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Revisiting Recruiting Classes

During the preseason I went on a podcast with some fine folks from Michigan and said something like this. “Michigan’s freshmen are likely to show flashes of brilliance. But based on where they are in the rankings, I would expect them to be very inconsistent.”

And hey, I’m pretty sure Glenn Robinson had a bad game against Indiana. That’s a sign of inconsistency, right? OK, maybe struggling for one game at the No. 1 team in the nation isn’t a sign of inconsistency. And all Nik Stauskas has done is score in double figures in 21 of the teams 23 games this year. Sure, he needed a few more shots in some of those games, but you can pretty much guarantee he is going to give you 10 points every time out. Meanwhile, Mitch McGary only seems to be getting better as the year goes on. And it hasn’t just been the three ranked recruits. The unranked recruits have been incredibly efficient too.

So I was wrong about Michigan’s freshmen. Without a doubt, I was wrong. But I still think that having Michigan in the preseason Top 10 was a bit of a mistake. This team has clearly exceeded all expectations. Teams with brilliant recruiting classes don’t typically get this type of production.

Let’s take a look back at the teams that were supposed to have the best recruiting classes this year. The next table lists the percentage of minutes freshmen have played for their teams, the percentage of possessions’ used, and the possession-weighted ORtg for these players.

I list the teams with the Top 13 recruiting classes according to CBS Sports.com. For the record, Michigan had the 12th best recruiting class. (Numbers through Tuesday’s games. These are raw ORtg numbers, but adjusting for defensive schedule strength makes a trivial difference as Michigan has played an equivalent or stronger schedule than most of the teams on the list.)

Freshmen Contributions

ORtg

PctPoss

PctMin

Michigan Freshmen

124.6

42%

50%

NC State Freshmen

111.1

30%

33%

UNLV Freshmen

108.5

37%

33%

UCLA Freshmen

108.1

53%

44%

Michigan St. Freshmen

107.8

24%

25%

Duke Freshmen*

107.6

23%

25%

Kentucky Freshmen

106.5

58%

53%

Indiana Freshmen

104.6

19%

20%

Arizona Freshmen

103.4

29%

33%

Baylor Freshmen

99.6

32%

29%

North Carolina Freshmen

96.5

30%

31%

Providence Freshmen

89.4

18%

21%

Texas Freshmen

87.0

53%

58%

*Technically, the table shows freshmen performance, not recruiting class performance. Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee were recruited last year, but red-shirted.

The first thing that should be obvious is that Michigan’s freshmen are far and away the most efficient. I believe there are a number of mitigating factors, and I’ll list those in a moment, but the numbers aren’t even close. Michigan’s freshmen have been unbelievable.

Michigan’s freshmen have also had to play a ton. Due to attrition, John Beilein hasn’t been in a position where he could bring his freshmen along slowly. As we’ve seen with Texas and Kentucky, usually when you have to play freshmen major minutes, there are some growing pains along the way.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Michigan’s freshmen have all been healthy and eligible.

Providence was the only team in the above table deemed to have a worse recruiting class than Michigan. Providence was #13. But the reason I included Providence was to emphasize that sometimes injuries and academic issues can derail a great recruiting class too.  (Suspensions also contributed to Indiana’s poor recruiting class performance.)

Now, there are some mitigating factors. First, Michigan’s freshmen have used relatively few possessions. Because Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. have shot so much, Michigan’s freshmen get to be more judicious in when they attack. But that isn’t always an advantage. Duke’s Amile Jefferson has played better now that he gets to touch the ball more. For young players, playing off the ball and rarely getting touches doesn’t always lead to great shot-selection.

Michigan’s freshmen also get a huge advantage because of the talent level of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Plenty of the other teams on this list returned talent too. Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip were plenty good, Indiana’s returning offensive players were the best in the nation, and so forth. But Michigan’s freshmen stepped into a much more advantageous position than those recruits at Texas. But ultimately, you have to take some credit for what you do on the floor. I can list a lot of unranked freshmen who have gone to talented teams, played very controlled minutes, and still not performed as consistently as Michigan’s Caris Levert and Spike Albrecht.

I also think it is worth noting how these players have helped improve Trey Burke’s game. Now when Burke finds open players, they are finishing. Burke’s assist percentage has improved from 28.6% to 39.8%. And Burke is among the most improved players in the country.

The next table shows the most improved players in the Big Ten in terms of efficiency rating. (Table only includes rotation players, players with over 40% of a team’s minutes.)

In the Big Ten, the only players with bigger ORtg improvements than Trey Burke are Shannon Scott and David Rivers. And both of those players played trivial minutes last year while posting horrific ORtgs. Meanwhile, the player listed in fourth place on this list, Eric May is shooting substantially less than last year. May’s percentage of possessions used has decreased from 19 percent to 14 percent, which likely explains his improvement in efficiency. But Burke is actually shooting more than last year, and he has still improved his ORtg by an unusual amount. The next entry in this table is Victor Oladipo who also deserves all the credit he is getting this season for improving substantially. Given how much Oladipo has improved, to say Burke has improved more is rather unbelievable. 

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Shannon Scott

Ohio St.

