What Providence did well: Improve their catastrophic perimeter FG defense.
The Friars fared much better on defense last year than in 2006. The largest single difference was fewer made threes by opponents. Not that Providence suddenly became Pitt where perimeter D is concerned; they just went from off-the-charts bad to about average, and that made a noticeable difference in the team's overall performance. In part the good news was the result of more minutes for Weyinmi Efejuku. At 6'5", Efejuku has both the reach and the quickness to make life tough for opposing guards looking to launch a three.
What we learned in 2007: Geoff McDermott is an interesting mix.
I have a friend who says of her little boy: "Ninety percent of the time he's my easiest child. The other 10 percent is going to kill me." Providence coach Tim Welsh might feel the same way about Geoff McDermott.
The short version goes like this. McDermott is a hoops renaissance man. Though just 6'7", he was actually a hair better on the defensive glass last year than 6'10" teammate Herbert Hill. McDermott also recorded assists at a higher rate than his team's point guard. He's even his team's most prolific generator of steals. There's a lot to like here.
The only problem is that McDermott gives the ball away much too often. His struggles with the ball were unfortunate, yet emblematic. Providence committed a turnover on 24 percent of their possessions in-conference. No Big East team fared worse at holding on to the ball. The Friars' turnovers turned what could have been a very good offense into one that was slightly above average. Providence's shooting, and especially their offensive rebounding, improved significantly over 2006 but their offense stayed exactly where it was (1.04 points per trip in the Big East) because of a sharp increase in turnovers.
What's in store for 2008: At 5'10", 165, Sharaud Curry has the body of a point guard but the profile of a two-guard, shooting more frequently last year than any player besides now departed big man Hill. A 90 percent shooter at the line who hits 37 percent of his threes, Curry has been sidelined early in the year with a foot injury. The junior is expected to return to action soon. When he returns, Curry will join Efejuku in the starting backcourt. Now a junior, Efejuku's become the Friars' most versatile scorer, able to hit shots both inside and outside the arc.
As for depth, Welsh won't be lacking for options this season. Start with Jeff Xavier, a 6'1" junior who transferred in from Manhattan. In 2006, Xavier functioned as a gunner for the Jaspers and did OK, hitting a surprisingly large share of his twos. Also available will be Dwain Williams, a 6'0" sophomore who's a good spot-up shooter, but who hasn't yet shown an ability to score inside the arc. Further depth will be supplied by 6'4" sophomore Brian McKenzie and 6'5" freshman Marshon Brooks.
Aforementioned renaissance man Geoff McDermott finds the open man and gets to a robust 21 percent of opponents' misses when he's on the floor. If he can cut down on his turnovers he can reasonably be discussed in All-Big East terms. McDermott will likely be starting alongside 6'11" junior Randall Hanke, who sat out all of last year. In 2006 for the Friars, Hanke was strangely ineffective on the defensive glass for a player his size. Then again, who cares? On offense, Hanke was a regular Roy Hibbert, hitting an outstanding 68 percent of his twos. Even though he played less than 22 minutes a game that year, Hanke still played a very large role in the offense, taking a star-like 26 percent of his team's shots when he was on the floor. If Hanke can come close to that kind of performance this season while carrying more minutes, all the hand-wringing around Friardom about replacing Herbert Hill will cease with gleeful suddenness.
Jonathan Kale is not only an excellent offensive rebounder, the junior is also a surprisingly good FT shooter (82 percent) for a player listed at 6'8", 245. While 6'7" senior Charles Burch has been slowed early by a hamstring injury, he gives Welsh yet another experienced option for frontcourt minutes.
Last year the Friars shot significantly better from the field than did their Big East opponents. A negative turnover margin, however, prevented Welsh's team from reaping the benefits of shots made and misses forced. That brings me to a little marketing idea I've been toying with. I assume Dunkin' Donuts has a promotion going at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in which a lucky fan gets free donuts with every made three by the Friars. If I were Welsh, I'd persuade the corporate overlords to instead inject calories into fans on the occasion of every steal recorded by Providence. More steals would help this team immensely. For two consecutive years the Friars' opponents have committed an aberrantly low number of turnovers. Last year, 331 D-I teams bettered Providence in steal percentage.
