The Jayhawk’s Best Starting Five: A Statistical Analysis

Now that we have all had a chance to relax following a very frustrating trip to the Bahamas, it’s time to reflect on the season up to this point. It’s December, and although the season is relatively young still, the Jayhawks must continue to move forward and improve. Conference play is just around the corner and there is absolutely no going backwards anymore. Fortunately, the Jayhawks have a week off to recoup and improve in what I am sure have been spirited practice sessions. A road trip to Colorado looms this weekend, so the squad must find a way to get back on track. Mid-way through the non-confrence schedule, you don’t expect any team to be firing on all cylinders, but you also don’t expect them to look totally ragged against inferior competition.

I have said it many times this year, but I don’t think the early starting lineup is even close to being set in stone for the season. It was a buffer, putting experience ahead of talent, until the time was right. Now that we have a handful of games in the book and a long and difficult road stretch straight ahead, that time could be drawing near.

I was interested to look statistically at all of the players seeing minutes for the team so far and come up with the best lineup the Jayhawks could field at this point in the season. Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. They don’t measure the intangibles that many coaches look at, and they can only indirectly approach measuring chemistry between players. So, this is not to say this is the lineup that should start every game. It is simply an exercise to demonstrate some recent trends. Most of this is probably not going to surprise the keen viewer because they tend to spot these trends with the eyeball test. If there is a change from the current lineup, I will follow it up with a brief discussion of why. With that in mind: here we go.

Point Guard: Frank Mason. 

As I have mentioned before, the point guard on this team has so many scoring weapons to choose from that their primary concern needs to be facilitating those guys without making mistakes. Any scoring is just gravy at that point. And looking through that lens, Mason has been superior to Tharpe in almost every way. You can revoke my membership to the #TharpeFanClub if you want to, but the numbers don’t lie. Now to give Tharpe some credit, he is definitely assisting more players from a statistical standpoint, but it is close. He is averaging 0.17 assists per minute played compared to Mason’s 0.15 assists per minute played. However, he also has twice the turnovers with two per game to Mason’s one. Mason also has fewer assists because he finishes more possessions himself. He is averaging 18.1 points per 40 minutes to Tharpe’s eight. He also steals extra possessions for the team. He has more offensive rebounds and more steals per game than Tharpe at this time. He also has a stronger +/-(meaning the team has scored more points than their opponent at a faster rate when he is in the game compared to when it is Tharpe at the helm). On the year, 15 more points to be exact. The Roland rating which helps measure how a team performs when a certain player is on the floor versus when he is off the floor pegs Mason at a +0.3 to Tharpe’s -10 through 7 games (7 for Mason and 6 for Tharpe).

Wing: Wayne Selden 

Wing: Andrew Wiggins 

Forward: Perry Ellis 

Forward: Joel Embiid 

Book this as the change we are more likely to see this year. Tharpe’s familiarity with the program buys him some time, but Embiid is behind only Black and about a mile in front of Jamari Traylor at this point, so it is really just a matter of when. Still, lets examine the stats. Despite not starting, Joel is already averaging more time than the starter, Black. He has played on average 17.6 minutes to Black’s 12.3. He is also averaging more points per game at nine to Black’s four. Points per minute played also displays how much more efficient. Embiid has been averaging 0.52 to Black’s 0.33. Joel has twice the amount the rebounds on the year and while Black pulls down 0.26 total rebounds per minute played, Joel Embiid is snatching 0.39. Embiid’s average +/- is a whopping 13.5 compared to Black’s 3.8. And, in that Roland score we talked about earlier, Embiid sits at 79 and Black at -37. Only Andrew Wiggins is more important to the team’s success, statistically.

Does Embiid need to foul less? Yes. Is it such a problem that he shouldn’t start at this point? I don’t think so. He is averaging 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes. To put it in perspective, Perry Ellis is averaging 2.26 fouls per 40 minutes. Jeff Withey, known for his ability to go up and block a shot without fouling, averaged 2.69 during his senior campaign. That is obviously not a good thing for Embiid, but the team is so much better with him on the floor that if he does get into foul trouble later in the first half or early in the second, the Jayhawks may already be out of reach and there is plenty of talent in there to back him up in that case. Subjectively, you can also see his defensive technique improving. Objectively, as his minutes played has increased, his fouls per game have actually trended down before leveling out at around 3.43 fouls per contest.

As I said in the intro, this is not meant to say that these guys have to start for KU to be a good team. Even with their poor play in the Bahamas, KU is still the ninth best team in the Kenpom ratings and the seventh best overall in the statsheet rankings. All is not lost here folks. This is a young team with work to do, but they are already pretty darn good.

Still, I do think that Mason and especially Embiid may deserve the chance to show what they can do in the starting lineup. Maybe, as the Jayhawks take on the Buffaloes in Allen Fieldhouse West on Saturday, now is the right time to give it a shot.  But as we all know, Bill Self is one heck of a coach, so at the end of the day he has a reason to start who he starts and fans should trust him.