Monday, December 31, 2012

Pac-12 Offensive Preview

Heading into the Pac-12 schedule with an unblemished 12-0 record, things are looking bright for the Cats.  While the conference has improved since last year, there is still plenty of room for betterment.  The Pac has only one team in the Top 25, and only two others (Oregon and Colorado) receiving any votes.  The conference fares slightly better or worse in objective rating schemes, like these (1, 2, 3), so at this point, two things are very clear.  First, the Cats should be strong favorites to win the the Pac-12 conference.  Second, an NCAA tournament berth seems almost certain.  Of course, you never know what can happen.  A rash of injuries, for example, could derail this train.

To preview the conference season, which begins on Wednesday, I want to do a simple offensive comparison of all twelve teams.  Please keep in mind that these comparisons are somewhat problematic because they do not take into account strength of schedule.  Colorado and USC have faced some very difficult competition in their nonconference schedules, while other teams rank among the lowest in the nation in terms of strength of schedule, most notably both schools from Oregon, the Utah Utes, Washington State, and Arizona State.  Also, there are two games remaining before the conference season begins.  This evening, Oregon hosts Nevada, and Oregon State will face the Texas-Pan American Broncs.

The three graphs below show shooting percentages for all teams in the conference.  The Cats rank in the top four in all categories.  We are ranked 4th for shots inside the arc.  Notably, Arizona State leads all teams in this category, with UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, and Utah essentially all tied for second.  The Cats are third in three point shooting behind the Beavers and Buffaloes.   Notice the major drop off between the ninth place Ducks and 10th place Cardinal.   The Cats are first in free throw shooting, just ahead of the Utes.   There are only two teams that rank among the the top five in all three categories, and one is Arizona.  The other?  Utah.   I would be careful about reading too much into the Utes' numbers, as they have faced two non Division I opponents (Willamette and the College of Idaho).  They also have losses to Sacramento State, SMU, BYU, and Cal State Northridge.

The most important measure of a team's offensive prowess is the number of points scored per possession.  This is a pure measure of a team's efficiency in putting points on the board, regardless of how many possessions a game has.  There are two teams that stand out as having very good offenses, and yes, one is Arizona.  The Cats are averaging 1.11 points per possession, but so are the UCLA Bruins.  The Cats have been ever so slightly better (1.113 vs 1.109), but UCLA is a very good team.  Where the Bruins are struggling is defense, but there is good reason to believe that they are moving in the right direction.  If any team is going to challenge the Cats for the conference title, my pick would be UCLA.  From the graph below, it should be clear why.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Coming into Balance

You have to hand it to San Diego State.   They out-shot us and beat us on the boards.  I thought they played terrific defense, and they almost won, despite Jamaal Franklin having a tough night.  I thought their pick and roll offense was particularly effective, leading to many easy shots at the rim.   The Cats pulled it off with defense by forcing 15 turnovers, and by making just enough free throws.

Solomon Hill looked like a different player last night.  He was very aggressive, taking 15 shots in all.  He shot the ball 16 times against Clemson (making only two of those), but on a typical night for Solo, his field goal attempts are in the single digits.  Solomon finished the night with 21 points.  It struck me that this team does not produce many 20 point efforts for individual players.  Rather, the scoring is often very balanced.  So, here are two trivia questions: 1) In the 116 games he has played in an Arizona jersey, how many times has Solomon Hill scored 20 or more points?  2) How many times this year has an Arizona player scored at least 20 points in a single outing?

The answer to the first question you might find surprising.  Hill has scored 20 or more points in only five games.  It never happened in his first season (09-10), although he came off the bench and finished with 17 in his first game against NAU on 11/15/09 to lead all Arizona players.  Solo had one 20 point game in his sophomore season against Santa Clara; he had three last year, including a 28 point effort against Washington in which he was 9 for 10 from the field.

As for the second question, when I think back on the Olson years, it seemed like somebody was getting 20 points nearly every night.  Now, that doesn't seem to to be the case.  It's important to keep in mind that on teams with significant depth, minutes are reduced and so are chances to score.  Also, when there are many legitimate scoring options, individual point totals are expected to decline.  So this year, how many times has an Arizona player scored 20 or more points?  It has happened on four occasions, and each time it was a different guy: Brandon Ashley (11/19, 20 pt), Nick Johnson (12/4, 23 pt), Mark Lyons (12/8, 20 pt), and Solomon Hill(12/25, 21 pt).

 The graph above shows the number of 20 point scorers per game for the last five seasons, except I should note that the 08-09 season only includes the final 12 games.  Notice that for the most part, 20 point games are becoming increasingly rare, making the most significant drop upon the arrival of Sean Miller.  This year, they are especially uncommon. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Diamond Head Game 3: San Diego State

The Aztecs of San Diego state have arguably been the most successful team west of the Mississippi River for the last few years.  Steve Fisher has turned what used to be a bottom dweller of the Mountain West into a perennial Top 25 contender.  I think there are some questions about this year's team even though they come in with an 11-1 record.   The one loss came to a very good Syracuse team on the deck of a boat, and they have two respectable wins against Pac 12 foes. They beat USC at the Galen Center, but only by six.  They also took down UCLA by nine in Anaheim.  On the other hand, two of their wins were against non-Division I opponents.  A 27 point win against the Point Loma Sea Lions is not particularly telling.

