Saturday, October 20, 2007

Quick Big East Projection: The First Quartile

While I love to read predictions I hate to make them. Consider that in the past three (or so) months...

  • Syracuse's Andy Rautins suffered an knee injury while playing for the Canadian National Team. He will redshirt this season.
  • Louisville's Edgar Sosa sprained his ankle (again).
  • Marquette's Trevor Mbakwe passed the NCAA Clearing house only in the second week of October. The team has been in 5 player workouts for nearly a month.
  • Louisville's backup freshman center Clarence Holloway had open heart surgery last month.
  • Georgetown's MDAA freshman point guard Chris Wright broke his foot in a pickup game on 9/26, and will miss (at least) the first part of the season.
  • Cincinnati's MDAA transfer (from Texas) Mike Williams broke his ankle early this month and will redshirt this season. He was projected to play the #3 or #4 for Mick Cronin's Bearcats.
  • Providence's Sharaud Curry broke his foot the first week of October. He will be out 6 least.
  • Louisville's Juan Palacios injured his knee (MLS) in the second full practice October 13. After an extensive examination the team physician has determined he may be ready to play in early December. Palacios is the second returning Cardinal to make this IR list.
  • Notre Dame's Luke Harangody has torn a ligament in his right thumb. He will be out 4 - 6 weeks.
2006-07 Season
OverallBig EastBET

Louisville and Georgetown are the most obvious picks for this quartile. Both programs return, virtually intact, talented and successful squads from last year. Rick Pitino and John Thompson III run (good) offensive and defensive schemes that the players have embraced. Both look to their entering classes to provide more talent and depth. But neither coach needs the freshmen to provide "vital parts" to the team.

Team Thumbnail (in 300 words or less)

  • Connecticut -- Last season began and ended with the defense. The Huskies were first in D1 in shot defense. They held opponents to 39.7% for 2 point attempts and 31.3% for 3 point attempts. Their opponents got the message and limited 3 point attempts to 30.5% of their total field goal attempts. Connecticut had four shot blockers in D1's Top 500, led by Hasheem Thabeet (16.6, ranked #6 in D1), Jeff Adrien (4.2, #239), Stanley Robinson (3.1, #367) and Marcus Johnson (2.9, #414).

    That ability to dominate defensively served UConn well earlier in the season. The staff front loaded the schedule with a large number of easy teams played in front of a home crowd. Despite a few early warnings (notably the opener against Quinnipiac in which the Huskies had to stage a second half rally to win by 7 points), Connecticut won most of those games by very large margins (the 43 point victory over Sacred Heart followed by the 51 point victory over Texas Southern come to mind). The squad's athleticism allowed them to score easily against lesser opponents, thereby masking problems with the offense that were only later exposed when the Huskies faced opponents with comparable athletic abilities (and better defensive skills). On 12/23/06 for example Connecticut had an eFG% of 54.1 (ranked #54 in D1, #7 in the Big East) and a turnover rate of 20.3 (ranked #71 in D1 and #8 in the Big East). By season's end (04/02/07) UConn's numbers fell to 46.3 (#284, #15) and 21.2 (#166, #12) respectively.

    Aside from power forward Jeff Adrien the front court contingent was especially sloppy. Thabeet (24.5), Kelly (30.6!) and Robinson (24.2) were especially prone to losing the ball. But they had a lot of company. The principal ball handlers (until the last three or so weeks of the season...), AJ Price and Doug Wiggins, both lost over 1 in 5 possessions. It is hardly a coincidence that two of the more efficient scorers, Craig Austrie and Jerome Dyson, were also two players with the best TORate (15.6 & 16.4 respectively, according to Ken Pomeroy's Connecticut Scout Page).

