Are Villanova’s Smallest Lineups Its Most Effective?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 11th, 2017

Much has already been written about Omari Spellman’s ineligibility ruling at the beginning of the season, leaving Villanova light in the frontcourt with 6’9″ center Darryl Reynolds acting as the lone interior player. The prevailing concern at the time was that Jay Wright‘s team would struggle to both defend in the post and get abused on the glass, but that line of thinking has proven incorrect. Instead, Villanova’s offense has flourished, and the key to unlocking its full potential might just be re-calibrating the lineup to completely embrace small-ball. For all the discussion over the Wildcats’ elite offense last season, it’s hard to believe that this year’s team is almost two points per 100 possessions better. If Villanova finishes the season at this level of offensive efficiency, its 1.232 points per possession would rank as the fourth-highest of any college basketball team in the last five years. More remarkably, though, is what happens Wright removes Reynolds from the lineup. Take a close look a the table below.

The table shows a Wildcats’ lineup that includes Jalen BrunsonJosh HartKris Jenkins, Eric Paschall and either of Donte DiVicenzo or Mikal Bridges — in other words, a lineup that features no player taller than the 6’7″ Paschall, who was a wing at Fordham and has deftly assumed the role of an undersized center at Villanova. In this even smaller-ball lineup, offensive efficiency spikes further (1.28 PPP) and, given that all five players are comfortable handling the ball, turnovers correspondingly drop (-4.3%). Paschall is a better passer and more viable scoring threat than Reynolds (averaging 15.9 PPG at Fordham) with a demonstrated ability to hit perimeter shots. Moreover, he is dangerous in pick-and-roll situations and Wright can also choose to park him on the three-point line if he wants to open up the lane.

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Big East Power Rankings: New Year’s Edition

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 4th, 2017

With conference play just getting under way, it feels like an appropriate time to re-establish a hierarchy within the Big East. Let’s take a look at the first Big East Power Rankings of 2017.

#1 Villanova. Forget all the Josh Hart talk for a minute — let’s instead pay tribute to Jalen Brunson, who tallied a career-high 27 points last weekend in Villanova’s biggest test to date at Creighton. With a short seven-man rotation and spotty scoring contributions from a number of those players, the Wildcats had seemed to be over-relying on Hart for their production. But Brunson’s tremendous feel for tempo and timing might be the most under-appreciated facet of the team’s elite offense. A major reason why Villanova won the game was because it successfully slowed the pace down the stretch and reduced the quick outlet passes that Creighton uses to generate high percentage shots.

Villanova and Josh Hart Just Keep Rolling (USA Today Images)

Villanova Just Keeps On Rolling (USA Today Images)

#2 Creighton. It was terrible timing for the Bluejays to log their worst three-point shooting performance of the season against Villanova. Creighton came into the game connecting on a blistering 45 percent of its perimeter shots on the year, but only managed a paltry 6-of-24 outing on Saturday. Off night aside, freshman center Justin Patton continues to build on his stellar play in the non-conference season. The seven-footer notched 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting and gives the Bluejays a consistent scoring threat in the post to complement their numerous outside shooters.

#3 Xavier. Without the steadying hands of point guard Myles Davis, the Musketeers have experienced a roller coaster of a season. Evaluating Xavier without his presence in the lineup doesn’t do Chris Mack’s team justice. Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura can score in bunches and Edmond Sumner has steadily grown into a sure-handed ball-handler, but the Musketeers need Davis. Per HoopLens, no player on Xavier’s roster last year had a bigger offensive impact.

His 38 percent shooting from deep undoubtedly spaced the floor, but his more important contributions were in ball movement and facilitation — Xavier’s assist rate is currently the lowest it has been in four seasons.

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Breaking Down Creighton’s Powerful Offense

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 27th, 2016

As Mo Watson‘s National Player of the Year campaign has gained momentum and Marcus Foster is making the most of his second chance with multiple 20-point outings, Creighton has catapulted up the national rankings. The preseason #22 team sports a flawless 12-0 record with notable drubbings of Wisconsin and NC State on its way to a current top 10 ranking in the national polls. Occasional lapses of defense have generated some concern, but the well-oiled machine that is Greg McDermott‘s offense is keeping the ship very much afloat. Through the first third of the season, the Bluejays rank ninth nationally in offensive efficiency, a measure of effectiveness supported by what might be the most well-balanced scoring unit in the country. For Creighton, its offensive efficiency is the what, but it is the how that makes this team so intriguing.

