Sunday, November 27, 2016

Early returns

This time of year is all at once important yet unimportant. It's important because this is the portion of the non-conference schedule which includes meaningful games. For most power conference teams, that means playing in far-off tournaments because no one wants to visit the hostile home arena of a quality team. Many of these tournaments un-ironically include "Classic" in the name despite first coming into existence just before the iPhone 4 was released. You would think there would have been more of an outcry at the desecration of tradition when the Old Spice Classic was rebranded as the AdvoCare Invitational. Just as I cannot rewire my circuitry to process Willis Tower, I am unlikely to get on board with this facelift at the hands of corporatism! Fight the man!

Anyways, Big Ten non-conference schedules are slowly trending in a more exciting, and probably more challenging, direction. Between the Gavitt Games and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, there are a lot of true road and true home games against serious opponents. But, so far this season, things are not trending well for the Big Ten. Here's some inventory...

Michigan State

For all the talk of scheduling tough that Tom Izzo has spoken of over the years, I've never quite understood it. Yes, Michigan State almost always features a slew of difficult non-conference games. With games against Arizona and Kentucky in the books, and an upcoming matchup against Duke, that's true again this season. Izzo has gone on record saying these games will help his teams in March. And really, I cannot prove they do not. But the opposite is true as well—so long as Michigan State has put together a difficult schedule, we'll never really know whether the team performs any better in March as a result of that rigor. 

But here's what I do know—Michigan State runs a ton of set plays. I've seen some stale information from former players that suggests the playbook is about 50 set plays by the end of the year, and if I had to guess, I'd guess that number is even higher these days. That's a lot, probably at least double the amount of the average NCAA Tournament team. 

This is significant in November. The team has only been practicing for a couple weeks, and then they have to face Kentucky. The playbook at that point is not very large, and I'd wager the plays are not run very crisply. In effect, MSU's offense is very much a work-in-progress. Now, maybe there's some value to having 5-star egos checked by a stomping that's in part driven by the fact they're drinking from the firehouse that is the Michigan State playbook. Izzo would know that better than me. But I'd love to see the results from the alternate timeline where the Spartans dial back the rigor and swap out a game or two for some slightly less formidable competition so they can sharpen the execution. 

Indiana

As ever with Tom Crean's Hoosiers, it's a given that unless we're in a rebuilding season (which this is not), the offense will be great. And once again, that seems the be the case. To wit, IU put up over 100 points against Kansas, although "just" 89 of those came in regulation. Still, the resulting 1.17 points per possession is nothing to sneeze at. Last year, Kansas allowed that efficiency just twice (on the road against Iowa State and Oklahoma State). 

So really, the only question with Indiana is whether the defense is good enough to elevate the overall team quality to a championship level. So far...inconclusive. As the overtime win over KU would indicate, that was not a stalwart performance. But hey, Kansas. But we should be less forgiving when we see the Hoosiers allow 1.04 PPP against UMass-Lowell, in Bloomington. Of course, the Hoosiers followed that up with an impressive performance against Liberty.

And that brings us to the upset loss to IPFW. A highly entertaining game, but how you view the defense might depends on how full you think the glass is. On the one hand, the Hoosiers kept the Mastodons to under a point per possession. On the other hand, most of that was due to the fact that IPFW shot miserably from 3 (23%) and made just four free throws across two regulation halves and an overtime. More distressing is that IU allowed 55% shooting on 2s and that the Hoosiers pressured the opponent into all of 8 turnovers in 73 possessions.

So at this point all we can say is that it's worth keeping an eye on. And it will be tested soon, as IU eyes a trip to Chapel Hill this week. (Edit: Apparently the Tar Heels are coming to Bloomington, so I assume the Hoosiers will just meet them there. Apologies.)

Purdue

The Gavitt Games are a very welcome addition to the non-conference slate. The atmosphere when P.J. Thompson hit a halfcourt shot at the halftime buzzer in Mackey to tie Villanova is not something often seen in mid-November.
But ultimately, the Boilermakers fell short. Still, I remain bullish on Purdue. For one, I'm not sure there's anyone playing better basketball in college than Caleb Swanigan. The forward is shooting over 60 percent from 2 and 3, and he currently has more free throw attempts than two-point attempts. Oh, and he's hitting 75 percent of those. Also, I should mentioned he's rebounding everything at both ends of the floor, and currently has more assists than anyone on Nebraska (written just before the Huskers' tilt with Virginia Tech was in the books).