On paper, the Miami Hurricanes look very similar to SDSU, but when we got the Canes, their most impactful player was injured and on the bench. I don't mean to downplay the significance of this game.  A game on a neutral court against a top 25 team is always a big deal. Here's how the two teams compare:

The short version is that the Cats have have been much better on offense, but SDSU has marginally better defensive stats.  We are a better rebounding team. They are more experienced. We are deeper. They turn it over less.  They have three very good players in Jamaal Franklin, Xavier Thames, and Chase Tapley, who account for almost 57% of the team's points.  Franklin is a very skilled rebounder and gets to the line a lot.

The simulation gives us a 68.4% chance of winning this one and a six to seven point advantage.  The most likely score is 73-66.   All I want for Christmas is to get through the non-conference schedule without a loss, and I think we have a good shot. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Masters of the Glass

There are a couple of things that stand out from Arizona's two impressive victories in the Diamond Head Classic- defense and rebounding.  The Cats started the season looking a bit lost on the defensive end.  Now, they play as a team.  Over their last three games, they have allowed less than 0.8 points per possession.  Against ETSU, that number was 0.72, and the Hurricanes managed a paltry 0.78.  Most games the Cats have played this season have had 65 to 75 possessions.  This translates to giving up just over 50 points.  It's nice to see the defense catching up with the offense.

Our rebounding, however, has been off the charts.  In the humid Pacific air, the Cats are grabbing ridiculous numbers of boards.  Against ETSU, we had 46 rebounds and pulled down 44 against the Hurricanes.  Let me put these numbers into context.  In the Sean Miller era, Arizona has collected more than 40 rebounds on only three occasions.  Two of those have happened this week in Hawaii.  The other?  The triple overtime game against the Cal Bears in February of last year when the Cats had 43.  Of course, in a game with three extra periods, there are a lot more opportunities to get rebounds.

There are three guys who stand out in their ability to grab missed shots, two are who you might expect.  The other just has a nose for the ball, particularly on the offensive side.  The two graphs below show the top rebounders on the offensive and defensive glass for the the Miller era.  I have standardized rebound numbers to minutes played.

On the defensive glass, Brandon Ashley has been by far the best rebounder we have had in the Miller era, averaging more than 0.2 boards per minute played.  Derrick Williams in the 10-11 season is a distant second, and Kaleb Tarczewski ranks a close third.  According to ESPN, the top rebounder in the country is Siena's O.D. Anoske, who has averaged 12.4 boards per game, but he plays 37.7 minutes per contest.  He averages 0.21 defensive rebounds per minute. Ashley is better at 0.22.  Ken Pomeroy ranks Brandon Ashley as the 40th best defensive rebounder in the country.

On the offensive glass, Kaleb Tarczewski is on top, and Kevin Parrom is second.  Both of these guys have been better than Derrick Williams from the 10-11 season.  KenPom ranks Zeus as the 27th best offensive rebounder in the country, and Kevin Parrom currently comes in at No. 105.  Maybe it's not surprising that a guy who is 7' tall is grabbing a lot of boards, but Kevin Parrom at 6'6" is outpacing every other Arizona player from the last three seasons.  As a team, the Cats rank 4th in the nation in overall rebounding percentage trailing only Colorado State, Maryland, and Pitt.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Diamond Head Game 2: Miami

After a relatively easy free victory against the Buccaneers from East Tennessee, the Cats will have their hands full with Miami.  The Hurricanes come in with a #7 RPI and a seven game winning streak. After an inexplicable loss to Florida Gulf Coast on the road in mid-November, the Canes beat Michigan State at home on November 28th.  While Arizona is undoubtedly the favorite, this is unlikely to be an easy win.  The Hurricanes are big, experienced, and talented. 

The Cats have the advantage in most categories, but for the most part, those advantages are slight. Arizona shoots the ball better from two, three, and the free throw line.  We are also more efficient offensively.  Miami has had slightly better shooting defense, holding opponents to 38.2% compared to 38.6% for the Cats.  We give up fewer points per possession but more points per shot. Not surprisingly, we turn the ball over more, something which eventually is going to cost us a win.  Miami has slight advantages in terms of height and weight; they are also very experienced, starting four seniors and a junior.  This is the biggest team we have faced, but we have rebounded the ball better on both sides of the court.  We have an advantage of about 18 minutes from the bench, and our bench players contribute more points.

