"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

Friday, December 02, 2011

They are who we thought they were

The Warriors have rounded the first turn of the season 6-0, as expected. The team is healthy, deep, athletic and should be competitive in the top tier of the Big East this season. While the program's out-of-conference schedule is greatly improved, the real tests for the team are to come in the next three weeks with dare-to-be-great opportunities against University of Wisconsin-Madison, Washington, Louisiana State and Vanderbilt. With these intriguing tilts looming, here is what we (think we) know about the 2011-2012 Warriors.

  • The defense is better. In racing out to a 6-0 start the Warriors have already held three opponents to an eFG% of less than 40%, and just missed adding another in the win over Jacksonville. This early-season defensive performance is by far the best stretch of the Buzz Williams era. To date the Warriors are 20th in the nation in eFG% defense, holding opponents to just 41%. That figure is 15% better than the current D-1 average, a quantum improvement over last season's embarrassing eFG% of 49.9%, which was on the wrong side of the national average and 214th in the nation. If MU can sustain this level of defensive excellence, the program will exceed expectations this year.
  • DJO and Jae Crowder are breaking out. DJO and Crowder are the highest scoring duo in the Big East, combining for nearly 40 points per game. The pair is connecting from the floor at a blistering pace (57% for DJO, 59% for Crowder) both inside and outside of the arc. More importantly for many MU fans (though not efficiency geeks), DJO’s three-point shooting stroke is true as the senior is connecting at a 46.7% clip early.
  • The offense is still ridiculous. MU leads the Big East in scoring offense and from a tempo-free perspective the adjusted offensive efficiency of 115 is 10th best in the nation. MU is 2nd in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage (59.2%) and its turnover percentage is just 17.3%, far better than the D-1 average of 21.4.  Rob's optimism about the backcourt was warranted, it seems.
  • The MU bigs have improved. Gardner is noticeably more fit and remains offensively efficient (hint:  he needs the ball more!). Otule has improved his rebounding (3.6 last year to 5.6 so far this year) as well as his rebound percentage.  The gains on the baseline are modest year-to-year, but quiet and consistent progression with bigs is refreshing to see from the program. 

Of course it is still very early in the season, and there is much we don't know about this promising vintage.  Consider:
  • Can the defense sustain against better competition? MU is second in the Big East in field goal percentage defense, and as outlined above, the consistent performances are encouraging to this point. However, the competitive matchups this month will reveal more about the defense than anything else with this team.
  • Vander Blue. Will he fade (again) as the competition improves? To this point, Blue is easily the third best player on the team. His toughness, hustle, defense and improved decision-making have all been on display through the season’s first month. However, don’t forget that as a freshman Blue was far more effective in out of conference games than in Big East action, where he connected on only 15% from the floor and scored just 16 points in the season’s final fourteen games. To date, Blue has been a revelation, averaging 10.7 points per game, 3.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds and a team-leading 2.5 steals.  I'm on the bandwagon. Vander and the MU backcourt have exceeded expectations to date.
  • Todd Mayo. Is his fast start sustainable? Before the season started Mayo was my pick for the freshman most likely to contribute. Mayo is instant offense for the MU backcourt. Despite the reputation as a scorer, Mayo has played efficiently within the offense, connecting on 50% of his shots overall and 43% from deep. Mayo currently stands as the team’s Designated Rifleman.  
  • Will the rotation remain 10-deep? We don't think so, and the player who stands to lose the most in this is Jamail Jones. With Mayo surging, the more versatile Jamil Wilson yet to emerge (is it just a matter of time?), Jones’ spot in the rotation might be at-risk.
This Saturday, MU kicks off its most competitive December in quite some time. By the time New Year's Day hits, and the Big East comes to town, we'll really know what this team is capable of.

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