Sunday, January 28, 2018

 🚨 STATE OF THE PROGRAM 🚨

This will be our first official blogersation although we have had many unofficial ones. Is Bucky just in the middle of a minor setback, or is this program in trouble? 

CHORLTON:  

UW was a nothing basketball program before Dick Bennett. Maybe there are defenders of Stu Jackson and maybe even Steve Yoder. They did do their part to push the program forward, but there was still precious little in results on the court. Other than the magical final 4 run in 2000, Bennett didn’t do anything that would be considered miraculous at any other mediocre program. It was just miraculous for UW. 

Prior to Bennett, UW had only 2 winning seasons in conference play since 1954. Bennett had 3 NCAA tourney appearances which matched the program's total prior to his arrival. In 1998-99 he coached the team to their first ever 20 win season. 

I won’t get into the greatness of Bo Ryan here, as we have discussed it much before. If Bo did what he did at any school, it would have been great. The fact that he did it at a program that was as horrible as UW shows his genius. Now that he is gone, and many of the players he recruited and developed are gone, is UW returning to it’s history of awful basketball?

I heard a sportscaster discuss this idea a while ago. I don’t remember who it was, but I liked what they said. Paraphrasing from memory- 
There are only so many basketball geniuses in the world. UW had one in Bo Ryan, and that’s what allowed them to have 15 years of unprecedented success. What are the odds they had 2 sitting on the bench at the same time?
What do you think Torvik. Is UW headed back to another 40 years of losing basketball?

TORVIK:

No, I do not think UW is headed back to Yoder era and beyond. I actually don’t think that’s even possible anymore. For better or worse, Wisconsin is a sports school now. If Gard doesn’t get it done, he will be replaced. And they will be willing to spend big bucks to bring in a worthy successor. There’s just too much money at stake. 

But it is probably unreasonable to expect the miraculous success of the Bo-era will continue. You quote an unnamed sportscaster wondering about whether there were two basketball geniuses on the bench at Wisconsin all these years. I’m almost 100% sure that unnamed sportscaster was me, because this has been a talking point of mine, almost word for word. In any event, I agree with the premise that some slippage is almost inevitable. The only question is how much. Let’s break this into three possible tiers:

1) Tier 1: Still a regular contender, but with occasional down years. Still capable of putting together a team that might make a final four. Similar to Purdue and Michigan have been the last 5-10 years, but below the Ryan-era teams and Matta-era OSU teams.

2) Tier 2: A step below—almost always at least on the bubble, in the tournament most years, but hardly ever a contender. I’m thinking post-2005 Bruce Weber at Illinois and Kansas St. here.

3) Tier 3: Bottom level of acceptable high major success: some bad years, some years where you make the tourney, but never a contender. Illinois, Minnesota.

Based on the history you describe, I think Badger fans should be ready to embrace being a Tier 2 team. I put Bruce Weber in Tier 2 and Illinois in Tier 3 for a reason. If Gard is able to have Tier 2 success and it isn’t good enough for the fans, a fall into Tier 3 is really, really likely. 

And I think Gard can keep UW in that Tier 2. He’s no Bo Ryan, and there’s reason to be concerned about how this year is going, but it’s pretty silly to look at his overall performance and not be optimistic that he’ll be able to take UW back to the tournament regularly. For example, I’m a big optimist about next year. This team has no scholarship seniors, a genuine star in Happ, lots of promising Freshman minutes, and two starters injured. So there is good reason to think this is a blip, and next year will be a quick bounce back.

What’s your feeling—does Wisconsin still need a basketball genius to stay out of the cellar?

CHORLTON:

No, I agree that the UW program has fundamentally changed since those lost decades. Donna Shalala, Pat Richter, and Barry got UW to invest in the athletic program, and unless there is a change in that philosophy the program will not be what it once was. Now that UW has built the Kohl Center, renovated Camp Randall, built new practice facilities, and upgraded locker rooms, scoreboards, etc. their facilities are on par with the best programs around. They may not pay their coaches the highest salaries, but they are competitive, and they will pay to keep a head coach who shows they can win. 

