Monday, March 25, 2013

A Good Season

Four months ago, the Cats started the season 4-0.  Even at that time, it was clear that this season would be special.  I am proud to report that at the end of November, I wrote that the numbers suggested that Arizona was a "deep tourney run" kind of team.   I'm happy that things have panned out that way.  I started working on this project back in May.  For about three or four months, I was able to keep up with it.  Then, life got in the way.

Last week, I was in Shanghai.  On Friday morning (China time), I was in a meeting and peeking onto a Chinese colleague's iPad to get the score of the Belmont game.  On Saturday, I was driving home from the airport when the Harvard game ended.  I watched both on the DVR.   Does anyone else enjoy watching recorded games while knowing the outcome?  I find it to be so much more relaxing than live television.

Anyway, the way I see it is that no matter what happens from here on out, I can have a peaceful off season, knowing that the banners hanging above the hardwood at McKale will be augmented with this season's team.  Most likely, this run ends on Thursday, but who knows what will happen.  Maybe the Cats will still be playing next weekend.

I haven't had the time or energy to work on this project lately, and I don't know if I will again in the future.  I very much appreciate the few people who have read this and/or contacted and encouraged me.  This is a lot of work, but so are my job and other parts of my life.  I am not sure that I was providing much beyond what is already available out there, but I like to think I was.

I will end by noting that Ken Pomeroy gives us a 35% chance of beating the BuckeyesNate Silver is also pessimistic.   I respect the hell out of those guys because they are emotionless number crunchers who understand the magic of probabilities, but for once, I am going to ignore the numbers and say that we are going to kick their ass.  Go Cats!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ups and Downs

After a brilliant start to the season, things no longer look so shiny for the Arizona Wildcats.  The regular season Pac-12 championship is out of reach.  We have lost four of seven, and our tournament seed is slipping.  Broadcasters love to speak of the importance of momentum going into the tournament.  I'm not really a believer in that concept, but psychologically, I think it must matter.  The fans are feeling down, and I imagine so is the team.  Everyone is looking for answers.  What has been the problem of late?  It should be obvious to anyone paying attention.  It's defense.

For quite some time, the offense was slipping..  Efficiency was down as were assists.  Although the trends are noisy, it's fairly clear that the offense bottomed out in mid to late January.  Since that time, the Cats play has improved.  Even though we have dropped four of seven, over that time span, our offensive efficiency has averaged a respectable 1.08 points per possession, and our assist rate has been climbing:

If we could couple that offense with an effective defense, Arizona would be a very difficult team to beat, but the last four losses are among our worst defensive performances of the year:

Against USC, we had our worst game on defense, allowing just under 1.2 points per possession.  The Cal loss ranks at #2 at nearly 1.19, closely followed by the Colorado game.  The loss to UCLA ranks #5.  Against Florida, the defense was slightly worse.

When the defense is giving up points at a rate near 1.2 points per possession, it's nearly impossible to win games.  Arizona has only eclipsed that mark on offense four times this season.  That the Cats have stayed close in most of these tells you that the offense is working well.  How can the defense be fixed?  I'm not sure.  I think that comes down to a question of X's and O's, and tactics are not my strong suit.  One thing I do know is that I have seen teams use the same strategies repeatedly against the Cats.  A guard gets into the lane, and the defense has to adjust.  A man is left open.  Easy bucket. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013


There haven't been many games this season when the Cats have been legitimate underdogs, but today, they are.  At Pauley Pavillion, UCLA should be the favorite to win.  Apparently, Vegas does not agree, and admittedly, they are smarter than I am.  Still, it's hard to feel optimistic after the way the Cats have been playing lately.  We are only batting .500 over our last six.  It makes you long for the early weeks of the season when this team was invincible.

Statistically speaking, we have been better offensively, defensively, and rebounding.  UCLA is much better at taking care of the ball.  They have about half an inch advantage in size, but they are a young team without much depth.  The advantages the Cats have, however, are negated by UCLA's home court advantage, and I'm sure Pauley will be louder than average.