39.9

108.1

68.2

David Rivers

Nebraska

36.2

100

63.8

Trey Burke

Michigan

23.1

128.7

105.6

Eric May

Iowa

21.8

113.6

91.8

Victor Oladipo

Indiana

19.7

126.3

106.6

Andre Hollins

Minnesota

16.8

116

99.2

Nnanna Egwu

Illinois

15.6

98.4

82.8

Austin Hollins

Minnesota

14.8

124.8

110

Jared Berggren

Wisconsin

13.1

118.5

105.4

Christian Watford

Indiana

12.1

122.7

110.6

Jordan Hulls

Indiana

12

133

121

Joseph Bertrand

Illinois

11.8

117.4

105.6

Tim Hardaway

Michigan

10.5

113.6

103.1

Tracy Abrams

Illinois

10.1

98.7

88.6

Nick Colella

Penn St.

9.6

97.8

88.2

Since I happen to have them handy, here are the biggest improvements in the Pac-12. Andy Brown played trivial minutes last year, so his improvement is also less significant. Byron Wesley is shooting less, so that explains some of his improvement. Thus in the Pac-12, the only two players that are showing meaningfully similar improvements to Trey Burke are Nick Johnson and Carrick Felix.

Pac-12

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Andy Brown

Stanford

29.2

105.7

76.5

Nick Johnson

Arizona

19.4

114.4

95

Byron Wesley

USC

18.5

99.2

80.7

Carrick Felix

Arizona St.

16.4

112.5

96.1

Kevin Parrom

Arizona

15.9

124.6

108.7

Aziz N`Diaye

Washington

12.5

108.4

95.9

Eric Moreland

Oregon St.

11.6

109.4

97.8

Cedric Martin

Utah

11.6

107.2

95.6

Dwight Powell

Stanford

11.6

105.6

94

Dexter Kernich-Drew

Washington St.

10.2

103.8

93.6

Roberto Nelson

Oregon St.

9.8

111.6

101.8

Chris Colvin

Arizona St.

9.3

91

81.7

Mike Ladd

Washington St.

9

105.9

96.9

Solomon Hill

Arizona

8.5

119

110.5

Tony Woods

Oregon

5.9

105.5

99.6

By the way, is there anything worse than getting better for a bad team? Mike Ladd and Dexter Kernich-Drew are playing better than last season. But because Washington St. is struggling in the standings, almost no one has noticed. 

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

Cody Zeller

Indiana

-1.2

125.7

126.9

Terone Johnson

Purdue

-1.6

97.2

98.8

Anthony Johnson

Purdue

-2.3

90.3

92.6

Roy Devyn Marble

Iowa

-2.5

105.4

107.9

Lenzelle Smith Jr.

Ohio St.

-2.5

110.4

112.9

Zach McCabe

Iowa

-3.7

101

104.7

Alex Marcotullio

Northwestern

-4.3

108.5

112.8

Dave Sobolewski

Northwestern

-5

106.8

111.8

Deshaun Thomas

Ohio St.

-5.2

117.3

122.5

Aaron Craft

Ohio St.

-6

105.5

111.5

Branden Dawson

Michigan St.

-8.7

101.3

110

Ryan Evans

Wisconsin

-11.6

90.2

101.8

Dylan Talley

Nebraska

-12.7

89.2

101.9

D.J. Byrd

Purdue

-13.7

110

123.7

Brandon Ubel

Nebraska

-16.2

103.4

119.6

Ross Travis

Penn St.

-17.6

80.3

97.9

On the flip side, we have players who have lost efficiency this year. Don’t blame Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley too much. Given all the player losses at Nebraska, they’ve had to shoot a lot more. But the key thing I want to emphasize is how Cody Zeller’s efficiency has not improved from last season. Zeller was a preseason player-of-the-year favorite because of how he performed last year. But unlike many of the other player-of-the-year candidates, Zeller has treaded water. It isn’t that Zeller isn’t good. But Zeller hasn’t taken the step forward that some of us imagined. And Zeller doesn’t have the excuse of shooting more. He basically uses the same number of possessions he used last year.

Big Ten

Team

Change Ortg

Ortg 2013

Ortg 2012

David Wear

UCLA

-7

103.6

110.6

Chasson Randle

Stanford

-7.5

101.7

109.2

Andre Roberson

Colorado

-7.6

100.9

108.5

Justin Cobbs

California

-8

105.4

113.4

Abdul Gaddy

Washington

-8.6

96

104.6

Travis Wear

UCLA

-9.5

107

116.5

Richard Solomon

California

-10.7

93

103.7

Angus Brandt

Oregon St.

-10.8

104.2

115

Aaron Bright

Stanford

-14.4

97.4

111.8

Devon Collier

Oregon St.

-14.9

107.2

122.1

E.J. Singler

Oregon

-15.3

102.4

117.7

Robert Thurman

California

-15.9

100.3

116.2

David Kravish

California

-16.2

102.6

118.8

Johnathan Loyd

Oregon

-17.3

78.6

95.9

D.J. Shelton

Washington St.

-20

85.8

105.8

I’m surprised the Pac-12 shows so many big declines as the Pac-12 did add quite a bit of talent this year. One issue is that Pac-12 defense are better, but it is surprising that some former stars are slipping. Abdul Gaddy and Chasson Randle at least have the excuse that they are shooting more. But that doesn’t explain every drop-off on this list. David Wear and Travis Wear are actually shooting less than last year, but the lower shot volume has not translated into a more efficient season.

Bottom line: Michigan deserves to be praised for performing like a Top 10 team this year. But the Wolverines have exceeded expectations to accomplish that. The freshmen have performed above and beyond all expectations. And Trey Burke has improved tremendously from last season. Michigan’s defense still isn’t quite Top 10 caliber. But for a group this young to have the #1 offense in the nation is truly an accomplishment.

 

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