Sunday, July 31, 2011

Looking Back on 2010-11 - The Season of the CAA

When VCU won the ESPYs award for "Best Upset", it capped an amazing season for the CAA.  Three teams in the NCAA Tournament, one team in the Final Four, former CAA players making a mark in the NBA playoffs and a second round draft pick in the NBA Draft.

As the 2010-11 college basketball season first started, I am sure CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager had a hopeful outlook for his conference.  There was the potential for multiple NCAA Tournament bids.   Old Dominion, which had won the CAA championship and defeated Notre Dame in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, returned most of its starting lineup.  VCU, which had won the CBI, returned most of is starting lineup from the season before.  George Mason had their entire starting lineup returning.  And finally, the reigning CAA player of the year, Hofstra's Charles Jenkins was returning for his senior season.

As play started, the non-conference schedule in November and December proved to be a boon for the Colonial’s chances to be a multi bid conference.   ODU, "the Ground and Pound of College Basketball", knocked off eventual NCAA Tournament teams in Clemson and Xavier in winning the Paradise Jam Classic, then later defeated eventual Sweet 16 member Richmond.  Meanwhile in the NIT, VCU defeated eventual NCAA first round winner UCLA in the consolation round (after barely losing to another NCAA Tournament team in Tennessee).   Drexel traveled to the Yum Center and knocked off host Louisville on national TV.

Meanwhile, Jenkins was off to a torrid start, including a 19 point first half against North Carolina in the nationally televised first round of the Puerto Rico Tip Off Tournament.  Jenkins’ strong play would garner national attention for himself and for the CAA as a whole.  That national attention would pay dividends for Jenkins later on in 2011.

As conference season started, it became apparent that the CAA was going to be extremely competitive.  Six CAA teams would be in the RPI 100 for most of the season and would remain so at the end of the season – ODU, George Mason, VCU, Hofstra, Drexel and James Madison.   The especially high RPI ratings for ODU, Mason and VCU started fueling the fire for #3BidsForCAA, a hashtag that was being tweeted heavily by CAA fans/supporters.

The aforementioned six teams would jockey for position during the first month of the season.  As the first half of the conference season ended, the CAA was rewarded for their outstanding play with five nationally televised Bracketbuster games.

And the CAA didn’t disappoint their fans on Bracketbuster weekend. Four of those teams won their televised games.  That Friday night, VCU won at Wichita State on two game ending free throws by Joey Rodriguez.  Afterwards, Drexel dominated Kent State.   Hofstra would lose their Saturday morning game at Wright State, but George Mason would rally to win at Northern Iowa later that evening.  Finally on Sunday, ODU convincingly won at home vs. Cleveland State.   #3BidsForCAA was now in full force.

As the second half of the season progressed, it was clear that Jenkins was receiving consideration for All American honors.   Jenkins would be torrid for the entire season shooting more than 50 percent from the field, including 42 percent from three.  He set the Hofstra scoring record and had his jersey retired before his last game at the Mack Center.   And his game tying and game winning shots vs. William Mary at home on February 15 (on no less my birthday) became a top ESPN Sportscenter highlight and a viral sensation. Jenkins was now not only garnering national attention, but significant attention by NBA teams.  Twenty-seven NBA scouts witnessed his 28 point performance vs. Georgia State.

As the conference season progressed, it was clear George Mason was on a roll.  After losing two straight early season conference games against Hofstra and Old Dominion, George Mason would not lose another game the rest of the regular season.  The Patriots finished first in the CAA at 16-2 and were ranked in the Top 25. 

Meanwhile, after a sluggish start, Old Dominion righted themselves and finished tied for second in conference with a 14-4 record.  Due to their strong non conference wins, the Monarchs were seen by many experts as a lock for an at large bid.    It was becoming apparent that at least two CAA teams that were going to make the NCAA Tournament.

As the CAA Tournament started, the four top teams were George Mason, Old Dominion, Hofstra and VCU.   VCU, which had been one point in first place in the CAA at 9-1, had limped to the finish of the regular season at 12-6. Their struggles towards the end of the CAA regular season seemed to have damaged their chances for an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

Entering, that first weekend in March, the 2011 CAA Tournament so reminded me of the 2006 CAA Tournament.  You had a significant number of teams in the top 100 of the RPI just like 2006. And just like 2006, it was assumed that two CAA teams would make the NCAA Tournament.  Finally, George Mason was ranked in the Top 25 just like it had been briefly in 2006.  The stage was set for a memorable tournament.

The CAA Tournament started with a bang.  All four first round games were decided by six points or less.  The end of the first round day of action was capped by William and Mary's Quinn McDowell setting the tournament record for points in a game with 35 as the Tribe upset #6 James Madison.

