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The Basketball Notebook

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Living By The Three

Two of the country's most exciting and efficient offenses dropped surprising games at home last night. West Virginia fell to Marshall, 58-52, while North Carolina State was knocked off by Seton Hall, 83-65. The win for Marshall was only its eigth of the season, while Seton Hall entered the year hoping to improve on last year's marks of 12-16 and 4-12 in the Big East. The outcomes of these two games were certainly surprising, but the reasons that WVU and NC State lost are readily apparent.

The two basketball teams share many characteristics - they're listed 13-14 in the latest Coaches Poll, they're both among the country's ten most efficient offenses, and both offenses are fueled by hot shooting and low turnover rates.

eFG% Rank TO% Rank PPP Rank
West Virginia 55.7 14 13.1 2 117.6 3
NC State 57.1 6 18.8 33 115.2 8

- PPP is Ken Pomeroy's adjusted Points scored Per Possession.

One final similarity serves as something of a double-edged sword for these teams. They both run offensive systems that rely heavily on the three point shot, as seen in the table below.

3 FGA FGA 3a / fga Rank
West Virginia 477 965 49.4% 5
NC State 412 952 43.3% 12

Shooting threes provides one obvious advantage - they're worth 50% more than their counterparts inside of 19'9". Attempting a lot of threes and making a decent percentage of them is a recipe for offensive success, in that you can score more points than by shooting twos alone. The downside of the three, however, is its variability. Teams don't often go cold on shots inside of ten feet, but even good shooting teams occasionally fire blanks from downtown.

Here's a quick, simplistic example. Team A shoots only twos. A bad night might mean shooting 45%, while they'll hit 60% when the offense is clicking. Team B shoots only threes. Their performances generally range from 25% accuracy to 50%. If both teams get 50 shots, Team A will score between 45 and 60 points. Team B will score between 37.5 and 75 points. The three point shooting team will have higher highs, but lower lows.

Back to our teams of focus, West Virginia and North Carolina State. We've established that both rely on the three for much of their scoring. That means that when the shot is dropping, they can be giant-killers (see WVU's wins at Villanova and UCLA, NC St's 18-point win over Boston College), but when they're a bit off, they're susceptible to the upset. Well over half of West Virginia's 52 shots were threes against Marshall, but in making only 5-29 (17%), their offense couldn't provide the firepower to run with the Thundering Herd. Likewise, NC State hit only 8-30 (27%) last night, and the normally potent Wolfpack offense couldn't even keep up with Seton Hall.

So the lesson is simple - shooting more threes can lead to a better offense, but it also invites the occasional unexpected letdown.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

If It Weren't For Bad Luck. . . .

If it weren't for bad luck, you'd have no luck at all, right? Tell that to Louisiana State. The Tigers have already played the role of tough-luck loser more than most teams do in a full season (Iowa State football notwithstanding). But I'm not here to proclaim doom and gloom; I want to share what LSU fans already know - despite possessing five non-conference losses, their basketball team is pretty damn good.

Here's a recap of the games LSU lost so far this year -

Opponent Score Margin Comment
Houston 83-84 1 -
Northern Iowa 50-54 4 -
@ Cincinnati 72-75 3 LSU missed 3FG at buzzer
@ Ohio State 76-78 2 OSU made 3FG w/ 5 sec left
@ Connecticut 66-67 1 LSU missed 3FG at buzzer

If you're scoring at home, or even if you're by yourself, that's five losses by a total of 11 points. And with the exception of Houston, these losses are all to Top 25-worthy teams. Several of those games were virtual toss-ups at the end; it's probably as likely for LSU to have two losses as it is five.

* * * * * * * * NERD TALK AHEAD * * * * * * * *
I like LSU's outlook because I subscribe to the theory that "luck", for lack of a better word, plays a large part in determining close games. Good teams don't necessarily win more close games than mediocre teams do. If a team's record in close games was a good predictor of its overall strength, you would expect the better teams to have better records in close games, but that's not always the case.

A better indicator of a team's future success can be found by comparing the points it scores and allows. It really comes down to sample sizes. Comparing the successes and failures of a sample size of 1000 (approximate number of LSU possessions so far) is more trust-worthy than one of 15 (number of games played). The Pythagorean winning percentage on Ken Pomeroy's stats page provides that comparison, and even with LSU's five losses, it makes a national ranking of 10-15 appear more appropriate for them than the 30-35 they're currently getting in the polls.
* * * * * * * * NERD TALK DONE * * * * * * * *

The road ahead looks great for at least a couple reasons.

