As the season goes on we’ve learned a lot about this Aztecs team. Who should play together? Should the team go big or small? How should they optimize players. Here are a few observations:
Going big works –
Basketball as a sport is trending towards playing smaller players. Not because being small gives any inherent advantage, but because smaller players are generally more skilled. As the rules have changed to favor perimeter play and the three-point shot, playing old school bully ball has not been as attractive.
That being said, when the Aztecs have played two bigs on the floor together the results have been good. The sample sizes are small, but among pairings with at least 75 possessions on the floor together, two big lineups make up two of the top 7 pairings. When Nathan Mensah and Joshua Tomaic play together the Aztecs would outscore an average team by 30 points per 100 possessions. That rate is comparable to the starting point guard (Jeremy Roach) and Power Forward (#1 draft pick hopeful Paolo Banchero) for Duke. Playing the two towers lineup has worked in the chances they’ve gotten. It’s not the most offensively dominant lineup, but the defense locks down opponents. The pair was used most recently against Utah St at Viejas and the Aztecs ended up winning by 19.
The pairing of Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop has also been fantastic. Arop isn’t a big based on size, but in terms of his role and play style he is definitely a versatile big. Playing Arop and Mensah together has been an even better combination than Mensah and Tomaic. When the pair has been on the floor together the Aztecs would outscore an average opponent by 37 points per 100 possessions. The “Condor” pairing, named for the long wingspans of Arop (7’0″) and Mensah (7’5″), is great defensively as well as above average offensively. They are the fourth best pairing among pairings with at least 75 possessions played. Arop does not add much offensively, but the length and ability of both bigs to guard anyone on the floor makes them really disruptive defensively, and the team is able to get out in transition and score before the opponents defense is set.
The game is trending toward smaller players, but the Aztecs have had success with the big lineups this season, and should continue to use them if the matchup calls for it.
Small ball has also worked –
The best pairing among lineups with at least 75 possessions on the floor has been the pairing of Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop. When the two share the floor the 6’6″ Arop plays center and the 6’7″ Johnson plays power forward. Both are highly athletic, have length, and love to jump passing lanes to disrupt opposing offenses. They are both also excellent rebounders, as they attack the glass rather than waiting for the ball to come to them. After securing a steal or a rebound they both run the floor well and look to take the rim off the back board.
The small ball pairing would outscore an average team by 60 points per 100 possessions. It is a very small sample, so the numbers aren’t stable, but the pair should get more minutes when the matchup calls for it because they have been really successful so far.
Adding Chad Baker-Mazarin to the pair has been even better, albeit in a really small sample.
One example of running the trio was the Butler, CBM, Johnson, Arop, Mensah lineup that was used during the first Colorado St game. The trio has been used sparingly a few other times as well.
The coaching staff could throw in Bradley for some extra offense and floor spacing, and then one of the point guards and have a pretty good small ball lineup. They wouldn’t be small in the traditional sense of being able to shoot the lights out, but they could switch 1-5 and run opposing bigs off the floor.
Retooling the Starters-
The starting lineup has been bad. They have had some moments where they’ve been successful, but over the course of the season they have been slightly below average. It’s not a good strategy to have the most used lineup be one of the worst.
A previous article looked at the options of switches to the starting lineup that can be made. Basically it comes down to replacing either Trey Pulliam or Lamont Butler with one of Adam Seiko or Chad Baker. The previous article discussed some of the risks involved with making a switch as well, but let’s assume a switch is made; The two man pairings do give us some further insight into the question.
It comes down to who should be replaced and who should step in. There is a relationship there. If Trey Pulliam should be replaced, the replacement should be Chad Baker-Mazara. Baker plays well with the remaining starters, having strong pairings with each of them. The sample sizes aren’t large, but there is enough to consider the switch. Baker has also flashed a deeper scoring bag, even if it is inconsistent; he would add length, and has shown some secondary ball handling and facilitation abilities. His worst pairing is also with Trey Pulliam, so playing them together less would be beneficial to both players.
On the other hand, if Lamont gets moved to the bench than Seiko should be inserted into the lineup. It is already a lineup the team is used to, as it’s the second most used lineup on the season. With Seiko in place of Butler the starters become a slightly above average lineup. Still not ideal, but definitely better. It shows in the two-man pairings as well. Seiko pairs well with most everyone on the team. Of the current starters, the one he pairs the worst with is Lamont Butler. It is not significantly worse, but if the team wants the best product than the numbers suggest playing Seiko with Trey would be the better option.
One advantage Seiko has over Baker is that the sample sizes for Seiko are much larger, so these numbers are much more trustworthy. Baker likely has a higher ceiling, but for a team that has struggled with consistency, going with Seiko may be the better choice.
Another consideration would be who optimizes Bradley the most? It looks like Baker does, but once again, the sample is much smaller and might not be able to be trusted.
Overall, the coaches do not have an easy decision to make.
The home stretch of the season is now. The Aztecs are on the bubble, but once bids start getting stolen they’d likely be out of the tournament. Getting another quality win or two would really help their case. To do that, they need to use the best lineups and matchups possible. One of the great things about this team is how versatile they are. They can go big or small, pound the ball inside or shoot from the outside, depending on what the matchup calls for. That versatility can be really hopeful if the team decides to use it.