Monday, January 31, 2011

Week 6 In The Summit League: Unsuspecting Players To Fear

In last week's Summit League wrap-up post, we highlighted players on each team who looked to be in the running for potential All-League selections. That post took into account production through the half-way point in conference play; however, there also exists a slew of players who haven't quite had All-League type seasons but can help their team in big ways. These are the players who have high ceilings or shown flashes of greatness but who also have been inconsistent on the year as a whole. If these guys perform to their potential, then they make their respective teams tough to top. When March rolls around, opponents will want nothing more than to ensure these guys do not get rolling.

Eric Carlson, Junior Forward (NDSU)
The 6-foot-6 Eric Carlson was the inspiration for this post after exploding for 32 points and 12 rebounds on Saturday night in a double overtime win for NDSU. It was the junior's first huge game in a season where he was expected to have had many. After averaging about 15 points and 7 rebounds as a sophomore, Carlson this year is posting just 11.3 points and 5 rebounds per contest. Heading into the year, this was a player who had apparently done a lot of work in the offseason in order to catapult himself into the upper-echelon of conference forwards, yet his body of work, at least when looking at production, hasn't put him in such a group yet. However, if he builds on the momentum of this past week where he was a monster on the offensive glass and a regular at the charity stripe, then NDSU will have a strong finish to the season. If Carlson is in beastmode in Sioux Falls, well let's just say that the frontline of him, Michael Tveidt, and Marshall Bjorklund is not one to take lightly.

Ledrick Eackles, Sophomore Guard (OU)
Ledrick Eackles was quiet during the stretch run in his freshman season, but he exploded in Oakland's NCAA Tournament game against Pittsburgh. When it seemed like the Golden Grizzlies had no chance of keeping the game within reason, Eackles played his heart out. He used his seemingly limitless speed and athleticism on many aggressive drives to the basket, finishing with a very meaningful 17 points. This year, the sophomore has struggled with his shooting, both inside and outside of the arc, and missed most of the past month with an ankle injury. However, Oakland fans know well what Eackles is capable of doing on the basketball court when he's healthy. His best game this season was in a win over Ohio where he was active on the boards and got to the free throw line for nine attempts. If he is playing within himself, he can be just as deadly a lane penetrator as Reggie Hamilton or Larry Wright. Not bad for a guy who might be the seventh or eighth option on the team.

Trey McCorkle, Junior Forward/Center (IPFW)
IPFW is 5-1 in league games when Trey McCorkle scores at least 10 points. While feeding the big man in the middle isn't necessarily this team's modus operandi, it's proven to help the Mastodons win games this season. McCorkle has been hampered by an injury at times which has limited his effectiveness, but his team definitely benefits when he's an option in the paint. The 6-foot-10 forward is really the only inside threat for this team, something it needs in order to compete against the bigger teams in the league, notably Oakland. McCorkle is coming off an impressive showing against ORU where he scored 15 points and grabbed 9 rebounds in just 23 minutes (he fouled out). He's also currently 25-of-28 from the free throw line in league games. For IPFW to hold on to a second-place finish, it will need McCorkle to be as manly in the paint as the neck beard that graces his face.

Dale Moss, Senior Guard (SDSU)
Dale Moss has started every game for the Jackrabbits this season, and despite playing major minutes, his contributions rarely show up in the box score. He's capable of stuffing the stat sheet - a testament to his growth as a player over the past four years in Brookings - yet more often than not his line might read like this: 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists. The 6-foot-4 guard is a role player on a Jacks team with young firepower, but his tough, smart play makes him a leader on this squad. In league play, he's shooting a whopping 67.4% on his two-point baskets and has nearly as many offensive rebounds (27) as defensive (28). And while the ball isn't in his hands a ton, he's committed only 9 turnovers through 11 league games. Most importantly to SDSU's March hopes, Moss has been boosting his production over the last few games, and his team is undefeated when he scores in double figures. As a senior, Moss is a good guy to have around for this stretch run and one that could very well change a game if he's "on" in March.

Warren Niles, Sophomore Guard (ORU)
Warren Niles is capable of putting a lot of points on the board, but more often than not, it takes a lot of shots for him to get there. In league play, he owns the lowest points per weighted shots mark of any of ORU's regular contributors, an indication that it takes him more attempts to get his points than others. When the guard is efficient, though, he's a player to be feared. He can drain threes and use his agility to get high-percentage looks around the basket. Niles is an adept rebounder, too. ORU's young frontcourt has been solid this season, and Dominique Morrison is always a beast. But if Niles is playing to his strengths while the others are playing well, then look out, Summit League opponents.

Christian Siakam, Junior Forward (IUPUI)
If IUPUI has a glaring weakness, it resides in the team's inside presence. While they've never been a particularly big team, instead relying on versatile and athletic forwards in the frontcourt, last year's version at least had a few guys who could bang around in the paint. There are a couple of young bigs on this year's team, but Christian Siakam is the only seasoned big man. Though he's still undersized up against some of the conference's bigger forwards, Siakam has a wide enough frame that he can be a banger when he's playing smart and not committing fouls. The junior is converting 65.7% of his shots in conference play and has proven to be one of the better offensive rebounders in the league. He's come on as of late and has even found himself getting to the free throw line more often. If he continues this upswing in production while limiting his fouls, he gives the Jaguars a post presence that will be much needed in Sioux Falls.

It seems appropriate to say that the teams featured above are those most likely to be in the mix in Sioux Falls, and it remains to be seen which school will fill out the last spot for the conference tournament. If the standings hold, then a player to keep an eye on for Southern Utah is Matt Massey. The lanky forward is capable of putting up 20 points or so but has struggled to find consistency this season. However, if Western Illinois is able to slide into the field of eight then a potential reason why would be because of Brandon Smith. The senior guard has seen a major uptick in his minutes over the past two weeks and has scored in double figures four of the last five games. While Smith takes a lot of shots to get his points, it looks like he has the green light as WIU searches for any semblance of offensive firepower.

Bonus Video!
The best game in Summit League action this past weekend was the double overtime thriller in Fargo between NDSU and UMKC. NDSU probably has a few more losses than expected while UMKC has a few more wins than most might have anticipated, and as a result, the two squads were fighting it out for middle-of-the-pack supremacy. UMKC had chances to win the game in regulation and at the conclusion of the first overtime but ultimately failed to execute a game-winning play. Finally, in the last overtime NDSU coach Saul Phillips drew up a great play that his players executed perfectly to seal the victory. Here's a highlight of UMKC's failed chances and Michael Tveidt's game winner:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Gameplan's Weekly Recap: ORU/Centenary

The Big Picture
The Golden Grizzlies continued their dominance in Summit League play this week with two home victories. On Thursday, the team took down rival Oral Roberts to sweep the season series. In this game we saw Oakland get out to a lead on the backs of Keith Benson and Will Hudson, but it was Reggie Hamilton who sealed the victory late in the second half despite playing questionably earlier in the game. It says a lot about a team and its leadership when any number of players can "take over" to will the squad to a win. Most expected Oakland to blowout Centenary, but the Gents hung tight in the first half. The Golden Grizzlies clamped down on defense in the second half and won it going away in front of a rabid Homecoming crowd. With just three home games left this season, hopefully all of those who witnessed OU over the last few games will be back to pack the O'rena in February.

