What Cincinnati did well: Deliver the goods in overtime.
One might think it would be difficult to find something that a team "did well" when said team goes 2-14 in-conference. One would be right. How about this, though? The Bearcats could have very easily gone 0-16. Their two wins, one over West Virginia and one over Seton Hall, both went to overtime.
True, Cincy also dropped a couple of one-point decisions in the regularly allotted 40 minutes. So I suppose a glass-half-full type could say with equal justification that this team "could have very easily" gone 4-12. Duly noted.
What we learned in 2007: We should keep an eye on Deonta Vaughn.
The 2007 season marked a transition for Cincinnati basketball. Coach Mick Cronin was in his first year at the helm, and 84 percent of the points last year came from newcomers.
With the flock of new arrivals streaming into Fifth Third Arena last year, chances were good that someone would inherit more prominence in the offense than he was really ready to handle. That someone turned out to be Vaughn, a 6'1" freshman from Indianapolis. Vaughn got big minutes from day one and took 29 percent of his team's shots during his minutes. That, not surprisingly, resulted in a lot of misses. (He shot slightly more threes than twos and made just 29 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.) In fact Vaughn's scoring efficiency was somewhere south of "well below average."
So why, exactly, should we keep an eye on Vaughn? Lots of reasons, actually. For one thing, he took excellent care of the ball even though he was a freshman playing more than 80 percent of the minutes and taking a ton of shots for an inexperienced and often overmatched team. Vaughn has already shown an ability to hit the open man, recording assists at a higher rate than any of his teammates. His outside shooting last year was weak, sure, but his decent (75 percent) shooting from the line suggests that his numbers from the perimeter may well improve with age. He's also pretty good at taking the ball away from opposing guards. There's a lot to like there, particularly if he gets some help. Keep an eye on him.
What's in store for 2008: The good news is that respectable (though still sub-.500) mediocrity awaits if Cincinnati can merely hold opponents to average three-point shooting.
Last year, the Bearcats struggled on both sides of the ball, obviously, but it was their performance on defense that should be particularly worrisome for Cronin. Allowing 1.11 points per possession against Big East teams, Cincinnati's defense was easily the worst in the conference.
The problem was on the perimeter, where the Bearcats allowed Big East opponents to make an astonishing 42 percent of their threes. Keep in mind that among the power conferences last year, the Big East as a whole was dead last in 3FG percentage, hitting less than 34 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. These very same poor-shooting teams suddenly became the Phoenix Suns when they got the highly-coveted opportunity to play Cincinnati.
One of the more spirited little side discussions in college--or for that matter pro--hoops concerns the relative importance of skill and luck in perimeter defense. With a case as extreme as Cincinnati's, however, there can be no debate: both their skill and their luck had to be horrible. The good news is that only one of those has to change, even just a little, for the numbers to be less ugly this year. (The only team that ever allowed 42 percent three-point shooting by its opponents two years in a row was the Washington Generals.) Given that the Bearcats aren't particularly small on the perimeter, there's no reason to think this team can't improve its 3FG defense.
On offense last year the Bearcats bordered on being perimeter-oriented, devoting about 37 percent of their shots in-conference to threes. While this style helped them do a good job taking care of the ball, Cincinnati proved to be a very bad perimeter shooting team, making just 32 percent of all those treys. As we've seen, a lot of those misses came from Vaughn, who may be a better perimeter shooter than he showed last year. He'll have every opportunity to prove it. Cronin's best three-point shooter last year was Marcus Sikes, who hit 42 percent of his (relatively infrequent) shots from beyond the arc. Sikes functioned for the most part as a spot-up shooter, for he had little or no luck scoring points by driving to the hoop. Then again, Sikes' 67 percent shooting at the line suggests he was probably very fortunate to hit so many threes.
Also returning in the backcourt are two seniors: 6'2" Jamual Warren, who's very good at recording steals but, alas, attempted 60 threes last year and made just nine; and 6'3" Marvin Gentry, who achieved near-normalcy from the perimeter with 34 percent three-point shooting. If freshmen like 6'5" wing Alvin Mitchell or 6'3" guard Larry Davis show any ability to make either twos or threes (let alone both), they should get minutes.
Though Vaughn has shown promise for the future, the present-tense MVP for this team in 2007 was unquestionably John Williamson. At 6'6", Williamson is working at a decided size disadvantage playing in the paint for Cronin. Yet he was both the Bearcats' most efficient offensive option (he made his twos; none of Cronin's other returning players can say that) and their best defensive rebounder. Williamson will be joined down low this season by Anthony McClain, a 6'11" freshman who's expected to provide help right away on the defensive end. Adam Hrycaniuk, a 6'11" senior, is also available, which is more than can be said for Mike Williams. A 6'7" transfer from Texas, Williams is out for the year after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon the first week in October. These Bearcats aren't exactly going to scare anyone in 2008, but they can at least show enough progress for fans to be encouraged if their shots start falling and, more importantly, if their opponents' threes stop falling.
What Connecticut did well: Defense.
A lot changed in Storrs last year, to say the least, but one very big thing didn't change at all. Literally, not at all….
