Friday, December 12, 2014

Circling the Wagons

Over the past week or so, the Big Ten has dropped four games to teams likely to finish outside the top 100 in the RPI. I'm no fan of the RPI or its methodology, but it's still the standard by which all teams are judged, come March. 

(Which, by the way, is insane. From October through January, RPI is rarely mentioned. ESPN does not preview the Big Game by citing each team's RPI, and coaches do not mitigate the opponent's W/L record by citing their very difficult RPI strength of schedule. But sometime in February, we all decide that RPI suddenly matters. Why? We were all getting along perfectly well without it. Humbug.)

But even by Pomeroy standards, the likes of NJIT, North Florida, Incarnate Word, and Eastern Michigan are decidedly not the kinds of teams that Michigan, Nebraska, or even Purdue should be losing to. So perhaps it's time for a checkup on those squads. 

Michigan: They Are Who We Thought They Were

Michigan is not as good as last year's Michigan. Everyone knows this, everyone expected this. And the ways in which 2014-15 Michigan is different are all predictable: 

2P%3P%TO%Off Reb%FT Rate
Michigan 13-1452.740.214.829.434.9
Michigan 14-1546.938.215.328.929.0

Glenn Robinson III made 56% of his 2s, but this season much of his minutes are going to Kameron Chatman, who is just making 33% of his. Jordan Morgan and his 70% accuracy on 2s is gone. Spike Albrecht (38.1% on 2s) is playing a lot this season. As I said before the season began, this roster is set up well to shoot jumpers—and they have shot very well—but there weren't many interior scoring options, even accounting for Beilein's offense. 

This means that improvement will have to come on defense. That may sound like a dicey proposition given that the team recently allowed 1.22 points per possession to NJIT, but the defense is actually, on the whole, better than last year's. Alas, unlike last year, the Wolverines cannot boast the nation's best offense, so that particular bar is too low if Michigan plans to dance in March. 

But the defense should improve. Really, the only weak parts are items that fall firmly into the "unlucky" camp—opponent three-point percentage and opponent free throw percentage. Those will even out, and when they do, we'll resume our regularly-scheduled programming. Of course, those two bad losses are etched in stone, so Michigan's path to an at-large bid looks a lot tougher. Eleven wins might be a necessity. 

Nebraska: Where's Walter?

Last season, Walter Pitchford was a tremendously-efficient player. He hit 41% of his 3s, 54% of his 2s, and almost never turned the ball over. And I'm not exaggerating there—he didn't commit his first turnover of the season until Nebraska's 15th game. He had just 15 turnovers for the entire season. 

He already has 13 this year, and that's the relative good news, as he's hitting just 40% of his 2s and 27% of his 3s. Frankly, Nebraska just doesn't have enough scoring options for Pitchford to take this kind of leave of absence. Opponents can get away with focusing on Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway, knowing that no one else is willing or dangerous enough to deal significant damage. 

If Nebraska still has eyes on making the Dance, then either Pitchford needs to quickly return to form, or Leslie Smith needs to get better, fast. 

Purdue: This Isn't Youth Basketball—You Don't Have to Play Everyone

Matt Painter currently has a 10-man rotation. Maybe John Calipari can get away with that, early in the season, because his team can whip just about anyone even if he picked up lineups out of a hat. But without meaning any offense to the Boilermakers, Painter can't do that. 

Specifically, Painter has two centers and what appears to be eight combo guards all receiving regular minutes. I don't know, it seems like there might be some redundancies there. Also, we should probably question why there are 8 players with assist rates of at least 15 and turnover rates of at least 12.5 in the rotation. That seems like entirely too much dribbling and passing for entirely too many players. Assists are great (Purdue is 6th in the country in assists per field goal), but not when they come with a side dish of turnovers (167th in turnover percentage). Kendall Stephens, for example, seems better suited to run off screens and wait for an open 3 (he's hitting 49.2% of those) than dribbling into traffic looking for a 2 (he's hitting 21.4% of those). 

Overall, this kitchen has entirely too many cooks. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Post Challenge Stock Watch

Illinois: BUY

Although Illinois lost to Miami in the Challenge, there's a fair amount of context to consider. First, Miami is a very good team, still without a loss after playing Florida (on the road) and Illinois. Kenpom has the Hurricanes as a top-20 team at present. Also, the Illini lost this game by 9 on the road, and considering that home-court advantage is worth about 4 points on average, that's a pretty tight game. Finally, consider that the Illini shot just 22 percent on jumpers against Miami, and it's easy to explain as a one-off. Illinois also beat a quality Baylor team in Las Vegas, and has sustained a turnover rate under 15.0 in 6 of its 7 games so far on the season. John Groce's team is going to shoot better than it did against Miami this season, and the low turnover rate should ensure plenty of shots.

