Behind the Numbers: Focus and Balance

Posted by KCarpenter on March 9th, 2011

Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.

What’s the ideal team look like? Is it five equally skilled players who share the ball and can all defend and score? A super deep team with ten guys who could all start? Does the ideal team have an alpha dog and a clear hierarchy? A dynamic duo? Maybe, a Big Three? If it’s one superstar and role-players, where does the superstar play? Is he a guard or a forward? One of the things that I enjoy most about basketball is that there is no clear consensus on any of these ideas. There is no ideal. Instead, we have a multitude of competing styles on offense and defense, each individual style perfectly capable of winning a championship.

How Important is the Bench to a Contender?

In 2010, the national championship went to a Duke team with a Big Three approach, focused on the perimeter. In 2009, North Carolina won by balancing a primary post option in Tyler Hansbrough with three skilled guards. The Kansas and Florida championship teams leaned heavily on their skilled big men. The point is that there are successful precedents for most styles, independent of focus and number of focal players. Now, despite these precedents, there is a common idea that a limited number of focal players makes a team more vulnerable. Intuitively, this makes sense: it’s easier to stop one player than many. Likewise, if a team has a single focus, like post scoring, it seems intuitively easier to stop that without having to worry about other threats, like perimeter shooting.

These ideas make sense, but I’m not sure they hold up. Teams with a single focal point, a single powerful talent, have been successful. Notably, in 2003, the indisputably Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team won it all. In a similar vein, the 2010 Blue Devils’ lack of reliable post scoring didn’t seem to impede their success. So, at least anecdotally, a lack of balance doesn’t seem to be terribly lethal to a team’s hopes for a championship. But, what about the question of depth? Doesn’t having a deeper team help a team win?

Not necessarily. If we look at bench minutes percentage, a measure of how many total minutes were played by non-starters, we can get at least some measure of a team’s depth. Generally speaking, a deep team will have more minutes played by guys on the bench. Last year, the two teams that played in the final, Duke and Butler, finished 1st and 12th in Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean rankings. Looking at these contenders and the ten teams that finished ranked between them, there was only a single team that was above the median in bench minutes percentage. Every other team was in the bottom half of bench usage, while many, notably Duke and Butler, were in the bottom fifth. Somewhat surprisingly, the one top team that used the bench at an above average rate was Brigham Young, a team that was primarily known for the singular talents of Jimmer Freddette.

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ATB: Elite Teams Make Statements On Big Monday

Posted by rtmsf on February 8th, 2011

The Lede.  It’s Rivalry Week on ESPN, and the World Wide Leader has reminded us of it, oh, about every third commercial tonight.  Not to mention that anytime you stumble across games from the mid-90s involving Duke and Carolina in a marathon on ESPN Classic, you have a good idea what time of year it is.  Seriously, though, do they not have any other classic game tapes lying around the Bristol vaults?  We recognize that the Tobacco Road rivalry is the best in the nation, but it’s not the only one by a long stretch — how about mixing it up with a few other big-timers?  Bring back a few classics from the rivalry games tonight, for example — we’re pretty sure they could find a couple of great Kansas-Mizzou and WVU-Pitt battles if they spend a few minutes searching through the shelves in the back.  Speaking of those two games…

Pitt Showed Poise in the Backyard Brawl (AP/J. Gentner)

