Freshman Ahlise Hurst shoots against UTEP (Photo: Gary Stepic)

Is the 10-1 start supported by the numbers?

First day of 2019, day before the conference opener.  I thought it might be a good time to take a look at where the team is, and how coach-speak compares to the non-conference play performance.  Mostly I took a look at the elements Mike Bradbury has said are his focus and compared them to the past two seasons, and to the 2014-15 season that was the best season in Yvonne’s Sanchez’ period.

But before that, a few thoughts from Monday’s practice, the last one before MWC games.

There wasn’t anything particularly surprising about practice.  All 15 players were there, and the couple hours were fast paced, roughly evenly split between offense and defense.  It started with some 2 person drills offensive drills, 3 person drills, 3 on 3, up to 5 on 5 half-court.  A few things caught my attention:

–Work was more evenly split on passing into the post, getting inside a zone for an open shot, and moving the ball for a good look three point shot.

–Outside shooting continued to be inconsistent.  One moment the team hit 9 of 11 from three, then missed seven in a row.  Most the time they looked to be getting set squared to the basket better.  More on three point shooting later.

–Bre and Shai look to be improving their moves under the basket.  Both a quick jumpers and can get their shots off from all kinds of angles—something necessary when being defended by Nike or Bride.  AT was still spending more time with the guards than the posts.

My favorite drill to watch is the fast break drill:  One player has the ball at the baseline and makes an outlet pass diagonally to mid-court to a second player running down the sideline.  The second player—in one step—catches it and relays it diagonally to a third player running towards the basket who catches it and goes for a layup.  The ball never touches the ground.  The trios in any given instantiation of the drill rotate through, and some of them make the neck hurt trying to follow:

–Q to Aisia to Bre

–Shai to Nike to Ahlise

–Madi to Bride to Naj

But surprisingly the fastest trios, consistently, were any combination with Bride the player at half court.  Her ability to catch the first pass, turn, and send the ball on a rope to the finisher is just smoother and quicker than anyone else’s.   Foot speed on this break drill matters for the finisher—for the other two players it is about ball movement and accuracy.

On defense it was all focused on what Air Force wants to run.  How Mike wants the players to cover screens, and emphasizing when (and who) to double and when (who) not to double.  There was a concession that the Lobos will be quicker than the Falcons, but all the coaches kept emphasizing the need for disciplined positional D, and not to rely upon superior quickness to save them.

OK, now to the issue of “Where are we as we start conference play?”

When he arrived, Bradbury’s stated philosophy on offense revolved around three points:

–Play fast, make the other team play fast

–Get layups and get fouled

–Shoot threes

On defense:

–Have a net positive in (rebounds plus turnovers)

–Make the opponent take poor shots

The personnel changed significantly from year 1 to year 2, and from year 2 to year 3.  How have these three points of emphasis held up?

Play Fast:  Playing faster should result in more shots.  Not necessarily good shots—that is a different issue—and not necessarily making the shots—also a different thing.  Those two are important, but here we are looking at just the “play fast” part.

2014-15  57 FGA per game

2016-17  63

2017-18  67

2018-19  70

Granted, the conference opponents will likely drop this 70 FGA/gm some, and I plan on doing a comparison at the end of the season as well.  But it may not drop terribly much, given games against SJS and Fresno, and even Boise.  So in the mid-term this is a YES, we are playing faster.

More Ahlise. Photo by Gary Stepic

Get layups, get fouled:  This is harder to do a quick assessment of since I don’t have the data for lay-ups.  I could tally points in the paint by game, but that is not really the same thing.  Instead for purposes of this article—and because I am lazy at times—I looked at percentage of shots by the posts (which is still a bit fuzzy) and foul shots taken per game as surrogate measures, but are actually more post-focus than lay-up focus.  I wish I did have the data, but without it I couldn’t think how to examine the “more layups” piece I felt confident it.  Too many layups were drives by Cherise, Jayla, Antiesha, etc.

But I could look at FT attempts.  Not really the same thing, but might be interesting in its own right:

2014-15  19 FTs shot per game

2016-17  18

2017-18  19

2018-19  20

A slow, slight increase from 2016-2018, but not one that is likely statistically significant.  And when compared to Yvonne’s 2014-15 year, Mike’s teams have shot fewer FTAs per FGA—something I was surprised to see since we seem to attack the basket more aggressively now.

I don’t have the data to say whether we are getting more layups so I will give an INCOMPLETE on this one, though subjectively I do believe we have upped out lay-up % this season, even with Cherise’s departure.

Point guard, Aisia Robertson. Photo by Gary Stepic.

Three point shooting:  A lot easier to assess to make the comparison.  What is our reliance on three-point shots (i.e. what percentage of our FG attempts are 3s?) and how well are we making them?

2014-15  20% of FG attempts were from beyond the arc, and we shot 29%

2016-17  37% shot, 28% made

2017-18  39% shot, 34% made

2018-19  35% shot, 28% made

Photo by UNM

Losing Tesha and Alex without any replacements who are as reliable has been a clear contributor.  The other factor in my mind, is that Mike has continued to adapt to the players he actually has even while the coach-speak may say otherwise.  I expect he would like to have the three-point contribution move up a tick, but until the success justifies it I suspect we will stay about where we are—or if Nike continues to shoot/score a bit more, maybe even drop a little.  [Note:  because we are taking more shots per game, we are actually only shooting one less three point attempt per game].  Midterm grade:  YES, we are still a team closely wedded to the 3 pt shot.

Net Positive in Reb + TOs:  Depending upon the roster there was a willingness to trade on one or the other of these stats.  Looking at the four seasons in question:

2014-15  +2.4 rebound margin, +0.6 TO margin.  Combined:  +3.0

2016-17  +4.3 rebounds, -1.4 TOs, Combined:  +2.9

2017-18  -1.1 rebounds, +4.2, Combined:  +2.9

2018-19  +7.5 rebounds, +3.9 TOs, Combined:  +11.4

OK, even with just a half season, this one is eye catching.  11 net possessions is a lot, and if we add a +3.8 margin on blocks per game and that is a lot of extra opportunities in a game that hides some of the poor shooting we have had at times.  This on, for this team, is obviously a very big YES–we are greatly improved on net possessions.

Make the opponent take poorer shots.  The obvious surrogate metric for this one is opponent shooting percentage.  That isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s the best I have data for.

2014-15  39% opponent FG %

2016-17  35

2017-18  41%

2018-19  33%

Last year’s team clearly did not defend very well, and/or they had some bad luck.  This season’s 33% puts the Lobos 13th in field goal defense nationally.  Again, for this season so far, that goal gets a midterm YES.

What does it add up to?  Not completely sure since a lot of other variables are not accounted for, but looking at the areas the coaching staff calls out as important, the 2018-19 Lobos are showing substantial improvement in the defensive metrics, and a mixed bag on the offensive ones.

Next chapter, Wednesday night in a conference game against AF.

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