Fran-Graphs, 2011-12 Retrospecticus: Part 2

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Another basketball season is in the books and so the time is here for the second annual Fran-Graphs Retrospecticus, a statistical look back at the year that was in Iowa hoops. I did the same chart/article last year if you want to compare and contrast. The offensive and defensive efficiency numbers represent Iowa's play in conference play only, as calculated by John Gasaway in his final "Tuesday Truths" column. The individual statistics are taken from the Sports-Reference.com team page on Iowa, and represent season totals.

I'll start off with a claim that I know will prove controversial: Iowa was not a significantly better team, start to finish, this year than they were last year. The important thing to note here is "start to finish." If you just looked at Feburary and March of 2012, then, yes, this year's squad was probably better than the 2010-11 squad. But if you look at the totality of their season, it turns out that the two teams were roughly on par with each other. How can an 11-20 team be just about as good as an 18-17 team? The answer comes down to three things: strength of schedule, efficiency, and luck.

Strength of schedule

According to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, Iowa had the 17th-hardest schedule in the country in 2010-11, but just the 32nd hardest schedule in the country this year. As long as the Big Ten is a good league, Iowa's SOS will always look decent, which explains why Iowa's overall strength of schedule still looks pretty good this year. But even the Big Ten was a little tougher last year than this. For one, there was no Nebraska, and for two, the league was stronger top to bottom. The ten non-Iowa teams in the Big Ten in 2010-11 averaged a KenPom rating of .865, but this year, the average rating of the 11 non-Iowa teams dropped to .819. The top of the Big Ten was arguably stronger, with three top five KenPom teams in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but the bottom (Penn State and Nebraska) was far less competitive.

Also, Iowa's non-conference schedule was powerful weak. Clemson, Creighton, Iowa State and UNI were all good non-conference opponents, but. the rest of Iowa's schedule scraped the bottom of the barrel of KenPom's rankings: Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne (#273 out of 345), North Carolina A&T (#299), Brown (#308), Central Arkansas (#326), Northern Illinois (#330), and Chicago St. (#335). Those Potemkin village wins, in addition to costing a pretty penny, did little to prove Iowa's worth as a basketball team, even if they did insure a winning record. The year before, by contrast, Iowa played a much more robust early season schedule, with quality opponents like Alabama, Xavier, South Dakota State and Long Beach State, and far fewer cupcakes.

Efficiency

This year's team and last year's team were mirror images when it came to their basic efficiency numbers: The 2010-11 squad finished with the #53 defense in the country according to KenPom and the #120 offense, while this year's squad finished with the #34 offense and the #176 defense. When you combine the two efficiency numbers, the two teams wind up looking fairly similar in overall quality. Last year's team had a Pythagorean rating of .7118, and this year's had one of .7165.

One important caveat is that the KenPom rankings give you an idea of how well teams rate in the context of other teams in a particular season, not between seasons. If the overall level of college basketball was much higher this year than it was last year, then Iowa's #81 rating might mean more than their #80 rating last year. There's no easy way to say whether college basketball was better or worse this year than last, so it's hard to know which team would be favored in a hypothetical match-up between this year's squad and last year's.

My guess is that the overall level of play is roughly the same, but who really knows? My basic point is that, just based on efficiency numbers, the two teams look much more alike than their records suggest. How can roughly similar teams finish with such disparate winning percentages? Apart from strength of schedule, there's also...

Luck

This year's squad had just about average luck according to KenPom's ratings (144th out of 345 teams), while last year's team was woefully unlucky (338th). "Luck" in this sense means that a team deviated from the number of wins you would expect just based on their points for and points against. Last year's team lost a lot of close games that could have gone the other way and generally kept their losses close; this year's team had fewer really close games and had more blow-out losses. That doesn't mean that last year's team was a world-beater, just that they probably deserved a few more victories on the season. It's interesting to contemplate how this year would have been received if last year's team had, say, won eight games in the Big Ten. Would fans still be quite as excited? Would there be more impatience? These questions get at just how delicate the path was for Iowa's schedulers to navigate as they headed into the year: if they had scheduled too many difficult teams, a very young Iowa team might have gained more experience, but also might have finished with a losing record. If the team had finished with a losing record, they would probably have not made the NIT, and the CBI or CIT might not even have taken them. If they missed the postseason again, marginal fans and even some recruits might conclude that the program was stuck in limbo and lose interest. The only real downside of scheduling too many cupcakes was the possibility that they might finish with a record that put them in the NCAA tournament conversation and then have a low SOS knock them out. But since no one expected the tournament for this team, you can understand why that wasn't a prominent concern.

Given that Iowa finished with an NIT berth that very few people expected, it seems like the schedulers threaded the needle pretty well on this. The early season losses to Clemson and Campbell nearly threw a wrench in the plan (home losses do not look good in many ratings systems), but the Hawks managed to enter Big Ten play with a winning record. Given how poorly the team was playing in November and December, that cushy schedule probably saved Iowa from going 5-8 or worse in their pre-conference schedule.

