Since Shaka Smart took over the Texas basketball head coaching job last week, I have spent some time trying to understand everything I can about how he approaches the game. One of the easiest places to start is by studying his teams at VCU.
I have already looked at his famous full court press. I have plans to dig into his approach at VCU in a number of ways; this piece uses some of the basic tools of basketball analytics to see what we can infer about his offense.
One thing we can say right away is that Smart's approach to basketball is fundamentally different from that taken by his predecessor Rick Barnes. This is not a value judgement about either approach; the nature of basketball is such that many different styles of play can flourish.
A coach has a seemingly infinite number of choices to make when it comes to running his team. There are many ways to play offense and defense, countless ways to allocate practice time, different recruiting and player development approaches -- there are even basic disagreements on the way that the fundamentals of basketball should be taught. A coach may have thoughtfully considered some or all of these choices, or simply fallen into some or all of them.
These decisions, taken as a whole, define an approach to the game. All of these decisions have consequences. With enough good decisions (and the right players), a coherent and successful approach emerges. If enough decisions are sub-optimal, natural selection is likely to take care of the rest.
By studying the numbers associated with VCU over the last six years, I believe we can learn a lot about Shaka Smart's preferred approach to basketball, we can learn what sorts of results his style of play is likely to produce, and we can learn some of the circumstances required for it to flourish.
Diving into the VCU offense
Texas fans who watched carefully came to learn that the formula for success from a Rick Barnes team generally involved taking care of the ball, crashing the offensive glass, and having a few guys who could knock down threes. The formula for Shaka Smart's offense has been similar, although it has skewed more heavily towards perimeter shooting, and leans less heavily on crashing the glass (note that this is still important).
Still, while Smart's teams have some of the same high-level statistical attributes, Smart's approach to offense will look rather different to that of his predecessor. There are three common characteristics of most of Smart's teams at VCU: they play fast, they shoot threes, and they take care of the ball. Smart's teams also pursue offensive rebounds, although they haven't quite gotten the results on the offensive boards Texas fans have grown accustomed to under Rick Barnes.
It goes without saying that Smart's teams are well-known for their up tempo approach. And the reputation here is earned and supported by the data.
There are a lot of different ways to try to measure pace of play. None are perfect, but one that I particularly like is to look at when in the shot clock a team initially attempts its first shot of a possession. When that first shot goes up measures a team's initial offensive intention, and removes the possible confounding effects on how offensive rebounds contribute to possession length.
To do this, I like to focus on situations where a team actually has the option of pushing the ball up the floor. To do this, we can look at how often a team's initial shot comes early in possessions that started off with a live ball change of possession. This includes possessions that start with a defensive rebound, opponent score, or steal.
Last season, 32 percent of VCU's total initial shot attempts came in the first ten seconds of live ball possessions. By this measure, they were the 19th fastest team in college basketball. By comparison, Texas' percentage of total initial shots that came in these quick situations was 24 percent, which is very close to the NCAA D-I median rate. Both Texas and VCU managed an effective field goal percentage of 51 percent on these chances.
It is instructive to look deeper at these numbers, to see just how these shots came about. Shooting quickly after a defensive rebound accounted for 12 percent of VCU's initial shots, compared with 14 percent for Texas. This means that Texas actually took a higher percentage of its initial shots after rebounding an opponent miss and pushing the ball up the floor than did the Rams. Part of the reason for this is that Texas possessions were more likely to start off with a defensive rebound; 42 percent of Texas' initial shots came in possessions that started with a defensive rebound, compared with 33 percent for VCU. When the Rams came down with a rebound, they were slightly more likely to push the ball than the Longhorns (although this difference is probably too small to worry about).
The real differences in pace emerge when we look at what happened after an opponent made basket, or after a live ball turnover. VCU was far more likely to counter-strike quickly after an opponent basket, taking 10 percent of its initial shot attempts within 10 seconds of an opponent score, which is one of the 10 highest rates in the nation. The Longhorns took six percent of their initial shots in similar situations.
Another 10 percent of the Ram's initial attempts came within the first 10 seconds after a steal, which is again one of the 10 highest rates in D-I. Texas only attempted four percent of its shots under these circumstances, which was in the bottom five nationally. This difference is a direct consequence of the very different defensive approaches taken by the two teams. VCU played one of the most aggressive, turnover forcing defenses in the country, while Texas packed defensive gaps and forced turnovers at an exceptionally low rate.
Smart's focus on creating live ball turnovers means that roughly one in ten initial shots for his teams come under about the most favorable circumstances possible. Live ball turnovers are frequently converted quickly into layups and dunks (6 percent of VCU initial shot attempts were transition layups and dunks after steals).
