Forecasting Washington’s Zone Defense

Posted by Adam Butler on January 18th, 2018

No team in college basketball has played more zone defense this season than Mike HopkinsWashington club. As a Pac-12 aficionado, you know that the Huskies’ new head coach was a long-time assistant (21 years) of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. As a college basketball aficionado, you know all about Boeheim’s famous zone defense. Hopkins has brought the defensive scheme across the country, and as a result, the Huskies have been a pleasant surprise through the first half of the season. Considering its uniqueness and Washington’s early success in employing it, a forecasting evaluation of the zone for the rest of this season is worthwhile. Its basic tenet is engineered to dare opponents to shoot from long distance. At Syracuse, 44.8 percent of shot attempts against its zone come from beyond the arc, which is very high (11th nationally). Washington’s opponents, by way of comparison, are allowing 36.7 percent of the shots against them from distance, roughly equal to the national average. This gap is in part related to the Huskies’ faster offense, clocking in with the 71st-swiftest offensive possession average in the game (compared with Syracuse’s 325th-slowest). This increase in allowing long-range shooting comes as a big change from the former regime in Washington. Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies never allowed more than 30 percent of opponents’ shots to come from beyond the arc.

Mike Hopkins Has Instituted a New Regime in Seattle (USA Today Images)

Since Washington has seemingly announced its defensive strategy for the foreseeable future, how might the zone project on its new coast? To date, the gamble has paid off, as the Huskies through five conference games have “held” Pac-12 opponents to a league-best 27.9 percent from three-point range. Pac-12 teams are making 35.8 percent of their three pointers this year, 12th-best nationally as a conference. To try to understand what this might mean for Hopkins’ team, assuming he plans to continue to dare teams to shoot threes, the league has historically been average from distance. A peek:

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Peaking at the Margins: Washington’s Luck and Other Pac-12 Points

Posted by Adam Butler on January 10th, 2018

According to KenPom’s luck rating, Washington is the most Irish team in the country. Let’s now dissociate ourselves from preconceived notions of luck and consider both what the rating means (you can read about it here) and more relatable measures of success and expectations. To synopsize the luck statistic, this is a measure of a team’s success relative to expectations (as established by their efficiency ratings). At 12-4 overall, with an adjusted efficiency differential of just +5.44, the Huskies sit ahead of similarly efficient teams in terms of wins and losses (although most have between one to three more losses). Consequently, they rate 108th by KenPom, or slightly above average. What do other margins say about the rest of the Pac-12? As we’ve established, the Huskies are the luckiest team, but what else can 17 or so games tell us about the remaining and critical two-and-a-half months of Pac-12 Hoop?

To start the conversation, I examined scoring differential (total points for minus points against), the Synergy Sports points per possession margins and the aforementioned KenPom adjusted efficiency margins. The Pac-12 results:

Team W L Scoring difference PPP difference KP difference
Arizona 12 4 171 0.127 20.17
Arizona State 13 2 252 0.185 20.08
UCLA 12 4 130 0.100 13.91
USC 11 6 142 0.078 13.87
Utah 10 5 121 0.122 11.88
Oregon 11 5 179 0.125 10.66
Washington 12 4 55 0.050 5.34
Colorado 10 6 28 0.016 4.89
Oregon State 10 5 95 0.077 4.6
Stanford 8 8 -6 0.002 4.34
Washington State 8 7 1 0.043 0.51
California 7 9 -84 -0.088 -2.59

 

Some quick notes followed by a few takeaways: 1) scoring differential is a predictor of success and usually an indicator that you’re a really good team regardless of record, 2) The PPP difference column is based on Synergy data, which accounts raw points per possession information into its metric (i.e., it’s neither a prediction of possessions nor adjusted for strength of schedule, home/away or otherwise), 3) a reminder that the KenPom difference includes the aforementioned adjustments.

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Arizona’s Defense Isn’t Very Good and It Might Not Matter

Posted by Adam Butler on December 21st, 2017

Following a week that included wins against Texas A&M and Alabama — quality wins no matter the program — college basketball’s own Jon Rothstein noted the “fact” that Arizona would be a one-loss team had it not been for Rawle Alkins’ absence (broken foot) in those games. Read the tweet. Alkins’ presence would have meant that the sky would not seemingly be falling and all would be well in the desert. First of all, to find that tweet, one has to dig through a lot of tweets — Rothstein tweets a lot and he tweets redundantly. Secondly, we do like to be rooted in fact and the Wildcats are – in fact – a three loss team re-incorporating a starter among an underperforming freshman class (aside from the magnificent Deandre Ayton). Furthermore, through 12 games, this is easily the worst defense that Sean Miller has coached (or at least since advanced defensive statistics have been available on basketball-reference.com). The Wildcats are sitting at an unadjusted defensive efficiency of 1.02 points per possession and the next worse mark for a Miller team through 12 games was during his second season in Tucson (2011-12) — 0.96 PPP. That team was 8-4 at the same point in the season and of course represents the last time Arizona missed the NCAA Tournament.