The simulation gives us a 59.5% chance of victory with a 2.7% chance of this one going into overtime.  The most likely score is a three to four point win with the Cats taking it 72-69.  The simulation gives us a 34% chance of winning by 10 or more, and a 13% chance of winning by more than 20.  A 10 point loss is more likely than a 20 point victory, coming in around 19%.   All signs point to a close game.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Diamond Head Game 1: ETSU

There are no sure things in college hoops, but this is as close as it's going to get.  Playing on a neutral court on the island of Oahu, I'd give ETSU about 26:1 odds of getting a win. I don't mean to belittle the Buccaneers from Johnson City, Tennessee.  All Division I basketball teams have talent, but of course some have more than others.  Unfortunately for ETSU, they were matched up in their first round game with a team that has a ton of it.  At least they got a trip to Hawaii.

In every category but one, Arizona is better.  We hit 13% more of our two pointers and 10% more of our threes.  We are vastly more efficient offensively and even have the edge in all measures of defensive prowess.  We rebound the ball better, especially on the offensive end.  We are taller and heavier.  The Bucs do have depth.  They get about three more minutes from the bench than we do, but our bench contributes more points by a hair.  There is nothing to worry about here, except maybe jet lag, but that should be common to both teams.

I will keep simulating these games since the simulation seems to be doing a decent job of predicting outcomes.  To be honest, I have no idea if anyone reads this stuff or cares, but I enjoy doing it, so why not?  Out of 10,000 simulated games, ETSU won 379.  That equates to a 96.2% chance of victory for the Cats.  The most likely score is 77-53, or a 24 point margin.  The Cats should use this game to find their rhythm because the game that follows is likely to be a lot closer.

Friday, December 21, 2012

No Easy Buckets: The Evolution of Kevin Parrom

Kevin Parrom seems like a nice guy, unless he's trailing you, and you are staring at an easy layup.  An unforgettable moment in Kevin's career came from his first season on January 23, 2010 when he fouled Ty Abbot of Arizona State to prevent an easy bucket.  What we didn't know at the time was that this kid from the Bronx would repeatedly make sure no one in his reach would get an uncontested layup or dunk.  I don't think he means anything malevolent by it.  I think that's just the way he plays.  You are going to have earn those points from the line.  When I think of Kevin, this commercial comes to mind.

The other indelible moment came from last season, when he returned to play his first game after being shot in the leg and losing his mother and grandmother.  McKale went crazy when he checked in, went nuts when he hit a three, and then there was this:

That usually uneventful kind of occurrence, when a player exits the game, became an important "moment" in Arizona basketball history, according to Anthony Gimino.

My favorite basketball players are those who are unappreciated.  This is not to say that Kevin is unappreciated, but I think he is certainly underappreciated.  We can definitely point to the hardship that he has faced and appreciate the perseverance required to get through it. Kevin suffered a stress fracture in his foot in his freshman year and played only 17 games.  During the 2011-12 season, Kevin endured enough pain and suffering to cause anyone to question whether they wanted to play basketball again.  Then, he broke his foot again in January, ending his season for good.

On top of all of this, Kevin rarely starts.  He has played in 84 games as an Arizona Wildcat, but he has only started 13 of those.  Who knows if it's true, but it's my impression that he doesn't mind coming off the bench at all.  He has been a regular sub for Solomon Hill, or at times, Jesse Perry.  At 6'6", there has almost always been someone who has started in his spot.  When guys come off the bench, it is often assumed that they are less talented than the starter for whom they sub, but in Kevin's case, it's not clear to me that that's true.

Let's look at a few stats.  Kevin is an all around player, much like Solomon Hill.  He can do anything.  This year, Kevin is scoring more points per minute than he has in any of the past three seasons, and he ranks 4th on the team in that category behind Lyons, Johnson, and Hill.  He is 3rd in rebounding per minute, trailing Ashley and Tarczewski.  He is 2nd on the team in assists per minute, behind only Nick Johnson, and 2nd in assist:turnover ratio.  Kevin is 1st in offensive rebounds per minute and leads the team in 2 pt FG%.  He is shooting 40% from behind the arc.  Finally, Ken Pomeroy rates him as having the 40th best offensive rating of any player in country, better than all of the other players on this team.  This is nothing new.  In his sophomore season, KenPom ranked him as #49.

Kevin is perhaps one of the best 6th men we have had, much like Jason Terry was for much of his career.  Last I heard, Kevin Parrom had petitioned the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility, and if anyone is deserving, it is him.  If granted, it would be nice to see him next year standing on the floor when the ball is tossed up at the start of the game. If things keep moving in the direction they have been, how could you not start him?  Here is how he has evolved over four years:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More and Less than Half Empty

So much for the Golden Eagles.  It's snowing in Laramie, Wyoming, and the Cats are headed to Hawaii.  Sometime soon, I am going to have to go to one of these tournaments.  I think I'll skip the Great Alaska Shootout.  The Maui Classic sounds nice.

I'm not sure how long it has been since play-by-play accounts of games have been kept, like this one, but they provide the opportunity for some interesting statistical analyses.  Today, I want to look at empty possessions, those in which no points are scored.  This stat probably can be estimated fairly well without play-by-play stats, but with them a more accurate calculation can be made.