Oakland's Clutch Junior
With just over four minutes left in the Oakland-Oral Roberts battle, the score was tied at 68. Although Oakland had wrestled the lead from ORU, the Golden Eagles would not go away, and a great three-point play by Dominique Morrison finally evened the game. It looked like this one would go down to the wire just like last year's match, but then Reggie Hamilton went into clutch mode. The junior transfer has done some dazzling things in games this season to prove that he is the one player on this squad who can create his own shot above all others. Prior to these waning minutes, Hamilton was having an up-and-down game; for every assist he had, he would have a turnover on the next possession. But as Coach Kampe described after the game, he more or less lit a fire in Hamilton during a timeout in the stretch run, and Hamilton responded with some fire of his own.

From that four minute mark until the end of the game, Hamilton had an impact on almost every single possession in a variety of different ways:
  • He buried two three-pointers, one wide open from a great pass by Drew Valentine to spark the run and another that was contested with a minute left in the game.
  • On the defensive end, Benson's block led to a fastbreak opportunity where Hamilton's court vision allowed him to make a pass from half-court to Valentine who subsequently got the basket and the foul.
  • In a game where Hamilton had six steals, none were more important than when he picked Warren Niles' pocket, leading to a fastbreak lay-up.
  • Finally, Reggie drilled five of six free throws in the final 40 seconds of the game.
He had one defensive lapse when his man, Ken Holdman, hit a corner three to make the game closer than it really was, but Reggie subsequently knocked down four straight free throws to seal the game. In sum, he got it done at the stripe, beyond the arc, on the drive, through his defense, and with his passing. He's still rather turnover prone, but at the end of a game, there is no one on this team who has proven he can do more things with the ball in his hands than Reggie Hamilton. That's the kind of player who will come in handy in March.

Homecoming Crowds
The game on Saturday marked Oakland's third annual Homecoming, an event typically held during the last week of January or first week of February (depending on how the conference schedule shakes out). It has largely been a successful promotion that has triggered very large attendance figures for the O'rena. Here they are for the past three seasons:

Year 1 (2/7/09): 3,855 (opponent: Centenary)
Year 2 (2/6/10): 4,034 (opponent: Oral Roberts)
Year 3 (1/29/11): 3,675 (opponent: Centenary)

It's hard to say definitively whether or not the slight decrease in attendance this year was due to lack of a quality opponent or something else. The weekends don't exactly line-up, and then there's always the "it's the economy" line. Still, 3,675 is a great number for a game against a team that won't even be in Division I next season. One area that looked to be unaffected by the year was the student section! They looked like a formidable bunch on this evening, furthering a tradition several years in the making. Here's to hoping that the Homecoming crowds continue to grow with each year.
The Stag?
In one of the more interesting reads of the season, Paul Kampe of The Oakland Press was able to recount the rise of Keith Benson at Oakland University. (Seriously, read it). The feature contains a lot of great insights into how Benson worked his way into the player he has become today from the center himself, Coach Kampe, and even his high school coach. In reading the piece, I found one of the small details at the beginning of the article about Kito's recruitment to be rather interesting. The article notes that Benson was actually on his way to play at Fairfield University, a Division I program out of the MAAC. Fortunately for OU fans, that never came to fruition, but can you imagine?
Somewhere in an alternate universe, perhaps things end up working out in Fairfield's favor. Assuming the team decides to redshirt Kito in 2006-07, that would leave him as a senior star on a Fairfield team that is currently 9-1 in MAAC play. But would he have ever been "discovered" while buried in the northeast in a league that has been dominated by another program (Siena) over the past four years? Would he be drawing dozens of NBA scouts to Connecticut to watch Stags games over those of the Huskies? Does he even lead the MAAC in rebounding, or does that honor stick with Ryan Rossiter? So many "could ofs" exist in this alternate realty, but the only realty that matters is that Benson chose to come to Oakland, a place where he has helped to build a "monster" of a program.

Bonus Kito!
For the second straight week we've seen Benson inflict some fastbreak damage on opposing teams. Last week, he ran the ball up the court after a devastating block which led to a Drew Valentine three-pointer. Against Oral Roberts, Kito again runs the ball up but this time he got the basket on an alley-oop pass from Travis Bader. You can check it out here. Seriously, how many other 6'11" centers out there can run the court like Benson? Amazing, every time.

"Free Ilija" Watch
Ilija did his best in limited time this week, notching four total rebounds between the two games. He missed two free throws against Centenary that could have beefed up his points total, but he did also have two assists in helping to get his teammates involved. Perhaps most importantly, Ilija did not have a single foul in two games this week.

Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Travis Bader
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
Since conference play resumed in earnest at the end of December, Travis Bader is averaging a solid 14.6 points per game. While most of his points do come from beyond the arc, we've seen the redshirt freshman become involved in other aspects of the game as his playing time has grown over the last month. In addition to his eight three-pointers against ORU and Centenary, Bader accumulated seven rebounds, four assists to zero turnovers, and four steals - including this stellar one that led to a fastbreak lay-up. Over the course of the conference season, the shooting guard's confidence has grown, and he's hit a number of clutch shots as a result. Oh, and the dude is stone cold...

Top Play Of The Week
The biggest plays of the week, or at least the ones that got the crowd the most amped, came on transition buckets against Oral Roberts. This one, though, was unexpected: Will Hudson rushes to the perimeter to get a hand in the face of the shooting Warren Niles and somehow manages to stuff Niles. The block itself was magnificent, but watch what happens after:

What's Next?
The team will hit the road for games at Western Illinois and IUPUI. The former is against a depleted team that has won just two conference games all season, while the latter is versus the last team to beat Oakland in a conference game. Neither will be taken lightly, but the game to watch is definitely the one against the Jaguars. Not only are the Jags competing for that second seed, but they'll also be playing in front of a larger crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. Centenary

Game 24: Oakland (15-8, 10-0) vs Centenary (0-22, 0-10)
Saturday, January 29, 2011 | 6:00pm EST
Watch: OU All-Access ($) | Radio: WXOU (88.3 FM)

Oakland continues Summit League play with a match against the Gentlemen of Centenary. The Golden Grizzlies improved to 10-0 on Thursday by beating rival Oral Roberts, while the Gents came within 10 points of picking up their first win at IPFW. Essentially, it's the conference's best team versus its worst team, and it comes on a night where the O'rena should be packed due to Homecoming. As such, Centenary will need an otherworldly performance to knock off the Grizzlies on this particular evening.

