Going back to the old days of writing about Harding basketball, I present a statistical preview of the 2013 Central Regional section of the NCAA D-II men’s basketball tournament, which starts Saturday in Mankato, Minnesota. The Bisons are not exactly favored, nor should they be, but this was interesting for me to write because it got me a little more acquainted with the other teams in Harding’s new region.
This will be Harding’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in the 11 years I’ve been following the program (also the fourth overall), and the Bisons are 0-for-3 thus far in the first round. If you’re like me, you’re looking for a glimmer of hope that a tournament win is just around the corner. Here’s your glimmer of hope, and much more.
#1 Minnesota State vs. #8 Arkansas Tech
#1 Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks
Ranked #4 nationally in aggregate computer rankings
24–4 D-II record, 20th-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 40.7%
Pace: Slow-to-moderate pace of 66.4 possessions per game is partially the result of playing in the NSIC, the nation’s slowest-paced conference. In a different conference, it’s not hard to see how they might play at a more moderate pace.
Shot selection: Two-point heavy. At 75.2%, the Mavericks are in the top 25 nationally in favoring the two-point shot over threes. Despite this, they are just average at getting to the FT line, where they do make a healthy 73.7%.
1. Scoring efficiency. Fourth nationally with 117.4 points per 100 possessions. Accounting for their top-20 schedule, the Mavericks are arguably the second-best offensive team in the country, to #1 West Liberty.
2. Rebounding. MSU ranks in the top 25 nationally in both offensive rebound percentage (38.6%) and defensive rebound percentage (72.9%), so it is clear they use their size to their advantage.
3. No turnovers. They are 25th nationally in (lowest) turnover rate, surrendering possession just 17% of the time before getting a shot. The NSIC was the least turnover-prone conference, in addition to being the slowest-paced, so this is partially a function of the conference.
4. Disciplined defense. Mankato keeps opponents off the free-throw line and makes them hit shots, ranking 12th nationally in fewest free-throw attempts per field goal attempt.
1. Forcing turnovers. With disciplined defense often comes a trade-off in not forcing turnovers, and the Mavericks rank in the bottom 15% in that category.
2. Defensive efficiency. This is only a weakness relative to other strengths, as Mankato still ranks in the top half of D-II in this regard, even with their difficult schedule (and playing in the nation’s most efficient scoring conference). Excellent rebounding and a refusal to foul are counteracted by difficulties forcing turnovers and average three-point defense.
#8 Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys
Ranked #70 nationally
17–11 D-II record, 78th-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 1.0%
Pace: Slow, 63.3 possessions per game in a slower-than-average Great American Conference.
Shot selection: Balanced. Virtually even with the national averages, taking two-thirds of their shots from inside the arc. They get to the line at a higher-than-average rate consistent with the rest of the GAC.
1. Defensive efficiency. The GAC this year was the third-most-defensive conference in terms of fewest points per 100 possessions. Arkansas Tech was the leader among all of these teams, ranking 16th nationally at 93.3 pts. allowed/100.
2. Field goal percentage defense. The main reason for Tech’s defensive prowess is interior defense that ranks 11th nationally at just 42.6%. Presumably as a result, their opponents chose to shoot more threes than all but 7 other teams (41.3% of shots), even though Tech was also in the top 25% defending beyond the arc.
3. Defensive rebounding. The Wonder Boys ranked 24th in defensive rebounding percentage (72.7%), which combined nicely with their field goal percentage defense to end a lot of opposing possessions.
1. Shooting. You would think it important for a basketball team to be able to shoot, and in fact it is. For all of ATU’s defensive prowess, though, they are not very good at putting the ball in the basket, either inside or outside. Both their 45.7% success rate on twos and their 31.8% rate on threes rank in the bottom quarter of teams nationally. They also shoot only 65.2% from the free-throw line.
2. Offensive rebounding and turnovers. I’m lumping these together because their rates were close to the GAC averages, but they were nevertheless slightly below the national average in both categories, making it difficult to mask their shooting woes.
