Monday, December 30, 2013

The Talent Gap

After a recent post I found myself on Twitter debating the quality of talent on NU’s roster and whether or not it’s fair to be disappointed in Chris Collins’ coaching job. I won’t pretend that NU has even middle-of-the-pack talent in the B1G, but I do think that this year’s team has underperformed. Furthermore, I have placed the blame for that underperformance pretty squarely on the coaches. Is that fair? Is the team really so bereft of quality players that to expect better is unreasonable?

My first step in addressing this question was to go to VerbalCommits.com. The site lists star ratings for all players on all D1 teams, averaging the ratings from Rivals, Scout, and ESPN. It also lists average team star ratings, using only the ratings of scholarship players. Obviously, there are imperfections in player ratings. John Shurna was only a composite 2.5-star player, but he finished his career as NU’s all-time scoring leader, and I believe that John would have starred on any team in the conference. Meanwhile, James Michael McAdoo, a consensus 5-star top-10 player, has been relatively average in his career at North Carolina. Nevertheless, I think this is a good way to get a sense of the relative talent that programs are bringing in.

With that in mind, here are the current average star ratings for all B1G teams:

Team
Avg. Star Rating
Michigan St.
3.81
Ohio St.
3.70
Indiana
3.60
Michigan
3.49
Purdue
3.42
Illinois
3.19
Wisconsin
3.13
Iowa
2.90
Minnesota
2.72
Penn St.
2.65
Northwestern
2.59
Nebraska
2.50

Here my Twitter critics are clearly correct; NU certainly is behind the rest of the conference in talent level.

I next compared NU against its non-conference opponents:

Team
Avg. Star Rating
UCLA
3.91
North Carolina St.
3.44
Missouri
3.39
Stanford
3.31
DePaul
2.82
Northwestern
2.59
Illinois St.
2.26
Gardner Webb
2.14
Eastern Illinois
2.13
Western Michigan
2.10
Illinois Chicago
2.08
Brown
2.00
IUPUI
2.00
Mississippi Valley St.
2.00

At this point, it’s worth noting that players not otherwise rated default to 2 stars, so while Brown is pretty obviously a better team with better players than Mississippi Valley St., both teams’ rosters are filled with non-rated players and thus they have identical average star ratings. It’s also worth noting that of NU’s six losses, only one came to a team with a lower average star rating (Illinois St.). Perhaps I was wrong about NU having enough talent to be more competitive.

I then decided to look at KenPom.com rankings. Here are the B1G teams sorted by KenPom rank along with their average star ratings.

KenPom Rank
Team
Avg. Star Rating
2
Ohio St.
3.70
7
Wisconsin
3.19
12
Iowa
2.90
13
Michigan St.
3.81
20
Michigan
3.49
34
Minnesota
2.72
48
Indiana
3.60
50
Illinois
3.13
82
Penn St.
2.65
85
Purdue
3.42
96
Nebraska
2.50
125
Northwestern
2.59

A few things jump out at me. NU has the 11th-rated roster but is 12th-ranked by far. Purdue is perhaps the biggest underachiever in the conference, while Iowa and Wisconsin are overachievers. The Hawkeyes and Badgers also happen to be very well coached. Minnesota has a marginally better-rated roster than NU but is ranked much much higher. It looks like Richard Pitino is the better of the two first-year coaches in the conference.

I proceeded to check the KenPom rankings for all teams with average star ratings equal to or lower than NU's. There are 51 teams with an average star rating of 2.59 or lower that KenPom ranks higher.

KenPom Rank
Team
Avg. Star Rating
14
Creighton
2.36
16
Wichita St.
2.25
26
St. Louis
2.51
32
Harvard
2.47
38
Arizona St.
2.41
47
New Mexico
2.44
49
St. Mary's
2.47
52
Boise St.
2.08
61
New Mexico St.
2.24
63
Louisiana Tech
2.19
64
George Washington
2.40
65
Southern Miss
2.04
68
Utah
2.31
71
Indiana St.
2.35
72
Princeton
2.00
73
Utah St.
2.06
75
Toledo
2.21
76
UC Santa Barbara
2.04
77
Richmond
2.25
78
Manhattan
2.17
79
North Dakota St.
2.00
81
St. Joseph's
2.56
83
Drexel
2.13
84
Green Bay
2.09
87
Stephen F. Austin
2.03
89
Delaware
2.05
90
Drake
2.06
91
Ohio
2.16
94
Mercer
2.00
96
Nebraska
2.50
97
UAB
2.43
98
Northern Iowa
2.19
99
Louisiana Lafayette
2.03
100
UTEP
2.44
102
Stony Brook
2.03
103
St. Bonaventure
2.00
104
Wyoming
2.13
106
Hawaii
2.35
107
Belmont
2.18
109
UC Irvine
2.24
110
Pacific
2.09
111
Cleveland St.
2.19
113
Iona
2.10
114
La Salle
2.43
115
Eastern Kentucky
2.00
117
Georgia St.
2.41
119
Elon
2.06
120
Texas Tech
2.39
121
Seton Hall
2.58
122
Portland
2.08
124
Loyola Marymount
2.35
125
Northwestern
2.59

This is where my contention that a better-coached version of this roster could yield better results might have some traction. Most of these teams are not going to the NCAA tournament, but I’d guess that up to half of them might make the NIT or NCAA. Barring some dramatic in-conference improvement, NU will be lucky to make it to double-digit wins.

