In the offseason many of college basketball's elite underclassmen surprised the nation when they decided to stay in college instead of joining the NBA ranks. With so many future lottery picks returning to college this year, many observers believe the 2011-12 season could be one of the most competitive and entertaining campaigns seen in years. It also means that the teams welcoming back the most talent have already been anointed as clear-cut national title contenders. The list most often has included North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State, though there are a host of teams with star-power and experience that could be in the mix as well.
Given that many of these contenders return so much talent, I thought it might be useful to determine which players on those teams were the best performers in crunch time last year. This information could then be used to help pinpoint the individuals who might be most effective in 2011-12, a year that is sure to feature many tight battles. To my knowledge no one collects crunch-time stats in college basketball the way 82 games.com does for the pros. A college basketball fan, then, has very few avenues for learning about players' clutch ability. Though there are a few different ways to determine player effectiveness in late-game situations, I have developed my own method called a "Clutch Gauge," which is easily digested with the help of some graphs.
In order for a game to join my Clutch Gauge dataset, it must meet two standards. First, there must be under four minutes left in the game. Second, there must be no more than eight points separating the teams in the game. Overtime is also included. I selected the "under four" timeframe because this is when the last media timeout occurs, and it is presumed the players re-entering the game at this point are a team's most significant contributors. The "plus-or-minus eight points" framework is more of a judgment call than magic science.
From here, a player's effectiveness in clutch opportunities is determined by points per weighted shot, a measure explained in more detail here. The higher a player's points per weighted shot, the better. I also calculate a player's shot percentage to see how often he is relied upon in these late-game scenarios. Using play-by-play sheets from 2010-11 conference and postseason games, I developed Clutch Gauge graphs that plot PPWS against Shot Percentage for individual players. The graphs are separated into quadrants that can tell us a bit about a player's role in crunch time as well as his effectiveness in said role:
A) Players in this quadrant are those who have proven to be very clutch in limited opportunities. These are guys who might be called upon to play an increased role in crunch time this season.
B) Players here have failed to perform in their limited chances during crunch time.
C) The players occupying this quadrant are the best performers in the clutch. They are able to score effectively while using a high percentage of shots.
D) The worst of the bunch. These individuals take a lot of shots in crunch time despite the fact they have not proven to be very clutch.
Given these parameters, let's look at some graphs. The aforementioned trio of preseason favorites -- Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio State -- is examined in addition to Vanderbilt and Syracuse, two teams returning almost all of their contributors from a year ago.
Kentucky is the one team in this group that will welcome a number of new recruits who will likely use a high percentage of shots in crunch time -- and that's probably for the better! The Wildcats need to reload after losing Brandon Knight, the only player besides Terrence Jones who was an effective clutch performer in 2010-11. The need for talented "closers" is even more pressing when one considers that Jones' placement in quadrant "C" is largely a result of his early-season dominance rather than season-long consistency. Check out this bonus graph featuring a split of regular season and post season performances by Knight and Jones.
These players were engaged in a dramatic role reversal. Jones was Kentucky's go-to man in clutch situations for much of conference play before becoming a non-factor in post season games. Knight gladly picked up the slack and became a bona fide "finisher" during the NCAA tournament. He parlayed his magical March performance into a spot in the NBA draft lottery, while Jones opted to return to school for another year of grooming. It would surely benefit the team if Jones could recapture the confidence he had in crunch time during Kentucky's early conference games a season ago.
Not only does North Carolina possess one of basketball's best closers in Harrison Barnes, it also has a number of players who proved they could perform in the clutch despite limited opportunities. Tyler Zeller was the best of this bunch as he recorded a 1.45 PPWS while using about 19 percent of shots. Kendall Marshall also performed admirably in crunch time. His placement in quadrant "C" is largely a result of his propensity to get to the free throw line late in the game. He had a free throw rate of 65 percent in these situations as compared to 46 percent in all games. The growth in his rate could be explained by opponents committing intentional fouls when trailing late in a close game, but it doesn't take away from the fact that he connected on 78 percent of those shots.
The Tar Heels should be in good shape with these guys returning, and that's before fully considering the impact made by Barnes in crunch time: 1.44 PPWS with a 28 percent shot percentage. His raw numbers are just as impressive: 6-of-10 on two-pointers and 9-of-17 on three-pointers. No other player among those studied here impresses quite like Barnes.
When the game was on the line it never hurt Ohio State to simply throw the ball to Jared Sullinger on the low block. If he didn't connect on the close-range bucket, then he would have most likely been fouled. Sullinger shot a whopping 30 free throws in these scenarios, and he made all but six of them. As a result, he is rightly positioned at one of the highest points possible in quadrant "C."
The rest of the crunch-time burden was shared equally among the regular Buckeye rotation. Unfortunately, a number of those players have since graduated, and very few of the returners have even attempted a shot in a clutch situation. Even more worrisome is where William Buford is placed on the chart. As a junior he was rather ineffective when called upon late in close games, especially from beyond the arc where he went 0-for-6. As great as Sullinger projects to be, it's unlikely that he alone could propel the Buckeyes in tense, late-game battles. Aaron Craft offers some hope, though he rarely created his own shot, as 17 of his 19 points came from the free throw line. While it always helps to have guys who can sink free throws under pressure, Ohio State will also need some playmakers to emerge to help Sullinger.
The award for Most Surprising Clutch Performer goes to John Jenkins. While the junior guard has received his fair share of praise, it's probably not a stretch to say that you've never seen him grouped alongside Harrison Barnes or Jared Sullinger. Yet when we look at his performance in late-game situations, those players are his peers. The problem for Vanderbilt is that none of Jenkins' teammates have proven particularly effective in crunch-time. As The Mikan Drill illustrated in a piece over the summer, the Commodore offense often stalled when Jenkins was unable to get open. Seniors Brad Tinsley, Festus Ezeli, and Jeffery Taylor have each taken their fair share of late-game shots, but none of them have been especially effective. For Vanderbilt to achieve the kind of success it believes is possible this season, its most experienced players will need to do better than average in these clutch opportunities.
Syracuse is a team many think can contend for a national title in 2011-12 because it returns much of its core and welcomes a few heralded recruits. Through the lens of the Clutch Gauge, though, it's clear the Orangemen still need to do some refining, especially from beyond the arc. In crunch-time scenarios the Syracuse players shown here went 2-for-25 on their three-point attempts. The worst offender of the bunch was Brandon Triche, who was 0-for-9 from downtown. Triche should have put more effort into getting fouled because he was a perfect 14-for-14 on free throws.
Scoop Jardine is the only player studied who definitively fits into quadrant "D," which means he was ineffective and shot more than any player on the team. The one bright spot comes in the form of the duo of Baye Moussa Keita and C.J. Fair. These forwards fared well in crunch time when given an opportunity, which wasn't all that often. Now that Rick Jackson is gone they could each play a bigger role, and the evidence suggests they have the potential to perform adequately in such a role. Much-maligned center Fab Melo, not pictured in the chart, could also be a factor late in games. Though he only took two shots, he made them both!
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