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The (possible) importance of the opening tip.

On the legal pad I bring to every Princeton game so I can take notes on the action, the words "lose tip" have started each game's scrawl so often this season that I had to go back game-by-game and see what the Tigers' record is on opening tips.

According to my calculations, Princeton is a woeful 4-22 when the official throws the ball in the air.

(4-20 at the start of the game, 0-2 in overtime.)

I'm not trying to be cute by pointing out the above struggles to control the game's first possession. Playing at a slower tempo - the Tigers' offensive pace is fourth-slowest in the nation - an extra possession can mean as much as a 4.9% increase in a team's chance of victory.

For more, see a 2005 KenPom blog post about the importance of winning the opening tip, especially when the two teams are statistically similar.

If Pitt and NJIT were playing, NJIT winning the opening tip would be less valuable than when two comparable teams like Princeton and Columbia face off on Friday.

Can a team be coached to be better at winning a jump ball? How much can be done beyond insisting "leap higher" or "tip the ball first?"

I know Luke Owings, not the world's highest leaper, had a strategy to steal the ball jumping center for Princeton that worked surprisingly well for him. He would try and time his jump so he could scoop the ball from below just at the moment it reached its apex.

Oh, the four games where Princeton has won the tip this season?: at Fordham, at Lafayette, at Dartmouth and versus Columbia.

Stuart Schulman said,

March 2, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

1) Be glad they don't have a jump ball after every field goal, like they did when they had to retrieve the ball from Naismith's peach baskets!

2) The games where Buczak started at center but Kareen Maddox took the opening jump reminded me of the early 80s where Rick Simkus would play center but Craig Robinson (he of the 84-inch wingspan) would take the opening jump. I guarantee you Craig didn't go 4-22 or anything close to it.

3) Think about lacrosse, where the faceoff is such an important part of the game that there are faceoff specialists that may do nothing else. Basketball doesn't have subbing on the fly, and only 5 players on a smaller court. Still there could be a lesson to be learned. Does it pay to start a guy like Maddox, who might otherwise be considered a reserve, and live with him on the floor until the first whistle? Or (thinking wayyyyy too far outside the box) even to burn your use-it-or-lose-it time out after the opening tip and sub in whoever you prefer out there? If Maddox loses the tip, you at least have a decent defender on the floor.

Jon Solomon said,

March 2, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

When I think of jump balls, I always think of Coach Thompson's decision to have Harrison Schaen on the floor to start an overtime so that Princeton would be assured of winning the tip. An extra possession is even more important in OT. The team already knew what they were going to run before Schaen had controlled.

Another possible way to win tips that is in the same category as Luke Owings' unorthodox scoop: Slap the ball forward instead of backwards and have a teammate who knows they're supposed to slide to the spot you're trying to slap to.

There's a designed play for a layup off of a jump ball that Princeton ran several times under Carmody (and Thompson) where the ball is slapped forward to the player who is meeting the ball at the designated spot, ready to pass ahead to another teammate that has started streaking to the basket.

It is 2-0 and barely five seconds have expired.

james schenk said,

March 3, 2009 @ 9:49 am

6"4" Gerald Henderson jumps center for Duke and seems to win every tip. It seems a quick explosive jumper can be more effective than a taller player.

Roald Buhler said,

March 3, 2009 @ 11:28 am

I wonder if seeing video of the center jumps in slow motion
would show that most other centers hit the ball on the way up..

That has certainly been my impression watching rom the stands.

Stuart Schulman said,

March 3, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

And apologies to Rich Simkus for my typo on his name, which I just now spotted.

Do any of the incoming big men look like candidates to jump center?

Jon Solomon said,

March 4, 2009 @ 11:33 am

From Mr. Luke Owings:

I thought I'd share with you the exact strategy that I would use as I jumped center, as ironically, it came to me during a economics class that I was taking on game theory.  I realized pretty early in my career that I wasn't going to out-athletic too many guys, even in the Ivy League.  Add that to the fact that I found myself as commonly the tallest person in our starting lineup, I knew it didn't bode well for us as a team to have too many first possessions.  What I realized however, was that though everyone talks about waiting for the ball to reach its apex during the tip, it was a rule that was very rarely enforced (somewhat tantamount to stepping on the lane line early on a free throw).  Therefore, I started to think about other possible ways to win the tip.  The most obvious came to me as hitting the ball on the way up.  From my perspective, the best case is that I beat the other guy to the ball and win it for our team (optimal solution) but the worst case is to have the ref blow it dead and give them the ball.  In this case, the non-compliance penalty was better for our team than playing it straight because even if the ref did take his whistle out and call me out for it, we had a chance to get back on defense and get set up, a better solution than losing the tip straight up!  Given that I knew that I wasn't going to win too many straight-up tips (I put the probability of the other guy slipping and falling and giving me the advantage at .001%), I had a clearly dominant strategy and it was an easy decision to always 'cheat'*.  The funny story about this one is that other coaches started to notice and I remember in particular the Harvard coach screaming it to the ref before the game.  I looked over at him, smiled a little bit, and then proceeded to steal the tip from Cusworth, the 6'10" dude they had.  

*-It's the ref's job to enforce the rules, not mine. ;-)

Stuart Schulman said,

March 4, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

Congratulations to Brian Cusworth, who has earned two mentions on PBN today. And thanks to Mr. Owings for his fascinating insight!

Jon Solomon said,

March 8, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

Princeton lost the tip versus Columbia, won the opening possession against Cornell.

That puts the Tigers at 5-23 heading into the Penn game...

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