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.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Beautiful Offense, A Questionable Defense

One very simple measure of the efficiency of a basketball team or player is the number of points scored per shot (PPS).  On the offensive side, if you hit every shot, your PPS would be at least 2.0.  There is no limit to the maximum possible value.  High numbers indicate a team that has a high field goal percentage, makes a lot of threes, and/or gets to the line a lot.  Low numbers mean that the ball is constantly clanking off the rim.  At this point in the season, the average offensive PPS for Division I is around 1.2.  You may recall that a couple of years ago (the 10-11 season),  Derrick Williams was off the charts with a PPS of 1.95 because he went to the line so often and shot the ball so well.

On offense, a high PPS is a good thing.  On defense, a high PPS is a bad thing.  A few days ago, Bruce Pascoe wrote a story in part pointing out that the Cats' three point defense has not been particularly impressive, and it's true.  If there is a point of concern this early in the season, it's on the defensive side.  The two graphs below are histograms of PPS on offense and defense for all 347 teams in D-I hoops showing where the Cats fall.

Let's start with the bad news (on the right).  On defense, the Cats have been giving up 1.3 points per shot, which equates to a national rank of 260.  This is below average for all of college hoops.  The D-I average is 1.22.  This is in large part explained by our opponents shooting the ball well from deep.  It makes you miss Kyle Fogg's pesky in your face defense.

The good news is that this offense is a thing of beauty, scoring so far 1.54 points per shot,  good enough for a rank of No. 4 in the country, only trailing Indiana (1.63), Cal State Fullerton (1.62), and Creighton (1.56).

Let's hope that the poor defensive numbers are a bit of a fluke.  With a sample of only three games, it's difficult to know either way with certainty.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Long Beach State

This is the first game preview of what I hope will be a regular thing on the Report.  I intend to provide more information on match ups in the future.  In short, below are comparative statistics for the Cats and the 49ers.  They are organized into five groupings as you will see below.  There are comparisons of offense, defense, rebounding and personnel.

Let's begin with offense. The Cats have the advantage here. Both in terms of shooting percentages and offensive efficiency, Arizona has been much better than Long Beach State.  The most important differences relate to efficiency.  Both in terms of points per shot and points per possession, Arizona is far and away the better team, at least as reflected by the few games played already.  Of course, the 49ers have seen tougher competition, having already played USC and North Carolina, both losses.

If there is anything to be concerned about tonight, it's that Long Beach has the edge on defense.  For example, the Cats have given up 1.3 points per shot compared to 1.1 for the 49ers, and Arizona has also given up more points per possession.  I expect the Cats defense is better than their first two games reflect.  The defensive numbers took a bit of a hit against Charleston Southern.

With regard to personnel, the Cats have the advantage. Although Long Beach is a tall team, with an effective height of about 6'5", Arizona is about an inch taller at all positions, so the advantage is slight.  The Cats are a much bigger team,with about a 20 lbs weight advantage.  The teams are fairly evenly matched in experience, but the Cats are deeper, getting about 70 minutes from the bench compared to 64 for the 49ers. This should be a win.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hitting the Boards

At this point in the season, little has come into focus.  The team is undefeated, but that's par for the course. The past three seasons, the Cats have also started 2-0, so we probably shouldn't make much of it.

The most interesting aspect of Thursday's game against the Miners was rebounding.  The prior game, the Cats put up huge numbers of assists.  This game, the rebounding differential was ridiculous.  Arizona outrebounded UTEP by 21.  Last year, the Cats averaged 2.3 rebounds more than their opponent.  The largest differential on the plus side was on December 22 against Bryant when we had a 19 board advantage.  On the negative side, against the Zags, the Cats were outrebounded by 14.

The simplest way to assess rebounding efficiency is to compare the number of rebounds grabbed to the number of opportunities to get rebounds.  So, the defensive rebounding percentage is the number of defensive rebounds divided by the number of shots missed by your opponent.  This leaves out rebounds associated with missed free throws, so the calculation is not perfect.  Still, it gives a decent measure of how the team rebounds when the opponent misses a shot.

The graph below shows the defensive rebounding percentage for all 35 games last season and the first two games of this one.  What should be clear is that defensive rebounding year over year is largely unchanged.  Last year, for the entire season, the Cats had a defensive rebounding percentage of 70.9%.  This year, that number is pretty much the same, currently at 71.4%.  Against UTEP, the Cats grabbed the rebound on 78.6% of missed shots.  So, on the defensive side, rebounding was good but not great. We did give up five offensive boards.

What was off the charts was offensive rebounding, which can be assessed the same way... offensive boards divided by missed shots on offense.  As you can see from the graph below, Thursday's offensive rebounding percentage exceeded that of every game last year.  Against UTEP, the Cats grabbed the offensive board on 57% of their missed shots.  In other words, when we missed a shot, we were more likely to get the rebound than the Miners.  Last year, the Cats hit the 50% mark one time, and that was on the road in a loss to the Huskies.