Where Purdue has struggled, however, is with turnovers. Given the abundance of ballhandlers on the roster, I don't expect that to be an albatross, but rather a relative weakness. Frankly, it's the price of admission for Painter's pass-heavy motion offense. But right now the Boilers rank 252nd in turnover percentage nationally—that will get better.

Michigan

I was all prepared to write about how John Beilein is frantically trying to see how he can move Michigan's home games to Manhattan—where Michigan beat the snot out of Marquette and SMU—until I saw South Carolina destroyed Syracuse just across the bridge in Brooklyn. Of course, I'm referring to the fact the Wolverines' next stop after securing the 2K Classic title was Columbia, SC, where the Gamecocks held Michigan to 19 2nd half points to win comfortably. Sure, it was a true road game, but you never want to get run out of the gym by a team that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in over a decade.

But Frank Martin has been improving things, and look no further than USC's steamrolling of Syracuse at the Barclays Center for evidence of that. Martin appears to have molded one of the nation's best defenses, just as he did at Kansas State. So, take Michigan's 0.74 points per possession with a grain of salt.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes have played one team of note: Providence. At home. Ohio State won a close game. JaQuan Lyle is putting up big numbers, but Trevor Thompson's ability to stay on the floor may prove to be critical. Beyond that, there's not much I can say about the team so far, given the schedule. But a course correction is due against Virginia in Charlottesville on Wednesday.

Illinois


Graphical depiction of Illinois' season so far
No Big Ten team's stock price has plummeted as much as Illinois'. After dropping a home game against Winthrop, the Illini looked entirely unprepared against West Virginia's press.

But the halfcourt offense is a mess as well.

Once again, the culprit is too many mid-range shots. Even including its blowout win over Division II McKendree, a full 40% of Illinois' shots are mid-range jumpers. This has been a consistent issue with John Groce's teams, and it may well be what keeps his tenure brief.

The defense isn't great, either, but one thing at a time.

Northwestern

On a happier note, Northwestern has looked very solid. After losing a nailbiter at Butler, the Wildcats came back to dismantle Texas. The Longhorns, however, did Chris Collins no favors by promptly losing to Colorado the next game. NU had another chance at a quality win against Notre Dame, but once again fell just short.

All of this is to say that the Cats are quickly piling up moral victories. And maybe last year, that would have been fine just to prove Collins was headed in the right direction. But last year's team won 20 games and finished in the top 75 of kenpom. Moral victories are not measured by the Selection Committee, and no longer function as currency in Evanston. This team needs to start piling up wins against quality opponents, and avoid any bad losses. Suddenly, the December 17th date against Dayton looks like a very important game.

Iowa

No surprises here, Fran is rebuilding. The defense looks as you would expect with a team full of freshmen and sophomores, and the offense has been lackluster outside the brilliant Peter Jok. Tyler Cook has provided some glimpses of the future, but it figures to be a rough season in Iowa City. What's puzzling to this armchair analyst is Fran's continued insistence on a deep rotation. Right now, there are 10 players that have been on the floor at for at least 20 percent of the available minutes. I tend to doubt McCaffrey has 10 players at his disposal that are Big Ten caliber at the moment (surely, some of those players will develop into that). He might be throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. With a roster this young, that's entirely justified.

But if we're in the thick of Big Ten season, and Fran is still ordering line changes, you can expect my continued confusion.

Minnesota

You guys, Minnesota might be pretty OK.

