Big East Tempo-Free Metrics: Week Seven

We have frequently written about St. John’s this season, but if it isn’t clear from reading our most frequent tempo-free posts, the Red Storm is arguably the nation’s hottest team. Following Tuesday’s second half beat-down (and win) against Butler, the Johnnies are now 8-6 in Big East play — an astounding record considering they started 0-5 — and have won seven out of their last eight games. As we explained in an earlier tempo-free post, an underlying theme of SJU’s rise is their stingy defense, an ability to defend without fouling while also consistently generating steals, but as we will detail below, the Johnnies might have solved their offensive issues within the arc.

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Creighton 12-2 1.21 1.03
Villanova 11-2 1.18 1.04
St. John’s 8-6 1.06 1.00
Xavier 8-5 1.12 1.08
Providence 7-7 1.07 1.07
Marquette 7-6 1.04 1.05
Georgetown 6-7 1.02 1.05
Seton Hall 4-8 1.02 1.07
Butler 2-12 .96 1.10
DePaul 2-12 .98 1.17

A few takeaways from this past week’s games:

Davante Gardner isn’t the best Golden Eagle this season. In an early February loss to St. John’s, Jamil Wilson had the worst game in all three of his Marquette seasons. The senior forward scored just one point on five field goal attempts, and based on how lethargic and simply tentative Wilson looked while on the court, coach Buzz Williams sat Wilson during the entire second half. Since that contest, though, the 6’7″ forward has been on an offensive tear, converting 47% of his twos and 52% of his long-range attempts. It’s no secret the transition of full-time point guard duties to Derrick Wilson has not been smooth, and a casualty of this change is Davante Gardner’s touches; Williams wants at least one paint touch per possession, but Wilson and Golden Eagles’ backcourt have struggled to find Gardner on the block. His usage rate is up (but not by as much as one would’ve expected) this season, and the big hasn’t attempted ten or more shots since the end of January. In their most recent loss, to Creighton, Garnder took only three two-point field goal attempts; since Marquette’s perimeter game is again lacking — for the second straight season, Marquette is taking few threes and isn’t converting that small sample size (less than 30% from deep in Big East play) — so defenses are able sag a bit, packing the paint and force Gardner to catch the ball farther from the bucket than desired. Gardner’s inability to get a touch is why Wilson’s play is crucial if Marquette make a final five-game push. He is the only Eagle capable of creating his own offense – just 47% of his attempted twos are assisted — and he can score from both long and mid-range. Wilson is currently the catalyst for MU’s offense, and if he can continue to create halfcourt spacing and defensive imbalance, it’ll only benefit Gardner and the team’s offensive efficiency.

A simplistic reason for St. John’s rise. We will delve into the team’s surge in a post prior to this weekend’s Villanova game, but one can spot the moment Steve Lavin’s squad turned this season’s corner. Against Seton Hall in late January, the Johnnies made 26 of their 45 two-point attempts, and since then, the team has converted 50 or more percent of their twos in each Big East game and is scoring 1.10 PPP. Through the first five conference contests, St. John’s made an anemic 40% of their shots within the arc, a percentage which has dramatically shifted to 53% during their streak. Even in their first matchup with Creighton, a road loss, SJU made 50% of their twos. John outlined several weeks ago that JaKarr Sampson was the key to solving the team’s then-offensive malaise, and his piece proved prophetic. During the last nine games, Sampson is making 50% of his twos (up from 27.5% at the start of Big East play) and is using a blend of uber-athleticism and refined shooting touch to both get to the basket and convert from mid-range (typically the short corner).