Overview: The Defense

As I said above, this year's team was the mirror image of this year's team in terms of offensive and defensive prowess. Last year's team was a scrappy group of defenders that couldn't score to save their lives, while this year's was a group of versatile offensive players who were either too injured or too lackadaisical to play effective defense.

The loss of Jarryd Cole explains a lot of the decline in defense. Cole was Iowa's Swiss Army knife, strong enough to defend centers, quick enough to recover on outside shooters, and a very good defensive rebounder to boot. His intelligent defense made everyone else better, and the fact that he could guard opposing big men allowed Melsahn Basabe to roam as a pure shot-blocker. When Jarryd went off to the land of Bjork and Huldufolk, he took a lot of Iowa's defensive identity with him.

The other defender that Iowa missed this year was Eric May. May has become something of an afterthought this year, but he was a very good defender in that 2010-11 campaign. He registered 1.3 steals a game and had the strength and quickness to check a variety of players. His back trouble this year has made him a shell of his former self, but when he is healthy, he can provide some very good defense on small forwards and shooting guards. He has never seemed entirely comfortable on offense, so that part of his game may never develop, but if his back improves over the summer, he could provide the team with a big boost next year just by playing defense. A lot of fans have wondered who will replace Matt Gatens -- is Oglesby ready, will it be all Mike Gesell -- but I wouldn't forget about May. He is no Matt Gatens, but when healthy he can replicate some of the same things Gatens did so well: playing solid defense and knocking down open threes.

Iowa also arguably missed Bryce Cartwright on defense, or at least a healthy version of Bryce Cartwright. Cartwright and Zach McCabe were the poster boys for Iowa's defensive breakdowns all year, failing to mark shooters on the perimeter or taking the wrong angle on dribble penetration. Cartwright was still a very dynamic offensive player this year, but his defense seemed to suffer. [His offense, too, seemed to take a step back. His field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assist percentage, steal percentage and turnover percentage all took significant steps back in 2011-12.]

Looking at the season as a whole, the defensive problems were pretty comprehensive: Iowa couldn't defend two-pointers (they ranked 309th rated in the country in opponent's two-point shooting percentage at 51.8%), couldn't defend threes (179th in opponent's three-point shooting percentage at 34.5%), and allowed opponents to get far too many offensive rebounds (208th in the country at 31.2%). Although Iowa did a decent job of forcing turnovers and getting steals (70th in the country in steals/possession), they simply gave up too many open shots. Iowa's personnel presented the coaches with some difficult choices: without a true center and with Basabe playing poorly, teams could score without much resistance in the post if Iowa played one-on-one. On the other hand, if Iowa sent help or went to a zone to limit penetration, their perimeter defenders weren't quite fast enough to recover to the three-point line. The team never really figured out how to overcome their defensive problems, and the short answer may be that there wasn't all that much he could do. The team did not feature a strong defender at the center position, and gave heavy minutes to two mediocre-to-bad defenders at point guard and power forward. The team lacked a strong post defender and it lacked elite quickness on the perimeter, and both deficits were reflected in Iowa's tendency to foul. Last year's team was all-world in terms of restraint, ranking 19th in the country in free throw attempts per field goal attempt, but this year's was only so-so, ranking 84th. That's still a pretty decent ranking, and it reflects a smart, Gregg Popovich-like devotion to not giving up freebies, but it's still a drop-off.

Overview: The Offense

So the defense was bad, but what about the offense? That was where Iowa made the most progress, and it had a lot to do with the three-point shot. Thanks in large part to Matt Gatens, but also to the shooting of Oglesby, White, McCabe and Marble, Iowa went from a team that shot 31% from deep in 2010-11 to 37% in 2011-12. The impact of that improvement was tempered somewhat by the fact that Iowa didn't shoot a ton of threes overall: they ranked 302nd in the country in the percentage of their shots that were threes. The lack of a true low post threat or great dribble penetration made it hard for Iowa to get clean looks from the perimeter, but still, 302nd in the country is probably too low. An average two-point shot earned Iowa .97 (2*.486) points, while an average three-point shot earned them 1.12 points (3*.373), suggesting that Iowa might have benefited from taking a few more threes.

The other thing Iowa did well on offense was get to the line and make their shots. The team ranked 63rd in the country in free throws made per 100 possessions at almost 22.7, and Marble, White and Gatens all averaged around four free throw attempts per game. Marble in particular seems to have mastered the Paul Pierce game of hesitating and drawing contact on his shot attempts.

One fly in the ointment on offense was Iowa's poor offensive rebounding. Not to beat a dead horse, but the absence of Jarryd Cole and the decline of Melsahn Basabe hurt in a variety of ways. Offensive rebounding is a skill, and Iowa's line-ups frequently featured only one player who seemed to have the size, quickness and nose for the ball that it takes to grab offensive boards: Aaron White. White led the team in offensive rebounding percentage at 10.6%, but last year the team had two players at or above that level: Basabe at 13.3% and Cole at 10.6%. As a whole, the team's offensive rebounding rate declined from 33.8% (65th in the country) to 31.5% (143rd).

