Monday, March 26, 2007

Big Man on Campus

As I was driving to work this morning, the wacky odd couple duo of Mike and Mike began discussing the following question: which player in the NCAA Final Four is most likely to carry his team to victory? Their top two were Joakim Noah and Jeff Green, in that order, with Arron Afflalo and Mike Conley, Jr., following, although they couldn't decide who was two and who was three. On its face, the choice of Noah for number one struck me as preposterous. But my subjective judgment may be clouded by my general dislike for the pony-tailed one's tired act. So, I decided to come up with an objective way to answer this question.

To carry a team to victory a player needs to be on the court. You can't be on the bench, whether it be because of foul trouble, fatigue, match-ups or simply a coach prone to over-use of his bench. So, we'll start narrowing down the list by focusing on guys who play at least 74% of their team's minutes, which is just below the cut-off for the top 500 players in the nation in percent of team minutes played. That gives us at least two core players from each team: Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey from Florida; Jamar Butler and Mike Conley from Ohio State; Jessie Sapp, Jeff Green, and Jonathan Wallace from Georgetown; and Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison from UCLA. While Noah is a good player who might carry his team to victory, he isn't the guy most likely to do so because too often, whether it's because of foul trouble or Florida's general depth, he's not on the floor. He only plays about 26 minutes a game. A couple of other contenders can't top our list -- such as Al Horford, Roy Hibbert, and Greg Oden -- for the same reason.

Most people associate carrying a team with offensive production. To measure our contenders' offensive contributions we'll use Dean Oliver's "Offensive rating" stat (ORtg). Good players can become great players for a short period of time, but someone with limited offensive skills can't be considered "likely" to suddenly carry his team. Run all the numbers through Oliver's complex equation, and anything above a 110 is good (we're going to trust Ken Pomeroy's math on that one), and therefore a candidate to get hot and carry his team. This cut off knocks off Jessie Sapp, which conveniently leaves every team with two contenders because Green and Wallace remain in contention for Georgetown.

Of course, being on the court and being effective on offense aren't likely to add up to much if you're never a go to guy for your team. We remember the guys who make things happen on the court -- good, such as hitting shots or making great passes, and bad, such as turnovers or tons of missed shots (call it the John Starks effect). The guy most likely to "carry" his team, and be the face of this Final Four, is going to be someone who is out there trying to make things happen, not someone prone to fading into the background. Percent of possessions used measures how often a player is involved in the final action of a play -- from made basket to missed basket to turnover. A player needs to be above 20% in %Poss to be even above-average here, which will be our cutoff for being involved enough on the offensive end to potentially be remembered as "The Guy" for the 2007 Final Four. Drawing this line in the proverbial sand gives us our top five contenders (in no order, yet): Taurean Green for Florida, Mike Conley for Ohio State, Jeff Green for Georgetown, and Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison for UCLA.

It seems that other than Noah, Mike and Mike's list wasn't bad. Three of their top four will make our top five. So, how do we sort out the best of this group? Well, this is the Final Four, the paradigm of bracketology. And, I just watched a fascinating story of CBS Sunday Morning about the book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything. It advocates determining the best of the best in any category -- for example, Best Bald Guy (Gandhi wins) -- by making a bracket. We will follow its lead.

First, a play-in game for UCLA's spot. Arron Afflalo plays 82.3% of his team's minutes, has an ORtg of 114.5, and uses 23.6% of his team's possessions while on the floor. Darren Collison's numbers are nearly identical, but slightly lesser, in each category: 79.0 %Min, 114.1 ORtg, 23.2 %Pos. Afflalo plays more, is more productive on offense, and is more of a go to guy. It's all very close, but since Afflalo gets the edge in each category, he moves on.

