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Time for Moneyball on the Main Line

For Villanova to compete successfully on basketball’s national stage, maybe it’s time to steal a page from Billy Beane’s playbook.


Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tyreke Evans, Amile Jefferson, Allerik Freeman, Andrew and Aaron Harrison were among the very best prospects in the nation over the past few years. Each of them seemed tantalizing close to committing to Villanova, only to be snatched away by the likes of Kentucky, Duke and UCLA. More likely, Nova was never seriously in contention.

Villanova has not broken into ESPN’s top 25 team basketball recruiting rankings over the four years since its 2009 class was ranked #3. While next year’s class of Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart is ranked a respectable #32, it is hardly in the same zip code as the best recruiting class in the nation. That honor belongs to the Wildcats of Kentucky, which boasts the #1 Center (Dakari Johnson), #1 PF (Julius Randle), #1 SG (Aaron Harrison), #1 PG (Andrew Harrison), #4 SF (James Young) and #5 PF (Markus Lee).

As much as we like to think that Villanova can compete for elite talent, history suggests otherwise. Certainly the size of the school and its modest athletic facilities and budget deserve much of the blame. However, Villanova’s bigger disadvantage seems to be that five-star recruits with NBA aspirations inevitably are attracted to the schools and coaches with proven track records for getting players into the NBA. Villanova presently has only four former players on NBA rosters – Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham and Maalik Wayns. According to RPI, Kentucky has 20, Duke has 18, North Carolina has 17, Kansas has 14, Connecticut and UCLA have 12 each, Texas has 11, and Florida has 10. Surely recruits have taken notice.

As much as we like to think that Villanova can compete for elite talent, history suggests otherwise.

Does this mean that Villanova is forever relegated to high mid-major status with a successful season defined as reaching the NCAA tournament and winning a game or two? Not necessarily. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, whose story inspired the 2011 dramatic film, Moneyball. Due to the severe budget restrictions Oakland faced as a small market team, Beane had no choice but to find players undervalued by the market. To that end, he hired Peter Brand (a Yale-educated econometrics geek whose character was created based on Paul DePodesta), who discovered through extensive statistical research that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are the best indicators of offensive success. Those qualities were cheaper to obtain on the open market than speed and making contact, qualities then coveted by baseball scouts and executives. Beane reshuffled his roster through a series of trades based on Brand’s research, converting the hapless 2002 Athletics into a playoff team in a single season.

Today virtually every MLB team uses advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. Are successful mid-major college basketball coaches like Butler’s Brad Stevens, who reached the NCAA championship game in 2010 and 2011 with teams dominated by three star recruits, already applying advanced statistical analysis to assemble teams that can compete with college basketball’s five-star-studded juggernauts?

Back in February we discussed a book written by Dean Oliver, Basketball on Paper, who used statistical analysis to distinguish what is truly important to winning basketball games. Dr. Oliver concluded that teams that consistently win basketball games do at least three of the following four things well:

  1. Shoot a high field goal percentage (factor weighting 44.4%)
  2. Do not commit turnovers (factor weighting 24.4%)
  3. Get offensive rebounds (factor weighting 20.0%)
  4. Get to the foul line frequently (factor weighting 11.1%)

I built a model based on Dr. Oliver’s work, finding it amazingly accurate picking (ex-post) the winner of all but two Villanova’s games this season. On that basis, I concluded that Dr. Oliver’s eFG%, TO%, OR% and FT Rate may be as insightful for basketball recruiting as is Paul DePodesta’s on-base percentage and slugging percentage for configuring baseball rosters. How could Jay Wright apply eFG%, TO%, OR% and FT Rate to isolate team weaknesses and find undervalued recruits with the attributes needed to address those weaknesses? What follows is a possible approach.

