Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Top Freshman Campaigns Last 15 Years

They get imaginary minutes before ever stepping on the court. They often represent the hope of a fanbase looking to rise from the league's depths. They are the great unknown from whom so much is expected.

And yet, they're just freshmen.

With the explosion of twitter and recruiting sites, college basketball fans have been brought closer to the window, looking in on one of the most intense battles waged in sports as coaches jockey for the nation's top talent. Even in the Ivy League, which more often than not gets second choice among a pool that's artificially small to begin with, fans watch intently as their school locks down high schoolers from across the country.

Sometimes the discussion of the rookies far outweighs any conversations about returning players, which could lead one to believe that a program's true growth potential lies more in freshmen than it does in potential breakout candidates already on the roster.

While the analysis of that comparison will have to wait for another time, what we will examine here is the best rookie campaigns of the last 15 years and how frequently they have occurred.

For the purposes of this piece, only freshmen that played at least 40 percent of team minutes and produced five points per game were considered.

Top 20 Rookie Campaigns of Last 15 Years

The above list shouldn't so much be read in rank order as it should be considered in larger groups. While Peter Sullivan had the best offensive rating for a freshman (points per 100 possessions), Ryan Wittman and Chris Young made significantly larger contributions at marginally less efficient levels.
Not every future Ivy star made the list, but few of the players that did went on to flame out. Among those that languished were the Dartmouth duo of Michael McLaren and Steve Callahan. Andrew Gellert became a good player for an average Harvard squad, but was hardly a star. Adam Gore and Patrick Foley had bright futures in the league severely hampered by injuries. Finally, Laurent Rivard has the makings of a dynamic offensive force, but with only one year on record, the jury is still out on the Crimson swingman.

The rest of the Top 20 is littered with All-Ivy players, including the two eligible members of Cornell's Big Three (Jeff Foote started off at St. Bonaventure).

The most surprising aspect of the Top 20 list might be that Princeton joined Columbia and Yale with just one ranked player, though that underscores the relative importance of this metric. Making the list indicates that a freshman is highly likely to be a future offensive star in the league, but the complementary pieces around him and the team's general defensive abilities will determine a program's future success.

Astute observers will recognize that many of the current stars of the league don't appear here. In fact, of the 92 qualifying rookie campaigns over the past 15 years, 40 players posted offensive ratings above 100 and some of the current stars (Zack Rosen, Keith Wright and Ian Hummer) weren't even among that group.

Does that mean freshman stats are only helpful in identifying talent, but not in excluding it? The answer to that is no, but in order to demonstrate, let's take a brief diversion to the topic of "Replacement Level."


In the mid-1990s, Keith Woolner introduced to baseball a fictitious athlete known as a "Replacement Player." This staple of mediocrity was defined, quite simply, as the most production a team could get from "freely available talent."

That definition, however, requires a market of replacement level free agents or the ability to trade for bench players from a different team at minimal cost. Within the confines of collegiate athletics, with its onerous transfer rules and lack of readily available Division I-quality replacement players lying around on campus, the concept is more theoretical in nature and far more difficult to calculate.

Luckily, a commonly accepted shortcut for calculating replacement level performance is to take 80 percent of the league average and the metric that we'll use is the Adjusted Pythagorean Win Percentage (Offensive Rating ^ 12.5 / (Offensive Rating ^ 12.5 + Defensive Rating ^ 12.5)).

The average Ivy Adj Pythag over the past 15 years has been 0.322, making the replacement level 0.258. Since all we're measuring is the offensive performance of the freshmen for this analysis, we can calculate the replacement level offensive rating by substituting the national average defensive rating of 100 and solving for the offensive rating that gets us to the replacement level Adj Pythag. That offensive rating works out to 91.9, though that is merely a general estimation as the true value will vary as league quality varies over the years.

For instance, over the 2002 to 2005 span, the average Adj Pythag was 0.361, which implies a replacement level Adj Pythag of 0.288 and a replacement level offensive rating of 93.0. The following four years were a relative valley for the league and with splits of 0.280/0.224/90.5, respectively. Thus, while 91.9 has been the league's average over the past 15 years, each individual year can vary a bit around that mean.


