What Nebraska did well: Embrace change.
This season it's expected that first-year coaches Jeff Bzdelik, John Beilein and Todd Lickliter will install perimeter-oriented offenses at their new schools (Colorado, Michigan, and Iowa, respectively). If this indeed comes to pass, the three first-year coaches should all take a close look at the season Nebraska had last year, for was a dramatic example of a new regime making a radical change in offensive style. Under new coach Doc Sadler--Sadler was hired just 66 days before the first game--the Cornhusker offense went from vanilla in 2006 to an extreme perimeter-oriented look, launching far more shots from beyond the arc than any other team in the conference. The change in philosophy was all but dictated by the personnel on hand, as 6'11" Aleks Maric played the vast majority of his minutes as the only Husker on the floor over 6'4". So Nebraska shot threes.
Indeed, the Cornhusker offense improved a little, due primarily to the fact that their turnovers decreased significantly. Still, "improvement" is a relative term: even a new and improved Nebraska offense ranked just 10th in the Big 12 last year, above only Colorado and Iowa State.
What we learned in 2007: Twos may be even more important than threes in a perimeter-oriented offense.
The Huskers paid the price for playing a perimeter-oriented attack last year: they recorded next to no offensive rebounds. Sadler's men got to fewer than one in four of their own misses in conference games, far and away the worst results on the offensive glass of any Big 12 team. True, that's to be expected when more than 45 percent of your shots are threes. Beilein-era West Virginia teams and Bzdelik-era Air Force teams, to take two examples, had some of the worst offensive rebounding percentages in the entire nation, but they were notably efficient on offense anyway because they never turned the ball over and they shot so well on their (relatively infrequent) twos. Neither description--low turnover percentage, high 2FG percentage--really applied in Lincoln last year. Yes, turnovers declined markedly under Sadler, but mostly because Nebraska in 2006 was so strikingly inept at holding on to the ball. The decline in giveaways merely brought NU back down around the conference average, where teams cough up the ball on about one in every five possessions.
If the Huskers' offensive rebounding was anemic by choice, their interior shooting was woeful by chance. Nebraska made just 45 percent of their twos against Big 12 opponents, making them one of the worst two-point shooting teams in the conference. Don't blame Maric, whose 2FG percentage was fine; two-point shots attempted by anyone else were good news for opponents. Sadler knew it and gave his players a green light from the perimeter.
One more thing to note about the 2007 Cornhuskers--this was the slowest team in the Big 12, a hair slower than Oklahoma in-conference. (Again, this is a little like what Bzdelik's teams at Air Force looked like: few possessions, many threes.) The relatively low number of points allowed by Nebraska thus reflected Sadler's deliberate offense much more than any defensive prowess, as opponents shot a lot of threes and made 39 percent of them. In fact the NU defense was markedly worse last year (giving up 1.07 points per possession during conference play) than in 2006 (1.02). Just Baylor, Colorado and Oklahoma State were more permissive on D.
What's in store for 2008: Nebraska and Iowa State share some similarities these days. Both Sadler and Cyclone coach Greg McDermott arrived at their new postings in rather abrupt fashion after the 2006 season, both were forced to coach their way through undermanned first years by shooting a ton of threes, and both have casts of thousands arriving this year.
Sadler will welcome as many as nine new players this season, five of them junior college transfers. More bodies will give Sadler more options, surely, but here's the thing: in the rigidly formulaic literary genre known as the invariably euphoric signing-day press release, Sadler sounded really subdued about this group in November. "For us to get started as late as we did," he said, "I am pleased with the quality of this recruiting class overall. Obviously we will continue with each class to try to make our team better every year. With the addition of these players next season, we will have made a dent in improving the Nebraska basketball program for the future." Whoa, curb your enthusiasm, coach. In January, Sadler landed 6'8" USC transfer Jeremy Barr (eligible at the end of NU's fall semester) and then in the spring he signed 6'5" Ade Dagunduro (another juco) and 6'6" Toney McCray. Still, Sadler's coach-speak suggests any discussion of this team should start with the veterans.