Indiana: HOLD

This was a hard "SELL" a little over a week ago, but a couple things have happened. First, Eastern Washington might not stink after all. The Eagles are 6-1 with a sole road loss at SMU. Second, and most recently, the Hoosiers tore Pitt apart in Assembly Hall in a game that was never close. I suppose a couple of caveats are in order before we get too excited—first, this figures to be one of Jamie Dixon's worst Pitt teams. Second, rebounding remains a concern as the Panthers secured 52 percent of their misses. Third—I don't know, maybe he is a steal, but odds are this is going to be one of the best nights of Emmitt Holt's season (15 points on 6-6 shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 0 turnovers). He was headed to prep school with mid-major offers before Indiana swooped in late. Balancing it all out, IU still looks like a team more likely headed to the NIT than the NCAA Tournament.

I was pretty close to making this a "SELL" despite the win over UNC, but decided against it. Why sell? Well, Iowa lost the only other two meaningful games they played this season, which is conduct unbecoming of a team that should be in the top-3 in the conference. Plus, Iowa doesn't beat UNC if they don't go to the free throw line 24 times, making 21 (87.5%). Considering UNC attempted more shots at the rim, that's a bit of an outlier. So you have to at least consider that Iowa was a little bit lucky against the Tar Heels.

That said, the problem with Iowa's fade last season was defense. It's early, but right now the Hawkeyes rank 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Against the top-20 teams they've played, they've allowed PPP marks of 1.05, 0.95, and 0.89. The defense is under control.

Are there other concerns? Sure—and they're typical of what you'd expect of a team light on guards (high turnovers, poor outside shooting). But overall Fran McCaffrey's team is trending in the right direction.

Although Maryland was pretty well manhandled at home by Virginia, keep in mind the Terrapins were playing without offensive centerpiece Dez Wells. Wells will be back right around the time conference play begins, and I don't expect much rust with such a short absence. But more promising is the fact that Melo Trimble appears to be an instant impact freshman. He won't continue to shoot like this (59.2 eFG), but the fact that he's shot 62 free throws against 31 two-pointers should not be taken lightly. However he shoots from the field, Trimble should get plenty of scoring opportunities at the stripe. I'm still not sold this team will be anything more than an 8-10 win team in the Big Ten (though I think it's likely they end up on the high end of that range) because of defensive shortcomings, but this could have gone really poorly for Mark Turgeon.

Michigan: BUY
With three solid performances against three solid teams (Oregon, Villanova, Syracuse), it's becoming harder to come up with reasons why Michigan is not a top-2 team in the Big Ten. That said, there are still reasons to believe this team is not as good as it was in the past couple of seasons. John Beilein's offense is designed to create easy two-point opportunities, but so far the Wolverines rank 162nd nationally in that category. That would be the worst showing in that department since Beilein's initial 10-22 season. Of course, unlike that team, this one can shoot extremely well from 3.

Michigan State: HOLD
These recommendations are based off our preseason projections, so if you're one of those people that figured Michigan State was a top-25 team, now's the time to sell. But is that unfair? Sure, the Spartans lost to all of the quality teams they've played so far (Duke, Kansas, and Notre Dame), but those games were all on courts outside East Lansing.

Fair, but frankly, I don't think MSU can continue to shoot like this. Per, Tom Izzo's team is hitting 40.6 percent of their jumpers (2s and 3s, combined). That's very high, obviously, but other issues abound. For one, the defense has been helped out quite a bit by poor opponent 3-point shooting, which is unlikely to continue. Also, Michigan State is attempting far fewer shots at the rim than usual:

% shots at the rim

The decrease in attempts at the rim has not resulted in more accuracy there, either (especially when you factor in the competition). What's also distressing is that MSU is not reaping the conventional benefits of being a perimeter-oriented team (fewer turnovers). Really, the only thing on offense the team is doing well right now is making jumpshots. They wouldn't be the first offense to ride that strength all season. But my bet remains on the other end.

The Gophers haven't exactly impressed with bottom-line results (losing at St. John's and squeaking by a pedestrian Georgia team), but what appears worse is that so much of what the team and players are doing well looks unlikely to continue. This team is defense-first, and that defense is in the business of selling out to get turnovers. This approach can obviously work if you're recruiting like Louisville recruits. I'm not sure it will work in the Big Ten with 3-star athletes, because everyone else is so good at taking care of the basketball. On an individual basis, I'm not seeing any big leaps, and the only pleasant surprise has been the play of Nate Mason. While he is taking care of the ball as a co-point guard, the best part of his game thus far has been his rebounding ability. If he weren't 6-1, this would matter.

Nebraska: SELL

I know that the Cornhuskers picked up a win on the road against Florida State, but so far, this team does not look improved over last year's squad despite the return of most of the roster. Last year's team was very good on defense, while very mediocre on the other end of the floor. Looks to be about the same this season:

YearOffensive Efficiency RankDefensive Efficiency Rank

That's not much of a move on either end, and that's actually pretty worrisome as last year's numbers reflect a full conference slate, whereas over half of this year's competition so far has come against the likes of low major teams such as Central Arkansas.The drag on last year's offense was a complete vacuum at the point guard position, which is still the case this season. Tai Webster continues to demonstrate that he's not a long term answer there—I expect freshman Tarin Smith to start receiving more minutes in short order. 

