Monday, August 8, 2011

Dove Entrails & Tea Leaves -- Pythagoreas, Minutes and Points in the A-10

The Problem with Crystal Balls
As an expression (for the sake of clarety...), the process of determining how a team will do in the next season looks something like this...

How Team A will do this season = How Team A did last season - Team A players lost + Team A players gained + Team A intangibles

The Pythagorean Winning Percentage provides one of the best measures of how a team did in previous seasons. We can use a deductive approach to analyzing how the departed players will affect the next squad by looking at who is coming back, and what they bring. Incorporating new players into the mix is about the toughest part of the to accurately assessing the impact of the intangibles of course. Taking a look at the first two elements (how Team A did and who Team A will bring back) is the start of the process, and once I have those two elements,it is easier to see how the last two could affect their performance and standing next season. Comparing each teams overall Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP) against the average of the conference (about 54.5, the Atlantic 10 is a very good conference), then doing the same for returning minutes (based on rosters through early August) and plotting the differences to a grid provides a clear indication of where each team sits compared to the rest of the conference. I have been partial to returning minutes because I think it provides a good sense of the relative maturity of different squads, but returning points has value, and so I decided to plot a second grid with points in place of minutes, as those who check out the second chart below. Can points tell us something that minutes might not? Compare Xavier's position in the tables below...

The X-axis returning percentage of minutes (above) and returning percentage of points (below). PWP is the Y-axis. For the PWP/Returning Minutes chart above, the axis intersect at (54.5,66.4), while for the PWP/Returning Points chart below, the intersection is (54.5,66.7).


A quick look and the two seem to virtually identical. A closer look uncovers a few differences worth exploring.

No Surprises Here
Temple and (sometimes) Xavier plot to the (upper left) above average quadrant for returning points and for the Musketeers, just below the average line for minutes returned (> average PWP, < average returning minutes), but the Muskies jump above the X-axis (average of returning scoring) in the second table -- a quick visual on the "value of Tu Holloway". For the past three seasons these two programs have turned the A-10 regular season into a duet. Those concerned about the X-men's minutes (ie experience) next season can relax, the program has learned to level the year-to-year ebb and flow of talent through the judicious application of red shirts and transfer eligibility rules. Coach Mack has Brad Releford, a rising junior sniper, Justin Martin, a red shirt (partial qualifier) freshman and Travis Taylor (transfer from Monmouth University) in reserve from last season, ready to step into the rotation for 2012. And even as I write, Isaiah Philmore, a transfer from Towson, will practice this season and be ready to step in 2013. Excellent programs can do that.

Coach Dunphy has not established that cushion for his Owl program, but every season a rotations/role player seems to step up and have a great year. Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks blossomed in 2010, while Scootie Randall and Khalif Wyatt did the same in 2011.

Testing Common Wisdom
Mature/experienced teams improve over their prior performances. That saw will be tested in 2012 as 2011 bottom-dwellers Fordham and Charlotte return squads that lost a combined 25 games in conference competition last season. Charlotte's fall from grace in 2011 (the 49ers returned higher-than-average minutes from a squad that posted a greater-than-average PWP from 2010) can be attributed to the education of rookie coach Alan Major. The transition from assistant to head coach, especially when a change of program is part of the transiton, can be bumpy -- Dayton fans take note. Coach Major brings in a large class rookie this season, which may be counter productive when installing new offensive/defensive systems. Coach Tom Pecora's Fordham squad showed improvement in his first season at Rose Hill, but the squad needs an infusion of A-10 level talent to establish momentum. Will he find them among the six new faces (freshmen) coming in for 2012?

For Saint Louis, Saint Joseph's, George Washington and St. Bonaventure however, the old saw may work out in 2012. Coach Mark Schmidt put the Bonnies on an upward trajectry when he took over in 2008. A-10 Player of the Year candidate Andrew Nicholson is a major reason, but Coach Schmidt has surrounded him with solid talent. Coach Mike Lonergan's hire last April places George Washington in a position similar to Charlotte's in 2011; a new coach taking charge of an experienced squad. Having seven years at the helm of Vermont gives Coach Lonergan an advantage the Major did not have however. Early season games against Syracuse, Georgia, UAB and Kansas State should give fans a good idea of where the program stands going into conference play. Coach Phil Martelli brought in a consensus conference-best class in 2011. Better yet, the class appears to be headed back to Hawk Hill for 2012 along with most of the eligible returnees, which ought to break Saint Joseph's two year run of 20 game losing seasons. Coach Rick Majerus' four year tenure at Saint Louis has been marked with a revolving door roster and a badly timed setback in 2011. 2012 should mark a substantial turnaround for the Billikens as they return nearly all of their (young) 2011 roster and suspended clutch guard Kwamain Mitchell. Should Coach Majerus' health hold up, the Billikens should have a hand in the conference race in 2012 and beyond.