As a current Nebraska resident who was born in Australia to Serbian parents, Aleks Maric represents a two-generation geographic ricochet that few families can match. More importantly for current purposes, he and Al Horford were the two best defensive rebounders in major-conference basketball last year. In Maric's case, part of that can be attributed to really short teammates; unlike Horford he didn't have Joakim Noah battling him for the credit on any of those defensive boards. Still, Maric's defensive rebound percentage is extreme enough (27.0) to reflect an underlying reality: he's simply a beast on the defensive glass. On offense, the underlying reality is a little less clear. Maric scored a lot of points (including 41 against Kansas State) because he shot more frequently than anyone in the Big 12 not named Kevin Durant. How efficient he, and his team, can truly be with a more balanced offensive scheme is yet to be determined. If he gets some help this year, we may find out.
Three freshman guards saw big minutes for Nebraska last year: Ryan Anderson, Sek Henry and Jay-R Strowbridge. A little like Roderick Wilmont last year at Indiana, Anderson is a 6'4" shooting guard who was forced into guarding the opposing team's four much of the time in 2007. Like Wilmont, Anderson was surprisingly effective, posting a better defensive rebound percentage than Darrell Arthur or Joseph Jones, to name two much larger Big 12 players with much bigger names. Anderson also made 43 percent of his threes, so keep an eye on him. As for Henry, his shots were rare and it was a good thing. Aside from the now-departed Charles Richardson, Henry was Sadler's most hapless shooter. Strowbridge was even more hesitant with his shots than Henry was. All of the above are referred to as combo guards, meaning, in this case, none of them has demonstrated a particular ability to record assists. If Sadler can find a point (or true combo) guard among the arriving mob, that might help.
What Oklahoma did well: Bank enough bad luck to see them through the next five years.
Oklahoma certainly looked like they fell off sharply last year. After going 11-5 in the Big 12 in Kelvin Sampson's final season, the Sooners dropped all the way to 6-10 in 2007 under first-year coach Jeff Capel. This decline did not appear to be terribly surprising. After all, Sampson's departure deprived OU of its incoming McDonald's All-American, Scottie Reynolds (who chose to play at Villanova in the wake of the regime change in Norman). So Capel's team soldiered through the conference season with just nine healthy scholarship players. Sure enough, the Sooners seemed to fade down the stretch, losing their last six regular-season games. (Part of that was scheduling: their home games in that stretch were against Kansas, Texas A&M and Texas, the three best teams in the conference.)
Open and shut, right? An overmatched team struggled in a new coach's first year. What else is new? Just this:
Oklahoma outscored their conference opponents by 26 points over 16 games, and went 6-10.
That's beyond mere "bad luck." That's something much weirder. Either the Sooners went all out to pad the score in those rare games they were winning anyway, or there were nine little voodoo dolls in tiny OU uniforms somewhere in the world last year. Consider: Kansas State last year outscored their Big 12 opponents by all of 35 points, meaning the Wildcats were only about half a point better per game than the Sooners. K-State went 10-6. No other major-conference team in the country had less luck in their league than did Oklahoma last year. They're due to catch a few breaks.
What we learned in 2007: If you do everything pretty well but you're preternaturally unlucky (see above) and you can't make shots, this is what you look like.
To a certain extent you make your own luck, and Capel's team certainly didn't do themselves any favors in that seminal basketball activity known as getting the ball into the basket. If the Sooners had just made some shots they could have made some noise last year, even as thin as they were. Their defense was fair (a hair better than in 2006, actually) and their perimeter D was excellent. But OU couldn't score, either from inside or outside. Only Iowa State was more futile in their shooting from the field in the Big 12 last year. So while the defense, perhaps surprisingly, stayed where it had been under Sampson, losing longtime stalwarts Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray put a dent in this offense. Only a newfound ability to hold on to the ball (kudos to the now departed Nate Carter) prevented an even more significant decline on offense.
