Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Looking Forward

All numbers in this post are conference-only statistics. First, a little perspective.
         OE (Rk)       DE (Rk)     ExpW-L   ActW-L   Poss/G
2005 112.0 (4) 110.5 (11) 9-7 7-9 63
2006 110.2 (4) 107.3 (9) 9-7 10-6 69
2007 101.1 (11) 111.4 (11) 4-12 5-11 67

The Offense
          OE (Rk)       eFG% (Rk)    TO% (Rk)       OR% (Rk)     FTR (Rk)
2005 112.0 (4) 54.1 (3) 19.4 (7) 30.5 (10) 30.6 (4)
2006 110.2 (4) 55.6 (1) 20.2 (4) 27.2 (12) 33.5 (2)
2007 101.1 (11) 53.1 (1) 22.5 (11) 26.2 (12) 25.6 (8)
Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Herb Sendek era was that his teams won with offense, not defense. Sendek earned a reputation as an excellent teacher of defensive skills, while it was widely believed that his perimeter-oriented offense needed work. Back in March of 2006, Caulton Tudor had this to say:

But unless 2006-07 produces unexpected success, Sendek needs to admit the obvious: His offensive system has run its course. It no longer catches quality opponents by surprise, and when the outside shots aren't falling against those teams, defeat is virtually unavoidable.

I doubt many disagreed with the assertion that the system had become stale, but the notion that its effectiveness had dwindled with time is completely false. As the above numbers illustrate, even in Sendek's last year, the offense was among the best in the ACC.

So I had a lot of reservations about moving away from that style; I wondered if it might have been best to compromise between old and new rather than jump full bore into something for which we do not have all the necessary parts. And while it's true that offensive production took a nose dive last season, it wouldn't be fair to fault the scheme. I'm sold on what Sidney Lowe is doing. We discovered that we have a couple of big men who can score efficiently in the block, and Lowe was adept at making adjustments and taking advantage of matchups. We played to our newfound strengths, which is all you can ask for.

Because we played more inside-out last season, and because we lacked a replacement for Engin Atsur, the Wolfpack's turnover rate took a big jump in the wrong direction. This is where the point-guard-as-key-to-the-season story line fits in. As we've seen in the past, offensive rebounds aren't particularly important to good shooting teams that take care of the basketball. The offense is going to be better in 2008 simply because its component parts are better (and less tired), and we're going to shoot well again, but if we can't protect the basketball, we aren't going to rejoin the conference's elite.

Why? Because offensive rebounding is a major work in progress. The types of players recruited by Sendek generally didn't have a lot of inherent rebounding skill, and the majority of the roster is still composed of these players. Traditional forwards--the big-framed reboundy types--didn't fit into the offense, and that was the sacrifice we made. JJ Hickson and Tracy Smith are more traditional and they'll help the Pack improve, but if those two are reserves all season, just how much improvement can be expected? The average ACC team rebounded 34.5% of its own misses in 2007, and we were pretty far removed from that.

McCauley was an excellent offensive rebounder, Costner was decent, and that really was it as far as rebounding threats on this side of the court last season. The freshmen are unknown quantities at this point, though I expect Hickson to prove to be good in this area. So assuming we don't get a lot better here (it wouldn't be unheard of for a team to make the leap we'd need to make just to be average, it's just unlikely in my opinion), that means we'll be leaning heavily on our first shots again, which makes the turnover rate absolutely critical to success.

By the way, you'd think that we'd get to the line more frequently with a frontcourt-heavy style, but not so:
         FTA/FGA (Rk)   FTM/FGA (Rk)
2005 43.9 (2) 30.6 (4)
2006 42.8 (2) 33.5 (2)
2007 34.7 (8) 25.6 (8)
I don't know what the deal is there.

The Defense

DE (Rk) eFG% (Rk) TO% (Rk) OR% (Rk) FTR (Rk)

2005 110.5 (11) 50.5 (5) 20.6 (7) 36.7 (10) 47.7 (10)
2006 107.3 (9) 48.5 (4) 18.1 (11) 37.6 (10) 34.8 (4)
2007 111.4 (11) 51.2 (6) 17.1 (12) 39.3 (12) 30.1 (2)
Breaking down opponents' shooting percentages by inside/outside:
         2FG% (Rk)    3FG% (Rk)
2005 49.2 (7) 35.5 (4)
2006 49.2 (8) 31.2 (2)
2007 49.3 (6) 37.5 (11)
We can make some headway simply by shoring up the perimeter defense. I was alarmed by how lax we were guarding the arc last season, and I don't think this is something that can be entirely dismissed with the short bench excuse.

Regarding defensive rebounds, Lowe said recently:

N.C. State finished last in the ACC in rebounding margin last season, a statistic Lowe feels certain will be turned around in 2007-08.

"Frankly, last year we couldn't afford to get our big guys in foul trouble and we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds," he says. "That's not the situation now."

We allowed opponents to grab over 40% of their own misses in seven of 16 conference games last season--basically, we got pulverized nightly. That spelled doom for a team that rarely forced turnovers.

I expect a solid improvement in defensive rebounding, but I'm not sure about the turnover rate. None of the guys who played frequently last season proved themselves adept at stealing the ball (State ranked 305th in steal percentage); we'll need Fells and the point guards to step up in 2008. Inside, the Pack lacked a shot blocking threat in 2007, but I'm hopeful that Hickson will provide the presence we need. Courtney Fells had the highest block rate on the team last year--not the best of signs. There's more to it than that, of course--playing more fundamentally sound on-ball defense will help as well. We have the luxury of being able to expend more energy on the defensive side.

Oh No, 8-8! Burn The Blazer!

If we end up winning 8-9 conference games, that shouldn't be viewed as a disappointment. It's important to set aside the hype and remember that we have some rather glaring issues to fix. We are going to need a significant amount of improvement in several facets if we're going to contend for the ACC's regular season title; a Wolfpack basketball team that improves by 5 pts/100 poss offensively and defensively is still merely a .500 team (in conference).