Connecticut Defense, 2006-07, Conference games only
W-L points per possession
2006 14-2 0.96
2007 6-10 0.96
Connecticut opponents last year struggled mightily to score points. The Huskies were able to offset slight declines in their defensive rebounding and in their 2FG defense by dramatically increasing the number of turnovers they extracted from opponents. Give the credit to Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins, who each recorded steals at a high rate (Dyson was on the floor a lot more than Wiggins was.)
Give even more credit to Jim Calhoun, who was able to maintain defensive stability in the face of seismic personnel change. The top ten players in Calhoun's rotation last year were all freshmen or sophomores. Nevertheless, this was the best defense in the Big East in 2007, a hair better than Georgetown's, Louisville's or Pitt's.
What we learned in 2007: You can have the best defense in the conference and still lose a lot of games.
In light of the above numbers--no change in the defense, big change in wins and losses--it will come as no surprise that UConn's offense struggled last year. Some drop-off from 2006 was all but inevitable. Calhoun's team two seasons ago, which lost in overtime in the Elite Eight to George Mason, had five of its players selected in the first 40 picks of the 2006 draft (Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone and Denham Brown).
What wasn't inevitable, however, was the severity of the decline. This wasn't a drop-off, it was a total collapse. Calhoun's young team couldn't get the ball in the basket, either from outside or in close. Among 73 major-conference teams last year, only Rutgers shot worse from the field during conference play than did Connecticut. The Huskies' shots went exclusively to young and unproven players, because that's the only kind of player Calhoun had on hand last year. The misses and losses accumulated accordingly.
What's in store for 2008: Connecticut will be better than 6-10 this year. We know because they were better than 6-10 last year. Their point differential per possession against Big East foes was far better than that posted by St. John's, even though the Red Storm went 7-9.
That being said, even a better-than-it-looked 6-10 record signaled real problems on offense. Take Jeff Adrien, who was a poster child for what's often an inverse relationship between efficiency and prominence. In 2006, albeit in limited minutes, the guy was a regular Joey Dorsey on paper, hitting 61 percent of his twos and getting to an unbelievable number of offensive boards. Strictly speaking, he was the most efficient offensive player for what is regarded as possibly the most talented college team of the modern era. Of course, "strictly speaking" here is merely a synonym for "not really." Last year, Adrien got a taste of life without Gay, Armstrong, Boone and Williams. It must have come as a rude awakening: his efficiency plummeted as his shots suddenly weren't so uncontested.
Even at reduced effectiveness, however, Adrien was a better option on offense than many of his teammates. If Adrien can supply some offense down low, the defense is already taken care of. Swatting away fully 15 percent of opponents' twos during his minutes, 7'3" sophomore Hasheem Thabeet is the best shot-blocker in major-conference basketball...and little else, yet. Fellow sophomore Stanley Robinson is unique: he's 6'9", yet last year he actually shot better on his threes (38 percent) than on his twos (37 percent). Further depth will be supplied by 6'9" sophomore Curtis Kelly, who saw limited action as a freshman but showed promise in the areas of shot-blocking and offensive rebounding.
The UConn backcourt is readily described and, therefore, really tough to coach. It'd be easy enough for me to hold forth learnedly about how the aforementioned Jerome Dyson shot and missed way too much last year. (He did.) Only thing: who, exactly, should be taking those shots instead? I don't know. I don't think Calhoun knows, either. He'll have to wait, watch and hope for someone to emerge from this hitherto bricklaying backcourt with unprecedented accuracy on their shot.
One player Calhoun will be watching closely is 6'2" junior A.J. Price. The one-time McDonald's All-American missed two full seasons to start his career. He suffered a brain hemorrhage before his freshman year and was diagnosed with cerebral arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Then, after he'd undergone treatment and was awaiting medical clearance, he was arrested in August of 2005 when he and two others tried to sell laptops that had allegedly been stolen from students' rooms in Price's dorm. When he at last made it onto the court last year, he struggled with his shot. What got lost in the shuffle of what was undeniably a disappointing season was that Price actually did an excellent job quarterbacking an offense with almost literally no weapons. He posted an assist rate that was topped among Big East players only by Eugene Lawrence of St. John's.
Also available for backcourt duty are Craig Austrie (a 6'3" junior who actually started for the '06 team until Marcus Williams became eligible) and Doug Wiggins (a 6'1" sophomore who, as noted above, has exhibited a flair for steals but hasn't found the range on his shot). Again, anyone here who catches fire on offense, or even tosses off a small spark, should see their minutes increase. Improvement is a low-risk forecast for Connecticut in 2008. This is a young team that brings everyone back and that had really bad luck last year. So, yes, UConn will improve. Just remember, though, that there's a ceiling on how much this team can improve. It's called the offense. And until Calhoun finds a scorer or two, it will be hit and miss in Storrs.
What DePaul did well: Transform the same players into a different team.
In 2006, the Blue Demons' defense was really bad, allowing 1.09 points per possession in the Big East as the team went 5-11. Then in 2007, that same defense was excellent, giving up just 0.98 points per trip in-conference and carrying the Demons to a very respectable 9-7 record.