3. Offensive efficiency. 95.7 points per 100 possessions ranks them in the bottom 20% nationally.
Unstoppable force vs. immovable object? Clearly the matchup of MSU’s prolific offense against ATU’s stifling defense will be the one to watch, but the Mavericks’ relative strength on defense compared to Tech’s woeful offense should still give them a healthy edge. One other thing to note, though, is that the pace of this game should be fairly slow, which in theory gives MSU fewer chances to assert their dominance. It’s not much for the Wonder Boys to hang their hats on—MSU still has an 86% chance to win according to the Log5 method—but it’s something.
#4 Central Missouri vs. #5 Harding
#4 Central Missouri Mules
Ranked #23 nationally
19–7 D-II record, 91st-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 11.3%
Pace: Moderately fast. Among the fastest-paced teams in a relatively slow Central region, Central Missouri are easily in the top third of the nation in pace.
Shot selection: Balanced. The Mules have an ever-so-slight tendency toward the two-point shot compared to the national average, but they are effectively quite balanced, shooting 67.2% of their overall attempts from inside the arc.
1. No turnovers. Central Missouri ranked 14th nationally in protecting the basketball, turning it over on just 16.9% of their offensive possessions.
2. Defensive rebounding. The Mules rebound 72.4% of opponents’ missed shots, ranking them among the top 10% of teams in the nation.
3. Shooting percentage. Both 2-point and 3-point field goal percentage rankings find UCM in the top third of the national rankings.
1. Forcing turnovers. Like MSU, UCM does not force a lot of turnovers for their opponents, relying more on their ability to end possessions by forcing bad shots and getting rebounds. As a result of their relatively low pressure on the ball, they do benefit from fewer fouls and fewer free throws against them than most MIAA teams (32.9% vs. a conference average of 38.1%).
2. Offensive rebounding. The Mules don’t get a lot of second chances compared to other teams, pulling down just over 30% of their misses, so there’s more pressure on them to get good shots and make them.
3. Three-point defense. This may be a result of playing in a good three-point shooting conference, as the MIAA as a whole made 35.7% of threes in conference play, but UCM is below the national average, allowing a success rate of 34.9% to opponents on shots from beyond the arc.
#5 Harding Bisons
Ranked #60 nationally
19–9 D-II record, 101st-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 1.6%
Pace: Moderately slow. The Bisons averaged 64.8 possessions per game against a GAC average of 66.6 and national average of 68.5, which is enough to rank them among the slowest third of teams.
Shot selection: Three-point heavy. Harding ranked in the top 20 nationally, taking 42.6% of attempted shots from three-point range, even in a conference that only slightly favored the outside shot. The Bisons were also fouled at a much higher rate than most teams, nearly taking a free throw for every other field goal attempt (46.8%).
1. Free-throw shooting. Most GAC teams couldn’t avoid it, but the Bisons got to the free-throw line and made their opponents pay throughout the season. With an attempt rate in the top 20 and a FT% just outside the top 10% nationally at 74.8%, the Bisons scored nearly a quarter of their points with no one guarding them. As you might guess, that’s an efficient way to score.
2. Three-point defense. Opponents didn’t seem to react much, taking attempts from outside at virtually the national average rate, but the Bisons were nearly as stingy at allowing three-pointers as they were prolific at attempting them. Just 31.8% of opponents’ threes were successful.
3. Field goal shooting. It’s not a stretch to assume that a good free-throw shooting team would also make more of their field goals than most, and indeed the Bisons rank in the nation’s top 20% in both 2-point (51.5%) and 3-point (37.2%) field goal conversion rates.
1. Offensive rebounding. Teams that shoot a lot of threes tend to get fewer offensive rebounds, and that is also true of the Bisons, who bring back just 27.1% of their own misses and rank in the bottom 15% in that category. They have to make shots the first time around to be effective.
2. Turnovers. The Bisons are not a particularly athletic team and are prone to more turnovers than average, but they struggle more with forcing turnovers, doing so just 17.8% of the time in a turnover-prone GAC. Their opponents are generally going to get shots, whether they make them or not.
