In order to get a better picture of where things stand from an individual stat standpoint, I removed all of the non-conference data for this season to see how players have been performing recently against stiffer opposition. The results were interesting to see, even if they were somewhat predictable. Here are five things you need to know about GSC players right now:
1. One-dimensional scorers’ production has fallen off.
Denarryl Rice of Arkansas Tech is Exhibit A for this point. His Wonder Boys played a fairly easy non-conference schedule. I had predicted them 9th in the conference (which is where they are now) at the beginning of the season, but after their hot start, I didn’t think they’d cool off this much. Rice is one of the main culprits for Arkansas Tech, which uses its guards too much in the offense. Post players Rone Smith and Ike O’Hanson have been productive in the conference games, but they just don’t see the ball enough because of guys like Rice. Rice has fallen from a pre-conference-season PER of 21.48 to being below average at 12.37 (remember that 15 is set as “average”). He wasn’t exactly lighting it up from the field before the new year, but conference games have exposed his average ballhandling skills, and the improved defense has stifled his shooting. UAM’s Nate Newell, UCA’s Darryl Jones, and HU’s Patrick Andrepont could also be considered in this category for their respective drop-offs in production.
2. Defense rules.
Something about conference play makes teams want to start playing defense all of a sudden. Even as the level of play increased on January 5th, the league’s overall defense has not budged from its non-conference average rating of 98.2. Offense, on the other hand, has taken a nose dive. Arkansas Tech’s offensive rating has fallen 17 points (from 111 to 94), while Harding and Christian Brothers have seen theirs fall by about 12 each (111 to 98 for HU and 112 to 100 for CBU). On the average, offense is down exactly 8 points in GSC play (from 106.9 before to 98.9 now). I guess teams that know each others’ offenses well can learn how to stop them, while defensive play is more difficult to change.
3. Delta State is really freakishly good.
On January 3rd, Delta State looked like a good 8-1 team, having blown out a few teams, but their schedule had been fairly light. They had lost a game (to GSC East foe North Alabama, whom the Bisons beat twice), so they were not invincible, or so it seemed. Since that loss to UNA, the Statesmen have not dropped another game, improving even through the conference season. Their 84-40 win over Christian Brothers is probably the best example of how far they’ve come.
All of this shouldn’t be much of a surprise, since DSU regularly assembles a top-flight collection of transfer talent. Usually, though, they don’t put things together, at least not this early in the season. They’re probably just going to crack the top 10 nationally in this week’s polls, but in my mind, they have to be one of the top 3-5 teams in the country. I think they could beat Montevallo, which has been ranked in the top 3 all season. We even beat Montevallo last year when they were ranked that high, and this Delta State team, from what I’ve seen, is much better.
Leading the way for the Statesmen is Jasper Johnson, who transferred from Southern Miss, where he was one of the top post players in Conference USA. He has taken on more of the scoring load for Delta State, and now he is everything you could possibly want from a big man. He can hit the outside shot (I remember a sick bank shot he made here in Searcy). He defends well inside, and he’s opportunistic enough to average 3.1 steals per game. He rebounds very well (7th in the conference, with two of his teammates higher than he is). He’s a better than average passer, regardless of position (13.2 assist ratio compared to a 12.6 league average). Plus, he just doesn’t turn the ball over, despite handling it a lot (fourth highest usage rate in the conference and second lowest turnover rate).
Once you put Johnson with another excellent post player (Victor Brown) and a legit slashing scorer (Jeremy Richardson), you hardly need a supporting cast. Sandrell Spann is another great post presence for the Statesmen, and Travis DeGroot runs the offense well and is large and athletic enough to be a disruption defensively against opposing point guards.
As I’ve said before, these guys could finish the conference season 16-0, and I don’t think they’d have any problem trying for the elite eight in March.
4. A little support goes a long way.
Kevin Weybright has been the beneficiary of a mini-resurgence in Memphis. He was the only solid performer for Christian Brothers in the early part of the season, but recently fellow forward Sam Bradley and freshman post Nick Kohs have been doing more than their share to keep the Bucs at .500 in the GSC West. After a slow start, Kohs was showing signs of breaking through to mediocrity with a 14.97 PER through the non-conference slate, but his 21.32 performance since has been part of the reason for Christian Brothers’ excellent play. The Bucs needed another solid rebounder, and as a freshman he is now (by far) the conference’s rebounding leader (23.7% rebound rate). Bradley was already off to a good start with a 19.72 aPER, and his shooting touch has come around, at least enough to offset his declining ball-handling and rebounding numbers. Now, his 23.17 PER ranks him ninth in the conference. With these pieces in place, the Bucs might be able to stick around in the playoff hunt a little longer.