There was a time not so long ago in the Big East when a really low opponent turnover percentage was something of an insouciant badge of honor worn by rough and gruff Connecticut teams. It was as if going for steals was beneath them and, besides, opponents only made about 40 percent of their twos anyway, so it evened out. That's not the case with the Friars. A normal number of steals would make this a better team.
That being said, how many turnovers you commit is easier to control than how many steals you record. Welsh has been at Providence now for nine seasons, and there's talk that the natives are growing restless. Other things being equal, if the Friars can merely give away the ball on one in every five possessions (right now it's closer to one in every four), that would result in more points and, more importantly, more wins. There's a very good offense waiting to emerge here if Providence can simply give themselves enough bites at the apple.
What Rutgers did well: Play Cincinnati.
Rutgers went 2-0 against the Bearcats. Against the rest of the Big East, the Scarlet Knights were 1-13. In terms of scoring margin per possession, this was the worst team in conference play in 2007, a hair worse than South Florida or Cincinnati.
What we learned in 2007: Replacing the sun around which your entire offense orbits can be really tough.
Last year was head coach Fred Hill's first season at the RU helm. As an assistant first at Seton Hall and then at Villanova, Hill built a weighty reputation in Big East circles as an excellent recruiter. The recruits don't arrive at your new gig right away, though, and last year was something of a rude welcome to head coaching for Hill. He took over a team that had lost Quincy Douby.
Few players in any year have assumed a larger role in their team's offense than did Douby in the Rutgers offense in 2006. The 6'3" guard took over 600 shots from the field that year, about 350 more than any other player on the team. During his minutes, Douby attempted nearly 40 percent of his team's shots, an incredible figure, plus he led his team in assist rate, steal percentage, FT percentage and, not least, minutes. Douby and Rutgers were virtually synonymous that year.
Rutgers actually scored quite respectably in 2006, but with Douby no longer in residence the Knights suffered a total collapse on offense in 2007.
Rutgers Offense, 2006 & 2007, Conference games only
Points per possession 1.05 0.93
2FG percentage 43.2 40.8
3FG percentage 38.5 30.1
Rutgers posted the lowest in-conference effective FG percentage of any major conference team last year.
What's in store for 2008: Last year the, Scarlet Knights' offense went through JR Inman and Jaron Griffin. They're both back, a year older and with a few frightful outings under their belts. Inman, in particular, offers reason for hope among the rubble at RU. His role in the offense grew considerably last year with the departure of Douby, and yet his efficiency stayed pretty steady. That's impressive considering the offense as a whole was crashing to the ground around him. The 6'9" junior will have every opportunity to take on as large a role as he can handle in this offense. Griffin, conversely, would seem to be in line for fewer possessions on offense unless he can start hitting some shots. A 6'7" wing, Griffin attempted almost exactly as many threes as twos last year, but was unable to convert either type of shot into points.
Byron Jones is back for duty in the paint after sitting out last year with a knee injury. In 2006, Jones had little role in the offense beyond that of collecting offensive boards, which he did extremely well. The 6'9" Jones was also a very good defensive rebounder that season. He'll be called upon this year to replace the defensive boards that have been lost with the departure of Adrian Hill. Also available in the frontcourt is Hamady Ndiaye, a 6'11" sophomore who blocked 14 percent of opponents' twos during his scarce minutes last year. Had he played enough minutes to qualify, that would have been the seventh-best block percentage in the nation.
Hill's returning point guard, 6'1" junior Anthony Farmer, endured shooting struggles inside the arc last year that were notable even by Rutgers-in-2007 standards. In fact, it may behoove Hill to nudge Farmer into more of a classic pass-first point-guard model, at least until his shooting improves. Joining Farmer in the starting backcourt in the exhibition season was 6'1" junior Courtney Nelson. The degree of success attained by Nelson last season in shooting the ball was distressingly similar to Farmer's. Backcourt depth this season will be provided by two freshmen who not only provide fresh legs but also represent the first glimmers that perhaps the new coach's recruiting muscle is starting to kick in. Get used to seeing Corey Chandler and Mike Coburn handling the ball at the RAC.
Much of this preview has focused on the Rutgers offense simply because the Knights' results on that side of the ball last year were so extreme. It bears cautionary mention, however, that the defense in 2007 was also really bad. The specific areas of concern on D are the scarcity of opponents' turnovers and the abundance of their threes. More backcourt depth promises to help improve the Knights' performance in both categories.