    In projecting Connecticut as a Top 25 team in the preseason of last year, many forgot the major roles were slated to go to freshmen and sophomores. With a consistency rating of 27.1 the Huskies were ranked in the 90th percentile in D1 basketball. And re-enforce the conclusion this team was too young and lacked experience. Connecticut had only three games decided by 5 points or less. All three were played after New Year's and on Connecticut's home court. And the Huskies lost all three. Pomeroy calculated Connecticut's "luck" at -0.117, good for #332 (out of 336 in D1 bball last year). Pomeroy translated that Luck Rating into -3.6 wins. A "luck neutral" record would have been 21-10. Their post season would definitely have extended past New York City (and the BET).

  • Georgetown -- Forward Jeff Green is the only loss on a team that compiled a 30-7 record on their run to the National Semi-Final last season. Green was a great Hoya, but he can be replaced. Georgetown's steady progress, marked annually over John Thompson III's three year tenure, suggests the players have embraced the coach's approach to the game. And the coach is very good at matching players to roles. Even with a higher than average turnover rate (22.0, ranked 213th overall and 13th in the Big East -- see Georgetown Scout Page on Ken Pomeroy's website), the Hoyas were able to efficiently put points on the board through their shooting and, should they miss the shot, an offensive rebounding proficiency that retained 4 in 10 missed shots. That means they, nearly as often as not, had a second chance field goal attempt. Georgetown was ranked 3rd nationally in raw offensive efficiency, earning about 1.16 points per possession (converts to an ORtg% of 116.0). Of the 37 D1 games played last season, the Hoyas recorded an offensive efficiency of 104.5 or higher in 30 (for a record of 29-1 in those games). Want to beat the Hoyas? Keep their offensive efficiency at 102.7 or lower. Georgetown was 1-6 in those games. Eight of the ten players earning > 10% of the minutes at their position earned ORtgs of 101.8 or better. Not surprisingly, the low man on that list was freshman DaJuan Summers, the newest "regular" in Coach Thompson's Princeton Offense. Center Roy Hibbert with an ORtg of 130.8 was ranked 4th nationally.

    While senior Jon Wallace may have drawn attention as the outside threat (Jeff Green and Patrick Ewing were not too shabby either), Georgetown was in fact, relatively restrained on the perimeter. And with good cause -- they were hitting 2 point FGAs at a 0.578 (57.8%) clip, good for a #2 rank nationally. Hibbert was nearly automatic from the lane, hitting 0.671 of his shots. Patrick Ewing (0.585), Jeff Green (0.559), Jesse Sapp (0.595) and Jon Wallace (0.528) were not far off Hibbert's pace.

    Georgetown ranked #10 nationally in defensive eFG% (see Ken Pomeroy's Defensive Factors Page, sorted by eFG; scroll down to the Big East) which ranked them 3rd in the Big East. They were able to get back on defense and contest the shots. Having a very capable shot blocking center (Roy Hibbert) was extremely helpful. Though in fairness there were two others (freshman DaJuan Summers -- 3.0, #380 and junior Jeff Green -- 4.3, #233) who also earned Top 500 numbers.

  • Louisville -- The Cardinals lost senior Brandon Jenkins from last year's squad. Jenkins, a 6-3 guard who was injured in the preseaon and had limited effectiveness during the OOC portion of the season, started 17 of the last 19 games and logged 60.1% of the minutes -- 3rd highest on the team -- at his position (off guard). Such is the optimism of the Cardinal faithful that his loss has been mentioned or contemplated not at all in the off season. The fans and many observers believe this year's Cardinals will be much better than last year's edition. Good enough possibly to run to the Final Four. Most fans remember the last 25 games of the season (19-6), but not the first 8 (4-4, including consecutive losses to A10 Massachusetts and archrival Kentucky to end that run).