Same coach (Jerry Wainwright). Same players (almost entirely). What made the difference? Before you say something like "maturity" or "meshing as a team," keep in mind that no amount of maturity or meshing last year could help an offense that was declining significantly at the same time that the defense was improving dramatically. So what gives?
What we learned in 2007: A team can get better and worse at the same time.
In Big East play, DePaul was an excellent defensive rebounding team. Only Pitt did better on the defensive glass than the Blue Demons did. For that, Demon fans can thank Wilson Chandler (last seen wearing a Knicks cap and hugging Spike Lee at Radio City Music Hall on draft night) and Marcus Heard, who both did a nice job denying offensive boards to opponents. In Chandler's case this was no surprise, but in Heard's case, frankly, it was. His 2006 numbers on the defensive glass, albeit in limited action, offered little to suggest that he would one day help fuel a defensive resurgence at DePaul. Equally surprising for a team with no starter taller than 6'8", the Demons' interior D was strong across the board. Not only did they hit they defensive glass, they held Big East opponents to 44 percent shooting on their twos. All in all it was a striking performance coming from virtually the same group of players who brought us the conference's worst non-Notre Dame defense in 2006.
So the defense was a feel-good story. Really, the season as a whole was a feel-good story. Coming off a 2006 campaign in which their record was too woeful for even the NIT, DePaul beat visiting Kansas by seven in December and achieved legitimate NCAA tournament bubble status in March.
Then again, the offense was another kind of story entirely. When all was said and done, it had dipped almost (though not quite) as much as the defense had improved. After scoring 1.05 points per trip in-conference in 2006, Wainwright's team managed just 0.99 points per possession in Big East play last year. What was the problem?
Over the past few seasons the Demons hadn't shot many threes. Last year, they actually launched enough attempts from beyond the arc to verge on normalcy. That can only be termed really bad timing: this team made just 29 percent of their threes in-conference, far and away the worst figure in the Big East. Three-point shooting was a drag on an offense that didn't do anything else well enough to offset the damage.
What's in store for 2008: After two years of almost seamless continuity in personnel, change is in the air on Fullerton Avenue. Mac Koshwal, a 6'11" freshman from Chicago, is the most highly-decorated recruit to land at DePaul in a long while. Big things are expected and, as always with big expectations, we'll know a lot more once we've actually seen him on the floor for a few games.
Koshwal will be joining a frontcourt that's almost as inexperienced as he is. The veteran of this group is senior Wesley Green, who averaged just 12 minutes a game last year. Green has battled throughout his career to keep his weight down and is currently listed at 6'9", 300 (meaning he's probably closer to 6'8", 315). To date ,he's provided adequate defensive rebounding and little else. Junior college transfer Matija Poscic, a 6'10" junior, will also get a long look. In the absence of Chandler and Heard, there are now plenty of minutes available down in the paint.
In the backcourt, 6'4" senior Draelon Burns is likely to inherit a lot of shots this year with Chandler and Sammy Mejia gone. That's not necessarily good news for the Blue Demon offense. True, Burns takes good care of the ball and is a fair three-point shooter (37 percent). Last year, at least, his preference was to try and create points inside the arc. Given that Burns was able to make just 45 percent of his twos against defenses preoccupied with Chandler and Mejia, a Burns-focused offense in 2008 may not be a particularly efficient one.
Maybe Wainwright can move a few of Burns' shots over to Karron Clarke. The 6'6" senior wing is the archetypal efficient role player. Operating on the periphery of his team's offense last year, Clarke proved to be good on his threes (39 percent) and really good on his twos (57 percent). Watch that second number, in particular, dip this year as the senior is called upon to shoulder more of the load on offense. Still, Clarke has at least earned the chance to see what he can do with more shots on his plate. He'll be competing for minutes and shots this season with 6'4" freshman Dar Tucker. Another option for backcourt minutes is Will Walker, a 6'0" sophomore whose main contributions thus far have been on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Bizoukas, a 6'1" freshman, has also seen minutes early.
That brings us to point guard, an area of concern for Wainwright this year. The two candidates for minutes, 6'4" junior Jabari Currie and 6'1" senior Cliff Clinkscales, are both pass-first points who've struggled mightily to hold on to the ball. The Demons were able to hide this quite effectively in 2007 simply by limiting the minutes for these two. That may not be an option this year, however, and a higher turnover rate for the team as a whole would be little short of disastrous for a group that already has question marks on offense.
DePaul the program is trending in the right direction. They're seeing their players' names called out on draft night and landing recruits like Koshwal, who was pursued by the likes of Louisville, Tennessee and USC. DePaul the team may not be easy on the eyes this year. We've seen that the Demons were strong on defense and weak on offense last year. This year's team will have to start almost from scratch on both sides of the ball.
What Georgetown did well: Serve as the ideal poster children for tempo-free stats.