1) Upcoming Schedule
LSU is already 2-0 in SEC play, and it's entirely plausible that they'll be 9-0 when they face Florida on February 11. The next seven games look like this -

@ Mississippi State
vs Alabama
vs Georgia
@ Mississippi
vs Auburn
@ Alabama
vs Arkansas

Arkansas is the only decent team in that list, and LSU already beat them in Fayetteville.

2) Emergence of Tyrus Thomas
Tasmin Mitchell got all the ink in the fall preseason magazines, but fellow freshman Thomas is stealing all the headlines now. Since (more than) earning a starting spot six games ago, Thomas is averaging 15.2 ppg, 11.5 rpg, and a ridiculous 4.5 bpg. The advanced stats look even more dominant - .642 eFG%, .199 Reb%, .121 Blk%. Thomas's name belongs with the likes of Hansbrough, Rush, and McRoberts in the discussion of this seasn's most impactful freshmen. While we're on the subject, let's make a quick comparison of the three big men -

Player MPG O Rtg %Poss eFG% TO% Reb% Blk%
Thomas, LSU
26.2 121.4 22.8 64.2 17.2 19.9 12.1
McRoberts, Duke
22.6 112.7 17.0 61.3 17.6 12.4 5.2
Hansbrough, UNC
28.8 124.8 24.0 63.1 18.0 13.8 2.6

Hansbrough is the only one not playing beside another star big man, so his offensive numbers look even more impressive, but Thomas has been dominant in his shot blocking and rebounding, and has been more than efficient with his scoring.

There aren't many (if any) frontcourts as imposing as the tandem of Thomas and Glen Davis. They currently have LSU in the country's top ten in both offensive and defensive rebounding, and in the top 20 for 2-point FG% allowed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Looking back, it's got to be tough to already see five losses on your schedule. But looking forward, LSU has both a favorable remaining schedule and the country's best freshman sleeper. Maybe Lady Luck isn't out to get them afterall.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Starting Over

What does Washington State's basketball coach have in common with his process for rebuilding a program? They both begin with D.

Dick Bennett took the job in Pullman with a plan to turn an historically mediocre basketball school into an annual contender, much like he did at Wisconsin in the mid-90s. He was aware that he wouldn't have much talent to work with in 2003-04, his first season, but he also knew that talent was not necessary for his famed pack-line defense. All he required was effort, obedience, and motivation.

The pack-line is an imaginary stripe that parallels the three-point arc, but is two feet closer to the basket. All defenders must stay inside the pack-line, except the one guarding the ball - he guards tightly with his hands raised high. When his man passes, he retreats inside the line and the closest man to the ball applies the pressure. The goal of the system is to stuff the lane, or at least provide that illusion, and prevent penetration and minimize easy looks at the basket. It was immediately successful at Washington State, as we'll see in a minute.

The 2002-03 Washington State team was about average in terms of tempo and offensive efficiency, but was terrible on defense. It was no surprise that they finished with records of 7-20 and 2-16.

Table Notes - Off Eff and Def Eff represent points scored and allowed (per 100 possessions), respectively

Year Poss/40 Off Eff Def Eff
2002-03 71.4 98.0 109.3

Enter Bennett and the pack-line. The following year, seven of the team's top ten scorers were holdovers from the previous season, but the team looked much different. They were more patient on offense and implemented the coach's defensive system, which was a drastic improvement on the 2002-03 defense. The difference showed up in the win column, as well - the Cougars finished 13-16 and 7-11.

Year One
Poss/40 Off Eff Def Eff
2003-04 59.5 96.8 99.8

The 2004-05 season, last year, allowed Bennett to leave even more of an imprint. He let a couple disinterested guys leave the program, then blended the remaining players (who had spent a year learning the system) with his own six-man recruiting class. The results were outstanding. Washington State made major improvements again and finished the season with the country's stingiest defense. Several of the freshmen struggled offensively, though, so the team only finished 12-16 and 7-11.

Year Two
Poss/40 Off Eff Def Eff
2004-05 61.1 89.6 91.2

With the rebuilding now in Year Three, Bennett is probably about where he wants to be. He has one player remaining from the team he took over - the rest of his roster spots belong to freshmen and sophomores, and a couple of junior college transfers. Even without any top-shelf talent, his defense ranks second in the country (at the time of writing) to a surprising Iowa group. The offense is improving markedly with the maturation of last year's freshmen (though that only means they're back up to about the national average).

That offense is giving Washington State just enough power to hang with some of the country's better teams. They won at #13 Washington last weekend, and missed a layup at the buzzer last night that would've sent them to overtime with #11 UCLA (also on the road). They're currently 2-2 in the Pac-10 and in the middle of a tight conference race.