According to the simulation, you can expect around 69 possessions and with a final score in the upper 60's or lower 70's.  UCLA would be expected to win about 47.3% of these games, meaning that it's close to a coin toss.  The most likely score is a 71-70 loss. I hope the Cats can make some shots, and when they don't, that they get back on defense promptly.  We owe these guys some payback.  I hope we get it.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

I'm Calling It

Watching that game last night, I kept waiting for the Cats to get a couple of stops.  I kept waiting for USC to miss a few shots in a row.  It seemingly never happened.  It felt like every Trojan possession ended with a made shot, free throws, or a turnover.  The Trojans shot the ball ridiculously well.  Given his quotes after the Washington State game, I'm sure Sean Miller has been preaching defense all week.  No doubt, that sermon continued during every timeout, all of which the Cats had used well before the game ended.  Our defense was not great.  USC shot the ball at over 61%, but our defense was not that bad.  That's why I have to call bullshit on this one.  That game was a classic case of bad luck.

Consider this. USC has not put up 89 points in a non-overtime game this year.  In their first game of the season against Coppin State, they managed 87.  At McKale, the Trojans only scored 50 points.  How was USC able to nearly crest 90 at the Galen Center against a decent defensive Arizona team?  Lucky shooting.  Sure, they had some gimme's, but I saw a lot of contested fadeaways, floaters, and three pointers.

USC came into the game shooting the ball at 45.5% from inside the arc.  Last night, they went 27-44, or 61.3%.  What is the probability of a team that shoots the ball at a 45% clip going at least 27 for 44?  It's 1.2%. It would be expected to happen only once in about 84 games.

What about shooting the three?  The Trojans were 6 for 10, despite being only around 35% for the year.  The chance of that?  It's around 2.5%.

What about both?  What's the chance of USC doing both in the same night?  It's around 0.03%.  It should happen once every 3,364 games.

I'm glad this game happened when it did and not a few weeks from now.  Don't expect lightning to strike twice.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Southern California

It's been a while since I sat down to work on this project.  The demands of real life have forced me to put this aside for about ten days, but the weekday game day is here.  That motivated me to get back in the saddle. The home sweep was nice but not unexpected.  The Washingtons are probably the easiest of the the paired matchups in the Pac this year.  What was nice about the games was that the Cats won both convincingly.   I certainly understand Sean Miller's ire about a poor defensive effort in the second half against WSU.  One thing I think has helped our offense in the last two contests has been bench minutes.  Giving the starters a bit more rest will pay off late in games and as the season goes on.

Speaking of the season, it's hard to believe that it is winding down.  Sitting at 23-4, the Cats have won as many games this year (23-4) as they did last (23-14), and we need one more win in conference to match last year's Pac win total.  Playing the Trojans at Galen, I like our chances.  Here is the match up:

If you look at those stats closely, it should be clear why Arizona is the favorite.  The Cats are better in almost every category.  Our offense is better.  So is our defense.  We turn the ball over less. We are bigger and and deeper.  The Trojans are a slightly older team, but don't expect that to matter in the end.

If you are expecting an easy win, I cannot guarantee one.  The simulation gives us a 40% chance of a double digit victory, but the most likely score is a six point victory of 70-64.   There is a 65.9% probability of winning at any margin.  At home, this game would be nearly a sure thing.  In Los Angeles, it's a bit more of a challenge.  With three four-loss teams at the top of the conference standings, both games this week are critical, and especially the one on Saturday.  But not let's get ahead of ourselves.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Washington, Again

The Cats pulled off a narrow win in Seattle.  In that game, both teams played very poorly on the offensive end of the floor.  Three point shooting was especially atrocious.  Expect both teams to shoot the ball better from long range.  Because the Cats pulled off a win on the road, you should expect them to be strong favorites at McKale, and that is the case.  Parenthetically, if you have never read any of Ken Pomeroy's work on home/road rematches, it is worth a look.  Also, most estimates for home court advantage in college hoops are around four points, so the general expectation is a seven to eight point swing for paired home and road games.

