Tuesday Truths: “The streak continues” edition

Welcome to this season’s first, last, and only installment of Tuesday Truths, where I look at how well 97 teams in eight conferences did against their league opponents on a per-possession basis.

Editor’s note: I took on some new commitments this season in the areas of teaching on Monday nights and writing a multi-thousand-word Tuesday feature on bubble watching. As a result, there was a measurable decline (to zero, if you must be so precise) in how often my traditional multi-thousand-word Tuesday feature on per-possession performance appeared. But, with today’s post, Tuesday Truths has now made an appearance for 10 consecutive seasons under two different names and across three different sites. Huzzah, The Streak!

Virginia and the incorrigible myth of in-game “separation”

Hoos

Great finish, but shouldn’t you have won by more? (virginiasports.com)

Final results, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

ACC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Virginia             17-1   59.2    1.08    0.89    +0.19
2.  Duke                 13-5   69.6    1.14    0.97    +0.17
3.  North Carolina       11-7   69.2    1.16    1.08    +0.08
4.  Louisville            9-9   69.6    1.06    1.02    +0.04
5.  Clemson              11-7   66.0    1.04    1.00    +0.04
6.  Notre Dame           8-10   64.8    1.08    1.06    +0.02
7.  NC State             11-7   71.1    1.08    1.07    +0.01
8.  Miami                11-7   67.3    1.08    1.07    +0.01
9.  Florida State         9-9   71.4    1.09    1.10    -0.01
10. Virginia Tech        10-8   67.0    1.06    1.07    -0.01
11. Syracuse             8-10   62.9    1.01    1.02    -0.01
12. Boston College       7-11   69.7    1.06    1.10    -0.04
13. Wake Forest          4-14   70.3    1.00    1.08    -0.08
14. Georgia Tech         6-12   65.7    0.96    1.05    -0.09
15. Pitt                 0-18   64.8    0.87    1.16    -0.29

AVG.                            67.2    1.05

For a fifth consecutive season, Virginia is doing strange things to the basketball frontal lobes of otherwise sensible observers. It is again being said that the Cavaliers will surely have trouble achieving “separation” from quality opponents in the NCAA tournament, a nice way of saying their offense isn’t actually good enough to go far into the bracket.

I’m not claiming to harbor any stunning analytic revelations regarding a Hoo offense that is what it is. Tony Bennett’s guys scored 1.08 points per trip in ACC play. No North Carolina, certainly, but effectively the same as Miami, and no one seems to be yelling at the Hurricanes.

What I am going to do, however, is wonder aloud how this separation concern arises so reliably in our psyches. Just to touch on what should be some familiar bases: Virginia went 17-1. They outscored ACC opponents by an average of 11 points per game in pure old-fashioned tempo-free-free terms. Lastly, it should be perceived as being even more impressive that the Cavaliers recorded an average margin of victory in the double-digits while playing at an extremely slow pace.

But surely, it will be said, Bennett’s guys would open up really big leads if they’d just put more possessions under their belts. Fair enough, let’s re-imagine Virginia as playing at the same speed as the fastest-paced major-conference team that is (about to be) in the field: Xavier. The Musketeers averaged 72.5 possessions per 40 minutes in Big East play, way more than the 59.2 that the Hoos logged against ACC opponents

So would playing Xavier-fast enable Bennett’s team to chart a dramatically different course scoring-wise? Yeah, not so much.

Based on Virginia PPP and Opp. PPP in ACC play
                                  Predicted final score      MOV
Virginia at Virginia speed               64-53                11
Virginia at Xavier speed                 78-65                13

Again, those two points constitute the entire result spectrum between the fastest- and slowest-paced major-conference teams in the tournament field.

The example supplied by a recurrently elite and consistently slow-paced Virginia team the past few years suggests our basketball brains reliably and somewhat tenaciously overestimate the performance implications of pace and severely underestimate the performance implications of, well, performance. (It’s almost as if our brains are hard-wired a certain way.)

