"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, January 03, 2011

Is Defense Marquette's Achilles' Heel?

After last year's senior day game (which Marquette lost. Again. Of course) I had a conversation with someone at a Milwaukee watering hole. This person knows a lot more about basketball than I do, having served as both a team manager and a high school coach. Me... I mostly work with numbers and watch hoops. I was complaining that Marquette's defense was not good. His response was that Marquette was playing defense a lot better than they were at the beginning of the year.

We were both right. Back to this in a minute. Let's consider how important defense is to any program and what the gaps are for the Warriors.

Point #1 - Marquette will never be elite until their defense is elite.

The best summary of this fact comes from CNNSI's Luke Winn, whose holiday tradition of Early Warnings shows which teams are pretenders or contenders around New Year's Eve. What I particularly like is that he shows the offensive and defensive efficiency of NCAA Elite teams. Last year's list had the Elite Eight teams going back to 2003-2004. Winn's 2010 Early Warnings List (ps - he bags on UConn and ND) shows other teams that might be contenders or pretenders this year. Now, the point of Winn's list is to demonstrate which teams, ranked or unranked, might be real Elite Eight/Final Four/National Championship teams and which ones might not. However, it's all built on the notion that there is a profile for each Elite Eight team.

The average Elite Eight team has a national Defensive Efficiency Ranking of 16. The average Final Four team has a rank of 9. For giggles, National Champs average 5.3 nationally in defensive efficiency. But once your team's defensive efficiency gets worse than 25, you're really talking about a crazy run to make the Elite Eight (think Pittsnogle's WVU team or Stephen Curry's Davidson team). Honestly, even when there, Elite Eight is your ceiling.

But what does this mean for Marquette?

Here is the same chart with Marquette's defensive efficiency numbers from the last two and a half years -- the Buzz Williams Era.

There's the issue. Marquette has managed to develop a nearly elite offensive capability in the last three years. Buzz not only modifies the offense to the strengths of his team, but does it so effectively that the team runs a top 25 offense.

However, no matter how good MU is offensively it's the defense that will continue to hold the program back and is the reason that, despite an elite offense, Buzz's teams play so many close games. Ultimately, MU's inability to defend at a high level decreases the program's margin for error night after night.

Let's look at Buzz's progression as the MU head coach. Yes, I know that two years ago, Marquette was short. And last year MU was also short with an even shorter bench. This year Marquette is taller but now more inexperienced. Still, rationalizing poor defensive efficiency eventually just becomes a pile of excuses, especially after 2.5 years. After all, MU successfully makes the adjustments offensively year to year, and Buzz inherited a program that was consistently a good defensive team (#31 defensively in 2007 and #10 defensively the year before he became head coach).

Point #2 - Not all aspects of defense are the same

Essentially, defense can be broken up into the four factors. Those are not letting your opponent get good shots, forcing turnovers, defensive rebounding, and not letting your opponent get to the line. However, their relative weights are not the same. This is very important. Very. Important.

If one breaks down what contributes to defense, 27% of defense just comes from facing a D1 opponent for 40 min. However, 41% of defense is effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%). Defensive eFG is twice as important as forcing turnovers. Effective field goal percentage is three times as important as preventing offensive rebounds. And almost fourteen times more important than not letting your opponent get to the free throw line.

What this tells us is that the primary goal of a defense should be preventing open looks. Then it's a tossup between forcing turnovers and limiting offensive rebounds (although forcing turnovers is better). Finally, and way down the list, is preventing your opponent from getting to the line.

But what does this mean for Marquette?

Here's how Marquette ranked/ranks on the four factors. This is the big issue with Marquette's defense and the ceiling the Warriors' defensive performance places on the program. The aspect that is the most important is where MU ranks the worst. Consistently. The area that is the least important for defensive performance is where Marquette ranks the best. Consistently. What the numbers say is that Marquette is emphasizing the wrong type of defensive priorities, year after year.

Vandy, West Virginia, and NCAA games

The last two games against Vanderbilt and West Virginia show how Marquette remains competitive. Our offense is great. Realize that an average offense scores 1.00 points per possession (ppp) and Marquette scored 1.10 ppp against Vanderbilt (who has the #21 defense and only allows 0.88 ppp). On the road! MU had an offensive eFG% of 60% against one of the nation's better defensive teams. However, as that final basket showed, MU just couldn't make the stops. Against West Virginia, Marquette had an extraordinary 1.22 points per possession but gave up a remarkable 1.15 ppp while allowing WVU to shoot an eFG% of 56%. With offensive efficiency of this magnitude, MU should be winning games like these by double digits.

What MU is doing is winning games with their offense, but creating the lack of margin because of lousy defense.
Last year Marquette had an Offensive Efficiency of 1.16 points per possession against Washington. Two years ago MU scored 1.11 points per possession against Missouri. Those efficiencies should have been good enough to win an NCAA game.

With this recent history, does anyone really believe Marquette can play lock-down defense when it matters?

Which brings us back to the story from the beginning of this post. I have no doubt that Buzz can coach defense. Well... better said, I don't know basketball well enough to question if the coaching staff is properly teaching defense. So I trust when someone that knows basketball better than I do says the team is playing better defense. He's right, MU is demonstrating modest improvement. Yet, the numbers are the numbers. Not only has Marquette consistently not played good enough defense the last two and a half years, but it's been neglecting the most important aspect of defense and emphasizing the least important. We're both right.


Unknown said...

Defense is one of several deficiencies that have plagued MU the last several years. Teaching defense is key and we hope Buzz is doing that. We pray actually. Unfortunately, the on the court play would say he is not.

Not only might there be a lack of defensive strategy, but we may not have the players to defend appropriately. Tall enough? Probably not.Smart enough? I'm beginning to question that too.

I am optimistic, but if this season goes south Marquette needs to hold Buzz accountable. He is being outcoached and has been for a long time. Win or go home. I am glad I don't have tickets this year because I will not pay for average play.

Oliver said...

Great post. Agree on all points except the focus of the defensive coaching. I think we recruit incorrectly, not coach incorrectly. Part of the eFG% problem is that we are too small to defend high percentage shots in the paint. Recruit better and we will defend better.

Unknown said...

Its nice to see another post! If I had to pick between the 2 potential reasons for deficiencies I would lean toward the inability to defend because of the recruits too. To compete in the BE we HAVE to get bigger. Especially because we cannot rely on the 3 to save our behinds. Go Marquette.

Smoove said...

Both bloggers, above, state MU may not have the personnel to play effective defense, citing lack of size. James's comment takes it further, stating he questions whether MU players are "smart enough" to "defend appropriately."
This is to CALL YOU OUT, James. Please explain what IS "smart enough," and what is it about the MU players that causes you to question whether they have IT?

John Moran said...

BY not smart enough - they don't understand/play by basic defensive rules that any good sixth grade team would. i.e. see man and ball, call switches/screens, when a shot goes up, find your man and put your ass into his legs and know where your supposed to be on the court. Buzz is either not teaching these or the guys aren't getting it. If they did these things I would bet that they would have won Vandy, Wisc and Gonzaga.