After struggling at the end of the regular season, VCU redeemed themselves in Richmond.  After a rock fight win over #5 Drexel in the quarterfinals, the Rams stunned and absolutely dominated #1 George Mason in the semifinals in front of a very loud somewhat partisan Richmond Coliseum crowd.   The talk of #3Bids4CAA kindled anew after the win over the Patriots.

Meanwhile, ODU methodically went about their business.  Down early against Delaware, the Monarchs rallied and beat the BlueHens.   Then against Hofstra and the now two time CAA player of the year Jenkins, Old Dominion held off a very tough Pride team, who had stifled McDowell and William and Mary in the quarterfinals, to get to the finals. 

In the championship game, featuring the biggest rivalry in the CAA, Old Dominion went out to a big lead in front of another very loud crowd (especially loud for TV).  But VCU rallied to within two points,  but the Monarchs held off the Rams to win the CAA Tournament and the automatic bid.  Now the question was how many teams would the CAA get into the dance.

Leading up to Selection Sunday, as aforementioned, the CAA was guaranteed two bids.  George Mason’s dominant regular season run, plus the nationally televised Bracketbuster win on the road over Northern Iowa had the Patriots as a number 8 seed in most predicted NCAA brackets.  Old Dominion already had the automatic bid of course.  VCU seemed to be on the outside looking in but was part of the discussion.

Then the bids were announced on CBS and VCU was named one of the teams in the First Four games to be played on Tuesday. #3Bids4CAA had become a reality!   But the outcries came out from the supposed experts, including one Jay Bilas who noted that VCU "failed the laugh test."   It would turn out that the Rams would have the last laugh.

In the First Four, VCU came out and stymied USC's offense.  The Rams forced fifteen Trojans' turnovers and USC would have 21 less FG attempts in the game.  VCU would win the second ever First Four at large bid game in convincing fashion 59-46.

The three CAA teams did their fans proud in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.  Old Dominion fought tooth and nail with Butler for the entire game.  But the Monarchs would eventually lose to the now two time National Runner-up Bulldogs on a buzzer beater putback by Matt Howard.  George Mason would rally to win their first round game against Villanova, as the Patriots beat former Hofstra coach Jay Wright, much to the chagrin of Defiantly Dutch.    Then on Friday night, VCU flat out dominated Georgetown, using twelve three pointers to bomb the Hoyas out of Chicago 74-56.

In the second round, the Patriots stormed out to a 11-2 lead over the Buckeyes.  But Ohio State went on a 50-15 run and George Mason was eliminated in Cleveland.  Mason would suffer another loss a few months later when long time coach Jim Larranaga left Fairfax for the sun and the sand at the University of Miami.

But the Rams would continue their magical run.  First, VCU would change tactics against Purdue, foregoing their three point shooting for driving the lane at will vs. the Boilermakers.  With 57 percent shooting from the field and 26 assists, VCU literally ran over Purdue 94-76 for their third double digit win in a row in the NCAA Tournament in five days.

In the Sweet Sixteen, VCU took on defensive minded Florida State.  The game went into overtime where Brandon Burgess took an inbounds pass from Joey Rodriguez for the game winning layup as the Rams knocked off the Seminoles 72-71.   The First Four team from Richmond was now in the Elite Eight against mighty #1 seed Kansas.

And with a chance to go to the Final Four, it was VCU that played like the #1 seed.  The Rams jumped out to a 39-21 lead before going into halftime up fourteen.  Then VCU withstood a furious Kansas rally that cut the margin to two 46-44.  But the Rams lowered their heads and battering rammed the Jayhawks with a 10-2 spurt.  VCU would go onto a 71-61 win.  VCU would be the first team ever that went from the First Four to the Final Four.

The Rams would face another mid major in the Bulldogs of Butler in the National Semifinals, giving Mid Major fans everywhere a guaranteed mid major team in the final for the second year in a row.  As hard as they tried though, it wasn't going to be the Rams.  Butler held off VCU 70-62 and the Rams' magical run ended on the court of Reliant Stadium.  But VCU truly excelled in the tournament, where the Rams each beat a team from the PAC-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12.  Four of those wins were by double digits.

And it was not just in college basketball where the CAA excelled.  In the 2010-11 NBA season, several CAA alums made their mark on pro basketball.  Former VCU star, Larry Sanders enjoyed his first season in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.   Another former VCU star, Eric Maynor averaged 13 minutes per game for an Oklahoma City Thunder team that made the Western Conference finals.   In his first season in the NBA for San Antonio, Towson’s Gary Neal played significant minutes off the bench. The former Tiger sharpshooter nailed a game tying three-point buzzer for the Spurs that forced overtime in their playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Then there was J.J. Barea.   The former Northeastern Huskie, who used to terrorize CAA backcourts, has become a fixture off the bench for the Dallas Mavericks.  More importantly, Barea played an important part in the Mavs’ series wins over the L.A. Lakers and the Thunder.  Barea then finally had a big game in Game Six of the NBA Championship as Dallas defeated the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship.

