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Why Kentucky will again be better than UNC (Part 1 of 2)

Smart money and Shaka Smart coaches know that college basketball can be pretty simple when it all shakes out.

It’s a game of "possession basketball".

Meaning... so far as your team has the basketball, your opponent cannot score, while your team has at least some percentage chance of doing so... as long as they hang on to the rock.

Therefore, a team’s offensive efficiency is extremely important. Keep the ball. Then make the shots.

Of course, there are also some important intangibles, but ultimately, even they add up to a team's efficiency of scoring when in possession.

For those who doubt these assertions read post "A View from the Catbird Seat" from last season during Kentucky’s nasty February slump. While "almost" everyone else had given up on the Cats chances of a deep NCAA run, this writer argued that it was the most underrated Kentucky team I had watched since becoming a Kentucky fan, which began when I watched the Cats lose to Texas Western in 1966. I felt they could win the NCAA tournament, and explained why it wasn’t just a bad case of "homerism".

Then, compare how high Kentucky ranked in the Pomeroy statistics all season, versus their AP or ESPN rankings. We were one of a few teams who legitimately had a shot to win the tourney all year long when statistically considering the game of possession basketball per the Pomeroy. And, the sublime chemistry John Calipari was building in the lockeroom was showing signs of coming to fruition.

First, looking at how possession basketball works using efficiency statistics:

Three point shots do not have to be shot at as a high percentage of twos, yet twos are easier shots (especially if you’re loaded down low with big strong dunkers). Of course, these are mitigated when the opponent has a big inside front line whose defensive efficiency is high, or a high three-point defensive efficiency. Getting fouled and sent to the line is even better... you’re open and have time to shoot without jumping (see offensive free throw percentage). Does your opponent have a tendency to foul?

Shooting the ball and making shots is highly dependent on how "open" the man is. An example of how an intangible like "teamwork" can be quantified to a degree. We know that how open a man is helps determine his shooting percentage. Three-point defensive efficiency can be measured against three-point offensive efficiency. Good passing can be measured in turnovers.

But, will an open player his shot, or would he pass to a better shooter if one were equally open? Do some players tend to quit when behind or play harder? Does a team seem to let up when ahead, sometimes letting their opponents mentally back into games? Do they pout when reprimanded or get pulled from the game? These are "Chemistry" issues which cannot be quantified, but which carry vital importance in the larger scheme of things.

Of course there’s coaching; both in x’s and o’s, game situation, and off-court. Chemistry and these vital aspects are discussed in Part 2.

But Part 1 is about possession basketball:

Dean Smith, legendary coach, embarrassed the NCAA into instituting a shot clock during the mid-80’s when he began to install his famous "four corners" offense in more situations and for more reasons than it was initially designed. It had always been a late game lead preserving strategy in order to eat clock, waiting until extremely high percentage shots were available. But he began to see more reasons to use it, and not always at the end of games.

For example if he felt that his opponent had a much stronger offense against his defense, than would his defense against their offense, he simply played forty minutes of ultimate possession basketball, or keep away. If an important player got in early foul trouble, or they grabbed an early lead he might stall most of the game to keep his strongest team on the court and preserve the lead.

It was excruciating and boring to watch, considering the sport’s unique ability to entertain on-watchers. He wanted to prove that a shot clock would make the game better for everyone. He was right. In 1982 the ACC adopted the shot clock and the NCAA followed in 1985, adding the three-point line to spread defenses. Also, without the three, teams had begun to pack the lane against his bigger teams, forcing them to shoot lower percentage shots. His four corners attempted to force opponents to come out and defend.

The shot clock required that teams who were overmatched beat their opponent in the game of basketball, not keep away. Coaches like Smith long realized that every possession must count, or at least a high percentage of them, if to compete successfully against super talented basketball teams. Like Adolph Rupp’s teams, Smith’s legendary teams used teamwork to achieve his goal of getting open high percentage shots, hopefully inside the lane nearer the basket.

Possession basketball is an extension of his theory. In other words, to get and keep possession you must reduce turnovers and grab more offensive and defensive rebounds. Then find and take a high percentage shot. That meant unselfishly passing the ball, blocking out, and executing set plays to find an open man.

