Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Random Madness to Wrap your Head Around

No No. 1 seeds this year. And no No. 2 seeds either.

None of the four head coaches with teams in this year's Final Four graduated from Division I institutions. Jim Calhoun played DII at American International College. John Calipari transferred from UNC-Wilmington and played at DII Clarion. Brad Stevens went to DIII DePauw University where he was up for Academic All-America. Shaka Smart played at DIII Kenyon College.

Calhoun is 68 years old. Stevens and Smart are 67 years old, combined.

All of the teams have mascots with four legs.

According to kenpom.com, there is a 58% chance the Wildcats (ranked 4th) will beat the Huskies 70-68 (ranked 11th) ... The Bulldogs (37th) will beat the Rams (50th) 70-68 as well (55% chance).

The Massey Ratings have UConn 4th and Kentucky 5th. Drop to 23rd for Butler and 31st for VCU ... Masseyratings.com says Kentucky is predicted to win 71-69 against UConn (win probability 54%) ... Butler is predicted to win 70-69 against VCU (win probability 52%).

Kenpom.com lists VCU with the highest average experience of the Final Four teams at 2.17 (48th nationally). Butler = 2.02 (76th nationally); Kentucky = 1.16 (312th); UConn = .95 (332nd) ... there are 345 teams ranked ... Kansas was 82nd. Ohio St. was 220th. The tournament team with the most experience was Wofford, ranked 2nd at 2.71.

In possession usage rate, three seniors (point guard Joey Rodriguez, forward Jamie Skeen, and wing Brandon Rozzell) lead the way for VCU. Butler uses junior guard Shelvin Mack as its go-to guy and senior forward Matt Howard as a significant contributor ... Kentucky's freshman big Terrence Jones is its go-to while frosh point guard sensation Brandon Knight leads as a major contributor. UConn's junior combo guard Kemba Walker is the go-to for the Huskies and freshman guard Shabazz Napier is a significant contributor.

VCU wants to set the pace against Butler. The Rams play with the highest tempo of the four and do better with speed. They need to score 70-plus points to win. Butler, on the other hand, doesn't like teams to get that much. Of its nine regular season losses, seven of them occurred when the other team scored 69 or more points.

Kentucky can play fast, too. And it is the best shooting team and best defensive team of the four (effective field goal percentage on offense = 52.7 ... eFG% defense = 44.2).

All four have stood out in full court conversion opportunities and half court execution, with VCU being the most impressive. A team that is so good playing fast isn't always spectacular in the half court (e.g., the Washington Huskies, according to Kenny Smith). The Rams, though, have been able to speed it up and score off makes, misses, and steals AND they can be patient with their sets. They set screens, they enter to the post, they cut hard, and they share the ball. Watch for a spin and immediate backdoor cut with the shot clock winding down ... or a back-to-back pick-and-roll to get off a shot opportunity.

Players to watch:

Hard hat, lunch bucket = Matt Howard

Heat check = Brandon Rozzell

Cool calm = Brandon Knight (and a 4.3 high school GPA to boot)

Game time = Kemba Walker in one game, Shelvin Mack in the other

“Right now he's as good of a player in the country, midrange jump shot, he can make threes. To me he's the most valuable player in the United States,” Calhoun said. “So when I recruited him, I thought I was going to get a quick New York City point push guard, defender, all that type of thing. And he's evolved into even more than that.”
"You have to tell him to take days off," the coach said Monday. "Here is how hard he works and how important I think it is: If we have a time limit on an open practice, we'll stop early so he can get his shots up individually because I know how much it means to him."
Last year, it was all "all mental" for the Kansas Jayhawks. Looks like it was this year, too ... mainly because VCU drained them with everything it had in its own tank.

What does it take to make it this far?

Butler has shown what experience can do. And belief stemming from a team's ability to manage adversity during the season.

