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Recapping the Hoop Hogs’ 2019 Regular Season

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Arkansas ended the season on a hot streak to reach 17-14. How’d they do it?

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

An up-and-down regular season has finally come to an end. The season’s narrative was written several times over, but in the end the Hogs finish 17-14, and 8-10 in the SEC.

We’re going to dive into the numbers, but first, a look at what’s next.

The Hogs have the 9-seed and face 8-seed Florida in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. The winner plays top seed LSU, which is an interesting matchup given the developments out of Baton Rouge. The winner of that likely faces South Carolina or Auburn, while the SEC’s other two juggernauts — Tennessee and Kentucky — are on the other side of the bracket. That sets up really nicely for a Hog run to the semifinals or finals.

And winning two or three games in Nashville will put the NCAA Selection Committee in an odd spot. Here is the status of the SEC’s three lowest bubble teams, with Joe Lunardi’s bracket predictions added:

  • Florida, 17-14 (9-9 SEC); Lunardi: Last Four Byes
  • Alabama, 17-14 (8-10 SEC); Lunardi: First Four Out
  • Arkansas, 17-14 (8-10 SEC); Lunardi: Not on bubble

The logic here is interesting. If you believe how a team finishes the year is important, then it is tough to justify keeping Alabama above Arkansas. I get Florida being higher for now, as the Gators played a much tougher schedule, but Florida has a problem: they didn’t win a single one of the big non-conference games they got themselves into. Their best win is the same as Arkansas’: LSU on the road. Florida also has a much worse loss: 2-16 Georgia in Gainesville.

If the Hogs knock off Florida on Thursday and Alabama beats 7-seed Mississippi State, can you justify putting Florida and Alabama in the field and leaving Arkansas out? It’s going to be interesting. If the Hogs also beat LSU on Friday, then you have the think the Hogs suddenly become a favorite to make the field of 68.

That’s pretty incredible given the developments up until just a couple weeks ago.

Season recap

The story of the season is pretty simple: Arkansas lost six of its top seven scorers from last year, lost every scholarship guard, and played like it for much of the year. Then the team suddenly started playing better and now its playing its best ball of the season.

Marginal offensive efficiency is the points per possession for each game given as a ratio of the average points per possession allowed by each opponent

I’ve gathered stats from the Hogs’ last 19 games (18 SEC games plus Texas Tech).

You can see that the Hogs’ offensive production swung wildly from game to game with no consistently, before suddenly becoming consistently good during the final couple weeks. The offense saved its best two performances (1.24 PPP and 1.23 PPP) for the last two games, against Vanderbilt and Alabama.

Now for the defense:

Marginal defensive efficiency is the points per possession allowed for each game given as a ratio of the average points per possession scored by each opponent

The defense dealt with segments of below-average play with a handful of inconsistent highlights over the course of the year. The games against Florida (57-51 loss), Georgia (70-60 win), Missouri (72-60 win), and Vanderbilt (84-48 win) stand out above the average.

Notice on both graphs that the Florida game stands out as the worst offensive performance and the best defensive performance. It was by far the biggest outlier of the season, so expect the game Thursday to play out very differently from the first.

Player stats

Here’s a look at the Razorbacks by player:

Arkansas Player Stats, SEC Games

Player Usage PPP EPR TS EFG% Adj. Floor% Usage x PPP
Player Usage PPP EPR TS EFG% Adj. Floor% Usage x PPP
Daniel Gafford 25.9% 1.37 1.04 1.33 66.0% 77.1% 0.36
Adrio Bailey 17.2% 0.98 1.01 0.97 45.2% 57.9% 0.17
Mason Jones 22.8% 1.04 0.90 1.16 51.8% 54.9% 0.24
Isaiah Joe 20.5% 1.17 0.95 1.23 59.3% 52.1% 0.24
Jalen Harris 17.2% 0.76 0.87 0.87 35.9% 60.9% 0.13
Reggie Chaney 18.8% 1.05 0.96 1.09 54.1% 61.5% 0.20
Desi Sills 16.8% 0.90 0.79 1.14 53.3% 55.7% 0.15
Gabe Osabuohien 16.9% 0.79 1.04 0.76 35.5% 60.9% 0.13
Keyshawn Embery-Simpson 17.2% 0.83 0.92 0.90 42.2% 43.5% 0.14
Usage rate is the percent of plays a player is involved in when he is on the floor. Effective possession ratio shows the player’s ability to convert possessions into shot opportunities. True shooting is the points scored per shot opportunity. EPR times TS gives points per possession. Effective FG% is the player’s shooting percentage adjusted for the higher value of 3-pointers. Floor % is the percent of a player’s possession where he scores at least one point or makes an assist.