This is obviously Not A Good Sign, as I had the Wildcats pegged for a basement team at the season's outset. But all they've done since is squeaked by the likes of Elon and North Florida at home, got smacked around by Northern Iowa, and lost to Georgia Tech at home in a game where they never had the lead. Freshmen are playing a ton of minutes, but it's not because any of them are legitimate contenders for Freshman of the Year. I also do not envy Chris Collins right now. If I were the coach, I'd be paralyzed with indecision if tasked to fix the team. Where would you start?

Ohio StateHOLD
Sure, Ohio State never made the matchup against Louisville much of a game, but it was a road game against a likely Final Four contender, after all. The Buckeyes have beaten the snot out of the rest of their schedule, but all of those teams were cannon fodder. What's very positive, however, is that Thad Matta is getting back to his pre-Craft roots of having a team that can flat-out shoot. The Buckeyes rank 9th in eFG, and that's while Matta laughably plays a 10-man rotation. C'mon Thad, we know that's going to shrink to 6 in conference play.

Penn StateSELL
The Nittany Lions struggled to put away a bad Virginia Tech team (they've lost to Appalachian State. At home.) at Bryce Jordan. Offensively the team is, as expected, deferring to D.J. Newbill to make things happen. And to his credit, he is (54.0 eFG while attempting 31 percent of the team's shots while on the floor...which is pretty much always). But the rest of the squad isn't doing enough, particularly on the block, as the Nittany Lions are converting just 57 percent of their shots at the basket. Against the type of schedule they've played so far (290th in opponent Pythagorean rating), that's a problem. But don't expect Penn State to be exposed anytime soon, but it will be a sudden wakeup call—the first game against a likely Tournament team is New Year's Eve. At the Kohl Center.

(Also, apologies for omitting the Nittany Lions on the initial list. Still working out some kinks.)

The last time Matt Painter had an offense this good, Robbie Hummel was still playing for him. And most surprisingly, the offense has been great even with A.J. Hammons largely picking up where he left off last year as an inexplicably turnover-prone center that fouls way too much. In part because of that, but more because freshman Isaac Haas is the goods, that might not matter much this season. Haas is making 72 percent of his shots, has been one of the best rebounders in the country, and draws more fouls than anyone else in Division I. Last call for the bandwagon.

Rutgers: HOLD

The win over Clemson might say more about Clemson than Rutgers, but for a team that lost to St. Peter's by 18 at home, it counts as a tremendous victory. Unfortunately, St. Peter's still happened, and the hapless Scarlet Knights were absolutely embarrassed by Virginia.

Why did Wisconsin lose to Duke? Principally, it was because Duke made its jumpers (58% from 3, 75% (!!!!) on mid-range shots). Sure, allowing 38 percent of the other team's shots to occur at the rim is too many, but it's not excessive. After all, a full 40 percent of Wisconsin's shot attempts occurred at the rim. Everywhere else, the Badgers were even or better than the Blue Devils:
(per Shot Analytics). That said, keep an eye on Wisconsin's two-point defense going forward. It isn't bad, per se, but it's also not as good as you'd expect with such a tall lineup.

Otherwise, this is the same machine we figured we'd see this year. Until further notice, the Badgers are your favorites.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Rule No. 76

I'm kind of sick of making excuses for Iowa. I chalked up last year's bad finish to some bad luck mixed in with a sudden lapse in defensive effort. Two years ago the reason the Hawkeyes missed the NCAA Tournament was not because of their play, but because of their schedule

After last night's second half collapse against Texas, I don't know why, but that's it. I'm through excusing Fran McCaffrey's team. On paper, there's no reason for Iowa to lose by double digits to a solid—but not spectacular—Texas team. Pomeroy had this one pegged for a narrow two-point Texas victory. Instead Iowa was outscored 47-27 in the second half, and lost by 14.

The general reason why Iowa lost is no great mystery, as it was Iowa's lowest point per possession output since the 2013 NIT Championship game. And sure, there are a couple of places that Iowa wasn't so good at which were not all that surprising. The Hawkeyes turned the ball over on 22 percent of their offensive possessions, which is not unexpected for a team that's a little short on capable ballhandlers. But why is a team that starts three players 6-9 and taller—and feeds most of the offense through those players—hitting just 30 percent of its twos? Here's a helpful chart that explains that fairly well (via Shot Analytics):

The blue portion is the number of shots Iowa attempted at the rim. You'll notice the area is small enough that the graphing software felt there was inadequate real estate to fit "at the basket" within the small slice afforded by Iowa's misguided offensive attack. There's no reason why two-thirds of Iowa's shots need to be mid-range jumpers. And I'm not going to come up with any excuses here.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Indiana bombed away on SMU: 

