Xavier 74, St. John’s 66: Three Thoughts

Four minutes remained during last night’s Xavier-St. John’s game, and for the first time, the upset the Red Storm had threatened to engineer was ready to become reality. The Musketeers, ranked tenth-nationally, had teetered throughout the Big East tilt, a combination of sloppy ball-handling, interior malaise, and plain being outworked by the Johnnies. Up one, Chris Mullin’s squad looked poised for its second upset of the season. Continue reading “Xavier 74, St. John’s 66: Three Thoughts”

Big East tempo-free metrics: week four

For the third time this season, St. John’s could not manage pull the upset against a highly-ranked opponent, losing to Creighton on a Doug McDermott last second three. True to form, St. John’s again competed for nearly 40 minutes before a stretch of questionable decision-making — why was Chris Obekpa sagging so far off McDermott? — doomed a SJU victory. A few Big East teams have a break from conference play heading into week four’s weekend — Georgetown plays Michigan State, and Villanova ventures into Big Five play — but there are some interesting tempo-free takeaways as we reach the halfway point of conference action.

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Creighton 8-1 1.24 0.99
Villanova 7-1 1.18 1.05
Xavier 5-2 1.17 1.09
Providence 5-2 1.10 1.05
Seton Hall 3-4 1.06 1.08
Marquette 3-4 1.01 1.07
Georgetown 3-6 0.96 1.03
St. John’s 2-6 1.00 1.05
DePaul 2-6 0.99 1.13
Butler 1-7 0.98 1.10

Villanova’s luck or will February doom the Cats? Judging by the overall conference efficiency percentages posted by Jay Wright’s squad, one might assume Villanova is the cream of the Big East. However, after taking a deeper look, it appears the Wildcats have been exceedingly fortunate during the past few games. Discounting the two games against DePaul and Creighton, which were both romps from the onset, Nova has struggled to effectively run their offense: against St. John’s, Marquette, and Georgetown, VU scored just 1.08 PPP, which is pedestrian when compared to their overall Big East offensive efficiency percentage (1.18). Nova’s defense hasn’t fared well during those three games either, rising slightly to 1.07, but despite this narrow efficiency margin (+.01), Nova’s record during this stretch is a very lucky 3-1 (it might be worth noting that the margin of victory in each of the three wins was in the single digits).

One explanation for Nova’s offensive slide is their struggles from beyond the arc. The Wildcats heavily depend on threes — per Ken Pomeroy, about a third of their points come from the perimeter — but during those four games, Nova converted only 34% of their long-range attempts. Villanova doesn’t often finish at the rim — 36% of their shots come at the rim (below the DI average, according to Hoop-Math.com) and when the squad does grab an offensive board, they don’t typically finish (.91 points per play) — and a dependence on made threes fuels the team’s offense; when those shots aren’t dropping, the Wildcats’ defense, which simply isn’t as stingy as it was a year ago, can’t carry this increasingly anemic offense.

Bryce Cotton’s conditioning. Only one other player this season has used a higher percentage of his team’s minutes than Providence’s Bryce Cotton. The diminutive guard has played every minute during PC’s last five games, and on last week’s conference call, coach Ed Cooley was asked how the coaching staff treated Cotton’s conditioning on non-game days: “We have to be very cautious of how we physically practice … truly we’ve been in this situation since I’ve been the coach at Providence. If you look at Bryce’s minute distribution since we’ve been here, his routine has been in place, [and] we know what we are doing with him.” There are two areas of Cotton’s game that have evolved in his senior season and has allowed Cotton some rest while on the court; while Cotton is still nationally known as a lethal from beyond the arc, the guard has ably transformed into a true combo guard.

His assist rate has skyrocketed from 2013 (18.1% to 35.1%), and since he really never leaves the court, his assists per 40 minutes is virtually the same as his assist average this season (6 per game), so while Cotton was accustomed to continuously running all over the court in past seasons, he has been able to conserve a bit of energy by acting as a facilitator.

The other alteration has been PC’s use of the flex offense at times; in recent games, Cooley’s squad has used cross and back screens to free Cotton and the other Friars for uncontested shots within the arc. Cotton has been a prime beneficiary of this offensive switch — the constant movement frees Cotton for mid-range jumpers and helps keep his legs fresh.

