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State of Mizzou Basketball: The case for improving assist rates

There are many more important things to fix than the Tigers’ offense; however, the advanced stats and the eye test often told different stories about this team’s abilities when the ball was in their possession.

Jamie Squire

Before the tournament started, I took a five-year (2009-2013) look at NCAA tournament results to hopefully derive some common statistical threads between successful teams. I did this for two reasons: I am a huge nerd for the tournament and this kind of stuff in general, and I wanted Buffett’s Billion. (Not that anyone cares, but I picked 7 of the Sweet 16 teams correctly. Clearly, I was no threat to Buffett’s Billion, nor do I know much of anything, apparently.)

If you’ve ever read any of my basketball-related posts, you can probably guess that I utilized Pomeroy’s work for this effort. Beyond the standard stuff—overall team rankings and adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings—I was curious about three other measures: experience levels, the ratio of offensive 3-point attempts to total field goal attempts (3PA/FGA), and the offensive assist to field goals made ratio (A/FGM). I had no presumptions, and in all likelihood, I have not formed any revelatory conclusions; regardless, here are the reasons why I looked at these factors.

  • Experience: Pretty self-explanatory overall. I wanted to see how extremely young teams have fared in the tournament as a whole.
  • 3PA/FGA: The theory I wanted to test is that teams that are over-reliant on the 3-point ball have a higher chance of a flame out in the tournament; all teams have bad shooting days, and a balanced offense reduces the chance for such a flame out.

If anyone is curious about the above two factors, I can talk about what I found another time; however, the one stat that I grew really invested in researching was the amount of assists per field goal made. There are a lot of reasons why I am convinced that this is an important component of an offense:

  • A team that passes well gets open shots. The more open shots that NCAA Division I-caliber players get, there is a good chance that their team exhibits better offensive efficiency.
  • A team that shares the ball will break a defense down and get more open, high-percentage shots.
  • A team that has high assist rates can be deadly when they get in transition.
  • A team that passes well may be less prone to offensive slumps. I would argue this is true because if one or multiple players are off in a game, the team’s ability to share the ball will get other capable players involved in advantageous positions to score.
  • A team scores in many different ways is harder to put away when they are behind in a game; they are "never out of it", in analyst speak.
  • A team that scores in many different ways could be less at the whims of the referees and the way the game is called, because they can score in multiple ways.
  • On the aesthetic level, a team that shares the ball and makes the extra pass is a LOT of fun to watch.

A team that fits this description pretty darn well is the 2011-2012 Tigers team. If they lost, it was clearly because of defense (they were held under 1 point per possession just once the entire season), and 57.6 percent of their made baskets were assisted (good for 69th in the country). We all knew how much fun that team was—and that even in the most crushing of all tournament defeats, they scored 1.31 points per possession.

Anyway, my initial research was done to determine how many Sweet 16 and better teams were ranked in the upper half of Division I in A/FGM (175th in the nation or better. I made the assumption that simply sharing the ball better than the median team may show a better than average diversity in means of scoring (especially when the team is not reliant on 3 pointers for their offense, as the 2011-2012 Mizzou team was).

I did this research specifically for the unique setting of the highest-stress single-elimination basketball tournament in the country; obviously, there will be a high variance of outcomes in such a small sample size. However, I was (am) hoping that utilizing KenPom’s season-long sample size may show that certain styles of play are better equipped for tournament success. Enough explanation; here’s what I found.

Top 175 A/FGM teams to advance to...
Year Sweet 16 Elite 8 Final 4 Champ. Game Champ (Rank)
2014 10
2013 12 6 3 1 1 (113)
2012 12 7 3 1 0 (292)
2011 9 5 1 0 0 (238)
2010 11 6 3 1 0 (189)
2009 12 7 4 2 1 (100)

Some points of discussion:

The 2011 tournament was so wild—in every statistical way possible, not just for assists—that I calculated two different averages for every stat. In terms of A/FGM:

-Full sample averages: 11 Sweet 16 teams, 6.2 Elite 8, 2.8 Final Four, 1 Champ Game teams, 2 out of 5 champions

-Non-2011 averages: 11.4 Sweet 16, 6.5 Elite 8, 3.25 Final Four, 1.25 Champ Game teams, and 2 of 4 champions

In 2012, the Anthony Davis UK juggernaut did nearly everything well. Guess they didn’t need to pass!