Still, there's too much ground here between the status quo and .500 for it all to be made up in just one year. Consider the season a success and the rebuilding on-schedule if Rutgers wins five games in-conference.
What Seton Hall did well: Take care of the ball.
The Pirates gave the ball away last year on less than 17 percent of their possessions in Big East play, the best mark in the conference. That's a very encouraging sign considering Seton Hall's point guard in 2007, Eugene Harvey, was a freshman. In a year when his team will face a number of questions, it would appear that coach Bobby Gonzalez can at least count on reliable handles from the likes of Harvey, Jamar Nutter and Paul Gause. Speaking of Gause….
What we learned in 2007: Paul Gause is the Bob Beamon of steals.
The feisty 5'11" Gause didn't just lead the nation in steal percentage. He obliterated the rest of the nation.
2007 National Leaders: Steal Percentage
(Minimum: 40 percent minutes played)
Paul Gause, Seton Hall 6.89
Travis Holmes, VMI 5.92
Ian Gibson, North Florida 5.84
Damitrius Coleman, Bethune Cookman 5.74
Jonathan Amos, Toledo 5.41
Ledell Eackles, Campbell 5.41
Jamon Gordon, Virginia Tech 5.29
Jerel McNeal, Marquette 5.09
Mario Chalmers, Kansas 4.99
Mario West, Georgia Tech 4.98
If there's such a thing as SGH (steals growth hormone), Gause definitely needs to be tested because his performance last year was paradigm-shifting. In fact the numbers are so extreme, I had to wonder. Was there perhaps something a little Acie Law going on here? Fear not, loyal reader! Basketball Prospectus is on the case and our EXCLUSIVE investigation has turned up the following….
Uh, not much. Gause's steal numbers were indeed a little better at home. Then again, most players' numbers in most categories are better at home. Gause's most felonious performance in conference play even came on the road. On a Valentine's Day visit to Connecticut, Gause recorded six steals in just 27 minutes. Thus, the Beamonesque performance appears to have been legit. If you want a steal, call Gause, not the official scorer at SHU home games.
What's in store for 2008: Seton Hall went just 4-12 in the Big East last year, and the problem was the defense, which was as bad as Rutgers' and almost as bad as Cincinnati's. Big East opponents made 54 percent of their twos against the strikingly undersized Pirates, who played much of the year with a six-player rotation in which no one was taller than 6'7". Worse, opponents smelled blood down in the paint and pounded the ball in there mercilessly. The Hall fared poorly in precisely the areas where a small team would be expected to struggle, ranking dead last in Big East play in both defensive rebounding and in 2FG defense.
Was Gonzalez able to go out in the offseason and find some size? Kind of. Apparently the first place he looked was his own bench. John Garcia spent a lot of time there last year as a freshman, but the 6'9" big man opened this year with a start in the Pirates' first game. Three new arrivals will also get long looks for minutes in the paint: 6'11" junior college transfer Augustine Okosun, 6'11" freshman Mike Davis and 6'9" freshman Brandon Walters.
A little size on defense, even if it's no great help on offense, can improve this team because Seton Hall has numbers to burn when it comes to guards and wings. Their three-point shooting was terrible last year, but the four players shooting the bulk of the threes in 2007 combined to hit 75 percent of their free throws. So while Paul Gause should probably give peace a chance on the perimeter--he's a career 27 percent three-point shooter--these aren't necessarily players who can't shoot. The Pirates are very likely to improve their three-point shooting this year.
Start with 6'5" senior Brian Laing. He couldn't find the range from outside last year but, to his credit, he limited his attempts from beyond the arc and instead took the ball to the hole. Laing did OK, making 49 percent of his twos and taking excellent care of the ball. He was also the best defensive rebounder in the regular SHU rotation. That's not saying much for the Pirates' defensive rebounding, granted, but Laing certainly left it all on the floor last year, playing almost 90 percent of the possible minutes.
Laing's partner at the core of the Seton Hall offense is Jamar Nutter, a 6'2" senior guard. Nutter struggled from outside just as much as Laing but, unlike his backcourt mate, Nutter chose to go down with his guns blazing, launching more than seven threes a game. Nutter can perhaps be forgiven for thinking he could shoot his way out of his season-long slump: he entered last year as a career 38 percent three-point shooter. That's not outstanding, but it's a lot better than the 32 percent he posted from beyond the arc last year. Watch for his perimeter shooting this season to be closer to his previous numbers.