What's in store for 2008: Capel and his Sooners were historically unlucky last year. (This assumes good faith on the part of Oklahoma in the very few games they'd put away. Absent that, disregard the whole paragraph.) Looking toward 2008, then, OU could be exactly as good as they were last year and see their record improve markedly. Their level of performance in-conference last year (scoring 1.03 points per possession, allowing 1.00) would usually net out to something in the neighborhood of a 9-7, not a 6-10. So it's entirely possible the Sooners could stay right where they are in terms of performance and pick up those three or so additional wins. If OU can fill the hole left by the departure of last year's best offensive player (Carter) and improve at least a little, then their record would improve even more, reflecting both a better team and better (i.e., normal) luck. Oklahoma is well positioned to be the nation's least surprising surprise team.
This year, the Sooners will welcome McDonald's All-American Blake Griffin, a 6'10" power forward from Oklahoma City and the younger brother of 6'7" OU junior Taylor Griffin. The younger Griffin is said to possess a nice combination of skills in a Big 12-ready body. Griffin will join a front line that includes Longar Longar, a 6'11" senior best known nationally for the two-game suspension he served last year following his textbook with-ball elbow-sweep against Texas Tech. Longar is both Capel's best defensive rebounder and his best shot blocker. He also hits the offensive glass and makes 55 percent of his twos.
The two Griffins, Longar, 6'8" sophomore Keith Clark (who missed the conference season with a knee injury) and 6'9" junior Ryan Wright (a transfer from UCLA) need to improve on last year's interior D. This is a good defensive rebounding team, but one without any particularly fearsome shot-blockers. Big 12 opponents made 48 percent of their twos against the Sooners. That's not awful, but it was still the weak link in an otherwise good defense. Part of this appears to have been fatigue. During Oklahoma's season-ending six-game losing streak, opponents made more than half of their twos. It's been a long time since the paint in the Lloyd Noble Center was that hospitable to opposing offenses.
In the backcourt, Tony Crocker hit 36 percent of his threes last year as a freshman, making him the Sooners' best perimeter shooter. Crocker's backcourt mate Austin Johnson functioned as OU's de facto point guard last year and did all right. (The 6'3" junior was certainly the only OU player last year who was any threat to record an assist.) Still, with a host of new backcourt recruits arriving this year, Johnson may get an opportunity to see what he can do off the ball. Senior David Godbold had a rough year shooting the ball, though he was Capel's best bet for coming up with a steal.
One definite need on offense is for Capel to find some more perimeter shooting. Oklahoma didn't attempt many threes last year and that won't change this year. It's simply a matter of keeping opposing defenses honest. As it happens, Blake Griffin's fellow newcomers in this year's recruiting class are all guards and wings. Freshmen Tony Neysmith (from greater Atlanta) and Cade Davis (Elk City, Okla.) are both 6'5"; Davis in particular functioned as a scorer in high school. In May, Capel signed Omar Leary, a point guard who earned junior college All-American honors last year at Northeastern (CO) JC, where he shot 44 percent on his threes and 80 percent from the line. That's a nice look on paper and, as a 5'10" guard in Norman, Leary is of course already being compared to Drew Lavender. If the comparison turns out to have merit that would be ideal for Capel and for Oklahoma fans.
What Oklahoma State did well: Mystify.
After a humbling 2006, last year was to be the year that Oklahoma State was "back." If not back to 2004-level eminence, when they went to the Final Four, then certainly back to 2005-level prominence, when they lost a one-point heartbreaker to Arizona in the Sweet 16. Indeed as late as the second week in January, all was right with the Cowboy world in 2007, as Sean Sutton's team was 15-1 and ranked number 10 in the nation.
Then the roof fell in. A team that had lost just two of its top eight players and that returned leading scorers JamesOn Curry and Mario Boggan, somehow went 6-10 in the Big 12 for the second consecutive season. More curious still, despite the identical records their performance was actually worse last year than in 2006. Much worse, in fact: allowing Big 12 opponents 1.09 points per possession while notching only a point per trip themselves, the Cowboys were, if anything, lucky to go 6-10. What happened?
What we learned in 2007: An improved offense isn't the same thing as an improved team.
On January 10, the tenth-ranked Cowboys took a 15-1 record to Lawrence and lost by 30 to Kansas. There's no shame in losing at Allen Fieldhouse, surely, but allowing the Jayhawks 87 points in a 74-possession game turned out to be something of an omen for this team.
