Senior Day

It’s that time of year where I start taking up college hoops on Basketball Prospectus, and today I tried to wrap up the careers of the Pac-12’s rotation seniors. My comments on Darnell Gant:

Depending on how the Huskies finish the season, Gant has a chance to be the first player in school history to reach the NCAA tournament four times. Already, he’s the first ever to win 20-plus games all four years. That’s had more to do with Quincy Pondexter, Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross, sure, but Gant has played a role. A versatile defender, he’s turned himself into an efficient option on offense by extending his range beyond the three-point line. In fact, only one UW teammate (C.J. Wilcox) has a higher Offensive Rating this season. No wonder that when I ran plus-minus numbers for the Huskies at midseason, Gant was one of the standouts.

I also wanted to add a quick note on Brendan Sherrer that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the national audience. Before this season, I was a touch worried about the adoration for Sherrer, given the obvious racial element that he was the only white player on the UW roster. It troubled me that when Antoine Hosley walked on to the team last year, he barely got token applause while the crowd exploded for Sherrer. Fortunately, when Alex Wegner arrived as a walk-on this season, it rendered the argument moot. Like Hosley, Wegner barely gets noticed by the crowd.

There is a little of the soft tyranny of low expectations here–while Sherrer’s entire career was strictly reserved for garbage time, it looks like Wegner could maybe help the team someday with his outside shooting–but mostly Sherrer’s popularity seems to be a function of his unique backstory. Not many players can say they started college as season-ticket holders (part of the Dawg Pack, no less) and ended them as two-time conference tournament champions.

Before Sherrer was invited to walk on following tryouts, Lorenzo Romar explained his reticence to bring on walk-ons because many of them end up disappointed with their small role. There was never any such worry with Sherrer, the ultimate teammate.

In the end, Sherrer got his reward. Against Arizona last Saturday, in his last scheduled home game, Sherrer got the traditional Senior Day start. Kudos to Romar for sticking with Sherrer even in a must-win game. The walk-on responded with a couple of solid minutes of basketball–his pick-and-roll defense was particularly effective–before giving way to Aziz N’Diaye. With the game decided, Sherrer got back on the floor in the late stages and then got one final ovation from the Dawg Pack as he left the floor. Now that’s a way to go out.

Romar the Developer

I promised a few weeks ago, in the comments on my Lorenzo Romar manifesto, that I would follow up with more data. I apologize that other projects have gotten in the way, but there’s good news. During the interim, Dan Hanner of RealGM.com (who joins me in contributing to the annual College Basketball Prospectus series) ran some of the numbers for me.

If there’s one common semi-criticism of Romar, it’s that he can attract marquee talent but struggles when it comes to Xs and Os and does less with these players than he should. If not untrue, I tend to find this argument somewhat overstated. So compiling recruiting data was a key pillar of my follow-up piece. Fortunately, Hanner has done the work for me. In a fascinating post this morning, he evaluates tenured major-conference coaches based on two factors: their recruiting (as measured using RSCI rankings of the players they sign) and how those recruits subsequently develop offensively over the course of their college careers.

Romar ranks 19th in recruiting, which is reasonably impressive. That’s second among Pac-12 coaches behind Ben Howland, with Sean Miller likely to leapfrog Romar after next season’s star-studded incoming class. Where Romar really shines by this measure, however, is in terms of developing players. He ranks fourth out of the 49 major-conference coaches, behind Matt Fox, Bo Ryan and Craig Robinson.

Granted, that’s not a who’s who of names, with the exception of Ryan. One of the shortcomings of this approach is that coaches who land top-10 recruiting chances have less ability to develop talent, both because the players are already that good and because they head to the NBA early. Still, coaches like Ryan and California’s Mike Montgomery (fifth) are renowned for their ability to produce good offenses because of complex systems, and Romar’s players are developing a similar amount. In fact, those two coaches probably have the most similar combination of recruiting/developing to Romar. (Fox and Robinson have much lower recruiting scores.)