Worst 20 Rookie Campaigns of Last 15 Years

It just so happens that the members of the Bottom 20 all posted offensive ratings below the average replacement level for the era. (In fairness, Yale's Paul Vitelli and Cornell's Lenny Collins also came in just under the 91.9 bar, but were within rounding of the mark).

This list is almost the exact inverse of the Top 20. The Penn duo of Geoff Owens and Matt Langel rebounded from their rocky freshman showings to become All-Ivy caliber players. Brown's Mike Martin backed off the possession load he attempted to take on as a rookie and became a highly efficient player. Then there are guys like Cody Toppert and Flinder Boyd who grew into star roles later in their careers.

Much of the rest of the Bottom 20 either struggled to rise above average on a consistent basis or languished in mediocrity for the remainder of their careers. A few even failed to finish out their four years.

Remember that this list didn't include every freshman, just those that managed 40 percent of team minutes and five points produced as rookies. Removing the points produced qualification would add 11 more sub-replacement level players to the list.

This group is even less impressive than the last with only Greg Buth putting together a consistently All-Ivy level career after his mediocre freshman campaign. Luke Ruscoe and Matt Minoff had some good years, but each saw his senior year production come hurtling back down toward his rookie output.

At the same time, you have a few more guys who didn't finish their careers with their starting schools (Max-squared and David Muller) and a few more guys who never became anything more than average.

How important is that replacement level cutoff? Let's take a look at the 20 guys immediately above the line.

There are still a fair share of players that didn't finish their careers with their Ivy teams (Harrison Gaines and Peter Boehm, for example), and there are a few more average to above average but not All-Ivy caliber guys.

Legitimate stars pepper the list, however. Ka'Ron Barnes still holds the points produced per game record for a single season. Noruwa Agho has somewhat successfully carried an otherwise terrible Columbia team for the past three years. Jeremy Lin is a potential NBA rotation player, and that's just the bottom of the list.

Working our way to the top we pass Craig Austin, who had to drag horrifically bad Columbia teams behind him. Then, we get to Michael Jordan and Alai Nuualiitia, who were each Player of the Year level talents. In between, we skipped a bunch of names (Chris Leanza, Charles Harris, Drew Housman, Edwin Draughan, Andre Logan and Wallace Prather), who would have fared quite favorably in comparison to those guys in the Bottom 20.


Back to the original question: What can we legitimately expect from rookies and how does rookie performance relate to future results?

It would appear that rookies do have a high ceiling. The best freshman campaigns compare favorably to the top seasons posted by all players, and 40 freshman over the past 15 years have been both decently involved and displayed better than nationally average efficiency. While that comes out to just under three per year, 23 more have posted offensive ratings above the Ivy average, which brings the total number of positive contributors to four rookies per year.

As for the more important question of how rookie performance relates to future results, this analysis has provided some illuminating results.

First, it is very likely that a top performing freshman will go on to be an All-Ivy player and potentially a Player of the Year caliber player during his next three years. Conversely, freshmen that see a good amount of playing time and perform very poorly are relatively unlikely to be anything more than average during their careers.

Finally, that cutoff line seems to reside around the same mark that would be considered "replacement level" for the Ivy League, if collegiate athletics theoretically had a waiver wire mechanism at the conference level. As long as a rookie posts an offensive rating at roughly 92 or above, the odds are still quite good that the player can develop into a star. Anything lower, however, and the outlook becomes pretty bleak, very quickly.

As for how this relates to the present, the Top 20 theory indicates that Laurent Rivard, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are likely to become stars (to the extent that the latter two aren't already), and the Bottom 20 theory casts doubt on the future potential of Matt Sullivan, John Daniels and half of Dartmouth's team.

Rising sophomores Jeremiah Kreisberg, Miles Cartwright, Sean McGonagill and Steve Frankoski all landed in that middle zone, where the odds of stardom are solid, but our approach will have to be to wait and see.

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