Arizona State University is one of two Pac-10 teams currently ranked in the polls on the strength of strong coaching and team play. However their performance during their "learning preseason" doesn't necessarily look good on paper. So what's the problem? (Photo by Max Simbron)
After a 72-point home exhibition victory against NAIA Corbon College, University of Washington coach Tia Jackson evoked the wisdom of legendary Pac-10 coach John Wooden when asked how she would assess the victory.
"We might have had a tad bit more athleticism and able to get rebounds, but we do not want to mistake activity for achievement," said Jackson after the game.
Even during what many people are calling a down year for the Pac-10, distinguishing activity from achievement is essentially the key to understanding the significance of non-conference play.
Over the past few days, I’ve described statistics that I’ve found particularly useful in evaluating team performance in terms of value (MEV), style (ball movement), and substance (Team Factors). In a sense, the "value" and "substance" measures could be framed as activity vs. achievement: MEV measures the total value of a team’s collective actions independent of wins and team factors measures the four factors of basketball that contribute directly to team success.
When we consider the wide variation in strength of competition during the non-conference schedule (we have to play UConn and you don’t), this type of assessment of non-conference performance works quite well as a means to describe where teams stand moving into conference play. Using a combination of team factors data and David Sparks’ work on individual contributions to team success, it’s also possible to describe the biggest individual player contributions to the team as well.
As such, using team factors as a measure of success and MEV as a measure of quality, I have ranked the performances of Pac-10 teams in non-conference play, with the following caveat: these rankings are of pre-season performance not predictive of conference performance. The statistics are simply one description of team performance given that it’s difficult to compare teams to one another when they’re scattered across the country and not playing one another.
The numbers just as a guide to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each team as we enter conference play. If nothing else, statistics provide us with a starting point with which to have the arguments that make sports fun with some grounding.
Although there might be a few surprises (from mild to major), two things remained consistent with the mainstream narrative: Stanford is on the top and the state of Washington has not exactly helped Pac-10 RPI in non-conference play.
Each team is ranked according to their team factors rating, which is generally a strong indicator of success.
Each team summary includes the following:
- Four Factors numbers
- Team Factors rating
- Four Factors differentials
- Team MVP (based on David Sparks’ credit metric)
- Key Contributor (a player, not necessarily a star, that contributes to a team strength)
10. University of Washington (5-5)
MVP: Sami Whitcomb (13.44% credit, team-highs 14 ppg, 6.1 rpg, team-low 12.69% tov%)
Key contributor: Mackenzie Argens (team-high 48% eFg%)
Unfortunately for Washington, their pre-conference statistics seem to reinforce their last place pre-season ranking from both coaches and media. More discouraging is that they played the second weakest non-conference schedule of any Pac-10 team. It’s a little difficult to say which is most discouraging: their 74-71 home loss to Sacramento State or their 58-53 "road" loss to Seattle University.
Adding to the bleak outlook is that guard Sara Mosiman is out indefinitely and will miss the majority of the season. It’s not only a big loss in terms of senior leadership, but also in terms of her versatility – as Jackson has noted after her injury, Mosiman is a player that does a little bit of everything. Most notably, Mosiman had one of the top offensive rebounding percentages on the team at 8.42% and that will be severely missed – it’s UW’s biggest weakness.
However, with Mosiman out, role players will have to step up in multiple ways. With guard Kristi Kingma moving to the starting lineup, the Huskies will get a boost in the eFg% category. Argens has played well all season, being the team’s most efficient scorer. But the person who contributes the most to their shooting strength is Sami Whitcomb, who is undoubtedly their MVP. Whitcomb has said that they don’t plan to change anything with Mosiman out, but with a disappointing 2009 half of the season, the pressure has to be on to perform better in 2010.
9. Washington State University (5-6)
MVP: Kiki Moore (11.11% credit, team-high 3.6 apg, team-high 37.5% free throw rate)
Key contributor: April Cook (team-low 4.43% tov%, team-high 14 ppg)
While neither UW nor WSU is a particularly strong team, there’s quite a bit separating them statistically. In addition to the difference in both MEV and team factors, WSU played a much tougher schedule to get to a record of just under .500 after 11 games.
As described on the Pac-10 website, WSU’s claim to fame right now is their turnover differential. Not only do they have the best differential among Pac-10 teams at 7.54%, but they were also 12th nationally in turnover margin and 16th nationally in turnovers per game as of Monday. They are led by Moore whose 4 steals per game ranks 3rd in the country.
Although Moore has had an impressive freshman pre-conference performance, one thing limiting her effectiveness is her own turnover percentage, which currently stands at 23.42%, rather high for a guard. In contrast, backcourt mate Cook is much more efficient only turning the ball over 4.43% of the time 29.55 minutes per game. As a team, WSU has the lowest turnover percentage in the conference.