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. While Romar has gotten his share of top-10 recruits, especially as compared to his predecessors at Washington, some of his best players have been relatively unheralded. By RSCI, Isaiah Thomas–averaging nearly 20 points over four starts for the Sacramento Kings during the last week–was the nation’s 85th-best recruit. Bobby Jones, a key contributor to Romar’s first three tournament teams who got multiple chances in the league, ranked 97th. Justin Holiday was unranked. Will Conroy came to UW (under Bob Bender, initially) as a walk-on. Even Brandon Roy (45th) was far from considered a sure thing nationally coming out of high school.

Now maybe these players were just misjudged by recruiters. The success enjoyed by Roy and Thomas in the NBA suggests they truly were elite talents, and academic concerns were a factor in why they dropped in the rankings. Still, Romar and his staff have managed to develop and utilize these players to reach potential no one else saw.

Teams with 12 Pac-10 Wins That Missed the NCAA Tournament

Obviously, this is a season unlike any other for the Pac-12, and not just because the conference expanded. Still, with the Huskies earning their 11th and 12th conference wins last weekend with a sweep of the Arizona schools to complete their home schedule, I was curious how many Pac-10 teams won at least 12 games and were not chosen for the NCAA tournament, at least since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985. As it turns out, there have been three teams, all of whom went 12-6 in conference:

Bizarrely, of the three examples, two were coached by the same person (the late Walt Hazzard). I saw a reference to Hazzard not being particularly concerned with non-conference games, which makes sense looking at UCLA’s overall record those two seasons. While the Bruins played difficult schedules, it’s incredible that the same teams that went 7-14 against non-conference opposition could go 24-12 against Pac-10 foes.

The 1985 UCLA team proved it could beat teams outside the West Coast during the NIT, knocking off Louisville and Indiana at Madison Square Garden to win the tournament. As for the 1988 team, it lost in the opening round of the original Pac-10 tournament to lowly Washington State, never even got bubble consideration and was passed over for the NIT. Hazzard was fired at season’s end and replaced by Jim Harrick.

Naturally, Arizona State is the better comparison for what will likely happen to at least one Pac-12 team this season. The conference wasn’t a whole lot better two years ago, when the only NCAA tournament representatives were regular-season champions California (an 8 seed) and tournament champions Washington (an 11). The Sun Devils were lacking in marquee victories (they beat just one team out of conference ranked in the nation’s top 150 by Kenpom.com) and fell victim to an opening-round upset in the Pac-10 tournament, knocking them off the bubble. A disappointed Arizona State squad ended up losing to Jacksonville at home in the first round of the NIT.

In Which One Game is Meaningless

One of my favorite Ken Pomeroy studies comes from College Basketball Prospectus 2008-09, when Ken took aim at the notion that Team A is better than Team B just because Team A beat Team B. What he found was truly remarkable. Teams that won conference home games by 10-19 points were basically 50-50 win the rematch on the road (.507, to be exact). Even teams that won blowouts by at least 20 points at home won just 58.3 percent of the time facing the same opponent on the road.

There are two lessons to be taken here. The first is that home-court advantage is a big deal in college basketball. (More recently, Pomeroy found it is worth 3.8 points to the home team.) The second is that a single game simply isn’t all that telling about the respective strength of the two teams involved.

I thought about that research tonight, when the Washington Huskies were destroyed at Matt Knight Arena, 82-57. In many ways, the game was a mirror image of the game the Huskies played against the Oregon Ducks on New Year’s Eve. Both times, the home team took a first-half lead and continued to extend it thanks to hot shooting. At Hec Ed, Washington shot 12-of-22 (54.5 percent) from three-point range, while Oregon made just 21.7 percent (5-of-23). Tonight, that reversed itself, as the Ducks shot 7-of-13 (53.8 percent) and the Huskies 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Each game featured the worst offensive performance of the season by the losing team.