Year Three
Poss/40 Off Eff Def Eff
2005-06 65.0 99.3 85.3

Bennett's defensive setup interests me for a couple reasons. First, obviously, is that he's been successful with it wherever he's gone, even with minimal talent. Second, his teams hold teams to low shooting percentages and force quite a few turnovers. It doesn't seem like many major conference teams can do both, at least not without major talent in both the frontcourt and backcourt. Here are WSU's main defensive numbers the past couple years.

Year eFG% Nat'l Rk TO% Nat'l Rk
2004-05 45.5 19 23.3 38
2005-06 41.1 3 23.9 62

With most of the roster around for at least another two years, Washington State should be winning more big games in the near future. Bennett's Wisconsin teams took off in his fourth and fifth years there, too. Those squads both won 20+ games, with the latter advancing to the Final Four.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What's impressive about Bennett's major conference coaching resume is that he's never even had an average defense. With teams averaging around 100 points per possession during the time, Bennett's Wisconsin teams put up the following marks -

Year Def Eff
1995-96 96.6
1996-97 86.9
1997-98 97.0
1998-99 91.3
1999-00 91.8

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For more (free) information on the pack-line defense, check out this article on Xavier's adaptation of the system. Also check out the super-cool video breakdown of what it looks like in action. It seems to be working well for Xavier so far; they ranked 133rd in Ken's defensive efficiency last year, but are up to 29th this season.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Beyond The Funk

Things started out as planned for the Creighton Bluejays this year. The perennial postseason qualifiers returned four starters from yet another 20+ win, NCAA tournament team, and two medical redshirt players were cleared to join them. They cruised to a 20 point win over a solid George Mason team, and Missouri Valley Conference POY contender Nate Funk carried them to a win over Dayton of the Atlantic 10 with a heroic 38 point performance.

Creighton seemed to be in good position to live up to its preseason billings of conference title contender and Big Dance participant, but they soon hit their first road bump in a trip to DePaul. Not only did they suffer their first loss, but Funk reaggravated an old shoulder injury and was forced to the sidelines for an unkown period of time.

Replacing a starter can be tough, but replacing an all-conference player scoring 17-18 ppg is not something you wish on any team (unless they hail from Durham, obviously). Creighton filled the hole with Nick Porter - he moved into the starting lineup, and his minutes jumped from 17.7 mpg with Funk to 28.3 without. The initial results weren't pretty - a late lead slipped away and became a loss to a lowly Tennessee-Chattanooga team. Then something unexpected happened - the Bluejays started to win, and in impressive fashion. They reeled off four straight wins without their star, including blowouts against a Big XII team (Nebraska) and a MVC frontrunner (Missouri State), and a nail-biter against a legitimate top 25 squad (Xavier).

Funk returned to action after resting his shoulder for a month, but Creighton lost their magic. The next two games were conference road losses to bottom-dwellers Illinois State and Bradley. When Funk opted for season-ending surgery soon afterward, Creighton began another winning streak, which continued with last night's road victory against MVC favorite Northern Iowa. All told, the Bluejays are 3-3 with Funk starting, and 7-1 with him on the sidelines. That's hardly the scenario most forecasted when he first sat out. So what gives?

Since the opponents that Creighton faced with and without Funk were of roughly the same strength, I'd say the situation merits an evaluation of those two segments of their season. The following table lists each team's Pomeroy Rating, as of 1/12/06.

Opponent With
Ark-Pine Bluff 305
George Mason 37
Dayton 114
DePaul 83
Norfolk St
Missouri St
Illinois St 166
Bradley 60
Illinois St
Northern Iowa
Average 127.5 116.0

That simply tells me that the teams Creighton played with and without Funk are similar enough that we can draw decent conclusions from their performance against both data sets. The teams Creighton played with Funk were a little weaker, on average.

Now let's compare how the team's offense and defense fared with and without its top player.


OE eFG% TO% oRb% fta/fga
With, 6 games 100.8 47.8 20.8 35.2 41.2
W/out, 8 games 103.8 50.2 20.4 32.7 45.0

As you can see, Creighton actually scored a few extra points per 100 possessions (PPP) in the games Funk didn't play, mainly due to better shooting (eFG%) and slightly more frequent free throw attempts (fta / fga). The numbers are similar enough that I wouldn't place much significance in the difference. [If these numbers look foreign, you might want to start with my stats primer.]