    The Cardinals return every other starter and significant contributor from last season -- sophomore Edgar Sosa (currently nursing an ankle sprain) starter at #1, Jerry Smith, sometime starter (along with departed Brandon Jenkins) at #2, junior Terrence Williams, full-year starter at #3, Juan Palacios, a senior who split starts with (then freshman, now sophomore) Earl Clark, at the #4 and senior David Padgett who split starts with (then freshman, now sophomore) Derrick Caracter at the #5. Add in backup point junior Andre McGee, backup #5 Terrance Farley (senior), substitute Will Scott (#3 -- a junior wing who specialized in 3s) for an experienced 10 man rotation. They will not all get PT consistently, especially when freshmen Preston Knowles (a 6-1 guard) and George Goode (a 6-8 forward)

    Louisville players had a hard time getting David Padgett & Jerry Smith the ball. David Padgett had the highest ORtg in D1 basketball last season -- 134.3, but saw <60% of the PT at his position and had little better than "role player" status in the offense. While fans have no doubt been disappointed that Padgett has not been able to play a complete season (after transferring over from Kansas Padget sat in 2004-05, played through the middle of February in 2005-06 and stopped for surgery. Last season he was again plagued with chronic ache and pains, etc.). Jerry Smith's stats tell a similar story. He played about 50% of the time at the wing and saw relatively few scoring opportunities, though his ORtg%, 118.4 was nearly Top 100 (ranked #104). Jenkins has graduated, so Smith may well see more time on the wing.

  • Marquette -- The Warriors return virtually their entire squad, losing only Jamil Lott, a 6-7 JUCO who logged 22.7% of the PT at the forward position. And Coach Tom Crean adds transfer Maurice Acker (from Butler, Horizon Conference ROY in 2005) who will backup Dominic James at pg to go with freshman bf Trevor Mbekwe, who was recently cleared (by the NCAA) to play. Mbekwe's status has been in limbo since last June.

    In many respects last season was a search for Steve Novak. Or at least his replacement. Novak was responsible for a large part of MU's offense in 2005-06. He provided the Warriors with that very rare combination of a lot of playing time (83.8% at his position -- he played the #4 -- with prolific (23.8% Shot%) and efficient scoring (eFG% was 64.3). He had, according to Ken Pomeroy's Marquette Scout Page (2006) the highest ORtg among D1 players. That's pretty difficult to replace, especially given the amount of time he played. Coach Crean was faced with several options last season:
    1. Go with Dan Fitzgerald, a junior player with many of the same characteristics as Novak. While Fitzgerald was almost as efficient (ORtg of 121.8; eFG% of 63.2) he was not as prolific a scorer (16.6 %Shots vs 23.8) and was prone to turn the ball over more than Novak (19.0 TORate vs 9.7)...and assist a bit less. Or...
    2. Go with Lazar Hayward, a long and lean freshman with terrific offensive rebounding skills and a propensity to shoot/score, but do it far less efficiently than Novak (or Fitzgerald for that matter).
    As for Marquette's backcourt trio, Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews, the news was mixed. James, coming off an extremely promising freshman year showed virtually no progress as a sophomore. While he showed a modest decline in his FGM percentages, his assist rate and turnover rate both improved modestly. He was more successful getting to the line & better at hitting his free throws (but with an FTM of .651, there remains a lot of room for improvement...hurting Marquette's opponents at the charity stipe is not a reliable part of his skill at this point). Jerel McNeal, like James, had a "more of the same" type year. He is a master ballhawk who loses the ball himself; a ferocious defender who has difficulty shooting; an outstanding distributor whose turnovers nearly cancel his assists. Wesley Matthews is the only one of the three who showed solid year-over-year improvement. His ORtg (99.1 vs 106.1) improved even as his PT increased (45.8 vs 77.5). Steady progress from Matthews (and maybe growth from James/McNeal) will be necessary to improve the Warriors' lot. Cutting down on the shots and bringing others (Hayward? Fitzgerald? Barro? Mbekwe? Cubillan) into the offensive system would be helpful. When those three were on the floor together last season they accounted for over ¾ (77.4) of the shots taken and nearly 4/5 (79.8) of MU's possessions ended with one of them. There are more efficient scorers in the rotation (Fitzgerald, Cubillan), the team's ORtg and scoring should improve if someone else is taking that shot. And scoring efficiently was the key for Marquette last season. Their team eFG 49.4 (very close to the D1 average). When MU recorded an eFG < 49.4 they went 6-9. When they were > 49.4 their record was 18-1.