Ready to dance? I won't go there yet, but it's hard not to be impressed by the sudden turnaround. Give Pitino credit for recognizing he could not win with last year's players, so he went out and got better ones. Freshman Amir Coffey is long and skilled, and Reggie Lynch is an inside presence the team has missed since Trevor Mbakwe graduated. Here's some early film:


Penn State

Pat Chambers is also relying on fresh faces this season, although the team isn't all that better (if at all) than it was last season. This is another young squad that lacks any seniors, so there's plenty of time for this group to improve. But the freshmen have been impressive. Against Duke, point guard Tony Carr held his own and poured in 20 points. His former AAU teammate Lamar Stevens has already scored in double figures in five games. And redshirt freshman Mike Watkins has provided inside scoring and much-needed interior defense (20 blocks).

The Nittany Lions won't make a ton of noise this season, but this will be a team to reckon with next year.

Maryland

The Terrapins are 6-0 in games decided by 1 or 2 possessions. Someone kill me.

In all seriousness, winning is definitely better than losing. But it doesn't appear that UMD has taken down any giants, so it's not exactly a good sign that there's been just one comfortable win thus far. Melo Trimble has been terrific—that was expected. A pleasant surprise has been that the freshmen appear to be further along than could have been reasonably expected.

The problem, however, has been the supporting cast that was already on Mark Turgeon's roster. Michael Cekovsky has had his moments (though he's still a bull in a china shop on defense), but it's been dismal beyond that. For Maryland to get back to the NCAA Tournament, that needs to change. I can't imagine this close game magic will continue all season. If it does, I quit.


Nebraska

I suspect Tim Miles doesn't really mean it, but if he does, then I feel bad for his team. The Cornhuskers are currently the 2nd most protective of their possessions of any team in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Coach is telling everyone "turnovers are overrated."

Now sure, some of Nebraska's low-turnover ways are baked into the offense just as Purdue's high-turnover ways are. Purdue runs on a lot of assists, Nebraska does not. It's a difference between reliance on off-ball screens and lots of passing, versus a reliance on getting players into favorable matchups for driving.

In any event, I'd like to give some kudos to Nebraska's guards, particularly Tai Webster and Glynn Watson, for refusing to give up the ball easily. And they've done so despite the fact that outside themselves and Ed Morrow, there haven't been many scorers around to merit defensive attention. Louisville transfer Anton Gill has been underwhelming, and none of the freshmen appear to be ready to contribute. JUCO transfer Evan Taylor looks every bit the part of a late-offered, contingency plan player.

In short, offense appears to be every bit the problem I expected this season, in spite of the Cornhuskers' lack of turnovers. Maybe Miles wasn't kidding.

Wisconsin

At this point, it's safe to say Bo Ryan was no tree, and Greg Gard is no apple.
It's one thing when Rick Barnes is forcing turnovers, and perhaps you're willing to excuse Georgetown as well. But when it's Creighton? Chicago StateCentral Arkansas?

This is the New Normal. Wisconsin turns the ball over. The Bo Ryan way was easily recited, but difficult to duplicate. Minimize turnovers, take good shots, don't give the opponent easy first chances (fast break points) or any second chances. And, if you can, win the three-point attempt battle.

Just as sure as the sun rises in the East, one could be sure that the Badgers would finish near the top in the Big Ten in turnover rate. But there's a new sheriff in town, and in case you're wondering, he does follow Tim Miles on Twitter.

The Badgers aren't necessarily doomed by abandoning the Bo Bible. Gard deserves to put his system in place. It seems he's not abandoning the principle of getting more scoring chances than the opponent, but the energy is being put (so far) into offensive rebounding. This tends to contradict another Bo-ism about getting back on defense, but so far, transition attempts by opponents remain low.

It's a brave new era, Badger fans.

Rutgers

Rutgers is undefeated!

And the best (the best!) offensive rebounding team in the country!

Opponents are shooting a measly 37% on 2s!

The team has a 6-9 freshman shooting 37% on 3s!

OK, this is probably the high point of the season, with a trip to Miami this week. Still, I feel confident stating that Rutgers, while Not Good this year, is safely outside the Embarrassment to the Big Ten quadrant. And at this rate, Rutgers will win the National Championship in 2018.

***

So, that's the wrap-around. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge (the Iowa Caucus of Hoops) kicks off tomorrow, when Wake Forest visits Northwestern. Unfortunately, it's going to take a lopsided victory for the Big Ten to rise substantially up the kenpom standings, but if there's a silver lining to take away, every team I've discussed in this post is one or more of:

  • good
  • young
  • improving
So, I don't expect the bad times to last for more than a season. 

