Perhaps the most fascinating player on this year’s Tribe team, to me, is senior center Marcus Kitts, partially because Kitts is one of the more thoughtful interviews of any of the athletes I covered in my four years at the College. But mostly I find him fascinating as a player because on a team mired in inconsistency all year, Kitts seems one of the few players who can give a consistent performance. Yet he doesn’t.
I am sure Head Coach Tony Shaver knows this; in fact, Shaver addressed the topic of Kitts’ effort in the post game press conference after the loss to James Madison in a quote I felt I buried in my game recap.
“He has got to play harder all the time,” Shaver said when asked about Kitts. “He has got to give this effort all the time. I think maybe Marcus plays better with a few less minutes. He had 26 minutes tonight, so he had a little more energy on the court. He has to play with that type of energy all the time.”
The most interesting part about Shaver’s answer was that the head coach was looking right at Kitts, who was seated in the back of the room, when he gave it. Shaver’s tone was not angry or exasperated. No, he sounded more like a high school guidance counselor talking about a talented but stubborn student. He had already made his opinion clear. Now it was time for the student, Kitts, to decide whether he wanted to take his advice.
Saturday’s game against James Madison was a perfect example of why Kitts is so frustrating at times. The senior led the College with 16 points on seven-for-nine shooting while also pulling down a team-high five rebounds and blocking five shots. More important than his statistics, however, was the effect Kitts had on the Dukes’ offense and defense when he was on the floor.
Kitts had a plus/minus rating of minus four in Saturday’s game (for those who do not know, plus minus stats determine the amount of points a player’s team scores when he is on the floor in relation to the other team. If a player comes in when the score is 20-15 and leaves with the score being 35-28, then his plus minus would be plus two, meaning his team scored two more points than the other team when he was on the floor). Considering that the Tribe lost to JMU by five, this means the College was a little bit better when Kitts was in than they were during the rest of the game.
But a player’s plus minus score often does not tell the whole story. For that, we have to look at his effect on the other team.
Basketball is a game of possessions. The more possessions you create, the more shots you can put up. The more shots you put up, the more likely you are to outscore the other team. Aside from scoring, players can most affect the outcome of the game by limiting the other teams possessions, namely by pulling down rebounds or causing turnovers.
As a team, the Tribe does not rebound well, often by design. Faced with a height and athleticism disadvantage, the College often only sends one or maybe two players in for a rebound on offensive possessions. William and Mary ranks 288th in offensive rebound percentage according to kenpom.com, while its opponents rank 135th in the country. If you look at the statistics, it is clear the Tribe does not worry much about getting its own offensive rebound, and chooses instead to focus on limiting its opponents offensive rebound opportunities.
James Madison out-rebounded William and Mary 18 to 7 in offensive rebounds Saturday if you count deadball rebounds. Thirteen of the Dukes’ offensive rebounds came while Kitts was on the floor, making it seem like the center did not do his job to keep the Dukes’ impressive frontline off the glass. But, of those 13 rebounds, five came off of shots that had just been blocked by Kitts, making it virtually impossible for him to also get the rebound.
Likewise, two of JMU’s offensive rebounds came after the first rebound off a Kitts block. Since Kitts was already challenging the shot, it left him in a bad position to get the board. If you discount the two rebounds that ended up out of bounds and the long rebound to JMU guard Chad Jackson off a three pointer, this leaves three offensive rebounds Kitts had a shot at and did not grab. That is a pretty good day against James Madison’s imposing frontline.
In measuring Kitts’ impact Saturday, you also have to look at the night of JMU center Denzel Bowles. Bowles ranks third in the conference in scoring, averaging 17 points per game. The Tribe held Bowles to only 14 points Saturday, but only six of those points came with Kitts in the game. And two of those six points came after Kitts had already blocked a JMU shot, leaving him out of position to successfully challenge Bowles.
Every single statistic points to the fact that Kitts had a great game versus James Madison, which is what, I’m guessing, drives Shaver crazy because he knows the senior could be this good every game. But Kitts seems to raise his game only versus elite competition.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the data from last year (we won’t use Kitts’ performances from the beginning of this season because last year’s data provides a larger sample size). According to kenpom, the Tribe played 13 teams last season who ranked higher than the College’s 117th place ranking in the country. In those 13 games, Kitts averaged 7.38 points and 6.38 rebounds per game. In the 20 games against teams who ended the year ranked lower than the Tribe, Kitts averaged 6.35 points per game and 6 rebounds per game.
The difference in those numbers does not appear statistically significant. But, if you throw away Kitts’ three games against Old Dominion, who was the 10th best defensive team in the country last year and who owned the Tribe, Kitts averaged 8.3 points per game and 7 rebounds a game in ten games against teams who finished better than the Tribe. In the other 23 games, Kitts averaged 6.09 points per game and 5.78 rebounds per contest.
Now these numbers appear significant. And it is not like Kitts played more minutes against the better teams. He averaged 22.9 minutes in the games against better competition while averaging 21.87 minutes against the lesser competition and Old Dominion. Also, the teams who finished ahead of the Tribe were not bad defensive teams. Those opponents finished with an average rating of 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, while the other opponents finished 176th in the country, even if you include ODU’s stellar ranking in that group.
Now these numbers are not exact and are a pretty small sample size. However, they seem to point to a conclusion that Shaver, and to his credit, Kitts seem to recognize. After Shaver left the podium Saturday, Kitts was asked his reaction to his coach’s comments.
“He has been saying that for four years, to play harder,” Kitts replied. “I’ve heard that a bunch and it is something I have to work on.”
Kitts looked at teammate JohnMark Ludwick, who was seated to his left, and smiled as his gave his answer. It was like both teammates were recalling the thousands of times Shaver must have asked Kitts to exert more effort in practice or games or in film study over the year. It was not a mocking smile, but a knowing one. It was a smile of someone who recognizes his own faults.
And that is what is fascinating about Marcus Kitts to me. An incredibly smart player Kitts seems to know what he needs to do to be the best player he can possibly be. He also seems to recognize that with such a young backcourt, the Tribe’s season might ultimately rest on his performance in the CAA Tournament.
Whether or not he can consistently raise his game, giving the Tribe a solid inside presence night in and night out—well, that remains to be seen.