Next was the triple-OT 105-103 win over Texas in Stillwater. An instant classic, sure, but another instance in which an OSU opponent easily scored more than a point per possession. As it turned out, it wouldn't be the last such instance. In fact it would happen 12 more times over the next 14 games. Even though the Cowboys' offense was a little better than in 2006, then, it didn't matter. They couldn't stop anybody. OSU suffered a total defensive collapse last year.
True, Sutton's team improved noticeably last year on the defensive glass. The problem is, there were no defensive boards available. There were too few misses, as Big 12 opponents made nearly half of their twos and almost 41 percent of their threes against the Cowboys. Only Baylor and Colorado allowed conference opponents to shoot better from the field. This was attributed after the fact to a lack of depth. Losing senior guard Jamaal Brown in November due to unspecified infractions certainly didn't make this team any deeper. Then again, the 2006 team had a similar distribution of minutes and they didn't collapse late in the year.
Maybe the strangest part of a strange season, though, was the fact that this team included Marcus Dove who, along with Mario Chalmers, was co-Big 12 Defensive POY last year. So here's an outstanding defender playing for one of the three worst defenses in the conference. (Again, Baylor and Colorado being the other two.) Just imagine if OSU hadn't had Dove. Wait, we almost got to find outů.
What's in store for 2008: Dove was suspended "indefinitely" on July 16 after he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. A few days later he was charged with aggravated drunken driving when results from a breath test revealed a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.23. Dove was reinstated to the team in mid-October. Even if Dove had been unavailable for some length of time, however, the offense wouldn't have suffered. Last year he had one of the lowest numbers for possessions used of any major-conference starter in the nation. His teammates apparently had standing instructions not to let Dove so much as touch the ball on offense. That may be wise: last year he turned the ball over at a rate matched by very few players nationally.
Dove wasn't the only Cowboy player who had a tumultuous offseason. Junior wing Terrel Harris was arrested in May for allegedly trying to use a fake ID. Harris is a pure three-point shooter; "pure" in this case meaning his 2FG percentage was frightful and he coughed the ball up a lot. Nevertheless he hit 42 percent of his threes working on the periphery of the Curry/Boggan offensive nucleus. He was outstanding as a spot-up catch-and-shoot specialist.
Continuing the trend set by Harris, sophomore guard Obi Muonelo was arrested in June in a Stillwater bar for being underage. This unscheduled meet-and-greet with local law enforcement officials capped an eventful year for the young Cowboy. Muonelo broke his leg in practice in December and returned in March, whereupon he had his best game (24 points) on the occasion of what was arguably his team's worst game, a 12-point road loss to Nebraska. (OSU allowed a singularly underwhelming Husker offense to ring up a whopping 1.36 points per possession in this Monday night make-up game tacked on to the end of the season due to a weather-related January postponement.) The lone backcourt veteran who has steered clear of such trouble would appear to be point guard Byron Eaton. The 5'11" junior, who suffered a separated shoulder in late October but is expected back in a couple weeks, has reportedly shed some pounds and is far and away Sutton's best distributor of the ball. Granted, too often those distributions go to the other team in the form of a turnover.
On the bright side, Sutton landed himself a McDonald's All-American this year: James Anderson, a 6'6" wing from Junction City, Ark. Anderson chose OSU over Florida and Kentucky, and is reputed to be one of those proverbial drive-or-hit-the-three offensive threats. In addition to Anderson, Sutton is bringing in no fewer than six other new players this year. Two who may get some minutes are Martavius Adams, a bulky 6'8" freshman, and 6'6" junior college transfer Anthony Brown. Both are billed as power forwards who can score.
The newcomers will likely get more minutes than previously thought: in September, 6'10" junior Kenny Cooper announced his decision to transfer. Ibrahima Thomas, a 6'11" freshman from Senegal, may be another option down low, but even if Cooper had returned defensive boards were going to be a concern this season for the Cowboys. Last year's team improved in this area over 2006 only because of good work on the defensive glass turned in by Boggan and by David Monds. Both are long gone, so Oklahoma State will enter the season as a defensively suspect team that's lost its two best defensive rebounders. Stay tuned.
