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Three Things That Have Caused MBB’s Slow Start in the MAC

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New Year, New Bulls, but you won’t like this

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 03 Buffalo at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a Buffalo fan reading this, you know by now that this year for the men’s basketball team has been up and down, and as we’ve hit conference play, the Bulls are clearly in one of those down periods. Coming off a one point loss (that wasn’t really that close) at home to Northern Illinois, and a 20 point loss on the road at Ball State; fans are starting to hit the panic button, and I can’t blame them.

The ups and downs of the non-conference season were stomached as part of the growing pains that come with a new coach, and massive roster turnover. Big wins over DePaul on the road and Harvard on a neutral floor flashed promise and buoyed hopes that in spite of it all, when conference play hit the MAC would be UB’s to lose.

MAC play has come, and to the dismay of many that switch has not yet been flipped. 0-2 in MAC play in itself isn’t the end of the world, but when it comes in the package of a homecourt dismantling at the hands of NIU, and a 20 point beatdown to a Ball State program that UB has owned since the Hurley days, it’s understandable why it feels like it.

The beautiful thing about college basketball is that there are 3 clear stages:

  1. Non-conference play, which has come and gone with its ups and downs.
  2. Conference play, which is unquestionably off to a disastrous start, yet 89% of this stage remains to be played.
  3. The conference tournament. Arguably the most important stage for a typical mid-major. Until the clock hits zero there’s still hope for a grand finale in the Big Dance, regardless of how your season went (i.e. 11 seed Georgia winning the SEC in 2008, or 9 seed Holy Cross winning the Patriot League in 2016).

There’s plenty of time left in the season, but the question remains what exactly has gone wrong, and can it be fixed?

Defense Wins Championships Loses Home Games to NIU

By far and away the biggest factor in UB’s slide this season has been the defense. The offense has been fine (#102 nationally in offensive efficiency) although certainly nothing to write home about, but the defense has been atrocious ranked 218th nationally in efficiency. That ranking is the worst that the Bulls have posted since 2010 back when Reggie Witherspoon was the head coach, and Mitchell Watt was just a sophomore.

The two major problems this season have been defensive rebounding and ball screen defense. The Bulls currently rank 270th in keeping opponents off the offensive glass, which to a degree, is to be expected with an undersized team, but it’s costly nevertheless. The Bulls have been trending upward in this category recently, and the hope is that with 6’11” center Brock Bertram coming back into the fold the Bulls can at least become an average defensive rebounding squad.

The real problem has been ball screen defense and the communication required to play it well. This has been an issue all year going back to Dartmouth, and in spite of half a season under the belt for all the new pieces coming together, it hasn’t improved. Skimming back over the Ball State game I pulled three sequences where the defense fell apart and gave up easy buckets (although there were plenty more).

In the first sequence Josh Mballa’s man sets a screen for the ball handler (Davonta Jordan’s man). Mballa over commits to helping while his man pops out toward the top of the key, leaving an easy driving lane for arguably the best playmaking big man in the MAC. Mballa’s unable to recover and Tahjai Teague gets an easy basket

Sequence #1
Sequence #1

On sequence #2 Antwain Johnson gets pinned on a screen and Josh Mballa steps up to help. Johnson chases the ball handler leaving the screener open again at the top of the key. Mballa’s late getting back to help and the ball handler beats him into the lane sending UB’s defense into scramble mode, eventually leaving an open shooter with a three at the top of the key that he drains.

Sequence #2
Sequence #2

Sequence #3 is probably the least egregious of them all, but Josh Mballa slides to help Davonta Jordan whose man rounds the ball screen with a head of steam. Mballa jumps back to his man a step early before Jordan can fully recover and Jordan’s left riding the ball handlers hip to the basket which ends in the ball handler finishing an easy lay-in.

Sequence #3
Sequence #3

In my eyes, the ball screen defense is the biggest thing that needs to be cleaned up by the end of the season. The Bulls have been good at preventing opponents getting to the free throw line, solid at forcing turnovers and the 3 point defense has been about average (although Ken Pomeroy has written many times that 3 point defense is mostly random). The main issue for the defense has been the two point defense, in large part because of the inability to defend the ball screen.

