Exam Break Musings

Posted on December 11, 2018, in The Team by StLouHoo.

The Hoos finished a win over VCU in a snowstorm and enter the exam break, to be immediately followed by a long-ish holiday rest as well. What does that mean? 2 games in our next 20 days before welcoming Marshall on New Years eve. Perfect time to do a little reflecting on the 9 wins in the bank. This is going to be a little scattershot, so consider yourself warned.

1) We're going to miss Kihei these next few weeks. He bulldogs opposing point guards, and has contributed to consecutive disappointing outings for Wisconsin's D'Mitrik Trice (5 points on 2-9 shooting, 1 ast, 3 TOs), Maryland's Anthony Cowan (15 points on 12 shots and 4 assists, but also 4 TOs and 5 fouls), and now VCU's Marcus Evans (2 points on 1-10 shooting, 1 assist, 3 TOs, 4 fouls). We'll hopefully be fine against South Carolina's guard trio of Tre Campbell, TJ Moss, and Hassani Gravett (this is a team that's already lost to Wyoming, Wofford, and Stony Brook), as well as mid-majors William and Mary (3-7, losses to Radord, George Mason, and Duquense) and Marshall (5-4, losses to Duquense and Ohio).

It's ACC play we're going to want him back for. Frankly FSU was maybe going to be a bad match for him anyways. That's a big lineup, with only reserve PG David Nichols near Kihei in stature (he's 6'1" 185lb, their next-smallest guy is 6'4" 210 lb). But January sees some other top PGs that Kihei's harrying defense would be useful in countering: Clemson's Marquise Reed, VT's Justin Robinson, and Duke's Tre Jones will lead their respective teams in a three game stretch against the Hoos from Jan 12th to Jan 19th. That's basically week 6 and 7 from the VCU game, so keep that in mind when we get updates on his return timetable.

2) In the interim, that means extended run for Marco and Braxton. That's important, because neither of those two have looked especially comfortable yet, nor demonstrated enough consistency for Tony to trust them for extended minutes in competitive games. For Braxton, we know he's got the capability to be a major player, we saw it in his two years at Alabama. For him, it's just about reps in the defense, reps with his teammates, developing chemistry and confidence. The next 5 or 6 games set up well in terms of difficulty in letting him continue to work in, with South Carolina, W&M, and Marshall all ranked outside the KenPom Top 100, with FSU's lineup of big guards and wing-forwards the kind of teams he should be best suited to match up with. Hopefully he'll be playing 25-30 minutes a game in this stretch, if not starting than being the first off the bench (TBD if we see Mamadi or Braxton get the nod vs South Carolina; my money's on Braxton), and that gives him almost 4 weeks before ACC play starts to get more into his comfort zone. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Marco will probably see his playing time increase in Kihei's absense from the current 8 mpg to around 15 (I've watched Kody Stattmann play defense, I'd be shocked if Tony really thinks the short term answer to Clark's injury is more time for Kody, not yet). Again, this three game stretch is a winnable but still somewhat challenging set of opponents, on par with the bottom echelon of ACC teams (in that Pitt/Wake area), and could be a confidence booster for Marco before an FSU game where he could provide valuable size and physicality in what will be a nasty battle of ranked programs. I'm holding my breath here. This is Marco's opportunity, and I'm rooting for him to seize it.

3) Tony really doesn't want to go 2-big anymore. I'm talking traditional big men; specifically Jack, Mamadi, and Jay. We've played nine 40-minute games so far, which makes for 360 minutes at each position on the floor. Looking at those three players' total minutes on the year, Salt has played 163 minutes, Mamadi 143, and Jay 69. That's 375 total minutes. Making the assumption that we've seen very few lineups with none of the above (basically just the closing minutes of the MEAC blowouts, or funky lineups with Braxton as the 5), then of that 375 minutes, 360 are dedicated to the 5-spot, and the remaining 15 minutes or so with one of them at the 4-spot. KenPom's statistics say that over the last 5 games, we've only seen one of them (Mamadi) at the 4 for 11% of minutes. None of KenPom's "most frequent lineups" show one of them at the 4. Bottom line, Tony is very much over having two traditional bigs on the floor at the same time.

