I’ll be honest, it feels a bit weird to talk about actual basketball right now for a couple of reasons. 1) It’s May. 2) The off-court gunk surrounding the program has taken up the majority of the headspace that we reserve for caring about Marquette basketball. This crowd-sourcing project might as well be my own infant and I felt weird plugging it mere days after the Hausers announced their intentions to transfer. While the state of the program as a whole should rightfully dominate the majority of our conversation this offseason, we should still keep in mind the immediate needs of next year’s team. While head coach Steve Wojciechowski’s transformation of the defense in 2018 proved to be the second best transformation in 2018 (behind Emma Stone’s voice transformation to suit her stellar role in The Favourite), I want to know why it improved and what still needs to be done.
Last month I asked you, the loyal fan, to once again assist me in scouting the Marquette defenders. I won’t rehash the theory behind it in totality (that’s what clicking that link in the last sentence is for), but the basic concept is that 100 fan observations in areas without a lot of statistical clarity, as defensive stats in basketball are, can fill in the gaps of the numbers. You likely played your part in the voting process, and now that the votes have been tabulated I can comb through the results. I’ll start by handing out some individual awards and then take another stab at putting the scores in a broader context, which should be easier now that we have last year’s results as a comparison.
First thing’s first, here’s a Google Sheet. It has last year’s results as well as this year’s. I’ll be referencing the numbers that stick out, but feel free to peek at the results for your own enjoyment. You can even play with projections for next year if you want to export it to Excel, since it’s in “View Only” mode.
Best Defender Award
We’re kicking this off hot. The best defender on the team, with a total score of 8.1/10, is Theo John *applause as Oscar music starts playing*. As it turns out, being stronger than the offspring of an ox and a concrete pillar with the ability to swat away more shots than Tim Tebow in Vegas will get you noticed by fans. Congrats, Theo.
Worst Defender “Award”
Sorry, Markus Howard, but being 5’11” is just too much of a hurdle. He rated as a 4.64/10 defender overall, but this is also why I ask you not to consider the player’s position. Having that consistent baseline from the onset means that we can put on our Context Hats after the fact to see what these numbers really say. Yes Markus is shorter and weaker than the average college player, but he’s also not guarding the average college player. He’s mainly trying to stop guys around his size. While that still leaves him at a disadvantage, it’s not as drastic. Looking at the other categories he still appears to be in the bottom tier of Marquette defenders, but I wouldn’t immediately peg him as the worst. Using this further context I’d say it’s more accurate that the fans have Joey Hauser as the worst defender, given the type of players he’d be guarding. Sorry, Joey. I’ll still miss you.
Best Individual Attribute
Theo’s strength was rated a 9.66/10, with 70% of voters giving him a 10/10. Normally I filter out votes that lie on the extreme ends of the spectrum because I think those fans are getting way too carried away, but Theo John is legitimately one of the 5 or 10 strongest players in the country right now. I’m so thankful that we get two more years of him.
Worst Individual Attribute (Non-Guard Division)
I really just wanted to mention a player other than Markus or Theo. Matt Heldt’s lateral quickness was not something to write home about. The fans gave it a 4.57/10. Unrelated, but what I found incredible about the voting process is that 12 people, myself included, gave Matt Heldt a 10/10 in every single category. Heldt’s Twelve Apostles (my new name for us) did not communicate on this strategy. In fact I have no idea who did this. We gave him perfect 10s in everything just for our own amusement. No one was looking over our shoulders giggling at our creativity. We just did it as our own weird personal send-off to The Milkman. It’s beautiful in a way. I did not filter out any 10/10 votes for Heldt, but you better believe that every single 1/10 vote was cast directly to Abaddon.
Best Team Attribute
You fans really like the cut of this team’s jib. Collectively, the team average a 7.74/10 in the Hustle category. I do think putting non-tangibles like intelligence and hustle into this exercise is necessary, but it can lead to some bias. I recently blindly emailed Ken Pomeroy about his thoughts on this project and he responded (#humblebrag) with some good insight on the matter. The quote that stuck out to me was, “I think every fan wants to think their team hustles and is smart and it’s tough to really disprove it.” I don’t want to completely wipe away your thoughts on the matter, because there was some nuance between different players, but in the overall scores I’m giving these categories half the weight of the others.