Indiana will feature one of the better backcourts in the Big Ten this season, with Yogi Ferrell and James Blackomon figuring to account for most of the shots. But even the more prominent members of the supporting cast will be on a steady diet of three-pointers. Where the team is weak, however, is on the interior. Hanner Mosquera-Perea is still very much a work in progress offensively, leaving Troy Williams as the only legitimate threat to do significant damage inside the arc. We'll see if he's up for it, but I expect the Hoosiers to live and die with the three ball. Expect fewer turnovers and rebounds as well this season. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

2014-15 Season Preview

Josh: Back to our old stomping grounds! With no corporate shackles upon us, we can be so edgy now. I’m going to start doing things like assuming readers know what I mean when I write “eFG,” and I might even just stop spelling out “percentage.” That Shift + 5 command is there for a reason!

How long can we really expect the Big Ten to remain basketball’s best conference? This would be the 5th year in a row (per kenpom) if it comes to pass, and that’s with the ACC basically gobbling up every recent national champion that does not start with a hard-K sound (it’s the “A-see-see,” not the “A-kay-kay.” That’s why you weren’t invited, Connecticut.).

Also, let’s jump right to the brass tacks—our predictions seem out of whack with most others when it comes to the subject of three teams:

  1. Michigan State
  2. Iowa
  3. Illinois

I’ll let you pick the first one—explain why we’re making a left turn.

Mike: I was honestly a bit shocked when I saw that KenPom’s preseason rankings still had the Big Ten as the nation’s best conference. Not because I expect the Big Ten to be down per se, but because I figured a conference systematically poaching schools specifically for their basketball programs would eventually take the top spot. The Big Ten enters this season with two additions that, taken together, actually hurt the basketball side of things, yet the ACC is still looking up at our guys.

It speaks to the job Big Ten ADs have done hiring and retaining basketball coaches over the past decade, as even the lower level programs should be respectable this season. It is this depth that gives the Big Ten the edge over the ACC, as our east coast brethren actually boast more KenPom top 10 and top 25 teams. Of course, the relative quality of the lower half of a conference doesn’t do much to drive media narrative, so I expect we’ll be fighting a losing battle when it comes to discussing the nation’s best conference, a la 2010-11 when the Big Ten was actually better top-to-bottom than the Big East “meatgrinder” that captivated the basketball media.

As for our predictions, I’ll tackle the easiest one first (you’re welcome). Most people look at Iowa and see the following basic facts:

  1. They lost a bunch of games down the stretch and barely made the NCAA tournament.
  2. They lose leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble.
  3. They don’t bring in any highly-rated recruits.

If this were the only data you had, you’d predict Iowa to be worse than last season and once again struggle to make the NCAA tournament. Of course, this isn’t the only data we have, and digging slightly deeper reveals information that points in the other direction.

Iowa achieved a very nice +0.07 efficiency margin in conference play, and the Hawkeyes return a healthy amount of minutes. I’m expecting Iowa to be about as good as it was last season, but with a more normal distribution of wins and losses. On the surface, this will look like a big improvement, and it will probably get Fran McCaffery some Big Ten COY buzz. With the lack of dominant teams after Wisconsin, Iowa could conceivably finish second or third without needing anything crazy to happen.

How about Illinois? Why are we higher on this team than most?

Josh: One word—transfers. The Illini welcome two that could each make an All-Big Ten team. Aaron Cosby put up a 54.0 eFG as a sophomore for Seton Hall with higher than average usage. The net drag on his efficiency was a high turnover rate, which can be explained in part by the fact that he had to handle a lot of point guard duties (the next best option was Tom Maayan, who had 31 more turnovers than field goal attempts). There won’t be such a shortage of ballhandling in Champaign so I expect that to improve.

As for Ahmad Starks, he’s more of a combo guard who basically just does one thing (shoot 3s), but he does it well (roughly 38 percent over his last two seasons at Oregon State, with a Shot Percentage around 23.5).

Those are the two pieces unaccounted for by Kenpom, which sees Illinois taking a moderate step up due to the amount of returning minutes and the fact that the team will be giving a fair number of minutes to sophomores.

This isn’t to say that Illinois doesn’t have weaknesses—Illinois’ defense ranked 3rd in the Big Ten, but there wasn’t much of a difference between 3rd and 6th last season. I could see some steps back there due to 1) Starks and Cosby are not as good defenders as Tracy Abrams and 2) simple regression for a team that was unexpectedly good on that end of the floor last season.

The bigger hole, however, is that on paper this team only has one way to score—threes. There’s a lot of players that can make it rain, but there aren’t a lot of candidates to knock down 2s at a 55 percent clip or better. Can it be top-50 freshman Leron Black? One of the sophomore big men? Hybrid guard/forward Malcolm Hill? Sure, it could be any of those, but the likeliest scenario is that Illinois won’t be able to fully capitalize on stretched defenses. But hey, that worked out OK for UConn (you heard it here first!—Illinois is going to win the national championship!).

