Just about everyone who has watched, discussed, or analyzed Syracuse in 2011-12 has wondered who would emerge as the team's go-to guy in crunch time. The topic has been broached by national media types like Seth Davis, hardcore bloggers, and even an AP recap writer. For a team that just kept on winning, it seemed like the "who is Syracuse's go-to guy" storyline was one of the few that folks could tackle in an attempt to cast doubt on the team's chances in March.
Yesterday's news that Fab Melo is ineligible for the NCAA tournament quickly changed the tone of the headlines for the Orange, but it's still worth taking a look at this go-to guy debate to see if it has merit.
To dig into this topic, I ask a simple question: did past national champions have a go-to guy in crunch time? To answer this question, I rely on a few principles from my "clutch gauge" introduced in October. However, instead of attempting to value a given player's effectiveness in crunch time, I'm just looking at the percentage of shots taken by each player on a team in these minutes. As defined in the clutch gauge article, any shots taken in the final four minutes of the second-half in a game featuring a point differential of no more than eight points is under consideration here. Overtimes are also included.
I tracked the crunch time play for the past four national champions for all games played after January 1 in each season. I picked this date for two reasons: 1) coaches will more or less have established playing rotations by this point of the season, and 2) teams are playing tougher opponents and thus a greater amount of close games in January, February, and March. The tables for each national champion include a column labeled "%Shots" for the percentage of all shots taken (including weighted free throw attempts) and a second column called "%FGShots" for the percentage of field goal attempts taken. This distinction is made since players can often rack up free throw attempts when an opponent fouls on each possession in a close game in order to conserve time.
Kansas had just six games qualify for this study among contests played before the NCAA tournament. That year the Jayhawks played just two "close" games once they made the Dance: the Elite Eight match against Seth Curry's Davidson team and, of course, the classic overtime national title game versus Memphis. In those games, Mario Chalmers was as close to a go-to guy as Kansas had according to my tracking, though the 27 percent of team field goal attempts he shot would have classified him as just a "major contributor" using the parlance of KenPom.com. Naturally eight games is a very small sample size. That's something to keep in mind with most of these results. As has been shown time and again, margin of victory is a key indicator of future performance, and, well, national champions tend to have large victory margins and thus few close games.
North Carolina 2009
In seven games that featured clutch minutes, Wayne Ellington emerged as the most active shot taker for this particular North Carolina outfit. Thing is, the Tar Heels never needed a go-to guy in the NCAA tournament -- they handily won all six games on their way to cutting down the nets in Detroit.
Duke's run to the 2010 national title featured a total of just nine close games, and a distinct trio emerged in those contests as the team's significant contributors. No one took more shots than Jon Scheyer, though, and yet for some reason the senior was largely absent in the waning minutes of the championship game. He took just one shot in the final four minutes against Butler, and so too did Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. All three missed their lone shot attempts. In fact, the game ultimately came down to a few free throws from Brian Zoubek, who had barely touched the ball for a scoring opportunity in any other close game that season.
Four years into the study and we find our first true go-to scorer in Kemba Walker. These results are probably the most reliable of the four here because Connecticut played a ton of close games last year -- that's why the Huskies were such an unlikely champion. UConn had 17 games qualify for consideration, and Walker was the overwhelming option on offense in crunch time for coach Jim Calhoun. We all remember the game-winning shots he made -- particularly the time he crossed up Pittsburgh's Gary McGhee -- but in fact Walker was just 18-of-59 from the field in these crunch time situations.
Based on four years of results (and keeping in mind the limits of sample size), my estimation is that teams do not necessarily need a go-to option in crunch time in order to win a national championship. The odds-on favorite to win the title each year is typically going to be a team that did not have many close games during the regular season. Consequently, said team would have had few opportunities for a go-to offensive option to emerge. Such a trait did not derail Kansas, North Carolina, or Duke from cutting down the nets.
So why has the national dialogue so often focused on Syracuse's lack of such an option? Well, perhaps there has been a recency-effect bias among observers due to the run UConn put together last season. The Huskies had an unquestionable go-to scorer, and indeed some of the most lasting memories we have of Kemba Walker are of him taking and making big shots in March. But going forward, we shouldn't be so worried that a Kemba-esque option has yet to emerge for Syracuse or even Kentucky, which has been one of the most balanced units all season and particularly in close games.
In a Fab Melo-less bracket, this analysis may not mean as much for the Orange, but the conclusions offer some insights for Kentucky, too. The Wildcats have been engaged in relatively few close games this calendar year, and even in those games a majority of their shots have been free throws. On the one hand, UK's past performance might suggest that it will encounter little resistance on its way to New Orleans, a la UNC in 2009. On the other hand, John Calipari's team has won its fair share of close games even with a near-equal distribution of shots among its rotation players in closing minutes. For whatever reason no one has questioned Kentucky's lack of a bona fide closer as they have Syracuse, but I'm on record as thinking the question itself matters little. For what it's worth, I hope the question is buried after this year's tournament or else we run the risk of seeing an increased use of hero ball at our level.
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