Friday, July 15, 2011

Leslie McDonald Tears His ACL

CBS Sports is reporting that North Carolina's Leslie McDonald has torn his ACL. Assuming it's a true tear, he's likely gone for the season. McDonald was a valuable contributor off the bench last season, scoring 7.0 points per game and leading the team with 38.1% shooting behind the arc.

This is a blow, but not a big one. Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland will be a tremendous starting backcourt, and Harrison Barnes should be a very good three-point shooting threat next season (he shot only 34.4% last season, but he has good form and should improve). And blue chip 2011 recruit PJ Hairston is considered a good outside shooter.

I had projected North Carolina to be the clear best team in the nation next season. At this point I think they're still the best team. Their starting lineup is going to be filthy talented. The worry is simply one of depth. If they suffer another backcourt injury then they won't be able to plug that hole with more playing time for Leslie McDonald. At this point, North Carolina is still the #1 team in the nation in my opinion, but the gap between them and Ohio State, Syracuse and Kentucky has clearly closed.

Tempo, Clutch Play, And Why Mariano Rivera Was More Valuable Before He Was A Closer

Quick quiz:

On January 16th, 2011, Notre Dame went into Madison Square Garden to play St. John's and got wiped out by a score of 72-54. Eight days later, on January 24th, Notre Dame bounced back with a 56-51 win at Pittsburgh. My question: which game featured better offense, and which game featured better defense.

If you asked the average college basketball fan, or the average college basketball television analyst, they'll tell you that clearly the St. John's game featured better offense, while Notre Dame struggled but overcame the suffocating Pitt defense. And they'd be wrong. The ND/Pitt game featured a 44.0 FG%, 53.0 eFG% and 16 turnovers in 49 possessions. The ND/SJU game featured a 45.2 FG%, 49.4 eFG% and 35 turnovers in 70 possessions. So overall, the shooting was better and the turnovers were rarer in the ND/Pitt game. The offenses were better. But the game was much slower. And while the effect of tempo on raw statistics is well understood by many online writers and bloggers, it continues to be completely misunderstood by announcers and casual fans. But college basketball is not alone - baseball is another sport where casual fans and television announcers are completely wrong about some of the most important parts of the game.

What Do We Know About Closers?

Sabermetrics has gained quite a foothold in popular culture. Most casual fans understand the importance of on-base percentage and the fact that wins and RBIs really don't matter. Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award last season despite a 13-12 record. Heck, Brad Pitt is playing Billy Beane in a movie coming out in September. I've even seen Sportscenter list a player's BABIP. But if there's one aspect of the game that is misunderstood more than any other it's the concept of closers. Other than with a few very progressive sabermetric writers (such as Joe Posnanski, who wrote a great article I'll link to later in this post) it's taken as a rule of the game that:

1) Your best reliever needs to be the closer
2) your closer needs to be saved until there's a save situation (except in very rare occasions that means starting an inning in the ninth or later with a lead of 1-3 runs)
3) Saves are a meaningful statistic
4) A great closer is as valuable as an ace starter, and is a necessary part of a great team.

In fact, all four of those statements are false.

Mariano Rivera Was More Valuable As A Setup Man

I'm a diehard New York Mets fan. They're my most beloved team in any sport. Just three days ago the team dumped its closer, Francisco Rodriguez, for a couple of minor prospects, to get out of a potential $17.5 Million option for next season. I mentioned to a friend that even if the Mets had unlimited funds (they are expected to cut about $20 Million off their payroll next season) that even the greatest closer in history in their prime wouldn't be worth $17.5 Million in a season. He responded that while K-Rod Vintage 2011 wasn't worth that money, that Mariano Rivera in his prime was. And I disagreed, using a stat called WAR (wins above replacement), which encompasses all of the value of a player over a generic "replacement" player, as well as the "leverage" of the situation (more on that in a moment, but briefly it's a measure of how valuable or "clutch" a moment is in the game). There are several different formulations for WAR, but they're all very similar, and I'm using the version for consistency.