Given that this year's team has a lot more size, I expect to see improved rebounding over the long run, but that remains to be seen.  So far, Brandon Ashley has been leading the team in rebounds.  When standardized to minutes played, the top rebounders are Ashley, Tarczewski, and Parrom with Jerrett a close fourth.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notes on Charleston Southern

The season opener has been described as somewhat of a “scare” for the Cats.  Sure, it was closer than expected, but as AZ fans, we have seen plenty of games like these.  My impression was that the Buccaneers played like Ubaldo Jimenez pitches, or used to pitch.  They were effectively wild.  For Charleston Southern a lot of difficult and contested shots fell through the net.  So early in the season, I’m not sure what to make of the game or the Buccaneers.

The most interesting and noted statistical aspect of the game was the way the Cats shared the ball.  Five players finished in double digits, including two off the bench.  More importantly, the team finished with 25 assists.  That’s a big number, and I want to put it into context.  Over 35 games last year, Arizona averaged only 13.5 assists per game.  They almost doubled that on Sunday.  Last season, the Cats broke the 20 assist mark only two times and in each of those games managed 23 assisted buckets.  Both of those were blowout wins, once against Bryant and a month later against Washington State at home.  But when the game is played quickly, there are more opportunities for assists, so it is worth asking whether this number is truly meaningful when you consider the pace at which the game was played.

What percentage of made shots were assisted?  The Cats attempted 60 field goals.  Of those, 27 fell through the hoop.  Amazingly, of those made field goals, only two were unassisted.  In other words, of those shots that were made, 92.6% were assisted.  Last year, the game that came closest to this number was the home game against Utah when 86% of shots were assisted.

Almost half of those assists can be attributed to Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson, both of whom played well, but the way box scores are often interpreted does not really present a clear picture of player efficiency because players who have more time on the floor have more opportunities to put up numbers.  If player stats are standardized to the number of minutes played, unsung heroes often become evident.  The three graphs below show assists, points, and rebounds per minute played.

Scoring the ball, Jordin Mayes took the top prize.  In 15 minutes of playing time, he put 10 points on the board.  Kevin Parrom and Gabe York were most the most efficient passers, picking up an assist for every four minutes played.  Notably Gabe York only got four minutes of playing time, but made the most of it picking up an assist and a bucket.  The top rebounder was Brandon Ashley followed by Kevin Parrom and Kaleb Tarczewski.  When viewed this way, the top performers in every category came off the bench.  This team not only has depth but meaningful depth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I want to compare this year's two exhibition games (ignoring Red-Blue) to last year's.  On the one hand, the Cats have now played two meaningless battles against Division II squads that they should have easily beaten.  They did.  On the other, their performance in these two games stands in stark contrast to last year when they began the exhibition season with a disheartening loss to Seattle Pacific, the kind of loss that foreshadowed the long year that followed.

In their two exhibition games this year, the Cats scored 206 points compared to only 127 last year.  They outscored their two opponents by 79 points combined.  Last year, that number was 8 points. So what has changed?

The most obvious thing that has changed this year is a dramatically increased tempo.  The Cats are taking a lot more shots, and so are their opponents.  In their two exhibition games last year, Arizona took an average of 48 shots a game.  This year, that number is 61. Last year, in those two games, they shot the ball about once every 50 seconds of game time, and this year that number is down to every 39 seconds.  That difference in large part explains the huge increase in scoring.

What signals good things to come, however, is that not only are games going at much faster pace, but that the offense is running much more efficiently, so far at least.  Across the board, the offense is improved.  The graph below shows four offensive categories (points per shot, field goal %, 3 point %, and free throw %), and all show improvement.   If I had to guess, the most important difference here is in points per shot (although they are by and large not independent measures).  For every shot taken, the cats scored about 0.36 points more during this year's exhibition games.  This is a big difference.  For an average of 61 shots per game, this amounts to finishing with 81 points at last year's rate compared to 103 points at this year's rate.  It's a huge improvement.

Also on the offensive side, last year our exhibition opponents had more assists than we did (24 to 21) and fewer turnovers (27 to 32).   This year, things are going the right way again and by large margins (assists: AZ = 38, Opp = 20; turnovers: AZ = 26, Opp = 37).

I'm not sure if it's worthwhile making a big deal about a humming offense playing against D-II competition, but the changes from last year are obvious and noteworthy.  If I had to guess, they foreshadow a strong year to come.  I will also note that if the offense is as efficient as it appears to be, it is not surprising that Sean Miller has them playing at a fast pace.  When you have a team that can score, you want to give them as many chances to score the ball as you can.

If I have time, I will do a similar comparison on the defensive side of things.