Farewell To Centenary
Centenary is making its final trip to Rochester this weekend before it reclassifies to Division III in 2011-12. This year hasn't exactly been kind to the Gents as they remain the only winless team in all of Division I. Things haven't always been this bad in Shreveport, though. While the school has never made the NCAA tournament, there have been some highlights over the years, most notably that long-time Celtics big man Robert Parish once suited up in a Centenary uniform. However, even then there was some unexpected misery, as the Mid Majority's Kyle Whelliston points out:
Robert Parish averaged 21.6 ppg and 16.9 rpg for the Gents between 1972 and 1976, but not a single point or rebound counted. The NCAA docked Centenary six years of probation and postseason ineligibility for converting Parish's Louisiana high school test scores into a standardized format to fit the NCAA's eligibility requirements at the time, but kept the school and star center erased even though the requirements were changed. Centenary went 87-21 during the four-year Parish era, but the NCAA insists none of that even happened.
The rest of the Centenary story, as told just the other day by the Mid Majority, can be read here. There aren't too many favorable games left on the Gents' schedule, though they did have a half-time lead at IPFW on Thursday night. Perhaps they'll build on that momentum to stay competitive and eek one out here in their waning days of Division I.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Drew Valentine vs. Maxx Nakwaasah
Maxx Nakwaasah is one of the lone holdovers from Centenary's past. He's a proven Division I player who is quietly having a solid year in conference play thus far. At 6-foot-3 he's a bit undersized for the guard-forward role that he plays, but such is life at Centenary this year. The junior has a Drew Valentine-like impact on the game in that he can score by going to the basket, knocking down the occasional three, or getting to the foul line. He's also a great rebounder for his size, particularly on the offensive end. The major difference between these two teams is that Nakwaasah does all of that as his team's featured scorer while Valentine accomplishes such tasks as the fourth or fifth option on the team. Again, such is life at Centenary in 2010-11.

Centenary Player To Watch: Aaron Harwell
For all of their defensive deficiencies, the Gents are actually rather adept on the perimeter. In league play they are allowing 37.7% three-point shooting which is sixth best in the league, and they force turnovers at a 15.3 rate, good for first in the conference. Several of those turnovers are forced by Aaron Harwell, a 5-foot-11 freshman who plays 24.2 minutes per league game. In his time on the court, Harwell is averaging 2.7 steals, a mark that is far and away best in conference games only.

Oakland Player To Watch: Ledrick Eackles
After injuring his ankle against IUPUI, Ledrick Eackles has been listed as probable since the Dakotas trip but saw his first game action on Thursday against Oral Roberts. There was one possession where he grabbed a defensive rebound and led the fastbreak just like old times which served as an indication that he had some of his burst back. The sophomore played just seven minutes and picked up three fouls, so here's to hoping that he can get some valuable playing time on Saturday to get ready for the stretch run here.

The games between Oakland and Centenary at the O'rena have always been rather close affairs. Unlike at the Gold Dome, the Golden Grizzlies have never blown out the Gents in Rochester. Centenary was also Oakland's first homecoming opponent in the 2008-09 season, a game OU won 78-65 in front of 3,855 attendees.

The Extra Pass
After beating Oral Roberts on Thursday, Coach Kampe attributed the win to the program's culture, that volatile mixture of a consistently packed house and venomous student section. It was an interesting time to bring up culture since it comes on the verge of this Saturday's Homecoming game. The Homecoming tradition enters its third year this season, and it has quickly grown into a fan-favorite tradition, one that has helped to build that very culture. But with such growth comes further changes to the culture. For instance, the university is allowing students to tailgate before the games on Saturday, a rather huge break from the school's traditional culture. It will be interesting to monitor how that goes over. Additionally, if there are more than 500 students eager to attend the game, then those beyond that threshold will have to pay, a first since I've been following the program. Such changes are inevitable with the growth of the program, but one can only hope that the culture, still in a malleable stage, continues to grow into something all fans can get behind.

Pre-Game Linkage
The folks Half-court Press, the burgeoning OUsatire newsletter, have concocted their latest offering for the Centenary game. To learn about Centenary's diabolic plan as well as the origins of Maxx Nakwaasah's name, read up on it here.

As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland vs. Oral Roberts

Game 23: Oakland (14-8, 9-0) vs Oral Roberts (9-12, 6-3)
Thursday, January 27, 2011 | 7:00pm EST
Watch: OU All-Access ($) | Radio: WXOU (88.3 FM)

Oakland enters the second-half of conference play with an undefeated mark that includes a victory over every other Summit League opponent. One of the team's toughest wins came at Oral Roberts at the end of December at a time when ORU's championship contender status looked like it was in serious jeopardy. Since then, however, the Golden Eagles have won four straight league games to get to 6-3, good for second place in the league. A win over Oakland in Rochester would give them an edge on the other second place teams. However, the O'rena will likely be rocking for this annual rivalry game and should prove to be a tough environment for the Golden Eagles to come away with a win.

The Surging Golden Eagles
The 2010-11 season had been a rocky one for Oral Roberts up until the last two weeks. The team had a disappointing non-conference season (although that loss to Indiana State isn't looking too bad right now) and dropped its first two conference home games. Injuries, most notably Michael Craion's season-ending foot setback, were cited as one of the primary reasons for the rough start. However, it should be noted that this is also the second youngest team in the conference so perhaps preseason expectations were a bit too high at first. Then things looked incredibly gloomy after Dominique Morrison went down with a knee injury, yet the team came together to win two of three conference games played without the All-League forward. Morrison is playing again, somehow, and it looks like he rebounded well at home against Centenary after a rough first game back against UMKC in which he went 2-of-11 from the field. With Morrison back, Warren Niles finding some consistency, Damen Bell-Holter improving on a ceiling that could make him the next dominant big man in the conference, and freshman Steven Roundtree continuing to perform above expectations (when he's not in foul trouble), this has the look of a team that is built to make a surge down the stretch here. Perhaps that pre-season second place finish is not out of reach for the Golden Eagles.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Keith Benson vs. Damen Bell-Holter
Keith Benson is not a stranger to players going all out against him. Teams without much of a frontcourt have resorted to thick double-and-triple-teams of the senior center, while those featuring players with size have opted to be as physical as possible. The latter method has worked for some teams, as we saw Marshall Bjorklund have a solid night against Benson last Saturday. For Oral Roberts, that method didn't go as planned in the first meeting of the series: Damen Bell-Holter was in foul trouble for much of the night and ended the game with six points on 2-of-10 shooting. Benson, on the other hand, had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Kito is coming off his best back-to-back games since the middle of December, and DBH is likely to want to show that his prior performance on Benson was an outlier to an otherwise promising season for the sophomore.

The other frontcourt match-up of Will Hudson and Steven Roundtree will be interesting to watch as well. Hudson had a great game against ORU last time out, but Rountree's athletic ability allowed him to have an impressive showing as well despite the fact he's a string bean freshman. Roundtree got into foul trouble last time (and leads the conference in fouls committed at 3.476 per game) which aided Oakland down the stretch. ORU's bigs will need to be careful in this department as Keith Benson and Will Hudson, in conference games, lead the league in free throw rate, topping the next best man by a whopping 10 percentage points!

