The Long Arc of Home-Court Advantage

In his debut column for The Fieldhouse this month, Ken Pomeroy wrote:

Teams are protecting their home court less and less these days. In conference games last season, home teams won 59.0 percent of the time. That continues a trend that has existed for at least the last 15 seasons. And I can only say ‘at least’ because I am unaware of a detailed study that goes back further. However, it’s highly likely that last season was the worst year for home teams in the history of the game.

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Two videos to watch

What do Steve Masiello and I have in common? Not much, but today we’re featured on videos around the internet. Masiello’s latest installment of “Coaches Corner” went live last night and is a must watch for any Manhattan or MAAC fan. This morning my video about Free Throw Rate went live as part of the Sabermetric Network. You should check back weekly on Tuesdays for content about tempo-free basketball stats, it’s way more fun than reading my quick guide.

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LIU’s free throws are a valuable ally

At this point LIU Brooklyn and free throws should be almost synonymous in people’s heads. For each of the past two seasons during their run through the NEC the Blackbirds have been in the Top 10 in the nation in both offensive and defensive free throw rate.

This season LIU has attempted 491 free throws in the second halves of games alone. Their opponents have attempted 411 free throws total. It’s an amazing rate that is certainly helping them win basketball games. In fact, there are four teams – LIU, Gonzaga, Long Beach State and Nevada – that are in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive free throw rates. Each of those teams currently leads their respective conferences and is the favorite for an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

“It’s something we’ve done every game for years. It’s not fluke,” said LIU head coach Jim Ferry after his team shot 30 free throws against St. Francis (NY). “It’s not like well they got… We get 30 fouls shots every game. We lead the country in doing so. It’s part of what we do. You just have to relax step up and make them.”

The fact that LIU makes the free throws is just as important as taking them. With 566 free throws made this season the Blackbirds rank number one in the nation. That’s even after shooting 84 fewer free throws than the No. 1 team in offensive free throw rate, New Mexico State. That’s because LIU shoots 73.4% from the line, the third highest percentage amongst teams in the Top 25 in free throw attempts and 45th in the nation overall.

It’s the second half though where LIU’s aggression really starts to show up. This season the Blackbirds have attempted 280 free throws in the first half and have a free throw rate of just 34.8% during the first 20 minutes. If that trend were continued over a full game LIU would rank 217th in the nation, but the Blackbirds go to work on opponents and the referees during the second half.

LIU has attempted 491 free throws in the second half and has a free throw rate of 67.3% during that time. That would be far and away the best mark in the nation if done over a full game and shows just how hard it is to stop the Blackbirds from getting to the line.

Part of the reason LIU has such a significant advantage from the line is the team’s frontcourt depth and its style of play. Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Kenny Onyechi almost have to be fouled in order for NEC opponents to hope to contain them. Both Boyd and Olasewere rank in the top 100 players in the nation in individual free throw rate and if Onyechi had enough minutes to qualify he would rank seventh overall.

Olasewere in particular is a handful for officials. His continuously attacking style puts pressure on defenses to stand in and take charges or to try to strip the ball on the dribble, each moment offering up an opportunity to draw another foul. It’s why according to Ken Pomeroy’s estimates Olasewere ranks seventh in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, there’s just no other way to guard him. (Boyd ranks ninth by the way.)

This is all well and good, but watching the Blackbirds and listening to Ferry speak you have to wonder, is this really a skill? Is there a way to be good at getting officials to call fouls and avoiding them? Lets look at a few graphs to help determine the answer.

There are three questions I want to attempt to answer here:

  1. Is this a repeatable skill year to year? (Can you coach it?)
  2. Are offensive and defensive free throw rates related?
  3. Is being a good team, and having late leads, the way to have a high free throw rate?

First in terms of if this is a repeatable skill. Well, if it wasn’t luck and teams could really teach it you’d see a correlation from year-to-year. It appears you certainly can teach teams to not foul. From 2009-10 to 2010-11 there was a 0.61 correlation between a team’s defensive free throw rates. From 2010-11 to this season that correlation currently stands at 0.56. Considering the turnover in personnel and coaching staffs, that seems like a strong indicator that this is a skill that can be taught. On the other hand, offensive free throw rate doesn’t show quite as strong a correlation at 0.47 and 0.37 year-to-year over those same seasons. Here are graphs of 2011 vs. 2012 seasons for both.

For another example of why defensive free throw rate may be able to be taught take a look at the year-to-year improvement in Ferry’s Blackbirds. Since he went through an entire recruiting cycle he’s never had a team finish worse than 100th in the nation in defensive free throw rate. Over the past four seasons the Blackbirds have ranked 77th, 54th, 7th and now 2nd. It’s obvious that they’re on to something and it’s working. (It’s worth noting though that a strong defensive free throw rate doesn’t mean you’ve got a good defense. It’s just one small component.) If winning the battle at the line is important to a staff’s philosophy it can be done.

But this brings me to point two. If avoiding and drawing fouls are teachable skills then why isn’t there a clear correlation between the two? For instance, there is almost no correlation between offensive and defensive free throw rate this season. Here’s a graph with both on the axes. It’s a giant blob.

Also, it doesn’t appear that offensive free throw rates are impacted by how good a team is. I thought that maybe teams that were talented, as measured by their Pomeroy rating, would also have a high offensive free throw rate. That’s not the case as it turns out, as you can see in the graph below. (Well, there’s a slight relationship.)

So what have we learned? LIU and free throws have a special bond and the Blackbirds have a unique skill that will certainly serve them well for the rest of the season and possibly into the future as well.

Tempo-free MAAC: Does anyone want to challenge Iona?