The statistical comparison between the two teams is similar to the last time around.  Both teams have declined slightly in offensive efficiency, but the Huskie defense has lapsed more.  The Cats are better across the board on the offensive side, with the sole exception of rebounding.  The Huskies are one of those rare teams that have turned the ball over more than we have.  Washington does have a slight height advantage, something I'm sure Mark Lyons will discover if he spends much time driving the ball toward Aziz N'Diaye in the lane.

The simulation looks favorably upon our chances.  It says we are 11 point favorites with a 79.2% chance of heading into the weekend with our 22nd win.  The most likely score is 73-62 (or maybe 61).  I would be remiss if I did not note that last week's simulation returned a bit of credibility to this exercise, missing the final score of the Utah game by only one point.  To get there required Utah to sink a last second uncontested three, but what the heck, I'll take it.  Finally, it was nice to see Terrence Ross win the NBA slam dunk title, even if that competition is only a shadow of its former self.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Late Game Three's are Not Helpful

Between the six and seven minute mark against Utah, Mark Lyons took Arizona's first three point attempt.  It was a miss.  About 40 seconds later, Solomon Hill drained one.  Near the ten minute mark, it was Grant Jerrett's turn.  His three put the Cats up 17-12.   Three point shooting is a wonderful thing when the shots are falling.  Nothing frustrates you more, though, than many consecutive misses from behind the arc.  It makes you long for higher percentage shots.  In today's edition of the Wildcat Report, I would like to make the argument that the Cats would be better off largely abandoning the three as games go on, and the reason why is simple.  It's clear that early in games, Arizona shoots the long ball well.  Late in games, they do not.

The graph above shows the evolution of Arizona's three point shooting during the Utah game.  Notice that early on, the Cats were shooting very well.  At the end of the first half, the Cats had made 5 of 12 three's for 41.7%, a very good percentage.  By the end of the game, they were 6-22, or a not so good 27.3%.  In the second half, they went 1 for 10.  They missed their last seven.

It is certainly tempting to argue that you can't generalize from one game to the entire season, but this game serves as a microcosm of the overall trend that I pointed out a few days back.  Here is how Arizona's three-point shooting looks when games are divided into quarters:

That graph includes every three point shot taken this season, except a few from overtimes.  That's more than 520 attempts.  As games go on, the Cats' long range shooting proficiency steadily declines.  For the last ten minutes, the Cats shoot threes at under 30%.  For the first ten minutes, they are over 40%.  This is a big difference.  At the start of games, they are making around 1.3 points per shot.  In the last ten, they are under 0.9.  In an average game this year, the Cats have had 21 three point attempts. For 21 attempts, that's a difference of nine points, a difference that could win or lose many games.

What is driving this decline in shooting ability?  Well, if I had to guess, it's fatigue.  If you have spent any time shooting threes, you know that your legs are critical to the shot.  After running up and down the court for twenty or thirty minutes, it should come as no surprise that guys increasingly miss three point shots, especially by hitting the front of the rim.  If you are looking for a scapegoat , you would be hard pressed to find one.  Here are the same graphs for Arizona's most common three point shooters:

Notice that for three players (Johnson, Hill, and Jerrett), the worst game segment for shooting threes is the final quarter of the game.  For the other two (Lyons and Parrom), the final ten minutes has been their second worse time to shoot the the three.  Johnson and Jerrett have especially struggled at the ends of games.  Johnson is shooting it at 18.2% for the final ten minutes, and Jerrett is at 22.2%.

From a coaching perspective, this is not a trivial matter.  Three point shots are a high risk/high reward game, but what is interesting about this analysis is that the risk involved in shooting three's is not constant.  It becomes increasingly risky as the game goes on.  An ideal strategy would be to take more threes early in games before players get tired and to have the offense slowly shift to an interior approach as the game goes on.  It would be interesting to simulate this process to determine what the optimal mix of two and three point shots would be as a function of game time, but that's another job for another day.  As a general rule of thumb, I would advise players to only take threes toward the end of the game when: 1) it is necessary because it's the only way to make up a deficit given the amount of time remaining, or 2) they are wide open looks.

By the way, here are how our three point shots have been distributed within games: