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Advanced stats shed light on BYU basketball's struggles

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BYU basketball has endured a disappointing season. Can advanced statistics tell us why?

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a tough season for fans of the BYU men's basketball team.

To be sure, there have been some fun high points along the way (mostly of the individual variety), but many can't help but feel that this year's squad — which is now precariously poised on the outer precipice of the NCAA tournament bubble — has fallen short of expectations.

Or as ESPN's Eamonn Brennan put it in his weekly Bubble Watch column on Tuesday:

At this point, the Cougars are in the fringe mix and nothing more, with just three regular-season games -- and one trip to Gonzaga -- left to play. When you consider the Cougars have one of the nation's best scorers (Tyler Haws) and the NCAA single-season triple-double record holder (Kyle Collinsworth), it's kind of crazy they're in this position to begin with.

Yes, Eamonn. It is kind of crazy. In fact, it's so crazy that I think about it. A lot.

And in those frequent moments when I have attempted to contemplate the craziness of why this team has underachieved so spectacularly, I haven't really gotten anywhere on my own. Even after BYU began their current, encouraging run of strong play that threatened to inject them back into the tournament mix, I still wanted to know: What's wrong with this team? Why haven't they been better? What is the real problem here?

Eventually, after countless hours of introspection, I realized that I just don't have the answers — but that I knew someone (or, more accurately, someones) who might. So in hopes of diagnosing the shortcomings of this year's Cougar team (and saving my sanity) once and for all, I turned to two of basketball's leading analytics services — specifically, KenPom.com and Synergy Sports Technology — in hopes that their numbers and tables and graphs could shed some light and lead me down the path to inner hoops peace.

Join me on my statistical journey for answers to our most pressing questions about the Cougars.

Is offense the problem?

This may seem like a dumb question to folks who have followed the team closely, but it's worth addressing first in order to get it out of the way.

No.

NO.

NO NO NO.

If anything, this year's BYU squad is the most effective offensive attack of the Dave Rose era. The Cougars score 116.6 points per 100 possessions when adjusted for pace, according to KenPom. That scorching-hot scoring clip ranks them as the 10th most efficient offense in the entire country.

For context, that level of production even bests the modern gold standard for BYU hoops excellence — Jimmer Fredette's 2010-2011 squad, which made the school's deepest tournament run in 30 years. That team, considered by many to be the best in BYU history, scored "just" 115.5 points per 100 possessions, good for 11th in the country. So the numbers indicate this year's team is every bit as good offensively as were the dizzying heights of Jimmermania — and probably even better.

It seems pretty safe to say that offense is not the problem.

Then the problem must be defense, right?

Bingo.

According to KenPom, BYU currently gives up 101.4 points per 100 possessions, adjusted for pace. That's 153rd in the country. It's slightly better than last year (101.7) in terms of raw numbers, but not relative to the performance of other teams — despite giving up slightly more points, the 2013-2014 team was ranked 104th.

For comparison, the aforementioned 2010-2011 team gave up only 94.8 points per 100 possessions, ranking them 38th nationally. So they scored just as much as this year's team, but played way better defense — like seven whole points per 100 possessions better. It's pretty easy to see why that team was so special and made a deep tournament run, while this team (despite having great offensive talent) is in very real danger of missing the Big Dance.

Interestingly enough, that 2011 season wasn't even the best defensive performance of the Rose era. In 2008, BYU gave up only 91.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 11th in the country. In fact, from 2008 to 2012, the Cougars never surrendered more than 95 points per 100 possessions, and were ranked among the 40 best defenses in four of the five years. So BYU has been an elite defensive team in the very recent past.

The problem, of course, is that things have gone significantly downhill from there. In the past three seasons, BYU hasn't been ranked higher than 90th (in 2012), and has been well into the triple digits the last two years, as pointed out above. The defense wasn't bad enough to keep the Cougars out of the tournament last year, but this year has nearly created a new low. More specifically, this is the worst defensive season since Rose's first, when BYU gave up an astounding 102.2 points per game. That put them at 165th in the country — eerily similar to their current ranking of 153rd. Unsurprisingly, that 2006 team also missed the tournament.

