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Do Freshmen-Filled Teams Get Better In-Season?

The Oklahoma St. and Colorado Litmus Test

Oklahoma St. has emerged as a true national title contender this season. That the defense has always been strong has been no consideration. At one point in the first half against Colorado, Oklahoma St. forced a 10-second violation, and Colorado looked shocked that time had expired. Oklahoma St. has a sneaky way of putting you in bad positions with their lengthy defenders. And everyone knows Marcus Smart is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation. He had a steal on Spencer Dinwiddie on a fast-break in the first half, and I still have no idea how he escaped with the ball.

But the biggest reason Oklahoma St. has become a national title contender is the team’s offensive improvement. They no longer settle for so many bad three point attempts. LeBryan Nash still causes Cowboy fans to rip their hair out on occasions (his missed dunk in the final minutes led to an outlet for Colorado that almost got the Buffaloes back in the game). But Nash really has stopped taking bad outside shots. A year ago Nash was 12 of 50 from three point range. This year he has attempted just two outside shots.

Sometimes the difference between being an elite team isn’t the shots you take, it is the shots you don’t take. And that is why I was actually most closely glued on Askia Booker in this game. The Colorado junior guard has had an ORtg of 96.5, 92.9, and 96.6 the last three seasons, because he simply takes way too many low percentage shots.

And Fran Fraschilla was on him in this game from the beginning. “Booker keeps both teams in the game.” “He’s like a punt returner that never signals for a fair catch. He’s going to make some big plays but he is also going to fumble inside his 10 on a number of occasions.” “Booker has the green light even for low percentage shots. The coaches have decided to let him play his game.”

Given the emphasis on stats in the modern era, I find this a bit baffling. While Colorado should be doing everything in the team’s power to clear space for Dinwiddie and Josh Scott, for Colorado to truly reach its goals, Booker needs to cut back on his shots. Of course, this was hardly the game for Fraschilla or me to pick on Booker. Other than an early airball, and a couple puzzling turnovers, Booker mostly played within the offense on this night.

But the announcers were also quick to point out a reason for Booker’s wild shot selection. Booker often needs to take bad shots because of Colorado’s lack of depth. Colorado is actually the 15th youngest team in D1. And while that makes me extremely excited for next season, a key question is whether teams with a lot of freshmen are particularly likely to show improvement during the season.

Do freshmen-filled teams get better in-season?

I’ve written it on countless occasions. Team X is extremely young, so they will be much better later in the season. But do the stats back that up? The next table attempts to answer that question.

The Y-axis lists the change in Pythagorean Winning Percentage between the early season (before January 1st) and later (after January 1st). The X-axis lists the percentage of minutes given to freshmen.

I only include major conference teams in the table. For reference, the teams on the far right side include St. John’s in 2012, Indiana in 2009, Boston College in 2012, and Texas in 2007.

As the table shows, teams that give a lot of minutes to freshmen are not more likely to improve in-season. If that was the case, we would see more data points above zero on the right hand side of the picture.

Instead the entire table is very symmetric. Teams that give many or few minutes to freshmen sometimes get worse and sometimes get better.


This may come as a surprise, but I don’t think it should. After all, things are still going to get harder for many freshmen. They are going to play true road games for the first time. If they are lucky, they will face the bright lights of the NCAA tournament, where even super freshmen like Marcus Smart failed last year. And most importantly, the scouting reports are only going to get tougher. All those freshmen that are busting onto the scene right now, are about to find out what life is like when teams take away their favorite move.

Now, before you get too pessimistic based on this table, I think this table also shows quite a bit of reason for optimism. While the far left hand side of the picture is a little tighter (teams with almost no freshmen typically are more predictable), the truth is that virtually any roster can get better.

I always like to emphasize that Kansas forward Cole Aldrich didn’t break out until the NCAA tournament. I like to emphasize that Duke center Brian Zoubek didn’t break out until late in his senior year. The reality is that everyone playing D1 basketball is at a developmental stage of his career. These are not veteran 28-year olds. Whoever your team is, whether they are young or old, the future can still be brighter.

In fact, this is why college basketball is so fun to watch. Whatever we think we know now, given the small sample sizes, and emphasis on home games early in the season, the most important part of the season is just about to begin.

