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
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
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 nations big surprises despite a tough Saturday Border War loss to
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
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
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 Illinis guard play on
Saturday, but found the finish line thanks to Bowers (23 points, 10 rebounds)
and Oriakhi (13 points, 14 rebounds).
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