Monday, October 24, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Minnesota Gophers

Going into last season, it was widely acknowledged that the only possible drama for Rutgers was whether it would be just awful, or historically awful (it was the latter). Minnesota's only goal seemed to be to do everything it good to not leave Rutgers alone in its infamy. The Gophers went so far as to actually lose to Rutgers—by 23!—in the final game of the regular season. Sure, Minnesota had only walk-on guards available to play (and only 3 of those). But it still took a lot of effort to look as bad as Minnesota did that night.

Richard was not pleased.

Speaking of Pitino, it's not hard to make the case that he's on the hot seat. His teams have won fewer games in every successive season. His players are getting into trouble, publicly, which is an especially bad look considering the revelation of the scandals that took place at Louisville while Pitino was an assistant there (and no, I do not give credence to the head-in-sand defense).

The good news is that help is on the way. The Gophers welcome top-50 wing Amir Coffey to the team. He'll play—and probably start—immediately. If he can perform, then the starting five doesn't look so bad. Jordan Murphy had a solid freshman season, and should improve dramatically as a sophomore. Nate Mason is one of the better point guards in the conference. Also joining the team is Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch, who has put up quality numbers, but he's faced off-the-court questions as well. But there's no denying his talent—he may well be the best shotblocker in college basketball. Bakary Konate...can be tall and rebound.

OK, so there's still work to do. The good news, however, is the bar for improvement is quite low. Lynch's presence should instantly raise the floor on the defense to "mediocre," with some potential to be above average if Pitino utilizes his shotblocker well. Offensively, however, there are still significant concerns. This was the worst outside-shooting team in the Big Ten last year, and it lost Joey King, the only player that could plausibly be characterized as an outside threat. While the interior scoring might actually be sufficient, opponents need some reason not to put all 5 defenders in the paint. Even if Mason finds his shot again, at best that means replacing King's production, and Minnesota must do much more than that to actually improve enough to be a credible threat to play postseason basketball.

Overall, I expect a lot of ugly basketball in Minneapolis, given the subpar offense and defensive potential for this team. Expect more than a couple of games to be played in the 40s and 50s.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Michigan State Spartans

Behold—the New Kentucky.

For years, John Calipari's approach to program-building has been perhaps the simplest in all of college basketball: go get the best players. It's a little on-the-nose, but they don't hand out trophies for being cunning. And while there is the occasional hiccup, it's hard to argue there are more consistent methods for achieving excellence, as the Wildcats have won a stunning 82% of their games since Cal took the reigns.

Never let it be said that Tom Izzo is stuck in his ways, because it appears he's giving this whole "recruit a bunch of 5-stars" approach a try. This fall, Izzo welcomes three top-30 RSCI recruits to East Lansing, plus another in the top-50 for good measure. Headlining the class are a pair of wings, Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. In 2015, the Spartans had top-30 talent Deyonta Davis (who was as good or better than advertised, and is now in the NBA), and the 2017 class is off to a similar start as well.

This is somewhat of a changed course for Izzo. Michigan State has always had good recruits, of course. But the quality of the class was somewhat dependent upon the talent level in the state of Michigan, allowing for the occasional Gary Harris or Adreian Payne from neighboring states.

But Miles Bridges is from West Virginia. Langford hails from Alabama. From my vantage point, it seems like the Spartans are no longer content being a destination school for players inclined to play in the Big Ten. It wants to be a destination program, period. So far, so good.

As for the immediate future, MSU's chances are entirely tied up with how well the kids play. Sure, the presence of Eron Harris, Matt McQuaid, and other veterans on the roster should ensure a relatively high floor for the team. But with this class, MSU undoubtedly has visions of a Final Four this season.

What powered the team last year was offense, and specifically perimeter offense. This is something that Izzo has embraced somewhat reluctantly, but he has allowed more three-point attempts as the Spartans have made a higher percentage of those attempts.

I suspect without the high volume, 40%+ 3P shooters Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, that we will see a reversal of this trend.