Before I start predicting tiers, let’s discuss a few points about the direction of the program. I’ll break it into 2 sections, players and systems. I’ll start with the players, and leave systems for the next section. I mean both recruiting and player development, and I think there is reason for concern with Gard on both. 

The recruiting got off to a pretty decent start. With Bo leaving midseason Gard didn’t have much time to put anything together his first year, and took what looked like 2 big reaches in Ford and Trice. Trice looked like a guy that could be a player last year in limited minutes, but appeared to take a step back this year before getting hurt. Ford has showed enough promise in his first year to give you some hope that Gard can find diamonds in the rough. In addition to that, he kept the commitment of King through the Ryan retirement, and added Reuvers and Davison who look like they could be great players someday. 

Then we had the decommit of Herro, and the miss on Hauser. Bo missed on big time instate recruits too, like Matthews and Vander Blue so this is nothing new for UW, but it doesn’t help either. I don’t know a ton about the 2 guys that replaced them except that the center wasn’t even promised a scholarship for his freshman year, and they both have already said they intend to redshirt. Hard to get excited about guys that plan to redshirt before they have even practiced against the guys they are competing with for minutes. No commits for 2019 recruits yet, but it is still early, and there is still a scholarship open for 2018. If Gard doesn’t get some players to get excited about, it makes him vulnerable if UW struggles again next year. 

On to player development which worries me a lot more, especially this Junior class. With Bo, we all just got used to the idea that the players got better every year and took that for granted. With 3 years learning under Gard, Van Vliet, Illikainen, and Thomas show little to no progress, and Iverson and Pritzl have only shown minimal gain. You could argue that Happ is the only player to make significant strides since Gard took over. Player development may have as much to do about picking players that want to get better as it does coaching, and the Junior class are Bo’s players. Still, it’s hard to ignore how little that class has progressed. While the Freshman class looks like it will be great someday, that assumption is based on those guys all getting much better, and the Junior class makes me doubt that the freshman will progress like the Bo players we are used to.

Any of this making you nervous Torvik?

TORVIK:

I admit you’re making me a little nervous, but more in anticipation of your “systems” breakdown (which I have reason to fear will be withering). I’m more optimistic on the players.

Gard’s first two classes as the man in charge yielded Trice, Ford, Davison, Reuvers, and King. Though I agree he probably got a little lucky with Trice and Ford, that is a very solid core—exactly the kind of core that the Badgers have regularly developed into Big Ten contenders this century. Assuming King comes back full strength and Davison isn’t permanently hobbled by his shoulder, I expect that core to compete in the upper half of the Big Ten the next three seasons.

But I can’t argue with your analysis of the 2015 class. It was a poorly conceived class: four forwards and a shooting guard, which left them reaching for a point guard the next year—and contributed to them not recruiting Sam Hauser, which everyone can agree now was a mistake. They took a gamble on a raw athlete in Iverson, and they didn’t hit the jackpot. The struggles of Illikainen, Thomas, and Van Vliet are well documented. Pritzl, who should have been the jewel of the class, seemingly lost his mojo when he stepped on a crack and broke his … foot. That said, I have not given up on Pritzl and Illikainen could still surprise us with a Duje-type senior year.

Is it Gard’s fault that these guys haven’t developed as hoped? I don’t really buy it. I’m frankly not a big believer in coaches really developing guys in terms of actually making them better players. For example, I roll my eyes when people say that Kentucky turns out pros. What happens is the future pros choose Kentucky. Something similar typically happens at Wisconsin. Players who are willing to put in the work to develop, and spend some time on the bench while they do, are the kind of players that Wisconsin attracts. But ultimately the development is mostly on the player. It’s not that coaching doesn’t matter at all—it does, though I think the ways in which it matters are pretty mysterious—it’s just that the basic formula doesn’t require a Svengali as coach. So maybe I’m being naive, but I give Gard a pass for that Junior class. I think it was just a bad break.