With a full season of Nate Funk, I would've expected a great offense from Creighton (similar to their top-20 finish last year), but even without him, they still have some good options. Johnny Mathies has shown big scoring potential, with individual games of 24, 29, and 32 points, starting big man Anthony Tolliver is scoring 12.5 ppg on 56% shooting, and Jimmy Motz is back to knocking down threes with regularity after missing six games with an injury.


DE eFG% TO% oRb% fta/fga
With, 6 games 96.6 49.8 26.7 35.4 36.0
W/out, 8 games 85.5 42.9 26.9 35.6 26.3

Now we start to see some major differences. Creighton's defense was far stingier in the games that Funk missed - they allowed 11 fewer PPP. The free throw attempts allowed are a little skewed, since DePaul shot many of their 39 free throws during Creighton's comeback attempt, but that's an ancillary matter. What's most noticable is the .429 eFG% defense without Funk, against a schedule that included talented offenses like Xavier (17th in offensive efficiency, nationally), Missouri State (29th), and Northern Iowa (35th), and Drake (12th), all as of 1-12-06. For further comparison, Creighton's opponents had a .495 eFG% last year, when Funk played all but one game.

One defensive stat stands out above the rest - when Funk started, opponents made almost 39% of their threes. When he was out, Creighton held teams below 31% three-point shooting. Six and eight games are small subsets to draw conclusions from, but this is one area to keep an eye on. If Porter's shut down job on UNI's Ben Jacobson - the MVC preseason POY - is any indication, the tough perimeter defense is likely to stay. Jacobson was 3-11 with 8 points in 40 minutes of playing time.

The Ryanalysis
The loss of Nate Funk changes the makeup of Creighton's team this year, but it shouldn't change their end goal. The win over UNI puts them at 4-2 and in a four-way tie for second place in the MVC. If the improved defense continues to show up, Creighton can still compete in the country's best mid-major conference.

Hello There

My name is Ryan Kobliska, and welcome to The Basketball Notebook. You might remember me from such basketball blogs as Hawkeye Hoops and. . . . .Hawkeye Hoops, the current edition. My writing there is rather focused on one team, as you might've observed from the blog's name, but my interest in the game stretches far beyond those narrow bounds. The Basketball Notebook is intended to be a place for me to write, analyze, speculate, criticize and reminisce about the goings-on in the broader arena of the most exciting sport in our country, NCAA basketball. It's currently a work-in-progress - the sidebar and page template are subject to change at any time - but I don't feel much like waiting any longer to get started.

If you read any of my past writing, you probably know that I'm particularly fascinated with statistical analysis, and that will continue to be the theme here. I'd like to write on a regular basis, but I certainly won't make any promises to that effect. The freedom to set your schedule is a bonus for being your own editor.

Hope you enjoy the work, and I look forward to your feedback. Comments are welcomed, as are emails.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Basketball Notebook Stats Primer

New to The Basketball Notebook? Read this explanation of the nontraditional numbers and terminology often used on this blog.

In baseball, each team is allowed 27 outs to record as many runs as possible. Basketball's equivalent to the out is the possession. Each team has roughly the same number of possessions as its opponent, so the team that better converts its possessions into points wins the game.

Since the possession is the fundamental unit for analyzing basketball performance, it's important to know exactly what it means. A possession is simply the events that occur from the time one team gains control of the ball until the the time at which the other team takes control. By definition, then, both teams in any given game will have the same number of possessions (give or take one or two, since the team that starts a half with the ball might also end with it).

Example - Connecticut's Marcus Williams steals the ball from Illinois's Dee Brown, then fires a pass to Rashad Anderson in the corner. He doesn't get the shot to go, but Josh Boone corrals the rebound and throws down a two-handed stuff over Brian Randle. UConn's possession begins when Williams steals the ball but does not end until after Boone makes the shot, because that is the point at which Illinois regains control of the ball.

There are several ways for a team's possession to end - it can make a field goal or free throw, it can miss a field goal or free throw that the other team rebounds, or it can just simply turn the ball over. These events are represented by the following formula -

Possessions = FGA - Oreb + 0.475*FTA + TO

Field goal attempts minus offensive rebounds represents all the shots a team either makes or allows its opponent to rebound, and turnovers are self-explanatory. The free throw term can be a little confusing. Not all free throw attempts can end a possession, since some are the first of a pair and some are part of three point plays (where the possession is already counted by the made FG). Reasearch by Ken Pomeroy indicates that about 47.5% of free throws end possessions.

The unit commonly used to measure a team's offensive and defensive performance is points per game. This can be very misleading. What if a slow, walk-it-up team shoots 60% but only scores 60 points because of their deliberate style - would they be a poorer offensive team than one that runs and guns its way to 70 points on 40% shooting? The first team is making better use of its possessions, and its opponent will need a great offense to win, because it only has the same number of possessions with which to score.

