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January 30, 2013

Offenses take over in NEC

For as long as Andy Toole has been associated with Robert Morris, defense has been the lynchpin to any form of success. To gauge it, the Colonials head coach has used stats like an opponent's field goal percentage, defensive rebounding, and more.

But as college basketball dives deeper into a similar set of analytics that have helped evolve baseball analysis, another number has emerged as a tool to evaluate teams. Toole brought it up two weekends ago, when Robert Morris played sound defense against Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac but still allowed both teams to shoot a high field goal percentage.

"I have to figure it out, because these last two games I thought we defended pretty well and we've given up 47 percent and 56 percent," Toole said then. "We might have to turn to points per possession. That might have to be my new stat."

As college basketball gets more analytical, coaches are looking at stats like points per possession to try to get a better gauge of their offensive and defensive performances rather than field goal percentage. While no one stat tells a full story, points per possession can showcase how efficient a team can be. An average mark is usually around 1 point per possession on both sides of the ball and an average number of possessions is usually around 69-70 per game, especially in league play.

Teams that stress defense will want their opponents to have a points per possession mark below one. Teams that stress offense want their own points per possession to be above one. The standard-bearers in the league are perfect examples. In 2009-2010, the year Robert Morris won the NEC and nearly knocked off Villanova, the Colonials allowed just 0.91 points per possession. And the last two years, LIU-Brooklyn hasn't just led the league in points per game, they've led the league in offensive points per possession at 1.11 per game.

NEC Points Per Possession Numbers
2012-13 - 8 teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 2 average less than 1 PPP on defense
2011-12 - 8 teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 5 average less than 1 PPP on defense
2010-11 - 8 teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 6 average less than 1 PPP on defense
2009-10 - 6 teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 8 average less than 1 PPP on defense
2008-09 - 4 teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 4 average less than 1 PPP on defense
2007-08 - Seven teams average 1-plus PPP on offense, 3 average less than 1 PPP on defense

2012-13 - 1.17 on offense, 1.03 on defense
2011-12 - 1.08 on offense, 0.97 on defense
2010-11 - 1.07 on offense, 0.99 on defense
2009-10 - 1.04 on offense, 0.91 on defense
2008-09 - 1.09 on offense, 0.93 on defense
2007-08 - 1.08 on offense, 0.95 on defense

Toole did turn to points per possession, but he didn't find much solace. Robert Morris is allowing 1.03 points per possession in Northeast Conference play, fifth in the NEC. Toole pointed to Saturday's game against Mount St. Mary's as an example that no matter the stat, Robert Morris' struggle is playing complete games.

"They had 70 or 71 possessions and we were just slightly under that point per possession, which is where we've got to be. And I'd say for the first 30 minutes of the game, we were way under that," Toole said. "But again, it goes back to being able to do it for a full 40 minutes and being able to maintain those defensive details that you need to stop good teams."

The issue with Robert Morris' inconsistent defense might be part of a larger trend at hand in the NEC. Since 2007-2008, the Northeast Conference has had at least six teams (half of the league) average one point per possession on offense in every year except 2008-2009. For the past three seasons, eight teams have averaged at least one point per possession on offense. The defensive side of the ball is less consistent, but one thing is clear: Defenses aren't up to the task in 2012-2013.

Just two teams allow less than one point per possession on defense in league play, the lowest mark in the past six seasons. Last year five teams allowed less than one point per possession, while the league high was 2009-2010, when eight teams allowed less than one point per possession.

"I haven't seen everybody in the league yet, but I know you have some high powered offenses. When you look at Bryant, Sacred Heart, and LIU, and we've done a nice job offensively, you look at some offenses that are maybe a little bit better," Toole said. "That might be the answer for it. But I think you still have to play defense to be really successful in this league, just like any league, and that's what we're going to continue to work on."

Redshirt senior guard Velton Jones has an anecdotal answer as to what why baskets have been more friendly in a league that used to be ruled by defenses.

"I think the talent in the NEC over the years that I've been here has gotten so much better," Jones said. "It's crazy how much talent the league has gotten over the last five years."

Jones said players like Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasawere, Shane Gibson, Kyle Vinales, and Jalen Cannon have raised the standard of play in the league. He pointed out that forwards have become more versatile and guards are dynamic playmakers and scorers rather than specialists.

"You've got bigs like Boyd and Olasawere who can step out and shoot the three or take somebody off the dribble. Even Russell, he's a four for us and he can just step out and shoot it or drive and handle the ball," Jones said. "Then you've got guards that can make plays too."

More explosive offensive players in the league has made playing lockdown defense more difficult as well.

"A little bit, just because you've got guys like Kyle Vinales who can shoot the ball from anywhere and then dribble the ball and score," Jones conceded. "I don't think there were too many of those when I first got to Robert Morris and into the NEC."

One of the major factors in evaluating an efficient offense is examining how well the team shares the ball. Robert Morris has six players who average nine points per game, a program record. Combine that unselfish mentality with protecting the basketball, and it's no wonder that Robert Morris has the league's best assist-to-turnover ratio in NEC games at 1.4.

"I think that helps us a lot. We're so unselfish with each other and everyone believes in each and the abilities that our players have," Jones said.

He added that Robert Morris has always stressed passing up an open shot for a great shot, but that mentality has turned into more productivity this year.

"Now we have shooters like Karvel (Anderson) and Coron (Williams) who can just flat out shoot the ball," he said. "If I'm open I'm willing to pass it extra to one of those guys, and the way they shoot it, I think it goes in every time. I think that helps us with our unselfishness and to be more efficient."

While Robert Morris is in the middle of the pack when it comes to points per possession on defense, the Colonials' mark of 1.17 is tied with Bryant for the most productive offense in the league. Robert Morris has the largest positive differential in the league, and the 0.14 spread is the program's second largest in the last six seasons. The largest is 0.16, which was the spread Robert Morris had in 2008-2009 when it topped Mount St. Mary's in a thrilling NEC final and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years.

Is that enough to push Robert Morris back into the NCAA Tournament after ceding control to LIU-Brooklyn the last two years? Time will tell. And even though Toole hasn't found a number he likes, that doesn't mean the mentality won't change.

"At this point in time, you're probably not going to see a huge change in numbers. But we're going to try and look how we're defending game-to-game and how we're defending half-to-half," Toole said. "We know can't change our numbers from the past, but we have to try to have really strong numbers going forward. We know to go on the road and win games, you have to be extremely solid defensively and you can't just rely on your ability to make some shots or go on an offensive outburst. You have to be true to your gameplan defensively."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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