Your Watercooler MomentBig Time Wins By Big Time Teams. There were really only a couple of games tonight worthy of discussing, and both results were worthy of two teams who just five weeks from Selection Sunday have designs on #1 seeds for March Madness.  In the Backyard Brawl between WVU and  #4 Pittsburgh, the Panthers entered tonight’s game already with a disadvantage by virtue of a knee injury to its star, Ashton Gibbs.  Didn’t matter.  After a slow first half from both teams, Pitt rocked the home team through complete ownership of the offensive glass (18-6) and hot shooting (61%) in the second half, ultimately pulling away to win its tenth Big East game, 71-66.  Even though WVU has been up and down this year, this was an impressive win for the Panthers, especially considering that its best perimeter player was on the bench tonight.  With a solid two-game lead over Notre Dame, Villanova and Louisville in the loss column, Jamie Dixon’s team with a win on Saturday at The Pavilion, could be positioned to run away with the regular season title to the best conference in America.  Meanwhile, out in the heartland of America, #3 Kansas hosted old border rival #15 Missouri in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, and for a while tonight it appeared that Mike Anderson’s Tigers were going to be able to play with the Jayhawks.  That is, until early in the second half when KU went on a run to push their lead from two to ten in what seemed like a split second, then on to fifteen and coasting home from that point on.  KU scored 103 points, an easy enough task when you’re hitting 61% of your shots, but what’s being left unsaid is that the Jayhawk offense seems to flow much more smoothly without Josh Selby in the lineup (he was out with a stress reaction in his right foot).  The Morris twins were everywhere as usual, combining for 38/15/7 assts/3 blks, and both Mario Little and Travis Releford came off the bench to contribute double figures (17 & 10 pts, respectively).  The lesson from these two Big Monday games tonight is thus: both Kansas and Pitt were without a significant starter in playing a bitter rival, but they did what they had to do to win the games and keep their lofty rankings and resume for a #1 seed intact.  KU appears to have recovered nicely from the loss at home to Texas a few weekends ago, and Pitt’s home loss to Notre Dame appears more and more to be an anomaly.

And Then There Was This.  Matt Howard looked like something out of that new TNT show, The Walking Dead, tonight as he took a nasty elbow to his forehead in a scrum under the basket heading into the half tonight of a game Butler eventually won, 72-65, over Illinois-Chicago.  Since we’re a family-friendly site around here, we suggest you take the jump if you want to see this thing, as it’ll scare the bejeezus out of ya, for certain.  Howard did not return to the game this evening, and he’ll be treated for concussion symptoms as a result of this, but hey, at least Butler is only two games back in the Horizon League standings now, right?  (h/t The Dagger)

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Three Teams Chasing Perfection…

Posted by rtmsf on January 19th, 2011

As of Wednesday, January 19, we are down to three unbeaten teams in college basketball — #1 Ohio State, #2 Kansas and #5 San Diego State.  Previously undefeated Duke lost last week at Florida State and Syracuse lost Monday at Pittsburgh, proving once again that conference play is a completely different animal than the non-conference slate.  With only a little over six weeks left in the regular season (which seems rather impossible), it is at least feasible that one of these three schools could run the regular season table and join 1991 UNLV and 2004 St. Joseph’s as the only two teams to have done so since Bob Knight’s dominant Indiana Hoosiers way back in 1976. 

If you look at the above teams and hoped to draw a conclusion from it, you might note that UNLV and St. Joe’s played in high mid-major conferences when they ran the regular season table.  Although there were a few decent opponents who could challenge the Rebels and Hawks in those leagues, they generally enjoyed more ‘nights off’ where they didn’t have to bring their best stuff to win the game.  Does this give Steve Fisher’s Aztecs an inherent advantage over OSU and Kansas by virtue of its Mountain West affiliation?  You might initially believe so, but not according to Pomeroy’s projections. 

We talked about how difficult it is for any team to run the table in the regular season back in December when Duke was gettting some buzz in that respect prior to Kyrie Irving’s toe injury.  There are any number of factors that can cause an off night, but the biggest confounding factor is how the schedule lays out in front of them.  According to the Pomeroy data, SDSU will be favored in all but two remaining games, Ohio State all but one, and Kansas will be the favorite in each of its final thirteen games.  But that’s just the math – it doesn’t account for the increasing attention and pressure that builds on a team as it approaches March with a zero in the right-hand column, nor does it consider all the other issues (injuries, team chemistry, tiring out, etc.) that teams face as the season wears on.  That’s what we’re here for, the analysis. 

Let’s take a look at the three unbeaten teams and make an educated prediction as to when each will finally lose.  It’s going to happen; the only question is the when and where.  Last year we went 3-1 in this exercise, and if we can do so well as to keep our head above .500 again this year, we’ll be pleased. 

