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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Not Maize, but crose enough!

West Virginia is currently in the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan would not have made the Sweet Sixteen in a seventeen team tournament that featured M versus

  1. Northwestern
  2. the 0-29 New Jersey Institute of Technology
  3. the Glendale School for Headless Boys
  4. Courtney Sims International Toughness Academy
  5. Five Separate Mounds of Animal Crackers Ranging from Six-Two to Seven-Foot-Even
  6. Mary Kate Olsen
  7. Feral Chicken State University
  8. the Armenian National Team
  9. Strippers Killed By Kwame Kilpatrick
  10. Superintelligent Mutated Algae
  11. Team Oompa-Loompa
  12. Nihilists
  13. Bill Simmons, his dad, his infant child, "J-Bug," and "House"
  14. the Knicks
  15. Avery Queen, Maurice Searight, Josh Moore, Gavin Groninger, and Jerrett Smith, aaaaand
  16. Duke.
One team is coached by John Beilein. Correction: John Beilein looks at one team with a visage of perfect exasperation and incredulity. It was recruited and assembled by Tommy Amaker. The other team was recruited and assembled by John Beilein. It is coached by Bob Huggins.

The question for beleaguered Michigan basketball fans: how much of West Virginia's current success can John Beilein take credit for? The answer is somewhere between "all" and "none."

Some context for your consideration:
  • Beilein took the Gansey-Pittsnogle crew to a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight with a thin, veteran roster. In 2006 ninety-six percent of the playing time was split between seven players, five of whom graduated after 2006.
  • In Beilein's last year the only returning contributors were Frank Young and Darris Nichols, who accounted for 20% of WVU's minutes the year before. That team went 21-9 in the regular season, narrowly missing the NCAA tournament. They then won the NIT.
  • There were just two seniors on that team: Young, the leading scorer, and center Rob Summers. Summers played about half of WVU's minutes; he was offensively efficient but very low-usage, a Brent Petway sort who takes a small number of really good shots someone else creates for him. His notable contributions were as an offensive rebounder (13.1 percent of shots, 64th in the country) and shot blocker (199th). His minutes were replaced by sophomore Wellington Smith, who's a hell of a offensive rebounder and shot blocker and a decent, low usage scorer.
  • This year's WVU team returned about 75% of its minutes; the only freshman who saw any playing time was Beilein signee John Flowers. The players on the team were assembled entirely by Beilein.

Why is West Virginia better this year?

A table:

TeamO. EfficiencyAdj. O. EffO SOSD. EfficiencyAdj D. EffD SOS
2006112.5 (20th)118.3 (13th)66th97.8 (72nd)94.0 (57th)75
2007111.3 (26th)116.3 (20th)47th95.1 (32nd)89.9 (21st)39

(A reminder: these are all Kenpom numbers and are as such adjusted for tempo; the "adj" efficiencies above are also adjusted for quality of competition and cannot be questioned in any way ever.)

The numbers indicate that under Huggins an outstanding offense got slightly less outstanding and a pretty good defense got significantly better.

What's completely fascinating is the wholesale makeover the offense made while still maintaining approximately the same level of production. Under Beilein, the offense was a manic exercise in extremes. Under Huggins it's much more conventional. Effective, but conventional:
Beilein              Huggins
Raw Efficiency : 112.5 ( 20) 111.3 ( 26)
Adj Efficiency : 118.3 ( 13) 116.3 ( 24)

Effective FG% : 54.7 ( 17) 51.6 (102)
Turnover Pct. : 17.0 ( 10) 16.2 ( 7)
Off. Rebound% : 30.2 (270) 34.4 (107)
Free Throw Rate: 20.1 (306) 25.0 (182)

3-Point FG% :
37.4 ( 62) 36.4 (108)
2-Point FG% : 53.4 ( 22) 50.1 (102)
Free Throw Pct.: 71.3 (108) 68.7 (175)
Block Pct. : 8.6 (133) 6.7 ( 15)
Steal Pct. : 9.2 (111) 8.2 ( 29)

49.0 ( 5) 34.4 (165)
A/FGM : 68.7 ( 3) 58.2 (100)

About the only things that remain constant are an extremely low turnover percentage and , to a lesser extent, three-point and free throw percentages. The rest of it tacks to the center like a presidential candidate after he locks up the nominaiton.

Herein you can see the way a Beilein offense is supposed to work: pass it to the wide open guy, wide open guy shoots. That explains the incredible EFG%, the incredible assist percentage, the incredibly bad free throw rates and offensive rebounding. Huggin's team is pretty good at a lot of things but only great at avoiding turnovers.

Let's look at the six returning players:


Nichols suffered. His usage, eFG%, FTRate, and assist rates all dropped precipitously, as did his shooting. Interestingly, Nichols actually took more threes this year.

The slide could be an effect related to the graduation of Frank Young, WVU's best player in 2007 and the recipient of most of the defensive attention.


Ruoff's usage dipped a bit and his assist rate collapsed, but holy hell: 62% on twos and 40% on threes. Ruoff was the nation's 50th best eFG% shooter and I'm betting half of the guys ahead of him are Brent Petway sorts with usages around 10%. I think we'll see why Ruoff got this bump in a bit.


Butler is the starting small forward and saw himself become more of a slasher and interior player: three point attempts dropped as most everything else remained stable. Note the significant bump in offensive rebounding: Butler was closer to the basket.


Alexander upped his already high usage, held his eFG steady, increased his FTrate enormously, and actually increased his assist rate; three pointers plummeted to 9% of his shots. What this says to me: the WVU offense moved to a heavily Alexander-based isolation-kick game. This killed everyone's assists except Alexander, upped Alexander's usage, and turned Ruoff into Kyle Korver.


Mazzula took so few threes this year that the huge jump in percentage should be dismissed as small sample size.


Smalligan, a Zach Gibson type whose main asset is his outside shooting, got killed and is now a bench guy who hardly sees any time because the offense can't figure out how to use a big man outside the arc.

So what in this is relevant? I think there are two things.
  1. Beilein really does have an offensive system that outperforms the rest of the planet. Huggins returned four starters and 80% of the minutes from Beilein's NIT champions and implemented a conventional, NBA-style offense with an excellent isolation threat down low in the form of Joe Alexander and a couple of guys with three point percentages around 40 to kick to. The result? A slightly worse offense.
  2. These kids can play, man. There is a concern out there that Beilein got lucky with the Gansey/Pittsnogle group and will never find that sort of success again. And what did that success consist of? A couple of good runs in the NCAA tournament coupled with fifth-place finishes in the Big East and middling seeds. Lose a game here or there and no one thinks Beilein is anything but an above average coach with a low ceiling.

    While the "low ceiling" point hasn't exactly been dispelled by the exploits of a seven seed that finished fifth in the Big East, Beilein recruited every player who's seen the floor for WVU this year and is there any one of them that you wouldn't trade for the Michigan player at his position? These guys are talented enough to run Beilein's system one year and then something entirely different the next and finish with a top 25 offense both years. Beilein finds talent that the recruiting services do not. I don't know why, but think it has something to do with an increased focus on guys who just love basketball and would rather shoot 4000 jumpers than play My Little Pony.
The one evident downside: maybe Beilein just can't coach defense? Huggins took the supposedly unathletic group Beilein left him and radically improved their rankings. I'll take a look at the other side of the ball sometime next week.