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How I’m Learning to Love IsoBall, and other Villanova Basketball notes

Why Villanova’s offensive changes are working, and other statistical notes on the first third of an undefeated season.

NCAA Basketball: Temple at Villanova
“I thought I said no 2 point jumpers”
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it’s finals time – and Villanova’s still undefeated. What a team, and what a time to be a fan. Before the calendar flips to 2017 – and Villanova’s schedule to conference play – figured I’d take advantage of the week in which stats won’t change to write up some thoughts on Villanova’s season thus far, and talk about some of the things I (and the good folks at kenpom, hoop-math, and hooplens) have been tracking this season.

Here’s a short – for me – piece on some early trends on offense, and some small notes on the defense. Will likely post one, maybe two more pieces before the American game next week.

Who Needs Passing?

The most obvious change on ‘O’ is the lack of ball movement this year, at least compared to the last few. The Villanova of the championship season was a beautiful, whirring ball movement machine built around a team full of smart perimeter passers and the post presence of Ochefu, finishing with an assist percentage in the top 15% of the country (58.7% of its made baskets come on assists, for 44th highest in the country).

This had been a trend since Villanova’s rise back to the (regular season) elites of the country – they finished with the 24th highest rate in 2013-2014, and the 15th highest in 2014-2015. While there were obvious exceptions in particular games in the tournament – with Kansas and North Carolina coming to mind – where iso ball ruled, little in the past few years indicated a coming shift in offensive philosophy.

To put it mildly, this has not been the same type of offense. While there are a few glimmers each game of the ‘passing-up-good-for-great’ shot philosophy of the last few years, the offense this year has been littered with ball stopping post-ups, isos, and (at times) Ginger Jesus pull-ups. The current assist percentage (at 52.6% of made baskets) is 167th in the country, and would be the lowest for Villanova since the doldrums of the 2012 campaign. While some of this is certainly related to Phil Booth’s extended absence – and the necessity of playing long stretches without a (remotely) true point guard on the floor – it’s a bit of a weird trend. But really – it hasn’t mattered. At all.

Villanova’s adjusted offensive rating in 2017 so far sits at 121.3 points per 100 possessions, just a tick off the pace (which includes the greatest tournament run in the history of college basketball) of 121.7 per 100 from last year. The unadjusted efficiencies are also very comparable – 120 points/100 this year, vs. 116 points/100 last year.

Turnovers are down (a common side effect of a more iso-heavy approach), 3 point attempts and field goal percentage are way up, and there’s honestly little to complain about (besides aesthetically) about the way the team is currently doing business on the offensive end.

What’s making it possible is two of the best high volume isolation scorers in the country – Josh Hart and Kri-just kidding, Jalen Brunson. Since Josh will have his own write-up later this week, I’ll spend a bit of time talking up JB.

Despite being assisted on just 28.40% of his made baskets, Jalen is currently on-pace for a 50/40/90 season (50% from the field, 40% from 3, and 90% from the line) and is scoring at a rate good for 154th in the country (124.3 points per 100 possessions). Just to give you a read on how rare that is – since 1993-1994, only 38 players have hit the 50/40/90 line. Further, only 16 of those players had more field goal attempts in their entire season than Jalen has right now (99 FGA’s). That’s…pretty incredible. And, after some early season issues with turnovers, he’s been able to drop his turnover rate to 14.5 – in line with the heralded point guard play of the last few years. Love it.

And Jenkins, while he’s still working himself into a groove after the highs of last season, remains one of the most skilled isolation players I’ve seen in my relatively short time as a fan of Villanova. While I’d love to see (quite) a bit more ball movement incorporated into the offense, they can probably keep this pace up without it. If they can get to a point where they’re extremely comfortable with either - watch out, NCAA.

Running Down (My) Dreams

Villanova has also been really successful on the break this year, on both ends of the floor. For all possessions in which the first shot (or loss of possession) is within 10 seconds, Villanova is currently scoring 137 points per 100 possessions, up about 20 points per 100 from the same bracket in 2015-2016. They’ve also slightly increased their volume on the same – about 26.10% of all Villanova’s possessions last 10 seconds or less, up from 24.10% last year. Per hoop-math, they are currently top 60 in the country in terms of transition eFG% - sitting at 63.20% so far this year. Villanova is certainly a team built to run with the glut of athletic wings – something certainly seen in their efficiency. I think we could all stand to see more 1 on 4 Hart transition breaks, in any case.

One place Villanova has really fallen off this year is from… the dreaded mid-range (it’s not actually dreaded). Last year’s team hit the 12th best percentage in the country on all long 2’s (if you really haven’t seen me use this before, it’s all shots not classified as dunks, layups, or tip-ins): a cool 42.40%. The average in D-I usually hovers around 35-36%, for reference. This year, they’re sitting at 36.40% - quite a large drop.

While this category certainly included many of Chief’s hook shots and was therefore somewhat inflated, most of the returning players have also hit a significantly lower percentage on these long 2’s. Kris (51.2% to 30.30%), Jalen (40.30% to 37.80%), and even tha GOD Josh (41.80% to 38.90%) are all contributing to the decline here – something best demonstrated by overall possession stats. In the two tables below, you can see the typical offensive rating for a possession split up by ‘first shot’ type (perhaps obvious, but I feel strangely obligated to explain things in parentheses – this means that if a 3 is the first shot taken on a possession, the entire possession is classified as ‘Three’). While ‘Nova managed a quite respectable mark per possession taking long twos last year, it’s fallen quite a bit this year.

While they’re taking about the same amount of long 2’s as they were last year, efficiency has fallen way off – while the efficiency of the other two types has increased significantly. Down with the mid-range!

Yes, More Shot Charts

And now, a quick discussion of the shot chart:


Villanova’s Offensive and Defensive Shot Charts for 2016-2017

Really though – what they’re doing on offense so far this year has been incredible. The field goal percentage from 3 is hovering around 40%, and the 3 highest volume shooters on the team are all hitting over 43% (get it together, Donte and Mikal). And look at the rim! In ‘holy shit’ stats for the day, Mikal Bridges has missed just 3 of his 30 layups/dunks so far this year. Three.

Not to short the other guys - Darryl Reynolds has missed just 4 of 25 in close, and Josh only 8 of 47.

The team continues to focus on the ‘Moreyball’ zones of each side: 3’s and layups. It’s especially stark on the defensive side – while teams have kind of carved up Villanova from the mid-range, hitting well above average from the short (outside 5 feet, and outside the paint) and long (outside 13 feet, not a 3) mid-range areas, they’re below D-I average at the rim and (especially) from 3. I mean – that’s literally 30% from three on the chart – and their overall mark is even better, as KenPom currently has their defensive 3FG% at 28.9%.

The most impressive part is likely around the rim, for me. While it’s intuitive that a team playing Eric Paschall as its center for major minutes will be able to extend to the perimeter on defense, it was always less obvious that they’d be able to replicate the interior presence of Ochefu from last year’s championship team. And, while there have been hiccups, the eye test has certainly told me they’ve done a solid job putting in the effort to contest shots as a team. The numbers are starting to show it’s bearing fruit – while it’s a far cry from last season, 58.05% remains above league average (in terms of defense), and the number has been trending downward over the last few games. Hope it’s something they can continue as the day-to-day competition level rises in Big East play.

I do have plenty more I’d love to talk about in one gigantic article, but I have to figure my tolerance for writing too much is higher than yours for reading too much. Hope to publish a bit more later this week. I have earlier suggestions from everyone for what to look at, and I’ll continue to try and incorporate. Thanks for reading.