The talk of the season has been the offense. The defense is currently the best in the nation, but the offense is one of the worst since Steve Fisher took over in 1999. It is seriously hindering the Aztec’s chances at an at-large bid in March. An average level offense combined with the teams’ stellar defense would have likely produced wins against BYU, Boise St., and definitely on the road agaisnt Colorado St. Aside from a few games though, the team has not been able to figure it out and consistently produce at the offensive end.
Is there anything that can be done to fix it though? Is this the best the team can do? What options do the coaches have?
Optimizing player roles – If players are put into positions they are uncomfortable with, or asked to do things that do not fit their skill set, it will be hard for them to find success. The coaches have already started this process, as they have been running different sets than the ones they used to start the season. At the very least it seems to have helped Matt Bradley get into a rhythm. In conference play Bradley has averaged 21.2 points a game on shooting lines of 49/50/82. It is a pretty amazing turnaround considering how slowly he started the season.
Bradley could use some help though, so other players need to be optimized as well. There are a number of options the coaching staff could consider. They could try playing Chad Baker-Mazara as a stretch four for a shift or two every game. He has the size and length for the job, and he is a better shooter than the likes of Keshad Johnson or Aguek Arop. Opposing defenses currently help off of Johnson and Arop to clog the paint because neither of them are threats from outside. Baker-Mazara has only shot 32% from behind the arc, but even that is a huge improvement over the other players. He’s been better from the left side as well, which is where he would be located in a usual pick and roll scenario. It’s a small sample, but the larger benefit would not even be from Baker-Mazara’s scoring.
The larger benefit would be that defenses would now have to choose between clogging the paint or leaving a credible shooter wide open. The Aztecs have shot poorly at the rim this season. Part of the reason has been that opposing defenses can contest everything inside due to the lack of perimeter threats. Putting Baker-Mazara in the weakside corner would provide either an open shooter, or a paint that is less crowded. The players who have finished the worst at the rim have been the starting guards. Opening the floor up may help them get to the rim more and finish more when they do get there.
Another option would be to use the bigs in the post less. There is nothing wrong with a good post-based offense, Wyoming is doing just fine, but the Aztecs do not have the personel to attack from the post very often. For example, over a third of Nathan Mensah’s possessions have come out of the post, but he is averaging slightly over half a point per possession down low, which is bad.
Having the bigs “read opposite” could help them get easier scoring opportunities and help open up the floor for the guards. Reading opposite is when the big man consistently shifts to the weakside post as the ball moves side to side along the perimeter. Being on the weakside block brings the defending big man with them, opening up the lane for drives. On a drive the defensive big is forced to decide whether to step up and contest the shot, or stick with his man. If he steps up the big is open for a pass and easy layup or dunk. If he does not step up the ball handler has a path to the rim.
Having bigs read opposite would be a large adjustment, but is a simple concept that could potentially really help the offense.
Considering a starting lineup change –
On top of just struggling at offense in general, the Aztecs have particularly struggled at the beginning of each half.
That could be reflective of a lack of preparation/adjustments during the game. Given that is hasn’t been a problem with this coaching staff before that seems to be unlikely. Another obvious issue could be that the starting lineup is not working. Each half usually starts with arounf five or six minutes of the starters being on the floor.
Evanmiya.com tracks lineup data across the nation. According to his data, the starting lineup is the worst five-man lineup among lineups that have played at least 25 possessions together.
The data is tricky because it is season long data. That is good in the sense of having a larger sample and being less suceptable to variation. However, the reasons for the starting lineup being bad have likely changed since early in the season. Early in the season Matt Bradley was bad. At one point he was the worst player on the team in terms of +/-. Keith Dinwiddie looked really good according to the data mostly because he would come in when Bradley went to the bench, and the team did better in Bradley’s absence.
That is no longer the case. Bradley is playing much better, is among the teams’ leaders in +/-, and he is carrying the offense basically by himself. Despite that improvement, the starting lineup still looks bad.
So if a lineup change is needed, who needs to go to the bench and who needs to come up?
Matt Bradley is carrying the offense, and has been much improved on defense. His spot is safe.
Nathan Mensah has struggled offensively this season, but he is the key to the defensive game plan, and is the front runner for defensive player of the year in the conference. His spot is also safe.
Keshad Johnson would be an interesting choice. Replacing him with Baker in the starting lineup could provide an offensive punch that is currently missing. Johnson is likely in a similar situation as Mensah though, where his defense more than makes up for offensive struggles.
That leaves Lamont Butler or Trey Pulliam. Between the two Trey Pulliam seems like the obvious choice. Pulliam started off the season well but has been in a slump lately. Over his last five games Pulliam is averaging 6.2 points on 35.5 eFG%. To his credit he has had almost a 2-1 Assist-to-Turnover ratio. That is not enough to make up for being a non threat with the ball though. It is easy for opposing defenses to force a player like that to shoot rather than give him passing lanes.
The argument to keep Pulliam in the starting lineup is that he went through a similar slump last season. Aztec fans were clamoring for him to come off the bench, but Coach Dutcher stuck with him. That patience was rewarded as Pulliam had a fantastic performance in the conference tournament. Believing in Pulliam may help him get out of his slump faster and have him playing his best when it matters most.
The other option is Butler. His numbers have not been much better. He is averaging 6.4 points on a 37.5 eFG%. His assist-to-turnover ratio is slightly worse than Pulliam’s. The team also had some of it’s best offensive performances when Butler was out with injury. That may be just coincidence, or there may be something to it.
What he has going for him is his excellent defense. Evanmiya.com actually has Butler as the most impactful defender on the team, even moreso than Nathan Mensah. He also ranks 17th in the nation in steal percentage, averaging 1.8 steals per game. Forcing turnovers is important for this Aztecs team because it allows them to score in transition.
The question also must be asked, if a player is benched, who should take their spot. There are two obvious choices. The first is Chad Baker-Mazara. In addition to adding floor spacing talked about earlier he also has a solid handle and has some ability to create his own shots. Not much, but some. He has been inconsistent offensively, but more minutes may help him find a rhythm.
Adam Seiko would be the other choice. He adds shooting and floor spacing, at least in theory. His shot is streaky but when it’s on he is hard to ignore. Evan Miya has him as the most impactful offensive player on the team.
This late in the season there are no easy solutions. A few small changes could possibly be made in terms of deployment. Lineup changes with this team are high risk-high reward propositions. If players can get out of their slumps then the offense can reach an average level. They have been average or better on offense for the last three games (Nevada, @ San Jose St., Air Force.) Expecting much more than average is probably a pipe dream though.