Tulsa's Defense Sets the Tone

By: Matt Rechtien
Date: 01/30/2020


This has been a very exciting couple of weeks in Tulsa basketball. Honestly, I haven’t been this excited about the team since they made that improbable NCAA appearance five years ago. A few weeks back Tulsa was handed a lopsided loss on the road at Cincinnati, but has bounced back with successive wins against Houston, at East Carolina and at Tulane, the throttling of Memphis, and outlasted UConn on the road in overtime last weekend. Not only has this made our preseason projection of finishing 10th in the conference laughable, but also has vaulted us to the top of the American conference standings at this point. We’re now receiving votes in the AP poll and ESPN has us in their current bracketology prediction because we are in pole position for the American’s automatic bid.

It appears that on this latest winning streak—and in flashes even before the last three weeks—Tulsa has found their identity as a team: a stifling defense with enough offensive firepower to batter their opponents over a full 40 minutes of play. As Pat said on the podcast this past week it’s death by a thousand cuts.

There are a lot of factors in why our defense has been so good this year compared to last year, but the biggest change—not only for Tulsa, but across college basketball—is probably the increase in distance of the three-point line from 20 feet 9 inches to 22 feet 1.75 inches.

The obvious expectation when the rule was implemented to change the distance to match the FIBA three-point line in the offseason was that it would lead to the lowest three-point percentage in college basketball history. As of right now with the national average hovering right around 33.6-percent it looks like that might just be the case.

The NCAA actually tested the new distance for three-pointers during the last couple of NITs. The drop-off in both three-point percentage and three-points made per game that occurred during those tournaments is what rightfully drove the idea that three-point percentage would drop off across the board once the line was moved back for the entire regular season. Take a look at the following chart, which has the stats from those two tournaments.

NIT

And for the most part the decline witnessed there has been seen across the board, although it hasn’t been as severe as was maybe expected. As of the end of last week when I ran the numbers (so they won’t be spot on to where they’re at today, but they’ll be pretty darn close), the national average for three-point percentage dropped from 34.5-percent down to the 33.6-percent that I mentioned earlier.

So, in general, teams are shooting slightly worse this year from deep. Tulsa, however is an extreme outlier this season.

If you take a peak at Kenpom right now, you will see that Tulsa’s has held their opponents to 28.2-percent from beyond the arc this season, well below the national average. Looking at last season, teams were already shooting below average against Tulsa, but it was still a respectable 32.8-percent. From last season to this season, Tulsa has seen their opponents shoot 4.6-percent worse from beyond the three point line. That is, to be frank, freakin ridiculous. The year-to-year drop is five(!) times more than the national average.

It’s always felt like to me, that Tulsa wasn’t good at defending the threes in the last couple of years. The zone defense leaves shooters unguarded, and TU wasn’t great at closing out when teams inevitably find their open man. After pouring over some data from College Basketball reference, however, I realized the main issue wasn’t that teams were making threes at a higher percentage—Tulsa actually generally holds teams under the national average on a yearly basis, but never to this extreme—but rather that teams take a huge percentage of their shots from behind the line against us. And since the percentage allowed was pretty close to the national average, threes made up a large percentage of the overall points allowed per game.

This year has been different though. Teams are still taking a lot of three pointers against Tulsa—the average three point attempts per game against Tulsa only dropped two-tenths of a shot from 26.6 last year to 26.4 this year—but because they are shooting so atrociously, the distribution of points from three-pointers only sits at 34.8-percent, which puts Tulsa’s defense almost in the top 50 nationally.

Let’s look at Tulsa’s data on College Basketball Reference, the 2019–2020 season is easily the worst three-point percentage for Tulsa’s opponents in the last 12 years at 28.2-percent. Not since the 2008–2009 season, when opponents shot just 27.7-percent against Tulsa, have they had a season under 30-percent. Here’s a better look at just how drastically different this season is compared to the last decade.

