On Johns Hopkins' Defense

via www.baltimoresun.com

I was reading through the May 2011 edition of Inside Lacrosse magazine on Saturday on my way out to Hempstead for the Penn State-Hofstra game.  In this month's issue is a Division I playoff preview in which a bunch of the game's more prominent experts take a crack at discussing what particular teams do and don't want to see this year relative to tournament opponents.

It's riveting stuff.

One particular passage caught my eye.  In discussing Johns Hopkins, Quint Kessenich wrote the following blurb about the Blue Jays:

The Blue Jays' D ranked among the best at midseason, so one might think they'd want to strangle bad offenses and slow down good offenses.  However, their high defense ranking is a bit smoke and mirrors -- they played bottom-level offensive teams like Manhattan and UMBC early, and limited Syracuse's possession through extreme ball control.  On a per-possession basis, they do not have the best defense in the country.

First of all: Is Quint joining the tempo-free movement?  The cult is always looking for followers.  I can't guarantee eternal happiness, but we have some awesome pamphlets to distribute to your friends.

Second, there are three things that popped out at me in the paragraph:

  1. On a per-possession basis, how good has the Hopkins defense been?
  2. Are the Blue Jays' defensive efforts truly "smoke and mirrors" or is this thing legit?
  3. With respect to pace and style, how important is it to Hopkins' success?

Let's have at it.

POSSESSION-BASED PERFORMANCE

Kessenich is right: The Blue Jays aren't at the top of the table when it comes to adjusted defensive efficiency.  Hopkins is, however, pretty darn close: The Jays are currently rated fourth at 21.74 goals per 100 possessions.  That's borderline tremendous and only about a goal off of the rate of the national leader (Notre Dame at 20.18). 

There's two important points to this:

  1. Last year, Hopkins ended up 17th in the same metric at 26.88 goals per 100 possessions.  That's marked improvement in just one year, especially considering that the Blue Jays are rolling with two sophomores and a true freshman at close defense.  More than anything, I think that you can argue that Johns Hopkins' success in 2011 is primarily attributable to its maturation on the defensive end.  (You could also argue that the team's improvement at the dot has also helped the Blue Jays overall performance, but that's another issue for another day.)

  2. I mentioned this back in late March, but the principle is still holding true: Hopkins' overall defensive efficiency hinges heavily on the play of sophomore netminder Pierce Bassett.  The Blue Jays see a relatively high number of shots on the defensive end and defensive possessions are, somewhat frequently, ending with Bassett saves.  This, to me, is saying that the Hopkins defense (outside of Bassett) isn't necessarily creating the high defensive efficiency through turnovers (the Jays only have 76 caused turnovers on the year, about 19.24 per 100 defensive possessions), shot obstruction, and other means. 

    Rather, the high efficiency is greatly attributable to Bassett on the back-end to clean up the mess.  You can see this two ways: First, in the team's low defensive effective shooting percentage; and second, in Hopkins' opponents' high-ish reliance on extra-man opportunities to actually score against the 'Jays (theoretically, Bassett would be in a deflated position to make those saves anyway as the defense in front of him is at a personnel disadvantage, so even if he's standing on his head, he'd have a tough time stopping those shots).  Now, the low defensive assist rate is strong indicia that the six guys in front of Bassett are getting the job done, but the large number of saves on a possession-basis mitigates this fact a bit.

More stuff after the jump.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS?

I'm with Kessenich on a per-game basis: The numbers are noisy and misleading.  When you take out the tempo and use adjusted numbers that take into account strength of opponents, Hopkins is still right among the national leaders.  Pertinently:

  • Any defensive efficiency value that I calculate is adjusted for strength of schedule.  So, without getting into the boring details, that Hopkins defense is among the top-five or so teams in the country. 
  • For the record: Hopkins has played the 26th most-difficult schedule this season with respect to opposing offenses faced.  Not bad, but not stifling.  It is important to note, however, that the Jays have played three of the top-10 teams in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia).
  • The Syracuse comment -- limiting through extreme ball control -- is important when looking at per-game figures because those metrics include pace.  The fact of the matter remains that on a possession basis, the Hopkins defense held strong.  The Blue Jays' raw defensive efficiency in their game against the Orange was about 15.00.  As I've said a thousand times before: What are you doing when the opponent has the ball?  Against Syracuse (and throughout the season), Hopkins held strong.

So, I guess, Kessenich might be a little off on his smoke and mirrors comment but does raise the important point of not being mislead by raw per-game numbers.  All he needs to do is not get distracted by tempo.

STYLE AND PACE

I think pace and style is freakishly important to Hopkins' success.  Here's a quick chart and a refried blurb from the Hopkins piece I wrote earlier:

PLAY OUR GAME OR DON'T PLAY AT ALL
METRIC VALUE RANKING AVG.
Pace 65.10 40 67.18
Offensive Possesions per Game 35.03 19 33.54
Defensive Possessions per Game 30.08 12 33.64
Possessions per Game Margin 4.95 5 -0.10
Face-Off Percentage 63.87% 5 49.91%
Offensive Clearing Percentage 84.32% 26 82.66%
Defensive Clearing Percentage 81.08% 18 82.63%

Work and Grind.

Sure, the clearing percentages aren't tremendous, but the other major pace factor -- strength at the dot -- is quite good. By controlling the pace, Hopkins has: a) ensured that its young defense that relies on Bassett isn't exposed to many possessions; and b) ensured that it will end the day with more chances to score than its opposition (look at the possessions per game margin).  Hopkins' style is a important factor to its success and you only need to look its Princeton game as evidence (the Blue Jays lost the possession margin battle by three, although there certainly were other factors that contributed to the loss).

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