1. Assess Strengths & Weaknesses 2012-13 Team: I compared Villanova with National Champion Louisville on each of Dr. Oliver’s four critical factors to identify the team’s priorities for improvement.

eFG% TO% OR% FT Rate
Louisville 50.6% 18.3% 38.2% 40%
Villanova 47.4% 22.8% 33% 50.5%
Difference -3.2% 4.5% -5.2% 10.5%
Advantage Louisville Louisville Louisville Villanova

Villanova’s relative strength last season was getting to the free throw line. No one was better on the team than JayVaughn Pinkston in that aspect of the game. Villanova’s weaknesses in FG%, TO% and OR% suggest the following critical needs: (1) a strong rebounder; (2) a long-range marksman; and (3) a jet guard who protects the ball and finds players in position to score.

2. Assess Impact of Departures on Strengths & Weaknesses: The departure of Mouph Yarou to graduation is a significant setback. In addition to his leadership qualities, he was the best on the team in offensive rebounding and protecting the ball, areas where the team already was at a disadvantage. Another setback is the loss of Achraf Yacoubou, who led the team in eFG%. Fortunately, Yacoubou’s minutes were limited and James Bell, second in eFG%, will return for his senior year.

3. Assess Impact of Additions on Strengths & Weaknesses: So far, Villanova has added three players to next year’s squad – redshirt sophomore Dylan Ennis and freshman recruits Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart. How much will each help?

  • Dylan Ennis: Ennis helps the team mostly as a shooter. During his freshman campaign at Rice, Ennis had an eFG% of 50%. Only Yacoubou (55%) and Bell (51.6%) had better on this year’s squad. At Rice, Ennis attempted 82 3p FGs, hitting 35.4%. While Ennis should help, he is no savior. By comparison, Louisville had eight players with an eFG% between 50% and 65%. Ennis should help in other dimensions as well. He is a better offensive rebounder (3.1%) than Chennault (0.5%), Arcidiacono (0.8%), and Hilliard (1.4%). His free throw rate is a decent (50.6%), trailing only Pinkston (82.2), Ochefu (60.6) and Hilliard (52.7). However, Ennis apparently is not great at protecting the ball, with a 26% turnover %, which is worse than Hilliard, Bell and Arcidiacono.
  • Kris Jenkins: ESPN writes "He could morph into a Charles Barkley-type; undersized four man who likes to rebound. He's got good feet and hands and isn't afraid of contact. He'll knock down the occasional perimeter shot but his bread and butter is in the paint. Not bad catch and shoot." Interpretation: Jenkins should bring a game similar to JayVaughn Pinkston, and should help with eFG%, OR% and FT Rate.
  • Josh Hart: CBS Sports writes, "He is one of the more aggressive scorers at his position, with the ability to absorb contact and finish at the rim through traffic." ESPN adds, "He plays the game with a lot of vigor. His motor, which never seems to stop, is a key component of the evaluation. Hart doesn't mind emptying the tank and he's not concerned how he gets it done." Interpretation: Hart should help with eFG%, taking the ball to the hoop for high percentage shots.

4. Assess Remaining Gaps: While Jay Wright has added some nice players to next year’s squad, it is hard to argue that he found all of the missing pieces needed to significantly close the gap in shooting and offensive rebounding against a team like Louisville. Perhaps Ryan Arcidiacono will get stronger and quicker at point guard, and build on his late season success protecting the ball. Ennis, Jenkins and Hart should help with eFG%, but three-point shooting woes likely will continue next season. However, our biggest unsolved need appears to be in the paint. With Ochefu as the only player taller than 6-7, offensive rebounding next season remains a significant concern. Let’s hope that Jay can land either Lennard Freeman or Darrl Reynolds (or both) to narrow the gap.

Absent a hardship transfer, there is not much Jay Wright can do to address the remaining weaknesses in next year’s team. However, it is never too early to start thinking about the 2014-15 season. It might not be a bad idea for Jay and his assistant coaches to add Moneyball and Basketball on Paper to their summer reading list as they hit the summer recruiting circuit.