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ATB: Kemba Is For Closers

Posted by rtmsf on January 18th, 2011

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.  — MLK, 1963

The Lede.  We hope everyone had a brilliant MLK Day Weekend.  We know that you had a great MLK Day with the great hoops on all afternoon, culminating in two top ten matchups between Big East teams (aren’t all 16 Big East teams in the top ten?).  Hopefully you were off work to enjoy it, but if you weren’t, let’s get you caught up.

Walker is Big Time in the Clutch (H-C/J. Woike)

Your Watercooler MomentKemba Is For Closers. We still don’t really believe that UConn is a legitimate Final Four contender (which you are, by definition, as a top ten team), but we will say this without reservation.  If UConn can keep itself within reach at the five-minute point of the game, they are capable of beating anybody and have the best closer in college basketball.  You can have Jared Sullinger, Jimmer Fredette, Nolan Smith or whoever else you want — we’ll take Kemba.  His ability to use the dribble to create space for himself and get off clean and makeable looks sets him apart from all of the others, and essentially gives Jim Calhoun an x-factor that no other team can counter.  Witness Jay Wright’s comments after the game — Villanova knew Walker was going to get the ball for the final shot, sent two men at him, so he simply split them anyway en route to hitting a ridiculously tough game-winning floater in the lane with two seconds left. Walker didn’t even enjoy the biggest game (that belonged to Corey Fisher and his 28 points and six assists), nor did he look dominant as he bricked his way to a 6-18 shooting afternoon, but when the outcome is on the line he’s proven again and again that he’s up to the task.  We said this repeatedly back in Maui two months ago, but it’s worth noting that as talented as Walker is and has performed this season, the success of the Huskies will ultimately depend on the support he receives.  Alex Oriakhi has played like a man possessed in the four games since his donut performance against Notre Dame, averaging 14/13 and providing great interior defense so that his team will be in the game until the end for Walker to do his magic.  So long as he plays at a similar level, Jim Calhoun will continue to snicker at all of his naysayers, and deservedly so.

Pitt's Retro Media Guide Cover (h/t Luke Winn)

Your Watercooler Moment, Pt. TwoSyracuse Drops From the Unbeatens. It was expected once Syracuse declared that starting forward and leading scorer Kris Joseph would be held out of tonight’s game against Pittsburgh due to a nasty knock on the head he suffered on Saturday, but the way in which it happened was still surprising.  For a while, it appeared that Jim Boeheim’s team must have left their entire offense back home as Syracuse’s defense faltered early, allowing Pittsburgh to run out to a quick 19-0 lead in front of a raucous crowd at the Peterson Events Center.  Then, just as quickly as they got down, Cuse battled back with a 17-0 run of its own.  We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a game start like that before, but nevertheless, it portended what would become a close game the rest of the way.  The difference was that Pittsburgh was simply better — they said they’d been practicing for a few days against a zone, and it showed in their execution (1.08 PPP was the third-best performance against the zone this year).  Time and time again the Panthers moved the ball inside-out to find the open shooter on the perimeter or found success pounding the ball down low to Nasir Robinson (21/7).  With the win, Pitt moves to the top of the line in the Big East with a flawless 6-0 record.  With upcoming games vs. DePaul, Notre Dame, Rutgers and Cincinnati in the next four, the Panthers look very good for heading into mid-February with a 10-0 conference record.

Tonight’s Quick Hits

  • The Ginormous MLK Monday.  All four of today’s games were great matchups on paper and we hope that ESPN keeps this up in future seasons.  There’s just something always a little cool about daytime basketball on a weekday — a little like you’re getting away with something by watching it.  The two Big East games ended up better than the Big 12 games, but we loved every bit of it.
  • The Morris Twins.  It’s like these two boys connected by genes suddenly decided to become grown men in the last two weeks.  After tonight’s combined 44/14, Marcus is averaging 24/13 in the last four games while brother Markieff is contributing 14/10 during the same period.  With point guard Josh Selby still struggling to adjust to the world of elite college basketball, it’s been the Morris twins who have pulled the Jayhawks through a series of recent close games against Michigan, Iowa State and Nebraska.  This buys Bill Self some time while his young but talented quarterback continues to develop over the next six weeks prior to March.
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BGTD: Early Games Analysis

