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Stats Study: Defense Leads the Way

Four games in, and Arkansas boasts the best defense in the country.

Arkansas’ smothering defense is now ranked #1 in the nation.
Arkansas Razorbacks

The Razorback basketball team continues to turn heads four games into Eric Musselman’s first season. The Hogs are off to their best defensive start in modern school history, and Tuesday’s 82-51 win over Texas Southern helped the Razorbacks barely edge out Virginia for the title of nation’s best defense.

If I asked you before the season what Arkansas’ strengths and weaknesses would be, you probably would have said three-point shooting was a strength and field goal defense was a weakness. That, as it turns out, is exactly the opposite of what we’ve seen so far.

Let’s dive into the stats.

Advanced Stats

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out Arkansas Fight’s Basketball Glossary.)

There are a lot of complicated-looking stats here, but they’re actually not too difficult to grasp:

  • Adjusted Scoring Margin is the amount Arkansas would outscore the average Division I opponent over 100 possessions. It’s opponent-adjusted and standardized for pace (hence the 100 possessions). To calculate, you simply find the difference between opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency and opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency.
  • Adjusted Pace is the opponent-adjusted number of possessions per game in games involving Arkansas.
  • Predictive Points per Game and Predictive Points Allowed per Game are just the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies multiplied by the adjusted pace. I use these values for picking games against the spread.
  • The adjusted and predictive stats do not take wins and losses into account, only statistics. To introduce wins and losses, Strength of Record is the “value” of all wins minus the “value” of all losses, divided by the number of games played. To calculate it, you first have to find Strength of Wins, which is the sum of all scaled margins of teams Arkansas has beaten (“scaled” = margin plus the value of the worst team, so beating the worst team is worth zero). Then you find Strength of Losses, which is the sum of all scaled margins of teams Arkansas has lost to (“scaled” = margin minus the value of the best team, so losing to the best team costs you zero). Finally, Strength of Schedule is the average of all opponents’ unscaled margins.

The Strength of Record numbers do not take margin of victory into account, while Adjusted Scoring Margin does not take wins or losses into account. To get a good idea of how good a team’s overall resume is, you have to use both.

For the Hogs, it’s easy: Arkansas is 5th in both statistics. They are tied for first in Strength of Losses, because teams that haven’t lost yet all have an SoL of zero.

Q: Wait... you said Arkansas has the nation’s best defense. Why are they 2nd in Predictive Points Allowed per game?

A: Because Arkansas plays at a faster pace than Virginia, who is 1st in that stat. Adjusted Efficiencies standardize the pace of game. The average Arkansas game has more possessions than the average Virginia game, so Arkansas can be better on a per-possession basis but still give up more total points.

Here is Arkansas’ defense, with Adjusted Defensive Efficiency included:

Based on Arkansas’ statistics to-date (and Arkansas’ opponents’ statistics to-date), the Hogs would allow 69.9 points per 100 possessions to the average Division I team. That’s the best mark in the country, with Virginia ranking second at 70.6 points per 100 possessions.

The Hogs have the best three-point defense, and rank in the top-5 in effective field goal percentage and turnover rate. Here’s how all opponent possessions have ended this season:

  • 38% missed shot, defensive rebound
  • 31% turnover
  • 31% made basket or free throws

Compare that to Arkansas’ offense:

  • 48% made basket or free throws
  • 34% missed shot, defensive rebound
  • 18% turnover

Arkansas’ offense generates a shot opportunity on (at least) 82% of possessions, while Arkansas’ opponents only get a shot opportunity on (at least) 69% of possessions. The actual number for both is slightly higher because some possessions include a missed shot, offensive rebound, and then a turnover. Still, that’s pretty impressive.

It’s scary that the Hogs have looked so good despite issues shooting beyond the arc. Isaiah Joe was the only Hog to hit from downtown against Texas Southern, and the Hogs are 270th in 3FG%. It’s not likely that they’ll finish that low.

Overall, Arkansas’ offense is, on a per-possession basis, about the same as last year’s. They snag offensive rebounds and turn the ball over at almost identical rates to last year. The only difference is that better shot selection means that the Hogs have risen to 32nd in two-point field goal percentage, whereas they were outside the top 100 last year. If three-point shooting comes around, the Hogs will show marked improvement over last year.

Mason Jones is Arkansas’ early-season MVP. He generates 125.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and the Hogs allow just 61.5 points per 100 possessions defensively when he’s out there. Among the seven players in Arkansas’ regular rotation this year, Jones is 1st in offensive efficiency, 1st in true shooting, 2nd in effective field goal percentage (1% behind Jalen Harris), 2nd in getting to the free throw line (behind Harris), 2nd in offensive rebound rate (behind Adrio Bailey), 2nd in assist rate (behind Joe), and 2nd in steal rate (behind Harris). That’s pretty dang good. He’s Arkansas’ highest-use player, ending about 26% of possessions with a shot or turnover while he’s on the floor.

Bailey has been a spark on the defensive side. Among the seven qualifiers, he’s 1st in defensive efficiency, 1st in defensive rebound rate, 1st in block rate, and 3rd in steal rate. He’s also shooting 56% EFG (4th-best) and is the best offensive rebounder.

There’s still lots of room for improvement. Joe can probably get to 60% EFG if he keeps shooting well. The three key players who have room to improve are Desi Sills, Jeantal Cylla, and Reggie Chaney. Sills is 0 of 16 from beyond the arc a year after shooting 43%. That’s dragged his EFG down a dismal 33% and his offensive-efficiency down to 72.7 points produced per 100 possessions, ranking sixth among the seven qualifiers. He’s doing other things well on both ends, but the Hogs will need his shot to come around as the schedule gets tougher.

Cylla is still struggling to find a role. He’s last on the team in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Among qualified players, he’s 2nd in defensive rebounding and 2nd in shot blocking, but that’s about it. He’s shooting just 29% EFG and has yet to hit a 3. That is part of his game, so like Sills, it would be nice to see him hit a couple.

Chaney looked great in limited minutes against Texas Southern. Hopefully he’ll be able to relieve Bailey and Cylla on the inside.

Looking Ahead

Friday’s opponent, South Dakota, is no joke. The Coyotes are 5-0 with three wins away from home. Our model ranks them 147th in Adjusted Scoring Margin, behind Montana but ahead of Arkansas’ other three opponents. They are 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency... and 1st in three-point shooting.

So the best three-point offense faces the best three-point defense on Friday at Bud Walton. That’s not likely to go well for the Hogs: one of the basic theories of shooting is that in college games, opponents get about 6 to 10 “open” three-pointers per game and hit them at about a 50% rate. All attempts beyond those are “guarded” 3s, and those fall at only about a 10-30% rate. Arkansas has been pretty lucky this year that opponents are only hitting about 25% on open 3s and 0% on guarded 3s. Some of that is coaching — Musselman has emphasized closeouts against jump shooters, a tactic shown to work — but a 25% make rate on open 3s is not likely to last much longer. One of these games, we’ll see an opponent hit 6 of 8 open 3s or something. Don’t panic, Arkansas’ three-point defense isn’t worse, that’s just a regression to the mean.

The good news for Arkansas is that even if South Dakota gets hot, it may not matter. The Coyotes rank 291st in offensive rebound rate, meaning they are unlikely to take advantage of Arkansas’ primary defensive weakness. And on defense? Try 328th in adjusted defensive efficiency, out of 353 teams. The Coyotes don’t force turnovers at all (338th in opponent turnover rate, 336th in steal rate) and have a below-average three-point defense (258th).