A Slower, Defensive-Approach Separates San Diego from the WCC Pack

A defensive, slower approach by Bill Grier (arms apart above) has been a key reason why San Diego is a dangerous opponent for WCC teams

No team generates more interest with me than the San Diego Toreros. They are 12-10 and 3-6 in conference, and according to Ken Pomeroy, they are most likely to finish the year hovering at .500 at 16-15 (with a projected 7-11 conference record). So, at the surface, there is nothing really to like about San Diego or really glean from them in a major fashion. Most fans think, “Oh, hey San Diego, they can surprise you, but when push comes to shove, they’re just another WCC team that is fighting to avoid the cellar with Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and Pacific.” But, I think the Toreros are a team that WCC fans should take notice of for the remainder of the year

I am not here to say that San Diego is going to jettison to the top of the WCC standings. That being said, what I like about San Diego and coach Bill Grier is that he has the Toreros playing a style of ball that is remarkably different from most other teams in the conference. As typical of years past, most schools in the WCC prefer a more “offensive-oriented approach” and for good reason: they are pretty good at it. When it comes to Adjusted Offensive Efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, four schools rank in the Top-50 (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU), two more rank in the Top-100 (Pacific at 89 and Pepperdine at 100) and two MORE rank within the Top-150 (Portland at 111 and Loyola Marymount at 123). As a conference, Ken Pomeroy rates the WCC as the fourth best conference in the nation when it comes to offensive efficiency at 108.1 (which is helped by a conference-wide 3 point percentage of 38.1 percent, best of any conference in the nation). This isn’t 80’s Big East basketball. The WCC is known for scoring, lots of it and in an efficient way, and that has been a primary reason why the WCC has achieved its highest conference ranking ever on KenPom.com at No. 9 (though I believe the Mountain West and Missouri Valley getting gutted due to conference re-alignment severely weakened those conferences, which were typically ahead of the WCC but now fell this season; but that’s being nitpicky, as the WCC is the strongest its ever been top-to-bottom).

But, San Diego is a team that does not fit that “offensive-emphasis” mold. The Toreros rank last overall in Adjusted Offense in the conference ranking 183rd in the nation. In conference play, while they have played better, they still linger near the basement with a rating of 102.8, ninth-best in the conference play (ahead of only Loyola Marymount, who has struggled efficiency-wise after a strong start). While they do excel in the three-ball (they have the best three-point percentage in WCC play at 43.5 percent), they struggle inside the arc (9th best two-point percentage at 45.4 percent) and turn the ball over way too much (WCC high 20.2 percent turnover rate).

And yet, even though they rate as a pretty sub-par offensive team by WCC standards, the Toreros have been the most competitive team as of late, nearly knocking off Gonzaga on Thursday in Spokane, and upsetting Portland in the Rose City after the Pilots made national headlines with a 3 OT victory over a scorching BYU squad. They are nine points away from being 6-3 (with close single-digit losses to Pepperdine, USF and Gonzaga) rather than 3-6, and they suddenly look to be the kind of team that could ruin many WCC teams’ postseason hopes. How are they doing it?

While you could credit it to a variety of factors, I think two major playing trends emerge: their slow tempo and defensive approach.

First off, San Diego is not the only squad in the WCC that plays at a slow tempo. St. Mary’s has done this for quite some time under Bennett, and they also run a slow tempo to maximum offensive effectiveness (they rank second in offensive efficiency in conference despite playing the fourth-slowest tempo in conference play). Gonzaga, which originally started the year playing at a faster tempo, has slowed down considerably in conference play (third-slowest in conference), which has worked to their advantage in some games (BYU) and not so in others (San Diego). So, slowing it down and playing a more half-court approach isn’t exactly ingenious or ground breaking on Grier’s end, since many teams do it when they feel they lack depth or the faster perimeter players to do so. Furthermore, Grier’s teams have typically played a slower tempo in his career at USD, as he has had only one team average over the 65 possession mark in his tenure at USD (the 2012 squad which averaged 66.1 possessions per game).

But San Diego has slowed it down considerably so, and that has worked to their advantage in many games. In two out of their last three games, the Toreros have played two sub-60 possession games (USF and Gonzaga). Both those games went down to the buzzer, as the Toreros lost by a buzzer beater to USF and they had a chance to tie at Gonzaga. For a team that lacks offensive consistency like the Toreros, shortening the game has proven to be a strong competitive equalizer for them, especially against better offensive teams (as was the case with USF). While they do have some talent in guard Johnny Dee and center Dennis Kramer, they do have some efficiency killers (Jito Kok may be the worst offensive player in the conference by far as evidenced by his 72.8 offensive rating) that’ll keep them from being better than average overall. So, by limiting possessions and relying on the three point shot, the Toreros give themselves a fighting chance against the better teams in conference play. And it has worked, as the Toreros seem to be trending upward as a team, and still have valuable opportunities for possible upsets on the horizons with seven of their next nine games being at home (only St. Mary’s looks to be the daunting one, and that could be tougher because the Gaels are in their element in slower-tempo games).

Contrast San Diego’s approach with LMU, who has taken a higher-tempo approach to offense (second highest tempo at 69.2 in conference play). While the Toreros are 3-6 against primarily road-game loaded first half of the schedule, the Lions are 3-7 and have lost to conference leaders USF, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga by double digits. While they did pull off the upset against BYU in their first conference game of the year, the higher tempo has exposed the Lions’ poor offensive efficiency as a team, while the slower tempo has hid or at the very least minimized the Toreros’ woes on the offensive end (remember, both teams rank 9th and 10th in conference play offensive efficiency). And how has this strategy of play affected to coaches’ futures? Well, it looks like Grier may be on the way to finishing the season strong enough to merit another season, while Lions coach Max Good will have to do a lot to earn an extension at the end of the year.