Smart also has his team hunting more early shots after made baskets by opponents -- shots that are far more likely to come from the perimeter.
Shooting the three
During VCU's 2011 Final Four run, one of the most noteworthy aspects was just how many threes the Rams put up. Smart's squad rode a wave of long shots all the way through the tournament, hitting 12 threes in three different tournament games, including their ten point torching of the Kansas Jayhawks.
While many of Rick Barnes' Texas teams launched fewer than 30 percent of their shots from long range, Smart's teams usually take a lot of threes. This season, 40 percent of the Ram's attempts came from long range.
As soon as the ball gets across half court, it is likely to go up, as Smart's men have been particularly fond of the transition three. The Rams would often quickly push the ball ahead and launch a three early in a possession. 46 percent of their initial shots during the first 10 seconds of live ball possessions are from beyond the arc, which is the 16th highest rate in D-I. And they were particularly prone to pull the trigger after rebounding an opponent miss or bringing the ball up after a made basket. In these situations this year, over half of all initial shots within the first 10 seconds of a possession were from beyond the arc.
With so many threes flying, it becomes critically important that Smart has a few guys on his team that can shoot. There has been no single better predictor for his team's offensive output over the years than three point shooting percentage. In seasons where VCU shot the ball well from long distance -- such as in 2010, 2011, and 2013 -- Smart's team posted a top 25 offense per the kenpom.com ratings. In years where this shooting percentage dipped, the offensive performance fell off dramatically.
Shaka Smart is not unusual in the fact that his offenses typically do better when he has players who hit threes -- you can say the same for almost every other basketball coach. (Yes, your offense will be better if players can shoot -- it's a novel concept for sure.) But I think it is safe to say that his approach puts an even greater premium on being able to shoot the ball from the perimeter than is typical, simply because so many shots will be attempted from distance.
Texas will need shooters to maximize Smart's offense. There is no way around this.
Taking care of the ball
In most seasons, Rick Barnes' Texas teams took care of the rock. Smart's teams at VCU have as well. In fact, in the six seasons Smart has been its head coach VCU's turnover rate (the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) has been lower than Texas' turnover rate in every single year.
Good offense necessarily starts by having the basketball; just try scoring without it. VCU's ball security, when combined with its obsessive focus on forcing turnovers at the other end of the floor, always meant that the Rams were likely to get off more shot attempts in a game than their opponents. This season, the Rams averaged 6.9 extra field goal attempts and 2.3 extra free throw attempts than their opponents per game. In an average game this advantage is roughly worth an extra eight points. Forcing turnovers is a big part of this advantage, but protecting the ball is an important part as well.
In fact, in terms of its effect on final game scores, VCU's offensive turnover percentage (15.7%) was the second-most important thing that it did next to forcing turnovers on defense. Taking care of the ball is something that frequently goes unnoticed (you don't notice something that doesn't happen), but it is important to a successful offense.
Reflecting on this makes me wonder if all those fast three pointers perhaps have another benefit beyond just getting up a shot worth an extra point. A quick transition three is a fairly low-risk play, in that shooting quick threes can help to limit turnovers. Perhaps the most extreme example of this approach occurs two hours away from Richmond, at the Virginia Military Institute, where head coach Duggar Baucom describes his philosophy simply: "we try to shoot it before we turn it over." Most years, VMI ends up with a high number of threes, a lightning-quick pace, and one of the lower turnover rates in the nation. (Note that Baucom recently left VMI to accept the head coaching job at The Citadel.)
What Smart is doing in no way resembles the deconstructed Westheadian experiment of Baucom, but we can still learn something from the example. Quick threes, which are a major part of Smart's offense, are easy to get without a lot of risk. The VCU offense featured a lot of these sorts of shots.
So how will this all work?
One of the things that will be most interesting to watch during Smart's first season in Austin will be how he adapts his approach to the Texas roster. Smart's offense at a high level functions best when it can get out in transition and bomb threes.
From my perspective, I have absolutely no idea what Smart will attempt to implement in his first season, and how it will work. It is not out of the question that a player like Javan Felix could end up with 200 three-point attempts, and that Demarcus Holland and Kendal Yancy will get their chances as well.
It will also be interesting to see how Smart adapts Texas' gaggle of big men to his up-tempo, bombs-away philosophy. It makes me think, at least for the first year, he will seek to find some middle ground between his previous approach to the game and his roster; Smart hinted as much during his introductory press conference.
It is going to be very interesting to watch this play out.