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An Advanced Stats Primer on Watching College Basketball

Or “How to have fun and learn while rooting for TCU Basketball”, or “Please Stop Complaining about Free Throws”

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

(Obligatory disclaimer - KenPom should sponsor me for how much I praise his metrics, but I promise: if you have a passing interest in basketball, a KenPom subscription will immediately improve your life.)

AP Top 25

Hello, friends, and welcome to the football offseason, or since Jamie Dixon’s arrival in Fort Worth, that winter non-football period we call “basketball season.” Your TCU Horned Frogs have completed a solid offseason slate, posting an 11-1 record in a schedule of 10 top 200 teams, the lone loss coming at the hands of injuries and a senior-laden tournament squad. The Frogs are 25th in Kenpom, 31st in the NET, and received 20 votes in the most recent AP Men’s Poll. (If Lipscomb were a brand name, TCU would be ranked, but that’s another column.) The Frogs have marquee wins such as SMU in Dallas, USC in LA, and Fresno State at home. The resume took a hit with some bad outcomes in Hawaii, where TCU played 3 teams outside of the top 125 (one a repeat opponent) instead of facing #79 Colorado or #106 Rhode Island. Other than the Lipscomb blip, TCU has run through opponents, averaging a +15.58 raw scoring margin (+22.2 in the last five games), with adjusted offensive efficiency ranking 31st and defense 28th. The team is bolstered by a couple of expected offensive breakouts - Desmond Bane, JD Miller, and Jaylen Fisher all rank in the top 100 nationally in Offensive Rating, which is a convoluted but reliable measure of performance. Alex Robinson has facilitated the offense, ranking 3rd nationally in Assist Rate (2nd in Assists per Game) and in the top 250 in 3 point percentage. All in all, especially in the last five games, TCU has hit its stride on the court, and looks ready to contend in a confusing, volatile, and extremely talented Big 12.

Reading the comments, though, one might feel a different story. TCU’s having a great season, despite a minor bump, and is building to improve for a third straight season, and all anyone wants to do online is complain about free throws. TCU wins their OOC Christmas tournament soundly, outscoring opponents by 18 points a game, and people want to get upset about missing 12 free throws in 3 games. TCU is 171st in free throws, averaging just short of 70% on shots from the foul line. That’s less than it could be, and perhaps less than it should be, but still well above average. Yes, Alex Robinson can (and should) improve in free throws, but who can’t improve in a part of their game? Robinson is shooting 65.3% in all games this season, but in games designated as A or B tier, he’s shooting 83.3%. He’s fine. The Big 12 Conference average is 65.2%. TCU did shoot a meager 56% from the line in their lone loss, but the Madden-esque tautology of “TCU would’ve won if they’d just made more free throws” doesn’t get us very far. We can do better.

TCU is a recent convert to basketball relevance, and all of us here at FOW appreciate the fan intensity (not to mention our respect for some well-placed constructive criticism), but collectively, free throws are getting blown out of proportion, and I have a theory as to why: all of us are new to caring deeply about basketball, and basketball is a fast-paced, multi-dimensional games. As a result, free throws are low-hanging fruit for casual basketball watchers. Because this team is so talented, and because team performance is more than free throws, I present to you:

An Advanced Stats Primer on Watching College Basketball

Basketball is a game of fluid motion, action and reaction, simultaneous determination, multiple co-integration. Actions affect situations which affect outcomes which affect actions, over and over again, for forty minutes of chaos. If you were to try and model the decision processes of basketball in extensive form, you would quickly run out of paper and ink. Dean Oliver, the father of basketball analytics, has provided us with perhaps the most comprehensive and intuitive analytic system for any sport outside of baseball - the Four Factors of Basketball. (In fact, the creator of one of our favorite football measures, S&P+, stood on Oliver’s shoulders.) I won’t sit here and read to you, but I’ll quote Oliver’s essential thesis:

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT WINS IN BASKETBALL. It gets taken for granted a lot because, at the surface, what wins is pretty much common sense. What defines a win in the game of basketball - whether you’re in the U.S., in Australia, in Belgium, in a pro league or in a high school league - is scoring more points than those guys in the other color uniforms. Each team goes back and forth trading possession of the ball hopefully for points, sometimes for nothing.... [W]hat wins a basketball game is also scoring more points per possession than the guys in the other color uniforms. This, while adding some italics, doesn’t add a tremendous amount of insight into how to win a basketball game. Basically, it says that a team needs to be more efficient than its opponent to win..... [T]hese ratings can be broken down into four elements of the game: shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and getting to the foul line.

Read the whole thing.

According to Oliver, and consistent with reality, what matters in the game of basketball is how well you score when you have the ball, how well your opponent scores when they have the ball, how well you give yourself scoring opportunities, and how well you limit opponent opportunities.