So, tempo has been a key factor to the Toreros surprising success, though not the only key. The improved defense has also been a reason why the Toreros have also remained competitive, and since those two approaches complement each other nicely (defense and slow tempo) it’s no surprise that they have transitioned to success on the court for San Diego. In terms of defense, numerically it’s not all that impressive, as the Toreros’ 110.7 defensive efficiency rating ranks seventh in conference play. That being said, their overall rating sits at 100.9, which is 108th best in the nation and the Toreros have had some really bad performances that have hurt their conference rating thus far (they gave up 1.31 points per possession in a 23 point loss at BYU). Going back to that rating though, the 100.9 mark, if the season ended today, would be the best mark for Grier since the 2009 season, when the Toreros finished with a defensive rating of 97.6, 77th best in the nation.

The mark is a nice wave of progression for Grier and the Toreros over the past couple of seasons. Grier made his mark as a defensive-coach as an assistant at Gonzaga, and he carried that in his first two years at the helm in San Diego. His first team, which went to the NCAA Tourney and upset UConn as a 13 seed, was a stout defensive squad as they ranked 49th in the nation in defensive efficiency at 95.9. However, after two seasons where his teams ranked in the Top-100 in defensive rating, they took huge steps in years three through five, as they posted mediocre defensive rating rankings of 162, 224 and 230, respectively. Suddenly, the strongest aspect of Grier’s ability as a coach (the defensive side) looked to be a weakness after the initial wave of success.

However, Grier made one key hire after the 2011 season that has helped the Toreros defensively: he hired former LMU coach Rodney Tention as an assistant. Now, Tention was far from “good” as a coach at LMU. His 30-61 overall record looks bad in a variety of different lenses. But, Tention was a much better coach than people gave him credit for. For starters, Tention was actually a very decent defensive coach, and if you want to know why or how the Lions, despite being a 12-win team, came within a tip-in of beating an Adam Morrison-led Gonzaga team in the WCC Championship, the Lions’ defense was the answer (remember, the Lions went 9-6 in conference play that year). In 2006, the Lions posted a defensive rating of 96.2, 60th best in the country, and in his second year, the Lions, though 13-18, still remained in the Top-100 in defensive rating at 93rd in the nation with a rating of 99.1. While things fell apart for them as a whole in 2008 (only six teams were worse overall than the Lions in 2008), Tention was actually a good defensive coach. The only problem was that he struggled to find consistency with his offense, and he opted for a style that didn’t necessarily play to his teams’ defensive strengths either (they ranked in the top-100 in terms of fastest tempo in his three years). And so, it made sense why things never worked out for Tention as the head man at LMU. Under Grier’s staff though, Tention has seemed to help the Toreros and Grier find their mojo again on the defensive end. They have steadily improved the past couple of years, and I’m sure Tention’s expertise on defense has meshed well with Grier’s philosophy on defense and slowing it down (rather than speeding it up, as Tention did at LMU).

This season, the Toreros have the kind of squad that fits what Grier wants to do: slow it down, grind out opponents on the defensive end, have certain player (i.e. Gee) make some key shots, and keep games tight against opponents which may be more loaded than his San Diego squads. They still aren’t as elite as his first-year squad, but it is obvious that they are making progress toward reaching that point. Tention’s influence, though under the radar to most people, has been felt, especially when you look at the improvements in defensive ratings over the past three years. And, with this approach complementing their slow, half-court style, the Toreros remain different, an anomaly to what is typically seen from teams in the WCC.

In college basketball, different is good. Different is what worked for Princeton under Pete Carril, LMU under Paul Westhead and Arkansas under Nolan Richardson. And for Grier and San Diego, being different could give them a chance to replicate what they did in 2008 as soon as next season (though you never know come WCC tourney time).

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Recruit Report: Evan Fitzner, 6-10, 215 pounds, St. Mary’s Commit

The first post player on the recruit report belongs to Evan Fitzner, a 6-10 forward from Francis Parker High School in San Diego. Fitzner signed with Randy Bennett’s Gaels on October, 8th and he should bring an interesting profile and skill set to the Gaels in 2014-2015. He is long, athletic and has very good touch from outside the arc, the perfect kind of player to fit Bennett’s “shooter-heavy” system.

Fitzner was mostly looking at schools on the West Coast, as he also received offers from Arizona State, California, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, USC and Washington. Just judging by the four other WCC School offers, there was a high possibility that Fitzner was going to be playing in the WCC somewhere next season. That being said, it appears that his visit and the program in general convinced Fitzner to take his talents up north from San Diego to Moraga.

Let’s take a look at some things about Fitzner.

What they Are Saying About Fitzner

From ESPN.com (71 rating, 3 star recruit)

Fitzner possesses a long and rangy frame with very long arms. He is a good athlete that runs well and his quickness and bounce have improved around the paint area. He has a remarkable touch that extends out to 22-feet and his ball skills are impressive.”

From Full Court Press.net (45th best player in SoCal area)

Skilled forward needs strength and bulk as well as toughness to be a factor in WCC.” 