Alright, what about the Spartans? Is it just me, or is there a bit more “give Izzo credit” going around this year than most (and it’s odd that it would be this year, as The Streak was finally broken last season)?

Mike: There’s definitely a lot of “never bet against Izzo” built in to the expectations for Michigan State, but maybe that’s how it should be. After all, Michigan State hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1997, and they’ve garnered a 5-seed or better in all but one of the past seven seasons. Izzo has earned some benefit of the doubt.

That said, I see some reasons for Michigan State fans to worry. With Harris, Payne, and Appling gone, Izzo is handing the keys to some guys that have done well as role players but will have to change their stripes as upperclassmen. Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, and Travis Trice will have to be the ringleaders of this team, and only Dawson has ever posted a usage rate over 20 percent. Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes will pick up some of the slack, but, as an up-transfer, he’s not likely to be high-usage either. Are these guys ready to gobble up all of the shots that were consumed with such high efficiency by Harris, Payne, and Appling?

There are also concerns on the interior, where the only scholarship players taller than 6-6 are Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. Costello has some nice defensive potential, but he’s foul-prone and a non-factor on offense. Schilling was generally lost as a freshman, so he’ll need quite the sophomore leap to be a net positive.

Despite those concerns, I still think Michigan State will be solid, but there’s a clear possibility that this ends up being a bubble team if things don’t break right.

Speaking of elite programs that lose a bunch of minutes, how do you like Ohio State in year one of the post-Craft era? Doomed by a lack of grittiness and hustle?

Josh: Not at all—there might not be a team with more future pros on it in the Big Ten than Ohio State. Last year was a really down year for the Buckeyes (and they still had 25 wins!) in large part because the offense just wasn’t clicking. So of course I think they’ll improve after losing their best two offensive players.

OK, so that requires some explanation. The first is that there’s a lot more sophomore minutes here than first meets the eye. Marc Loving is an easy one, but Kam Williams is also going to be in his second season after redshirting last year, and I’m very high on him. Matta also went out and got Trevor Thompson who, while he isn’t a superstar by any means, will at least keep less desirable options off the floor.

The other piece to this is that Matta just has an incredible track record of powerful offenses since he arrived in the Big Ten. With 8 top-100 players on the roster, it’s hard to see him failing to put a good offense on the floor again.

I think we’re largely in line with the rest of the world on the remainder of the Big Ten. So let’s go in a different direction—which Big Ten coach is feeling the most heat this season?

Mike: Given the recent off-the-court issues, Tom Crean has some pitchforks pointed at him, and another lackluster season on the court could have him packing his bags. Honestly, though, I wonder if Mark Turgeon isn’t in the more tenuous situation. This is his fourth season at Maryland, and I’m wondering if it’s not NCAAs-or-bust with a senior-laden team. The revolving door of transfers certainly doesn’t help Turgeon’s cause.

It seems silly to Geeks like us, but I also wonder if Fran McCaffery might feel some heat if this season goes poorly. For all the solid tempo-free numbers the Hawkeyes have put up the past two seasons, all they have to show for it is an 11-seed and a loss in a play-in game. McCaffery also has yet to post a winning record in conference play. If year five brings more of the same, might Iowa look to make a change?

Matt Painter could certainly use a good season in West Lafayette. Since Robbie Hummel left, Purdue has gone 13-23 in conference play. A return to the NCAA tournament would go a long way toward keeping Painter’s seat cool.

I almost don’t want to mention Pat Chambers here, as I think he’s safe barring a disaster of a season, but most ADs want to see results by year four. Penn State basketball is a different animal, however, and an NIT season might be perfectly acceptable for Chambers. Still, if things go really poorly, Penn State could be looking to make a change.

Realistically, that’s it. The rest of the conference either has a head coach with three or fewer years at the helm, or a head coach so successful that their seat is at zero degrees Kelvin.

Enough about these old guys. How about the kids? Which freshmen do you expect to make the biggest impact this season?

Josh: Well, I’m on record as seeing James Blackmon as the conference’s top freshman, and I’m not backing off that now. D’Angelo Russell on Ohio State is another popular pick, but to me he looks more like a big upside player than an immediate impact guy. I think the more intriguing newcomer on OSU is redshirt freshman Kam Williams.

Blackmon just provides too many reasons to back him. He was a McDonald’s All-American that was highly-efficient and productive in his last AAU season, and he’s coming into a situation where he’s got a ton of available playing time. Ohio State has the luxury of options with its talented roster, so there’s going to be less opportunity for Russell and/or Williams.

