Fran-Graphs: Retrospecticus, 2012-13

A detailed statistical look back at the year that was in Iowa men's basketball

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[Previous versions of the all-knowing Fran-head here and here]

Imagine you are a head basketball coach for a college team and a fortune teller informs you that the following will come to pass for your team in the coming year:

  • You will only make 30.8% of your three-pointers, good for 308th in the country;
  • You will also take very few three-pointers, rating 235th in the country in three-pointers attempted per field goal attempt;
  • You will only make 47.0% of your two-pointers, good for 194th in the country;
  • You will force few turnovers, block few shots, and rarely steal the ball;
  • You will win 25 games, nine games in the Big Ten, and finish in the top 30 of the better computer rankings.
What would you do? How would you manage to translate what you know will be miserable shooting into a largely successful result? In other words: how do you win with a team that can't shoot? How do you win at Iowa in 2013?

The answer, for Fran McCaffery, boiled down to four things:

1) Play outstanding defense

This is almost the entire story of Iowa's success this past year, and it can't be stressed enough how great a jump the team made from last year to this year in terms of their overall defense. Here are some of the key numbers for Iowa's D over the past three years:
Defstats_medium

The improvement in defensive efficiency is the most impressive: Iowa went from a defense that ranked 180th in the country last year to one that ranked 22nd in the country this year. The other numbers show how they made that adjustment: they cut down on the number of three-pointers their opponents attempted (from 261st in the country in 3PA/FGA in 2012 to 179th in 2013), they forced their opponents into a lower effective field goal percentage (278th in 2012 to 17th in 2013), and they maintained their usual practice in the McCaffery era of not fouling very much (81st in opponent's FTA/FGA in 2012, 66th in 2013).

And in spite of Iowa's occasional use of a full court press, they did not force very many turnovers: their opponent's turnover percentage (TOs/possession) ranked 193rd in the country. The Hawks mainly used the press to slow down their opponents and set up their match-up zone, which they used pretty regularly for at least five or ten minutes a game. And, despite the presence of Adam Woodbury and Gabe Olaseni, they didn't block many shots: they ranked 271st in the country in blocks per possession.

So how did they do it? A lot of factors contributed, but the biggest change seemed to be a great improvement in the way they guarded the pick and roll. And it's here that Woodbury deserves a lot of credit for the impact he made. Many times he was forced out to the three-point line to hedge on a pick and roll and then recover to his man in the paint. For a 7'1" guy who's not always the fleetest of foot, he did a pretty good job of both disrupting the driver and getting back to his man in time. But everyone on the team was called to double on pick and rolls at some time, and they did a solid job of frustrating ball-handlers from getting into the lane. The few times a big, strong point guard managed to get around Iowa's hedges (memorably Penn State and Nebraska), Iowa had some major breakdowns.

Just as important, though, was a seeming philosophical change regarding their defense of the three-point shot. After getting torched from three again and again in 2011-12, Iowa's coaches seemed to learn their lesson in 2012-13. Whenever the ball got passed to a potential three-point shooter, Iowa did a much better job of switching to deny the shot. It was sometimes a scramble to recover after that point, but they did a much, much better job of keeping track of shooters this year than last. Again, none of this happened in a vacuum: the presence of Woodbury helped, as did the long arms of Aaron White and Melsahn Basabe. But Iowa's guards deserve a lot of credit for chasing opposing shooters around the perimeter and not getting lost. Eric May, Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons all did yeoman's work in this regard. May, in particular, improved as a perimeter defender (he had a bit of a problem fouling at first) and will be sorely missed on defense next year. And Clemmons, for all his flaws on offense, was a valuable defensive player.

Overall, Iowa may have benefited from a bit of luck with their opponents three-point shooting: opponents shot just 29.5% from three this year, which was 11th best (or worst, depending on your point of view) in the country. That level of poor shooting is probably not repeatable, but the basic principles and the personnel are in place to stop the opposition from shooting well from distance.