Had the two teams both shot their usual percentage on threes (which is nearly identical, 35.7 percent for Washington and 36.1 percent for Oregon), the Huskies would have scored an additional nine points and the Ducks six fewer. That wouldn’t have been enough to make up the 25-point difference, but it certainly would have made the game a lot more respectable. Given the outcome of the first game, it’s difficult to argue the difference is a meaningful statement about the two teams. It’s just noise.

To me, a possession early in the game was a microcosm of Washington’s night. Down 12-4, far too early to be out of the game, the Huskies ran probably their best single possession of zone offense. After sucking Oregon’s zone to the strong side of the court, Washington passed over the top to a wide-open Terrence Ross, only to see the 38.4 percent three-point shooter miss. Those kinds of misses are disheartening on the road, especially when the opposition is throwing up every shot it takes. Conversely, the microcosm at the other end was the Huskies forcing Tyrone Nared–6-for-21 from three on the year–to shoot from beyond the arc with the shot clock running down and Ross draped all over him. Nared made it because of course he did.

Plays like that don’t excuse the disparity in energy between the two teams, but they do explain it.

The upside from Washington’s perspective is that Thursday’s game can be flushed away fairly safely. The downside is the broader perspective isn’t quite as sanguine as it appeared from the conference standings. As John Gasaway’s Tuesday Truths breakdown showed, the Huskies’ efficiency differential through last weekend did not match up to their Pac-12-leading 9-2 record. Washington has been the beneficiary of some good fortune in recent games, including narrow victories at Arizona and over UCLA. Not only does the Huskies’ differential now look even worse, it doesn’t account for a favorable schedule that has included seven home games and just five on the road to date.

There are plenty of issues the Huskies must correct. The Ducks’ four-out offense was able to exploit Washington’s difficulty guarding cuts in the paint without help from a big man, which is why the Huskies were more effective defensively when they briefly switched to a zone before halftime. Tony Wroten has to adjust to opponents playing him for the drive and flopping before he makes contact, plays that are as preventable as they are aggravating. Abdul Gaddy must find his confidence and C.J. Wilcox his rhythm as shooters. (How long ago Gaddy’s 3-of-3 shooting from downtown in the last meeting with Oregon now seems; since then, he’s made four threes in his last 22 attempts.) And Washington must find a way to get Ross some easy buckets. His stepbacks and three-pointers are exhilarating when they’re working, but when those difficult shots don’t go in Ross is too often a non-factor for a player with his immense offensive gifts.

We’ve seen how good the Huskies can be. Their win at Arizona increasingly looks as impressive as almost any in the conference this season, edged only by the Wildcats winning at Cal. Yet when Washington is off, the results are ugly. Neither performance extreme is indicative of the Huskies’ true level, which lies somewhere in between. Where it settles will determine Washington’s fate in a Pac-12 that is still there for the taking.

The Night Ben Howland Went Home with a Timeout

For some reason, nothing fascinates me more than the way college basketball coaches use their timeouts. And there is no more interesting study than UCLA’s Ben Howland, who seems to value his stoppages of play differently than anyone else in the country. I coined the term Howland for a timeout called to stop a run when the next dead ball would mean a media timeout because Howland is the leading practitioner of a trend that is all too common around the country.

The Bruins’ visit to Hec Edmundson Pavilion last year was the quintessential Howland timeout game. He burned through three timeouts in the first half and had used up all five of them by the 12:57 mark of a close game. When Howland took his first timeout 2:32 into Thursday’s ballgame, it looked like we were headed for a repeat. Instead, the UCLA coach showed surprising discretion, added by his team’s ability to stem any Washington momentum with timely scores.

Howland took a pair of timeouts to the five-minute mark, then used one with 4:38 to play to set up his defense after a score, giving him one to burn. He never used it.

