We're now at the halfway point of league play, and with that we can see some definite tiers forming in the standings. Oral Roberts (8-0) is unscathed, but South Dakota State (7-1) and North Dakota State (6-2) are lurking. Oakland, Southern Utah, and Western Illinois (all 4-4) are battling for the league's middle spots, while IPFW (3-5) and IUPUI (2-6) are bringing up the rear in terms of competition for the last spots in the league tournament. Those realities are reflected in our updated Efficiency Margin rankings:
So that's where we stand as of the games played through Saturday, January 15. Now let's get to the individual teams.
Despite owning a loss to Oral Roberts, South Dakota State jumps to the No. 1 spot here due to the gift that has become the USD-UMKC homestand. Summit League squads have made a habit of beating up on the Yotes and the Roos this season, and it just so happens that the Jackrabbits are the best at pummeling lesser opponents. They are 11-3 against teams ranked above 100 in the KenPom.com ratings, and they've outscored those teams by an impressive +0.24 points per possession. That trend has held up in league play, including last week when the Jacks held their opponents to only 0.78 points per possession. Of course, all of those beatdowns will be for naught if they can't carry over some of that defensive might into future games against top-100 opponents like Oral Roberts and North Dakota State.
The ORU-WIU game on Thursday night, won by the Golden Eagles in double overtime, was the best Summit League game I've watched this season. It had all the drama of a conference tournament game, clutch baskets from Dominique Morrison, and highlight-reel passes from Ceola Clark. Through all of that, I came away from that game most enthused by the play of Steven Roundtree. I love watching players who thrive on the offensive glass, which is something Roundtree has been especially strong at during his time at ORU. But the sophomore stud had only logged three offensive boards in five prior league games before grabbing four against Western Illinois. The following graphic showcases the series of events that led to one of his offensive rebounds and an And-1 opportunity:
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This play showcases how Roundtree relies on instinct and athleticism to battle for a board. From frame 1 to frame 2, we see that none of the WIU defenders are preparing to box out after Rod Pearson shoots a three from the near corner. Roundtree manages to out-hustle the opposition, including rebounding machine Terell Parks, to put himself in a position to grab the board in frame 3. He comes down with it and goes for the put-back in frame 4, which goes in as he is fouled by one of the three WIU players surrounding him in the paint.
Now Roundtree is a long-armed, athletic four-man, but he is stringy to say the least. While his offensive rebounding has dipped off in recent games, he's still among the league leaders for the whole season despite his small build. Just look at the size of the guys he is contending with for offensive boards, per KenPom.com:
Because he lacks the bulk of the other league leaders, Roundtree relies on his keen nose for the ball. There's also no evidence to suggest his thin frame doesn't allow him to finish at a strong rate. As shown in the graphic above, the 6-foot-8 forward finished the put-back and was fouled in the process. And he currently leads the league in And-1 opportunities generated, according to my own recording. Roundtree is a special player who has the ability to rebound and finish like a bruising center. It's those skills that make him one of the most versatile players in the league and a key cog for ORU going forward.
First, a shout out is in order for redshirt sophomore Jordan Aaberg for notching a 15-point, 11-rebound night against USD on Saturday. The 6-foot-9 center has never tallied a double-double in his young career, and he had only scored more than 10 points twice all season. Aaberg has largely been a role player for the Bison this season as a back-up to Marshall Bjorklund, but he's been steady for the team in that role. But if his game against USD was a sign of what he can provide in the future, then he will give the team some needed depth, ensuring little drop-off when Coach Saul Phillips has to go to his bench.
Second, a note about NDSU's schedule. After hosting South Dakota on Saturday, the Bison will prepare to face in-state foe North Dakota on Tuesday in a rare January non-conference game before hosting South Dakota State on Saturday. That's a lot of Dakota teams to face in a one-week span, and it is likely the first time one of the four schools will have played the other three in such a time period since they all moved up to Division I. While the SDSU game is clearly the most important of the group, there's definitely some symbolic storylines here worth following.
After winning three games in Week 3, including two on the road, Western Illinois was not able to protect its home court last week. Still, the week was not without its highlights, most of which were provided by senior guard Ceola Clark. Against Oral Roberts, Clark and center Terell Parks hooked up on a number of plays that had Western Hall buzzing. That is becoming a familiar sight this season as Clark-to-Parks is one of the top duos in the league when it comes to connecting for a bucket. They have done so 16 times in conference play, which trails only Rod Pearson-to-Dominique Morrison (17 times) for best in the league. Still, a majority of Pearson's assists to Morrison have been on three-point shots, while Clark has assisted Parks on an array of close-range buckets. To show you the entertainment level of this duo, I've prepared two animated .gifs. The first shows Clark dishing across the defense to hit a streaking Parks for an easy lay-in.
The second animated .gif shows the pair connecting on a pick-and-roll situation, which they run very well together.