Empty possessions are good thing to have when you are playing defense.  They are not good on offense.  By my count, this season, the Cats have played a total of 642 defensive possessions.  They have held their opponents scoreless on 348 of those.  In other words, when the opposing team has brought the ball down the court, they have only scored 38% of the time.  They can fail to score various ways, like missing a shot or turning the ball over.  One very common way our opponents come up empty is because Nick Johnson commits thievery, as Patrick Finley reported today. In fact, according to ESPN, Nick Johnson currently ranks 9th among all D-I players in this steals per game.

Above is the game by game breakdown of empty possessions for Arizona and their opponents.  In gray are opponents; in blue, the Cats. What is impressive to me is that no team, not even Florida, has cracked the 50% mark.  We have held every team so far scoreless on more possessions than not.  Our worst game in this regard was the first of the season against Charleston Southern.  Our best was against the Lumberjacks.  It's fairly clear that our defense is coming around. 

On the offensive side of the ball (in blue up there), we have consistently been below 50%, except for the Southern Miss and Clemson games.  In all, the Cats have been held scoreless in 304 out of 637 (47.7%) offensive possessions.  When viewed in such simple terms, it's clear why the Cats are undefeated.  They are making the most out of both sides of the floor. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Golden Eagles, v.2

On the plus side for the Golden Eagles of Oral Roberts, they have a winning record of 5-4.  On the negative, they played UTEP in El Paso, and lost by 20.  That's the same Miners team that visited McKale and lost by 21.  The transitive property, however, does not describe college basketball very well, so we shouldn't make too much of that.

Coming off a big win and now a fresh Top 5 ranking, if you are a manic and half empty glass kind of college hoops fan like me, it's hard to shake that feeling in your gut that something bad is going to happen soon.  Not to worry, though, the chances of the Cats falling to the Eagles are pretty slim, certainly not impossible, but slim.

In most categories, Arizona has the advantage.  Across the board, we are offensively dominant.  We shoot it better from two, three, and the line, but the offensive efficiency numbers really tell the tale.  We have a major advantage in points per shot and possession.  On defense, it's a familiar pattern.  Our opponents make fewer of their shots and fewer points per possession.  ORU does have a slight advantage in terms of points per shot because teams continue to shoot the three well against us.  The Eagles are a tall team, about an inch shorter than us, and they have been terrific on the offensive glass, currently ranking 16th in the land.  Another big advantage for the Cats is depth.  Look for the Cats to pull away in the 2nd half.

So, as I did for the Florida game, I decided to simulate this one.   According to my simulation (keep in mind I have no idea if it's worth a damn), we have an 88% chance of winning this one with an average win of about 17 points.  The most likely score is 80-63.  That might bring some comfort, but keep in mind that the team from Tulsa would be predicted to win about 1 out of 10.  Here's the output:

On a side note, I wish I was going to Hawaii this weekend.  Everyone seems to be anticipating the game against San Diego State, but we shouldn't overlook a likely 2nd round game against the Miami Hurricanes.  They currently have a top 20 RPI, a KenPom rank of 30, and a 6-1 record.  They are also getting some votes in the AP poll.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Better Late than Never

It feels good to be an Arizona fan.  December 15, 2012 will go down as one of the most exciting days in U of A sports history.  In many ways, that game went as expected, but nobody could have expected how it ended.  The game felt mostly lost in the 37th minute when Scottie Wilbekin sunk a three, putting Florida up by six with two and a half minutes left.  It felt far gone when the score had not changed with one minute one the clock.  Then, a string of unlikely things happened.  Now, the Cats are poised to give Sean Miller his 200th win if they can beat Oral Roberts and sweep three games in Hawaii.

This was a day of last minute heroics both on the hardwood and the football field.  Interestingly, two of the Cats' best minutes were at the last minutes of both halves. They ended the 1st half by putting up eight unanswered points in the last 1:23.  And of course, the game ended with an amazing 7-0 run in the last 56 seconds.

Seven points in 0:56 is a ridiculous rate of scoring.  In some ways, it is not unusual for the last minute of a game.  Games that end with a string of foul shots, when shooter after shooter is intentionally put on the line, can produce high scoring rates, but that was not the case with this one.  If you think about it, if there was a game wherein a team put up an average of seven points per minute, that team would end with 280 points on the board.  This year, the Cats have averaged just under 1.9 points per minute.

This year, Arizona has tallied 320 minutes of basketball. For each of those minutes, in even intervals (e.g. 20:00-19:00), I tallied the number of points scored.  This exercise produces an interesting distribution:

Most minutes of games, about one-third of them, end with zero points being scored.  Scoring only one point in a minute is very unusual, and the reasons why should be fairly obvious.  About one quarter of minutes result in two points, and there is a steady decline after that.  This year, the Cats have scored seven points in a one minute interval on two occasions.   The first one was in the second minute of the Texas Tech game.  The second time was the last minute of basketball they have played this season.  Better late than never.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


It's time to get your defibrillators warmed up for Saturday night.  For the first time this season, the Wildcats are legitimate underdogs, at least that's how things appear.  Basketball games are not the best tools for figuring out which of two teams is better.  They are simply too short and therefore severely affected by matters of chance.  Over 50 to 80 possessions plus overtime when needed, one team will prevail, but sometimes it is not the best team.  If we played Florida 1,000 times, we would know for sure which team is better.  Instead, we get them for 40 minutes, or maybe 45 or 50.

