Inside the Numbers: The Hunter Cattoor Effect
Slowly but surely, the gang is getting back together.
Virginia Tech men’s basketball saw the return of Hunter Cattoor on Wednesday night, their do-it-all guard who had been sidelined by a forearm injury since mid-December. While the result against No. 10 Virginia — a 78-68 loss — surely wasn’t the outcome they wanted, it’s an encouraging sign that the Hokies held their own against one of the nation’s best teams on the road.
In the box score, Cattoor’s impact was obvious. The senior scored 11 points along with five assists and six rebounds. He’s so crucial for everything that Tech wants to do offensively because of his ability to pass, cut, and screen. When you watch the Hokies play, the offensive just flows much better with Cattoor on the court. And the data backs that up: against the Cavaliers, Tech churned in their most efficient offensive outing (113.2 points per 100 possessions) since the Dayton game on Dec. 7th. It’s only a one-game sample size, but the early returns are encouraging.
In today’s Inside the Numbers piece, I want to discuss the potential statistical impact of Cattoor’s return, as well as how he impacted the game against Virginia.
Since Cattoor went out, Virginia Tech has seen a steady decline in offensive efficiency: about a 7% reduction in points per possession, which translates to about five points per game on average. This isn’t quite a one-to-one comparison because the offensive structure changes without him, but it’s pretty noticeable why Cattoor is so important. Specifically, there are several areas in which Tech’s production has gone down dramatically.
The first is free-throw rate. Tech is getting to the line a lot more than they were before Cattoor’s injury — roughly a 55% increase, to be precise. Now, I should clarify this: getting fouled more often is not inherently a bad thing. Getting to the line and getting the other team in foul trouble is part of the game. But it’s not an essential part of the Mike Young offense. What’s happening is that Sean Pedulla is driving a lot more and getting fouled as a result. Young’s teams typically rank low in free-throw rate (he hasn’t finished top-100 in that metric since 2011) because his offense is predicted on ball movement, not iso ball. Unfortunately, without the services of his running mate, Pedulla feels the need to take the offense more into his own hands, and his efficiency has suffered as a result: he shot 30% from the floor in the four games prior to UVA. Yes, he’s drawing contact, but he’s not playing within the offense, and his shot selection has been quite poor.
The second is two-point field goal percentage. Two-point FG% is probably the most reliable stat in basketball — when you look at the teams that win the most, almost all of them are good at scoring inside. If you aren’t, you are going to have a tough time generating offense. Three-point shooting gets a lot of love these days, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To shoot three’s well, you must score inside, and vice versa.
Tech had a major spacing problem without Cattoor. Freshman guard MJ Collins, who has mostly eaten up the available minutes, has struggled mightily, shooting just 21% from downtown (he did hit a pair of triples against the Hoos). John Camden similarly is a liability from outside, with three makes in 12 games. With a lack of spacing, it’s easier to sag off the line and provide help for drivers. To that end, Virginia Tech’s three-point attempt rate in conference play has fallen off from: 44% last year, 35% this season (13th in the ACC). They aren’t taking as many threes because they don’t have the guys who can make them.
To reiterate, Young’s offense relies on good ball movement. Specifically, Tech wants to generate open looks from the perimeter and on post-ups. This season, Virginia Tech ranks 12th nationally in expected FG% on post-ups, according to data from ShotQuality. With Cattoor back, you have that additional element of spacing that allows a player like Justyn Mutts or Grant Basile to go to work on the low block and not have to worry about a dig or a double team (granted, most teams will double Mutts anyway, but he’s so good at passing out of them that it’s like playing with fire. Who do you leave open?)
Cattoor’s cutting ability also sets him apart. Here’s a great example.
On this out-of-bounds (OOB) set, Cattoor executes a wonderful v-cut towards the basket. Mutts finds him with a perfect pass from the left elbow, and his teammate finishes with a tough reverse layup. This works in part because of the threat of Cattoor’s shooting ability: when Lynn Kidd sets a screen on UVA’s Reece Beekman (#2), Beekman has to expect that Cattoor is looking to cut to the wing for a three-point shot. But Cattoor’s lightning-quick cut gets Beekman just a half-step behind, and that’s all he needs to get open and finish at the rim. These are the types of little things Cattoor does that Young so often praises in his press conference. It looks like a super simple cut, but the timing and execution is absolutely perfect. Tech does not have anyone else that can execute the v-cut so well, and nor do many other teams for that matter.
Now, this is just another old-fashioned OOB set from Young that I loved. First, Cattoor as the inbounds man is going to get a wide pindown screen from Mutts. Virginia’s Isaac McKneely (#11) is a little bit late to react, which frees up Cattoor into a dribble-handoff with Grant Basile. At this point, UVA is in rotation: they have two players on Cattoor at the moment he receives the ball. From there, Virginia Tech executes tic-tac-toe passing from Cattoor to Mutts to Basile. UVA’s Jayden Gardner (#1) has to step up on Mutts, leaving the Hokies’ big man alone under the basket for a layup.
This is what Virginia Tech’s offense looks like in perfect sync. Right now, the defense is still a major problem. The 78 points Tech allowed on 60 possessions was their worst defensive performance of the year, as well as UVA’s second-best all season. The Cavaliers shot an absurd 62% from inside the arc, while committing only five turnovers. I could save an analysis on the Hokies’ defense for another day. For now, their offense is clicking, and it will have to continue clicking at a high level for Tech to have a chance to win.