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Updated: April 18th, 2013 11:37pm
Sandell: Richard Pitino brings focus on advanced statistics to Gophers

Sandell: Richard Pitino brings focus on advanced statistics to Gophers

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- As his initial season as head coach reached its midpoint, Richard Pitino had grown frustrated.

One statistic among the bounty of game data on his desk at Florida International kept infuriating him.

Florida International, the team Pitino had to rapidly piece together through the dizzying mess he had inherited months earlier, was allowing opponents to hit close to half of their total shots from the floor. The Golden Panthers' defensive field goal percentage was hovering at or near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference and stuck in the lower fourth of the national rankings.

"It was driving me insane," Pitino said recalling the moment in his new office at the University of Minnesota, where at age 30 he was recently handed control of an underachieving Gophers program.

At the height of his aggravation in southern Florida, one of his assistant coaches implored him to look at it from a different angle. The assistant pointed to FIU's average number of possessions, which was elevated close to 70 per game, slightly above the nationwide average, as the culprit for the bloated field goal percentage numbers

"It's skewed because we press" almost continuously, Pitino was told.

In turn, Pitino looked to a less weathered stat not found on a typical box score. Florida International's defensive efficiency rating, a metric that factors in a team's possessions per game for a specific evaluation of the average points allowed on each possession, was second in the conference.

Pitino's grasp on of the world of advanced statistics that is ever so gradually making its way into the college basketball mainstream had begun to take full form.

When he looked closer he noticed sophomore guard Deric Hill was among the top-15 in the country in steal percentage, which measures how often an opponent's possessions ends in a steal when that specific player is on the court.

With Hill's potency for forcing turnovers, Florida International's defense under Pitino's high-pressure system was actually more effective than thought on first glance. FIU posted the 11th best Division I steal percentage, according to statsheet.com, by causing steals on 13.4 % of their opponent's possessions.

Ultimately, Pitino's cobbled together FIU squad -- only three players were on scholarship when he arrived -- used its scrappy defense to help boost the program to its first winning season in 13 years (18-14).

While the established interest Pitino has developed for the analytic side of basketball isn't a huge revelation, it is the mark of the increasing movement towards this new age approach to the game.

Stat wiz Ken Pomeroy, owner of the premier college basketball analytics site KenPom.com, and numerous data scouring bloggers have heralded the potential of taking an expansive look into the statistics for years. But until the latter part of the most recent decade, analysis of that kind had the tendency of being dismissed as "stat nerd" fodder by the general masses, similar to the progression of the statistical revolution that enveloped baseball in the mid 2000s.

As multiple NBA teams like John Hollinger and the Memphis Grizzlies have championed in-depth statistical analysis on the pro side, more and more collegiate coaches have being doing the same.

Butler's Brad Stevens has been well publicized for his stats based approach, especially hiring of Drew Cannon to serve solely as an advanced statistics expert on his staff. Billy Donovan, whose staff Pitino was assistant on from 2009-11, is known to be a staunch believer in efficiency ratings and the like, as was detailed in Eddie Matz's article for the March 4 edition of ESPN the Magazine.

Although Pitino doesn't flinch at the stat geek label, one won't find him spouting off endless streams of numbers and layering his responses with terms the basic spectator would have to look up. The direct, smooth talking coach is a self-proclaimed "very big KenPom guy." But Pitino tends to look at where his team and players rank in each category, not necessarily specific numbers.

Guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, and the nine other players currently on the Gophers' roster might want to pursue the latest edition of Basketball Prospectus before next season, because they are sure to hear many of the terms included inside.

Pitino expects there to be a noticeable learning curve, as he saw occur early on at Florida International, but once his system is in place the statistics analysis will be a common topic in the locker room.

"We chart a lot of stuff through the course of the game," Pitino said on 1500 ESPN's Tom Pelissero show Tuesday. "I think when you play our style where you press a lot you have to look at certain things like deflections, you've got to look at back-tips, you've got to look at guys that step up and take a charge, certain things like blow-bys that we look at halftime and make adjustments."

