Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pace, Schmace

We've all heard the stereotype: the Big 10 is a plodding basketball conference full of big slow guys and short on electric athletes. The brand of basketball is a slow one, and scores are in the 50s more than they are in the 70s. At the risk of confirming this stereotype, I decided to dive into the numbers.

Possessions (Conference Games)

ACC: 72.33
SEC: 68.25
Big 12: 67.58
Big East: 67.41
Pac 10: 65.19
Big 10: 63.04

Or, to put this graphically,
The Big Ten was slow, but not as much as the ACC was fast. Surely this will dishearten some Big Ten fans, but should it? Some people think that the culprit behind the slowness is physical defense. Others think that it's doubt in the offense. These are theories, not facts, mind you, but one thing every Big Ten conference fan should remember is that slow does not equal bad. In 2005-06, for instance, the Big Ten was again the slowest of the BCS conferences. But it was also #1 in RPI.

Now, let's see how the stereotype holds up over the past 5 years or so:

Pretty well actually. The Big 10 has been slow for a while now, but the root cause evades me. Any ideas out there?

That said, every BCS conference falls within 63 to 68 possessions, with the exception of the ACC. While it's possible that those 2 possessions that the Big Ten lacks makes all the difference in the world, I happen to think Big Ten ball looks about the same as the basketball everyone else is playing. Except the ACC.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Big Ten Floor Generals

Although not typically seen as a PG conference, the Big 10 outputs quite a bit of stellar players at the position. Just in the last few years, we've seen guys like Deron Williams, Mike Conley, Dee Brown, Devin Harris, Drew Neitzel, and Jamar Butler roll through the Big 10. Yet the image of the Big 10 being guard-unfriendly persists.

This year, however, might be a perfect storm. In addition to having great guards, the Big 10 is lacking in post players. So I expect the conference's guard-play to get more press this season.

Butler and Neitzel concluded their college careers last season, on their way to play ball in Italy and Germany, respectively. Despite their undrafted status, Butler and Neitzel will leave big shoes to fill. Butler played over 90% of the available minutes last season, boasted an Assist Rate of nearly 35 in conference games, all in addition to his stellar scoring. Neitzel took over 26% of his team's shots while he was on the floor, and boasted an Assist Rate of 24.1 in conference games while holding his TO Rate under 15.

Fortunately, the Big 10 received an injection of four very promising point guards last season:

Kalin Lucas
2007 Conference Stats:
Min%: 63.4
Shot%: 26.4
eFG: 48.1
ARate: 29.4
TO Rate: 21.1

The scary thing about Lucas is not just how good he was as a freshman, but the fact that there's a lot of room for improvement in his game. Despite standing only 6-0 tall, Lucas devoted 5 times as many shots to 2 pointers as he did to 3 pointers. Not only is that a bad mix for someone of Lucas' height, but it's also not the best strategy for such a good outside shooter. Lucas made 38% of his 3 point attempts last season in-conference, and his 82.6 FT% suggests that it was no fluke. A guy like Lucas ought to be shooting twice as many 3s as 2s - and given that he's so far from that kind of ratio, he has a lot of room to improve his numbers. And I say this about a guy who posted a 102.5 ORtg on a substantial shot diet. Lucas is the best PG in the Big Ten, right now.

Demetri McCamey
2007 Conference Stats:
Min%: 75.8
Shot%: 22.3
eFG: 45.8
ARate: 28.5
TO Rate: 25.0

With the exceptions of Kosta Koufos and Eric Gordon, it's possible that no freshman was leaned on by his team more than McCamey last season. Illinois lacked playmakers, and McCamey was charged with generating offense. This role led him to force shots and play a lot of minutes. Much has been made of McCamey's conditioning, but playing 75% of the available minutes in the conference season is not easy, especially when counted upon to make the offense function. McCamey suffered from the high TO syndrome that affects about 90% of freshmen college point guards, but he will need to work on his shooting this season. While his 35.3% 3P% wasn't bad, his 65.1% FT% indicates that he still has quite a bit to work on. The turnovers should come down, but the thing standing between McCamey and stardom is improved shooting.