Worst Team Attribute
It looks like the team can be quicker, as the team scored a 6.04/10 in the lateral quickness category. If you want an idea of how far the defense has come, that 6.04 ranks higher than 3 different team attributes of 2018.
Result That I Disagreed On The Most
I really think you guys did Joseph Chartouny dirty. Yes, he was a large disappointment overall due to him being a sinkhole on offense, but he played some good defense, lack of steals relative to his Fordham days notwithstanding. I thought he showed great anticipation off the ball and never gave up easy shots in spot-up situations. He wasn’t the quickest guy in the world, but I thought he deserved a lot better than the 4.96/10 overall score.
Pearl Jam Award For Even Distribution of Scores
That was a terrible attempt to reference the song Even Flow. Completely unnecessary and hardly makes any sense. I don’t even like Pearl Jam that much. Anyway with the exception of his hustle score, Sacar Anim’s attributes ranged from 6.43 to 7.26 out of 10.
Surprise of the Year
Most of you were actually fair to the Hauser brothers. About 10% of you went on a weird spiteful rampage and gave them both 1/10s in every category, but I expected a fair amount of Grumpy Guses. Your votes were removed and then promptly shot into the sun, by the way, so....congrats? For the rest of you, I thought there would be at least some hidden biases, which would have been understandable, but all the votes for the Hausers were quite fair.
If I could just beat it into your skulls that you’re not supposed to consider the player’s position during this process, that’d be super.
Big Picture Type Stuff
Let’s start with some comparisons from last year to this year. Here’s a screenshot from the Comparison Sheet tab of the Google Sheet.
Positive changes are good things. I should give the caveat about the “Shot Contesting Change” row. Last year I named the category “Vertical Leap” so a direct comparison between the years probably isn’t wise and would explain the massive jump (ba dum tssss) in Matt Heldt’s score change from last year to this.
Putting Heldt’s overly subjective scores aside, what stands out to me is the improvement in every single category on a team-wide level. I think Wojo made a tremendous adjustment to give playing time to more switchable players, which went a long way in those improvements. Theo John and Ed Morrow getting minutes over Matt Heldt, the increasing role of Brendan Bailey over the course of the year, and the avoidance of recruiting any score-first guards after the departure of Andrew Rowsey are the most notable symptoms of this strategy shift.
If you want an idea of why I want as many votes as possible, look at the changes in length among the players. Length should ideally be considered a stagnant category. College kids don’t often grow in any way. I can see how a guy can use his size better and thus appear to “play bigger”, but there shouldn’t be that much change among all the applicable players.
Looking at the trend of the individuals that played for both years of this exercise, it looks like the biggest changes are made from freshman to sophomore year. It may not immediately appear that way given Jamal Cain’s change, but he was listed as the second best defender on the team last year. There wasn’t a whole lot for him to improve besides his strength, and the fact that I changed the “Vertical Leap” category to “Shot Contesting” hurt him a lot since his jumping ability is unlike anything that I’ve seen on this team. I’d be willing to bet that improvements like Theo John’s lean more towards a normal college player’s development.
Given the smaller improvements of the upper classmen (minus Heldt), I wonder how much the average college player truly improves over their final years. Sam Hauser had a glaring area of weakness last year (lateral quickness) and Markus Howard needed to improve on strength and shot contesting. None of those really happened and I’m not sure they’re things we can reasonably expect to ever happen. It’s easy to look at a flawed defensive player and say that once he improves on defense the team will be better. Once the hurdle of playing at a college speed has been overcome, players are pretty limited to what their physical attributes allow them to do. To that end, it’ll be hard for me to see more improvement for the juniors and seniors, which can affect players like Sacar Anim. He’ll probably see players like Greg Elliott (remember him?) and Brendan Bailey catch up to him in value.
That’s the broad overview of what happened. I want to narrow the view to some of the specific numbers here. Let’s refresh ourselves on our findings from last year, though.