An offense ranked around 100th nationally is enough to win the MAC tournament, in the past six years an offense ranked below 150th has won the title 3 times. Going back to at least 2002 the worst ranked defense to win the MAC tournament was #142, and the defense is currently performing much worse than that. As they say “defense wins championships”.

The Running of the Bulls

When I was originally hypothesizing reasons for the struggles this season, I had thought that perhaps the aforementioned defensive struggles were also slowing the team offensively. A team that largely tries to live in transition would, in theory, struggle when their opponents are making shots as it eliminates the possibility of transition via long rebounds. It also requires more time to get the ball, step out of bounds and in bound the ball. This gives the opposing defense the opportunity to reset before the Bulls offense can capitalize.

As I looked into this theory, I came to a surprising fact, UB is playing worse overall at a higher tempo this season. Below is a scatter plot of net rating (how many more or less points you score than the opponent per possession) as a product of possessions per minute. As with making any conclusions 15 games into a season, be wary of a small sample size, but the trend is clearly that the Bulls perform at a lower level when playing at a higher pace. UB crosses the threshold from a plus team to a negative team around 1.9 possessions per minute, which comes out to 76 possessions in a 40 minute game. The Bulls are currently playing at the 6th fastest pace in the country at an adjusted tempo of 75.9 possessions per game.

2020 Season

Last year’s scatter plot, for reference, shows a team that was pretty steady across all game tempos with a slight positive trend in the direction of faster paced games.

This begs the question of whether head coach Jim Whitesell is making the right choice sticking with the fast paced system of his predecessors. In his seven seasons at Loyola Chicago his teams, on average, ranked 218th in tempo nationally. I’m not ready to jump to the conclusion based on a 15 game sample size that Whitesell should go back to the slow pace that he’s used to for good, but it’s a trend worth monitoring as we continue.

With a less experienced team this season, UB’s turnover rate has ticked up from 15.9% (26th in the nation), to 19.3% (163rd in the nation). This ranking drop off has closely mirrored the team’s overall drop-off as UB’s style has moved from “controlled chaos” to “just chaos”. With so many new pieces this season, it’s reasonable for Bulls fans to hope for improvement here as the season wears on, but in the meantime a tempo slow down is worth considering as the potential of starting 0-3 in conference play hangs over the Bulls’ heads.

When It Rains It Pours, But Not From The Floor

To keep it plain and simple, shooting has been bad so far this year. While the Bulls rank 179th in the nation in effective field goal percentage, the offense has been kept alive by tremendous effort on the offensive glass. This is a great thing to have, but it can’t overcome poor shooting, particularly when its keyed by one player (Josh Mballa). When Mballa found himself in foul trouble against Ball State the offense fell off of a cliff as the Bulls grabbed their second lowest offensive rebounding total of the year.

Part of the reason the Bulls have struggled so mightily is that redshirt senior transfers Antwain Johnson and Gabe Grant have not yet lived up to their billing shooting wise. Johnson shot 34.5% from 3 on 316 attempts in previous stops at Middle Tennessee and Chipola College. Grant shot 33.4% from 3 on 389 attempts in previous stops at Houston and Three Rivers college. The pair have combined to shoot 24.0% from three on 104 attempts so far in their Buffalo careers. There’s reason to hold out hope that at least one of the two right the ship and provide a shot in the arm for the UB offense, and the coaches who see them play every day in practice haven’t had them stop shooting yet. The unfortunate reality is that a 32+ game season doesn’t provide a lot of time to pull yourself out of these shooting slumps and positive regression may never come in their one season at Buffalo. UB fans saw both sides of this during the career of Jeremy Harris who shot 41.9% from three his junior year and 25.7% from three his senior year.

One thing that I have seen perhaps the most concern over this season is the free throw shooting. While of course it would be good to see them improve the ultimate effect so far this season has been minimal. For perspective the Bulls average 11.9 free throw attempts per game, at the national free throw shooting average of 70%, that results in an extra 0.84 points per game. Shooting 70% in all of the losses this season would have flipped only one game, the one point loss to NIU, to a 0.8 point win (if this was possible). Of course, the extra win would have been nice, but I don’t imagine we feel significantly better about the state of the team going forward given the rest of that game.

There’s still a lot of ball left to be played this and I haven’t given up pm the possibility of a turn around but a third straight loss tonight to Miami (OH) would close the window that much more.