Melo Trimble on Maryland is also going to have a lot of opportunity, and you shouldn’t sleep on Illinois’ Leron Black, either. The Illini don’t have many proven rebounders on the low block, and could really use a player that can make 2s at a high rate. Michigan’s Kameron Chatman will also have a lot of opportunity (he’s slotted to consume a lot of GRIII’s minutes), but the reports from the team’s Italy trip indicate that he’s not quite there yet.

Of course having said all that, it’s probably going to be some under-the-radar guy like P.J. Thompson.

OK, tell me who is going to breakout this season as a sophomore? And for the record, a breakout is not just the same level of performance with a lot more minutes. So don’t pick Zak Irvin.

Mike: I really like Nigel Hayes to take his game to another level, but he was so good as a freshman that maybe it won’t count as a breakout. So I’ll go with Marc Loving. As a lightly-used freshman, Loving wasn’t afraid to chuck, and his efficiency was solid despite unsustainably low shooting percentages at the rim (45%) and from three (26%). I’m confident those numbers will jump up significantly, and the Buckeyes need a new chucker with LaQuinton Ross gone. Loving could end up the leading scorer on one of the Big Ten’s better teams.

Speaking of better teams, is anyone going to seriously challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, or will the Badgers finish two games clear of the field like KenPom projects?

Josh: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a Deion Sanders high step to the title for Wisconsin. On paper, no one looks close, and I think the coach is pretty good, too. And really, Sam Dekker is taller now? Nigel Hayes is shooting 3s? That frontline is scary.

OK, onto the POY prediction before we throw up some standings: are you crazy enough to pick anyone other than Frank the Tank?

Mike: Wisconsin’s run in the tournament and the recent preseason chatter has been quite vindicating for us. We picked Kaminsky as the Big Ten POY last season, while everybody else was gaga for Nik Stauskas. When’s picks were compiled, Kaminsky wasn’t even a unanimous first team selection. Then he played great in the NCAA tournament, and now everybody is on board the Kaminsky train.

All that aside, I do believe Kaminsky will be the Big Ten’s best player this season, but I could see scenarios where somebody else takes home the award. Terran Petteway figures to again pile up the counting stats, though I think Nebraska will disappoint with so many people hoping for a big jump from last season. Yogi Ferrell could get some hype if Indiana surprises. Likewise for Andre Hollins and Minnesota. Sam Dekker has the talent to give Wisconsin two POY candidates.

Still, Kaminsky is the overwhelming favorite, and he’s my pick for Big Ten POY.

This should be an interesting season. The top of the Big Ten isn’t as strong as in years past, but the middle is unusually tough. KenPom’s preseason projections have 11 Big Ten teams in the top 40, so it will be a dogfight just to get to 9 or 10 conference wins. The margin for error between a surefire NCAA bid and a disappointing NIT bid figures to be vanishingly small this season. Bring it on.

Predicted Order of Finish
  1. Wisconsin 15-3
  2. OSU 12-6
  3. Iowa 12-6
  4. Michigan 11-7
  5. Illinois 11-7
  6. Nebraska 10-8
  7. MSU 9-9
  8. Maryland 9-9
  9. Indiana 8-10
  10. Minnesota 8-10
  11. Purdue 7-11
  12. Penn State 6-12
  13. Northwestern 5-13
  14. Rutgers 3-15

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rutgers Season Preview

Fresh start. More than anything, that’s what Rutgers basketball is looking for now. This isn’t a program with a storied history—this March it will likely be no NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 25 years, with only 5 wins in the Tournament in school history.

But there have been bright spots. The 1975-76 team went 31-2, and the losses came in the last two games of the season (National Semifinal loss to Michigan, and then a loss in the Third Place Game). Usually when a team has this kind of spike, it’s because there was some transcendent talent on the team (for instance, Walt Frazier on Southern Illinois). But there was no such NBA legacy on that team—the two guys that had more than a cup of coffee in the NBA was a freshman named “Jammin” James Bailey, and junior point guard Eddie Jordan. The team was coached by Tom Young, who coached the team for nearly another decade, but never achieving nearly the same level of success.

Before last season, the school hired Jordan to come back and coach the team after a mixed NBA coaching stint. As Rutgers is remaking its image in the wake of the Mike Rice practice scandal, it makes sense for the program to reach back to its glory days. But ultimately, a big bag of nostalgia isn’t going to fill the RAC (for those unfamiliar, Rutgers officially plays at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, but it’s mostly known as RAC for its original name, the Rutgers Athletic Center. Sorry, Louis.). Wins will.

It’s obviously too early to tell if Jordan will work out at Rutgers. A Pete Carril disciple, you’d expect Jordan to emphasize a methodical offense with a lot of backcuts, but so far he’s sticking to the typical October script and emphasizing “uptempo.” My feelings on that subject goes back a ways, but suffice to say I don’t necessarily believe Jordan (or any coach) when he says that. I also really don’t believe that Jordan will find much success this way:

With Rutgers' speed and athleticism, they have the ability to wear out teams. If the Knights can keep the ball moving up and down the court, keep opposing teams running after every missed shot or rebound, that's going to create offensive opportunities late in games. In close games, it could mean the difference between a last second win and a last second loss.