None of which is to say that the Hoos are a sure thing to win the national title. Actually, they’ll probably lose, because that’s how sports work. Every team loses, except one. But when Virginia does lose it will be because an opponent played better than Bennett’s team did across 63 possessions, give or take, not because there were 63 possessions instead of 73 or 113.

A tribute of disbelief

KU

Big 12                    W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  West Virginia        11-7   68.6    1.13    1.04    +0.09
2.  Texas Tech           11-7   67.4    1.06    1.01    +0.05
3.  TCU                   9-9   69.3    1.14    1.10    +0.04
4.  Kansas               13-5   68.9    1.13    1.09    +0.04
5.  Baylor               8-10   67.3    1.04    1.03    +0.01
6.  Kansas State         10-8   67.2    1.06    1.07    -0.01
7.  Texas                8-10   65.7    1.03    1.06    -0.03
8.  Oklahoma             8-10   75.1    1.06    1.10    -0.04
9.  Oklahoma State       8-10   69.9    1.07    1.11    -0.04
10. Iowa State           4-14   69.4    1.03    1.13    -0.10

AVG.                            68.9    1.07

When Bill Self tipped off this current streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles, there was no one-and-done rule, the three-point line was one foot closer to the basket than it is now (it might be about to move further back yet again), and Bob Huggins was coaching Cincinnati in Conference USA. This has been going on for a while now.

For a second consecutive season, of course, Kansas was masterful in tight games. (Though even the Jayhawks may have taken a backseat in this category to Xavier this season. See below.) KU was 10-2 in Big 12 games decided by single digits, bringing the program’s two-season total in such regular-season conference games to 21-3.

Maybe this means that, after a quarter-century of head coaching, Self has become some kind of close-game “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” genius, or perhaps it might plausibly suggest that having back-to-back point guards who were slash are up for the Wooden Award is a positive blessing. Whatever that case may be, as long as Kansas is turning nominal coin-flip basketball game situations into an .875 winning percentage, you should leave your chips on the square that says “KU.”

Being the savvy hoops observer that you are, you know that the Jayhawks now shoot threes, and that, as recently as four years ago, the program still ranked in the 300s nationally in the percentage of attempts that it launched from beyond the arc. That is still another compliment due to Self, naturally, though, honestly, if this trend continues all the Stylistic Flexibility awards will soon have been handed out. North Carolina attempted an average number of threes in ACC play this season, Huggins went to a press a few years ago, Krzyzewski adopted the Calipari talent approach he had previously deplored — at this rate, Evansville’s continuing belief that threes steal your soul will rank as the only principled stand left.

In addition to being able to change his stylistic spots, teens-year-era-Streak Self is doubly impressive because he’s so clearly working around what he wished had not changed. After all, Kansas is now bad at some things it used to be great at, things we know darn well matter a great deal to Self.

Where have you gone, Cole Aldrich?

Defensive rebound percentage
Big 12 games only, 2018
                       DR%
1.  TCU               70.8
2.  Texas Tech        70.4
3.  Texas             69.8
4.  Oklahoma          69.6
5.  West Virginia     68.9
6.  Baylor            68.0
7.  Iowa State        67.8
8.  Oklahoma State    67.0
9.  Kansas State      65.9
10. Kansas            65.5   

Kansas in 2018 is winning games by making shots from both sides of the arc (posting a high success rate on twos, in part, Beilein-style, by rocking defenses back on their heels with all the three-point attempts), though it surely also bears mentioning that the Jayhawks recorded by far their lowest turnover rate of the Self era in Big 12 play. Indeed, there’s some bottom-line results overlap between present-tense KU and what we used to see from the best Hoiberg-era Iowa State offenses (though there were surely times when Hoiberg could have used an Azubuike).

That’s an intriguing turn of events, surely, but, speaking of bottom-line results, style is just a means to an end. Kansas has done something that literally no team has ever done before, and, on such occasions, the urge to derive basketball lessons is understandable but very likely misplaced. If there were a schematic basketball secret behind winning 14 championships in a row, some Hall of Fame type before Hall of Famer Self may have unlocked that vault first. Instead, Self’s triumph may be equal parts X’s and O’s and that most un-coach-like of qualities, improvisation. Salute.

