Defensible at last
A look at this year's PC defense is appropriate only in light of its abysmal display last season. In conference play, the Friars' defense was 10.7 points worse per 100 possessions than an average Big East team. In the five-year history of the expanded Big East, only DePaul in 2008-09, which didn't win a conference game until the Big East tournament, were worse than Providence compared to league average at 10.8 points below average.
The Friars finished last in effective field-goal percentage (which factors in the added value of a 3-pointers), last in defensive rebounding and 12th in defensive free-throw rate (how often they sent opponents to the foul line). Turnovers forced was the only primary area where PC's defense met the league-average standard.
Things had to change this season, and so far they have -- dramatically. PC has held opponents to a 34.8 eFG, a mark that ranks third in the entire nation. The big change has been in 2-point defense. Last season, opponents carved up the Friars' interior defense by both beating PC down the floor and slicing through a permissive matchup zone.
So far through four games, no opponent has been able to hit even 40 percent of its 2-point attempts, and PC ranks fifth in the nation by holding opponents to 34.1 percent on 2-pointers. That's 302 places better than last season's 327th-place finish in this category so highly correlated to defensive success.
Block rate is a good indicator of whether the 2-point defense is real or merely dependent on a lot of poor finishing. The news there is good, as PC's block rate is 17th in the nation, thanks to Bilal Dixon, who is currently swatting back more than one out of every nine 2-pointers that opponents attempt while he is on the floor. Marshon Brooks has also added eight blocks to Dixon's 14.
Another place where Brooks has shown versatility is on the defensive glass where he is grabbing about one in five misses while he's on the floor; Dixon grabs about 30 percent. These rates are probably unsustainable against better competition, but they at least show that playing Brooks at the four is a viable option for a team with few frontcourt options.
In fact, if you look at Brooks' numbers on their face and did not know how tall he was -- 65 percent shooting on 2-pointers, 17 percent on 3-pointers, good offensive and defensive rebounding numbers and a good block rate -- you'd probably guess that he was 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9. Friar fans would probably like to see more free-throw attempts for a player playing as big as Brooks has this season, but his inability to draw contact is nothing new for the senior from Georgia.
Back to defensive rebounding, the Friars are collecting almost exactly three-quarters (74.9 percent) of their opponents misses after grabbing just 60.5 percent of those misses last season. That means that about one in every seven possessions that used to continue with another opposition attempt at the basket now ends in the steady hands of a Friar, and about half of the time PC's gotten a defensive rebound, it's been Dixon or Brooks.
Forcing misses and claiming the rebound are great in combination, but there are a couple of other aspects to defensive success, and PC's excelling at one of them this season -- keeping opponents off the free-throw line. Last year's Friars put their opponents on the line 23.4 times per game, a number that increased slightly to 24.7 against conference opposition. So far this season, that number has dropped to 17.5. It's sure to bump back up again against better quality opposition, but notice that last year's free-throw numbers only increased slightly in Big East play, so at least some of this improvement is probably real.
The measure of the defense
What about the factor of the opposition? In combinations, PC's first four opponents have the 18th worst aggregate offense of any team's opponents this season (according to Ken Pomeroy), so a lot of these raw numbers like defensive rebounding percentage and 2-point field-goal percentage require adjustments.
What I've done is used Pomeroy's adjusted figures to determine just how much better or worse Providence has been this season. My goal at first was to compare PC with how an average team would do against the same opposition. I then compared those figures to the other Big East teams to see where the Friars stacked up.
Through four games, Providence's defense is 14.7 points per 100 possessions better than an average team. Through four games last season, PC was three points worse than average, and through four games the season before (2008-09), the Friars were exactly at the national average. Therefore, this season marks a significant improvement.
One thing to realize is that even four games of data can be very predictive of an entire season. PC was three points per 100 possessions worse than average on defense last season and finished the season 3.1 points worse than average. Two years ago, the Weyinmi Efejuku and Geoff McDermott-led Friars were average through four games and improved only slightly to three points better than the national average for the season.
The Big East average is, of course, much better than the national average. The average Big East team this season is 10 points better on defense than an average Division I team, so converting PC's defense from a national average to a league average simply requires adding 10 points. Even so, the Friars have been much better one could have expected.
Hanging out with Pittsburgh and Louisville is rarefied air for a Friars program that hasn't finished better than 11th in defense in the Big East since expansion five seasons ago.
Once the competition improves (as it will in Cancun), the Friars are unlikely to dominate the defensive interior like they have so far, but there is still room to grow in other areas of defense, notably forcing turnovers. The Friars were eighth in the Big East in this area last season, return their three best thieves (Duke Mondy, Vincent Council and Brooks) and add a couple of defensive pests (Gerard Coleman and Bryce Cotton). Still, they've been mediocre at forcing turnovers. Part of that may be a concerted effort by Keno Davis to dissuade defensive gambling, but I expect that part of it is just a small sample size -- Prairie View A&M was amazingly good at not turning it over Saturday. Against better teams, the Friars will need to have the forced turnover as part of their defensive arsenal, as we saw against Morgan State.
Friars fans knew that most of the vacuum that Sharaud Curry and Jamine Peterson left when they departed was on offense, but the concern about the defense so overwhelmed the preseason conversation that I, for one, didn't think this offense would be as ugly as it has been for much of the first four games.