So to wrap up: Relative to what other teams are doing, this BYU team is roughly on par with the worst defensive team of Rose's tenure.

Why is the defense so bad?

To understand the big problems with BYU's defense, we need to look at the specific scenarios in which they struggle the most. Using advanced game-tracking analytics provided by Synergy Sports Technology, we can do just that.

The first interesting thing to note is that BYU is actually really good at defending in transition. Only 12.4 percent of their opponents possessions come in transition, according to Synergy, which indicates BYU does a good job of getting back on defense and preventing fast breaks (especially considering the pace at which they play). And even when their opponents do get looks in transition, BYU does a really good job defending in a situation where it's often difficult to get stops. They give up 0.919 points per possession (PPP), which places them in the 85th percentile nationally — a ranking Synergy considers to be "excellent."

So transition defense is not the problem. BYU does a good job of getting back and limiting transition opportunities, and a very good job of defending against them when they do arise.

That leaves halfcourt situations as the primary culprit for BYU's defensive problems — and the analytics play that out. BYU allows .865 PPP in halfcourt situations. For context, that puts them in the 31st percentile nationally, which is obviously a problem for a team that aspires to be among the top in the country. When 87.6 percent of your defensive possessions occur in the halfcourt, you can't defend that poorly and expect to beat good teams.

Why is the halfcourt defense so bad? Is it the schemes?

Fans are often quick to assign blame to one strategic choice or another when trying to explain why something went awry. When it comes to debating defensive schemes at BYU, that conversation usually revolves around whether or not BYU played too much zone defense. (You know, because zone defense is somehow "less pure.")

Interestingly enough, BYU is actually playing more man-to-man defense this year than in years past, and doing so with less success than when they play zone. BYU plays man on 66.4 percent of their possessions in halfcourt situations, and gives up .871 PPP — putting them in the 25th percentile nationally, according to Synergy. Not good. BYU plays zone defense the other 33.6 percent of the time, and has moderately more success — giving up .854 PPP, putting them in the 66th percentile nationally.

This is significantly more man-to-man than the Cougars played last year, when they only played it on 58.3 percent of halfcourt possessions. And while it does appear that the results from both BYU's man defense and zone defense have improved a bit year over year (from .903 PPP and .869 PPP last season, respectively), it appears that zone defense remains the slightly more effective and now underutilized option, between the two.

So what does this tell us? BYU is playing more man and less zone than a year ago, with somewhat improved results in each scheme. However, it does appear that zone defense is currently the more effective option between the two and, at the current levels, may be slightly underutilized. Nevertheless, the difference in outcomes is not so large as to account for the team's poor defensive performance. While the stats say the zone may be ever-so-slightly more effective, the end result is roughly the same regardless of scheme, and they can likely be used interchangeably to produce equivalent (and admittedly underwhelming) impact.

In other words, this is not a scheme problem.

If it's not about scheme, then what's the problem?

Ah yes, now we get to the real question — and it's one with a complex answer. Hold on to your hat.

As established above (and elsewhere), BYU has been a pretty underwhelming defensive team for much of the season. All of that is very much true. They do struggle to stop opponents from scoring. But they're actually not that bad against several key play types in the halfcourt. In fact, they're actually quite good defending a few of them.

For example, Synergy tells us that the Cougars only allow opposing offenses to score 0.612 PPP on pick-and-roll plays where the ball handler keeps the ball. That number puts them in the 89th percentile of teams nationwide. Not only is that not bad, that is downright excellent.

And that's not the only play type against which BYU excels. They're also well above average when defending spot-up jump shooters (0.87 PPP, 73rd percentile), guys coming off screens (0.778 PPP, 71st), and to a lesser extent, pick-and-roll situations where the screener receives the ball (0.893 PPP, 57th). All of this is good stuff, and it indicates that the Cougars can play good defense — at least in specific situations.

You're dawdling. Stop sugar-coating it and tell us the real problem.

The problems, of course, have come in the other situations. Just as there are certain halfcourt actions that BYU is very good at defending, there is also a handful against which Dave Rose's men have been absolutely helpless  — and many of them revolve around the Cougars' young, inexperienced post players.