Nope, nope, nope. I guarantee that at no point will Rutgers send Frank Kaminsky to the sidelines for dehydration, or that Rayvonte Rice will only be able to log 21 minutes because he can’t keep up. If there’s one thing Big Ten teams uniformly hang their hats on, it’s that no one is going to be able to run off missed shots. This has less than zero percent chance of working.

(Of course, that’s the writer of the article talking, not Jordan. Even if Jordan did say it, what coaches say about their teams in October has something like a 3% chance of being true that season.)

So what can we expect? Well, first we can expect a lot of Mack ‘n Jack: seniors Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack collectively consumed 51 percent of the team’s possessions while they were on the floor last season. Jack figures to be one of the better big men in the conference, and is pretty much the epitome of a traditional Big Ten center. He’s kind of what you’d expect of a Terence Dials, minus 30 pounds. Mack is a diminutive 5-9 point guard that excels at everything except the obvious Achilles’ heel for a diminutive 5-9 point guard—he made just 45 percent of his attempts at the rim last season. Other than that, there’s not much coming back, thanks to three transfers and a couple graduations. Sophomore Junior Etou and senior Malick Kone are the only returning rotation players, and both struggled mightily last season.  I actually like incoming freshman Mike Williams quite a bit—he should play a lot, and might not be overmatched despite his 3-star status. D.J. Foreman might also fall into that camp, as the 6-7 power forward averaged 15 points a game, shooting 60 percent and leading his AAU team in rebounding on the EYBL circuit. I am concerned, however, that a guy who was basically playing center led his team in turnovers. Very Hammonsey.

The rest of Rutgers’ 6-man freshman class comes from off the beaten path, so I won’t try and guess how good they are.

Bottom line: Jack and Mack will be one of the better duos in the Big Ten. The problem is that they probably have the worst supporting cast in the Big Ten. Rutgers is rebuilding, and it’s not going to happen overnight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Indiana Season Preview

Warning: this post starts on the soapbox. If you would rather not read that—and I don't blame you—here's a jump to the part when I start talking about actual basketball.
I had planned to write about Indiana last—finishing with Rutgers seems like such a letdown (spoiler alert: they’re not going to have a good season). But Indiana is always entertaining, mostly because it’s a great program that nonetheless has some extremely low points. In 2007-08 for example, the Hoosiers started the season 17-1, all shortly before the wheels came off in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson phone call scandal. The team went 8-7 the rest of the way, during which time Sampson was fired. But that hardly describes it—I have this vague memory of A.J. Ratliff making guest appearances on a local radio show to basically gossip about the team (is that right?). Ratliff was one of the better players from the year prior, but never played in 2007-08. At first he was ineligible, then he left the team for “personal reasons.” And that wasn’t the only piece of drama for team during that time—more on that in a bit. 

It’s one thing for a team to implode, but IU’s 2008 implosion was spectacular. This was a team that probably should have been something like a 3-seed, but ended the year by losing to Penn State, getting Hoff’ed in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and then was thoroughly outclassed by a pretty average Arkansas team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Sampson failed his team on and off the court, so it did not come as a surprise that the Hoosier faithful loved the next coach, whose name was Not Kelvin, his name was Tom Crean.

Crean’s arrival seemed to be more about paying respects to the program itself rather than talk about Crean’s résumé. Which is fine, I guess. Fans I’m sure were getting restless—the team has only gotten to the Sweet 16 three times over the past 18 seasons, and has gotten past that stage just once. IU ruled the Big Ten during Knight’s heyday, and I’m sure at times it did seem as easy as behaving off the court, and listening to the General about driving the paint. 

Which leads me to today. Yesterday, Crean announced suspensions for Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson for failing offseason drug tests, and for freshman Emmitt Holt for his role in the Devin Davis accident. I fall into the camp that finds these suspensions a little uncomfortable, but not for the reasons that Dan Dakich or Gregg Doyel do. Dakich is a phenomenal color guy who has a lot of insights to offer about what happens on the court, but I just can’t with this take. Dakich’s ire is focused on the players, who of course are 18 and 19 year olds who, in my humble estimation, are fitting right in with their colleagues. Do 18 and 19 year olds, away at college, drink? Of course they do. Do they use drugs sometimes? Of course they do. Does that make them terrible people, or indicate that they “don’t stand for anything?” Absolutely not. 

Dakich is well within his right to complain that he’s “tired of hearing boys will be boys,” which only serves to remind us that he’s a 52-year old who grew out of such things a long time ago. I don’t mean that as a slight—complaining about kids is a longstanding tradition that goes back to the Roman Empire. But as #HotSportsTakes go, the “these daggum kids” is one whose popularity will never stop being a mystery to me. Then there’s also the issue that when Dakich was last seen roaming the sidelines for Indiana, the program had plenty of off-court issues as well. 

