Countless hours of statistical analysis provide a realistic account of Florida's defensive performance this season with and without its best defender, Will Yeguete. Despite losing the lockdown forward, the Gators are playing their best defense of the year in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida’s defense has been a roller coaster ride this season, all because of an injury to the team's sixth man.
When the Gators lost Will Yeguete to a broken foot on Feb. 21, they lost without question their best defensive player.
The horrendous five-game stretch that followed was far and away the worst Florida has played this season. But, when the NCAA Tournament started, everything changed.
The Gators got back on track, shutting down Virginia and Norfolk State to earn a date with Marquette tonight in the Sweet 16.
Through more than 60 hours of film study and number crunching, I’ve been able to quantify the value of Yeguete’s 21.9 minutes per game, pinpoint how far Florida slipped when he was injured, and identify what the Gators have done to round into top form at the perfect time.
But first, a look at the system.
When it comes to measuring an individual player’s defensive performance, traditional box score data is wholly inadequate. Scorekeepers chart only blocks, steals and defensive rebounds for each player. Why is a block so much better than a strong close out that forces a miss? Why should Player A get credit for a steal when Player B deflected the ball right to him?
Enter Project Defensive Score Sheet, proposed by Dean Oliver in his 2003 book Basketball on Paper, which has become the Bible of advanced basketball statistics. Instead of noting only steals and blocks, this scoring system requires that credit be issued for every forced miss, forced turnover or defensive rebound. It also assigns blame for every allowed basket or free throw, providing a complete picture of a player’s defensive contribution.
For example, if Kentucky’s Doron Lamb misses a jumper while Kenny Boynton has a hand in his face, Boynton gets credited with a forced miss. If Terrence Jones backs down Erik Murphy and hits a layup over him, Murphy gets a defensive field goal made. If Marquis Teague gets an edge on Erving Walker, but Patric Young steps up and forces Teague to miss a floater, then Walker and Young each get half of a forced miss.
Credit for wide-open misses and unforced turnovers is spread across the entire team, as is blame for transition baskets, late-game intentional fouls and broken plays.
If a certain defender is clearly responsible for missing a rotation that results in a wide-open shot, he gets the blame for the make. But, more often than not, I assign open shots to “Team” and let Billy Donovan decide who is at fault.
Once the process of watching and tallying is complete, the numbers are cross-checked with box scores to ensure that the correct number of misses, field goals, turnovers and rebounds were counted.
From there, formulas in Oliver’s book boil those totals down into stops and scoring possessions. Those numbers are then used to find each player’s stop percentage, defensive engagement percentage and overall defensive rating, which is the measure of how many points a player’s team is expected to give up with that player on the court for 100 possessions.
The result is a chart like the one shown from Florida’s 84-50 win over Norfolk State.
After going through that process for each of Florida’s Southeastern Conference games plus significant non-conference tilts — those against Ohio State, Syracuse, Arizona, Texas A&M, Florida State and Rutgers — the data was sorted into three subsets.
The first 19 games of the study encompass everything that happened before Yeguete was lost for the season due to injury, including the Feb. 21 game against Auburn when he broke his foot.
Yeguete was Florida’s best defender, leading the team with a 98.2 defensive rating despite boasting the highest defensive engagement percentage (29.3 percent). Because defensive ratings are calculated in relation to the team’s total — in this case 102.7 — fluctuations of just a few points are very significant. Yeguete displayed quick hands, a willingness to take charges and excellent rebounding ability, leading the team with a turnover forced on 6.8 percent of his defensive possessions and 6.5 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes.
Brad Beal checked in right behind him with a 98.3 rating thanks to strong rebounding and a team-best 30.1 opponent field goal percentage.
Mike Rosario and Casey Prather were quietly efficient, mostly staying out of the way but occasionally forcing a turnover.
Young and Murphy were heavily involved inside and held their own fairly well, but didn’t force enough turnovers or grab enough defensive rebounds to finish better than the middle of the pack.
Walker forced turnovers with his quickness, often jumping in to intercept passes as teams tried to break the press. But, at 5-foot-8, opponents had an easy time hitting 46.3 percent of their shots right over him.
Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin, considered the team’s premier perimeter defenders, did poorly in the study because of how often they got caught up in screening action and yielded open jumpers. Although they were rarely beaten off the dribble, the single shortcoming was enough to doom their defensive ratings because each sported such a low engagement rate.
Cody Larson struggled in limited playing time.
The defensive numbers were average, which was good enough for a team with Florida’s scoring ability.
But, once Yeguete left the lineup, the defense took a major slide. UF’s defensive rating in the next five games was 124.2, up 21.5 points from the first 19 contests.
The individual ratings naturally followed suit.
Murphy and Prather struggled upon moving into new roles, and Florida’s press became mostly ineffective. Field goal percentages rose and turnover percentages fell almost across the board.
New rotations meant breakdowns in both transition and half-court defense, leading to a number of open, unblameable shots that crushed Florida’s overall rating.
One explanation is the obvious jump in competition, as UF played Kentucky (twice) and Vanderbilt during the five-game rough patch. Still, Florida’s defensive efforts in that span were among the worst any team had played against those opponents, according to KenPom.com. UF’s performances against Vanderbilt and Georgia were the third-worst any unit has played against those teams this season.
The competition weakened in the tournament’s opening weekend, but that alone doesn’t account for the transformation UF underwent.
Florida’s defensive rating of 124.2 from the first five games after Yeguete broke his foot fell to 75.6. UF played the best defensive game anyone has played against Virginia this year, and followed that with the third-best defensive game anyone has played against Norfolk State.
Wilbekin, in particular, raised his play, allowing opponents to shoot just 7.7 percent while forcing turnovers on 41.7 percent of the possessions he was involved in.
Opponent field-goal percentages were down all around, and defensive rebounding numbers skyrocketed.
Florida’s press was back near its normal form, sparking major runs as UF notched decisive wins in each game. The pressure did not actively force turnovers as much as it made Virginia and Norfolk State uncomfortable. The teams played at UF’s tempo and occasionally took poor shots while combining to commit an unforced turnover on 7.2 percent of possessions.
Murphy and Young held their own in difficult matchups against Virginia’s Mike Scott and Norfolk’s Kyle O’Quinn, usually forcing contested jump shots.
The Gators often doubled both Scott and O’Quinn. UF also frequently doubled the ball on pick-and-pop action, unafraid to leave inconsistent shooters open for long jump shots.
Florida played with a newfound focus, intensity and commitment to the game plan, even without its best defender.
Reading too much into a two-game sample can be dangerous, but the results at least give the Gators hope that the defense will be able to bring them through another weekend and into the Final Four.
Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].