DeAndre Ayton Has Been a Lone Bright Spot for Arizona This Season (USA Today Images)

At 9-3, the fact is that this could be the worst Miller defense since perhaps his first year in Tucson (2009-10 – 0.995 PPP). That team went 16-15 and had zero players (immediately) drafted from it. This team, however, has three projected NBA Draft picks, a beleaguered point. And beyond the facts there are questions like “can this defense get better?” The short answer has to be “yes,” right? Miller has coached only four worse defenses (by adjusted defensive efficiency) and the assumption is that this year’s team will naturally improve with more experience. A logical conclusion. Defensive trends, however, typically suggest a team’s efficiency worsens as the season progresses. This would make sense as, in the case of an Arizona, their defensive numbers should be more impressive against a lesser, pre-Pac schedule. It would also make sense, however, to expect to see less of a floundering Ayton or a scrambling Parker Jackson-Cartwright as we get into games 20, 21 and beyond.

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Tra Holder Getting More Than a Little Help From His Friends

Posted by Adam Butler on December 14th, 2017

Clarity is preferred. A clear head, a clear path, a clear lens. When we’re devoid of obstruction we tend to be more comfortable and successful. So while it will remain unclear just how good Arizona State is this season (ESPN hot takes), one thing seems clear: senior guard Tra Holder is getting clear looks. For the majority of his time in Tempe, he’s worked alone to get those looks. Coming into this season, just 37 percent of his attempts from distance were assisted. What does this mean? Or, perhaps more aptly, what can we assume (we don’t have player tracking devices in Pac-12 gyms despite “innovative” leadership)? My assumption is that, if nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made threes were not assisted, then Holder is working hard – off the dribble, for example – to make those buckets go down. That’s a lot. Further, attempts off the bounce are often more difficult or at less clear than assisted attempts. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer postures that Victor Oladipo’s improvement in off-the-dribble scoring is the reason behind his breakout season for the Indiana Pacers. Of course Holder seemingly already has this down. He already connects at a 36.4 percent career clip, punctuated by 46.3 percent this season. Further, his Free Throw rate (i.e., ability to get to the line) has consistently ranked among the conference’s top 10. In summary, Holder has been a nightmare with the basketball.

Tra Holder Has Been a Nightmare with the Basketball (USA Today Images)

This season is no different except that he’s also getting some help. His looks are becoming a less obstructed and it is correspondingly no surprise that he’s shooting a career-high eFG% (56.4%) along with that sterling three-point percentage. Focusing on the latter, his script has been flipped as nearly two-thirds of Holder’s made three pointers have been assisted this season. Having already laid out that Holder is a nightmare with the ball in his hands, his teammates are making him better in turn. Interestingly enough, Arizona State ranks 324th nationally in the percentage of its threes that have gone assisted. Does this bode poorly for the Sun Devils’ future? Playing the seventh-fewest bench minutes of any team in the country, tiring legs might be expected as the season rolls on. Perhaps that lends itself to less energy to run off screens, play off the ball and receive an unobstructed (generously describing an assisted three-pointer) three?

If the Devils’ numbers are any indication, it might just be that they don’t need the open look. They’re sufficient at making them without assistance. The fact that Holder has been the beneficiary of any passing (we’re looking at you, Shannon Evans, and your 51 percent of assists yielding a three) may indicate he’s saving his bullets for the long haul. Those off-the-dribble daggers of senior guard lore.

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Introducing Arizona State’s Frontcourt and the Nationally Ranked Sun Devils

Posted by Adam Butler on December 1st, 2017

It’s worth noting that Arizona State is ranked. In men’s basketball. It’s an infrequent Tempe phenomenon but something that’s perhaps not all that shocking. There were glimpses a season ago, however, and the Sun Devils returned a number of critical pieces while adding that which they were missing. And what were they missing? Size. Or at least anyone capable of grabbing a rebound. The Devils ranked 313th and 292nd in defensive and offensive rebounding, respectively, in 2016-17. Sitting on their bench due to NCAA red tape, though, was perhaps the answer. Romello White, a four-star prospect, is through three weeks of the current season presenting as the Sun Devils’ missing piece. Arizona State isn’t necessarily any bigger in the aggregate, but the data suggests that a strategy of doubling down on small ball is paying off, thanks to White.

