Point Blank – March 15, 2017
2017 Tourney Journey – On Understanding Depth…Time to bet – On how Painter’s team wins it in the paint…
There has been a lot written here about depth over the course of the NCAA hoops season, in particular the impact on the conference tournaments last weekend. There isn’t anything genius about that, it is something you will read or hear from across the Sports Mediaverse.
But now it changes – you will continue to have that factor drilled into your consciousness by analysts across the Big Dance, but from here on out there won’t be much on that front in this space at all. In fact, we now get to a time in which a lack of depth will turn out to have helped some teams. Since it will matter to many of you as you complete your brackets, and then dive into your handicapping of the games, let’s get to it.
Depth was a major issue for several national powers this season, Kansas and Duke coming quickly to mind, and also a team that I believe is a power but others have not awarded the honor – SMU. That can be a problem over the long grind, especially given that the first two compete in such difficult conferences, and it can take a physical and mental toll on the players.
The NCAA tournament changes some of that. First is the fact that for the high level programs, those that legitimately can play into April, the motivation is such that mental fatigue can be overcome. That shifts the question to the physical aspect, and part of why I put Kansas atop the bracket projection here yesterday is that I believe the Jayhawks got a break in losing to TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament – now some players that have gone through quite a grind get some downtime, and a chance to get rejuvenated.
Which leads to the second tourney key – if a team is anywhere near even on the fatigue meter right now, they should be fine the rest of the way. Teams like Kansas and Duke get easy first round games, which leaves them with five challenges over 17 of 18 days if they are to win it all.
The game count is manageable, and so are most of the game flows, especially given the silliness of how long the television timeouts are (I once joked that there was a television station running entire Seinfeld re-runs during those breaks in the action; perhaps I need to update that with a more contemporary reference now). So physical fatigue will not likely be an issue but foul trouble still can be, and that means time to go to some areas that don’t get talked about nearly enough.
Item: The benefits of a lack of depth (yes, there are real ones)
There are two primary keys here. First is that having a limited rotation provides the opportunity to develop a much tighter chemistry than teams that shuffle more players in and out of the games. Hence why I like a team such as Kansas at this stage, with part of yesterday’s focus on how dynamic the Jayhawks have been at the end of close games, while I also do not have all that much interest in the West Virginia’s and Florida State’s of this bracket.
There is not a better example of chemistry this season than SMU, a team that was literally forced into an experiment because of not only the lack of available players (only six in the rotation), but that all five starters are between 6-6 and 6-8, which does require some finesse. Tim Jankovich has done wonders in making the pieces fit, the Larry Brown influences easy to see, and now a particular reality unfolds – the Mustangs don’t struggle that much in having go guard either bigger or smaller players, because they have to do it in just about every game, while almost all of their opponents are seeing a one-off that is so difficult to prepare for.
Let’s talk about a couple of aspects of chemistry that matter. First is having unselfish players that are willing to share the ball, and have the talent to do something positive with it. As such let’s look at the scoring averages, and go to something we will likely never see again, the Mustangs assist-to-turnover ratios –
Player PPG Ast TO
Ojeleye 18.9 53 48
Brown 13.3 103 66
Milton 13.1 154 61
Moore 11.6 82 56
Foster 9.9 71 41
Emelogu 4.4 64 38
Not only could each player contribute points, but everyone in the rotation sported a positive ratio of turnovers to assists. That can get you places.
Of course there is a genuine problem with a lack of depth that the Sports Mediaverse will get right in the weeks to come – foul trouble can be a killer. But do players genuinely learn to play better fundamental defense when they are aware of that?
Item: If you learn to play defense without fouling…
Louisville was brought into play as a focus point on this front as a lead topic about a month ago. Despite the Cardinals rating high on the overall defensive metrics Rick Pitino was not pleased at all with his team on that end of the court because of something that doesn’t get incorporated properly into the defensive efficiency tables – the ability to guard without fouling.
You’ll see the Cardinals at #6 in defensive efficiency, but there is a glaring weakness – they are #269 in the nation in ratio of Free Throw Attempts/Field Goal Attempts, or what is easier referred to as FTA/FGA. That count tells us something, and it can be a weakness of teams that have depth – when a lot of players get rotated in for shorter stints it is more difficult to develop fundamentals and chemistry, and there are also lesser concerns about getting into foul trouble. Put West Virginia in the same boat, and it is why I do not like the Mountaineers much in the tourney – they are #5 in defensive efficiency, but that is clouded by being #309 in FTA/FGA.