From West Coast Convo

This is a big time commitment for the Gaels as next season they will lose 6’11 center Matt Hodgeson to graduation and had already lost power forward Chris Reyes this year who transferred out earlier this season. Fitzner is known more for his shooting ability at the stretch-4 position rather than interior play, but none-the-less should get good minutes next season in his first year as a Gael.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch video of Fitzner, there is a lot to like. He has a good looking shot, and his form and touch has improved greatly from his sophomore season. In fact, as an outside player, he seems very dangerous, as he can find his shot easily thanks to his ability to move around well for a big man, in addition to his height. In many ways, he seems to be a combo of former Gael Daniel Kickert (who was a big man with a strong propensity to shoot from the outside) and Gonzaga forward Austin Daye (who was a good shooter from the outside for a 6-10 player). I am not sure if he has Daye’s defensive ability (Daye was a very good shot blocker at Gonzaga), but he definitely shares the former first round draft pick’s combo skill set of shooting and size.

Much like Daye though, Fitzner needs to add strength, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll be able to get inside to score points or get to the line if his shot is not falling. The Gaels will return Brad Waldow next year, but Fitzner could be a player to take the ease off him in the post, which could not only benefits Fitzner’s game, but Waldow’s as well. That being said, there are going to be some good big men next year in the WCC in Przemek Karnowski at Gonzaga (who’ll be a junior) and Thomas van der Mars from Portland (who’ll be a senior), so it’ll be interesting to see how Fitzner adjusts to the nightly competition after playing at a small school in San Diego (though to be fair he has played against good AAU and tournament competition).  I don’t see Fitzner making an immediate splash, but I think his shooting skill set and height will make him a decent, if not solid contributor for the Gaels in his freshman season next year, which will be sorely needed as the Gaels routinely struggle with depth on their squad.

Recruit Report: Kyron Cartwright, 5-11, 155 pounds, LMU Commit

It’s been a while, but I decided to add another Recruit Report to the list. Keeping with the guard-heavy theme as of late, I am going to profile Compton guard Kyron Cartwright, a 5-11 guard out of Compton High who played AAU ball with the prestigious Compton Magic program. Cartwright is an athletic, lefty-guard who has a strong knack to attack the hoop and score at will. Before committing to LMU in November, the senior guard also received offers from Cal State Fullerton, New Mexico and San Diego.

Cartwright is currently rated as the 18th best player in the State of California according to ESPN.com, and Full Court Press.net rated him as the 30th best player in the SoCal region. Along with forward commit Elijah Stewart, Cartwright should be able to have an immediate impact on Max Good’s LMU squad next season (especially since long-time guard Anthony Ireland will be gone as well).

What they Are Saying About Cartwright

From ESPN.com (72 rating, 3-star recruit)

Cartwright is a slick left-handed point guard who is tough to stop in transition. He has an excellent pull-up jumper and he gets tremendous lift on it. He has a high-level burst as well and can toss in the occasional runner as well.”

From Scout.com (2-star rating)

Kyron Cartwright, 5-10 JR PG Compton (Calif.) High, is one of the top point guards in the west for 2014. A quick lefty with range to the stripe, excellent vision and very good ball skills overall, Cartwright is perhaps the most under-recruited prospect in the West Coast junior class.” 

From FullCourtPress.net (ranked 30th best player in Southern California)

Speedy PG has no problem evading defensive pressure.  Will be a pleasant addition to Max Good’s Lions next Fall.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

It has been a bit of a rough conference season for head coach Max Good. After starting 2-0 with a big win over BYU to start conference play, the Lions have slumped, losing six straight WCC games. The Lions main struggles have been on the offensive end, as they rank last in offensive efficiency in the WCC, and last in categories such as free throw rate and 3-point percentage. Already, it seems like Lions fans are already looking toward next year, a shame since the WCC season started with so much promise for Good and the Lions.

That being said, next year’s recruiting class has some enticing players, and Cartwright leads the pack. Check out the video above (it’s a scouting video courtesy of Full Court Press.net’s scouting service), and you can get more details about Cartwright’s profile as a recruit. He is very quick off the dribble and he has good touch around the rim as well. His smaller frame is a bit of a concern, but his speed may already be “starter-worthy” as he regularly torched defenders from what I have seen on tape. Furthermore, he is also a left-handed player, and if Manu Ginobili has taught us anything, lefties who are quick off the dribble can be extremely dangerous and difficult players to defend. I think Cartwright has that kind of speed that will make him a tough outing for opposing WCC guards on a nightly basis.

The main issue with Cartwright is he is almost TOO left-hand dominant (as that was noted in the video), as you rarely see him drive with the right in the video above. And, while his pull up jumper looks good, you do not get a lot of looks at it, and I am curious about his range, as it did not have a lot of shots of him shooting from beyond the arc. From the reports I have seen, I don’t think Cartwright is a long-range specialist by any means, but if he can have a decent shot from outside, that will only make his offensive game more dangerous since he is so strong dribbling past defenders and getting to the hoop. He doesn’t need to be Kevin Pangos from beyond the arc, but if he can be simply average, it will help his ability to make an impact on this Lions squad in 2014-2015.