Bless you, John Thompson III, for bringing us the perfect team to demonstrate the value of tempo-free statistics. Georgetown averaged just 67 points a game in Big East play. Never mind. Those points were scored by an offense that was far and away the best one in the conference and one of the two or three best in the nation in 2007. This team scored 1.14 points per possession in Big East play. The Hoyas' point totals were relatively low only because they played at such a slow pace.
Slowest Major-Conference Teams, 2007, Conference games only
per 40 minutes
Arizona State 58.2
Washington State 59.9
Even these numbers are deceiving: Georgetown committed a lot of turnovers in 2007, giving the ball to Big East opponents on almost 24 percent of their trips. This actually inflated their number of possessions. In terms of true volitional speed, only Arizona State was slower than the Hoyas last year.
Georgetown games looked strange. Characteristics that are customarily antithetical were brought into systematic harmony by GU. As an aberrantly slow team that committed a lot of turnovers, the Hoyas ended a possession with a shot, whether from the field or the line, only about 45 times per conference game in 2007. (Compare this to North Carolina's number: the Heels ended a possession with a shot about 61 times a game in the ACC.) The defining characteristic of this team, however, is that those shots, though remarkably few in number, went in. Again, and again, and again, the shots went in.
What we learned in 2007: Stars can improve.
Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert took a lot of the Hoyas' shots in each of the past two years. The triumphal Final Four season in 2007 was due, arguably, to the maturation of these two players. Aside from some sub-par three-point shooting in 2006, Green was consistently good on offense over the course of his career; last year he made the leap to another level. Same with Hibbert. Both players went from good to outstanding last year in terms of two-point shooting.
2FG Percentage 2006 2007
Jeff Green 49.8 55.9
Roy Hibbert 59.0 67.1
To be sure, there was improvement happening all over the place last year along the Potomac. Even as the offense was going through the roof in 2007, the Hoya defense was becoming significantly more stingy. Opponents found it much tougher to make their twos last year than they had in 2006. The engine that powered this team to the Final Four, though, was two-point shooting by Green and Hibbert. For a Princeton-inflected offense, Georgetown shot an abnormally small number of threes last year, and with good reason: the results in the paint were too stellar to pass up.
What's in store for 2008: It's odd to say about a seven-footer who's been selected as his conference's preseason player of the year, but if it's possible, Roy Hibbert is still being underrated. Just look at everything he brings to the table.
It's not just that Hibbert is a high-possession-usage player who makes 67 percent of his twos. On top of that, he gets to almost 15 percent of his team's misses when he's in the game. Add in the fact that he takes excellent care of the ball, and Hibbert is quite possibly the single most effective offensive player in major-conference hoops. On defense his rebounding is, granted, strangely average. Not surprisingly, he's an excellent shot-blocker. Hibbert alone makes Georgetown a bona fide Final Four threat.
Hibbert is getting some highly-decorated help this year in the form of two freshmen who have arrived with the McDonald's All-American seal of approval. Austin Freeman, a 6'4" shooting guard from DeMatha High School, and Chris Wright, a 6'1" point guard from Bowie, Maryland, figure to anchor Hoya backcourts of the future. In the present, however, they'll complement veterans Jonathan Wallace and Jessie Sapp. Wallace is renowned for the biggest shot of Georgetown's entire season, the three against North Carolina in the Elite Eight that sent the game into OT. Now, coming off a season in which he made 49 percent of his threes, the 6'1" senior has been named to the preseason All-Big East first team. (Like everything with this Brobdingnagian conference, the "first" team is plus-sized, having no fewer than 11 players.) Keep this in mind, though: assuming Jeremiah Rivers is on the bench, Wallace is the player, more than any other, who can help this team most by cutting down on his turnovers.
Sapp is Thompson's best bet to record a steal but, unlike Wallace, he's questionable at the free throw line. Meantime DaJuan Summers, a 6'8" sophomore wing, is already being portrayed as the next Jeff Green. In fact he's a different player. Green was a slasher who hit an occasional three. Summers is a wing who's more comfortable on the perimeter. His three-point shooting was poor last year but decent free throw shooting (76 percent) holds out the promise of improvement from beyond the arc.
Hibbert's shot-blocking last year obscured a Georgetown weakness: defensive rebounding. Vernon Macklin (a 6'9" sophomore) and/or Patrick Ewing (a 6'8" senior) improving to be as good as Green was on the defensive glass last year would be a good sign. Better work on the defensive boards would help the Hoya D weather the inevitable minutes that Hibbert will spend on the bench with foul trouble.
Replacing Jeff Green will be no small task. It will be much easier for Thompson's team to achieve the same result a different way: by committing fewer turnovers. (More possessions going through Hibbert, this team's most trusty caretaker of the ball, should help this along.) Just look at Butler last year: fewer giveaways can offset fewer makes. If Thompson's players take this lesson to heart, we may see the Hoyas in San Antonio come April.
What Louisville did well: Get more shots than their opponents.
The Cardinals received a surprising amount of preseason hype for a team whose games were so even in so many categories last year. Louisville's opponents didn't shoot very well from the perimeter in 2007 but, then again, neither did Louisville. Rick Pitino's team didn't fare especially well on the defensive glass but, then again, neither did the opponents. Yet somehow Cards are a consensus co-favorite, along with Georgetown, for the Big East championship and ranked in the top ten nationally.