Mariano Rivera is without much doubt the greatest closer of all-time. He first became a closer in 1997, and as such has played 14 full seasons as closer (I'm not including stats for the 2011 season, since it's incomplete). In those 14 full seasons as closer he made the All-Star team 11 times. These are his average stats per season:

69.2 innings, 39.6 saves, 2.02 ERA, 8.03 SO/9, 3.38 WAR

Those save, ERA and strikeout stats are all tremendous. But a WAR of 3.38? In fact, his most productive season as a closer was in 2004 (career-high 53 saves, 1.94 ERA) when he had a WAR of 4.8. To put that in perspective, Johann Santana led AL pitchers that season with 7.4. Barry Bonds led all players with 12.4, but even though that was steroid fueled, the almost surely clean singles hitter Ichiro Suzuki had 8.1 that season. In the fifty years since the beginning of the expansion era, nine different pitchers have had a WAR of greater than 10 in at least one season of their career, all of whom were starters (Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Sandy Koufax, Wilbur Wood, Gaylord Perry, Roger Clemens, Dick Ellsworth, Pedro Martinez).

The most interesting part of Mariano Rivera's stats are his 1996 numbers. For those that don't remember, he began his career as a setup man for John Wetteland. Rivera's best season as a setup man in 1996. Here are his stats from that season:

107.2 innings, 5 saves, 2.09 ERA, 10.9 SO/9, 5.4 WAR

His raw pitching stats are really similar to his closing days, yet he had 5.4 win shares. His most productive season came when he was a setup man, not as a closer. Why? Most importantly, he pitched a whole lot more. He has never pitched more than 80.2 innings in a season since becoming closer, and has averaged under 70, yet pitched 107.2 in 1996. Weren't those innings less important, though? Let's make that a new section:

Doesn't The 9th Inning Matter More Than The 8th Inning?

The short answer is that, on average, "Yes". But not always, and not by as much as you'd think. Sabermetricians use a stat called "leverage" (generally abbreviated "aLI" for "average leverage index"), which weights situations by the typical leverage they have on a team's chance of winning each game with 1.0 being an average situation, and greater than 1 meaning a more important situation. Rivera as a closer has had an average aLI of 1.9, with career highs of 2.2 on three occasions (including 2004). Yet in 1996 as a setup man his aLI was 1.5.

For perspective, let's look at Mariano Rivera and his setup man this season, David Robertson:

Rivera: 34.0 innings, 1.85 ERA, 22 saves, 2.1 aLI, 1.8 WAR
Robertson: 35.1 innings, 1.27 ERA, 0 saves, 1.6 aLI, 1.7 WAR

So Robertson has been the slightly better pitcher, while Rivera has done it in slightly more important situations, and so overall their value to the team has been identical. But of course, let's compare it to the team's ace pitcher:

CC Sabathia: 145.2 innings, 2.72 ERA, 0.8 aLI, 3.6 WAR

Sabathia hasn't had the sterling ERA that Rivera or Robertson has had, but he's been able to do it over nearly five times as many innings. And so despite the fact that he's often pitching in lower-than-average situations (the early innings of a game, naturally, are lower leverage than later innings, all else equal), he's been as valuable as Rivera and Robertson combined.

There's an even more interesting situation if we flip over to the big rival of the Yankees, the Red Sox. Here are the stats of the closer (Jonathan Papelbon), the setup man (Daniel Bard), and the team's two best starters (Josh Beckett and Jon Lester):

Papelbon: 36.2 innings, 3.93 ERA, 20 saves, 1.5 aLI, 0.4 WAR
Bard: 44.0 innings, 2.05 ERA, 1 save, 1.4 aLI, 1.5 WAR
Beckett: 111.0 innings, 2.27 ERA, 1.0 aLI, 4.1 WAR
Lester: 114.1 innings, 3.31 ERA, 1.0 aLI, 2.8 WAR

Here we have an even more blatant situation where the setup man (Daniel Bard) is a better pitcher than the closer (Jonathan Papelbon). And because manager Terry Francona has done a good job of getting Bard in games to clean up difficult situations in the middle innings, his aLI is nearly identical to the closer, and as such he has been a much more productive player. But even then, Bard has been less productive than a starter who is only 31st in the majors in starter ERA (Jon Lester), and far less productive than the team's ace (Josh Beckett). Despite not having quite the same ERA as Bard, and pitching in lower leverage situations, Beckett has performed in nearly three times as many innings, and as such has been nearly three times as productive.

An even more interesting example is Dennis Eckersley, who was a starter for 12 years before converting to the bullpen and becoming a closer, where he became the man who was probably the best closer there was prior to Mariano Rivera. Eckersely's peak as a closer came from 1988 through 1992. His five first years in the majors were his best five stretch as a starter, so we'll compare those two five-year stretches:

1975-1979: 1148.1 innings, 3.12 ERA, 6.7 SO/9, 77-50, 3 saves, 1.0 aLI, 25.7 WAR, 1 Top 5 Cy Young finish
1988-1992: 359.2 innings, 1.90 ERA, 9.5 SO/9, 24-9, 220 saves, 1.7 aLI, 12.7 WAR, 1 Cy Young, 1 MVP, 3 Top 5 Cy Young finishes

There's no question that Eckersley was better as a closer than as a starter - his stats across the board were better. And he played in more important situations as a closer. yet because he pitched more than three times as many innings per season as a starter, he actually was twice as productive per season.

