It’s relatively easy to pick out teams who aren’t playing well. The signs are obvious, like losing at home to Presbyterian. Or wearing a jersey that says UCLA. You get the idea.
But ultimately the question is why are the teams playing poorly, and that’s what I intend to find out through this series. In the first installment of Diagnosing Dysfunction, I’ll break down the woes of three Big East teams who are off to slow starts.
Since collapsing down the stretch and losing to the aforementioned Blue Hose, the Bearcats dropped another home game to Marshall, albeit in overtime. And while the Herd are a solid team, it’s a pretty auspicious start for a team ranked in the preseason Top 25, particularly since they didn’t go out of their way to schedule tough non-conference opponents. Three of their four wins have come against teams ranked 274th or lower on KenPom, with the best of those coming Tuesday night over 146th-ranked Miami (OH).
We can essentially eliminate UC’s defense from the possible causes for their early season struggles. The Bearcats are allowing 0.84 points per possession and rank 26th in adjusted efficiency according to the Pomeroy Ratings. Their eFG% defense is actually better than last season, as they are limiting opponents to 28.7 percent from beyond the arc and just 41.1 percent inside of it. They are forcing turnovers and allowing offensive rebounds at relatively the same rate as a season ago, and they have improved their block percentage and reduced their opponents’ FT Rate.
A quick look at their offensive numbers reveals an identical eFG% to last season as well as improved work on the offensive glass.
So what has changed on offense? For starters, Cincinnati’s turnover rate has jumped from 18.1 to 21.8. When you look at specific players who have seen an increase, you need look no further than the backcourt trio of Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon, and Sean Kilpatrick. Wright, the team’s primary ballhandler, has seen his TO% go from 22.9, which was one of the worst on last year’s team, to 28.7. Dixon’s has climbed from 13.0 to 20.5, and Kilpatrick’s is up to 21.2 from 15.3 a season ago.
Interestingly enough, this increase in turnover rate has been accompanied by a drop in free throw rate, which has fallen from 38.3 last year to 30.3 this season, a mark that actually lines up well with Mick Cronin’s first four seasons at the helm. Forward Yancy Gates has seen his FT Rate plummet from 42.0 last year to just 19.5 through the first six games. Perhaps his 43.8 percent shooting from the stripe has him less eager to find his way there. The drop in FT Rate isn’t isolated to Gates though, as Wright’s has fallen from 47.9 to 17.3 and Kilpatrick’s has dropped from 34.5 to 19.3.
So essentially, the team is being less aggressive based on their FT Rate, but they are still turning the ball over more frequently. Not exactly a comforting combination.
As we look for root causes other than simply a loss of confidence (which is a factor), you have to look at their depth, or lack thereof. Gates, Kilpatrick, Dixon, Wright, and Justin Jackson are the only players averaging more than 15 minutes, and if you add in Cheikh Mbodj, who missed the first three games, no one else contributes more than 3.0 points per contest. So while the potential emergence of Mbodj helps, it doesn’t address the fact that there is still no one to spell the three players primarily responsible for the increase in turnover rate, two of whom have also seen a large dip in their FT Rate. Throw in Gates’ struggles at getting to the line (and making shots once he gets there), and there isn’t much optimism for a big turnaround.
The Bearcats play Xavier in their next game, but outside of that, there isn’t much meat on their schedule prior to Big East play. Consequently, they might rack up some wins, but it will be important to look for improvement in their turnover and free throw rates to determine whether the team has really rebounded from their poor start.
Pitt’s convincing home loss to Long Beach State has been one of the more surprising results of the early season, and with LBSU struggling since then, it is looking a little worse. The Panthers have also won home games against Rider, LaSalle, and Robert Morris by 10 points or less, so the loss to the 49ers doesn’t seem like a completer aberration.
The issue certainly isn’t on offense, as the Panthers rank first in offensive efficiency in the Pomeroy Ratings and are scoring 1.27 points per possession through their first six games. Despite the fact that Ashton Gibbs has seen a surprising drop in his eFG%, the team is still ranked ninth in the nation in that category. As has become the norm, Pitt is also among the leaders in OReb%, and they’ve done a solid job of limiting turnovers. Ranking 236th in FT Rate represents a large drop there when compared to last season, but it’s almost identical to the number they posted in 2008-09 when they won 31 games.
