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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Teams That Shouldn't Quit Playing This Season

I've talked a lot about the parity/mediocrity (depending how you look at it) of this college hoops season and how the majority of the top 25 is wallowing in inconsistency. But there actually are good teams this season, teams that are not only rising above the level of mediocrity across the country, but compare favorably to some of the best teams in recent years. And while there's still a lot of basketball to be played, it's pretty obvious which teams fit that bill.

The excellent Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated already did his "Magic 8" thing, picking the eight teams he feels can win a title (with a great critique from Rush the Court). He boasts that the national title winner has come out of that group all but once (2003) since 2000, but with eight teams, I'm not all that impressed. Instead, I'm going to lay out a formula that I have long equated with NCAA success and see which teams fit that mold. This is all based on who is best equipped to win six NCAA Tournament games in row. Nothing else.

And it's not really going to get into all the advanced stats stuff, because there are enough places to go for that (what I do use will be from KenPom.com; Ken Pomeroy is absolutely indispensable to the college hoops community, I don't know what I'd do without him).

First, for reference, here are the past seven winners
2007- Florida
2006- Florida
2005- North Carolina
2004- Connecticut
2003- Syracuse
2002- Maryland
2001- Duke

And, based on those champs, here are the ingredients for a title winner:
Capable, Go-to Perimeter Scorer: Corey Brewer, Rashad McCants, Ben Gordon, Carmelo Anthony, Juan Dixon, Jason Williams. Obviously, having one of these guys is very crucial. To win a title, a team needs someone who can take the ball at the end of the shot clock (and game clock), or just in the halfcourt setting in general, and get a basket when needed. This is also a player who can carry a team through an offensive slump use penetration to rack up fouls on opponents (and presumably make foul shots). As you can see, it doesn't necessarily have to be a guard, but a player that can shoot from the outside and use that jump shot to set up the drive.

Capable, Go-to Post Player: Al Horford, Sean May, Emeka Okafor, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Wilcox, Carlos Boozer. This one's pretty important too. If you have a post player that commands double teams, it does so much to open up the rest of the offense. And when your perimeter scorer inevitably hits a cold streak or goes up against a stifling defender, scoring needs to come from other places. One of the best ways to get knocked out of an NCAA tournament is a prolonged scoreless streak. Over the course of a season you can survive such droughts, but not in a single game setting on the second or third weekend of March Madness. So you need a variety of ways to score. This guy can also rack up fouls (and again, make the foul shots), and more importantly, do so against the opponents' rim protector. As important as making foul shots are in the NCAAs, taking them is more important because it means you are the aggressor and that you are getting an opponent out of their regular rotation.

Spot Up Three-Point Shooters: Lee Humphrey, McCants, Rashad Anderson, Gerry McNamara, Drew Nicholas, Mike Dunleavy. Most teams will have more than one three-point specialist but you get the idea. Obviously if you have a post player and perimeter scorer taking most of your shots, they are going to get a lot of attention. And with double teams comes open threes. I'm not going to go all crazy on how the three pointer has changed college basketball, everyone knows that already. But in a tournament setting it's so important to keep opposing defenses honest, especially if they play a zone. Knocking down open shots means more freedom for your go to guys and limits double teams. It's pretty simple stuff but very important. We saw how big Humphrey was in the Final Four last year and how abysmal shooting did in UCLA.

Ability to Change Tempo: The reason your draw is so important in the NCAA Tournament is because every team has a distinct style and thus, opposing styles that give it problems. Obviously you want to avoid those styles, but being able to handle whatever is thrown at you, especially in a setting where you generally face an unfamiliar opponent, is crucial. Florida played up tempo with Oregon and Ohio State last year, and slowed it down against UCLA. They could execute in the halfcourt and push when necessary. Generally this ability is obtained through a solid, facilitating, surehanded point guard. Doesn't have to be someone spectacular but a guy that knows how to run an offense, knows when to slow down or speed up and, most importantly, doesn't turn the ball over. Guys like Taurean Green and Steve Blake were great examples.

