Monday, October 25, 2010

Big East Prediction - Four Starters Back, One Star Gone

We are about a week away from the release of the Basketball Prospectus book which includes more words on all these teams, but in the meantime, here is my model's prediction for the Big East.

Once again I start with the expected changes. Due to lingering injury issues, Anthony Mason was unable to use a meaningful number of possessions for St. John’s last year. And St. John’s brings back virtually their entire roster. (Ironically, this is true for just about the third year in a row.) With almost everyone back, St. John’s should experience a slight improvement in efficiency, and Steve Lavin has a chance to make the NCAA tournament in his first season.

Cincinnati loses a pair of fabulous guards in Deonta Vaughn and Lance Stephenson, but Stephenson was not a very efficient player last year. (See 16 of 73 on threes.) The team also loses back-up interior defender Steven Toyloy who was not a particularly effective interior player either. The model tends to view the loss of ineffective players as a good thing. On the whole, by reallocating minutes and shots on a team that still returns Yancy Gates and Rashad Bishop, Cincinnati may play better than some people think.

My model also likes Oliver Purnell to turn things around for DePaul in his first year as head coach. There is no question he inherits a disaster, but he also knows a thing or two about how to rebuild. I fully expect him to get DePaul to play better defense this year, and I expect him to steal a few games in the Big East, despite his decimated roster.

The next table shows the expected changes in offense and defense. Notice the contrast between West Virginia and Syracuse. While both teams lose substantial offense, Syracuse’s defense takes a bigger hit. Syracuse loses Wesley Johnson, Arinze Onuaku, and Andy Rautins. Meanwhile West Virginia loses Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, and Wellington Smith. While West Virginia’s trio were actually more efficient offensively, the three Syracuse players posted significantly more blocks and steals, and their ability to change the game on the defensive end of the court will be missed.

The next table shows the prediction for the season. My model picks Pittsburgh to win the Big East with a similar top five to most publications.

In addition to rolling out a detailed Big East preview, Villanova By the Numbers recently posted the conventional wisdom on the Big East standings, and the consensus agrees with Pittsburgh as league champ. But my model departs from the consensus in three key ways.

First, Villanova is ranked substantially lower in my model. Villanova does have a natural replacement for Scottie Reynolds in Maalik Wayns, but the reason for the poor prediction here is Villanova’s poor defense last season. Two years ago they had three great defensive rebounders in Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, and Antonio Pena, but last year they only had Pena. Perhaps the loss of Reggie Redding and Taylor King will actually help the defense. Redding was often asked to play forward despite his limited size. And despite good defensive rebounding numbers, King had a reputation as a poor defensive player. But that assumes Wright will give more minutes to Mouphtaou Yarou and top recruit Jayvaughn Pinkston. Wright has shown he will not simply use a taller lineup to block a few more shots. For Villanova to play better defensively, those players will need to execute and earn Jay Wright’s trust. If Jay Wright uses a smaller lineup and Antonio Pena is the only dependable interior defender once again, Villanova may lack the defense to be a true NCAA tournament contender. Of course Villanova nearly won the Big East despite their defensive shortcomings last year, so it would be foolish to count Villanova out.

Second, my model ranks UConn substantially lower than some other sources. UConn loses its two most efficient scorers in Stanley Robinson and the highly underrated Gavin Edwards. And UConn loses the team’s most prolific scorer in Jerome Dyson. Kemba Walker will need to bring three freshman top 100 recruits along quickly, and my model suggests that in the Big East, that could be a recipe for a long season.

But the ranking that most makes me scratch my head is Georgetown’s position on this list. The Hoyas are ranked second in my model despite the loss of an NBA lottery pick in Greg Monroe. Statistically, I understand where this calculation comes from. Georgetown’s defense is expected to slip without Monroe, but Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, and Jason Clark, might be the most efficient returning guard trio in the nation. They were all incredibly effective scorers, and based on John Thompson’s ability to teach efficient offense, the model expects another precision attack for the Hoyas.

