VUSports: I feel bad about the fact you were 32-4 and my first question is about some of the 4 losses … Butler, Virginia, Wisconsin - all these teams played at a deliberate pace (ranking in the bottom 15% of the six power basketball conferences and the bottom 20% of D1 programs overall in Adjusted Tempo per kenpom) - they handed you three of your four losses and you struggled to beat Virginia - to what do you attribute this statistical peculiarity?
Jay Wright: I don’t look at that as much tempo as I do that they were good teams that are difficult to score on and we were in one possession games with them. If you get in one possession games there is always a shot that you can lose them. We were in some one possession games, like the Seton Hall game and some others, that were one possession games that we won … but when you get in those types of games a break here and there or a play here and there can cost you. With the Butler games, I felt like at that point of the season when we played them at home we were physically beat down and I thought the same thing when we played them on the road. It just happened to be that way and they just happen to be a very good team. You can argue they were the second best team in the Big East. I look at it as a number of variables combined as opposed to just tempo.
VUSports: Have you played that deliberate pace more out of necessity/personnel/injuries or is that how you intend to play moving forward even as you perhaps recruit more depth?
Jay Wright: We don’t think about tempo as much as we do our personnel - in terms of what will those personnel will do best. If you look at our games, against certain teams we are high scoring and against other teams we are not. We try to be able to adjust and play different styles. I think all of those numbers are a product of our personnel, our schedule, where we play teams and when we play teams. This year, definitely, there were games where we had six or seven guys and we were definitely trying to slow games down to keep guys rested. And another thing about tempo is what you do when you have a lead. I think you have seen that in games where we have a lead we never try to run the score up on anybody. So a lot of times that factors into the overall numbers. We will go zone when we have a lead to work on our zone. We won’t run our fast break if we have a lead. If we have a lead we are never trying to blow somebody out. We are trying to work on things because we believe games are more effective teaching than practice. Especially the last couple years with injuries we haven’t been able to do a lot in practice because we have had seven, sometimes even six, in practice. So we look at it as if we have a lead let’s really take advantage of this time playing against a quality opponent and work on our zone or some offensive execution. It may not get us the bucket we need but it will help us in some future game.
VUSports: Over the past four seasons you have had teams good enough to make deep NCAA Tournament runs - what differentiated the 2016 team in terms of readiness to compete in the NCAAs and what similarities / issues do you see among the 3 teams that didn’t?
Jay Wright: Each year brings different circumstances. One of the things we have done over the last four years is have experienced teams that are ready to play at the beginning of the season. So, over the length of the season, we kind of reach our potential - and I mean that in a positive way, I am very pleased with that. Then we get to a Big East Championship game or we have the ability to win a Big East Championship and then we get to the NCAA Tournament and we haven’t gotten upset by a 15 seed or a 16 seed we have just run into good teams where it is a one or two possession game. I definitely see that trend in the four years. What I saw in 2016 was a team that didn’t have Daniel Ochefu for a good portion of the season and we didn’t reach our potential at the end, if you think about how he didn’t play in the Big East Tournament, but when we added him for the NCAA Tournament then we were actually a team getting better by getting him back in the line-up and healthy during the NCAA Tournament. A lot of times you see teams being successful in the NCAA Tournament, I always look at the Kentucky teams that are real young and can keep getting better through the season, and those teams can make runs. I think that was our 2016 team and our team in 2005 and in 2006. I don’t want to change anything. If we have an experienced team then we can be the best we can be. I don’t want to change that. But it will be interesting to see, this year’s team is young and has no Seniors. It will be interesting to see if we can keep getting better and be a team that, in the end, still has a lot of room for improvement.
VUSports: Along that vein, how will next years team be most different than last year’s team?
Jay Wright: Lack of experience. Lack of physical maturity. Over the last three or four years we have had some Juniors and Seniors that are men. Over the course of a season the physical and mental ability to be mature night in and night out has really benefitted us. If you look at Mikal Bridges, he is physically still young and Eric Paschall is still young in terms of playing at this level. It is his freshman year and then having one year at this level. Jalen might be our most mature guy. Donte DiVincenzo is still young. Omari Spellman is young. We are going to be, in terms of experience and how it relates to our previous teams, very young physically and mentally but that may be that kind of team then that enable us, in the end, to really benefit from the extra games and improve a lot at the end of the season.
VUSports: What would you do differently if you could hit the reset button on the closing minutes of the Wisconsin game?
Jay Wright: There are always things you look back on - decisions you make where you know “if they work, it was a good decision, if they don’t, it wasn’t”. I probably would have, defensively, had Kris Jenkins on Nigel Hayes but we had Mikal because he is our best defensive player and we thought his length would bother him and when you look at it maybe Kris’ physicality would have bothered him more than Mikal’s length. I thought that even the last play, believe it or not, when we wanted to get the ball to Jalen and they doubled Jalen that getting the ball to Josh Hart driving down the middle of the lane in the open floor - you can’t get anything better. Even though in that situation what we like to do is get it to Jalen, we set a screen in the middle of the floor for him and Jalen knows where Josh is and he has a decision to make a play on his own or find Josh or Kris. But we always say, if they are going to open up the floor, you don’t have to run your offense against their half-court defense, which is great and then you get your best player in the open floor, driving to the basket … when I see something like that I just think “it wasn’t meant to be”. I am sure if Josh got that play back he might have made a different decision but that is what the game came down to. Those are probably the two areas at the end of the game that I looked at and thought “what could we have done differently as coaches. That is what you have to do. Then you look at the decisions the players make. That stop there, when Hayes made that reverse lay-up, would have been the game.
VUSports: What are two examples of how analytics have changed something you used to do as a coach?
Jay Wright: A lot has to do with our players individually - taking specific shots. For instance, Josh going left and pulling up at the rim rather than finishing at the rim with his left-hand when you look at those numbers as opposed to when he is going right he would finish at the rim more going right. That is something we worked on a lot with him - going to the rim and finishing with his left more. You know the defenses are able to predict that and a lot of our defense is more personnel oriented because we get those numbers on our opponents in terms of how many assists does a guy make at certain points in a game. For instance, if a guy on a particular team is a go-to guy at the end of the game and at the end of games he rarely passes the ball then we are more apt to double-team that guy at the end of the game. Earlier in the game he will give the ball up so you may not want to double him early in the game.