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Early Season Lineup Analysis

What can some on/off court splits tell us about how Hop should change rotations moving forward?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 16 Montana at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It hasn’t been a good start to the 2020-21 season for the Husky men’s basketball team. And that’s a dramatic understatement. Still, the 10 day break between games allows us a natural point at which to reflect on the season to this point.

It’s interesting to wonder how our outlook of this team might be different had the Husky Classic not gotten cancelled. Yes, it’s absolutely possible that Washington might have dropped one of those 3 games at home. But San Diego (191st at kenpom), Portland State (311th), and Cal State Fullterton (323rd) are worse than any of the losses the Huskies have. The Dawgs’ worst loss by opponent rank is UC Riverside (158th) and their best win is over Seattle (283rd). When Washington’s ranking finally stabilizes it will probably be towards the upper end of that gap. Starting off the season with a pair of blowout wins and a close game against San Diego might have helped them find their confidence early.

Instead blowout losses to Baylor and UC Riverside showed instantly that this team was far from even an NIT contender and with a shortened non-conference schedule there weren’t opportunities for easy wins to pad the record.

There has been a lot of early experimenting of lineups by Coach Hopkins without any preseason scrimmages and a shortened practice schedule. Still, some of the trends are beginning to emerge. Last season I entered in the results of every lineup combination in order to determine how much better the team played in each scenario. I’ll be updating those totals throughout the season and you can find them right here in case you want to bookmark it.

The data points included are offensive and defensive points per 100 possessions and the net points which is the difference between the two. If a team plays a 50 possession game and wins by a score of 60-40 then they would be scoring 120 points per 100 possessions and giving up 80 points per 100 possessions. Having a positive total reflects winning and having a negative total reflects losing.

The results are organized by position. It’s not always 100% clear who is playing each position. What happens if you have 2 point guards on the court at the same time? I have a hierarchy I set up where the first name on the court is the point guard, the next one is the shooting guard, and so on until all are filled. The order is Quade Green, Nate Pryor, Marcus Tsohonis, Erik Stevenson, RaeQuan Battle, Jamal Bey, Cole Bajema, J’Raan Brooks, Hameir Wright, Nate Roberts, and Riley Sorn.

So if Pryor is listed at shooting guard he must be playing alongside Green and if Roberts is listed at power forward then he must be sharing the court with Sorn. Let’s look at the initial results keeping in mind that there’s going to be a lot of negatives for a 1-6 team. And just for context, the team as a whole has been outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions so any mark better than that even if it’s still negative marks a potentially better option.

There’s a reason that Marcus Tsohonis found himself mostly out of the rotation while Nate Pryor has earned some starts. The offense has been essentially abysmal outside the 20% of minutes when Nate Pryor has been the primary ballhandler. Over one-third of those minutes however happened against Seattle U which was a blowout win. Adjusting the filter to take out that Q4 game makes all 3 look worse in their point guard minutes but Pryor is still in the positive.

This doesn’t mean that Hopkins should bench Quade and play Pryor 36 minutes. But it definitely shows that Pryor has earned the shot to play more minutes as the lead ball handler to hopefully take some pressure off of Quade and get him out of his funk.

Once again we see the Nate Pryor effect. Changing the filter to exclude the Seattle U game this time though puts everyone in the negative and makes it look a little more like it hasn’t mattered much who has been the secondary ball handler next to Quade.

The most disconcerting thing to see here is the defensive points per 100 possessions when RaeQuan Battle is playing without at least 2 of the Green, Pryor, Tsohonis, and Stevenson foursome on the court (which is how he ends up listed as a SG). Across 32 minutes the Huskies have given up nearly 150 points per 100 possessions in that situation. That’s still not a huge sample size and could have significant randomness included. But it certainly suggests that Battle playing at the front of the zone is a huge liability and he needs to be playing in the corner. Or it could signal that a lineup with Battle as a secondary ball handler leads to turnovers/bad shots that result in easy buckets on the other end.

