The Double Bonus: The Coaching Conundrum

With two of the four teams generally considered “elite” losing to unranked teams at home this week (Syracuse to Louisville, Villanova to UConn), Kansas and Kentucky are presumably more solidly entrenched as the two best teams, both in the rankings and in peoples’ minds. They are the only two teams left with just one loss and they are both loaded with talent projected to go in the first round of the NBA Draft (Kansas has Xavier Henry, Cole Aldrich, and Sherron Collins; Kentucky has John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson). Kentucky, though, has already faced two close calls this week, needing overtime to win at Mississippi State, and facing Tennessee in a game that went back and forth until the Wildcats pulled away during the last eight minutes.

During that game, however, I started wondering an odd thing: Is Bruce Pearl an underrated coach? This seems like an odd thing to say about a guy whose team is coming off back-to-back double-digit losses, who has never made it past the Sweet 16 of an NCAA Tournament, and isn’t even the biggest basketball coach at his own school. He is  more known for things like taking his shirt off at a Lady Vols game and his feud with John Calipari than for anything to do with coaching.

And yet Pearl’s teams consistently display signs of good coaching. In his five years at Tennessee, he’s never had a real “star” player, but he’s always developed a deep bench and gotten key contributions from role players (this year’s biggest coming from the wonderfully named Skylar McBee). His teams usually show an ability to play tough teams well: Tennessee beat Florida three times during their back-to-back national championships run in 2005-07, and in 2008 the Vols dealt Memphis the team’s only loss until the championship game. This year, Pearl has had to overcome the suspension of the one of the team’s best players, Tyler Smith.

We, for one, don't know why people remember this picture.

On Saturday, all the signs of good coaching were on display for the first three-quarters of the game at Kentucky. The team was effectively employing the 3-2 zone; their ball movement was effective, allowing four different guys to score in double figures, including backup guard Melvin Goins; they got solid minutes from guys like McBee and Steven Pearl.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats showed all the signs of a poorly coached team. They seemed totally perplexed by how to handle the zone; they were turning the ball over and missing free throws; they seemed to be on autopilot offensively; and DeMarcus Cousins, the prized freshman forward who came into the game with eight straight double-doubles, acted like a petulant child after missing free throws and not getting foul calls on rebounds. For a lot of the game, it really looked like professionals versus amateurs, in terms of the style of play.

And then Kentucky went on a tear, with Wall and Eric Bledsoe scoring 23 of the team’s last 25 points and running the floor like the Harlem Globetrotters. The Wildcats won by 11. Because here’s one thing good coaching cannot overcome: The players on Kentucky are just way, way better at playing basketball than the players on Tennessee. They are bigger, faster, and stronger.

Which, of course, often comes down to coaching, since the coaches are primarily responsible for the players recruited. College basketball is unique with regard to the relationship between choosing and developing talent. Professional sports have general managers and financial constraints on the level of talent. College football has far more recruits, and the nature of the game makes it harder to determine the natural talent of an individual player (is that running back really as good as we thought, or does he just have a great offensive line?). There is also the fact that, with the NBA age limit and more players leaving early, it is much easier to determine how good a player is before he’s had any real exposure to coaching; by the time a college football star becomes prominent, he’s usually had whole seasons of practice, conditioning, and weight-training with the coaching staff. As we pointed out with John Wall, however, basketball players often have breakout games before their first midterms.

And there often seems to be a stark contrast between how well coaches recruit and how well they develop players and prepare their team. Just look at John Calipari: His teams have trouble with basic things like shooting free throws and facing new defenses, and yet he managed to attract Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose to Memphis; this year he brought in three of the best freshmen in the country in Wall, Cousins, and Bledsoe. His coaching strategy is really just an exploitation of this talent gap—the Dribble Drive Motion (DDM) he runs really just means his players try and get the ball in the open court, or get guys one-on-one in the half-court and have them beat their defenders off the dribble.

On the other hand, there are coaches whose Xs and Os skills seem way ahead of their recruiting. John Beilein, for example, is well-known for his complicated offensive sets and his 1-3-1 zone, but, despite his success in the Tournament, he’s never had a breakout star. Similarly, Beilein’s in-state rival Tom Izzo is known for overachieving with the talent that he has (last year’s runner-up team); even the stars Michigan State has had, like Drew Neitzel, Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and this year’s Kalin Lucas, have usually been three- or four-year players who’ve steadily developed, as opposed to instant stars like John Wall.

Why is it, then, that the skills involving attracting players seem so different than the ones that involve developing them?