Oral Roberts Player To Watch: Warren Niles
Since scoring just three points on 1-of-9 shooting against Oakland in December, Warren Niles has scored in double figures in every subsequent ORU game. That streak includes back-t0-back 25+ point nights against SDSU and SUU earlier in January. Niles seems to have found some consistency, though a large number of his shot attempts are still coming from beyond the arc where he shoots 38.4%. We'd expect Travis Bader and Larry Wright to spend time guarding Niles which is a task not to be taken lightly. If he gets hot from the field, especially given his propensity to shoot treys, then ORU becomes an even more dangerous squad.

Oakland Player To Watch: Larry Wright
Now that he is back to full-strength, it will be interesting to see what kind of role Larry Wright plays for the rest of the season. It seems that Coach Kampe is sticking with a starting backcourt of Reggie Hamilton and Travis Bader which means Wright could continue to fill the sixth man role. He was superb in 24 minutes of play at North Dakota State last Saturday, using his quickness and smooth stroke to get off a flurry of nothing-but-net jumpers. ORU has been a fairly strong rebounding team in conference play and features a number of guards who board the ball well, so OU could also use Wright on the glass in this match-up.

Oakland and Oral Roberts have a deep history in conference play, but the most recent game between the two schools at the O'rena was a classic. Last season, ORU happened to draw Oakland on its homecoming, so the crowd was huge and very active. The student section was particularly rampant for this game, too. Despite the major home crowd advantage, the game was close throughout and came down to a last minute shot by Johnathon Jones that gave the Golden Grizzlies a 79-77 victory.

The Extra Pass
A bit more on Dominique Morrison. As noted earlier, the junior forward missed a few conference games due to a knee injury but appeared to be ready to go again last weekend. When he has played, Morrison has been rock solid for the Golden Eagles in league games. Though his sample size isn't as larger as other players, he still leads The Summit League in scoring through the first half of play with an impressive 22.5 points per game. He's doing that on 55.1% shooting from the field, 44.8% from beyond the arc, and 87.8% at the charity stripe. Impressive, sure. But he's also been efficient in translating his field goal and free throw attempts into points, as measured by points per weighted shot. In league games, among those who play at least 20 minutes per game, Morrison posts one of the highest PPWS:

1. Drew Valentine (OAK), 1.60
2. Travis Bader (OAK), 1.50
3. Dominique Morrison (ORU), 1.40
4. Ben Botts (IPFW), 1.40
5. Christian Siakam (IUPUI), 1.40

Morrison and Botts are the only featured scorers of that bunch, which is a solid indication of how efficient they've been thus far. However, one of the reasons Oakland has been so tough to beat is because of the contributions of the entire team; as we can see, Valentine and Bader check in with the most impressive PPWS measures in the conference thus far. It's been about a month since Morrison torched Oakland for 32 points, and in that time we've seen Valentine grow into a rather great defender. We'll learn in this game just how far he's come as he will have the challenge of guarding Morrison again, but perhaps this time Morrison will also need a stellar performance to stop the man he's guarding too.

Pre-Game Linkage
This week's Grizz Talk, courtesy of Paul Kampe of The Oakland Press, offers some perspective on the ORU game. He interviews Coach Kampe, Larry Wright, and Blake Cushingberry. Check it out here. The Tulsa World's Mike Brown has an article about ORU Coach Scott Sutton approaching the school's coaching wins record here. Dan Fenner of The Oakland Post, OU's student newspaper, has an article recapping last week's historic wins and previewing the ORU battle here. Finally, the underground student satire newsletter for the Oral Roberts game is available here (that Morrison-Predator comparison is darn funny).

As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Week 5 In The Summit League: Mid-Season All-League Check-In

We've reached the halfway point in conference play, and fans are already talking about who's who among the league's best players. While we'll learn what the voters have to say on this matter in about a month or so, we thought we'd do a mid-season check-in on the top players from each team in the league. To help in the evaluation, we're using John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating, which is designed to measure a player's total impact and uses an average of 15.0 as the baseline of measurement.

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Maxx Nakwaasah--

- The PER doesn't pick up Nakwaasah nor any other Centenary player, but it's hard to overlook the fact that he's the only double-digit scorer on his team, and he chips in with 5.7 rebounds per game. He's a longshot candidate since his team hasn't won, but kudos to the guard for sticking around in Shreveport when most others didn't.

First Team Candidate(s)
Ben Botts17.121.51

Second Team Candidate(s)
Frank Gaines19.620.42

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Jeremy Mixon21.219.17

- You could make a case for Zach Plackemeier here, but based on this metric he falls out of contention. Jeremy Mixon, a guard who comes off the bench, is a bit of a surprise but nonetheless holds up in PPR (especially interesting considering his high usage rate). Gaines has been a surprise player for the Mastodons, but Botts might be the only one represented on any of these teams when it is all said and done.

First Team Candidate(s)
Alex Young25.323.72

Second Team Candidate(s)
Leroy Nobles19.319.12

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Christian Siakam13.823.05

- It's unlikely IUPUI gets two first team players like last year when Robert Glenn and Alex Young both received the distinction, but it's not because the team lacks worthy candidates. Alex Young is a sure bet for his second-straight first team award and is probably one year away from being the conference POTY. A worthy case could be made for Leroy Nobles to make the first team, and it could very likely come down to who has the better second-half between him and OU's Reggie Hamilton.

Second Team Candidate(s)
Michael Tveidt17.018.53

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Marshall Bjorklund13.522.74

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Marshall Bjorklund13.522.74

- Michael Tveidt played like a first teamer last season, but he'll likely fall short of that this season. The only way he gets there is if he has an unreal second half while leading the Bison back to a winning record. Freshman Marshall Bjorklund has had a great season thus far and looks to be getting better. His PER is rather telling of the contribution he makes, however his usage rate shows he is getting it done as a role player rather than featured player. Still, he's a likely lock for the All-Newcomer team and is in contention for Newcomer of the Year.

First Team Candidate(s)
Keith Benson19.828.10
Will Hudson13.121.82
Reggie Hamilton22.520.00

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Drew Valentine13.0 16.48
Larry Wright15.914.86

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Travis Bader13.214.42

- It's very rare for a team to place three players on the first team, but Oakland has a realistic shot at doing so this season. The primary reason is because Keith Benson is a lock and Will Hudson and Reggie Hamilton are playing like first-teamers. However, OU also gets a break because two pre-season first-teamers are out of contention due to injury and another, Tveidt, hasn't been playing at such a level. Reggie Hamilton probably has the better shot at guard, but the case can be made for Will Hudson as well. There are typically three forwards who make the team, and we assume that ORU's Dominique Morrison and IUPUI's Alex Young are sure things. Therefore, Hudson's most likely competitors at that spot are Jay Cousinard (UMKC) and Spencer Johnson (UMKC). Cousinard will get some love for his scoring, but Hudson has proven to be a brute force in the League this season on both ends of the floor. Whatever the case, it's likely Hamilton's inclusion would exclude Hudson, or vice versa. Drew Valentine has had a stellar conference season and should be in contention for Honorable Mention, and Larry Wright, pending how this last month goes, could be anywhere from just off the HM list to a second team appearance. Travis Bader is a lock for the All-Newcomer team.