Oh, except Illinois. All kinds of bad there. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Records and Stuff

OK, let's get the Hate Mail stuff out of the way first.

Predicted Standings

  1. Wisconsin (14-4)
  2. Purdue (13-5)
  3. Indiana (13-5)
  4. Michigan State (12-6)
  5. Ohio State (12-6)
  6. Michigan (11-7)
  7. Illinois (9-9)
  8. Northwestern (9-9)
  9. Maryland (9-9)
  10. Iowa (7-11)
  11. Nebraska (6-12)
  12. Penn State (5-13)
  13. Minnesota (4-14)
  14. Rutgers (2-16)
Here are some random thoughts & explanations
  • Wisconsin at the top seems like an easy pick, but there really is a lot to like about Purdue. There are ready replacements for all of the players they lost, and it's hard not to like a team that's built around shots from 3 and at the rim. That said, while that may be where the skillets lie, it remains to be seen whether that's how those players will be used. 
  • While Wisconsin should be good, this is not a Frank Kaminsky-type team. That team's supernova offense was in large part powered by the fact they had experience at every position, and every player could score at every spot on the floor. Ethan Happ is a lot of things, but he's not an outside shooter. Also, we've yet to see Nigel Hayes demonstrate he can be an efficient alpha scorer. 
  • Expect this year's Ohio State team to be traditionally Thad Matta. That means one player will dominate the ball (JaQuan Lyle), and the rotation will be 7 players, maximum. It might just be 6, for all intents and purposes. 
  • I see 6 or 7 teams making the dance. Yes, John Groce will be sweating. 
  • I do see a big drop coming for Maryland, in large part because the frontcourt will be challenged. 
  • Two wins for Rutgers seems high. 
It should be a fun season. Be sure to follow on Twitter to find GIFs alongside sardonic analysis!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

In writing the preview for Wisconsin, I couldn't help but think about Darrelle Revis. Yes, that Darrelle Revis. Let me explain.

In 2009, the New York Jets welcomed first-time head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan had been an accomplished defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens, but he was nonetheless taking over a team that had struggled defensively under prior coach Eric Mangini, particularly in the passing game. Ryan, son of former defensive guru Buddy Ryan, certainly had a background that suggested he could turn it around.

And turn it around he did. In 2009, the New York Jets boasted the best defense in the NFL by DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here). And the team remained pretty good...until 2013. The defense completely collapsed in 2014, and Ryan lost his job. He was picked up by Buffalo for the following season—and it's worth mentioning that Buffalo's defense was also very good in 2014, the year before Ryan arrived. However, it got worse once he came over, and it still isn't very good (currently ranked 17th in the league).

In case the setup wasn't obvious, Darrelle Revis stopped playing for Rex Ryan after the 2012 season, Ryan's last year fielding a quality defense. He did play without Ryan, for the Jets, starting as a rookie in 2007. But the Jets defense nonetheless wasn't good. So, was it Ryan, or Revis? Really, the answer is "both" (but mostly Revis).

For those that don't know, starting in 2009, there was a place called Revis Island. In the NFL, receivers and quarterbacks are, for the most part, too good to consistently defend with man coverage. The quarterback and the wide receiver have the benefit of knowing where the receiver should be when the ball is thrown. Also, Reggie Wayne is fast and runs great routes, and had the sport's greatest quarterback of all time throwing to him back in 2009. But when the Colts hosted the Jets in the regular season in 2009, Wayne ended up with 3 catches (on 7 targets) for a measly 33 yards and no touchdowns. And this pattern repeated itself all season against the elites of NFL wide receivers:
  • Andre Johnson: 4/7 targets, 35 yards. 
  • Randy Moss (Tom Brady!): 4/7, 24 yards, then 5/11, 34 yards (1 touchdown)
  • Marques Colston (Drew Brees): 2/6, 33 yards
  • Steve Smith: 1/6, 5 yards
  • Roddy White: 4/10, 33 yards
That season, the Jets lost in the AFC Championship game to the Colts, a team they had beaten a month earlier. The difference? This time, the Colts had second-year receiver Pierre Garcon available, who hauled in 11 of 15 targets for over 150 yards. Revis still shut down Wayne, but he couldn't cover everyone. 

