Numbers Game: Advanced Stats Help Define Success
Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Help support the sport by joining US Lacrosse and have Lacrosse Magazine delivered right to your mailbox.
Lacrosse makes for good math.
Success in lacrosse, specifically on offense, can be boiled down to a simple equation: The number of goals scored equals the number of possessions multiplied by offensive efficiency, or points per possession. Teams should look to increase their overall number of possessions while also improving their efficiency within those possessions.
These concepts — possessions and efficiency — can determine the outcome of games and maybe even national champions. Teams can increase their possessions through faceoffs, clearing percentage, caused turnovers and pace.
Meanwhile, efficiency is most analogous to generating and capitalizing on quality shots, i.e. shooting percentage.
Not surprisingly, the four teams that excelled within these aspects of the game also made it to the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Unlike basketball, where teams trade possessions, the faceoff serves as a fulcrum for teams looking to tilt possessions on their favor.
In 2015, Denver’s Trevor Baptiste won 68 percent of his faceoffs, tops in Division I. Looking at a theoretical game that ended in a 10-10 tie, Denver would have enjoyed an eight-possession advantage over its opponent, as Baptiste would win 16 of 24 potential faceoffs. Couple this with the Pioneers’ lethally efficient offense littered with deadly shooters, and you understand what keeps defensive coordinators awake at night.
More advanced analytics are emerging within the sport, examining the definition of a “possession” and whether faceoffs create new ones or serve as an extension of the previous one. I view each faceoff win as an additional scoring opportunity (or possession) for that team.
Moreover, the psychological factor playing “make it-take it” lacrosse is very real — it provides a rhythm for the offense with consecutive possessions while keeping the defense on its heels. Just ask Syracuse how it felt in 2013 when Brendan Fowler ripped off 13 consecutive faceoff wins as Duke rallied to win the NCAA championship game.
Successful clears are another way to maximize possessions. High Point, one of the surprise NCAA tournament teams of 2015, ranked second nationally with a 91.3-percent clearing rate.
Maybe its something in the SoCon water, since Richmond, the team the Panthers defeated in the conference final, ranked first in clearing.
Caused Turnovers and Pace
If you’re searching for the poster child for caused turnovers and pace, look no further than Brown’s Larken Kemp. In 2014, Brown finished a respectable 8-6 while its offense generated 10.14 goals per game on 28.7-percent shooting. After an offseason makeover that would make the Property Brothers proud, the Bears scored nearly four more goals per game (13.94) in 2015, while their shooting percentage stayed relatively static at 29.3 percent.
How did Brown manage this transformation? The Bears generated 808 shots, a 35-percent increase from 2014, mainly fueled by their 9.4 caused turnovers per game and blistering pace. Much of that can be credited to Kemp, whom coach Lars Tiffany released from the traditional definition of a long-stick midfielder. Kemp led the ball-hawking defense (No. 2 in caused turnovers) with 2.1 caused turnovers per game (No. 4) and nearly five ground balls per game while also scoring nine goals and doling out six assists.
Brown’s meteoric rise in shots (47.5 per game in 2015 vs. 35.3 in 2014) also is due to the influence of offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan, who brought a high-volume philosophy from Tufts. While the average team had 29.6 possessions per game, Brown led the nation with 36.9.
Lacrosse Film Room’s Patrick McEwen, a University of Toledo student, has helped fill the void of advanced metrics in our sport. He defines pace as possessions per game, but considers multiple goals to occur on the same possession if a team wins consecutive faceoffs.
The only team that compares to Brown in these categories? Albany, of course.
The Great Danes led the nation in caused turnovers, were ninth in clearing percentage and played at a similar breakneck pace (34.7 possessions per game) as the Bears.
With more possessions, Albany used its superior shooting (No. 2 at 37 percent) to outscore opponents by the widest margin (7.7) in the country. This style of play, led by the transcendent Lyle Thompson, enabled the Great Danes to have three of the top 16 scorers in Division I.
All eyes will be on Denver to see if Baptiste and company can repeat as NCAA champs. While faceoffs represent the most obvious method toward additional possessions, keep an eye out for teams that do so in other manners — causing turnovers, clearing the ball and playing with pace.
If a team can couple a statistical dominance in one of these categories while also playing efficiently, look for it to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Trilogy Coaching Tips
1. Track the stats.
Like all goals (figurative and literal), if you can’t see where you are shooting or don’t know how big the net is, it will be very hard to hit your target, let alone know where to aim. Keeping track of your team’s faceoffs won, caused turnovers, clearing percentage, offensive possessions and shooting percentage will allow you to benchmark where you are, work on these items in practice and measure improvement over time.
2. Value quality shots.
Use basketball-style rules, where missed shots are considered turnovers (no running them out/backing them up). By incorporating these within scrimmages or drills, players will take fewer “wasted” shots and value those possessions to find the best possible shot.
3. Play with pace.
Perform drills and scrimmage using a shot clock. Encourage a sense of urgency and aggressive style by using a 30-, 45- or 60-second clock once the ball is picked up or crosses midfield.
— Mitch Belisle, VP of Marketing, Trilogy Lacrosse
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