Players or Teams, it's the margin that matters

USA TODAY Sports

A riff on the fake "Hulls Dilemma", wherein I look at some widespread perceptions about Jordan Hulls.

In preparation for Saturday's game (and to alleviate some of the dreariness of checking over my self-evaluation for work), I was listening to the latest MGoBlog Podcast. The notably excellent MGoBlog crew was salivating at the thought of going up against the Hoosier backcourt, chuckling at the thought of any of their starters going against Jordan Hulls. I found this a bit amusing, given that they had just published a rather wonky post defending against charges the Wolverine team didn't have the defensive chops to compete for title. They had argued (correctly) that it was the overall margin that mattered, something that John Gasaway has spent almost a decade arguing (Tuesday Truths, anyone?). Sure enough, the former Wonk himself came on the podcast as a special guest, the topic of Hulls came up, and Gasaway promptly told them (essentially) that this notion of margin matters for players as well. Gasaway's salient point is thus: It's not enough to disparage a player or a team's defense as unworthy of whatever benchmark you wish to hold them to, you have to consider where that defense plus that player or team's offense places them. He specifically pointed to Florida's 2007 team, who essentially stopped really caring about defense in the second half of the season and just shot/offensive-rebounded their way to a second championship. So, then I turn on ESPN a bit later, and what do I see but Jay Williams on College Basketball Live again hammering on this idea that Hulls can't match-up, even proposing that not only Sheehey get a start, but that Remy Abell make his way into in the starting line-up, too! No offense to Abell, who I love, but Hulls' defense isn't the whole story.

Basketball is a team game, and nobody would call the Chicago Bulls of the '90's soft defensively, even though they often started or featured guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr. In fact, the stuff I hear now about "who is Hulls going to guard" is reminiscent of a lot of the arguments against the Utah Jazz around that time. John Stockton was known to be a decent (if occasionally dirty) defender, but the combination of having Stockton and Jeff Hornacek in the backcourt always had opponents drooling about the matchups. And Hornacek and Stockton were perhaps the best backcourt that Utah ever had. I mean, I know they stuck Bryon Russell on Jordan, but Pippen or Kukoc should have had amazing mismatches available. And yet the Bulls only won those two championship series against the Jazz due to their own defense, and the individual offensive brilliance of Michael Jordan. Basketball isn't the Davis Cup, or a swim meet, it is a team sport. I know, obvious, but I think it gets a little lost when we start thinking of match-ups on paper.

There are several things here specific to Hulls I'd like to address. We know he's a great shooter, but that's hardly the whole story on offense on Hulls. He's been a facilitator for the IU offense as well as a bailout man in his career at Indiana. His unselfishness reflects much of the team's mentality, but his passing can be amazing, too. Some of his fullcourt passes in the UNC game were fantastic (and at least one was immediately after he stripped the ball from a UNC big man). His assists on a per-possession basis have actually slightly increased from last season while his turnover rate has dropped dramatically. And in Luke Winn's power rankings, guess who turns up as the most efficient off-the-dribble shooter of jumpers? Yep, it's Hulls, although Winn compares Trey Burke favorably with Hulls due to Burke's high volume of shots. I liked Rodger Sherman's line (one of the funnier young Big Ten bloggers out there) about Michigan frosh Stauskas: "Announcers like to mention that he's "not just a shooter!", because he sometimes does other stuff effectively, but that's like saying Rambo isn't "just an unkillable death machine" because he has lines of dialogue." I think this applies to Hulls, too, who has been an incredible shooting machine for a while now, but I've don't know that I've ever heard announcers actually mention anything about Hulls being "not just a shooter."

However, on defense, I think he gets a good deal more bad press than he deserves. No, he's not a great or even good defender. Even given his physical limitations, Hulls doesn't have the same instinct to beat the other guy on defense that he possesses on offense. At the end of the Butler game, against a guy who should've been no threat to score, you could see Hulls just thinking the whole way down the floor "just don't get beat." Still, while he's not a shot-blocker, Hulls is indeed a part of a very good defensive unit. When the rest of the Hoosier starting five plays well defensively (and they generally do), Hulls is just another piece of the puzzle, tracking shooters, staying in front of ball-handlers, and playing the passing lanes and stripping the ball in the post. This season, in the afore-mentioned UNC game, he had 7 rebounds, and he recorded a four-steal game against Georgetown. A quick look at Statsheet's Big Ten numbers reveals that Hulls, while 77th in defensive rebounding (and surely lower in blocked shots) rate, is actually 45th in steal percentage: far from last among B1G starting shooting guards. Even more interesting is that of the Indiana players ranked, only Oladipo, Zeller, and Sheehey have higher steal rates than Hulls, and Remy Abell is all the way down at 67th. Steal percentage doesn't equate to on-the-ball defense, of course, but the point here is that Hulls isn't without value on defense.

Hulls is able to get a few defensive rebounds and some steals, so statistically at least, he's not just a cardboard cut-out there. No, I think Hulls gets judged by a different standard than most shooting guards because 1) like Hornacek, he's part of a small backcourt, pared with the short-ish Yogi Ferrell, 2) he's likely the weakest defender on a team that's actually quite good defensively, but is very high-profile, and 3) everyone remembers the second Kentucky game from last year where the Wildcats scored at will by isolating Hulls or Matt Roth and driving past them. But frankly, noone else could beat Kentucky last season in the NCAA tourney, and there aren't a lot of Kentuckys out there this year. Anytime you can rotate Marquis Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller, and Doron Lamb on the wings, it is going to be tough for defenders.

Now, maybe Michigan is the new Kentucky. Maybe Tim Hardaway, Nick Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III (although GR3 plays mostly minutes at the four, where Kentucky had Terence Jones and Kyle Wiltjer playing that spot) are just as hard to match up with. Michigan's offense has been incredible, indeed. We'll see on Saturday if the Hoosiers are up to the task. Michigan has only played two teams in the neighborhood of Indiana's overall adjusted defense (KenPom #15), #11 Ohio State and #21 Pittsburgh. OSU remains their sole loss while Pitt was the narrowest victory to date for the Wolverines. It should be a truly great game, and I'll be watching IU's free-throw rate like a hawk. But I don't think Hoosier fans should be worried about Hulls' defense being costly, and I'm sure Crean isn't planning any starting line-up switcheroos. As for the pundits and commentators, I'd like some recognition that Hulls isn't "just a shooter" as well as an end to the "who does he guard?" hysteria, even though I truly doubt we'll hear any less about Indiana's "backcourt match-up problems" until the season is over.

What do you guys think? What have your "eye tests" told you so far this season about Hulls?

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