Of course, the Jets defense wasn't simply good because Revis could shut the #1 receiver down. It was good because, with Revis solving That Problem, the other 10 guys on the field could focus on everything else. That meant an extra man to cover the other receivers in the pattern, or a linebacker or safety could blitz without worrying about giving up a big play. Having a player that was extremely good at defending passes in man coverage meant the Jets could be over-aggressive everywhere else, and get away with it. Ryan's blitz-happy packages don't work if the coverage stinks, after all. And that's what we've seen in Buffalo. 

Now, the question you're asking yourself is what does any of this NFL rambling have to do with Wisconsin Badger basketball. The answer is Ethan Happ. As a redshirt freshman last year, Happ displayed a remarkable, not often seen, talent. He's a center that gets steals. He led the Big Ten in steal percentage, which is an understatement—he actually has no peer in the tempo-free era. And again, he's doing this as a center. That's not a defender that gets many opportunities to guard frequent ballhandlers. He's still rebounding (4th in Big Ten in defensive rebound percentage) and blocking at least enough shots so as not to be negligent (20th). It's why he was the BTG Defensive Player of the Year. And again, he was a freshman.









Wisconsin returns basically everyone, losing only walkon Jordan Smith. The team shot nearly 40% on 3s in Big Ten play last season, and really only struggled scoring inside the 3-point line. I suspect Nigel Hayes' 42% percentage in that category will tick upward. The offense should be good. And really, Wisconsin isn't a very interesting team to preview on offense, frankly. That's not because the offense isn't fun to watch (it is!) or that it isn't productive (it is!), it's because the structure and the core principles have been the same for about 15 years now. Greg Gard showed no indication that he wants to change any of that (if it ain't broke...). If you want a quick primer, this is what a Wisconsin set looks like (notice the triangle one side, kickout options in the corner and opposite elbow. Almost every Wisconsin possession will start like this.)


If the post isn't open, the ball swings to the other side, where they try it there ("swing offense"). There's ball screen action that gets them into the set, there are shuffle cuts along the baseline that initiate the post-up action, and there are dribble-drive variations that can be exploited depending upon the skillset of the player. I don't deny any of that exists, I'm saying the point of all this is to get the ball into the paint to either score there, or to kick out to one of the four three-point spots for an open look. 

But defensively, this year can be interesting for Wisconsin, in large part because of Happ. Coaches have adopted specific strategies based on the unique abilities of players before. To take a somewhat recent example, Purdue's defenses were excellent with JaJuan Johnson in large part because, with his shotblocking ability, Purdue's perimeter defenders were free to face-guard opponents. They knew that if they were easily beat off the dribble, Johnson would be waiting to swat away any shot in the paint. With Happ around, post feeds to Isaac Haas and Thomas Bryant are more risky than they otherwise would be. Wisconsin guards can cheat into other passing lanes, knowing that Happ's defense serves as a deterrent.There are a number of things Gard can potentially do to take advantage of Happ's unique skillset—it remains to be seen if it will be as effective as Revis Island once was. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Rutgers Scarlett Knights

Speed isn't everything.

Last year, Rutgers was the 9th-fastest team that played in a power conference, and the fastest in the Big Ten. That tempo was not so much purposeful as it was a combination of permissive defense and a turnover-prone offense, as—

—OK, I'm not going to write that lazy preview. The lazy thing to do here is to pick something, anything, that Rutgers was outside the 25th and 75th percentile lanes on, and wrap a story around the fact that This Thing Was Not Good For Rutgers. The 279 kenpom ranking provides all sorts of cherrypicking ammunition for your lazy writer, and while writing thoughtfully about Rutgers basketball borders on morbid, I'm going to give it the ol' college try.

