Tuesday, March 16, 2010

why it wasn't so bad after all

Like I said, it's a good thing the Hoos got that win over Boston College on Thursday in the ACC tournament, and followed it up with a scrappy game against Duke. It keeps me from having to write this post in between a ten-game losing streak and the imminent departures of at least one and probably more of our players that were supposed to be top scoring options. I'd've felt like Gandalf in Return of the King: there's about ten thousand billion bad-nasties lined up at the gate with a big fucking battering ram and launching the flaming heads of our dead comrades over the walls just to piss us off, and here I am telling you to stand up and fight dammit. Funny how simply finishing with more points than another team in one simple game changes all of that.

This would only be a little less true had we lost that game, though. What I have now is the ability to say, "See, next year won't be so bad, we can do it without Sylven, we proved it in the tournament." And that's not an unimportant point, so do yourself a favor and file it away for when you inevitably hear that Sylven is going to play in Israel or Spain or the NBDL next year.

But the main thing here is a symphony in two parts. Part 1 is all about the Bad Luck. That comes in a couple flavors. First is the KenPom luck factor. KenPom actually quantifies luck, by calculating the difference between how much a team "should" have won based on his system, and how much they actually did. As with last year, UVA is one of the unluckiest teams in the nation. If you add our luck factor to our actual winning percentage, our record changes from 15-16 to 17-14. Likely good enough for a feel-good trip to the NIT. I believe I wrote something like this last year and suggested this should average out eventually, and obviously it didn't come true, but next year for sure!

But the real proof is in the win-loss column. Bottom line up front: Judiciously add ten points - five baskets - to the right places, and 15-16 (5-11) becomes 18-13 (6-10). Add a single free throw on top of that and it changes to 19-12 (7-9) and a likely NIT bid following an anxious and ultimately disappointing Selection Sunday. For the want of a nail the kingdom was lost; for the want of 11 points, the season was lost. In four games, the ball bounced the wrong way at the wrong time. That's it.

But, you say, everyone gets breaks and bounces. They come, they go, and maybe some of our wins were the same way. Not so. The wins all fall neatly into three categories:

- We dominated.
- We controlled.
- We rallied.

In all cases, even the rallies, we played well enough for a long stretch of time that the game was pretty clearly ours. The first category includes Longwood, Rider, Oral Roberts, Hampton, Miami, and UNC. The second includes NJIT, UTPA, UNC-W, and BC; the third encompasses Cleveland State, UAB, GT, and both NC State games. None of these games were even all that close at the end, and the closest thing to good luck in these games that you can claim is the shitty free-throw shooting on display from some of our opponents, like GT. (They were 3 for 11. Average FT shooting would have given them four or five more points, and we won by 7 after protecting a 12 points lead.)

The losses, on the other hand? Honestly, up until Sylven left, only one of these losses fell anywhere between "really close" and "horrific nasty blowout." That'd be the Miami loss. Otherwise, between (and including) the first Maryland game and the second Maryland game, this team was absurdly uncompetitive (more on that later) and that holds true also for the USF game and the first Wake loss.

But then there's the Auburn game, in which a last-second tip-in did us in. There's Penn State, where we controlled the first half and they controlled the second, and our rally (later in the season to be successful a couple times) fell just short. There's Episode 1 of the Tech series, where we got a little luck in forcing overtime but positively none at all in blowing the lead we'd held the entire game. And there's the Wake game, where Mike Scott's second half was 100% effort and 0% results. The man had six rebounds, three offensive, in the second half and the basket wouldn't open up for any of his putbacks, layups, or even dunks. In an overtime game like that one, just one bucket would have made all the difference.

