Saturday, October 14, 2006

Notes in transition

First, a few house-cleaning measures.

1) Check out Sunday’s Register for a feature on A.J. Price and his life over the past two years.
2) Saturday’s practices lasted a combined 3 hours, 40 minutes, roughly the same length as Friday’s First Night festivities. Which was more productive? Depends on whom you ask.
3) Suddenly, a number of people are placing Syracuse among the elite in the Big East even though the Orange’s roster hasn’t changed in the past few months. Always baffled how that happens. One publication catches wind of it, then everyone else does. Bottom line, they're not bad. This is the reason: First, greater Scranton’s favorite son is no longer Gerry McNamara. He has been replaced by the character “Jim” from The Office. Second, Paul Harris has arrived on the national scene. He is considered a freshman after a prep year, 6-foot-5 and strong, and played on the same New York state title team as Rob Garrison at Niagara Falls. Obligatory connection feature due in January.
4) I suppose Wednesday night in Greece is basketball night. Former UConn shooter Rashad Anderson has surfaced in the country, dropping 27 points in his first game for Egalo AO, last season’s Division 2 champion that has made the jump to Division I. To check his progress, go the Greece League's site.
5) Some interesting blog notes from New York Daily News college basketball writer Dick Weiss. Yes, some are a few days old, but interesting to note. First, Louisville had a few early setbacks, most notably the suspension of freshman Derrick Caracter. Scroll all the way down to see a UConn football knock. Then scroll back up to find Weiss’ returning top basketball players (note: only seven are from the Big East. Much was made of the conference’s mass indulgence last year, but should more names make his list, or is the conference in transition with a youth movement?).

Great segue to today’s numbers.

Now, a few days back, I mentioned the fact that Jim Calhoun wants this year’s team to attempt at least 75 shots per game. If the shot clock was reduced five seconds, then this will be the norm, but it’s not, so we’ll stick with this.

I broke down field-goal differential but let’s look at UConn team shot attempts per game over the last decade and see what drove those groups.

2005-2006 – 61.4
2004-2005 – 60.4
2003-2004 – 61.6
2002-2003 – 62.3
2001-2002 – 59.1
2000-2001 – 57.8
1999-2000 – 59.2
1998-1999 – 58.6
1997-1998 – 59.1
1996-1997 – 56.5

First, some ironies.

More shots have gone up over the past four seasons than any other span over the last decade.
Rashad Anderson was on all four teams.

Really, that’s the only irony.

Quick analysis: Over a two year span (2002-2004) the Huskies averaged the most attempts. Guards Taliek Brown and Ben Gordon became one of the more productive backcourts in the school’s history and led them to a national title.

Now, with five quality guards, a foundation is set to mimic such productivity.

In the lowest year (1996-1997), the Huskies relied on then-sophomore Ricky Moore to run the show after he played mostly as Doron Sheffer’s understudy the year before. Moore never really had a true complement in the backcourt to share the guard workload while facilitating the interior production. Every UConn team since has owned a productive two-guard chemistry, save for maybe last year, which leads us to the other side of shot selection and attempts.

Shot attempts can accumulate with a few factors in mind: guards who earn attempts while balancing the offense with forwards and/or interior players, or active interior players, who thrive on second-chance baskets or tips (Jeff Adrien’s strong suit. Later blog topic).

Next time when a game is played with two dominant frontcourts, watch the official scorer work feverishly. Some may think this is an exact science but it’s not. Attempts are mysteriously gained or lost in the fray.

The group of Rudy Gay (466), Denham Brown (290), Josh Boone (243) and Hilton Armstrong (194) were responsible for the majority of field goal attempts. All forwards. All who made a good living on put backs or second-chance baskets. That’s where last year’s team accumulated attempts.

Another source will be found this season.

For a Division I team that prides itself on defense to attempt 75 shots is not an easy feat. Maybe Division III Grinnell College has a few suggestions. Grinnell annually leads the country in attempts but mostly with gimmicks.

Last year, the Pioneers averaged 93 shots.

Good luck.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Much ado about … sophomores

Yes, eight freshmen enter tonight’s Men’s Madness along with A.J. Price, listed as a sophomore after finishing high school three years ago. Elder statesman in years but not collegiate experience.

