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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. LSU

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Two high-powered offenses square off in Baton Rouge

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Razorbacks hit the road for a two-game road stretch starting Wednesday against LSU. Arkansas really needs to go 1-1 against LSU and Alabama to set up a very winnable four-game SEC stretch that could see the Hogs at 7-3 in conference in a few weeks. LSU is the more winnable of the two road games, so there’s a big opportunity.

Box Score Breakdown: Arkansas 99, Georgia 69

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)

You could see the new lineup start to jell late in the first half, and a 56-32 second half speaks for itself. Georgia is not a good team but a 30-point win is always a good thing.

Arkansas was better in every facet of this fast-paced game, with three-pointers and turnovers making the biggest swings in the Hogs’ favor. The Hogs didn’t shoot well inside the arc (just 50% isn’t great) and didn’t do a great job of getting to the free throw line, but those are minor quibbles.

Meet the Tigers

LSU’s made some changes in Will Wade’s fourth season. The former VCU coach has used a fast pace and pressing defense during his first three seasons, but after finishing 179th in adjusted defensive efficiency last year, the Tigers are slowing things down. They remain ultra-efficient on offense, and while the defense has improved, it’s still a liability.

Scouting Report

  • LSU’s offense is good at everything. They shoot well at the rim, crash the offensive glass, and draw fouls. They can also hit from beyond the arc.
  • Star guard Cameron Thomas, who leads the SEC in scoring, is questionable with an ankle injury. He averages 22.0 points per game and is LSU’s highest-usage player by a large margin. Whether or not he plays will be a big factor.
  • LSU’s defense packs the paint and forces opponents to hit long jumpers. This will cause long halfcourt possessions and a lot of three-point attempts.
  • LSU struggles to secure the defensive rebounds and allows way too many blow-bys from penetrating guards.

Our model thinks this is a matchup of top-10 teams whose resumes don’t quite match their potential. Both are elite on offense (LSU is eliter), while the Tigers have some defensive issues.

So who’s gonna win? Our standard model, which is 68-49 against the spread since Saturday, has LSU 83, Arkansas 81, with the Hogs covering and the over hitting. The more complex matchup model (67-50 on spreads since Saturday) isn’t sure who to pick:

High-scoring and close. That’s the takeaway.

When LSU has the rock

As we saw above, LSU owns the nation’s second-best offense, in terms of opponent-adjusted efficiency. Will Wade’s teams have never struggled to score.

LSU is good at everything except turnovers, and even then the Tigers are average. They are excellent inside the arc, spend a lot of time at the free throw line, and snag offensive rebounds at a very high rate. They put up a lot of three-pointers as well and hit those at a decent clip.

It’s hard to tell if this is a potential Connor Vanover game or not. He played just three minutes against Georgia, apparently due to matchup considerations: Georgia played fast and let its forwards handle the ball. Vanover got blown by a couple times when he was on the floor. LSU doesn’t actually play at a breakneck pace (they’re 195th in possessions per game) and they offer some serious inside threats, so Vanover might could be useful on defense. As we’ll see below, he could be very useful on offense as the Hogs try to attack the Tiger D.

Guards

  • Cameron Thomas, 6’4, 34% usage, 121.3 offensive rating, 52% EFG, 10% assist rate, 9% turnover rate
  • Ja’Vonte Smart, 6’4, 20% usage, 121.7 offensive rating, 66% EFG, 22% assist rate, 20% turnover rate
  • Jalen Cook, 6’0, 19% usage, 124.8 offensive rating, 70% EFG, 22% assist rate, 23% turnover rate
  • Aundre Hyatt, 6’6, 16% usage, 116.3 offensive rating, 48% EFG, 5% assist rate, 13% turnover rate
  • Eric Gaines, 6’2, 17% usage, 84.0 offensive rating, 28% EFG, 11% assist rate, 25% turnover rate

Thomas leads the SEC with 22 points per game but is questionable for the game with an ankle injury. If he plays, LSU’s getting an extremely high-usage player who has decent scoring numbers and rarely turns it over. If not, the next two guys – Smart and Cook – are very efficient scorers but struggle with turnovers. Smart will shoot a lot of three pointers (more than half his attempts are triples) while Cook will get to the free throw line (team-high 0.70 free throws attempted per field goal attempted).

After Smart and Cook, it gets dicey. Hyatt has started getting more playing after backup guard Charles Manning entered the transfer portal. He’s not shooting well but he doesn’t turn it over. Gaines is worse, shooting 28% EFG and turning it over at a team-worst 25% clip.

I expect the Hogs to use Jalen Tate to try and take away Thomas if he plays and Smart if he doesn’t. If Thomas doesn’t play and Smart has a rough game, then LSU might have a hard time scoring enough to stay ahead of the Hogs.

Forwards

  • Trendon Watford, 6’9, 24% usage, 120.5 offensive rating, 57% EFG, 6% offensive rebound rate, 16% turnover rate
  • Darius Days, 6’7, 21% usage, 128.1 offensive rating, 64% EFG, 11% offensive rebound rate, 12% turnover rate
  • Mwani Wilkinson, 6’5, 7% usage, 152.7 offensive rating, 73% EFG, 14% offensive rebound rate, 12% turnover rate
  • Shareef O’Neal, 6’10, 11% usage, 96.5 offensive rating, 50% EFG, 5% offensive rebound rate, 17% turnover rate

Not a crazy amount of size, either at the forward or guard spot for LSU. Watford is a beast and will be a lot for the Hogs to handle. He’s averaging 17.8 points per game. His shooting numbers are good, he gets to the line at a high rate (0.66 FTA per FGA), he passes well (22% assist rate) and his turnover numbers are average (16%).

