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Wake Forest Needs Improved Defense, and Improved Luck, to Turn This Season Around

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Wake Forest has been bad on defense this year, but it has also been rather unlucky, especially when it comes to three-point shooting from opposing teams.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Greensboro at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: Now that I have gotten your attention with the click-bait headline let me get right into this article. Warning, it’s a long one and includes a fair amount of light statistical evaluations.

Introduction

There have been many oddities in the first six games of Wake Forest’s basketball season so far. First of all, Wake Forest is 2-4 on the season despite playing a handful of opponents that did not exactly come in the form of a Death Row of competition. That in itself is extremely problematic.

The next thing that sticks out is the 202nd ranked defensive efficiency in the nation according to KenPom. Obviously if Wake Forest is going to want to get better moving forward then it will have to improve defensively (I don’t think I am shocking anybody with this assessment).

I took a look a couple of weeks ago at the woeful defense and defensive rebounding that has been on display so far, but wanted to go beyond generalities and instead look at the statistics and specifics through six games.

By looking through the stats, one thing jumps out as the most obvious source of the problem, opponents are shooting 42.8% against Wake Forest from three-pointers so far this season. This ranks the Deacs 332nd out of 351 teams in the country through six games.

Now anybody that has seen Wake Forest play this season will tell you that three-point defense has been lacking. I am not refuting that in the least, and will, in a follow-up article tomorrow, breakdown all of the three-point makes that Francis Alonso of UNC-Greensboro had against the Deacs on Friday night.

However, I would like to present some larger statistical evidence that suggests Wake Forest is not necessarily an atrociously bad defensive team, but has simply been “unlucky” based on how well its opponents have been shooting from behind the arc that has made the Deacs look even worse.

I know that sounds bizarre, but hear me out on this one!

Nerd Talk

Ken Pomeroy, a gentleman whose work is certainly not beyond reproach, but we cite and source heavily on Blogger So Dear when discussing most things regarding college basketball, has put forth a suggestion based on ten years of statistical analysis from 2005-2015 that three-point success has very little to do with the defense on the court, and nearly everything to do with the offense on the court.

To help make this a bit clearer, let’s first examine “free throw defense”, which we all would grant is a pretty dumb term.

We all understand that a defense has very little control over how successful an opposing team is at shooting free throws.

Of course there are situations where a defense could be overly aggressive against a really good free throw shooter and consistently send him to the line. If this is done over the course of a season where a team consistently fouls really good free throw shooters a lot, and does not foul bad free throw shooters a lot, then the “free throw defense” will be bad because the free throw average will be much higher than the national average.

On the flip side, if a team only fouled big men and never fouled guards, then its free throw “defense” would almost certainly be better than average because the opposing offense would be taking free throws with big men instead of guards, which usually results in a lower free throw percentage.

Defenses, as a whole, have very, very little to do with whether or not an opposing team makes their free throws over the long haul. In fact, Ken Pomeroy has pointed out that, for free throws, using offensive statistical data at 98% and defensive statistical data at 2% will yield the most accurate results over a long timeframe.

Well the same idea holds up fairly well for “three-point defense” as it does for “free throw defense”. In fact, aside from “free throw defense”, “three-point defense” is the statistic that the defense has the least control over according to Ken Pomeroy.***

For three-point shooting, using 83% of offensive statistical data and 17% of defensive statistical data should yield the most accurate results as to what will occur over a large sample size of games.

As Ken Pomeroy puts it (much more eloquently than I did above), consider the following:

Three-point percentage is next on the pecking order of offensive control, checking in at an average of 83% over the past ten seasons. There’s been enough chit-chat around here about long-range shooting (to wit) to understand that the offense has majority control over the chances of a three-point attempt being successful. And while three-point defense exists on some level, it’s difficult to distinguish how much is sneaky close-out ability and how much is opposing offenses choosing to take low-percentage 3’s over low-percentage 2’s.