I also have a bonus animated .gif that shows one of the best passes I have ever seen in a game. Here, Clark throws the ball backward over his head (and the head of his defender) to hit a cutting Tommie Tyler, who quite frankly looks spooked to have received that pass. Tyler is unable to connect on the bucket, but Clark's pass is worth admiring.
Southern Utah sits at a respectable 4-4, especially when one considers that six of its eight games have been played on the road. The team's record is reflective of its Efficiency Margin, which currently sits at +0.01. In other words, the Thunderbirds have been engaged in a number of very close games. In fact, six of their eight games have counted in my Clutch Gauge system, which tracks individual performance in crunch time in close games. Since that is the most instances of any team in the league, I thought today would be a great day to debut the Clutch Gauge matrix for SUU. I'll explain this a bit more in a future post, but for now the red and green text in each area of the matrix should tell you what you need to know:
The good news for the T-Birds is that they don't have any players who are irresponsibly taking a large chunk of crunch time shots, as evidenced by the lack of anyone in the top-left corner. Ray Jones Jr. and Jackson Stevenett have been serviceable in the clutch, but they are also overlooking Damon Heuir a bit in these scenarios. We must keep in mind that the sample size of this data is very small, but it can at least help us determine who may be effective options for the team in close, late game situations.
Oakland's defensive efficiency has improved enough to no longer rank last in the league, but it's still been rather weak when compared to the conference average. It seems that the fate of the Golden Grizzlies will hinge completely on their offensive. If the offense is firing as it did a week ago against IUPUI (1.21 PPP) or on Saturday against IPFW (1.30 PPP), then they will run over most opponents. If, however, they run into quality defenses -- as they will later this week at SUU and ORU -- then they'll likely be the ones getting run over. Until they show otherwise, which they haven't shown since December 17, then "blow them out or get blown out" is the assumption we'll go forward with in regards to this Oakland team.
There was a rather large free throw disparity in IUPUI's games against Oral Roberts on Saturday -- the Jags attempted 12 to ORU's 35. This difference prompted me to think more about Alex Young, who had just six free throw attempts in this game, and why he doesn't possess a stellar free throw rate. One might think that a player with Young's athleticism and driving ability would have one of the top free throw rates in the nation, yet he checks in with a rate of 39 percent -- not even high enough to generate a national rank at KenPom.com. While that rate is higher than it was for him last season, it lags behind other top players like Frank Gaines (50 percent), Nate Wolters (47 percent), and Reggie Hamilton (44 percent). So what's the deal?
For starters, Young isn't generating And-1s at the rate he did last year. In 2010-11 conference games, Young had an And-1 rate (And-1/FGA) of 7.2 percent, compared to 5.3 percent through eight games this season. This could mean that defenders have recognized his ability to finish near the rim up and are attempting to avoid committing a foul. We can't fault Young much for that, especially when we consider that 80 percent of his made two-pointers have come in the paint, compared to 20 percent on mid-range jumpers. However, Young is at least partially culpable for his lack of free trips to the line due to his unwavering reliance on a three-point shot that has failed him more often than not. As a junior, Young took just 24 percent of his shot attempts from downtown in league games, and he connected on a decent 36 percent of them. This year, he is hoisting 36 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and connecting on only 23 percent of those shots. That is not a recipe for success. If Young continues to live beyond the line that has thus far betrayed him, he is unlikely to generate many more trips to the one he should be living at -- the free throw line.
While we're on the subject of And-1s, let's pay respect to Antwaun Boyd, the senior guard who became eligible for IPFW at the semester break. The 6-foot-3 guard doesn't carry a huge offensive load for the Mastodons, but he has proven to be a great finisher near the basket. He's connecting on 53 percent of his two-point attempts in league games, and he has generated five And-1s on just 37 shot attempts for an And-1 rate of 14 percent. He joins Ian Chiles of IUPUI as low-usage guys who should get a chance to drive to the hoop more often based on their ability to finish through contact. Chiles has six And-1s on just 39 two-point attempts (15 percent rate).
Including non-conference games, the Kangaroos have now lost eight straight games. The problem that was visible in the preseason and early non-conference games -- mainly, a lack of offensive might -- has caught up with them as of late. They've made just 18-of-60 three-point attempts (30 percent) in their last three games. Moreover, they've made only 40-of-99 two-pointers (40 percent) in that same span.
After scoring 32 points on 18 shots in a win against UMKC two weeks ago, Charlie Westbrook tallied only 17 points on 28 shots in two games last week. In better individual news, Ricardo Andreotti came up huge for the Coyotes on the glass against SDSU and NDSU. He grabbed 31 boards total in the two games! Andreotti had superb rebounding rates last year when USD was in the Great West, but he had yet to really showcase that skill this season in the Summit League.
That's it for this week's Weekly Breakdown. Please tell your friends about it. And check back for more next week.