Oakland continued its tough non-conference schedule this week with three games in four days. This week's recap features those matches with Rochester College, Valparaiso, and Ohio State.
The Big Picture
Whew. Oakland ends non-conference play with a record of 5-8 that includes four losses to ranked opponents and two more from elite conferences. The team and the fans would probably like to have the losses to Wright State and Valparaiso back, but it is what it is at this point in time. The Valparaiso lost happened on Tuesday night after the team beat Rochester College on Monday. In the big picture of the season, the loss to Valpo won't affect the team's NCAA tourney chances much, but it stings in the big picture of Oakland finding its place in mid-major college hoops. As was the case with the loss to Wright State, games against Horizon League opponents can make or break the mass opinion on a team's so-called "level" of play, and losing both of those doesn't help OU in this regard. The Ohio State loss was the worst of the year, but given the team's fatigue, some lingering injuries, and a general feeling of out-of-synchness, one can hardly complain too loudly about the performance. Last year, those losses piled on in November and December. This year, it only happened once. We can live with that.
The Rock Is In Benson's Hands, Or Is It?
Ever since dominating against Tennessee over a week ago, Keith Benson has had a hard time getting looks in the paint. First, Michigan coach John Beilein used an assaulting approach to double and triple-team the senior center which forced him to pass out of the post, force a shot, or commit a turnover. Then against Valparaiso, Benson was in a bit of foul trouble but also committed four turnovers and failed to convert half of his free-throws. Those were two of Benson's worst statistical performances in the past two seasons, especially considering he failed to grab a single offensive rebound. Against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger, Benson seemed to have a bit of his pep back on the offensive glass and even had a great hustle play where he stole the ball after an inbounds and dunked it for an easy two points. However, he also got into a bit of foul trouble and ended up fouling out with over eight minutes to play.
As most Oakland fans are probably aware, it's very rare for Benson to not get a double-double every night. So when he fails to do so in three straight games (sans the RoCo match), there are obviously some questions that pop up. Coach Kampe noted that Benson has been playing through an injury which could help explain the lack of production, but others have their theories as well. During the Big Ten Network telecast of the Oakland-Ohio State game, commentator Jim Jackson noted that (at least in his mind) Benson could have worked harder to demand the ball and establish himself in the paint. But he also mentioned that the guards needed to do a better job of getting him the ball in appropriate positions. Short of analyzing each and every possession (which we don't have the tape or time to do), these things are rather difficult to quantify. However, this discussion did bring up another issue that I was curious to explore: who has been the most effective at getting the ball to Benson? I went through the box scores and tallied up each time one of Benson's field goals were the result of an assist and gave the appropriate player an assist mark. For comparison's sake, I also included the data from 2009-10. Only non-conference games are included. After tallying up the individual totals, I did a small bit of math to figure out how many of Benson's field goals had been assisted in each year. The results are strikingly similar.
First, the macro-level analysis. As we can see, Benson made 77 field goals in non-conference play last year and 78 this season. His assisted field goal percentage has decreased by just three percent. Overall, it appears that half of the points Oakland gets from the field from Benson are still the result of play-calling for him. The other half of his baskets are presumably the result of his own playmaking - whether that is using his mid-range game or scoring points via offensive rebounding.
On a micro-level, we can see one huge change: no more Johnathon Jones. "JJ to Kito for two" was a staple in the lexicon of Oakland play-by-play announcers last season, which speaks just as much about Benson's finishing ability as it does JJ's court vision and feel for the game. There were no other players who even came close to matching JJ's ability to get the ball to Benson in 2009-10. This season, the combination of Reggie Hamilton and Larry Wright have made up for JJ's absence - together they've assisted 27 of Benson's field goals (JJ assisted 26). Although Larry Wright has been the chief guy to bring the ball up the floor, a few of the plays the team runs to get the ball inside end up with several other guys touching the ball first. Perhaps this is why his assist figures to Benson are lower than those of Hamilton. Either way, the numbers are about the same between the two years, but one has to wonder how many missed opportunities were present in each case.
On that note, it would be interesting (or painstaking) to go through the tapes to see how many turnovers Larry and Reggie committed while trying to pass the ball in to Kito. Since this humble blog does not have access to do so, let's just take a look at overall turnover figures and compare them to assists. For the non-conference season, Larry has 43 turnovers and Reggie has 46. JJ had 41 during the same period in 2009-10. As the primary ball-handlers, the combination of Larry and Reggie have 97 assists to 89 turnovers, while Jones had 74 assists to 41 turnovers. While the comparison might not be incredibly fair since Larry and Reggie have both attempted to be distributors and scorers (meaning the ball is in their hands more often as a combo), the ratios are still worthwhile: Larry/Reggie: 1.09 assists for every turn, Jones: 1.80 assists for every turn. From this, we can see that Jones was a special point guard, but that's not a new revelation. But it is likely that we can say that the point guard by committee method hasn't exactly been inspiring, particularly in the last few games. Perhaps a result, the team has struggled to get the ball to Benson, the focal point of the offense. There are perhaps too many turnovers committed in the backcourt or as the ball is being worked in to Benson, meaning he either doesn't get a chance to put up a shot (he had just 10 field goal attempts in the Valparaiso and Ohio State games combined) or is in a bad position and ends up drawing the double-team too quickly which can result in turnovers by Benson himself. There is also a chance that teams are just more prepared for Benson this year than last year and have better gameplans as a result.
