It’s a day you probably thought would never come.
Substantive, in-depth basketball thoughts finally grace WAC Wednesday. This space is a lot of things — we’ll take “persistent” if you’re feeling generous — but one thing it admittedly is not is steeped in the minute ins and outs of the game of basketball.
Lucky for us, Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) took some time to answer a few questions about the WAC. The former New Mexico State video coordinator and Nevada graduate assistant knows the league as well as anyone, and is now pumping out insightful basketball content in every medium. If you’re any kind of fan, you need to check out his podcast, weekly newsletter and YouTube page.
Here’s what Jordan had to say about your favorite league.
New Mexico State has won more with depth this year than two standout players (like last year with Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones). What has changed most, if anything, about the Aggies’ style of play?
Jordan Sperber: “Last year was a little unique for us at NMSU, because we had a guy like Zach Lofton who could carry such a big offensive workload while still being highly efficient. If you go back and look at the top 25 highest usage players in the WAC last season, Zach was actually the most efficient of all of them with an offensive rating of 113.6. So he was definitely given a lot of responsibility within our offense, but it was was warranted given his level of production.
So naturally there are going to be some changes to style of play when graduating a player of that offensive caliber. But on top of that, Coach Jans discussed on my podcast episode with him that he did really go back in the off-season and re-evaluate the offense from both a film perspective and a data perspective. It’s always hard to draw cause-and-effect conclusions, but I think it’s a big reason why NMSU has been able to stay right around the same level as last year’s team. As I’m writing this, the Aggies rank 60th on Kenpom - which is exactly where we finished in 2017-18. Spacing the floor and running a more equal opportunity ball screen offense seems to definitely be working and really maximizes all that depth you alluded to.”
Grand Canyon has consistently been a top tier defensive team the past few seasons. What makes the Lopes so effective on that end?
JS: “The league has had some really good defensive teams in the last couple years. Bakersfield in 2016-17 was an absolute nightmare to play against. I think you can say the same about us at New Mexico State last year. And then you have to put Grand Canyon right in that conversation as well. GCU plays as the aggressor and as a cohesive unit on that side of the floor. They’ve had and still have good defensive players, but I’d argue the sum of the whole has generally been greater than the parts when it comes to their defensive success.
One player that is a great defender for them whose had his minutes go up and down over the last couple years is Gerard Martin. He does a great job of keeping you in front and taking charges. I remember him even getting the Ian Baker assignment a couple years ago when Ian was WAC Player of the Year. I think maybe in the past some of GCU’s best offensive players have been their worst defensive players (and vice versa). That dynamic makes finding the right lineups that maximize both ends of the floor extremely important, and based off their results so far early in WAC play they seem to be managing that well.”
Coaches around the league seem to continually praise CSU Bakersfield’s tough play. What makes the ‘Runners so frustrating defensively?
JS: “When playing Bakersfield, you’re always hoping for a tight whistle from the referee crew that night. They play extremely physical and totally take you out of your comfort zone. That 2016-17 team I mentioned that got to MSG in the NIT was as ‘annoying’ as any defense I got to scout against - and I say that with respect!
Coach Barnes’ teams always rank towards the bottom in the country at fouling. This year they are actually 352 out of 353 in defensive free throw rate. Obviously in a vacuum fouling is a bad thing - an easy way for an offensive to get efficient points. But it also creates plenty of turnovers and just prevents you from running your normal stuff on offense. The thing that made that 2016-17 different was their ability to defend the paint even when the guards got up and extended. Opponents shot just 41 percent from two that year which was third in the country behind Gonzaga and UCF (Tacko Fall). They haven’t quite been able to replicate that since losing the Basile/Pride/Airington/Smith senior class, but regardless are probably not a defense you’d prefer to play against.”
What were some of the most difficult offenses to prepare for during your time in the WAC?
JS: “I’ve said this before on a podcast, but Utah Valley was the team I personally felt was hardest to prepare for. They run good spread ball screen action and are great at reading the defense and reacting to make the right play. That type of style is hard to scout, because theoretically they have a counter to whatever coverage you try to employ. The nature of their offense also makes it very hard to actually execute your coverage. So it’s one thing to have a great plan on paper for how you want to defend all of their ball screens, but you have to compromise by picking a plan that not only will work in theory - but that you will be able to execute on game day.
For a long time I’ve had this theory that Utah Valley is very ‘opponent inelastic’ (a completely made up term). What I mean by that is it almost doesn’t seem to matter who their opponent is, at least relative to the average team. The theory came about in 2017 when they had both the best win in the league that year (on the road at BYU) and the worst loss in the league (at home vs Chicago State). It’s kind of a hard concept to explain and something that I’d like to take a more empirical look at, but I think there may be something there. In any given possession, the offense and defense both have an influence on if the team scores. So the theory, I guess, is that because of the nature of Utah Valley’s offense - the defense has a smaller than normal influence. Then again, I could definitely be making some stuff up here!”
Are there any players, coaches or styles within the league that you think people may not generally appreciate as much as they should?
JS: “Coach Hayford at Seattle has a very interesting offensive style that has been very successful throughout his coaching career. The first time I actually got to scout his team was when I was at grad assistant at Nevada and we played Eastern Washington in the CBI.
The interesting part about Seattle is they run a lot less action and have a lot less player movement than other similarly efficient offenses. Instead, they really emphasize spacing and rely pretty heavily on isolation. Isolation is (justifiably) viewed as inefficient offense these days, but Seattle’s great floor spacing and shooting helps them thrive with it. Coach Hayford’s teams have ranked in the top 25 in terms of isolation usage in each of the past five seasons and this year they currently are 12th in isolation usage. We played them three times last year and it was a unique challenge for our coaching staff to decide the best way to guard their isolation drivers like Jordan Hill and Josh Hearlihy.”