Kenny Frease came to Xavier as a highly-touted big man out of Massillon, Ohio and Xavier's first legitimate seven-footer since the dawn of time. Coming in with such fanfare no doubt contribute to the high expectations of the fan base at the school once dubbed "Power Forward U." Throughout his four years at Xavier, however, Big Kenny has posted solid but unspectacular basic numbers, leading some fans to question his effort, decision-making, talent level, or a combination of any of the three. But what do the numbers really say about Big Kenny?
The thinking seems to go that having your head three feet from the rim before even standing on tip-toe and being as broad across the shoulders as Paul Bunyan should automatically qualify one for basketball dominance. To test this theory, I searched for players from 1997 - present who were at least 7' tall and weighed within ten pounds of Kenny. After cutting it down for competition level (sorry, Bill van Senus of IUPUI), I was left with 28 players in Kenny's weight class. As you can see by the below table, Kenny's durability alone makes him a remarkable player for his size. Not only can he stay on the court, but Kenny also ranks ninth out of the 28 truly big men in both career scoring and career rebounds.
More pertinently to this site is the question of if Kenny makes Xavier better. After all, Xavier's offensive system is highly fluid and is oriented around scorers at the guard positions, not the low post. To evaluate Kenny's impact on the game for X, I looked at three factors: scoring, defense, and rebounding. Frease solidified his place in the lineup as the primary big at the beginning of his junior season; since then, he has played 69.1% of Xavier's minutes, give or take for rounding. If Kenny is truly a positive contributor, the numbers will show that Xavier performed better with the big man on the floor than they did with him warming the bench.
I evaluated Kenny's offensive and defensive contributions by the simple +/- method as well as Roland Rating (RR). Roland Rating compares the +/- when the player is on the court to that when he's off the court, thereby balancing out the natural +/- advantage any player will have against weak competition and giving a better picture of the player's contribution to the team. If X outscores a team by 6 with Kenny on the floor and outscores them by 4 with him on the bench, his +/- will be 6 and his RR will be 4. Clear enough? Let's proceed.
Since the beginning of Frease's junior year, Xavier has outscored opponents by a total of 270 points in the 39 games for which play-by-play data is available (last year's game against Iowa is the missing game). During that time, Xavier has outscored opponents by 300 points with Big Kenny on the floor, giving him a RR of 330. For comparison's sake, Tu's RR is 343. Clearly, at least by the raw measure of scoring and keeping opponents from scoring, Big Kenny is almost as integral to Xavier's success as Tu is.
The components of Frease's contribution in the scoring department are mostly defensive. With Frease playing 69.1% of Xavier's minutes, you'd expect 69.1% of Xavier's points and 69.1% of their opponents points to be scored with Kenny on the floor. Instead, Xavier scores 69.5% of its points - a statistically meaningless bump - but only allows 65% of their opponents points while Frease is out there. While he doesn't have the pure shot-blocking numbers that Jason Love did, something about Frease's presence shores up the Xavier defense to the tune of opponents scoring 101 fewer points than expected during his playing time in the past year and a half.
Frease's biggest statistical influence since his solidification in the lineup, though, has been on the glass. It has, no doubt, flashed across your mind that the largest player on the court might be expected to average more than five boards a game during his career, and may even be pressed upon to post more than the 6.2 per game he is averaging this season. To explain what Kenny does on the glass is going to require looking deeper into what rebounding is before we come back to what the numbers have to say.
There are two basic types of rebounders: leapers and what Coach Mack once dubbed "real estate" rebounders. Those terms are fairly obvious in their intent, but I'll clarify for people who are new to basketball. Leapers grab boards purely on athletic prowess; the ball comes off the rim, and they soar above the crowd to pull it down. Travis Taylor is an example of this kind of player. There's no shame in being a leaper as a rebounder, and it can be a really successful strategy as long as you can out-leap the other team's leapers. If you can't, you're in trouble.
Real estate rebounders, on the other hand, don't - and sometimes can't - spend most of their rebounding time about the rim. Rather, they put a butt/hip/forearm into their man and try to carve out as much space in the rebounding zone as possible. Once they have lain claim to this area, they hold their man off and wait to grab the ball if it bounces off the rim and into their plot of lane. Jason Love was a great example of this kind of rebounder. These guys are more dependent on physical strength and a little bit of guile and luck to get boards, but they can also be quite successful.
My theory is that Kenny Frease and his 7', 275 lb frame carve out enough real estate that Xavier's other rebounders have more room to operate, thus making Kenny effective at controlling the glass even when he doesn't grab the rebound. Thankfully for the hours I spent testing this theory, the numbers bear it out. When Kenny is on the floor, Xavier grabs more than 55% of the rebounds that occur. When he is out of the game, that number falls to barely over 50%. Where Xavier holds a better than 55/45 advantage on the glass with Frease in the game, rebounding falls to a 50/50 proposition with him on the bench. Improving a team's rebounding odds by ten percent by yourself is a pretty big accomplishment, and Kenny Frease does just that.
So what - if anything - did the hardy souls who have read this far learn? A couple of things. First of all, Xavier outpaces opponents on the scoreboard with Kenny on the floor to almost the same extent they do when Tu is playing. Second, Frease is a big part of what the Muskies do on defense, and other teams simply don't score as efficiently with him out there as they do when he's sidelined. Finally - and despite what his raw stats might lead you to believe - Kenny helps Xavier dominate on the glass.
So next time you're perusing the box score of the latest Xavier win and you see Frease posted 9/5/2 in 28 minutes, or only grabbed a half a dozen of Xavier's 30 or so rebounds, or you read on a message board that Kenny has never lived up to his billing, contemplate what you've read here before you join in, or before you bemoan the fact that Tu or Cheek or Taylor outrebounded him in a given game. There's a very good chance that those guys - and this team - continue to thrive under the shadow of Kenny's gargantuan wing.