Talor Battle
2007 Conference Stats:
Min%: 80.4
Shot%: 25.8
eFG: 46.3
ARate: 22.0
TO Rate: 18.4

Battle was already discussed in some detail in our Penn State preview, but one other item merits discussion here. I really hope that Chris Babb can contribute early, because I'd like to see what Talor can do with more options at his disposal. His ARate indicates a "shoot first" PG, which certainly fits with his high school career, but that's a pretty good TO Rate nonetheless for a freshman PG. I'm curious to see if he can keep it that low with an ARate over 25, but if Penn State doesn't find some other scorers, we might never find out.

Michael Thompson
2007 Conference Stats:
Min%: 88.8
Shot%: 20.5
eFG: 47.6
ARate: 25.5
TO Rate: 17.5

Of all of these freshmen, Thompson played like the most experienced guard. His TO Rate is already at a senior level, and it did not come at the expense of his ARate. Thompson suffers from the same disease as Lucas, in that he took more 2s than 3s last year. What possesses a 5-10 player in the Big 10 to think that's a good strategy, I'll never know. Thompson will improve as he keeps things on the perimeter, but there is a concern here - although he shot 41.8% on 3 pointers last season, his FT% was a Shaun-Pruitt-esque 64.3%. There could be a correction coming.

These four figure to be the elite point guards in the conference for at least the next couple of seasons. But there are others who will challenge them:

Trevon Hughes: Wisconsin fans aren't going to like this...but Hughes is a player that carries a loftier reputation than the numbers merit. First of all, it's stretching a bit to call Hughes a PG, with his ARate at 17.9. Second, his shooting was all over the place last season, but mostly, it wasn't great (43.4 eFG). Nonetheless, Hughes was often seen as the focal point of Wisconsin's offense last season. This was likely in part to his torrid start to the season (through the non-conference schedule, Hughes averaged over 15 points per game with an eFG north of 50%), and the fact that he had several big games throughout the year. Because of those performances, and the fact that he improved so much from his freshman season, I still think he's a player to watch.

Lawrence Westbrook
: The only thing holding Westbrook back was his high TO Rate (23.8). That's lower than what McCamey posted, but I'm more forgiving with freshman TOs than with sophomore TOs. Westbrook also figures to increase his shotload (19.8) substantially this season, with the graduation of the other Lawrence (McKenzie).

Al Nolen
: I was very excited about Nolen in the non-conference season, but when he played against tougher competition, he absolutely fell apart. His eFG fell below 40, on a very limited shot diet, his TO Rate hit the 30s...it was all very bad. But his non-conference performance was good enough to believe he's capable of more.

Korie Lucious/Noopy Crater: These two are the highest rated incoming PGs. Neither is ranked in the "instant impact" range, though Crater will be asked to make an early impact nonetheless, as the backcourt suddenly looks thin without Butler. Lucious figures to fight a bit more for his PT.

Next up, wing players...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Men of the Big Ten