There’s a very clear cut No. 1 team in the MAAC this season. Iona has taken all comers and delivered convincing win after convincing win. It’s good enough that the Gaels are currently projected as a 12 seed in ESPN’s latest bracketology (playing Vanderbilt!). The big question now is if any team is going to challenge the Gaels. We’ll find out this week as more of the top teams have games against each other starting on Thursday with Iona vs. Manhattan and Fairfield vs. Loyola (Md.). Let’s look at what the per possessions stats tell us about those four teams.

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Tempo-free NEC: The battle at the top

The NEC is supposed to be a dogfight at the top and through four conference games that’s exactly what’s happening. Central Connecticut State, Robert Morris, Wagner and Long Island Brooklyn are sitting atop the conference with the only losses amongst those four teams being to each other. (Wagner lost at LIU, RMU lost at CCSU). The tempo-free numbers tell a similar story, but a surprising team is on top.

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Who does more? Looking at assists

Everyone thinks they know the best way to rack up a bunch of assists: Play fast, surround yourself with a bunch of talented scorers and let the dimes pile up like Scrooge McDuck’s vault. The best playmakers though don’t just benfit from the talent around them. They also raise their teammates up. Who is doing that this season?

Let’s take a look at the top eight players in assists per game from BCS conferences and try and figure it out. The list: Kendall Marshall, North Carolina; Jordan Theodore, Seton Hall; Tim Frazier, Penn State; Vincent Council, Providence; Peyton Siva, Louisville; Myck Kabongo, Texas; Shabazz Napier, Connecticut and Junior Cadougan, Marquette.

Looking at the individual tendencies of the Top 8 BCS assist men

Marshall leads the group at 10.2 assists per game, but he’s getting a bunch of help from his teammates. Of the eight players in the survey Marshall has the highest percentage of his assists that result from jumpers at 31.4%. Combining that with the 23.5% that have resulted in threes thus far this season means he’s needed a teammate to knock down a shot 54.9% of the time.

Surprisingly, that isn’t the highest mark of the eight point guards. Drive-and-kick guards like Kabongo, Cadougan and Frazier have very high percentages of their assists result in threes. Since 56.3% of Frazier’s assists have ended up being to shooters behind the arc, he’s actually helped out in some way on almost 60% of the Nittany Lions’ points this season. Thus PSU is incredibly reliant on their junior point guard, which is probably why he’s played fewer than 34 minutes in just two games.

Frazier has another quality that makes him stand out as well; no point guard on this list spreads the ball around to different teammates as much as he does. Thus far this season Cammeron Woodyard has gotten 21.3% of Frazier’s assists. That pales in comparison to the percentage Jae Crowder has gotten from Cadougan (44.9%) or Bryce Cotton (43.8%) has received from Council.

Another player that does a good job spreading the ball around is Texas’ Kabongo and he’s a freshman. While J’Covan Brown gets 31.1% of the Canadian’s assists, six other players have also received at least eight percent.

Then there’s the fascinating case of Napier. The Connecticut point guard is 18th in the nation in assists at 6.2 per game. The best part is a whopping 32.1% of those have gone for dunks. Consider that no other player has had more than 16.7% of their assists go for dunks (Marshall, mostly thanks to John Henson) and it’s even more stunning. That’s the benefit of playing with Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb.

Siva though tops Napier’s close basket percentage. This is a product of the Louisville system and the finishers he plays with. If it’s not a three or something near the rim Rick Pitino doesn’t want it. And really, who on the Cardinals is going to be dunking on a regular basis? That means Siva has the highest layup percentage amongst his peers at 43.5%. Interestingly enough he doesn’t have the lowest jumper percentage.  That belongs to Theodore at a miniscule 6.1%. The Seton Hall point guard is putting his teammates in great positions to make plays with the basketball.

Because Marshall is relying so much on jump shots from his teammates, it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain a double-digit assist total throughout the season. At some point the shooters are bound to go cold. Then the UNC point guard will have to rely on the pace at which the Tar Heels play and the elite finishing talent he has around him, like Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes, to get easy assists. He’s got enough talent to sustain it.

What about the players like Frazier, Theodore and Council that don’t have the elite talent around them? Well, Theodore (37.9% to Herb Pope) and Council (Cotton) have done a good job of identifying the elite scoring talent around them and getting the ball to those guys. Frazier doesn’t have that luxury and whether or not he can sustain the ridiculous do-everything pace he’s on going into Big Ten play remains to be seen. Still, he’s certainly a special talent that is doing more with less.

This post is going to be cross posted on College Hoops Journal.

Strength of schedule matters early in the season too

I like Eric Angevine’s writing. I think that the Storming the Floor account is one of the most entertaining college basketball follows on Twitter. But I just can’t get behind a Mid-Major Power Ranking (ESPN Insider $$) that tries to tell me that Tulane, even at 11-1, is the best team in the nation. Especially when it uses a contorted form of efficiency margin.

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A better way to find assists

Tracking where assists go and what types of baskets they create is becoming more and more important in college basketball analysis. Dave Ryan did a great post the other day about Scott Machado’s assists. Everyone has also seen the great graphics that Luke Winn does in his Power Rankings. This week he even went and checked for erroneous assists (see the North Carolina section). But whenever someone wants to do analysis of assists they have to go over the box score by hand. (At least I think they were.) I’m hoping to eliminate that effort.

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Summer Wrap Up: St. John’s Roster Remade

Last season Steve Lavin surprised some people by taking a veteran St. John’s team and going 21-12 to earn a six seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Red Storm played a rotation with eight seniors. The players had been around for a long time, but none really became household names until 2010-11. Maybe that would’ve changed if people knew they’d already seen these guys before?

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