Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Championship Game Preview: Oakland vs. Oral Roberts

Summit League Tournament Championship
(1) Oakland vs. (2) Oral Roberts
Tuesday, March 8, 2011 | 9:00pm EST
Watch: ESPN2 / ESPN3.com
Radio: WDFN / WXOU
Oakland advanced to its third straight conference tournament championship game with a win last night over South Dakota State. The team starting firing early and often on its way to building a nice lead that sequestered any home court advantage for the Jacks. Now, just as it has been every year in Sioux Falls, Oakland remains as one of two teams to battle for the NCAA Tournament bid. The Golden Grizzlies will look to stay poised and focused in an effort to win the tournament crown for a second straight year. Oral Roberts, which advanced after taking care of business over IUPUI, will seek its first NCAA bid since 2007-08. The national television audience will be treated to a great game from the conference's most formidable foes.

If history tells us anything, it's that this will be a close game that goes down-to-the-wire. Oakland and Oral Roberts have a long history of intense battles, and those have only been magnified under the bright lights of the league tournament. In championship games, each school has exactly one win over the other. Oakland's came in 2005 by a one-point margin, and Oral Robert's was in 2007 by a final score of 71-67. In all likelihood, then, it's reasonable to think this one could be just as close. So if the game is on the line, which players are most likely to have the ball in their hands, and which of those might be the best options? For that, we turn to a clutch gauge.

There may very well be established measures of a player's "clutchness," but given the short turnaround between games, I was not able to fully look into this area. So for the time being, I've concocted a distribution I'm calling the clutch gauge. First, I define the clutch time as under three minutes left in the game, and for the purposes of this project, the score must have been within eight points, either way. If the team was down by eight points, then we would assume those players on the court would be most likely to try to bring the team within reach. Likewise, if the team is up eight points at that point in time, there is still enough time left for possessions to be valued. I also only use conference games to ensure a somewhat balanced schedule (ORU had 11 such games, and OU had 9). So with the basics defined, let's look at ORU's clutch distribution:
So we measure a player's contribution in this time frame by "Points Per Weighted Shot," which basically tells us how many points a player scored given the amount of shots he took (with free throws "weighted" accordingly). An average PPWS in The Summit League is about 1.09; essentially, the higher, the better. To ensure that a player isn't benefiting from simply taking one shot that he made, the "Percentage of Shots" column shows us the percentage of shots accounted for by that player. For ORU, when the game is close and under three minutes, we can reliably say that Dominique Morrison, Damen Bell-Holter, and Warren Niles will most often be taking shots. DBH seems to account for a lot of the team's free throws at this point in the game, so he gets a healthy boost. However, DoMo and Niles are the true shot creators here. More specifically, Niles might be the more dangerous of the two in the clutch. He's perfect on his free throws in this sample, and he's shooting about 62% on his three-pointers. As a result, he has a rather astronomical PPWS mark. Basically, if the game is in the final minutes and Niles is spotting up for a three, there is reason to be concerned as OU fans!

To a lesser degree, one must keep an eye on Ken Holdman. If he gets the ball to score, which he rarely does in these situations, he has at least proven effective. But more often than not, it's going to be Morrison or Niles, with a slight edge to Niles as the guy who can put the most points up with the least amount of shots. Now, to Oakland.
As a reminder, these numbers are developed through conference games only, so for Oakland it might not tell the whole story since a few of the team's closer games came in November and December. Still, there were enough league games where the Grizzlies had to "do work" to maintain a late lead for this to be useful. To no one's surprise, Reggie Hamilton proves to be the most clutch player on the team. Not only does he take a high percentage of the team's shots in the waning minutes, but he also connects on them, producing 1.68 PPWS. For Hamilton, that's largely a result of his accuracy at the free throw line (18 of 22 in these situations). Larry Wright and Keith Benson are next in order. Wright gets a major bump from some of the late threes he hit at North Dakota State. Benson doesn't look quite as strong due to missed free throws (9 of 14). Travis Bader has a great PPWS mark on the season, a reflection of his role as a three-point specialist, but he doesn't fair as well here simply due to a lack of sample size (meaning he hasn't often been called upon in the final minutes thus far). Finally, Will Hudson and Drew Valentine have both proven reliable with limited opportunities. In particular, Valentine's number suggests he has been ready to execute when his number is called in the final three minutes of tight games.

At the very least, these numbers can give us an idea of which players have proven to be the most clutch in close league games this season. It will be neat to monitor the roles of the players on the court in the final minutes if the score is indeed close.

Key Match-Up
Will Hudson vs. Steven Roundtree
Though Will Hudson has had a number of primetime performances this season, his two outings against Oral Roberts perhaps shine the brightest. Against his team's biggest rival, the senior averaged a stellar 21 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest, in part accomplished by going a combined 18-0f-21 from the field. Hudson's always been a high-percentage scorer, but 86% in the biggest of games is otherworldly, especially when one also considers the ORU frontcourt has played fairly strong all season. Sophomore Damen Bell-Holter and freshman Steven Roundtree had great years as full-time players for the first time. Roundtree, an athletic though stringy forward, held his own against Oakland the first time around, though in both games he was prone to foul trouble. Even so, he made his contribution on the offensive glass, as he often has done this year, and showed off glimpses of potential both on the block and off the dribble. In past meetings, the experience and toughness of Hudson won out, but both Roundtree and Bell-Holter have played well down the stretch.

Oral Roberts Player To Watch: Dominique Morrison
In his post game interview last night, Coach Scott Sutton brought up the fact that Dominique Morrison, who came to ORU after the school's string of NCAA Tournament appearances, had yet to achieve his ultimate goal of winning the conference tournament. Morrison, we can expect, is hungry to lead the Golden Eagles back to the Big Dance, and he gets a shot at doing so against a team he has played well against this season. In fairness to the Grizzlies, Morrison plays well against just about every team, but for the first time we get to see how the junior responds with an automatic bid on the line. He'll surely keep Oakland's defenders busy.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
As with Morrison, Oakland's Keith Benson is the face of his team. He's the star, the two-time first team player, and the most likely to end up making big bucks playing this game. Benson has had a strong tournament so far and notable performances against ORU this year alongside Will Hudson in the frontcourt. Kito also showcased his stamina in those two previous matches by logging a full 40 minutes of playing time in each. History shows us that Benson has come out to work in championship games, particularly on the glass (15.5 rebounds/game) and through his shot-blocking (4.5 blocks/game), and it was also Kito who had the go-ahead dunk against NDSU before Ben Woodside ruined everything in 2009. Moreover, who can forget the two incredible defensive stops he had late in the championship game against IUPUI last season? He got the best of Alex Young with just under three minutes left, and then a minute later he pounded a shot attempt by Billy Pettiford that led to a face-melting and-1 lay-up by Derick Nelson. The game was over at that point. I can only hope we are lucky enough to watch another similar performance from the Player of the Year this time around.

As noted earlier in the post, the teams have met twice in the conference tournament. Oakland beat Oral Roberts as a seven seed in the 2005 tournament on a last-second shot by Pierre Dukes. ORU bested OU two years later as a part of the team's three-year reign as overlords of The Summit League's automatic bid.

Pre-Game Linkage
Finally, check out the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum where fans have been posting links and thoughts to everything they can find about Oakland and the tournament all week.

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