Besides a slow pace, another stereotype of the Big 10 is that it's a breeding ground for post players, and not exactly guard-friendly. I'm not sure that actually was the case - plenty of great guards hail from the Big 10 - but I know it's unlikely to be the case this year. Most of the best post players from a season ago have moved on, and I don't see a heck of a lot of elite PFs to take their places. Consider that the following post players are no more:
  • DJ White
  • Brian Butch
  • Shaun Pruitt
  • Greg Steimsma
  • Kosta Koufos
  • Othello Hunter
  • Brian Randle
  • Dan Coleman
  • Geary Claxton (I know, we didn't get much of a conference season from him, unfortunately)
  • Ekpe Udoh
And keep in mind that I've only put the most effective big men on this list. Just about all of these guys were exceptional players, or at least very exceptional in one specific area (such as Udoh's unreal 11.4 in-conference Block%). This year, I just don't see nearly as many elite tall talents. Here are the top returning defensive rebounders (omitting the super small sample size miracles):
  1. Marquise Gray (27.3)
  2. Goran Suton (24.5)
  3. Ivan Peljusic (20.3)
  4. Cyrus Tate (19.0)
  5. Dallas Lauderdale (19.0)
At first glance, this list is nothing to sneeze at, as all of these are impressive rates. But let's take a few things into account. First, Gray's on-court time was limited (30.2 Min%), likely because he can't help turning it over (TO Rate of 31.0). He's had this problem his entire, frustrating career, and I don't see it going away now. Second, Peljusic also played in limited minutes (24.8% Min%), likely because he couldn't shoot (41.0 eFG). Now, that might actually change. He's 6-8 after all, and was a freshman last season, so we can expect big gains as he gets acclimated to the college game. But does that DReb% really make sense for a guy with a 0.8% OReb%? Personally, I have my doubts. Lauderdale also saw limited action (13.1% Min%), because his TO Rate (37.5%) makes Gray look like Drew Neitzel. Now, he was a freshman, and did a lot of other things very well, so it's possible he can get this fixed. But I think it's reasonable to express some doubt here.

Now, what if take those guys out of the equation?
  1. Goran Suton (24.5)
  2. Cyrus Tate (19.0)
  3. Mike Davis (18.8)
  4. Mike Capocci (18.0)
  5. Joe Krabbenhoft (17.5)
Still not bad, but not very intimidating either. And still, guys here have issues - Capocci has TO problems (29.4), and it appears that Davis has hardly locked down his spot. What if we limit the list to the guys with at least a 50% Min% in conference?
  1. Goran Suton (24.5)
  2. Cyrus Tate (19.0)
  3. Joe Krabbenhoft (17.5)
  4. Kevin Coble (17.3)
  5. Anthony Wright (16.3)
Ladies and gentlemen - your top returning "post" players, featuring 2 guys who devoted 1/3 or more of their shots last season to three pointers. Now, to be fair, incoming C BJ Mullens and PF Devlon Roe will almost certainly be elite talents in the league. Suton and Tate figure to be formidable as well. Krabbenhoft is a nifty player, but he's not someone who lives on the block. So there's really only a handful of solid big men this year in the Big 10. There are a couple of takeaways I can imagine:
  • The pace of the conference might increase a tick (though that's a guess on my part at this point).
  • MSU, who lost only Naymick off their front line (and bring in the aforementioned Roe), will be a matchup problem for virtually every team in the conference.
  • If your team is a bit thin on the interior, well, that's not as big of a problem as it would have been a year ago.
I firmly believe this is the Year of the Guard in the Big Ten. Next up, we'll look at who those guards will be...

[Ed. note: As a commenter pointed out, I missed Jamelle Cornley. This was not due to his size, but rather my lack of mastery over a spreadsheet. Cornley returns an 18.5 conference DReb% to Penn State, and indeed figures to be one of the top returning big men in the Big 10. I apologize for the error.]

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Kids Today, Part III

The class of 2005 was definitely a notch below the classes of 2006 and 2007. Well, the portion of the class that made it on campus, at least. By all accounts, Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams, Andray Blatche, and Amir Johnson would have been pretty good college players. Let's take a look at how the college edition of this class performed in their freshman seasons.

Ranked 1-10:
Min%: 67.4
ORtg: 109.4
Shot%: 20.5
eFG: 55.4

Already the dropoff is evident. While these guys played a lot of minutes and overall had solid efficiency numbers, they were not "go to" players on their teams (unlike the top 10 players of the classes of 2007 and 2006).

Ranked 11-20:
Min%: 59.2
ORtg: 99.7
Shot%: 18.7
eFG: 49.5

By the time we hit the next tier, the efficiency numbers have fallen below average. And these guys weren't carrying their teams, either. In fact, only 5 players in the class of 2005 had a Shot% of 25.0 or greater. Ironically enough, all of those guys are still in school (Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Eric Devendorf, Dominic James, and Nate Minnoy).