Stevens speaks:
“I think the teams that play the best basketball in the tournament are the teams that have a chance to win the tournament,” Stevens said. “It doesn't matter where you're from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department. It's about a group of kids coming together that five guys play on a court a once hopefully believing together that give you a great shot to compete.
“I think VCU and Butler played with a lot of pressure in January and February,” Stevens said. “When you get into the tournament, that pressure may flip a little bit. We're playing loose, we're playing for the first time in a lot of ways in a couple months where you've already been playing basically where you feel like you can't lose. So you're already used to that.

“So the NCAA tournament is a welcome. I think both teams have played really, really well because of that. Certainly they've got a lot more reasons than that. They are a loaded team that is really well‑coached.”
Calhoun said after the Final Four clinching win that he loves being around this year's team and has thoroughly enjoyed coaching it. His assistant Kevin Ollie says Calhoun is the toughest guy he knows.

Suite101 - "This year's Cinderella team, the No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth Rams, is no fluke. They earned their berth in the Final Four with four impressive offensive performances and a lot of mental toughness."

Boston Herald - "Ambition is in ample supply at Butler. Likewise, physical and mental toughness."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Winning the Madness

Just enjoyed a full four days of the 2011 version of Division 1 March Madness. Great games for sure. And fabulous finishes, at least from a fan's perspective. Oh, the feeling of a winning end of a game-ending play ... or, yuck, the losing end of a play gone bad. The closing seconds of many games today, especially the close ones where plays were made for the best -- or not-made for the worst -- got me thinking: better offense or better defense?

(explorations and explanations utilize game box scores and kenpom.com for statistical references)

Sunday's examples:

1) With 5 seconds in the game, Washington was down just a point as it attempted to inbound the ball on its own baseline; however the pass was deflected and the ball stolen by North Carolina. UNC went on to sink two free throws and win by 3. The Huskies never got a great shot off because of the difficulty it had with the inbounds play.

FACTORS: UNC is ranked 8th in defensive efficiency. UW is ranked 9th in offensive efficiency but had 13 total turnovers, only attempted 7 free throws (made all 7), and shot a lower FG% than the Tar Heels (45.8% to 47%). Carolina shot 78% from the stripe but went to the line 23 times.

PRESSURE COOKER: Washington never got a great shot attempt in the end and had trouble scoring in its half court offense throughout, while Carolina did its thing on O and stepped up on D = defense created offense.

2) After being down 15 points midway through the second half, Michigan roared back to challenge Duke. Hardaway, Jr. scored 7 straight to bring the Wolverines to within 1 point with 1:18 left. A Blue Devils offensive rebound off a missed jumper led to an Irving jumper off the glass. Morris scored for Michigan then had to foul Smith with 9 ticks remaining. Smith made the first but missed the second. Morris then missed a running floater in the paint as time expired.

FACTORS: Duke's offensive efficiency is ranked 4th while its defensive efficiency is 3rd. Michigan's OE is 29th. DE is 33rd. Duke grabbed 9 offensive rebounds to Michigan's 4. Duke shot 72% from the free throw line while Michigan shot nearly 91 percent - but the Blue Devils went 25 times compared to 11.

PRESSURE COOKER: Both teams scored to keep it tight, then Duke missed free throw to pave a 3-point victory while Michigan missed good shot in lane -- non-contested -- to send it to OT = better offense sealed outcome, defense set the tone (Duke's perimeter D from the outset clamped down on Michigan's perimeter-minded attack ... the defensive tone was set but who was going to find openings?).

3) After a series of offensive boards and a made free throw by Williams with 2:01 left, Arizona was tied with Texas at 67 a piece. Brown hit a jumper for the Longhorns with 1:07 remaining and then prevented the Wildcats from scoring for another minute. Texas had possession on the baseline after a timeout, up 69-67. All the Longhorns had to do was inbound and take care of the ball, but they were called for 5 seconds. Arizona inbounded and found Williams off a pick and roll, he scored off a strong take and got fouled in the process. He made his free throw. Texas got a final layup off but it missed.