In Eckersley's 12 first seasons of his career he had 359 starts and 3 saves, and 42.1 win shares. In his latter 12 seasons he had 2 starts and 387 saves, and 16.6 win shares. Ask most people today and they won't even remember that Eckersley ever started a game. Yet even as a "good" starter he was more valuable to his team than as the "greatest ever up until this point in time" closer.

All Those New-Fangled Stats Contradict What I See With My Eyes: They Must Be Wrong!

Win shares are not a perfect stat. There are no perfect stats. So I won't pretend that there aren't alternative measures of a player's value to his team (such as WPA), but the relative measures are the same. The fact is that the greatest closer ever, in their prime, isn't even close to being as valuable as an ace starting pitcher, or a leading hitter.

The first criticism of the analysis on Rivera is that he's such a "clutch" player, and that in the biggest games he's at his best. Certainly his postseason stats are staggering (a 0.71 ERA, which is the lowest of any pitcher ever), though it's worth noting that the sample size is small. If he had to pitch 400 postseason innings in his career, no matter how good he is, his ERA is most likely going to rise just out of randomness. And while Rivera gets some credit for being so great in the postseason, the reality is that the difference between a "clutch" and "not-clutch" player just isn't all that great.

Mainstream sportswriters often criticize stat-heads for not believing that players can be clutch. This is in fact a strawman - statisticians not only accept that clutch play exists, but have attempted many ways to quantify it. But the reality is that clutch play just doesn't matter that much - it's a minor rounding error. Our perception of clutch behavior is the ultimate confirmation bias - if we believe a player is clutch then we'll remember their clutch successes, and immediately forget their clutch failures.

There is an interesting set of data here, which is a collection of stats for all active hitters who played in at least 1000 games between 1996 and 2011 (I can't find the same data for pitchers - it would cost money I don't want to spend to build the same data myself). They are ranked by "WPA_Clutch", which is a weighted measure that effectively calculates how much better a player is in the most clutch situations relative to how they are on average. And naturally, Alex Rodriguez is second from the bottom. But there are many more interesting things on this chart.

First of all, the average hitter is worse in clutch situations than in ordinary situations - the average WPA_Clutch rating is negative. It makes sense that pitchers are better in clutch situations than hitters because they have to compete against 20+ players in a row, while batters can zone in and out for three hours while just focusing on their at bat. Pitchers will be able to narrow the intensity gap in clutch situations. This also probably has something to do with why relief pitchers tend to have better ERAs than starters, and why good pitching dominates the playoffs more often than good hitting.

Second, the players we think are "clutch" often aren't. There's no player more famous for his clutch play than Derek Jeter, yet he's actually below average in the clutch. Albert Pujols is also below average in the clutch, though this is just a reflection of how insanely good he is in non-clutch situations - you'd still want him up at the plate in key situations.

And that latter point is what you should draw from that data. As bad as Alex Rodriguez is in the clutch, that's just in respect to how awesomely good he is in non-clutch situations. He is still far better in absolute in the clutch than Derek Jeter is. Even in Jeter's prime, you should still prefer A-Rod at the plate in a big moment. The difference between a "clutch" and "non-clutch" player just isn't that great. I've talked many times in the past on this blog how there just is very little correlation between teams that have won a disproportionate number of close games in the past and future performance in close games. "Clutch" is simply the most overrated concept in sports.

Joe Posnanski wrote a fascinating article last year on this concept with respect to closers. What he did was he compared the likelihood that major league teams had of winning when entering the ninth inning with the lead, which even the most progressive statistician would assume had risen over the past 60 years as we went from starters closing their own games to the era of specialized closers with microscopic ERAs. Yet what Posnanski found was effectively zero trend - major league baseball teams, as a whole, have averaged approximately a 95% conversion rate in those situations for 60 straight years. Below is the key section, including an emphasis on the great Mariano Rivera:

Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952.

Well, that shocked the heck out of me. It’s not quite that simple, though. There have been a few anomalies, yes. For instance, in 1957, teams held only 92.7% of their ninth-inning leads — easily the lowest percentage over the last 60 years. That was a year for comebacks. And the highest percentage was in the strike year of 1981, when teams held 97.6% of their leads — that probably would have normalized over a full schedule.