If you've gotten this far in the preview you'll notice I've just thrown out a lot of factoids masquerading as analysis. So it's probably time to give up the bit—if you can find any analysis out there that can project Michigan State with any more resolution than "they should be pretty good," go read that. From my vantage point, you have a team with virtually worthless past-year data due to all the exits, a strong but not legendary-strong (e.g., Duke) incoming class, and an experienced coach with a long-track record of success in his current position. I feel pretty good about saying Michigan State should be one of the top-20 teams in the country this year.

Beyond that, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Michigan Wolverines

This year is something of a "Yes, but" season for Michigan. This is a team that seemingly lost a lot of key pieces from last year's squad. Rotation big man Ricky Doyle, sharpshooter Aubrey Dawkins, senior combo guard Spike Albrecht, and former 5-star forward Kameron Chatman all transferred. Oh, and there's also the small matter of Caris LeVert departing for the NBA.

"Yes, but..."

Doyle's inconsistency had him firmly down the depth chart by the time conference play rolled around. Ditto Chatman, whose minutes—five-stars be damned—were basically garbage minutes (with the notable exception of his heroics in the Big Ten Tournament). Dawkins had value, certainly, but his defensive shortcomings led to more time on the bench than a player possessing such offensive brilliance might otherwise deserve. And Albrecht and LeVert, while valuable, were injured for virtually the entirety of the conference season.

So, even accounting for those losses, this is still a tournament team that returns over 80 percent of last sreason's conference minutes. Additionally, Wright State's strange decision to fire coach Billy Donlon has turned to Michigan's gain, as he's now an assistant. Donlon's defenses at WSU were solid, so there's an expectation he'll be able to impart wisdom to the Wolverines, who have been mediocre defensively under Beilein.

"Yes, but..."

Donlon's slot had to come from somewhere, and Michigan lost two assistants—Bakari Alexander and Lavall Jordan—to head coaching jobs. Jordan's loss might be especially felt, as he's widely credited with developing point guards in Ann Arbor. Under his tutelage, UM has produced top floor generals such as Darius Morris, Trey Burke, and now Derrick Walton. Further, it's impossible to ignore the point guard skills that have been developed in shooting guards such as Nik Stauskas and LeVert. Sometimes these things can be overstated, but time will tell.

We've seen enough Beilein Ball to know what to expect out of this year's team. No matter the frontcourt talent level in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines will space the floor and execute ball screens effectively to allow for easy looks for big men.

But with Dawkins gone, the Wolverines are uncharacteristically short on shooters. Even assuming a Zak Irvin reverses his 3-year slide in three-point accuracy, Michigan returns just three high-volume and accurate outside shooters. That would be an exception for a Beilein team—the only other one that managed to sustain a good offense despite a similar number of shooters also had the luxury of Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson, Jr. converting on 60 percent of their numerous two-point attempts. That will not be the case this season.

Defensively, we likely will not see what this team is made of until the conference season. Michigan tends to revert to zone defense against tougher opponents. If that starts coming out against non-conference foes, then it's safe to assume Donlon's influence has not made the desired impact.

Even so, I wonder if the Wolverines aren't being picked just a touch low. Last year's squad was quite the patchwork job, given the number of injuries. Assuming the team is healthier this season, there's a lot of minutes coming back (despite the transfers), and some of those minutes figure to come from leaping sophomores. Plus, Michigan welcomes a quality class headlined by point guard Xavier Simpson.

On paper, it's hard to see this team matching the success of the halcyon days of Burke and McGary. On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing a floor that's lower than last year's NCAA Tournament team. A season that puts them back in the play-in game (or worse) would be a disappointment, and a team that is still in the hunt for the conference title toward the end of February would be rousing success.

Friday, October 14, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Maryland Terrapins

In the 2014-15 season, and through the first 25 games of last season, Maryland went a combined 18-2 in games decided by six points (2 possessions) or fewer. Over the last 11 games of last season, the Terrapins went just 2-3 in such games.

