Saturday, August 20, 2011

World University Games Preview -- USA & Lithuania

How They Got Here
With the end of group play yesterday the field reseeds for the next round of matches. The original 24 teams (23 actually arrived in Shenzhen to play) were divided into four groups of six teams and scheduled for a five game round robin with the other teams in their group. The two teams that finished with the worst records were supposed to play two classification round games to determine ranks #17 through #24, while the two teams that finished in the #3 & #4 positions play a two classification round games to determine ranks #9 through #16. Each groups #1 and #2 ranked teams will play three matches to determine the #1 through #8 order of finish.

Team USA swept their competition in Group D, going 5-0 for the first prelimnary round and taking the #1 seed. Team Lithuania was assigned to Group C, along with teams from Russia, Ukraine, Japan, New Zealand and the Philipines. The Lithuanians finished #2 with a record of 4-1, their only loss to Team Russia.

By the Numbers, Offense & Defense...
...Team Lithuania has averaged 79.7 possessions through five tournament games, about three possessions lower than the Americans (82.6), so this should not be a tug-of-war over pace. Though the sample is very small, the offensive and defensive efficiencies, along with the possession-based stats may be worth a look...


Given the lack of crossover games to tie the field together, the differences can be deceptive. The efficiency margins however (when combined with four factors below) suggest that favoring the Americans in this game is probably justified. While Lithuania dropped their Group C final game against Russia (62-77), Team USA's closest Group D game was versus Israel (94-84). Russia finished Group C with the #1 seed, while Israel's 2-3 record sent that team to the #9-#16 classifications. The Lithuanians rely on two point field goals for their offense. About 67% of their FGAs are two's, and they count on two's for 60% of their points, the balance coming from three's (23%) or at the line (16%). Why the emphasis on two point FGAs? Maybe because they have problems converting three's. The Lithuanians have averaged a 30.2% conversion rate for three point attempts -- had they taken those points as two's, they would have had to hit at a 45.1% rate, well below their 58.2% conversion rate for two's. They did not take three's because they converted at a more efficient rate with two's.

A "Four Factors" comparison when Team Lithuania has the ball...

When Lithuania has the ball...
Lithuanian O54.120.538.733.4
American D42.921.431.830.4

The key for Team Lithuania is efficient scoring by 6-6 wing Marius Valunkonis from Vytautas Magnus University and 6-10 Gediminus Zyle, a Euro-style forward out of Mykolas Romeris University. The two typically account for about 50+% of the shots when they are on the floor together. Should one or the other hit a dry spell, the Lithuanians need for a second group, generally headed by 6-7 forward/wing Gediminus Orelik (Kaunas University of Technology...Kaunas Tech?) and/or guard Ernestas Ezerskas (a teammate of Valunkonis at Vytautas Magnus University) to step in and fill the void. The Lithuanians have been a bit lax with the ball (see turnover rate), but give themselves a second chance on missed shots with strong offensive rebounding. Given the Americans have been strong on shutting down second chance opportunities, the battle under the Lithuanian's basket should become a strengh-on-strength matchup. The Americans have been strong at challenging for the ball (see their defensive turnover rate above); the two are fairly evenly matched on turnovers, so expect the Lithuanians to lose about one-in-five possessions; more than that and their offensive efficiency could be seriously diminshed; less than that, and the Americans could be in trouble defensively. The "Four Factors" look at Team USA's offense versus Lithuania's defense:

When the Americans have the ball...
USA O59.415.353.040.5
Lithuanian D45.020.626.131.7

Though JayMychal Green has paced the team in the past two games, scoring opportunities have been nicely distributed throughout the rotation, with Ashton Gibbs, John Jenkins and Scoop Jardine all knocking down game-high numbers at least once in the tournament and exhibition games. All four, plus Trevor Mbakwe have scored more than 10 points in more than one game. A lot of shooter/scorers to cover and shut down. Like the Lithuanians, the Americans look inside the three point line for their scoring, taking 71.4% of their field goal attempts as two's. Unlike the Lithuanians however, the American squad has converted 41.2% of their attempts, comparable to a 61.8% two point conversion rate. The Americans can look to Jenkins (principally), Gibbs, Draymond Green and Darius Miller for efficient conversion of the attempt. They have been good enough at the two point attempt (54.5% conversion rate) to open up the outside for opportunities.

...Assuming a pace for the game of about 80 possessions, the Americans (based on efficiency margins, see above) should win by double digits -- about 15 or so. There are, for Team USA a couple of wrinkles...

1. Team USA has yet to play a competitive, 40 minute game. Several Group D teams (Mexico, South Korea) were able to hang with Team USA for a quarter, sometimes a bit more. The Israelis led after a quarter, and were competitive to another quarter and a half (about 15 minutes, 25 minutes total). The lack of competition had Coach Matt Painter experiment with a different starting five and mix the rotation a bit, neither of which are particularly good when trying to develop game-to-game consistency.
2. The stakes grow immensely in the medal round(s). A single loss in the preliminary round will (almost...) never send a team to the Classification rounds, while a loss in the medal rounds will consign a team immediately to the classifications. Badly timed losses have historically plagued American squads in international tournaments. The quarter final round in particular is a trap game for USA teams. Whether the breakdown is lack of preparation from the staff or lack of understanding by the squad members is not clear, but American squads have a habit of finishing fifth in FIBA and FISU competition with a single loss.

This particular squad may dodge that bullet, as Gibbs, Denmon and JayMychal Green have played on international teams (in similar tournaments) during their college careers. Those three should understand the transition that takes place as the tournament shifts from the preliminary round ("group play") format to the type of single round elimination format used in the medal rounds.

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