Other than that, though, the best winning percentage for ninth-inning leads is .958. It has happened four times — 2008, 1988, 1972 and 1965. That pretty much covers the entire spectrum of bullpen use. It doesn’t change. Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.

Here, I’ll give you another example. Most of us would agree, probably, that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in the history of baseball, right? I mean, we can have that argument another time, but I think it’s Rivera, and you probably think it’s Rivera, and since he became a closer in 1997, the Yankees have won a rather remarkable 97.3% of the time when they lead going into the ninth inning. I don’t have an easy way to compare that to everyone over the same time period, but I’d bet that’s the best record for any team. In 2008, the Yankees won all 77 games the led going into the ninth. Most years they lose only once or twice.

So that would seem to indicate that Rivera DOES make a difference. And I think he does make a difference — compared to other closers.

But … consider the 1950s New York Yankees. Dominant team, of course. The bullpen was an ever-shifting thing, though. One year, Ryne Duren was their main guy out of the pen, another year it was Bob Grim or Art Ditmar or Tom Morgan or Tommy Byrne or Jim Konstanty … well, the names changed all the time. The bullpen changed all the time. Casey Stengel seemed to shift strategies every now and again, probably to keep things interesting, starters finished many more games, and anyway the game was very different then and …

From 1951 through 1962, the New York Yankees held 97.3% of their ninth-inning leads. If you carry it another decimal point, they actually held a slightly HIGHER percentage of their ninth-inning leads than the Mariano Yankees.

So having a great closer does matter.... but very little. Posnanski suggests that teams hold their best relievers as "setup" men, so that they can be brought in to the most important situations (which often occur before the ninth inning), and also so that they can be kept on the roster for lower salaries (since saves, as meaningless as they are, mean dollars in arbitration and free agent negotiations). While it would be hard to get away with this too much in the modern era, with aggressive agents and a Players Union that will come down on any strategy it thinks suppress salaries, there is something you can do. Posnanski suggests that the Red Sox are trying this now with Daniel Bard, keeping him as the setup guy so they're not stuck using him in the ninth inning, and so that they can sign him to a smaller contract when he becomes a free agent.

What Does This Have To Do With College Basketball?

Well, we're out of season, when I tend to make arguments while using examples from other sports (see here, here and here for examples). And to me, the obsession with closers in baseball is similar to the obsession with statistical totals in basketball, rather than tempo-free stats.

At the top of this post I talked about a relatively high-scoring Notre Dame/St. John's game that actually featured very good defense and mediocre offense, as compared to a very low-scoring Notre Dame/Pitt game that actually featured good offense and mediocre defense. If there's one thing I've been harping on for years on this blog it's that the fact that a team scores more points than another does not mean that their offense is better. Notre Dame and Pitt are among the teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State are others) that are constantly referred to by sportswriters and television broadcasters and analysts as "great defensive" teams that struggle on offense. Yet they are all teams that are typically better offensively than defensively, but score fewer points because they play a slow tempo.

A famous game that happened last season was Penn State's 36-33 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, which was derided across the sports world as proof of how horrible Big Ten basketball is, and how those offenses are among the worst in the country. And of course, the offenses were bad that day - neither team could shoot at all. The teams combined for a 31.1 FG% and a 33.9 eFG% with 12 turnovers. But compare that to another game from the same day: a 52-51 win for Virginia Tech over Florida State in the ACC tournament. Those teams combined for a 38.8 FG% and a 43.7 eFG% with 30 turnovers. Virginia Tech and Florida State did shoot a bit better, but they were also a lot sloppier with the ball. You'd probably give the slight offensive edge to the ACC game, but only barely, yet nobody considered that game proof that the ACC was playing boring 1960s Four Corners basketball. Why? Because the FSU/Va Tech game featured 61 possessions while the Wisconsin/Penn State game had 42. So overall the ACC game had 0.84 PPP, while the Big Ten game had 0.82 PPP. Basically identical.

And it was those 42 possessions that should have stood out. Not only was it the lowest number of possessions in any D-I game all season, but the second fewest was the 48 possessions in the aforementioned Notre Dame/Pittsburgh game. There were actually only five Division I games all season with fewer than 53 possessions, and the 42 possessions were the fewest in any D-I game since 1998. So the Wisconsin/Penn State game had bad shooting, but not historically bad. What was historic was the pace. Yet how many people did you see mention that (I was one of them)? The story should have been the pace, not the offense.

