Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

January 20, 2010

Big Ten speeds up, ACC slows down

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:07 pm

Yesterday Josh at Big Ten Geeks offered the perfect paradoxical summary of his slow conference’s relative acceleration: “The national average is 68.2 [possessions per 40 minutes] on this season, putting every Big Ten team below that threshold. That said, this is a bit faster than last year’s 61-possession pace.” Precisely. The Big Ten, ladies and gentlemen: Faster than 2009, slower than everyone else.

Speeding up to be slow 
Major-conference tempos, 2009 vs. 2010
Conference games only, 2010 figures through games of January 19
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes

             2010    2009    Change(%)
Big 12       70.4    68.0      +3.5
SEC          69.3    70.0      none
ACC          68.4    69.8      -2.0
Big East     67.9    67.4      none
Pac-10       66.0    63.2      +4.4
Big Ten      64.4    60.9      +5.7
 

A game with 64 possessions isn’t going to leave anyone thinking they’ve just seen a track meet, of course, but you have to go back to 2006 to find the last time the Big Ten played this “fast.” 

In November I projected that the Big Ten would finish the year averaging 64 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference. That looks good so far, as does my prediction that the traditionally fast ACC will finish 2010 slower than both the SEC and the Big 12. (Wow, I feel like Prospectus Emeritus Nate Silver!)

Where I screwed up, though, was with the Pac-10. Based on what I saw from them in November I thought the league would clock in at 63 trips per 40 minutes in conference play, giving the Big Ten official No Longer Slowest! bragging rights. Alas, that ain’t looking likely, as the Pac-10 currently has a comfortable possession-and-a-half lead over Jim Delany‘s league. 

Seth Davis is right, and so am I

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:17 am

When Seth Davis posted his latest installment of Hoop Thoughts at SI.com on Monday, I of course zeroed in on this:

I’m a little surprised that more details haven’t leaked out about the statement of facts the NCAA sent to Mississippi State last week about Renardo Sidney. From what I’m hearing, there are some extremely problematic allegations in that document. The school has the option of challenging those facts, but I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Sidney will not play a minute of college basketball.

I’m inexorably drawn to paragraphs suggesting that one of my reckless predictions from the previous decade may actually be proven correct. So I printed that passage verbatim on a t-shirt and went happily about my business.

Others, however, read the same series of Hoop Thoughts and came away with a different reaction:

C’mon, @SethDavisHoops. What did @JohnGasaway say about killing #unicornstat “rebound margin”?

Who, what, where? What’d I miss? Oh, right. Further up in that same piece by Davis…. 

The thing I most respect about Villanova is that even though they have small teams every year, they still do a great job on the boards. This season they have a +6.8 rebound margin, which is ranked fifth in the Big East. I also love that they get to the foul line so often instead of settling for threes.

After all ‘Nova did reach the Final Four last year in part because, as I put it at the time, they were “absolutely insane” on the defensive glass in the tournament. And no one can doubt that Jay Wright‘s team does indeed get to the line a lot.

Well, I certainly don’t see any need for further exegesis here. Nope, no harm, no foul….

What’s that? Davis said what about me?

He is wrong (for once). Coaches cite it all the time. RT @crashthedance: C’mon, What did @JohnGasaway say re #unicornstat “rebounding margin”?

Seth’s right to say that coaches use rebound margin all the time. They do. In fact he would have been even more right if the 140-character limit had given him room to say head coaches cite rebound margin all the time.

Then again the large majority of D-I coaching personnel are not as yet head coaches. These less well-established staff members are in my experience much more open to the idea that there’s a better way to measure how well their team is performing. For example this season I received the following query from a program that’s been to the Final Four in the past five years. Who knows, maybe their head coach would be appalled to learn that his staff was sending me a question like this:

Our coaching staff has been reading and researching quite a bit about some of the better statistical measures to evaluate our team’s performance as opposed to the standard per-game numbers. We are really interested in tracking our Offensive and Defensive Rebounding Percentage. The one question we have not been able to find an answer to is the “target” percentage we should aim for on each end.

A significant minority of these D-I staff members will become head coaches someday, and I recklessly predict that when they do “rebound margin,” while continuing to exist as a vaguely familiar sequence of syllables, will gradually fall into benign neglect as an actual vessel of analysis, about like a pitcher’s sheer number of wins in baseball. The neglect will be both strangely overdue and richly deserved: Rebound margin is a mess.