Now a sophomore, 6'0" point guard Eugene Harvey will seek to add a perimeter shot to his repertoire this year. He would seem to have the necessary skill, since he's the best free throw shooter (84 percent) on a very good free throw shooting team. Note also that Harvey achieved encouraging success taking the ball to the hole last year considering he was a 6'0" freshman. Keep an eye on him. Additional backcourt minutes will be supplied by 6'4" sophomore Larry Davis and 6'5" freshman Jeremy Hazell. Davis was the only Pirate who shot well from the outside last year, hitting 40 percent of his infrequent threes.
It's a fairly safe bet that Seton Hall will shoot better this season. If they continue taking care of the ball and get some stops on defense, their record will improve along with their shooting.
What South Florida did well: Achieve respectability in the paint.
Thanks mainly to the forbidding presence of 6'9", 270-pound Kentrell Gransberry, the Bulls made 48 percent of their twos and secured 65 percent of their opponents' misses in conference play, numbers that put USF right at the Big East average. Attaining the conference average in a given activity most definitely qualified as success for a team that went 3-13 in Big East play.
What we learned in 2007: You can have a poor offensive rebounding team even with the best offensive rebounder in the county.
As good as Gransberry was on the defensive boards, he was even better on the offensive glass. Hauling in one in every five of his team's misses during his minutes, Gransberry was the best offensive rebounder in the county last year, better even than Joey Dorsey of Memphis. No one else can say that.
Then how is it possible that USF is such a poor offensive rebounding team? (Only West Virginia, Seton Hall and DePaul rebounded a smaller share of their own misses in Big East play in 2007.) Easy. No USF player besides Gransberry went to the offensive glass. The big guy's dominance under his own basket was even more remarkable when you consider how often a strong offensive rebounder plays a limited role in his team's offensive scheme. Gransberry, on the other hand, was the heart of the Bulls' offense. The bulk of USF's possessions went through the big guy and/or the now departed Melvin Buckley.
What's in store for 2008: New coach Stan Heath arrives fresh from Arkansas, where he was shown the door despite taking the Razorbacks to both the title game of the SEC conference tournament and the NCAA tournament.
Job one for Heath will be to see that his team gets as many shots as the opponent. South Florida had the worst turnover margin of any major-conference team in the country last year.
Worst Turnover Margins, 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
Opponent TO percentage
Minus Team TO percentage
South Florida -7.4
Michigan St. -5.6
Don't blame Gransberry for USF's turnovers--he's excellent with the ball. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his teammates. Point guard Solomon Bozeman, who was a freshman last year, was a highly visible source of turnovers but in terms of TOs per individual possession he actually had plenty of company. Chris Howard, Jesus Verdejo and Amu Saaka all gave the ball away frequently in 2007. Improvement across the board will be needed if the Bulls are going to do better than last year, when they gave the ball away on almost 25 percent of their in-conference possessions. Note that for Heath to change this state of affairs, he'll have to reach beyond his own recent experience. His previous team, Arkansas, also led their conference in turnovers last year, coughing the ball up on 23 percent of their trips in SEC play.
In fact, this offense could conceivably ascend to mediocrity if Heath hypnotizes all of Gransberry's teammates into believing they can suddenly take care of the ball. Thanks to the big guy, shooting was the relative "strength" of this offense, if that word can be used in a South Florida preview. The Bulls' shooting was slightly below average but then again so was Marquette's. Of course, most of the shots last year were taken by Gransberry Buckley, and McHugh Mattis. The last two are now gone.
So Heath will need to find new sources of points in the backcourt. Scoring would be a new role for point guard Bozeman, who saw more minutes last year than any other returning guard, but rarely looked to shoot. Bozeman had an uneven freshman year, committing turnovers and shooting just 33 percent on his threes. On the other hand, he did hit an eye-catching 88 percent of his free throws last year, so it would appear he's got a shooting stroke. Note also that Bozeman's freshman year was head and shoulders above that posted last season by backcourt mate Chris Howard. The 6'3" Howard fared even worse from the field and gave the ball away even more frequently than did Bozeman.
