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March 6, 2009
Everyone's Back
So What Happened?

by John Gasaway

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They're supposed to be the most exciting words that any college basketball fan can hear about their team at media day in October: Everyone's back.

Losing only Rob Kurz from a starting lineup that went 14-4 in the Big East in 2008, Notre Dame was able to say "everyone's back" without being too far off the mark. For their part, Baylor returned four starters from a team that in 2008 brought the university its first NCAA tournament appearance since the Reagan years.

Little wonder, then, that hopes were high for both teams. The Bears had put years of programmatic turmoil behind them at last. In the Big 12's preseason coaches' poll, Baylor was picked to finish tied for third with Kansas, behind Oklahoma and Texas. Even bigger things were expected of the Irish, who were ranked in the top ten nationally in both major preseason polls.

I'm not here in March to scoff at the optimism these programs had in October. That optimism was entirely justified. Teams that return a lot of their minutes from the previous year tend to improve. It's true every year and this year has been no exception.

Experience means improvementů most of the time

Highest percentage of major-conference minutes returning for 2008-09
EM: efficiency margin (points per possession - opponent PPP)
Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of March 5

                   
               Returning          
                Min. (%)   2008 EM   2009 EM    Change
Wake Forest        97       -0.04     +0.06     +0.10
Villanova          95        0.00     +0.09     +0.09
Arizona St.        93       -0.02     +0.07     +0.09
Connecticut        88       +0.09     +0.17     +0.08
South Carolina     87       -0.09     +0.01     +0.10         
Rutgers            87       -0.17     -0.16     +0.01
North Carolina     85       +0.14     +0.15     +0.01
Notre Dame         85       +0.07     -0.02     -0.09
Northwestern       84       -0.21     -0.04     +0.17
Providence         84       -0.05     -0.03     +0.02
Duke               84       +0.12     +0.11     -0.01
LSU                83       -0.06     +0.13     +0.19
Virginia Tech      83       -0.01     -0.03     -0.02
Baylor             83       +0.01     -0.06     -0.07

There are 14 major-conference teams that returned at least 83 percent of their minutes this year. Of those 14, just two have seen their per-possession performance decline to a significant extent this season: Notre Dame and Baylor.

I doubt that Mike Brey and Scott Drew would be able to tell you exactly why their teams took a step back this season. I know without a doubt that I can't. What I can do, however, is tell you what changed from year to year for both teams in terms of performance.

Fighting Irish opponents never commit turnovers. Ever.

The first thing to note about Notre Dame's regression this year is that it made itself felt on both sides of the ball. The 2008 team was better than this year's group on both offense and defense. While the Irish offense has benefited from its already low turnover rate being driven still lower, the team as a whole isn't shooting as well in Big East play as it did last year from either side of the arc.

That being said, the big drop-off in South Bend this year has been on D, where Brey's team has seen a decline about twice as large as the dip in performance on offense.

Irish then and now

Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of March 5
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession

                         Opp.
         Pace    PPP     PPP      EM   
2008     72.2    1.11    1.04   +0.07
2009     68.8    1.08    1.10   -0.02

The news hasn't been all bad on defense. Notre Dame has actually improved on the defensive glass this season. Indeed, one shudders to think where this defense would be if not for the presence of one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation in the person of Luke Harangody.

Of course defensive rebounding can only do so much. It turns out that ND's Big East opponents this year are shooting a little better from outside and significantly better from the paint. Moreover, those opponents are getting a lot of shots, turning the ball over on just 13 percent of their possessions. No other major-conference defense in the country this year has an opponent TO percentage below 15 in league play.

Ordinarily it would be a little misleading to dwell too much on a team's failure to get turnovers from opposing offenses. The rate at which opponents turn the ball over is not entirely in any team's control and, besides, it's demonstrably less important to defensive success than how well the other team shoots. The Irish, however, present an extreme case. It can be said, fairly, that when you don't have a shot-blocker and opponents end fully 87 percent of their possessions with a shot of some kind (whether from the field or the line), there's a very low ceiling on how good your defense can be.

Baylor just can't stop not stopping anyone.

Unlike Notre Dame, Baylor's struggles this year have been more uniform. The Bears have seen their performance drop in almost equal measure on both offense and defense.

Bears then and now

Conference games only, 2009 figures through games of March 5

                         Opp.
         Pace    PPP     PPP      EM   
2008     72.2    1.08    1.07   +0.01
2009     68.7    1.05    1.11   -0.06

That doesn't mean all drops in performance are created equal, however. To wax typographical, Scott Drew's offense has gone from "really good" to "really good." (An uptick in Curtis Jerrells' turnover rate has helped this along, as has an understandable fall-off from last year's sterling three-point shooting by LaceDarius Dunn.) Still, the Bears' offense this year is at least within shouting distance of being as good as Missouri's, and the Tigers have certainly shown what can be done with an offense that good. No, the real problem is that Drew's defense has simultaneously gone from "really bad" to "really bad."

Actually, hold on to that Missouri comparison for a moment. Poor defensive rebounding isn't a problem for Mike Anderson's team this year because, obviously, they force opponents to commit a ton of turnovers and miss a lot of shots. Baylor, conversely, doesn't force many turnovers and Big 12 opponents this year have actually seen a significant improvement in their three-point accuracy--not a good omen in a year where the line was moved out a foot. (To his credit, Drew appears to be aware of this particular leak in the rowboat and his team does everything short of handing out coupons to encourage opponents to shoot twos instead.)

In short, bad defensive rebounding need not be a huge problem, it just is one in Waco this year. Possessions just kind of keep going and going for teams playing the Bears. The other day I mentioned that Michigan State has no fewer than five players who each get to at least 18 percent of opponents' misses during their minutes on the floor. Baylor's number in this particular category is zero. Having a lot of experience on hand has not helped the Bears on the defensive glass in 2009.

If your team has a lot of minutes coming back next year, you're right to have high hopes. Just know that every once in a while--maybe about two out of every 14 times--saying "everyone's back" doesn't mean a successful season's in the offing.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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