Ranked 21-30:
Min%: 57.6
ORtg: 99.8
Shot%: 22.2
eFG: 48.2

A bit higher Shot%, but otherwise similar to the last tier.

Ranked 31-40:
Min%: 37.7
ORtg: 94.5
Shot%: 19.6
eFG: 46.8

Ranked 41-50:
Min%: 37.8
ORtg: 95.5
Shot%: 17.5
eFG: 49.0

Very similar numbers for the next two tiers - each of which played less than half of the available minutes, on average.

Let's take a look at how this looks graphically.
There is still a clear downward trend, but these graphs show a lot more randomness. Perhaps another byproduct of the One Year Rule - it makes scouting services look a little better. I'll leave others to debate whether that's good or bad.

One other thing struck me as I looked over this data - while I was quick to blame the NBA for the lower productivity, is that entirely accurate? After all, we're not measuring counting stats, like points or rebounds. We're looking at averages. So if you pull out 5 of the top 10 ranked players, that shouldn't change the average of the pool, using the remaining 5 players (assuming you take out those 5 at random). Imagine you pick out the 10 tallest people in a very crowded room, then, at random, you take 5 people out of that group. You might pick out the tallest (dragging the average down), or you might pick out the shortest (pulling the average up), but you shouldn't expect the average to change much if you pick out 5 guys at random.

And it's not as if only the top players in each tier left - in the top 10, the NBA guys were ranked #2, #3, #5, and #10 (averaging #5...right square the middle). The 11-20 tier lost #12, #14, #16, and #18 (averaging 15...again, in the middle).

So I see two possible explanations for the lower numbers:

1. The class of 2005 was weak - this is almost certainly true, as the lower overall numbers were present all the way down through the rankings. But in this context, I mean it was weaker at the top.

2. Players, agents, all those "bad advisers" are actually better evaluators than the rankings services - it's entirely possible that the NBA guys were, in reality, the best 8 players in this class (or close to it). And they (and the people around them) recognized this, which encouraged them to skip college. If that's the case, well, maybe all the rancor these advisers get is not deserved after all. Maybe they're the smartest guys in the room.

To find out more, we'll have to look at the classes of 2004, 2003, etc. We'll pick that up some other time.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

School is Not for Everyone

Here at Big Ten Geeks, we try to stick to the numbers. That's not to say basketball can be reduced to a spreadsheet, but frankly, that's what we're best at doing. So we generally try to stick to the math, and leave the subjective evaluations and opinions to others.

But I'm going to make an exception here, to talk a little about the "One Year Rule."

/Begin Soapbox

In 2005, David Stern and the NBA Players Union negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There were lots of provisions in the new CBA, but the one everybody remembers is the "one year rule." Specifically, the rule states that entrants into the draft must be 19 years old and one year removed from high school before entering the draft. This rule was welcomed by NCAA President Myles Brand (who claimed it would spur more athletes to get an education), NBA Commissioner David Stern (who claimed it would provide the NBA with players who have better fundamentals), and NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter, well, Billy Hunter doesn't seem to have wanted this, but he didn't exactly fight it too hard. More on him later.

So now, in 2008, we should see plenty of talented players who could go early instead choose to stay in school, and the NBA should be a shining beacon of fundamental basketball, right?

Heh, right.

Surrounding the one-year rule (and now the advocacy about a two year rule) is dishonesty. Stern and Brand might care about education and fundamentals, but they care about something else much more: Money. Go back and take a look at that CBA. You'll see terms like "Salary Cap" "Mid-Level Exception" and "Right of First Refusal." Make no mistake, it took a big team of slick-suit-wearin'-lawyers on both sides, billing hundreds of dollars an hour, to generate that document. That document costs a lot of money. Nobody throws around that kind of cash in order to make sure that future millionaires take an introductory psychology class, or that the art of the free-throw-line-extended bank shot doesn't die with Tim Duncan's retirement.

