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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Most Improved Offensive and Defensive Pac-12 Teams

Posted by RJ Abeytia on January 9th, 2018

I swear we aren’t trying to become an Arizona State subsite. When I got the idea for this post, it never occurred to me that I was walking right back in the direction of Tempe.  I was actually hoping to be pleasantly surprised to see which Pac-12 team has to date made the biggest leaps on offense and defense. Instead, the Sun Devils took all the fun out of my balloon. Arizona State has moved up a whopping five places in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, which is one of those facts that only feels inevitable after you hear about it. As a matter of fact, the Sun Devils are the most efficient offensive team in the Pac-12 this season, up from sixth last year to first today. They also rank sixth in defensive efficiency one season after finishing last in the league overall. It’s been an uprising on both ends of the court for Bobby Hurley.

Arizona State Has Made Big Improvements From Last Year to This Year (USA Today Images)

Arizona State’s three-point shooting is by far the biggest contributor to its offensive success, but what else are the Sun Devils doing right? They are obviously shooting the ball very well, with an effective field goal rate of 56.2 percent, 26th nationally. They are also snaring 32.2 percent of the available offensive rebounds (84th) and they are getting to the line at an exceptional rate of 47.4 percent, second-highest in the country. When watching them play, it is easy to see how their strengths all feed off one another. Driving lanes are open because opponents can’t cheat off shooters. That creates clean post opportunities for freshman Romello White, who in a DeAndre Ayton-less world would be getting serious Freshman of the Year shine for bringing a desperately needed inside presence to this team. Arizona State also has multiple perimeter guys playing with great poise, so teams cannot focus on just one piece there to short-circuits the whole show. Defensively, the Sun Devils have been built with inside-out priorities. Over 43 percent of their opponents’ shots are threes, resulting in 35.9 percent of their points coming from distance. But what Arizona State really does well is play clean defense. Opponents have scored only 17.3 percent of their points on free throws, which puts the Sun Devils among the top third nationally in least charitable teams.

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Pac-12 Non-Conference Reset (non-Arizona State Edition)

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 28th, 2017

It may seem out of sync with the Holiday Spirit to practice exclusion, but we’ve spent SO much time on Arizona State already and quite honestly, their unblemished 12-0 record should be more than enough to keep Sun Devil fans happy. They have played great ball to date and, entering conference play, are sitting prettier than they have in quite some time. We’ve heard enough about the story of the year in the Pac-12, so let’s take some stock from the rest of the Conference of Champions with Pac-12 play ready to begin this week.

UCLA is the Surprise Team of the Pac So Far (USA Today Images)

Team of the Non-Conference: UCLA snatched this award away just moments before Santa and his reindeer took flight on the strength of a huge neutral court win over Kentucky on December 23. The Bruins have three wins over Power 6 teams right now (Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Kentucky) which is second-most in the league behind… well, you already know. The Bruins are doing all this despite the suspensions/departures of three freshmen expected to contribute this year in LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley. Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been providing the on-court stability the Bruins were expecting, with both playing heavy minutes and logging true shooting percentages of about 57 percent. UCLA, a team with a relatively short roster, has damned the torpedoes and pushed the ball up at a pace of 74.5 possessions per game, 27th-fastest nationally. Lunardi currently lists UCLA as one of the first four out of the NCAA Tournament, but those three solid wins along with no bad losses (KenPom #29 Creighton, #33 Michigan, and #10 Cincinnati) gives it a good shot to work Pac-12 play to a decent seed in March. Credit head coach Steve Alford for moving past all the distractions and keeping things together in Westwood.

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A Hater’s Guide to Arizona State Basketball

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 27th, 2017

All right, Arizona State. You’ve got our attention. 12-0 is no joke, not with a road win at Allen Fieldhouse on your resume. A lofty #3 AP and RPI ranking means the Sun Devils can no longer be ignored or dismissed. A date with Arizona in Tucson where Arizona State will be ranked significantly above its rival Wildcats tells you that Netflix is not the only place where you can witness the Upside Down. Of course, in these times of instant gratification, that means every part of the Hero’s journey is accelerated, and since there’s nothing America likes to do as much as put a new face on a pedestal only to knock it down, it’s time for the backlash. Let’s talk about the most dubious aspects of Arizona State’s success and see if its profile suggests sustainability. Let’s bring the hate.