The problem? WSU is getting out shot 49.2% to 37.77% in eFg% by their opponents. Despite their outstanding turnover margin, they’re neither shutting down opponents well nor scoring efficiently and right now it’s a large part of what’s holding them back.
8. University of Arizona (5-4)
MVP: Ify Ibekwe (14.17% credit, team-high 10.78% oreb%, team-high 27.42 defensive rebounding percentage)
Key contributor: Brooke Jackson (team-high 41.46% 3p%, 55% eFg%)
Although the Wildcats have narrowly outplayed their opponents based on MEV and team factors, they recently suffered a very disappointing 65-53 loss to UC Riverside. With the third-lowest strength of schedule in the conference, it’s not an encouraging start to the season.
Their strength this season has been their shooting, out shooting opponents 44.59% - 42.34% in eFg%. While leading scorer Davellyn Whyte gets most of the attention as leading scorer, Jackson has made the most significant individual contribution to the team’s strength with strong three point shooting. A large part of her success as a three point shooter could be due to the strong interior play of Ibekwe.
Ibekwe’s strong rebounding percentages have her ranked 5th in national rebounding percentage and 19th in double-doubles. However, it’s also likely no coincidence that the team’s biggest weakness is also Ibekwe’s who uses the second most possessions on the team: Ibekwe’s 22.28 turnover percentage is second on the team and the most significant percentage of the team’s 18.69 turnover percentage. While they could certainly afford to play stronger defense, protecting the ball would be a good start to improvement.
7. University of Southern California (6-4)
MVP: Ashley Corral (12.84% credit, team-high 16 ppg, team-high 5.5 apg, team-high 4.2 turnovers per game)
Photo by Craig Bennett
Key contributor: Aarika Hughes (team-high 6.3 rpg, team-high 15.13% defensive rebound %, team-high 46% 2pt%)
Here is the first challenge to an "activity vs. achievement" framework for non-conference play. Consistent with their pre-season #5 ranking, USC has the fifth highest MEV ranking. Considering that they had the 16th toughest schedule including games (their four losses) against Xavier, Gonzaga, Rutgers, and Duke, their performance is impressive. Even more impressive once you consider the repeat knee injuries they’ve had to deal with this season.
Sophomore Corral has led the team thus far as an efficient scorer and leads the Pac-10 with 5.5 assists per game and leads the Pac-10 with a 91.2% free throw percentage with a 26.7% free throw rate.
Although she does not lead the team in eFg%, Hughes is the second biggest contributor to the team’s strength of shooting. However Hughes’ versatility has been even more impressive – although she only uses the fourth highest number of plays with a usage of 19.86, she adds strong rebounding in addition to 35.71% 3pt shooting.
Offensively they look solid, with strong synergy and sizable differentials between them and their opponents in eFg% and free throw rate. As coach Michael Cooper mentioned during the Women of Troy tournament, they are at their best when moving the ball.
So why doesn't their non-conference performance rate higher?
They have had a turnover problem: Corral leads the team with 4.2 turnovers per game and the player with the highest usage rate – freshman Christina Marinacci – turns the ball over 20% of the time.
Another problem has been offensive rebounding, as also mentioned by Cooper. In their first game of the tournament, USC allowed an undersized Dartmouth team to out-rebound them. While they improved upon that against Cal State University-Bakersfield, it’s still an area of concern. The player that made the difference in the tournament was 6’5" center Kari LaPlante and they will need to get a larger percentage of available rebounds, both offensive and defensive – her 9.39% defensive rebounding rate is 6th on the team.
6. Arizona State University (7-3)
Photo by Max Simbron
MVP: Becca Tobin (11.90% credit, team-high 52.1% 2pt%)
Key Contributor: Kali Bennett (team-high 16.89% oreb%, team-high 33.12% dreb%, team-high 57% 3pt%)
First of all, don’t put too much stock in the fact that ASU ranks 6th in both MEV and team factors rating relative to their Pac-10 peers.
On the one hand, this ranking highlights the need for team factors to be more flexible to accommodate different balances of strengths and weaknesses. ASU plays strong team basketball that does not manifest itself well statistically.
On the other hand, the ranking highlights the challenge of measuring defense statistically: 14 year coach Charli Turner Thorne has called this ASU team one of the best defensive teams she’s had. Unfortunately, even the statistical differentials don’t support their defensive prowess relative to Pac-10 competition.
And just as another caveat, these statistics and weights were developed primarily for men's (NBA) basketball, not women's college basketball so there could be some discrepancy there.
But flaws aside, an explanation for the weak statistical profile:
Thorne has also called this a "learning preseason" as she is coaching one of the least experienced teams she’s had. That has included the use of two freshmen point guards, Sabrina McKinney and Tenaya Watson. While neither plays big minutes they both turn the ball over on over 20% of their possessions, McKinney at a rate of 27%. As a team, their turnover percentage of 18.58% is third worst in the conference.