Shut Down Defenders: Generally referring to a perimeter guy who can lock down the opponent's best guard (Corey Brewer, Jackie Manuel, Ben Gordon, Josh Pace, Byron Mouton, Shane Battier) and a shot blocker that protects the rim (Noah/Horford, May/J. Williams/M. Williams, Okafor et al., Hakim Warrick, Wilcox, Battier/Boozer). You can survive with a mix and match of interior and perimeter defenders, but it's important to have game-changers on that end. Team defense is important, but the tournament magnifies individual match-ups, because in the NCAA setting, one mismatch can cost a team the game.

* * *

There are other factors that are important but from a personnel standpoint, this is what I've noticed. I'm not reinventing the wheel here or anything but certainly these are patterns worth noting. So, after jump, the teams that can win a national championship this year, based on these findings.

Why?: Pretty obvious. They are really freaking good. But most important is their ability to play different tempos. We've seen them run a team like Oklahoma off the court and we've seen them grind out a win against Arizona. They are 89th in possessions per game, which is right around the 75 percent mark for the country. The efficiency is what matters and they are 3rd in overall efficiency and in effective FG%. They have the perimeter scorers (Chalmers, Robinson, Rush, Collins), the post players (Arthur, Jackson, even Kaun) and the shooters (all of their guards). Chalmers and Robinson are two of the better on ball defenders in the country and Arthur and Kaun are developing shot blockers. They are third in block percentage and first in steal percentage. In the country. That is nuts.

Why Not?: The first thing I can think of is who takes the shot in a close game? They have a number of capable perimeter scorers but who is the guy who is option No. 1? I personally think Rush will be that guy come March, but as of now it's uncertain. They are in a fortunate position where it'll be probably just be whoever is hot that game and if there happens to be more than one player who fits that description, the other team is screwed. The one stat that sticks out to me is free throw rate. Are the scorers mature enough to not only score often, but get to the line often as well? And can they make them if the get there? The Jayhawks are only shooting 65.5 percent from the line this year and have just one 75 percent shooter (Rush).

Watch Out For: A deliberate team with a good post player that plays a good zone defense. Kansas thrives off turnovers, penetration and contesting shots in the paint. Also, goblins. Gotta watch out for them.

Why?: Kevin Love is an almost perfect NCAA Tournament big man with his only flaw being his poor shot-blocking. But his efficient shooting (including the occasional three), his ability to pass out of the double-team, his ability to get to the line and make free throws and, most importantly, his one-man rebounding show (fourth in offensive and defensive rebounding rate) make him ideal for this setting. And unlike Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert last year, Love is rarely in foul trouble (he's never had more than three in a game). Josh Shipp has turned into a very effective wing scorer and we've all seen what Russell Westbrook can do one-on-one. Collison is almost the ideal, careful-with-the-ball, tempo-controlling facilitator at the point and can also lock down defensively, heading a first-rate perimeter defensive unit. As for tempo, they prefer a slow game but we have seen them play fast with Oregon and actually speed it up to disrupt Washington State. The Bruins don't have the pace versatility (made-up term) of Kansas but are better at imposing their own pace on an opponent.

Why Not?: They don't force a lot of turnovers and they don't protect the rim. The team defense is about as good as you'll ever see, but if my theory about needing individual defenders in the tournament holds true, it could cause problems. Right now they don't have very reliable three-point shooters besides Shipp so the emergence of a healthy Michael Roll and increased role for Nikola Dragovic could be a key factor.

Watch Out For: A team that forces jump shots and can defend Love one-on-one. They won't survive long if they rely on their guards to hit contested jumpers. Also a dominant post scorer would mean a constant double team, disrupting the Bruins team defense. We saw what skilled big men can do to UCLA the past two years in the tournament. And bears, as well... they'll get ya.

NOTE: In my mind, these two are head and shoulders above everyone else. I'd give both 5-1 odds or better at this point to win it all. But there are a few others that caught my eye.