Clearly, the Terps just stopped practicing clutch or forgot to lift the special weights that made them mentally strong.

All jokes aside, UMD definitely struggled more in the thick of conference play, primarily because the offense nosedived from the non-conference results. Against non-conference foes, Mark Turgeon's squad posted an offensive efficiency of 1.2, the third-best in the Big Ten. In conference play, the Terps ranked 7th. Sure, teams can play vastly different non-conference schedules, but Maryland's non-conference strength of schedule (per Pomeroy) was 6th-best in the Big Ten. Very average.

More distressing is the fact that the best parts about Maryland's offense in conference play are the parts that have existed the program. Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Jake Layman each posted high offensive ratings in conference play, and each has moved on. While the point guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Candidate Melo Trimble opted to return for his junior season, his performance against the Big Ten can be rightfully deemed "mixed." While he orchestrated the offense well enough to post solid assist and turnover rates, it seemingly came at the expense of his scoring. Free throw trips were down, as was his three-point percentage. As his shot charts (conference play) from 2015 and 2016 demonstrate, Melo went ice-cold from the three-point line at the top of a key—a heavy volume area for him.

It's likely Melo simply went cold for a bit—he's an excellent free throw shooter—but without those other weapons around him, defenses will focus more of their attention on him.

There is some help, on the way however. The Terps welcome a pair of top-100 recruits, though neither is ranked where one might expect high impact results. Additionally, sophomore Dion Wiley returns after missing last season due to injury. And LG Gill has transferred from Duquesne, and will be eligible immediately. Gill has a unique skillset in that he can finish around the rim, hit 3s, and eschews mid-range shots. If he can keep that up as he moves up to major conference play, he'll be an asset (albeit at low usage).

Still, the Terps lose enough pieces—particularly in the frontcourt—that it's hard to see how the team will compete for a conference title again. In fact, it may take a special season from Trimble just to keep them off the bubble.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Iowa Hawkeyes

Was that good enough? Last year was Fran McCaffrey's 6th in Iowa, after a highly successful five-year stint at Siena. He's now coached the full careers for three classes that he recruited. Over his six years, he's gone to the Dance three times, never making it past the first weekend. If that run is considered the general high point, is that good enough for Iowa fans?

That's the question I keep coming back to with Iowa, because this season is likely to be the first McCaffrey season with significant regression. Last year's team featured four seniors in the starting lineup, so there are a lot of minutes to fill. Moreover, last year's bench minutes were largely invisible on offense. Iowa brings in a typical McCaffrey class, mixing in strong 3-star players with a low 4-star. Given McCaffrey's record, there's probably a pleasant surprise in there somewhere as well.

Even so, the odds that this year's team matches last year's are very low. The offense will flow through Peter Jok—of that we can be certain. And Jok is one of the truly special players in the Big Ten, but he's likely going to be tasked with creating shots for himself and his teammates, potentially being the primary ballhandler (at least late in games), and likely having to guard the other team's best backcourt player. He's good, but he's not D'Angelo Russell.

I also suspect that the youth is going to slow down the Hawkeye attack this season. Upon his arrival, one of the first tasks for McCaffrey was to transform Iowa from a plodding team under Todd Lickliter to a fast (OK, by Big Ten standards) team with very short possessions. Even better, Iowa's managed to do this without sacrificing turnovers in recent seasons.

That's been a big driver for Iowa's offensive success, as only Indiana took a higher percentage of its shots in transition among Big Ten teams (per Moreover, the delta between Iowa's effective field goal percentage on transition shots and those taken in the regular flow of the offense (9.5) was the third-largest in the Big Ten.

I suspect we'll see less running from Iowa this season or, at the very least, less effective running. It's likely not a coincidence that Iowa's recent success in it's fast-paced (again, Big Ten standards) attack came with upperclass ballhandlers at the wheel. Jok figures to be the only Hawkeye that fits that bill this season.

