CRAWFORD BLOG | Deconstructing the Pitino MVP scoring system - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD BLOG | Deconstructing the Pitino MVP scoring system

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Rick Pitino talks to his team before a summer exhibition in Puerto Rico. The coach has devised an MVP scoring system for games and practices to incentivize things he wants to see on the court. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Rick Pitino talks to his team before a summer exhibition in Puerto Rico. The coach has devised an MVP scoring system for games and practices to incentivize things he wants to see on the court. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — All right, I will admit it. I have become mesmerized by the “MVP” charts that University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has been publishing after games.

I don't generally go in too much for coaches' blogs. But this kind of inside basketball is tough to resist. It’s a compilation of stats kept by managers during the game and augmented by video review after the game.

I suppose if every coach in America did such a list, you’d have as many different variations in how the charts are done as you have coaches.

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What I like about it is that it gives you a view into what a coach prioritizes.

Pitino’s original MVP chart included 13 categories. Already this season, it has evolved to 17, with “missed defensive assignment” and “blow-bys” (giving up an uninterrupted drive toward the basket off the first step of an opponent) as new defensive categories. “Loose ball recovery” has been added, as have categories for challenging a shot (positive) and taking a challenged shot (negative).

You don’t find the everyday stats on this list. The first things you look for on a normal stat sheet — points, field goals, free throws — are not there. These are deeper stats that Pitino uses to track effort and attention to parts of the game he deems essential for this team’s success.

In a blog entry at RickPitino.net before the season, Pitino explained that the MVP determination, “has a plus/minus system that we gather after reviewing film from each day’s practice.”

In looking, then, at these categories, you begin to get a sense for what Pitino and his staff value most, and will stress most before, and praise most after, a game.

For example, in Pitino’s view, a steal, blocked shot or assist is worth twice as much as a defensive rebound. An offensive rebound is the most valuable offensive play you can make.

The scoring system skews toward the defense. Anyone surprised? There are 19 points (positive and negative) at stake on defensive categories. There are 13 for offensive plays.

This kind of stat tracking is in keeping with what you see in the NBA. In fact, the KFC Yum! Center is one of only a handful of college arenas equipped with motion-tracking SportVU cameras that make it possible to monitor every motion of every player on the court, and even officials.

The system, sold by STATS — which is owned jointly by The Associated Press and 21st Century Fox — now is used by every NBA team and arena.

For instance, one of the categories on Pitino’s MVP list is the “hockey assist.” If you watch much hockey, you know that not just the player who made the pass that led to a goal gets an assist, but often the player who helped set up the score by passing the puck to that passer also is credited.

In the NBA, this is called a “secondary assist.” To earn one, the player awarded the primary assist “must make a pass within 4 seconds and 2 dribble.”

It’s a great stat. It measures how much attention an offensive player commands of a defense. Often, point guards will drive and kick to another player, who passes to a scorer. Or a point guard will give the ball up on a pick-and-roll with a third player cutting toward the basket to score.

This rewards those players. The NBA leader in secondary assists this season is Steph Curry of Golden State, with 2.6 per game.

(NBA stats go much deeper than that, in fact, by measuring assist points created per game. Rajon Rondo is the leader in this category, with 26.1 points per game created via assists. And in the ultimate point guard stat, he also leads the league in “potential assists.” A potential assist is just what it sounds like — a pass that would have counted as an assist had the shot gone in. Rondo leads the NBA in potential assists with 20.3 per game. Finally, the NBA also awards free-throw assists, which is an assist that sets up a player who is fouled to go to the free-throw line. The player must make at least one free-throw.)

Sorry. I got a little wrapped up in that assist minutiae.

Let’s get back to Louisville basketball, by taking a look at Pitino’s MVP chart, in order of point value, to get a view for what he values on the court.

THE GOOD:

Offensive rebound (+3): Mangok Mathiang leads the Cardinals in this category through eight games, with 2.9 per game, just a fraction ahead of Chinanu Onuaku with 2.5 per game. Mathiang also leads in offensive rebounds per minute, but just barely, over Jaylen Johnson.

Back tip (+3): This defensive move usually occurs on the break, and is a great way for making up for a turnover or to attack a ballhandler who has passed you. Its value is that it usually stops an easy scoring opportunity. It has not, however, been a weapon for the Cardinals in the games tracked so far. Not a single back-tip has been recorded.

Drawn charge (+3): This is a valuable play because it’s a big momentum changer. Not only does it net a turnover, but a foul on the opponent. Only one player on the team has been given credit for a drawn charge in the six games reported — Trey Lewis, with three.

Assist (+2): An offensive staple. Quentin Snider leads the team with 36, followed by Trey Lewis (26) and Donovan Mitchell (16).

Steal (+2): Again, an emphasis for Pitino from his early days in coaching. He wants pressure defense, especially on ballhandlers, to force quick decisions and often bad decisions. Damion Lee leads the Cardinals with 13 steals. Lewis, Mitchell and Onuaku have nine each. Team leader in steals per minute: Ray Spalding with .085.