Why Would Anybody Want To Watch Paint Dry?

I understand that fans prefer watching uptempo games. With all else equal I prefer watching uptempo games too (although I'd rather watch a slow but fundamentally sound game over an uptempo but sloppy game). But actually, on average the differences in tempo are hard to notice. Yes, the 42 possessions in that Wisconsin/Penn State game were ridiculous. But no team averages anything near that.

Wisconsin led the entire nation in fewest possessions per game last season, and Penn State had the fourth fewest, yet their averages were 57.3 and 59.9 per game, respectively. In comparison, Iowa was the speediest Big Ten team with 67.2 possessions per game. Providence led the Big East with 72.2, but they had to play a gimmicky game to make up for a lack of talent. If you look at the 11 Big East teams that went to the NCAA Tournament, the fastest tempo was Marquette (68.4). South Carolina and Arkansas led the SEC with 68.1. North Carolina led all major conference teams with 72.8 possessions per game.

How much does that work out on the clock? North Carolina averaged 16.5 seconds per possession. Marquette averaged 17.5. Penn State averaged 20.0. Wisconsin averaged 20.9. And keep in mind that Wisconsin's slow pace this past season was a statistical anomaly. They were the slowest major conference team in 2009-10, but with 59.9 possessions per game (20.0 seconds per possession).

Compare those averages to the variations. Wisconsin did have their Penn State game with 42 possessions (28.6 seconds per possession), but they also had 64 possessions (18.9 seconds per possession) in regulation against UNLV and 65 in a tune-up against Prairie View A&M. North Carolina had some crazy fast games, like 94 possessions (12.8 seconds per) against LIU in the NCAA Tournament, and 81 (14.8 seconds per) in the regular season against Maryland. But they also played a 58 possession game (20.7 seconds per) against Boston College (a dreadful 48-46 game that actually had fewer points per possesion - 0.81 - than that famous Wisconsin/Penn State game).

What's The Point?

The point is twofold. Basically, we judge tempo backwards. We fans tend to have the perception that there is a dramatic difference in pace and style between the conferences. Yet in fact, the overall difference between the uptempo ACC and the "watch the paint dry" Big Ten is less than a second per possession. And the difference between the absolute fastest and slowest major conference teams in a typical season is only 3-4 seconds per possession. It's noticeable, but not by much. Nobody is yelling at their tv because a possession took three seconds longer than they expected. Even Wisconsin sometimes has fast breaks, and even North Carolina sometimes has a shot clock violation.

Conversely, we all tend to forget about tempo when looking at individual games. Yet this is where the real variation is. Even Wisconsin sometimes plays games at a faster pace than the slower North Carolina games. There is a wide variation in tempo from game-to-game, and that's what we should be paying attention to. There's no reason why when we see a 90-87 score that we should immediately assume it was great offense rather than a really fast tempo. And there's no reason that when a score is 36-33 that we should immediately assume it was historically bad offense instead of a historically slow tempo.

If you're a regular reader you know that I constantly feed you a diet of tempo-free stats. I tell you PPP, I give you OR% instead of raw rebounding numbers, et cetera. And this is why. The fact is that your opponent is no less likely to score if it just took you 5 seconds to score or 35 seconds to score. What matters is how many points you score before you give your opponent the ball back.

Tempo-free stats are not intuitive, the same way that it's not intuitive that even the greatest closer in baseball in his absolute prime isn't even worth half of what an elite starter is worth, or that Dennis Eckersley did more for his team when he was a good starter than when he was a Hall of Fame closer. But it's the truth. And the truth is what I try my best to present to you here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some Thoughts On U-19 World Championships

If you weren't aware, the FIBA U-19 World Championships were played over the past few weeks. The US team was dropped in the quarterfinals by Russia, which led them to only a fifth place finish, though I wouldn't draw too much from that result. I don't even think it's fair to blame head coach Paul Hewitt, even though I've talked in the past about how his teams always underachieve their talent.

The fact is that the biggest names (Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger and others) chose not to go, so the talent disparity wasn't that great. You also have the issue of a one-and-done tournament situation. Lithuania romped through the knock-out stages to win the tournament, yet the US team actually beat them during the group stages. Their loss in the knockout stages to Russia was a bit of a statistical fluke, with the Russians shooting 12-for-29 behind the arc and the Americans 0-for-9.