On the positive side of things, Iowa really got its turnover problem under control this year. The 2010-11 team was a very young and limited offensive squad, with Matt Gatens as the only real shooting threat, and the result was a lot of forced possessions and a lot of turnovers. Iowa ranked 254th in the country in turnover percentage last year, averaging a turnover on nearly 21% of their plays. This year that number was a much more healthy 17.7% (59th best in the country), and the credit goes to a more diverse set of offensive threats. Gatens was healthy for the entire year and played the best basketball of his life, while Marble, White, Oglesby, and McCabe all showed themselves capable of carrying the load at different times. Whereas teams could shut Iowa down almost entirely last year by focusing on Gatens, this year a double on Gatens meant single-covering Marble, leaving McCabe isolated on the block or ignoring White as he flew in for an offensive rebound. Iowa just became a slightly trickier team to figure out this year.

Looking forward

So in spite of the fact that Iowa probably wasn't a significantly better team this year than last, can we still say that Fran McCaffery has the squad moving in the right direction? I think the answer is yes, but it really all depends on the continued development of this year's freshmen and the quality of next year's recruits. Basabe, Marble, McCabe and May will be the only significant upperclassmen left on the team, so White and Oglesby will by necessity need to play much larger roles on the team; Gabe Olaseni will need to play some role, any role. White seems to have the makings of a star player, and hopefully will come back next year a little stronger and better conditioned (he tended to fade toward the ends of games). Oglesby is a deadly shooter and flashed glimpses of an off-the-dribble game, and Olaseni was frightening as a shot-blocker and frightening, in a different way, when he tried to play offense (although Fran had some nice things to say recently about his development). If the team is to make any kind of leap forward, those players will need to improve dramatically.

The biggest potential problem, however, is that Iowa lost a good chunk of its basketball brain this year. Matt Gatens is gone, and with him goes one of the steadiest, smartest and most unflappable players that has ever put on the black and gold. It's hard to know just how much the team will miss him, both on the offensive and defensive end, but the loss of Jarryd Cole shows just how much basketball intelligence and leadership means to a team. Is anyone on the current team as mature and smart on the court as Gatens was? The only name that jumps out at me is Aaron White, who was a remarkably crafty player as a freshman.

Iowa is also losing Bryce Cartwright, and that could be just as important. Cartwright drove Iowa fans crazy for much of the year with his overly hopeful lobs and his tendency to get in the air and then look to pass, but he was the only Iowa player who could just burn by opposing defenders. Matt Gatens couldn't do that, Devyn Marble couldn't do that, Josh Oglesby couldn't do that. And in spite of his sometimes poor decision-making, Cartwright opened up defenses and made things happen. Raw plus/minus is a problematic stat, but it is interesting to note that Cartwright was second on the team to Aaron White this past year in raw plus/minus average. Some of that may have to do with the fact that he (and White) came off the bench for much of the year and thus played against opposing second stringers, but both players also started several games and, just as importantly, finished several games. A good plus/minus is not proof that they were the team's best players, but it's at least an indication that they helped the team while they were in. In the case of Cartwright, I get the sense that a lot of fans don't believe that, but I really think it's true. He got the offense moving, he handled the ball against opposing pressure, and he made some brilliant passes that generated points out of thin air. In short, he was a point guard. It's not clear who will be Iowa's starting point guard next year, but it will either be a converted small forward (Marble), a two guard with so-so handles (Oglesby), or a freshman (Gesell). Basketball teams need certain roles filled in order to succeed, and the simplest one is bringing the ball up the court. If Iowa's not careful, their turnover problems could return with a vengeance.

I'm actually quite optimistic about the forward trajectory of the team, but the loss of Gatens and Cartwright will hurt. At the same time, there is tremendous room for improvement. As dynamic as Cartwright was as a ball-handler, he was not a good defender, so things could improve on that front. Likewise, Iowa played a lot of very small line-ups this year, and that will obviously change with the arrival of Adam Woodbury and Kyle Meyer. Woodbury doesn't look like a defensive game changer, at least from the little I've seen, but height is height, and Woodbury's presence will help. The really promising possibility, at least from a defensive standpoint, is a front-line of Basabe and Olaseni together. If Fran could find a way to team those two up along with White, Marble and a healthy May, Iowa would have a very fast, long-armed defense (although they would lack strength inside). Fran will also have three quick freshmen guards to toss into the mix, but it's anyone's guess how much the freshmen will play.

The bottom line is that, as young as this year's team was, next year's will be even younger. It will also be the first McCaffery team where most of the players on the roster will have been recruited by Fran. For the last two years, the coach has been cooking with ingredients that he, for the most part, didn't buy. Next year this will be almost entirely a Fran team. 2012-13 will be the year where the coaching staff takes their ideas about basketball and moves from the proof of concept phase (this past year) and tries to make the damned thing work on a large scale. It should be messy, difficult, surprising and fun.

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