But behind the much-anticipated freshman class, four sophomores await their second season with all four experiencing highs and lows during their first year in Storrs.

1) Rob Garrison was still a year away from full physical and mental maturity and played sparingly last season.

2) Craig Austrie played competent basketball for the first half of the season until his minutes diminished when Marcus Williams returned from suspension.

3) Jeff Adrien had a productive campaign for a freshman and earned Big East All-Rookie honors.

4) And then there’s Marcus Johnson. Unlimited talent. Slasher. Scorer. Gives UConn an added dimension on the wing.

So how did perhaps the most versatile Husky get lost in the rotation last season?

Easy answers:
Talent and experience ahead of him.
Needed more strength.
More consistency.
More confidence.
Maybe he needed to be more assertive.

Even though his top four games last season were during the soft portion of UConn’s schedule, he still put up better-than-average numbers.

Then his season seemed to have ended.

Fourteen DID NOT PLAYS sit next to his name in the media guide.

Let’s look at those numbers and if you’re at Gampel Pavilion tonight watch him closely. Then remember what you saw when UConn starts playing three weeks from now.

New Hampshire: 9-13 FG, 2-3 3-pt FG, 0-2 FT, 20 PTS, 24 MIN
Morehead State: 4-8 FG, 0-1 3-pt FG, 5-5 FT, 13 PTS, 22 MIN
Stony Brook: 6-10 FG, 0-1 3-pt FG, 2-6 FT, 14 PTS, 22 MIN
Quinnipiac: 7-9 FG, 1-1 3-pt FG, 2-5 FT, 17 PTS, 29 MIN

As far as quality minutes and quality performances go, Johnson looked every bit the top-50 national recruit he was coming out of Los Angeles, save for the poor free-throw shooting.

Then he disappeared on a cold night in Milwaukee in January.

Marquette: 1-5 FG, 0-1 3-pt FG, 0-2 FT, 2 PTS, 11 MIN

Johnson’s numbers the rest of the season:

3-9 FG, 1-2 3-pt FG, 1-6 FTs, 8 PTS, 33 MINS

Johnson has the potential to fill a void for the Huskies this season. He is versatile and now a sophomore, which is ancient on this year’s team.

Four-game stretches have defined careers but they usually come in March, not in December.

Johnson has shown flashes of talent.

He arrives at a crucial juncture in his college basketball career, more so than any other Husky.

Maybe the difference?

As Jim Calhoun took stock of his new team during Wednesday’s Husky Run, his discussion with the state media turned to the one factor that could change UConn’s season: the eligibility of center Hasheem Thabeet (for more, see today’s Register for an update on the freshman’s status).

One statistic that plays a large factor in Calhoun’s game preparation is opponent’s field goal percentage. On Wednesday, he said it’s the one statistic that separates his team from the rest of the Big East, and in some cases, the country.

Let’s take a look at those numbers over the last decade compared with UConn’s field goal percentage, along with the differential (note: the last cluster of stats, blocks in a season, shows that within the last five years Calhoun-led teams had a propensity for blocked shots. You’ll see the correlation).

Mind you, Thabeet may, or may not, play a role in this year’s final numbers.

05-06 - .383
04-05 - .378
03-04 - .369
02-03 - .379
01-02 - .380
00-01 - .421
99-00 - .396
98-99 - .387
97-98 - .393
96-97 - .383
95-96 - .386

05-06 - .473
04-05 - .460
03-04 - .480
02-03 - .469
01-02 - .483
00-01 - .465
99-00 - .462
98-99 - .467
97-98 - .458
96-97 - .416
95-96 - .475

(smallest to largest)
96-97 - .033
00-01 - .044
97-98 - .065
99-00 - .066
98-99 - .080
04-05 - .082
95-96 - .089
02-03 - .090
05-06 - .090
01-02 - .103
03-04 - .111

2003-04 – 315
2005-06 – 295
2004-05 – 275
2002-03 – 253
2001-02 – 236

In 1996-1997, the differential was the smallest in the last decade. It was also the last time UConn won less than 20 games.

In 2003-2004, the differential was the largest in the last decade. UConn also won the national title that year.

And the top five seasons in UConn history for blocked shots are five of the six largest field goal differential numbers over the last decade.

Perhaps the only anomaly was 1998-99, another national title year. One explanation could be this: That team was just one of two guard-oriented teams over the past 10 years. Three of the top five leading scorers were guards.