Another option will be Jesus Verdejo, a 6'4" junior who should probably give up on the threes but fared better on his twos last year in limited action. A pair of 6'4" freshmen, Dominique Jones (true freshman) and Dante Curry (redshirt), are also available for backcourt minutes.
Down in the paint, Gransberry will be supported this year by 6'9" junior college transfer Mobolaji Ajayi and by 6'7" freshman Orane Chin. Sophomore Amu Saaka, a 6'6" small forward, is the best non-Gransberry defensive rebounder among players who saw regular minutes last year.
USF is widely perceived as having been brought into the Big East for football. The school's basketball team has thus far done little to dispel those perceptions, going 4-28 in its two years in the conference. Heath's stated goals his first year are to get to both the Big East tournament and the NIT. If he does indeed achieve both goals, that will qualify as a resoundingly successful first year.
What St. John's did well: Change their style on offense.
The Red Storm went from being a team that never shot threes in 2006 to one that shot a lot of them in 2007. Last year, only West Virginia and Louisville devoted a larger share of their attempts in Big East play to threes than did St. John's. It's not often that you see a coach make such a fundamental shift, but that's exactly what Norm Roberts did. In part, the new look reflected the arrival of junior college transfer Avery Patterson, who shot far more threes than any St. John's player had in 2006. Still, it was up to Roberts to give the green light. It appears he simply decided this would work better.
It did, a little. The St. John's offense improved slightly in 2007 but, at just 0.95 points per trip in-conference, it was still way below the Big East average.
What we learned in 2007: Eugene Lawrence believes moderation in hoops is no virtue.
Lawrence is exceptional almost literally across the board. Granted, sometimes he's exceptionally worrisome but that's what makes him interesting. In almost every basketball field of endeavor, Lawrence is an extreme outlier, whether to the good or the bad.
First, the good. Lawrence is outstanding at dishing assists. No player in the Big East last year posted a higher assist rate than Lawrence's. What's more, the 6'1" senior was the best three-point shooter among Roberts' starters last year.
Next, the neutral. (Yes, Lawrence was extreme even in metrics that are neither good nor bad.) He may have been the best three-point shooter among the starters but the fact is Lawrence never shot. He compiled a reasonable number of attempts merely because he was on the floor more than 80 percent of the time. Yet he accounted for less than 13 percent of the shots his team took during his minutes. Holding minutes constant, no player on the St. John's roster last year accounted for fewer shots.
Lastly, the worrisome. Lawrence turns the ball over with astonishing frequency. Indeed he's done so now for three full seasons at the point. Last year Lawrence posted the highest turnover rate of his career.
What's in store for 2008: Youth. Among Big East teams only Syracuse returns fewer minutes this season. St. Johns returns just four players who saw any minutes beyond garbage time last year. The future is now in Queens.
After just one season with the Red Storm, Avery Patterson transferred to Division II Tarleton State. That leaves a lot of shots available for the taking because, as we've seen, senior leader Eugene Lawrence lets his teammates do the shooting. Who will take those shots this year in Carnesecca Arena?
Meet 6'8" freshman Justin Burrell, who comes very highly touted and says he chose St. John's in part because he wanted to be "a major focal point" right away. He certainly came to the right place. Burrell will join 6'7" junior Anthony Mason, who last year took shots with the frequency of a star but without stellar results. Down in the paint, 6'11" junior Tomas Jasiulionis has to date been a shot-blocking specialist playing limited minutes. He'll have an opportunity this season to show he's added defensive rebounding to his skill set.
Freshman D.J. Kennedy, a 6'6" wing, will get a long look for a starting slot. Another option at the wing will be 6'3" freshman Paris Horne. The only other returning guard besides Lawrence is 6'2" sophomore Larry Wright, who didn't see much of the floor last year but still gave hints that he might be a good shooter. For his part Lawrence will be backed up by 5'9" freshman Malik Boothe.
To sum up: with the exception of Lawrence and Mason, St. John's is about to undergo a virtually complete turnover in personnel this year. Roberts is making the right sounds about this team being "the future." Indeed they are. The near future, however, is going to be rough, as St. John's learns about life in the Big East.
What Syracuse did well: Play outstanding interior defense.
Last year the Orangemen's Big East opponents made just 40 percent of their twos. Among major-conference teams in 2007, that was the lowest such number in the nation.