What Texas did well: Score.
The Texas offense was a thing of beauty in 2007, one of the two or three best offenses in the nation. Even more incredible, this offense was actually better than that of the Longhorns' much more experienced 2006 Elite Eight team. Never mind their youth. The Horns in 2007 were that good, scoring 1.17 points per possession against the Big 12.
Not that this will come as any surprise, you can thank Kevin Durant for that.
What we learned in 2007: Not a thing.
If by "learned" we mean "gaining some insight that can be applied to future teams," I'm not sure there was really anything to be gleaned from this group last year. Texas in 2007 may well have been sui generis. Goodness knows their best player was.
Durant's profile should have spelled trouble for his team. A freshman taking this many shots (Alando Tucker was the only major-conference player in the nation last year who shot more frequently) and gobbling up this many of his team's possessions (only fellow Big 12 players Mike Taylor and Aleks Maric played larger roles in their teams' offenses) is virtually synonymous with spectacular inefficiency. In fact, Durant's prominence in his team's offense as a freshman was all but an open invitation for a ton of turnovers and a fusillade of missed shots. It happens every year to thin teams all over the country.
Instead, Durant took that profile and nonchalantly turned it on its head. He never turned the ball over, despite having those weak little arms that can't bench 185. This was perhaps the single least noted aspect of the single most striking player in the country. Maybe even more noteworthy than the fact that, in addition to everything else, this was a 6'9" freshman who made 40 percent of his threes.
Durant's iron grip on the ball gave rise to an offense whose beauty was admittedly more cumulative than obvious. This team didn't shoot as quite well as Kansas, nor did they fare nearly as well as the Jayhawks (or Baylor or Oklahoma or Kansas State) on the offensive glass. What they did was hold on to the ball. Texas gave the rock away just 18 percent of the time in-conference. Possession after possession, they kept coming and they got off a shot, and the shots went in.
Yes, there were other players last year, a very few, who played equally large roles within their team's offenses and who were just as efficient as Durant (grizzled veterans like Nick Fazekas and Al Thornton). Durant, conversely, put a top-25 team on his back at age 18 and played with such sublime efficiency as to make his team's offense one of the best in the country. If there's anything to be learned there, it's merely that when confronted with the smugly insistent gravitational pull of tendencies, averages and probabilities, once in a great while a special player can achieve escape velocity. Durant did.
What's in store for 2008: Last year, Texas was poetry in motion on offense. The flip side of that, however, is that despite some very good interior defense (Big 12 opponents made less than 45 percent of their twos), the Longhorns somehow went from being an outstanding defensive team in 2006 to being a pretty bad one in 2007. How can this be?
Everything else on D trended in the wrong direction for Rick Barnes' young team. Even though Durant was one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation, for example, the Longhorns' numbers on the defensive glass fell off a cliff. Opponent turnovers became almost as scarce as Texas turnovers. The Horns played two guards under 6'0", each of whom was on the floor more than 85 percent of the time last year. That yielded tremendous returns on offense, but there was a price to be paid on D: conference opponents made 39 percent of their threes.
Can this defense improve in 2008? Sure. It'll require more defensive boards and more turnovers from opponents. Mere respectability in these areas will do nicely because this offense, foreordained to fall off at least a little, is still going to be pretty good this year.
You don't often see a 5'11" shooting guard playing for a top-25 team, but junior A.J. Abrams has flourished in this offense. He shot more threes than any other Longhorn, made 42 percent of them, and never turned the ball over. On the other hand, Abrams missed a lot of twos last year. It was virtually the only blemish on this team's offense in 2007.
Abrams' backcourt mate, 5'11" point guard D.J. Augustin, had an excellent freshman season last year, posting one of the highest assist rates in the nation and hitting 44 percent of his (infrequent) threes. (Pity 6'2" wing Justin Mason, who made "only" 40 percent of his threes last year as a freshman, bringing up the rear in that department behind Augustin, Abrams, and Durant.) Moreover, Augustin's quite adept at getting himself to the line, where he's an 84 percent shooter. Depth at the point was to have been supplied by 6'1" freshman Dogus Balbay. However, the veteran of the U-18 Turkish national team underwent knee surgery on October 30 and will be out of action "indefinitely."
