The Runner Sports

Notre Dame Basketball: The Value Of Experience And Minutes Continuity

Experience

What makes a great college basketball team? Great talent? Great coaching? Great defense?

Experience is a characteristic that tends to get brought up a lot as well, and rightfully so. A team with older players that have been through battles, mastered the system, and developed solid chemistry with teammates would theoretically have an edge against less experienced teams.

Just this season, Iowa State, the 6th most experienced team in the country per KenPom, went on to win the Big 12 Tournament before falling short as a 5-seed in the round of 32 against 4-seed Purdue.

8-seed Arkansas, the 18th most experienced team, beat 9-seed Seton Hall and came very close to upsetting eventual national champion North Carolina.

Now, of course, experience can’t make up for significant talent disparities. 16-seed North Carolina Central and 13-seed East Tennessee State, the two other “top-20 most experienced teams” that were in the tourney, weren’t able to come away with victories.

But should it have really been surprising at all that 12-seed Middle Tennessee State, a squad that upset 2-seed Michigan State last year, had a favorable matchup against 5-seed Minnesota, and was the 50th most experienced team in the country, ended up winning their first round matchup? A lot of people picked this upset, but on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, only 42.9% of people picked Middle Tennessee. I know hindsight is 20/20, but this percentage really should have been higher.

Continuity

But as much as “experience” is valuable, it might not be the best statistic to measure the degree to which teams have “been through battles, mastered the system, and developed solid chemistry with teammates.”

Kenpom.com also has a stat called “minutes continuity” that measures “what percentage of a team’s minutes are played by the same player from last season to this season.”

A team that played the same seven guys every minute two consecutive seasons would not necessarily rank that highly in “minutes continuity” if the players that played a lot one season only played a little the following season and vice versa. But in general, a team that plays roughly the same players roughly the same percentage of minutes from one year to the next would rank highly in “minutes continuity.”

There were four teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament ranked in the top 20 in minutes continuity (per KenPom).

8-seed Wisconsin, ranked number one overall in continuity, got to the sweet 16 by upsetting 1-seed Villanova before falling to Florida in overtime. 7-seed St. Mary’s, ranked number 2 overall, beat 10-seed VCU before falling to 2-seed Arizona.

7-seed Dayton (ranked 9th) and 12-seed Princeton (ranked 11th) each got difficult matchups and fell in the first round to Wichita State and Notre Dame respectively.

Just like experience, minutes continuity in itself isn’t enough to win teams games. But the evidence from this year and seasons past certainly makes it look valuable to some degree.

In the 2009-10 season, 5-seed Butler ranked number one nationally in minutes continuity. The Bulldogs had a miraculous NCAA Tournament run before losing to Duke in the national title game. But as incredible as this was, should it really have been so surprising considering the team’s continuity rank?

Irish Experience/Continuity

But what does this all mean for the Irish? Head coach Mike Brey has built a program with a reputation of developing players over the course of four years. This means players tend to stay around a while, which is much better for minutes continuity than a “one-and-done” culture like Kentucky. Although the talent of the Wildcats helped them ultimately reach the Elite 8 this season, the team ranked 322nd in minutes continuity.

Notre Dame’s player development focus is great for the “experience” metric, as its contributing players tend to be upperclassmen, but it’s not always quite as good at producing high “minutes continuity” teams. If seniors play a lot of the minutes, these minutes are obviously going to have to be replaced the following season when these players graduate. And when developing Irish players start seeing major upticks in minutes during their sophomore and junior seasons, this doesn’t help minutes continuity either. But in the end, no team can hope to maintain an indefinitely high minutes continuity ranking. A coach can play the same guys the same number of minutes for a few seasons, but ultimately new players must come into the mix.

Experience/Continuity

Again, none of this is to say that the Irish need to focus too much on maintaining high experience and minutes continuity numbers, but these metrics are definitely worth monitoring in terms of evaluating the team’s potential and success moving forward.

Matt Ryan And Transfers

The Irish will be returning six of their nine rotation players next season, losing seniors Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem to graduation and sophomore Matt Ryan due to transfer.

The Irish haven’t had to worry about the “one-and-done” challenge of maintaining continuity, but they fell victim to the “transfer challenge” with the Ryan transfer.

Although the sophomore saw limited playing time last season, he was a prime candidate to have a breakout year in 2017-18. At 6’7, he shot 43.4% from three, and losing him, along with Beachem and Vasturia, really hurts the Irish’s outside shooting prowess heading into next season. To make up for his departure, Rex Pflueger (39.7%) and Matt Farrell (42%) are going to have to continue hitting threes at a high rate. Bonzie Colson (43.3%), must prove he can carry over his late-season hot shooting over a larger sample size. Lastly, TJ Gibbs (32.1%) needs to improve his shot in the offseason.

Limiting transfers is important for the success of a basketball program, and hopefully this transfer won’t hurt the Irish too much. Current national champion North Carolina is one of six division one teams that have not lost a player via transfer in the past two off-seasons. And remarkably, the Tar Heels haven’t haven’t had a player transfer out since February 2011!

Next Season

Regarding Notre Dame’s minutes continuity next season, Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson should have roughly the same heavy minutes load, while Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs should see significant upticks in minutes. Regarding the five other respective rotation players in Martin Geben, Austin Torres, John Mooney, Elijah Burns, and incoming freshman DJ Harvey, it’s difficult to know quite what to expect in terms of minutes. There’s the potential for any one of the returning guys to get a significant minutes boost, but as a whole, I wouldn’t expect anything too destructive to minutes continuity.

In the end, we won’t know the Irish’s minutes continuity and how it ranks nationally until the season gets underway. But “experience,” a KenPom metric whose calculation measures a team’s average years of experience among players that see the court at least 10% of the time (freshmen worth zero, seniors worth three), is something we can estimate. The calculation weights the experience of a player that plays more minutes more than one who plays fewer minutes (and I’m not sure exactly how it does that), but again, we can estimate.

Notre Dame had nine guys last season that saw the court at least 10% of the time, so I’ll anticipate coach Brey will use something similar next season.

Projected RotationBased on this rotation, the Irish would have a rough experience measure of 2.11, which would have ranked 50th nationally this season. But again, this calculation probably understates a bit the actual “experience number,” as it doesn’t weight the fact that the Irish’s older players will be playing the greatest proportion of the minutes. Overall, the Irish should rank highly in this department once the season gets underway, something that should bode well.

The Irish should also be ranked fairly well in terms of minutes continuity, and these are significant reasons I would expect the Irish to be ranked in the preseason Top 25 and have a real shot to win multiple NCAA Tournament games next season.

Jacob Zinkula

Jacob Zinkula

Notre Dame Writer at The Runner Sports
I'm from Northbrook, IL and am a student at the University of Notre Dame. I think this gives me an interesting perspective on ND sports. You might think this would make me biased, but I'd say I'm only biased about the teams I've grown up rooting for. So if I write something about the Packers, Cubs, or whatever team LeBron's on, definitely take it with a grain of salt. Otherwise, you should be okay. 🙂
Jacob Zinkula