I want to start by looking at this matchup the way I have done for other teams in the past.  Then, I want to take things to a whole new level of nerd. In the side by side comparison of stats, it's a mixed bag.  Florida has a better FG%, but we shoot the three better.  We get more points per shot, but the two teams are equal in points per possession.  Florida has a decisive edge on the defensive end.  We are better on the defensive glass; they get more offensive boards.  We are bigger.  They are more experienced.  We have more depth.  You can see why there is a lot of hype about this game.

What comparisons like these don't account for is strength of schedule and past competition.  Florida has put up these stats against some good teams, like Marquette, Wisconsin, and Florida State.  Comparatively, our schedule has been weaker.

To look at things a little more closely, I decided to simulate the game. I've been hesitant to get into the prediction business because there is no better way to lose favor with folks than to make predictions that are not very accurate.  Still, not many people read what I write, so what am I really risking?  A basketball game is actually very easy to simulate.  In any given possession, there are only a few things that can happen, and the probabilities of each can be established because prior games can be used as guides.  The only slightly tricky part is that I adjusted the likelihood of shots falling relative to the defensive proficiency of each team as measured by Ken Pomeroy.

Here's what my computer says would happen if the Cats and Gators squared off 10,000 times.  It says that Arizona would win 40.2% of those games. It also says that roughly 1 out of 40 of those games will go into overtime.  The average score  would be 68.6 - 65.2 giving Florida about a 3.4 point margin.  Yes, we are underdogs.  I should note that KenPom only gives us a 37% chance of victory and predicts a loss of 67-63.  He uses different methods, and his technique, unlike mine, incorporates home court advantage.  I have not.  If I did, it would probably give us a 50/50 chance of winning.

Below are the simulated point distributions for Arizona and Florida as well as the distribution of point margin.  Note that a huge range of outcomes is possible.  If we had an amazing game, and Florida had a terrible day shooting the ball, of course we could win by 40. There is about a 1 in 1000 chance of that happening.  The reverse could happen as well. The chance of Florida winning by 40 or more?  About 1 in 160.  As I take my first foray into college hoops prognostication, keep in mind that a huge range of outcomes is possible, but a three to four point loss and a game in the mid to high 60s is most likely.  Let's hope I'm wrong about the first part.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Clemson Part II: Blockage

The Cats shot the ball a season high 62 times on Saturday evening, yet they made only 22 of those shots.  This ties for the second lowest number of field goals made all season.  Their field goal percentage (35.5%) was easily the lowest of the season.   One big reason for our poor shooting on paper was blocks. Clemson had a lot of them.   The Tigers came into the game averaging 5 blocks per contest.  Now, they average 5.9 as a team, good enough to be ranked among the top shot blocking teams in then country (No. 15).  In all, they blocked 12 of our shots.

The Cats were blocked a lot in part because they were banging the ball inside, which is nice to see.  Solomon Hill alone was blocked five times.  He did get two back on the defensive end.   Blocks are not a particularly intuitive stat, so just to show you that 12 is a big number, check out the distribution of our opponents' numbers of blocked shots for the Cats' last 80 games:

This goes back through the 10-11 season, which is as early as my database goes at the moment.  The most a team has blocked us over the last two seasons is 11 times.  That was against Washington in February of 2011.  One week later, UCLA blocked us 10 times.  The most common type of game is one in which we are only blocked once, but anywhere from 0 to 5 is normal.  Twelve is off the charts.  If you are wondering why the Cats shot the ball so poorly against Clemson, twelve of our shots never even had a chance.

So, how many times have the Cats blocked 12 shots on defense over the last 80 games?  You would be correct if you are thinking of a very small number.   The answer is zero.  Over the last 80 games, our team high for blocked shots was against Stanford on the road last season when we got eight.  Clemson deserves a lot of credit on the defensive end.  They ensured that 1 out of 5 of our shot attempts were doomed before they reached the rim.

Parenthetically, Jordan Bachynski alone blocked 12 shots on his way to a triple-double for Arizona State in their win over Cal State Northridge on Friday.  The NCAA individual record for a single game is 13. As a team, the Sun Devil's blocked 13.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Midgame Woes

That game was a roller coaster ride.  It started great and ended great, but the midsection was ugly.  I can't complain too much.  The Cats are 7-0 with two wins on the road against major conference opponents, even if they are not teams at the top of those conferences.   It was especially nice to see Mark Lyons respond the way he did.  The guy has grit.  What I like about this team is that you never who is going to have a big night.  I thought Brandon Ashley made some critical plays when we needed them, too.

Speaking of the game's middle section, this a pattern that is not unique to this game.  In fact coming into the game, the Cats have shown strength at the starts and ends of games, but weakness in the middle, particular in the latter part of the 1st half.  The graph below shows point differentials for ten minute segments of the first seven games.