Barnes has enough faith in Abrams and Augustin that this year's recruiting class consisted of just Balbay and three power forwards. Incoming freshman Gary Johnson was thought to have a good shot at the starting four slot until a previously undetected heart condition put his status in doubt. (Johnson was cleared to practice on October 11. A decision on whether he will be allowed to play should be forthcoming.) With the two remaining recruits, 6'10" Clint Chapman and 6'7" Alexis Wangmene, Barnes may get to engage in some offense/defense situational substitution. Chapman, after a workout with former Longhorn Royal Ivey, was nicknamed "the black hole" for swallowing all incoming passes. Wangmene, conversely, is reputed to be more of a defense-and-rebounding type. The two freshmen will join veterans Damion James and Connor Atchley on the front line. James, a 6'7" sophomore, is this team's best post-Durant defensive rebounder, while Atchley, a 6'10" junior, blocks shots. Still another option down low will be newly-svelte 6'10" sophomore Dexter Pittman. This may not be a terribly deep team but Barnes has done well with similar levels of depth. (Even the talent-rich 2006 team featured, in effect, a six-man rotation.) Don't cry for him just yet.
What Texas A&M did well: Fool people.
Somehow, the notion got around last year that Billy Gillispie had created some kind of fundamentally sound old-school defensive monster in College Station. Who knows, maybe he did. It just so happens, though, that that wasn't the big news about this team in 2007.
Sure, the Aggies' defense was good, the second-best in the conference behind Kansas'. (It was a long way behind; no one in the Big 12 was even in the same zip code as the Jayhawks when it came to defense last year.) The thing is, in conference play A&M's offense was even better than its defense. Significantly better. Why this would come as a surprise is anyone's guess. This is, after all, a team that made 43 percent of its threes in-conference.
What we learned in 2007: The same coach and the same players can look a lot different year to year.
You know those feel-good profiles you see at halftime where a coach and his veteran players talk about how their team has "really come together," "bought into the system" and "come a long way"? A harried TV producer looking around feverishly for a last-minute topic could have done one of those pieces about the Aggies' offense last year and it actually would have been (gasp!) supported by the facts.
Texas A&M entered last season having lost just one of its top seven players. When pretty much "everyone's back," fans expect that their team will improve. What does that improvement really consist of? To take an example from a different conference, Wisconsin also lost just one of its top seven players going into last year, and they improved a little bit on both sides of the ball, thus improving a lot overall. The Badgers' experience reflected what we would suspect as a matter of course: when everybody stays, your team just gets better at everything it does.
Not so with the Aggies. Gillispie's team registered its improvement in a much different manner. Their defense stayed right where it was year to year, but their offense went through the roof, going from scoring just 0.99 points per possession in the Big 12 in 2006 to 1.13 points per trip last year. Even more intriguing, Texas A&M changed the way they played offense. The Aggies went from shooting a normal number of threes in 2006 to shooting them next to never in 2007. Yet when they did launch a three last year it went in. (Note that A&M was thus the precise opposite of a perimeter-oriented team that shoots twos very rarely but very well.) In this respect, Acie Law was Texas A&M in miniature: just 19 percent of his shots last year were threes, but his accuracy on all his shots improved significantly.
Most importantly, Gillispie's players held on to the ball, giving it away just 17 percent of the time in-conference, even as they shot fewer threes. (One might think less activity outside the arc and more work in the paint would lead to more turnovers. Not this time.) I'm not sure how much of this--altering a team's offensive style to capitalize on the specific skills of a particular group of players--reflects brilliant coaching by Gillispie and how much reflects the good fortune of a team that simply had a great year shooting the rock, but the results were undeniably impressive. I'm going to keep an eye on Gillispie at Kentucky.
