Strategic Choices and Consequences
When the 2015-16 season ended in Chicago, we knew that the overwhelming majority of production was leaving and the 2016-17 team would be virtually brand new. The leading returning scorer was London Perrantes at 11ppg. Next was Isaiah Wilkins at 4.6ppg. Devon Hall, Darius Thompson and Marial Shayok came in at 4.4ppg, 4.3ppg and 4.3ppg. The leading returning rebounder was Wilkins at 4.1 rpg. Perrantes was next at 3.0rpg. Of the returning players, only Perrantes had established any kind of major scoring potential. Shayok had at least flashed the possibility of being able to score a lot of points. Given the other holes in his game, it was far from certain he would be able to emerge as a reliable replacement for the offensive production lost with Malcolm Brogdon.
The upward potential of the team was going to be provided by the incoming class. Of course, that included veteran transfer Austin Nichols who was supposed to be a junior and replace Gill. The "freshman class" is something that has caused some definitional contretemps, because although they were recruited in the same cycle anticipating a fall 2016 arrival, one of them came in a year early and sat through an NCAA-mandated redshirt year. The difference between a Final Four contender and a bubble team was always going to be the new players (Nichols included). They brought basic scoring potential in the form of plus three-point shooting (Guy, Jerome, Huff, at least, and also maybe Hunter), length (Huff, Diakite, Hunter), and slashing ability (Hunter, and maybe Huff). Every one of them was arguably consensus top 100.
To go far in the tournaments, we needed big games from freshmen. Guy scored 11 points in 4 games and was scoreless against Florida and Notre Dame. Diakite scored 15 and was scoreless twice. Jerome at least hit double figures with 28 points in those four games - 13 of them against Pitt and 10 in the "well somebody had to score eventually" category against Notre Dame. He was shut out by Florida. Collectively, the freshmen scored 13 ppg in the post-season.
Huff and Hunter, of course, did not play.
In order to maintain the level of accomplishment of the previous three years, we needed strong production out of the freshman class. We did not get it. Tony got less out of the freshman year of the 2016 freshman class than we have gotten out of many big classes through 5 coaches and almost 40 years. Unlike several prior classes of the kind, none of the players in this class left us feeling confident we could build a winner around him. We saw flashes and we still project potential, but we come out of the first year with major questions on all of them. There is no Cory Alexander, Travis Watson, Sean Singletary that we can look at and say, "Yeah, this guy is going to lead us."
The upper classmen tried to do their part. London tried to make himself a high usage scorer, but it's not his game. Marial Shayok was a high usage player, but he was dreadfully inefficient. Able to dominate second-tier opponents, he was relegated to long 2-point jumpers against the better teams in the ACC. Yes, had a great game against UNC-W in the first round of the NCAA tournament, for which we are thankful, but was terrible against Florida (more on this next time). Darius Thompson graded out spectacularly on lineup efficiency statistics, but did not make a large number of plays himself. These three players are, of course, not part of the future.
Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall raised their game in response to the challenge, but neither of them is a high usage scorer. When Devon tried to be, he was inefficient and had people wondering if he should be dropped from the lineup. When he settled into a second or third option role, his efficiency climbed. In the month of January, he was outstanding, with double figure scoring output in four straight games, 7-of-8 and 8-of-10 games. He continued to be a defensive stalwart and strong rebounder, gamely becoming the small ball 4 - to the point that by March he was hard hedging and doubling posts while playing the role of a blocker in the sides offense (more on this later, too). Isaiah was a stealth dominant player. Not a big scorer, and often not getting more than 6 or 7 rebounds, he would dominate games with his disruption of opposing offenses and knack for gaining control of the ball for his team. His unnoticed superpower is coming up with loose balls.
Isaiah and Devon are great players in their own right and will be the spine of the 2017-18 team, but they are not and never will be high usage scorers. If either of them were to try to be, it would detract from his game. We want them to be what they are: players who have a decisive impact on the game with all the other things they do.
