The Big Picture
Oakland sent its seniors off with two more wins at the O'rena this weekend, including a 105-96 victory over South Dakota State on Senior Night. Keith Benson, Will Hudson, and Larry Wright all put up big numbers in their last home game and capped the night off with a series of speeches to the crowd that showcased their character. It also gave the Oakland fans a chance to show their appreciation for the trio of seniors who have delivered back-to-back regular season championships. With the regular season championship clinched on Thursday night, the next time the Golden Grizzlies will have cause for celebration is if they win the tournament championship in Sioux Falls.
In conferences like The Summit League, teams are not rewarded with at-large berths to the NCAA Tournament. Consequently, the only way for a program like Oakland to make the field of 68 is to claim the automatic bid that comes with winning a conference tournament championship. Generally, then, we can expect coaches to have their teams playing their best basketball heading into the beginning of March. In Oakland's case, this is something we've heard Coach Greg Kampe talk about time and again over the years. His focus on preparing his team for March has undoubtedly been the force behind Oakland's success in the conference tournament. But beyond general inferences, how can we quantify whether a team is truly peaking at the right time? To answer, let's turn to efficiency margin.
The concept of efficiency margin is fairly simple: points scored per possession less points allowed per possession. It's a tempo-free way to explain a basketball team's efficiency, and it's relevance is boosted when one uses only games played in conference since the playing field is deemed even. John Gasaway of BasketballProspectus.com looks at the efficiency margin of teams in high major and elite mid-major conferences each week, and following that model, I have been keeping track of this measure for The Summit League throughout the season. But instead of calculating the efficiency margin for one point in the conference season, I thought it would be interesting to see how it changes over the course of the year. With this idea in mind, I charted Oakland's efficiency margin in conference play for the 18 games played in the past three seasons. The 2010-11 EM is through the 16 games played thus far:
To aid in consuming the information presented here, first note that a positive efficiency margin is an indication of a good team (one which scores more points than it gives up). The higher the efficiency margin, the more dominant the team. Second, note that the horizontal axis represents the number of games played in the conference season.
We'll start with the 2008-09 season, one in which Oakland got off to a rough start before getting hot throughout the month of February. If any season represented the coaching mantra of "peaking at the right time," this was it. Oakland used its improved offensive and defensive efficiency to make a run to the conference championship game. Unfortunately, North Dakota State was a better team that year, and even the in-season adjustments Oakland made weren't enough to topple the Bison. In the 2009-10 season, the Golden Grizzlies were more or less dominant throughout, including an incredible stretch in the month of January where their efficiency margin was as high as +.24. While the team wasn't quite ascending during the last few weeks, it was at least very consistent hovering around the +.13 mark. Using that consistency streak, Oakland would go on to win the tournament championship.
Now we turn to this season. Janus-like, we can look at this in two different ways. First, the green line representing 2010-11 is clearly on the decline. Over the course of the last month, both Oakland's possession-based offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency have been falling; consequently, so has its efficiency margin. For the first time in league play, Oakland now rests under +.20 in this measure. Essentially, the Golden Grizzlies haven't been as dominant as they were in the early part of the season. Opposing teams are closing the gap.
However, that closing gap is still gaping! We can look at this decreasing efficiency as merely a team coming down from an incredible high. After all, there aren't too many teams who could keep up a +.30 efficiency margin throughout the course of a season. As a result, Oakland in 2010-11 has had more room to fall than previous versions, yet it still owns a decided advantage over the rest of its conference counterparts. Here, in it's entangled glory, is a visualization of efficiency margin trends in The Summit League.
I will have more on each team that should be easier to discern in tomorrow's conference wrap-up, but the basic idea should come through here: OU has been far and away the most efficient team all season long. So even though Oakland hasn't been quite as dominant lately, the team has still found a way to win. In blowouts, close games, and everything in between, these Golden Grizzlies have come out victorious. Such a pedigree will surely come in handy in Sioux Falls.
Hamilton, The Distributor
After his 11 assist performance on Saturday against South Dakota State, Reggie Hamilton is now averaging 6.4 assists per game in conference play. That mark sets him alone as the leading distributor in league play just ahead of SDSU's Nate Wolters (6.1). Since becoming Oakland's lead ball-handler around the time Larry Wright was first injured, Hamilton has proven to be quite effective at finding his teammates for open shots. The only knock against the junior in this role is that he has often coughed the ball up, but his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved in recent weeks. In last week's recap, I showed how Hamilton has become the team's leading player in terms of creating his own shot, but he has also been great at creating shots for others as well.
I first saw the concept of attributing a player's assists from SI.com's Luke Winn, who developed his own spin on Hoopism.com's study on assists in the NBA. Since this model has been replicated a bit on other team-specific blogs, I thought I'd do a slightly different spin on the visualization, though the basic premise is the same. Here, we see the distribution of Reggie Hamilton's assists through 16 conference games.
It should come as no surprise to Oakland fans that a majority of Hamilton's assists are to Keith Benson, Drew Valentine, Will Hudson, and Travis Bader. After all, these are the players he is most often on the court with, and it's also been Oakland's starting line-up for the better part of league play. Benson is the primary benefactor of Hamilton's passes, which makes sense as the 6-foot-11 center is often the focal point of the offense. I was hoping some trend would become apparent with the rest of the guys, yet I found that Hamilton's assists were distributed fairly evenly. There is about a one percent difference in assisted baskets between Valentine, Hudson, and Bader. Hamilton doesn't really favor a particular guy, he just hits who is open or in position to score. As a sign of Oakland's good fortune this season, the team has several guys capable of knocking down shots from all over the court, and Hamilton has done a great job of finding his teammates in those spots.
"Free Ilija" Watch
Ilija's playing time continues to disappear as Oakland finds itself in increasingly tight games, but he was able to have an impact on the South Dakota State game by draining a three in the corner. With that make, he improves to 4-of-10 on three-point shooting in conference play.
Non-Keith Benson Stud Of The Week: Will Hudson
A weekly shoutout to the best Golden Grizzly not named Keith Benson.
All three seniors closed out the O'rena with a bang, but Will Hudson was the one doing the most banging around for the Golden Grizzlies this week. In his post-game interview on Saturday, there was plenty of evidence of this: a stitched-up eye, scratches on his biceps, a bruise. Hudson took his fair share of hits this weekend, yet he remained as tough as ever throughout. In two games, he gobbled up 18 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass) and blocked five shots in total. He also went 9-of-11 from the field and 14-of-18 from the charity stripe for 32 points. He was, simply, a beast.
Oakland will wrap up the regular season with a tough road trip to UMKC and SUU. The Kangaroos have been a tough out at their on-campus arena this season, and the Thunderbirds always seem to give Oakland close games in Cedar City. It will be interesting to see how the team approaches these games, considering the travel involved and the need to stay healthy and alert for Sioux Falls, and the fact that the regular season championship is already wrapped up.