The game should feature a moderate pace, balancing the styles of the two teams. Even though UCM should be the favorite based on their performance throughout the season (Log5 gives them a 70% chance to win), the Bisons have an interesting matchup advantage, considering that UCM is merely average at three-point defense and the Bisons shoot well from beyond the arc. However, Harding may not have much recourse if they can’t get the threes to fall, given Central Missouri’s defensive rebounding prowess. The game may also hinge on how tightly it is officiated, since Harding loves to get to the free-throw line.
#3 Augustana vs. #6 Upper Iowa
#3 Augustana Vikings
Ranked #17 nationally
19–8 D-II record, 33rd-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 12.9%
Pace: Slow-to-moderate. Augie was one of the faster-paced teams in the slow-paced NSIC, averaging 66 possessions per game, but that was still below the national average.
Shot selection: Balanced, with a slight tendency toward the long ball. The Vikings attempted 34.6% of field goals from three-point range, placing them in the 60th percentile of teams nationally. They also took a fair percentage of free throws, with one for every 2.5 field goal attempts, a rate well above the national average and tops in the Northern Sun.
1. No turnovers. Part of a recurring theme for the NSIC, Augustana holds on to the basketball well, preventing turnovers better than 90% of the rest of the country, but how much of that is indicative of the style of play instead of a particular strength, I don’t really know. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, since they were still a good bit better at 17.5% than the conference average of 18.5%.
2. Defensive rebounding. Augie’s opponents tended to favor the three-point shot a little more than average, but not enough to explain away all of their strength in rebounding the basketball. They were in the top sixth of the nation at 71.4%.
3. Disciplined defense. Another hallmark of the NSIC is a lack of fouls, and Augustana bested the average in this strong conference, allowing a free throw for only 30% of opponent field goal attempts.
1. Forcing turnovers. It’s another hallmark of the possession-focused NSIC, but nevertheless, Augie seems not to take a lot of risks when it comes to ending opponent possessions before a shot can be taken.
2. Free-throw shooting. For all their chances at the line, the Vikings made their free throws at a rate (68.2%) lower than the national average of 69.8%.
3. Shooting defense. In one of the most efficient offensive conferences, it’s tough to defend well. Augie bested the conference averages in both 2-point shooting (49.8%) and 3-point shooting (35.6%), but both figures are worse than the national averages.
#6 Upper Iowa
Ranked #30 nationally
19–11 D-II record, 25th-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 5.5%
Pace: Slow. The Peacocks are moderate by NSIC standards but slow from a national perspective, averaging 63.9 possessions per game.
Shot Selection: Two-point heavy. UIU take over 70% of their field goal attempts from inside the arc, which places them in the top 25% in that regard.
1. Defensive rebounding. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a lot of the NSIC teams profile similarly, and UIU is another team that excels at grabbing defensive boards, in the top 25 nationally at 72.7%.
2. Free-throw shooting. The Peacocks are only slightly above-average at getting to the line, but they make the most of their opportunities, converting 76.4%, which places them 14th in the nation.
3. Inside shooting. Fitting with their tendency to take inside shots is their ability to make inside shots. Their percentage of 50.8% only marginally exceeded the average in the NSIC, but it’s good enough to place in the 74th percentile nationally.
1. Fouls. Actually, the main problem here is allowing a lot of free throw attempts, although losing players does present its own problem. UIU are in the bottom quarter of the nation despite playing in the relatively whistle-free NSIC. Even teams that don’t shoot free throws well still make them at a high enough rate to make this a problem for the Peacocks, who commit a personal foul roughly once every 2:12 of game time.
2. Three-point shooting. There’s a theme here, to be sure, behind the reason Upper Iowa take more shots than normal from inside the arc. 33.5% isn’t terrible, as it’s only a point off the national average, but it’s enough to rank them in the bottom third nationally.
3. Offensive rebounding. Their 29.8% rate ranks exactly on the 33.3rd percentile marker.
4. Forcing turnovers. Returning to the broken record, one of UIU’s lowest national rankings in a key statistical category is 222nd in opponent turnover rate, at 19.2%. They force turnovers at a higher rate than the conference average, though, so it’s possible this is not a real problem for the team.