(Finally, before you write off Kansas or Kentucky based on this table, the reality is that both those teams are not terrible right now. Sure, with three losses, neither of these teams qualifies for the best-of-all-time debate. But given the large number of road and neutral games these teams have played against Top 25 teams, none of their losses is truly inexcusable. Whatever faults we attribute to Kansas’ youth, there are plenty of teams that would be jealous of the Jayhawks problems.)

Matchups Matter

We still have no idea how good Ohio St. is this year. They have a few good wins (against Marquette, Maryland, and North Dakota St.), but each of those teams has been weaker than expected. And unlike the other teams in the Top 10, Ohio St. has not scheduled many elite teams.

And after Saturday’s escape against Notre Dame, I’m still not sure we have many answers. Some folks will look at the narrow, come-from-behind victory against Notre Dame as a sign that Ohio St. is over-rated. But I don’t quite buy that. If Marquette was the ideal opponent for Ohio St., Notre Dame might be the worst possible matchup for the Buckeyes. Under Mike Brey, the Fighting Irish have been an unabashed jump-shooting team. Over the last 10 years, no team in the country depends less on dribble penetration and getting the ball in the paint to score. (See the very low turnover and free throw rate numbers annually.) But Ohio St.’s biggest strength is their ability to deny dribble penetration.

Thus if anyone was going to score against Ohio St.’s defense, it was Notre Dame.  And at times in the game, we saw just that. Late in the game, Notre Dame was up five points with 8 seconds on the shot-clock. Rather than force the ball inside, the team found Jerian Grant for a step-back three pointer that gave Notre Dame an 8 point lead. That’s the kind of shot that no defense can stop, even if Ohio St.’s defense has been one of the best in the nation.

But Ohio St. finally realized in the final minute, that if Notre Dame wasn’t going to force the action, Ohio St. needed to. Ohio St. scored and forced two straight turnovers, and within seconds, the 8 point lead was down to two. Ohio St. never let up and finished the comeback.

Even if Ohio St. didn’t prove they were an elite team, when you win the games where the matchup isn’t favorable, that’s a good sign for the long-run.

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







2005 Memphis







2006 Memphis







2007 Memphis







2008 Memphis







2009 Memphis







2010 Kentucky







2011 Kentucky







2012 Kentucky







2013 Kentucky







 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.

Click here for Page 2

In Season Improvement, Part 2

Click here for Page 1

If you are looking for a coach whose team typically does get better later in the year, look no further than Michigan head coach John Beilein. In 8 of the last 10 seasons and for six straight years, Beilein’s teams have seen their Pyth. Winning Percentage improve after the opening two months.

 John Beilein

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later

2004 West Virginia







2005 West Virginia







2006 West Virginia







2007 West Virginia







2008 Michigan







2009 Michigan







2010 Michigan







2011 Michigan







2012 Michigan







2013 Michigan







Michigan has been extremely underwhelming in its marquee games this year. But in the past John Beilein has been able to solve his team’s weaknesses, and based on his track record, it is fair to expect significant improvement.

In general, here are the Top 10 coaches at getting their teams to play better over the course of the season. (Note I am only counting seasons when coaching at a major program over the last 10 years, and including coaches with at least 4 years of data.)



Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later


Chris Mack





Mark Fox





Mike Brey

Notre Dame




John Beilein

Michigan/West Virginia




Chris Mooney

Richmond/Air Force




Shaka Smart





Kevin Stallings





Scott Drew





Fran Dunphy





John Giannini

La Salle




-Xavier’s Chris Mack is a perfect 4-for-4 at getting his team to play better later in the season.

-Michigan St.’s Tom Izzo would crack this list if not for a dreadful 2011 season. But in seven of the last 10 years, Michigan St. has improved during the year.


-The talk this season has been about Wisconsin’s increased tempo, but that appears to have been a two game mirage. While the Badgers did play fast against Green Bay and North Dakota, they have reverted to their historical norm. The Badgers currently rank 349th in the nation in average possession length on offense. And this is not just because of the Virginia game. The Badgers had fallen to 331st in the nation in average possession length before that game.

