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Loose Ball

More Than a Number: Steals Stinging Gophers

02/08/2013, 9:00am CST
By J.B. Bauer

Minnesota Struggling to Protect the Ball Again in 2012-13

A look inside the turnover numbers reveals that conference opponents are stealing the ball from Minnesota on more than 13% of the Gophers' possessions.

More Than a Number: Steals Stinging Gophers

Minnesota turned the ball over 12 times in their 61-50 loss to Michigan State this week. The Spartans were credited with a steal on nine of those turnovers.
The Gophers had the ball stolen away on 16% of their possessions. That means approximately once every six trips down the court, Michigan State stole the ball from Minnesota. 

Most college basketball fans understand that turnovers are a bad thing, but are some worse than others? 


By spending hours viewing and charting a particular team, enormous amounts of important information can be obtained, understood and acted upon. 

With far less effort (in this case using play-by-play data and we can breakdown turnover numbers a bit more. Specifically, it’s simple to split turnover rates between steals and non-steal turnovers. 

First, a few things to keep in mind:

  • There is not significant correlation between steals and non-steal turnovers. If all you know about Team A is that they have an offensive steal percentage of 10%, you don’t have a great way to estimate (with a decent degree of precision) what their non-steal turnover rate is.
  • Steals and non-steal turnovers are not the same as forced and unforced turnovers.
  • Most steals, but not all, result in a live ball change of possession, whereas non-steal turnovers often result in a dead ball change of possession.

The last bullet point is very important. When a team gains possession and the ball remains live, their ability to score significantly benefits from the quick transition from defense to offense.

Example: Team A and Team B both have an offensive turnover rate of 20%. Team A has the ball stolen away 12% of the time (8% non-steal turnover rate) and Team B has the ball stolen away 10% of the time (10% non-steal turnover rate).
On average and speaking very generally, Team B’s turnovers are less costly than Team A’s.

How has Minnesota compared to the rest of the Big Ten? 
The diagram below plots out the conference performance of each team’s offense over the past five completed seasons. The vertical axis represents steal percentage and the horizontal axis indicates the non-steal percentage. 

Ideally, a team would be closer to the bottom (low steal%) left (low non-steal%). Further, since steals tend to be more costly, you’d prefer to be more toward the right than to the top.

A gold ‘M’ represents each of Minnesota’s past five seasons. None of the performances are good, but the 2008-09 season stands out the most (12.8 steal, 11.5% non-steal). (In case you’re wondering, the two ugly markers to the right of the highest M are 2007-08 Iowa (6-12 record) and 2008-09 Indiana (1-17).)

Steal/NonSteal %'s

Minnesota in 2012-13 
Through 10 Big Ten games this year the Gophers’ opponents have stolen the ball 82 times (Minnesota’s defense has been good – 69 steals – but has 13 fewer steals than their opponents).

If we add in a marker for this season’s 13.4% steal, 8.1% non-steal performance, the chart highlights just how unusually often Minnesota’s opponents are stealing the ball away. 

Steal/NonSteal %'s

It’s not just one player and the issue hasn’t been limited to only the starters or only the reserves (see chart at the bottom of this article for a breakdown of steals against by player). 

If Tubby Smith’s offense was continually trying pound the ball inside for high-percentage shots, the amounts of steals might be a little more bearable. However, many of the steals appear to result from nonchalant and unfocused passing around the perimeter which often turns into an easy two points for the other team. 

The 13.4% steals against figure should drop a little over the final eight games based on history, but how can the Gophers address the issue? One would think these veteran Minnesota players have often received a message of the need to focus and value each possession, but too often the message appears to have been lost.

How would you try to address the frequent giveaways by the Gophers?

Steals against, by player (conference games):

Player Name Steals Against
Dre Hollins 19
Mbakwe 13
Coleman 10
Williams 10
Ahanmisi 8
Au. Hollins 8
Welch 6
Osenieks 3
Eliason  2
Ingram 2
Walker 1

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Tag(s): Gopher Basketball