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Anatomy of a Turnaround on the Mainline

Does a west coast mathematician have the answer to explain Villanova's play?

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Under the watchful eye of ESPN bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, the Cats are one step closer to punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament after their thrilling 60-56 victory over #17 Marquette on Saturday. Should Villanova make the tournament, it will be one of the most improbable success stories in college basketball this season after they were picked to finish 12th in the Big East men's basketball preseason coaches' poll. Even their most ardent fans had all but written them off after the embarrassing 18-point humiliation at home to lowly Columbia.

The Cats now stand at 18-10 (9-6) with four wins against Top 50 teams. That’s a long way from their 11-17 (4-12) record this time last year. Sports analysts have taken notice of the phoenix on the Philadelphia Main Line, and Jay Wright is increasingly in the conversation for Big East Coach of the Year.

So what’s behind the surprising success of this year’s Villanova squad? For the answer, I looked to some ground-breaking research in the book, Basketball on Paper, authored by Dr. Dean Oliver, a former basketball player and coach at Cal Tech. Using extensive ex-post statistical analysis, Oliver boils down the scores of available basketball statistics to a short list of only four - eFG%, TO%, OR% and FT Rate - that determine the outcome of basketball games. I built a model based on Dr. Oliver’s work and tested it against each of the 28 games played by the Cats this season through Saturday. I concluded that Dr. Oliver is truly on to something after my model correctly picked the winning team 93% of the time, misfiring only on the Cats’ four-point loss to LaSalle and two point win over St. Joe’s.

Dr. Oliver concluded that teams that consistently win basketball games do at least three of the following four things well.

  • Shoot a high field goal percentage (model uses eFG% with a weighting 44.4%). Effective FG% is superior to FG% because it recognizes that a 3-point field goal is worth 150% more point than a 2-point field goal.
  • Do not commit turnovers (model uses TO%, which measures turnovers per 100 plays, with a factor weighting 24.4%)
  • Get offensive rebounds (model uses OR%, which offensive rebounds as a percentage of available offensive rebounds, with a weighting 20.0%)
  • Get to the foul line frequently (model uses FT Rate, which measures free throw attempts as percentage of field goal attempts, with a weighting 11.1%

Here’s what Dr. Oliver’s work tells us is behind the improvement in the Cats’ win-loss record.

Shoot a high field goal percentage: So far this season, the Cats eFG% in conference play is 48.0%, an improvement over their 45.8% eFG% last season. Better yet, the Cats eFG% has steadily improved over the course of the season. The three best players based on this measure are: Mouphtaou Yarou (58.3%), Bell (52.0%) and Daniel Ochefu (48.3%).

Do not commit turnovers: So far, the Cats TO% in conference play is 22.4%, slightly worse than their 21.7% TO% last season. However, the Cats have gotten much better at protecting the ball since the start of Big East season. They were 2-3 to open conference play, turning the ball over 17.8 times per game. The smart money said that turnovers would become an even greater as the schedule became far more daunting in late January and February. However, over their next ten conference games, the Cats went 7-3 in no small part because their turnovers dropped by 27% to 13.0 per game. The three best players at protecting the ball are James Bell (12.5%), Darrun Hilliard (17.1%) and Ryan Arcidiacono (22.2%).

Get offensive rebounds: The Cats OR% in conference play is 32.3%, which is surprisingly worse than their 38.4% OR% last season given the addition of Daniel Ochefu to this year's squad. More troubling, the Cats’ offensive rebounding has worsened as the season progressed. That said, their offensive rebounding woes have not hurt the Cats too badly. Of their six conference losses, their opponent had more offensive rebounds in only three games: at Providence (-10), vs. Pitt (-8) and at Notre Dame (–2). The three best players at grabbing offensive rebounds are Yarou (12.6%), Ochefu (12.1%%) and JayVaughn Pinkston (8.2%).

Get to the foul line frequently: The Cats FT Rate in conference play is 50.5%, a dramatic improvement over their 39.2% FT Rate last season. Credit the Cats newly discovered inside game for the improvement. While their FT Rate has trended down over the course of the season, it has shown some improvement during its recent win streak. The three best players at getting to the free throw line are Pinkston (62.1% FTR), Ochefu (57.1% FTR) and Yarou (56.6% FTR). However, while Yarou does well to hit his free throws (79.3% FT%), Ochefu (44.2 FT%) and Pinkston (69.3% FT%) too often fail to capitalize on their opportunities at the charity stripe.

While it may be enough for the steely-eyed statistician to conclude that the Cats are winning more because they get to the foul line more frequently, protect the ball better and are a tad more accurate on their shooting, I for one am left wondering why those things are happening. To answer that, we must shift the analysis from the right side to the left side of our brains. Here’s my top ten reasons the Cats have gotten better at doing the things that win games:

  1. Coaching: Winning all starts with coaching, from recruiting, to preparation, to game strategy and adjustments. Out of choice or necessity, overachievers in the mold of traditional Villanova basketball players of the past have replaced underachievers and returned to playing "Villanova basketball" The Cats are less predictable and make better adjustments, and Jay’s assistants have been far more active during games.
  2. Teamwork & Chemistry: The players truly like one another and play for the name on the front of their jerseys.
  3. Confidence: The team bought into Jay’s system and won some big games. They now play to win rather than play not to lose.
  4. Leadership: Mouph has had a lot to do with #2 and #3, stepping up in a big way by providing the leadership that was so sorely lacking the last two seasons. It also helps that Mouph has found his mojo and no longer plays like the deer in the headlights that we saw early on.
  5. Maturity: As the season progressed, an inexperienced team dominated with freshman and sophomores has grown up before our eyes, particularly Arcidiacono, Ochefu and Hilliard.
  6. Hard-Nosed Defense: How nice was it to hear the announcers gush about Villanova’s outstanding defense during the Marquette game.
  7. Shortened bench: Jay seems to have settled on his rotation, with Pinkston back in the starting lineup and Sutton and Yacoubou seeing less minutes
  8. Fan Support: Complain all you want, but I got goose bumps watching the fans rush the court after the Louisville and Syracuse wins. The raucous crowd at Marquette game gave a big lift to the Cats, and their unrelenting chanting never let Junior Cadougan forget his first half air ball.
  9. Playing 40 minutes: Earlier this season, I wrote how the Cats had a troubling history of second half collapses. This trend continued over the first 18 games of the season, with first half leads over strong and weak opponents alike evaporating in the second half. In those games, they were outscored by their opponents in the second half by an average of 2.2 points. That ended in the Louisville game. Over the Cats’ last ten games, they have outscored their opponents in the second half by an average of 4.8 points.
  10. Balanced Scoring: The Cats five starters all average nine or more points per game. Opponents can no longer focus on only one or two players.

That’s my explanation for why the Cats are winning. What do you think?