College hoops numbers guru Ken Pomeroy breaks down Gonzaga’s historically productive offense
March 17, 2019 Updated Sun., March 17, 2019 at 10:05 p.m.
Not unlike a majority of fans who’ll turn out this week, he doesn’t have a particular rooting interest in the games taking place at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Just a profound appreciation for college basketball that would lure any Salt Lake City resident away from the television set for a chance to see the NCAA Tournament played in their own backyard.
Like the rest of them, Ken Pomeroy will be interested to see if No. 1-seeded Gonzaga can shrug off a 60-47 loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game and revert to the point-scoring juggernaut that many have already penciled in to make a second Final Four run in three years.
The man most college basketball purists turn to when they need to scratch their advanced statistics itch will be courtside in his hometown when the Zags play Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M on Thursday in the first round of the 2019 tournament.
For the casual fan who may not find the same fascination in the analytical side of the sport, Pomeroy is the founder and manager of kenpom.com, a widely popular subscription-based website/archive that coaches, writers and basketball junkies use to track advanced stats, trends and predictive data, among other things.
Even in the wake of a sub-50-point outing against the Gaels in Las Vegas, college basketball’s numbers whiz – and his acclaimed website – are particularly high on the Zags and their historically productive offense.
GU is at the very top of Pomeroy’s “adjusted offensive efficiency” chart, with a rating of 125.1.
The “AdjO” is computed using the points per 100 possessions a team scores over the course of a season, and then adjusted based on the quality of opponent. So, yes, Pomeroy’s model accounts for the quality of opponents the Zags play in January and February – months where the GU schedule is stuffed with lower-tier WCC foes.
It also accounts for recent games and close games, “but the bulk of it is just schedule adjustment, basically,” Pomeroy said in a recent phone interview.
The 2018-19 Zags have skyrocketed to the top of Pomeroy’s board primarily because of their accuracy inside the 3-point arc. Gonzaga is making its 2-pointers at a 62-percent clip, the best in the country.
“So it’s better than the second-best team by almost three percent,” Pomeroy said. “They’ve really been able to get easy baskets and most of the time it’s not rocket science, but it’s the type of shooting that’s going to drive the good offense. That’s true for Gonzaga as well.”
“They do other things; they don’t commit many turnovers,” he added. “That’s kind of the second-best thing they do, and they’re above average at getting fouled, they’re above average at getting rebounds, but it’s really the shooting combined with the turnovers that makes them so dangerous.”
And GU’s efficiency rating? Well, it’s historically high for a team that has never surpassed 121.7 on the “KenPom” scale since Pomeroy launched his website in 2001. Only three other times during that 19-year stretch has Gonzaga reached the 120 threshold.
That’s not only good for Gonzaga, it’s one of the best ratings a team has ever registered in “KenPom” history.
The “KenPom” record for adjusted offensive efficiency was 129, set by Wisconsin at the end of the 2015 season. Villanova had a high mark last season, at 127.8, after winning the national championship. Oklahoma State’s 2017 team (126) and Notre Dame’s 2015 team (125.4) also did well.
“But 125 is up there, though, it’s obviously – when you’re first in the country, it’s pretty impressive,” Pomeroy said of Gonzaga.
Pomeroy just made his annual pilgrimage to the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena, t a few miles away from GU’s title-game loss to Saint Mary’s at the Orleans Arena. A historically good offense had a historically stagnant night, shooting just 37 percent from the field and 11 from the 3-point line. The 47 points signified the Bulldogs’ lowest single-game output since 2009-10.
GU’s “KenPom” stock took a major hit, too. The Bulldogs are still No. 1 in AdjO, but not by nearly the same margin they were when they took the floor Tuesday night in Vegas.
“They were 127.8 before that game,” Pomeroy said. “That’s enormous, it’s really significant. Just to give you an idea, they basically have not scored less than a point per possession all year in any game and in that game, they were, like, .78. So it was their worst offensive game by far.”
But Pomeroy, like every analyst, reporter and player on the Gonzaga roster, would caution not to read too deep into a single loss, or what it means for the Bulldogs moving forward.
“Saint Mary’s, traditionally they’re really kind of aggressive defensively on the ball,” Pomeroy said. “On the wrong night that can cause problems with anybody, but I do think that game was as much Gonzaga not coming to play as it was any sort of defensive thing that Saint Mary’s did, because obviously that was the third time they played and the first two times, Saint Mary’s didn’t have a whole lot of luck stopping them.
“So yeah, I don’t know if there’s any secret formula to come out of that (loss).”
Pomeroy hesitates to make an apples-to-apples comparison to the 2017 Gonzaga team that reached the national title game – chiefly because the 2019 version is still five games from reaching that level.
But he likes this team’s prospects.
His website considers forward Brandon Clarke seventh in the kPOY (Player of the Year) standings and the junior’s “effective field-goal percentage” – a twist on the conventional field-goal percentage that places more weight on 3-pointers – is fourth nationally (70 percent).
“Clarke actually rates out as having more of an offensive impact because of his field-goal percentage, and it’s so much higher than (Rui) Hachimura’s, he actually rates out a little bit higher,” Pomeroy said. “But they both grade out really well.”
As for the old adage of “defense wins championships?” Not so fast, Pomeroy says.
“Generally speaking, teams that are led by their offense tend to have better prospects in the tournament,” he said. “It’s not a super obvious trend there, but it’s like a subtle trend, so in that respect that’s another reason to be kind of optimistic.
“But that said, it’s extremely difficult to get to the national title game, so if that is the standard by which we’re measuring these two teams by, I would guess this team will end up falling a little bit short. Certainly by this point, they’ve both been pretty similar as far as their performance.”
College basketball’s foremost numbers guru will get to experience the eye test soon enough.
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