Problem is, we have no more idea now of who will be the high usage heroes than we had at this time last year. At times, both Ty and Kyle showed the potential to be that. At times, each was. But we need more than "at times." We need Kyle to step up and be good enough on the defensive end to be able to play major minutes. We need him to develop the ability he never demonstrated last season, which is being able to get his shot against quality ACC defenders. He was a McDonald's All-American because of his complete offensive game and his elite shooting. He did show those elements last year at times. We need more. We also need Jay Huff and DeAndre Hunter to step into the rotation and show us why Jarred Reuter, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson transferred. Once again, the incoming class of 2016 is going to determine how high we can go in 2017-18.
We took a giant step back in 2016-17. Extenuating circumstances exist, yes, but the end of the season was distressing nonetheless. The Hoos were, to be blunt, uncompetitive far too often in February and March. The way we exited both post-season tournaments was humiliating and unacceptable. UN. AC. CEPTABLE!
I'm just going to come out and say it: Tony made errors.* The errors originate on the strategic level, which cascaded down into operational and tactical errors, and at the end of the season, getting boxed into a situation where all strategy was lost and the entire system dissolved. Remember, our last two games against power conference teams ended with an aggregate score differential of 39 points. These were against teams that should have been on the same level as us. The loss of Isaiah Wilkins explains a LOT, but not all of the problem. Proper strategic decisions from the beginning of the season could have given the team the weapons to cover the hole in our line.
The specific tactical and operational errors will have to wait for the next post. I am going to end this one with the discussion of strategic flaws.
If we remember back to April 2015, Tony spoke with admiration of the Golden State Warriors' offense and what they did with spreading the floor. We had just been challenged strongly by several offenses that spread the floor and attacked with a stretch 4 and an open lane into which their perimeter players penetrated off the dribble. Then in 2015-16 we played more 4-small lineups than ever before, mostly in response to opponents going small. After the season, Tony again hinted at more small lineups and spread formations. Analysis of the incoming recruiting class indicated a talent level and mix of skills that fit with a more spread out offense and offense-oriented game plan. A lot of offseason discussion revolved around the potential benefits of Jay Huff and Dre Hunter being big men in a spread offense.
Having lost the low post scoring and offensive rebounding power of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, the ability to run the same offense as we had run so efficiently for three seasons was in serious doubt. None of the returning post players was a proven low post offensive threat. Jarred Reuter was the only one who had demonstrated the tools at any level. Speculation fell on Austin Nichols stepping into the role, largely based on his size, 5-star status, and reports from his redshirt year that he was looking good in practice. It certainly wasn't based on his career at Memphis, because he was not a real low post guy there. He harvested most of his points in transition and off the glass. But he had good size and the best set of tools available.
It is apparent that Tony came into the 2016-17 season planning to run the same base offense as the last three years. Nichols would be the primary post option and was probably expected to play 30 minutes a game - 25 at an absolute minimum. Reuter would spell him and give us that back-to-the-basket post man for another ten minutes a game. Problem solved. Remember, Reuter was gonna surprise a lot of people. This was an expectation raised by the coaches - not fan message board chatter. Most likely, it was expected that Guy and London would use the screens, with support from Devon. In that way, we could continue on with the same sides-packline paradigm that had won 89 games and all the other accomplishments. It was reasonable, and it was safe, but it pretty much simply counted on the veteran players. Counting on veteran players is not irrational. It's also a highly conservative, risk-averse approach.
The problem with it for 2016-17 was that the most talented and diversely-skilled players were the freshmen, and the low-post-dominant sides offense was not consistent with their talents, at least at this point in time. Jay Huff might some day be a dependable low post scorer, but not at his November weight and strength. If he is expected to fight for low post position and hold it for receipt of entry passes and getting up good shots - forget it. Hunter, Diakite, what role do they have in this offense? Diakite is no more going to hold post position than is Huff, while Hunter is not best used running off screens. Moreover, our screening system in order to be used effectively requires the cutter to read both the screen and the response of the defense to his use of the screen, then make the correct move - while making sure the ballhandler is where he can take advantage of an opening. It takes experience to consistently make the correct reads, because you have to see what opposing defenses do.