Take Villanova. The Wildcats’ rebound margin ranks eighth in the league in Big East play. ‘Nova has recorded 178 total rebounds in five conference games; their opponents, coincidentally, have the exact same number. I’m on the record as admitting I really don’t know what to make of a factoid like that, since pace, shooting accuracy, FG defense, and how many turnovers you commit and force will all influence a given team’s “rebound margin.” But if you want to look specifically at rebounding and nothing else, we know exactly how well Villanova’s doing. In Big East play Wright’s team is pulling down a pretty good 35 percent of their own misses (fifth in the league), but a not-as-good 63 percent of opponents’ misses (ninth). 

Again, Seth Davis is correct when he says that coaches cite rebound margin all the time. It’s a stat that’s been around forever and habits die hard. But with each passing season this is one habit that’s being kicked by more and more coaches, writers, and fans. Rightly so.   

January 19, 2010

Manhattan melodrama

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:27 am

Kansas State beat number one-ranked Texas 71-62 in Manhattan last night, and the highest compliment I can pay to the Wildcats is to note that they did so while playing far from their best game. Bob Knight wasn’t just being cantankerous, these two feeble and spasmodic offenses mirrored each other eerily and sequentially. In the first half the Longhorns were dreadful, missing a series of ill-advised shots on those few possessions where they didn’t commit a turnover. (Rick Barnes‘ leading scorer for the evening, Avery Bradley, had 11 points.) Over the first 12 minutes or so of the second half, that torch was passed to K-State, as Frank Martin‘s team gave viewers reason to wonder if there’s a Plan B for this offense on a given possession if, wonder of wonders, they are not fouled. If you look at this box score and assume there must have been some good defense being played in this 80-possession game, keep in mind the two offenses helped this relatively low-scoring result along. A lot.

The exception to that ugly-offense rule was Kansas State’s offensive rebounding, which was superb against a front line that doesn’t exactly lack for size or athleticism. An “assist” in Manhattan more often than not is delivered via the rim or backboard. Jamar Samuels led all scorers with 20 points, a result helped along by the four offensive rebounds he grabbed. By the same token freshman Rodney McGruder hauled down five offensive boards in just 23 minutes, while criminally under-utilized teammate Curtis Kelly found that the best way to get his hands on the ball was to wait patiently for Jacob Pullen (2-of-15–personally I think the beard is getting in the way of his shooting motion) or Denis Clemente (2-of-9) to miss still another shot. Misses aren’t the end of the world in Manhattan: K-State sets the standard on the offensive glass in the Big 12, having rebounded 44 percent of their own misses thus far in conference play.

Again, for a program that’s spent an eternity in the shadow of allegedly snooty neighbors to the east in Lawrence, beating the number one team in the nation without calling upon your best game is, of course, a triumph. This is easily the best Kansas State team I’ve seen. That being said I was more than a little surprised to learn that the Big 12 championship will now run through Manhattan. Really? There must be a typo in the standings that I’m looking at, because the ones I have here say that the Wildcats already have one conference loss; Kansas, as yet, has none. And when you’ve won or shared five consecutive regular season conference titles, I think you’ve earned the “road-goes-through” label until events decree otherwise.

Better to say that the Big 12 North is going to be way tougher for KU than it’s been in recent memory. And in the conference as a whole the Jayhawks, Longhorns, Wildcats, and Missouri all figure to cause each other pain, with Baylor‘s outstanding offense and the traditional challenges of winning on the road functioning as additional wildcards.       

January 18, 2010

Bucks Think Short-Term with Stackhouse

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 4:08 pm

Last Wednesday in Portland, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Tom Enlund asked Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles if the team was going to add someone to the roster following Michael Redd’s season-ending ACL injury. “We’re working on it,” Skiles said with a tone that indicated the chances were better than that. Indeed, less than a week later, the Journal-Sentinel is reporting that the Bucks will sign veteran free agent Jerry Stackhouse for the rest of the season.

Because he was unsigned last summer and did not play at least 250 minutes in 2008-09, Stackhouse did not even get a projection in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10. I just ran his numbers through SCHOENE, which suggests a 50-50 chance Stackhouse beats replacement level with more downside potential than chance of upside. (None of Stackhouse’s top 50 comps–led by Byron Scott, Steve Smith, Johnny Newman and Ron Anderson–bounced back enough to project Stackhouse as an above-average player.)

During his time as a sixth man in Dallas, Stackhouse managed to remain valuable largely because of his ability to get to the free throw line. That dried up the last three seasons, and when his three-point percentage also slipped, Stackhouse was largely a liability in 2007-08 before playing in just 10 games last year due to a foot injury. He may be healthy now, but it’s tough to see him being capable of contributing at a high level.

