Is the regression on defense a blip, or sign of bigger issues?

Wojo

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

As the calendar turned to 2020 on Dec. 31st and Marquette prepared to launch its Big East campaign in Omaha, MU boasted a good to very good defense, rated as the 40th best in the country with a 91.1 Adjusted Defensive rating on KenPom. Just 3 weeks later, the AdjD rating has tumbled 3 full points, with Marquette falling 19 spots in the process.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Marquette’s defense isn’t bad. We’ve all lived through 2018, when it finished 182nd in the country, a full 11 AdjD points worse, and that should help to keep perspective on things.

But coming into the season, I (and most) predicted that it would be Marquette’s defense making a jump, with the offense regressing a bit (or a lot) after the loss of the Hausers. Instead, the offense is currently 5 spots ahead of where it finished last season, while the defense is 14 spots below.

But what’s up with that? Is this just a blip as Marquette adjusts to life in a loaded conference? Is it the quality of opponents?  Is it the personnel being used? Most importantly, is this a new normal?

To try and break it down a bit, I went into TRank and separated the components by opponent strength and timing, to see if that would point us in the right direction.

Defense.JPG

As you would expect, Marquette’s defense is impacted by opponent quality (duh), but I was surprised to see how small the AdjD gap was between Q1 games (96.4) and all games (94.4). Plus, the Q1+Q2 section was almost identical to the full season total, so Marquette has shown plenty of defensive quality against good to very good opponents.

But once you start looking at the individual components, a few things do stick out.

eFG% Defense

This Anonymous Eagle Tweet did a great job of putting how bad the eFG% D was against Georgetown, and how rare the W actually became.

In fact, MU had only won 1 game last season when giving up an eFG% above 58% and 6 total in Wojo’s tenure, so it’s not likely to happen again this season.

And why has the eFG% D been so much worse of late? Don’t look at 3s, that percentage has barely budged in conference play. Instead, the interior defense has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

2pt Defense

Going into conference play, Marquette was holding opponents to 41.6% from the field, the 16th best mark in the country. That’s elite status, and you can see exactly how well the rim protection held up in this Synergy shot chart.

Shots noncon.JPG

Since Jan 1, MU ranks 231st with opponents shooting 51.3% inside the arc. Almost the entirety of it’s eFG% prowess has been erased.

Shot Con.JPG

It doesn’t take any advanced stats to see how that could be a problem. And for those hoping things may turn around, I got some more bad news.

MU is holding Q4 opponents to 43.9% shooting at the rim. All non Q4 opponents are shooting 52% at the rim. And again, conference opponents are shooting 56.1% at the rim, and those are the most recent data points.

TO Rate

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Marquette is now creating fewer turnovers than the already absurdly low rate it was creating TOs to start the season. The 16.4 TO rate is 324th in the country. And that’s MU’s high water mark.

Since January, MU’s 12.6 TO Rate is good for 349th in the country. Only 3 teams have been worse.

So not only is eFG% up, the volume of shots is also up (with defensive rebounding taking a little dip as well).

Personnel

The only thing that is left to question is if the personnel has changed at all recently, particularly with the loss of Morrow (at least for now).

Although I don’t have the game by game data, Hoop Explorer does allow us to dissect the On/Off stats by opponent quality.

Here’s his splits against all opponents. Everything defensively except for Free Throw Rate was worse with him on the floor.

Morrow All.JPG

I don’t think Morrow was going to provide much impact defense the rest of the season.

More worryingly, it seems Theo John has been figured out by elite opponents. When Theo is on the court, Top 100 opponents shoot 66.7% at the rim compared to 55.1%, which frankly makes no sense according to my eyes.  However, only 17% of shots come at the rim when Theo is on the floor, while 30% come at the rim when he’s off.

All of that is to say, Theo is still a tremendous deterrence to opposing drivers and big men, but if/when they do get to the rim, he hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was against the bottom 250 teams, who are only shooting 38.6% at the rim.

Still, that 66.7% mark is 14 percentage points below last season’s number against top-100 opponents, so definitely something to keep an eye on.

The Case for Jayce?

In 145 possessions against top-100 teams, Marquette’s starting lineup has an AdjD rating of 101.4 per 100, and a Net Rating of -10.1. That’s bad.

However, if you insert Jayce into that same lineup, replacing Theo, the AdjD rating plummets to 87.7 per 100, and the Net Rating is an absurd 48.7. Don’t get too excited, though, this mostly has to do with limited possessions and strategic usage.

MU has only used that lineup for 64 possessions against top-100 teams, less than 45% of the time as with Theo. With more possessions, the numbers would adjust and we wouldn’t see outlier Net Ratings. As we saw against Creighton, Jayce simply has no spot defensively on the court against teams with mobile 5s that can work on the perimeter. Wojo has minimized those opportunities for self harm this season by using Jayce sparingly. He played only 4 combined minutes against Creighton and Villanova.

Alas, Morrow’s indefinite departure means Marquette will have to use Jayce more often, even in unfavorable matchups. Looking at Jayce’s full year numbers against Top-100 teams, the data does not look nearly as good in 217 possessions.

Jayce.JPG

Yes, the at the rim numbers look better, but 56.1% at the rim on 30.5% of all shots isn’t exactly an elixir.

Solution

I don’t think there is a magic bullet that’s going to solve the defensive issues. Marquette hasn’t been great at stopping penetration, lateral speed is still an issue everywhere, and there’s much less margin for error down low with only 10 fouls to give instead of 15.

I don’t foresee a reversion to 2018 any time soon, but if Marquette is going to make the tournament (or win a game once there), it will once again have to come on the back Markus Howard’s prowess and the team’s offensive ability.

 

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