Xavier’s better at something than any major-conference team in years, and, no, it’s not being clutch

Trevon

(goxavier.com)

Big East                  W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Villanova            14-4   71.2    1.22    1.06    +0.16
2.  Xavier               15-3   72.5    1.13    1.07    +0.06
3.  Butler                9-9   70.0    1.12    1.06    +0.06
4.  Creighton            10-8   71.8    1.10    1.07    +0.03
5.  Seton Hall           10-8   70.5    1.09    1.09     0.00
6.  Marquette             9-9   71.3    1.12    1.13    -0.01
7.  Providence           10-8   70.0    1.03    1.06    -0.03
8.  St. John's           4-14   70.1    0.99    1.07    -0.08
9.  Georgetown           5-13   71.7    1.02    1.11    -0.09
10. DePaul               4-14   72.7    0.97    1.07    -0.10

AVG.                            71.2    1.08

Chris Mack’s team is your outright Big East champion. The Musketeers were 10-1 in Big East games decided by single digits, and to the victor belong the spoils.

You might think compiling that kind of record in close games is extreme, and, after a fashion, maybe it is. (Especially when juxtaposed with the sad item of apparel now on sale at Villanova: “We outscored the Big East by between 0.15 and 0.20 points per trip for a fifth consecutive season, and all we got was this lousy t-shirt.”)

Just the same, if it’s over-performance in wins and losses you’re after, leave the Musketeers alone. I still have to go with Maryland in 2015 as the all-time champion. That was the season when the Terrapins posted a 14-4 record in the Big Ten while outscoring opponents by just 0.02 points per possession. (Think Notre Dame, Arizona State, or Oregon State this year.) Like Xavier in 2018, the Terps of 2015 were also 10-1 in contests decided by single digits — but they arguably weren’t as good at basketball as the Musketeers are this year.

No, Mack’s 2018 team isn’t historic because it’s clutch. It’s historic because we haven’t seen a free throw disparity like this in major-conference play in years. Out of the last 225 major-conference team-seasons, Xavier rates out at No. 1.

Yes, that means even better at piling up big disparities in free throws than Duke….

Bob Huggins would not be pleased

Largest FT rate disparities
(FTA/FGA) - (Opp. FTA/FGA) 
Major-conference games only, 2016-18
                                 Disparity
1. Xavier             2018        +0.16
2. LSU                2016        +0.15
3. Iowa               2016        +0.14
4. Mississippi State  2015        +0.14
5. Villanova          2015        +0.14

You may not be impressed with Xavier’s bottom-line scoring margin, but do keep in mind the Musketeers are undeniably excellent at two things: 1) defensive rebounding (far and away the best in the league in Big East play); and 2) burying opponents in waves of free throws. Fill your bracket accordingly.

Cheer up, Nova. At least you’re the most accurate team of all (modern) time in major-conference play.

These are the best of (shooting) times

Highest effective FG%s
Major-conference games, 2006-18
                                   eFG%
1. Villanova          2018         60.3
2. Creighton          2014         58.7
3. Oregon             2017         58.5
4. UCLA               2017         58.3
5. Marquette          2017         57.9
6. UCLA               2009         57.9

The Wildcats looked normal from the field for a couple games in a row late in the season (at Creighton and at home against Seton Hall), but the end result was indeed historic. Or maybe there’s a better word than historic: 59 seemed like a pretty stable performance horizon for a very long time, one that even Dougie McBuckets himself had to heed. Then Villanova crossed 60. Salute.