Future recruiting has become a bit concerning, though. It’s funny—there was a moment last summer when I thought it seemed that Gard had really ushered in a new era of improved recruiting at Wisconsin. Obviously the 2017 class was very good on paper. Gard had a commitment from Tyler Herro, not the kind of player that typically chooses Wisconsin. (Spoiler alert.) And it seemed that they actually had a shot to pull Joey Hauser in despite Bo’s snubbing his older brother. 

But it all fell apart. Hauser picked Marquette, as he was probably always destined to do. Wisconsin’s primary backup plan, Nate Laszewski (whose dad played at UW in the 80s), blew up on the AAU circuit and committed to Notre Dame. Tyler Herro decommitted. Suddenly the 2018 class was kind of a disaster. They’ve partially redeemed it by getting the Currie kid, who had previously committed to Michigan, but as you say he is not an immediate contributor. While top-level recruiting has never been a huge part of the Ryan-era formula for success, my hope was that Gard could potentially make up for not being a basketball genius by being a bit better at recruiting than Bo was. It’s still possible that will turn out to be true, but the jury is still out.

CHORLTON:

OK, I think we agree that there is at least some reason to be concerned with the players, but maybe not enough to panic yet. Next year should be very telling. I’m pretty much writing off the 2015 class, but if all the freshman and sophomores that are getting so much playing time this year don’t take a big step forward, Gard is in trouble. It’s probably too late for Gard to salvage the 2018 recruiting class after the big misses. He’ll have 5 open scholarships for the 2019 class, so he had better get some quality commits early in the process to maintain excitement for the future.   

On to the offensive and defensive systems. It would be nice if this group did one well, but both offense and defense are awful this year. I fear the system that has served UW well for the Bo Ryan era is fading away. When I look at the box scores for a game, I look at shooting percentage and the differentials between turnovers, and offensive rebounds. Those things usually tell you the story of the game, and the Badgers, like all good teams have done a good job dominating the differentials over the Ryan era. In any given game your team can go cold, or the other can get hot, but if you get more opportunities by dominating the differentials you will prevail despite shooting woes. 

There are various ways to win the differentials, but Bo used limiting turnovers, and dominating the defensive glass. This year’s team is bad at both, but all of Gard’s teams have not performed in these areas. For turnover percentage Gard’s teams have ranked 120, 68, and 102. Since 2008, Bo’s worst rank was 68, and that was an anomaly, as the 2nd worst rank was 9. For opponent’s offensive rebound percentage Gard’s teams ranked 61, 42, and 78. Bo’s worst since 2008 was 32. To be fair Gard’s first 2 teams won 22 and 27 games including 12 conference games and both went to the sweet 16 despite those numbers, so there is more than one way to skin a cat. I just think it’s’ clear that Gard is going a different direction than what has worked in the past. 

I had intended to use this section to go on a rant about this year’s offense and how they can’t figure out if they are running isolation or swing, and how the defense is too complicated for inexperienced players. In the end though, I’m not sure it matters when they have at times put a team on the court that has 3 guys that walked on to the program. It’s hard to limit turnovers when Iverson constantly travels, gets the ball swiped, or passes to no one, and the alternative is more TJ Schlundt. While this year’s team is frustrating to watch, the change in turnovers and rebounding are not isolated to this year’s team.

Do you think Gard is intentionally changing Ryan’s system for success, or is he just not as good at teaching guys how to do it? Is Gard changing the system because the Ryan system at UW is past it’s time? The freedom of movement rules have changed the game, and change is not necessarily bad. Gary Anderson’s offensive changes were a disaster, but the 3-4 defense he brought has kept UW’s defense humming right along. 

What do you think?