I don’t think it’s odd that it takes different skills to attract players and to develop them; it takes different skills to build a car and to sell one. It’s just unusual to see the same individual put in both positions. In college basketball, there are coaches who are recruiters and there are coaches who are, well, coaches. I remember Pat Kennedy of Florida State and DePaul in the ‘90s always being described as a great recruiter who never got the best out of his team. Then there’s someone like Beilein who really hasn’t had a recruit of note at Michigan (and maybe ever) and yet has won a lot of games at different schools using his system.

I think there’s a bit of a dichotomy because the coaches who are always out on the recruiting trail aren’t working up new inbounds plays. “Scheyer, into Thomas, off a screen, Scheyer for the corner three” has basically been Duke’s main inbounds play for years (dating back to when it was Redick taking the shot). It all comes down to striking a balance; you have to build a brand and start getting high schoolers to buy in, but a big part of building that brand is having early success on the court.

Not as good as Pearl, or just with a more common name?

Let’s take someone like Mike Anderson at Missouri. Anderson had success at UAB with the old Arkansas “40 minutes of hell” style, brought that to Missouri, missed the postseason for two years as he weeded out the program a little, and in his third year with no real name players—the best was his nephew DeMarre Carroll who transferred from Vandy—took the Tigers to the Elite Eight. Now, it will be interesting to see if Anderson can make Missouri a national player year-in and year-out like it was under Norm Stewart, and if he starts getting some name guys or not. Pearl is in a similar boat with the obvious exception that he came into a Tennessee program that had a pretty good recruiter in Buzz Peterson (and guys like Chris Lofton on the roster) and won right away. He’s had some good recruits (Duke Crews, Wayne Chism, and the aforementioned Tyler Smith were top 50 guys) who are the kind of guys who don’t specialize in any one thing, don’t have go-to moves, and work particularly well in that system.

Once you establish that reputation, you become a better recruiter because kids know what to expect and what the brand is. Just think back to Duke’s pursuit of recruits like John Wall, Greg Monroe, and Patrick Patterson. Wall went to UK only because of Calipari, and he could cite Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans as players Calipari has “developed” in one season. Monroe and Patterson both turned away from Duke’s—and more specifically, Mike Krzyzewski’s—porous history of developing big men.

And as much as I dislike saying it, you undersell Calipari’s coaching skills a little. True, he’s more a salesman than anything else; it’s how he recruits kids, it’s how he always gets on PTI, it’s how he raised all that money for Haiti. At the same time, he’s adopted the perfect fit for the players he recruits in DDM (his former assistant Derek Kellogg is kind of the orchestrator of it on the college level; Kellogg is now at Calipari’s old stomping grounds at UMass), and he always gets his young, athletic guys to really buy in defensively. What Calipari has done is no different than what Urban Meyer has done at Florida. Meyer’s offense works with any personnel, but it works SO much better when you have a significant edge in speed.

I don’t know if that answers any part of your question, but yeah, Izzo and Beilein are probably the best in the business.

Speaking of coaching, one coach who deserves a lot of credit this season is Jamie Dixon. After losing DaJuan Blair, Sam Young, and LeVance Fields, Pittsburgh was not expected to do much in the Big East this year, and yet the Panthers are fourth in the conference and may very well end up with two byes in the Big East Tournament. Their triple-overtime win against West Virginia last Friday showed impressive resilience. Not only was Pitt down the entire second half, but it looked like Darryl Bryant’s game-tying three for the Mountaineers at the end of the first OT would be a huge momentum swinger, since the Panthers seemed like they had the game wrapped up only seconds earlier. Come Tournament time, Pitt is once again going to be a touch draw for someone, proving that losing your three best players doesn’t mean you have to take the next season off…

Man, it was another tough week for RoyWill with that whole “This season has been SO much worse than that Haiti earthquake” quote and now his “I’ve turned down SO many NBA jobs, but I don’t make a big deal about it” line the other day. I’ve never really liked Williams’ act; it’s nice to see it catching up to him for once.

Although I do have to add that the main reason his team had such high expectations this season was because he did such a great job in 2006 after losing basically all his players off the ’05 title team. That was a team that returned two rotation guys, had an unheralded recruiting class, and went from unranked to a 3-seed. This year’s team returned two rotation guys with a supposedly better but not phenomenal recruiting class, and was ranked in the top 10.