To make it easier to compare teams with varying paces, performance is measured as points per possession (PPP). The formula is as simple as it sounds (except that we multiply by 100 to leave ourselves with friendlier numbers) -

(Points / Possessions) x 100

Thus a team's offensive efficiency is expressed as the points it scores per 100 possessions, and its defensive efficiency is the points it allows per 100 possessions. You might think that it would make sense to measure the spread between a team's offensive and defensive efficiencies. One step ahead of you.

Note - I use the terms PPP, offensive efficiency, and offensive rating interchangeably.

Leading basketball analyst Dean Oliver breaks offensive performance into four categories, which he calls his Four Factors - shooting efficiency, turnover rate, offensive rebounding, and free throw conversion. They are listed in the order of their importance.

Shooting Efficiency
Shooting efficiency is measured by a stat called effective shooting percentage (eFG%) or adjusted field goal percentage (adjFG%). Traditional field goal percentage just measures the ratio of made field goals to field goals attempted. This doesn't take into account the added points from three point field goals. To illustrate the point - if J.J. Redick makes 4 out of 10 threes, he scores 12 points. If Shelden Williams makes 5 out of 10 two-point shots, he only scores 10 points, but has a higher FG%. Effective FG% eliminates that bias. The formula -

eFG% = (FG + 0.5 x 3FG) / FGA

Turnover Rate
As you already know, a turnover is a loss of a possession, which lowers offensive efficiency. A team can't score when it gives the ball away before it can shoot. Turnover rate is a simple ratio -

TO% = Turnovers / Possessions

Offensive Rebounding
In the event that a team does miss a shot, it can prolong its possession and give itself an additional chance to score by rebounding its own misses. Please don't perpetuate the myth that team rebounds per game, team offensive rebounds per game, etc, are a worthwhile stat. Use this instead -

Oreb% = Offensive Rebounds / (Offensive Rebounds + Opponent's Defensive Rebounds)

This way, you only measure how many rebounds a team grabs based on what's available. For example, if you use "team offensive rebounds per game," a team that shoots 30% is probably going to grab a lot of offensive rebounds, whether they're a good rebounding team or not. If you use Oreb%, you're looking at a ratio of how many rebounds a team grabbed compared to how many were available.

Free Throw Conversion
The final component of offensive performance has two parts - the ability to get to the free throw line, and the ability to make free throws. However, we want to express this factor with just one number. If you're more concerned with measuring how often a team shoots free throws, use -


If you want to see how well a team shoots at the line in addition to how often they get there, use -


Dean Oliver created a stat he calls "Offensive Rating" to measure an individual player's efficiency at producing points for the offense. The end formula is simple -

Offensive Rating = (Points Produced / Individual Possessions) x 100

However, its components are rather complicated. Points can be produced through field goals, free throws, assists, and offensive rebounds. Individual possessions are the sum of a player's scoring possessions (field goals, free throws, plus partial credit for assists), missed field goals and free throws that the defense rebounds, and turnovers. For details on the calculations, consult Dean's book.

Much like Dean's Four Factors for team offensive production, I like to look at how well a player performs in each area of the offense - shooting, passing, rebounding, and turnovers.

One simple measure of shooting effectiveness is eFG%, which is calculated the same way as described above. I usually prefer to use a variation of John Hollinger's True Shot Percentage (TS%), because it takes free throws into account.

TS% = Points / [ 2 x (FGA + 0.475 x FTA) ]

The fewer the field goal and free throw attempts a player uses to score points, the higher his true shot percentage. Simple enough.

Individual rebound percentage (Reb%) is similar to the team Reb% formula above, except that you must account for playing time. Since all missed shots must be rebounded by the offense or defense (or at least they're credited to one of the teams), we can measure how effective a player is at rebounding by comparing his rebound total to the number of shots missed while he's on the court.

Reb% = Rebounds / [ (Team's rebounds + Opponent's Rebounds) x (Minutes / Team Minutes)]

You mulitply the number of rebounds in the game times the percentage of the game that the player was on the court to arrive at an estimate of how many missed shots were available to a player to rebound. The percentage of those available rebounds that he actually grabs is his rebound percentage.

This is another simple one.

TO% = Turnovers / Individual Possessions

Individual possessions, as noted earlier, are the sum of scoring possessions, missed shots and free throws not rebounded by the player's teammates, and turnovers.

Want More?
I first learned most of this stuff by reading books written by Dean Oliver and John Hollinger, so click on their names if you're interested in further reading.