And then there's Maryland, a team that doesn't do well if profanity isn't being showered onto the court by the student section and saw what we did in the Dean Dome after a blizzard; thus, they took the path of least resistance and postponed the game for snow, against ACC protocol that states if two teams and two refs are in the house, play ball. Suppose we had gotten half the bad bounces going our way instead, and instead of being 14-7 (5-3) at that point, we're 16-5 (6-2). Suppose instead of having to travel from Charlottesville to College Park to Charlottesville to Blacksburg to Charlottesville to College Park to Charlottesville in a week's time, we can eliminate one of those trips and not have to play three games in five nights. Maybe we win one of those games too? Maybe we don't get launched into the death spiral of terrible shooting and one-man-band offenses? I've long since gotten into forbidden what-if, coulda-shoulda-woulda, excuse-making territory, but do consider this: back then I pointed out that if we can't win three games in five nights, then we can forget about ever winning the ACC tournament - that still holds true, but with one important caveat. The ACC tournament only involves one bus ride, not six.

Now about that death spiral. This is Part 2. Remember the rather well-received post, about a month ago, that posited that the drastic improvement between seasons was due to better offense, not better defense? (And isn't hard to believe that all it took was one awful month to change the perception of the season from "best improvement story in the country" to "falling apart like OJ on the witness stand"?)

Well, the fact of the matter is, nothing changed. It was still all about the offense. As good as it was in the first two-thirds of the year, it was that bad and worse in the latter part. Consider the numbers from back then:

- Defense was allowing 93.7 points per 100 possessions.
- Offense was scoring 111 points per 100 possessions.

And now?

- Defense has allowed 94.4 points per 100 possessions.
- Offense has scored 106.7 points per 100 possessions.

That drop on offense moved us from 43rd to 92nd in the country. That's a precipitous fall, especially for just 10 games. The defense got a little worse, too, but by a small enough margin that you can probably explain that just by pointing to the terrible offense, or, more likely, the greatly improved competition. In fact, there were 7 games out of 10 against tournament teams in that stretch, compared with 4 out of 21 prior; the fact that the numbers only got worse by that tiny amount despite the huge boost in quality of competition probably means the defense actually got better.

A little simple algebra will tell you that during that 10-game stretch between that post and the end, the defense allowed 95.9 points per 100 possessions. That's not up to snuff but it's not terrible. New Mexico is a 3-seed (an outlier of one, but still) and they allowed 96.

But the ugly part is the offense. Again with the simple algebra, and we scored 97.7 points per 100. That's OK (again, not real great, but OK ... ish) for the defense. It's completely pathetic for the offense. Arkansas State scored 97.7 on the season and that is good enough for 222nd in the country. The worst ACC team is Florida State at 105.2, and they rank 119th. Remember how unbelievably unwatchable the '08-'09 season was? How jump shots clanged off the rim starting from Day 1 and there was no set rotation? The offense scored 101.5 per 100. That's how bad February 13 through March 12 was on offense: worse than a season that saw us go 10-18 and lose to, what the hell was it, Liberty? I try not to remember that happening. And the BC win is lumped in there too, so the losses had to be even worse than that 97.7 number.

Now, I know I already said this once. I said swapping Tristan Spurlock in for the ghost of Mamadi Diane could only result in an offensive boost. Well, maybe it would have, but we never made that swap, did we? But next year we have no choice - we'll be forced to put someone new in the rotation because Baker, Meyinsse, and Landesberg all drop out of it. With six newcomers plus maybe Spurlock if he stays, it's practically unthinkable that we can't find two out of that bunch that are more offensively gifted than Meyinsse (bless his heart, he has all of one move in the post) and Baker (who is decent defensively but has the nasty habit of trying to do something with the ball before figuring out what exactly he should do with it) and smart enough to pick up the defense well enough for Bennett's taste. Sylven's scoring will be tough to replace, and it'll just have to be done by committee. Nobody's going to give us 17 a game. But as you see, it can, and has, been done.

So cheer up, sports fans. Here you have this combination of horrible luck and inexplicably horrible offense, and it still got us five extra wins and a two-place boost in the ACC seeding. And you can't expect that double-dose of horrible to stick around forever, can you? Next year's still going to have its ugly moments, but they'll be slowly disappearing.

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