In just about any sport, a season feels like a roller coaster, and college basketball is certainly no exception. During a winning streak, it can seem like your favorite team is invincible, playing their best ball of the year. Then there are the down times, when it feels like weeks since they last played up to their potential. The reality is that recency bias plays a big part in our perception, and while teams do improve (or in some cases, regress) over the course of the year, performance tends to be pretty stable on a long-term basis over the course of any season.
Recent discussions on the site about the increase in turnovers, and the continued improvement of three point shooting got me thinking about just how the Jayhawks have evolved over the course of this season. I put some numbers together to see what trends, if any, have presented themselves in KU's performance. I limited this to the eleven Big 12 games played to date, both for a measure of consistency and because going through that many games would be a pretty huge task.
I started by looking at Kansas' performance in the Four Factors: turnover %, eFG%, free throw rate, and offensive rebounding %.
In only one category do I see a change that I would consider drastic, and that's TO%. Unfortunately, the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction when it comes to turnovers, as you can see the rate climb pretty sharply from the beginning of conference play. Effective FG% and free throw rate have seen smaller, and almost identical rates of change, with eFG rising and FT rate falling. If you take out the huge outlier in free throw rate (the first OSU game where they shot more free throws than field goals), FT rate is dropping even more sharply. It's nice to see shooting improve as the year goes on, especially considering the slumps we've seen from Mason and Oubre, but it's troubling to note that Kansas is turning it over more and getting to the free throw line less. Offensive rebounding has been remarkably consistent, so I won't spend much time on that, other than saying that it would be even better if Self would play our best offensive rebounder a bit more.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Obviously, you don't play the same team every game, so the charts above don't tell the whole story. Here is the quality of the teams Kansas has played over the last eleven games.
Our first six games (aside from Texas Tech), was a significantly tougher stretch than what we've seen since. That should come back around with OU, Texas, Baylor and two matches with West Virginia remaining, but for now we're seeing some numbers declining even as the level of competition decreases. That's troublesome.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
This would be a pretty inconclusive place to end my little analytical exploration, so let's take this one step further. Given some of the fluctuation you can see in the SOS chart, it's clear that looking at the first group of numbers doesn't tell you everything. How are they doing in these categories compared to opponent averages? You can shoot 50% in back-to-back games against Texas and Kansas State, and the first set of charts won't show any difference between the two games. In reality, shooting 50% against Texas (who allows just 41.5% eFG for the year) is a much better shooting night that doing the same against K-State (49.9%). The charts below show KU's performance in each of these categories compared to the average allowed by each team played.
Looking at these, you can see that the numbers in the first group of charts don't lie. The Jayhawks are turning it over at a rate that continues to increase, regardless of opponent. They turned it over less than their opponents typically allow in three of the first five games, but now have actually done worse than average in four of their last five. That's alarming, and a bad sign headed into a stretch that includes two games against West Virginia's press. The decline in free throw rate is also confirmed as we adjust the numbers for opponent, with Kansas shooting free throws at a lower-than-average rate in five of their last six. Coming into Big 12 play, Kansas was actually shooting quite a few free throws, and I'm not entirely sure what changed.
Offensive rebounding is Kansas' best category of the four, having grabbed offensive boards at an above-average rate in all but one conference game. Even more encouraging, the numbers continue to trend upward when adjusted for opponents. Both those things can be said for eFG, another area of strength.
The four factors aren't the only measures out there. I went ahead and ran some defensive numbers as well: defensive rebounding, steal % and block %. I was particularly interested in block %, as this has been an area where Kansas has struggled. Maybe there's been some improvement, though?
Not so much. Decline in all three categories. Somehow, despite improved offensive rebounding, Kansas' defensive rebounding has largely fallen off a cliff. The steal numbers fall pretty close to the opponent averages, with one outlier on each end. Though there's a slight decline there, I don't know that I'd say it's significant. The block numbers are more troubling just because it's something the team is so bad at already, they can't afford a decline. To revisit an earlier theme, maybe that would improve if Self started playing his best shot blocker more.
There's a bit more bad than good here. Kansas shoots well and is exceptionally good at hitting the offensive boards, and they seem to be getting better as the season goes on. It would be great to shoot more free throws, and steals are great, but those two don't bother me as much.
My biggest concerns with where the team is headed center around the turnovers and defensive rebounds. Turnovers are the biggest reason for the loss against Oklahoma State, and generally have a way of tanking a team in any game. The good news here is that there are really only three games on the chart where Kansas turned it over drastically more than their opponent's average, it's just that those happen to be the last three games. As long as they focus and bring those numbers back to the norm, that three game stretch will just be an ebb on the chart at season's end.
The defensive rebounding numbers are strange, because just about every game is much better or much worse than would be expected. There's only been one conference game in which their defensive rebounding rate was within 4% of their opponent's season average. Those jumps probably mean very little, but there's definitely a downward trend since the first few games of the season.
My main takeaway from this information is that we've identified some things to look for over the remaining games. If the defensive rebounding continues to struggle in the coming week or two, we'll know the downward slope isn't an anomaly. The same goes for turnovers. Likewise, if the shooting and offensive rebounding continue to trend up, it will be safe to say that these are simply areas where the team has improved over the course of the year.