Seen in another light, however, the attention paid to Louisville is understandable and indeed entirely appropriate. The Cardinals turned the ball over just 17 percent of the time in conference play, while their opponents coughed it up on 23 percent of their trips. That imbalance in turnovers was one of the largest in the country last year.
Turnover Margin, 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
Opponent TO percentage
Minus Team TO percentage
Seton Hall +5.2
Texas Tech +4.7
Granted the other teams in that chart aren't exactly A-list. The difference is that Louisville last year combined ball-control with talent in a way that perhaps no other team has since Illinois in 2005. Take away this imbalance in turnovers and the Cardinals were merely good, a solid above-.500 team. For all their undeniable talent, it was their mere ability to hold on to the ball, and their determination to take it away from the other team, that carried them to a 12-4 record in the Big East. That bodes very well for the Cards' future. If their shooting and their FG defense improve, even a little, the results could be impressive indeed.
What we learned in 2007: Terrence Williams must stop shooting threes.
Drop a hint, text the guy, write his congressman if you have to. For a player who misses so many threes, Williams sure shoots a lot of them. Last year he not only came in below the perimeter-shooting Mendoza line, he didn't even get close enough to wave at it, hitting just 26 percent of his threes while attempting five per game. He fared a little better from outside in 2006 as a freshman. Williams' performance in other facets of the game should not be overlooked. While functioning as his team's leading scorer last year, he recorded assists at a higher rate than any of his teammates. The 6'6" junior takes excellent care of the ball and is surprisingly good on the defensive glass. Yet the fact remains: he's a career 28 percent three-point shooter. If he sees the light, his team can benefit greatly. Consider that Louisville had a very good offense last year despite shooting just 33 percent on their aberrantly frequent threes. (Only West Virginia devoted a larger share of their shots to attempts from beyond the arc in Big East play.) Subtract even a few of Williams' staggeringly abundant misses, and watch this offense go from very good (1.09 points per trip in-conference) to downright Georgetown-esque (1.14).
What's in store for 2008: It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a slimmed-down Derrick Caracter in possession of playing time must be a star. He had a big reputation coming out of high school and during his limited minutes as a freshman last year he jacked up shots at an unmistakable nascent-star pace. But Pitino has stipulated that the 6'9" Caracter stay under 270 pounds. The glimpses Caracter gave in 2007 suggest he'll be a scoring power forward as opposed to a defensive four. Also note, however, that if Caracter continues to record offensive rebounds at anywhere near the rate he did last year, he will give Joey Dorsey of Memphis a run for his money as the nation's supreme beast of the offensive glass.
Speaking of offense-first big men, Caracter will be joining 6'11" senior David Padgett in the paint. Like Caracter, Padgett saw limited minutes in 2007, though in Padgett's case this was due to a combination of lingering knee issues and foul trouble. The former, it is said, are no longer a worry. Padgett didn't see the ball very often even when he was on the floor last year, but when he did the results were outstanding, thanks mainly to his propensity for getting fouled and his 82 percent FT shooting. Though below-average on the defensive glass, Padgett is also a fair shot-blocker.
Rounding out the frontcourt are two 6'8" players with differing body types and levels of name recognition, but surprisingly similar profiles: senior Juan Palacios and sophomore Earl Clark. The 250-pound Palacios gets to about 17 percent of opponents' misses when he's in the game, hits a hair more than half his twos, and launches an occasional three. All of the above can also be said of the 220-pound Clark. Palacios, however, strained a knee ligament in practice in mid-October and is expected to be sidelined until December. (Note also that at this writing, George Goode, a 6'8" freshman who comes moderately- to highly-touted, has not yet been deemed eligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse.)
Point guard Edgar Sosa showed unmistakable promise as a freshman last year. At 6'1", Sosa took care of the ball, harassed opposing guards and hit just enough shots to merit further, though provisional, green lights. He's backed up by 5'10" junior Andre McGee, a pass-first point whose turnovers were virtually the only blemish on an otherwise beautiful team-wide low-TO performance. Shooting guard Jerry Smith, a 6'1" sophomore, hit 48 percent of his threes last year and thus has earned the opportunity to at least see what he can do with a few more possessions, likely purchased at Williams' expense. Depth at the two is furnished by 6'3" junior Will Scott.
When it comes to distributing minutes, Pitino apparently takes his inspiration from the Chinese People's Liberation Army circa November 1950. This team comes at you in waves. Williams aside, no one was on the court more than 65 percent of the time last year. Now these well-balanced Cardinals are receiving a good deal of November admiration. If the presence of a newly svelte Caracter and a newly healthy Padgett on the floor together lowers the number of threes shot by Williams, it will mean an even better offense. It could also net Louisville that much more valuable, yet elusive, commodity: April admiration.
What Marquette did well: Work around their mediocre shooting.
Marquette returns their top seven scorers from an NCAA tournament team and is ranked in the preseason top 25. There's a lingering question about this group, however, and it concerns their ability to get the ball in the basket.
