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St. John's basketball: by the numbers, part 1 (tempo free)

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(I've taken inspiration from VBTN's Fourth Quartile post, plus the newly published College Basketball Prospectus Handbook)

As most college basketball watchers know, the St. John's Red Storm squad just hasn't been good in the past few years. Discussions of college basketball coaches on the "hot seat" routinely involve Coach Norm Roberts and his tenuous hold on the job in Queens.

Opposing teams mark the St. John's as "win". Opposing fans in the New York area buy up tickets in the Garden.

Now, many blog posts and articles about "yes we can" and the "turnaround" come up before this season.

By the numbers, the average performance of the team has been pretty mediocre, as the coaching staff attempts to bring in Grade-A NYC area talent to play for the traditional city team. The team took a step back last year, with the 11-19 record.

But in Big East conference play, the squad really took a hard fall from the 2007 "heights".

They couldn't do very much right, with scoring and the prevention of scoring being the biggest bugaboos, especially in whipped-dog performances against Georgetown, Villanova, and Virginia Tech at home, Cincinnati and Miami on the road...

...Though turnovers popped up (notably against Marquette and Virginia Tech), and too many free throw attempts lost winnable close games against Niagara, Ohio, and Tulane; and in most conference games, as well.

Does all of this mean that they are destined to failure? I don't think so; the defensive principles of a team do seem to improve with some consistency of players and coaching. And if it's one thing this team will enjoy, it's some consistency in the roster - only two major contributors from last year left. Cynics would point out that they have been consistently bad, and they would be right... so consistency might be unwelcome with this basketball team.

This post is a tempo-free look at the St. John's Red Storm, both in the Big East conference and overall. A shorter look at the overall performance is coming on this blog.

Methodological Note.

U Conn Jerome Dyson scores on Sean EvansFor simplicity and time's sake, I'll use the "Four Factors" concept. Below are definitions of the Four Factors terms (made popular by Dean Oliver and used widely by Basketball Prospectus and statheads everywhere), borrowed from and

These stats are generally accepted (see Basketball on Paper for notes on the original studies that led Oliver to these conclusions) to be the numbers that are most often correlated with winning and losing college basketball games:

Effective field goal percentage (eFG%): This statistic adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. For example, suppose Player A goes 7 for 14 with 6 threes, while Player B goes 10 for 20 with 0 threes. Each player has 20 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage (50%). The formula is (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA. This statistic speaks to how efficiently a team or a player can score points.

Other measures are True Shooting Percentage, which adds points from free throws; and Points per Possession which gives a "simpler" number but is not independent of rebounding and turnovers.

Free Throw Rate: This is a measure of free throws attempted over/ divided by field goals attempted.

Offensive Rebound Percentage: The percentage of available offensive rebounds a player/ team gets. Conversely, reducing the number of offensive rebounds the opponent gets is the defensive rebounding percentage. Offensive rebounds are rarer and usually indicate that a possession will continue to a field goal attempt.

Turnover Percentage: The percentage of possessions that end in a turnover. Obviously, turnovers mean a missed shot attempt for the offense, and can mean an easy shot opportunity for the defense.

Now for the Ugly Numbers

Comedian: Last year's Red Storm was so bad, they....

Look, the team isn't big enough for Letterman, or any other comic, to pop jokes at their expense.

It seemed like almost everything hit the crapper last year, especially on offense. And there was a large freshman class, but for a class meant to upgrade the talent level, it was not a promising performance. It seemed like the team couldn't score if they were playing skee-ball.

But interestingly, the fall-off from previous performance was stronger on defense in conference. The team allowed too high an effective field goal percentage, and much of that came inside the arc- opponents made 45% of 2-point shots in 2007, and almost 49% of those shots in 2008, while 3-point shooting percentage increased less than 1 percentage point. Opponents took more shots inside.

Meanwhile, the team showed defensive energy, fouling with much vigor. Not that that's a good thing... and the fouling could simply mean the players were often out of defensive position.

But then... they rebounded well on the floor, limiting the opposition to 28% offensive rebounds. They forced more turnovers than the previous year (while giving up the ball more as well). And on offense, they went to a line at a far higher percentage than they did in 2007, which is a good hint of the team's aggressiveness in conference. I guess that "war" drill paid some dividends.

Percentages, Conference Games
Offense Defense
2007 2008 % Chnge 2007 2008 % Chnge
Effective FG% 45.6 44.1 -1.5 49.8 52.4 -2.6
FT Rate 27.2 35.8 8.6 31.5 38.9 -7.4
Off. Rebound% 32.4 31.6 -0.8 35.7 28.0 7.7
Turnover% 21.7 22.9 1.2 19.2 20.6 -1.4


Comparing the changes in offense visually:

St Johns Red Storm Offense Statistics Conference 2007 2008

The fact that the offense wasn't wildly worse than the previous year's efforts doesn't mean the offense was not bad. It is surprising, since the 2007 offense was the best Norm Roberts has put on the floor, overall. But those results are skewed by Avery Patterson's solid early performance followed by his shooting 29% from 3-point range, and some poorer shooting from Lamont Hamilton; so the 2007 conference percentages are lower than the year's percentages.

Additionally, while Hamilton and Eugene Lawrence were beasts at drawing contact, Avery Patterson, for a guy who took 154 attempts from the field in conference, took 15 free throw attempts (9.7% of FG attempts). That's a serious aversion to contact there. 2008's squad had a few players who were good at getting sent to the line compared to the amount that they shot, most notably Eugene Lawrence, Sean Evans, Dele Coker, and DJ Kennedy, with Malik Boothe and Justin Burrell behind.

The worry on offense is that the man who drew the most fouls and had the highest steal percentage was Lawrence, who graduated. And off the bench, Larry Wright was, by far, the most efficient player, though he didn't get off the bench very much by the end of the year. And he transferred. Boothe can replace much of Lawrence's production - Boothe had a slightly higher turnover rate and slightly lower assist and steal rate as a fewshman, and he draws some fouls - if he can get a few more shots to fall.

The changes in defense visually:

St Johns Defense Statistics Conference 2007 2008

A 2.5 percentage point change in field goal defense is... not good change, and a lot of not-good change. Coupled with the increase in free throw rate... that's a lot more points for a defense to give up.

The team's defensive rebounding - when they forced the other team to miss a shot - was actually #1 in the conference (must be that "war" drill again), but otherwise, the team showed a stark decline in basic defensive numbers. Visually, I expected by mid-game to see an opponent swoop between Burrell and Evans/ Coker for a lay up or dunk.

I will post the median numbers for the St. John's offense and defense over Norm Roberts years, which will show that last year's "D" was surprisingly bad for his teams. The offense, unfortunately, wasn't that much worse. But I would expect the defense to look much better; the players should have a better sense of how to protect the lane and get to better positions. And with experience, conditioning, and strength, they will hopefully foul less.

Comparing years visually:

2007 St. John's 4 Factors stats

Those gaps between effective field goal % and free throw rate are significant. A quartet of blowouts skew the numbers some, I suppose.

2008 St. John's 4 Factors stats

Now these numbers are some gaps. Obviously, a team wants to force more turnovers than they cough up. The effective field goal % difference is... well, evidence that the team rightfully went 5-13, and could have been slightly worse. The blowouts skew the numbers, and if you lower your "blowout threshold" from 20 or 15 to 10, you have 9 blowouts. Interestingly, none of the 13 losses were by less than 6 points. There were two comfortable wins against Cincinnati and South Florida (and Rutgers by 8), and the other two conference wins were by 3 (Seton Hall) and 2 (Providence).

A look at median performance and the numbers for all games coming up this week.