Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Secret to Yale's Success

When it was just three of five starters gone from last year's squad, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Throw in a fourth just before this season started, and it looked like Yale would struggle to avoid disaster.

One month later, it's clear the only struggle the Bulldogs might face will be hanging in Ivy title race.

How did Yale manage to fly so far under the radar and are the Bulldogs truly for real? The answers to both questions are a tad complex, but they both start with the same point: efficiency.
In the 2008-2009 season, then-junior guard Alex Zampier finished second on the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game. Last season, he led the team by a wide margin (finished third in the league and 93rd nationally) at 17.4 points per game. He was a large part of the offense, taking 33.9 percent of the team's shots while on the floor - the 13th highest rate nationally.

The sneaky truth, however, is that he was actually limiting the potential of his team.

Simplistically, since there are five players on the floor at any given time, each player, on average, will take 20 percent of the team's shots. When you have a player taking almost 34 percent, this knocks down the amount available for the other four teammates and can keep them from getting into as much of an offensive rhythm.

The problem compounds itself when the heavy usage player isn't particularly efficient. Among Ivy players using over 24 percent of their team's possessions when on the floor, Zampier's 98 offensive rating was seventh out of nine qualified players. Broaden the net to 20 percent of team possessions, and Zampier falls to 16th out of 23.

Despite having a variety of weapons (the Bulldogs had five other players who used 18 percent of possessions and posted an offensive rating higher than Zampier's), structuring the offense to flow through Zampier first and to others second both increased offensive variance (due to greater dependence on one player) and lowered the mean output, as other teammates might have been able to use extra possessions in a more efficient manner.

With Zampier departing to graduation, this year's Yale offense has found a more optimal distribution of possessions. Four out of five starters (Austin Morgan, Greg Mangano, Porter Braswell and Reggie Willhite) are using over 20 percent of the team's possessions, at offensive ratings between 105 and 120. When one star has an off night, there's another that's more comfortable with a heavy possession load ready to step up and lead the team.

The increased efficiency has come exclusively from long range. Last year, Zampier hoisted 40 percent of his team's threes, but made under 30 percent of them - equaling the team average. This year, Yale is connecting at a 42 percent rate - 15th best in the nation. It would seem unlikely that the Bulldogs keep it up at that level, especially since Morgan has started 26-for-48 (54 percent), but even if they don't, the team's current 103 offensive rating should remain well above the 95 it posted last season.

With last year's starting big men (Michael Sands and Paul Nelson) both gone, Mangano has seen a jump in minutes and Yale has seen a spike in defensive efficiency. The 6'11 center leads the league in stop percentage (a measure of the contribution a player makes in categories that create defensive stops). While this isn't anything new - he finished second the past two seasons - the increase in minutes has magnified the impact that his presence has on the Bulldogs' defense. Add to that a perimeter that's chipping in with stop percentages between 47 and 51 percent (above-average rates for guards), and it's easy to see how the defensive efficiency rating has fallen six points from 105 to 99.

While the regression to the mean of the three-point shooting could undo some of Yale's offensive advancement, there's no reason to believe that the Bulldogs couldn't keep the defensive ratings at their current levels for the rest of the season. That would leave Yale's pythagorean rating (the inputs being offensive and defensive rating) slightly above .500 or slightly above average nationally.

In a normal year, that would make the Bulldogs a true contender. With the league as loaded as it is this year, Yale merely remains lodged in the group with Penn and Cornell as teams that could make some noise with the right breaks.

Given how bleak things looked when the season started, the Bulldogs will gladly take those odds.

No comments:

Post a Comment