Calhoun then did some quick math Wednesday. He wants UConn to hold teams to less than 50 shots per game while the Huskies should attempt close to 75. Realistic goals if you subscribe to his philosophy. But when it was noted that this year’s team could be a little more offensive- than defensive-minded than teams in the past, Calhoun put the idea to rest.

He said there are a larger number of young guys, more so than in years past.

“Which opens the door for more mistakes,” he added.

But that can all change with one 7-foot-3, 265-pound center from Tanzania who can block and alter shots, and in the process, alter games.

Defensive stops translate into offensive opportunities.

Calhoun is also hoping Thabeet’s transcripts from Tanzania translate into eligibility.

The NCAA will decide.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How to build confidence

One pass told the story of how confidence is built.

During an afternoon pick-up game Monday at Gampel Pavilion, sophomore guard Craig Austrie delivered a textbook entry pass to Jeff Adrien on the low block: ball fake high, wrap-around pass, not from the top of the key but from an angle on the wing.

This is when a television analyst (most likely an ESPN staple from the past two decades) gets excited that someone still thrives on the fundamentals and takes out a marker.

We see white squiggles on the television screen.

Freeze it!

Then again, preaching fundamentals is not necessarily a bad thing given the current state of the game.

But UConn coach Jim Calhoun did mention that Austrie would not have made that pass last season. It was a pass, Calhoun added, that only comes with confidence.

Of all the mental facets associated with basketball, confidence is a point guard’s essential attribute. During Austrie’s two years as Trinity Catholic’s starting point guard, he led the team to a 53-2 record. As a senior, he averaged 22.5 points and 5.1 assists, fairly competent and confident numbers.

But as a UConn freshman, there was a flash, maybe two, of similar performances.

After the Villanova game, Austrie did not start the rest of the way, as Calhoun decided to go “big” and went with a starting lineup that placed Marcus Williams with four forwards. Also, when Williams returned from his suspension, Austrie’s minutes waned for obvious reasons, but his QMs (quality minutes) diminished. Granted, a guard’s quality minutes differ from a forward or center.

Look for that to change, that is, if one pass is any indication of the upcoming season.

A closer look at Austrie’s numbers and productivity:

Arizona, 4-4 FG, 6-6 FT, 15 points, zero assists, two turnovers, 21 minutes

Quinnipiac, 3-5 FG, 0-0 FT, seven points, 14 assists, three turnovers, 33 minutes

These are Austrie’s two most productive games. Statistically speaking, the Quinnipiac game is more telling than the Arizona game in Maui. As a traditional point guard, a spot Austrie may need to fill at some point during the season, the last game before Williams’ return is very telling:

seven points on 3-for-5 shooting, 14 assists, three turnovers.

He played with confidence. He took some chances. The result was a win with four players in double figures. Good ball distribution but not exactly your Big East atmosphere.

As for the Arizona game, Austrie shot well but did not distribute. Yes, UConn won by nine over a good Arizona team, but eight total team assists were distributed over six players. UConn also shot 30-for-35 from the foul line, but just 14 of 18 from its interior players. Not as quality as the Quinnipiac game.

Now, when Williams returned, UConn was proportionately a better team in terms of scoring balance.

POINT DISTRIBUTION (four players who scored double figures)
Before Williams’ return: 7 of 11 games
After Williams’ return: 19 of 23 games

However, when the Big East schedule started, Austrie played proportionately well for a point guard.

OVERALL: 61:26
BIG EAST: 26:9
Note: Four games overall in which his assist-to-turnover ratio was below 1:1

Does this mean Austrie took fewer chances later in the season? Did he have fewer opportunities with Williams in the lineup? Maybe he made better decisions.

Maybe he just became more confident.

We’ll find out starting Friday night.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Adrien gets up, gets down

Let’s keep it simple again.

The preseason will be littered with examination of the past coupled with a few future projections. This, of course, is limited when analyzing last season considering the facelift the team has received over the past six months.

So today we’ll look at something returning to Storrs.

Jeff Adrien.

The 6-foot-7 sophomore closed last season with a glimpse of what people hope will resurface this year when he finished with 17 points and seven rebounds against George Mason in the Elite Eight.