Overall, Cartwright looks to be a solid addition to this Lions squad, and with Ireland gone (as noted above), Cartwright will get a shot to earn major minutes in the backcourt as a freshman next year at LMU along with Evan Payne, who’ll be a sophomore. I am not sure if Cartwright will be as good a shooter as Ireland, but his ability to drive and create fares pretty similarly to the four-year player, so this definitely is a nice pickup by Good. While his on-court success has been inconsistent this year and in the past few years as well, Good has made inroads in his recruiting and really hit the Los Angeles/Southern California area hard this year, as he also got a commitment from Stewart, a Westchester High School product. It’ll be interesting to see if the Lions will turn things around and help Good keep his position at LMU. If he does stick and survive this season, he and the Lions could be very dangerous next year with Cartwright and a solid recruiting class coming to campus next Fall and a more experienced group returning as well (they only lose 3 seniors).

Matt Carlino, Super-Sub, and the Cougars’ Turnaround in WCC Play

Despite his diminished role, Matt Carlino and the BYU Cougars Have Flourished with Him Coming Off the Bench

For many BYU and WCC basketball fans, guard Matt Carlino evokes a wide disparity of emotions. Some love his entertaining, shoot-first, shoot-second, mentality, and it has led to some memorable performances (for example, his 28-point outburst a year ago against Santa Clara and his 26 point performance in the Cougars’ win over Stanford, a much bigger win in retrospect than it was thought at the time). However, efficiency wise, Carlino’ struggles with consistency has often done his team more harm than good. In his frosh season, Carlino posted a 95.8 Adjusted Offensive rating on a usage rate of 26.1 percent. In his sophomore year, he let go of the ball a little bit, as his usage rate dropped to 24.2, but it didn’t affect his rating significantly, as it still remained under 100 (which is usually about average) for the second straight year (99.2). The consensus was simple: as entertaining as Carlino could be, his inefficient style certainly didn’t do the Cougars any favors, and he wasn’t exactly the kind of player the Cougars could build around for consistent success either.

Nonetheless, due to his experience, Carlino remained a mainstay in the Cougars rotation in the beginning of the year. He started the first 14 games at point guard for the Cougars, and they struggled to find major, lasting success on the court. While they pulled off big wins over teams like Stanford and Texas, they also started off poorly in conference play, dropping their first two conference games of the year against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine (both on the road but still damaging losses nonetheless).

After the loss to the Waves, head coach Dave Rose made a gutsy decision: he made the junior Carlino a bench player. The results for the Cougars? They are 5-0 in WCC play since Carlino was removed from the starting lineup. The Cougars have scored less than 1.20 points per possession in a game only once (against USF), and the recent stretch has been a big boost to their conference-only numbers, as they rate as the top offensive team in the WCC according to Adjusted Offensive rating (118.2). They lead in three WCC offensive categories according to Ken Pom (AdjO, Offensive Rebounding percentage and Tempo), and they rank in the Top 3 in four offensive categories as well (eFG percentage, turnover percentage, free throw rate and two point percentage). Furthermore, unlike some teams in conference (such as St. Mary’s and USF), BYU has showed proficiency not only on the offensive end, but defensive end in conference play as well. They are second in the WCC in Defensive Efficiency (103.5) and rank third in categories such as opponent offensive rebounding percentage and opponent free throw rate, and second in opponent two-point percentage. After a stretch where the Cougars lost four straight games and many thought they were definitely NIT-bound, they have turned it around since the lineup-change and could make a case as an At-Large Tournament team if they finish as expected (Ken Pom projects them to finish with a 20-11 record) or slightly better. That was hard to imagine after they started 0-2 in conference after their loss to the Waves in Malibu and looked significantly behind conference favorites Gonzaga and St. Mary’s (now they are ahead of St. Mary’s in terms of getting an at-large bid).

While Rose’s decision to move Carlino to the bench has obviously had positive effects for the team as a whole, it has also improved Carlino’s numbers surprisingly. While some players who come off the bench play starter’s minutes, Carlino has actually seen a decrease in minutes and has been used less in major lineups than before. Here is a list of the most used lineups for the Cougars in the past 5 games according to Ken Pom:

PG SG SF PF C Pct
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
11.0
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
10.1
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
6.2
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
20 Anson Winder
6-3  195  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.4
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.3
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.1
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
3.5
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
3.1
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
2.9
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
24 Frank Bartley
6-3  200  Fr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
2.8
 
UNKNOWN 2.5

While Carlino has been primarily used in six of the ten lineups listed, he has not been used in the the top-two most played lineups. Thus, Carlino is not a “Ginobili-type” in the sense that he is a starter simply coming off the bench due to aesthetic or “strategic” reasons. Rose has preferred sophomore Kyle Collinsworth at the point for more of the critical minutes in the past five games, as evidenced by him running the point in the top-two most used lineups. It’s hard to argue with the success as the Cougars are 5-0 in this span and playing some of their best ball of the season during this stretch.

But, this shakeup has turned out well for Carlino in terms of him improving his efficiency on the court. In the 14 games Carlino started this year, he only had five games where he posted offensive ratings in the triple digits. In the five games that Carlino has come off the bench, he has posted four games with ratings over 100, including a 150 rating against Santa Clara where he put up 15 points and 9 assists in only 24 minutes. Thanks to the recent stretch, his adjusted offensive rating has boosted up to 100.7 which would be a career high, and his turnover rate has dropped to 16.9 percent, which would be a career low, if the season ended today.