The common element shared by each team? They return nearly all of their rosters from last year. Some may question the true value of Connecticut's rotation, but the Huskies bring back 98.9% of the minutes from last year's team. That return rate also means that 7 of the 8 players who had at least one start from last year's squad are coming back. Georgetown, hit the hardest with the loss of forward Jeff Green still managed to return 5 of the 7 players who started at least one game. Marc Eggerson, the other non-returner left the team in January. The impact of his loss was felt (and addressed) last season. The Hoyas return 78.7% of last year's playing time. Marquette which finished in the 5 - 7 cluster last season, but went out in the first round of the NCAAs, returns 7 of the 8 players who started at least one game. The Warriors bring back 94.0% of their PT from last year's squad. Louisville will return 8 of last year's 10 starters from the squad that ran to the second round of the NCAAs. Returning Cardinals played 82.3% of the minutes last year. Having talent is great. Having continuity and a shared memory, in addition to a talented cohort is key.

Most Likely to...(and why):

  • Take the #1 Seed in the BET...
    • Georgetown -- Roy Hibbert...and the Princeton Offense. John Thompson III appears to have established a system that to date, has recruited, delivered and incubated (for a year or so) the talent necessary to sustain the success of the program. While the Big East coaches whispered that Jeff Green was the Most Coveted Hoya, Georgetown's year-over-year improvement paralleled Roy Hibbert's progress, not Jeff Green's. Green had a very uneven sophomore campaign, but the Hoyas advanced into the NCAAs as Hibbert went from a 10 minute man to an 18 minute man. His offensive statistics are terrific; Thompson must be estatic that he is back. If Georgetown follows the pattern of prior years, expect them to have a headscratcher or two during the OOC part of their schedule. As the Big East season wears on however, the Hoyas will develop momentum as the new player, Austin Freeman is integrated into the lineup and regulars Patrick Ewing, DeJuan Summers, Jon Wallace, Roy Hibbert and Jesse Sapp continue to develop their rapport. The Big East regular season race should come down to two horses -- Louisville and Georgetown. At this point Georgetown has fewer unanswered questions.

  • Move Down a Quartile...
    • Connecticut -- The Huskies problems are on the offensive end of the court. They appeared to lack a floor leader at times last year, especially at those points in tight games when they really needed one. Jerome Dyson demonstrated he is capable of putting points on the board, but against better competition the Huskies will need more than one option on offense. Who among the probable starters and regular rotation will step in and become the reliable second/third/fourth option? I assume at this point, that Price (#1), Dyson (#2), Robinson (#3), Ardrien (#4), Thabeet (#5) will start, while Austrie (backup #1, #2), Johnson (backup #3), Kelly (backup #4/#5), Wiggins (backup #1/#2) will take major minutes and others Mandeldove (backup #5) and freshman Donnell Beverly (backup #1) will get minor minutes. Adrien and Thabeet (for very different reasons) were not effective offensively in the low post. Thabeet may make progress, but will that be enough to take the pressure (read attention of the defense...) off of Adrien? While Marcus Johnson was reasonably accurate with his 2 pointers (0.502), he struggled greatly with his 3 point shot (0.267) and was not especially reliable for point production. The staff seemed to favor the more athletic Stanley Robinson for Johnson's #3 spot as the Big East opened. Robinson showed a little better accuracy and production from the 3 (but still a lackluster 0.381), but he struggled (0.371) inside the 3 point line. Point production may well have to come from the back court...and that could be problematic. While Price was well regarded coming into Storrs back in 2004, he played not at all in 2004-05 (medical) or 2005-06 (medical/legal). And there may be a question as to how much can realistically be expected from him. Should AJ continue to struggle, the staff may again try to rotate Wiggins and Austrie (an all purpose back court backup brought in when Price and Marcus Williams were facing legal problems in 2006-07) through the position. If Beverly is pulling down large amounts of time at point guard the Huskies are probably in trouble.

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