2) Don't turn the ball over

This would help no matter what, but with Iowa's poor shooting, the team needed as many bites at the apple as they could get. The Hawks did a decent job of taking care of the ball, ranking 98th in the country in turnovers per possession, but still had some problems. Those problems, not surprisingly, took the form of three freshmen. Clemmons averaged a turnover on 29.8% of his possessions, highest on the team by a country mile. Next highest was Woodbury, at 23.6, then Gesell, at 20.5%.

These numbers seem to roughly correspond to the degree fans winced when the ball went into those players' hands: with Clemmons, there was a feeling of omnipresent dread, with Woodbury, a fear that he would ever put the ball on the court, and with Gesell, a mild anxiety that he might commit one of his costly "pass without looking" turnovers. They all had their problems, but, again, they were all freshmen. This should improve. Gesell will improve if he is moved to more of a shooting guard role, which seems like his natural fit. Woodbury will, one hopes, get stronger with the ball and remember that he can't dribble like normals anymore. And Clemmons? Well, he will be the biggest question mark heading into next year.

A quick sidebar on Clemmons
I know a lot of fans became immensely frustrated with Clemmons this year, but I see a lot of room for growth in him. In addition to his defensive capabilities (he may be the only player on the team with the speed and strength to take on the more physical two guards next year), he also finished the year as Iowa's second-best three-point shooter (36% on 42 attempts). His free throw shooting, thought to be a weakness, improved. He showed flashes of real ability getting to the hoop. And as bad as the turnovers were, he also led the team in assist rate (i.e. assists divided by field goals made by teammates while on the court) by a wide margin: Clemmons' assist rate was 32.8%, which placed him 63rd in the entire 3000-or-so population of the NCAA last year; the next Hawkeye in assist rate was Devyn Marble, at 22.9%. So I don't think it's in dispute that Clemmons has the potential to be a dynamic playmaker for Iowa. The only question is the turnovers. Will he improve? I think he can. He has the ability. He's strong enough, fast enough, and has a good enough handle. We shall see.

3) Get offensive rebounds

If you're going to shoot badly, you at least need to pick up some offensive rebounds so that you can try again. And Iowa did a mighty impressive job on this score. They ranked 39th in the country and 4th in the Big Ten in offensive rebound percentage, snagging 36.4% of the available offensive rebounds for the season (the importance of using offensive rebounding rate here is that it controls for the opportunities a team has; Iowa didn't do better just because they missed lots of shots).

Woodbury was the leader on the team in this regard, grabbing 12% of available offensive rebounds while he was on the court. Olaseni and Basabe were close behind at 11.6% and 10.8%, respectively. Aaron White's production as an offensive rebounder took a slight step back, from 10.1% to 8.9%, perhaps reflecting the fact that he spent more time at the three than the four and generally operated as more of a perimeter player than he did last year. Zach McCabe also did good work on the offensive boards, at 8.7%.

Basically, Iowa had a lot of big dudes on the court at any given time. When your three is 6'8" and your two is 6'7", you should get some offensive rebounds, and Iowa did. In a sense, one of Iowa's best plays all year was "miss an outside shot, get the offensive rebound and get fouled". Which brings us to the fourth and final plank in the "how to win while shooting poorly" platform:

4) Get to the free throw line and then make your free throws

If Iowa was elite at one thing other than their defense, it was at getting to the free throw line. They ranked 38th in the country in their free throw rate (i.e. FTA/FGA) at 41.6%, and rated second in the Big Ten in free throw rate during the conference season. Think about that number for a second: for every one field goal attempt Iowa had, they had about .4 free throw attempts. In a typical game with, say, 50 field goal attempts, that translates to 20 trips to the line. When you start averaging that many attempts, it stops being a fluke and starts to be a crucial part of the offense.

Aaron White was the foul-drawing king for Iowa this year. He was fifth (5th!) in the entire country in individual free throw rate at 86.3%. That means for every 100 field goal attempts he had, he also had 86 free throw attempts, or, in other words, that he got to the line just about as much as he took a shot in the game. That's... kind of insane. He also rated 27th in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 6.5. Marble and Basabe both also had decent free throw rates, but their numbers were more in the 45% range. White had a special knack for not only getting fouled, but getting fouled while shooting.