For the last ten minutes of games, Arizona has outscored its opponents by a blistering 57 points, or more than eight points per game.  For the first ten minutes of the game, they have also been dominant, with a 48 point differential.  What is astounding is minutes 10:00 through 20:00 where the point differential drops to eight; the last ten minutes of the first half has been a trouble area.   Is this due to poor offense or poor defense?  Well, it turns out it's both.

The graph above shows field goal percentage for the Cats and their opponents for the same segments of games.  Notice that for every quarter of our first seven games but one, the Cats are on top.  Again, for the second half of the first half, the Cats not only shoot the ball poorly, but they struggle on defense as well.  In fact, our opponents have shot the ball better than we have during that time segment, and by far this has been our weakest part of the game defensively. Again, we are dominant at the start and end of games. Remarkably, for the last ten minutes of the game, the Cats are shooting it at 54%

What's causing this pattern?  I have no idea. It might just be a statistical fluke, or perhaps it can be attributed to substitution patterns.  It will be interesting to see if it holds up with a larger sample size.


Last year, the Cats had no trouble putting away the Clemson Tigers at home.  This year, they must travel two time zones toward the rising sun to the northwestern corner of South Carolina for the rematch.  This year's Tiger team is improved over last's, but so are the Cats.  On paper, this game seems like a win, but in all likelihood, it's going to be a nail biter.  When you couple Clemson's home court advantage at Littlejohn Coliseum with a long trip across the country, Arizona should have a fight on its hands. The Tigers' (5-2) two losses are respectable.  They fell by single digits on a neutral court to a very good Gonzaga team, and dropped one at home to Purdue, a solid Big 10 opponent.  On the positive side, the Cats should bounce back after having a subpar offensive performance against Southern Miss.   Incidentally, our last game was one of our best on defense, which explains why we got the W. Here's the breakdown.

The Cats have a solid advantage in most categories.  We shoot the ball better inside and outside the arc as well as from the free throw line.  We also have a strong advantage in points per shot and points per possession.  We have been slightly better at the defensive end both in terms of efficiency and field goal percentage.  Clemson has a slight advantage in defensive rebounding, but the Cats are a much better team on the offensive boards.  The Cats are bigger and more experienced.  Although Clemson gets more minutes from their bench, Arizona gets more scoring.  Buckle your seat belts.  The next two games are going to be quite a ride.  We could just as easily come out of this stretch 8-0 or 6-2.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

To Live and Almost Die by the Three

After last night's game, I hope we do not play any more teams with "Southern" in their names.  Unfortunately, the Pac-12 guarantees at least two of those games.  So, last night was hard to watch.  The 1st half was brutal.  It reminded me of my days from graduate school when I would go into the Anthropology Department office the morning after a game, and the wonderful ladies who worked their would say, "Cardiac Cats".  As nice as it would be to lead wire to wire every game, and to end with a 20 point margin, it's just not going to happen.  Some games, the shots fall.  Others, they don't.

Does anyone else find it a bit of an enigma that the Cats have four legitimate post players in Tarczewski, Jerrett, Ashely, and Chol, and yet we take so many shots from behind the three point line?  Thus far, Arizona has shot 42.9% of its shots from behind the arc, a huge number.  In fact, that is the 15th highest three-point rate in the country.  On the positive side, we make a lot of them.  I suppose that having a lot of size in the paint leads to more outside opportunities, but still it makes me long for some good old fashioned post play.

The Cats are shooting 41.7% from deep compared to 58.5% inside the arc.  A quick calculation suggests that this long range offense is not entirely unjustified.  We score 1.25 points for every three pointer taken compared to 1.17 for every two.  The Cats currently rank No. 2 in effective field goal percentage (behind Creighton), which takes into account the added value of three point buckets.  So, perhaps shooting so many threes is not a bad thing.

One down side to having an offense so dependent on the three point shot is that you set yourself up for nights like last night when the shots simply won't fall.  Out of 20 attempted 3's, only six fell through the hoop.  Not only that, four of them came at interesting times in the game.  The Cats' first field goal of the night was a Solomon Hill three, just three minutes into the game.  Nick Johnson made one with four seconds on the clock to end the 1st half.  In the 2nd half, only two threes connected, our last two field goals of the game, both critical to stretching the lead. 

When you rely on a shot with a lower probability of success, you set yourself up for a boom and bust offense.  So, here's a trivia question for math nerds. Coming into the game, the Cats were shooting 43.8%.  They took 20 three point attempts.  For a team that shoots at that rate, in what percentage of games would you expect them to made six or fewer of those shots?  I'm going to spare you the details of the calculation, but the answer is 15.4%.  In other words, it should happen about once in every 6.5 games.  The point is that there was nothing unusual about our shooting last night.  It is expected to happen now and then.  After the game, Sean Miller said, "Sometimes for whatever reason you're stymied offensively."

Well, the reason, as Sean Miller knows, is the same as why if you flip a coin 20 times, once in a rare while, you will only get six heads.  Every shot is a coin toss (but not with a fair coin).  The likelihood of it falling is affected by many things, most importantly the shooting skill of the guy who let it go.  As for 27 turnovers, the chance of that happening again is minute.