Can opponents take away the 3, and still beat, Creighton? Jay Wright had to alter his defensive strategy when his squad traveled to Omaha this past weekend. The first time the teams met, in mid-January, the Bluejays made 21 threes, and blitzed Nova in the first half. In their second match-up, Wright decided to defend the three-point line, limit CU’s long-range attempts, and force Greg McDermott’s team to beat Nova within the arc, but this altered strategy didn’t work either: Creighton connected on 66% of their twos, and scored 1.46 PPP. Is it possible, then, to take away the three-ball from Creighton and still win? One Big East team has been successful with this gameplan — St. John’s — and it is interesting to see how Lavin’s team stymied CU. Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez typically guarded, and never left the side of, Ethan Wragge; the two never helped, or hedged on screens, and shadowed the big. St. John’s also made a decision to go under screens set for Austin Chatman, Grant Gibbs, and Jahenns Manigat, figuring the team’s first option is to get Doug McDermott a touch and would be less likely to hoist a three — rather than fighting over the screens, SJU defenders were better able to guard the drive. The other key to preventing a Creighton scoring deluge is to pressure the ball. Creighton doesn’t turn the ball over often — only 15.1% of their possessions result in a giveaway — is paramount — in three of the four CU losses, the team has committed double-digit turnovers.

Tempo-Free Big East: Week One

After two months of non-conference play and guarantee games, the Big East slate tipped last week. It is still ridiculously early to begin evaluating these squads — other than Creighton and Seton Hall, the remaining eight teams have played just two games — we can still begin to identify potential trends, possible standout players, and break down which team(s) to closely monitor in the coming weeks. Continue reading “Tempo-Free Big East: Week One”

How Jameel McKay’s move impacts Marquette

During Big East media day last Wednesday, Marquette coach Buzz Williams was asked about the latest junior college transfer to join his squad. Williams responded that Jameel McKay, the 6’8″ forward, was, “… a runner, jumper [who is] still trying to figure out who he is, and where he is, and what he needs to do.” Reading between the lines of the quote, it is hard to know whether the coach was surprised (or expected) McKay’s announcement the next day, via Twitter, that he planned to transfer from the Big East school.

When I published an article on the most intriguing Big East ‘freshmen’ for Big Apple Buckets, McKay was included because I thought that while the lean big would not be an offensive force, he could become a pivotal presence on the defensive glass. For the past several seasons, including last year’s team, Marquette has underwhelmed when tasked with keeping opponents from hauling in their own misses. Teams grabbed more than 34% of their missed shots in 2013, which translated to easier second offensive possessions (teams converted 45.1% of their twos). Despite the skill displayed on the offensive boards — the team led the Big East in offensive rebound percentage–– it has yet to carry over after defending the bucket for 19 or so seconds.

Contributing to this deficiency is that Williams relies on everybody to crash the glass, not just his bigs. Williams has long stocked his team with “switchables”, players who can slide into several different spots on the floor and are incapable of being defined as a strict positional player. Vander Blue was the only Golden Eagles who used more than 40% of the team’s minutes last season and didn’t have a defensive rebounding percentage greater than 10%. There are two Golden Eagles who don’t vacillate — Davante Gardner and Chris Otule are strictly 5s — but since Williams wants the rebounding responsibility shared amongst each player on the floor, neither Gardner nor Otule have impressive defensive rebounding percentages. They also don’t see the court that often — Gardner only uses a little more than 50% of Marquette’s available minutes — so while Williams will substitute the two bigs for each other, there are often times when the tallest player on the floor last season was Jamil Wilson (who is 6’7″).

Sans McKay, it is likely Marquette will continue to give up a disproportionate amount of defensive boards. McKay was perfectly suited to shine as a rebounding vacuum. His offensive game is too raw to be a big who deserves to be a paint touch each possession, but his speed, athleticism, and length would have earned McKay minutes, just by being a player who could limit opponents to one possession by just skying for rebounds. If McKay had remained at Marquette, his defensive rebound percentage would likely have been one of the league’s best. His speed would have also helped protect the paint, and the combination of his second leap and length would have caused havoc for teams attempting shots close to the bucket.

What is interesting is when Gardner, Otule, and Wilson all exhaust their eligibility after this year. The remaining roster, along with the 2014 recruiting class, tops out at 6’7″ and Williams and his coaching will now have to reevaluate their recruiting targets, a move that would have been unnecessary before last Thursday. There are no available scholarships for the 2014-15 season, and while there is always the possibility a player could transfer — Juan Anderson decided best to change locales this summer before coming back to the school — it is likely Williams will find at least one frontcourt player for MU’s frontcourt next year.