What's in store for 2008: New coach Mark Turgeon said goodbye to Wichita State and now finds that, even without Acie Law, the cupboard is pretty full in College Station. In fact, the overall talent level here might be even higher than it was a year ago: the Aggies could see three of their players (DeAndre Jordan, Josh Carter and Joseph Jones) drafted next June. If there's a question with this admittedly talented team, though, it's with the offense. You don't have to believe in Law's assist totals in order to note that a good deal of A&M's offense did indeed go through him last year. He took the ball inside and made good things happen. Turgeon's first task this year will be to find a new catalyst, or catalysts, for those good things.
Jordan, like fellow Big 12 freshman Michael Beasley of Kansas State, is projected to be a first-round pick next June. More so than Beasley, though, the 7'0", 260-pound Jordan can help his team greatly without being its leading scorer on any given night. That's good, because Jordan's offense is reportedly "developing." That should be fine with Turgeon just as long as Jordan can keep Texas A&M where it's been the past couple of years defensively. Last year, the Aggies' interior defense and its work on the defensive glass were both outstanding. The former was accomplished without any shot blocking to speak of; the latter was due almost entirely to the presence of Jones and the now departed Antanas Kavaliauskas. The combination of Jones and Jordan promises to be just as good, if not better, in both categories. Note also that 6'9" Bryan Davis gave hints of being an absolute defensive monster in limited minutes last year as a freshman. Disastrous shooting and, worse, astonishingly frequent turnovers quite rightly kept him on the bench. If he can merely net out to neutral on offense, he can make a significant contribution to this team, for he both blocks shots and pulls down defensive boards.
In addition to being a good, though not great, defensive rebounder, Jones proved himself to be an efficient scorer last year, posting an effective FG percentage for A&M second only to that of Josh Carter, who is a veritable freak of shooting nature. One more thing for your Jones file: the senior is an oddly reliable FT shooter for his size, hitting 78 percent from the line. Opposing teams shouldn't assume they can foul him late just because he's 6'9", 255.
Carter was indeed freakish in his shooting last year, hitting 50 percent of his numerous threes and posting one of the best effective FG percentages of any major-conference player in the nation. Granted, that's pretty much it as far as what the 6'7" junior brings to the table. Then again, a 50 percent three-point shooter who hangs on to the ball doesn't exactly have to be a renaissance man to help his team win games. That'll do right there.
In the backcourt, 6'4" senior Dominique Kirk and 6'3" sophomore Donald Sloan will try to navigate the transition from acting as Law's supporting cast to being main players. Kirk would appear to be yet another accurate A&M shooter, though truth be known, he hardly ever had to shoot last year. Sloan, as the non-Law Aggie most likely to record an assist last year, stands to benefit most from the unique assist-recording criteria evidently employed of late at the scorer's table in College Station.
What Texas Tech did well: Amaze and confound.
How did Texas Tech make the NCAA tournament? Here is a team, after all, that was outscored by its opponents in Big 12 play. A team that lost to Baylor. A team (brace yourself) that lost to Nebraska. At home. What exactly did the selection committee see here?
They probably saw a team that won at home against Kansas and on the road against Texas A&M. The Raiders almost certainly needed both of those wins to get in. Also bear in mind that Tech posted a two-point win on the road against Iowa State on the last day of the season. They likely needed that as well.
(Note how the selection committee manifestly recognized the relative weakness of the Big 12 North. Kansas State went 10-6 last year playing every team in the North home and away. The Raiders meanwhile went 9-7 playing every team in the South home and away. On March 9 the Wildcats beat Tech by 21 points on a neutral floor in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals. Two days later, Bob Knight's team went dancing; K-State went to the NIT. Ouch.)
What we learned in 2007: Holding on to the ball isn't glamorous, but it does mean more points.
Texas Tech eked out a tournament bid by taking care of the ball, plain and simple. This represented a big change in this team from 2006 and, as it turned out, the Red Raiders needed every last turnover-less possession in 2007.
After an oddly un-Knight-like season in which Tech turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions in-conference, the Raiders regrouped last year in emphatic fashion, giving the ball away on just 17 percent of their trips. No team in the Big 12 did a better job of holding on to the ball in-conference in 2007. For that, Tech fans can thank the now departed Jarrius Jackson, who posted one of the lowest turnover percentages in the nation. If Michigan running back Mike Hart, he who legendarily never fumbles, were a Big 12 basketball player, he'd be Jackson.