Matt Stainbrook undervalued? There is a reason Cooley, during the same conference call, unequivocally praised the Western Michigan transfer as one of the nation’s most underrate bigs. Stainbrook has been somewhat of a surprise star for Xavier this season. While his potential — a 6’10” big with soft hands and great court vision — was talked about with much enthusiasm in Cincinnati, it was unclear entering this season whether Stainbrook would be in shape to keep up with his fast-paced backcourt and how he would handle the physicality of Xavier’s new conference. So far, though, Stainbrook has been arguably the Big East’s most underrated player — only Dee Davis and Semaj Christon have a higher assist rate than Stainbrook, and a greater percentages of Xavier’s possessions are resulting in a post touch. Stainbrook may not be as athletically gifted as other Big East frontcourt players, but the junior has been skilled using his body and touch around the basket to convert 52% of his twos.

Big East Tempo-Free Metrics: Week Two

The Big East has become a bit clearer in the second week of conference play, but the conference’s gut — teams ranked fourth through sixth in the chart below — is still considerably murky. The efficiency margin separating Georgetown, Marquette, and Providence ranges up to .05, too small a margin to predict which team might pose a challenge to the conference’s top tier. Continue reading “Big East Tempo-Free Metrics: Week Two”

Three Questions: St. John’s and Seton Hall

The Big East holds their first post-realignment media day today, an event usually held on Central Park South that now takes place at Chelsea Piers. While a fair number of the familiar faces will be missed, from Jim Boeheim to Jamie Dixon, the new-look conference still holds a significant amount of the local college spotlight.

St. John’s hasn’t been mentioned as a favorite for the Big East regular season title, but the Red Storm have the most amount of returning talent on the roster and have the potential to spend much of January and February in the conference’s upper echelon. Much of the anticipation surrounding Seton Hall centers around the team’s stellar 2014 recruiting class, but Kevin Willard’s group is finally healthy and possesses the Big East’s best all-around player. In order to better portend what may transpire with both the Johnnies and the Pirates in 2013-14, here are the three questions that are crucial to the success of each squad.

Seton Hall
Who scores other than Fuquan Edwin?

Now entering his final college season, Fuquan Edwin, in my opinion, is the most valuable in the Big East — no other player means more to his squad than the 6’6″ wing. Not only did Edwin lead the Pirates in scoring (16.5 ppg) but his points were built on efficient shooting — 46% from two and 41% from beyond the arc — and he was more aggressive as the offense’s primary option, using screens more frequently while then getting into the lane and drawing nearly two more fouls per 40 minutes. Continuing with the accolades, Edwin is also the conference’s most-effective on-ball defender. Seton Hall should be better than their 2013 record (3-15) indicated — Aaron Cosby and Kyle Smyth are the only two significant players missing from the 2014 roster — but a trio of Pirates need to inherit some of the scoring burden to ensure that record rises. There are two immediate options, one being Eugene Teague, a 6’9″ forward whose improved offseason conditioning — he lost nearly thirty pounds — will allow him to better finish on the block and second-chance possessions (Teague grabbed 12% of Seton Hall’s misses). The other is Patrik Auda, a big who redshirted last season and can stretch the floor and rarely turns the ball over. The key, though, is Brandon Mobley; the junior was oft-injured during Big East play, but his playing style — a wing who can shoot the three but is most effective working without the ball in the paint — complements the offensive skills Edwin, Teague, and the other Pirates bring to the court.

Will Seton Hall continue to rely on threes?
In 2012, roughly 30% of Seton Hall’s points came from three-pointers, but that percentage rose drastically last year (37%, which ranked thirteenth in the nation), and while the Hall were suited to bomb away from beyond the arc — the team made 36.7% of their attempts — they struggled to score when teams failed to stray from the three-point line (or when SHU had an off game). The now departed Smyth and Cosby combined to shoot 38% from three, and since his bigs saw more of the trainer than they did their coach, Willard was forced to depend on long-range shooting. The Hall’s healthy frontcourt means Willard’s offensive gameplan should shift in 2014 as Willard reengineers the offense to cater the Hall’s young true points (Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs) while also emphasizing post touches for a svelte Teague and perhaps utilizing more on pick and rolls involving the team’s multiple mobile bigs.