In 2011, the Kemba Walker UConn team was 213th in effective FG percentage. They…couldn’t…shoot, and logically, they didn’t pass very well. (But they had Alex Oriakhi leading the team to the 7th best Offensive Rebounding percentage in the country, and rarely turned the ball over.) Then they averaged 1.19 PPP in the four tourney games to make the Final Four, and proceeded to average 0.91 PPP in their final two games…and won the National Championship. No tournament could ever be as crazy as that one.

As I mentioned above, I did this research over the last two weeks specifically for the tournament—meaning that I didn’t think about this year’s Mizzou team at all. But as recent RMN basketball discussions have unfolded, this year’s offense popped into my head. Yes, offense isn’t even close to the major problem; the defensive roundtable pretty much covered that. However, I believe that the offense should not be let off the hook so easily, and that there is always room to improve.

While the Tigers currently have the 32nd-best adjusted offensive efficiency, the 2013-2014 Tiger team is currently 334th in Division I in A/FGM at 43.1 percent. The only other teams that could climb or fall around them are Kentucky and SDSU, so that number is pretty firm at this point. Only two at-large tournament teams had worse A/FGM ratios: Nebraska (11 seed) and SDSU (seventh-best defense in the country).

Reflecting on what seems like this year’s offensive philosophy, I could come up with two things that Frank Haith wanted his squad to accomplish in each game, and if they could not do both, at least one of the two may have sufficed:

1. The trio of Brown, Ross, and Clarkson do have above average abilities to get to the basket. If two or all of the three were able to physically overwhelm less able opponents in any given game, the Tigers generally did quite well.

2. I don’t know if you guys heard about these "new rules"; I think someone somewhere on ESPN8 mentioned them at some point. My guess is Frank saw what he had in this roster and made a tactical decision to use his squad’s strengths to exploit how the referees called games.

In my eyes, there are two major problems with this philosophy for this team. First, Bill and many other analysts have clearly shown that while SEC basketball can be pretty ugly, there are athletes up and down most rosters; SEC players are nothing if not athletic. It’s pretty hard to consistently overwhelm an SEC team with physical abilities only.

Second, referees are inconsistent. They pretty clearly changed the definition of a foul from the start of the season to the end, and beyond that, the definition of defensive and offensive fouls vary from conference to conference and from officiating crew to crew. This can lead to a bigger debate on referees, but I really try not to care about bad calls and rules—a good team can adjust to the way the game is called.

(And teams that can create points without relying on fouls—say, by passing more and finding their open teammates on the court without needing to draw contact—are less at the mercy of officials.)

In the case of this year’s Mizzou team, if they could not meet the above two goals, the offense was downright stagnant. Per KenPom, this year’s average adjusted points per possession across all Division I basketball is currently 1.043. The Tigers went below this rate three times in 13 non-conference games—and 8 times in 20 games vs. SEC opponents. While all teams regress when their competition improves, Mizzou’s offensive outputs fluctuated more than most teams. And boy, did it get hard to watch at times.

When it didn’t work, we all saw something along these lines: three slow perimeter passes in a 10-15 second span that do not make a defense work at all, a member of our Big 3 driving into 2-3 bodies, and a missed shot or a turnover.

I am not a fan of that play.

In the Frank Haith era, the Tigers have gone from 69th in A/FGM in 2012 to 233rd in 2013 and 334th this season. Think about this: in 2013, Phil Pressey had the 22nd highest assist rate (and 10th most assists per game) in all D-I—and the rest of the team did not pass enough to get the team any higher than 233rd nationally. It’s disconcerting. A team that doesn’t pass well doesn’t make an opposing defense work; it makes putting a game plan together for the Tigers pretty easy. Either they beat you on the ball—or they don’t beat you on the scoreboard.

Going forward, what can the Tigers do going forward to improve this? It starts on the recruiting trail: to be a solid passing team, a squad needs at least 2-3 guys on the court at all times that are not only capable of passing, those 2-3 guys should actually look to create open shots for their teammates on the court with regularity. The ability to pass is both a product of skill set AND mentality—it really does take a willingness to let someone else shine at times—and my guess is that it is pretty apparent when scouting a HS prospect if they are willing to share the ball with their teammates. A good passing big (or two) is a luxury, but it surely helps a team that seeks an "inside-out" approach such as the one that Haith openly desires.

Any thoughts on how the Tigers can improve their offense both statistically and aesthetically?