The Golden Eagles' best offensive tactic last year entailed a missed shot, for Tom Crean's men comprised one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. Consider it a benefit of this team's undeniable athleticism. Entire conferences (the Big Ten and especially the Missouri Valley) have virtually written off offensive rebounding entirely for fear of allowing points in transition. Having strong, fleet slashers like Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal allowed Marquette to crash the offensive glass last year without surrendering too many fast breaks on the other end.
In a year when Rutgers and Connecticut posted abysmal effective FG percentages, MU was by no means the worst-shooting team in the conference. Nevertheless, their relatively abundant misses afforded them ample opportunity to hone their craft on the offensive glass. The Eagles and Villanova were the only Big East teams to reach the NCAA tournament last year in spite of below-average shooting from the field. Marquette's shooting was an obstacle in its own path. They got around it and made it as far as a first-round loss to Michigan State in the tournament.
What we learned in 2007: Change can be good and bad at the same time.
Two big changes took place last year in Milwaukee. First, Marquette went from getting hardly any turnovers from opponents to gathering them up in bunches. Only Louisville was better at getting Big East teams to commit turnovers. This new skill was essential because the Golden Eagles were not a very good defensive rebounding team. For a group that's not especially big, they do a good job pressuring the ball and contesting shots; preventing shots entirely was the strength of this defense last year. Give the lion's share of the credit here to Jerel McNeal, who along with Mario Chalmers of Kansas is one of the best on-ball defenders in major-conference basketball. Opposing guards tremble at McNeal's approach. Or should.
Second, MU's perimeter shooting went from excellent to pretty bad. Consequently the Eagles' offense as a whole slid from very good to slightly above-average in 2007, as Marquette in effect played a Steve Novak-oriented spread-the-floor attack without Steve Novak.
What's in store for 2008: Crean's team is widely expected to improve this year because everyone is back. Where will that improvement come from?
The defense was right at the Big East average last year, allowing conference opponents 1.01 points per trip. For a guard-focused team like Crean's, it's hard to envision scenarios in which this changes appreciably. Opponents' turnovers are about as plentiful as they can get, and with just one player on the roster taller than 6'9", it's unlikely that the Golden Eagles' interior D will suddenly become forbiddingly tough. So this year's expected improvement may have to come from the offense, ideally in the form of better shooting from Crean's celebrated trio of juniors in the backcourt: Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews.
As noted above, the 6'3" McNeal is one of the best defensive guards in the nation. Yet his extreme prominence in the offense last year--no Big East player posted a higher percentage of possessions used--was not an unalloyed good for his team. McNeal proved beyond doubt he can get the ball to the open man, but he missed a great many shots and turned the ball over more frequently per individual possession than any other player in the regular rotation.
James is an excellent point guard who has yet to intuit that he can't make threes. A career 28 percent three-point shooter, he nevertheless keeps firing away with grim determination from beyond the arc. All those errant shots obscure the fact that the 5'11" James, with a little newfound discretion in his shot selection, could mount a solid case for being the best point guard in the Big East. He takes care of the ball, dishes assists and pressures opposing guards into turnovers.
Last year Matthews surely had the highest offensive rating of any player ever to shoot just 29 percent on his threes. This was accomplished through good free throw shooting by a 6'5" wing that was fouled often. Also, Matthews' shooting inside the arc improved dramatically last year, going from catastrophic to OK. He's my choice as Crean's best bet for more efficient scoring in 2008. Free throws and 2006, in that order, suggest that Matthews is actually a better perimeter shooter than he showed last year.
The McNeal/James/Matthews trio will be supported by 6'0" sophomore David Cubillan, a classic spot-up shooter who made 42 percent of his threes last year. Also on hand this season will be Maurice Acker, a transfer from Ball State who was the Cardinals' starting point guard as a freshman in 2006. In Muncie, Acker dished assists and earned MAC freshman of the year honors. However he also struggled mightily with his shot while coughing the ball up a bit too much for comfort.
Contrary to rumor, Marquette does have players besides guards. Ousmane Barro, a 6'10" senior from Senegal, is a good offensive rebounder who's charged with producing the bulk of MU's defensive rebounding and shot-blocking. Any improvement on the defensive glass, where Barro got to less than 17 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes last year, would be huge for his team. On most rosters, 6'9" senior Dan Fitzgerald would be a small forward, but at Marquette he's a power forward who shoots threes quite well. In limited minutes as a freshman last year, 6'6" Lazar Hayward shot frequently and well inside the arc but should probably think twice about launching any more threes. All of the above will be joined by 6'7" freshman Trevor Mbakwe.
There's unquestionably talent and depth in Milwaukee this season. On the other hand there's not a lot of size. Those are the givens. The most critical variables are whether the shooting and defensive rebounding will improve enough to fulfill the expectations placed upon this talented and deep team.
What Notre Dame did well: Improve dramatically on defense.
