So you've watched (or perhaps sort of paid attention to, I've seen the empty seats) the first three games of the season and asking yourself "Isn't this supposed to be the 7th ranked team in the nation?"You saw a lackluster effort against Oregon, a horrible performance against Cleveland State, followed by an unimpressive outing against Bucknell - WTF is going on?
My take is this - while the effort against Cleveland State was horrendous and completely unacceptable (especially by JT and JJ), everything else is going as we should expect things will go until Festus Ezeli returns. While some considered Festus Ezeli the third best player on the team (I'm looking at you, CBSsportsline.com), he was clearly the most important player on the our team. Looking at the raw +/- numbers from last season, you see that the starters were kind of bunched up, with Festus' number slightly ahead of John's. But that is a bit misleading, as John played most every minutes of each game, while Festus played around 24 mpg - the adjusted numbers show that Festus was by far the most valuable from a plus/minus standpoint. Beyond that, it seemed to magnify late into the season, as Festus was earning positive numbers in each of our last three losses, which included two double digit losses to UF. Quite simply, Festus was a beast, and his offensive and rebounding stats likely greatly understated his value to the team.
In addition to Festus being our most valuable player, we had the issue of the bench being a clear step down from starters at the end of last season. Steve (as we now know) was hobbled badly and Rod was trying to back up the PF position while probably weighing in at right around 200 lbs in March. The best adjusted +/- number between the two in our last three losses was a -14 by Rod against UF. The second BEST number was a -44 by ST against Richmond. So basically when Festus sat, we brought in a player who represented a huge dropoff. The result of the suspension (and subsequent injury) to Festus has been taking the effectiveness of our team for the 15 minutes or so that Festus was on the bench each game and extending that over the entire game.
We've adjusted by moving Steve into the starting lineup, and while he is healthier than he was last season, he is probably not 100%, though he is getting closer. But even healthy, Steve is a completely different player and athlete than Festus is. Steve is generally a below the rim player, and while he has good size, cannot dominate on the defensive end and alter shots the way that Festus can. Additionally, Steve is not a post player on offense, but a player who is far more comfortable facing up and hitting jump shots. Steve is actually a very good shooter, but since none of the healthy returners are post players, that leaves a big void in the middle on offense. Now, we have to deal with the for the minutes that Festus has to sit anyway, but that is different from having to have it work for the entire game as opposed to just providing Festus some rest.
But even considering we are missing our best player, we've not looked particularly good, even in our wins. Why is that? Going back to last season, we were leaning very heavily on our starters, especially in the backcourt, where JJ, BT and JT each averaged well over 30 MPG in conference play (LG and FE would have played more as well were it not for foul issues). This was understandable, because those guys all played well, while their backups generally struggled in any extended time. However, this is not what CKS would have preferred - he would have loved more productive minutes from the reserves, but he just wasn't able to get it out of a hobbled ST, an undersized RO, and an erratic OGKF.
This season we return those guys, but have the task of assimilating 5 freshmen into the rotation. The freshmen represent a lot of new talent, but we have very little idea of how they will perform in game situations. We've got to figure that out, which is why we are seeing a lot of minutes from the bench and some unusual rotations. Huge keys will be finding someone off the bench who can rebound consistently, and finding a guard who can defend better than the starters while not allowing the defense to completely disregard his offensive abilities. This means we are seeing a lot of minutes from non-five star freshmen playing their first college games - there will be flashes, but also stretches of pretty spotty play.
We (and everybody else, it seems) are painfully aware of our apparent inability to finish games last season - how many times did we lose in overtime or by one or two possessions. The flip side of this is that we were very close to being a very, very good team. If we can find one guard and one post (besides Steve) out of Odom, Fuller, Johnson, Parker, Moats, Henderson and Siakam to provide 10-15 productive minutes on a relatively consistent basis, we will find that this period of struggle will be well worth it. My guess is that Johnson will be one of those players, but don't be surprised if the second ends up being Henderson. While Josh hasn't gotten a lot of playing time yet, he's made the most of his minutes so far, with offensive and defensive rebounding percentages both over 20% and an assist rate of over 26% (insert sample size disclaimer here). More importantly, he's the only other player on the team who is comfortable on offense with his back to the basket. He has a way to go defensively, but if he can continue to rebound, he will see his minutes increase as he gains more experience.