-After making 42 percent of his three point attempts last year, Georgetown’s Markel Starks has made just 25 percent of his long range shots (11 of 44), and just 39 percent of his two point baskets this year. That has put huge pressure on Georgetown’s only other scoring guard, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. When Smith-Rivera has been off, Georgetown has lost (Oregon and Northeastern) or narrowly won (Saturday against Colgate). Everyone keeps talking about how Joshua Smith needs to be more consistent, but Georgetown actually needs more consistent play from its backcourt.

-If Kansas is willing to play Colorado (who left for the Pac-12), they need to start playing Missouri again too. Sure there were a lot of hard feelings about Missouri’s departure from the Big 12, but if Kansas fans think their school would not have done the same thing, they are crazy. In the long-run, there is no reason for conference realignment to destroy regional rivalries. If we can still get our Seton Hall vs Rutgers matchups, we should still get Kansas vs Missouri.

-Bill Carmody’s Northwestern teams were notoriously bad on defense, so Northwestern fans had to be pleased to see their team hold Western Michigan to 24 percent shooting on Saturday. New head coach Chris Collins needs to upgrade the talent at Northwestern to win in the Big Ten, but if he can get the team to play defense, they can be more competitive in year one.

Early Surprises

A few weeks ago I talked about why Washington, Iowa St., Duke, Oklahoma, and Florida St. were performing better or worse than expected this year. Today I want to look at two more teams.

Santa Barbara

Preseason Projection: One of six teams competing for Big West title

Current Performance: Big West Favorite

What has happened: Santa Barbara is 3-3 which might not grab your attention, but when you look inside the numbers, Santa Barbara’s start has been quite dominant. First Santa Barbara won at UNLV by 21. Given UNLV’s struggles this season, that may not hold up as a quality win at the end of the year, but the margin on the road was impressive.

Then Alan Williams missed Santa Barbara’s next two games against Utah St. and Colorado. Williams was one of the best high volume shooters in the nation last year, and so far in 2013-14 he leads the nation in percentage of shots when on the floor. But despite missing the team’s most critical offensive piece, Santa Barbara hung tough in both games and narrowly lost to two potential NCAA tournament teams.

Williams returned for the teams win against South Dakota St. and loss at UCLA. And then the Gauchos had their most impressive performance of the year, a home win against a California team that will likely make the NCAA tournament out of the Pac-12.

3-3 might not sound that great, but the teams underlying stats have been extremely impressive. JUCO transfer Zalmico Harmon was not a Top 100 JUCO player and was not a guarantee to be an impact player. But Harmon has been a gifted passer as the part-time PG, and his ability to find players in scoring position has led to a huge jump in the team’s offense. Guard Michael Bryson has seen his ORtg jump from 92 to 108 and forward Taran Brown has seen his ORtg jump from 92 to 138. Last year Santa Barbara’s offense consisted of Williams and no one else. Now with efficient players surrounding Williams, Santa Barbara looks like a team that could make some noise in March.

Is the change permanent? Small sample sizes dictate that this could be a fluke. But the reason this feels more real is because of the difficulty of Santa Barbara’s schedule. If players like Bryson and Brown can elevate their game against power conference competition, they should be much improved in Big West play.


Preseason Projection: ACC Title Contender

Current Performance: NCAA Bubble Team

What has changed: The Cavaliers have lost their two biggest games of the season at home to VCU and Wisconsin and then went on the road and lost to Green Bay.

If you had told me Virginia lost these games before the season started, I would have assumed it was because of the team’s PG play. But as CBS Sports’ Jeff Borzello recently noted, freshman PG London Perrantes has not been the problem for the Cavs. Perrantes handled the ball better against VCU’s pressure than expected, and he was not the weak link against Wisconsin either.

The real problem is simple. Virginia was supposed to have two star players entering this year, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. And you simply are not going to beat quality teams if your star players do not play well. Against Wisconsin, Harris had his worst game in the last two years. But Mitchell’s performance this year has been even more distressing. A year ago, Mitchell was a high volume shooter and very efficient. But this year Mitchell’s shot volume has fallen from 25% to 15%, and his efficiency has dropped from 111 to 96.