Myles Brand makes money because superstars like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant become his unpaid employees instead of opting to make millions elsewhere. David Stern likes the rule because superstar college players make a name for themselves beating up on inferior competition, so that by the time they suit up for their first NBA game, they are fully-formed marketable products. Quick - where did Amare Stoudemire go to high school? Not many casual basketball fans knew the answer to that question in 2002 - a great many more know where OJ Mayo went to college.

As for the Players' Union, well, that's somewhat of a mixed bag. Fringe players stand to gain from the rule - if the talent level is kept artificially low by keeping talented high schoolers out, these players will enjoy another year of private planes, entourages, and a $400k-$1.3M minimum salary. On the other hand, the rule cost a guy like Greg Oden a lot of money, and Hunter does answer to him (eventually) as well. Lately, Hunter has been a bit more vocal about his distaste for the rule.

So who loses? Well, that's easy - very good high school players. Imagine you worked in an industry that spit you out by the time you reached your late 30s. Career over, no more paychecks. You'd want to start making that money as soon as you could. If your industry kept you out for reasons that had nothing to do with your qualifications for the job, well, you'd probably wonder whether or not this was America.

Now, I know there are two sides to this argument. Maybe there are some benefits to the one year rule that I haven't recognized. But this issue is not as easy as Stern and Brand would have us believe. What's clear to me though is that Hunter seems to be the only one talking honestly. And for now, I'm content with being on that side of the debate.

/End Soapbox

We'll be back to our regularly-scheduled programming tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kids today, Part II

We're going to take a quick breather from Big 10-focused posts, and move onto a topic that's a bit broader - freshmen.

Trying to evaluate high school basketball players can be tough. For one, adjusting for the level of competition can be challenging. Unlike college teams, high schools generally don't travel great distances and play against several teams in several conferences. And even then, most high school teams are filled with players who will never play at a higher level. What does it tell us when a 6-6 player dominates a team whose tallest player is 6-1? Furthermore, the only time the best high school players in the country are going against each other is on the AAU circuit. In case you haven't seen an AAU game recently, it bears little resemblance to the college game. Heck, it bears little resemblance to basketball generally. And somehow, from all of that, talent evaluators are supposed to whittle down to the best 100 players or so, and they must somehow decide whether the 6-6 SF from Georgia is better than the 6-1 PG from New Jersey, even though they have only seen each play for about 10 minutes.

And then, on top of that, they have to account for the fact that while some of these kids appear to be fully formed adults, some are 20 years old before they play their first conference game, and some hit a growth spurt after they are largely ignored by scouts. It's not an easy job.

Nonetheless, taken together, rankings of high school players do mean something. No doubt, rankings aren't everything. I'd be much more comfortable predicting a player's career armed with a year's worth of college data than a ranking. But I think we can deduce something from rankings. I've explored this topic previously, with the class of 2007. The quick summary on that class:
  • The top 10-15 players were excellent, star-of-the-team, high-efficiency players
  • The top 40 or so players were generally high-usage, efficient players
  • While lower ranked players were, generally speaking, of lower caliber than higher ranked players, the variance increased further down the rankings. In other words, it's a good bet that the #1 player is better than the #20 player, it's not such a good bet when comparing #100 to #80.
Now, I bring you the class of 2006. In case you don't remember, the class of 2006 was the year of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. While the media attention certainly surrounded those two, it's clear to me that there were other stars in that class.

In looking through the data, I threw out guys who played less than 10% of the available minutes. That's to get rid of guys who were injured, guys who were playing behind great talent (like Marreese Speights was), and to avoid polluting the data with small sample numbers. It's a lot easy to look really good (and really bad) in 3 minutes a game. Why 10%? Totally arbitrary. Also, the rankings are RSCI.

Ranked 1-10:
Min%: 65.5
ORtg: 112.3
Shot%: 26.0
eFG: 54.6

These stats look a lot like those for the class of 2007's 1-10...but just a touch below. Less minutes (I know Oden missed a lot of time with injury, but even that wouldn't make it up), a bit less shots, but very similar. Overall, these are go-to players that can carry a team.

