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We're now one quarter of the way through the season and beginning to reach the time of year when statistics, power rankings, and RPI actually take on some measure of significance. During a particularly long break for Tulsa, now seems like an opportunity to debut the 2009-2010 Plus/Minus ratings.
It may not be a widely publicized statistic in college basketball yet, but Plus/Minus can provide interesting insight into performance beyond a traditional box score, so let's take a look at the early returns on this TU basketball team according to Plus/Minus.
Plus/Minus was originally a statistic developed for hockey as a way of calculating the net effect of a player's presence on the ice. It's a simple calculation that's arrived at by taking the number of goals a team scores while any individual player is on the ice and subtracting the number of goals that team gives up in the same time period.
The concept is easy to accept because we're intuitively aware that some players can be incredibly valuable to their team despite rarely scoring goals, and some players can negatively affect their team despite scoring many goals.
It was only a matter of time before NBA general managers picked up on the usefulness of this statistic and began applying it to the game of basketball. The underlying value for NBA teams was that Plus/Minus should be able to pick up on contributions that a player makes towards scoring points and preventing points that aren't reflected in a traditional box score (tough man-to-man defense, good floor spacing, setting picks to free up teammates, leadership on the court, etc.).
Perhaps most famously, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey hired statistician Eli Witus based largely on his work calculating an adjusted Plus/Minus for all NBA players. Nowadays, raw Plus/Minus is a widely accepted stat in the NBA and can be found in almost every official NBA box score.
Before we reveal the numbers, it's important to remember that Plus/Minus is a flawed statistic if viewed only in a vacuum. Just as you wouldn't judge a player solely by how many points he scores in a game, you wouldn't use Plus/Minus alone to determine the value of any individual player.
That said, in combination with a series of other metrics, Plus/Minus can provide useful and interesting insight that may not have otherwise been obvious.
In general, the stat tends to overrate players who spend a large amount of shared court time with the best players on the team or who play a significant number of minutes in garbage time. There are ways to adjust for these factors, but for now, we'll just deal with the raw data.
As a first taste, let's take a look at the overall Plus/Minus numbers for each player on the TU roster through eight games.
Justin Hurtt leads the list with TU outscoring its opponents 516-389 when Justin is on the floor. As well as he has played early this season, combined with the number of minutes, it's not surprising to see him at the top of the list, followed closely by Jordan, Idlet and Uzoh.
Beyond that, it's difficult to get a feel for where players sit because of such a large discrepancy in minutes played (and in Wheatley's case, a discrepancy in games played).
For the next step, let's normalize this stat to minutes played and display it in terms of Plus/Minus provided per 40 minutes of court time:
Justin Hurtt 19.9 Steven Idlet 19.8 Jerome Jordan 19.6 Bishop Wheatley 15.0 Bryson Pope 14.0 Ben Uzoh 11.7 Joe Richard 10.0 Donte Medder 9.1
At this point, we have to drop players outside of the 8-man rotation, because the number of minutes is too small to be significant (otherwise Shane Heirman would lead the list at 28.2).
Bishop Wheatley, in particular, takes a significant jump this time around because he's played fewer minutes overall than any of the regulars. These numbers are useful, but before we start analyzing things too deeply, let's separate the numbers into offensive and defensive contribution.
Offensive points per 40 minutes:
Steven Idlet 83.8 Bishop Wheatley 82.7 Justin Hurtt 80.9 Jerome Jordan 77.9 Donte Medder 75.3 Joe Richard 75.0 Ben Uzoh 73.8 Bryson Pope 69.7
At first glance, we might be surprised to see Steven Idlet head this list, but Idlet has been a much more efficient player on offense than he was last year, averaging 10.3 points per game on 53.7-percent from the field and 77.4-percent from the line, while getting to the line often.
He's frequently drawn a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor this year as more traditional power forwards try to play him straight up when he and Jordan are on the floor together. Idlet is also turning the ball over on just 15-percent of his possessions, a significant improvement over last year.
Bishop Wheatley lands second on this list in large part because his return has coincided with an increase in scoring for TU with games of 79, 75, 86 and 81 since his return. It's difficult to say how much of this improvement is really thanks to the return of Wheatly to the lineup and how much is just coincidental with the improvement of the TU offense over early season returns.
It's interesting to see Ben Uzoh so low on this list. Part of the reason I think this may be happening is that Uzoh clearly draws the opposition's best perimeter defender whenever he is on the floor. It's worth noting that Uzoh graded out better than any player on the floor in the Oklahoma State game, as TU outscored OSU 66-44 when Ben was on the floor (as compared to 20-21 when he was on the bench).
Defensive points per 40 minutes:
Bryson Pope 55.7 Jerome Jordan 58.3 Justin Hurtt 61.0 Ben Uzoh 62.1 Steven Idlet 64.0 Joe Richard 65.0 Donte Medder 66.3 Bishop Wheatley 67.7
Pope heads this list primarily because he logged a significant number of minutes in the first 4 games in Wheatley's absence when three of the Hurricane's opponents were held below 50 points. Since then, Pope has yet to log more than 15 minutes in any individual game.
No surprise at number two is Jerome Jordan, who not only blocks a significant number of shots, but also disrupts the opposing offense with even the thought of a shot being blocked by the big man. So far this season, Jerome Jordan blocks 13.8-percent of all 2-point attempts by Tulsa opponents when he's on the floor along with disrupting countless other attempts.
Beyond the top two, players are fairly closely grouped with the upperclassmen not surprisingly leading the way. Idlet finds himself near the bottom in part because he fouls more often than any other Tulsa player, and Wheatley sits at the end of the list for the same reason that Pope is at the top.
• Another advantage of Plus/Minus data is that it can allow us to evaluate different lineups and combinations of players beyond what we see with our eyes. Any combination of players can be evaluated, but there were two in particular that caught my eye as worthy of discussion.
There was much discussion in the offseason about how Donte Medder's ability to play the point guard would allow Uzoh to shift to a more natural position and for Tulsa to flow better offensively. Well, so far at least, the results have not been great. TU has been outscored 143-137 when Medder and Uzoh are on the floor together. When Uzoh plays alone, Tulsa is outscoring its opponents 341-259, and when Medder plays alone the margin is 121-84.
I think one factor in play here is that Uzoh splits time between point guard and off-guard depending on whether or not Medder is on the court (and sometimes even when Medder is on the court). Meanwhile, Medder is still a freshman learning the ropes of college basketball, so his numbers will inherently be inconsistent.
The encouraging news is that these two are +18 in the past four games together (as opposed to -24 in the first 4 games), and the combination appears to be headed in the right direction.
Another interesting case study is the combination of Jerome Jordan and Steven Idlet on the floor together. There are very few teams in the country that have two players taller than 6'10" with the ability to start and each play more than 25 minutes per game. This is a significant advantage for Tulsa (especially against overmatched opponents) that has proved to be valuable despite the recent shift in the starting lineup.
So far this season, when Jordan and Idlet are on the floor at the same time, Tulsa is outscoring its opponents 233-149. In comparison, lineups with Jordan alone are outscoring opponents 180-160, and lineups with Idlet alone are outscoring opponents 186-171. I've been a big supporter of playing these two together as much as possible, as long as they can stay out of foul trouble, and I think the numbers (so far) bare this out.
Throughout the season, we'll continue to track Plus/Minus of individual players, as well as combinations of players in the lineup. If nothing else, these numbers are provided as a supplement to the large amount of traditional statistics available to fans, and hopefully they provide yet another unique perspective of Tulsa basketball as the season progresses.