Let's start by taking a look at who has picked up the load left by Curry and Peterson, using a stat I've come up with called Poss100. It basically combines minutes played and offensive influence to determine what percentage of a team's total possessions a player is responsible for.
|2009-10 (conf. games)||2010-11|
Note: I've excluded walk-ons from the table below.
PC lost a bit more than half (52.3 percent) of its possessions from last year's team. About 70 percent of those losses have been replaced with new players, and each of the returning players has each seen at least some increase in his workload to bridge the rest of the gap.
The returning player who has stepped up the most is Brooks. In fact, so far this season he has been responsible for almost exactly the portion of possessions that Peterson was during Big East play last season. Along with an uptick in shot attempts, Brooks has seen his assist rate just about triple and his turnover rate double. As much as Council has the ball in his hands, the defining play of most offensive possessions has usually involved Brooks.
Gang who couldn't shoot straight
It's one thing to carry a heavy load like Brooks has; it's quite another to lead an effective offense while doing so. And, though Brooks has actually seen his eFG and true shooting percentages improve thanks primarily to excellent 2-point shooting, he hasn't provided much outside shooting, and the Friars have suffered as a team on the perimeter. Brooks is 3-for-18 (16.7 percent) on 3-pointers, which makes him 27-of-99 in his last 23 games, leaving one to wonder what constitutes a slump versus true ability. Brooks is leading by example with his wayward outside shooting as the rest of the team has made just 12-of-48 threes (25 percent) "led" by Council's four makes.
PC's 22.7 percent conversion rate ranks 319th in the nation, which is bad, but the Friars are also attempting far fewer threes, which is good. Only 28 percent of their attempts are 3-pointers, down eight percent from last season, though probably still too frequent considering how poorly they have shot and how effective they've been inside. Of PC's seven primary rotation players, five are shooting 2-pointers at least as well as Coleman's 54.2 percent, and no one's shooting worse than 48.3 percent (the national average is 47.6 percent). The gap between PC's 2-point shooting percentage (53.8) and 2-point field-goal defense (34.1) is 19.7 percent, a margin I'd expect to see from a team like UConn or Kansas, not from Providence. That gap is sure to narrow, but it's a good sign that a Providence team can control the paint on both offense and defense, even if for just a four-game span.
You give yourself away
It's not good to miss a lot of shots, but "not good" can turn into "very bad" if a team is unable to attempt many shots. Turnovers have come too often for the Friars in three of their four games. It was the combination of turnovers and bad shooting percentages that nearly led to a loss against Yale, and further alliances between those dreaded stats will surely lead to subsequent woeful offenses performances.
The most frustrating aspect of Providence's penchant for turnovers this season is the types of turnoves it is committing. The Friars have had a lot of silly travels, ill-advised passes and the like. It's not as if other teams are applying defensive pressure and picking PC's pockets.
On average, just less than half (about 46 percent) of all turnovers in college basketball result from steals, but PC is finding other ways to turn it over on nearly 75 percent of all giveaways. Eliminating these "unforced" turnovers will be crucial for a team that's going to need as many shots on goal as possible this season. Dixon (25.9 percent turnover rate) and Coleman (21.9 percent) have been the two biggest culprits. Neither Council (18.6 percent) nor Brooks (16.1) has been rock solid, but given how heavily they're involved in the offense, those numbers are passable for now.
A big question about the offense coming into the season was whether PC would sustain success on the offensive glass despite Peterson's departure. Appearing to make an effort to eschew over-commitment to the offensive glass in favor of getting back on defense, the Friars have still recovered at least 40 percent of their own misses in every game save the win over Yale. Council has been less nosy on the offensive glass than he was last year, and Coleman does have a single offensive rebound, which probably says more about a commitment to get back on defense than any lack of ability Coleman has in that area.
In limited action, Ron Giplaye (21.9 percent offensive rebounding rate) has shown Peterson's knack for getting the ball. Fellow frosh Kadeem Batts (14.4 percent) has been the best offensive rebounder of the nine players who have seen the most minutes, and both Brooks and Dixon have grabbed better than 10 percent of Friars misses while they are on the floor. PC's 39.9 offensive rebounding rate as a team is seven percentage points behind where the Friars were at this time last season.
What does it all mean?
Using the same technique I used for the defense, the results, as you might expect, are not good. PC's offense has been 0.8 points per 100 possessions worse than an average offense. Through four games last season, PC's offense was 8.9 points above average; it would finish the season 13.5 points above average. Two years ago, the Friars were 13.2 points above average through four games and finished that season at 9.6.
The Friars' offense ranks 14th in the Big East so far this season ahead of only Cincinnati and DePaul. If you combine the offense and the defense, PC comes out 12th, 10.9 points worse than the average Big East offense.
EM indicates how many points per 100 possessions a team is better or worse than the average Big East team. You'll notice that the sum of the offense and defense doesn't necessarily add up to the EM, since I've made home and road adjustments.
Despite the notable improvements on defense, PC still sits comfortable in the bottom half of the conference albeit safely above the very bottom of the league. If the Friars are to challenge the teams in the middle of the league, I see four things as key: 1) continue to be solid on 2-point defense; 2) improve turnover margin (so far, PC has committed five more than it has forced); 3) continue to go inside on offense; 4) knock down the open 3-point looks without attempting too many.