First Team Candidate(s)
Dominique Morrison20.725.29

Honorable Mention Candidate(s)
Damen Bell-Holter17.423.02
Steven Roundtree19.118.52
Warren Niles21.117.59

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Steven Roundtree19.118.52

- Dominique Morrison will be a first team selection this season, despite the fact he missed some time with an injury. His PER captures well the fact that he is a box score stuffer. So let's take a look at ORU's youth movement candidates. Warren Niles was selected to the All-Newcomer team last season but has been wildly inconsistent in his sophomore campaign. He's a borderline Honorable Mention candidate right now and can improve his stock with a sensational second half. Damen Bell-Holter has had a fine second season playing major minutes, and it's hard to see him being left off any of these lists due to the fact he's a big forward without much competition. Finally, Steven Roundtree is probably in the discussion for Honorable Mention based on some strong games he had earlier in the season. His production has tapered off just a bit in recent games which could leave him out of contention for anything more than All-Newcomer team. Still, that'd be an impressive feat for the string bean forward. ORU's future, as usual, is bright.

First Team Candidate(s)
Nate Wolters23.427.11

Second Team Candidate(s)
Clint Sargent18.217.47

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Jordan Dykstra17.320.81

- Nate Wolters will be a first team selection, no doubt. Many are justifiably calling for him to get the Player of the Year nod, but the sophomore has yet to develop into a threat on both ends of the court like Keith Benson. If he progresses at his current rate, Wolters will get his POTY trophy before all is said and done. Clint Sargent was a second-teamer last season and was tabbed in the preseason for the same honor in 2010-11. However, the PER doesn't really like Sargent as much as the voters probably will because his role is primarily that of a scorer and not much else, at least offensively. Still, he's a senior and featured scorer on a team that should pick up a few more wins so he'll likely finish the season with another selection. Jordan Dykstra will almost surely be an All-Newcomer selection and should compete for higher honors in future seasons.

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Ray Jones, Jr.15.913.03

- Perhaps not so surprisingly, there are no players on this year's SUU squad that scream for all-conference attention. In fact, the PER does not like this team too much as there is not a single Thunderbird ranked in the top 25. However, Ray Jones, Jr. has been a bright spot for the team this season as a junior college transfer. He's been inconsistent in his scoring, but he's consistently been a team leader in assists and steals. The All-Newcomer team will have a lot of freshman this year, but Jones could squeak in to represent the JUCO contingent.

First Team Candidate(s)
Jay Cousinard21.521.62

Second Team Candidate(s)
Spencer Johnson14.521.34

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Reggie Chamberlain14.812.94

- Jay Cousinard is having a great senior season for UMKC. He was an Honorable Mention selection last season and is making a case to move up based on the fact he has upped his statistics in all of the key areas. However, what makes Cousinard a more enticing candidate this year is that he is helping his team win games. UMKC is quietly having a much better season than expected, and Cousinard has been a big reason why. His partner in crime, Spencer Johnson, is having a revivalist final season that sees him just on the verge of averaging a double-double. Johnson has been an elite rebounder this season (his 24.2 rebounding rate rivals that of Keith Benson) and has shown he is a perfect scoring complement to Cousinard. It would be a shame if Johnson is left off the second team given his current level of performance. Reggie Chamberlain is a darkhorse All-Newcomer candidate as a role playing transfer from Wichita State.

Second Team Candidate(s)
Matt Lander21.016.28

All-Newcomer Candidate(s)
Kaimarr Price18.314.44

- Matt Lander has had to be the Western Illinois offense this season as several of his teammates have gone down with an injury. The PER doesn't like him much despite the fact that he scores 16.5 points per game and has serviceable assist and rebound figures. Despite that, everyone knows WIU would be in an even more desperate spot without Lander which is where an objective stat fails. Lander's best case scenario is a second team spot. Junior college transfer Kaimarr Price has had to shoulder most of the low-post load for the Leathernecks this season, and he very well could be rewarded for his perseverance with an All-Newcomer selection.

It will be fun to see which players improve their stock over the course of the next month of conference play. There is still plenty of time for players to make their respective cases for inclusion or exclusion on the various teams. The race I am most looking forward to following is that of the newcomers as there are a slew of freshmen playing important roles for contenders this year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Gameplan's Weekly Recap: SDSU/NDSU

The Big Picture
The Golden Grizzlies survived the treacherous Dakotas trip to the tune of two wins to zero losses. It's the second year in a row that the team swept through the toughest road trip in conference play. By winning both games, the program is now the official holder of the consecutive wins streak in conference play (17), dating back to last season. For this season, it means Oakland has beaten every conference foe at least once at the half-way mark of Summit League play. Teams will be gunning for OU in this second half, hopeful that they can correct their deficiencies from the first run through to top the beasts from Rochester before all is said and done.

Chairmen Of The Boards
Throughout the season, Oakland has consistently been the top rebounding team in The Summit League and one of the best in the country. In fact, as of this posting, the team's 36.8 rebounds per game rank 21st and its 54.6% rebounding percentage 48th in all of Division I. Whether you dig rebounding margins or rates, the fact remains that this team can board with the best in the country. However, for the first time in conference play this season, Oakland was out-rebounded in the match with North Dakota State on Saturday. Margins can tell us one part of the story, but rebounding rate more accurately paints the rebounding picture and allows us to make comparisons from one game to the next. Let's take a look at how Oakland has fared by this measure in conference games:
As is evident, Oakland's board dominance holds up in team rebounding rate as well. However, it's also worth noting just how out of character the performance was against North Dakota State. At the end of the game, the Golden Grizzlies still scored more points than the Bison which is all that mattered. But it is worth keeping an eye on for when the two teams have a rematch at the O'rena in late February.

All About Benson
Despite the frigid temperatures, Oakland's Keith Benson was hot on this road trip. He had 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in back-to-back games for the first time all season, and it was his first back-to-back double-double since the Michigan State and Tennessee games in December. Benson was given a little more room than usual as SDSU and NDSU did not always send an extra man when he got the ball; instead there were some possessions where Jordan Dykstra (SDSU) and Marshall Bjorklund (NDSU), both freshman, were given a chance to be physical with the OU senior. Kito responded well and had several great post-ups while staying active on the glass. His more dominating performance came against the Jackrabbits where he tied his season high in field goal attempts (17) while connecting on a season high 12 made field goals. With more touches, Benson was able to get a number of good looks in the paint. For example:
In frame 1, we see Kito establishing position in the key against Dykstra, awaiting a pass from Reggie Hamilton. Once he gets the ball in frame 2, it looks like he might have had a more direct path at the basket by spinning around his defender toward the basket, but he puts the ball on the floor and spins to his right in frame 3 where Dykstra is still the lone defender. By frame 4, it's clear Kito is going to muscle up a shot over Dykstra and the oncoming help, something he does successfully here.

