Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tea Leaves, Dove Entrails, Odometers & Seed Lines -- George Mason Preview

Rendezvous in Cleveland
Villanova and George Mason are slated to play the #8/#9 game in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament, Cleveland Pod, on Friday afternoon. The Patriots, out of the Colonial Athletic Association, are seeded #8 as an at-large team, one seed higher than the CAA Tournament Champion, Old Dominion, and several seeds higher than Virginia Commonwealth, the team that knocked them out of the CAA Conference Tournament last week. They have to be very pleased with how the season has gone so far. Villanova, seeded #9 in the East Region, only Marquette at #10 was seeded lower of the 11 Big East teams invited to the NCAAs, and riding a five game losing streak into the first round, cannot be pleased with how their season has gone so far. For George Mason, this is a chance to add to the season highlights. For Villanova, this is a chance to begin a turnaround. The two have met four times in a series that dates to 1986. Villanova's record versus George Mason is 4-0. The Wildcats won the last meeting, a 69-68 nailbiter in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-off in November of 2009.

Common Opponents, Good Wins, Bad Losses...
The Wildcats and Patriots shared a single common opponent this season, Delaware:
DelawareW (H)+19W (H)+9
W (A)+20

Notable that each hosted Delaware within 16 days of the other. Mason traveled to Newark, Delaware about two weeks after their first game. The Patriots have two top 50 wins, versus Harvard (Ivy League, 21-6, 12-3, RPI #35) and conference rival Old Dominion (CAA, 27-6, 14-4, RPI #20). That road win over the Monarchs was GMU's best win of the season. The Patriots have five wins over RPI 51-100 teams. Villanova's has four top 50 wins and four wins versus 51-100 (RPI) competition. The Wildcats' worst loss was their last game, a one point loss to South Florida (RPI #155) in their last outing.

Lineups, Rotations
Coach Jim Larranaga, completing his 14th season at George Mason, will (according to the George Mason Game Notes) most likely start 6-4 senior Cam Long at the point guard spot, with 5-11 junior Andre Cornelius in the off guard spot and 6-5 sophomore Luke Hancock playing a kind of point forward. Hancock leads the team in assists, dishing over 4.3 assists per game, while Long leads the team in scoring, averaging about 15.3 points per game over the course of the season. Two undersized forwards will start in the front court, with 6-6 junior Ryan Pearson holding down the #4 spot and 6-9 junior Mike Morrison manning the low post. Pearson, at 230 pounds, may have the bulk (if not the height) to play in the paint. While GMU is ranked #222 (out of 345) for three point attempts/all attempts (31% per Ken Pomeroy's GMU Team Page, that attempt could come from four of the five positions on the court, with backcourt mates Long and Cornelius leading the way. Those two account for 282 of the team's total 543 attempts (51.9%), but forwards Hancock and Pearson accounted for over 100 attempts. In total, the forward spots took 20.8% of the three point attempts. The Patriots have looked to six players (the starters and senior guard Isaiah Tate) for minutes and points, six have played in all 32 games, nine have appeared in at least 30 of the Patriot's 32 games. When Coach Larranaga substitutes, expect to see Tate first. The 6-4 senior is one of three players to convert at least 40% of his three point attempts (42.4% to Cam Long's 42.6%). Next off the bench will be another guard, Vertrail Vaughns, a 6-2 red shirt freshman who converts threes at a 51.6% clip. Though Vaughns has logged only 289 minutes this season, 101 of those minutes have come in the last seven games. Expect Vaughns to get at least 15 minutes of court time Friday. The front court rotation could go as deep as Paris Bennett, Johnny Williams and/or Jonathan Alridge, though none has topped 300 minutes of playing time this season (about 25% of the available playing time for a single position). Coach Larranaga would have to take a scorer off the floor to substitute any one of those three, as none has a shot% of more than 15.9% (Johnny Willliams) -- role player status in the offense.

Coach Wright used the same line up for Villanova's first 20 (or so) games, but adjusted the starters as injuries mounted and inconsistent play ensued. The pre game notes indicate Coach Wright will use the line up that earned Villanova a 17-3 record, start 6-1 senior Corey Fisher alongside 6-2 sophomore Maalik Wayns in the back court. The two function as point guards, with Wayns bringing the ball up court, but Fisher takes control of the offense in the half court. 6-5 senior Corey Stokes will man the wing as a guard/forward. Stokes remains the most consistent three point threat, though he was hobbled through much of February with hamstring and turf toe problems. 6-8 senior forward Antonio Pena will play the #4. Pena can be especially effective on the boards, and if he hits his first 17 foot jumper, a recurring element in Villanova's offense for power forwards, then things should become easier for 6-10 sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova's starter in the low post. Wayns and Fisher will go to the rim. If they can get there they should be able to finish. Or come up with fouls. When the game is about four minutes old, look for 6-6 sophomore Dominic Cheek or 6-8 sophomore Isaiah Armwood. If Coach Wright decides to go nine deep, then 6-5 freshman wing James Bell and/or 6-11 sophomore bfc Maurice Sutton will see the court as well. Guard fouls, either Fisher or Wayns or both has been a problem. Dom Cheek can serve as a stop-gap for very short periods of time, but a rotation that puts Cheek, Stokes and Sutton on the floor together has been vulnerable to turnovers from the press.

