Match-Ups in an Age of Rising Talent Asymmetry

  • Match-ups are on many board rats’s minds these days.


    IMHO, trey shooting incentives, rule enforcement, and apparent Shoeco stacking of certain schools with inordinate amounts of L&As has finally lead to noticeable broad asymmetry in the talent (i.e., length and athleticism) distribution among conference teams (and among teams around the country, too).

    Note: that rising asymmetry of L&A among D1 programs is an anecdotal observation that might be refuted by someone comparing the distribution of L&A players with the distribution this season of seasons past. I hope someone can track asymmetry in L&A sometime, but for now I am going to fly by the seat of my anecdotal observation.

    Rising asymmetry in basketball conflict may be a bit like rising asymmetry in war conflict. The asymmetry confronts both sides with increasing mismatches, and so both sides explore new ways to deal with those asymmetries in matchup.

    This dynamic makes board rats like us focus more on match-ups than ever, or so I speculate.

    So: I want to explore some basics of match-ups.

    First, mismatches trigger three types of strategic/tactical responses that seem a hair contradictory at first.

    1. Same: Get similar to the opponent in terms of length and athleticism, so as to negate his ability to go shorter, pr longer, in pursuit of mismatches.

    2. Longer: Get taller and more athletic to exploit the advantages of length and athleticism in hoops.

    3. Shorter: Get shorter and more athletic to try to be too mobile to be guarded without fouling.

    These three options can of course be applied across all five positions, or just some. You can get longer at all five positions. You can get shorter at all five. Or you can get similar at all five positions.

    Less well understood is that you can get longer, or shorter or the same in the front court, and do something different in the back court, or vice versa.

    Rick Pitino got longer in front court and shorter in back court.

    Cal’s great UK team got longer and more athletic everywhere.

    Self’s teams have tended to evidence lots of L&A that allows KU to be longer and more athletic, but then situationally go shorter, or longer.

    This season, when Self has a lot of depth, he seems to like go long to get control of the boards, and get higher percentage shots on offense, and to block and alter more shots on defense. For these advantages, he will willing to take some fouls playing bigger front court men on smaller opposing front courts. He does this so long as he can protect his starters from late game fatigue and foul excess. He follows the logic that the advantage of both length and athleticism of his team are magnified down the stretch when his long guys are still taller, and and the shorter, fatigued, and fouled up opponent grow a lot shorter because they can’t jump as high and they haven’t got any more fouls to give.

    Self veers from this strategy only when his longer front court players are not getting higher percentage looks and making them and his stable of bigs are simply giving up fouls to fast to keep his starters un-fouled up for the last ten minutes; then he seems to go shorter to see if he can increase his athleticism enough to reduce the fouling, and get more mobility so as to get more high mobility scoring out of outside shooting, penetration, and so on.

    On the outside, Self has experimented with starting two longs (Selden and Wiggins) and a short (Tharpe or Mason) and then either bringing long players (Greene, White), or getting much shorter (Mason and Tharpe, or Mason and Frankamp). Increasingly, he seems to opt to stay with his two long/one short outside, then go very short, then come back with two longs and a short.

    This pattern has frustrated many board rats who think that going long outside on substitution creates either desirable matchup similarity, or desirable match up advantage on the perimeter.

    But what Self’s long term trend and tendency seems to indicate is that KU benefits most from staying longer in there front court for as long as possible, and alternating two longs/one short with one long and two shorts.

    Some of this may have to do with tendency of taller perimeter players developing more slowly than the shorter perimeter players, or some tendency among shorter players being more skilled, but as the season grows longer, and the N of games increases, what seems to be emerging is a tendency for going from two long/one small to 2 small and one long, or even three small on the perimeter.

    This raises a very interesting question? Why would starting two longs and a short on the perimeter, which enhances conventional notions of length related MUA, not be superior to continue, as so many board rats wish Self would do, when the opponent is long. What is the benefit of going short at two, or three positions on the perimeter against opponents?

    To answer, or at least pose a hypothesis, it helps to go back to the initial premise of this post that a number of forces have appeared to converge increase asymmetry in length and athleticism distributed among D1 programs.

    For years, the majors all mostly tried to match up similarly for the most part. If you played long bigs they played long bigs. Yours were more athletic, or skilled, but heights were often quite similar. In recent years, height similarity began to include brawn similarity as well.

    Something similar could be said for similarities on the perimeter, too.

    It was the Mid Majors that played two 6-7 bigs and tried to matchup similarly outside. It was the mid majors that had teams where everyone shot treys.

    But something has happened to the distribution of the L&A players in D1. More of the long bigs seem to be being concentrated in fewer and fewer programs, and this results in more and more majors adopting the mid major model for playing the game.

    In turn, we see more and more asymmetric warfare, if you will, in basketball and so more and more games where KU, one of the haves, has to contend with majors playing the old mid major model.

    In turn, KU and Self are confronted with more and more games where his L&A bigs have to “chase” the 6-7 bigs.

    Further, I suspect that the depth of the have-not teams falls off much faster in comparison with the depth of the haves these days.

    As a result, we see Self getting more and more benefit out of going long in front court as substitutions unfold, and we see something a bit counter intuitive occurring when substitutions in the back court unfold.

    Perimeter athleticism seems to drop off much faster among the have nots than the haves than it perhaps used to do.

    So: Self going long on the perimeter in substitution, while it offers the usual benefit, it seems that the athleticism advantage in Self’s short subs seems to offer a sufficiently larger incremental advantage over the have nots that on the perimeter, anyway, Self’s short and athletic perimeter subs are, as they learn the ropes, doing as well, or better than his long and athletic perimeter subs.

    This does not mean there is no use for the Brannen Greenes and the Andrew Whites, just that they apparently offer less incremental advantage in a substitution phase of a game than their height might once have granted them.

    Now, at least one more thing may be feeding into this phenomenon. It may be that what I have described so far was already underway before this season and that it took Slick Rick Pitino’s ring team last year to crystallize everyone’s awareness of it, or Self’s anyway.

    But maybe the change in rules enforcement this season tends to favor the athleticism of the shorter perimeter player, or at least diminishes the advantage of the long and athletic player. Maybe calling the rules tightly spikes the edge to a Tharpe, a Mason, and a Frankamp, due to their skitter bug mobilities. And this edge compounds the longer term tendency of the haves to have more athleticism amongst their reserves than the have nots.

    There. I have set the table for a season long debate. 🙂

  • @jaybate 1.0 you need a personal statistician to test out your hypotheses! Great read.

  • Great read, Jaybate. If anyone is wondering what is gained by having Tharpe + Mason on the floor at the same time, this gives them much to consider. Self isnt just taking what opponents give, unless his lineup forced him to. He is also actively trying to throw a wrench in the opposition’s comfort level and matchups.

  • Withey vs. Mizzou was a good example of an opponent’s small ball taking a bigman totally out of his realm of effectiveness. Withey was almost useless on the perimeter other than that spectacular 3pt block & steal vs. UNC’s Hairston in the Madness last year. But Self had little depth to counter or adjust. Enter this season, however, and he has twice the options.

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