Threes

Tulsa has taken advantage of bad opponent shooting this season en route to their 14–6 record. For most of the season, they’ve held their opponents to under their season average, but the games in which that hasn’t been the case shows the potential fallout when threes start to fall again. Going back to the Arkansas State game a few months back, five teams have shot better than their season average when they played the Golden Hurricane. I’m guessing it’s no surprise to hear that those teams were: Arkansas State, Arkansas, Colorado State, Kansas State and Cincinnati. The connection between all those games is that they ended up as losses. Every game that Tulsa has won since Arkansas State they were able to capitalize on their opponents’ poor shooting performance, but that can’t be something that they can rely on for the rest of the season.

Three-point defense is an inherently tricky thing to evaluate. So much of it relies on luck and it’s hard to gauge just how much of an effect a defense actually has on their opponent. A strong two-point defense generally correlates to a strong three-point defense because teams are more likely to take bad threes to make up for the fact that they can’t get good shots close. But in general, three-point defense isn’t something that can be relied upon consistently, there’s just too much that a team can’t control. The defense has more control in the three-point attempts allowed than they do the percentage. And, yes, teams are taking a lot of threes against Tulsa, but that clearly hasn’t been working out for most of our opponents.

This is the biggest threat for Tulsa going forward in the rest of the season. More likely than not, their three-point percentage allowed will regress as the season progresses. That means, that in order for Tulsa to continue to win games in the conference and make their push towards March Madness they will need to ensure they aren’t relying on their opponents to not be able to hit the side of a brick wall from beyond the arc.

Luckily Tulsa has two things in their favor. The first is that as a conference the American Athletic Conference is one of the worst conferences in three-point percentage. As a whole the conference is shooting just 30.9-percent which ranks 28th of out all 32 conferences. On a side note, this isn’t anything new, since it’s inception the highest ranked the conference has ever been in this stat is 25th. Apparently nobody in the conference can recruit shooters. This is good for Tulsa because, obviously, every game they have left is against conference opponents. So maybe we can rely a little bit on the idea that our opponents are not going to be able to actually make any of the threes that they attempt.

And, perhaps more importantly, the second factor in Tulsa’s favor, is the strength of their defense outside of guarding the three.

Maybe that seems like a cop-out to just say that our defense is good and therefore we should be able to win games when teams are actually making threes. And it would be, if I didn’t plan on telling you why our defense is so strong this season. So, not a cop-out, just a transition.

To get an overall picture of our defense, we can just take a look at Kenpom. On the season our adjusted defensive efficiency (which is just the points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for your opponents) is at 94.1. This is 48th in the country. But, more importantly for the rest of the season, since the start of conference play that has dropped down to 83.2—which is first in the conference. So it’s no surprise that we lead the conference in points allowed per game at 56.9. The big picture then, is that our defense has been dominant in conference play, which means our offense (which is pretty average efficiency-wise) hasn’t needed to play flawlessly to win.

Knowing that our defense is really strong is only one part of the tale though. The more interesting side of the story is why our defense has improved from last season.

Writing this next sentence is going to be very difficult for me. Sometimes there aren’t specific stats that one can use to argue their point. As a big math and numbers guy, I always like to point to the cold hard data because numbers can’t lie (not really, numbers can totally lie). So without any statistics to back me up, the biggest difference between this year and last year seems to be just how “athletic” these guys play. They’re aggressive, have passion, and play with a ton of energy on both sides of the ball. But, it really stands out on the defensive side of the ball. Guys like Darien Jackson and Brandon Rachal in particular embody Tulsa’s defensive renaissance.

Frank Haith runs a zone defense which has its pros and cons. It’s flexible in that it works with your quick and athletic guys (Jackson and Rachal), but also allows you to play the more defensive “liability” players like Jeriah Horne and Lawson Korita without those guys getting picked apart like a man-to-man scheme would. It also forces teams to make good passes to beat it, which not every team is capable of making (see the Memphis game for pleeeeeenty of examples). It limits the number of fouls you commit, allowing your best players to stay in longer and yielding fewer trips to the line for you opponent. But most importantly in my mind, it can make your opponent rush their offense which leads to bad shots (explains some of the three-point percentage) and potentially, turnovers.