This is (pardon the pun) big. We've been primarily two-big under Tony since the beginning, whenever we actually had the post depth to do so (the 2012-13 season where Tobey had mono and Darion shin splints coming to mind as the depth-forced exception). Deploying a big guard/wing at the 4 was a tactical anomoly deployed only when absolutely necessary to shut down a Brandon Ingram or Jaron Blossomgame. Usually though Tony was content to let our more athletic 4's like Wilkins or Atkins or Mitchell "do their best" when facing small-ball lineups, taking the hit on perimeter defense and offense to gain an advantage with post scoring, rebounding, and/or rim protection (what is strategy if not a game of tradeoffs).

But here we are at the end of 2018 and Tony has pushed all his chips into the 4-out depth chart. The improved offensive spacing and the increased defensive versatility won the day. It will be curious to see if Tony backslides on this with Clark out injured, and our guard/wing depth suffers as a result. 

4) The non-conference schedule has been a disappointment. Mostly this comes down to a few things. Only getting one power-conference opponent in Atlantis with Dayton upsetting Butler. South Carolina, 20 months removed from the Final Four, being an SEC afterthought all of a sudden. The two Top 25-worthy teams we've beaten are the very familiar Wisconsin and Maryland. VCU is probably an NIT team this year. But mostly it's because of our 9 games, 5 have been against absolutely shitty teams (Towson, GW, Coppin St, MTSU, and Morgan State, all between 244th and 351st nationally). It's not even about the fact that those games are bad for the fans, bad for ticket sales or TV ratings; rather, it's that they provided the Hoos no meaningful challenge, no meaningful growth opportunities, and maybe even risked reinforcing bad habits by letting our boys simply out-talent an inferior opponent rather than having to out-execute or otherwise elevate their game.

As of the moment our Strength of Schedule is ranked #296th nationally. The offenses we've faced have been abysmal, and KenPom (who rates the strength of opponents' offenses and defenses independently as well as overall), puts our offensive strength of schedule at 340th out of 353 (Towson's 288th, GW is 278th, Coppin St is 350th, MTSU is 300th, Morgan St is 329th, and VCU is 252nd). We've faced one decent (Dayton) and two good (Wisconsin and Maryland) offenses so far and given up 1.07 ppp, 0.79 ppp, and 1.18 ppp respectively in those contests. Yes our defense is looking elite in many games, but we've possibly been doing ourselves a disservice by failing to test ourselves, as both Dayton and Maryland showed our defense to still need work against good offenses. Upcoming are South Carolina (#154 offense), W&M (#73 offense), and Marshall (#105 offense) to give our D a chance to tighten up before we dive into an ACC slate where 9 other teams have a Top 50 offense, including four Top 20 offenses. The non-conference slate was not well designed to get our defense in gear; this is where we hope programmatic muscle memory is enough.

5) Even with the poor SoS, we're riding our starters. Per KenPom, we go to our bench for a mere 25.6% of our minutes, which ranks 288th nationally. We knew depth was going to be a concern coming into this year, but so far there's a Top 7 (Ty, Kyle, Hunter, Jack, Key, Mamadi, and Clark) that gets the lion's share of the minutes, and #'s 8-10 (Jay, Marco, Kody) rarely see time against anyone but the cupcakes.