You don't need me to tell you that Rutgers was not very good last year. Pick a metric, it will be record-setting and shocking. It's a reasonable argument that Rutgers only had 3 or 4 players on the roster last year that were high-major quality. Recruiting must turn around, attendance must pick up (Rhode Island and Charlotte drew bigger crowds), and the athletic department must be extremely patient. Incoming head coach Steve Pikiell is no stranger to massive turnaround projects. When he took over at Stony Brook in 2005, the team was still very bad as it recently transitioned to Division I. Over his first three seasons, the team won a total of 20 games, playing in a low-major conference. But Pikiell eventually turned the team around, winning 119 games over the final 5 seasons of his tenure. That tenure included four conference championships and the team's first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

That credibility might be more important than anything else Pikiell has going for him, because the last time Rutgers was a decent team was four coaches ago. This is going to take time, and RU frankly just has to trust that it hired the right guy. The on-court results aren't really going to matter for at least a couple more seasons.

And that's too bad, for at least the reason that Corey Sanders is a really special player. Despite being just a freshman and surrounded by teammates that were largely overmatched, Sanders was able to be the go-to scorer and facilitator despite the narrow focus defenses had on stopping him.


It's not that Sanders is a ballhog—for one, he had the third-highest assist rate in conference play last season, which is no small feat considering his teammates' relative ability to convert passes into assists. Additionally, "ballhog" implies that someone is spending more than their fair share of time with the ball in their hands, which is not something I'm sure was possible with Sanders last year. Ideally, you'd have the ball in his hands as much as possible.

This isn't to say Sanders cannot improve. His outside shooting was poor last year, and you would think that a player that drove the paint and attacked the rim as much as he did last year would end up at the free throw line more. Even so, he's a tremendous player that surely heard a number of pitches to transfer once it was clear Eddie Jordan was not coming back.

The Robin to Sanders' Batman act is junior Mike Williams, who is potentially Rutgers' only credible threat from the outside. The Scarlett Knights are also hoping sophomore forward Jonathan Laurent can make a leap, and that someone in the recruiting class can step up. By the way, I'm not being dismissive of the rest of Rutgers' roster, it's just that everyone in the rotation outside those three players transferred or graduated. My hunch is that it's no coincidence that the only returning players are those most likely to become at least average players in the Big Ten. There's some housecleaning at work.

Still, that's going to be a longer project, but not one that's foreign to Pikiell. A lot of patience is going to be expected from this fanbase. But I suspect they're used to that.

Friday, November 4, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Purdue Boilermakers

A quick at Purdue might lead someone to underestimate the Boilers this season. While Purdue was a good team last year, the disappointing first-round exit is still front of mind. Moreover, the team lost its best player (A.J. Hammons), its point guard (Johnny Hill), a former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (Raphael Davis), and an upperclassmen that had been in Matt Painter's rotation for three seasons. That sounds like a lot, because it is a lot.

But give Painter credit for restocking the cupboard over the past couple of recruiting seasons. Junior Isaac Haas is done with his timeshare arrangement with A.J. Hammons, and assuming he can stay out of foul trouble and physically play more than 25 minutes a game, he's a threat to win player of the year in the Big Ten. Surrounding him are a variety of sharpshooting guards, including Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson, Vince Edwards, and Ryan Cline. While this group won't do much damage inside the arc (particularly Cline, who made just one two-point field goal all of last season), they will bomb from the outside. Collectively, they shot 40 percent on three-point attempts, which is a nice counter to opponents that would otherwise prefer to sag into the paint to stop Haas.

Even better is that each of those guards is a combo guard, meaning the loss of Johnny Hill is probably not going to affect the team all that much. Moreover, Purdue is one of the last remaining motion offense teams in the country, as most has transitioned to a ball screen centric look. There are downsides to this—ball screen offenses more reliably create help defense situations—there's less pressure to have a dynamic playmaker at point guard. And as long as Purdue has big men that pull the defense in, running shooters around screens does not figure to be a problem.


Speaking of big men, it's probably time to talk about Caleb Swanigan. A former 5-star recruit, Biggie's freshman season was up-and-down, to say the least. A powerful finisher, Swanigan converted 84 percent of his attempts at the rim. And even though he was just a freshman, Swanigan showed great footwork in the post and a plus ability to get position.


