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What Lessons Can Washington Learn from This Year’s NCAA Tournament?

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Copying Villanova is easier said than done

Michigan v Villanova Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

1. Schedule Aggressively in the Non-Conference

This was the first year of the new quadrant system which attempted to organize the team sheet in a way that gave additional credit to road and neutral wins. Leading up to the selection show there were concerns that Q1 victories would be the sole determinant in team success. That was true to an extent but it was clear that the committee still made a separation between upper Q1 wins and lower Q1 wins.

USC missed the NCAA tournament despite finishing 23-11 and 2nd in the Pac-12, a top-35 RPI, and with 4 Q1 wins. The problem is that those wins weren’t premium victories. 3 of those Q1 wins came against teams that made the NIT and the 4th was against New Mexico State who got an auto-bid and then lost in the first round. Saint Mary’s finished 2nd in the WCC with a 28-5 record but their only non-conference win over a top-100 team was also over New Mexico State at home.

Arizona State finished 9th in a terrible Pac-12 and yet they still got in because of wins away from home against Kansas and Xavier. Wins clearly mean more to the committee than losses so if you’re able to bat close to .500 against a tough schedule with multiple wins against top-20 teams then you’ve got a great shot.

29 of the 32 teams that finished with at least 9 combined Q1 and Q2 wins made the tournament with the lone exceptions being USC, Georgia, and LSU. I talked about USC but Georgia and LSU each finished with 14+ losses. Neither team won more than 5 games away from home (Washington also ended up with 5).

If Washington can get to 9+ Q1/Q2 wins, 7+ victories outside of Montlake, and at least two of those coming against top-25 teams then almost nothing else they do will matter in terms of making the tournament. It’s clear the committee didn’t respect the Pac-12 schedule and the league is unlikely to be much improved next year so Washington will have to find their wins in the non-conference or else go 13-5 or better in league play.

2. The Zone Can Work

NBA fans nearly went blind watching Duke play Syracuse in the Sweet 16 in a battle of zone defenses. It may not be pretty but it’s clear that once you get into the tournament that the zone can still be an effective weapon against a lot of teams. Teams will undoubtedly try to copy Villanova’s championship strategy of bombing 3-pointers. However, most teams don’t have their 7 main rotation players who can each shoot 35% or better from deep on 70+ attempts.

Opponents shot just 31% against the Huskies from beyond the arc in conference play. On the season teams only got 28.5% of their points from deep against UW (277th nationally) as they made it a priority to run teams off the 3-point line and contest every shot. Hopkins had similar success at Syracuse. The Orange have finished in the top-50 nationally in 3-pt % defense in 8 of the past 10 seasons. Washington allowed more shots inside the arc than Syracuse normally does but that should change in the next few years as Bryan Penn-Johnson and Nate Roberts give the Huskies premium shot blocking help.

Michigan State and Duke were the two preseason favorites to win the NCAA title, had at least 4 lottery picks between them, and a pair of hall of fame coaches. In consecutive games against a meh Syracuse team in the tournament they shot a combined 32% from the field and 21% from deep.

3. Shooting Big Men are the Future

This goes somewhat hand in hand with the point above it. Omari Spellman and Moritz Wagner each shot better than 39% from beyond the arc this season while logging the majority of Villanova and Michigan’s minutes at center respectively. That can create huge mismatches for a defense. Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike is an athletic freak and is a premier rim protector but he was helpless when forced to guard Spellman on the perimeter.

Washington is bringing in a pair of lanky, agile big men in 2018 in Bryan Penn-Johnson and Nate Roberts to be the centers of the future. They have Noah Dickerson and Sam Timmins as of right now. None of those players is going to be a stretch 5. That puts a bit of a cap on how efficient an offense can be but Kansas had a top-5 offense with Azubuike doing nothing but dunk surrounded by 4 shooters. The Husky offense can still be very good over the next several years but they aren’t going to have a blitzkrieg death lineup copying the Warriors any time soon.

On the bright side, the zone means Washington doesn’t have to encounter the Azubuike problem on defense. If Bryan Penn-Johnson is the defensive center of the future he’s not going to be put in a pick and roll and forced to choose between staying with a 6’10 center who can shoot 40% from deep and a lightning quick point guard. If all 5 offensive players are beyond the arc it does create a numbers advantage for the offense against a zone by making it 5v4. But it’s hard to space everyone correctly to not allow one defender to guard two shooters and also requires great passing to get it to the open man. Only the elite teams like Villanova will be able to do that consistently. And if Washington has Hameir Wright with his athleticism and 7’2 wingspan closing out on the big man in the corner it makes it a lot less likely he can get his shot off like he’s accustomed to doing against a lurking center

4. Talented Veterans Win Championships

Last offseason I came up with a system that attempted to measure how talented each team really was. Its primary application was to see how severely the Huskies had under-achieved their true talent level over the last few years but it has proved useful to answer other questions. I took the composite star rating for every player and added a half star for every year they’d played in college (that half star is based on math and not just a random addition). That means that a 4-star junior is generally equivalent to a 5-star freshman in team impact.

Villanova was the least talented/experienced of any of the last 4 champions but they still had a score of 4.7. Essentially their average player was a 5-star freshman or a 4-star junior. The other 3 most recent champs were 2017 North Carolina (5.28), 2016 Villanova (4.78), and 2015 Duke (5.16). The Huskies this season were at a 4.22. Considering that they return almost everyone from last year’s team I expect their rating to raise by close to 0.5 next year which will put them close to where Villanova was this season.

I’m not suggesting that next year’s Husky team is a national title contender. When you adjust for player performance and coaching it’s clear that Washington has nowhere near the talent of a dominant Villanova team but Nova’s formula isn’t out of their reach. People have been bandying about the team recruiting rankings of Michigan and Villanova over the last several days but more players mean higher scores which boost teams’ rankings who rotate through guys quickly.

Villanova used an 8-man rotation that featured 4 juniors, 1 sophomore, and 3 freshmen. Four of those 8 players were consensus top-100 recruits but as 4-star players closer to the bottom of that list. Two of them were fringe 5-star players ranked between 20 and 25 while the other two were 3-star guys.

That’s the formula that Washington should try to emulate. Stock your program with guys towards the back end of the top-100 who aren’t going to jump for the NBA for a few years. Supplement them with a fringe 5-star every other year, and fill out the roster with either high level athletes or shooters.

The Huskies have every part of that except the occasionally mixed in 5-star. Players such as Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, Jaylen Nowell, and Hameir Wright were all towards the back end of top-100 recruiting rankings with two more coming in Jamal Bey and Brian Penn-Johnson. The rest of the rotation is filled with a great shooter (Dominic Green), a great athlete (Naz Carter)…plus David Crisp and Sam Timmins. Washington has everything in place now to take a leap as long if they can build on their unexpected success from this season.

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