Monday, April 6, 2015
Flipping the Script: Wisconsin’s Historic Offense
All throughout this college basketball season, and especially as the games went by with Kentucky having an unblemished record, thousands upon thousands of words were written about its potential legacy should the Wildcats complete a 40-0 season.
Among all those column inches written, a rough consensus seemed to emerge: 2014-15 Kentucky probably wasn't the greatest college basketball team ever.
Heck, they might have only been the third-best Kentucky team in the last 20 years, behind the 1996 and 2012 juggernauts. But the same consensus also told us that this version of the Wildcats was quite likely the best defensive club in the history of college basketball.
Their starting lineup defied logic with its height, but was also the nation's most athletic. A team with that much size made it seem impossible for a team to have an above-average offensive outing against the Wildcats.
After Wisconsin's thrilling 71-64 win to end Kentucky's unbeaten season, it might be time to flip the script on our assumptions. What if Wisconsin is one of the greatest offenses we've seen in modern college basketball?
The thing that struck me the most about Wisconsin's National Semifinal performance, even more than the incredible stats it put up, is just how unintimidated the Badgers were by Kentucky in running their offense. In watching a number of Kentucky games against inferior competition, it was clear that teams were taken back by the type of size and amount of floor covered that you just don't see on a basketball court, be it college or pro.
Even the teams that talked a big game (looking at you, Daxter Miles Jr.) and claimed they weren't scared were no match for Kentucky. Wisconsin took the proactive approach that they were going to play their brand of basketball, and let Kentucky react to it. The result was Wisconsin putting up 1.22 points per possession on Kentucky's defense, an elite output for a national semifinal, not to mention one against the "greatest defense ever."
Furthermore, Wisconsin shot over 50 percent on its twos and over 40 percent on its threes. That had only even come close to happening a couple times in Kentucky's season. Most teams this season did well to even hit a 40 percent effective field goal percentage against the Wildcats. Wisconsin had an eFG of 55 percent.
In sports, our perceptions of teams are influenced by their past reputations and styles. Many times, these perceptions are completely correct. Oregon football still runs a hyper-speed, up-tempo offense. The New England Patriots still don't overpay players, and trade draft picks all the time.
But other times, those past perceptions color what we see in front of our eyes. This is why the English-speaking sports media can use stereotypical words like "ruthless efficiency" to describe the German national soccer team a decade after they changed their style to a more free-flowing game, or why for a couple seasons after the San Antonio Spurs changed their philosophy, they were still deemed plodding and boring. This category applies to Wisconsin.
Starting with former head coach Dick Bennett, the Badgers gained a reputation as a methodical, defensive-minded, half-court offense team, which continued through the beginning of the Bo Ryan era. Unlike the post-2010 Spurs, Wisconsin still plays one of the slowest tempos in its sport.
In the past couple years, however, with the offensive superiority of players like Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, Wisconsin has been an amazingly elite offense. This season, the Badgers have put up the highest offensive efficiency in the history of the KenPom database (going back to 2002) by averaging 1.285 points per possession.
For college basketball, it's tougher to do historical, analytical-based comparisons, because all the data required to do fair, tempo-free statistics on a nationwide scale just isn't there before the early 2000s. In the NBA, since we have that necessary data going back 35-plus seasons, we can determine that Golden State being on the verge of having the best offensive and defensive efficiencies in one season for 2014-15 puts them up there with some historic teams.
For Wisconsin, we don't know how they would stack up against the great teams from the '60s through '90s with analytics, but we can say that their offensive output is all the more impressive when we consider that this is a more defensive era of college basketball than even 10 years ago.
You'll notice that I haven't given Wisconsin's defense a mention yet for what it did against Kentucky, and that's probably unfair. It wasn't a lockdown performance by any means, but it was one where the Badgers did just enough to win, including preventing Aaron Harrison's usual late-game heroics, and despite 17 points on 7-11 shooting, preventing Karl-Anthony Towns from completely dominating the game as he could have.
A couple overlooked aspects of Wisconsin's win were the Badgers' excellent rebounding on the defensive and offensive glass, and Traevon Jackson's unsung play in his third game back from injury. Wisconsin grabbing almost 80 percent of Kentucky's misses was not abnormal on the balance of the season, but against Kentucky's size and usual second-chance ability, it was crucial. Even more amazing was the Badgers grabbing more than 40 percent of their own misses, well above their season or Big Ten averages.
As for Jackson, he didn't score a lot, and only played 12 minutes, but he made some great smart plays and passes. His four points in the middle of the second half came at a time when Kentucky was making its run after Wisconsin's eight-point lead.
For tonight's title game, while an undefeated season won't be on the line, it should still be a heavyweight battle between two teams that have been excellent all year. While Duke's somewhat-maligned defense has been exceptional in the tournament, Wisconsin should prevail if it plays anything like it did on Saturday night.
After all, the Badgers have put together one of the great offensive seasons in modern college basketball history.