Monty Ball: Taking Good Shots, Forcing Bad Shots

Forcing tough shots: The biggest key to success for the Bears this season?

Earlier in the season I commented about how this team, to me, seemed like the most ‘Montyish’ team I’ve watched since Coach Montgomery came to Berkeley. That got me thinking about succinctly describing what a ‘Montyish’ team would be like. After some thinking, I decided on this:

An ideal Mike Montgomery team depends on an ability to, in the context of the half-court set, create good shots on offense and force bad shots on defense.

That’s hardly revolutionary or uncommon, but there are different ways to go about winning games. Some coaches create defenses predicated on forcing turnovers. Some coaches prefer players and schemes that lead to big rebounding advantages. Some coaches have individual players so special that they can hand them the ball and tell everybody else to just get out of the way.

For Cal, it’s all about shooting. As a team, creating and making good shots while forcing bad ones.

By now you’re all probably familiar with the four factors: Shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws. CGB has been embedding charts with those numbers, using them to preview opponents, and otherwise talking about them for a few years now. The four factors have become the bedrock of statistical analysis of basketball, a widely accepted and entrenched way of understanding your team.

Phrased differently from the third paragraph above: Different teams succeed by excelling at different factors. What I find fascinating about the 2011-12 version of the Bears is that they’ve managed to turn the four factors into the one factor: Shooting seems to be the main, if not only, variable.

The Bears so far this season have been very dependent on their ability to make shots, and their ability (or lack thereof) to prevent teams from making shots of their own.

Offensive rebounding (when Solo is out) and turnovers (against Missouri) have occasionally mattered in individual games, but by-and-large it’s all about who can put the ball in the basket. The Bears, whether by design or luck, appear to have distilled basketball to its simplest goal by eliminating the other variables. Let’s take them one by one:

Rebounding

Even without Solomon at times Cal still ranks 22nd in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. Every year under Mike Montgomery there has been a steady improvement in Cal’s ability to prevent offensive rebounds. Some of that is improved personnel – Markhuri Sanders-Frison and Richard Solomon are the types of rebounders we never had on the 2008-10 Bears – but Cal’s ability to rebound is much more than the occasional gifted rebounder. It’s great technique and coaching, the type of coaching that allowed the undersized Randle-Christopher-Robertson-Boykin squad to hold their own on the glass.

The other reason I believe that Cal’s ability to control the defensive glass is more scheme and coaching than pure talent is because Cal has never had any success on the offensive glass. Other than maybe Richard Solomon there just hasn’t been a naturally gifted rebounder since Monty’s arrival in Berkeley.

So: teams aren’t beating Cal due to offensive rebounding, and Cal isn’t beating teams on them due to offensive rebounding.

Turnovers

This one is much simpler to explain: Cal doesn’t run a defense that’s designed to force turnovers. Players rarely trap, they rarely over-pursue passing lanes and they don’t typically apply a ton of ball pressure. There’s a reason Cal has always had a defensive turnover percentage ranked in the 200s in the nation despite having an elite defensive player like Jorge Gutierrez.

Meanwhile, on offense Cal generally doesn't push the ball unless they have a clear advantage on the break, and Monty's offenses have always taken care of the ball even without an elite passing point guard. I'm afraid it's hard to quantify exactly why Cal tends to not turn the ball over beyond that, but suffice to say that the coaches seem to be able to teach good decision making.

So: teams aren't beating Cal by forcing turnovers, and Cal isn't beating teams by forcing turnovers.

Fouls

Cal doesn’t foul much for the same reason they don’t force a ton of turnovers – there isn’t a ton of ball pressure and the Bears aren’t trying to force turnovers. The Bears generally been above average at preventing free throws since Monty took over.

Cal’s ability to draw fouls has been a little more volatile, which I’d chalk up mostly to the vagaries of college refs. Last year’s team was somewhat strangely elite at drawing fouls, but Monty’s three other years have not been, which makes sense. Cal has mostly been a perimeter oriented team since Monty took over, which would generally mean less fouls drawn.

So: teams aren’t typically beating Cal by drawing a ton of fouls, and Cal isn’t typically beating teams by drawing a ton of fouls*

*I say typically because there’s a pretty huge variable in this category. You never know what those Pac-12 refs are gonna call!

But how about some statistical evidence, you say? Of course! I’m always looking to nerd it up! If you’re a Kenpom subscriber you can go to Cal’s team page, and then click on their ‘gameplan’ which breaks down even further a team’s numbers. If also provides a nifty little stat called ‘Correlations.’ I’ll let him explain:

Correlations are calculated for each parameter against offensive and defensive efficiency. Because I don’t like decimal points, I’ve multiplied the correlations by 100. Thus, the possible range in each category is -100 to +100. If a value is positive, then an increase in that component leads to an increase in efficiency. If it’s negative then the effect of increase in a category results in a decrease in efficiency (common for TO%, for instance). This type of analysis can be useful for determining which of the four factors are important to a team’s offense or defense, but use it with caution.

Here are Cal’s Correlations:

Offense eFG% TO% ORB% FTR
Correlation +90 -59 +16 -5

Defense eFG% TO% ORB% FTR
Correlation +95 -17 +25 +63

90 and 95 for eFG% offense and defense. Only offensive turnover % and defensive Free Throw Rate has a particularly high number. But it’s also true that eFG% offense and defense will almost always have the highest correlation because shooting is the most important of the four factors. How does Cal’s eFG% correlations compare to other teams in the Pac-12?

Cal Stan UCLA USC UW WSU Ore OSU Ari ASU Col Utah
Offensive eFG% correlation +90 +69 +89 +84 +68 +84 +76 +85 +79 +78 +80 +92
Defensive eFG% correlation +95 +89 +92 +84 +93 +92 +75 +86 +60 +86 +87 +85

The highest defensive eFG% correlation and the 2nd highest offensive eFG% correlation. Admittedly, only comparing to Pac-12 teams is a small sample, so I clicked through as many teams as I could, including every team from the six major conferences. Only six teams (out of 76) had higher offensive eFG% correlation scores, and only Florida State tied Cal's defensive eFG% correlation. Cal is near the top in the country in depending on their own ability to make shots and their own ability to force opponents to make shots to win games.

Conclusions

I’ll admit immediately that this is a rather superficial attempt at better understanding what makes Cal tick under Mike Montgomery. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m pleased that what I thought I was seeing with my eyes were, to a certain extent, backed up by the stats (and vice versa).

When I quoted Kenpom's explanation of his correlation stat, I intentionally bolded 'use it with caution,' because I want to be careful that I'm not trying to say too much. Cal's high eFG% correlation is from a small sample size of games, and it's not so much higher than your average team that I feel comfortable saying 100%, without a doubt, that Cal will live and die based on their eFG% offense and defense for the rest of the season. I'll be tracking to see if the numbers change drastically, and watching to see if my eyes agree with what the numbers indicate.

Of course it's silly to ignore the obvious things that need to happen for Cal to succeed. The Bears will have to continue to lock down the defensive glass (stay healthy Richard!), they will have to continue to take care of the ball, and they will have to continue to avoid fouls. But these are things that Cal has generally done with a great deal of consistency during the Monty era.

It's inherently risky to rely on shooting to win games. Your shots all miss, the other team's shots don't. It happens, and will continue to happen. Hopefully in the future Monty will have a deep enough collection of talent that will allow Cal to win games in different ways, when shots aren't falling. But I think it's tough to argue that the talent on hand hasn't been maximized to its fullest, which is why Cal is 12-4 and the odds-on favorite to win another conference championship. Monty knows how to get good shots out of his players, and they have the ability make it happen.

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