Blocked shot (+2): With the Cardinals’ length, this is of particular emphasis this year. Pitino awards one point for contesting a shot, but two for blocking it. Onuaku (13), Mathiang (10), Anas Mahmoud (10) and Spalding (9) are the team leaders. Mahmoud is the team leader in blocks per minute at 0.1.

Loose ball recovery (+2): Coaches are always harping about getting to 50-50 balls. Judging from the MVP sheets published by Pitino, this team either hasn’t had very many opportunities, or hasn’t had much success. Four players are credited with one each in the six games provided.

Defensive rebound (+1): Onuaku leads the team with 36. Lee is next with 30, followed by Lewis (28) and Spalding (25). Per minute leader: Spalding, at .238.

Deflection (+1): A staple of Pitino’s system. He gives it a fairly wide definition, encompassing several other items on this list, so that the importance of this category is more than the number might suggest. If you get a deflection, you’re likely not only being rewarded in this category, but elsewhere. In just the six games listed here, Onuaku is the team leader with 33, followed by Spalding with 27 and Mitchell with 23.

Hockey assist (+1): I talked about it above. The team leader on the six games provided is Mitchell, with six, followed by Lewis and Lee with five each. 

Shot challenge (+1): A category that has appeared only in the last two games. Mitchell had eight in the the loss at Michigan State to lead the category. Spalding, Lewis and Lee are close behind.

Offensive rebound tip (+1): A tip that leads to an offensive rebound, keeping the ball alive, is the next-best thing to securing a teammate’s missed shot. Spalding and Jaylen Johnson have been the best at that this season, according to the charts Pitino published.

THE BAD

Turnover (-3): Giving the ball away to the other team without an opportunity to score yourself. Few things are more damaging. At minus three points, it’s one of the two worst transgressions you can make in Pitino’s listing. It’s easy to pile up turnovers, and with this scoring system, just a couple can undo a lot of good you do for yourself on the MVP chart. Lewis is living proof — his 16 turnovers are a team-high. Onuaku has 13 and Lee 11. Spalding, with 8 in 105 minutes, leads the per-minute count.

Challenged shot (-3): After his team missed eight challenged shots in a loss at Michigan State, Pitino added this category, noting that his team was 1-for-20 on challenged shots to date. Lee, with 7, and Lewis, with 5, are the team leaders in the games provided.

Missed block out (-2): Another category added after the Michigan State loss, in which the Cardinals missed 14 block-outs, led by Mathiang and Mahmoud with three each. Michigan State, generally one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, can make you pay. A game later, against a much weaker Eastern Michigan team, the Cardinals had only eight.

Blown defensive assignment (-2): Pitino added this after the Michigan State loss, because he said blown assignments were the main reason for the loss. These are bound to happen, especially given the intricacies of Louisville’s match-up zone. But think about this: An assistant told me in the first half of Louisville’s 2013 Elite Eight victory over Duke, there were zero missed defensive assignments. That’s how dialed in that team was. Against Michigan State, the Cardinals had 20, led by Onuaku with four and Johnson with three. A game later, that number was down to eight.

Blow-by (-2): Especially when you have good shot-blockers inside, allowing a blow-by is damaging. If the perimeter defender can only slow down a player driving to the basket, maintaining some semblance of defense, a help defender can move over to draw a charge, or block a shot. If you let the offensive player take off with a head of steam, you’re most likely giving up a basket or a foul inside. Coaches charted 14 against Eastern Michigan, which is why Pitino came into his postgame news conference unhappy, despite the lopsided victory.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Statistics are just tools, of course, So what do I make of looking at Pitino’s MVP lists from his blog?

The No. 1 thing I get from them is the importance of Onuaku to this team. He’s won the most MVP awards. He has been the MVP in three of the six games published by Pitino — and has done that despite leading the team in turnovers. When he’s on the court, lots of good things get done. He rebounds. He creates steals. In my own view, the one thing he could do better is pass out of his position. He’s a good passer, but because he probably doesn’t get the ball quite as much as he’d like, sometimes he’ll force a jump hook when he should just keep the ball moving and try to get it back. Regardless, keeping him out of foul trouble (limiting the blow-bys of others, and eliminating his offensive fouls on screens) is a huge thing for this team.

No. 2, the highest score posted in any game this year is 40 points — by Spalding. He’s been the MVP twice in the six games. He’s coming along. Pitino needs him to be more consistent. But if the Cards can get him playing big in their biggest games, it’ll be a major step toward competing with the best teams in the country.

Regardless, it’s nice to be able to see a different view of the game from a Hall of Fame coach who has been around it for four decades and knows what he wants from his players.

Who knows? The guy may have a future in blogging.

View the game charts for yourself: Samford, Hartford, North Florida, St. Francis-Brooklyn, Michigan State, Eastern Michigan.

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