As for Dixon, it’s easy to overlook the job he’s done at Pitt because so many people attribute their success to Ben Howland. But when Howland left, it wasn’t clear whether the Panthers could remain a big-time Big East player on a permanent basis; they could have just as easily fallen back down into mediocrity. But much like Mark Few at Gonzaga and Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, Dixon inherited a program on the rise and not only maintained that level but helped accelerate its ascension.

With like 10 games left in his college career, Brian Zoubek is finally showing flashes of potential.

One more note on coaching: Duke fans give Coach K a lot of grief for running such a short bench and for not giving guys like Andre Dawkins more playing time. People say it hurts their development and has led things like Taylor King transferring and Marty Pocius leaving before his eligibility is up. We tend to laugh at it when Coach K attributes these things to play in practice, but we should probably take Krzyzewski’s button-pushing skills a little more seriously. He recently tapped Brian Zoubek for his first start of the year, and Zoubek responded with a double-double against Maryland. He followed that game up with 10 points and 5 rebounds at Miami. K made a similarly surprising but effective move last year when he put Elliot Williams into the starting lineup and moved Jon Scheyer to the point. So maybe Krzyzewski knows what to look for at practice after all.

Is it too late for Brian Zoubek to make a run at NPOY?

I want to talk about a couple things regarding Duke, and feel free to jump in at any time, John. First, we finally have mathematical evidence that Duke fades down the stretch, although it’s not clear if it’s because Krzyzewski plays his stars too much. I don’t know if anyone has been countering this point too much recently, but it’s nice to have some empirical numbers to back it up.

Second, isn’t it nice to root for a team that offensively rebounds this well? For the last several years, the Blue Devils have been on the opposite end of teams crashing the offensive glass and getting important put-backs. With Zoubek, Lance Thomas, Kyle Singler, and the Plumlees on the boards, Duke can survive nights when it doesn’t shoot that well from beyond the arc. I mean, Zoubek absolutely dominated the game against Maryland and even backed it up with some big plays in the first half against Miami last night. Duke has the best scoring trio in the nation, but there’s going to be a game where those guys are off, and perhaps that front line quartet can help compensate with put-backs.

It’s not so much put-backs, since none of the post players have been able to consistently capitalize off their rebounds, but just the ability to stretch possessions out and not have every missed three turn into a fast break for the other team really does wonders for Duke. It means that the Big Three can keep shooting when they start off cold (as Scheyer and Smith did at Miami), because they can rely on their interior guys to pick up the slack, and it of course makes the defense collapse, leaving the perimeter guys open.

Only three days after Tim and I both jumped on the Syracuse bandwagon, the Orange lost at home to Louisville. It’s not a devastating loss, but it creates a little separation amongst  the probably 1-seeds, with UK and KU slightly above the Big East schools. With that said, I’m taking this opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to the Cuse. Tim, you still on board?

I am. I think we’ll see some separation between the Orange and Villanova by the end of the season because their one meeting is at the Carrier Dome and Syracuse has a much better history of performing well in the Big East Tournament than the Wildcats. The few things that worry me about Syracuse: freshman point guard, the free-throw line, and rebounding.

Building on the rebounding point, I think the way we look at rebounding as a statistic is totally wrong. Total rebounds and rebounding margin only tell part of the story because defensive rebounds, which are easier to get than offensive ones, are dependent on the other team missing shots. Teams that shoot the ball at a high percentage and hold the opposition to a low field-goal percentage are inherently, by virtue of those statistics, going to look like good rebounding teams.

Let me try a basic analysis without all the stats I need for a more complete one*: Syracuse has a rebounding margin of 3.9 per game; the Orange have 996 rebounds and their opponents have 895. By virtue of this simple stat, many people will deduce that Syracuse is a good rebounding team; it is plus on the boards. But I like to define a good rebounding team as one that grabs a higher percentage of offensive rebounds than it allows: A team that does that will get more rebounds if it and its opponent shoot the same percentage from the field.

*I can’t find stats broken into offensive/defensive rebounds for the season.

Back to Syracuse: The Orange are the best field-goal shooting team in the nation at 52.6% and the 16th-best in FG defense at 38.4%. Opponents have missed 980 shots while Syracuse has only missed 714. The Orange should get a lot more rebounds than their opponents because there are so many more opportunities to get a defensive rebound. Out of the 1,891 rebounds in Syracuse games this season, the Orange have grabbed 996, or 52.7%. But 57.9% of the available rebounds in their games are defensive ones.* This means Syracuse allows more offensive rebounds to its opponent than it gets, and that the Orange are not, in fact, a good rebounding team.

*This is not counting free throws because I couldn’t get those stats (I could get how a team does on the foul line, but not if a miss happened on the first shot or second shot and thus could be rebounded).

