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July 7, 2011
Calipari, Calhoun, Etc.
The Numbers Behind the Styles

by John Gasaway


When we speak of "style" in college basketball, there's a tendency to start in right away talking about tempo. The speed at which a coach chooses to play the game is indeed an important marker of style, but by now I think we have a pretty good handle on who's fast (Mike Anderson, Lorenzo Romar), who's slow (Bo Ryan, Mark Turgeon), and who's somewhere in between (much of the rest of Division I). Interested bystanders like Ken Pomeroy and yours truly have been counting possessions for a while now, and the range of tempos displayed by 300-odd D-I programs year in and year out is at this point a matter of record.

Now, what about stylistic preferences besides pace? Do certain coaches run their offenses through certain positions year after year? Do other coaches show a decided tendency toward using their bench frequently (or not)? Let's take a look at the actual multi-year numbers and see how well they match up with the common wisdom.

Are all John Calipari offenses equally dependent upon an NBA-ready point guard?
In each of the last four seasons, a John Calipari-coached one-and-done point guard has been selected with one of the first eight picks in the NBA draft. Derrick Rose started the trend in 2008. Since then Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and most recently Brandon Knight have all followed in Rose's wake. In fact on two occasions (Rose and Wall) Calipari's point guard has been the No. 1 pick overall. It's been an incredible run, one that has spanned the coach's final two seasons at Memphis and his first two years at Kentucky.

That being said, the very continuity of this streak has obscured some interesting differences between these four players. The NBA has been notably eager to draft all four freshman point guards, but the roles they've undertaken for Calipari have varied. To take only the most obvious example, in 2010-11 Knight added a completely new wrinkle to this particular profile: reliable (38 percent) three-point shooting. Prior to Knight's arrival, the best perimeter shooter of the bunch was Rose, who made just 34 percent of his threes in 2007-08. And while Rose, Evans and Wall each devoted but a quarter of their attempts from the field to threes, Knight launched almost half his shots from beyond the arc.

Of these four players it was actually Evans who carried by far the heaviest load for Calipari on offense -- with good reason. That 2008-09 Memphis team had no Chris Douglas-Roberts; nor was it blessed with a Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, or a Terrence Jones. Evans had to take more shots for his team than Rose, Wall, or Knight did for theirs. In short, the fact that all four point guards promptly became lottery picks shouldn't obscure the fact that each player had his own strengths and faced his own set of givens. Rose and Wall both excelled at driving into the paint and drawing fouls for teams that had an abundance of options on offense. Knight was a more traditional scoring point guard who had to take on a somewhat larger offensive role. And Evans combined portions of all of the above: relentless attacks on the paint for a team that needed him to ignite and even carry the offense.

Last point. There's no law that says Calipari must have a one-and-done point guard to be successful. As recently as 2007 he reached the Elite Eight without one.

Does Jim Calhoun really prohibit his big men from shooting?
This one's easy: Yes! He does! Ask Alex Oriakhi, who accounted for just 17 percent of the Huskies' shots during his minutes last year. (Keeping in mind that was a hefty increase over the 13 percent mark he posted as a freshman in 2009-10.) In this respect few D-I coaches feature such an emphatic division of responsibility between offense (little guys) and defense (big men) than does Jim Calhoun.

Indeed not since the halcyon days of Charlie Villanueva (remember him?) have we witnessed the strange and arresting spectacle of a University of Connecticut big man actually attempting his team's first shot from the field on a given possession. Since that time the most shooting we've seen from an interior player in Storrs was displayed by bruiser Jeff Adrien, who as a junior in 2007-08 accounted for a (relatively) whopping 22 percent of the Huskies' shots while he was on the floor.

Not that these never-shoot big men are complaining, of course. Both Josh Boone and Hasheem Thabeet became first-round draft picks after playing a limited role on offense for Calhoun. And while not every UConn big man pans out that well (Ater Majok, we hardly knew ye), three national championships in 13 seasons suggests maybe there's something to this whole height-based shooting prohibition that UConn's been enforcing for years.

Do Thad Matta and John Thompson III realize they have benches?
I can understand why Ohio State and Georgetown fans might pose the question. Matta and Thompson both have reputations for playing an extremely short bench. A look at the numbers, however, suggests that only one of these coaches truly deserves that reputation -- or at least he deserves it more.

In the past I've measured the depth of a given coach's rotation simply by calculating the percentage of playing time accounted for by the team's five leaders in minutes. For instance, an average major-conference team will give about 70 percent of the minutes to its top five players (who, by the way, are not necessarily the five starters). In this respect Ohio State has indeed featured a very short bench the past two seasons, giving between 82 and 83 percent of the available minutes to just five players. True, as recently as the 2006-07 OSU team that made the national championship game, the Buckeyes looked much more normal in terms of their rotation, giving 68 percent of the playing time to their top five. Still, it is true that Matta has shortened his bench steadily over the past five seasons, to the point where, effectively, it can't get any shorter.

Thompson, on the other hand, has shown a bit more flexibility. This past season he gave "just" 71 percent of the available minutes to his top five players. Indeed, only once in the past five years (2009-10) has he given more than 80 percent of the playing time to his top five. Otherwise the Hoyas' distribution of playing time has looked rather more ordinary. The next time you hear talk about Georgetown's short rotation, keep in mind Ohio State's is even shorter.

Any other coaching stylistic preferences out there to be examined? Let me know and I'll see what the numbers say.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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