Where the Frogs Stand Thus Far

In terms of KenPom, those four factors are Effective FG% (eFG%), Turnover % (TO%), Offensive Rebounding % (OR%), and Free Throw Rate (FTR).

  • eFG% appropriately rewards higher value shots (3pts), capturing a team’s style, aggression, and ability better than just shot percentage.

On offense, TCU is 22nd in the nation with an eFG% of 55.8. This is bolstered by their 58.1% 2PT%, lead by Kuoat Noi, JD Miller, and Kevin Samuel’s superb inside play.

On defense, the Frogs rank 21st, allowing 44.5%. They’ve shut down teams from three (28.3% 3P% allowed is 21st nationally), and again interior play has shown up (45.6% 2P% allowed (48th), 11.1 Block % (95th)), lead by Samuel’s 8.8 Block %.

  • TO% is simple: Number of turnovers divided by number of possessions.

Offensively, TCU ranks 78th with 17.3% TO rate. This is even more impressive considering that the Frogs are 4th in assists per FG made: even though the Frogs pass liberally, they don’t turn the ball over - their Steal Rate is 9th (6.4%).

Defensively, more of the same - TCU gets a turnover on 21.4% of possessions (67th), lead in steal rate by Robinson and Noi (3.0 and 2.9 respectively).

  • OR% splices the rebounding battle, highlighting the key point - how often on offense can you give yourself second chances, and how often on defense can you steal possessions? Historically, thanks to Kenny Hustle, this has been TCU’s wheelhouse.

On offense, the Frogs rank 100th (31%), well below their potential, but held down by some early injuries and Kevin Samuel’s early foul troubles. The Frogs recorded single digit offensive rebounds in 4 of their first five games, but have been in double digits since.

On defense, the Frogs struggle a little more, still well above average at 121st (27.2%). But, their two lowest rebounding performances, 21 against Eastern Michigan and SMU, featured great turnover defense and great shooting by opponents, which compounds our results some.

  • Finally, your favorite metric, Free Throws: free throws are free points. They’re great. But even more important than FT% is how often you get FT opportunities. Why? I’ll let Mr. Oliver explain: “Teams that get to the line more are more effective than teams that make a higher percentage of their free throws. Game-by-game exceptions can definitely exist - there are plenty of games that are lost by a team missing its foul shots - but over the long haul, just getting to the line frequently wins a lot more games than missing a few freebies will lose.”

On offense, TCU ranks 232nd in FTA/FGA made. Only Miller (116th) and Robinson (336th) are on the national radar in terms of FTR, although Bane and Robinson both rank in the top 150 in Fouls Called per 40 minutes.

On defense, TCU’s success has been limiting opponent opportunities for free points - 29.4% FTR, 78th nationally.

Now, none of these stats exist in a vacuum; they should all be used as benchmarks. When something seems off, they provide us starting points for investigation, diagnosis, and understanding. When we watch the game and look at the box score, we can fix our attention on more than just free throws. We can see where the Frogs rank on these Four Factors before the game, where there opponents rank, and use the box score to see what went differently than expected.

An Exercise in Basketball Analysis

For example, let’s look at Christian’s most recent preview, for Indiana State round two. Christian provides some great focal points for the casual viewer. (He also nailed the score exactly, which is fun. Read his previews.)

Christian’s two big points for the game were the Sycamore’s 2 point percentage and their turnovers:

  • Indiana State averages 29.9 eFG%, and 45.9 2P%. As I mentioned before, TCU allows 44.5 eFG%, and 45.6 2P%.
  • Indiana State’s TO% is 20, 228th in the nation with a steal rate of 8.4 (145th). TCU’s TO% is 67th (21.4%), steal % of 6.4 (9th).

TCU won the turnover battle, (+5, 12 to ISU’s 19), but Indiana State shot 53.3% on 2Ps, better than their season average. What did we learn from that? Against ISU, TCU struggled on interior defense, and ISU had a good night inside the arc.

In the other two four factors, TCU shot 81% from the FT line on 21 opportunities, well above their season average on makes and attempts, whereas Indiana State shot an abysmal 53.3% on 15 opportunities, well below their season averages. In terms of rebounds, when TCU had the ball, they lost the rebounding battle (-8, 10 ORs to ISU’s 18 DRs), but overwhelmed the other side of the court (+14, 23 DRs to ISU’s 9 ORs).

In conclusion, as we all turn our attention towards conference play, we can use analytics to learn to watch basketball more intelligently, and in doing so, understand and appreciate just how exactly TCU succeeds and stalls on the court. It’s not that free throws don’t matter, it’s just that they are a small piece of a big, complex game.