Dunn and Henton and pray for rain

You’ve noticed by now that this season’s Providence Friars have become something of a two-man show on offense. Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton are almost always on the floor, and when they’re there, they’re almost always the ones taking or setting up the shot.

There are simple and advanced stats that demonstrate this reality. Henton and Dunn are first and fourth in the Big East in scoring in conference games and have both made 59 field-goals in nine league games, tied for most in the conference. They are also 1-2 in minutes played and 2-3 in minutes per game.

On the advanced side of things, Dunn is first and Henton fourth in %Poss (an overall measure of offensive involvement), while Henton is first in %Shots (the percentage of his team’s shots he takes when he’s on the floor) and Dunn is first in Assist Rate.

Dunn and Henton are doing it all for the Friars’ offense. What I wanted to figure out is whether the Friars rely on their two stars excessively.

KenPom.com now has data that enables us to view conference-only advanced player statistics for each of the last two seasons. Using that information, I’ve attempted to identify the teams from major conferences most dependent on their top two players. I looked at 75 teams over two seasons, so 150 team-seasons. Of those, this year’s Friars currently rank second in their reliance on just two players.

Teams Giving the Most Possessions to Top Two Players
Team Year Sum Top 2 Players
Nebraska 2014-15 0.535 Petteway, Shields
Providence 2014-15 0.531 Dunn, Henton
Auburn 2013-14 0.505 Denson, Harrell
Missouri 2013-14 0.479 Clarkson, Brown
Syracuse 2013-14 0.474 Fair, Ennis
Louisville 2014-15 0.473 Rozier, Jones
Syracuse 2014-15 0.472 Christmas, Cooney
Providence 2013-14 0.468 Cotton, Henton
Georgetown 2013-14 0.466 Starks, Smith-Rivera
California 2014-15 0.462 Wallace, Matthews
Boston College 2014-15 0.461 Hanlan, Brown
West Virginia 2013-14 0.459 Staten, Harris
Stanford 2013-14 0.457 Randle, Powell
Iowa State 2013-14 0.457 Kane, Niang
Nebraska 2013-14 0.454 Petteway, Shields
Arizona State 2013-14 0.454 Carson, Marshall
Stanford 2014-15 0.452 Randle, Brown
Rutgers 2014-15 0.451 Jack, Mack
Penn State 2013-14 0.448 Newbill, Frazier
Tennessee 2013-14 0.447 McRae, Stokes

(To come up with this ranking, I identified the two players on each team that were responsible for the most possessions in conference games, using Poss/100, which I have mentioned often on this site. Poss/100 basically combines minutes played and possessions into one stat. Then I simply added together the Poss/100 of the top two players from each team. All stats are through Sunday’s games. Since we’re only about halfway through the conference season, small sample warnings apply.)

Not only are the Friars second-most reliant on their top two players in a cohort of 150 teams, but the gap behind them is also startling. The distance from PC to No. 4 2013-14 Missouri is as big as the gap from Missouri to No. 35 2013-14 Creighton. This means that the Friars aren’t just highly reliant on Dunn and Henton but that their reliance is rare indeed. The one squad more reliantis the Nebraska of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, but the Huskers also have a terrible offense, ranked 298th in offensive efficiency by Pomeroy.

PC’s offense is actually OK – not great, but OK. And, though the Friars are in territory few teams have trod, there are successful teams not too dissimilar. Last year’s Syracuse team was a No. 3 seed despite heavy reliance on C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis. Rick Pitino is leaning on Terry Rozier and Chris Jones this season, and yet the Cardinals are projected as a top-four seed. Oh, and one more – of the top 10 most reliant teams, the best offensive team was...last year’s Friars.

That Bryce Cotton-led squad finished 22nd in adjusted offense despite being the major-conference team eighth most heavily reliant on two players in the last two seasons. Cotton was exceptionally efficient in a high volume – indeed only Doug McDermott had legitimate claims on being better at scoring often and well. Henton was the No. 2 guy on last year’s team, but unlike this year, another player – Kadeem Batts – was nearly as influential, playing less than Henton but shooting more while on the floor.

This brings us to a quirky trait of this year’s Friars vs. last year’s. Only two teams in all of NCAA Division I played their benches less often than Providence did last year. If you count this season (where no one is close to PC’s 14.1 percent of all minutes going to bench players from 2013-14), that’s more than 2,000 team-seasons in Division I, and again just two with shorter benches than Cotton and Co, 2013-14 St. Joseph’s and 2010-11 Xavier.

This year’s team is different. Ed Cooley is giving his bench more than double the minutes he did last year and yet he is still relying on Dunn as much as he did Cotton last year and Henton more than either Batts or Henton from a season ago. Of the 20 teams most reliant on their top two players, this PC team actually plays its bench the fourth most. PC’s supporting cast is playing more but shooting less.

The examples of last year’s Syracuse team and this year’s Louisville team lead one to wonder whether any of this matters. Is relying so heavily on two players simply a quirky trait of a good team or is it a serious flaw?

The answer is inconclusive. We know that, when a player is asked to carry more of the offensive load (as described by %Poss), his efficiency tends to decline (as described by Offensive Rating). It would make sense that, if Dunn and Henton could be a bit more selective with their shots, their efficiency would improve. But who would take those shots they don’t? The conference numbers fail to identify anyone who has been efficient but underused.

Henton has the team’s best Offensive Rating (ORtg) in league play (114.4), and the only player with a better ORtg than Dunn’s 106.8 is Paschal Chukwu (110.6). Chukwu is a player of limited offensive skills, and though perhaps more designed lobs might be a good idea, he’s hardly equipped to relieve Dunn and Henton’s burden.

Tyler Harris, Carson Desrosiers and Jalen Lindsey all have ORtg’s between 107-108 for the season, but their efficiencies – Lindsey’s in particular – have declined during league play. One could argue that greater involvement of any of these players into PC’s offense would lead to greater comfort, confidence and production, and that might be true, but as it stands, no one’s play demands more touches.

As much as any coach, Cooley showcases his best offensive players. He did it with Cotton last season and he’s doing it again this season. Others coaches, concerned with team chemistry, might want to pacify their players with minutes and touches, but Cooley builds chemistry in other ways, refusing to sacrifice shots to inferior players.

With five timeouts per team and four media timeouts per half – plus halftime – he and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim seem to be on the same page when it comes to riding their best players.

Teams Giving the Most Minutes to Top Two Players
Team Year Avg Min Top 2 Players
Syracuse 2013-14 0.955 Fair, Ennis
Syracuse 2014-15 0.954 Christmas, Cooney
Notre Dame 2014-15 0.951 Grant, Connaughton
Providence 2013-14 0.948 Cotton, Henton
Providence 2014-15 0.934 Dunn, Henton
Georgetown 2013-14 0.922 Starks, Smith-Rivera
These are the two players who ranked highest on their team by Poss/100, not necessarily by minutes played.

One could point to Cooley’s limited depth at Providence as reason for his reliance on one or two players, but this is not new for him. In his next-to-last year at Fairfield, he relied on Derek Needham and Anthony Johnson to an extent that would have put them in the top 15 of our list. In his first season at PC, his reliance on Vincent Council and Gerard Coleman would have put that PC squad in the top 20.

He’s ratcheted that up this season, straining the limits of what coaches are willing to ask of their best players. With no one else stepping up, Cooley may have no choice. We’ll soon learn whether the story of this team will be how a lack of balance and scoring depth led to late-season disappointment or how two great players led the Friars deep into March. There are at least six weeks and several chapters left to be written.

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