There’s a much better chance Stackhouse contributes more than rookie Jodie Meeks (who has struggled to a .350 winning percentage so far, but showed flashes against the Blazers) the rest of the way, but that comes at the cost of getting Meeks valuable experience and learning whether he has the potential to be a big contributor for the Bucks down the road. The fact that Milwaukee is still in the playoff race–ninth in the East, two games out of the last spot–makes it somewhat more understandable, but ultimately this is one of those signings I hate for non-contenders.

Weekend in Hoops returns next Monday

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:25 am

Today’s a holiday. Tomorrow I’ll swing back into action with my latest installment of Tuesday Truths. Meantime I see that Arizona State is already getting the holiday love. Whew, glad I got in on that ground floor!  

January 17, 2010

Kansas State’s incredibly numerous fouls, day 8

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 10:21 am

Welcome to continuing coverage of Kansas State‘s incredibly numerous fouls. Last week I noted that: 1) this is the best Wildcat team in years; and 2) they are no stranger to free throws, for and against. Both of this team’s first two conference games featured 70 or more total free throws.

In yesterday’s 87-81 win at Colorado, however, Frank Martin‘s team took FT frequency to new heights, even for them. Fans in Boulder were treated to no fewer than 94 free throws in a 40-minute game. K-State’s number of FTs (54) actually exceeded its number of attempts from the field (53).

As seen in yesterday’s game, the ‘Cats get to the line a lot and certainly that can be an important part of any balanced offense. What’s amazing, though, is that this team is still operating at an overall FT deficit in Big 12 play, having attempted 115 freebies while watching opponents shoot 122. Even by the notably foul-happy standards of the Big 12, Kansas State is on-track to smash major-conference reality on both sides of that equation.

Tomorrow night Kansas State will host number one-ranked Texas in Manhattan, a collision that will be featured as the game of the night on ESPN. It figures to be a great game along classic college hoops lines, the proverbial Toughest Road Test Yet for the nation’s top-ranked team. Just know going in, however, that if performance to date is any indication, there will be a ton of fouls.

January 15, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is a Basketball Prospectus

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:12 am

Yesterday at ESPN.com Andy Katz gave Virginia the love, and why not? Already the ACC’s lone remaining undefeated team in-conference, the Cavaliers are, as Katz notes, “a team that, along with NC State, was picked to finish at the bottom of the ACC.”

Then again not everyone picked Virginia to finish at the bottom of the ACC….

Virginia will almost certainly improve this year, for two reasons wholly unrelated to their new coach. First, the Cavaliers were bad but not unspeakably so last year. Second, almost everyone’s back. Regression to the mean and a team’s level of experience are tidal forces in this here sport. Tony Bennett will have both working in his favor this season….

[T]he two closest recent analogues for Virginia this year are arguably Baylor in 2008 and South Carolina last year. Both of those teams should give Cavalier fans cause for hope in 2010. Two years ago the Bears reached their first NCAA tournament in 20 years; last year the Gamecocks very nearly reached the dance as well, as first-year coach Darrin Horn was widely hailed in Columbia as a miracle-worker.

Coincidentally, Baylor and South Carolina both improved their performance by the exact same amount (0.12 of a point per possession). If Virginia does likewise this season, they should be right around .500 in the ACC. Note the “should.” The past does not mandate the future, nor does efficiency margin translate seamlessly into wins and losses. Luck and happenstance will play their part. In November all any of us can do is traffic in likelihoods. And the likelihood is that Virginia will be much improved in 2010.

One seriously long blockquote notwithstanding, this post is not here to gloat. For one thing my calendar says it’s January 15, way too early to know anything. (Hey, I can be as pro-Hoo as the next writer, but even I remember this team losing at home to Penn State.) And, anyway, that very same ACC preview in that very same book said that North Carolina was going to win the conference. In case you haven’t noticed the Tar Heels haven’t exactly been world-beaters lately.

No, I’m just collaring Bennett’s team to make a timely point. We here at Prospectus are all about accuracy in surprise. Sports will surprise us, thank goodness, and therefore anyone who, like me, is dumb enough to make predictions in public will on occasion be laughably wrong. Clairvoyance is too much to ask but, speaking purely as a fan, what I do ask is that the inevitable surprises at least be reported accurately: This is indeed a big surprise, vs. why on earth is everyone acting so surprised? Those of us working out of the luxe Google-style campus that Prospectus maintains for its hoops types will continue to do our best on this front.

BONUS completely selfless suggestion! Buy the book. It’s good.    