In another situation, the attention drawn to Benson results in a made bucket for Will Hudson.
In this scene, Benson is running down the court and calling for a pass from Larry Wright. In frame 2, Wright is about to dish it to Benson on the elbow. Once he receives the pass, Benson has a few options but his go-to move in such a position has been to spot up for a jumper (more on this in a minute). However, as we see in frame 3, Benson makes a move toward the basket and draws Hudson's defender in the process. Kito, the ever-evolving passer, spots the deficiency right away and makes a nice dish to Hudson who completes the dunk in frame 4.

Against North Dakota State, Benson was far more likely to shoot the aforementioned mid-range jumper. He shot five long two-pointers, which to many observers is the worst shot in basketball. And his numbers from the two games more or less confirm this notion. Here's a breakdown of his field goal makes and attempts from the two games:
Before dissecting these figures, please note that tracking the distance of shots is somewhat subjective as there's not necessarily a way to take a tape measure from the player's position to the hoop. Generally, though, I think the categorizations hold up when comparing to the tape. One note is that a shot was counted as a jumper if it was taken in the key but outside of 5 feet or so from the basket (so, for example, from around the free throw line). So in looking at the table, we can see that Kito was incredibly efficient in post-up situations or when he was the recipient of a quick pass into the paint. Together, he hit 18 of his 21 attempts in this area for a total of 85.7%. Again, the closer one gets to the basket, the expected shooting percentage is higher, but Benson's figures are rather extraordinary, especially when taking a look at how he got a number of these baskets. On the flipside, he went just 2 of 11 (18.2%) on jumpers outside of this area, including 1 of 5 on those long twos against NDSU (of note is that one of his jumpers was cited as a three-point attempt but it certainly looked to be well within the arc). Benson is capable of knocking down those shots, so perhaps this was the wrong swing of games to highlight. Either way, I think most would agree he's much more efficient when he limits his jumpers to around three or four (like he did against SDSU) than eight or more.

On the defensive end, Benson was just as dominant as usual. In the box score, we see that he had eight blocks and three steals over the weekend. While Marshall Bjorklund did have a career night against the Oakland frontcourt, there were several plays where it looked like Benson was being extra careful on him in the second half as he was playing with three fouls early on. Still, one of the best plays of the game came on a Benson block that led to this:

What is especially mesmerizing about this play in particular is that Benson blocks the oncoming opponent, gets the ball, takes it up the court like a guard, and has the presence of mind to dish it to a streaking Drew Valentine who drains the three. If you keep watching post-shot attempt, you can see Benson running toward the basket for the potential rebound. That is a game-changing play, and one that makes him the most valuable player in the conference.

The Gray Uniform Phenomenon
Since Oakland debuted its gray uniforms in the opening game of the season, there have been other teams popping up around the country embracing the color as well. The resurgent Colorado Buffaloes have been doing the gray look since the beginning of last season, proving that a black and gold school can make the achromatic look good (officially, CU's version is listed as silver). On the other hand, Valparaiso showed us all that gold on gray is, well, see for yourself:
Kudos to Oakland for minimizing the gold as that's clearly something Valpo overlooked or misjudged in its own design. While I wasn't initially stoked about adding gray to the Oakland color scheme, the alternate jerseys have grown on me. I'm glad that they got some gray/silver undershirts for the NDSU game as they had previously worn white which detracted from the allure of the jerseys just a bit. Whatever the case, Oakland's gray uniforms have definitely spruced up the program's identity, and it's safe to say that they rank among the best executed gray alternates.

"Free Ilija" Watch
The Serbian Assassin had just two points and two rebounds in 19 total minutes this week. As the season has played on, Coach Kampe's rotation seems to be getting even tighter. Injuries are partly to explain for that, but it's looking more and more like the current starting five plus Larry Wright are the fellas who will be getting most of the time the rest of the way.

Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Larry Wright
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
Larry Wright was channeling his mid-December self on Saturday night against North Dakota State. While he didn't have a great game against SDSU on Thursday, he really was the guy who ignited Oakland in the second half against NDSU. He scored 20 points in 24 minutes of play, including a stellar 4 of 4 mark from beyond the arc. It was great to see Larry looking like he was at 100% again. Here's a clip of all of his makes from Saturday night. If you listen closely, you won't hear too much rim on those buckets.

Top Play Of The Week
There were a few contenders this week. Larry Wright, in addition to the highlight reel above, had a twisting and turning drive against South Dakota State that showed his ankle woes are behind him (animated .gif). Likewise, Travis Bader had a rare drive to the hoop that showed off some of his non-three-point shooting potential (animated .gif). However, Drew Valentine's emergence as a defensive stopper has been a highlight of this conference season. In both games this week, he had a perimeter steal that led to a fastbreak dunk.
Bonus plays! Watch Ryan Bass fill the bucket on three separate occasions against NDSU. And here's Kito dominating NDSU's Mike Felt on two different possessions.

What's Next?
It's homecoming week for Golden Grizzlies fans this week, highlighting by the men's and women's basketball games on Saturday against Centenary. However, the big game of the week is on Thursday when Oakland welcomes Oral Roberts to Rochester. These two teams always have battles. Hopefully the O'rena will be jam-packed for this annual rivalry game. Not only does the game have historical meaning, but it could also have a major impact on the conference standings as ORU is currently in a three-way tie for second place and will be looking to separate itself.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland at NDSU

Game 22: Oakland 13-8 (8-0) at NDSU 9-9 (3-5)
Saturday, January 22, 2011 | 8:30pm EST
Watch: NDSU All-Access ($) | Radio: WDFN (1130AM)

Oakland wraps up its annual trip to the Dakotas with a big game against the North Dakota State Bison on Saturday evening. If the Golden Grizzlies come out with a win, not only will they have beaten every team in the conference at least once, they will also break the consecutive wins steak in the conference which they have currently tied at 16. The Bison have been a tough team to figure out this season, a trend which continued on Thursday as they allowed IPFW to come back from a 14-point half-time deficit to win at the Bison Sports Arena. NDSU really needs a win after dropping its last three, while Oakland has every incentive in the world to continue its impressive run.