We're not basketball coaches over here, but it is interesting to take a look at some of these figures and see what we might be able to infer from them as basketball fans. At the end of the day, the entire team has to step up on both ends of the floor to get this thing rolling again. A funny fact: Benson, oddly enough, had two of his worst games statistically right about this time last year. Against Oregon and Syracuse, he only had 9 rebounds total after posting double-doubles in the four prior games. Perhaps the confluence of teams aggressively gameplanning against Benson and team fatigue at the end of a brutal non-conference schedule were the forces behind these statistical letdowns in 2009-10 and 2010-11. As we all know, Benson went on to dominate The Summit League. I think most fans would take that over a forgettable performance in late December any day of the week.
The Young Hope
Ryan Bass played 12 minutes in the Ohio State game, his most against elite competition this season. Although he had one silly turnover that resulted in a Jon Diebler triple, Bass gave the team some good minutes and impressed with his passing ability. We still don't know much about his scoring ability, but Bass has, at the very least, shown glimpses of why Coach Kampe said he was too good to redshirt this season. At one point against Ohio State, it looked like Bass was the only guy who could get the ball into Benson's hands, and since we just spent a few paragraphs talking about guard distribution and Benson, we decided to look at some more assist data, this time with the freshman included.
The table above offers a very basic view of the distribution impact made by each of Oakland's primary distributors in the minutes they play (for non-conference games only). We use Johnathon Jones as a benchmark (his 2009-10 numbers) and see that he was dropping dimes approximately 17% of the time he was on the floor. This season, the committee tandem of Larry Wright and Reggie Hamilton have more than made up for Jones' raw assist figures, but those assists come at a lesser rate than that of the former point guard. This measure is inexact because of the fact that Wright "steals" assists from Hamilton and vice versa, but it can still be helpful when examining Oakland's distribution. For what it's worth, Ryan Bass has matched JJ's assists per minute percentage at 17%. While his raw numbers are far off from Wright and Hamilton, there is reason to have hope that the glimpses of purity we've seen from Bass at the point guard position are indeed indicative of some greater ability. While he's not likely to crack the regular line-up, we can't help but wonder how Oakland's offense would run if he could and Wright and Hamilton were left free from running sets.
"Free Ilija" Watch
Ilija continued to show his smooth stroke in games against Rochester College and Valparaiso this week. And while he went 1-5 from the field against Ohio State, he did calmly bury a three, grab two offensive rebounds, and look decent guarding the post against the Buckeye big men. Most importantly, Ilija was able to play in 10 or more minutes in every game this week. While a lot of those minutes were the result of Benson/Hudson foul trouble, it's still good to see him go out there and adequately fill in. Like it or not, Ilija will be a full-time player next season, and the more experience he gets this year, the better. Fortunately, he's mostly proven effective when out there so far.
Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Travis Bader
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
While watching the Oakland-Ohio State game, I was floored when Travis Bader was guarding Jon Diebler. I kept looking at the two guards, noticing the similarities in their bodies and shooting stroke. Diebler, a senior, has been a straight-up baller for the Buckeyes during his stint there and is highly-regarded around the Big Ten for his shooting ability. Bader is just a redshirt freshman and might slowly command that kind of respect from Summit League foes as the season goes on. While Bader has shown us his ability to confidently knock down triples coming off screens, he also had a great mid-range jumper and a fastbreak dunk while in Columbus. By and large, Bader had an unexpectedly successful non-conference season. Now let's hope he can keep it up and help lead the Golden Grizzlies to a conference crown.
Top Play Of The Week
We were at all the games this week so no animated .gifs or screen caps for this week's plays, but we were mighty stoked about that Travis Bader dunk even though it came when the game was all but wrapped up by Ohio State.
Oakland takes a break for the holiday and then gets ready to start conference play in earnest on Tuesday, December 28 against Centenary. The Gents are winless, but the game is in Shreveport where anything can happen. Following that game, the Golden Grizzlies travel north to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take on conference rival Oral Roberts. A lot will be on the line in that game. Let's hope the team gets some much deserved rest to shake off any of the fatigue or injuries that have stuck with them the past few weeks.