If you think about it, it is surprising Rose did not resort to this strategy sooner. Carlino, with his high usage rate (team high 28.1 percent) and high shot percentage (29.1), is the kind of player that can really spark a squad off the bench. He can bring instant offense in a short period of time, and he has the potential produce highly efficient numbers in a short period of time. However, when his minutes spread out, his efficiency becomes more inconsistent, because high-shot, high-usage players don’t carry consistent success over a long period of time unless they’re truly elite players (example: Carmelo Anthony can pull it off, but Ricky Davis cannot). While Carlino is good, he is not that kind of player skill-wise or athletically to do it over 30-plus minutes. But in 25 minutes and under? Carlino is the kind of player that can not only boost a team’s offensive output, but also allow the starter’s to get rest without the coaching staff worrying about the offense taking a step back with them on the bench. Carlino’s role when he was a starter was always questionable because he wasn’t the kind of player efficiency-wise that could carry a team, but in more limited minutes and as a sixth man? He’s been the kind of player that has made BYU the most dangerous team right now in the WCC as well as a legitimate threat to challenge top-dog Gonzaga in the WCC Championship race.

Of course, Carlino is not the sole reason the Cougars have experienced success. Tyler Haws has also been a key reason for the Cougars’ wave of success as he is posting a 116 offensive rating with a usage rate of 26.4. Furthermore, Collinsworth, with his size (6-6) and efficient play 109.5 rating and 24.6 assist rate) has filled in admirably in the starting point guard spot as only a sophomore. Despite those standout performances however, it is obvious that Rose has found the right formula for the Cougars to achieve WCC success centering on his decision to have Carlino coming off the bench. Carlino is the kind of player that can not only torch opposing WCC reserve guards, but he can also match up decently well against starters when in a pinch, which makes his role as a reserve more valuable than as a starter. Sure, his minutes have gone down (his minutes percentage has fallen to 68.4 percent, down from 71.8 a year ago), but his role serves the Cougars much better now than it did in the first 14 games of the year, and their record in that stretch has confirmed that. That may be tough to swallow for the former UCLA commit (after all, nobody would outright prefer to be a bench player than a starter), but if the Cougars ride this current rotation to a NCAA Tournament appearance, I’m sure Carlino and the Cougars program will be satisfied in retrospect with the changes that may have tapered from the pre-season expectations (which was for Carlino to probably be the team’s centerpiece).

Is Rex Walters Finally Turning a Corner at San Francisco?

Sophomore Mark Tollefsen Has Helped the Dons Develop as a Possible WCC Dark Horse This Year and Beyond

I know it’s been a while since I have posted. I have been caught up with the start of school (both teaching and graduate school), so it has been tough to find time to post. That being said, I think I have found a routine, which should open up more writing down the road. Hopefully, I’ll get at least a couple of posts a week, especially as we just pass the mid-season mark in the WCC.

If you have read this blog before, you know that Rex Walters topped the list in terms of the Coaching Barometer Check. It made sense: Walters was in his sixth year, and had not made consistent process, and the sudden “retirement” of senior Cody Doolin and numerous transfers over his tenure made people wonder if there were things going on internally in the Dons program.

Well, since the Doolin departure, the Dons have actually been competitive as a squad this year in the West Coast Conference. Even though they are coming off two straight losses to St. Mary’s on the road and BYU at home and were blown out on the road at Gonzaga, the Dons still sit in good shape in the WCC with a 4-3 conference record heading into today’s home contest against San Diego, a team that has statistically been in the bottom of the WCC in both offense and defense (9th in conference both Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency). With home games looming against St. Mary’s and Gonzaga, and with “better-than-you think” road wins over Portland (remember: Portland beat Gonzaga at the Chiles Center), and Pacific (127th in Ken Pom’s ratings), the Dons are setting themselves up nicely as the fourth place team in conference this year, which should give them a good shot to make a run in the WCC tournament should they finish the year in that position (they would get a much needed bye).

After the Doolin fiasco, it was typical to think that the Dons would hit the skids. After all, we have seen changes of any sort not go well in the Dons’ favor in the past (cough…Eddie Sutton…cough). That being said, the Dons have been strong as a team offensively, as they rank 37th in the nation in Adjusted Offense with a rating of 112.9. They have been a little inconsistent in conference play (thanks to the stinker in Spokane), as their rating is only 108.3 in conference play (5th best in the conference), but they have showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end, and they have interesting players that make them a dangerous foe.

What has made the Dons such a strong offensive team this year? While their shooting leaves some to be desired, their ability to create second chance shots has been a strength of this Dons team. They rank second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage with a rate of 35.7 percent, and they did out rebound the Cougars (the no. 1 rated team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage) in their contest on Jan. 16th. Kruize Pinkins has been a primary reason why the Dons dominate on the glass, as his 18.5 offensive board percentage is fourth best in the nation. Cole Dickerson and Matt Glover have also contributed as well on offensive glass, as their percentages are 8.5 and 8.0, respectively.

One of the biggest surprised for the Dons this year has been the emergence of sophomore Mark Tollefsen, a 6-9 forward who has the versatility to guard players on the perimeter. He has been extremely efficient offensively, as he is posting a 128.2 offensive rating and an effective field goal percentage of 63.8 on a usage rate of 17.5. However, while his offensive game is vastly underrated (and probably underutilized), it’s his defense and athletic skills that make Tollefsen such an interesting player. He is quick enough to guard bigger guards, and while his block percentage helps confirm his defensive prowess (4.0 block percentage), it’s his ability to hound and make opposing players uncomfortable that makes Tollefsen such a valuable player for Walters. Against BYU, Tollefsen was making BYU players struggle early on, as his combo of height and wingspan made him a defensive nightmare for opposing perimeter players.