Defensively, Iowa is due for even more regression. The high-water mark for McCaffrey's teams has been slightly above average in that department, which is where last season ended up. But, that was with the assistance of one of the best shot-blockers in the Big Ten, as well as on of the conference's best defensive rebounders. Junior Dom Uhl figures to inherit many of those minutes, and he's neither of those things. Sophomores Nicholas Baer and Ahmad Wagner were subpar on the boards last year in limited minutes, and after that, you're looking at freshmen.

Netting it out, I see a team that can realistically hope to be about average on offense, and striving for mediocrity on defense. If that doesn't sound like an NCAA Tournament team, that's because it's not. But this is a young team, the freshmen will turn into sophomores, and McCaffrey will continue to rebuild. Still the inputs are largely the same as they were 4 or 5 years ago, with the returns being three straight, short trips to the NCAA Tournament. So, I keep coming back to that question:

Was that good enough?

Monday, October 10, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Indiana Hoosiers

So, I didn't exactly nail last year's prediction on the Hoosiers (I expected 10-8, Crean ended up winning the conference outright at 15-3). Sure, I could point out that technically Indiana finished 2nd in efficiency margin to Michigan State, but the fact of the matter is that I whiffed on this team. So, if you don't agree with this preview, just point to the fact that this is the same bozo that predicted 10-8 last year.

And frankly, I'd kind of like to do that, too, because this honestly feels like guessing. On the one hand, Indiana was Very Good last year and Very Good teams typically are still at least good the following season. But no team has lost more conference minutes from last season than Indiana (assuming Collin Hartman's knee injury keeps him out for the year). So, last year's performance is perhaps less relevant with respect to this year.

But the minutes that IU does return are extremely good minutes. That's because they include sophomores Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby. Bryant made a ridiculous 68 percent of his 2s last year in Big Ten play, while paired an efficient supporting role on offense with excellent defense. That's what they did as freshmen—one expects even more from them as sophomores.

And of course, serial pants-adjuster Tom Crean is still the coach. For all his idiosyncrasies, there's no denying that Crean is one of the most gifted offensive minds in college basketball. In four of the past five seasons, the Hoosiers have fielded a top-10 offense nationally. From an Xs and Os standpoint, there are a lot of variations but the theme of IU's sets is that the real action does not start until after at least a couple of passes and some screening. Meaning, the defense is already in motion, already switching, hedging, helping before the Hoosiers have started the primary action. Here's an example of what I mean:

By the time Yogi Ferrell gets the ball back, the Maryland defense is scrambling. Ferrell has a clear driving lane, and plenty of passing options when the help defense inevitably shows up.

Of course, Ferrell made a great play to create the open 3. Does incoming transfer Josh Newkirk make that play? Does Robert Johnson make that play? James Blackmon, Jr.? Those players all have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them figures to be as good at the point guard position as Ferrell was. Ferrell provided Crean an incredible luxury of a primary ballhandler who could create shots for others, make his own shots, and rarely make poor decisions.

A pessimist might argue that we should wait to see the offense without Ferrell before assuming this version will be just as formidable. But we already saw such an offense in action, in 2012, when the Hoosiers had the best offensive efficiency in Big Ten play with perennially inefficient Verdell Jones as floor general. Sure, the offense was augmented by a highly efficient underclassman big man, and a do-it-all athletic forward...but that also sounds a lot like this year's team.

The smart money is that Indiana offensive competence continues. However, one thing worth keeping an eye on is turnovers Even with Ferrell and a decidedly perimeter-oriented attack, the Hoosiers were dead last in turnover rate in conference play. With Ferrell gone, and those ballhandling duties falling to the less capable, plus the likely shift from a outside-shooting team to one with more of an interior focus, and it's not a hard case to make that the offense will be held back by a turnover problem.

