When K-State hired Bruce Weber in March 2012, we knew change was on the way. Unlike Frank Martin, the fiery, outspoken Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants, Bruce Weber is a relatively docile Wisconsin native.
Also unlike Martin, Weber had an extensive track record as a head coach before arriving in Manhattan, first at Southern Illinois, then at the University of Illinois. He had achieved some impressive success, finishing as the national runner-up in 2005 at Illinois, and going to two Sweet 16s -- one apiece at SIU and UI.
But at some point, Weber lost his way at Illinois, and was fired following the 2011-12 season. After Martin unexpectedly left K-State for South Carolina, John Currie hired Weber as Martin's successor, to decidedly mixed reviews.
Weber's first season in Manhattan started slowly. Unimpressive wins against overmatched competition and uncompetitive outings in blowout losses to highly rated Michigan and Gonzaga killed fan enthusiasm. It wasn't until a December win over the Florida Gators that some hope appeared. Despite three losses to in-state rival KU, the Wildcats' consistency led to a shared Big 12 regular-season championship, K-State's first since 1977.
Despite the positive feelings generated by this unprecedented success, the season ended on a sour note. K-State earned a No. 4 seed and favorable placement, as the Wildcats' first tournament action took place in Kansas City. But an atrocious first half against the La Salle Explorers led to an 18-point deficit. Despite a furious comeback in the second half, the Wildcats' season ended in a 63-61 defeat.
To accurately evaluate Bruce Weber, we need a few more years worth of data. But by comparing his year in Manhattan to Frank Martin's tenure, and also examining Illinois under its last three coaches, we can reach some interesting conclusions. We'll also take a look at whether Weber's demise in Champaign-Urbana was the result of pressure to recruit Chicago players who supposedly didn't fit into his system, which was one of the justifications for Weber's failure with the Fighting Illini.
As you're all aware -- and to some of your intense annoyment -- I'm a big fan of Bill Connelly and his reliance on advanced statistical analysis. If any of you are still reading Rock M Nation, you'll notice that a lot of this closely resembles his State of Mizzou Basketball post about Frank Haith recently. That's not an accident. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
First off, let's take a look at the changes Bruce Weber brought to Manhattan. All stats are from Ken Pomeroy. If you're not familiar with advanced stats in basketball, here's an explanation. The numbers below reflect K-State's ranking in various areas, or average ranking in Martin's case.
K-State with Frank Martin (2007-2012)
K-State with Bruce Weber (2012-2013)
% of pts from 3
% of pts from 2
% of pts from FT
% of pts from 3
% of pts from 2
% of pts from FT
Two things jump out immediately. After five years of playing at a relatively high tempo under Martin, the Wildcats became a much slower-paced team under Weber. Under Martin, the Wildcats never averaged fewer than 67 possessions per game, and twice averaged more than 70. This year, K-State averaged only 62.5 possessions per game. As you'll see in a minute, this is pretty much the norm for a Bruce Weber basketball team.
Second, you'll notice that offensive categories, particularly effective FG percentage (eFG%), turnover rate (TO%, or the percentage of possessions where you turn the ball over), and both three-point and two-point shooting percentage all improved noticeably under Weber. This is probably the result of installing a coherent offensive system that works to get good looks.
It becomes even more obvious when you look at offensive rebounding percentage (OR%, or the percentage of its own misses that K-State grabbed) and free-throw rate (FTA/FGA, or a comparison of how often a team gets to the free throw line as compared to the field goals it takes). K-State averaged a top-four OR% under Martin. This year's team wasn't bad at grabbing its own misses, ranking 13th, but that's still a fall from prior years.
The real change was in free-throw rate. Martin's teams got to the line a lot, even if they didn't make a ton of those charity tosses. Under Weber, K-State has essentially stopped attacking the basket, ranking 275th in the country in free-throw rate this year.
Is this good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It may well be that what we are looking at is just two very different offensive systems, both of which can be equally effective. For all our complaints about The Sausage Phenomenon, Martin's teams were remarkably consistent in overall output. K-State made four NCAA tournaments in five years under Martin, and won between 64 and 78 percent of its games each year.
We don't have enough data with Weber coaching K-State to compare Weber's track record in this area to Martin's, so below is a table similar to the one above, but for Illinois since the 2002-03 season. This encompasses Bill Self's last season in Champaign-Urbana, each of Weber's seasons -- broken into two groups for reasons we'll discuss momentarily -- and Jim Groce's first season with the Fighting Illini, following Weber's departure.
|Illinois with Bill Self (2002-2003)||Illinois with Bruce Weber (2003-2009)||Illinois with Bruce Weber (2009-2012)||Illinois with Jim Groce (2012-2013)|
|% of pts from 3||95||126.8||170.7||36|
|% of pts from 2||165||128.0||67.7||302|
|% of pts from FT||258||300.2||321.7||246|
|% of pts from 3||107||168.8||77.0||102|
|% of pts from 2||300||153.5||247.3||258|
|% of pts from FT||34||177.8||206.3||148|
That's a lot to look at, but here are a few things to think about.
Weber had remarkable success with Self's recruits, particularly Deron Williams, Dee Brown and James Augustine. It's easy to dismiss the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons as a product of the prior coach's players, but Weber still showed that, when he has the horses, his teams can really play.