But there was an opportunity to look at some up-and-coming college players. It's a mistake to draw too many conclusions from such a small sample size, and such a different game environment from regular season college basketball, but it was at least a glimpse at some players. Below is a list of a few players who stood out either for their good or bad performances for Team USA:

Jeremy Lamb (UConn) - He was the unquestioned star of the American team, and the go-to scorer. He sparked the team in their big win over Lithuania with 35 points, even outpacing Jonas Valanciunas (30 points), the 5th pick in the NBA Draft a few weeks ago and the MVP of the tournament. Shabazz Napier had been seen as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker at UConn, because of his similar size, playing style and attitude (fearless, sometimes out of control and over-confident), but Lamb looks like he'll be the team's best player this coming season. He'll start at shooting guard and should be their leading scorer. I do still think UConn is overrated (see my 2011-12 Big East preview), but Lamb should be one of the best players in the Big East and should have the team in the 3-4 seed range.

Doug McDermott (Creighton) - McDermott was probably the break-out star for the US team, simply because as a freshman at Creighton this past season he just wasn't known to casual college basketball fans. But despite being the son of the head coach his playing time at Creighton certainly wasn't due to nepotism. In fact, he wasn't just the Missouri Valley Freshman of the year - he made First Team All-MVC. He's an outstanding scorer with enough size (6'7", 210 pounds) that he's a quality rebounder. Creighton was a better team than their record would indicate this past season (only 10-8 in MVC play and relegated to the CBI, but both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them as one of the Top 100 teams in the nation), and they have a really nice young core going forward, not just with McDermott but also with Gregory Echenique and Jahenns Manigat. And that young core doesn't include Antoine Young just because he's not young (he will be a senior in 2011-12), and Young is one of the best pure point guards in the MVC (2.38 A/TO ratio, named 2nd Team All-MVC). I don't think there's any question that Creighton will be the best offensive team in the MVC next season, and I feel even more confident in my pick of Creighton to win the conference outright.

Patric Young (Florida) - The dominant inside force for Team USA at U-19 Worlds. He was explosive on both sides of the floor - playing well against bigs like Jonas Valanciunas, and putting together a highlight reel of dunks. Young was a hyped 2010 recruit for Florida and was fairly invisible early in his freshman season, but came on strong late and I already liked him to be a powerful force for Florida next season. I picked Florida to finish 2nd in the SEC East based on the assumption that Young would be back and would be able to neutralize any opponent's top big (I know, I know: the SEC is getting rid of the divisions... that hadn't been announced yet back in April). Kentucky is going to be the heavy favorite in the SEC next season, but I do believe that Florida will be the second best team in the conference, and could potentially contend for a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Joe Jackson (Memphis) - He led the U-19 team at Worlds in assists, and scored a lot, but overall his reviews were negative. He did a poor job handling the point, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (37-to-30) was bad. In key moments he deferred to the team's top scorers, like Jeremy Lamb. Jackson won't need to be a true point guard for Memphis next year, as they have a slew of explosive perimeter scorers (Will and Antonio Barton, Charles Carmouche, Chris Crawford, etc). And I didn't even include Adonis Thomas, a 6'6" wing who is the jewel of Josh Pastner's 2011 recruiting class. But the biggest problem Memphis had last year was that they were basically an AAU team - their offense consisted of a rotation of very athletic players trying to take their men one-on-one. They could really use a true point guard and floor leader who can foster a coherent offensive philosophy. It doesn't appear that Jackson is any closer to filling that void. Memphis is still the heavy favorite in Conference USA, but I don't get all the Top 10/15 hype they're getting. They're a borderline Top 25 team at best, in my opinion. I've got them in the 7-9 seed range for the NCAA Tournament.

Tony Mitchell (North Texas) - Arguably the best athlete on the whole team. He originally signed with Missouri as part of their 2010 class, but couldn't qualify academically and ended up at North Texas. Obviously academics are a concern for him, and there's always a chance that if he gets his grades in order he'll just jump to a bigger school, but he'll be a dominant force as a freshman for North Texas in 2011-12 if he plays. The team is in rebuilding mode with six seniors graduating from their 2010-11 regular rotation, and they won't find a better player to build around than Mitchell.