For our Final Four match-ups, I'm borrowing the NCAA's match-ups. So Afflalo next matches up with Florida's Taurean Green. Green plays 81.7% of his team's minutes, has an ORtg of 114.5, and uses 20.6% of his team's possessions. His offensive production is identical to Afflalo's, and the difference in court time is negligible. Afflalo dominates the ball more while he's on the floor, but Green's team is more likely to win this game (although it's nearly a toss-up), and no one who's team is knocked out in the semis can be the face of the tourney. Still too close to call. So, here's the tie breaker: Green is much more turnover prone than Afflalo. I only mention this because a fair share of Green's %Pos is turning it over. Taking that into account, it becomes apparent that Afflalo is much more likely to take over a game for his team, than Green is for the balanced Gators. I think Florida is the favorite to win it all now (although none of the four teams would be a shock), so it pains me not to have a contender from the Gators. But is it any surprise that no one player on the deepest team in the Final Four stands out as the most likely to carry his team? Anyway, Afflalo makes our finals.

In the other semi, Jeff Green matches up with Mike Conley. Ohio State's freshman point is a stud. Conley plays 77.2% of the Buckeyes's minutes, has an ORtg of 117.1, and uses 21.2% of his team's possessions. Green is slightly less productive on offense, with an ORtg of 113.6, but he plays more (81.6 %Min), and he is more of a go to guy (25.6 %Pos). The game itself is a toss-up, so how can we separate these two? Conley's ability to pass the basketball is the single best skill of any of the players in this bracket. No matter who is scoring for Ohio State, it's likely to be because Conley is getting him the ball (when he's not doing the scoring himself). So, Conley moves on.

In fact, that passing ability, and general edge in offensive production (117.1 to 114.1 in ORtg), gives Conley the overall edge over Afflalo. Add in that I think Ohio State is slightly more likely to win it all than UCLA, and we have our winner. So, here's my list of the guy most likely to carry his team to victory: Mike Conley is first, Arron Afflalo is second, and Jeff and Taurean Green are third and fourth. Mike and Mike never settled on an order for third and fourth, so I won't either. Obviously, there's a lot of overlap. Conley, Afflalo, and Jeff Green make both lists. The order is different, and I replace Noah with Taurean Green as the most likely contender from Florida, but given the number of talented players in this Final Four, I'm actually surprised by how similar these lists are.


Blogger The Intern said...

EXCELLENT work, even though my man crush on Jeff Green disagrees slightly with the final results.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Criminal Appeal said...

The funny thing is that when I started this post, I was hoping Jeff Green would come out at the front of my list. Perhaps I developed a level of respect during the old Syracuse-Georgetown battles of the 80s, but I always find myself rooting for Georgetown when the Cuse is not involved.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Underbruin said...

A note concerning 'taking over games' and Afflalo -

I would argue that Afflalo is the player most likely to win or lose a championship for any team, simply because he is UCLA's offense. Having watched the team all season, if Arron is on his game, UCLA as a whole team just plays much better; but when he's off, they play much worse.

The Bruins are likely the least-deep team in this Final Four, and also the only offense without a go-to interior guy. This means that when they get big games they always come from their guards, and Afflalo is their go-to shooter, especially when the shot clock begins running down (see: UCLA-Kansas for a microcosm of most of the season).

So, the difference is, while the Gators, Hoyas, and Buckeyes can all dump the ball inside to their big men during shooting slumps, the Bruins need Afflalo to stay hot. When he does, they're far more effective offensively.

Discounting the Weber State game in which UCLA totally overmatched their opponent, UCLA's eFG was startlingly better against Kansas - when Afflalo had a huge game - than against either Pitt or Indiana, both games in which he struggled. 38.3%, 48.8%, 62.2%(!), were the eFG%s for UCLA's last 3 games. Note that the game against Kansas was their best-shooting by far, despite the fact that Kansas is the best defensive team of the three.

I think Afflalo is the player who will have the most -impact- on his team's championship aspirations. If he shoots well, UCLA is almost unbeatable due to their defense (famous last words, I suppose). If he shoots poorly, they can still win, but need masterful defensive performances to do so. Is he the "most likely to carry his team to victory?" I don't know. But I do think he's got the highest ceiling and lowest floor out of the group.

6:45 AM  

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