Nerds-eye view: An initial numerical look at college hoops
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The eye test: a wonky assessment of a team's worth based on such straw man arguments like hustle, toughness and a fleeting gauge of offensive and defensive prowess.
To expound, the eye test you hear about ad nauseam each March is the ex-coach, turned ESPN analyst's job security blanket. It is full of bias and favoritism. It has no mathematical support, which highlights one major flaw in its existence.
Basketball, by in large, is a game based on numbers, and those numbers tell stories. They serve as a team's backbone, its LinkedIn resume, and a leading indicator of March success.
And yet, you don't hear much about KenPom.com, Synergy or even old-school charting of games unless you are an avid reader of Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn. Instead, most college basketball fans plug into any given major network after the first of the year and hear about the "eye test."
From the End of the Bench is throwing the term out of its vernacular, replacing it with the cold hard stats that support a team's success or failure. Three times between now and March, we will devote full columns to the nation's statistical truth intertwined with interesting nuggets in each week's Fine 15 and perhaps even a plug or two on Twitter.
Many fans are waiting until after the holiday season to start paying attention (though not most readers of this space), but if you are one of those casual watchers and fell upon this week's sonnet, read on. If you have been on the ball, share it with friends and family, or choose to use it as one part of a valuable three-part computative tool come tournament time.
It will be the best tool you use. Why? Because the numbers never lie. Oh, and Happy Holidays to all.
AN ALGORITHMIC TOUR OF THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL LANDSCAPE
1. Florida is playing lockdown defense. Much has been made of Kenny Boynton's maturation, but the numbers (I mean the numbers INSIDE the numbers) actually show a small step down offensively compared to last season. Yet, Boynton is still the Gators' most important offensive player along with senior forward Erik Murphy, who's offensive rating has climbed from 167th nationally last season to just inside the top-30 (28th overall).
Believe it or not, for all of the talk of the two players above and the Gators' guards and shooting ability, Florida is even better defensively. Their adjusted defensive efficiency is sixth nationally (85.1 against a 99.3 Division 1 average) and their effective field goal percentage defense is 11th (fifth against two-point attempts). That is the difference in this year's Gators, the reason why From the End of the Bench takes them seriously.
Billy Donovan's teams could always score, but now they are making a conscious effort to defend. The 2011-2012 Gators were third in offensive efficiency (fifth this year), but last year's 26-11 outfit, an Elite Eight participant, was 71st nationally in defensive efficiency and 118th in effective field goal percentage defense.
The numbers don't lie. These Gators are built for March.
2. Unlike Florida, defense has always been Pittsburgh's trademark under head coach Jamie Dixon. The 2009 Panthers, a 31-5 outfit with the physical frontcourt of Sam Young and DeJuan Blair, finished 35th in defensive efficiency. The 2010 Panthers, a 25-win tournament team, ended up 26th in the all-important defensive indicator. They finished one spot better in 2011 then fell off the cliff, plummeting to 151st last season, including 229th against three-point attempts. It's no surprise that team was destined for the NIT.
The commitment has returned this season. Senior 6-foot guard Tray Woodall harasses ball-handlers and takes chances because he has length on the wings (6-foot-6 JJ Moore, 6-foot-5 Trey Zeigler) and a pair of big boys protecting the rim, including 7-foot freshman Steven Adams. The Panthers rank 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency at press time, resulting in an 11-1 start and a talk of contending for a conference title in the top-heavy Big East.
3. Offseason chatter didn't have Tubby Smith long for his stay at Minnesota, no matter who initiated the breakup. Yet, Smith's system has finally taken hold in his sixth season, as the Golden Gophers are playing the possession- value offense and defensive-principles defense that made the coach a hot commodity at Kentucky. Minnesota has never finished in the top-25 in either adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency since Smith took over in 2008, but it places in the top 18 in both categories to date this season.
Why? Let's look inside the numbers. The Golden Gophers extend possessions better than any other team in the country, holding the top position in offensive rebounding percentage. They grab a staggering 48.9 percent of all missed shots, 3.4 percentage points higher than second-place South Carolina.
On the defensive side, the Gophers defend the paint better than most, holding the 24th spot in two-point field goal percentage defense and the seventh place in block percentage despite just one player above 6-foot-8 in the normal rotation (6-10 Maurice Walker).
4. This foray into stats-ville is more player-centric, focusing on Illinois senior Brandon Paul, once dismissed as a me-first player with plenty of skill but little interest in working within an offensive structure or understanding when to pick his spots. In essence, Paul forced too many shots early in games then pressed to make up for it.
New head coach Jim Groce simplified the process, moving Paul out of a motion offense and into more NBA-friendly pick-and-roll sets. The results haven't been more shots, but better ones. Paul is as big a part of the offense as last season (he is using a nearly identical 28.4 of the team's possessions this season compared to 28 percent during the 2012 campaign), but he is shooting 51.2 percent on two-point shots compared to 43.8 percent last season and 38.5 percent from beyond the arc (33.3 percent last season). His turnover rate is also down (16.9 now compared to 22.5 percent last season).
The reasons? Think about it. Paul is part of more isolation sets and pick-and- roll options, freeing him to create in space and attack the rim. Paul has never been comfortable in the catch-and-shoot game, so Groce gave him the ball, trusted him to make good decisions and allowed him to take advantage of his strength and speed. He is now scoring easier baskets, which gives him more room on the perimeter (he has already attempted 91 treys, more than half of his 162 total last season).
