Men’s Basketball: A look at the season so far

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January 4, 2011

3:44 PM

I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is the Flat Hat’s basketball coverage will start back up again tomorrow when the Tribe takes on Delaware and will continue uninterrupted until the end of the season. The bad news is this down time has made me crazy with some thoughts on the basketball season. So here is a little something before we get back to work tomorrow. All stats are courtesy of kenpom.com and come from before Monday’s game versus UNCW.

It struck me recently that there are two kinds of movie reboots. There is the Jackie Chan-“Karate Kid” reboot and then there is Christian Bale-Batman reboot. In the “Karate Kid” model, a familiar plot is tweaked a little — maybe the setting looks a little different and the words are obviously changed — but the plot is essentially the same as the original. The protagonist acts with essentially the same motivation and in the same way as the protagonist did in the original movie.

Then there is the “Batman” model. Not the Jack Nicholson, Danny Devito “Batman” but the newer version, the darker one. In the “Batman” reboot, the plot goes from cartoonish to a more menacing form of realism. The character of Batman became more complex. Talented actors are hired to plan the role of the villain instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Enough changes that even though the costumes and the bat signal give away that it is a Batman movie, the tonality of the film is completely different than its predecessors.

I’ve been thinking of the different types of movie reboots as I watched this William and Mary basketball season. All season, it seems, I have been waiting for a Karate Kid style reboot of last year’s Tribe squad when instead what we might be witnessing is a total Batman style change.

Anybody who has watched this Tribe team recognizes its two biggest problems: turnovers and defending the three-point line. A quick look at kenpom.com, an amazing website which analyzes college basketball, confirms this analysis in comparison to last year’s team. According to the site, the Tribe’s effective field goal percentage, a formula that calculates a team’s shooting percentage while taking into account the added importance of made three pointers, is essentially the same as last year’s mark (49.3 percent this season compared to 50.5 percent last year). Not only that, but the College’s shooting percentage is slightly better than the national average. When it comes to the other factors which determine a team’s success –offensive rebounds and free throw attempts–the College is essentially collecting offensive rebounds at the same rate it did last year (30.2 percent to 30.4 percent), and while it’s free throw rate is slightly down the Tribe did not average many free throws last season either.

The two places where the College differs most from last year are in its opponent’s effective field goal percentage and in turnover percentage. The Tribe’s opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 50.1 percent compared to 47.6 percent last year, a number driven largely by the fact that its opponents are making 36.7 percent of its three-point attempts.

It is no mystery why opponents are shooting so well from behind the arc this season: the College by and large rotates poorly in the Tribe’s matchup zone. This is especially true of the Tribe’s big men. You can find numerous examples of poor rotation on tape, but one statistic really stands out — in the Tribe’s 61-59 loss to North Carolina-Wilmington Monday, the Seahawks scored 11 of its first 12 points on baseline two and three-pointers from the baseline. On all four field goal attempts, the Tribe’s big men to rotate in time to cover the perimeter, an unpardonable sin against UNC-W’s spot-up shooters.

At this point in the season, the Tribe’s two worst help defenders are senior center Marcus Kitts and junior forward JohnMark Ludwick. This creates an unfortunate situation for Ludwick because a) you can’t play him and Kitts at the same time (a fact Head Coach Tony Shaver tacitly admitted Monday by sitting Ludwick pretty much the whole second half) and b) the Tribe has to play Kitts. For one thing, Kitts is the College’s best screener on offense. Even though he had the worst offensive game of his life versus UNC-W, the senior was still responsible for creating some of the few open looks the Tribe gained out of its offensive sets.

Kitts also has to stay on the floor because the Tribe doesn’t have anyone else. Shaver gave a good portion of Kitts’ minutes to freshman forward Tim Rusthoven Monday (Rusthoven, by the way, is a great help defender, perhaps the best on the team) but freshman forward Fred Heldring looks lost and Shaver has no one else with significant size on the bench. As flawed as he is sometimes, Kitts is the Tribe’s best bet to defend the basket and gather rebounds, meaning he has to play. Even if Shaver may not want to play him at times.

Shaver has the same dilemma when it comes to the Tribe’s turnover problem. Sophomore guard Matt Rum, freshman guard Julian Boatner and junior guard Kendrix Brown each have turnover rate of over 29 percent, in Brown’s case over 48 percent. While it is understandable for guards to have a higher turnover rate, a rate of 29 percent is astronomically high. And while the struggles of Rum, Boatner and Brown have led to an increased amount of playing time for freshman point guard Brandon Britt., there is not another guard on the bench capable of playing significant minutes.

The College’s lack of depth puts an increased pressure on Britt, who so far has been one of the more fascinating players in recent William and Mary history. The freshman has only played in eight games, yet when he is on the court he has been involved 33.6 percent of the Tribe’s possessions. What’s more, he has taken 35.5 percent of the Tribe’s shots while on the court, a percentage higher than any player Shaver has ever coached. The freshman’s is so high that if he had enough minutes to qualify, Britt would rank fourth in the country in the percentage of his team’s shots attempted.

The disadvantages to Britt’s aggressiveness are obvious. The freshman still does not know the Tribe’s offense as well as he should, often leading to stagnation and confusion when the Tribe has the ball. Also, Britt still has not learned to take full advantage of his talents yet. For example, on the pick and roll, the freshman still gives way too much space between himself and the screener, making his route to the basket a couple of steps longer. While he may have been able to blow by defenders in high school no matter how he came off a screen, he will need to learn how to hit his screens harder, cutting the angle between himself and the screener in order to give his defender less time to react as he attacks the basket.