Meyers Leonard (Illinois) - The 7-footer played sparingly as a freshman in 2010-11. He had the size, of course, but his offense was horrid (48.3% shooting, 3.8 TO/40 Min). He showed much nicer offensive skill at U-19 Worlds (63.4% shooting, 2.7 TO/40 Min). Illinois loses every regular from their 2010-11 front line (Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Jereme Richmond, Bill Cole), which turns things over to lesser-used bench players Leonard and Tyler Giffey. Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw are highly touted bigs from the Illini's 2011 recruiting class, but it will make Bruce Weber happy to see the improvement that Leonard has shown. I'd expect him to start at center for Illinois next season. Illinois will be strong in the backcourt with the return of Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Crandall Head (and the loss of Demetri McCamey, who you can argue is a bit of addition by subtraction), as well as 2011 recruits Tracy Abrams, Mycheal Henry and Devin Langford. I picked Illinois to finish sixth in the Big Ten, which would very likely be good enough for an NCAA Tournament bid. I don't think that Leonard's performance will cause me to push them higher than sixth right now, but I feel better about picking them as an at-large team.

Jahii Carson (Arizona State) - He struggled to get on the court, and did appear to not yet be quite ready for prime time. He has several months to get ready for his freshman season, of course, but I think Arizona State fans should temper some of the immediate expectations on this kid (ASU's most hyped recruit since James Harden in 2007). The team is decimated by graduations and I picked them finish in 11th place in the Pac-12, and in serious contention for the cellar. It's very unlikely that the Sun Devils will be playing for much next season, so they will be best off developing Carson, and letting him progress at his own pace. He obviously has a ton of raw talent, and there's no reason to think that he won't someday be a star.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Shawn Kemp, Jr. To Washington: What It Means

Getting from high school to college has been a circuitous process for Shawn Kemp, Jr. After originally signing with Alabama for their 2009 recruiting class, he failed to qualify academically. He then switched to Auburn, and joined their 2010 class, but failed to qualify academically again. Now he's signed with Washington, for their 2011 class. And he's already being criticized as being overweight and out of shape, and he'll have to work himself into playing shape over the next few months. Even his father was in the NBA for quite a few years before falling too badly out of shape.

I don't think anybody expects Kemp to be a star right off the bat, but he will be useful as an athletic body in the paint, and as depth. Washington returns Darnell Grant and Aziz N'Diaye, who were two of their three best rebounders last season, and two of the three regular players over 6'6" (Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who graduated, was the other).

Lorenzo Romar had already inked two bigs to his 2011 recruiting class - Jernard Jarreau and Martin Breunig - but both are seen as raw projects, and I don't think it's fair to expect too much from either one right away. And that's where Kemp comes in, because I think he should be able to play 15-20 minutes per game, playing a big role on the boards and in the paint.

Washington's strength next year will, of course, be in the backcourt. Abdul Gaddy, who was regarded by some as the top point guard in the 2009 class (you might remember the other top point guard in that class: John Wall), will be back from injury, and between he and 2011 superstar recruit Tony Wroten, Jr. the team should be in good shape at the point. And at the 2 and 3 spots the team is loaded with athletic scorers: Terrence Ross, CJ Wilcox, Scott Suggs and 2011 recruit Hikeem Stewart being the best. The Huskies rarely run much of their offense through the paint, but an athlete like Kemp could be key.

Washington has been supremely talented throughout almost all of Lorenzo Romar's tenure, and the question has always been why the team seems to always underperform the sum of its parts. And that's particularly going to be an issue this coming season when I no longer think Washington will be the most talented team in the Pac-12. In my view, Arizona is clearly more talented (and is a dark horse Final Four threat), and I think I'd also take UCLA's roster over Washington. In my 2011-12 Pac-12 preview I picked Washington State to finish third in the final standings, dropping the Huskies to fourth. I have Washington making the NCAA Tournament, but just barely.

In my opinion, the Kemp signing potentially pushes Washington into third place in the Pac-12, and it puts just a little bit more space between them and the NIT. I'll be surprised if they're not still on the bubble when we enter March, but I do think that in the end they'll be back to the Dance.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Catching Up: Juwan Staten, Earnest Ross, Patrick Bade

Catching up on three final stories from June that I hadn't gotten to yet:

Juwan Staten will now transfer to West Virginia - Staten has had a busy offseason. The star freshman from Dayton had announced that he would head to Penn State (I talked about that move here), but the exit of Ed DeChellis caused him to re-open his transfer and now he's decided on West Virginia. Staten will have to sit out the 2011-12 season, so this won't impact anything for more than 12 months from now, but Staten is a huge signing. He's going to be a star in the Big East, and point guard could be a key need for West Virginia.