Defensively, the Dons do leave a lot to be desired this year, as Walters has struggled to get any consistency from them on that end of the court. They are one of the worst teams in the nation in defensive rating, as they are posting an Adjusted Defensive rating of 108.9, 264th in the nation. Conference play hasn’t been much better, as they rank 7th in the conference in Adjusted Defense, as they struggle to generate turnovers (8th in the WCC in turnovers-caused percentage) and send their opponents to the line way too much (9th in conference in opponent free throw rate percentage). It’s those defensive deficiencies that will probably keep the Dons from being a true dark horse in the WCC this year, though they will certainly provide entertaining games, as evidenced by their contest against BYU at War Memorial Gym.

And still, though the ceiling probably isn’t high for the Dons “this” year, there’s a lot of potential in next year’s squad. The Dons only lose forward Dickerson next year, and though Dickerson leads in a lot of “peripheral” stats (points per game, etc.), efficiency-wise, he’s probably a bit overrated (101.5 offensive rating on a 25.7 usage rate). But, Pinkins and Tollefsen return in the post, and they also return guards Glover, Avry Holmes, Chris Adams, and Tim Derksen, who have also showed solid play in their replacement of Doolin. Also, they will return the raw of potential of Chinese import Tao Xu, who is extremely raw, but could have the ability to help the Dons’ ability to continue to dominate on the boards in WCC play for the remainder of this year and especially next year.

Ken Pom projects the Dons to finish with a 16-14 record for the year (9-9 down the stretch), and if the Dons finish with a record like that, I think Walters gets one more year. The amount of talent returning next year is enticing, and it seems that the Dons have found the right mix and identity to find success in the WCC. Defensively, I don’t know if they’ll ever be elite under Walters. But, if they can at least be average, or slightly below, they could be a real dark horse next year, especially if they continue their offensively efficient play in 2015.

To be honest, the turnaround is surprising under Walters, and he and his coaching staff have been able to weather through the storm of the Doolin distractions and the lackluster start in non-conference play. Walters at the very least in his tenure has proven to be a solid offensive coach, and his ability to still find success despite the wave of transfers and new players is a good sign of his ability as strategist on the bench. While his recruiting classes haven’t generated big buzz in “recruiting circles” (i.e. Rivals or ESPN), he has found good talents in Tollefsen and Pinkins, who fit his system well and are probably better than their subjective “Recruiting Site” ratings. There still is a long way to go, and there is the possibility that USF will still hit the skids and hit rock bottom. We have seen teams already this year in the WCC (LMU and Pepperdine for example) who looked to be dark horse contenders, only to fall back earth due to flaws that they simply couldn’t overcome over the long course of the WCC season. USF has those flaws just like any other team (mostly defensively), but Walters has them playing a style of ball that maximizes their strengths (crashing the boards, playing a moderate tempo) while limiting their negatives (questionable shooters, sloppy with the ball). Walters has made an adjustment with his squad this year that many coaches this year in the WCC have failed to do consistently through the progression of the WCC campaign. Its signs like that which should bode good things for Walters and his Dons squads, especially if all of his talent does return as expected next year (which unfortunately for him and Dons fans hasn’t been a sure thing, and has been hard to determine if its more of the culture of college basketball or something he’s doing internally in the program; I’m starting to believe it’s more of the former).

It may have taken longer than expected, but just maybe, things are looking up and success may be shortly on the horizon for the long-suffering fans on “The Hilltop”.

Data Sheet Analysis: A Look at How WCC Coaches Utilize Their Benches

If bench minutes history over the past four years means anything, those Gaels in the warm ups know their time on the floor is few and far between with coach Randy Bennett

I was looking up some data on Ken Pom.com (I know I’m addicted to that site), and I found something interesting. This season, many WCC programs rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of utilizing their bench. Only one team ranks in the Top-100 in terms of bench minutes percentage (Pacific), a stark contrast in comparison to years past from WCC teams. While you can access the Data Sheet on Bench Minutes on the “Data Sheets” Page, I’ll post the numbers right here to give you a context of the lack of time the bench players see in the WCC.

Team Bench Min % Nat’l Rank
Pacific 37.3 65
Santa Clara 34.2 120
Loyola Marymount 33.8 130
Pepperdine 33.7 132
Portland 30.6 201
San Francisco 30.1 217
Gonzaga 28.7 253
BYU 28.6 256
San Diego 27.5 274
St. Mary’s 23.1 333

 

Now, there are a variety of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench less than other rival coaches. For some, it all can depend on a coaches’ style. A team that presses more, plays more in transition is more likely to use their bench to keep fresh legs on the court to play to their system. This is the case for a program like Arkansas who leads the nation in bench minutes percentage at 45.3 percent. Mike Anderson, a former Nolan Richardson disciple, plays a full court, high-pressure defensive style (i.e. “40 Minutes of Hell”). In order to maximize his team’s effectiveness (especially on the defensive ends), constant bench usage is necessary. Of course, the correlation between tempo and bench isn’t always the case as BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation (77.6) but is in the bottom when it comes to bench minutes usage.

One big misconception though is that talent depth is a reason for more bench minutes usage. Teams who have more talent on the roster, should surely use their bench more than programs who are thin talent wise. So, if this thought is true, a team like Duke would be utilizing their bench than say a program like Montana State. That isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to the Top-50 for teams who use their benches the most, only six (Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa, Texas A&M, Houston, Georgia, Louisville, Oregon State) came from major conferences, and only one (Louisville) made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (though Iowa was certainly deserving). The same proves to be true in the WCC. The top-3 favorites (Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s) in the conference rank in the bottom of the conference in terms of bench minutes percentage while the ones at the top were relative afterthoughts going into the season (though Pacific did make the NCAA Tournament a year ago albeit as a Big West representative, a much weaker conference than the WCC).