5. Something’s wrong in Searcy.
But what is it that’s wrong? I’ve been to every home game this season, and I still don’t know. It seems like a different problem every night. Rebounding has been a struggle all year, despite the pieces seemingly being in place to rebound well. Shooting has been on and off, from 17 threes in the season’s first game to Saturday’s 41.4% true shooting effort, which was the worst of the season.
Ball-handling has been a strength this season, but somehow the point guard position has not. Reggie Bibb has been overmatched in conference play, with his PER falling to a meager 5.07. Defensively, he can’t handle most of the quicker GSC guards, and he doesn’t have the size to contribute to the rebounding effort. His shooting touch is erratic at best (29.1 TS% compared to the league average of 52.5), and he takes enough shots for that to hurt the team (his 3.9 brick index is third in the conference). Essentially, his only value is in passing the ball, but you need a better reason than that to justify putting him on the floor for 24 minutes per game (his average in GSC games). Steven Barnett has been improving, if only because he’s shooting, rebounding, and defending well enough to somewhat offset his continuing turnover problems. His 10.61 conference PER is serviceable.
As for the other positions, I’d love to know what happened to Brandon Sims and Patrick Andrepont. On January 3rd, Sims was the #16 player in the conference, with solid numbers across the board in shooting, rebounding, and ball-handling. Since his back problems started getting in the way, his 10.49 PER has made him just a shadow of his first-half self on the court. I’m not willing to concede that the drop-off is entirely related to the injury, though, because I’ve seen his recent shot selection. His 5.6 brick index is unmatched in the GSC. He really has to work at getting better shots before he takes the team down with him.
Moving on to Andrepont, there’s no injury to justify his similarly large drop in efficiency. Before the conference games began, Andrepont was an adequate shooter and rebounder who needed to work on his passing a little bit. Now, his assist ratio of 5.1 is ninth-worst in the conference (fourth worst among players averaging 20+ minutes per game), and as more of his shots have been contested, his falling true shooting percentage (57.1 to 40.1) has caused his brick index to rise to fifth-worst in the league (3.5). With the 12th worst PER in the league and a growing penchant for technical fouls and less-than-smart plays on the court (no doubt a product of frustration), the Bisons would be much better off with Cole Kee (who is still slightly above league average in PER) in the starting lineup. Kee’s minutes have been declining recently for no apparent reason. He does make some questionable plays on the court, and he takes control of the ball too much, but he is at least moderately efficient.
The other mystery for the Bisons is Alassane Savadogo’s curious drop in rebounding productivity. At 23.8%, his rebound rate was the best in the league heading into the conference schedule. Now, his 13.5% rate is hardly becoming of his size, and this is trouble in an area that the Bisons are really struggling. His offensive game has improved by leaps and bounds, completely offsetting that decline so far, but he could really be special if he put that rebounding skill to more frequent use.
As for the rest of the roster, everything is going as expected. Lonnie Smith has been his usual high-scoring self, and Ceso Sprewell has stepped in as the only good rebounder and inside presence of late. Jacob Thies has made his usual smart plays, although he lacks the offensive game and rebounding skill to justify extended minutes in the post.
Clearly, someone has to step up if the Bisons are to stay in contention in the season’s second half. Who that person (or those people) will be is anyone’s guess.
Here’s my list of the conference regular players, ranked by efficiency from top to bottom. Remember that defensive production is undervalued in the PER formula, as are “intangibles,” or whatever you want to call them.
So good I had to double-check the math to make sure that humongous PER number was right:
Not your ordinary elite post player:
Elite players (PER of 25 or greater):
Very efficient players (PER of 20-25):
Above-average players (PER of 17-20):
Slightly above average players (PER of 15-17):
Slightly below average players (PER of 13-15):
Below average players (PER of 10-13):
Inefficient players (PER of 5-10):
Highly inefficient players (PER of 0-5):
He’s in the red, but at least he’s a good sport about it (PER below zero):
Team Standings (with relevant stats)
Overall stats, with my personal rank:
Conference stats only: