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.

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