Their strength – and part of the reason why Tobin, not Danielle Orsillo is the MVP thus far – is offensive rebounding. As of Monday, ASU’s 10.2 rebounding margin ranked 13th in the nation. While they are not the best offensive rebounding team in the Pac-10, they have the largest oreb% differential in the conference at 15.25%, meaning not only are they rebounding well, but they are also limiting opponents' oreb% as well.
Tobin and Bennett’s strong rebounding percentages – Tobin also has an oreb% of 11.90% and a dreb% of 21.03% -- are leading the way for a young ASU thus far. Even with a small eFg% differential, their ability to get offensive rebounds at such a high rate and get second-chance points while they limit their opponents is reason to believe they can be successful.
So again, these number hardly imply that ASU is not worthy of their national ranking. ASU is a deep team that has 11 players averaging between 10 minutes and Orsillo’s team-high 26.80 minutes per game. Five of those rotation players have an oreb% of 10.24 or above. Even as they try to get their offense on track, the depth of their rotation and multiple players that contribute to their biggest strength makes them a strong team. And as a young team, they’re constantly getting better. Statistics can’t really measure that.
5. Oregon State University (8-2)
MVP: Kirsten Tilleman (11.09% credit, team-high 7.9 rpg)
Key contributor: El Sara Greer (team-high 16.81 oreb%, team-high 75% free throw rate)
The next three teams are so close that I made a bit of a judgment call with OSU for a simple reason: they’ve put up good team rating numbers, but against a strength of schedule that was ranked 303 in the nation. It’s reasonable to call their competition into question as the reason for their hot start.
Perhaps their game against Seattle University is a good example of their performance thus far. Against a team that UW narrowly defeated, OSU was outshot 42.5% to 39.0% and won the game almost entirely on the basis of offensive rebounding. They scored 13 second chance points on the strength of an oreb% of nearly 50% in addition to 22 points off turnovers.
Like ASU, they’ve been dominant on the offensive boards with a 14.55% differential. Junior transfer Greer – who has an impressive field goal percentage of 60.71 -- is a large part of that, but they’re also getting major contributions from Tilleman. Tilleman is second on the team in offensive rebounding per game and boasts a 20.34 dreb%, which is among the best on the team. In addition, Tilleman is second on the team with 11 ppg. As a team that’s not stellar from the field, the offensive rebounding advantage has been key.
However, it’s their defense that they’re riding on right now. Their 10.0 rebounding margin is 10th in the nation and they’ve held opponents to 23.9% from three point range, 11th in the nation. The combination of controlling the boards and limiting perimeter shooting is impressive. The impact of those numbers show up in their eFg% differential of 4.51% and their turnover percentage differential of 4.60%.
The question marks about OSU really go back to what happened in the SeattleU game – if they were outshot by an undersized team that is transitioning into Division I, how will they fare against Pac-10 competition? They’ll need to hope that their defense and rebounding remains a strength against stronger competition.
4. UCLA (7-4)
MVP: Markel Walker (13.73% credit, team-high 12 ppg, team-high 8.7 rpg)
Key contributor: Jasmine Dixon (18.66% oreb% in 4 games of eligibility)
UCLA could actually be better than their record indicates with the addition of Dixon, who just joined the lineup after transferring from Rutgers University. Without Dixon, the team played the 39th toughest schedule in the country and lost three of their four games on the road, one of which was at home.
With Dixon, they stand to improve.
Dixon adds to their strength of offensive rebounding and is the second-leading scorer after 4 games with 11 ppg. She complements Walker as the second leading rebounder on a team with a strong oreb% differential of 12.81. With two double-double threats in the starting lineup and strong offensive rebounding, they have the ability to control the boards.
However, like other Pac-10 teams, their biggest strength is their defense – they’ve held opponents in a strong schedule to 53.7 point per game, ranked 15th nationally as of Dec. 21. They’ve done that with both strong eFg% and tov% differentials in addition to limiting opponents’ second-chance points with strong rebounding.
After finishing in a three-way tie for 4th place last season and being picked fourth by the coaches and media this pre-season, UCLA is just about meeting expectations. It will be interesting to see not only how their defense holds up in Pac-10 competition, but if they can exceed expectations once Dixon gets acclimated to the team.
3. University of California – Berkeley (5-5)
MVP: DaNesha Stallworth (11.83% credit, team-high 69.2% 3pt%)
Key contributor: Gennifer Brandon (14.57% oreb%, 22.01 dreb%, team-high 7.9 rpg)
Despite a disappointing loss to San Jose State University, Cal has actually fared pretty well this season with 3 of their losses coming against teams ranked in the top 10 and the third toughest schedule overall in the conference. Although senior and leading scorer Alexis Gray-Lawson is probably the most recognizable player on the team, part of the reason for Cal’s erratic play this season might be the youth of some of their top performers.
