Understanding Basketball Statistics - Part 2: Notre Dame's Season So Far

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of our Understanding Basketball Statistics series, we looked at the "Four Factors for Basketball Success" in each of Notre Dame's 7 ACC games to that point. Now, let's look at some of the aggregate team statistics on the year and draw some comparisons with other top ACC teams.

Note: All stats quoted are through the Wake Forest game. None of the ND or UVa stats include the 1/28 game.

Now that we've looked at the four factors in each of Notre Dame's first 7 ACC basketball contests, let's look at how the team is performing overall alongside how top ACC teams are performing this season. For the purposes of this analysis, we're going to focus in on strictly conference games vs. conference opponents. Since teams vary widely in their non-conference scheduling and the wide variety of teams played in a typical non-conference slate, this gives us a more normalized look at a team's performance vs. its peer group. Once again, all the stats come courtesy of StatSheet.com.

Let's kick things off with looking at the same "Four Factors"

Effective FG%

Notre Dame ranks 7th in the ACC in effective field goal percentage at 49.2%. Opponents are shooting 51.8% eFG, ranking the Irish 12th best at holding their opponents to poor shooting. The Irish are shooting an effective 2.6 percentage points worse than they're giving up defensively. Let's look at how this stacks up historically...

We'll start with the disclaimer that there is a little bit of an apples/oranges comparison, since these are ND's BigEast numbers, but stick with it for now. You can see a few key trends here. From 2009 through 2011, the Irish were a +50% eFG team, and led the BigEast conference in 2010-11. More importantly, the Irish held an advantage in EFG of nearly 5 percentage points in their 2 of their last 3 years in the BigEast. Last season, that gap vanished, and now ND is sitting at a shooting deficit vs. their ACC opponents.

Let's compare that to the team at the top of the ACC standings at 6-0. Looking historically, Syracuse typically maintained a healthy advantage in eFG%. This year, they're in a statistical dead heat in eFG gap (47.6% vs. 47.8%), but they're making up for it in 8 additional possessions a game in turnover and offensive rebounding margins You can afford a minuscule eFG advantage or disadvantage if you can make up for it in a significant advantage in shots, which as we'll see, ND doesn't.

Virginia's ACC turnaround under Tony Bennett demonstrates the power of a good eFG margin in their 6-1 start. They don't shoot lights out, but the Cavaliers do great work on the defensive end to limit good looks for their opponents. This year they are the best in the ACC, holding opponents to 42.2% eFG and shoot a 49.3% eFG themselves. That 6 point gap is a winning formula in the most important factor to basketball success.

Turnovers

Notre Dame ranks 13th in the ACC in turnover percentage at 14.0% of possessions ending in a turnover. Irish opponents turn it over on 15.8% of possessions in ACC games. Mike Brey preaches valuing the basketball, calling it "gold" in a mantra that's often repeated by his younger players.

If I'm to be totally honest here, I expected this graph to show this year being dramatically worse in terms of the number of ND turnovers. Watching games, it feels like the Irish are very careless with the ball, but the Irish are showing improvement over the last 4 years. Notre Dame is managed to reduce their own turnovers in ACC play vs. last year in the BigEast while holding steady on generating opponent turnovers. If you can't outshoot teams, you need more possessions, and the Irish are getting an extra possession a game (based on an average of 76 possessions per game) on turnover margin.

Syracuse demonstrates perfectly the value of managing that turnover gap. The Orange are a whopping 7 percentage points better than their opponents in taking care of the ball (14.2% vs. 21.2%) this season. As we saw before, the Orange aren't outshooting people, but they are turning people over at a rate that gives them nearly 4 extra possessions in their average 54 possession game.

Turnover percentage also tells a great story for Tony Bennett's team. Much like Jim Boeheim's squad, the Virginia advantage in this category is profound. With a +8.8 percentage point gap between them and their opponents, Virginia is able to generate over 5 additional possessions per game (63 possession average). Not only are they out shooting people, but they're getting more chances too - that's winning basketball.

Offensive Rebounding Percentage

Notre Dame ranks 9th in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, gathering in 31.7% of their misses. The Irish are middle of the pack in giving up about 30.9% of offensive rebounding opportunities to their opponents, but that's a case where the average might be hiding the reality. In that stat are the FSU game where there just weren't that many opponent misses and Wake Forest, where the Deamon Deacons seemed indifferent to crash the offensive glass.