Now, for the second trivia question.  The Cats are shooting two's at a rate of 58.5%.  In what percentage of games, would you expect them to make fewer than six of 20 two point attempts?  The answer is 1.3% of games.  Teams that shoot a lot of two's tend to have more consistent offensive outputs than ones that shoot a lot of threes.

For future reference, Arizona now has a three-point percentage of 41.7%.  In a game wherein 20 three's are taken, here are the probabilities of making any number of those shots:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Golden Eagles, v.1

The Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi University are the first of two Golden Eagle teams we will face this year.  Can you name the other?  It's not Marquette.  Last year, the Cats were undefeated before running into another team from The Magnolia State, the Bulldogs of Mississippi State.  Arizona has been on a tear of late, outscoring our first five opponents by 24.5 points.  There is no clear reason why that should change tonight.  That other eagle team?  On December 18, we will face the Golden Eagles of Oral Roberts University.

Notice I have added bench scoring to the preview stats below.  Bench scoring is expressed as a percentage, specifically the percentage of all points that have been scored by the bench.   Of the 15 categories considered below, the Cats have the advantage in 12.  Southern Miss has a slightly better free throw percentage, although the difference is so slight (0.3%) that it can be ignored.   They also have tiny advantage in field goal defense (0.7%).  The only major difference where the Eagles come out on top is experience.  Last game, they started three seniors and two juniors.

The Cats have the advantage where it matters- shooting, offensive and defensive efficiency, rebounding, size, and depth.  The biggest guy who actually gets minutes for Southern Miss is listed as 6'7" and comes off the bench.  Their biggest starters (three of them) are listed at 6'5".  It will be interesting to see how they deal with our bigs.  Unless our guys are looking ahead a couple of games, they should have no problem with this one.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Steadily Improving Defense

Last night's game was fun to watch.  Anytime the Cats go on the road and win by almost 30 is a good time, especially against a Big 12 opponent.  There is no doubt that this offense is lethal, but as I wrote last week, there are some questions on defense.  That's why, despite an 85 point offensive output, what was more impressive was the way Arizona played defense, holding the highest scoring team in the land to a paltry 57.

Today, I want to look at a couple of defensive stats to show that the defensive woes of the early season may be melting away.  In fact, our defense is showing steady, incremental improvement.  Let's start with an old workhorse stat- defensive field goal percentage.

The Wildcats began the season with a less than impressive defensive outing against the Buccaneers of Charleston Southern, who shot 44% at McKale.  To put that number into context, that kind of defense today would give you a national rank of 217, not exactly impressive.  The national average for opponent FG% is just under 43%.  Texas leads all teams thus far holding opponents to 29.7%.  A good team should be under 40%, and after last night's game, we finally are.  Despite a minor hiccup against Long Beach State, the Cats have held three of their last four opponents to under 37% shooting, and this statistic is showing a fairly steady decline.  Hopefully, it keeps moving in that direction.  For defensive field goal percentage, Arizona currently ranks 57th in the nation at 38.9%.

Next, I want to introduce a new stat to the zero to two people who read this, what I call "Defensive Stop Percentage" .  A possession can end in one of a few ways, a made shot, a made free throw, a defensive rebound, or a turnover (offensive foul, steal, bouncing the ball out of bounds on your foot, etc.).  A defensive stop is a possession that does not end in your opponent putting points on the board.  So the defensive stop percentage (DS%) is the percent of possessions in which the opponent does not score.

Bear in mind that FG% and DS% are hardly independent, so it should be no surprise that similar trends are present.  After only stopping Charleston Southern on 54% of possessions, things have looked much brighter since.  The Cats' best showing was against NAU, who only managed to score in 30% of their possessions.  Last night, the Raiders were held scoreless 64% of the times they controlled the ball.  The team average DS% now sits at 63.1%.

This steady improvement cannot go on for ever.  Eventually, it has to level out, but the good news is that it is going in the right direction.  To be a legitimate contender, Arizona needs to couple its strong offense with an equally potent defense.   KenPom currently ranks us as the 8th best offense in the nation but only the 37th best defense.  That low number can be attributed to our slow start, but things are clearly coming around.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Texas Tech

Hailing from the Southern High Plains of north Texas, the Red Raiders of Texas Tech are our first road opponent and undoubtedly our first real test.  Although the Raiders are 4-0 and the top scoring team in the country, one should keep in mind that they (like we) have not faced particularly talented competition.  Here's an interesting statistical tidbit about Texas Tech.  The highest KenPom rank for any of the Raiders' opponents this is year is 306, the Prairie View A&M Panthers.  They have also faced what is currently the lowest ranked team in the land, the Grambling State Tigers (No. 347), according to Ken.