I invented a stat just for Michigan State, and the Spartans are terrible at it

MSU

(msuspartans.com)

Big Ten                   W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Purdue               15-3   65.6    1.17    1.01    +0.16
2.  Michigan State       16-2   66.1    1.15    0.99    +0.16
3.  Ohio State           15-3   64.7    1.13    0.99    +0.14
4.  Michigan             13-5   64.2    1.10    1.02    +0.08
5.  Nebraska             13-5   66.6    1.05    0.99    +0.06
6.  Penn State            9-9   66.6    1.07    1.03    +0.04
7.  Indiana               9-9   66.6    1.01    1.00    +0.01
8.  Maryland             8-10   65.4    1.08    1.11    -0.03
9.  Northwestern         6-12   62.5    1.00    1.05    -0.05
10. Wisconsin            7-11   63.1    1.01    1.07    -0.06
11. Illinois             4-14   68.4    1.03    1.10    -0.07
12. Iowa                 4-14   69.5    1.09    1.19    -0.10
13. Minnesota            4-14   68.9    0.99    1.12    -0.13
14. Rutgers              3-15   65.3    0.87    1.05    -0.18

AVG.                            66.0    1.05

For the past couple of years, I’ve been running a shot-volume metric through its paces to see if it can be of any use. Pretty much every time I trot it out, someone tells me I should do the same kind of post for defensive shot volume.

And I, in turn, always have the same instinctual response. Nah, it’s not really the same thing. All offenses want to hold on to the ball, but just because a defense chooses not to fetishize takeaways above all else the way Illinois did so plainly in 2018 doesn’t mean the D can’t perform well.

At root, I still feel that way, but I’ll admit 2018 has brought in its wake two new wrinkles. First, salt-of-the-defensive-earth Virginia is scaling new heights thanks in no small part to an increased opponent turnover rate. And, second, Michigan State is plumbing new depths, literally, for how low an opponent turnover rate can go.

Just for reference sake, those final numbers looked like this:

Lowest opponent turnover percentages
Major-conference games only, 2014-18

                         Opp. TO%
Michigan State     2018    11.8
Washington State   2016    12.3
Purdue             2016    12.4
Vanderbilt         2016    12.7
Washington State   2015    12.7     

So, fine, I ran the numbers for defensive shot volume.

The good news for the Spartans is they’re not the worst major-conference team in the country on this new measure. The bad news is the team that they’re “better” than….

Worst defensive shot volume indexes (SVI)
Opp. turnover pct., defensive rebound pct., and defensive shot volume
Major-conference games only, 2018

    	                Opp. TO%    DR%      DSVI
71. UCLA                  13.9     71.3      99.6
72. Iowa State            15.3     67.8      99.6
73. Georgia               14.3     69.9      99.9
74. Michigan State        11.8     73.5     101.1
75. Pittsburgh            14.7     65.0     101.6

Michigan State opponents attempt a tremendous number of shots because we have not, in recent memory, seen a defense force so few turnovers. The sheer volume of shot attempts by MSU’s opponents means that what should arguably be an insanely great defense (the Big Ten made just 39.9 percent of its twos against these guys) is instead merely very good.

strangely normal Wildcat defense

Cats

(Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports)

Pac-12                    W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Arizona              14-4   68.2    1.15    1.05    +0.10
2.  USC                  12-6   67.9    1.12    1.03    +0.09
3.  UCLA                 11-7   69.6    1.15    1.07    +0.08
4.  Stanford             11-7   71.3    1.08    1.04    +0.04
5.  Utah                 11-7   65.3    1.09    1.05    +0.04
6.  Oregon               10-8   67.0    1.09    1.06    +0.03
7.  Oregon State         7-11   66.5    1.07    1.05    +0.02
8.  Arizona State        8-10   71.5    1.08    1.06    +0.02
9.  Washington           10-8   68.9    1.01    1.01     0.00
10. Colorado             8-10   67.9    0.99    1.05    -0.06
11. Washington State     4-14   69.1    1.04    1.18    -0.14
12. Cal                  2-16   68.5    0.91    1.11    -0.20

AVG.                            68.5    1.06

Arizona has not lacked for off-court stories this season, goodness knows, but there have been interesting events transpiring on the hardwood, as well. In fact, if I had to rank my defensive surprises nationally this season, the fact that a Sean Miller defense anchored by twin towers Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic was only slightly better than average in Pac-12 play would be way up there.

If Miller had or has time to think about mere basketball things these days, he might be as puzzled as I am. This is not the way things usually play out in Tucson.

