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Where do the Hoop Hogs Go From Here?

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A rebuilding team struggled to get over the hump. How do they take a step forward in 2020?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Arkansas Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas’ men’s basketball season ended Saturday with a 63-60 loss at Indiana. It was a strong effort for a team undermanned after the departure of Daniel Gafford for the NBA, but in the end, inability to make layups and free throws doomed the Hogs’ chances. They ended with a chance to tie, but an 11% 3-point shooter (!) missed a game-tying shot at the buzzer.

Arkansas finishes 18-16 and 8-10 in SEC play. It’s coach Mike Anderson’s first losing SEC season since he went 6-10 in his first year (2012). This was expected to be a rebuilding year, as the Hogs were forced to replace 6 of their 7 leading scorers from 2018, including every scholarship guard. The freshmen played like freshmen at times, and the first-team all-SEC efforts of Gafford (16.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 66% FGs) weren’t enough to push the Hogs into the NCAA Tournament for a fourth time in five years.

The Twitter and message board talk has started to fire up, as concerned fans worry that the SEC’s re-commitment to basketball has pushed the Hogs to the bottom half of the pack. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, and I don’t think it’s fair to demand that Anderson be fired for going 8-10 in a rebuild year — although I do think it’s fair to question why he needed a rebuild in Year 8.

In this lengthy post, we’ll walk through Arkansas’ statistical performance in 2018-2019 in detail, and compare it to Anderson’s previous teams. We’ll then use those numbers to talk strategy and what we’d like to see from the Hogs starting next year. This post is long enough to require a TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  1. Introduction ( <- YOU ARE HERE)
  2. Review of Statistical Terminology
  3. Comparing Arkansas’ 2019 Against Previous Years
  4. Changes Coming?
  5. Conclusion

Review of Statistical Terminology

I’ve written about this before, but this quick recap is very important for understanding how we use statistics in basketball.

There are two basic categories of basketball stats: those regarding creating shots and those regarding making shots. Making shots is easier to understand, but creating shots is a key part of the game.

Creating Shots

“Creating shots” refers to the two big non-shootings statistics in basketball: rebounding and turnovers. For an offense, an offensive rebound creates a new chance to score, while a turnover ends a possession without allowing a chance to score. In this way, they are inverses. If a team has 6 offensive rebounds and 6 turnovers in a game, then they have a net of zero extra scoring chances. The statistic used to calculate this is called effective possession ratio, or EPR. The formula for EPR is simple:

EPR = Scoring Opportunities / Possessions

And here’s an expanded formula:

EPR = (Possessions + Off. Rebounds - Turnovers) / Possessions

So an EPR of 1.07 means that if that offense had 100 possessions, they would create 107 shots. A high EPR allows offenses to win games despite poor shooting because they get more chances to score.

Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” teams were notorious for maximizing offensive EPR while limiting defensive EPR. Mike Anderson’s teams have mostly been good at this as well, but as we’ll see in a second, they’ve lot their way over the last few years.

To maximize offensive EPR, a team must limit turnovers while getting lots of offensive rebounds. To limit defensive EPR, teams must force turnovers and grab defensive boards. But there’s a problem for the defense: those two things are mutually exclusive. Forcing turnovers requires putting defensive players out of position to get rebounds. None of the nation’s top 50 teams at forcing turnovers rank in the top 50 at defensive rebounding. The top power teams in turnovers — Auburn, Washington, and Syracuse — rank 307th, 341st, and 314th in defensive rebounding. The best team at both is Texas Tech, which ranks 12th in turnovers and 157th in defensive rebounding.

For this reason, teams can try to do both on offense, but must choose on defense. Arkansas’ defensive system is built on the theory that turnovers are more important than defensive rebounding.

From the recap of last year’s loss to Butler in the NCAA Tournament:

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.

Keep this in mind as we look over the numbers.

Making Shots

Making shots is not as straightforward as it seems. There are three ways to score: 2-point shots, 3-point shots, and free throws. Each make is worth a different amount of points, and focusing on each will lead to changes in other statistics.