By the Numbers, Offense & Defense...
George Mason's shot efficiency (eFG%) is bolstered tremendously by a 39.7% conversion rate for three point attempts, ranked #12 in Division 1 per Ken Pomeroy. Mason would have to convert two point attempts at a 59.5% rate to yield an equivalent number of points. Given their two point conversion rate is a more modest (but still impressive) 50.9% (#49) suggest the Patiots offensive strength on the perimeter, can be extremely damaging if not contested effectively...

When the Patriots have the ball...FTA
GMU O53.61916.71532.815739.3129
Nova D46.45618.427329.97536.2134

The Patriots' offensive rebounding is an average-for-D1 32.8%, and their propensity to get to the line, 39.3% (FTAs/FGAs) contradict the perimeter oriented team stereotype. Turnovers then can be understood as a function of an experienced (and quality) back court, not a function of their playing style. Combining lack of turnovers (not a strength for Villanova's defense this season) with three point shooting, traps to force turnovers is probably a poor strategy for Villanova's defense. Even a modest press to slow game flow and shorten the shot clock by 10-15 seconds may backfire, if Mason can set up secondary break opportunities for their three point shooters. Should Wildcat defenders prove to be slow picking up their defensive assignments, the 'Cats would be punished severely with three point conversions. Overall, GMU's assist rate, 55.2%, is a bit higher than average, suggesting the Patriots use the pass to set up the shooter. George Mason offers a balanced offense that draws just over half (52.3%) of it's points from inside 20 feet 9 inches, but relies on the three point attempt for just over a quarter (27.5%) of their points. When Long has the ball, he only slightly favors the three point attempt, but when Vaughn or Cornelius are on the court, alone or together, Villanova's perimeter defense needs to be on full alert. GMU's offensive rebounding, fair but not great, is an area that can be exploited by Villanova. Should the Patriot marksmen miss, Villanova should be able to deny them a second chance.

The "Four Factors" look at Villanova's offense versus George Mason's defense:

When the Wildcats have the ball...FTA
Nova O49.713717.94935.46742.663
GMU D45.83720.812330.79632.058

The Wildcats have won by scoring, either on their first attempt of the possession, or via putbacks and second chance opportunities afforded by their offensive rebounding. Limiting turnovers maximizes their scoring opportunities, but the 'Cats also rely on points from the free throw line. They harvest about 24.5% of their points from free throw line, while getting 26.2% of their points from beyond the arc (much like GMU).

Want to Beat the Patriots? Then...
Unlike the Wildcats, the Patriots do not have an "offensive marker", a particular offensive element that strongly correlates to wins and losses. Nevertheless there are two elements that seem to matter in close games. Defense is another matter...
1. Keep them off the line. Filtering blowout wins (margins of 17 or more points), GMU's record when they get to the line 36.2% or less is 4-4. In closer games, those points are vital to their offensive bottom line.
2. Force turnovers. Again filtering for blowout wins, the Patriots are 2-3 when they lost 20% or more of their possessions.
3. Hit your shots. When GMU's opponents hit to Villanova's eFG% (49.7%) or better, the Patriots were 7-5. Filter blowout wins and their record was 5-5.
4. Dominate the offensive boards. When the Patriots' opponents rebounded to Villanova's offensive rebounding rate or better (35.4%), they were 6-4. Filter the blowout wins, and their record dropped to 4-4.
5. Get to the line. When George Mason's opponents had a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 42.6% or better (Villanova's FT rate), the Patriots were 2-4. Filter the blowout wins and the Patriots were 0-4.

...For Mason, defense is the key, a counter point to Villanova, where the Wildcats' ability to win is tied clearly to their offense. Track the Wildcats' conversion rates, they should provide a clear indication on Villanova's prospects to win this game. Oddly George Mason seems very flexible on offense. They have a number of ways offensively to translate a game effort into a win. Ken Pomeroy calls this one a virtual tossup -- Villanova by one point with a 50% probability. That's the statistical "word" for tossup folks. Looking at distance to travel as an indicator does not help much. Nate Silver of posted a piece travel distance and winning percentages that asserted when teams traveling to sites 200-500 miles from their campus have a 52% winning percentage. George Mason has a very slight travel advantage, about 288 miles to Cleveland versus about a 338 mile commute for Villanova. About as close as the game is expected to be.

Roster Moves
Mason guards Andre Cornelius and Luke Hancock sprained their ankles during Tuesday practice. Cornelius waa able to walk off the court, while Hancock needed assistance. Both departed for Cleveland with the team, and Hancock assured a blogger Wednesday that he had gone through a full practice Wednesday and would play Friday, an assertion confirmed by Coach Larranage who indicated both would start as planned.

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