Can the extra inches help the defense?
The most interesting difference between the 2012 and 2013 Seton Hall squads is the disparity in defensive efficiency. While the ’12 team held Big East opponents under one point per possession, the ’13 Pirates struggled mightily to keep points off the board, allowing 1.07 OPPP (one of the conference’s worst rates). Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore were the only Pirates whose eligibility expired in last spring, so what happened? Theodore had a knack for aggressively pressuring ball-handler, and as a tandem, Theodore and Edwin generated countless steals. However, no one filled Theodore’s void and SHU was much less tenacious on the perimeter, which failed to hide the team’s real weakness; their lack of interior size meant allowing countless additional possessions. When any team isn’t forcing turnovers and giving up offensive boards, the OPPP is going to sky-rocket. Edwin will still fly around the court, picking both his man’s pocket while also causing turnovers with his help defense, but SHU’s defensive turnaround starts with the frontcourt, specifically the return of Mobley, Auda, Teague, and a now bulky Aaron Geramipoor.

St. John’s
What is Chris Obekpa’s impact in year two?
Judging by the minutes Steve Lavin doled out during St. John’s European trip, sophomore Chris Obekpa may come off the bench in 2013-14. While some may consider such a move shocking — how can a player, who blocked over 15% of opponents’ attempts, sit? — Obekpa was extremely limited on offense a year ago. The 6’9″ Obekpa had the lowest offensive rating of any Johnny that used more than 50 percent of the team’s minutes, and his range was essentially the space immediately surrounding the hoop. His main offseason goal had to center around developing any sort of post offense. St. John’s lacked a player capable of finishing on the block in 2013, and while Orlando Sanchez and God’sgift Achiuwa both have that potential to provide that balance, Obekpa needs at least one low-post counter move. Even if he continues to struggle scoring against Big East frontcourts, Lavin will still play him — he provides an instant impact on defense — but since SJU’s offense was truly stagnant in 2013, Obekpa needs to provide (and not just take away) points.

How many minutes will Rysheed Jordan use?
The addition of Rysheed Jordan allows Steve Lavin an option he has not had since he landed that monster recruiting class in 2011: he can now play both Jamal Branch and D’Angelo Harrison off the ball. Jordan’s supreme athleticism means he can go away from SJU screens and still get to the rim. Jordan’s game is built for north to south penetration, and all five sets of eyeballs will focus on Jordan when he steps on to the court (according to ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla, Jordan is “…good enough to start yesterday.” While both juniors have various isolation moves, and can create their own offense, they often need a pick to turn the corner on a defender, while Jordan’s presence will draw defenders from both guards (and the other Johnnies) and create openings that didn’t exist a year ago.

Does St. John’s need JaKarr Sampson to take jumpshots?
In late August, I wondered whether St. John’s would continue to take a high volume of two-point field goals — only one other DI team depended as heavily on generating offense off twos as SJU, and the Red Storm attempted 269 shots from between 17 feet and the three-point line (and made just 35% of those shots). ESPN’s John Gasaway recently wondered the same question, and asked Lavin if his players would continue to attempt those high-risk (but low-benefit) shots? According to Lavin, “The numbers that you’re looking at? They’re going to change … [and] it will be because we finally have some balance, including a perimeter attack … finishing at the rim was a challenge for our guys, and so was perimeter shooting, as you’ve indicated. Numbers aren’t going to drive or dictate everything you do, but they sure are a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of your team. That’s what you saw with us last year.” What is intriguing about Lavin’s answer is that Sampson, when I spoke with him a few weeks ago, was fairly certain he’ll expand his jump-shooting repertoire this season. “I improved my range a lot this year and you’ll definitely see me make a lot more threes this year,” he said, adding that his main focus is still attacking the rim off the bounce. The arrival of Sanchez (and the return of Achiuwa) means Sampson will likely be used more as a 3 (he was most often placed at the 4 a year ago), so the opportunity is there for Sampson to take more two-point jump shots, but is that needed? Sampson and Jordan are the two Johnnies best able to get to the rim and finish, and with the potential openings Jordan (and Max Hooper) can create, Lavin needs Sampson to focus on converting around the bucket and getting to the free throw line.

Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.