Best 2FG Defenses, 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
Texas A&M 43.1
Washington St. 43.8
A lot of the credit here goes to now departed big man Darryl Watkins, who blocked 12 percent of opponents' twos during his minutes. Strong interior D keyed a dramatic overall improvement on defense, as Syracuse allowed conference opponents just 0.98 points per possession in 2007. The offense improved a little last year but make no mistake: it was a suddenly and surprisingly good defense that put this team in position to cry foul when they were left out of the NCAA tournament.
What we learned in 2007: Eric Devendorf is not shy.
The 'Cuse offense went through Devendorf and the now departed Demetris Nichols last year. The 6'8" Nichols was no threat to lead the league in assists, but he still had a great year on offense, hitting 42 percent of his threes and taking excellent care of the ball while functioning as a viable inside-outside threat.
Devendorf's performance was a little more uneven. Jim Boeheim needs him on the floor, of course, because among other things Devendorf proved last year that he's an outstanding passer. Plus, he's a decent three-point threat. (Even if he struggled at times in 2007, his 79 percent free throw shooting suggests he should continue to get a green light out there.) The bulk of Devendorf's shots last year, however, were twos, and he made just 45 percent of his attempts inside the arc. That's not awful, but Devendorf's prominence in the offense meant this did show up in his team's overall performance. Syracuse was actually slightly below the Big East average on their twos, an odd state of affairs for a team that started three players 6'8" or taller. With all the talent arriving this season, Devendorf would be well advised to at least see what the new guys can do with some of those looks from inside.
What's in store for 2008: Boeheim went with a pretty well-defined seven-player rotation last year. Four of those players are now gone, including 6'5" three-point specialist Andy Rautins, who's out for the year after suffering a knee injury over the summer. By necessity, there will be a youth movement in full swing at the Dome this season.
Still, if you have to have a youth movement, Boeheim seems to have found a pretty good group to run with. Start with McDonald's All-American Jonny Flynn. The 6'0" point guard announced his arrival with an impressively gaudy stat line: 6-for-7 shooting on his threes, 28 points and nine assists against Siena. A Flynn/Devendorf backcourt may not be real big, but it will certainly command attention from opposing defenses. Devendorf will be backed up by 6'1" freshman Scoop Jardine. Flynn will be spelled by 6'2" senior Josh Wright, a classic pass-first point who's shown an ability to hit the open man but has also struggled with turnovers.
Another new face this year is actually an old one. Arinze Onuaku, a 6'9" junior, missed all of last year with a knee injury. In 2006, he struggled to get minutes, but at least showed signs of being an excellent defensive rebounder. Speaking of excellence on the defensive glass, Paul Harris did more than hint at it last year as a freshman. He achieved said excellence, hauling in 21 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. That's a good number in any context. Given that Harris is listed at just 6'5" and that he recorded his rebounds against Big East competition, it's an outstanding number. On offense, Harris is fouled with astonishing frequency and does OK (68 percent) at the line. His 1-for-20 shooting on his threes last year, however, suggests Boeheim might want to install an electric fence along the arc that works at a special Harris-only wavelength.
Onuaku and Harris will welcome highly touted freshman Donte' Greene to the frontcourt this year. Yet another McDonald's All-American, the 6'11" Greene recorded five blocks and knocked down a couple threes against Siena. Also available for minutes in the paint will be 6'9" freshman Rick Jackson. Boeheim famously likes his teams to be big. (See Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth.) He'll like this team.
Last year, Syracuse was an excellent defensive team that was limited by its average offense. The Orangemen turned the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions and made 47 percent of their twos in Big East play. Those are middle-of-the-pack numbers from a team that's used to being ahead of the curve. If the new breed at the Dome can hold on to the ball and score inside, this team will attain the goal of a markedly happier Selection Sunday in 2008.
What Villanova did well: Make free throws.
The Wildcats were the best free throw shooting team in the nation last year, hitting an impeccable 78 percent of their attempts. Would-be old-school purists can take their querulous "Nobody makes free throws anymore, dagnabit!" gripes elsewhere. The gripes don't apply in Philly. Move along.
What we learned in 2007: Jay Wright is really smart. Or lucky. Maybe both.
