Advance scouting an extreme Final Four


Is this man a defensive mastermind? Lucky that so few teams use his defense? A little of both? (USAT)

In keeping with my decade-old tradition of very late Final Four previews, here are some thoughts I’ve been mulling this week.

Is the Syracuse zone’s effectiveness scheme-blind and a simple matter of novelty? 
The funny thing about the Syracuse reign of defensive terror in this bracket is that — unlike a similar episode in 2013 — this season the Orange defense wasn’t very good.

During the regular season the ACC made 52 percent of its 2s against this D. In the tournament, however, this number has dropped all the way down to a rather ridiculous 36 percent. Are tournament opponents (ACC member Virginia notwithstanding) failing against this defense because it’s so strange and alien to them? Hard to say, but the history here is pretty interesting.

As it happens this season’s 16-percentage-point improvement in interior defense is by far the most extreme manifestation of what was nevertheless a preexisting historical pattern. Starting with Carmelo Anthony’s national championship team of 2003 and running through Sunday evening, the Syracuse defense has been exactly four percentage points better at forcing missed twos in the tournament than it’s been in conference play. (To keep the “novelty” hypothesis clean and tidy I threw out this weekend’s tournament win against league foe UVA, as well as the tournament loss against league foe Marquette in 2011.) That’s a big difference, and the sample sizes here are comforting: Syracuse has played 32 tournament games over that span.

I’ve never really looked at tournament vs. regular-season two-point defense over a decade-plus before, so just to be sure Syracuse really is weird I ran the same numbers for four other national champions of the period: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn. It turns out Syracuse really is weird. The Blue Devils have also played better interior D in the tournament than they have against the ACC, but the difference is smaller (two percentage points) and, anyway, Duke’s played weaker teams in its NCAA brackets than what it’s seen in conference play. Syracuse, on the other hand, has faced an almost identical strength of schedule both in the tournament and in conference play.

If this novelty-defense theory has any value, Syracuse benefits not so much from the intrinsic merits of the zone as a scheme but rather from the good historical fortune that so few teams use it. Opposing offenses are therefore freaked out and uncomfortable when they see this strange and alien defense, the locus classicus here being an otherwise dominant, forbidding and NBA-talent-laden Indiana offense looking like a sedated frog in the rain in the 2013 Sweet 16.

All of which will be irrelevant, of course, when Syracuse faces North Carolina. Not only have the Tar Heels seen the zone, on paper they’re almost cartoonishly perfect to attack said scheme. If you’re Boeheim the last opponent you want to see is a conference rival that doesn’t shoot threes but does eat offensive rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Speaking of that opponent….

A shot-volume tour de force by North Carolina
A few weeks ago I held forth confidently on the magical tournament-game-winning powers of attempting an awfully high number of shots. Little did I realize at the time that the committee would see my post and intentionally sabotage its hypothesis by loading a veritable who’s-who of meh shot-volume teams — Virginia, Kansas, Villanova, and Oklahoma — onto just one side of the bracket.

I’m kidding. The committee had more on its mind than shot volume, but it is true that the Nova-OU winner will be 40 minutes away from a national title despite looking decidedly mediocre in terms of this particular metric. If UNC should prevail against Syracuse, however, we’ll also have the shot-volume poster child in the national final. The Tar Heels ranked No. 1 with a bullet out of 75 major-conference teams when it comes to generating shots, and in the tournament this ability has achieved absurd new heights.

In their last four wins the Heels have held on to the ball on 86.2 percent of their possessions while rebounding 45.7 percent of their missed shots. That nets out to an Easy Shot Volume Solver number of 131.9, which is possibly the most extreme characteristic exhibited by any Final Four team on either side of the ball. This is how Roy Williams’ guys have been able to score 1.33 points per trip, a level of offense no team could ever hope to equal over an entire conference season, while shooting a hair worse than Iowa State just shot over an entire conference season. Fear the shot volume.

A General Patton theory of the Sooners
So far in the tournament, Oklahoma’s played 279 possessions of basketball and allowed opponents to score 280 points. That’s not bad, but when you’re speaking of Final Four teams it’s not distinguished either. So when the topic of discussion becomes how do you stop Buddy Hield, I find I have two reservations.

First, speaking purely as a spectator seeking momentous events, I quite naturally don’t want Hield stopped. I’m a fan, I want to see Hield shatter records on the sport’s biggest stage. This is a transcendent player who’s putting a team on his back in a way we haven’t seen at a Final Four since…Kemba? Carmelo? Danny and the Miracles? You make that call, all I know is it’s ripping good television.

Second, I’m not sure an opponent needs to stop Hield to win. True, West Virginia did exactly that in the Big 12 tournament, I just don’t believe it’s entirely feasible to think you’re going to limit Hield to 1-of-8 shooting from the floor anywhere outside the motivational zerrspiegel known as a conference tournament. Conversely Kansas laid down my preferred template in Lawrence back in January. Want to beat Hield? Score 109 points.

If I’m Jay Wright I’m putting on my jodhpurs, strapping on my ivory-handled revolver and telling my team roughly: I don’t want to get any messages from assistants saying we are holding our position against Oklahoma. We’re not holding anything. Let the Sooners hold their position. We are advancing constantly and attacking a weak defensive rebounding team where it will do the most damage.

Villanova is veering off its analytic script, and it’s worked beautifully
My colleague Dana O’Neil has posted a terrific piece on Jay Wright’s “shoot ’em but don’t allow ’em” approach to three-pointers. Just as college basketball moved as a herd of independent minds toward Bo Ryan’s zero-tolerance approach on turnovers, so too is the sport adopting what for lack of a better term might be called the Mike Krzyzewski-slash-Billy Lange gospel on threes. On defense that gospel basically boils down to not letting opponents attempt them.

Which makes for a highly compelling national semifinal because, of course, Oklahoma will shoot threes. It’s what Lon Kruger’s guys do, and it’s how they win. Indeed it’s how the Sooners beat Villanova to a bloody pulp back in December.

The good news for the Wildcats, however, is that this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doomed. Villanova opponents have already been shooting threes, both in the regular season and in the tournament, and Wright’s guys are still standing. In Big East play, the team that towered above the rest of the league in implementing the Coach K-Lange approach was Georgetown, and that didn’t go so well for the Hoyas.

On the flip side of that same coin, we have Nova’s performance in the tournament. Both the Wildcats and their last four opponents have devoted precisely the same share (37.4 percent) of their shot attempts to threes. Yet even with this blatant equality on the metric of interest, Nova has advanced to a national semifinal thanks to three games of insane shooting followed by 40 minutes of sublime defensive wizardry.

Simply put, the two teams in Houston that have shown they can win with either offense or defense are Villanova and North Carolina. That doesn’t mean they’re fated to meet each other on Monday night (the fact that far and away the best player at this event is on neither team constitutes an elephant in this otherwise tidy analytic room), but it’s certainly one more intriguing storyline at a Final Four marked by intriguing performance extremities.