Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Short of the Mark

Why is it that when I stay at a Super 8, an internet connection is complimentary, but when I stay at a Hilton, the Hilton charges $5 an hour for internet service? What does it say about me that I’m too cheap to pay $5 an hour when my employer is already paying for the hotel?

OK, so I expected to be without internet during the holidays when I was visiting in-laws. In fact, I appreciated the break. But with this added Hilton bonus, I’ve now gone about 3 weeks without reading anything written online. This is all an excuse to say, if you’ve read this somewhere else first, I’m sorry.

The dominant thought in my mind as we start conference play is how many former Final Four teams are struggling to even compete for an NCAA tournament spot. Whose downfall has been more disappointing?

Kentucky? Michigan?

No, those teams have new coaches who don’t quite have their type of players yet. In fact, the struggles this year may help with recruiting for next year. Elite recruits almost always want to know they can play right away.

No, the teams that concern me are teams with veteran Final Four coaches who still can’t seem to put things together this year:

Louisville 10-4
LSU 7-7
Maryland 10-6
Illinois 8-7

The thing I find amazing about these teams is that they all have one thing in common. None of them can make threes with much proficiency. These teams rank 195th, 224th , 259th, and 331st respectively in 3 point percentage.

Louisville’s percentage is actually up from last season thanks in no small measure to Terrence Williams improvement from a 26% three point shooter to a 41% three point shooter. Of course, according to Ken Pomeroy’s theory of three point touch, we shouldn’t expect the 41% accuracy to last because Williams remains a 60% free throw shooter. But in the loss against Cincinnati, the poor three point shooting reared its ugly head again for the Cardinal. Louisville was only 3-23 from long range.

Admittedly, with the exception of Darrell Mitchell, LSU was a horrible three point shooting team even when they made their Final Four run. But the Final Four team was so dominant in the interior, that they managed to rank 333rd in three pointers taken. Now that LSU is taking threes at a much higher rate, and still not making those threes, the team is really suffering.

Maryland desperately misses Mike Jones and his 81 made three pointers from last year. Eric Hayes is proficient from the outside, but good teams can always shut down one guy.

Not only is Illinois ranked 331st in three point percentage at 32.4% from long range, but besides Trent Meachem, the rest of the Illini are shooting a combined 41 of 167 from long range or 24.6%. Worse yet, no one on Illinois can make free throws, so if we believe Ken Pomeroy’s theory of three point touch, Illinois isn’t going to get any better with this group of players.

The problem for all these teams is so fundamentally simple. When they were at their best, they had three point shooters that could just punish the opposing defense. It his hard to imagine a Pitino team or Webber’s motion offense without picturing huge runs led by lights out three point shooting. But now, all these teams find that without consistent shooters from three-point range, teams can focus exclusively on shutting down the interior. And when that happens, these teams just look ordinary.

Teams have been shutting down the interior by double teaming post players, sagging off the guards to block the interior passing lanes, or simply by playing zone. As Illinois is finding out this year, if you can’t hit open three pointers against the zone defense, you are going to see a lot of zone defense used against you.

But how could something as simple as not having three point shooters happen to teams with solid coaches?

-You can argue that recruiting has been a problem, but none of these schools had Kansas or North Carolina level recruits when they went on their most recent Final Four run.

-You can blame injuries, and there is certainly reason to believe that Louisville will play better now that Padgett and Palacios are back in the lineup, or that Illinois was devastated by the suspension of Jamar Smith.

-But I wonder if something else might make a difference here. I wonder if coaches who go to the Final Four tend to underrate things like shooting ability and overrate general athleticism. After all, when you get to the Final Four, every one of those players can make baskets. The only question is who has the better athletes.

-Or maybe it is as simple at the SI cover jinx. Any time a team has players come together and perform at an unexpected level, it probably isn’t going to last.

I’ll take a slightly more optimistic tone for these teams and say that the future can still be bright. Louisville showed that last year when they raised a non-conference RPI from 135 to 37.

More importantly, these teams should take a close look at last year’s poster-child for poor perimeter shooting and disappointing play, the Connecticut Huskies. Connecticut shot a brutal 32.1% from three point range en route to their worst season in a decade. And while the Huskies have only slightly improved on their three point shooting this year (thanks AJ Price for improving from 27% to 40% beyond the arc), the real story is Connecticut finding a way to beat bad teams even if those teams play zone or pack it in the paint.

If you watched the Saturday Night game between UConn and Notre Dame, you saw the good and bad side of UConn. Early in the game Notre Dame gave UConn open shots from long range and UConn kept shooting bricks. On the game, UConn shot 12% from three point range, and Notre Dame built a 21 point lead. But then UConn used solid defense (12 blocks, 10 steals) to create transition baskets. More importantly, UConn stopped settling for open three pointers and took more bank shots and short jumpers. With those types of shots, even if they missed, they at least had a chance at an easy tip in. And UConn came back to take the lead, although they ultimately lost a close one.

Assuming Connecticut doesn’t crumble like last year, they are going to have to do it the same way these other teams have to, by taking less threes. That should happen naturally for Louisville as they transition Padgett back into the lineup, but the other teams should take that advice as well. And for future seasons, maybe they should go back to recruiting those outstanding three point shooters.