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Arkansas vs. Butler Box Score Breakdown

Don’t blame rebounding for Arkansas’ loss to Butler.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Butler Bulldogs vs Arkansas Razorbacks Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

A disappointing season ends in disappointment. It wasn’t a bad season, but the Hogs failed to live up to expectations despite a strong close to the regular season. Mike Anderson now faces a significant retooling as he will likely lose all five starters in the offseason.

There’s plenty of time to discuss that, but first: what went wrong against Butler? Almost everything, actually, including a ridiculous 21-2 start that made Hog fans wonder if the team went to the wrong arena.

But there’s one statistic that’s getting a little too much scrutiny. I’d like to discuss it.

Don’t blame the rebounding

Butler had 45 rebounds. Arkansas had 25. A -20 rebounding deficit is usually not associated with victory. But allow me to make a bold statement, one which I will back up with facts: Arkansas’ loss had nothing to do with how well it rebounded.

Not buying it? Let’s take a closer look, and hopefully, we can learn a little about how statistics can influence scheme.

(NOTE: If you aren’t familiar with the statistics that I use — Points per Possession, True Shooting, and Effective Possession Ratio, check out the preview for a brief explainer.)

Arkansas-Butler Box Score

Stat Arkansas Butler Advantage
Stat Arkansas Butler Advantage
TRUE SHOOTING 0.94 1.22 Butler
Points per 2FGA 0.84 1.33 Butler
Points per 3FGA 0.67 1.27 Butler
Rebound % 13.9% 36.7% Butler
Turnover % 10.3% 20.6% Arkansas

I’m going to focus on the bottom three stats. Butler rebounded 36% of its misses and Arkansas only rebounded 14% of its misses. Bad, right? Arkansas certainly could have rebounded better, but that’s not really the point here. Rebounds aren’t worth points. So why do teams try to get rebounds? The answer is simple: rebounds create the opportunity to get more points.

But there’s another statistic that does the same thing: turnovers. Turnovers aren’t worth points either, but by forcing them, teams create more opportunities to get points and limit opponents’ opportunities. From a statistical standpoint, rebounds and turnovers are the same thing. When the opponent brings the ball up the floor, you can either steal it from them, or you can rebound their missed shot. Either way, you get the ball back and they have zero points.

Because rebounds and turnovers are essentially the same thing, we combine them into a single stat: Effective Possession Ratio, which is the ability to convert possessions into shots. Grabbing offensive boards and avoiding turnovers help a team’s Offensive EPR go up; forcing turnovers and securing defensive rebounds help a team’s Defensive EPR go up. The goal of EPR is maximize the number of shot opportunities.

But here’s the thing: Arkansas actually had more shot opportunities than Butler. The Hogs had 66 shot opportunities. Butler had 65. You can see it in the chart above: Arkansas had a 0.97 EPR in 68 possessions. Butler had a 0.96 EPR in 68 possessions. The Hogs attempted 56 field goals and had 10 trips to the free throw line with those opportunities. This gets nuttier when you consider that the predictor algorithm I use (based on simple distance-from-the-mean calculations) actually thought that Butler would go +2 in shot opportunities.

So how’d the Hogs win that part of the game despite going -20 on the boards? Turnovers. Arkansas went +7 in turnover margin and -6 in offensive rebounding. That’s how you get +1 shot opportunities.

You may be thinking, “Why can’t Arkansas just do both well?”

Here’s the answer: because they are the same thing. Sure, Arkansas could have snagged more rebounds, but that would only have extended Arkansas’ already-surprising EPR advantage. It would be nice if Arkansas made 80% of its 3-pointers, too. In reality, most coaches scheme around either turnovers or rebounds. Michigan State ranks 303rd out of 351 teams at forcing turnovers. But they’re really good at defensive rebounding. So for Tom Izzo, it cancels out. Arizona, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas are among the other major programs that do not care about forcing turnovers, and favor defensive rebounding instead. West Virginia hyper-prioritizes turnovers at the expense of defensive rebounding. Most programs are somewhere in between. It’s very hard to be elite at both. Arkansas’ scheme favors turnovers (more on that coming up).