Talent vs. Experience is an eternal dialectic. Experience has a higher floor, but talent has a higher ceiling. Another dialectic that also came strongly into play was offense vs. defense. The freshmen had the most offensive talent, but were disadvantaged defensively. Strength and bulk were in short supply throughout the class, and experience in the defense was of course non-existent. The defense is not excessively complex, but it does require thought, awareness and reaction, and playing it with the high standard of continuousness and consistency as Bennett requires takes experience. If the lineup was going to be based on defense, it was going to be dominated by upperclassmen. If it was going to be based on scoring potential, it would be riddled with freshmen.
Tony went with experience and defense, and I think he made the wrong choice. Furthermore, I think he made a choice that had longer-term consequences. I think he should have installed the spread offense - what base set, what form, what it would be called doesn't matter as long as it emphasized spacing the floor with shooters and attacking the basket on the bounce - and leaned on his freshmen. Develop the offense that is tailored to their abilities and go with it. This means being ready to either simplify the defense or accept lapses and mistakes or somee combination of both. It means being prepared to struggle and have some bad results early in the season. It means coaching outside of your comfort zone and accepting risks.
If Nichols doesn't get himself dismissed from the program, it might have worked. Maybe he would have been enough of a low-post scoring threat that his presence would distort defenses and create room for other players. Maybe he would have drawn enough fouls to mitigate the horrendous free throw disparities that cost us games. Maybe his strength and shotblocking would have enabled us to press out more and create more transition baskets - and free throws. But having Nichols didn't necessitate running sides. we could have built a 4-out offense around him.
The decision to go with sides and rely on the same offensive scheme as the previous seasons effectively benched Huff and Hunter, who so happened to be our most promising rim-rattlers. It made us a jump-shooting team. It was fine when we could get open jump shots, but when the defense was able to contest on the perimeter, the offense fell apart and we had nothing to fall back on. Unfortunately, the schedule conspired to mask the deficiency until it was too late. With a relatively weak pre-conference schedule and the conference schedule severely back-loaded, we didn't run into a top tier opponent until January and by then it was too late to implement strategic changes or get Huff and Hunter involved. We were fucked, only we didn't know it. Had we had the good fortune of playing a top team in November, we might have seen early how vulnerable we were going to be and been able to make changes.
The strategic decision led directly to the difficulty generating free throw attempts, and arguably to the offensive collapse in February. An analysis makes it pretty clear that the way to get to the free throw line is to attack the basket on the bounce. Both halfcourt dribble penetration and transition offense generate far higher free throw rates than an offense based on off-ball cuts and jump shots. The free throw disparity in our first few losses was so high that it is likely we would have won those games with a more even distribution. Generating a few more free throws per game could have led to two or three more wins, which would have had a big impact on our post-season seedings.
In a way, getting the transfer of Nichols set us back. Without him to lean on, the staff would have been forced to go in a different direction than sides from the beginning of fall practice. Maybe if we devoted the entirety of the 25% of practice we give to offense to a spread offense instead of sides, we would have executed the spread set more efficiently when we ran it. This is why I wasn't thrilled with the idea of getting the transfer of Noah Dickerson. Adding him would give the staff that low-post crutch again, and Tony might have been induced to stick with sides. He still might, but it is far more difficult for him to fall back on that old childhood teddy bear.
The choice of offensive strategy made before September is going to be the single most impactful determinant of next year's outcome. Based on Tony's post-season comments and feedback, and analysis of the recruiting priorities, expect to see him finally deliver on the new offense teased for the last two years.