But one year is just one year, right? After all, talent changes quite often and systems may differ depending on personnel. So, I wanted to take a look at which coaches tended to use their benches the most, and which ones did the least. To find this out, I went to Ken Pom.com, found each team’s bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014 and then averaged out the four year span. The results are shown in this graph:

As you can see the four year results provide some interesting trends. For starters, Randy Bennett seems to be the leading coach in the WCC who trusts his bench the least. His 26.4 percent four year average for bench minutes percentage correlates to the 23.1 percent bench minutes percentage we have seen from his squad this year (though even for his standards he trusts his bench even less so this year, as it is 3.1 percent below his four year average). Rex Walters has sort of employed the same “shallow rotation” with his Dons squads, as his 29 percent four year average is was second-least in the conference. Considering the amount of transfers Walters has seen in his tenure on “The Hilltop” it’s interesting to wonder if his “strict rotation” (or lack of bench utilizaiton) was a reason for a lot of his transfers or just one of the effects.

LMU leads the WCC in bench minutes percentage over the four year span with an average of 34.1, barely edging out Eric Reveno and Portland who finished with a four year average of 34. Portland’s finish is interesting because they never led the conference in bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014, but they finished second in the conference in 2012 and 2013, so that explains their close finish to LMU, who led the conference in bench minutes percentage in 2012 (they had the 37th highest bench minutes percentage in the nation that year as well).

The most eye-popping case is at Gonzaga with Mark Few as his bench minutes percentages have fluctuated wildly over the past four years. As you can see by his four year average, Few obviously numbers and minutes-wise utilizes his bench a decent amount, but that sharply contrasts from what we have seen this year (hence, their third-place finish in the four year average with an average of 33.7). In 2011, the Zags led the conference in bench minutes percentage at 38.5 percent (30th highest in the nation). Last year, they ranked fourth in the conference but still finished 81st in the nation (2013 was a year for bench players in the WCC as only BYU was outside the Top-200 in terms of bench minutes percentage) with a percentage of 34.8. But Few at times has showed years where he has relatively little trust in his reserves. In 2012, he trusted his bench less than the 4 year average, as the bench only averaged 32.7 minutes and this year, he showed even more of a lack of trust, as the Zags reserves are averaging only 28.7 minutes per game. Now, the lack of depth in the front court could be the main cause of this, but it is interesting to see how minutes have plunged at times in the Zags program, compounded by the fact that they have had many transfers over the past few years which ultimately led to this lack of depth for this Zags squad (just look at Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler who is starting for Oklahoma now). Few has showed a short leash with players on the bench, even though his teams have been the deepest in the conference talent-wise for years. Even this year’s team has a lot of depth on the perimeter, but as displayed from the numbers, he doesn’t utilize them as much as other, lesser-talented teams in the conference.

All these numbers are up for interpretation and as stated before, there are lots of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench more or less. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see the numbers laid out, and see how each coaches’ process will fare out for them over the conference season and into conference tournament play and beyond.

Analyzing Gonzaga’s Defensive Play Against WCC Foes

Przemek Karnowski (24, white) has helped the Zags be one of the best squads defensively in the WCC

Mark Few has always earned his reputation as an “offensive” coach. Regularly, his teams rank in the top 20-30 in terms of offensive efficiency according to Ken Pom’s ratings. He has produced offensively efficient players from the well-known like Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk to the lesser-known JP Batista and Kyle Bankhead. This year, the Zags continue to be efficient in the offensive end, as they are rated 10th in the nation with a 117.4 offensive rating this year (which has helped them be rated as the 18th best team in the nation according to KenPom).

But, the Zags wouldn’t be sitting alone on top of the WCC now with a 4-0 record if they were just good offensively. Much to its credit, there are a lot of good offensive teams in the WCC this season. St. Mary’s has continued their tradition of producing great offense under coach Randy Bennett (though he is sitting out the first 5 games of conference play due to a recruiting violation issue), as they are posting a rating of 116.5, 13th best in the nation. San Francisco and BYU have also been solid squads on the offensive end, as they are posting ratings of 111.0 and 110.4, good for 48th and 57th, respectively. If there’s one thing the WCC doesn’t lack, it’s an ability to score points (only San Diego is not rated in the top-150 in terms of offensive efficiency).

What has separated the Zags in conference play so far has been their defensive performance. Despite missing Gary Bell for three games and Sam Dower battling through injuries, the Zags have posted extremely stellar efficiency numbers on the defensive end so far in WCC play (just accounting WCC games). The Zags lead in six of the nine defensive categories on Ken Pom.com, and in two of them they finish second. They are the top team currently in terms of effective field goal against (39.2 percent), turnovers caused (19.4 percent), offensive rebounds prevented (22.3 percent), 2-point percentage against (35.8 percent), block percentage (18.2 percent) and Adjusted Defensive rating (82.2). To put into context how good their start has been from a numbers standpoint, their Adjusted Defensive rating is 19.7 points better than the second-best team (BYU), their eFG percentage prevented is 5.6 percent better than the next best team (Pepperdine) and their block percentage is 4.7 percent better than the next best team (Portland). The Zags have been absolutely dominating teams on the defensive end so far in conference play, and if you don’t necessarily buy into the advanced numbers, you can just look at the scores: against two teams rated in the top-40 in Adjusted Offense (USF and St. Mary’s), the Zags held them to a combined 92 points and 0.60 Points Per Possession and 0.80 points per possession, respectively. Additionally, against St. Mary’s, the Zags held one of the WCC’s best and most efficient players, Brad Waldow to only five points and a season low 48 offensive rating (his previous low this year was 103 against George Mason).