Ranked 11-20:
Min%: 46.6
ORtg: 103.3
Shot%: 21.25
eFG: 54.0

While there were some very good players in this group, there were also a couple of duds. Lance Thomas was probably not the 20th best player in America. Also interesting was that only one player in this group (Javaris Crittendon) more than 65% of the available minutes. It would appear that there were less superstars in the class of 2006 than the class of 2007.

Ranked 21-30
Min%: 55.1
ORtg: 104.8
Shot%: 19.5
eFG: 51.4

While these players still give efficiency, the steady decline in Shot% continues. These players are capable of coming in and starting, but would be overmatched in carrying a team.

Ranked 31-40
Min%: 47.0
ORtg: 96.0
Shot%: 22.4
eFG: 44.4

I'm not quite sure what to make of this group. The Shot% was high because there were several players taking a ton of shots (DeShawn Sims, Raymar Morgan, Scotty Reynolds), and for the most part, they didn't shoot it well. They were probably overmatched on that shot diet. However, that ORtg isn't really representative of the group, and is pulled down by James Keefe, who had one of the worst seasons of any freshman in a BCS league.

Ranked 41-50
Min%: 45.0
ORtg: 103.0
Shot%: 16.2
eFG: 51.9

This is a group that wasn't asked to do too much, and flourished in that role. The Shot% is indicative of a role player.

Now, for some pretty graphs on the top 100 players...
While there's an overall steady downward trend in each of these, there's appears to be a bit more randomness than with the Class of 2007. Also, while the Class of 2006 enjoyed higher ORtg numbers, they didn't take as many shots. Indeed, only one range of players (51-60) put up a higher Shot% than its counterpart in the Class of 2007. The Class of 2007 definitely had more superstars as well, so I think it's fair to give them the overall nod.

Up next, the class of 2005 (where we can see the impact of the Stern Rule)...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Big Ten Preview: The Aerial

Below is an aerial graph plotting last year's in-conference efficiency numbers against the percentage of returning minutes for this season. As you can see, Wisconsin, MSU, and Purdue promise to be the class of the league.

Back and Forth: Previewing the Season

Josh: So how do you think the conference should finish? Obviously, Purdue and MSU figure to finish 1-2. After that, I have Wisconsin, a ??? for 4-6 between Ohio State, Illinois, and Minnesota, followed by Michigan, Penn State/Northwestern, Iowa, and then Indiana.

Mike: I agree that Michigan State and Purdue are the two best teams on paper. I personally like MSU to win the conference title, partly from their easier schedule but mostly because of superior depth. Recruiting rankings lose a lot of meaning once the players are in college (see Keaton Grant), but MSU still has ten players that were RSCI top 100, compared to only three for Purdue. Michigan State is my pick for Big Ten champs.

I agree that Wisconsin is the clear #3, with Ohio State, Illinois, and Minnesota in the next tier (likely in that order). Michigan looks poised to be the best of the rest, followed by Penn State and Northwestern (don't forget the Wildcats!). I see Iowa and Indiana battling to avoid being the 11th team in the Big Ten (always an embarrassing accomplishment). The bottom of the conference looks wretched to me. Which of these teams do you see making the Big Dance?

Josh: Purdue had a better in-conference efficiency margin last season, and returns more minutes than Michigan State. I see the same things that you do with respect to MSU's superior talent level, so I want to pick them ahead of Purdue, but my brain tells me that's silly. And you're right to acknowledge that we can throw recruiting rankings out the window once the real play starts. Robbie Hummel is a pretty darned good player for not being in the top 60 RSCI. But Ah! - the schedule! The fact that Purdue gets to beat up on IU and Minnesota only once is a big deal, as is the fact that MSU plays one game against Wisconsin. I'll go with you on MSU for the conference crown.

