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Marquette’s Defense, KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency Ratings, And You

I got impatient with how the esteemed fancy math site adjusts to actual results and did some digging.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Season Tip-Off-Louisville vs Marquette
mmmmm, defense
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a well worn path to discuss Marquette basketball and their need to be better on the defensive end of the court after the last two seasons. I’m not cutting across any new information here for you. I think every single preseason publication that wrote anything about the Golden Eagles included something to the effect of “If they can defend worth a lick at all this year, they can challenge for the Big East title.”

Back in October, we were treated to a little bit of hope when the KenPom.com preseason rankings came out and the algorithm spit out a #66 mark for MU’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. After two sub-160 years, #66 is A-OK by me. However, there is a reason to be hesitant with our emotions. After all, before the 2017-18 season, the KenPom math said MU’s defense was going to #85 in the country, and, uh, well, that didn’t work out quite that way.

Anyway, that brings us to right now. Marquette has played six games this year, with three of them coming against high major opponents. It’s safe to start looking at things through the eyes of “hey, this is really what MU is this season” with that many data points at work.

Heading into Tuesday’s contest against Charleston Southern, Marquette has the #56 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranking in the country.

That is... wait, hang on.....

[cleans glasses]

[grabs magnifying glass]

[inspects data closely]

That is better than the preseason ranking.

Of course, there’s a lot of things at work here. We don’t know about the quality of everyone’s schedule, and there could be a lot of volatility in the rankings as a result. On top of that, Ken Pomeroy isn’t shy about explaining that the Adjusted Efficiency numbers are still heavily reliant on the preseason calculations at this point of the season, and there will still be some preseason stuff baked in there until right around the first of the year. That 10 point shift upwards could be explained away fairly easily through a number of factors.

So here’s what I did. Knowing that the Adjusted Efficiency metrics are essentially points per 100 possessions with tweaks for quality of opponent and location of the game, I decided to drag together Marquette’s raw numbers to see what we can see.

Ready?

Okay, here we go. This is just straight math. Points divided by number of possessions multiplied by 100. No adjustment anywhere else.

Through six games in 2018-19, Marquette is allowing 93.94 points per 100 possessions.

In 2017-18, for the whole season, that number was 110.36 points per 100 possessions.

In 2016-17, for the whole season, that number was 105.87 points per 100 possessions.

People of Earth, let me tell you this: Marquette’s defense is one whole hell of a lot better this season. Yes, there’s the disaster against Indiana where the Hoosiers put up 128 points per 100 possessions. It’s not perfect. But think about this: That 93.94 is WITH Indiana going haywire for 40 minutes. Imagine how much lower it would be if MU was even passable on defense in that game.

There is, of course, a catch. Because there’s always a catch, right?

Back in January, Pomeroy himself authored a column for The Athletic on teams trading overwhelming offensive might in favor of shoring up their defense. In short: there’s a certain advantage to amazingly efficient offensive teams with shoddy defenses making a change of some kind that costs them points on offense but helps them pick up on the defensive end. It’s obviously not the same change for every team, but if you can figure out how to trade a point per 100 possessions on offense for two points per 100 possessions on defense, you should probably do that.

Whether it was intentionally done or whether it was a byproduct of roster change or whether it’s some combination of the two, Steve Wojciechowski has done exactly that for Marquette. At least through six games.

Remember that impressive cutdown in points per 100 possession on defense? Well, here’s what the numbers look like on offense.

2016-17: 115.19 points per 100 possessions
2017-18: 114.30 points per 100 possessions
2018-19 thus far: 105.13 points per 100 possessions

Is that just Andrew Rowsey’s departure? Is that Wojo making a change? I don’t know. It seems like Marquette is largely running the same offensive system that he was running a year ago, but I’m just taking that from visual memory of “yes, this looks like a lot of the same cuts I remember from last year” as opposed to any kind of Synergy-fueled breakdown or anything like that. With that being the case, it might just be the lack of a fireball like Rowsey powering (or, in this case, de-powering) the offensive decline.

I’m not calling for a panic, by the way. Let’s let Ed Morrow shake off some rust and let’s let Joseph Chartouny figure out how to fit in best on this team. Maybe there’s a breakthrough coming. After all, Markus Howard is only shooting 36.7% on the season from behind the three-point line. How is that offensive number going to look if he finishes the year up at 40%?