Paul is a big reason why the Maui Invitational champions are 12-1 and still one of the nation's big surprises despite a tough Saturday Border War loss to Missouri.
1. Duke (11-0): Mason Plumlee is the Blue Devils' stabilizing force. He has improved the part of his game that needed the most work. An increased workload has brought an increase in free throw attempts. Plumlee has improved his ball fake and added bulk, finding more contact than last season and converting at a much higher rate (69.7 percent compared to 52.8 percent last season).
2. Indiana (11-1): Is Indiana, and more matter-of-factly, Cody Zeller, soft? The Hoosiers rank 154th in defensive block percentage, and in a great stat from SI's Winn, six of the past 10 champs have finished in the top 25 of that category. It hasn't affected the Hoosiers' overall defensive efficiency to date, but the Butler Bulldogs exposed vulnerability, driving to the rim with impunity.
3. Michigan (12-0): I was having a conversation with a knowledgeable hoops fan last week and he remarked, "Man, you have to love John Beilein's 1-3-1 zone?" I didn't say much because in the two times I'd watched the Wolverines at length this season, I saw a lot of on-ball pressure from Trey Burke. I decided to look it up, and Michigan is playing zone on roughly 11 percent of defensive possessions. Everyone associates Beilein with the "gimmicky" zone defense, Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey. We aren't in Morgantown anymore, folks, and Beilein wants to take advantage of his athleticism and allow Burke to dictate tempo on both ends.
4. Louisville (11-1): I marveled at how hard the Cardinals played defense in early-season contests against Samford and Missouri, but of course, I turned to KenPom.com to see if that related to statistical success. The answer: yes. Louisville is first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and has given up over 70 points just twice, against two really good offenses, Duke and Memphis.
5. Kansas (10-1): In our season preview, I dubbed Jeff Withey as a pre-season All-American for his ability to change games on the defensive end. His block rate is a staggering 19.4, which is currently second, but over four percentage points higher than his nation-leading 15.3 percentage last season. He is also shooting 57.3 percent from the floor.
6. Pittsburgh (12-1): We discussed Pitt's return to defensive success above, but the Panthers offense is running at an even higher level (fifth nationally in offensive efficiency) due in large part to Talib Zanna, who is shooting a remarkable 64.1 percent from the floor and making his free throws at a high rate for a 6-foot-9 big man (73.2 percent).
7. Arizona (11-0): Before the hate mail comes in from Tucson, I understand many may quibble with this ranking, but I'm still not sold on the best the Pac-12 has to offer. Why? Arizona still isn't guarding the perimeter (262nd in three-point percentage defense) and is careless with the ball (238th in turnover percentage). There is a strong connection between the two, as teams that commit turnovers allow more open-court opportunities, and many of those chances these days end in open perimeter shots.
8. Florida (8-2): The Gators share the basketball with four players involved in over 20 percent of their possessions. So, Florida is improved defensively and shares the ball? Where do I sign?
9. Syracuse (10-1): The zone defense is working again, as Syracuse ranks fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency. Now, a congratulations to head coach Jim Boeheim for posting his 900th career victory and a standing ovation for how he used the post-game forum to focus on what is truly important.
"If we cannot get the people who represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society," said Boeheim on Monday night. "If one person in this world, the NRA president, anybody, can tell me why we need assault weapons with 30 shots -- this is our fault if we don't go out there and do something about this."
10. Ohio State (9-2): Aaron Craft is his typical defensive self, but he has struggled mightily offensively, shooting just 38 percent on two-point attempts compared to 55.4 percent last season. He is making up for it by distributing more and hitting the glass with greater frequency, but the Buckeyes need him to be a scoring threat so Deshaun Thomas can get more clean looks. They couldn't buy a bucket in the second half against Kansas.
11. Cincinnati (12-0): Mick Cronin noted after Wednesday's victory over Xavier that his team needed to get better offensively, that he had a lot of athletes who needed to share the ball and move without it more efficiently. The numbers (64th in adjusted offensive efficiency) back up that assertion.
12. Minnesota (12-1): An interesting note: not only is this Smith's best team at Minnesota, but his teams have lost at least 11 games in every season and less than 14 just once. These Gophers will enter conference play at 12-1.
13. UNLV (11-1): Several national writers have insinuated that head coach Dave Rice will have a "problem" when Mike Moser returns from his dislocated elbow. Freshman Anthony Bennett has vaulted himself into (too) early Player of the Year discussion and Pittsburgh transfer Khern Birch has started to see minutes, making his season debut in a 2-point victory over UTEP then totaling 11 and 20 points respectively in wins over Northern Iowa and Canisius. How is more depth a problem? Moser's injury may even be a blessing in disguise as it forces Birch to see substantial minutes right away, increasing the prospects that he gets in game shape faster, which it appears he already has. UNLV will be better in the long run for it.
14. Creighton (11-1): Doug McDermott justifiably receives all of the praise, but Grant Gibbs has become a better ball distributor than many thought. His 131.4 offensive rating (KenPom) is 30th nationally and check out this stat: the Gonzaga transfer's assist rate/turnover rate is 33.9-to-13.1 (nearly 3- to-1) in comparison to 27.4-to-25.1 last season (roughly 1-to-1).
15. Missouri (10-1): In recent seasons, the Tigers were a team of swarming guards, and while Phil Pressey is still the main cog, UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi (remember him?) and stalwart Laurence Bowers have made the Tigers a more well-rounded outfit. The Tigers matched the Illini's guard play on Saturday, but found the finish line thanks to Bowers (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Oriakhi (13 points, 14 rebounds).