We don’t exactly have to imagine what a matchup would be like between these teams, since the conference mates split their season series, with the away team winning both games. The winner won the rebounding battle in each game. Augustana committed 26 fouls in their home loss to UIU, who made 21-of-35 free throws in that contest. The stats say to expect a relatively slow-paced game with rebounding controlled by the defensive team. Augie is favored to win 60/40, but this is the closest first-round matchup, and UIU should stay in the game if they maintain their discipline and refuse to let Augie hurt them at the free-throw line.
#2 Winona State vs. #7 Northeastern State
#2 Winona State Warriors
Ranked #9 nationally
24–7 D-II record, 27th-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 24.8%
Pace: Slow-to-moderate. A lot of the Northern Sun teams that made the tournament play at a relatively similar pace. Winona’s 65.9 possessions per game is moderate for the NSIC but slightly slow on a national scale.
Shot selection: Slightly favors three-pointers. 35.4% of attempts come from outside, which ranks Winona in the top third nationally, even though it is not a huge deviation from the national average of 34.5%. Winona also get to the FT line more than average, particularly for the NSIC, where they are just a step behind Augustana.
1. Interior defense. The Warriors use their size well, defending the two-point shot better than all but 12 teams in the nation while playing in the most efficient offensive conference. 43.2% is incredibly stingy in the NSIC.
2. Interior shooting. While they haven’t been quite as strong as on the defensive end, Winona is in the top 50 in two-point percentage made at 51.9%.
3. Free-throw shooting. Augustana may have a few more attempts, but Winona State made 70 more free throws thanks to a superior percentage made, 73.8%. Combined with getting to the line a lot, this can be a devastating form of attack.
4. Disciplined defense. There are other areas where Winona rank in the top third of the nation, and I won’t get into all of them, but like several of the other top NSIC teams, they are thrifty with their fouls, allowing roughly one free throw attempt per 3.4 field goal attempts. (It’s worth noting that 497 fouls may not seem thrifty, but they have allowed over 1800 FGA.)
1. Forcing turnovers. Winona’s only real weaknesses are the same as the other NSIC contenders. The Warriors are in the bottom 20% of the country in forcing turnovers, with an opponent turnover rate of 18.6%.
2. Offensive rebounding. Winona has to shoot well, since they don’t give themselves a lot of second chances (30%).
3. Turnovers. From a national perspective, this is a strength, but compared to the NSIC, Winona were relatively turnover-prone, giving it away on 19.2% of their possessions.
#7 Northeastern State RiverHawks
Ranked #48 nationally
17–8 D-II record, 96th-ranked SoS
Elite Eight probability: 2.2%
Pace: Slow. NSU play at an NSIC pace in the slightly faster MIAA, which puts them toward the slow end of the spectrum with 64.6 possessions per game.
Shot selection: Balanced, about as balanced as they come. The MIAA favors the three-point shot more than average, but MSU play fairly straightforward. They draw fouls at a higher-than-average rate, even in the above-average MIAA.
1. Free-throw shooting. Combine the high rate of attempts with one of the top ten percentages in the nation (77.5%), and you have a team that doesn’t have to shoot lights-out from the field to score efficiently.
2. Defensive rebounding. Ranking 13th nationally and tops in the Central region, the RiverHawks pull in 73.8% of their opponents’ missed shots.
3. Three-point defense. In a conference that shoots as well as the MIAA does, allowing 33.3% on three-pointers is quite good.
4. Three-point shooting. 37.7% on threes ranks NSU in the nation’s top 50.
1. Forcing turnovers. Northeastern is not in the NSIC, but this weakness probably describes them better than any team in that conference. NSU forces a turnover just 17.6% of the time, ranking in the bottom 10% of the nation and below all the NSIC teams mentioned above.
2. Offensive rebounding. For as good as they are rebounding on the defensive end, NSU is terrible at getting their own second chances, pulling down just 26.7% of their own missed shots.
Expect to see a lot of made free throws if this one is called tightly. NSU should expect to do well on the defensive glass, so Winona will definitely need their strong interior scoring to continue to be a strength. Winona also should be able to play their style without seeing a lot of extra pressure to force turnovers. NSU may want to play to their three-point shooting strength more than usual against a team that defends as well as Winona does inside, since it may be the best chance they have at upending the 76% chance that the Log5 method gives Winona to win the game.