This chart enlightens us to what we can call the Jack Cooley effect. You can see how ND maintained superiority in this category last year. This year indicates why you can't take any of the 4 factors in complete isolation. ND's poor defense is limiting the value of other teams crashing their offensive board, presenting an appearance that ND is handling their defensive boards well and showing the irish as having a 0.8 percentage point advantage in offensive rebounding. The number of Sherman and Knight rebounds of their own close misses is likely driving up the Irish percentage in this category.

Syracuse and Virgina don't maintain dominant historical averages here, but both hold an advantage over their conference foes. This season, Syracuse has a significant 40.6% to 31.1% advantage over their opponents. At nearly 41%, Boehiem's team is relentless on their offensive board and leverage their impressive athleticism on the glass. Virgina's 34.6% to 27.4% advantage this season is also very impressive, resulting in even more shots for the teams atop the ACC standings.

Free Throw Rate

As discussed in part 1, StatSheet.com uses FTA/FGA which is a good indicator of trips to the line but factors out a teams FT% as a measure of effectiveness in those trips. StatSheet shows Notre Dame at a free throw rate of 26.4%, good for dead last in the ACC. That compares to Irish opponents at 36.7%. This represents a pretty stark drop off for what was a key ND advantage in the past.

Prior to this year, ND held at least a 5 percentage point advantage in the rate they went to the line vs. opponents. We knew more whistles this year would throw this stat off a little bit, but ND is putting teams on the line over 10 percentage points more this year and getting there a full 5 percentage points less than last year. This is a stark turn of events.

When you look at FTM/FGA, Notre Dame is at 17%. Opponents in ACC games are getting 27% FTM/FGA. Not only are opponents getting to the line more often, but they're shooting a better percentage when they get there. What should be a Notre Dame strength, shooting a good FT% and keeping teams off the line, has turned out to be a pretty significant weakness for the Irish as they sit on a -10 percentage point gap.

For comparison, Syracuse holds a +6 percentage point advantage over their opponents in FTM/FGA and Virginia is +3 with an impressive 31% FTM/FGA. They do a great job getting to the line and converting.

Overall, ND has scored 33 fewer points from the line in ACC play than their opponents. Syracuse is +26 and Virginia +20 in points from the charity stripe vs. their opponents this year.

Obviously, officiating plays a role in this factor, so let me just throw out a couple of numbers for you to consider in your own analysis of the season. In seven ACC games, the Irish have had 3 players foul out of games. Irish opponents have had no disqualifications. Notre Dame has had an additional 3 fouls per game called agains them than their opponents. Notre Dame opponents has attempted 31 more FT's than the Irish. The last two could be partially explained away with the Irish having to foul at the end of a few tight games and the opponents knocking them down, but I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Bottom Line

To borrow a political phrase: it's the defense, stupid. We can look and look for statistical factors to explain away the disappointment, but the one thing that jumps off the page is Notre Dame consistently gives up good shots to their opponents. The Irish sit 12th in the ACC opponent eFG. As Matt LaFortune pointed out in the first part, Mike Brey's squad sits at 125th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ranking (UVa is 4th and Syracuse is 13th). The Irish have had far too many games this season where they've let their opponents get out of the gate on an offensive tear. By the time they buckle down to get stops, they're climbing out of a pretty deep hole.

There are a lot of factors that go in to playing better team defense: effort/intensity, communication, athleticism, rotation, and technique all have to work in concert to limit your opponent's offensive efficiency, either by turning them over or denying them a good shot and cleaning up the rebound. Unfortunately, there's no magic bullet for this team, and if Austin Burgett is lost for the season, the Irish lose a guy who has great effort and athleticism.

My worry is that fans (and possibly players) are focused on Notre Dame's shooting woes this season, but those are nothing new. Yes, going 6+ minutes in a half without a basket is maddening and needs to be addressed, but there are always going to be times you struggle to score. The Irish would be well served to focus on dialing up the defensive intensity. If the defense could lead to some transition opportunities, they could ride that momentum into a better shooting performance. Saying your not defending well because you're not shooting well has it all backwards. Let's just hope Brey can turn it around.

In the third and final installment, we're going to look at some of the numbers underneath the numbers. We'll look at how assists and eFG are related while we try to figure out where all these turnovers are coming from. We'll also examine key contributors and how their performance factors in to the overall statistical analysis of the team.

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