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In Season Improvement, Part 1

Before we get to the second loss of the season for Kansas, on a last-second buzzer beater, there were a number of other close games this weekend:

Endings You Might Have Missed

-Texas grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against Temple. Admittedly the offensive rebounding percentage was not all that dominant because Texas missed a boatload of shots. But this is one case where the counting stats seemed to say something. It was hard to watch the Temple vs Texas game and not feel like Texas had a tremendous size and strength advantage inside. But with Texas guards Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland shooting a combined two of 20, Temple nearly came from 16 down for the home win. Luckily for Texas, Javan Felix had incredible amnesia. Despite not making anything all day, Felix swished home the come-from-behind game winning three in the final seconds of OT.

-Virginia Tech travelled to Miami for the ACC conference play opener. These are expected to be two of the worst teams in the ACC this year, and if you expected poor play, you got it at the end of regulation and in OT. Virginia Tech missed the front end of a one-and-one while trailing; Miami air-balled a three pointer; and at the end of OT Miami took a shot from behind the backboard. And I don’t think I have ever seen so many players get their shots blocked as I did in the last two minutes of regulation and OT. Even when Virginia Tech perfectly executed a lob play with 0.3 seconds left, Virginia Tech touched the ball too long on the tip. The ball went in, but the refs ruled there was too much contact for a tip and they waived the shot off. In the end the difference was Virginia Tech’s Jarell Eddie. His off-balance three-pointer to tie the game with 45 seconds left in regulation and his off-balance jumper in the final minute in OT won the game for the Hokies. Miami now faces a harsh reality. If the Hurricanes cannot beat Virginia Tech at home, the number of ACC victories for the team may be slim to none.

-Oregon at Ole Miss had a little bit better execution. After Joseph Young hit a pair of huge threes to give Oregon a late lead, Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson hit a pair of threes of his own, and Jarvis Summers kicked in one more three as time was winding down to send the game into OT. Oregon put the game away in OT at the free throw line, but that sequence at the end of regulation was plenty good. Whenever you have a game where one team shoots 11 of 18 from deep and the other team makes 15 of 35 threes, you know you have a game with some huge shifts in momentum.

-Sports are full of plays where you change your opinion in a moment. Alabama fans might have been momentarily happy when one second was put back on the clock vs Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but one FG return later, they were angry. We nearly had a similar ending in the USF vs Alabama basketball game. With time winding down and Alabama down two, Alabama’s Levi Randolph took the ball into the lane. USF’s John Egbunu emphatically blocked Randolph’s shot and USF fans were happy. But hold on a minute – Edbunu blocked the shot out to Alabama’s Shannon Hale. Hale had just moments earlier hit a three pointer. And not only did the ball go right to Hale, he was wide open from three point range. USF went from a game sealing block to the possibility of Alabama hitting a three for the walk-off win. Luckily for USF, Hale’s shot was off the mark.

The Ideal Lineup

Colorado shockingly won the offensive rebounding battle against a Kansas team that rarely gives up offensive boards; Colorado won the transition game against a Kansas team with Top 100 athletes across the roster; and Colorado’s Askia Booker hit a miraculous three pointer at the buzzer to send the Jayhawks to their second loss on the year. But it is hard for anyone to watch the Jayhawks play and think that this team is a finished product yet.

Arizona, Syracuse and Wisconsin have been three of the most impressive teams so far this season. But one of the reasons those teams are playing dominant basketball is that those teams have quickly found short and effective rotations. Meanwhile Kansas played 12 players on Saturday.

The Jayhawks biggest issue is trying to find the right lineup of shooters to spread the floor. For much of the first half, Joel Embiid was simply unstoppable. But when Colorado started triple-teaming Embiid (and playing a very effective zone defense), Embiid was still able to kick out to wide open Kansas shooters. But even when Embiid found Kansas perimeters players for wide open shots, no one was knocking them down. Kansas is shooting only 29.8% from beyond the arc on the season, and that ranks a paltry 286th in the nation. And that is why the Jayhawks need to cycle through their guards to see if anyone is hot on a given night.

