Arranged Marriages and Advanced Metrics
When I find myself playing shorthanded against a better player, I remind myself that aggression is the great equalizer. It is very difficult — in fact mathematically impossible — for a player to beat a hyperaggressive opponent more than about two thirds of the time.
PHIL GORDON, professional poker player, Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book
Aggression is often painted as the opposite of Control, whether in politics, in social interactions, or in sport. We tend to applaud the exercise of Control and look down upon the display of Aggression, treating it as a base and feral component of human nature that should be locked away deep inside and never set loose upon society. But what if you could balance the two? What if you could wed Control to Aggression and put their mixed-heritage child, adorable little ControlledAggression to work for you?
That’s what Brad Underwood has done at Stephen F. Austin. Control and Aggression are happily married, living a life of compromise under one roof at Johnson Coliseum in Nacogdoches, Texas. They’re sharing the chores, paying the bills, taking care of business and winning a whole lot of basketball games. The Lumberjacks are 61–8 over the last two seasons, including a magical 32–3 run capped by the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win in 2014, Underwood’s first season in charge. SFA is 35–1 in Southland Conference games during that span, by far the best two-year league record in the program’s NCAA Division I history.
Lest we get carried away on a blissful wave of recency bias, let’s remember something — winning is NOT new at SFA. Indeed, the prime reason Underwood landed there in the first place is that his predecessor, Danny Kaspar, did enough winning in Nacogdoches to raise the program’s prominence and make it an attractive job. In 13 years on the job, Kaspar took an SFA program with just three winning seasons in its entire Division I lifetime and turned it into a three-time Southland Conference champion with an NCAA Tournament appearance.
But when Kaspar left to take the Texas State job in 2013, his departure coincided with that of the reigning league player of the year, along with two additional starters and all-conference performers. Underwood inherited a team with just six returning lettermen. He had eight newcomers, and the Lumberjacks entered the 2013–14 campaign projected by polling of league peers to finish no better than third. Makes sense that it might take Underwood — a head coach at the D-I level for the first time in his life — some time to get things going, right?
In a word … Nah. All the Lumberjacks did was throw down the best season in school history, win a Southland-record 29 straight games, and win the league’s first (non-play-in) NCAA Tournament game since 2006. They followed that up with a 29–5 showing, a third consecutive league title and a second straight trip to the Big Dance last season. Oh yeah, and they did all that without a starter taller than 6–6.
How? Well, I’m not an insider, but my theory, as espoused above, is that Underwood secretly brokered an arranged marriage between Control and Aggression and told them to go make a baby — a Piney Woods Hardwood Holy Child, a Righteous Roundball Redeemer, who would lead his team to the promised … sorry, we’re getting too transcendental. Let’s look at some numbers.
First, to quantify Aggression. When I think aggressive basketball I think run and gun, up and down, transition buckets. One-fourth of SFA’s initial field goal attempts in 2014–15 occurred in transition (within 10 seconds of a non-stoppage change of possession). That number ranked 124th nationally. The previous season, Underwood’s first, SFA ranked 294th in the country, with 20.4 percent of its first shots coming in transition. Nothing remarkable about those numbers, unless you contrast them with the two seasons pre-Underwood. In 2012–13, SFA attempted just 13.8 percent of its initial field goals in transition — 342nd in the nation. The previous year — 15.4 percent, 334th nationally. The Lumberjacks ranked dead last in the Southland Conference each of those two years. Even with their spike in transition attempts the last two seasons, they were only 11th and 10th in the league, respectively. So, no, you can’t call SFA basketball a track meet on hardwood, but to go from the bottom of the pack in transition attacking to near the top third nationally in just two seasons is fairly remarkable.
Now, we’re clearly looking at a more aggressive SFA team in terms of running the floor, but that alone doesn’t account for the results of the last two years. This is where Control comes into play. Anybody can run, and many do. But the Lumberjacks run with purpose and are particularly adept at quickly finding and attempting (and converting) the highest percentage look they can get. In 2013–14, SFA posted an effective field goal percentage of 64.7 in transition. That ranked fifth in the country and led the Southland. A year ago, the Lumberjacks’ eFG% in transition dipped to 62.6, good for 16th in the nation. It’s worth noting, though, that of the 15 teams ahead of them, only Duke and Notre Dame had a higher percentage of their total field goal attempts in transition. Let that sink in. I’ll give you a minute.
Yeah. SFA has been deadly efficient over the last two years. They’ve maximized their efficiency through Aggression by attacking the rim, both in transition and the half-court, and using that Aggression to get better looks from outside. This is a huge shift away from the Lumberjacks’ tendencies of the past. In 2011–12, SFA ranked in the top 20 nationally in terms of settling for 2-point jump shots, with the mid-range game accounting for 43.3 percent of its total attempts. The following year, SFA lowered that number to 36 percent and dropped out of the top 100 nationally. (It’s worth noting that the shot selection stats in this campaign were a bit skewed due to Southland Player of the Year Taylor Smith dunking everything he got his hands on.) The ‘Jacks have limited their mid-range attempts to less than 30 percent of their total shots in each of the last two years. They were at 28.3 percent in 2013–14 and dropped that figure to 23.1 percent a year ago. That means they’re taking more and more shots either at the basket or from behind the arc. Combine that with their 55.9 eFG% last year (10th in the nation) and you get … well, a team that has won 61 games over the last two seasons, despite its lack of a true center, and a bench rotation that hasn’t seen a single player average more than 31 minutes per game.
Aggression. Constantly attacking, but under Control and with a defined purpose. It’s been fun to watch, and I can’t wait to see more of it.
Stats sourced from http://www.hoop-math.com. It’s an awesome website if you’re into metrics that you can’t get from the standard box score. Go check it out and buy a subscription. Totally worth it.