Friday, January 25, 2013

In Need of Assistance

The good thing about being 16-2 is that we are only four games away from a twenty win season with plenty of basketball left to play.  The bad thing about winning game after game is that it can lead to complacency.  Teams continue to do what works, but what they might not notice is how tendencies are slowly shifting.  Today, I want to look at one of those aspects of my favorite team that is drifting in an uncomfortable direction.

I don't really feel like breaking down last night's game because plenty of others have done that, and most of all I like Sean Miller's take on it.   We could point to UCLA's great offense and great defense, or our bad offense and bad defense.  We could talk about seemingly a dozen missed layups, or three pointers that did not fall.  To be honest, I think it is a good thing that we lost by only 11 given the way each team played.  Instead I want to write about what blabber-mouth Bill Walton pointed out during the game, and what Sean Miller reiterated afterward assists.

I think that most people would agree that for the average shot taken, one that is assisted is a better shot than one that is not.  Sure, breakaway dunks are nice.  So are spectacular individual drives to the hoop, post up moves, and fadeaway jumpers.  But if a guy (or girl) is fed the ball in a position to take a good shot, that shot has a better chance of falling than when that guy is creating his shot against one or more defenders.

After the first game of the season, I wrote briefly about assists.  Against Charleston Southern, the Cats made 27 shots.  Of those, 25 were assisted.  That game was a superb example of sharing the ball, of unselfish play.  Last night, the Cats made 28 shots with 10 assists.  In Game 1, 7.4% of field goals were unassisted.  Last night, in Game 18,  64.2% of shots were created by the shooter.  This is the highest percentage of any game this season.  What has happened between these bookends?

The short story is that there has been a slow and steady shift toward less team-oriented play.  Here is the percentage of unassisted field goals made for every game this season:


 Notice that early in the season, things bounced around a bit, and the season opener was definitely an outlier.  Still, notice that of the first ten games of the season, there were only two in which more field goals were created than assisted.  Since the East Tennessee State game, however, we have become perpetually mired in a pattern of shot creation.  If we look at this in terms of the cumulative percentage of unassisted shots taken, the pattern is unambiguous:


Here's a simple explanation of the graph.  If you looked at every shot made at any given point the season and calculated the percentage of unassisted field goals, those are the numbers that are plotted on the y-axis. It just keeps creeping up.  Part of this is undoubtedly what's known as "regression to the mean".   In other words, Game 1 was so unusual that we knew that these numbers had to rise, but it's fairly clear that there is more to the pattern than that.  The Cats are becoming increasingly reliant on individual players making individual plays.  Have you seen Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons, or Nick Johnson spinning in the lane lately?

If you have been religiously following this team, which we should not forget has won 16 of 18 games, you have noticed other trends as well.  For example, the defense is slipping, bench minutes are contracting, and I think (but need to check) that scoring is increasingly becoming concentrated among a few players.  The good news is that these trends are reversible.

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