Stallworth, a freshman, has the makings of a versatile contributor offensively and defensively. She is second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.8 ppg, leads the team with 1 block per game, second on the team with an eFg% of 55%, and is second on the team in rebounding with 7.3 rpg. Brandon, a freshman reserve who has started 3 games, leads the team in rebounding. Freshman Talia Caldwell leads the team in efg% (68%), free throw rate (59.64%), and is second if oreb% (11.60%) which contributes to her being the team’s third leading rebounder.
In other words, this isn’t the Gray-Lawson show, but a young team prone to inconsistent play.
While their biggest strength is offensive rebounding, they have not been as strong on the boards as some of the Pac-10 counterparts in terms of differential. Yet although they haven’t shot exceedingly well, they’ve done a bit of everything else to keep themselves competitive.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Cal is how quickly their freshman performers can come together around Gray-Lawson to establish more consistent performance.
2. University of Oregon
MVP: Amanda Johnson (10.67% credit, team-high 15.3 ppg, team-high 10.0 rpg, 23.78 dreb%)
Key contributor: Taylor Lilley (team-high 57.69 2pt%)
Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans wrote that Oregon could offer the Pac-10 a surprise. After being picked 8th in pre-season polls, the statistics seem to suggest that Evans' comment might have been an understatement.
Thus far, Oregon clearly has the second best team rating and the highest MEV in the conference.
The big question for the team was whether they’d be able to execute new coach Paul Westhead’s uptempo style of play at the college level and we may have a preliminary answer. Although their performance has come against only the 6th strongest schedule in the conference, they are the third-highest ranked offense in the country as of Dec. 21 and rank nationally in multiple offensive categories..
Johnson is leading the team averaging a double-double, but Lilley is a close second in scoring at 14.9 ppg, second in assists with 3.5 apg, and second in eFg% at 55%. Lilley’s 3 three pointers per game rank 24th in the nation while Johnson’s 5 double-doubles rank 19th.
While the individual performances are impressive, the team’s 50.46% eFg% is second in the conference. Contrary to the popular misconception that a faster pace leads to more turnovers, they have the second lowest turnover percentage in the conference at 14.10%.
Yet most surprising is their strong defensive performance. Their eFg% differential of 11.38% is second only to Stanford, but they’ve held opponents to a conference-low 39.08% eFg% and their opponents’ field goal percentage of 35.2 ranks 24th in the nation. They’ve also had a turnover percentage differential of 4.67%.
Although they have not received votes for the top 25 since getting 9 AP votes on December 14th (just before their 87-69 loss to #24 Georgia Tech on Dec. 16th), they are definitely worthy of a tournament berth if they can have a good enough showing in conference play to offset their relatively weak non-conference strength of schedule.
1. Stanford University
MVP: Nnemkedi Ogwumike (14.20% credit, team-high 19.3 ppg, team-high 62.38% free throw rate, team-high 65% eFg%, 65% 2pt%)
Key contributor: Kayla Pederson (45% 3pt%)
While all the attention is given to WNBA prospect and center Jayne Appel, she has arguably been only the third best performer for Stanford this season, though she is the team’s top rebounder with 9.2 rpg on 11.8% oreb% and 19.46% dreb%.
Ogwumide is arguably the conference MVP not only because she’s the top scorer on the top team, but also because she's making the biggest contribution of anyone to their team in the conference. She’s also the second leading rebounder on the team and ranks fourth nationally in shooting percentage.
Sandwiched between Appel’s media attention and Ogwumike’s outstanding performance, versatile junior forward Pedersen probably gets less attention than she deserves. She is second or third in almost every category across the board for Stanford.
On the strength of strong shooting from Ogwumike, Pedersen, and Appel, Stanford’s strength as a team is their eFg% of 53.60% (highest in the conference) while holding opponents to 39.63% eFg%, for the best differential in the conference.
If there are weaknesses to this team, they’re minor.
While their turnover percentage of 14.95% is one of the best in conference, their differential is not exactly large. Second is the matter of rotation depth – Stanford only has 6 players that have played all 10 games (starters and backup guard JJ Hones). This is a stretch, but come tournament time, they could struggle against deeper, more well rested teams. Third, UConn demonstrated that pressure on Stanford’s point guards can wreak havoc on their offense. Teams with athletic guards – though no team figures to be as athletic as UConn – might be able to disrupt Stanford’s defense enough to hang around in games.
Stanford’s biggest weakness this season might be something completely out of their control: playing in the same era as Maya Moore, Tina Charles, and a very talented UConn team will likely keep them from winning the championship.