North Carolina
Why?: Hansbrough is right up there with Love as an ideal tournament big man because he is efficient, rebounds very well (although not nearly as well as Love) and gets to the line like crazy (and makes them). But the reason he will be more effective this year than the past, is Wayne Ellington. He's emerged as a very good perimeter scorer, one that opponents have to pay extra attention to, rather than the previous philosophy of "Stop Hansbrough and Hope No One Else Gets Frisky." Throw in a big leap this year from Danny Green and the Heels can simply turn to whoever has the hot hand when they need scoring from the wing. Lawson, if he plays consistently, is a great tournament guard because he runs UNC's secondary break perfectly, doesn't need shots to be effective and can be a lockdown defender at times. And in a pinch, he can score even though he sometimes tries to score even when they aren't in a pinch. Offensively they are an absolute machine; high tempo, high efficiency. They shoot threes less than almost every team in the country, but when they are running their offense at its peak, it's impossible for opponents to force jumpers, even if they play a zone. They have also won a couple games at a slightly slower pace than usual, beating Davidson, Ohio State and BYU without scoring 80 points. I've got to think that efficiency can translate over different tempos.

Why Not?: Well, for the same reasons Grant Wahl didn't have him in his Magic 8. Defense. The UNC perimeter defenders are average, except for when Lawson occasionally steps up. Danny Green has shown flashes, but as a whole the team gets beat off the dribble too much and has no one, save an occasionally spry Deon Thompson, to protect the rim. When you rely on offense to win games, you are at the mercy of a cold shooting streak, an unavoidable formality of basketball that is known for derailing tournament runs. There are no cold streaks on defense. And while turnovers can lead to an opponent's offense, not forcing turnovers and missed shots can lead to a stagnant offense, especially one that thrives on speed like UNC. That being said, they are on this list because they have the personnel to be a decent defensive team. Lawson is insanely quick, Ellington and Green are great athletes with long arms, Hansbrough doesn't have the physical gifts but is tough enough to guard bigger players. I'd like to think that if it comes down to it and this team realizes they need to step up defensively to win a title, they will.

Watch Out For: A good rebounding team that can also play a zone to occasionally slow the game down. Not sure if any of these teams exist, however (2006 George Mason and 2007 Georgetown?). Also a team with athletic bigs to slow down Psycho T. From what I remember, and by looking at his gamelog, the best jobs containing him was done by Kentucky (Patrick Patterson), Clemson (Trevor Booker and James Mays) and Maryland (how could we forget James Gist?). If you can cover him one-on-one, you can stay closer to Lawson/Ellington/Green who will kill you if you give them any space. And if I were them I'd be wary of hobos as well. They are always unpredictable.

Why?: They are almost a poor man's Kansas. Good depth, quick guards, good defense. Like the Jayhawks, they also have a number of capable ballhandlers and don't turn it over too much. Defensively, they don't have any standout, lockdown defenders (maybe Williams) but they have a ton of quick, athletic players at every position that can get into passing lanes and block shots. Unlike Kansas, they have a number of good three-point shooters; Terrence Williams, Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee can all knock down open shots. Speaking of Sosa, as we saw last March against Texas A & M, he is capable of being a go-to scorer that can get into the lane and to the foul line at will. For some reason, we haven't seen any of that this season. But we have to hold out hope.

Why Not?: Again, there is hope that Derrick Caracter will be a legitimate low-post threat, but who knows. That's the problem with this team. Is its inconsistency a product of the injuries or can these guys just not get it together as a unit? Good things happen when Padgett gets the ball in the post, but he's not someone to be double-teamed. And who the hell knows which Earl Clark will show up. At this point, I'm also not sure they can win a fast-paced game. The one game they played against a true up-tempo team, Seton Hall, they looked pretty bad. This is a team worth revisiting at the end of February but they make the list on incredible potential.

Watch Our For: Probably just themselves. That's not to say they are unbeatable when playing their best, but there isn't really one specific thing that could single-handedly beat Louisville. Obviously a fast-paced, efficient offensive team could be a potential nightmare but they could also get beaten by a plodding team that has a hot shooting night. Also lupus. You don't want that.