As different as they are stylistically, Villanova and Connecticut shared some weird Kennedy-and-Lincoln similarities last year. Like the Huskies, the Wildcats were knocked out of the 2006 Elite Eight by a team of destiny. (Villanova's loss to Florida in Minneapolis was surely the most overlooked regional final in recent memory. The game had to compete with the epochal cacophony that erupted right around tip-off, when time expired in George Mason's overtime win over UConn.) Like the Huskies, the Wildcats put a defense on the floor last year that was exactly as good as their defense the previous year. Like the Huskies, the Wildcats had an offense in 2007 that was much worse than it was in 2006.
The similarities end there, because pretty much anything that could wrong on offense did go wrong for Connecticut last year. In the Wildcats' case, though, the drop-off on offense could very easily have been much worse than it was. Instead, Villanova found a way to compensate for its second consecutive year of very poor two-point shooting.
In 2006, with a veteran team, the solution was to take care of the ball. In 2007, with a younger team, it was offensive rebounding:
Villanova Offensive Rebounding and Turnovers, 2006 & 2007, Conference games only
Reb. Pct. Pct.
2006 36.4 16.6
2007 41.5 21.9
The Villanova offense represented a sustained and concerted effort to offset poor interior shooting and too many turnovers with excellent offensive rebounding. The Wildcats made just 43 percent of their twos in-conference last year, but that mattered a lot less than it ordinarily would have because they somehow transformed themselves into the best offensive rebounding team in the Big East. The result was an offense that scored a respectable 1.05 points per trip in-conference.
For two seasons in a row, Villanova has been unable to make two-point shots, and for two seasons in a row Jay Wright has calmly coached around this state of affairs as though failure in the sport's core activity--getting the ball close to and then in the basket--is a mere nuisance. Forget the Hall of Fame coaches in the Big East, if only for a moment. Give this man some love.
What's in store for 2008: With the departures of Curtis Sumpter and Mike Nardi, the Villanova offense this season figures to go through Scottie Reynolds. A 2006 McDonald's All-American, Reynolds originally committed to Oklahoma but landed at Villanova when Kelvin Sampson left Norman to take the Indiana job. By the end of last year, the 6'2" Reynolds was launching shots left and right like, well, a McDonald's All-American.
What's surprising is not that he missed a lot of these shots. (He did, making less than 40 percent of his twos.) No, what's surprising is that such a highly-touted freshman taking so many shots would prove to be such an outstanding passer. Plus his turnover rate was relatively modest, he recorded steals and he made 82 percent of his free throws. Reynolds brings a lot to the table.
Joining Reynolds in the rotation this season will be a highly anticipated trio of freshmen. McDonald's All-American Corey Stokes is a 6'5" wing who arrives billed as the best pure shooter Wright has ever pursued. Corey Fisher comes with almost as much advance praise, though at this writing the 6'1" guard is suffering from tendinitis and did not play in the Wildcats' first game. And 6'0" point guard Malcolm Grant came off the bench and scored 16 points in Villanova's season-opening 86-64 win over Stony Brook. Note also that 6'5" sophomore Reggie Redding recorded steals at a higher rate last year than any other returning Wildcat.
Small forward Shane Clark, who was slowed last year by persistent pain in his right knee, is reportedly now healthy. The 6'7" junior certainly looked the part in the Stony Brook win, scoring 25 points on just 11 shots. In the paint, 6'8" junior Dante Cunningham is a good offensive rebounder and an excellent (78 percent) free throw shooter for a player used primarily as a power forward. Also available here will be 6'8" redshirt freshman Antonio Pena. The tallest players on the roster are sophomore Casiem Drummond and redshirt freshman Andrew Ott, both of whom are listed at 6'10". Drummond's reportedly slimmed down from his previously listed playing weight of 280.
It's not entirely clear where the defensive rebounds will come from with this group, but Wright has perhaps earned the benefit of the doubt here. A similarly sized Villanova team last year got to 67 percent of their Big East opponents' misses, putting the Wildcats well above the conference average. Nor is it clear in November, of course, whether the model for this offense will be 2006 (low-turnover), 2007 (high-offensive-rebound), or something else entirely. We do know that Reynolds will get a lot of the shots in this offense. If enough of them go in Wright will have found a new model right there.
What West Virginia did well: Make their (rare) twos.
Final Four-caliber Georgetown notwithstanding, no Big East team achieved better results inside the arc last year than West Virginia. The Mountaineers found the bottom of the net on a notably efficient 55 percent of their twos. Then again twos played a relatively small role in West Virginia's offense under John Beilein.