Primarily because of this decline in turnovers, Tech's offense improved significantly last year, scoring 1.05 points per possession in the Big 12. That was vital because the Raiders' defense simultaneously fell off in 2007, going from average to borderline poor. Moreover, the problem on D was obvious: opponents were enjoying sudden and pronounced success on their twos. Every other defensive measure actually improved a little. Maybe Knight recognized this and had his undersized defenders invite threes instead, for Big 12 opponents last year unmistakably devoted a larger share of their shots to attempts from beyond the arc than in 2006. Regardless, more attempted threes from opponents only lessened the severity of the problem for a defense that performed below the conference average. (Who knew Dior Lowhorn was so important? OK, maybe he wasn't. Still, the 6'7" small forward who transferred to the University of San Francisco after the 2006 season was indeed Knight's best shot blocker. Of course, had he still been in Lubbock last year opponents likely would have feasted in the paint anyway.)
What's in store for 2008: Looking ahead from the admittedly murky present of the preseason, there are a number of factors stacked against this team. For one thing, last year's team was aberrantly lucky, going 9-7 in the Big 12 even though they scored fewer points than their opponents. It's possible, of course, that they'll be just as lucky again this year. Then again the more probable outcome is the opposite: they'll be less lucky and thus even the same level of performance will net them fewer wins.
Second, this team's interior defense should continue to worry Red Raider fans until events on the court dictate otherwise. In fact, Tech lost its "size," such as it was, with the departures of 6'9" Darryl Dora and 6'8" Jon Plefka. The only incoming size of note will be provided by Brazilian Ricardo De Bem, a 6'10" junior college transfer. Bear in mind that conference opponents made 52 percent of their twos last year (only Colorado opponents shot better) and rebounded a goodly share of their misses (only Missouri was weaker on the defensive glass). Knight's team was able to offset this performance only with a little luck and by taking outstanding care of the ball.
Turnovers will likely be up in Lubbock this year for the simple reason that it's almost literally impossible to give away as few TOs over as many possessions as Jackson played last year. He was an extreme outlier among 4,000 or so D-I players, playing a prominent role in his team's offense for 94 percent of its total minutes with virtually no turnovers to speak of. Had he not been so extreme, this team wouldn't have snuck into the tournament. Of course, Texas Tech's performance holding on to the ball last year was so good they can slip a little and still be well above-average in this department. They'll need to be.
This will again be a small team. Tech will be led this year by 6'5" senior Martin Zeno, the most likely originator of an assist last year on a team with no true point guard. Nominally a guard, Zeno rarely shoots threes; instead he hits half his twos and gets to the line, where he's a 79 percent shooter. The other returning backcourt starter is 6'1" senior Charlie Burgess, who's just a little less reluctant to launch a three than Zeno is: he averaged about two attempts per game from beyond the arc and hit 43 percent of those shots. Burgess may be Knight's best hope for a perimeter threat this season. Also available will be 6'3" junior Alan Voskuil and a pair of freshmen, 6'5" Mike Singletary and 5'11" point guard John Roberson.
Decensae White, a 6'6" sophomore, is perhaps the only returning player besides Zeno who's demonstrated he's not afraid to shoot, though he did cough up a fair number of turnovers last year. While 6'7" junior Michael Prince turns the ball over more frequently still, he offsets this by recording steals at a higher rate than any other Raider. (In each of the past two seasons Texas Tech has forced their Big 12 opponents into turnovers on about 22 percent of their possessions, a fact that has buoyed an otherwise struggling defense.) Past White and Prince, it's an open question as to who will get the available playing time this year. Perhaps Knight will give the opportunity to 7'0" senior Esmir Risvic (who started 11 games last year), to a veteran reserve (6'8" junior Damir Suljagic), or to one of his recruits (the aforementioned Ricardo De Bem or 6'7" freshman D'Walyn Roberts). Even for a famously demanding coach, someone has to get the minutes.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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