But this is the first time in about six years that John Thompson will be playing without a dominant big man in the middle. One has to wonder how much of Freeman, Wright, and Clark’s success the last few years was due to the attention Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe drew in the paint.

And this leads to an important question. How well do teams do when they return the entire starting rotation, with the exception of one star player?

Four Starters Back, One Star Gone – What happens next?

Ohio St. and Georgetown are ranked very high in my model. Both teams return four starters from rotations that were incredibly efficient last year. But both teams also clearly lose their star player in Evan Turner and Greg Monroe. This brings up an interesting question. Historically, how have teams fared that lost their most talented player, but almost no one else from the lineup? Let’s look at some examples:

Texas: Lost Kevin Durant
Off 2007 - 120.6
Def 2007 - 94.6
Off 2008 - 123.8
Def 2008 - 91.8
AJ Abrams, DJ Augustin, Damion James, and Justin Mason were all efficient players with Durant, but all three played better after he was gone. And Connor Atchley improved tremendously after Durant left.

Texas: Lost DJ Augustin
Off 2008 - 123.8
Def 2008 - 91.8
Off 2009 - 112.4
Def 2009 - 91.6
All the players mentioned above played significantly worse in 2009 without their star PG. Only the emergence of Dexter Pittman kept Texas from plummeting further.

Boston College: Lost Tyrese Rice
Note: Boston College fell apart last year and fired their head coach. But according to, Boston College was very unlucky last season and had a very solid efficiency margin.
Off 2009 - 112.9
Def 2009 - 99.8
Off 2010 - 110.2
Def 2010 - 95.8
Without Rice, Rakim Sanders numbers fell off precipitously, and several other returning players suffered smaller drops in efficiency. Only Joe Trapini performed slightly better. The only reason Boston College was able to post decent efficiency stats on the year was the emergence of Tyler Roche and Evan Ravenel as effective role players.

LSU: Lost Anthony Randolph
Off 2008 – 105.4
Def 2008 – 95.6
Off 2009 – 111.2
Def 2009 – 94.5
Without Randolph, LSU saw a number of improvements. Bo Spencer’s efficiency rating increased dramatically and Garrett Temple and Marcus Thornton also played significantly better. LSU went on to win the SEC regular season title.

Georgetown: Lost Jeff Green
Off 2007 – 124.8
Def 2007 – 89.3
Off 2008 – 117.2
Def 2008 – 86.4
Roy Hibbert was forced to shoot more and saw his efficiency rating fall and everyone else on the team saw their efficiency rating fall slightly, with the exception of Jonathan Wallace. Georgetown did not return to the Final Four.

Kansas: Lost Julian Wright
Off 2007 – 117.8
Def 2007 – 82.2
Off 2008 – 125.3
Def 2008 – 82.8
Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur got slightly better, and Mario Chalmers and Darnell Jackson improved tremendously after Julian Wright left. Julian Wright probably was not Kansas’s best player, but he did use the most possessions among all starters in 2007. Kansas won the national title in 2008.

Duke: Lost Josh McRoberts
Off 2007 – 113.9
Def 2007 – 85.6
Off 2008 – 118.2
Def 2008 – 87.6
DeMarcus Nelson, Gerald Henderson, Greg Paulus, and John Scheyer all played significantly better without McRoberts, but Duke’s defense did slip slightly without McRoberts in the middle.

Conclusion: There is reason for optimism. Several teams on this list did get substantially better in years in which they returned four starters and lost a star player. But I think the successful teams also had had a number of talented players who were ready to take on larger roles. DJ Augustin was ready to shine when he could break out from Kevin Durant’s shadow. Darnell Jackson was ready to shine when he could take Julian Wright’s minutes. I am not as confident Georgetown has a player as ready to step into a larger role and take the Hoyas to the next level.

But the important thing to note is that we have limited data to reach these types of conclusions quantitatively. For now, my model picks Georgetown for second in the Big East and Ohio St. first in the Big Ten. But in a few more years, as the seasons of tempo free player data continue to grow, future data should allow us to draw better parallels.