One should keep that in mind when looking at the stats below.  The comparison between the two teams is similar to the ones we have seen before.  The Cats have performed far better on offense than the Raiders, except for free throw shooting where they are essentially identical.  Yes, Texas Tech has scored more points per game, but that's because they take a lot more shots.  They are a high tempo team. Over four games, Arizona has attempted 213 field goals compared to 271 for Tech.  For shooting defense and rebounding, the teams are fairly even matched.  Texas Tech has a definite edge in defensive efficiency.  On the personnel side, the Cats have the advantage.  We are taller, heavier, more experienced, but Texas Tech gets slightly more minutes from the bench, something not uncommon for a team that runs like this.

I expect this game to be a win, as long as we can take care of the ball.  The Raiders get a lot of steals, about one for every six possessions.  The Cats get one for every nine.   Because of our offensive proficiency, in a game with a lot of possessions, the advantage should go to the Cats.  It should be interesting to see how the freshmen respond to a hostile environment.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What kind of 4-0 team is this?

The Cats are 4-0.  After waiting for what seemed like a month, the Cats hit the hardwood again and dominated.  It felt good.  These guys can play, right?  Well, I live in Laramie, Wyoming, home to the Cowboys.  The Wyoming Cowboys are 7-0, having just come off an 18 point road win in Santa Barbara.  Perhaps more interesting to Pac 12'ers, the Cal Bears and the Colorado Buffaloes are 6-0.  As of Sunday, one of these teams will not be undefeated.  Saturday night, I will attend the Wyoming-Colorado game to see who falls.  Despite last year's outcome, I'd put your money on the Buff's to win.  The point is that an undefeated record at this point in the season is a good thing, but it's not necessarily a bellwether.

So here is the first of two trivia questions: In the last eleven seasons of Arizona basketball, how many of those have we begun 4-0?  I'll give you the answer at the end of this paragraph.  That period includes three teams coached by Sean Miller, one by Russ Pennell, one by Kevin O'Neill, and six by Lute Olson.  If you are like me, you probably are thinking of a number that's too high.  Since the 01-02 season, not including this year, the Cats have started 4-0 only three times.

Two of Sean Miller's three teams have won the first four games of the season.  That was true of last year's team, which lost in the first round of the NIT.  It was also true of the 2010-11 team that went to the Elite 8, powered by Derrick Williams.  The only other team to pull it off was the 2002-03 team, with Jason Gardner at the point backed up by Luke Walton, Ricky Anderson, Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye, and Hassan Adams.  That team lost in the Elite 8 to Kansas.   Just look at the picture here, and that day will come instantly back to you.

So the question is: what kind of 4-0 is this?  Is it the NIT kind of 4-0 start or the Elite 8 kind?  I'm going to argue that it smells more like a deep tourney run kind of 4-0 than anything else.  I'm going to do that by comparing some basic offensive stats for these four Arizona basketball teams, which brings us to our second trivia question of the day:  What is this year's Arizona team's national rank in three-point field goal percentage?

I've been a bit obsessed with offense because this team is fun to watch on that side of the floor, so let's compare a few key stats of those four teams for their first four games: FG%, 3P%, Pts per Shot, Pts per Possession, and Pt Differential.  The reason why I brought up 3P% is that this year's team can SHOOT from behind the arc.  They are currently ranked 3rd in the nation, shooting it at over 45%, something which few people have seemed to notice.

Compared to the other 4-0 Arizona teams, this one is by far the best at shooting the three.  When it comes to hitting field goals, only the team from two years ago was better.  Recall the D-Will monster who played the five and never seemed to miss a shot.  Note that last year's team struggled on both fronts.  Two other measures of offensive efficiency tell the same story.

With regard to points per shot and points per possession, this team ranks #2 behind the 2010-11 team.  Keep in mind that the 02-03 team had three players who today still play in the NBA.  Again, compared to last year's team, this year's team is much more efficient with the ball on the offensive side.  Finally, I want to look at point differential.  It's one thing to win four games by 5 points each.  It's another to win in blowouts.  To standardize for tempo, I have standardized point differential to the total number of points scored by both teams, and when you do, again it's a similar story.

While the Wildcat's of today rank third in this category, it's a close third to the Jason Gardner team of 02-03.  Notably, last year's Cats again showed early on that they were probably a bubble team.

The point is simple.  Only four games into the season, things are looking bright.  One can object that four home games against weak competition is hardly a strong predictive tool, and I would agree.  Another objection would be that offense is only one side of the ball, and to this complaint, I have little in the way of a rebuttal.  On the other hand, if you have that feeling your gut, the feeling that was a permanent fixture some six to eight years ago, that feeling would be justified.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Northern Arizona

The next contestants to visit McKale are the perennial visitors from Flagstaff, the NAU Lumberjacks.  The Lumberjacks enter the game with a 2-3 record, and the Cats should be strong favorites.  Across the board, Arizona is the better team.  The Cats shoot the ball better, are much more efficient on offense, are better rebounders, are about 3 inches taller per position and 30 lbs heavier, and get about 15 more minutes from the bench.  The Lumberjacks only have the advantage in two categories, defensive points per shot and effective experience.  On the defensive side, Arizona gives up fewer points per possession.  This should be an easy win.