Unfortunately, Swanigan also saw himself as a skilled outside shooter, attempting 72 during the regular season, and converting them at a 29 percent rate. In and of itself, 29 percent is not such a bad number. There are a number of Big Ten guards that convert at that (and lower) rates. But they generally do not have Swanigan's ability to get into the paint and push defenders around. Moreover, Swanigan had a knack for testing his outside shooting at inopportune times, such as when Michigan State held a slim lead against Purdue with less than a minute to go during the Big Ten Tournament:


But, despite Biggie's struggles with shot selection last year, it could actually be a harbinger of good things to come this season, for a coupe of possible reasons. First, freshmen—particularly those standing 6-6 and taller—that attempt a high number of 3s see a bit larger sophomore breakout seasons. I could theorize all day why that's the case, but the effect is there. Second, if his shot selection is truly broken, rather than this just being an instance where a player's ability has not yet made it into the games, then it's an easy fix: just don't shoot so many 3s. One would think that Matt Painter wouldn't let Swanigan take so many if he did not have confidence in his player, but there may be other considerations one needs to account for.

If you strip out the 3s, Swanigan is a load to handle in the post, and I can't imagine there are too many teams that are well-equipped to defend him this season.

And that's Purdue—two dominant post players and a large supply of sharpshooting combo guards. The team is lacking a dynamic playmaker, but Illinois showed us last year that the presence of one of those does not guarantee success. Purdue, on the other hand, looks primed to have a fine season. Potentially the best of Matt Painter's tenure.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State figures to run in place for the fourth consecutive season. The consistency has been remarkable, as Pat Chambers' team has won either 16 or 18 games in each of the past 3 seasons. With the team losing roughly 40 percent of last year's minutes, including the offensive focal point and best defender in Brandon Taylor, I don't see any reason to wander too far from this well-trod path.

The particulars are unexciting. The 6-10 Julian Moore is the only returning player in last year's rotation taller than 6-7, so it goes without saying that scoring 2s on this defense should not be too difficult. Not a single returning player shot over 48 percent from 2 against Big Ten foes last season, so the Nittany Lions will find the task more challenging. Worse yet, only one returning player made more than 33 percent of 3s in Big Ten play. Really, only junior point guard Shep Garner can avoid the label of "offensively challenged." 

All of this is to say that there's not a lot in the returning roster that provides reasons for hope for this program. But Pat Chambers has landed two of the biggest recruits in at least a decade in forward Lamar Stevens and point guard Tony Carr. In this amateur armchair talent evaluator's humble opinion, both four-star Philadelphia products are criminally underrated. They played together on the Nike EYBL circuit on Team Final, and were the primary scorers on offense. Stevens was also the team's leading rebounder, while Carr functioned as the primary distributor. 

At 6-6, Stevens' game right now is that of an undersized power forward. It's not hard to project him being something of a version (hopefully Rich Man's) of Geary Claxton or Jamelle Cornley, depending on how his outside shot develops. 

At 6-5, Carr is a completely different animal than anything that's come to Happy Valley in recent memory. PSU has had plenty of fine point guards over the years, but from Talor Battle to Tim Frazier to Shep Garner, they've all been undersized. Carr is not, and that is likely why he's landed inside the top-50 of the RSCI. 

Other new pieces include redshirt freshman center Mike Watkins and UConn transfer Terrance Samuel, who has two years of eligibility remaining. 

A NCAA Tournament appearance is too much to ask of this year's recruiting class. But it's worth noting that this year's team does not feature a single senior. Short of any unexpected departures, the team photo will feature the same players in a year. If you're a Penn State fan, that's probably going to be how you're spending this season—resigned to mediocrity for the time being, but with the expectation of massive improvement forthcoming. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

2016-17 Season Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

From a certain vantage point, one could make the argument this should be a pretty straightforward preview. Due to a combination of graduations, early exits, and transfers, Thad Matta has had to battle significant roster turnover in each of the past three offseasons. Over that span, the Buckeyes have won 10, 11, and 11 Big Ten games. This offseason we had more roster turnover, yet again. So, it would be pretty easy to predict 10 or 11 wins, and a comment about being on the right or wrong side of the bubble depending upon how many shocking non-conference losses Ohio State piled up.