Best Wildcat defenses

Arizona opponent PPP, standard deviations below Pac-12 mean
Conference games only, 2012-18
                         SD
1. 2014                 2.31
2. 2015                 2.07
3. 2012                 0.97
4. 2017                 0.92
5. 2016                 0.88
6. 2013                 0.52
7. 2018                 0.40

To be sure, Miller has set a really high floor for defense, and, anyway, this Wildcat offense is eminently capable of, well, performing well enough for the team to win an outright Pac-12 title.

Be that as it may, I really did not expect to be engaging in Duke-style “Will this defense be good enough in the tournament?” soliloquies with regard to Arizona at the beginning of March. I’ve never done that with a Sean Miller team, and it feels odd.

To the extent that we’ve been able to pay attention to simple basketball events in Tucson and perhaps even focus on the Wildcat defense in particular, this discussion’s flow has sometimes been directed into a subsidiary channel reserved for the future rim-defending potential of Ayton in the NBA. Fascinating topic, to be sure, one with lots of money riding on it.

Depending on one’s perspective, Ayton either has the usual great-freshman-big-man sequence backward, or, perhaps, he simply falls between two categorical stools. Great freshman big men not named Jahlil or Bagley are supposed to arrive on campus already perfectly capable of defending the rim, even if a high foul rate is the necessary cost. Then the patient tutoring on offense begins.

Granted, Ayton does have the Pac-12’s No. 5 block percentage in conference play, so he’s clearly adding value in that department. Anyway, he’s a dominant defensive rebounder, and holding opponents to one shot is the clear and vital strength of this not-as-strong-as-usual Arizona defense. Why mess with what the most important player behind your defense’s key performance factor is doing?

Still, the contributions Ayton brings on the defensive side of the ball pale in comparison to what he’s doing on offense, where he’s Bagley slash Okafor from the field and (even better than) Anthony Davis at the line. The three-point potential of a 7-foot-1 19-year-old who shoots 75 percent at the line is noteworthy, and certainly the NBA has taken note. Maybe Ayton doesn’t and won’t fall tidily on either the Duke big man or the AD sides of our categorical expectations. He has blurred those lines,

It’s conceivable a new tenacious shot-blocking reboot of Ayton could emerge in March, but, again, the current low-foul always-available version of the freshman who’s something of a phenomenon on offense most certainly works, on balance, for Miller. It is likely instead that we’ll continue to see surprisingly so-so defense from people in Arizona uniforms. It’s an odd sight, one we’re not used to, but the Wildcats are getting the job done.

A note on conference strength

AU

(auburntigers.com)

SEC                       W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Auburn               13-5   72.4    1.13    1.02    +0.11
2.  Tennessee            13-5   66.5    1.09    1.01    +0.08
3.  Florida              11-7   65.6    1.07    1.01    +0.06
4.  Kentucky             10-8   69.1    1.06    1.03    +0.03
5.  Alabama              8-10   68.6    1.01    0.99    +0.02
6.  Missouri             10-8   66.0    1.04    1.04     0.00
7.  Arkansas             10-8   69.7    1.09    1.10    -0.01
8.  Mississippi State     9-9   67.2    1.04    1.05    -0.01
9.  LSU                  8-10   68.7    1.05    1.07    -0.02
10. Texas A&M             9-9   69.1    1.03    1.05    -0.02
11. Georgia              7-11   64.6    1.00    1.03    -0.03
12. South Carolina       7-11   68.4    0.99    1.04    -0.05
13. Vanderbilt           6-12   66.3    1.10    1.16    -0.06
14. Ole Miss             5-13   69.9    1.01    1.11    -0.10

AVG.                            68.0    1.05

I’m afraid I don’t have much to add in the way of explication to a surprising and borderline paradigm-shaking 2018 SEC season, beyond some stray random observations….