So what about some of those depth-shy teams like Kansas, Duke and SMU? They had to learn to guard without fouling, while still being effective on defense. So let’s take a look –
D Eff FTA/FGA
Kansas #28 #70
Duke #39 #71
SMU #27 #7
Those teams did not play great defense, which is a natural component of the depth issue, but all three were solid enough on that end of the court, and while SMU was top-tier in terms of not fouling, Kansas and Duke were also in the upper 20 percent of all teams (admittedly that stat does favor winning teams, who don’t have to foul at the end of games, so I do some internal factoring of it).
OK, so this was a big long-winded but I hope it got to the point – while depth might sound like a common sense thing to talk about at tourney time, it does not come into play all that often, and if anything if a team has top level talent, but lacks depth, they may have advanced a step further than other teams in terms of chemistry.
Item: And in terms of understanding defense a little better
Let me detail some teams that are not as good as their numbers because of that key aspect of simply fouling too much. Some food for thought here as you fill out your brackets –
D Eff FTA/FGA
South Carolina #3 #337
Florida #4 #148
West Virginia #5 #309
Louisville #7 #269
These are damn good defenses, but they are not quite as good as the efficiency counts show, and because those efficiency counts are what you will hear so often this week from the Sports Mediaverse, this helps to establish some perspective.
Who were the best tournament teams at guarding without fouling? There are six in the field that made the Top 10 in the category, and I am about to bet one of them -
D Eff FTA/FGA
Villanova #11 #1
Purdue #15 #2
USC #85 #5
SMU #27 #7
Saint Mary’s #26 #9
Iowa State #43 #10
If Purdue was solid at not fouling across the Big 10 skirmishes, plus a non-conference schedule that included Villanova, Louisville and Notre Dame, then it is unlikely that Vermont will be getting to the FT often. That means the Catamounts having to find a way to not only defend much bigger and more talented players, but also to score over them.
In the Sights, NCAA Thursday…
Funny how things work sometimes – like many folks I thought that the Big 10 was nothing special this season, yet where does one of the first tickets of the 2017 tourney come from? That very league, with #732 Purdue (7:25 Eastern) earning a call on Thursday at -9 or less (there is plenty of -8.5 to be found among the Nevada shops). It shows what happens when the markets do their job properly, and in a game I expect the Boilermakers to stretch into double figures it means value.
Large favorites rarely have motivation in the opening round, hence I look for those situations when they do. For many it is just win and move on, especially if they come in having captured their conference tourney, but find a team off of an early tourney loss and what does it bring? 1. A potential chip on their shoulder, with the motivation to not just win in order to advance, but to play as well as they can to get their confidence and swagger back; and 2. A high degree of physical freshness. Not only do the Boilermakers have both of those elements, but there is also the matter of having lost vs. Arkansas-Little Rock in a first round upset last March, which I believes helps us two ways. So let’s get to work.
In terms of Purdue’s loss to Michigan last Friday I cannot find too much fault given how well John Beilein’s team played on that special weekend. But one of the items that will get lost for posterity is that one of the biggest moments for the Wolverines was something they had no control over – only being able to prepare to box out as P.J. Thompson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 0:18 left, when there was an opportunity for Purdue to go up by four.
As for the loss in the first round last March, I believe it helps two ways. First is that Matt Painter can instill in his team that they cannot take anyone lightly, but there is also the matter of the Boilermakers leading by 14 with 4:00 to play in that one. If they are up in double figures this time that bad memory should have them locked into what happened, and be geared towards increasing the margin instead of coasting.
The rest of this comes down to matchups. Vermont is a well-coached team that plays solid fundamental basketball, but the Catamounts are severely challenged when they step up in class. They had three road games against tourney teams this season, none of them heavyweights, and fell 80-58 at Providence, 68-50 at South Carolina and 81-69 at Butler. Now the problem is not just stepping up in terms of talent, but way, way up in terms of size, with their biggest player being the lithe 6-8/217 Peyton Hanson.
What does Hanson and his smaller supporting cast have to do? Not only defend the best post offense in the land, but do it without getting in foul trouble. Take a gander at Purdue’s three leading scorers:
Player Size PPG
Caleb Swanigan 6-9/250 18.5
Isaac Haas 7-2/290 12.8
Vince Edwards 6-8/225 12.2
It isn’t just that Swanigan/Haas duo, who we may often see on the court at the same time, but the fact that Edwards is also just a bit bigger than Hanson.
Here is where Purdue causes so much trouble – double-team the post and you leave shooters open, and the Boilermakers were #4 in the nation in knocking down 40.6 percent of their 3-point shots. I anticipate a lot of good looks against a Vermont defense that just can’t man-up in the paint, hence will have to double-team, and for this game to gradually get away from the Catamounts vs. a favorite that has a lot of demons to exorcise in this setting.
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