As expected, Daniel Gafford easily led the team in all major categories: usage, PPP, effective field goal percentage, and contribution ratio (usage x PPP). He learned over the season to control his turnovers and all of his numbers ended up in really solid territory.

Jalen Harris had a rough year shooting the ball (his TS and EFG% are really, really bad, and he hit just 12% from beyond the arc), but dished out enough assists to end the year with a decent 60.9% floor percentage, meaning that 60.9% of possessions where he accumulated a stat ended with points being scored. He’ll need to limit shot attempts and turnovers for the Hogs to keep being successful.

Isaiah Joe shot 42.9% from beyond the arc, allowing him to finish second on the team in TS (1.23 points per shot opportunity) and effective field goal percentage (59.3%, anything above about 52% is good). When he’s hot from 3, the Hogs are hard to stop.

Mason Jones stuffed the stat sheet, finishing second on the team in usage rate and third in PPP. He doesn’t stand out anywhere, but he does a lot. Adrio Bailey had a rough conference run after playing really well in the non-conference. His 45% EFG is really poor, although he is a good rebounder and defender. Desi Sills stole minutes from Keyshawn Embery-Simpson as the year progressed thanks to better shooting (1.14 TS vs. 0.90), although both are set to be good jump-shooting threats in the future.

The most interesting person on this list is Gabe Osabuohien. Criticized by fans for poor shooting (team-low 35.5% EFG and 0.76 TS), Osabuohien is tied for the team lead in EPR (1.04) and his 60.9% floor percentage is tied for third. As we’re going to see in a second, the offense is better when he’s on the floor.

Here’s a look at how some of Osabuohien’s numbers rank among his teammates:

  • Third in assists per 40 minutes
  • Fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio
  • First in steals per 40 minutes
  • Second in offensive rebounds per 40 minutes

He’s basically doing everything well except shooting. Passing like this is really helping the offense move:

Who makes the offense go?

I decided to compare each player’s game-by-game production against the team’s overall offensive efficiency. Here’s what I came up with:

Okay, so how do we read this?

  • The first row shows how Arkansas’ offensive efficiency (PPP) correlates with each player’s shot opportunities. Blue squares mean a positive correlation, so in this case, the more Daniel Gafford shoots, the higher the Hogs’ offensive efficiency. Duh. Jones, Harris, and Embery-Simpson are the three guys with negative correlates. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should shoot less, it just means they tend to shoot more in games Arkansas’ offense plays poorly.
  • The rest of the chart shows how each player’s shot opportunities correlate with each other. Note the big red square between Embery-Simpson and Sills. This means they rarely both accumulate shots in the same game: more shots for one mean fewer shots for another. This makes sense since they both play the same position and are competing for playing time. We can also see what pairs of players accumulate stats together. Sills and Reggie Chaney, both of whom have positive overall correlations, tend to take shots together. Jones and Bailey tend to get shots together as well.
  • Sills or Harris? One part of this chart really stood out to me. Notice how Gafford correlates with his two point guards: Sills and Harris. Harris has a negative correlation, while Sills has a positive one. In fact, Sills has a positive correlation with three forwards — Gafford, Chaney, and Osabuohien — while Harris’ only positive correlation is with Chaney. Although the correlations are weak and there are other possible explanations, this suggests that Sills is better at getting shots for forwards when he’s in the game. Of course, Sills isn’t really competing directly with Harris for point guard of late; he’s been starting in place of Jones, who has strong negative correlations with Arkansas’ two best offensive players, Gafford and Joe. Interesting.
  • Osabuohien is working. Osabuohien has a slight positive correlation, meaning that despite being worst on the team in shooting, the more he shoots, the better Arkansas does. This suggests his other contributions (discussed above) are outweighing his shooting issues.

Looking ahead

The Hogs are essentially guaranteed an NIT bid and an NCAA bid isn’t necessarily out of the question if they can win a couple games in Nashville.

After this season, Gafford is expected to be the only departure, although it’s hard to believe that he will be the only one. I’m guessing someone off the bench will transfer, although I don’t know who. The Hogs have already signed the talented Justice Hill, and will have another scholarship when Gafford leaves. The major need is a true center.

I like the way the team is playing of late, and there’s good reason for optimism next year if Gafford is the only major contributor to leave. If the Hogs miss the tournament this year, the pressure will start to turn up on Mike Anderson to get back in 2020, and he’ll certainly have the roster to do it.