When anticipating who would plot to the (lower left) "below average" on both factors quadrant, I thought the two last place teams, Charlotte and Fordham would be the strongest candidates. Both, it turns out, return more than average for minutes and points next season. The teams that did plot to the lower left quadrant are La Salle and Massachusetts, the teams that finished #9 and #10 respectively in 2011 conference play. The Explorers had a good balance of senior leadership and young talent, but was plagued with inconsistent play throughout the season. Some changes to the roster (especially when the freshman backcourt rotation -- Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills and Cole Stefan stay for another season) may benefit La Salle's prospects in 2012 (not to mention Dr. Giannini's job security).

For UMass however, the problem is inherent to the Dribble Drive Motion offensive system implemented by Coach Derek Kellogg. The DDM relies on a dynamic lead guard to either score via penetration or (when the situation calls for it...) get the ball to someone who can. The system needs reliable secondary scorers who can catch and and penetrate or shoot from the outside (when needed) and athletic front court players who can rebound and put back should the shooter's attempt miss. If the squad (especially that lead guard) not recognize and exploit/convert the scoring opportunities, the principal ball handler becomes a volume scorer. Since Gary Forbes' senior season (2008 -- Travis Ford's last as Coach in Amherst), Kellogg's lead guards (Ricky Harris and Anthony Gurley) typically take 30% or more of the possessions and shots, but the offense does not convert those possessions efficiently enough to win consistently. The problem in 2011 is that the scoring alternatives, Jesse Morgan and Freddie Riley had lower offensive (points per possession) ratings than Gurley. Those two and Chaz Williams, a 5-9 Hofstra transfer, will be next up as lead guard/scorer in the system.

Programs versus Teams
2012 should provide an opportunity to see which Coach Chris Mooney has built at Richmond during his tenure. The Spiders graduated a substantial percentage of their scoring and minutes over the past two seasons, but have a deep roster from which to draw. If the rotation players step forward (as Justing Harper did in 2011), the team should not take a large step back from their performance over the past two seasons. Can the same be said for Duquesne and Rhode Island, two other programs that played to the conference tournament quarter finals in 2011? The Runnin' Rams' Coach Jim Baron has had to scramble the past few off seasons to fill out his roster. Though he had early commitments, all too often they did not make it to campus, and the Rhode Island mentor had to rummage through JUCO lists and AAU rosters going late into July. This past season the needs were identified, those expected to return -- Akeem Richmond excepted -- will and the signees are all coming in as well. Those stitched together rosters produced three consecutive post season runs, but Coach Baron has never had so small a returning nucleus to start the season. Though transfers Billy Baron (the coach's son) and Andre Malone won't be available until after the fall semester, early season games at Texas and with regional rivals Boston College and Providence might provide a hing about Rhode Island's fortunes in 2012. Duquesne's Coach Ron Everhart has adjusted his gameplan to exploit the advantages a smaller, more mobile squad can provide. The frantic pace (#13 in D1 per Ken Pomeroy) caught unsuspecting teams off guard which, enabled the Dukes to earn a bye bid to the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament and a post season spot in the CBI field in 2011. Coach Everhart will have a couple of taller players to replace Damian Saunders and Bill Clark, but will they be as efficient?

Caveat Emptor
Consider that...
1. The rosters are still taking shape. In the past week La Salle fans learned that South Carolina transfer Ramone Galloway was granted a waiver to play immediately (headline announcement on the front page of the team's web site), while (not publicly acknowledged...) rising sophomore Cole Stefan left the program and the school. Some schools (Rhode Island for example) tend to delay announcements on academic probation. And injuries can strain resources (see Xavier and Temple early in 2011) or derail a season (La Salle in 2010).
2. Fans may have their favorites for preseason Rookie of the Year, but predicting the impact of any freshman is tricky, involving both talent and opportunity...with a large helping of luck.
3. Of the last five new conference coaches, Xavier's Chris Mack (hard to believe he will enter his third year as a head coach in 2012) has had the easiest path -- credit the solid program he inherited when Sean Miller moved on to Arizona. What can the struggles of Tom Pecora, a successful veteran coach charged with rebuilding Fordham and Alan Major, an Ohio State Assistant Coach whose first bite at the head coaching apple came at Charlotte suggest to us about Archie Miller and Mike Lonergan's first season at Dayton and George Washington respectively? Miller takes over a light roster and has to find bodies just to cover the next season. Combined with his lack of head coaching experience the Flyers will most likely struggle to match 2011's 7-9 conference mark. Lonergan, an experienced hand at Vermont, steps into a deeper and stronger roster. How drastically he moves the squad to his offensive and defensive systems and how hard he pushes the current roster to get there will probably influence how enthusiastically the roster responds.

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