* * *

And that folks, is it. Yes, just four teams fit my criteria. This will probably freak some people out, so let me briefly mention why some other notables didn't make it.

Memphis- Shooting. I don't see them shooting well enough, especially given the zone defenses that will inevitably be thrown at them, to win six straight games. And the atrocious foul shooting is going to come back and bite them. Also, can they get interior scoring that doesn't come from offensive rebounds? I'd put good money on them making the Final Four, but can they beat an elite team - in a close game - with just defense and penetration?

Duke- In a year where nothing seems to be conventional, I strongly considered putting an unconventional, but extremely good, Blue Devil team on there. They have embraced the Phoenix Suns style about as well as a college team could hope for (and still playing solid defense in the process), but as we saw against Pitt, a team that controls the glass will control Duke. That was the blueprint and while there aren't a lot of teams in the ACC that will be able to duplicate that, there are certainly teams better than Pitt out there that will.

Indiana- Gordon and White are about as perfect for the outside-inside, go-to scorer tandem as you could ever want. Throw in the high free throw rate, the great rebounding and the ability to play at different speeds and I was all set to have the Hoosiers on here too. But the one thing that stuck out was turnovers. They don't force them and they commit too many of them. In fact, they don't really have a true point guard, and that's going to be their tragic flaw in March. Having Gordon and White is nice, but you need someone who can get them the ball in positions to score when the opponent is locking down.

Georgetown- Good post scorer, very good defenders, good outside shooting. But when Roy Hibbert inevitably gets into foul trouble, they don't have Jeff Green to pick up the scoring anymore. And worse, they are going to get killed on the glass, their most glaring weakness.

Arizona- Intriguing pick because of the scoring options of Bayless, Budinger and Hill. All can carry a team for a period of time, all offer different ways of scoring. Throw in a defensive game-changer like Nic Wise and a great defensive coach like Kevin O'Neill and there is definite potential. The problem is, even with Wise, O'Neill, a good shot blocker in Hill and a solid defender in Jawann McClellan, they don't play very good defense. And worse even, they don't have any kind of depth to stop the bleeding when the defense goes bad. Arizona's postseason fate probably can't be determined at this point.

Stanford- I think Brook Lopez has that "takeover an entire tournament" ability, like Horford and Noah did the last two seasons. He can control the rim and the glass on both ends... IF, he stays out of foul trouble. And nothing Brook Lopez has done this year has proven to me that he can do that. While Stanford has better size than most teams in the country, I don't see its guards creating enough on either end to win six in a row. This team seems like a lock to be derailed by some eight-minute drought without a field goal or like a 3-20 game from three.

So that's what I got. The four teams I think can win a title at this point in the season. I will probably revisit this in late February to see where everyone stands and then once the field is set, use the same criteria to pick the potential winners. But for now, this is an experiment in prognostication. In early April we can look back and see if everyone else really should have just quit.

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  • At January 29, 2008 5:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thomas Sander of Davidson did a great job on Hansborough and UCLA's Love. Check the numbers.

  • At January 29, 2008 6:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    As a KU fan, I appreciate the love.

    I think you might be surprised with our 3-point shooting, however (referrign to your comment in the Louisville breakdown). Robinson, Collins, Rush (44%) and Chalmers (48%!) are all capable of knocking down the long ball, and as a team, we're shooting almost 40% to Luhville's 34%.

    Also, as much as it pains me to give props to UNC...

    You might've undercut Ginyard. I feel that Green should be started over him, but he is at least a solid if not disruptive defender. It's why he's starting.

    Other than that, REALLY solid stuff. Thanks for the read.

  • At January 29, 2008 6:42 PM , Blogger jtom said...

    Yeah I probably worded that incorrectly in regards to Louisville and Kansas' threes. "Louisville has more three-point shooters than Kansas" would probably be more accurate. Thanks for the feedback.


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