Romello White Has Been a Missing Frontcourt Piece for the Sun Devils (USA Today Images)

They’re nationally ranked now, after all, and touting the nation’s 10th most efficient offense. The Sun Devils are making 43 percent of their threes (nuts) and 63 percent of their twos (even crazier). Beyond that, they tout the nation’s fourth highest free throw rate (54%) — an astronomical improvement from last season’s 31.9% (273rd nationally) — and both Tra Holder (36% career three-point shooter) and Shannon Evans (also 36% career) are shooting well above their career averages. In missing a low post presence, White has emerged as the dynamic talent capable of catapulting the Devils to new heights. At 6’8”, the freshman is already rebounding above his weight (59th in defensive rebounding percentage) while simultaneously drawing 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. And it’s not just his weight. Operating at equal levels of big-man effectiveness is De’Quon Lake, a junior college transfer brought in to fortify what was an abysmal frontcourt. It’s working. Lake’s numbers are on par, if not better than, White’s.

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Analyzing Arizona’s Three Consecutive Losses

Posted by Adam Butler on November 29th, 2017

The approach to analyzing Arizona’s unprecedented fall from the Top 25 to unranked over the last week can take many approaches. There’s the physical — diving deep into lapses on the defensive end that yielded 90 points to NC State, the first 90-point effort by a Wildcats’ opponent since 2010. It was a point total Oregon didn’t achieve last year when the Ducks made 16 threes and shot 67 percent from the field. It’s a physical analysis that would also recognize offensive woes — everything from point guard play to offensive flow and scheme. There’s the emotional — dissecting an element of the game that’s difficult to view on tape or quantify, making note of the ongoing investigations or team dynamics. This would lead us down a path of deep hypothesizing and creating narratives about chemistry, priority and focus. We could also be self-reflective, recognizing the team’s performance but questioning our own ability to forecast or evaluate. Was the incoming freshman class just not that good? Have we undervalued Kadeem Allen? Is Allonzo Trier individually skilled but lacking in a team environment? Of course each of these analyses would be valid. Each would address legitimate concerns and each has been discussed, in depth, across the internets (read Rob Dauster’s breakdown). A dive into Arizona message boards or Arizona Twitter to find allusions to Sean Miller’s dismissal and misinformed rumors. Unprecedented events often yield ridiculous reactions (as does the internet, but you knew that).

Yep, it’s been that kind of start for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

I’d focus any analysis on the word TRUST. Arizona entered the season as a favorite with known limitations and hopeful improvements. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a skilled guard. He can hit an open shot, handle and pass the ball effectively and understands the complex pack-line defense. His size and athleticism, a known deficiency, can be a detriment to what Arizona is trying to accomplish on the defensive end (stopping dribble penetration) and the offensive end (threatening in transition). What’s worse, PJC can disappear, a significant issue for a senior point guard. For him, it’s a matter of consistently TRUSTING his ability. Conversely, Trier seems to have no issue in trusting his abilities. Touting a top 100 usage rate (29%), Trier is of the belief he’ll lead this team by carrying it on his back. Sometimes, that’s OK. More specifically, however,  when that’s not working, it’s not OK. For Trier there would seem to be an issue of TRUSTING his teammates, a skilled lot that will help him achieve his, and more critically the team’s, goals. And speaking of the collective, to borrow Miller’s terminology, they’ll need to TRUST the process, a tagline that has been central to this program. A tagline that has yielded 223 wins in Miller’s time in Tucson (averaging 28 wins per season). Three consecutive losses are a drop in the procedural bucket, an opportunity to teach, learn, coach, galvanize. Arizona’s team and program is far bigger than a Bahamian disaster. Read the rest of this entry »

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From Your Phone or TV? The Thanksgiving Hoops Conundrum

Posted by Adam Butler on November 21st, 2017

It’s 2017 and Little League parents are having Twitter wars with the President. It’s also, perhaps, an inflection point in cord-cutting. For years now we have heard reports of ESPN losing subscribers in droves (although it has seemingly slowed some) while television itself has become a nebulous medium. What is TV if we watch it on our phones, tablets or otherwise? It’s a good question, I admit, but specifically and more immediately draws me to Arizona’s second round (remember, they played an opening round game in Tucson) Battle 4 Atlantis game on Wednesday. It’s the nation’s #2 team playing on a low-work, high-consumption day against a Power 5 school in a high-profile tournament. North Carolina State (the alluded to opponent) doesn’t necessarily project as anything special (12th in preseason ACC voting and 99th currently in KenPom). But the Wolfpack are Arizona’s first real test of the season and it’s going to be broadcast on ESPN3. You cannot watch this game explicitly on your TV. You can stream it through an app and smart TV functionality, watching the game with a slight streaming delay.