In the Gophers' final season under Tubby Smith, an up-and-down final couple two months resulted in their defensive efficiency ending up at markedly mediocre sixth in the Big Ten (.976). A glance at the adjusted efficiency rating on KenPom.com, tweaked based on location and strength of opponents, has the Gophers ranked seventh.

Pitino already has a rank in mind, wanting both of those stats to be in the "top 3." That is largely unrealistic in his first season with a team trying to find a new identity after the loss of starters Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, but the goal has been set.

Finding a consistent scoring next season is likely to be a major issue. The Gophers were top 5 in the conference last year in scoring offense (5th - 68.7 ppg), points per possession (4th -- 1.078), both traditional and effective field goal percentage (5th -- 44.3%; 5th - 49.3%) and true shooting percentage (5th -- 53.1%).

However, Mbakwe played a key role in those numbers, as well as Williams to a lesser degree. Mbakwe's 58.64% true shooting percentage -- an adjusted stat that blends in free throw data - was the ninth highest in the Big Ten. Andre Hollins was four spots behind him at 13th.

Take out Mbakwe and Williams' numbers and the Gophers' offensive efficiency would drop almost six percent. The now graduated duo accounted for 37% of the team's offensive rebounds, 35% of its free throw attempts and 28% of the scoring.

Without considerable upgrades in the frontcourt both internally (see: Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason) and recruiting-wise, the Gophers' inside scoring will be a critical weakness.

Since taking over at Minnesota, Pitino has promised to institute his up-tempo, press-heavy, defense-first style backed by an obvious layer of statistical consideration. What he hasn't promised is immediate, positive results.

In a calculated manner, he has tried to keep to the expectations of success next season limited. Pitino said, "it would probably be silly" to automatically assume the Gophers will be back in the NCAA tournament in 2014. Those expectations are likely to remain fluid as the year goes on.

But one thing is certain to be present when the Pitino era officially kicks off in November -- an extensive stat sheet offering a specific idea of what needs to be addressed to redirect the program in the fashion athletic director Norwood Teague hired the up-and-coming, but largely unproven Pitino.

A look at a few key stats

Offensive efficiency

Total points / points per possession (Field goal attempts - offensive rebounds + turnovers + (0.475 x free throw attempts))

1. Michigan - 1.1649
2. Indiana - 1.1643
3. Ohio State - 1.08
4. Minnesota - 1.078
5. Michigan State - 1.052
6. Wisconsin - 1.047
7. Iowa - 1.041
8. Illinois -- 1.037
9. Purdue - 1.001
10. Northwestern - 0.984
11. Penn State - 0.951
12. Nebraska - 0.945

Defensive efficiency

1. Wisconsin -- .901
2. Michigan State -- .915
3. Ohio State -- .916
4. Indiana -- .919
5. Iowa -- .933
6. Minnesota -- .976
7. Michigan -- .980
8. Illinois -- .981
9. Purdue -- .982
10. Nebraska - 1.029
11. Northwestern - 1.053
12. Penn State - 1.053

Effective field goal percentage -- offense

• eFG% = (0.5 x 3-pointers made + total field goals) / field goal attempts

1. Michigan - 54.9%
2. Indiana - 54.8%
3. Ohio State - 50.6%
4. Michigan State - 50.5%
5. Minnesota - 49.3%
6. Wisconsin - 48.6%
7. Illinois - 47.9%
8. Northwestern - 47.5%
9. Iowa - 46.6%
10. Purdue - 46.3 %
11. Nebraska - 45.4%
12. Penn State - 44.2%

Effective field goal percentage -- defense

1. Wisconsin - 43%
2. Indiana - 44%
3. Michigan State - 44.1%
4. Iowa - 44.1%
5. Ohio State - 45.4%
6. Purdue - 45.5%
7. Minnesota - 45.6%
8. Michigan - 47.8%
9. Northwestern - 48.2%
10. Illinois - 48.5%
11. Nebraska - 48.7%
12. Penn State - 49.4%

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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