Friday, December 4, 2015

Early Season Thoughts

I am taking the year off from writing about college basketball. But I still follow the sport closely, and occasionally I need to share a few thoughts. Thus today’s rare column.
Butler’s Transformation

Teams are usually pretty consistent stylistically from year to year. You know you have to fear Michigan’s offense every season. They will have some quick guards and some big men who can shoot and their perimeter-oriented attack is lethal year-after-year. You know Louisville is going to let its guards gamble for steals, rely on a solid back-line to protect the rim, and play elite defense every year. You know Syracuse is going to play zone defense and rely on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. You know Duke is going to deny threes and make a lot of threes.

Styles rarely change, but in the preseason our SI projections thought Butler might change its spots from a defense-oriented team:

Butler Last Year, 82nd ranked offense, 7th ranked defense

Butler SI Projection, 49th ranked offense, 35th ranked defense

We thought the addition of NC State transfer Tyler Lewis would help take the Butler offense to the next level, but that the loss of Kameron Woods physicality and next-level rebounding would cause the defense to drop off. So far, the effect has been even more dramatic than expected:

Butler KenPom Early, 12th ranked offense, 79th ranked defense

Now preseason projections still factor heavily into KenPom’s numbers, so you might question whether the swing has been this dramatic. But the raw numbers also support this. Butler misses Woods’ defensive rebounding:

Butler Defensive Rebounding Rank
2015 9th
2016 142nd

But on offense, things are much better. Last year Alex Barlow was a passable ball-handler, but he wasn’t great. This year Tyler Lewis is playing at a much higher level:

Butler Offensive Turnover Rate
2015 51st
2016 4th

Butler Offensive eFG%
2015 201st
2016 27th

Butler remains a fringe Top 25 team, but they are winning in a completely different way than last season.

Over 1000 Words on Providence where I barely mention Kris Dunn

In the preseason, SI projected Providence as a fringe bubble team. We didn’t have them in the field and we thought it would take some unexpected player performance for them to get there.

There were a couple of reasons for this skeptical projection. First, Providence did not have a great defensive team last season. And that was with two 7-footers Carson Desrosiers and Paschal Chukwu, and another experienced big man in Tyler Harris playing significant minutes. The Friars have much less size this season and we expected the Providence defense to be worse this year.

Second, as great as Kris Dunn is, a lot of Providence’s returning players just didn’t have great individual projections. Kyron Cartwright, Jalen Lindsey, and Junior Lomomba were all very passive players last season, and they still weren’t that efficient given how rarely they shot. Throw in a freshman Ryan Fazekas who wasn’t ranked high enough to expect an instant-impact, and you had a group of players who was likely to drag Dunn down quite a bit.

The key player in the preseason that was intriguing was Rodney Bullock. CBS wrote about how Bullock could score over 15 PPG. But frankly, that seemed a little optimistic. Players that sit out don’t always come in and play at a high level.

Here is a list of some of Bullocks peer-type players. These are players who sat out most or all of last season and who do not have significant D1 experience. I’m going to exclude intentional red-shirts since that may suggest players who were not ready. This is a list of players who were ineligible, injured, or on mission trips.

10.0 PPG, 95 ORtg, 76% of minutes, Ohio St.’s JaQuan Lyle, #30 Recruit
3.1 PPG, 73 ORtg, 44% of minutes, Florida’s Brandone Francis-Ramirez, #31 Recruit
4.3 PPG, 104 ORtg, 40% of minutes, UCLA’s Jonah Bolden, #36 Recruit
9.8 PPG, 95 ORtg, 64% of minutes, Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins, #60 Recruit
14.7 PPG, 103 ORtg, 73% of minutes, BYU’s Nick Emery, #61 Recruit
8.3 PPG, 97 ORtg, 47% of minutes, San Diego St.’s Zylan Cheatem, #79 Recruit

These teams were all hoping that these players could all step into a meaningful role this year. But even though they were a year older and ranked highly out of high school, the results have been inconsistent at best.

I am not going to list all the similar players from 2014, but here are a few of the stronger performances for players that sat out un-intentionally in 2013 and debuted in 2014:
10.0 PPG, 101 ORtg, 84% of minutes, UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton, #19 Recruit
14.9 PPG, 97 ORtg, 84% of minutes, Florida St.’s Xavier Rathan Mayes, #43 Recruit
11.9 PPG, 99 ORtg, 70% of minutes, Marquette’s Duane Wilson, #59 Recruit

The key to me is that even though some of these players were able to step in and play big roles, none was able to do so at a star-level of efficiency. So when I read about Rodney Bullock being the key second piece to take Providence to the NCAA tournament, I was skeptical. Bullock might play a lot of minutes. And he might have to shoot a lot. But after not playing basketball for two full seasons, could he really score and be efficient at the same time? Here are the numbers so far:

13.1 PPG, 110 ORtg, 77% of minutes, Providence’s Rodney Bullock

That’s not a bad start. Oh, but let me mention one more thing. Bullock was NOT a Top 100 recruit like all the other players listed above. He was not considered a can’t-miss prospect out of high school. His name has been in the news a lot, but remember that when Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock were suspended, it was Austin who was the prized Top 100 recruit. Bullock was just expected to be another player. Scout, Rivals, and ESPN all considered Bullock to be a 3-star recruit, which is pretty much the lowest ranking major conference recruits typically get. ESPN gave him a 77 rating.