Still, not all of Britt’s offensive assertiveness is a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that Tribe offense this season works best when Britt is on the floor. For one thing, Britt has a turnover rate of 11.9 percent, second lowest on the team to only junior forward Quinn McDowell and much lower than any other Tribe guard. Also, Britt is drawing 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes, a number which would rank him 33rd in the country if he qualified in terms of minutes. The ability to draw fouls is an incredibly important skill (most of the national leaders in fouls drawn are guys you will recognize from all-conference and All-American lists), especially on a team which struggles in its set offense. Despite his limitations, Britt is a shot creator (his 28.5 assist rate is the best on the team) and offensive weapon, just one Tribe fans may not be used to seeing. In a very real sense, Britt represents somewhat of a changing of the guard.

About this time last year, I was talking with assistant coach Ben Wilkins about a piece I was working on about this year’s freshman class. Wilkins, who has a large role implementing the Tribe’s offense, was telling me how the College’s system changes every year based on its personnel. When Laimis Kisielius was a senior, Wilkins mentioned how the offense featured more isolations for the talented point forward. Last season, without a real good one on one player, the offense adopted a slower pace and featured more backcuts than clear outs.

As the College recruits better athletes, its style of play will change again. According to kenpom.com, the College is playing at an adjusted tempo of 63.0 this season, two points faster than last year and already the Tribe’s fastest tempo since 2007. A good way to determine tempo is to see how many possessions a team racks up per game. If you throw out the triple-overtime loss to Harvard, the Tribe only tallied 67 or more possessions in five regular season games last season. This year, the College has already had four games in which they have totaled 67 possessions or more.

The question then becomes, is an increased pace a good thing for the Tribe? If this were last year’s team, the answer would be no. But this year’s squad has three huge differences:

1) Quinn McDowell is good. Really good, even better than last year. McDowell has an Offensive Rating, a formula designed to determine the most effective offensive players in the nation, of 126.0, an incredible percentage which ranks 64th in the country. The only reason he ranks so low is because he is only involved in 20.2 percent of the Tribe’s offensive possessions. If McDowell was involved in 24 percent of his team’s possessions, he would rank 13th in the country. If he were involved in 28 percent of the College’s possessions, he would rank second in the country in offensive rating. That is how good McDowell has been this season.

Now part of McDowell’s charm is his effectiveness in a limited role. But it is absolutely a crime that he is not more involved in the Tribe’s offense. As I said earlier, the junior forward has the lowest turnover percentage on the team and the fourth-highest assist rate. Without going overboard, the College should be looking to put the ball in McDowell’s hands as much as possible. They can do that by speeding up the tempo to get the junior a couple possessions a game.

2) The College’s second-best offensive player this season, according to his Offensive Rating, is sophomore forward Kyle Gaillard. Gaillard is just a tick off McDowell with a 108.3 percentage, but he is doing it while being involved in 16 percent of the Tribe’s possessions. Also, Gaillard is shooting 57.1 percent on 49 two-point attempts. Those are Dwight Howard numbers (he also is shooting 40.9 percent from the three-point line).

Last year, it made more sense for the Tribe to take a ton of three-pointers because two of its top-four offensive players, David Schneider and Sean McCurdy shot statistically same from the outside as they did from two (McDowell shot better from the field than he did from three, but he also shot 42.6 percent from the three-point line so it still made sense for him to shoot from the outside. Danny Sumner should have shot more from the inside based on the percentages, a request which, my guess, has kept Tony Shaver up at nights). This year, Britt, Rum, Rusthoven and Kitts, in addition to Gaillard, all shoot better from the inside than they do the outside.

Out of all these players, Gaillard’s game is the most made for an up-tempo offense. Just like the Tribe should be getting McDowell more shots, it should be getting Gaillard more shots as well. And one way to do that would be to increase the tempo.

3) The Tribe has Brandon Britt.

My sense is that Tony Shaver understands these differences. Remember, five years ago Shaver changed his offense when he realized he did not have the athletes to run and press in the CAA. It was a hard move for any coach to make, going against what had worked for them for years, and showed remarkable adaptability and confidence on Shaver’s part.

This year’s squad does not need a total overhaul like the 2007 team. For one, its shooting percentage from three will increase as the season goes on. Secondly, the modified Princeton offense has proven very effective the last few seasons, at times with many of the players on this year’s team.

But, after waiting 13 games for this year’s team to start to play like last year’s squad, maybe it is time to view them differently. Instead of being forced to stay in matchup zone, maybe this team has the athletes and the mindset to play hard man-to-man (indeed, after the Tribe switched to a man-to-man defense with 14:44 remaining in the second half yesterday, UNCW only scored 17 points. While Shaver switched back to a matchup with around two minutes remaining, the Tribe played man-to-man for most of the half and held the Seahawks to a 45.3 points-per-40-minute average). Maybe instead of being deadly in their set offense, like last season, this team scores more from busted plays and up-tempo offense. Maybe instead of lamenting this team’s deficiencies (three-point shooting and ball handling), we start emphasizing its strengths (athleticism and drive-and-kick basketball).

Maybe the Tribe philosophy is changing a little bit, becoming more “Batman” and less “Karate Kid.” If so, it could be interesting to see how the rest of this year plays out.

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