The biggest concern is certainly on the glass. This shouldn't be a surprise to even casual observers. BYU gives up a lot of offensive rebounds — 301 to be exact, placing them 286th in the country in that category. That, by itself, is a problem. That's a lot of extra chances for the opposing offense. And it gets worse.

Of course, the Cougars' rebounding struggles wouldn't be quite so deadly if they were effective at stifling their opponents on those second chance opportunities. Unfortunately, they're not — they are the opposite of effective. Synergy reports that BYU gives up an astronomical 1.188 points per possession on offensive rebounds, putting them in the 7th percentile among all NCAA Division I teams. (Seventh. That's not a typo.) Or put in simpler terms, the other team is scoring at least one point on 64.3 percent of the possessions where they secure an offensive rebound. Yikes. It's not hard to see why this is a big problem.

And it doesn't stop there. The Cougar bigs are also woefully ineffective in post-up situations — they have allowed 0.943 points per possession, which again puts them in the 7th percentile. And isolation situations are nearly as bad (20th percentile), with opponents scoring 0.864 points per possession.

Neither stat paints a pretty picture. The former belies a lack of competence guarding opposing bigs straight-up on the block, while the latter indicates that someone (often a big) isn't rotating quickly enough to provide help defense when perimeter players get beat one-on-one. When taken together, both should be enough to make any defensive-minded basketball fan feel a little queasy.

So you're saying it's all the big guys' faults?

I wouldn't go that far, but their inexperience has certainly played a large part in the team's struggles this season — and I don't necessarily know if we can blame for that. After all, basketball is a difficult game, and it's a whole other animal entirely once you get to the Division I level. Everyone is faster, everyone is stronger, and everyone is really good.

As such, learning on the fly — as BYU's young bigs have been forced to do following the unfortunate season-ending injury to Nate Austin — is kind of like drinking from a fire hose. There's just no way you can hope to effectively contain it all, and when you try, you're just going to get smacked in the mouth really hard. The best you can hope to do is grab a few droplets as they whiz by your face.

That's what BYU's bigs have done. Little by little, they've improved as the year has gone along — and we're just now starting to see the fruits of that work in the Cougars' current win streak. Aided by the added experience and energy of senior Josh Sharp, Rose's young bigs have shown great growth. They're rebounding more effectively. They're defending the block more intelligently. They're rotating more fluidly.

It's all been very encouraging — but it's also been a long time coming. That learning has been hard-won. It has come at a cost, and in many cases, that cost has been frustrating losses. That's the natural side-effect of having to rely on talented but inexperienced players to fill key roles. Or put less delicately, injuries still suck.

If we can't blame the big guys, who can we blame?

If you must cast blame, I suppose you should point the finger at everyone. There's plenty to go around. Blame Rose and his staff for not recruiting more serviceable bigs from 2009-2011 and for prioritizing offense first. Blame the perimeter players for falling asleep on the weak side defensively and rotating lazily far too often. Blame the big guys (and again, I don't think this is fair) for not learning fast enough. Blame the vengeful Basketball Gods for striking down just about everybody who stepped on the floor in a Cougar jersey with some odious injury at one point or another. Blame the Marriott Center phantom for not installing invisible lids on opponents' baskets, if you want.

But most of all, maybe just don't focus so much on blaming somebody. Stats are fun (and advanced stats are an even more advanced form of fun) and they can teach us a lot. As we've seen here, they can even help us isolate very specific problem areas, which could lead lesser mortals on a basketball witch hunt for a very specific scapegoat. But that would miss the point.

Basketball is a team game. Five players must work together to accomplish a single common goal. And when that pursuit goes a bit awry, it's generally because a lot of different things have gone wrong. Nowhere is that truer than in Provo. A lot of things have gone wrong for BYU this year — and sometimes all at once. And more often than not, those maladies showed their ugly faces on the defensive end of the floor.

That's what the numbers say — and they're not wrong. Is there more to it than that? Almost certainly. After all, the very nature of the game resists definitive, binary explanations. But even so, I have a greater understanding — and more inner hoops peace — now than I did before I embarked on this statistical journey. And with the pressure-packed month of March fast approaching and BYU still trying to fight its way back onto the bubble, I'll take some serenity wherever I can get it.