Short sidebar on Aaron White

I know a lot of people have criticized White for lacking a refined offensive game and not having a reliable outside shot, but for all that, he was still probably Iowa's most productive offensive player for this past year. Yes, most. As in, more productive than Devyn Marble. If Marble had played the entire season like he did the past month, then that assessment would have changed, but from beginning to end, no one on the team produced points as efficiently as White did. A lot of those points were at the line, in transition or off of offensive rebounds, but they still counted. Call him a garbage man or whatever you want, but he puts points on the board.

Not only did Iowa get to the line, they were one of the better teams at making free throws once they got there, ranking 58th in the country and first in the Big Ten in free throw percentage at just over 73%. Apart from a few crucial missed free throws in crunch time, the Hawks did a great job of maximizing the points they got from the free throw line, with Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell leading the way at 81% and 79%, respectively.

But about that shooting...

So that's how you cobble together a successful team in spite of poor shooting: just play defense at an elite level, limit your turnovers, get tons of offensive rebounds, get fouled a lot, and make almost all your foul shots. When you look at Iowa's season in that light, its strangeness and specialness stand out. Although the offensive firepower was limited, when it came to every other thing where effort was the crucial necessary ingredient – namely on defense and offensive rebounding – Iowa excelled. I think Scott Dochterman said during one of his podcasts that Iowa squeezed every last drop of juice out of the lemon this season, and that is exactly right. This team played very hard, very focused basketball for most of the year. They had to.

The question still remains, though: why was Iowa's shooting so bad? Before everyone rushes to blame Josh Oglesby, remember that he only played 601 of the approximately 1500 minutes available at shooting guard. Iowa's poor shooting is on everyone.

The easy answer would be: Iowa's players can't shoot the basketball well. For some players that applies, I suppose. Woodbury and Olaseni are pretty shaky outside of five feet, White is only a so-so three-point shooter, and Basabe is still probably only halfway reliable on his 18-footer (he gets left open on that shot for a reason). But I don't really think that's the reason. Gesell, McCabe, Marble, May, Clemmons – they all look like they can shoot perfectly well, given an open look.

It's the second half of that sentence that gets at the heart of Iowa's problems: given an open look. The biggest flaw I saw in Iowa's offense was that they had a very hard time generating open shots. Once Marble regained his form, that alleviated somewhat, but until that point, Iowa was a team that was very easy to guard one-on-one with minimal switching. Without a quick point guard to put pressure on defenses and draw double teams, opponents could stay in front of Iowa without too much difficulty.

One player who did draw double teams, though, was Woodbury. At first, this seemed to be driven by fear that he would dominate in the post, then, as Woodbury's uncertainty as a passer became more evident, as a way of generating turnovers. One of the important markers of Woodbury's development will be whether he can pass quickly and accurately out of the double team. If he does, Iowa's offense may loosen up somewhat.

But maybe the answer to Iowa's poor shooting is simply this: it doesn't matter that much. Iowa, as currently constituted, is a certain kind of team. A very big, forward-heavy kind of team that will protect the paint, contest shots, and rebound the ball well. That kind of team won't have the most dynamic offense, but it will score points by running a dozen picks and then snagging the offensive rebound when the shot misses. After all, in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, Iowa rated as the 44th best team in the country. That's not as good as their defense, but it's still pretty good. It's better than Wisconsin (64th) and New Mexico (56th), to pick two teams Iowa fans might be familiar with.

Now, if the question is whether Iowa will have a pretty offense, then the answer may be "probably not". But if they can become slightly more efficient on offense, while maintaining their excellent defense from this year (which will be harder than you think), they have a chance to be a very good team next year.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: Josh Oglesby's usage was listed incorrectly as 22.5%; it was actually 16.4%. The infographic above has been corrected to reflect this.
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