude and legal problems. In 2006, he put up numbers in his 17 minutes per game that suggest he'll be very productive for coach Jay John at nearly double the minutes, the playing time he'll be expected to receive. He's one of the better shot blockers and offensive rebounders in the country. Even though he barely made 50% of his shots, he will take shots (taking 21.2% of KU's shots while on the floor), a quality that will be needed without Sasa Cuic around anymore.
What we learned in 2007: It's possible that age can affect a player's skills at the college level.
There were few players in the college game who saw a drop in production like that of 6'10" Sasa Cuic during his junior season. Cuic, who will turn 24 in December, experienced amazing decreases in some key stats.
eFG% OR% FTRate
2005 56.0 9.6 65
2006 45.9 3.7 36
It looks like the kind of thing you might see from a professional player who didn't know when to quit. Cuic was your typical contact-averse big man; his 2006 OR% is what you'd expect from a short and slow two-guard. Cuic was suspended for two games in December for what was apparently a bad attitude, then had to deal with an injured elbow during a part of the conference season. In another note of optimism for 2008, Cuic elected to forego his senior season and find work at the pro level overseas. It was a smart decision for all parties involved considering the arrival of Giles, the conflicts with coaching staff, and the fact that most players are completing their third year of pro ball by the time Cuic would have been graduating.
What's in store for 2008: The offense will get better. Being an important cog in the Beaver offense meant that Cuic's performance in his junior season was crippling to OSU's production. The Beavers ranked a stunning 201st in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. Somehow, they managed to edge out Arizona State in offensive efficiency during conference play, but no power conference team could match OSU's portfolio of awful offensive performances. Four times last season they scored fewer than 50 points in games that had at least 65 possessions, most notably a 35-point effort in a 66-possession game at UCLA, and a 41-point game in a 77-possession contest at Hawaii that led to Cuic's suspension. Also departing the Beavers early is combo guard Wesley Washington. Washington, who committed turnovers with stunning regularity, was dismissed from the team in the off-season for academic reasons. OSU loses one senior of note from last season's roster. Starting center Kyle Jeffers was the team's best rebounder, and shot well in a limited offensive workload.
So this is somewhat of a new-look team. OSU will have seven new faces on its 14-man roster, but none will have anywhere near the impact of Giles. Jay John did get a summer commitment from 6'9" Sean Carter, who should get some minutes at the power forward position alongside Giles. Six-foot-three freshman Lathen Wallace redshirted last season, but will get some minutes at the two.
Two players we know will get lots of minutes this season are sophomore point guard Josh Tarver and senior forward Marcel Jones. Considering what he had to work with, Tarver was effective as a distributor, but his 40.7 eFG% jumps off the stat sheet. Tarver converted just 22% of his 118 three-point attempts. With a center who will command much attention from the defense, Tarver will get better looks at the hoop this season, even if his stroke doesn't justify taking any more attempts that he did last season. It's hard to gauge Jones' game because he took a whopping 30.9% of the Beavers' shots while he was on the floor, a figure exceed by only two players in the conference. Given that, Jones eFG% of 49.7 was tolerable. His total inability to get the line, however, was not, and was one of the reasons his early declaration for the NBA Draft was met by the sound of chirping crickets. Jones subsequently took his name out of the draft, and can be a nice offensive player if his shooting load decreases.
John has two other returnees at center, junior Roeland Schaftenaar and sophomore Calvin Hampton. If things go as expected, their playing time will drop after Giles becomes eligible. Junior Jack McGillis had a shot at filling the starting lineup at small forward, but transferred to Montana late in the offseason. McGillis made 35.9% of his three-point attempts last season, and on a team that collectively made a power-conference worst 29.1% of their three-point attempts, that qualified him as the sniper of the team. The loss of McGillis means even more minutes for sophomore Seth Tarver, who can play the two-guard, but is a better fit for the wing as more of a slasher than a shooter.
There are a lot of new faces on the roster at Oregon State, with Giles the one that can make the most difference. The Beavers seem like a shoo-in for the cellar of the Pac-10, but if Giles embraces the starring role with the maturity and leadership he professes to have gained from his ordeal in Lawrence, then OSU will at least be competitive more often this season.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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