Commentary: IU lineups not working, no lie

The saying goes that there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

What that means is each one of us can spin a given set of numbers to support our position on an issue.

Indiana basketball is no exception, but IU professor emeritus Wayne Winston and his Hutton Honors College H240 Math Behind Moneyball class is trying to discern what the numbers tell us about the Hoosiers.

The class members — Abby Frank, Nathan Frank, Anna Hsiao, Michael Jonelis, Jake Feigenbaum, Andrew Smith and Jack Rusche — have been tracking each IU game this season and the lineups that have been on the floor during those games.

The first seven non-conference games against inferior foes were not included, but starting with the Florida State game and prior to the Purdue game, each player’s adjusted plus-minus was measured, and an Excel spreadsheet reveals the player’s productivity with his teammates. Measurements highlighted in red are negative and at a bottom of the Big Ten level, while green means production equivalent with a top-five team in the country. The majority of the measurements are in white somewhere in between those two extremes.

Some of the results might surprise you, and some might not.

The 12×12 grid features 15 empty slots from player combinations who did not play together and another 100 in white. That leaves 21 red and eight green slots.

To put that in layman’s terms, Indiana is mostly average but is nearly three times as likely to play like the dregs of the Big Ten than the nation’s elite.

So within those results, the question is, who is getting the job done?

That’s not as easy to answer as you might think, but the anchor seems to be freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis. The 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball’s only negative lineup partner is Al Durham, everyone else is in the white.

Jackson-Davis is the constant in IU’s 10 best lineup spurts of the season, six of those at the five spot, but he’s also involved in eight of the 10 worst with four of those at the five spot.

The player featured the second-most in those 10 most successful lineups is Justin Smith. It’s worth noting that during five of those the junior was playing the four spot instead of the three, which coupled with the successful lineups featuring Jackson-Davis at the five, serving to bolster the argument that Indiana should go small more often.

Figuring out the accompanying guard rotation is a bit more tricky. Contrary to perception, Rob Phinisee has the worst numbers of any player on the team, posting in the red seven out of a possible 11 times. The other four measurements in the white come when he plays with Armaan Franklin, Joey Brunk, Damezi Anderson and Jackson-Davis.

Franklin, who appears in six of those top 10 lineups, is the only guard who does not run in the red at all (Joey Brunk and Damezi Anderson also match this feat), and his best running mate is Indiana’s most polarizing player, Devonte Green.

Green appears in six of those 10 best lineups, four alongside Al Durham. Green and Franklin appear together only twice, but combine for the only green backcourt combo at plus-16.

Against Purdue on Saturday, Indiana had two really good runs, one in the first half that would crack the season’s top 10 with a lineup of Green, Durham, Jerome Hunter, Smith and Jackson-Davis. The other strong run came from a small lineup again of Phinisee, Franklin, Hunter, Smith and Jackson-Davis.

Hunter may be the x-factor as he has come on in the last month after slowly working back into shape after a year off.

The other x-factor is, of course, Green. He comes with a caveat, because Green is a member of seven of the 10 worst lineup runs. Three of those come with Durham and three with Phinisee — those two comprising the worst backcourt combo numerically, closely followed by the duo of Durham and Phinisee.

I could go on and on with other oddities, such as Indiana’s most productive lineup is when both Phinisee and Jackson-Davis are out of the game at the same time with the absence of both Durham and Smith running second.

The most unproductive lineup occurs with Green and Phinisee both on the bench, followed closely by Franklin and Smith, then Green and Smith.

What to make of all that?

I’ll defer to Winston, who consulted with Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks for more than a decade, including the NBA championship season of 2011. Winston also consulted with the New York Knicks under GM and IU grad Glen Grunwald.

His advice? Change the starting lineup.

Using the ratings of his friend, Jeff Sagarin, Winston says a lineup with Green in place of Durham (small sample size) plays at 109 instead of the 80 level of the current starters.

Play Green and Franklin together more, play Jackson-Davis, Franklin, Green and Smith with anyone but Brunk or Hunter.

Don’t play any combination of Jackson-Davis, Brunk and Green with Smith, Phinisee and Hunter (a porous 61 level).

However, go with Green, Durham, Hunter, Smith and Jackson-Davis or Brunk and the lineup is at a 110 level.

While he admits to cherry-picking from Indiana’s most productive runs, Winston notes the real problem is a lack of sustaining the lineups that work.

“We rarely see what has proven to be good,” he said.

That could be said for Indiana basketball as a whole, as the Hoosiers veer toward having a graduating senior class never see the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1971.

And that’s no lie.

Contact Jeremy Price at 812-331-4342, jprice@heraldt.com or follow @JPPrice on Twitter.

4 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts and I’m glad the issue has been brought up.

    The major point which cannot be understated is the real x-factor is without a doubt Jerome Hunter. This team will, as with last year, rise or fall based on JH. I know H4H once thought of Justin Smith as the x-factor, but his offense never developed. If JH continues to come back to form, he is the one offensive threat which every opponent must consider.

    My starting lineup: JH, TJD, AF & RP. I have pondered who the 5th starter should be, and I am beginning to think it needs to be Race Thompson, if fully recovered from the MSU “flagrant” foul injury. Brunk should be you first off the bench just to inject some emotion. As for the remaining portion of the team, it will be potluck. Yes, I know it is leaning entirely upon the underclassmen, but that is where this team needs to go regardless the outcome of the rest of the season.

    1. Yes Hunter must displace Smith as much as possible at the 3. I see Smith as a rotational 4 off the bench when Brunk is on the court. He excels when skiing on the weak side for a tip in or snatching boards for transition offense. I like Thompson splitting time at the 5 playing with Jackson. I agree with Rob and Franklin starting. Al shoots FT pretty consistent and draws fouls driving to the bucket so there are many situational times for him on the floor. But the real key is to pass the ball inside, play very aggressive D and not even suit Green up. The goal should be to make enough lineup changes to win a game and hopefully 2 in the BTT.

      1. I would like to see this lineup TJD,JB,RT,JH andRP. I feel the guard play is the problem so try playing big. At least you should have an advantage rebounding. Let DD and DG be first subs. If DG is not hitting at least you have a lot of rebounding strength. I would just like to see them try it or something different.

        1. Not enough quality ball handling, MWHOOSIER. I think Phinisee is a little shaky at times…and with no true guard helping against pressure defense, it’s probably turnovers waiting to happen. And then there’s the issue of getting back on transition.
          I sort of like Clarion’s recommendation for a starting line-up. Of course, I wanted to get the ‘wetness from behind the ears’ off of Franklin early in the season. The ‘pecking order’ kept him on the bench….I always wanted Phinisee and Franklin as our starting backcourt. Of course, we probably would have had transfers by now if that had been the case. I certainly would have found, at minimum, more minutes for Franklin early in the season.

          Sure, Franklin throws up his occasional bricks…but I still think his form is more pure/natural. I also believe he plays with a bit more internal toughness/confidence. He reminds me a bit of a former Hoosier from quite a long time ago and I’m struggling to think of who it is…? Strickland?

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