Since The Shot
I'm not sure how North Dakota State fans remember it, but there's no doubt it will live on in my mind as "The Shot." As cliche as it may sound, Ben Woodside's game-winning basket in The Summit League championship two years ago deserves such a title. It wasn't just a shot in the sense that Woodside made a field goal attempt, but it was also a shot directly at my gut, the end of a collective dream to see the Golden Grizzlies back in the NCAA Tournament. Bison Fever spread following The Shot, while the Golden Grizzlies went back home only to watch as NDSU was filled in on a bracket line instead of Oakland. While the OU fans who followed that team will remember the gut-wrenching final minutes of the championship game forever, there was some good that came out of the end result. The team came up with a phrase, "finish it," that was a guiding slogan during the 2009-10 season. As we all know, the team did indeed finish it and found itself celebrating on Selection Sunday last March. Since that shot, the two programs who experienced it have been on different ends of the championship spectrum. NDSU's run atop the conference, built on the backs of a redshirted senior class, was short-lived due to graduation. Oakland, on the other hand, has proven time and again it is built for long-term relevance. This season, the Bison program has won some and loss some but looks to be improved over last season. Though the team is still young, we should soon start to see whether or not that magical tournament appearance in March 2009 will pay dividends now.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Travis Bader vs. Mike Felt
After being named Summit League Player of the Week for his breakout performance two weekends ago, NDSU guard Mike Felt struggled to find playing time against IUPUI and Western Illinois. Still, his two-game assault from downtown was enough to prove that he is a valuable asset for the Bison program. Likewise, Travis Bader has been invaluable to Oakland this season as he has given the team a deadly weapon from deep to help spread the floor on the offensive end. The similarities don't end with their three-point shooting. Felt and Bader are both listed as 6-foot-3 guards. They both redshirted last season, though for different reasons, and thus are in their first year of eligibility. And they both wear the number 3, which must be a nod to their favorite kind of shot. Even though they might never be in this game at the same time, the storylines are just too good to ignore!

NDSU Player To Watch: Michael Tveidt
Michael Tveidt is one of those dudes who seems like he's been playing college basketball far beyond his four years of eligibility. Part of it is that the guy has always looked more manly than his peers, but the more realistic reason is that he's been a solid player for a very long time. Tveidt was big for NDSU in that OU-NDSU championship game two years ago, but he was never as needed by the Bison as he was last season. As a junior, Tveidt was "The Man" in Fargo, seemingly single-handedly carrying the team on his back all season long. Now in his final year, the all-conference forward finally has help again so he's not shouldering as much of the scoring load. As a result, he's shooting much better from the field this season and has seen an uptick in his assist figures. Tveidt has always been a hard working player, so enjoy his game while you still can.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
For the first time since the last game of 2010, Keith Benson scored more than 20 points in a dominant performance against South Dakota State on Thursday. The big man was the focal point, as usual, but for once everything was clicking in the offensive sets which allowed him to take 17 field goal attempts, 12 of which went in for a 70.5% shooting night. His 17 attempts were the most he's had since the Michigan State and Tennessee games. Interestingly, after grabbing just one offensive board all month, Benson had six against the Jackrabbits on his way to 11 total. Maybe it was SDSU's lack of size or lack of a game plan (or Benson's lack of fouls), but the senior center finally had ample room and opportunities to score big for the first time in 2011. Glad to have his ridiculous stat lines back.

Oakland is 2-1 at the Bison Sports Arena in Summit League play.

As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Game Preview: Oakland at SDSU

Game 21: Oakland (12-8, 7-0) at SDSU (12-6, 4-3)
Thursday, January 20, 2011 | 8:00pm EST
Watch: Jackrabbit Extra ($) | Radio: WDFN (1130AM)

It's that time of the year again. We're in the dead of winter, and the Oakland basketball team has to head to the Dakotas for two games in Summit League action. First up, South Dakota State. The team travels to Brookings after beating IPFW to take a two game lead as the first place team in the conference. SDSU suffered a setback to IUPUI in its last game and fell to 4-3 in league play. Expect a battle.

Running The Point
One of the key storylines we've watched this season with the Golden Grizzlies is that of point guard play. After Johnathon Jones graduated, it was revealed that Larry Wright would serve as the primary ball-handler to allow Reggie Hamilton to fill in as a scorer. As Wright has battled an ankle injury, we've seen Hamilton fill that role more often than not. While both Wright and Hamilton have managed to rack up assists, they've also been rather turnover prone. Still, the team is undefeated in conference play without a "go-to" point guard so most are not complaining much. South Dakota State, on the other hand, has as pure a point guard as one will find in The Summit League in Nate Wolters. He's a great passer, limits turnovers, and can score with anyone in the conference. We wrote extensively about Wolters earlier this week in an attempt to showcase just how great his season has been. Here, we use the same stat discussed in that piece, pure point rating, to compare Wolters to Oakland's trio of guys playing the point:
As is readily evident, Wolters blows the Oakland guards out of the water by this measure. He also happens to be the best scorer of the bunch. Wright and Hamilton don't fair as well here because, well, neither player is a true point guard. Ryan Bass has been billed as one, yet he just hasn't had the chances to get experience. The combination of inexperience and lack of fit in this role has led to a decent amount of turnovers. This comparison serves as a microcosm of the teams at large. SDSU has a league-best turnover rate of 13.1% in conference games, while Oakland checks in with a middling 18.6% turnover rate. Despite this fact, the comparison also shows that OU has a bit more depth than SDSU at the guard spot. Depth is a battle that Oakland probably also wins when taking the teams as a whole.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Travis Bader vs. Clint Sargent
Clint Sargent's been around for a while, and he's never shied away from shooting threes. Now in his senior year, 47 of Sargent's 100 made field goals have come from beyond the arc, and he averages about seven attempts from there per game. If Sargent is connecting on those attempts, then the Jacks become a much more difficult team to beat. However, if Oakland can disrupt his shots early and often, then the chances of Sargent having a rough night increase as his team has lost all four games where he's had at least 10 triple attempts. Fortunately, Oakland has a few guys who can get hot from deep, highlighted by Travis Bader. The redshirt freshman is 13 of 19 on his three-pointers in January conference games so far.

SDSU Player To Watch: Jordan Dykstra
Coach Scott Nagy has used the same starting line-up all season, and for nearly every game it has featured Jordan Dykstra. Despite the fact he is a true freshman, Dykstra has been billed as one of SDSU's best recruits yet. He has not disappointed as the team's featured big man, averaging 8.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in his debut season. At 6-foot-8, he is one of the team's tallest players and will be tested by Oakland's bigger frontcourt on Thursday night. We should learn a lot about Dykstra in such a match-up.

Oakland Player To Watch: Reggie Hamilton
South Dakota State has had an explosive offense all season, but the team has dropped a few games because of its defense. This game could play out like the Oakland-Valparaiso match if defense is thrown out the window, in which case the Golden Grizzlies will need a confident Reggie Hamilton yet again. Hamilton is fully capable of changing a game with his scoring, whether it's from downtown, driving the lane, or getting easy looks at the charity stripe. It will be neat to see the junior go up against an SDSU backcourt that can do much of the same.

Oakland is 2-1 at Frost Arena in Summit League play, though the two wins have come by a combined four points. Needless to say, expect an entertaining finish in this year's installment.

