A Tall Tale: The Myth of Tech’s Need for a True “Big”

Even though Tech finally achieved a conference road victory last night, there are several reasons to be critical of fourth year Louisiana Tech head basketball coach Eric Konkol.

Let’s go through some of them:

#1: Over the seasons, Tech has scored fewer and fewer points per game:

We're on a Rollercoaster That Only Goes Down

Points scored isn’t some magic indicator of a team’s success, but if it’s good enough for the Cane’s Challenge (RIP), it’s good enough for me.

#2: Now, for the second year in a row, Tech will end the season with conference winning percentage at or below .500

The Junior and Senior Year Coaching Slump.png

I have never seen a chart that better personifies the concept of one step forward and two steps back.

#3: Finally, the big one: Konkol has failed to lead the Bulldogs into the promised land of the NCAA Tournament:

The Depressing Chart

Now, that all being said, I’m not actually for the idea of starting a GoFundMe to buy out the remaining years on Konkol’s contract.

Last year, the team was plagued by injuries and Jalen-Harris-itis. This year, the injury bug returned with a vengeance. Even beyond the cost of a contract buyout, I still think Konkol deserves the proverbial “one more year”.

I can still see why Konkol’s seat is getting a little warm though. Tech fans expect too much a lot, and being at least in contention for conference championships is something that Konkol must achieve if he wants to stay in Ruston after next season.

So there are reasonable criticisms out there, sure. But there have been a lot of confounding ones too. The biggest head-scratching complaint I’ve seen pop up from time-to-time on message boards and Twitter mentions is that Tech can’t make the NCAA tournament because they lack a true “big”.

Tall-ness Height is an important aspect in basketball, as evidenced by this thorough breakdown:

space jam

But how much of a difference can it possibly be? What’s the difference between a 6’6″ athlete and one who’s 6’11”? (Other than the obvious answer: five inches)

Another, and perhaps more pressing, question is: how difficult is it to bring in these “bigs”? Or perhaps better put, is Konkol what’s holding Tech back from recruiting taller players?

How difficult could it be?

To answer this, we first need to determine what a “big” is. For example, most of us would agree that someone who’s 6’5″ is tall by human standards, but not by basketball standards.

I’ve noticed is that the definition of a “big” (at least according to the message boards) always seems to be one inch taller than whoever the tallest player on the team is. Since the tallest player on the roster (that sees substantial playing time) is Stacy Thomas at 6’8″, I’m going to arbitrarily say that 6’9″ and taller is considered a big.

And I definitely chose that number because it is one inch taller than anyone on Tech’s roster and for no other reason so please stop giggling.

There were 119 6’9″+ high school players in the 2018 recruiting class that committed to a college or university. So that means 119 players for Konkol to chose from, right?

Well, no, duh, because that’s not how recruiting works. Better programs typically bring in the better players, but how may programs are “better” than Tech.

A few years back, Fansided published an article called The 75 Greatest College Basketball Programs of All-Time Statistically Ranked (what a mouthful of a title. I mean, who does that?). This is far from an end-all-be-all list, but unsurprisingly, Louisiana Tech is not on it.

And of those original 119 6’9″+ recruits, roughly half (59) committed to a school on that list.

But that still leaves us with sixty players. Sixty is a pretty big number. Right?

But just because Tech isn’t in the Top 75 doesn’t mean they are 76th. So I took the average RPI from the past three years to see where Tech lies among the remaining teams:

Competing for 'cruits.png

About middle of the pack. So if Tech were recruiting at their level, considering no other factors, the Bulldogs would have about 27 players that would be considered “reachable”.

And 18 of those 27 are only one inch taller than the player Tech did bring in from that class, 6’8″ Stacy Thomas.

So did Tech have a chance to bring in a taller player? Maybe, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Then, there’s that other question: how much of an impact would a taller player have? Is it even worth going after a particular player for a couple extra inches?

Does height even matter anyway?

Well, let’s chart it out.

First, let’s look at what is probably the most important stat in basketball: points per game.

Height vs PPG (C-USA 2018-19).png

The data is sorted by height, then by PPG, so that’s why you see what look like right triangles of data.

Just by eyeballing the chart, it looks like players taller than 79 inches (6’7″) are less effective at scoring points. But that shouldn’t be too surprising. Tall players often aren’t on the court to score, they’re out there to collect rebounds. So let’s compare Rebounds per Game (RPG) as well.

Height vs RPG (C-USA 2018-19).png

At first glance, this seems to state the obvious: tall players are better at rebounding than short players. But interestingly, the players in the 82-85 inch (or 6’10” to 7’1″) range get fewer rebounds than those a couple inches shorter.

This oddity may be due to the fact that different players play a different number of minutes in a game. For example, we would expect Bracey (who averages 31 minutes of action a game) to outscore Stacy Thomas (who averages 7.6 minutes).

So to resolve that, let’s combine Points/Rebounds Per Game and Minutes Per Game to make some unholy unions: Points per Minute (PPM) or Rebounds per Minute (RPM):

Height vs PPM (C-USA 2018-19).png

Height vs RPM (C-USA 2018-19).png

So, umm, we’ve got some outliers.

We need to make one more modification to this dataset before we can compare everything. We need to remove Benchwarmers (both the players and the 2006 Rob Schneider movie) from the equation.

For example, if a player was only on the court for 10 minutes all year, but made 5 shots, they would have the 3rd highest PPM in C-USA, but that’s not something that player would be likely to sustain for the whole season.

So let’s say you have to play 80 minutes to qualify for this chart.

Height vs PPM [Min 80 Minutes] (C-USA 2018-19)

Height vs RPM [Min 80 Minutes] (C-USA 2018-19)

Ah, that’s better. There’s that sweet data plants crave.

But yet again, it looks like there isn’t a dramatic difference between the tallest players in C-USA (81-85 inches) and players that match the height of the tallest players on Tech’s roster (78-79 inches).

But let’s look at two final charts. Because we have such a large dataset, let’s use everyone’s favorite: the box-and-whisker! (I can hear your excitement)

Height vs PPM (C-USA 2018-19) CANDLESTICK.png

Height vs RPM (C-USA 2018-19) CANDLESTICK.png

This matches what we’ve seen above, but here’s what I take away from these two graphs:

  1. A “big” isn’t any more effective at scoring than the average player
  2. “Bigs” are more effective rebounders, but the cutoff isn’t at 6’9 (81 inches), it’s at 6’7 (79 inches)

UPDATE: Does being super tall help on Defense?

Conclusion

Recruiting a super tall player isn’t as easy as it sounds. 99.997% of the population is shorter than 6’9″. Since so few people are that tall, the players who are become highly sought after. Supply and demand or whatever.

This is only a guess, but I think the fact that these type of players are so heavily recruited is why we see a drop-off in stats for the ultra-tall in C-USA. Many are probably less talented than their shorter compatriots, but conventional wisdom tells us that taller is better.

Now if Konkol is able to land a 7’2″ player, I certainly wouldn’t be upset. But I think we’ve shown that talent is more important than height.

So does a “big” make that big of a difference? It sure doesn’t look like it.

 

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