Friday, January 12, 2007

An Undeniable Pattern

Demetris Nichols has been an enigma to me for the past three years. He physically looks like an NBA caliber player, has the athletic grace and a 6’8” frame. He’s reported to be an excellent perimeter shooter, which I’ve seen glimpses of. Each fall he gives us a sneak peak of how good I think he should be.

As teams shift from non-conference games to their conference schedule, you can expect to see some drop in a player’s individual performance. Tougher games are played on a regular basis during conference play, and there’s more wear and tear on the players. Nichols, however, seems to take that to the extreme.

Over his combined sophomore and junior seasons, in 34 non-conference games, Nichols has averaged 10.5 points per game, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.1 assists. During the same time period in 28 Big East games, Nichols averaged 7.7 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.0 assists. Over a 27% decrease in total points, and a 25% decrease in rebounds are somewhat larger than what you might expect to see. But its probably not too much outside the norm in drop off.

However, it is the disappearance of his shooting touch in Big East play that is absolutely mind boggling. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, in non-conference games, Nichols shot 45.3% from the floor, 38.5% from the 3 point range and 54.2% from the two point range. Those are pretty good numbers.

In Big East play over the same time period, Nichols shot 37.2% from the floor, 26.7% from three point range and 47.3% from two point range. The first two numbers are terrible. More amazing though, is that his three point shooting drops 11.8 percentage points. That his a huge difference. To give you some perspective on the three point field goal shooting change, in 2005-06 Gerry McNamara shot 33.9% in non-conference and 32.8% in Big East play, Eric Devendorf shot 38.7% in non-conference and 36.6% in Big East play.

So what to attribute Nichols drop in shooting each year? Fatigue? A style of play that does not suit him? More aggressive defenses? Psychology? Winter blues?

More surprisingly is the undefended shot, the free throw. Over the last two seasons, Nichols shot 71.0% from the free throw line in non-conference games. In Big East play, that plummeted to 61.9%. A drop of almost 10 percentage points on uncontested shots!

It had looked like 2006-07 was going to be different. Nichols was playing so well in the non-conference games. He averaged 19.8 points a game, shot a blistering 48.8% from three point range, and a McNamara like 89.4% from the free throw line. In December, he was peaking with 6 straight games with 20+ points, averaging 25.8 ppg during that stretch, including an impressive 31 points against Drexel on December 19th.

Nichols looked extremely confident in play, was making all the right moves. I wasn’t even concerned after the first Big East game against the Pitt Panthers. Pitt has outstanding defense, and while Nichols shot wasn’t falling, he still showed a lot of solid play on the court, including those special nuances you like to see your superstars make.

But now we’re three games into the Big East season. Yes, there’s still a long ways to go, but after three games, Nichols Big East stats are looking awfully familiar. He’s shooting 33.3% from the floor, 25.0% from three point range, and his free throw shooting once again dropped to 62.5%. Those are huge drops.

It’s only three games; statistically speaking that means nothing. I keep telling myself that. Yet, it’s following the Nichols career trend. And when you keep seeing a pattern repeat itself, you’re foolish to ignore it. I can’t explain why Nichols struggles in Big East play. I know its not all about the defense, because a large drop in free throw shooting isn’t caused by defense (fatigue plays into that, and strong defense can lead to fatigue, but not to that extreme).

Demetris, I haven’t given up on you yet. I still think you can be a star for Syracuse. Prove your historical numbers wrong, prove this analysis wrong, and show us you’re the play I had always hoped you would be. It was nice to get another glimpse in autumn, but while being Mr. October is great for baseball, its not what we want in basketball.


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