Creighton is an Offensive Juggernaut (USA Today Images)

Creighton is an Offensive Juggernaut (USA Today Images)

The first component of the how is Creighton’s proficient outside shooting — McDermott’s team connects on a nation-leading 45.5 percent of its long-range shots. What kills opponents, however, has less to do with accuracy than with every player in the core rotation being a legitimate threat from deep. That includes 6’10” Toby Hegner and 7’0″ freshman Justin Patton.

When Creighton runs its spread offense and initiates action from dribble handoffs or pick-and-rolls, help defense is an ambitious endeavor. When defenders choose to double in the post or step in to protect the lane against Watson, someone who can knock down open jumpers is routinely left alone beyond the arc. Conversely, the spacing created from this array of outstanding shooters ultimately allows natural penetrators such as Watson or Foster to attack the rim in advantageous, one-on-one settings. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marquette’s Katin Reinhardt Seeks Greater Consistency

Posted by Eugene Rapay on December 15th, 2016

Although Marquette lost to rival Wisconsin last weekend, one of the bright spots in the defeat was the play of graduate transfer Katin Reinhardt. He scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half and finished the day with a 4-of-6 shooting performance from long-range. Reinhardt, who transferred east after semi-successful stints at USC and UNLV, was brought in to be a perimeter threat on the wing. In his three previous seasons, he averaged 11.3 points per game and shot 36.9 percent from long range. There has not been a single season in which the 6’6″ forward failed to average double figures in scoring.

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Katin Reinhardt Needs to Excel For Marquette to Reach Its Goals (USA Today Images)

Maybe it just took the senior 10 games to find his groove in Milwaukee, but he hasn’t delivered the goods for Steve Wojciechowski thus far. Per KenPom, he holds the lowest Offensive Rating of the 10 players in Marquette’s current rotation — in fact, he is the team’s only key contributor below 100.0. He has taken 45 three-point attempts on the season (tied for the team-high) but has converted on a chilly 31.1 percent of those shots, nearly six percentage points under his career mark. Strangely, he’s even been worse from inside the arc, sinking only 28.6 percent of his two-point shots on the season. He’s the only Marquette player in the rotation who is shooting so poorly, as all other Golden Eagles are shooting above the 40.0 percent mark. What good is a space creator on the wing if he cannot make jumpers or finish on his occasional drives?

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Seton Hall Surging Despite Offensive Limitations

Posted by Mike Knapp on December 13th, 2016

Seton Hall may have put together a dream season in winning the Big East Tournament last season but the Pirates relied upon the playmaking prowess of super sophomore Isaiah Whitehead and a top-10 defense to get there. That team’s Achilles Heel often came on the offensive end of the court, as ball movement sometimes had a tendency to stagnate. The Pirates assisted on just 51 percent of their makes — 203rd in the nation, per KenPom — while relying heavily on the all-Big East guard for the majority of their playmaking. As a result, there were two competing schools of thought about Kevin Willard‘s team coming into this season. One was that the Pirates’ offense would flow better without a ball-stopper — even a gifted one like Whitehead — in the lineup; the other was that they would stagnate even more offensively with their only true playmaker now in the NBA.

Isaiah Whitehead Led Seton Hall to Its Best Season in a Long While (USA Today Images)

Life without Isaiah Whitehead has created new offensive issues at Seton Hall. (USA TODAY Images)