Yes, the Zags’ numbers are amazing. However, what makes it more amazing is that they’re succeeding in an area where they were supposed to be weak this season. They lost their top-two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris) from a year ago, and many pundits (including myself), figured the front court was going to be an issue for the Zags this season. While the scoring and offensive production has been inconsistent, defensively it has been a strength for them. Their 2 point percentage against is 5.1 percent better than the next best squad, and one of the reasons for that has been the defensive play of center Przemek Karnowski.

I tweeted this yesterday after the game:

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Karnowski has been a bit inconsistent this year on the offensive side (only a 100.2 Adjusted Offensive rating, compounded by a 48 percent free throw percentage and a 100.0 FT rate; lots of chances and low percentages don’t result in efficiency). On the defensive side of the ball though, he has given the Zags a true defensive presence that the Zags haven’t had before. At 7-1 and 305 pounds, Karnowski is a load in the post and makes it not only tough for opposing WCC post players to get position on him, but he is effective in taking away driving lanes for WCC guards as well. That was especially evident against USF and St. Mary’s as not only did he shut down an elite offensive player (Waldow), but he also provided a wall for the Dons and Gaels to get to the hoop, leading to the sub-par performances each team experienced in Spokane.

Additionally, the subtraction of Olynyk and Harris, while devastating on the offensive end has actually been good on the defensive end, as Karnowski may be a better post presence defensively than either of them, especially Olynyk (who was the true center last year). Numbers wise Karnowski bests Olynyk in terms of block percentage (8.6 to Olynyk’s 5.1) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.2 to Olynyk’s 20.5). But even on the tape, Karnowski shows excellent instincts for a post man, as he knows what to do well and understands how to use his body as a wall to protect the hoop, even if he may not be the most athletic big man in the WCC. One of the problems for Olynyk was that he would get out of position at times on the defensive end, which would not only hurt in terms of allowing points at the rim, but also make the Zags vulnerable to allowing second chance shots. That hasn’t been the case with Karnowski this year. He stays his ground well and is able to do just enough to get in the kind of defensive position to take away easy shots in the paint (something you couldn’t always say out Olynyk). And, to make things better, Karnowski doesn’t sacrifice rebounding position to defend shots, and this has been a reason why the Zags have been much better at preventing offensive rebounds this year than a season ago (32.2 percent offensive rebounds prevented rate, third best in the WCC).

That being said, Karnowski is not alone in terms of helping the defensive effectiveness of this Zags squad. With the Polish center taking away the middle with his solid frame, strong defensive instincts and ability to limit second chances shots (he has a team high 24.2 defensive rebounding percentage, 63rd in the nation), his presence has complemented the Zags’ perimeter defenders nicely. The biggest surprise contributor has been 6-5 wing man Kyle Draginis who has seen an uptick in playing time since Bell’s injury. Draginis has the length and speed to frustrate opposing guard, and it has been obvious that the defense has improved since he has earned more minutes in the absence of Bell. Furthermore, his 2.5 steal percentage has been a nice surprise for a team that leads the WCC in turnovers caused percentage. Of course, Draginis has not been the sole reason for their superb play on the perimeter defensively. David Stockton, though out matched at times physically, continues to be a pesky defensive player, as he is second on the team in steal rate at 3.3 percent. Gerard Coleman, who was buried for a while on the bench until he earned more minutes with Bell’s injury, leads the team in steal percentage (3.6 percent) and has the kind of wing span that belies his size (6-4) and makes him a matchup problem at times for opposing guards. And Angel Nunez may be the biggest wild card of all, as he has the size and length to guard smaller forwards on the perimeter or small post players in the paint (though strength-wise, that is still a question). The bottom line? The Zags have all kinds of weapons on the perimeter, and the presence of Karnowski and a healthy Dower down low make those wing players able to be more aggressive on the defensive end, knowing they have that presence in the paint taking away the drive at the basket.

At the end of the 2006 season, it seemed like Few was at a crossroads in terms of what to emphasize defensively as a coach. Though he has produced good defensive squads his first years, in 2005, they ranked as the 4th best team in the WCC in terms of defensive efficiency and they rated as the third-best team in the WCC in 2006. The reason? He had excellent offensive players in Adam Morrison and JP Batista and it seemed that the Zags went into contests with the idea that they could simply outscore and provide just another defense to win. There was some success with this model, as they did reach the Sweet 16 in 2006 and lost to a team that eventually went to the NCAA Championship in 2006 (UCLA). Instead though of preferring that style, he has recruited more defensively talented and inclined players since the Morrison-Batista era (they haven’t ranked below second in defensive rating in the WCC since 2006) and that is still relevant today, even with the WCC offensively probably at its most talented in comparison to years past. The Zags are not just able to scrap by defensively, but they have showed that they are able to dominate squads (and good offensive squads) in the WCC. In a conference where there is much more parity than in years past, the Zags emphasis and ability on defense this year may be the chief reason why they rise above the pack for another consecutive season.