Arizona State Has Had a Dream Season to Date (USA Today Images)

First of all, Shannon Evans and Tra Holder are playing way too many minutes. Holder’s minutes in the last four games were 40, 37, 32 and 28. Trending correctly, right? Sure, as long as Longwood and Pacific are the opponents. Evans is right there with his teammate, playing just a shade under 88 percent of his possible minutes. Senior Kodi Justice is also playing 82 percent of his available minutes. Our colleague Adam Butler is right in saying that benches and depth tend to be overrated in college basketball, but at 6’1” and under 181 pounds each, Evans and Holder cannot expected to play a full season at the blistering pace the Sun Devils have set for themselves. I’ll add a corollary.  Depth quantity may not matter, but depth production does. You don’t need a 10-man rotation to win in college basketball. However, you do need to develop enough trust such that your best players aren’t pushing past 35 minutes on a nightly basis. That’s also an issue with Romello White, the 6’8” freshman forward who has provided a sorely needed inside presence for Bobby Hurley.

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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 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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Washington on the Come Up?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on December 8th, 2017

Washington, a team left for dead by the pundit class before the season even started, showed plenty of bark and bite earlier this week in snagging the Pac-12’s best non-conference win of the season versus #2 Kansas in Kansas City — functionally speaking, the Jayhawks’ alternate home court. The question now becomes whether such a monumental win gives any indication that the Huskies’ level of play is sustainable? Three things stand out about Washington’s win: First, Mike Hopkins‘ club won the three-point battle. Second, the Huskies kept Kansas off the free throw line by defending cleanly and effectively. Finally, they got a 19-point, five three-pointer masterpiece of an offensive performance from Matisse Thybulle. So to what extent were these three pillars of victory outliers?

Mike Hopkins Leads a New-Look Washington Program (USA Today Images)

Per KenPom, Washington on the year is shooting 33.5 percent from behind the arc and its opponents are shooting 37.1 percent. The Huskies get 25.2 percent of their points from the three-point line, which rates 294th in the country, but logged 36.4 percent (27) of their points from distance on Wednesday night while holding Kansas to only 25 percent shooting beyond the arc. On the year, the Huskies send opponents to the line at a 34.2 percent FTA/FGA rate, but they allowed the Jayhawks just eight free throws against 62 field goal attempts in Kansas City. That’s converts to a stellar 13 percent FTA rate that would make Washington one of the cleanest defending teams in the country if they were to maintain that identity on a nightly basis. Thybulle’s 19 points were built on a great shooting night resulting in a 177.0 Offensive Rating for the game. Last year Thybulle carried a respectable 106.7 ORtg and is currently at 104.5 this season. Was his sharpshooting (five threes) against the Jayhawks an ascent back to his normal mean? Washington should probably hope so, as his body of work last year (41 percent on 131 attempts) suggests that’s the case.  

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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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How Long Can UCLA Last Without More Depth?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 21st, 2017

So UCLA is already four games into its season and its 3-1 start has been reduced to a footnote while Lavar Ball and President Trump usurp air, airtime and attention better spent on literally any other aspect of human life by any other humans on the planet. Bringing the focus back on to the court, however, the real questions begin for a team that is now down three scholarship athletes. What we know through those four games, though, is that the Bruins’ rotation is not so much a rotation as essentially a half-dozen players head coach Steve Alford either trusts or is forced to trust. Players in the former category include returnees Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday. Both were given relative siestas in playing 26 and 32 minutes, respectively, in the Bruins’ rout of South Carolina State, but Holiday played at least 35 minutes in UCLA’s three more competitive games against Georgia Tech, Central Arkansas and Creighton, while Welsh logged major minutes as well when he wasn’t in foul trouble (Creighton).

UCLA  (USA Today Images)

This grinding down of two players who will have to perform all season is clearly not sustainable, and it is the strongest indication yet that LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will likely not be held out for the entire season. The Bruins’ loaded freshman class fortunately includes two standouts — Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands — who refrained from jacking sunglasses in China, and both are already establishing themselves as indispensable cogs in the UCLA “rotation.” Even in a loss, not much changed against Creighton on Monday night. Holiday was superb, scoring 25 points on 11 shots and dishing out seven assists against one turnover. Although UCLA exhibited a fairly balanced eight-man rotation, five of those players were underclassmen and three of those five are freshmen. The Bluejays took full advantage of that defensive inexperience, putting up an Offensive Rating of 119.0 on the evening that included 11 three-pointers.

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