FACTORS: Arizona is ranked 18th in offensive efficiency, 10th in effective field goal percentage. Texas is 21st in OE and 4th in DE -- with a ranking of 5 on defensive eFG%. Zona shot 8 of 14 from 3-point range (57.1%) and had 2 more offensive boards than Texas.

PRESSURE COOKER: Wildcat defense stopped Longhorn inbounds play -> big time; Wildcat offense scored on Longhorn defense = defense allowed offense to be created.

4) With the scored knotted at 59 each, Syracuse had control on its own sideline but a miscue with its inbounds pass gave the ball away. Marquette regained possession and made the most of it by nailing a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left. The 'Cuse missed a 3 and Marquette sealed the game with four free throws.

FACTORS: Syracuse (no. 3 seed), statistically, is a better team, but on this night 11th seeded Marquette made 19 of 23 free throws (compared to 5 of 7 from the Orange). The Golden Eagles grabbed 11 O-boards to the Orange's 4. Syracuse had 18 turnovers. Marquette beat Syracuse earlier this season, too.

PRESSURE COOKER: Marquette got after it and created opportunities with rebounds and steals. Syracuse shot 55.3% from the field but other than that, it lost in every other offensive category = defense created offense ... and offense created offense for Marquette.

It's a hodgepodge of plays and stats and ranks. What is influential is how the climactic plays in three games, the ones that swayed the outcomes, came from suffocating defense that prevented great offense. UNC's deflection and steal. Arizona's forced 5-second count. Marquette's coerced backcourt violation. What is striking is all of these key turnovers that led to game-sealing points came from inbounds plays.

So, who from these winners has the best chance to win the whole tournament?

If data from the last six years is any indication, then none of them. Not Duke, North Carolina, Arizona or Marquette.

All signs point to THE Ohio State University. OSU is No. 1 in offensive efficiency. It has only lost two games this year, both in conference, and destroyed its two tourney opponents. The Buckeyes are No. 2 in eFG% and No. 7 in turnover percentage. Defensively, they are No. 6 in defensive efficiency and ranked No. 1 in opponent free throw rate. All of this means good luck stopping OSU and good luck scoring on them. Even attempting a foul shot is difficult.

Wisconsin is a slim possibility because of its No. 2 OE and No. 1 TO%.

Duke has an OE at No. 4 and a DE at No. 3.

San Diego State is No. 2 in DE and No. 7 in opponent eFG%.

The overall deciding factor: of the last six D1 NCAA champions, four of them finished the season ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency: Duke (2010), UNC (2009), Florida (2007), and UNC (2005).

The other two years of the previous six? The champion was 2nd in offensive efficiency: Kansas was No. 2 in in 2008; Florida was No. 2 in 2006.

Additionally, the 2008 Jayhawks, though not first in OE, were No. 1 in defensive efficiency and No. 5 in eFG%.

The 2006 Gators were No. 5 in defensive efficiency and No. 2 in eFG%.

The last seven NCAA winners finished with an overall rating -- offense and defense factors combined -- of at least No. 2 (FIVE were No. 1 overall).

Lesson: if you are not No. 1 in offensive efficiency, then you better be No. 2. And if you happen to be No. 2, you better have a ranking of at least 5 in another significant category to raise the overall stat. Otherwise, you'll lose ... if you are lucky enough to get to the championship. Of the runners-up in those six years, none had a ranking of 2 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. Plenty of 3's and 4's though.

Taking 2004 and 2003 champs into consideration, it looks like the second half of the decade has gone to the teams at the very top of the rating system. Connecticut won in 2004 with an OE ranking of 4, a DE of 5, and an OBoard% of 3 ... so, three categories were a No. 5 ranking or better but none at Nos. 1 or 2.

Prior to that, Syracuse, who was No. 7 overall in kenpom.com rank, won in 2003 with OE at 11 and DE at 19. But the Orange had Carmelo Anthony -- and he must be considered an outlier ...

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