Arkansas’ shooting problem

The rebounding numbers look bad, but consider that Butler went +6 in offensive rebounds and +14 in defensive rebounds. I’ve already explained how the +6 in offensive boards was more than canceled out by the Hogs going +7 in turnovers. The defensive rebounding numbers are worthless, statistically. Why is that?

It’s simple: Butler got more defensive rebounds because Arkansas missed more shots. Even the best offensive rebounding teams only track down about 40% of their misses. The average is less than 30%. So when a shot goes up, the defense usually has about a 70% chance of clearing the board. Arkansas didn’t get many defensive rebounds because Butler didn’t miss many shots. Butler got a lot of defensive rebounds because Arkansas missed a lot of shots. What looks like a rebounding problem was, in fact, a shooting problem. This is why raw Total Rebounds numbers are really misleading. More often than not, they simply tell you which team missed more shots.

Here’s a simplest way I can put it: If Arkansas and Butler had shot their season averages from the floor, Arkansas would have won the game, despite the rebounding numbers.

Arkansas finished with a True Shooting of 0.94. That’s 62 points on 66 shot opportunities. Butler turned its 65 shot opportunities in 79 points, or 1.22 TS. That’s where the game was lost, period. It had nothing to do with rebounds.

The Razorbacks shot poorly from 3 (4 of 18) despite facing one of the worst three-point defenses in the country. I warned about this in the preview:

But before you get too excited, keep in mind that in the NCAA Tournament, 3-point shooting is very fickle. Good teams can’t hit the broadside of a barn all of a sudden.

That’s exactly what happened. To win on the road and on a neutral floor, you have to be able to get to the rim. Butler is very bad at keeping opponents away from the rim, but Arkansas failed to take advantage. Bad ball movement led to bad shot selection. The Hogs ended up taking too many midrange jumpers. Those are low-efficiency shots and it showed tonight.

The 3-point shooting was simple bad luck, honestly. But the inability to create better looks at the basket was a combination of bad play by Arkansas and good play by Butler. The Bulldogs knew they would have trouble with Gafford if he got the ball in the low block, so they frustrated the Hogs by denying entry passes and taking away some of the Hogs’ hard cuts to the basket. On a night the Hogs really needed good ball movement, they couldn’t get it.

On the other side, the Razorbacks did what they’ve been doing all year: playing subpar field goal defense. Butler got open looks and hit them. Arkansas got fewer open looks and hit even fewer. Basketball is sometimes simple in that way.

Moving forward

It’s obviously concerning that a team this talented and this senior-laden just got a 7-seed and then exited ungracefully in the first round of the tournament. A team with 3 senior guards was still unable to generate quality ball movement against a prepared defense. Arkansas hasn’t ranked in the top-100 nationally in 2-point field goal percentage in any of Mike Anderson’s seven seasons. That’s not a good sign. Being able to get good shots close to the rim should be the primary objective of any offensive scheme. The Razorbacks remain too dependent on transition buckets and individual athleticism.

Speaking of transition buckets, those are declining. After the 2015 team peaked at 8th nationally in Turnover Forced %, the Hogs have ranked 81st, 176th, and 121st in the three years since. They forced an impressive 14 against Butler, but as a whole, Arkansas really isn’t a turnover-forcing machine anymore. Anderson seems to be slowly dismantling the whole “40 Minute of Hell” thing and slowly morphing into a fast-paced, NBA-style motion offense. I think it’s helped in road games and against bad or unathletic opponents, but it’s hurt Arkansas’ ability to pull major upsets or beat disciplined teams, like Butler.

I think all Hog fans would like to see some changes, and a rebuilding year like 2019 could be just the time to work on it.

Until then, Go Hogs.