It might be hard to imagine right now considering all of their recent success, but in late December last season Virginia fell outside the kenpom top 40 thanks to a 35-point loss at Tennessee. In fact, Virginia really struggled throughout November and December of last season. By February Tony Bennett’s team was one of the most improved in the country. UVA even earned a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, probably making them the one-seed with the worst start to a season in recent memory.
Around this time last year I wrote about in season improvement. The post featured three teams in the country on the rise in January and February and three teams on the decline. Today I am using the same basic methodology to evaluate 2015 in season improvement. I take offensive and defensive points per possession and adjust them for both opponent and home-court advantage. The only difference this season is a final adjustment for extreme blowouts. While this part is a bit arbitrary, it diminishes the effects of a (for example) 50+ point win when a powerhouse plays a very inferior opponent. The final result is a number that should be interpreted as “points per 100 possessions above an average team”. The numbers are broken up by offense and defense. Remember, negative numbers are better when it comes to defense.
First, let’s take a look at the “hottest” (most improved) teams over the last 40 or so days:
Last year two mid majors (Vermont and Murray State) made this list thanks to the addition of a key player mid-season. That’s also the case here for Presbyterian. Star freshman DeSean Murray missed most of November and all of December after an injury against non-D1 school Piedmont.
Since Murray’s return, Presbyterian has performed about 13.5 points per 100 possessions better on the offensive end alone. Presbyterian already has four wins in the Big South, doubling their conference win total from last season. In conference games, Murray leads the Big South in offensive rebounding percentage. He has posted an offensive rating of 110.9 while being used on about 30% of Presbyterian possessions. Furthermore, the 6’5″ freshman has helped turn fellow star teammate Jordan Downing into a much more efficient scorer. Murray’s athleticism has Presbyterian off to their best Big South start in years.
Unlike Presbyterian, UAB makes the list of most improved teams without any major changes in personnel. However, Coach Haase has allocated his minutes a little differently as the season has progressed. Most notably, senior C.J. Washington was pulled from the starting lineup in favor of freshman William Lee. The Blazers started the season 4-9. They did have a tough schedule (which is of course accounted for in my methodology), but were also underwhelming against weaker opponents in non-conference play.
UAB is now tied for the Conference USA lead at 9-2. The big improvement has been in three-point shooting percentage. On the season UAB is shooting just 32.7% from three, but in conference play that number is 39.6%. It’s hard to say how sustainable UAB’s hot shooting streak will be. The change in minutes for specific players certainly has something to do with the improved shooting, but it might be reasonable to expect some regression to the mean for UAB going forward.
3. Mount St. Mary’s
Defense has led to a resurgence for Mount St. Mary’s in conference play. The Mountaineers currently sit at 201 in the kenpom rankings after being ranked as low as 306 in early January. The team is 7-5 in the NEC despite some bad luck in close games. Three of the five conference losses have come in overtime and another by just two points in regulation.
NEC opponents have scored just .91 points per possession against the Mountaineers. That makes Mount St. Mary’s the most efficient defense in the conference by far. They have been able to both turn opponents over and force them into tough shots. While some regression is probably on the way in opponent three-point percentage (28%), the Mountaineers have been so good defensively they can afford it.
Next, let’s take a look at the “coldest” teams over the 40 or so days:
1. South Carolina
Frank Martin’s foul happy defense was extremely impressive to start the season. North Florida, Cornell, Oklahoma State, Clemson, and Iowa State all have had their worst offensive games of the season come against South Carolina. The Gamecocks were still fouling like crazy, but the aggression was paying off in the other areas of defense. That hasn’t been the case in SEC play.
The defensive splits have been so extreme that South Carolina still ranks 13th in the entire country in kenpom’s AdjD and yet just 10th in the SEC in points per possession allowed in conference. Excessive fouling doesn’t leave much margin for error for the Gamecocks and has clearly caught up to them in SEC play. Factor in an equally bad offensive decline (last in SEC in 2P% and 3P%) and it’s no wonder South Carolina is 2-8 in conference.
2. Texas Tech
All three of these “cold” teams are very similar. They all play in power conferences, they all started the year with great records (in part due to weak scheduling), and they all have either one or two conference wins. Texas Tech’s non-conference schedule was an absolute joke aside from a road game at LSU. It’s tempting to simply look at the contrast in non-conference and conference scheduling to account for Texas Tech’s change in performance, but that’s not entirely the case.
Tubby Smith’s team did lose freshman starter Justin Gray to injury for the season. The offensive and defensive numbers above are adjusted for opponent and show a significant change. It was never going to be easy for Texas Tech in the loaded Big 12, but things have gone even worse than expected.
The final “cold” team is another Big 12 team. TCU is dead last in the conference despite starting the season a perfect 13-0. Trent Johnson’s team has actually had similar defensive problems as South Carolina. TCU’s foul happy defense hasn’t translated to Big 12 play despite being dominant throughout the non-conference. This concept might be worth taking a deeper look at. Press defenses have long been suspected as potentially vulnerable against good offenses. I think you could intuitively construct a narrative along the same lines for TCU and South Carolina:
Foul happy teams can succeed against weaker opponents because the aggressiveness disrupts the inferior talent enough to make up for the fouls. Against stronger teams, the aggressiveness doesn’t have the same influence on the game. Just a theory for now, but something to think about.