Posted by rtmsf on January 15th, 2011

It might be a football weekend if you listen to the mainstream media, but we here at RTC know better.  The slate is absolutely stuffed with good games today, quite a few of which were played during the early session.  Here’s some of our thoughts from those games…

  • Tennessee Escapes.  We’re not sure that they should have escaped in their rivalry game with Vanderbilt today, but escape they did after an ugly and odd finish in Thompson-Boling Arena to get its first win with Bruce Pearl watching from home.  One of the surest calls in basketball is when an offensive player is tripped on the drive.  Jeffery Taylor did just that with Vandy down only one late in the game, but there was shockingly no call from the zebras (how all three could miss that we have no clue).  Even more amazing than that, Taylor slid across the floor for at least 6-8 feet with the ball in his arms after he fell, and again no whistle (another near-certain call they missed).  It was a disconcerting sort of play that has everyone on the floor confused, and it resulted in Vandy stepping on the sideline to turn the ball back over to UT.  The Vols then worked clock before throwing up a couple of wild, contested shots which Vandy failed rebound; then, after a Vandy foul, UT’s Tobias Harris nailed a couple of FTs and closed out the game.  Neither team played well offensively, but Tennessee at 0-2 in the SEC (and sans Pearl) was very nearly in a must-win situation and played like it.  Many people will think that Pearl’s presence would have made a difference in Tennessee’s shaky performances so far this SEC season, but we’re not sure about that.  UT is a flawed team, and they were pretty clearly flawed with the Big Orange on the sidelines before his suspension too (Ls to Charleston, Charlotte, Oakland).
  • Marquette & Maryland Kicking Themselves.  Both of these teams let huge opportunities for road wins against ranked opponents slip away late today with what can only be described as complete meltdowns.  For Marquette, it was a 24-5 Louisville run to finish off the game, allowing the faltering Cardinals to make a miraculous comeback over the last six minutes that will be remembered in those parts for a very long time.  At Villanova, it was a 19-0 run over seven minutes that allowed the Wildcats to come from twelve down and take a commanding lead into the final two minutes.  What was striking about both of these comebacks was just how quickly things changed.  Through most of the two games, the home team Wildcats and Cardinals couldn’t get much of anything going offensively, but when the two underdogs saw their own blood today, they collapsed while the home teams feasted on their shakiness.  Marquette already has some quality wins under its belt, but eventually if they’re going to be taken seriously as a contender, they’re going to have win one of these (close Ls to Duke, BC, Temple, Pitt, Illinois and zero – NONE – quality wins).
  • Freddy Asprilla Leaves K-State.  Jeff Goodman reported earlier today that Kansas State big man Freddy Asprilla has left the program.  Despite dominating Texas Tech today, the bad news just keeps coming for this program lately.  Asprilla was averaging 5/5 in limited backup action, but he’s shown ability and theoretically could have had a bright future there.  He’ll be returning home to his native Colombia to play professionally because his mother is ill, certainly a noble pursuit.  We wish him well with both his personal and hoops journeys.
  • Duke & Kansas Struggling. At the time of this writing, both #1 Duke and #3 Kansas are struggling with much weaker opponents — Duke with Virginia, and KU with Nebraska.  Both took deficits into the half.  Duke’s problem has been ice-cold three-point shooting, and as has been discussed at length the last couple of days, the Blue Devils cannot simply revert to being a jump-shooting team and expect to get back to the Final Four.  For a good number of years in the 2000s, that’s what they were, and those teams were often out of the NCAA Tournament by the Sweet Sixteen.  As for Kansas, the Morris twins who went off on Wednesday night have been MIA this afternoon.  At the half, they hadn’t even combined for double figures yet and Markief was already in foul trouble.  Obviously if one or both of these two drop a game today, that would be an enormous upset so stay tuned for more on those.
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