TORVIK:

I do not think that Gard is intentionally changing the Ryan system—but I do think the formula may be outdated. Not because it doesn’t work, but because everyone is using it now. Bo was at the vanguard, and used shot volume to wring wins out of lesser-talented teams. After about ten years of doing this, other coaches finally grudgingly admitted that it was ingenious and started doing it (namely: protecting the defensive glass and limiting turnovers) themselves. At around the same time, however, Wisconsin got super talented and put together its best sustained run ever. So we didn’t notice that the underlying formula might not work as well without elite talent.

Let me explain this a little further. You correctly point out that Wisconsin used to rank among the elite in turnover percentage and defensive rebounding percentage, and now they rank as mediocre. That is correct, but it obscures the fact their actual performance hasn’t changed much. Look at the turnover numbers:

Year   TO% Rank
2018  18.0  120
2005  17.9   22

An even starker example, using last year’s full year numbers:

Year   TO% Rank
2017  17.0   71
2006  17.4    9

In other words, a turnover percentage that used to rank among the elite, now ranks among the mediocre. Wisconsin hasn’t really gotten that much worse at committing turnovers, it’s just that literally everybody else has gotten better. A lot better. Last year’s turnover percentage would have been top 10 nationally in any of Bo’s first five season at Wisconsin. I think this is an extremely important and overlooked fact.

A similar, though less drastic, thing is happening with defensive rebounding:

Year   DR% Rank
2018  26.1   61
2014  27.4   15
2007  26.7   15
2003  26.7    9
(Lower is better in this stat.)

As recently as 2014 (when the Bo got to his first Final Four) a defensive rebounding performance like this year’s Badgers would have been considered elite rather than mediocre. 

My conclusion is that the game has changed, in large part because of Bo Ryan’s success. And now that it has changed, it is far from clear that the Ryan formula for winning at Wisconsin will continue to work. After all, his last half-season was an unmitigated disaster—and these problems of relatively higher turnover rate and relatively poor defensive rebounding were big factors in that disaster.

If I’m right, what that means, unfortunately, is that Gard will have to make changes to keep the level of success up. As I mentioned earlier, the easiest path to success would be to use the same sound formula but increase the average talent level. If he can’t increase the talent level, he’ll have to figure something out schematically—some kind of inefficiency that others haven’t seen—to maintain the level of success. And that’s the kind of thing that typically only a basketball genius can do.

CHORLTON:


Fantastic points. So, if we are going off the assumption that Gard is not a Bo Ryan like genius, Tier 1 is looking less and less likely to me. I would add 2 other changes to the game that will probably adversely impact UW. I have no empirical data to back these up, just have a feeling from what I see in games and how I feel things are going. The rule changes to the game at all levels seems to be favoring 2 types of players; guards that can create for themselves and their teammates off the dribble due to freedom of movement rules, and stretch big men. 

Freedom of movement, and specifically the removal of the hand check, allows smaller quicker players to flourish. Those players were marginalized for a long time because bigger/longer guards could keep up with them by just sticking a hand on their hip and controlling them. Now they can blow by that bigger, slower player and get opportunities in the lane they never had before. Once they beat their man, they also cause help to collapse and this opens up a lot of open 3 pointers. 

Here is where the stretch big man comes in. When you have a big guy that can shoot that means he has to be guarded on the perimeter. This just makes that little guy better, because the lane isn’t clogged with a 7 foot center who only cares about protecting the rim. The stretch big also gets wide open 3s from the guards that break down teams off the dribble, and can shoot right over the top of any smaller guards that may rotate out to challenge the shot. 

I don’t think either of these are groundbreaking or controversial observations, but I bring them up because they specifically relate to UW recruiting. Traditionally UW has not recruited those ball handling guards very well, while they have had a never ending stream of stretch big men. I don’t think anything is likely to change with UWs struggles recruiting those types of guards. Davison is as close to one as we have had since Treavon Jackson, and Traevon certainly wasn’t a big time recruit. The only other that comes to mind was Trevon Hughes, and he wasn’t special either. While UW should be able to keep getting stretch big men, now every other team in the country wants them too, so we have a lot more competition for them. 