The positive Stevenson minutes here are almost certainly a result of those minutes happening when he shares the court with Pryor and one of Green and Tsohonis which we’ve noted has resulted in good outcomes. I’m more willing to bet that’s because of Pryor’s impact rather than Stevenson specifically but going a little smaller and having him be your 3rd ball handler is probably worth a shot at times.

Playing Bajema at the 3 has given scoring a little bit of a boost even if you take out the Seattle game. Given the results for each so far it’s reasonable to think that he could continue to carve out 5-10 minutes of Bey’s playing time until Jamal shows a reason to put more trust in him.

You generally hope that moving to a smaller lineup would improve scoring even if it hurts you on defense. Unfortunately the minutes with Bey playing power forward have been an unmitigated tire fire trying to score. That lineup (which means Bey playing alongside 3 of Green, Pryor, Tsohonis, Stevenson, and Battle) has scored just 69 points per 100 possessions. With the pace that the Huskies play at that would result in about 48 points per game. Yikes.

Once again this kind of analysis is favorable to Bajema and playing him at stretch 4 has made the offense look somewhat competent in those 36 minutes. So have the Brooks at PF minutes although the defense has gotten dramatically worse in that small sample size.

The vast majority of Wright’s minutes this season have come alongside either Roberts or Sorn and the team is just about equal to their overall totals when that has been the case.

We come now to the spot I was most interested to see. Riley Sorn has seemingly been a revelation on offense the last few games with his ability to get the ball and effortlessly put it back up on the offensive glass. However, his defensive impact for someone his size has seemingly been wanting. My initial inclinations seem to be correct. Washington’s offense is over 100 points per 100 possessions with Sorn on the court which is still bad but a good amount better than their performance without him. The defense though has cratered with him out there. I don’t know that every team is going to have a player like Colorado’s Dallas Walton who hit about 4 jump hooks over his 7’4 reach but there’s a reason why Sorn wasn’t considered ready at the start of the year and it’s on that end of the floor.

In contrast, the minutes where Hameir Wright has played center have actually been quite good on the defensive end. Last year with Isaiah Stewart on the team Wright only played 23 minutes at center all season and gave up 130 points per 100 possessions so reality is probably somewhere in the middle. And the offense with Wright playing the 5 hasn’t been any worse than when Roberts is out there.

Final Thoughts

There’s not enough of a season to try to look at the success or failure of specific 5-man lineups. The original starting 5 (Green, Stevenson, Bey, Wright, Roberts) has logged the most time at just 33 minutes and has been outscored by 14 points in that time. Most of the lineups so far this season that have had success have only had a combined 6-7 minutes of playing time. And any of those minutes that came against Seattle U have to be taken with a grain of salt since the Redhawks are so much worse than any other opponent the Dawgs have faced.

Still, some of the results are clear. Nate Pryor and Cole Bajema have earned more playing time to find out what’s real and what’s small sample size and it probably needs to come at the expense of sophomores Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuan Battle. The team has been outscored by 0.48 and 0.46 points per minute while either that duo is on the court respectively while Pryor and Bajema are the only two players that have broken even. Tsohonis was superb at the end of the Colorado game but it came in garbage time against their 2nd team so I don’t know how much stock to put in that performance.

And yet I’m not going to argue if you say that none of this really matters. This Husky team is not going to be good no matter what happens. Everyone is eligible to return next season and it’s clear that with the way that the team has played so far that no one is getting drafted. At least one player is likely to leave because this is college basketball and in general if you’re not playing then you’re not happy (and even those playing given this particular team probably aren’t thrilled).

The goal for this season at this point is to find who the best 8 guys are for next year and give them the experience they need to be able to contribute next fall. If Battle and Tsohonis aren’t ready this year but Hop sees them as critical pieces for the future then they need to be in there taking their lumps. If anyone on the roster is clearly never going to be more than bench depth then they need to sit. The future is now...and that’s not necessarily a comforting thought.