Jay and Marco are playing shy of 8 minutes a game, with 2 DNP's apiece. Kody is an afterthought at less than 4 minutes a game and 4 DNPs (each of our KP Top 100 opponents). Now, Kody was largely expected to redshirt coming into the year, so his lack of participation isn't surprising. And of course we're missing Frankie Badocchi with his medical absence which does reshape the depth chart, though I'm not sure how much he would've played either given Tony's reluctance to play 2-bigs anymore (see #3), especially when Badocchi doesn't have a reputation as a perimeter player on offense. He could only really be paired with the pick-and-pop Huff, lest we otherwise have too clogged a lane when we have the ball. So really it comes down to being disappointed that Jay and Marco aren't contributing more, and/or that Tony was unable to get one more Day-1 ready guard/wing in the 2017 or 2018 recruiting classes (over those two consecutive classes, right now only Kihei is proving to be a recruiting win... Badocchi, Marco, and Kody are at best "incompletes"). This discussion would be very different if we'd struck with just one more G/F type to come off the bench with reliability. Given our new commitment to that 4-guard/wing lineup, rolling with only 5 guards and wings that Tony truly trusts, even against this soft a schedule, is a little nerve-wracking.

6) The ACC is shaping up to be as fun as ever. Duke, who we get twice this year, is just playing insane basketball, and while they've got a few cupcake pelts so far, they've actually been winning against the #70 strength of schedule, beating good Auburn and Indiana programs and losing a respectable squeaker vs Gonzaga in Hawaii. Syracuse took two losses but those were without veteran PG Franklin Howard; with him back, they look like the contender we predicted. VT is a bit of a wild card given the two forwards who may or may not play this year (senior Chris Clarke and freshman Landers Nolley), which handcuffs them on depth... if they both return, Tech's a contender. FSU looks for real, with only a narrow loss to Villanova keeping them from perfection, UNC isn't Top 10 this year but still dangerous and well tested after a brutal non-conference (Texas, UCLA, Michigan, Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Davidson). Even the rebuilding Louisville notched a win over Michigan State, and its 3 losses are all respectable (to Top 10 Tennessee, in OT to Marquette, and by a point at Indiana). NC State is rolling, and while it hasn't beaten anyone impressive, its only loss was a narrow one at Wisconsin.

But other ACC programs are disappointing. Let's leave out the 7-7 tie in the B1G challenge. Let's take a look at some of the bad losses the bottom half of the league have taken in the season's first month: Miami (Rutgers, Yale, Penn), Notre Dame (Radford), Boston College (IUPUI), Pitt (Niagara), and Wake (St Joe's, Houston Baptist, Richmond). Each of these teams have major question marks and will face long, hard stretches in ACC play. Clemson and GT are somewhere in the middle, each with three losses to respectable teams, neither any good wins nor any bad losses between them, and we'll continue to wait and see what they're ultimately capable of.

7) Any revisions to my outlook? Before the season, I had us pegged as going 24-6 (13-5). That was written while I was still unsure if Braxton would be eligible. Since then, we've seen Kihei be a pleasant surprise, the other four veteran starters be what we thought they could be, and then we've seen inconsistency from the bench in Mamadi, Jay, Braxton, and Marco. So this looks like the team we predicted back in early October... a great starting a lineup, a gamble when we go to the reserves. We said then that it leaves us walking a tightrope, whether it be overusing the starters (see #5), or risking a big dropoff with injury (see #1). The ACC is seeing its top tier prove pretty strong and its bottom tier prove pretty weak. Unfortunately, our schedule is a difficult one in that most of our Home/Away partners are from the stronger group (Duke, VT, and Louisville), as are most of our road-only opponents (@Clemson, @UNC, @Syracuse, @NCSU). 

The lack of consistent depth has me worried, as does the fact that we've been a bit of a paper tiger so far this year by beating up on some horrendous teams while being pushed by the good teams like Dayton, Maryland, and Wisconsin. I could see this team being in for a bit of a rude awakening come January when a battle-tested, talented FSU team shows up in Charlottesville. I could see a 12-6 record being a realistic target to aim for, and given the depth challenges we face and the strength of the ACC's top half, that would be a fair result, even with the gaudy regular season success we've become accustomed to in recent years. 

The upshot is that this is still a team with the pieces to get hot in March, especially if a couple of those bench pieces do find their grooves over the next few months, assuming this is the year we can be and stay healthy through the tournament (that's a big assumption, given our history). And let's be honest, the tournament may carry a little more weight than the regular season this year. 


Next up: I'll do a little winter update on the hoops recruiting picture.