In essence, they needed to play extremely "smart" basketball, not unlike Virginia Commonwealth did during their incredible NCAA run last March. Of course, brainy coach Brad Stevens of Butler acknowledges that being a disciple of Pomeroy’s statistical system of possession basketball is one major key to his success.

These coaches are examples of today’s data-miner coaches: those who study mountains of statistics to find slight differences in teams and players, which they might exploit to advantage. There may be small differences in teams and players that only statistical information will reveal and support. Scouting games in person require heavier travel and administrative budgets too, usually in the form of travel expenses and assistant coaches. Coaches are turning more to the computer for answers.

With access to the plethora of information found easily on the internet at sites like KenPom.com and BasketballProspectus.com and others, a coach can hammer out a game plan against anyone in a few hours, by studying comparisons in how their opponents have performed against others thus far during the season in several important key aspects of the game.

Many very successful sports bettors use this information (and create even more of their own) to determine their ideas on how games, thus their fortunes will turn out. That is "if" the teams perform similar to their past performances. They use sophisticated algorithms to play thousands of virtual games, honing in on the minute probabilities.

Of course, that "if" is why we still play the games. The game isn’t played on paper.

In a Nostradamus-esque post on SEA OF BLUE the morning of the UNC game titled Crunching Carolina from the Catbird Seat, one astute writer correctly predicted not just the outcome of the Kentucky-Carolina tilt, but described almost exactly how the game would be played using the Pomeroy.

An egotistical chest thump, you say? Perhaps, but...

 After losing a night’s sleep, I mean, who could sleep that Sunday? analyzing every single statistical difference in these two titans, it was plain to me that I had to write a Post, if only to justify to my girlfriend how much time I’d spent on the internet, or later gloat some I told-you-so z with some old UNC fans/friends. My effort was bombarded by an astounding 2 comments, both gratuitous back-slaps from Ken Howlett, and only after I emailed him and bitched about it. It shows how one can analyze these statistics to predict outcomes, and I invite you to re-read it now and provide any useful comments or critiques.

Yes, there are some great Cats fans... and Ken Howlett’s definitely one of ‘em.

Note a classic example of this coaching by data thinking at the post game press conference with Roy Williams of North Carolina last March after their epic Elite Eight loss to Kentucky. Some of the media seemed baffled by Carolina’s inability to make threes, or stop the Cats from shooting lights out from behind the arc. It clearly was the difference maker in the game as the Cats hit twelve 3-point field goals, their most since hitting 12 against Winthrop on Dec. 22, 2010.

Williams was reminded by a reporter about some of the trouble his team had all season "from behind the line". Carolina had not defended the three particularly well last season, nor had they drained a high percentage of them, as is easily noted by their season’s numbers. They simply didn’t shoot or guard well from outside.

To me, he seemed a little irritated as he began discussing what he had felt they would need to do to win before the game:

"...and I think and so do you, you have to -- there are some parts of the game that you're not going to do as well and you hope that that's not the part that will determine the outcome of the game. And you look at our stat sheet, their team averages 39.6% from the three-point line and we don't have anybody shooting better than 39.6% on our team. I think Kendall is 39.6% exactly. So their whole team shoots better than anybody on our team. And we didn't want to work and make sure that we got there and had a hand up and hoped that they didn't make some..."

And it's hard trying to overcome some things that are that big advantages. They scored 36 points from three-point line and we score nine. But that's the game of basketball!

 And for us, I think Z and Dexter both said it, in the first half we didn't get very good movement. Because of that we didn't get very good shots..."-Coach Roy Williams on the defeat to Kentucky

He went on say that their game plan was to use their strengths inside, get fouled, and hope they could neutralize Kentucky’s outside shooting. But John Calipari teams are defensive ones too. The numbers had indicated that we might do a decent job stopping their formidable inside game, especially if we could stop their quick run-outs and trademark easy transition baskets. In the first half we did.

So, he knew the game would likely be decided if we shot from the 3, unless they could manage to play better 3-point defense. John Calipari understood that open 3s are nice trades for contested twos, so he put Liggins on Marshal (in the backcourt) to slow him down and exploit their poor outside shooting.

In the end Kentucky won that day because of one important factor: They were the better team.

Part 2 explains the reasons why this writer feels Kentucky will be better than UNC this year as well. Stay Tuned...

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