So while I give CBS Sports a ton of credit for going to practice and raving about Bullock, I also have to say that for a non-elite recruit to sit out for two seasons and then debut above most Top 100 players who had to sit out, that’s pretty remarkable.

Of course teams are starting to scout Bullock, and he may not be able to sustain this level of performance. Bullock was great in the first four games of the season and he’s been below average in the most recent four game stretch. But there aren’t very many comparable players who have done what Bullock is doing. If he keeps it up, he deserves a lot of praise.

Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ben Bentil. We had him on our SI Breakout player list, and while he has exceeded even our expectations, his breakout is not that unusual for a sophomore. The shocker is that Bentil is playing 83% of the available minutes for his team. That’s extremely difficult to do, especially since Providence can rarely afford to let Bentil guard a less-physical big man. Since Ryan Fazekas and Jalen Lindsey have to play at the 4-spot whenever Bullock is out, Bentil is playing most of the game against the opposition’s strongest and most physical post player.

Providence’s two point defense has fallen off to 223rd nationally, which is to be expected when you don’t have any true tall post players defending the rim. But Bentil’s ability to avoid foul trouble has at least kept opponent’s honest.

And most importantly, Providence has been forcing turnovers at a very high rate. After ranking just 134th in turnovers forced last year, Providence is up to 26th in turnovers forced this year. And that has allowed the team to compensate for the weaker rim protection.

I can’t tell you how many coaches talk in the preseason about forcing more turnovers and getting out in transition. Everyone says they want to do that, but it is hard to force turnovers if players do not prepare the right way.

I love UNLV’s roster this year. They have great size and great athleticism across the board, and quality experience at the PG position. UNLV looks like they would be an automatic tournament team. But their defense is just a bad gambling defense. They take way too many chances, and when they don’t get steals, they give up easy baskets.

Providence is just the opposite. They aren’t getting quite as many steals. But by pressuring the ball-handler, hugging players off the ball, and taking away passing lanes, they prevent teams from getting in easy scoring position.

The difference between UNLV and Providence is that Providence lets teams make mistakes. They play pressure defense while maintaining good guarding position and wait for their opponents to make a bad pass. That’s more effective than gambling.

Ben Bentil will get into foul trouble at some point. And Dunn is playing on the edge. He might not be so lucky with calls when he goes on the road in Big East play. So Providence’s lack of depth is going to cost them in some games. But right now, Providence is playing like a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

And I think my biggest point is that while Kris Dunn will get most of the credit, and he deserves most of it, this shouldn’t be all about Dunn. Because of transfers and defections, Ed Cooley has pretty much had an undermanned roster for several years now. But he continues to develop less-heralded players into stars. And this year he has found the right buttons to push to make the defense work. The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for putting these pieces together too. There are a lot of coaches that would have performed worse with this mismatched roster, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that as our jaws drop at what Dunn is doing.

Quick Thoughts

1) Our SI’s projections probably had San Diego St. too high in the preseason, but I’m shocked at how much Malik Pope has regressed. Pope was an elite prospect who was on a lot of NBA-watch lists. Last year he had a 5.7% block rate, a 106 ORtg, and he made 20% of his 3’s as a big man. As a sophomore everything pointed to him becoming a breakout star. Instead his block rate has fallen in half, his ORtg is down to 65, and that’s largely due to his eFG% of 23%. He just can’t make any jump shots right now.

The guard positions were supposed to be the weak spot for San Diego St. And if you had told me that Jeremy Helmsley and Dakarai Allen were going to play as well as they have, I would have expected San Diego St. to be playing at a high level. I did not expect the forward spot to be such a weakness.

2) We knew Vanderbilt’s offense was going to be good, but the big surprise early on is that they are also shutting teams down defensively. Kevin Stallings has never had a Top 30 defense in the previous 14 seasons Ken Pomeroy maintained the stats. The next few weeks should tell us a lot more about whether they have found the right formula on defense or just run into some cold teams early.

3) SI had Xavier at 21st in the preseason which was higher than almost every expert. Our model saw a very deep team where even players at the tail end of the rotation had a strong individual projection. And Chris Mack is a quality coach who has taken Xavier to the NCAA tournament in 5 of the last 6 years.

It wasn’t that others hated Xavier. There seemed to be a consensus that Xavier would finish in the Top 3 in the Big East. But most people were skeptical of the team’s PG situation. Well guess what, even though Edmond Sumner and Larry Austin have been turnover prone (a 26% and 32% turnover rate respectively), the team’s overall depth has been able to overcome that. Xavier is undefeated, has a number of Top 100 wins, and has been winning convincingly. Point guard is probably the most important position on a college basketball team, but this just goes to show that if you have quality players throughout the lineup, having a great PG isn’t everything.