There will probably be a lot more of these kinds of players to pick from in the future, so maybe this concern is overblown. Young kids see the stars of today and emulate them, and the stars of today are those types of players. So maybe in the long run UW is still able to get their types of players, but this trend doesn’t seem to favor UW.

TORVIK:

Completely agree with those observations. Ties into the main cause of this year's disappointment, which is that Andy Van Vliet could not stay on the floor. He was the stretch four we were promised, and it hasn't worked out. (At least in Gard's mind—and the fact that he went from a guy that Gard thought was our most improved player to a guy who he wouldn't even put in during mop-up time is a possible red flag, in my opinion.) 

I actually think Trice is more of the model for a point guard that can exploit the new freedom of movement than Davison, at least right now. Davison is not particularly quick, and when he does get by his guy it's by using strength and going full steam ahead—so he has little ability to make good passes on his drives. (Which is related to the fact that he usually ends up on his back out of bounds.)

So the Trice injury and the Van Vliet experiment gone awry have been absolutely killers for this season, in my opinion. I don't look at those as permanent new features of the program though.

Ultimately, it seems like we're in agreement that the program is likely to take a step back, but hopefully can remain in the "tier 2" range as I've defined it. I'll give you the last word.

Chorlton:

Yep, I think tier 2 seems most likely long term, because the program will get rid of Gard if it looks like they are falling toward tier 3. I would not have thought firing Gard this year was remotely possible before this season. I still think it is unlikely, but I wouldn't rule it out anymore. We didn't even get into some of the other questionable decisions, like the Reuvers redshirt, then not redshirt. Or remember when the Badgers played that awful zone defense?

The team doesn't look like it is quitting on Gard which would be a big warning sign. They just look frustrated with the losses, and bad play. With all the injuries and youth Gard gets a pass, but I think we will have to revisit this post around this time next year.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Teamcast tip: note the Projected T-Rank variable

One of the newer features over at the T-Rank site is a tool I call "Teamcast," which lets you select the results of a team's games and shows how those results would affect the T-Ranketology forecast.

I'm not gonna lie, I think this is a pretty awesome tool and I play around with it a lot. But of course there are some pretty important caveats to keep in mind:

1) The underlying T-Ranketology algorithm is not a crystal ball. Although it performed really well last year, last year was a pretty predictable year. In retroactive investigations, T-Ranketology does "pretty good" for prior years too. But overall it's safe to say that you should consider any T-Ranketology forecast to have at least a +/- one-seed margin of error.

2) There's reason to believe that this year will be much less predictable than prior years, because the Committee will be considering new and different information (most importantly, the new quality win quadrants). We can only presume how the Committee will use the new information. My guess is that they will use it to make some ... unpredictable ... choices.

That said, the Teamcast is still a fun tool, and at the very least it should be pretty good for looking at relative changes. If it's predicting your team to be an 8-seed, and picking it to win a game moves them up 4 spots to a 7-seed, it's reasonable to say the win was worth about one seed-line—even if it was actually from a 10 to a 9, or a 6 to a 5.

One important thing that gets overlooked, I think, by people playing around with the tool is that the current T-Rank rating plays a role. First, it is obviously how predictions for future games are calculated. Second, it is an independent variable in the T-Ranketology algorithm, and a not insignificant one. (Not because I think the committee is using it, but as a good-enough proxy for other ratings like Kenpom that the committee is using.)

So particularly if you are exploring an extreme scenario, like say, "What would happen if my team won the rest of its games?" you might get a weird result if you do not change the projected T-Rank as well. Because in the scenario where your team wins out, its T-Rank is probably going to improve a lot.

Fortunately, the Teamcast tool lets you change the projected T-Rank (right at the top of the page), which fixes this problem. In fact, simply changing the projected T-Rank and doing nothing else is a pretty good way to use Teamcast earlier in the season. E.g., keep upping the projected T-Rank until your team gets in the field, and that shows how well your team will have to play the rest of the way to likely make the tournament.

If you get any funky results with the Teamcast, or have ideas for improvement, please let me know.