(On a side note I find it pretty funny that we are bottom in the conference for free throw point distribution, but first in opponents free throw rate. We are a really good team about not fouling, but we give up so few points in general that the fouls we do end up giving up make up a big percentage of our opponents points in a given game. Speaks to how good we are in not giving up a lot of field goals).

Jackson, Rachal, and Elijah Joiner (since the start of conference play) have turned the zone into a wall that teams have not been good at consistently penetrating. They’ve forced more turnovers, prevented teams from getting offensive rebounds (and the pesky second chance points that follows), and locked down / clogged up the inside of the zone, forcing players to have to make tough shots or really strong plays to beat them. The fact that our tallest player, Emmanuel Ugboh, is only being used in 21.6-percent of all of Tulsa’s minutes is just another positive for the quickness and athletic-ness of our players. They don’t have the height, but are out-hustling teams and using their shiftiness to win the battles at the perimeter and in the paint.

I know that just a couple paragraphs ago I was complaining about not having stats to back up parts of what makes our defense great. That was kind of a lie. While there are no stats that encompass the speed, athleticism and hustle of these guys, there are two stats that I do want to mention that offer a window into those intangibles: steal percentage and offensive rebound percentage.

Take steal percentage for instance. Last season Tulsa was well below the national average of 8.9-percent with a pedestrian 7.8-percent. That was good for 264 out of 353. This season though, that number has skyrocketed to 11.2-percent which puts them at 49th out of 353. And, surprise, surprise, Rachal and Jackson are the top two players on the team in steal percentage. Rachal’s 3.6 puts him at 71st among 2208 eligible players in the country, and Jackson and Isaiah Hill both rank in the top-250 as well.

Stealing in college basketball requires a few things. First, one needs to have good anticipation to know when to make their move. Second, one needs to be a speedy defender. Third, one needs to have quick reflexes. While there aren’t any stats to show those specific traits, the fact that the guys I claim are really good athletes end up being some of the top players in steal percentage is more than enough proof that I’m not pulling that claim out of thin air. Steals—though risky—have the double bonus of shutting down an opponent’s possession while also generating a fast break chance for Tulsa. And I like our odds when our most athletic guys are the ones driving down the court against a defense that either isn’t there or doesn’t have time to set up.

The second stat that backs up my claim is our change in offensive rebounding. Last year we were 228th in the country in allowing teams to get offensive rebounds, letting it happen 29.3-percent of the time. This year that number has dropped to 28.0-percent (which is 169th in the country), and since conference has started that has dropped almost another point to 27.1-percent.

We aren’t any taller of a team this year—other than obviously Ugboh, but he has a fairly low rebound percentage for as tall of a player he is—our average height is roughly the same according to College Basketball reference. And yet, we’ve made a pretty big change in corralling the large number of missed shots that we are forcing teams to make. And again, Brandon Rachal is towards the top of list. He sits second behind Horne (who is really good at boxing out and using his height) with 16.1-percent. Being only 6-6, Rachal’s not any taller than a lot of rebounders on other teams, but a big part of getting rebounds is being smart and making hustle-type plays. Rachal and the rest of our defense have gotten better across the board this season in that aspect too. This has been a big contributor in the low number of points teams have been able to score against Tulsa this season and why we are one of the top teams defensively in the conference, and country.

There’s almost too much to talk about on our defense, I didn’t even get a chance to talk about the turnover percentage or directly mention the top-in-the-AAC effective field goal percentage. But I think you get the point by now. Tulsa’s identity lies in the play of our defense.

To wrap this up, let’s go back to where we started. Three point defense can be a gamble because there is a lot that you can’t control so it does end up being a big game of chance. Gambles can be worth the risk, though, and this one in particular can push our ceiling high enough to blow out ranked teams by 40-points. And maybe the risks aren’t as risky as we think since every other part of our defense is strong enough to keep our floor high enough to stay competitive in every game we play for the rest of the season.


What are your takes on Tulsa's defense this season? Send us your thoughts on Twitter or Instagram @GoldenHurricast or send us an email at thegoldenhurricast@gmail.com. Thanks for reading and remember, Stay Golden!