Raw field goal percentage, like you see in most box scores, is not an accurate measure of value because a) it doesn’t account for the higher value of 3-pointers, and b) it doesn’t account for free throws. For this reason, we have a stat that works better: true shooting, or TS. As with EPR, the formula for TS is simple:

TS = Points / Shot Opportunities

TS allows you take rebounds and turnovers out of the equation and just look at how good a team was at getting points when they actually took a shot.

We use other statistics to help us paint a better picture of TS. Here they are:

  • 2FG%. Percentage of 2-point shots made
  • 3FG%. Percentage of 3-point shots made
  • FT%. Percentage of free throws made
  • Effective Field Goal % (EFG%). Adjusts field goal percentage by counting made 3-pointers as 1.5, to reflect the fact that they are worth 50% more
  • Three Point Rate (3PR). Percentage of field goal attempts that are 3-pointers
  • FTA per FGA. Ratio of free throw attempts to total field goal attempts.
Tying It All Together

Now that we’ve got both parts down, we can combine them to the final formula that measures offensive efficiency. Points per possession, or PPP, measures how well a team scored overall.

Here’s the formula:

PPP = EPR x TS

Everyone on the same page?

Comparing Arkansas’ 2019 Against Previous Years

Before we look at the 2019 numbers, it helps to look at a more ideal year: 2015. The Hogs went 27-9 (13-5), earned a 5-seed, and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was easily Mike Anderson’s best team.

Here’s how that team looked:

Note that the 2015 team was not great at shooting. They averaged just 1.08 TS (99th of 351 teams) and allowed 1.05 TS (161st). They didn’t finish in the top 100 in either 2- or 3-point shooting. But they did do one thing well: they created more shot opportunities than their opponent. They ranked 23rd in EPR, finishing in the top-50 at both avoiding turnovers (30th) and offensive rebounding (48th). Defensively, they forced turnovers (19th), allowing them to easily overcome poor defensive rebounding (296th).

Now compare that to the 2019 team:

Interestingly, the 2019 team had the same TS (1.08) as the 2015. The fact that the same TS ranked 99th in 2015 and 154th in 2019 speaks to the changes in college basketball over the last few years (more on that later). But the EPR has fallen off a cliff. The Hogs forced turnovers at nearly the same rate, but defensive rebounding dropped 1.4%. The real problem came with offense EPR, where the Hogs were well outside the top 100 at both protecting the ball (159th) and offensive rebounding (174th). Limited shot opportunities caused the offensive performance to drop despite the same TS.

The rise in turnovers can be attributed to all-new scholarship guards, and should fall back inside the top-100 next season. After all, the Hogs have been very good under Mike Anderson at not turning it over:

But the offensive rebounding numbers are concerning. That rate is the lowest in Anderson’s eight years, and it happened with an all-SEC forward leading the team.

Actually, Arkansas’ overall rebound rate is not heading in a good direction:

Ideally, the Hogs should aim for a 50% total rebound rate. That would mean that good offensive rebounding is canceling out bad defensive rebounding. But the Hogs have only hit that mark twice, during Moses Kingsley’s sophomore year (50.2%) — when he and Bobby Portis were playing together — and in 2016 during his junior year (50.0%). The Hogs’ 46.7% total rebound rate this season was the worst of the Anderson era, and meant that rebounding gave opponents about three extra scoring chances per game. Again, defensive rebounding isn’t important only if you’re good at offensive rebounding and turnovers. But that wasn’t the case in 2019.

Speaking of forcing turnovers, those were back up after some lean years for guys like Dusty Hannahs and Jaylen Barford who weren’t exactly steal machines:

This year’s 22.1% turnover rate was the best for the Hogs since Anderson’s first three years (2012-2014), when guys like Mardracus Wade and Coty Clarke were steal leaders.

In all, problems with EPR caused Arkansas to gain just 0.8 extra shot opportunities per game in 2019, down from 5.3 in 2015. A difference of 4.5 shot opportunities per game difference is really the major reason the Hogs fell from 27-9 to 18-16. It makes a difference. Assuming Arkansas’ 1.08 TS would have held true through those 4.5 shot opportunities, that amounts to 4.86 points per game, which, given the finals scores of this season, would have added eight more wins to the schedule, bringing the Hogs to 26-8... which happens to be the exact same record Arkansas had entering the NCAA Tournament in 2015. Sometimes the margin is that thin.