January 13, 2010

Griffin done for the season

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 9:12 pm

Leave it to the Clippers. Just yesterday, in trying to sound a note of optimism, I wrote that the long-suffering Staples Center B-team was the only playoff semi-contender to receive a surefire jolt of top-shelf talent. I presumed that jolt to come from Blake Griffin and that reports that he was going to return this time next week were accurate. Sad to say, Griffin has been declared out for the season after an examination revealed that the non-displaced stress fracture of his left patella has not healed enough for him to play. As a result, Griffin will undergo surgery that will sideline him four-to-six months.

As it turns out, the insight offered by Dr. Bill Carroll in a Kevin Pelton Unfiltered post at the time Griffin was originally hurt were uncanny in their prescience:

“Patellar stress fractures are relatively rare injuries–normally seen in distance runners and those who jump high and, more importantly, land,” wrote Dr. Carroll in an e-mail. “Prognosis will depend on two factors, (1) whether the patellar retinaculum is intact (and it usually is in a stress fracture) and (2) the direction of the fracture–transverse or longitudinal.

“The bad news is it sounds like they intend to treat it conservatively rather than surgically attach wires–conservative treatments usually lead to less successful results and subsequent reinjury if the athlete is to continue to perform at a high level. I have seen the ESPN replay of the injury and it appears to happen when he landed after dunking–since it is a stress fracture, that event can actually be no more than the ’straw that broke the camel’s back’ as a stress fracture is the result of repeated microtrauma–a case where subthreshold traumas accumulate and become threshold trauma.”

The Clippers gambled on Griffin’s recuperative ability and lost. Now, as Pelton pointed out in an email to me, “Griffin would have lost his season either way but had they done surgery in October he would have had a chance to do more this summer whereas now he’ll be rehabbing possibly long enough that he won’t be able to play in the summer league.”

The big unanswered question at this point, and we’ll attempt to address this as The Story Unfolds, is whether this unfortunate sequence will rob Griffin of any of his transcendent athleticism. Griffin is not entirely dependent upon his leaping ability, quickness and speed, but those qualities are a big part of what marked him as a five-star prospect. He’s got plenty of skill, too, but there will be a lot of anxious eyes on Griffin when he finally does make his return.

Clipper fans are surely disappointed, but if you’re a Clippers fan you are probably numb to a certain amount of disappointment. NBA fans in general are the losers here. For the second time in three years, the league’s top overall pick will not set foot on the floor in his rookie season. It’s a shame.

As I was at Welsh-Ryan Arena for Wednesday’s Northwestern-Wisconsin game, I spoke to Lanny Bradford, a staff athletic trainer for Northwestern about the injury. Bradford hadn’t heard specifically what Griffin’s injury was until I told him. He thought the Clippers’ rest-and-rehab over surgery decision was probably reasonable.

“If it’s not displaced and everything is still in line and (the fracture) is not all the way through the bone there really isn’t anything to fix,” Bradford said. He added that doing the surgery now is “Probably just to heal it faster. He’s making a lot of money and he’s a really big investment.”

As for my concerns about this injury affecting Griffin’s athleticism, Bradford said, “It’s a unique enough injury that it’s difficult to say for certain, but with the proper treatment program and rehab, I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t (return to full strength).”

Let’s hope so.

Drake is now officially a Scooby-Doo villain

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 1:53 pm

It really is past time for some aspiring Velma in Des Moines to walk right up to a “Drake” player like, I don’t know, “Adam Templeton” or “Ryan Wedel,” yank off the latex mask that quite obviously conceals said player’s true identity, and exclaim with knowing triumph: “Jon Scheyer!”

How else to explain the startling and indeed incomprehensible turnaround executed by the Bulldogs in still-young calendar 2010? Just seven days ago Ken Pomeroy‘s pitiless number-crunching robots were pointing their ominously apodictic and metallic fingers at Mark Phelps‘ unprepossessing group and singling them out as The Most Likely Non-Fordham Team in the Nation to Go Winless In-Conference This Year. (Try fitting that on a commemorative ball cap.) And while, at the risk of over-sharing, I don’t happen to be a robot myself, at the time I could only read that post and nod earnestly in agreement, because here is what I was looking at on the morning of January 6:

Doomed! Doomed, I tells ya! 
Drake tips off its 2010 Missouri Valley season with a team-wide seizure
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                     Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP   EM
vs. Bradley          66.9    0.88    1.00   -0.12
@ Wichita St.        67.0    0.57    0.92   -0.35
vs.  Indiana St.     62.5    0.74    0.96   -0.22
TOTALS               65.4    0.73    0.96   -0.23

Just how bad was that? A team that scores a mere 0.73 points per trip in-conference is on-track to be the single worst offense I’ve seen since I started tracking this stuff way back in the previous decade. I mean, this team lost at Iowa for goodness sake. Ken’s bots were right to be chuckling behind Drake’s back last week.