But that ignores a couple of things. First, one cannot simply go by conference and raw record to judge team quality. In addition to an ugly non-conference slate that included a couple of humiliating losses at home, Ohio State sweated out multiple wins against the bottom of the Big Ten, and was essentially uncompetitive with the top teams in the league. The final kenpom rating—76—was far lower than anything ever achieved in the Thad Matta Era (previous low was 34).

And while last season was exceptionally bad, that's kind of the point—it was likely an exception. Matta annually welcomes too much talent to Columbus to put bad teams on the court as a matter of habit. And sure enough, Pomeroy's computer has this Ohio State team ranked highly—13—so surely, that's that and we can go back to seeing the Buckeyes as a protected seed on Selection Sunday.

But I'm not convinced. For one, Pomeroy's explanation on Ohio State is one that I don't think quite lines up with the facts:
Finally, there is no change on incoming freshmen. The top 30 or so have an impact on a team’s rating and beyond that the computer is mostly blind to newcomers. That’s not to say it can’t make some guesses, though. In fact, it’s kind of a fun challenge to predict the impact of recruiting classes without any information on the recruiting class itself. Things like basketball budget, conference affiliation, recent performance, and whether the coach is returning handle some of this. But history says you can also glean some information from what kinds of players have left a team.

This is the case with Ohio State, who is ranked higher here than anywhere else. They had a young team last season, and the other indicators in the model are very positive. Furthermore, even though three rotation players transferred, those players were replacement-level quality for the Big Ten.

The fact that they are leaving is viewed as a positive in the model because if those players thought they would get more playing time, they would stay. And if they don’t expect to get more minutes, then those minutes figure to be taken by better players, which often means better players are coming into the program even if those players are ranked highly by recruiting services.

In Ohio State’s case, they have just one top 100 RSCI freshman joining the team, so the computer’s assumptions fail a bit with respect to the Buckeyes. Still, the news of transfers leaving Ohio State was not a bad thing and even without a stellar recruiting class, there’s a good chance the minutes that need replacing will end up being more productive this season than last.
Pomeroy all but admits the computer is probably screwing up. What I think it sees is something like what happened in the 2013-14 season to Kentucky. In the offseason prior to that year, not only did UK lose two starters to early entry and graduation, but two other starters transferred—and they were actually pretty good players, too (Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer). For a team coming off a disappointing NIT first round exit, this isn't an ideal situation. But, of course, those players transferred not because the program was on fire, but because Calipari welcomed a freshman haul that included Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and Dakari Johnson. Harrow and Wiltjer read the news, of course (or, more likely, Calipari had a level-setting conversation with them), so they took their talents elsewhere. A similar thing happened the next season with Kansas, which saw talented underclassmen Andrew White and Conner Frankamp leave for nearby schools with more opportunity. I'm sure KU's class that included Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander factored into those decisions.

But when looking at the circumstances surrounding Ohio State, I'm not sure that's the case. While Matta certainly believes the program is better off without one or more of Daniel Giddens, Mickey Mitchell, A.J. Harris, and Austin Grandstaff, it's not like the incoming class is a monster one (on paper, at least), with just one consensus top-100 recruit. So, from my vantage, this looks more like Lickliter Turnover than Calipari Turnover.

But the good news is that while it's generally not good to hemorrhage top-100 sophomores without restocking the cupboard with high-level talent, the fact of the matter is that these guys did not play very much in Big Ten play last year. Grandstaff was gone by then, and the other three accounted for roughly 20 percent of the player-minutes. That's an entirely replaceable amount. Moreover, the best sophomore of the bunch figures to be JaQuan Lyle, and he's still on the team and figures to take a massive leap forward as he cuts down on turnovers and improves his outside shot.

Matta still has a 6-man rotation that's as good as any in the Big Ten, and he typically does not have any issues keeping a tight rotation. It's probably best to assume last season was an aberration, and that Ohio State will return to its usual success this year. However, while I respect Pomeroy for not reaching into the machine and executing a manual override, I'm going to peek behind the data. To me, this is more like a strong 11-win team, than a team that's going to finish atop the Big Ten standings.