Defensively, IU went from the 2nd worst defensive team in the Big Ten to the 3rd best. Yes, Anunoby is a great defensive player, but he was on the floor for just under 40 percent of conference minutes. I think a better explanation is Bryant—and that's not because he's an otherwordly, Anthony Davis-type defender. But he is tall, which is something the 2015 Hoosiers sorely lacked (which contributed to a conference-worst defensive two-point percentage). The tall guy is back, but it's worth noting that defensive performance can be a fickle thing, so you wouldn't be faulted for seeing some regression there.

Overall, I see similar math for this year's Hoosiers as last year's. The offense should be good—when it doesn't turn the ball over—and the defense should be somewhere around "average." That's probably enough to put Indiana in the thick of the conference title race.

Friday, October 7, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

This season figures to be something of a referendum on John Groce. After igniting a fanbase accustomed to to Life on the Bubble by starting his tenure with 12 straight wins, the coach has gone 65-61 since. The problem is not very hard to identify, either. Unlike his predecessor (who was defined by consistently solid defenses), Groce's defenses have been good (2014), bad (2016), and average (2013 & 2015). But like his predecessor, Groce's offenses have been uniformly bad, with the notable exception of an average showing in 2013 (not coincidentally, this was the last time Illinois made the NCAA Tournament).

Indeed, Illinois fans that enjoy watching an efficient offense have been dying of thirst in the desert. Not since Dee Brown was suiting up for the Illini (a soundbyte I'm sure he's sick of hearing by now) has Illinois finished with a top-four offense in the Big Ten. And in only one of those seasons—2011—did the Illini finish in the top half of the conference in offensive efficiency.

Ten years, and only one top-half finish. That was so long ago, the aforementioned Brown has retired from playing basketball, and is now on Groce's staff. For Illinois' sake, one hopes Brown can impart some offensive wisdom to the team. He would be in a position to know, as he was the most offensively efficient player (138.6 Offensive Rating in Big Ten Play) on one of the most offensively dominant teams (1.3 Offensive Efficiency in Big Ten Play) in Big Ten history.

But while assembling a historic offensive machine requires not only acumen in design, but also the type of high-end talent that Illinois' roster lacks, managing "average" offensive performance requires neither. It does, however, require Illinois to start taking better shots:

I won't deny that much of the intricacies of basketball are better left to the experts, but there is quite a bit of low-hanging fruit for us armchair analysts. And perhaps none more reachable than the maxim that mid-range shots are bad shots. It's become the rallying cry for the analytical community within basketball much the same way the importance of on-base percentage ignited the "Moneyball" movement in baseball. To the uninitiated, players generally are as accurate on mid-range shots as they are with 3-pointers, so it makes little sense to opt for the 33% point penalty. Moreover, players do not earn as many trips to the free throw line on mid-range shots, and offensive rebounds are harder to come by for a player who has just attempted a 15-foot jumpshot.

Basketball games are won by outdoing your opponent in terms of maximizing opportunities for shots (limiting turnovers, offensive rebounding) and maximizing the amount of points per shot (via accuracy and potential points per shot attempt). By relying on so many mid-range shots, Illinois puts itself as a considerable disadvantage. Longtime readers of this blog (hi Mom!) will note the broken-record still has not been removed. When I am finally diagnosed as insane and hauled off to the asylum, I have no doubt they will say I would not shut up about Illinois' reliance on mid-range shots.

Normally in a team preview I would talk about how the team did last year, who leaves, who comes back, and who's entering the program. And there are a countless other places you could go to read up on Tracy Abrams (a point guard that has not shown an ability to make 3s), Mike Thorne (a big man who has not shown an ability to convert at the rim), and Malcolm Hill (the offensive epicenter who attempted more mid-range shots than shots at the rim and 3s, combined). Not here. Suffice to say, there's enough talent here to make the NCAA Tournament with room to spare, but not enough to win the Big Ten. But that's been more or less true for a decade, and in only a couple of instances did the Illini tilt toward the overachievement end of that spectrum.

For Illinois to make noise this season, it needs to take better shots. Everything else is just, well, noise.