The PG situation is also unsettled. Naadir Tharpe lost his starting job to Frank Mason. But with Mason struggling to knock down jump shots, Tharpe was back in the game in crunch time. Regardless, when Colorado went on a big run, neither PG was able to steady the team and make sure the Jayhawks got an easy look. Eventually, Andrew Wiggins just took over and kept Kansas in the game. But with Wiggins still struggling to be the alpha-dog, Kansas still needs a PG who can steady the team when the other team captures the momentum.

Another problem in establishing an ideal rotation is that Joel Embiid has been foul prone. (Wiggins also picked up two early fouls on Saturday. That was a little disappointing because Wiggins started out extremely hot with a three and a blocked shot, but Wiggins has not been foul prone generally.) Embiid on the other hand has a tendency to reach and commit unnecessary fouls. He needs to be smarter about when he is aggressive defensively because the drop-off to Jamari Traylor and Tarik Black is huge right now.

Kansas also needs to figure out how to best utilize Embiid and Perry Ellis to compliment one another. Both players have proven they can score, as Ellis did on a key tying basket at the end of the game. But it still is not clear who should get the ball in various situations and who needs to be protected, (given the weaker defensive assignment), to limit fouls.

Questions abound, but with the Jayhawks level of talent and Bill Self’s streak of Big 12 championships, I am willing to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt.

Of course Kansas is not the only team with lineup issues. For North Carolina, the ideal rotation is far from clear. Based on early returns Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks seem to be playing some of the best basketball for the Tar Heels. But Johnson and Meeks have mostly been coming off the bench, and neither has been playing major minutes.

More surprisingly, Mike Krzyzewski still has not figured out the optimal rotation for Duke. Krzyzewski normally owns November and December because of his crisp early season rotations. But this year players like Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Josh Hairston have seen their roles change dramatically from game to game.

At the end of the day, that is what makes the Arizona, Syracuse, and Wisconsin’s starts so impressive. Their players already seem to know their roles and execute to their strengths. But for most teams, finding the optimal lineup is still a work in progress. 

In Season Improvement

Having said all that, short lineups are not everything. Kentucky went with a very short rotation against Baylor, (all 5 starters played over 33 minutes), and that still didn’t work. Most analysts (including me) will excuse that because of Kentucky’s exceptional youth. More importantly, John Calipari showed in 2012 that he is exceptionally good at bringing young teams along.

But is that really the right narrative? In the next table I contrast Calipari’s team’s performance in November and December to his team’s performance later in the season. (I am using Ken Pomeroy’s old non-capped adjusted margin-of-victory formula when creating these splits.)

John Calipari

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

2004 Memphis

107.5

113.6

94.8

91.5

0.7840

0.9023

2005 Memphis

99.1

113.3

91.1

93.5

0.7042

0.8780

2006 Memphis

115.9

113.1

86.4

88.4

0.9532

0.9260

2007 Memphis

109.8

119.9

84.0

88.5

0.9396

0.9571

2008 Memphis

111.7

122.1

82.0

84.3

0.9599

0.9781

2009 Memphis

106.8

116.5

80.3

83.3

0.9486

0.9689

2010 Kentucky

118.0

115.7

90.9

85.2

0.9349

0.9583

2011 Kentucky

119.4

117.9

86.7

92.0

0.9640

0.9272

2012 Kentucky

116.1

125.0

82.6

89.4

0.9706

0.9689

2013 Kentucky

110.7

111.2

86.1

97.8

0.9297

0.7882

 A few trends are clear:

-Calipari’s offenses typically play better later in the season.

-But Calipari’s defenses have frequently been at their best early in the year. This could be a concern because Kentucky’s defense has been mediocre this season. We can certainly throw out last season, as the injury to Nerlens Noel caused the defense to collapse. But based on Calipari’s track record, you cannot simply conclude that Kentucky’s defense will get better as the year goes on. The fact that Kentucky is struggling to defend pick-and-rolls now could be a bad long-term sign.

-Moreover, if the narrative was that the 2012 team got better as the year progressed and then reached national title form, that would not be correct. When it comes to overall performance (as measured by the Pyth. Winning Percentage), Kentucky’s 2012 National Title team was dominant from the start.  They started 13-1 with the loss coming by 1 point on the road at Indiana. Calipari may very well be able to get this year’s team to play better later. But Kentucky’s last national title team was dominant from the start of the year; it didn’t put things together later.

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