Seton Hall may be 8-2 and in the midst of a four-game winning streak that includes close wins over California and previously-unbeaten South Carolina, but the Pirates have been an even more imbalanced offensive unit through the first month of the season. That troubling assist rate has dropped even further to an incredibly low 39.8 percent (345th nationally) and the Pirates do not boast a single player with an individual assist rate over 20 percent (the only Big East team that can claim that distinction). Still, given the makeup of his current roster, Willard’s focus on isolation leading to one-on-one attacks on the basket may not necessarily be a bad thing. Junior wing Desi Rodriguez and junior guard Khadeen Carrington are particularly adept at getting into the paint and drawing fouls, and Angel Delgado, who currently ranks 21st in the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 15.7 percent, is one of the top glass-eaters in college basketball. The downside of a team that ranks 25th nationally in earning its share of points from driving the ball is that Seton Hall leaves much of its efficiency on the table as one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. The Pirates convert just 62.5 percent (311th) of their tries from the charity stripe, with only one regular hitting at 80.0 percent (Myles Powell). Read the rest of this entry »

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Xavier Has a Big Man Problem

Posted by Justin Kundrat on December 6th, 2016

Like every other reasonable college basketball coach, Chris Mack assembles his lineups to best match his roster. For example, this meant spreading the floor last season around an adept big man who could rebound, pass out of the low post, and convert around the rim. With a similarly constructed backcourt this time around, Mack has implemented the same strategy, opting to let the play-making abilities of his three-headed monster of wings shine while others perform the dirty work. When it works, the Musketeers dominate the glass and generate countless offensive opportunities via putbacks, kickouts and free throws. But the inverse is a slogging half-court offense that cannot generate enough spacing to propel its interior-focused point of attack. While the results don’t quite reflect this, there is a clear disconnect between the two years of offensive output and it starts with Xavier’s big men and ends with putting the ball in the basket.

The obvious problem is that neither James Farr nor Jalen Reynolds is on this year’s team. Both were consistent in averaging just shy of double figure scoring and combining for nearly 15 rebounds per game, but neither was a go-to guy. The rebounding void has been filled this year by transfer RaShid Gaston and freshman Tyrique Jones, but while both might be tenacious on the glass, neither newcomer is very adept on the offensive end.

 

Below is Xavier’s shot chart against Baylor. Subpar perimeter shooting aside, the Musketeers missed an astounding number of shots within three feet of the basket:

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Tyler Lewis is Hitting His Stride in Running Butler’s Offense

Posted by Mike Knapp on December 1st, 2016

It is hard to tell from just looking at the 5’11”, 157-pound senior, but once upon a time Butler point guard Tyler Lewis was a McDonald’s All-American. Despite limited size, his creativity as a passer and fearlessness in attacking the basket caught the attention of multiple high-major schools, including his ultimate destination, North Carolina State. With playing time fluctuating over two seasons in Raleigh, Lewis decided to transfer to Butler, where a promising start to his junior season gave way to decreased importance after the new year. Lewis entered his final season in college basketball as the only significant holdover in Butler’s backcourt. He has not disappointed.

Butler's Tyler Lewis (USA Today Images)

Butler’s Tyler Lewis (USA Today Images)

The Bulldogs are off to an impressive 7-0 start this season and their senior facilitator is a major reason why. The veteran floor general is only averaging a pedestrian eight points per game, but he has been one of the more efficient guards in college basketball through the first couple weeks of the season. Lewis’ offensive rating of 133.3 is the second highest on the Butler roster and is good enough for 83rd nationally. He is also shooting a blistering 77.3 percent from two-point range (24th), and is 5-of-11 on three-point attempts so far this season. Furthermore, his effective field goal percentage of 74.2 percent ranks among the top 20 in the sport.

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Big East Feast Week in Review

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 29th, 2016

There was plenty of Feast Week action involving Big East teams over the last week as a number of conference members took part in various events and tournaments. Four teams squared off in multiple games over a handful of days, gathering valuable experience and, in some cases, resume-enhancing wins. Below is a summary of Feast Week takeaways from Butler, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Providence.