From Harvard’s Bench to SJU’s Shooting Savior

Max Hooper’s contribution to the 2011-12 Harvard squad lasted about twelve seconds. While Hooper’s stat line from his freshman season indicates the 6’6″ wing played four minutes — two in a preseason game against MIT and another two versus Utah — that sixth of a minute was the only moment Hooper did something other than run up and down the court, taking a baseline pass at the top of the key and missing on the only field goal attempt in his Harvard career. But that contribution belies how important Hooper is to his newest team, St. John’s, this season; the wing transferred to the Big East school following his freshman year and is a major reason why the Johnnies are seen as a potential conference title contender.

“My job is to get shots on the court,” said Hooper recently at Dribble for the Cure, an annual event hosted by the school and the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation that has raised more than $50,000 this year. “But I bring more to the table than shooting. I am a very cerebral player so I feel I can use that to make plays for my teammates.”

The wing took the long route to Queens. A transfer during his high school career brought Hooper to the storied Mater Dei program, and while various recruiting articles linked Hooper to Notre Dame and Stanford, it wasn’t until he spent a year at Brewster Academy (in an effort to boost his profile) that he committed to Harvard, the one program that reportedly showed consistent interest. However, it proved difficult for Hooper to find playing time in the Crimson’s crowded backcourt, and he settled on St. John’s a few weeks after announcing decision to leave Cambridge.

Why did he chose the Red Storm, a team similarly stacked with guards? The presence of JaKarr Sampson, the highly-ranked forward who recommitted to St. John’s last spring who was Hooper’s roommate at Brewster. “When we roomed at Brewster, it was the first time I met a true, knock-down shooter,” claims Sampson. “You don’t think a shooter like Max can get better, but his shot has gotten better over the years.” Hooper had also played with, and against, current Johnnies at iS8, an annual summer tournament held in a tiny middle school gym in Queens — Hooper was placed on the same team with Sampson and D’Angelo Harrison. “Moe Harkless had a team,” said Hooper, “and he told JaKarr to come down and play and bring a teammate. It was an invaluable experience.”

There have always been concerns that Hooper did not possess the athleticism to compete at the high-major level, but as his mentor Miles Simon, the former Arizona star who now doubles as a skills’ trainer and college basketball analyst at ESPN, told the NY Post this spring, Hooper has transformed his body and become a better athlete. Hooper agrees with Simon, saying, “Last year was a good opportunity to take advantage of sitting out. When the team was on a road trip, the strength coach would keep working me out, and I could concentrate on getting extra lifts on game days.”

Hooper has always possessed the reputation as a long-range threat — during the team’s overseas trip this August, Hooper connected on 10 (of 13) threes in a win, and as John detailed, Hooper’s offensive rating in Europe (147.6) led the squad — so it will be interesting how coach Steve Lavin uses the wing. Even if he struggles defending potential quicker wings, his shooting touch is a sorely needed asset, one that essentially ensures he sees quality playing time. The Red Storm made nearly 25% of their threes a season ago, and the lack of outside shooting hampered the team’s offensive efficiency, clogging the paint and negating SJU’s overall athleticism.

Hooper foresees himself used in a variety of scenarios, including both in transition and in the half-court, and believes the ability of Jamal Branch and Rysheed Jordan to break defenders off the bounce will be integral to his game. “Both Rysheed and Jamal are always able to get into the lane, draw my man, and then kick to me for a spot-up. Regardless of who is on the court with me, my teammates do a good job setting me up.” Hooper is also skilled enough as a ball-handler that Lavin may also depend more frequently on having Sampson or Orlando Sanchez set a pick for the sophomore — both bigs can roll and then catch and finish and traffic, or give Hooper a fraction of daylight needed for an attempt.

The potential pairing of Hooper and Marco Bourgault also cannot be understated; though Bourgault only averaged ten or so minutes per game, he did convert 40% of his threes in a span of five games, and is another option to provide interior spacing. “Hoop is such a good shooter that teams are going to have to chase him off the line,” said Sampson, “But his shooting will open up our offense a lot this season.”

Big East Projection: The big Orange crush

Big East play opens on Tuesday with Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh and Providence vs. St. John’s. Therefore there’s no better time to start running random simulations in order to figure out what teams have a legitimate shot at winning the conference title and which teams are going to have to watch their backs in order to avoid a winless season.

Continue reading “Big East Projection: The big Orange crush”