The Fighting Irish went from playing some of the worst defense in major-conference basketball in 2006 to being almost exactly average on D in 2007. Two seasons ago, Mike Brey's team allowed Big East opponents to score 1.12 points per possession. Last year that figure was 1.01. Among power-conference teams nationally in 2007, only DePaul improved as much on defense within their conference as did the Irish. It was the difference between going to the NIT in 2006 and an NCAA tournament berth last year, where ND lost in the first round to Winthrop.
The problem two seasons ago was simple. Opposing teams never turned the ball over. Ever.
Fewest Opponent Turnovers, 2006 & 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
Notre Dame, 2006 13.9
Stanford, 2007 15.5
Connecticut, 2006 16.3
South Florida, 2007 17.1
NC State, 2007 17.1
Watching your opponents commit turnovers on just 14 percent of their possessions is a good way to give up a lot of points. In 2007, by contrast, that same figure was a much more normal 20 percent. The arrival last year of Tory Jackson helped these numbers along, as the precocious 5'11" freshman recorded steals at a rate surpassed by just four other players in the Big East.
What we learned in 2007: Don't wait until you're a senior to have your best season.
Did you know that Colin Falls had an outstanding senior season last year? I didn't think so.
The advent of early departures to the NBA has bequeathed a widespread presumption that, the occasional J.J. Redick or Acie Law notwithstanding, a college basketball player who's a senior must not be all that good. If he had any talent, it is thought, he'd be gone by now. That presumption may have deprived Falls of some well-deserved hype last year, when he was one of the most efficient offensive players in the nation. Falls functioned mostly as an accurate spot-up shooter, but in addition he was fouled steadily and hit 83 percent of his free throws.
Falls is also a good example of how a 16-team super-conference can eat its own when it comes to recognition. He was named first-team All-Big East last year, but then again, who wasn't? Including the 11 individuals named to the first team, no fewer than 28 players were either first- or second-team All-Big East or received honorable mention. In other words 35 percent of the starters in the conference were honored in some fashion. Parents of Lake Wobegon, send your hoops-playing sons to the Big East, where every player is above average.
What's in store for 2008: In mid-October Luke Harangody tore a ligament in his thumb, but the burly 6'8" sophomore has already returned to action. This came as good news to my Basketball Prospectus colleague Ken Pomeroy, who clearly has an all-consuming man-crush on Harangody. Last year, Ken's crush drove an agenda. Early in the season, Brey wasn't starting Harangody, despite stats that had Ken begging the coach to give this kid some minutes. Brey eventually saw the light, however, and now Ken has fearlessly predicted that Harangody will have a year in 2008 a lot like the season LSU's Glen Davis had in 2006: good defensive rebounding, outstanding offensive rebounding and very good offensive efficiency within a prominent high-possession-usage role.
Last year, Harangody and Falls had nothing on Rob Kurz, yet another highly efficient offensive producer in an Irish uniform. The 6'9" Kurz shot free throws more frequently than any player in the Big East besides Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet. Given that Kurz made 82 percent of all those free throws, that was very good news for the Notre Dame offense. Kurz, a senior, will be joined down low by 6'9" junior Zach Hillesland and 6'10" junior Luke Zeller. Hillesland and Kurz each get to 19 percent of opponents' misses during their respective minutes. Zeller actually hit 40 percent of his threes while attempting a little more than one per game. Additional depth will be supplied by Carleton Scott, a 6'7" freshman.
The aforementioned Tory Jackson assumed point-guard duty around the start of calendar '07 and did quite well. He was emphatically a pass-first point last year, and rightfully so, given his iffy shooting. He dished assists with admirable regularity, and the relative frequency of his free throws testified to his aggressive streak. A little aggression at the point may be a good thing on a roster populated with more than its fair share of very good spot-up shooters.
Kyle McAlarney opened last year as the starting point guard, but was suspended from the team in late December after being arrested for marijuana possession. Now he's back, but with Jackson's emergence, the 6'0" junior will likely play many of his minutes off the ball. Also available for Brey will be: Ryan Ayers, a 6'7" junior who's been a spot-up shooter to date; 6'3" sophomore Jonathan Peoples, who couldn't get on the floor last year; and 6'8" freshman Tyrone Nash.
The defense in South Bend figures to again be average, possibly even a little better than average. The real strength of the Irish last year was three-point shooting, a category in which Brey's team was the tallest midget in the Big East circus, so to speak. The conference as a whole shot just 33.8 percent on threes in Big East play last year. Notre Dame making 37.9 percent of their threes against Big East foes may not look earth-shattering, but it was the best mark in the conference. Now, however, the players responsible for fully 63 percent of all those attempts, Colin Falls and Russell Carter, are gone. Given that the Irish in the Brey era shoot a lot of threes, how far this team goes will depend in large part on how well players unaccustomed to shooting a lot of threes perform. McAlarney, for one, was hitting his threes before he took his unscheduled leave of absence. Irish fans hope that continues.
What Pittsburgh did well: Improve their performance, even without a key player.
Pitt entered last year having lost longtime point guard Carl Krauser and ended up doing fine, going 12-4 in the Big East. Their perimeter FG defense improved noticeably and they recorded more steals. Otherwise it was steady as she goes statistically speaking.