As for Gregg Doyel, he thinks Tom Crean should be fired, because the team is failing off the court. As far as I can tell though, these off-court incidents all have no victims, or the victim was actually at fault (and here’s my first problem with the suspension—why is Devin Davis not suspended? Is it because he’s hurt, and that’s seen as punishment enough? I’m not opposed to that view, but it seems like something that should be addressed. Davis was, after all, also underage and also drinking that night. Apologies if I missed it.). And I do think that’s an important distinction. I think the case against Brian Kelly or Steve Alford is a lot stronger. Off field/court stuff matters, but not all to the same degree. 

Let me be clear—the players made mistakes, and some form of punishment is appropriate. But calls for Crean’s job, or a description of the program as out of control are off base. Ultimately, these transgressions do fall under the category of “college kids will be college kids.” Will there be a lot of lap running in the Hoosiers’ future? Of course, and I don’t blame the coaches for doling that kind of punishment out. 

Nor do I blame Crean for conveniently stopping the suspensions short of Indiana’s matchup with SMU. The four covered games instead include two exhibitions and two games against low-major teams. Crean obviously knows these suspensions will not hurt his team’s chances this season, nor should they. The coach cannot credibly say that these players let their teammates down, if their teammates will not suffer any real consequences as a result. No, these suspensions are a bone to toss to the gathering mob at the gates.


As for why the mob is there in the first place, my hunch is that had Indiana won 25 games last year, the reaction today would be much different. Crean has won just 37 percent of his Big Ten games at Indiana, and even if you drop the first two seasons he’s won just 49 percent of his conference matchups. Last year’s team finished a disappointing 7-11 in the Big Ten, hampered by a lack of ballhandling and shooting ability. Yogi Ferrell was really the best—and sometimes only—option for both of those, and everyone knew it. Noah Vonleh was a great talent, but his best basketball is still well into the future. 

Most of the offense therefore consisted at diving to the rim without much success:

Shot attempts at the rim
Field goal pct at the rim

As Dylan Burkhardt pointed out, Indiana’s offense was extremely one-dimensional last season. And bull-rushing to the rim did not just lead to a lot of misses in the paint, but also to a lot of turnovers, as the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in turnover percentage last year. 

If this year’s team is going to improve, the first item on the agenda is to change the team’s offensive identity. The biggest reason for that figures to be freshman guard James Blackmon, who is my pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. In his final AAU summer, Blackmon led his team with over 19 points per game, shooting 48 percent on threes (50.0 3PA percentage), and he also assured that his shooting was no fluke by hitting 85 percent of his free throws. He also showed enough ballhandling skills to be at least a combo guard. I know Ohio State also has a couple of heralded freshmen, but Blackmon is definitely going to play a ton of minutes, so he’s my pick. 

The backcourt therefore looks solid with Ferrell and Blackmon. Beyond that, it’s a lot of question marks. I expect freshman shooting guard Robert Johnson to play quite a bit. Although he put up a nice points per game average (16.7) in AAU, it wasn’t as efficient as you’d like to see (42 percent on 2s, 36 percent on 3s). IU also has two top-100 freshmen becoming sophomores in the suspended Williams and Robinson. Both were very reluctant jumpshooters last season:

Pct of Shots at Rim
Pct Shots 2P jumper
Pct Shots 3P
Troy Williams
Stanford Robinson

This isn’t to say that one cannot be successful with this kind of shot distribution (Le’Bryan Nash, Tarik Black, and Amile Jefferson—to name a few—all had even more of their shots dedicated to at-rim looks), though Robinson might be barking up the wrong tree. The list of successful players near his height that are so laser-focused on the rim includes Devin Brooks, and I guess Aaron Craft, though both guys were not very efficient in conference play.

(Robinson is fully aware that he needs to improve his shooting, and to that end he’s now shooting with his right hand. There is some precedent for this, but it’s not like Tristan Thompson has evolved into a much better shooter than when he shot left-handed.)

Overall though, I feel confident that Williams at least will show substantial improvement, and coupled with Blackmon, the team’s offense should take a step forward even with the loss of Vonleh. But defensively, there’s simply no making up this kind of gap. Vonleh was one of the best defenders in the country last season, and replacing his minutes will largely be junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Mosquera-Perea is certainly a big bodied player, and has shown a lot of similar skills as Vonleh (rebounding, propensity to get to the line, shotblocking), albeit in much smaller minutes. But it’s simply asking too much to expect him to replace Vonleh’s defensive impact. That said, Indiana potentially has another option in Devin Davis, who actually saw more time down the stretch last year than Mosquera-Perea. However, his injury from the off-court incident is certainly a setback. 

Overall, I expect a better offense, a worse defense, and a date with the bubble for Tom Crean. If he’s able to sneak the Hoosiers into the Dance, I expect the volume on the off-court drama to come down dramatically. As it should.