Butler (Las Vegas Invitational)

Butler (USA Today Images)

Butler (USA Today Images)

Butler entered Feast Week as a borderline Top 25 team with a number of questions about production on the offensive end. In just two days in the desert, many of those questions were answered. A formerly shaky interior scoring team has completely revamped itself into one of the most efficient offensive squads in college basketball. The Bulldogs have outside shooters in Avery Woodson (45.7%) and Sean McDermott (38.9%), as well as a number of patient rim-attacking options in Kelan Martin, Andrew Chrabascz and Kamar Baldwin. Baldwin has been the biggest surprise for Chris Holtmann’s group, as the hyperactive freshman has been a crucial piece in generating turnovers and applying help defense in the zone to slow penetration. Most importantly, Butler has transformed from a positionally confined team to one that can size up or size down to match the opposition. The additions of 6’10” Nate Fowler and 6’11” Joey Brunk gave the Bulldogs enough frontcourt depth to match the Power 5 size of Arizona and Vanderbilt in holding both teams below 1.00 point per possession. The Bulldogs’ championship game win over #8 Arizona spells out a Top 25 ranking for Butler heading into December.

Seton Hall (AdvoCare Invitational)

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Point Guard Play Already an Issue at Georgetown

Posted by Mike Knapp on November 16th, 2016

Coming into this season, the biggest question surrounding Georgetown was whether it would finally let go of the Princeton offense. While head coach John Thompson III has experienced considerable success — including a 2007 trip to the Final Four — running the patient, half-court oriented system, last season’s 15-18 overall record (7-11 Big East) seemed to have been something of a breaking point. In the Hoyas’ first game this season against South Carolina Upstate, Georgetown pushed the ball in transition, fill the lanes on the fast break, and pressed after made baskets. It was refreshing to a see a Thompson team play with so much freedom, especially given the athleticism he currently has on his roster.

Georgetown Pushed the Ball in (USA Today Images)

Georgetown Pushed the Ball Against Maryland When the Referees Let Them Play (USA Today Images)

Tuesday night’s one-point loss to Maryland was a different story. The Hoyas tried to establish the frenetic pace they had showcased in their season opener, but an astonishing 56 foul calls between the two teams prevented either from finding much of an offensive rhythm. Despite the stagnant nature of the game’s flow, the loss also revealed a major flaw for the Hoyas’ plan to push the ball this season. It takes a competent point guard to keep up the pace, and Thompson’s early season choice to start freshman Jagan Mosley at the position (59 percent of the point guard minutes) is already causing problems. Despite having great size at 6’3″ and possessing many point guard intangibles, Mosley never played consistent minutes there in high school. Junior Tre Campbell has also seen minutes at the position (20%) so far this season, but he has been plagued by the same indecisiveness that hurt him last year — including a late turnover against Maryland. Junior college transfer Jonathan Mulmore has seen a few minutes in the spot as well, but he did not yet look ready for the big stage on Tuesday night — also committing a critical turnover down the stretch.

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Villanova’s Offense Already Looks Fantastic… Again

Posted by Michael Austin on November 15th, 2016

En route to the National Championship last season, Villanova went 13-0 in games in which the Wildcats shot fewer than 20 three-point field goal attempts. In fact, in four of the five times Villanova lost a game last season, they shot more than 25 three-pointers (going 13-4 in those games).  Yes, an undersized team playing a 4-Out Offense with a huge focus on guard play actually played its best ball when it limited its overall number of long-range shots.

Villanova Scores on Shots of the Non-Three Point Variety? Who Knew? (USA Today Images)

Villanova Scores on Shots of the Non-Three Point Variety? Who Knew? (USA Today Images)

A deeper dive into Villanova’s three-point offense last season reveals that Jay Wright’s squad underwent a dramatic shift in philosophy when Big East play began — a shift that continued all the way through six games of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats won 14 of their first 15 conference games by shooting no more than 25 three-pointers only twice during that run (31 in a loss at Providence and 29 in a win against Creighton). At some point, it seemed to click that simply firing three-pointers isn’t the formula for success; rather, creating more-efficient, high-percentage, uncontested perimeter shots is where Wright wanted his team. The Wildcats finished the season eighth in the nation in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) at a very healthy 56.1 percent. This focus on good shot-taking (and making) translated into a championship run. Look at Villanova’s total number of three-point attempts in its six NCAA Tournament victories: 28 (vs. UNC-Asheville), 10 (Iowa), 15 (Miami), 18 (Kansas), 18 (Oklahoma) and 14 (North Carolina), for an average of 17.2 attempts per game.

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