The curious case of West Virginia: Do analytics back a deep tourney run?

Sunday March 12th, 2017

For the office-pooler scouring every potential advantage for their bracket, few teams are as intriguing as West Virginia. The discrepancy between their seeding (4th in the West region) and their standing in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency rankings (fifth nationally and first in a perhaps historically good Big 12) suggest a disconnect between subjective and objective analyses of the Mountaineers. In that gap lies the potential for a savvy market-inefficiency pick for a deep tourney run.

Of course, West Virginia offers intrigue beyond such measures. There is their coach, irascible sweatsuit maven Bob Huggins, who is as colorful a character as you can find roaming a college hoops sideline. There is also the Mountaineers’ style of play, a relentless pressure defense that has been dubbed “Press Virginia.” But both eyes and data alike reinforce a signature attribute of this team: an unusually balanced offense that almost completely lacks a go-to player. According to Kenpom’s data through Thursday’s games, none of West Virginia’s five most-deployed players attempt more than 22.4% of the team’s shots when on the floor, and none of its players use more than 24.5% of its possessions.

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Balance is undoubtedly a good thing, but so is having a reliable weapon who can shoulder the offensive load when needed. Recent NCAA champions are often synonymous with high-usage star players—Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier for UConn in 2011 and ‘14, respectively; Russ Smith for Louisville in ‘13; Carmelo Anthony for Syracuse in ‘03. Which begs the question: How have teams of this current West Virginia team’s evenly distributed makeup fared in the NCAAs?

First, let us take a look at champions. In the 15 seasons since kenpom.com began its tracking, none of the champs finished without a starter attempting more than 22.3% of their team’s field goals when on the floor, and only two have won a title when their highest-usage player accounted for less than 24.2% of their team’s possessions:

TEAM STARTERS SHOOTING > 22.4% Highest-usage rotation playEr
2002 Maryland Juan Dixon, 28.3%
Chris Wilcox, 25.2%
Lonny Baxter, 22.6%

Juan Dixon, 24.6%
2003 Syracuse Carmelo Anthony, 31.5% Carmelo Anthony, 27.9%
2004 Connecticut Ben Gordon, 26.7%
Rashad Anderson, 25.9%
Emeka Okafor, 24.4%

Ben Gordon, 25.3%

2005 North Carolina Rashad McCants, 28.6%
Sean May, 26.5%
Jawad Williams, 24.3%

Sean May, 28.0%
2006 Florida Corey Brewer, 24.6%
Joakim Noah, 24.5%
Joakim Noah, 25.9%
2007 Florida Corey Brewer, 25.2% Joakim Noah, 25.5%
2008 Kansas Darrell Arthur, 27.7%
Brandon Rush, 25.6%
Darrell Arthur, 25.1%
2009 North Carolina Tyler Hansbrough, 25.6%
Wayne Ellington, 23.4%
Danny Green, 22.9%

Tyler Hansbrough, 26.7%
2010 Duke Nolan Smith, 27.1%
Kyle Singler, 25.8%
Jon Scheyer, 24.4%

Kyle Singer, 24.2%
2011 Connecticut Kemba Walker, 32.9%
Jeremy Lamb, 22.6%
Kemba Walker, 31.4%
2012 Kentucky Terrence Jones, 22.6% Terrence Jones, 22.5%
2013 Louisville Russ Smith, 32.7% Russ Smith, 32.0%
2014 Connecticut DeAndre Daniels, 27.1%
Shabazz Napier, 26.3%
Shabazz Napier, 28.0%
2015 Duke Jahlil Okafor, 26.3%
Justise Winslow, 22.5%
Quinn Cook, 22.5%

Jahlil Okafor, 27.8%
2016 Villanova Josh Hart, 25.5%
Kris Jenkins, 24.6%
Josh Hart, 23.6%
2017 West Virginia Esa Ahmad, 23.9%

In other words, if West Virginia were to win this year’s tournament while its starters maintain their current field goal attempt rates, it would do so with the most equal distribution of shots among starters on record. In fact, 11 of 15 champions have had multiple starters with a higher share of their team’s field goal attempts. (Here it is worth noting the caveat that sixth man Teyvon Myers, who averages 13.4 minutes per game, has a team-high shooting rate of 24.3%, and reserve forward Lamont West, who averages 12.1 minutes, comes in at 23.9%. Both are still well below the typical team-highs among recent champions.) The most similar team in this regard among champions is Kentucky in 2012, which comes with something of an asterisk for its nearly platonically ideal combination of talent (Jones, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, among others) and unselfishness.

