Some statistical observations before tonight's tip-off

With the Cougs getting ready to tip off tonight in Alaska (8:30 p.m. PST), I thought I'd take a moment to look at what some of the advanced stats are telling us so far about our team.

Three games is a pretty small sample size, but at the same time, it represents ~10 percent of the season. So, while you don't want to make sweeping conclusions about things, statistical trends* also start to emerge that are worth noting.

* Stat geek alert! If you're unfamiliar with the statistics I'm going to reference for the rest of this piece -- which aren't exactly mainstream -- start out by reading this.

Here's an example: Three games into last season, we had blown out Mississippi Valley State, Fairleigh Dickinson and Sacramento State. In those three games, we were hugely efficient offensively in two and pretty poor in the other. The difference between the two good games and the bad one was simply shooting -- a theme that would pop up again and again and again all year long.

When we shot well, we scored well -- effective field goal percentage ended up having a +.85 correlation with offensive efficiency, which is not small -- and when it turned out we didn't have a good shooting team (we finished 171st nationally in eFG), we ended up with a middling record despite fantastic defense (sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency). You can see just how strong of a trend it was by looking here.

So, what are the numbers (via kenpom.com) telling us so far?

  • Pace might have a bigger impact on our offensive output than in recent years. Believe it or not, for as much as we harped on keeping the game slow in the past, the actual pace had very little correlation with offensive efficiency the last few years. That's because the Bennett system was more about dictating the style and frustrating opponents defensively more than gaining an offensive advantage for us.

    That's going to change this year. Our one slow game against EWU (60 possessions) was our worst offensive performance, and I think that's going to prove to be significant early in the season. By getting back and preventing transition opportunities, the Eagles forced us into halfcourt sets which were, shall we say, a little awkward looking. That's to be expected from young guys. So, there's a good chance we struggle more in games where teams -- especially teams with a little talent -- try to slow us down.

    The good news is that we're not going to play a team like that for a while, as Oklahoma, Gonzaga and LSU all want to play fast. While we might not have the athletes top to bottom to match up with those guys yet, I firmly believe our best chance to win those game is to run, run, run.
  • This team is probably going to struggle offensively if it's not getting to the free throw line. The good news is that after being one of the worst teams at getting to the free throw line last year, we're now one of the best -- our free throw rate is 34th nationally, and we're fourth nationally in percentage of our points coming from the free throw line.

    The bad news? Despite playing teams with weak frontcourts, we're currently ranked 126th nationally in 2-point shooting percentage. Part of that has to do with the fact that when we're getting into the lane we're getting to the line, but if that free throw rate starts to drop (as one might expect against better competition), expect the offense to go with it -- unless the 3-point shooting continues at its current clip. But expecting us to sustain 40 percent shooting from out there probably isn't reasonable, espeically when we're not taking very many 3's (291st nationally in 3-point attempt per field goal attempt). That tells me we've been taking high-percentage 3's (if that makes sense), and that if we start taking more 3's that percentage is likely to go down.

    This also is due to the lack of any reliable post presence outside of DeAngelo Casto. But since that's not going to change, there's probably no reason to harp on it.
  • This might be the best ball-handling team we've seen in some time. We're currently 40th nationally in turnover percentage, and that's a stat that typically is independent of the opponent (save for the occasional game against a team that brings full-court pressure). That is really, really good news for a team that wants to run. As Maryland showed last year, you can make up for a lot of deficiencies on offense by simply not giving it to the other team.
  • Nobody will want to hear this, but there are serious trouble signs with the defense. They've looked pretty decent in stretches, and I think some of the numbers have been skewed a little bit by Bone tinkering with lineups and by guys deep on the bench playing in garbage time. But the fact remains that we're currently 331st in adjusted defensive efficiency. That changes daily as more data is added to the calculations, but that's really, really bad and probably not just due to small sample size.

    Yeah, we're blocking some shots -- 21st nationally in block percentage -- but we're just allowing teams to shoot too darn well against us (especially from 3-point range). Think we've seen anywhere near the kinds of shooting teams we're going to see soon? Not even remotely. Additionally, we've given up a heck of a lot of offensive rebounds to some small front lines. That's only likely to get worse as the competition gets better.

    Bottom line? We're going to have to win games with our offense this year. In fact, go ahead and repeat after me: "It's OK to win games with offense." C'MON! Say it like you mean it! "IT'S OK TO WIN GAMES WITH OFFENSE!" That's the spirit!

See you tonight for the game thread.

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