Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What is so special about the Memphis offense?

-After spending President’s day weekend out of town, I’m back with several notes:

1) Grant Wahl’s article on the Memphis Dribble-Drive-Motion offense has easily been my favorite college basketball article this year, but not for the reasons you might think. What I love is John Calipari’s description of his change in defensive philosophy. In the article he points out that he used to want his defense to rank last in turnovers forced. The idea was that he didn’t want his defenders getting out of position and allowing easy baskets. But, after talking to Walberg, his position has flipped. Calipari now believes that if his team doesn’t force turnovers, his team will spend 70% of the game on the defensive end. Calipari now wants his defense to lead the league in turnovers.

This is critical because not only has this aggressive half-court man-to-man defense led Memphis to the number one defensive rank in the country (according to Pomeroy), it has also made the offense better by giving his guards transition lay-ups. In fact, if you take away all of Memphis’ points off turnovers, their half-court offense has been remarkably pedestrian.

Calipari certainly knows how to sell his offense. If a player dreams of going to the NBA, why not practice beating your man one-on-one, all the time. But besides the recruiting edge, and Walberg’s drills, I’m not sure that the DDM is actually an un-guardable offensive innovation. I have to believe that a team like Kansas or UCLA with multiple quick perimeter defenders can contain the penetration and slow Memphis down in the half-court. (And I don’t think they’ll need to bust out the triangle-and-two to do it.) But, if the Memphis defense keeps forcing steals and shutting down the opposition, that isn’t going to matter.

2) Calipari’s old style of defense hasn’t gone away. In fact, Georgetown appears to subscribe to Calipari’s old philosophy. The Hoyas have the top eFG% defense, but force almost no turnovers. This was perfect last year when Georgetown had the top precision offense in college basketball. After all, if you can score efficiently in the half-court, why take any risks. But, now that Georgetown’s offense is weaker, the lack of a transition game doesn’t give the team another option when the shots are not falling. Couple this with an offense that doesn’t force contact and draw fouls and Georgetown essentially has no safety valve against a top defensive team.

Jeff Green used to be that safety valve. I thought earlier in the season that MAA freshman guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman could cause enough problems with their quickness to replace Green’s scoring. But with Wright out for the year and Freeman hitting a freshman wall, the team really looks like last year’s team, minus a star player.

3) It will be a huge shame if we don’t get to see UAB’s Robert Vaden in the NCAA tournament this year. In his two most high profile games of the season, Kentucky (33 points, 7 three pointers) and Memphis (27 points), Vaden has been nothing short of sensational.

4) It will be a huge shame if we don’t get to see Baylor’s Curtis Jerrells in the NCAA tournament this year. Jerrells was actually the third highest rated high school player among Scott Drew’s talented group of juniors, but a point guard is often the difference maker, and few have performed better in crunch time than Jerrells. Unfortunately for Baylor, the last four games have been their four worst defensive performances of the year, and now Baylor is in serious danger of missing the tournament. (Ah poor defense, how I like to watch you, and yet you never make it deep into the tournament.) The fact is whether you want to count using the last 10 (0-4 start) or the new last 12 metric (1-5 start), Baylor is almost guaranteed to be discussed as a team collapsing at the end of the year.

5) Year’s Stupidest Technical #2. Trailing by one in the final minute against Texas on Saturday, Baylor “pulled a Webber”. They called a timeout they didn’t have. Year’s Stupidest Technical #3. The interim Oregon St. coach apparently forgot to get the lineup card in for Saturday’s game. This earned a pre-game technical. (The Year’s Stupidest Technical #1 was also a pregame technical. At the start of the Big East schedule, a player was penalized for hanging on the rim during the South Florida / Rutgers warm-ups.) I never knew technical fouls could be assessed before the start of the game and this year I’ve seen two.

6) Is ESPN’s Gameday secretly shot in front of a blue screen with various crowds super-imposed behind them? Because it sure seems like I’m watching tape of the same show every week. Let’s see if these topics sound familiar: Would Memphis be better off with a loss? Which team is the REAL best team in the Big East? Can Kentucky climb onto the bubble? Oh wait, Digger’s highlighter and tie changed color. I guess it must have been a new show after all.

7) The consensus seems to be that Kentucky is playing much better than earlier in the year. But not-so-fast my friend. Is Kentucky really a better team? John Gasaway’s latest rankings show that despite an 8-3 conference record, Kentucky actually has a negative point-per-possession differential in SEC play. (That’s pretty hard to do.) I’m sure the numbers look better if you throw out the game where they scored 11 points in the first half, but I’m still not convinced that this team is playing dramatically better than in the non-conference schedule. They just seem to be performing better in close games.

8) Has there ever been a year where point differential was so closely scrutinized? I’m used to seeing this in football, but not in basketball. Random ESPN News announcer, “UConn has won 10 in a row, but six of those were close wins. It isn’t clear whether UConn is playing that well.” Really, they’ve won 10 in a row! As much as I appreciate tempo free stats, whatever happened to celebrating teams for winning? Are you honestly going to sit back and tell me you like West Virginia more than UConn right now because West Virginia’s wins are always by double digits?

9) Given UConn’s favorable finishing schedule, Craig Austrie may have won the Big East title with his dramatic overtime basket on Saturday. I still can’t believe that shot went in. He looked significantly off balance when he went airborne, although replays do show he was square at the top of his delivery when he took the shot. Seriously, if Austrie loses playing time to Dyson when Dyson comes back, Calhoun should have to give back a Final Four ring. I said from the beginning of the suspension that UConn could be better off without Dyson and nothing about the recent 10 game winning streak has changed my opinion.

10) The most important game of the weekend may have been UNLV at BYU with first place on the line in the MWC. In the earlier meeting at UNLV, BYU turned the ball over 28.8% of the time and had an eFG% of 36.7% leading to a blowout win for UNLV. But roles were reversed on Saturday when UNLV turned the ball over 21.1% of the time and had an eFG% of 31.4% leading to a blowout win for BYU. The good news for BYU is that with just 3 weeks left in the regular season, BYU now has a two game lead in the loss column and BYU is the clear favorite for the regular season title. The bad news for BYU is that the MWC tournament is in Las Vegas and the way these two teams have played on their opponent’s floors, that could be huge. Regardless, both teams remain in the discussion for an at-large bid and the MWC might even get 3 teams this year if things break right.