There are emotional and mental reasons why Adrien peaked that afternoon: one could be the fact that he played just five minutes the game before against Washington.

The Washington game was one of only three in which he logged less than five minutes and one of only four scoreless outings for the forward. The game was also one of just two with zeros next to his name in the rebounding category.

The only other game in which he registered zero in each category was against Pepperdine.

It was also the first game of the season.

Even though Adrien poses a match-up problem at times but was sometimes viewed as an inexperienced post player (see Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong as mitigating factors), he did make the most of his minutes more than 70 percent of the time.

This is how a freshman matures over a season.

Remember this first cluster of statistics.

Marquette, First Big East game, five points, five rebounds, 15 minutes
Villanova, Big East game, six points, seven rebounds, 23 minutes
Syracuse, Big East quarterfinal, four points, five rebounds, 15 minutes
George Mason, NCAA Tournament, 17 points, seven rebounds, 25 minutes

Maui Invitational
Pepperdine, zero points, zero rebounds, four minutes
Arkansas, 11 points, six rebounds, 24 minutes
Arizona, zero points, six rebounds, 10 minutes
Gonzaga, 11 points, four rebounds, 12 minutes
Other non-conference games
Army, six points, two rebounds, 13 minutes
Texas Southern, 11 points, eight rebounds, 18 minutes
UMass, six points, two rebounds, 16 minutes
New Hampshire, five points, six rebounds, 19 minutes
Morehead State, 12 points, 10 rebounds, 23 minutes
Stony Brook, 13 points, one rebounds, 16 minutes
Quinnipiac, nine points, five rebounds, 12 minutes

6.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 16.5 mpg

6.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 17.3 mpg

1. George Mason, 17 points, seven rebounds, 25 minutes
2. Morehead State, 12 points, 10 rebounds, 23 minutes
3. Seton Hall, 12 points, eight rebounds, 22 minutes
4. Arkansas, 11 points, six rebounds, 24 minutes
5. Louisville, nine points, 12 rebounds, 24 minutes
NOTE: Three of the top five were after the midpoint of the season

1. Indiana, four points, five rebounds, 21 minutes
2. South Florida, six points, seven rebounds, 20 minutes
3. Villanova, six points, seven rebounds, 23 minutes
4. Cincinnati, seven points, two rebounds, 25 minutes
5. Kentucky, seven points, three rebounds, 20 minutes
NOTE: Four of the bottom five were after the midpoint of the season

Analysis: Yes, Adrien made the Big East All-Rookie Team in 2005-06 based on a better-than-average freshman season. He was rewarded for what he was brought to UConn to do. But if you return to the section highlighting each of UConn’s four losses in 2005-06, Adrien was a non-factor in all but one (George Mason) and in between experienced the highs and lows associated with being a freshman.

It’s safe to say, by the end of the season, Adrien realized even though he owned freshman status, it no longer mattered. It seemed as though he learned that a player in his position had to play up to his potential in every game of consequence.

Some additional notes on Adrien:

- The only sequence when Adrien logged consecutive 20-minute games was halfway through the Big East schedule when he played one of his best games and used the most of his playing time (quality minutes or QMs: an issue we’ll revert to throughout the season) against a mediocre opponent (Seton Hall). Adrien then played an average game against a quality opponent (Villanova). Yes, match-up problems were a key against Villanova’s then-vaunted four-guard offense, but that gave Adrien an opening to take advantage, which he didn’t do as well as he could have, based on statistical evidence. Off nights after a good game do not translate well in the Big East, granted Adrien only did this once last season and this could be the reason why some of his better performances were followed up by average games.

- Although he did not “hide” during all big games, he was a factor in some and less effective in others. Piecing together a string of quality performances while minutes fluctuate throughout the season is never easy. Overall, his quality performances (QPs: something we’ll also revisit again throughout the season), hovered around the 70 percent mark, better than 50 percent of last year’s UConn roster.

- Adrien shot well from the floor (61 percent) but struggled a bit from the foul line (64 percent). In order to improve his all-around game, one statistic must remain the same or improve while another desperately needs to improve.

The one factor, though, that is most telling of Adrien is his emotional impact, something that can only be measured in scientific and medical forums. Being non-existent against Washington in the Sweet 16 served as an ample segue to his top performance of the season, the last memory of Adrien from last winter.