It’s All Relative

In the run-up to this season’s Final Four we were greeted by two interesting but unsurprising commentaries. Unsurprising because they merely confirmed what we already knew: that the number of 3-point attempts in college basketball continues to surge, and correspondingly, the number of dunks has followed suit. 

In his April 8th Sports Illustrated piece, citing data compiled by Ken Pomeroy, Andy Staples recounted the record number of treys attempted in the tournament. Back in 2014 and ‘15 the percent of three-point field goal attempts per tournament game hovered around 32% but rose to 35% in 2016, then cleared 38% last season. Through the first 64 games of this year’s tournament, Pomeroy found that the average percent of three-point attempts had grown to nearly 41%.

Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber chimed in with a nifty chart, illustrating the trend over a ten-year period.

And what does the dramatic uptick in three-point attempts have to do with the increasing number of dunks generated in this year’s tourney?

Josh Plano’s March 28, 2019 piece at FiveThirtyEight.com revealed that six of this year’s Sweet 16 entries had a dunk share, or percent of 2-point attempts, exceeding 10%. Four years ago, only one did. “This is less about a few dunk-crazed teams and more a reflection of the nationwide trend in college basketball,” reported Plano. On the eve of the Final Four, the season had produced 19,550 dunks, about 2,000 more than just five years ago.  

And the reasons?

“We’re seeing more dunks,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told The New York Times, “because there are more spectacular athletes out there.” More significantly, though, Bilas cited the symbiotic relationship between 3-pointers and dunks. 

The rise of the three as a strategic weapon has created an either-or game: you shoot the three or drive to the rim for a high percentage layup or dunk. You avoid all other lower percentage 2-point attempts. Throw in the long-range accuracy of a Carson Edwards or Kyle Guy and the crazy athleticism of players like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, and you end up with lots of threes and dunks. 

Again, interesting but not really surprising. 

While the three-pointer has greatly influenced offensive schemes and strategy, I sometimes wonder if the media echo chamber has overly dramatized its importance, imbuing it with near magical qualities when its actual benefits are, in many ways, quite relative.

Continue reading…

Digging Deeper

At the tail end of last season, Jordan Sperber, analytics guru, blogger, and video coordinator for the New Mexico State University men’s basketball team, penned an insightful reflection on the concept of “offensive balance.”

Rather than retreating to conventional wisdom on the subject – the idealized notion that balanced scoring where everyone shares the ball and no one player dominates is inherently “better basketball” – Sperber dug deeper, revealing that it’s a bit more complicated than what the typical fan may imagine.

Using Loyola Chicago’s inspiring Final Four run as his starting point, Sperber constructed a statistical baseline, charting last season’s the top five scorers for every team in the country and developing a matrix to separate balanced squads from the unbalanced. Continue reading…

Hey, baby, it’s better than a lay up!

Thanks, Dickie V!

While Midnight Madness has already come and gone on many college campuses, today– October 15th– is the traditional start of college basketball and time for me to return to the blogosphere.

Here’s a short list of the topics I’d like to cover in the months ahead. Several appeared on my “to do list” a while back, but I never got around to them; others are additions. In all cases, I hope you’ll find them representative of the tag line for this site, “challenging basketball’s conventional wisdom.” Continue reading…

Sr. Jean’s Scouting Report on Michigan

The following document may prove to be apocryphal, reconstructed by our staff at betterthanalayup.com from note fragments discovered in two Chicago north side watering holes near Loyola University’s lakeshore campus.

The first bits were uncovered by Loyola undergraduates at Bar 63, formerly known as Hamilton’s Bar and Grill; the second, more intact set found in a corner booth at Bruno’s Lounge. Both sites are a close walk from campus and have been frequented by students and professors going all the way back to Loyola’s 1963 national championship days.

Are these fragments the work of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who has been the Ramblers’ team chaplain since 1994?

Impossible to know.

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary would find herself in a neighborhood tavern, yet alone leave her work product behind. On the other, the fragments betray a certain level of scholarly discipline one would expect of a woman religious working at a university, and though largely conversational, the writing tone occasionally reveals a tendency toward “Latinisms” in its rhetorical structure, a style often exhibited at Jesuit institutions.

In any event, regardless of their authenticity, the fragments are incomplete. Many of the critical elements comprising a comprehensive scouting report are either missing altogether or treated in a helplessly cursory manner. Michigan’s out of bounds plays, press attack, occasional use of zone defense as well as its full-court pressure tactics, and the like are not revealed in the fragments. More importantly, only five of Michigan’s players are profiled and the author’s recommended match-ups do not appear. Thankfully, a quick Google search will uncover details about Michigan coach John Beilein’s offensive attack for an interested reader.

Despite these limitations our staff is proud to offer this reconstruction and regardless of Sister Jean’s role in its creation, we join her in shouting, “Go Ramblers!”

Click here to read Sr. Jean Scouting Report.

Space Shapes Time

In a post several years ago – Time Trumps Territory – we explored basketball’s first law. We learned that basketball is fundamentally a game governed by time, not by the space in which it takes place. We play within the dimensions of the court and are constrained by its boundaries, but we don’t capture territory. Instead, we pass through it and must assault the basket according to timelines established by various clocks: the game clock, the shot clock, and the various “countdowns” employed by the officials to govern different situations of play – inbounding the ball, crossing the half court line, etc.

Success in a game like football rests on seizing territory and improving your team’s field position even if you are unable to score during a particular possession. You take control of the field in ten-yard chunks. As you advance the ball across the field toward the goal line you “control” that portion of the field that you have crossed – it’s “behind” you; you “own” it. To improve your position on the field, you may even turn the ball over to your opponent by punting. In effect, you trade a difficult position and an unlikely chance to score for a more favorable location, biding your time until you can regain possession. Football is a chess match over territory.

In basketball there are no static lines or fronts. It’s not a stop-start-stop game during which the offense and defense align across from one another, snap the ball to initiate play, then, do it all over again in a contest to seize territory. Instead, the action is continuous and fluid, the teams seesawing back and forth between offense and defense, the position of the players constantly shifting in relationship to the ball, the basket, and the movement of one another.

And, it is in the midst of that continuous and fluid action that we discover basketball’s second law: Space Shapes Time.

Click here to read Basketball’s Second Law