VCU (11-3) has won eight straight games and is knocking on the door of the top 25.

VCU (11-3) has won eight straight games and is knocking on the door of the top 25.

Mark Twain is credited with popularizing the quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” With all due respect to the late Samuel Clemens, he never had the benefit of effective field goal percentage at his disposal.

Bill James has been preaching the gospel of statistical analysis of sports for more than 30 years, but it took Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ 2003 account of the Oakland Athletics’ and General Manager Billy Beane’s use of advanced statistics, to bring that conversation to the forefront.

The book divided baseball observers into two camps: The “old school” that relied heavily on feel, instincts and traditional measurables like batting average – they hated it – and those that embraced the fresh perspective and viewed the system as the natural evolution of statistical evaluation.

Despite its detractors, advanced metrics have begun to creep their way into other sports, like basketball. ESPN.com now lists PER, short for player efficiency rating, on its NBA player pages.

There’s no need to be afraid. Statistics aren’t here to overwhelm you, they’re here to help us understand the game better. Holding Florida to 50 points and holding Old Dominion to 50 points can be two completely different things because at least one of those teams is going to play deliberately, walk the ball up the floor and run 25-second sets.

It’s through this prism that I aim to show you not just that the Rams are an improved team, but why. If your eyes are telling you that the Rams are better than last year, when they won 29 games and toppled Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament, I’ve the data that suggests you’re probably right.

While the Rams can only be truly judged after the season, by their total body of work, we’re nearly halfway through the regular season. It’s a sufficient enough sample size to draw some conclusions about the makeup of this team.

It’s also important to note, as we examine VCU, we acknowledge the Rams’ schedule, which is now ranked 71st nationally. That number will fluctuate, but it probably won’t sink to last year’s 156th-ranked slate, considering VCU just played the softest stretch of its schedule. The Rams have played a pretty tough schedule so far (Duke, Mizzou, Memphis, Wichita State, Alabama) and fared reasonably well.

The maturation of sophomore Treveon Graham is one reason the Rams are a more efficient offensive team this year.

The maturation of sophomore Treveon Graham is one reason the Rams are a more efficient offensive team this year.

First, let’s address “Havoc”, VCU’s chaos-inducing pressure defense. The purpose is to force turnovers and create more possessions than the opposition. The Rams are +8.7 this year in turnover margin, which leads the nation. That’s even better than last year’s NCAA-best +6.5 mark. This season, the Rams are turning their opponents over 30.5 percent of the time, a shade better than their effort from last year (27.3). VCU is also allowing fewer points per possession (0.84) than last season (0.90).

So the Rams are at or near the same level defensively, generally speaking. The real difference in this year’s team has been its maturation on the offensive end. VCU was, at best, an average offensive team last season. Its .410 shooting percentage, including .334 from 3-point range last year was particularly troubling. In 2011-12, VCU averaged 1.02 points per possession, 101st nationally. But this year, VCU is scoring 1.13 points every time it has the ball, which ranks in the top 15 in the country. Ken Pomeroy, whose equation for offensive efficiency is beyond the scope of this article, rated the Rams the 97th-best offense in the country last year. This year, they’re 18th.

What you’re seeing is a team of players developing offensively, players with a greater understanding of their abilities and Shaka Smart’s offensive system. Juvonte Reddic is a prime example. Reddic shot .463 from the field as a freshman, .514 as a sophomore and is in the 56 percent range this year. That 10 percent matters. Sure, .11 points per possession may not look like much on paper, but it’s helped the Rams score more than 11 additional points per game. That makes all the difference in the world.

Stat                        2012-13 (‘11-12)
Pts/Pos………………1.13 (1.02)
Points scored………79.9 (68.0)
DPts/Pos…………….0.84 (0.90)
Points allowed……..59.6 (59.8)
Effective FG%………53.2 (47.6)
Effective FGA%…….46.8 (47.2)

Key: Pts/Pos = Points scored per possession; DPts/Pos = Points allowed per possession; Effective FG% = Effective field goal percentage; Effective FGA% = Effective field goal percentage by opponents.

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