This year it's widely expected that with seven-footer Aaron Gray now a fixture on the Chicago Bulls' bench, the Panthers' record will suffer, at least a little. Unlike last year, that's probably a well-founded expectation. Pitt's record will suffer, a little.
Coach Jamie Dixon needs to find the following in Gray's absence: defensive boards, two-pointers, offensive boards and blocked shots. Gray was one of the best defensive rebounders in the country last year, and almost single-handedly responsible for Pitt's status as the best defensive rebounding team in Big East play. Dixon knows replacing these boards will be critical. Pitt keys its defense off of an insistent one-and-done approach to opponents' shots. So Dixon has stockpiled enough large bodies to move a concert grand. Their job is to get defensive boards. Any scoring will be a bonus.
The erstwhile Panther pivot was also excellent on the offensive glass. This, in particular, figures to be an area where Pitt's performance does indeed decline without Gray. The Panthers have been something of an anomaly the past couple seasons. The slow-paced team that's outstanding on the defensive glass is found in many college basketball locales. See the current team, UCLA, of the former Pitt coach, Ben Howland. Or throw a stick at the Big Ten--you'll hit eight such squads. But the Panthers of late have been a slow-paced team that gets rebounds on both the defensive and offensive ends. That may change this year, as Pitt gets to fewer of their own misses and reverts to the more standard template.
What we learned in 2007: Perimeter shooting can be the strength of a team that doesn't shoot from the perimeter.
Last year the Panthers ran their offense through Gray and, when he was available, undersized power forward Sam Young. Gray made 57 percent of his twos; while that was 10 points lower than what Roy Hibbert was doing at Georgetown, there was no shortage of big men in D-I last year who lagged behind Hibbert's numbers. No shame there. Young was markedly less efficient in his scoring than Gray was, but Young was suffering from tendinitis.
Meanwhile, two-guard Ronald Ramon was making 45 percent of his threes. Point guard Levance Fields couldn't match that, but together the pair shot 41 percent from beyond the arc. Though Ramon and Fields were mere complementary scorers and Dixon's team shot threes but rarely, this was actually the strength of a very good offense. The question for 2008 is whether opposing defenses will continue to give as many open looks to Ramon and Fields without Gray to fret about in the paint.
What's in store for 2008: A lot of possessions this year will go through the reportedly now-healthy Young, a 6'6" junior. If a healthy Young can exhibit more efficient production on offense than did a gimpy Young, that will be huge for Pitt this season. Meantime, given Young's hitherto anemic assist rate, opposing teams will start from the assumption that they can double him without fear: once he gets the ball it's going to be a shot, period. Nor, judging by performance to date, does he need to be guarded on the perimeter. Young will be backed up by 6'8" junior Tyrell Biggs.
A committee of big men will be called upon to replace Gray, starting with DeJuan Blair, a 6'7", 265-pound freshman. Blair has been a starter in the exhibition season, and what he may lack in height he's made up for in action, posting a double-double in just 19 minutes in one instance. Other possibilities in the paint include Cassin Diggs, a 6'10" junior college transfer, and 6'10" freshman Gary McGhee.
Mike Cook didn't stand out last year in any one area but he did a lot of different things pretty well. The 6'4" wing took care of the ball, dished assists more frequently than anyone except Fields, and shot pretty well from the field. Now a senior, Cook will be backed by Gilbert Brown, a 6'6" redshirt freshman.
Levance Fields, Dixon's 5'10" junior point guard, didn't start the school year very well. If you haven't heard the story here, suffice it to say the key word is "taser." Fields was indeed subdued by a police officer armed with said instrument at a Pittsburgh nightspot in September. Dixon banished Fields from practice for two weeks, and now the junior point guard is back in the fold, vowing to behave. Last year Fields was solid across the board. Modest improvement his junior year will be enough to make him an excellent point guard. Depth at the point will be furnished by 6'4" freshman Brad Wanamaker.
As mentioned above, 6'1" senior Ronald Ramon has functioned as a highly efficient supporting player up to this point. While he turns the ball over a hair more often than you'd like from your spot-up shooter, uncanny accuracy from the floor has more than made up for that. With Gray gone, more possessions will now come Ramon's way. The test will be how well he can sustain his efficiency while playing a more prominent role in the offense. Also available is Keith Benjamin, a 6'2" senior.
There's been talk this year about how a new-look no-Gray Panther team is going to run the floor and increase the tempo. It could happen, sure, but don't bet the farm just yet. Dixon may let his foot off the brake enough for the pace to creep up a little from last year's mark of 62 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference. (The were the slowest non-Georgetown team in the Big East.) Even so, this team isn't going to look like North Carolina or Kansas any time soon.
Pitt this year could have the makings of an interesting test for its coach. The Howland/Dixon preference, doubtless, would be to continue life as an old-school pound-it-down-low kind of team. The makeup of this year's personnel, however, would seem to suggest that a more perimeter-oriented approach may be in order. Coaches often talk about modifying their styles year-to-year, depending on the players on hand. Dixon will have to decide if this is one of those years.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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