Percentage of Shots Devoted to Threes, 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
West Virginia 52.1
Belein's system features not only a high number of attempts from beyond the arc, but also the acceptance of very low number of offensive rebounds in exchange, ideally, for a very low number of turnovers. It's a distinct system, one that Beilein adjusted to suit his teams from year to year, but one that's pretty far removed from the norm of college basketball offense. Indeed, Beilein's fondness for the 1-3-1 defense means this group of Mountaineers was implementing fairly uncommon systems on both sides of the ball. New coach Bob Huggins may have had to do some de-programming with his players over the past few weeks, acquainting them with curiosities hitherto seldom glimpsed in Morgantown such as "two-point shots" and "man-to-man" defense.
What we learned in 2007: Da'Sean Butler and Joe Alexander can score inside the arc.
With the departures in 2006 of Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey, a lot of possessions and shots were available for the taking last year in Morgantown. Butler and Alexander, more than any other players, took advantage of that opportunity. Though Butler was a freshman and Alexander was a sophomore, it's not too much to say that the WVU offense last year went through him, albeit with strong contributions from Frank Young. The results were mixed. Alexander missed a lot of threes but fared much better inside the arc, making half his twos. Butler did even better, hitting an excellent 57 percent of his shots from in close.
It'd be easy to say Alexander should have shot fewer threes (he made 31 percent of his attempts outside the arc) but, in Alexander's defense, he was playing within a system where virtually every player on the floor is supposed to pose a threat from the perimeter. It'll be interesting to see how many threes Alexander attempts with a new coach. For all we know he might actually be relieved at the prospect of shooting fewer threes. (Then again maybe things won't change so very much. West Virginia doesn't open their season until this weekend, but in their only exhibition game, 42 percent of the Mountaineers' shots were threes. Maybe Huggins will ride the perimeter-orientation of his roster and see where it takes him.)
What's in store for 2008: Bob Huggins is now in residence at WVU Coliseum and if observance of the dramatic benefits a coach's team, then Huggins is sure to win the national championship. Morgantown is Huggins' birthplace, West Virginia's his alma mater, and the Mountaineers gave him his first job as an assistant coach. A rare trifecta.
One hesitates to read too much into Kansas State 2007 as a clue to what Huggins will do with West Virginia in 2008. After all, Huggins inherited his players in Manhattan just as he's now inherited this set of players in Morgantown. Still, it's at least worth noting that perhaps the largest single factor in Huggins' one-year improvement of the Wildcats was his ability (or good luck) to put a team on the floor that took much better care of the ball than it did the year before. That won't happen in Morgantown this year--the Mountaineers gave the ball away on just 18 percent of their possessions in Big East play last year--but it does suggest that Huggins can at least keep the turnovers low. Given that the new coach now has a group of players recruited to play in a system with few offensive rebounds, holding on to the ball takes on an added importance.
In addition to using a lot of possessions on offense last year, the 6'8" Alexander was the best defensive rebounder among the starters. That may change this year, however, as seven-foot senior Jamie Smalligan may make the transition from reserve to starter. While averaging less than 15 minutes a game in 2007, Smalligan was actually the best three-point shooter on the roster, hitting 46 percent of his threes. Also available for minutes in the paint will be 6'9" redshirt freshman Jacob Green.
Butler functioned last year as what a more traditional system might classify as a wing, devoting 47 percent of his shots to threes. He did alright from the perimeter but his 66 percent free throw shooting suggests last year's 35 percent three-point shooting might be near the top of his range.
In the backcourt, 6'3" senior Darris Nichols has served to date as the highly efficient supporting player, shooting very rarely and very well: he made 57 percent of his twos and 42 percent of his threes in 2007. He'll play alongside 6'6" junior Alex Ruoff, who was far and away the team's best source of both assists and steals last year. Joe Mazzulla, a 6'2" sophomore, will also see minutes.
Huggins built his reputation at Cincinnati on rugged defense and dominant play in the paint. That's not going to emerge in his first year at West Virginia, of course, but it will be intriguing to watch the choices Huggins makes with a group that actually returns a fair number of minutes from last year. This group of Mountaineers will likely take care of the ball. Past that, watch and see.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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