But given that defenses have more influence on opposing two-point percentage, one can imagine that there’s at least a component here that involves offenses electing to take more 3’s in an environment where getting easy 2’s is not possible. Against a good two-point defense, invariably shots will be challenged.

But you can move back far enough to take an unchallenged three against most defenses. That doesn’t mean those will be high-percentage shots, even accounting for the higher payoff. But one can understand why good three-point defenses and good two-point defenses are often found together.

One thing that has been ignored in this analysis to date is the influence of luck or random variance, call it what you will. On a game level, there’s a lot of random variance in three-point shooting. So this result is not to say that a coach should pile up good shooters expecting to make a bulletproof offense. It’s simply that a good three-point offense will beat a good three-point defense over the long term. The offense controls most of what can be controlled, but randomness is a huge specter that looms over three-point shooting on a game level. Controlling for attempts, free throw shooting is most predictable, followed by two-point shooting, which is followed by three-point shooting.

Basically Pomeroy is saying that while defenses certainly have SOME control (roughly 17% based on data from 2005-15) over the success of an opposing team’s three-point percentage, teams that are good at three-point shooting are, over the long run, going to be above average, regardless of what defenses do to try to stop it.

The best thing that a defense can try to do is to limit three-point attempts, which it has much more control over than the actual percentage that an offense will shoot from behind the arc.

This may sound crazy, and FEEL wrong, but Pomeroy presents the stats over a 10 year period for every single game featuring two Division 1 basketball teams, and the correlation coefficients bear this out.

That brings us to Wake Forest for this season. Wake has allowed opponents to shoot 154 threes, and opponents have made 65 of them (nearly 43%). The games have gone as follows:

Three-Point Percentages Vs. Wake Forest

Georgia Southern - 11-27 (41%)

Liberty - 9-21 (43%)

Drake - 15-30 (50%)

Quinnipiac - 8-28 (29%)

Houston - 9-20 (45%)

UNC-Greensboro - 13-26 (50%)

Two opposing teams (Drake and UNC-Greensboro) shot better from behind the arc than it did from inside the arc against Wake, while another two teams (Quinnipiac and Houston) were within 2.5 percentage points of that happening.

For this to happen it means the Deacs either have to have “bad” three-point defense, or good two-point defense, which it does, ranking 72nd nationally at 45.6%. This can be rationalized fairly quickly based on personnel because Wake has Doral Moore, a 7-1 terror inside, who ranks 10th nationally in block rate.

Given the opponents Wake Forest has faced off against so far and the size disadvantages the teams have faced, it makes logical sense that opponents would prefer to shoot more threes than twos, even if the likelihood of making them is lower than what the NCAA average is. This doesn’t even take into consideration how badly the guards on Wake have been at staying with their men thus far.

The season is young so I am only willing to take these numbers to heart so much because one game can drastically impact the stats based on sample size, but here are the opponents Wake has faced so far and their season three-point percentages:

Season Three-Point Percentages

Georgia Southern - 31.5% (249th nationally)

Liberty - 32.6% (227th)

Drake - 40% (43rd)

Quinnipiac - 34.8% (168th)

Houston - 38.5% (72nd)

UNC-Greensboro - 37.2% (115th)

As you can see, these teams are not exactly full of elite shooters. Two of the teams rank inside the top 100, two rank from 100th-200th, and two rank from 200th-300th, yet all but one of these teams has shot above 40% against the Deacs so far this season.

In fact, through 6 games, opponents have shot above its season average 5 times (including four times that an opponents has exceeded its average by 10+%), and one time a team has shot worse than its season average. It’s no surprise that Wake won that one game the team shot below average.

That is odd in itself, but is even more bizarre when you consider that if you took out the Wake game from each opponent then their three-point shooting would be much worse in every case except for Quinnipiac.

For example, UNC-G was shooting 33% coming into the Wake game and raised it over 4 percentage points by going 13-26 against the Deacs to get to 37.2%. If you look at Georgia Southern and Liberty then both teams would fall below 30% on the season from behind the arc without the Wake game.