The Extra Pass
One of the more bizarre things I've come across this season was when I saw that John Gasaway of listed a Summit Leaguer in his national Top 25 Freshmen list a little over a week ago. Checking in at the 25th spot was not ORU's freak frosh Steven Roundtree, NDSU's rebounding machine Marshall Bjorklund, or OU's three-point threat Travis Bader, but SDSU's role playing newcomer Chad White. Here's Mr. Gasaway's take on the freshman forward:
No Prospectus list of top 25 freshmen would be complete without a criminally overlooked jewel of efficiency who's been relegated to coming in off the bench. Meet White, a 6-6 redshirt freshman who's making a Roy Hobbs-like 67 percent of his twos and 48 percent of his threes -- but he's yet to start for the Jackrabbits. Show him the love, Coach Nagy!
It's hard to argue with that analysis. While freshman Jordan Dykstra gets most of the love as SDSU's starting big man, perhaps White has been a bit under-appreciated. While his numbers have dipped just a bit since that list was put together, White is still shooting at an impressive clip, but his rebounding has gone stagnant in conference play. The Jackrabbit fans are likely quite familiar with #42 at this point, but for the rest of us, we thank for highlighting him in such a fashion. Consider The Chad another dude to keep an eye on in this game.

As always, if you're interested in getting in on the conversation with other Oakland fans before, during, and after the game, we highly suggest checking out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum: Game Thread.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just How Good Is SDSU's Nate Wolters?

One of The Summit League's most productive players this season has been Nate Wolters, a sophomore point guard for South Dakota State. The 6-foot-3 Minnesota-native had his coming out party in his team's second game of the year, a televised match against Iowa of the Big Ten, in which he exploded for 25 points and 9 assists in a Jackrabbits win. Wolters has been just as solid ever since, as he currently leads the conference in scoring (19.4 per game) on 45.6% two-point shooting and 54.7% three-point shooting. True to his position, Wolters is also the conference's best distributor, dishing out 6.0 assists to just 2.2 turnovers per game. Just a sophomore, Wolters is the young leader of a young Jackrabbits team that has had its ups and downs this year, particularly on the defensive end. The team is off to a 4-3 start in conference play, no doubt influenced by the overall prowess of Wolters. Already, the emerging floor general has been called the best point guard in the conference. But just how good is Wolters at the point?

To evaluate Wolters' point play, let's take a look at a statistic called the Pure Point Rating, or PPR. The PPR is a tool developed by's John Hollinger to evaluate point guards beyond the assist-to-turnover ratio. As Hollinger points out in his seminal article on the subject, the A:TO "assumes assists and turnovers are equal, when in fact a turnover is more costly than an assist is helpful" and it "equates very different amounts of productivity." To get over the ratio hump, he explains the concept behind PPR as follows:
First, [PPR] adjusts for the fact that assists do less good than turnovers do harm by multiplying assists by two-thirds. There's a factual basis in this. As I noted in a recent column, of the three acts of creating the basket (getting open, making the pass and making the shot), the passer does one. So we give him one-third of the credit of a 2-point basket, or about two-thirds of a point. Since turnovers cost almost exactly one point (teams average about 1.02 points per possession), we needn't make any adjustments to that part of the equation.

The second adjustment is measuring productivity, to avoid the Player A vs. Player B situation above. The way to do this is to sum a player's accomplishments on a per-minute basis, then adjust them for his team's pace. Finally, multiply the end result by 100 to make the numbers more user-friendly.
While PPR was originally intended for the NBA, it can also be applied to college basketball. For its part, includes PPR in its statistics database, though anyone can calculate it for any player given one culls the right data. For the purposes of Wolters, I set up a few tables in Excel to compare his PPR to various segments of players. This first table is designed for Summit League enthusiasts who may remember well two of the conference's better point guards in recent years: Oakland's Johnathon Jones and NDSU's Ben Woodside (click to enlarge).
For JJ and Woody, I chose the 2008-09 season because that was each player's best individual year (JJ led the nation in assists and Woody was the conference player of the year). As we can see in the PPR column, Jones came in with a great 5.14 figure that ranked much higher than Woodside's 2.79. However, the former Bison point guard was a premier scorer, in fact one of the best in the country that season. But enough of these two, when we look at what Wolters has done through 18 games, we see that he is about as pure as they come. His 5.35 PPR ranks ahead of JJ's and his 24 points per 40 minutes figure is just shy of Woodside's mark. In essence, Wolters has the best traits of both players. Like Jones, the young Jackrabbit has great court vision and control of the ball, yet he is also an elite scorer like Woodside. Now that we've established a standard for PPR, let's look at Wolters compared to current college point guards. The following table discriminates to feature point guards who are both leading passers (a minimum of 5 assists/game) and featured scorers (at least 20 points per 40 minutes).
On first glance, it is clear Wolters is among some elite company. Illinois guard Demetri McCamey and the Duke tandem of Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith are likely future pros, while Xavier's Tu Holloway has the potential to reach that level. Yet for all of these players save McCamey, Wolters checks in with a higher Pure Point Rating. When looking at the raw stats, Wolters' rating is clearly helped by his lack of turnovers. As his team's primary distributor, that's a trait which is likely welcomed with open arms by SDSU coach Scott Nagy. However, what is also so intriguing about Wolters is that he is his team's leading scorer, too. In essence, the ball is in his hands more than any of his teammates, yet he's still able to significantly limit his turnovers. The same could be said of all of the players on this list, and a mid-major shout-out should also go to Ohio's D.J. Cooper for his incredible pure point guard rating as he is just a sophomore as well.

To give this PPR puzzle a bit more juice, I went back through archives to find players who ended a season with the same criteria discussed above. Although there were some random players, the overwhelming majority of guys I came across had one thing in common: they went on the play in the NBA. Below is a table of selected players, including two guys from 2004-05 who do not fit the profile in scoring but nonetheless are included because they are the standard of point guard play in the NBA at present.
This table is useful in many ways. First, I think it shows us that, generally, those scoring talents who also had a great PPR in college have more or less went on to be great point guards in the NBA. The obvious examples are Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and perhaps we need more time to evaluate Ty Lawson, owner of an absolutely unbelievable 7.58 PPR in the season he won the national championship with North Carolina. On the other end of the spectrum are guys like Rodney Stuckey and Stephen Curry. Both players were elite scoring talents in college who happened to play point guard, yet in the NBA we've seen that they are much better playing in a combo spot rather than as lead distributor. Evan Turner, the national player of the year last season, was his team's primary ball-handler but did so as a sort of point-forward, not a point guard. As such, the PPR reveals he's anything but a pure point. Finally, it is interesting to note John Wall's less than stellar figure by this standard. Wall was the first pick in the NBA Draft and has been a sensational passer already in his first season, yet he's never been particularly adept at limiting his turnovers, at least thus far. With that knowledge, we can see how important it is to the PPR to retain the ball on one's possessions.

This data should not lead one to believe that Nate Wolters is going to be an NBA talent one day. However, it should certainly confirm that the sophomore is playing at a high level right now as a natural point guard who can score with the best of them. His performance thus far puts him in an elite class of players. At the very least, it is hoped that making such comparisons will help shine a light on the emerging talent. While he plays on a young team this season, there should be reason to be stoked about the future of the Jackrabbits with Wolters at the helm.