To cap the CAA's mark in the NBA, Charles Jenkins was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors.  It marked the third year in a row a CAA player was taken in the NBA draft (Maynor in 2009 and Sanders in 2010).  The CAA is now known as a conference that has NBA talent.

All of this evidence shows that the 2010-11 basketball season truly was the Season of the CAA.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hofstra's 2010-11 Success Was All About Skill

John Templon, the author of the very informational and fun to read Big Apple Buckets site, does a lot of statistical analysis of teams.  Recently, he has been doing a series of "Team Similarities", comparing teams from this past season to teams of recent past.  

One of those teams in his series was Hofstra.  In his Hofstra Team Similarity, John states that Ken Pomeroy's "luck metric" notes that "Hofstra was the sixth luckiest team in basketball last season according to his metric which compares pythagorean record to actual record."  Furthermore Pomeroy's statistic says that Hofstra won four more games than they should have.  And based on John's team similarities, of the five teams in recent history that were most similar, only the 2006-07 Wisconsin Green Bay team was more than one game above .500 (18-15).

Now for the few, the proud, the readers of my site, you know I am not the biggest fan of Ken Pomeroy's statistics.  In my April 9 article called "NCAA Double Standards and Basketball People", I took issue with some of Pomeroy's ratings, specifically when it came to both Virginia Tech and Maryland.  So this is not the first time I am disagreeing with a Pomeroy metric.

Having become friendly with John via Twitter, we went back and forth on the Hofstra article and I told him that I was going to do a little statistical research of my own.   Teams play well often due to the less glamorous stats, like ball possession and free throws.  I told John that I thought it was mainly due to Hofstra's very good assists to turnover ratio this past season.  But I decided to dig a little deeper and did some research on three categories that might explain why Hofstra was 21-12 (well other than Charles Jenkins of course).

Team Record APG TPG FT %Record 7 Pts or less Margin
2010-11 Hofstra 21-12 14 10 76.1 9-4
2006-07 Wisc Green Bay 18-15111276.03-3
2009-10 Stanford14-18131266.45-6
2006-07 Rider16-15141471.98-5
2005-06 Utah Valley State16-18141270.37-4
2009-10 Montana State15-14131168.88-7
(assists and turnovers were rounded to the nearest number)

As you can see from the above table, when you do the math, Hofstra (13.6 assists per game) had the best assists to turnover ratio of the six teams listed. In fact, the Pride led the CAA in assist to turnover ratio with a 1.3 ratio and had the fewest turnovers in the CAA, 342 .  Hofstra also had the best free throw percentage of the six teams listed.  Only VCU made more free throws in the CAA this past season than Hofstra.  Finally, of the teams listed above, the Pride had the best record in games decided by seven points or less, along with having the most wins in those games.

Finally, including their quarterfinal win over William and Mary, Hofstra was 11-0 in vs. teams below .500 in the CAA.  George Mason was the only other CAA team above .500 that accomplished that feat this past season.  Beating the teams that you're supposed to beat is a very important factor in conference play, especially in such a competitive conference like the CAA.

John also noted in a tweet to me though that he couldn't statistically prove it, he thought having a go-to guy helps.  Now I certainly agree with John's statement because Jenkins was dominant this season and certainly it could be said based on John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Ratings, Luke Winn's statistical analysis and even my own article that he was one of the most important players to his team in the country.  

Also, two of the teams that Hofstra was compared in John's similarities had go-to guys that have eventually had successful NBA careers - 2006-07 Rider had Jason Thompson (20.1 ppg) and 2009-10 Stanford had Landry Fields (22.3 ppg).  So those comparisons bode well for Jenkins, the recent second round pick of the Golden State Warriors.

But in fairness to the Pride, Jenkins was the go to guy in his two previous seasons at Hofstra as well.  And one could argue that the Pride had as much talent in those two previous seasons as he did this past season.  But those Hofstra teams were nowhere near as successful in conference those two seasons (10-8 in 2009-10 and 11-7 in 2008-09) and did not make it past the CAA Quarterfinals in either season.

A lot of that had to do with assists to turnover ratio.  In 2009-10, Hofstra's was sixth in the CAA in assists to turnover ratio at 1.0 and in 2008-09, the Pride was last in the CAA with a .7 assists to turnover ratio.  Hofstra was also third this past season in the CAA in turnover margin (+2.29).  In their two previous seasons, the Pride had a negative turnover margin; - .24 in 2009-10 and -1.38 in 2008-09 which was last in the CAA.

So to paraphrase Ross Perot, charts and stats don't lie.  Hofstra's success was based on a lot of statistical categories, especially when it came to assists to turnover ratio and turnover margin.  That's how Hofstra won 21 games and finished third in a very competitive and talented CAA with a 14-4 conference record.

That has to do with skill and talent folks, not luck.