The more layers you peel off an onion, the more your eyes water. Delving into an advanced basketball statistic known as opponents free throw percentage, can be much the same.
Winthrop mens opponents are shooting 76.4 percent from the free-throw line this year, the highest average in NCAA. That ranks Pat Kelseys team 347th out of 347 schools. Is there anything they can do to climb out of the bottom?
Its one statistic that Im stumped on, Kelsey said Friday. Im really trying to figure out the best way to defend free throws. I thought about having our guys pull their pants up real high and start making faces, do the wave ...
Obviously, Im being facetious, he added.
The statistic is one advanced metric in a sea of them on the KenPom.com web site. Ken Pomeroy, a meteorologist from Utah and an unabashed basketball nerd, developed the web site in 2003 and it gradually has grown into a daily first stop on the Internet for hundreds of college basketball coaches and sports reporters. Some coaches love the site; many, including North Carolinas Roy Williams, either havent heard of it or dont care. Kelsey, a huge baseball fan enamored with statistics, fits in the former category.
I look at it all the time, he admitted before Fridays practice. Im a KenPom junkie. Youd probably have to multiply my SAT score by four to get to his. Hes brilliant.
When beginning to dissect an opponent, Kelsey said he first looks at the site.
You dont want to get paralysis by analysis, he explained, but without watching one ounce of tape you can get a good indication on what makes them tick.
KenPom.com does take some studying to figure out, especially to decipher murky stats like opponents free throw percentage. Kelseys team was eager for a fix. But where to start?
Well, firstly Winthrops non-Division I opponents dont count in Ken Pomeroys rankings. St. Andrews, Lenoir-Rhyne and Brevard were a combined 31 for 58 from the charity stripe in losses to the Eagles; throw those games out.
Perhaps home court was a contributor; arms waving, students shouting directly behind the basket, that kind of stuff. College hoops has one of the biggest home court advantages in all of major sports, but a look at the countrys bottom 10 in opponents free-throw shooting negates that idea pretty quickly. Six of the 10 had winning records at home, including Winthrop, and while none of the top-10 teams had losing records at home, only half of the games in a season are played away from home anyway. A good home court could help, but isnt a huge factor.
What about tempo? Louisianas Northwestern State plays the fastest adjusted tempo in Division I this year; is it a coincidence that its opponents shoot just 61 percent from the line the lowest percentage in NCAA? Last year, the Demons were second in that category and were 25th fastest in adjusted tempo.
It could be a proven formula for Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy.
Thats a pretty interesting stat, he said when told over the phone Friday. Thats the first Ive heard of it.
After digesting the information though, McConathy thought he knew a cause: tempo.
The only thing I can think of is the way we play. The pace of the game and we have fresh bodies coming in, that possibly theyre not rotating.
McConathy coached at the junior-college level for 17 years, developing a system where he plays 10-plus players every night and there are no starters or backups, only what he calls waves, of players. The Demons press defensively on every possession and try to score as quickly as possible when they get the ball, while no Northwestern State player is on the floor more than 24 or 25 minutes per game.
The frenetic style seems to tell on opponents, especially at the foul line. Only one of the Demons 17 Division I opponents this year has missed less than five free throws against them, and eight of the Demons foes have missed more than 10. LSU somehow escaped the Demons (15-6 record) with a 102-95 win back in November, despite hitting just 29 of 52 foul shots.
I gotta go to one of their practices, Kelsey joked. Maybe theyve got some guys with some really long arms.
Trying to root out a reason can be maddening. Kelsey said he tries to not get sucked into the KenPom site because he can waste an hour easily clicking through the avalanche of numbers. When it comes to the quality of opponents free-throw shooting there simply doesnt seem to be a single influencing factor.
For example, what if the Eagles opponents success at the charity stripe is just a coincidence? Turns out, a couple of teams had abnormally good nights from the foul line against Winthrop. Liberty, shooting 69 percent from the line on the year, hit 15 of 16 in a loss to the Eagles at Winthrop Coliseum last week. UNC Asheville shoots a very solid 71 percent as a team, but got to the line 32 times in its win over Winthrop on Wednesday, hitting 28 (88 percent).VCU, a 67 percent shooting team, hit 17 of 20 in a blowout win at the Coliseum earlier this year.
Schedule and conference can also play a part. Winthrop has faced six teams so far this season that are in the top-100 in NCAA in foul shooting percentage Presbyterian, N.C. Central, High Point, Charleston Southern and UNC Asheville. For what its worth, Northwestern State has only faced three teams in the top-100 Oklahoma, Louisiana Tech and Oral Roberts with only one of those a Southland Conference opponent.
Back to McConathys point, Winthrop does play one of the most deliberate styles in the country. Where Northwestern State was No. 1 in adjusted tempo, the Eagles are 331st. Teams arent as likely to be tired late in the game against defensive-minded Winthrop as they would be against the hard-charging Demons.
Alas, that posit was largely debunked too. Two other teams in the top-5 with Northwestern State are ranked in the 300s in tempo. Speeding up the game is one way to make it harder for teams to shoot free throws but it doesnt have the final say in the matter.
Still, Kelsey was unperturbed.
Im a numbers guy and I believe in the law of averages, he said. Were on pace to have a couple of teams go 1 for 26 from the line. Well see.
Coaches often say stats dont tell the whole story. In some cases, they dont tell a story at all.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T