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Stat(e) of the Defense - The Quant Side

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The stats behind Villanova's strong defensive start.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

You can find the 'eye test' of an in-depth look at Villanova's defense through 10 games here. This is the stats side.

The Quant Side

As is my wont, this look at the defense won't be all about the eye test - it's completely unreliable anyway, of course.  So why is Villanova's defense so good, really?

The biggest part of the improvement on defense is the increase in turnovers. Above, I discussed a small part of the schematic changes that may be contributing.  Here, let's talk about the actual benefit of these turnovers.

The clear benefit of a turnover - it marks the end of a possession that results in 0 points for the opposition.  I know, I know.  Too obvious. It is - but it's underratedly important.  Teams like Louisville, VCU, and many of the others near the top of the turnover generation rankings build their entire defensive schemes around the value of creating turnovers - pretty simply, generating a lot of turnovers means your defensive efficiency will skyrocket.  West Virginia, currently ranked as a top 40 defense in the country, ranks in the bottom third of the country in field goal percentage allowed, bottom half in offensive rebounds allowed, and bottom third (again) in free throws allowed.  However, generating turnovers on nearly a THIRD (32.2%) of their defensive possessions compensates for a defense that's well below average by almost any other measure, and makes them a top 40 unit at that. For Villanova, the biggest difference between this year and last, in terms of defense, is the percentage of possessions on which they have forced a turnover: last year it was around 20%, while this year it's closer to 25% (24.4%).

The value of the turnover is not only tied up in the defensive benefit - it typically leads to easier chances on the offensive end, as well.  While this topic will be explored more deeply in a corresponding article looking at Villanova's offense through the first third of the season, it should be noted here that steals are catalysts on both ends of the floor.

Next, we'll look at a chart of all the shots Villanova has faced this year, modeled after the shot chart format used in articles past. Some slight modifications have been made. To wit:

  • The chart itself has been ‘re-zoned' slightly. There's a zone for shots taken 5 feet from the rim and in (1), all other paint ‘jumpers' before the foul line (2), 5 zones for 2 point jumpers taken from outside these two areas (3 through 7), and 5 zones for 3 point jumpers (8 through 13). The biggest tangible difference is no separate zones for the left and right sides near the rim, and for short 2 point jumper game in the paint. Otherwise, it's essentially a re-numbering exercise.
  • The diamond within the hoop represents all shots taken directly at the rim. I will no longer be ‘spreading' this diamond around to give a better visual representation of the number of shots taken there.
  • Other than that, it's all about the same. Bigger diamonds mean higher volume, and the colors represent how well (in the sample of shots used) the player or team shot relative to average values from that same area (taken from the shots in the NCAA last year).

DefSC

Region

Makes

Attempts

FG%

xFG%

Color

1

105

213

49.30%

57.99%

1

2

22

46

47.83%

39.78%

10

3

12

28

42.86%

35.82%

9

4

5

14

35.71%

35.18%

6

5

7

14

50.00%

37.61%

10

6

5

20

25.00%

32.54%

2

7

8

25

32.00%

36.66%

3

8

8

22

36.36%

37.08%

5

9

10

47

21.28%

34.87%

1

10

6

16

37.50%

35.94%

6

11

12

43

27.91%

33.19%

3

12

8

28

28.57%

37.28%

1

Villanova has been outstanding defending at the rim so far this year.  Over the first 10 games, opponents have attempted 36% of their 531 total shots at the rim.  While this ranks poorly in terms of attempts allowed close in (195thbest in the country, near the bottom third), opponents have converted just 49.30% of these attempts.  For reference, the NCAA average last year was approximately 58%, based on studies I've done (and referenced) in previous articles.  That 49.30% mark is good for 37th best in the country.

A lot of the credit for this must obviously go to the guys patrolling in the middle. Daniel Ochefu was an excellent defensive player last year, and he has continued that trend this year while receiving a slight bump in minutes. I was going to say his improvement in other areas has earned him more run in the rotation, but it's really only a slight bump in MPG average so far for him (>1), so there's not much of a difference to opine on. In any case, he's been consistently excellent down there, is fouling at a significantly lower rate than last year (4.2 fouls/40 minutes vs. 5.2 last year), and continues to swat everything he sees when he's at the rim (a 6.7% block rate, good for 134th best in the country, and 10 swatted shots at the rim).

JayVaughn Pinkston and Darryl Reynolds have been the real surprises, though (in terms of rim protection).  JayVaughn, while a serviceable presence in the middle when Ochefu sat last year, doesn't have the height or athleticism to be an overwhelming deterrent in the paint.  However, helped by a few highlight reel plays, he's blocking shots at a rate almost twice that of last year, and pulling down defensive rebounds better than ever before.  I hear tales of JVP committing to defense and rebounding in almost every broadcast; for now, it looks like he's living that mantra on the court.  If sustained, it would be big news for Villanova in general - our rim protection last year fell off when Ochefu left the court.