Days is also having a good year. He’s a three-point shooter, with just over half his field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc, where he’s hitting 40%, which translates to 60% EFG. He doesn’t do as much to get to the free throw line, but he also doesn’t turn it over much.

The next two forwards are talented but very low-usage. Wilkinson is a monster offensive rebounder who rarely shoots but mostly makes it when he does. And Shaq’s son Shareef is a monster defensive rebounder (team-best 31% defensive rebound rate) but doesn’t contribute a ton on the offensive end right now. He’s also questionable to play with a leg injury.

Key for the Hogs overall is defensive rebounding and avoiding foul trouble. LSU is going to get some offensive boards, but the Hogs need to limit them. And if LSU ends up shooting 35 free throws, it’s hard to see the Hogs pulling this one out.

When Arkansas has the rock

LSU has revamped their defense for this year, so the Hogs are getting their first shot at attacking a Virginia-style pack line defense. While they occasionally wander out for a trap, LSU will generally keep all five guys inside the arc and force contested jump shots. They won’t do much pressing – which is driving their slower pace this year – but they will double-team the ballhandler inside and lazy passes will be tipped or picked off. Traditional post-ups (which Arkansas doesn’t do anyway) will not work against this defense.

Only six teams in the country allow three-point attempts at a higher rate, but opponents hit just 28% against the Tigers. In exchange for forcing a lot of jumpers, LSU accepts of the risk of getting beat on fast breaks or blow-bys (250th in two-point defense), while the zone-like nature of this defense lends itself to poor boxing out (266th in defensive rebound rate). LSU also fouls a bit more than a proper pack-line team should.

There are a few ways to properly attack this kind of defense. First, you can take advantage of the fact that LSU isn’t running this scheme as well as pack-line monsters like Virginia or Louisville and simply go right through them. This, for example, should never happen:

Florida was able to get to the rim whenever it wanted, going 24 of 37 from inside the arc against LSU.

The second way is by dominating the offensive glass. Georgia, not a great three-point shooting team, was forced into 35 three-point attempts but hung around thanks to a barrage of offensive rebounds. Guards that can get offensive rebounds are especially important, since the high number of three-pointers leads to a lot of long rebounds. The good news is that the Hogs’ guards are excellent at crashing the offensive glass, led by Devo Davis (8%) and Moses Moody (7%). Jaylin Williams (10%) leads the team, so the trifecta of freshmen could be key to this phase of the game.

The final strategy is to simply get hot from 3. It’s important to understand how three-point defense works as we look into this option. Basically, there is no such thing as three-point percentage defense. A player usually takes a three-point shot when he’s open. If he shoots when he’s open, then the defense has no control over whether his open shot goes in or not. It’s like “free throw percentage defense” or “completion percentage allowed when the receiver is 40 yards behind the safety”. You just have to hope for a miss. Therefore, the key to having a good three-point defense is to not allow open three-pointers in the first place. That may not affect three-point percentage, but it will reduce the total number of three-point shots taken against you. That’s been Coach K’s defensive philosophy at Duke for years and it’s worked for many others, including Eric Musselman.

However, there is an exception. Calling it “The Boeheim Exception”, Ken Pomeroy notes that pack-line and zone teams tend to have good three-point percentage defenses because their ability to deny easy shots forces opponents to shoot contested three-pointers, usually with the shot clock winding down. So if you don’t want to play Musselman’s style of tough perimeter man defense, then your other option to have a good three-point defense is to have a good two-point defense, or at least to deny easy two-point shots. Open three-pointers tend to be made at a rate of around 40% and there’s not much the defense can do to change that percentage, only limit the number of open attempts. Contested three-pointers only fall at a rate of 10-20% and again, the defense can’t really the change the percentage, and can only change the number of contested shots taken indirectly, by denying the offense easier shots.

So if the defense cannot affect the percentage of open three-pointers that are made, and their scheme doesn’t allow them to effectively limit to the number of open three-pointers per game, what happens if an opponent gets hot and hits 80% of their open three-pointers? Well, this:

This will always be the risk of playing this style of basketball. You’re just waiting for someone to get hot and knock you off.

Of course, if there’s risk for defenses that allow a lot of triples, there’s risk for offenses that shoot a lot of triples. The Hogs could go cold or they could get hot, and that will probably decide this game, moreso than anything else.

Keys to the Game

  • Hit open threes. Arkansas will probably get somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 open three-pointers in this game. If they can hit 7-8 or better, they’ll be in good shape. Another 10 or so three-point attempts will be contested shots, probably with the shot clock winding down. The Razorbacks will be happy to get two of those to go in.
  • Guards crash the offensive glass. The pace-and-space offense is a good way to attack this kind of defense and is in fact the main reason why you don’t see it in the NBA. Part of the advantage Arkansas will have is that LSU will have a hard time boxing out the spaced-out guards on long rebounds. If Davis, Moody, Jalen Tate, and Desi Sills can combine for at least seven offensive rebounds, I’ll feel pretty good.
  • Avoid foul trouble. One of LSU’s big things on offense is getting to the free throw line. The Hogs allowed Mizzou to shoot too many free throws, and that can’t happen with a limited roster in this game.