Changes Coming?

Not to be too melodramatic, but Arkansas basketball is at a bit of a crossroads. A loaded roster returns: the Hogs could bring back four starters and every scholarship guard if no one transfers. They’ll likely be picked to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time under Anderson. But there are some concerns. The loss of Gafford means that unless the Hogs land a surprise four-star forward in recruiting, then rebounding, already the worst under Anderson in 2019, will be even worse, as Gafford led the team in offensive and defensive rebounds per 40 minutes.

But even more important are the major trends working against Arkansas. Offensive rebounding rates are falling across Division I. Back in 2012, Anderson’s first year, the median offensive rebounding rate in Division I was 30.5%. That figure has fallen every year since, and reached 26.4% in 2019. Either teams are getting better at defensive rebounding, or they are de-emphasizing offensive rebounding.

I think the answer is a little bit of both. Defensive rebounding is definitely being emphasized, but the more concerning trend is on the offensive end. I mentioned earlier that Arkansas’ TS was 1.08 in both 2015 and 2019, but that in 2015 that ranked 99th in the country, while in 2019 it ranked 154th. Team TS numbers are rising fast. Why? Teams are shooting more 3-pointers. In 2015, the median 3-point rate was 33.9%, while in 2019, it had risen to 38.3%. That’s about two or three more triples per game, per team. College basketball is following the NBA trend started by teams like the Warriors and the Rockets: more three-pointers, fewer mid-range jumpers. The fact that 3-pointers are worth more always makes them better options: for the Hogs, each 3-point attempt yielded 1.04 points, while each 2-point attempt yielded just 1.02. The gap was larger in 2018, when each 3-pointer netted 1.19 points, while each 2 generated 1.02 points.

But raising your TS by shooting more 3’s has some consequences. The main one is offensive rebounding. Fewer 2-point shots means fewer putbacks, which helps explain the sudden fall in offensive rebounding. It also means fewer trips to the free-throw line. So there’s a reason teams don’t raise their 3-point rate to 60% or higher. There are tradeoffs.

The concern for the Hogs is that they will not be able to score enough points if they try to swim against the current. A diet heavy on 2-point shots only works if you can hit free throws (2019 Arkansas couldn’t) and if you can snag offensive rebounds (2019 Arkansas couldn’t, and there’s little reason to believe 2020 Arkansas can).

In the NIT, playing without Gafford, the Hogs elevated their 3-point rate to 42%. Results were decidedly mixed, with the Hogs hitting a decent 18 of 47 (38.3%) but going cold against Indiana. Still, that’s a 57% EFG%... nearly 7 points higher than Arkansas’ 2-point percentage during the season. And that’s after hitting the road a couple days with their best player from the season no longer with the team.

Conclusion

The 2020 roster’s strength will be 3-point shooting. The Hogs return Desi Sills (43%) and Isaiah Joe (42%), who could easily form the best 3-point duo in the SEC. Mason Jones also hit 38% from downtown in 2019. The team average was dragged down by Jalen Harris and Gabe Osabuohien, who combined to go 14 of 94 (14.8%), and who need to stop shooting if they can’t average at least 30%. If the Hogs set up more motions and plays for Sills, Joe, and Jones to shoot, the offense could be lethal in 2020. Pair that with a turnover-forcing defense and you have a solid team. Either way, I don’t think Arkansas can afford a 3-point rate as low as the 37.1% we saw in 2019, and the even lower rates we’ve seen during Anderson’s eight years.

I’d like to see a more developed version of what we saw in the NIT: more four-high spread looks, basket cuts, and 3-point shots. Osabuohien gives the offense a unique look in that he’s a 4 who is a good passer. Reggie Chaney iso’ing up in the post while four ballhandlers spread the defense out and look for shots, screens, isos, or basket cuts seems like the best use of this roster. This allows the offense to play fast, limit turnovers, and maximize TS.

Whatever direction Anderson decides to go, it needs to be decisive and it needs to work. Missing the NCAA Tournament would not be acceptable in 2020, and sliding in as a 9 or 10 seed won’t be much better. If the Hogs are going to get back to a Sweet Sixteen or an Elite Eight anytime soon, fans need to see the signs sooner rather than later.