So interestingly enough, that leaves defense as the most likely culprit, which is certainly not something you would expect from the traditionally rugged and hard-nosed Panthers. They are allowing 1.09 points per possession and rank 123rd in opponents’ FT Rate, 261st in eFG%, 289th in steal percentage, and 326th in turnover percentage.
In Jamie Dixon’s tenure, Pitt has never finished lower than 54th in adjusted defensive efficiency when they posted a 93.3 rating in 2007-08. Their 47.9 defensive eFG% from that season is also the worst in the Dixon era, which makes the 52.2 eFG% they are allowing this season that much more astounding. Opponents are making 53.9 percent from two-point range after being held to under 44.0 percent the last two seasons. The FT Rate Pitt has allowed is also the worst since Dixon took over, but the turnover rate is pretty similar to the last couple seasons.
So what has changed since last season? The team no longer has Brad Wanamaker, Gary McGhee, and Gilbert Brown, that’s what. Tray Woodall’s 46.9 assist rate would indicate he’s been an adequate replacement for Wanamaker as the offensive facilitator, but Wanamaker was by far the team’s top defender in terms of steals and a disruptive force on that end of the floor. Brown’s length also gave the team some flexibility on defense and ultimately allowed Dixon to hide the defensive deficiencies of a guy like Ashton Gibbs. Pitt’s defensive woes on the perimeter were on full display against Casper Ware and Long Beach State. So while wing players like Lamar Patterson and J.J. Moore can bring some scoring punch and Woodall has played well offensively in expanded minutes, the team has struggled to disrupt opposing guards.
This is where the loss of McGhee comes in. Even if perimeter defenders got beat, he was looming in the lane and proved himself to be a reliable shot-blocker over the course of his career. Freshman Khem Birch has shown improvement over the last couple games, and he should be able to grow into that role given his gaudy block percentage so far. Despite a relatively low usage rate, McGhee also posted a strong FT Rate, and this year’s set of Pitt big men have struggled to get to the stripe. For example, Dante Taylor has taken just seven free throws in 91 minutes this year, and Talib Zanna has just eight trips to the line in 101 minutes.
The good news for the Panthers compared to Cincinnati is that the team has solid depth, and with guys like Birch playing more minutes, it’s clear that Dixon is tinkering with his lineup in an effort to find guys who bring the level of consistent effort and aggressiveness that his teams have become known for. That, along with their offensive efficiency, should give them a chance to right the ship. However, with a relatively light upcoming schedule, we may have to wait until Big East play to know for certain.
My expectations for the Wildcats weren’t quite as high as they were for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh coming into the season, so I won’t spend as much time here. Nova’s best win is in overtime against 152nd-ranked LaSalle, with all of their other victories against sub-200 teams. And after losing to Saint Louis and Santa Clara in the 76 Classic, a few things stood out to me on the offensive end of the floor.
First, it would seem that some of their players are unfamiliar with the concept of shot selection. For instance, Maalik Wayns has made just 9-of-31 (29.0%) from beyond the arc while hitting 55.6 from two-point range. He’s also hitting nearly 90 percent from the line. So why take over 36 percent of your shots from a place where you have made just 28.6 percent over the course of your career?
Similarly, Dominic Cheek is 9-of-30 (30.0%) from deep, is making exactly 50 percent inside the arc, and is shooting 93.8 percent from the line. So obviously he should be taking 53.6 percent of his shots from three-point range since he is making 30.5 percent from out there during his career.
I also noticed an increase in the team’s turnover rate, and it would appear the biggest offender is JayVaughn Pinkston, a former McDonald’s All-American who sat out last season due to some offcourt issues. Through six games, his turnover percentage is a staggering 34.1. Not so coincidentally, he has posted some of the worst +/- and Roland Ratings you will ever see. In the loss to Santa Clara, he posted a -10 +/- and a -19 RR in addition to committing a terrible foul that pretty much sealed their fate. But if you look at the LaSalle game, you will see that Pinkston’s +/- was -18 with a RR of -43! That is superbly awful.
Unlike UC and Pitt, the upcoming schedule for Nova brings a few challenges, starting with a game this weekend against Missouri. That could get ugly.
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