Does any of this make sense to you, John?

It does make sense, but I think you may be discounting why rebounding stats are important. We don’t look at rebounding stats just to see which team is better at getting rebounds—we look to see how rebounding affects the outcome of a game. For one, offensive rebounds are less important to a team that shoots as well as Syracuse does. If you’re a team that shoots well and holds opponents to a bad percentage, and if you’re a team that likes to get out and run the floor, then defensive rebounds, while easier, are probably more important than offensive rebounds.

Also, take your logic to its extreme: Imagine a team that shoots 99% from the field and holds opponents to 10%. How that team gets offensive rebounds would be utterly insignificant to the overall outcome of the game. So I think the question shouldn’t be “Which team is better at the particular skill of rebounding?” but rather “How did rebounds affect the outcome of the game?” At the same time, it’s probably not a bad idea to show rebounding percentage as well.

A few weeks ago, The Double Bonus explored whether or not the size of the Big East was good for its teams. We specifically asked whether the bottom rung of that league got anything out of consistently finishing in the bottom half of the conference. Well, with Rutgers beating Georgetown and South Florida solidly on the bubble, I think this year has given a lot of hope to those second-tier Big East teams. With the exception of DePaul, in fact, every team in the Big East has four wins and, more importantly, has had wins over potential Tournament teams and/or Big East powers (St. John’s beat Louisville, Rutgers beat Georgetown, Providence beat UConn, Seton Hall beat Pitt and Louisville, USF beat Georgetown).

Is Evan Turner the NPOY?

Only in the Big Ten would Purdue and Ohio State play one of the Games of the Week at 6:30 on a Wednesday night on its own network where no one outside of its geographic footprint could watch it.

Speaking of that PU-OSU game, can we make it official that Evan Turner should be the National Player of the Year? I don’t know if John Wall is even the best freshman on his own team; tell me where the Buckeyes are without Turner. Are they a Tourney team? Are they .500 in conference play? I think he’s the closest the college game has seen since Grant Hill as a 6-foot-7 guy who can run the 1, rebound like a 4, and score from anywhere on the court. I saw him at Illinois (because I couldn’t watch him against Purdue), and in the first half he reminded me of a guy in a pickup game who sets everyone else up, gets them involved early and keeps them happy, and then takes over if and when he needs to. I’m not saying he’s going to be better than Wall at the next level (although both are gonna be really good), but if I can have one guy to build a college team around this season, it’s Turner.

Seconded. Wall’s case has really waned since mid-January (I think The Double Bonus should take some credit for that)—it’s not that he’s played any worse, just that he hasn’t had the kind of explosive performance yet. If you look at his Game Log, his numbers are incredibly consistent (which should maybe be to his credit, but it probably won’t work that way). Turner has been exceptional and explosive—scoring 30 (which Turner’s done twice now) points in a Big Ten game is like scoring 40 in a real conference.  And that’s ignoring the fact that he fractured his back in December. I find it interesting, though, that you framed your argument in terms of Turner’s value to his team, since I never really view Player of the Year in terms of “value” like I would for an MVP award.

Do you think with Luke Harangody injured, Notre Dame considered dressing freshman Jack Cooley in Harangody’s uniform to act as a decoy? How long would it take the other team to notice?

Come on, Tim. Not all white players look alike.

Remember when Virginia was undefeated in the ACC? Now they’re not even at .500 after losing four in a row—the last two by identical margins of 19. The real issue isn’t whether they have any shot at the Tournament, though, but what this does to Tony Bennett’s place on the Best Looking Coaches List.

The Cavs still have a better record in the ACC than Anthony Grant and Alabama do in the putrid SEC West. Tony Bennett’s hold on No. 2 is secure.

Game(s) of the Week: It kicks off tonight with John and my presumptive title winner Syracuse battling my presumptive first-weekend exiter Georgetown. Saturday is BracketBuster Saturday, but the only game really meriting much attention is Siena’s visit to Hinkle Fieldhouse to take on Butler. Vanderbilt hosts Kentucky that day in one of two games the Wildcats might lose down the stretch of the regular season (the other a visit to Knoxville and Pearl’s Volunteers). Evan Turner and the Buckeyes are back in action on Sunday at Michigan State in a must-win for each team if they plan on winning the Big Ten while the True GAME OF THE WEEK is next Tuesday at The Rock in Newark, when Seton Hall hosts Rutgers for Jersey Supremacy (until the rematch).

Upset of the Week: North Carolina over BC! Is that not an upset?

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