After the bulk of Self's recruits left, the results were decidedly more mixed. Weber still made three NCAA tournaments in the next four years, but never advanced to the second weekend, and missed the postseason entirely in 2007-08. His teams played slow -- it was the Big 10, but still -- were above average in most offensive categories, and were tremendous on defense. Look at those defensive efficiency and eFG% rankings.
Now we'll get into why I broke his tenure into two parts in Illinois. One of the excuses, or justifications, or whatever you want to call it, for why Weber's career at Illinois went sour goes something like this: Illinois coaches are expected to get the top recruits out of Chicago, and Weber started trying to do that even though some of those players didn't fit into his system.
Weber missed on some elite Chicago recruits while at Illinois, with Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon leaping readily to mind. But he still recruited fairly well. The table below shows his recruiting classes at Illinois.
Take a look at that 2009 recruiting class. It included one Brandon Paul, a four-star recruit from Gurnee, which is a far-north Chicago suburb, but a place I've been told Illinois coaches would be expected to recruit. In four years of action at Illinois, Paul was a significant contributor, major contributor, and twice a go-to guy, as defined by Pomeroy for the percentage of possessions used. In other words, he was one helluva player.
But something happened to Weber's teams starting with that first season Paul was on campus. Look at the Fighting Illini's adjusted tempo, or the average number of possessions per game. No, they didn't suddenly become North Carolina, but there's a noticeable uptick in the speed at which Weber's teams played. They also became noticeably less efficient on offense, and the defense suffered as well.
This is hardly conclusive proof that Weber was done in at Illinois by being forced to take recruit Chicago players who didn't fit his system. But look at the number of recruits from Illinois starting with the 2009 class. That's a significant change from previous classes.
There is good and bad to be taken from Weber's recruiting history. On the one hand, he's consistently been able to pull in four-star talent, which is almost required in order to bring in players you can rely on night-in and night-out to put points on the board. On the other hand, that was at Illinois, which has a city like Chicago that produces as much basketball talent as anywhere other than New York. K-State doesn't have a Chicago in its home state. Its best nearby metro area is Kansas City, where it has to fight with Missouri and KU for many fewer recruits. And for the few elite recruits the State of Kansas produces, we already have an in-state monster to deal with for those.
So we can probably expect that Weber's recruiting classes will take a bit of a step back, at least in terms of star rankings. This year's class is a pretty good example. It has four players with a lot of promise, but all are three-star prospects. There's nobody in the class that is a really good bet to come in and be ready to make a significant contribution from the first day.
One positive is that Weber's team this year was able to achieve what it did with less talent (by star rating) than what Weber usually had on hand at Illinois. If you needed a reminder, the table below shows the recruiting rankings for K-State's 2012-13 contributors.
So Weber took a team with basically one four-star player and a bunch of three-star players to a regular-season conference championship and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's encouraging. But of course you know I'm about to hit you with an "on the other hand," so here it goes. Overall, this year's team faced a much weaker schedule (see the SOS and non-conference SOS numbers in the first table) than did previous teams. The Big 12 was down this year, and KU did us a big favor by falling apart for a couple weeks in February. Frank Martin's 2009-10 team may well have tied KU for the regular-season conference title if the Jayhawks would've had a similarly unexpected losing streak in the middle of the conference season. Alas, they didn't, and Weber clearly benefited from that.*
*Of course, you can also plausibly argue that KU was "lucky" this year in that they could have lose to Iowa State at least once, if not twice. But then you'd also be remiss not to point out how badly Scott Drew bungled the end of the Baylor game. Even giving us a chance to get Rodney McGruder that shot was, uhh, improbable.
Keep in mind also Pomeroy's "luck" statistic. Here's how he defines "luck":
Luck - A measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. It’s a Dean Oliver invention. Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky).
Bruce Weber is historically an "unlucky" coach. His teams at Illinois were fairly average in the luck department overall, but after Self's recruits left, his teams only once ranked average or better in luck, which was 2008-09 (158th nationally). Over a short period of time, you might say that this truly means a coach/team was simply unlucky. But over time, it could be a warning sign that a coach's team doesn't play well late in close games.
So what do we have in Bruce Weber? We can say pretty confidently that his teams will play slowly, should mostly be pretty efficient on offense, and will probably shoot pretty well from the field. Whether the defense measures up is less certain.
He's walking into a favorable situation in the Big 12 right now. KU is the only established power, and even the Jayhawks have not -- by their standards -- pulled in an especially impressive recruiting class this year. It's still the best in the Big 12, by far, but with all five starters this year moving on, next year's team down the river does not figure to be an unstoppable menace.
The rest of the Big 12 is a mess. Neither Scott Drew nor Travis Ford can recruit enough top-flight talent to make up for their glaring deficiencies as gameday coaches. Rick Barnes appears to have completely lost his team, and isn't pulling in nearly the level of talent that he used to get. Fred Hoiberg looks like the most immediate threat, but with teams largely built on transfers, it's hard to maintain a consistent level of play over a full season. And there are other good players and coaches in the conference, but there's nobody I look at and think "there's no way we can compete with that."
That's 2,000 words to say that we should be very happy with what this year's K-State team accomplished, and can be cautiously optimistic about what we'll see going forward. Next year's team and the 2014 recruiting class will go a long way toward showing us whether we're going to see a quick leveling-off and decline under Weber, or whether we can expect to keep hanging out around the top of the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament seedings.