In the interest of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that there are some teams with higher-rated rosters that are ranked lower than NU. Ten of them, in fact.

KenPom Rank
Team
Avg. Star Rating
125
Northwestern
2.59
130
Virginia Tech
2.73
131
George Mason
2.61
135
DePaul
2.82
145
Washington
2.87
149
South Florida
2.62
155
Boston College
2.60
179
TCU
2.74
190
Mississippi St.
2.61
205
Houston
2.87
208
Rutgers
3.15

After all this, I think my point is reasonable. With a better approach, more suited to the available personnel, this team could be better. That’s on the coaches.

There are some holes in this analysis. Notably, I haven’t put any consideration into balance of talent across positions on rosters nor into experience on rosters. It’s not out of the question that roster with 3-star senior and/or junior starters at all five positions would outperform a roster with 4-star freshman starters. Nor is it unthinkable that a team with several 4-star guards and small forwards but not even a serviceable center or power forward might have an impressive average star rating but still flounder on the court.


So, What About Next Year?

Regardless of what anyone else says, it’s obvious to me that Chris Collins was not hired because Jim Phillips expected him to be an upgrade as basketball coach. Phillips chose Collins for his recruiting zeal and his willingness to be a marketing tool. By those standards, Collins actually has been a success. Most impressive is Collins’ first recruiting class, currently ranked 25th in the country by ESPN and 36th by 247Sports. Some fans are calling it NU’s best class ever. I don’t have enough history closely following NU recruiting to make that claim, but it is the best I can remember. I was highly skeptical that Collins would be able to recruit this well at NU, but I was obviously wrong.

It’s a great class and a phenomenal job by a staff on the job now less than nine months. However, based on average star ratings, it’s merely middle-of-the-conference. (I haven’t included Maryland and Rutgers here, but it’s worth noting that Maryland’s class would be 2nd ranked in the conference.)

Team
Avg. Star Rating
Ohio St.
4.25
Indiana
3.80
Illinois
3.50
Michigan St.
3.35
Michigan
3.18
Purdue
3.18
Northwestern
3.14
Nebraska
3.00
Wisconsin
3.00
Minnesota
2.90
Iowa
2.85
Penn St.
2.65

Furthermore, this one class won’t move NU too far up the conference in terms of average star rating for the 2014-2015 season. These rankings are based on current rosters, minus seniors, plus current commits. Obviously, some players will leave school early, some teams will add another commit or two, and there likely will be more transfers. Still, this is how things stack up today.

Team
Avg. Star Rating
Ohio St.
3.92
Indiana
3.75
Michigan St.
3.65
Purdue
3.55
Michigan
3.44
Illinois
3.28
Wisconsin
3.20
Iowa
2.94
Northwestern
2.86
Minnesota
2.85
Penn St.
2.64
Nebraska
2.58

So, next year, NU will have a nice incoming class of freshman (and perhaps a big man transfer), but it will still have lower-conference talent overall. For the ‘Cats to make a major move up the standings next season, Collins will have to outcoach some guys. Those guys are Fran McCaffery, Bo Ryan, John Groce, John Beilein, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo, Tom Crean, and Thad Matta. Forgive me for thinking it's nigh impossible that Collins can outcoach more than one or two of that lot right now.

Even if Collins consistently pulls in recruiting classes like his 2014 class, NU will have middle-of-the-conference talent and will have to win games with better coaching. This, I believe, was the true risk in making the coaching change that Phillips made. Like I noted in my previous post, there are more offensive options than Princeton Offense and the miasmatic mess that Collins is running, and similarly there are more coaches than Bill Carmody and Chris Collins.

It was clear after the 2012 season that Phillips had already identified Collins as the next coach. Despite the hiring of a search firm in the spring of 2013 and the supposed interviewing of multiple candidates, there was no doubt in my mind that Collins would be the next NU coach when NU lost to Iowa in the 2014 B1G Tournament. In other words, for Phillips, it was always Carmody or Collins. It didn't have to be that narrow a choice.

I’ve already noted that I was skeptical that Collins would be able to improve recruiting significantly, and that Collins has proven me wrong. But I’ve also been skeptical that he’s up to coaching in the B1G, particularly at what has to be the toughest job in the conference. To date, nothing has blunted that skepticism. What I’ve seen is a team that often looks confused and frustrated on the court and a coaching staff that looks overwhelmed and unable to manage a game.

Collins comes from Duke, a program that wins with superior talent at all positions not with superior coaching. Unless his recruiting takes another quantum leap, I don’t see NU’s fate improving. This is a shame. When Phillips decided to fire Carmody, he had an opportunity to find someone special, experienced, and enthusiastic. What NU needs is an energetic recruiter AND a brilliant strategist. I’m not interested in debating Carmody versus Collins anymore, but I think it’s entirely valid to question whether Collins was the right choice to replace Carmody. Based on what I’ve seen on the court, I find it hard to believe NU couldn’t have done better.  Maybe in a year (or two or four) I’ll be here confessing how wrong I was.