Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Todd Lickliter and Butler by the numbers

(First: Huge thanks to kenpom.com, midmajority.com, and the Big Ten Wonk for their invaluable data. Without you, I am a level 50 hack, not a level 47 hack.)

(Second: if you do not enjoy reading, by all means, skip to last night's last post for an incredibly amateurish MS Paint joke on our new coach's name. I understand completely.)

Since the Lickliter (still ruminating on a good nickname, by the way; Dickbiter's a little too crass) news came down as a bit of a shock yesterday, people have been scrambling to figure out more about the guy. Most of the talk comes down to his 131-61 record at Butler (good), his two Sweet 16 appearances (very good), and his award for, oh, BEST COACH OF THE YEAR by the NABC this year (I may now be aroused).

But that doesn't really tell us too much about what sort of team we can expect from Lick. Yeah, apparently at Butler and in Indiana, they just call him Lick. Great. Do they call his wife Fellate? I digress. For example, what sort of defense should we expect? Offense? Will they be exciting? Is he seriously called "Lick"?

First, the bad news: Butler played a slower pace of basketball than Iowa did last year. In conference games, they averaged 60.3 possessions per game, whereas Iowa averaged 63.8. That may not seem like a big difference, but it's precisely the same difference between the second-slowest team in the Big Ten (Illinois, 60.3) and the second-fastest (Iowa again). Such news will, undoubtedly, infuriate the Wonk, but now he too knows the feeling of having your plaintive cries for change ignored.

All hope is not lost, however, because Butler abused the Horizon League at that pace. Their efficiency margins were insanely good; not only did they lead the league in offensive points per possessions (O-PPP) (yeah you know me) at 1.16--which would have led the Big 10--but they also led the Horizon in defensive points per possession (D-PPP) (no clever Naughty by Nature joke) at a downright miserly 0.91 D-PPP. Essentially--since both teams will have an equal number of possessions per game--Butler averaged scoring a quarter of a point more than their opponents per possession. Work that into the 60 possessions per game, and you see that Butler beat their opponents by 15 points a game. That +0.24 conference efficiency margin, in case you were wondering, is a good 50% higher than OSU's, who led the Big Ten at +0.16. By the way, if you're questioning the usefulness of efficiency margins and scrutinizing hundredths of points like this, you may want to compare that above link to the Big Ten standings.

Now I know, I know, "But they're playing in the Horizon League!" That didn't seem to hamper Thad Matta much, though, did it? He was Lickliter's predecessor at Butler, and uh, he's doing all right these days.

To be fair, though, those efficiency numbers merit mention. As far as the non-conference performace goes, of course, the season's efficiency slips to a downright pedestrian (cough) +0.165--still one of the best in the nation. Moreover, that was not against a subpar nonconference schedule; for a while, Butler was the #1 team in the RPI standings. After a rare loss to Indiana State and a few more cupcakes, Butler finished at #15 in the non-conference tilt, against the 27th toughest slate of opponents. Just so we're clear, Iowa was slightly worse.

But just characterizing Butler as "outscoring their opponents at a historic rate" doesn't quite do justice to their team's performance this year. They didn't just outplay their conference opponents, they destroyed them.

They were the best at 2-pt% and 3-pt%. Their PPWS (points per weighted shot) was an astonishing 1.177--by way of comparison, the only Iowa player who shot as efficiently as Butler did as a team was Seth Gorney. The Lotus Blossom. The Gorn Star (who desperately needs a Gornstache).

Not only did Butler shoot the ball better than everybody else, they did so while maintaining a historically low turnover percentage--look at the bottom, and increase the font size if you have to. Both their turnovers per game and their turnover rate per possession were the lowest in the nation. So they shot well. They never gave the ball away. And their defense? Magnificent.

As a matter of fact, no team in the Horizon was stingier against 2-pt shots (more on how remarkable that stat is later)--the 'Dogs allowed just 42.4% shooting from inside the arc. Outside wasn't much better for opponents, who were able to convert a hair over 30% of those shots. That was actually second-best in the Horizon, behind a Wright State Raiders team that topped the 'Dogs by about one percentage point. So Butler is mortal, and Lickliter probably didn't sell his soul to Satan. Good to know for down the road.

So why is it such a big deal that Butler led the league in 2-pt defense? For starters, uh... it's the starters. Butler's tallest starter is 6'7"--equally as tall as the three tallest backups. None of them are particularly big, per se; the starting F/C Brian Ligon is the biggest at 6'7", 240, but even he only plays fewer than 20 minutes per game.

With the dearth in size, of course, comes lackluster rebounding, which is the one "weakness" of the Bulldogs. They only gathered 68.6% of their defensive rebounds, good enough for sixth best in the nine-member Horizon. Their offensive rebounding was similarly subpar, at 29.6%--seventh best in the conference. All in all, they only gathered 49.1% of the rebounds in games played. So if there's one concern, one might say it's that. Except...

...as the Wonk has so astutely maintained, that's a tradeoff that's often good to make. As a matter of fact, lots of teams choose to be a POT: perimeter-oriented team. For example, Illinois tried it in 2005, where they were a couple shining moments away from winning the title. West Virginia has done it well enough for John Beilein to parlay it to a gig in Ann Arbor. So not only is it not necessarily a bad thing, it's a conduit to high levels of success in regular and postseason play (the prevailing wisdom on winning the thing seems to be "recruit a shitload of lottery picks," but that's another matter).

All in all, referring back to the Butler midmajority.com page, check out the "conference games only" ranks at the bottom (once again, enlarge it if you have to). Of 27 performance-based measures of play (pace being a matter of style, not actual performance), Butler led the conference in 17 of them. That's not just outplaying your opponent, that's out-practicing, out-coaching, and out-executing. It was all done with Lickliter's players--he's been there six years, after all--and it can come with him to the Big Ten. Not the "leading 17 categories" part, of course, but that high level of efficiency and performance can definitely come back.

By and large, if you're not excited as hell about Lickliter, you ought to have your head examined.


Anonymous said...

Nice work on this post. Not sure how I feel about the panic from the media surrounding whether Alford's "star" recruits (Cole and Kelly) are coming to Iowa.

I'd rather lose next year with Lickliter's players than lose with Alford's "can't miss" recruits.

Deacon said...

You neglected to mention any possibility of Lickliter ties to FCA. In spite of your fancy basketball analysis and compelling argument, if Lickliter wears a WWJD band there will be hell to pay in the state of Iowa. We Iowans are notoriously neopagan and proud.

Anonymous said...

I'm ashamed to admit that 'dickbiter' was the first one I came up with too. What about 'kickfighter' or 'hicksmiter'?

JebusHChrist said...

I was going to write a post about Lickliter and dreaded looking up numbers and facts and all of that stuff. Then I thought, HOORAY! that's what Steve Alford's Hair Gel is for! So instead, I wrote a filthy analogy and I was happy.
Thanks man.
Oh yeah, I'm ecstatic about the hire.

CoryM said...

As long as Football is main focus for the Hawkeyes- They will never have a great Basketball Team. I do not ever see that changing.

Michael said...

This is the first I've read of the Wonk. Describing Gorney as a Lotus Blossom topped the Sonderleiter cake. Keep it up. Your breakdown of Butler was Craig Neal(astic in a timeout).