Now look:

Phelps: “That’s absurd! My players aren’t wearing latex mas– DON’T PULL ON THAT!” 
Drake continues its 2010 Valley slate

                     Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP   EM
@ Creighton          67.5    1.02    1.08   -0.06
@ S. Illinois        63.4    1.10    0.93   +0.07
vs.  Missouri St.    65.5    1.34    1.18   +0.16
TOTALS               65.4    1.16    1.09   +0.07
 

This is mostly an instance of a perimeter-oriented team starting, at last, to make shots from the perimeter. Over their past three games the Bulldogs are hitting 43 percent of their threes. (Previous three games: 23 percent.) As will often happen in such cases, great shooting from the outside has had a huge impact on the interior, and Phelps’ team is now making its twos as well.

So look past the ostentatiously ugly Pomeroy rating, for this is a new (wink, wink!) “Drake” team. Valley, you’ve been warned. 

Kansas State games feature an occasional free throw

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:44 am

Last night Kansas State beat Texas A&M 88-65 in Manhattan, notching an impressively easy win over a quality opponent. Indeed the big story under the heading of “KSU hoops” is undoubtedly the pronounced post-Beasley success of Frank Martin‘s team. At 14-2, the ‘Cats are currently a strong number 9 in colleague Ken Pomeroy‘s ratings, a lofty status powered by an offense that, like a diesel engine, is far more powerful than glamorous. Martin’s team is merely “good” in terms of hitting their shots from the field, but they are “outstanding” when it comes to crashing the offensive glass. Just ask the Aggies: Mark Turgeon‘s group could only gather in 54 percent of the available defensive boards last night, as Kansas State recorded 88 points in a 74-possession game. This is an exceptionally effective team. 

Said team will not, however, be winning major style points anytime soon. Indeed Kansas State games are historically foul-riddled. Last night marked the second consecutive K-State game to feature 70 or more free throws in just 40 minutes of “action.” Granted, A&M demonstrably helped achieve that result: The Aggies are in fact one of the most proficient teams in the nation in terms of drawing fouls. (By the same token it’s also true that the Big 12 as a whole hears more whistles than do other major conferences.) But the Wildcats’ similarly foul-rich game against otherwise normal Missouri last Saturday suggests that a good deal of the stylistic pull in these contests can in fact be traced to Martin’s team.    

Certainly a big part of the Kansas State offense is predicated on getting to the line, which the ‘Cats do better than any team in the country besides the aforementioned Texas A&M Aggies. In their first two conference games, however, Martin’s team is, incredibly, operating at an FT deficit relative to their opponents.

I realize that stars like Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, who last night combined to score 39 points, are the face of this franchise, but in one very important sense the emblematic K-State player is actually seldom-glimpsed reserve Wally Judge. The 6-9 freshman from Washington, D.C. obviously has potential–he was a 2009 McDonald’s All-American–but as one of the newest members of a roster with no shortage of frontcourt talent, Judge has been used by his coach mostly as a handy source of non-starter personals. And so we find that Judge is one of the most foul-prone players in the nation, averaging an astounding nine whistles per 40 minutes. (By comparison observers shake their heads ruefully at the lost possessions that result when stars like Dexter Pittman or DeMarcus Cousins average five or six fouls per 40.) Last night Judge picked up four fouls in seven minutes of playing time.

This year Judge and his teammates are on pace to do some serious damage to the record book. If you had the uncommon wisdom and foresight to purchase the book, you’re already familiar with the lower 89 percent of the following teachably Big 12-heavy table, but what’s happening in Manhattan this year constitutes breaking news where frequent-fouling is concerned. 

The Big 12 commissioner is apparently OK with free throws 
Highest opponent FT rates: Kansas State 2010 and all major conference teams, 2009
Conference games only; K-State 2010 figures through games of January 12

                     Opp. FTA/FGA
Kansas State 2010        0.81
Kansas State 2009        0.52
Texas Tech 2009          0.49
Oregon 2009              0.47
Oklahoma St. 2009        0.45
Seton Hall 2009          0.43
Baylor 2009              0.43
Georgia Tech 2009        0.42
Colorado 2009            0.42

Sure it’s early–“way early“–in the conference season, but the numbers here are so escape-velocity outlandish that when they come back down to earth they can still smash records. At 70-plus free throws per 40 minutes, these are no longer “games” in the commonly accepted sense of the term. These are free throw shooting contests leavened by the occasional sprint to the other end of the floor. 

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