  • Auburn’s unwavering green light for the run-and-gun-a-three approach has a good chance of overwhelming at least one quality opponent in the NCAA tournament. It may turn out to be the closest equivalent on offense of a Boeheim zone, something that visibly discomfits opponents when they encounter it for the first time on the floor.
  • We’ve never seen a Calipari-era UK defense this weak on the interior. The SEC converted 52 percent of its two-point tries against the Wildcats.
  • Missouri would be the No. 2 team in the league if it got to play its games on a previously negotiated basis of turnover neutrality.
  • Daniel Gafford is really fun to watch.
  • Florida is rather baffling.

As for what happens now, it’s not clear that the conference has produced a bona fide contender for this year’s national title, though saying so out loud one year after South Carolina happened is surely incautious.

Nevertheless, it is commonly said that this has been the league’s strongest showing in years. Rightly so. The SEC’s about to send seven or eight teams into the NCAA tournament, and either number would represent the conference’s largest contingent ever. Moreover, the league just recorded its highest KenPom adjusted efficiency margin since the glory days of 2007. These are the best of statistical times in the SEC.

We just don’t react or chronicle accordingly, with teams much less with conferences, absent postseason success. Go out and prove the numbers correct, SEC.

A very strangely normal Shocker defense

American                  W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Cincinnati           16-2   63.8    1.13    0.87    +0.26
2.  Houston              14-4   67.3    1.13    0.95    +0.18
3.  Wichita State        14-4   67.8    1.18    1.03    +0.15
4.  Tulsa                11-6   66.4    1.07    1.02    +0.05
5.  UCF                   9-9   62.7    0.94    0.96    -0.02
6.  SMU                  6-12   63.3    1.02    1.04    -0.02
7.  Memphis              10-8   66.2    1.06    1.08    -0.02
8.  Temple               8-10   67.4    1.00    1.03    -0.03
9.  Connecticut          7-11   65.0    1.02    1.10    -0.08
10. Tulane               5-13   67.4    1.03    1.11    -0.08
11. East Carolina        4-14   68.2    0.95    1.14    -0.19
12. South Florida        3-15   64.6    0.94    1.13    -0.19

AVG.                            65.8    1.04

A brief note to say that the American presents a rather stern challenge to our per-possession inquiries. The league doesn’t play a round-robin, of course, but the real issue is that teams like Cincinnati, Houston, and Wichita State are thrust together with league rivals down in the high 200s in terms of Division I might. (But let us give credit where due. That was one surprisingly strong finish, South Florida. Keep it up.)

So, no, you probably don’t want to get too invested in drawing direct conclusions from these numbers where the relative merits of the Bearcats, Cougars and Shockers are concerned. It is instead best to stick to solid ground and say simply that: 1) it’s exceedingly surprising that a WSU defense that brought very nearly everyone back from last season should have charted such a drop in defensive effectiveness; 2) Houston is likely better at basketball than is being commonly understood; and 3) a Cincinnati that lives up to its whole-season numbers and that has transcended the odd late-season defensive lapses shown at home against Wichita State and Tulsa is indeed a threat to win it all.

Few is still Few

West Coast                W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Gonzaga              17-1   67.3    1.20    0.93    +0.27
2.  Saint Mary's         16-2   63.4    1.17    0.96    +0.21
3.  BYU                  11-7   66.3    1.06    0.97    +0.09
4.  San Francisco         9-9   65.5    1.04    1.04     0.00
5.  San Diego             9-9   65.5    1.02    1.03    -0.01
6.  Pacific               9-9   64.3    1.06    1.08    -0.02
7.  Loyola Marymount     5-13   65.1    1.03    1.15    -0.12
8.  Santa Clara          8-10   63.9    0.97    1.10    -0.13
9.  Portland             4-14   66.7    0.94    1.07    -0.13
10. Pepperdine           2-16   66.9    1.01    1.16    -0.15

AVG.                            65.5    1.05

This is your annual multi-thousand-possession table to remind you that Gonzaga is dangerous. This newly perimeter-oriented offense is outstanding — even better, perhaps, than last season’s brute force interior look — and Rui Hachimura alone is worth the price of admission, both in terms of basketball performance and star quality. Make room for the Bulldogs in your bracket.