Good Luck Catching a Glimpse of DeAndre Ayton on Wednesday (USA Today Images)

Of course, if everyone is delayed eight seconds, is it really a delay? Einstein’s theory of relativity aside, is this game being appropriately broadcast for our evolving consumption? Is it a sign of a national disinterest in college hoops? West Coast hoops? Perhaps I’m overreaching on the latter points but as this game was announced on ESPN3 — online only — many fans were upset. Arizona fans, specifically, felt slighted. More broadly, Pac-12 fans might use this to express continued dissatisfaction with the Pac-12 Networks and Larry Scott’s TV dealings.

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Pac-12 Listicles: Pick and Roll Offense

Posted by Adam Butler on November 15th, 2017

Offensively, the pick-and-roll is a common means to forcing a mismatch, a big vs. small scenario either on the post or the perimeter. Its ubiquity gave way to positionless basketball and a treasuring of the 6’8” athlete. Philosophically, if a defender is versatile enough to defend both off the bounce or on the block, the offense would be limited in its ability to create these mismatches. Of course this is more difficult to achieve at the collegiate level. Players are less refined, needing greater definition to their roles. Considering as much, I thought it’d be interesting to see which of the Pac-12’s offenses utilized the pick-and-roll more often and more effectively than others. Heading in to a Pac-12 season featuring some fantastic frontcourt and backcourt combinations (Trier/Ayton, Holder/White, McLaughlin/Metu, Holiday/Welsh, Cartwright/Travis, Pritchard/Brown), is the PnR a tactic more coaches will be inclined to use?

Arizona’s Allonzo Trier is Murder on the PnR (USA Today Images)

Here are last season’s Pac-12 PnR utilizers:

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Six Bold Pac-12 Thoughts Heading Into the Season

Posted by Adam Butler on October 31st, 2017

Six — or half of a cheeky 12 aligning to the conference — predictions are bold and the headlines to each, authoritative. Ultimately, these are storylines to track, components of the season to make note of as we progress through the Pac-12.

Here’s Your Pac-12 Player of the Year (USA Today Images)

  1. The FBI Investigation will not be a distraction – Well that’s a loaded headline. We’ll stick to hoops. This may not be quantifiable but with the Pac-12’s two best teams getting named in the FBI’s September complaint and both quickly dismissing assistants, it’s been an evergreen consideration among league pundits. One beat writer thought so much of the investigation/arrests that he dropped Arizona to fourth in his poll (but kept USC atop the conference standings). Alas, Arizona once again sold out its Red-Blue game and USC managed to secure a commitment from a top 10 point guard in the class of 2018. The impending uncertainty will serve as a galvanizing force to the 2017-18 season.
  2. Tra Holder will win POY – The rosters in Tucson and Los Angeles (USC) are loaded, lending to several diluted cases for Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Arizona State’s Tra Holder has an improved roster around him, the confidence of his coach and three years of experience. He’s a senior guard in a senior guard loving sport. Is Pac-12 POY in his sights? It might be a stretch, but not out of the question. Read the rest of this entry »
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Arizona is Standing by Its Statements

Posted by Adam Butler on October 17th, 2017

Arizona head coach Sean Miller will stick by his statement. He is, after all, a man of principle as we understand him. He’ll rarely deviate from his defensive schemes, controls his narrative, and would consider himself a teacher. “This is about the kids,” he noted when addressing questions last Thursday afternoon at Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco. As it pertained to the ongoing investigation into his and other programs, Miller noted that he’d be sticking to his statement. Twelve times in less-than 15 minutes he’d reference that document and its words. There is an investigation, of course, that Miller is supporting while his bosses (athletic director Dave Heeke and school president Robert C. Robbins) support him. That support, by the way, meant “the world” to Miller.

Sean Miller Takes Only Certain Questions (USA Today Images)

Naturally, this kept us away from the important stuff such as:

QUESTION: Do you think you have the best team in the country?

SEAN MILLER: I appreciate the question. I don’t think we are right now. You know, Rawle Alkins getting hurt, I haven’t had an opportunity, and we haven’t had our collection of players together. Part of what I think makes our team this year potentially good, special, we’re not there yet, obviously at the beginning stages.

He’d go on, as I saw in person but as quantified by transcript, for 254 more words about how he just might have the best team in the country. He’d revel in the athleticism of his prized recruit, Deandre Ayton. There were allusions to past Arizona greats such as Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, and referencing their athletic prowess. Ayton, however, has touched the top of the backboard. Miller had never seen that before. Neither have I. Have you?

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