Weighted by percentage of minutes played, Marquette defenders averaged a 5.38/10 in 2018, which roughly translated to being an average team over the spectrum of all D-1 basketball. That’s a tad above what the actual KenPom results indicated, so my conclusion was that Wojo didn’t get the most out of his players. Even worse was that had he played everyone an even number of minutes, that average would’ve been bumped up to 5.97/10, which means that the lineup construction made the defense even worse. That aligned with what many people saw from the “Screw Defense” lineup of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey playing simultaneously. However, Wojo’s strategy of recruiting defensive-minded transfers like Ed Morrow and Joseph Chartouny to replace the defensive black hole of Rowsey led me to believe that the defense would exceed a top 75 level this past year, which was wild to think about at the time.
With the final results in now, the Marquette defenders improved to a 6.32/10 average this year, weighted by minutes played. That’s a massive improvement. If everyone on the team played an equal share of minutes, that number would have been bumped up to 6.53/10, but that can be explained by Theo’s foul trouble, Markus Howard being the Greek God of Orange Spheres on offense, and Joey Hauser getting a longer leash because of his offensive potential. All that is to say that I think Wojo’s lineup construction was fine. The transfer of the Brothers Hauser will of course create a huge dent in the team’s offensive capabilities, but it likely won’t matter on the defensive end. While Sam has been a fine defender, I didn’t see much improvement coming for Joey. Those minutes will end up being taken by guys Brendan Bailey, Ed Morrow and Jamal Cain, all of whom are solid defenders in the right spots (please don’t give Ed minutes at the 4 spot).
If you want to take a stab at projecting next year’s defense you can plug in numbers on the Next Year Projection row of the 2019 Filter Liars tab of the spreadsheet. Giving your score out of 10 for next year’s players will churn out a score under the cell titled “Next Year’s Team (Minutes Weighted by T-Rank)”.
Now comes the part where I ask the question, “Where do the team scores put us in the context of college basketball?” 6.32/10 means nothing without knowing where other teams are. I can’t say that it means they’re in the 63rd percentile because the best defensive team isn’t scoring 10/10s across the board since every player isn’t a 7’2” boulder who’s also light of foot. I’d venture to guess that if every fanbase participated in this exercise the best teams would hover around a 7/10 average and the worst teams would be around 3/10. This would mean that Marquette’s defenders are in the 83rd percentile of all team defenders. In other words, based on raw abilities we would expect Marquette to be the 60th best defensive team in the country. KenPom’s final numbers pegged them at 45 overall, so I think it’s fair to say that Wojo came close to getting the most out of his players. There’s just one more check that I want to do to make sure these averages are valid,
In the polls that you filled out, I gave instructions to not look up stats when thinking about your scores because I only want to know what your eyes say. There was, however, one category in which the score should be more objective than the others: length. It’s very easily measured and readily available. The only guesswork comes when we’re factoring wingspan, but that won’t add to much to a players score. The reason I have it as a category is because 1) it matters, and 2) I wanted to see how much are scores should be taken seriously. If your length figures were way off what they actually are, then maybe we should be taking these values with a grain of salt.
Marquette’s average length score was 7.46/10. I’ll guess that teams fall within the 4/10 to 8/10 range, which would put the team in the 86.5 percentile, or the 47th tallest team. According to KenPom, Marquette was actually the 42nd tallest team, so you guys were spot on. Give yourselves a pat on the back. You earned it. Especially you over there in the Marquette shirt.
I realize that I’m not breaking a ton of news here when I definitively say that the defense improved this year, but there are multiple reasons for it that I think Wojo deserves credit for. He added players with good defensive abilities, didn’t cripple the team by putting out terrible defensive lineups for marginal gains on offense, and changed his scheme so that he could get more out of the players that he had. There are a lot of question marks for the team (players and coaching staff alike) going into next year that deserve all the attention that they’ve received, but I’m pretty confident that the defensive end will not be one of those question marks as long as Wojo doesn’t go with a 2 bigs lineup often (or at all, please).
I heavily encourage you to play around with the Google Sheets link (here it is again). I really appreciate the folks who reached out to me. Those pointers helped me pin down a better formula and put this season into a bigger context better than I did last year. This is my favorite thing to do as a basketball writer, so of course I plan on doing this again next year. Please keep giving feedback to me because there’s still ways that this can improve.