When the sample is expanded to include all Final Four teams from the same period, another analogue emerges: the Louisville team that lost to that Kentucky squad in the 2012 national semifinal. None of its five minutes-leaders cleared a 20.3% share of shots, nor did any of them account for more than 22.1% of the Cardinals’ possessions. But that team harbored a human outlier on its bench in reserve gunner Russ Smith, who played just 21.5 minutes per game but accounted for 35.6% of Louisville’s shots (seventh-most in the country) and 33.0% of its possessions (eighth) while doing so. The Cardinals had a true gunner, just one kept in reserve.

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No other Final Four team since 2002 has met West Virginia’s current thresholds. Duke in 2004, Illinois in 2005, and VCU in 2011 all lacked any players with a usage rate above 24.2%, but did feature starters who shot more often than their current Mountaineers counterparts. Florida’s 2014 team featured a memorably balanced starting lineup, but its reserves’ relative gunshyness meant that four Gators starters shot more than 22.2% of the time (but none more than Patric Young’s 23.5%). Huggins’s last Final Four team, in 2010, had a clear go-to scorer in Da’Sean Butler, who accounted for 26.1% of its shots before suffering a devastating knee injury in the Mountaineers’ semifinal loss to Duke.

So if few teams with West Virginia’s offensive profile have made it to the tournament’s final weekend, how many have been in the field to begin with? Here we must fudge somewhat. While kenpom.com’s pre-tourney efficiency rates are available for past seasons, we must use individual rate stats that include tournament play. With that in mind, seven teams since 2002 entered the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 15 nationally in overall efficiency and finished without having a starter take more than 23.0% of their shots:

 
Team Leading starter's shot% NCAA tourney seed "Expected" outcome * Actual outcome
2016 Miami 22.9% (Angel Rodriguez) 3 Sweet 16 Sweet 16
2013 Pittsburgh 23.0% (Tray Woodall) 8 Second round First round
2012 Kentucky 22.6% (Terrence Jones) 1 Final Four NCAA champion
2008 Wisconsin 22.8% (Marcus Landry) 3 Sweet 16 Sweet 16
2008 Louisville 22.1% (Earl Clark) 3 Sweet 16 Elite Eight
2003 Pittsburgh 22.9% (Brandin Knight) 2 Elite Eight Sweet 16
2003 Arizona 22.0% (Channing Frye) 1 Final Four Elite Eight

*The “expected” outcome is the round a team would reach if it were to always beat lower-seeded teams, based on its NCAA seed, in an effort to measure these teams’ performance vs. approximate pre-tourney expectations.

If there is a small-sample pattern among high-efficiency teams without dominant scorers, it seems to be that they perform close to their seed line. Only Pitt in 2013 had a real chasm between its per-possession perception and its NCAA seeding, which the Panthers owed in part to an iffy regular-season showing against top-50 teams. That they were bounced in their opener was somewhat understandable, given that they drew no normal No. 9: Wichita State wound up reaching the Final Four, where it lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Louisville by four points.

These teams are far from perfect proxies for this season’s Mountaineers. Kentucky in ‘12 and Arizona in ‘03 were both loaded with future NBA talent, for example, something this year’s West Virginia team does not appear to be. In 2008, Wisconsin used reserve Brian Butch as a sixth starter, playing him in 61.5% of their minutes, during which he took 30.9% of their shots. But the good news for West Virginia is that for high-quality teams, a lack of a go-to shooter does not seem to be a harbinger of disappointment come tournament time. And the good news for you? Well, now you know.

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