Darryl Reynolds has come out of benched-not-redshirted-raw-prospect purgatory to be a valuable (though sparingly used) contributor for Villanova's defense.  While he fouls at an incredibly rate (7.7 per 40), that's really what he's asked to do - come in as a useful big body to defend, rebound, and absorb fouls.  His value probably won't rest on his ability (or in-) to be a large minutes contributor, but rather on his capability to come in and serviceably provide the things Ochefu's big body does for 5-10 minutes a game - excellent rebounding on both ends, and rim protection.  So far, he's doing a surprisingly good job at just that, having blocked 8 attempts at the rim in his short time on the floor, and posting outstanding offensive and defensive rebounding rates.

The biggest contributor to Villanova's excellent rim deterrence, however, lies in the team's philosophy on defense.  If you'll humor me with a few more links to my own writing, the best chances for attacking the rim typically lie in transition; attempts at the rim during the first 10 seconds of a possession are converted, on average, about 7% more of the time (64.11% vs. 57.53%) than attempts at the rim during any other time in the possession.  Pushing the ball is typically your best chance to get easy shots at the rim.

Not so against Villanova. Despite allowing 23.2% of its opponent's total shots to come in ‘transition' situations (269thin the country - it's a lot/bad thing), Villanova allows a miniscule 33.3% eFG% on such shots (it's like they're Arch!), the absolute best in the country.  This is fueled by an absolutely silly 41.5% field goal percentage at the rim (and 18.9% field goal percentage on 3s, which, unfortunately, is likely unsustainable) - Villanova actually defends the rim significantly better in transition (aforementioned 41.5%) than in the half-court (51.3%)!

I'm choosing to believe it's coincidence, because I'm not sure the ego can carry much more, but Jay's teams have truly embraced the ‘prevent and take rim opportunities in transition on both ends' philosophy since I espoused it in my 3 part article on transition. They allow just 33.3% of the other team's shots to occur at the rim in transition - the average NCAA team last year allowed nearly 50% in the same category. A big part of this is related to the offense, and its top 11 ‘steal percentage' given up (teams don't get a lot of steals against us) - transition attempts off steals are typically the juiciest for rim attempts. But, still. It's an incredible feat this many games into the season, and though it's unlikely to continue at such high levels - especially that 3 point percentage - it's been a huge part of the team's overall success in defending and preventing shots at the rim this year.  It appears, so far, to be a tenet of Jay's team defensive philosophy - don't let them get the easy baskets, and definitely don't let them score at the rim there.  A single guard is often aggressively sagging back in transition after each shot/potential turnover, to put a body between the rim and the numbers the other team is bringing - an obvious deterrent to taking it to the rim in transition.  Here's hoping the trend continues.

Another positive sign for Villanova's defense so far in this young season - they're currently forcing a relatively high number of two point jumper shots (33.1%, good for 98th highest in the country). And opponents are hitting 40.3% of these, meaning Villanova gives up the 39th highest FG% on these shots in the country! Wait...

The positive here is that Villanova is forcing a relatively high number of two point jumpers - the shot with the lowest eFG% in all of basketball, and a shot that ends in any goodies like free throws or offensive rebounds less than any other type in basketball. Letting opponents (especially over the course of a year, rather than any one randomly sampled game) shoot a lot of these is almost always a good thing - they're hit at a typical average of ~35.5%, per calculations I ran on last year's data.  The point is, that high 40.3% mark is almost certainly due to come down, simply due to regression.  It's highly unlikely teams will shoot an elevated mark from this general area over the course of a season - a collection of different teams and players shooting exceedingly well (or poorly) from these areas is almost always a product of luck, rather than some deficiency/proficiency in Villanova's personnel or scheme.  The number will likely come down to relatively normal levels as the season progresses, potentially helping improve Villanova's defense even more.

Specifically, the areas in which Villanova has had bad luck with respect to 2 point jumpers is the paint area between ~5 feet from the basket and the foul line, and shots from the ‘right' side of the court (if the basket is assumed at the top.  Opponents have hit 22 of their 46 shots taken from the paint area, and 12 of the 28 from the right side.  Both of these are significantly above average, and, as above, are due for regression.

Speaking of regression!  Villanova's been fantastic at defending the 3 point line this year, for the first time in many, many years.  Opponents have only hit 28.21% of the 156 'real' 3s (the number charted and the number listed on most websites don't add up - a difference of 8 - which is almost certainly half-court shots being counted as 3s) attempted against us, good for 19th in the NCAA.  While I do truly believe some of this effect is due to extended playing minutes for a lot of really athletic wings (with one exception I tend to note over and over), the simple fact of the matter is that, much like 2 point jumpers, teams have very little control over how many 3s their opponents hit over the course of a season.  Ken Pomeroy has performed the analysis I'm essentially referring to here.  A much better indicator of future success is 3PA% - the percentage of 3 pointers, as a total of overall shots, a team's opponents take.  Luckily, Villanova also shows strongly here - their 30.9% 3PA% is good for 82nd lowest in the country, essentially meaning it's been difficult to take too many 3s on them.  It'll be good for later in the year, when the regression monster likely catches up to Villanova's opponents, and takes the team's defense closer to average than the top 20 in terms of 3 point percentage.  It could, of course, stay elite - but I'm certainly not banking on that.

That concludes this look at the team's defense through the third-of-a-season marker. It's certainly not comprehensive, but should give you a relatively complete picture of what's driven the team's success on defense, and hopefully a few nuggets you didn't have before you read.  Thanks for checking in.