Defense is Everything

Senior+forward+Jacob+Lawson+blocks+a+shot+during+a+game+against+UL+Monroe+last+season.+Lawson+currently+ranks+second+in+the+Sun+Belt+with+37+blocks+this+season.+Photo+courtesy+of+Bill+Sheffield.

Senior forward Jacob Lawson blocks a shot during a game against UL Monroe last season. Lawson currently ranks second in the Sun Belt with 37 blocks this season. Photo courtesy of Bill Sheffield.

Lee Sanderlin

Editors Note: All statistics attained from kenpom.com

Being in the Sun Belt is hard. It’s hard for a team to get the attention they deserve when they are having a great year, but that’s the nature of a small mid-major conference. Fortunately, this same problem is actually helping the Mountaineers this season as they’re looking to make a mid-season run to the conference tournament and potential glory in March.

In order to make the Sun Belt Conference tournament a team has to be in the top 8 of the conference standings. In order to make the NCAA tournament from a conference like the Sun Belt, a team has to win the conference tournament. Unless you have a 27-win team, the only way to get in the big dance is to win the smaller one.

Despite having the same conference record (4-6) as Georgia Southern and South Alabama, Appalachian State sits at ninth in the standings with both teams holding a tie breaker over the Mountaineers due to wins against them.

But things are starting to look up for the Mountaineers and perhaps March basketball. However unlikely it may seem, it isn’t out of the question just yet.

Over their last seven games, the Mountaineers actually have a winning record, going 4-3, which triples their win total of the season before this point.

While winning games is great, it’s the way that they’re winning that is even more exciting. Since Sun Belt play began, the Mountaineers have improved in almost every advanced defensive stat imaginable.

Take defensive efficiency for example, a statistic that measures how many points a team would be expected to give up per 100 possessions against the average Division I offense. When you include the non-conference games, the Apps had a defensive efficiency of 106.3, good for 235th in the nation out of 351 division teams. But when you look at just Sun Belt play, you see that their defensive efficiency has actually improved, dropping down to 102.4 which is good for sixth in the conference.

The most notable differences in the stats columns are the percentages that opposing teams are shooting against the Mountaineer defense compared to earlier in the year.

Including the non-conference statistics, opponents were shooting 38.9 percent on 3-pointers and 47.4 percent on 2-pointers. Compare this to conference play, where opponents are only shooting 45.4 percent from inside the arc and an incredible 33.3 percent from 3-point territory, a 5.6 percent drop.

This improvement is better observed in the teams effective field goal percentage. Effective field goal percentage is calculated using the formula: (2pt FGM + 1.5 x 3pt FGM)/FGA. Basically, this adjusts the worth of a made 3-pointer to be 50 percent more than a made 2-pointer since it counts for more points than the opposing team. This would give a more accurate percentage of the rate that other teams are making their shots in comparison to the points they are scoring.

App State’s opposing effective field goal percentage before conference play sat at a middling 50.1 percent, putting them at 193rd in the nation. Looking at conference play only, the Mountaineers’ opposing effective field goal percentage has gone down to 46.4 percent, a huge improvement that ranks them third in the Sun Belt conference.

The main positive and source of hope behind all of this is that all of these statistics have improved considerably while forcing less turnovers than they did before conference play began. App State forces turnovers on 15.8 percent of all defensive possessions during conference play, down from the 16.8 percent they were forcing when including the non-conference schedule.

This means that the defense has resigned themselves to playing a smarter, more conservative scheme in order to limit the mistakes they might otherwise make while gambling for a steal.

Turnovers have been the one obstacle that the Mountaineers can’t seem to overcome this season, ranking last in the conference in both percentage of turnovers forced and turnovers committed a game. Most of the time, the Mountaineers are winning in spite of turnovers.

Take the game against Troy on Jan. 28 for example. The Mountaineers won 75-71, but they committed 12 more turnovers than Troy. While Troy has the worst record in the conference at 1-9, this was a game that Appalachian could have turned into a blowout had they not given Troy 12 free possessions.

Looking ahead at the schedule, the Mountaineers get to play both Louisiana teams starting Thursday, Feb. 4, against Louisiana Lafayette and then Saturday, Feb. 6, against Louisiana Monroe.

The Lafayette game will be the Mountaineers’ best chance to make a statement, as the Ragin’ Cajuns have the best offense in the Sun Belt, ranking first in offensive efficiency, 2-point shooting percentage and offensive rebounding percentage.

It will require the full defensive effort from the Apps should they hope to stop the Cajuns on Thursday. Luckily, the Cajuns have a bit of a turnover problem as well, turning it over 18.7 percent of the time they have the ball during conference play, which should help App State limit the amount of extra possessions they give the Lafayette offense due to their own turnovers.

The pace at which the Ragin’ Cajuns play should help the Mountaineers force more turnovers if they are able to disrupt the offense a little. Lafayette plays at the fourth fastest pace in the Sun Belt with an adjusted tempo of 70.7. Adjusted tempo measures the amount of offensive possessions a team is expected to have against an average Division I defense based on how long a team’s average possession lasts.

Because Lafayette plays so fast, it would make it hard for them to remain in control the entire time, allowing opportunities for a stingy Mountaineer defense to force more turnovers than they are accustomed too. Should Appalachian State win the turnover battle against Louisiana Lafayette, and against the remaining teams on the schedule this season, a spot in the conference tournament will start to look a lot more likely than it does now.

With the defense the Mountaineers have now, teams already are struggling to score, and if the Mountaineers add an ability to turn the ball over into the mix, no team will want to see them on their draw of the bracket come Sun Belt tourney time.

Story by: Lee Sanderlin, Associate Sports Editor