Now what does all of this mean? I think it is a combination of a few things.

Stats are fun to look at from the big picture and say “oh, well the defense only bears 17% of the responsibility on average over a ten year timeframe when it comes to defending the three-point ball, so this just proves that this six game sample size is a strange aberration and Wake fans shouldn’t worry about it.”

I do not believe that at all, but there is certainly a healthy balance of bad defense by Wake, good shooting by opposing teams, and finally (and perhaps most important to note for the purpose of the article), statistical variance in a small six game sample size that has caused the Deacs to allow a much higher three-point percentage than one would expect it to thus far.

Furthermore, if we look at Danny Manning’s six years of coaching then there is no definable pattern for three-point defense that would cause us to say “oh wait a minute this is normal”:

Three-Point Defense in Danny Manning’s 6 Seasons

Tulsa 2013 - 34.2% (195th nationally)

Tulsa 2014 - 35.2% (221st)

2015 - 33.8% (151st)

2016 - 33.4% (104th)

2017 - 35.8% (216th)

2018 - 42.8% (332nd)

Manning’s defenses have really been all over the place in six seasons, which is not overly strange for a coach trying to figure out what his footprint is going to be, with a lot a variance in all statistics, but there is nothing about his previous five teams that suggests that his defense is overly susceptible to allowing opposing teams to consistently shoot well from behind the three-point line to the extent that they are this season.

While of course there is the chance that Wake finishes in the 300’s nationally in three-point defense, I do not personally believe that will happen.

The six games played so far have presented “bad luck” in the sense that opponents are making a much higher percentage of their three-pointers than their regular season percentages suggest they should be making.

Does some of this have to do with poor close-outs, bad rotations, bad pick-and-roll defense, bad help-the-helpers, and lazy defense at times?

Yes, absolutely, but the primary driver of three-point percentage success over time has been shown by Pomeroy to be how good an offense is at making them over season-long sample sizes.

Now maybe Wake’s opponents will begin to shoot a lot better and their games against Wake are actually the norm instead of their current averages from behind the arc, but that seems unlikely to me.

At this point nobody is mistaking Wake Forest’s defense for Kentucky or Duke, but I would bet a lot of money that people would feel much better about where the Deacs are right now if Georgia Southern hadn’t hit that prayer three, Drake goes 13-30 from 3’s instead of 15-30, and Houston goes 7-20 instead of 9-20.

That would put the Deacs at 5-1 with a bad loss to Liberty as the aberration, instead of 2-4 with losses to Georgia Southern, Drake, and Houston.

Am I cherry-picking those games? Yes, but those teams all shot at least 10 percentage points higher than their season average from behind the arc and that is almost certainly not going to be the case for the entire regular season moving forward for the Deacs.

We have talked about “luck” in KenPom before, which basically means what your actual win total is as opposed to your expected win total, and Wake ranks 338th in that category.

The Deacs are 0-3 in games decided by 5 points or less, and 2-1 in games that it either wins or loses by more than 5. That doesn’t always even out, but it will likely deviate to the norm a bit as the season moves along.

We will take a look tomorrow at how Wake defended Francis Alonso and how it “allowed” three-pointers to be successful, because there is certainly responsibility on the Wake defense as well, but it will also show that the defense on some of the shots was there, Alonso just made a couple of ridiculous shots.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I do not want anybody to read this and think that I am excusing the poor defense that Wake Forest has played. The three-point defense has been very bad and it needs to improve drastically.

The purpose of this article is to point out that in addition to what Wake has done (or not done) on defense, the opposing offenses are adding insult to injury by exceeding what the expected three-point percentages should be by rather large percentages.

These numbers will likely average out and there will be multiple games where, even though Wake will still not defend as well as it is capable of, opponents will shoot at its season average or below and increase the chances that the Deacs win close games.

***Note that this does not include Average Possession Length, which is also always solely up to the offense.