Truck Bryant will be a senior this coming season and will not be around for the 2012-13 season. Star 2010 recruit Noah Cottrill was the heir apparent at point guard, but a slew of off-the-court problems have him done at the school. The only returning scholarship point guards for the 2012-13 season will be 2011 recruits: Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds. Both are quality recruits, but neither is a true blue chipper, and I'll be shocked if Staten isn't the starter. As long as Bob Huggins is the head coach, West Virginia will have athletic wings and bigs, and they'll play good defense. But his successful teams the past few seasons have all had quality point guards. He'll still have Truck Bryant for the coming season, but after that it will be a great luxury to be able to turn things over to Juwan Staten.

Earnest Ross to Missouri - This is actually one of three big transfers for Missouri. Missouri also appears to have locked up George Goode and Keion Bell. Ross was the leading scorer on Auburn last season, although that wasn't a huge achievement considering how awful that team was. Honestly, he's a better defensive player than offensive player. Goode is a relatively raw big who is coming in from Lousiville. Bell is a hyper-athletic guard from Pepperdine. He created a lot of offense and was a big scorer in the WCC, but he's not an efficient shooter, and only time will tell if he can repeat that success in the Big 12. Goode will likely be the only one of the three that will be able to play in 2011-12, as he has graduated college and will have one year of eligibility to go. Ross and Bell will likely not be eligible until 2012-13.

The Missouri situation remains in flux with Mike Anderson's exit and Frank Haith's arrival. I don't think there's much question that Haith is a downgrade from Anderson, and the school's fans are already smarting from the way Matt Painter played Missouri's interest into a raise at Purdue. Even if Haith is able to keep any more of his players from leaving, he still has to deal with the fact that Laurence Bowers, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Matt Pressey are all down to their last season of eligibility. So even if all four play for Missouri in 2011-12, Haith will still really be able to use Keion Bell and Earnest Ross the following season. It will be easier to project this team when we get to October and have a more firm Missouri roster, and a more firm set of 2011 and 2012 signees.

Patrick Bade quits Purdue's basketball team for football - At first glance, this doesn't seem like news even worth mentioning. Bade scored only 18 points all season in 2010-11, in only 157 minutes. He had 1.5 rebounds per game. But with his size he was a solid rebounder, and he was a big body for a team that needs big bodies. Robbie Hummel will return for Purdue, but I don't think Purdue fans can count on anything from Hummel at this point considering how badly battered his career has been by injuries the past few seasons. The only other returner for Purdue over 6'5" who played any important minutes all season long is Travis Carroll, who is a slightly better offensive player than Bade, but isn't as good defensively or on the boards. The only other returner over 6'5" is Sandi Marcius, who I honestly have no opinion on because I can't recall watching him in anything other than garbage time.

Matt Painter is attempting to reload the frontcourt with his 2011 recruiting class, adding Jacob Lawson (a raw, athletic forward) and Donnie Hale (a quality big on both ends of the floor, but who may be more of a project). But if Hummel goes down with an injury again, then the loss of Patrick Bade means that Purdue is going to be depending on at least 30-40 minutes per game from these two true freshmen, which is going to be quite a bind. In my opinion, the best case scenario for Purdue (with a healthy Hummel) is third place in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Wisconsin (see my 2011-12 Big Ten preview here). Even if everything goes right for them, I still expect them to battle with Michigan and Michigan State, and perhaps Illinois, for that third place spot. But they're a Hummel injury away from fighting with teams like Indiana and Northwestern, and perhaps even Iowa or Nebraska, for the final NCAA Tournament spots. It's hard to think of another team in recent memory so dependent on such an injury-prone player as the 2011-12 Purdue team will be with Robbie Hummel.

Monday, July 04, 2011


I've finally given in and gotten the blog a twitter account. I figured I might as well grab one before all the good user names are gone. "Basketball_Predictions" is obviously too long of a handle, so I decided to go with "BP__Blog" (that's a second underscore, because "BP_Blog" with one underscore was taken by somebody with four followers who hasn't posted in three years). I'm willing to listen to better ideas, though. I've got a little widget on the top left hand corner of the page with the most recent tweets.

The advantages of the twitter account are two-fold. One, it allows me to have much more in the way of in-game conversations with you, the readers. It should be particularly fun once we hit tournament season in March and April. Two, it's a way for you the readers to share this blog with your friends. I've intentionally put in zero effort promoting this blog - people find it on their own, or are introduced to it by their friends. I'm not doing this to make money, and don't care how many pageviews I get. But the more people I can discuss college baskeball with the better.

Like the blog itself, things will be light for the next few months, before picking up for the new season in October.

I'll see you all in the Twitterverse.