Oh, and while Virginia’s defense had been dominant at home, the road trip to Green Bay resulted in Virginia’s worst defensive performance since a game against North Carolina in the middle of last season.

Is the change permanent? Harris and Mitchell will play better, and Virginia will still frustrate some quality teams in the ACC. But this team has been at its worst against quality opponents this season.

Harvard Watch Week 5

Continuing my series on an Ivy League Team on the edge of the Top 25…

Harvard missed four of its last six free throws, committed a turnover in the final minute, and nearly blew a late six-point lead against Boston University. But in OT Wesley Saunders took over and ensured that Harvard would not suffer its second defeat of the year.

Without question Saunders is the ultimate under-sized wing player. His passing is great, he crashes the offensive boards with reckless abandon, and he can create his own shot.

Harvard now has a two week break for Finals. The Harvard Watch feature will take a break with the team.

Feast Week Wrap

By almost any metric, the winner of Feast Week was the ACC. Also, notes on Scott Drew and Baylor, the turkeys of the week, Duke's defense, Harvard Watch and more.

Early Surprises And The Start Of Feast Week, Page 2

Can Michigan St. keep up its fast pace? And what teams have been playing better or worse than expected early in the year?

Early Surprises And The Start Of Feast Week, Page 1

Can Michigan St. keep up its fast pace? And what teams have been playing better or worse than expected early in the year?

Opening Weekend Thoughts

Grading Joshua Smith's defense, Oregon's transfer debuts, Harvard's returning Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, and UConn's new big men.

Final Thoughts On Ranking 351 D1 Teams

Over the past few days, Dan Hanner has presented his updated projection model, his season projections on ESPN Insider, Q&A's with Eamonn Brennon and John Templon, along with replying to questions on Twitter. Here are a few additional thoughts that didn't make the cut.

Predicting The Future: Adding A Simulation To The Lineup-Based Model

How do you take a lineup-based predictions model and make it even better? By adding a simulation and better evaluations of lower rated players.

Top College Basketball Conferences In 13-14

The ACC is eventually going to take over as the top basketball conference by just about every possible metric. If that doesnít happen this season with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, it should happen next year with the addition of Louisville.

Welcome Back, Part 2

Returning minutes are sometimes deceiving. Thatís because a number of teams will welcome back players who missed all or nearly all of last season. Letís take a look at some of those players such as Andre Dawkins, Anthony Brown, Malcolm Brogdon and Drew Crawford.

Five Advantages Of College Sports

The start of the college calendar also seems like a good time to wax nostalgically about the joys of college sports. Today, we present some of the advantages of college football and basketball relative to the pro sports.

Diamonds In The Rough

While nothing about recruiting is certain, and while some coaches can overcome recruiting inadequacies, the numbers are fairly clear. When it comes to finding superstars and quality rotation players, the odds of success are much higher the more quality recruits a program brings in.

Winning The Summer: The Oregon Transfer Upgrade

It looked like Oregon wouldn't be able to build upon its outstanding 12-13 season until Dana Altman hit on several transfers to boost their projected offense from 101. to 106.8.

Star Ratings (In Depth)

Sometimes we see enough players fail to develop and wonder if the recruiting rankings really matter. And while a players potential is far from the only thing that matters, there is no question that a players work ethic and athleticism is on display at the high school level. Recruiting rankings matter, and not just for the Top 100.

Freshmen Playing Time Part 2

Given a sophomore and freshmen with equivalent stats, how much less will the freshmen play for each major conference coach?

Freshmen Playing Time Part 1

Which coaches are willing to give freshmen a chance and which coaches make freshmen ride the pine?

Reaction To ESPN's Draft Night Coverage

While the fans booing Adam Silver for the first time, Hakeem Olajuwon making a guest appearance, the hats that didnít fit, and the flags hidden under suit coats were amusing, there were really three things that made this draft more enjoyable than usual.

NBA Draft Candidates By The Numbers

In preparation for the NBA Draft, we examine several advanced statistical categories to determine which players stand out both good or bad to help solidify our opinions on their strengths and weaknesses.

Big East Basketball Early Projection

Whether the Big East is a strong conference or a weak conference depends somewhat on the question. While the top of the league lacks national title contenders, the league has more depth than most of the other elite leagues.

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