Remarkably, the Bruins found themselves in precisely the sort of situation for which most coaches save their timeouts. After a Terrence Ross miss, UCLA took possession down two with 26 seconds remaining. The Bruins came down and got into their offense, even after the Huskies took away any opportunities for transition or the secondary break. The resulting play was a mess. Freshmen guard Norman Powell eventually got the ball in the corner. Powell, who was in the game only because Tyler Lamb had fouled out, driving for a contested pull-up jumper with three seconds left. When he missed, time ran out before the Bruins could secure the rebound or foul.

Lamb’s fifth foul, with 2:49 left, was an important point in the game. Without him, the Bruins had no choice but to use smaller defenders on the 6-6 Ross. Having already made his previous two shots, Ross abused Powell for a score and the foul, then knocked down a three-pointer to extend the lead.

The performance capped another impressive second half for Ross, who has been two completely different players in the two halves at home dating back to the win over Washington State. The final shot was Ross’ only miss of the second half. He went for 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Over the last four games, updating stats provided by the Huskies Basketball App, Ross is averaging 3.0 points in the first half and 18.3 after halftime. His shooting percentage has gone from 19.2 percent to 65.7 percent.

The team has been similarly bipolar. While Thursday’s night didn’t qualify–the Huskies outscored UCLA by one in either half–it continued a trend of big runs by Washington in the second half. Against Washington State it was 18-2 midway through. UW got back in the Cal game with a 10-5 spurt, and reeled off 13 unanswered points to put Stanford away. Thursday saw the Huskies go on a 15-2 run to go from down 10 to up three in the final minute.

These runs have featured similar characteristics–turnovers leading to layups and dunks, Washington executing its offense for open looks from beyond the arc and a frenzied Hec Ed crowd. (I’m still a little hoarse from the game.) In a season that started with as much grumbling as cheering in the stands, these runs–and the home-court advantage they reflect–have been a welcome change.

Plus-Minus Shows Wroten’s Growth

Last weekend’s plus-minus numbers for the Huskies:

Arizona State
Wroten +12
Gant +8
N’Diaye +8
Gaddy +6
Ross +4
Seferian-Jenkins 0
Wilcox 0
Kemp -1
Simmons -7

Arizona
Wroten +12
N’Diaye +8
Simmons +8
Gaddy -2
Seferian-Jenkins -2
Ross -3
Wilcox -5
Gant -6

The big takeaway here is the newfound importance of Tony Wroten, who had the team’s best mark both games. The most critical stretch of the season might have been the nine minutes Wroten spent at point guard after Abdul Gaddy picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half in Tucson. Lately, Lorenzo Romar has been hesitant to put Wroten at the point. Gaddy played more than 80 consecutive minutes between halftime of the Stanford game and exiting just after the break at Arizona. Yet Wroten helped the Huskies extend their lead by four points before Gaddy returned and, for a variety of reasons, things got hairy.

It’s not just the last two games, which don’t mean that much on their own. The Gaddy-Wroten-Ross perimeter trio (+10.6) now rates well ahead of the Gaddy-Wilcox-Ross trio (+7.3) that started at the beginning of the season. Wroten’s steady improvement is a big reason why Washington has been able to survive Wilcox’s absence, and the team now looks stronger as Wilcox is able to ramp his minutes back up as the backup to all three perimeter starters.

Saturday’s game was unusual in that the Huskies won with just three players having a positive plus-minus. Nothing meaningful there, just an odd note. It was also just the fourth time all season with negative plus-minus for Darnell Gant and Terrence Ross. Gant has somehow been positive in five of Washington’s seven losses (including South Dakota State) but negative in two wins (Seattle U was the other).

Austin Seferian-Jenkins‘ hugely positive plus-minus didn’t carry over last weekend, but he was basically neutral on the road. Before the Arizona game seemed too fast for him, I was probably most comfortable with Seferian-Jenkins on the floor of any of the Huskies’ big men against Arizona State. UCLA, what with its size in the frontcourt, should be a much better matchup for Seferian-Jenkins tonight and a test of how much he can bring to the team.