I think this is a 4-bid conference, though it could get down to 3 (it's been that low before, as recently as 2003-04). Ohio State's turnover issues give me pause to think of them as a NCAA team at this point, but Illinois' rebounding and Minnesota's lack of playmakers give me more pause. I also think Penn State and Northwestern will be very close. I think Northwestern is going to be very improved.

I think the very bottom of the conference looks bad, but the Big Ten could send as many as 6 teams to the NIT. Maybe the Big Ten Network should adopt "Mediocrity - Catch It!" as a new catchphrase.

Mike: Fair arguments all, to be sure. I do believe that Purdue's upside lies almost entirely on the slender frame of JaJuan Johnson. E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, and Keaton Grant were already so good last year that it's hard to see much improvement from those guys, despite their youth. I think that's where Scott Martin's transfer has the greatest impact on Purdue - their upside potential - as he didn't really live up to his billing last year. If Johnson can give Purdue a legitimate inside threat, both offensively and on the glass, the Boilermakers will be very dangerous.

Sadly, I can't argue with your take on the Big Ten's potential dominance of the NIT bracket. Ohio State has a great amount of talent, but it just doesn't seem like pieces fit together. Who's the point guard? Who's the power forward? If Matta can get those issues addressed, OSU could be the fourth Big Ten team in the dance. Unfortunately, that seems to be the most bids we can expect from the conference, short of some surprises.

Does the conference stand a chance of finally winning the ACC-Big Ten Challenge this year? That UNC/MSU game is certainly enticing.

Josh: UNC/MSU figures to be fun, but why is it being played at Ford Field? If you count that as a neutral site, the ACC gets 6 home games to the Big Ten's 4. The ACC doesn't need the help! Let's hope the Izzone travels well. Sadly, I don't think the Big Ten will pull it off this year without some big upsets. I just hope the conference can hold serve long enough to keep the series alive when the recruiting class of 2010 is on campus, where the Big Ten is really picking it up.

And Scott Martin only underachieved by Purdue standards, where non-elite recruits become 1st team All Big Ten players as freshmen.

Do you see any surprises this season? Like Lawrence Westbrook, "Add 32 Points to ORtg While Increasing Minutes Substantially" kind of surprises. I think Jake Kelly is going to take a big step forward. And where do you have Northwestern and Penn State? They play each other once (at Penn State), but while Penn State plays OSU once on the road, the Wildcats play Illinois once at home.

Mike: I like Jake Kelly as a potential surprise and would add Jon Diebler to that list. I've got to believe that his 3-point shooting will come around at some point - he came out of high school with a huge reputation as a shooter, and his free throw shooting has been good enough to not entirely dismiss that reputation. Ohio State really needs him to be a deep threat - Evan Turner and David Lighty were both around 33% on limited attempts, and neither seems like a candidate to improve with the line moving back. Speaking of Evan Turner, he feels like a potential surprise as well, but not because of three-point shooting. I could see him becoming an effective slasher this season.

I expect Northwestern and Penn State to both be improved, but I think the gap is too great for Northwestern to pass Penn State this year. Northwestern should have a decent offense, but their defense was atrocious. I don't see any reason to believe Northwestern's defense will be greatly improved unless Luka Mirkovic and/or Kyle Rowley can provide a big-time rebounding and shotblocking presence, which is a lot to ask from a couple 3-star freshmen. I'll have to pick Penn State between those two teams, but I like Northwestern's future a lot more.

Which players look like potential early-entry candidates for the 2009 NBA Draft?

Josh: Diebler bottomed out last year, so he has to improve, right? He was a solid free throw shooter as well, so his outside shooting should follow. If it does, he could have a great year, as shooting was the one (really big) hole to his game last season. I think Thad could be forced to move Turner to PG if freshman Noopy Crater is not up to the task. Playing out of position limits his upside.

I agree that Penn State finishes ahead of Northwestern this season, but just barely. Northwestern's defense struggled because the team was so short (only one of the 5 top minute-grabbers was taller than 6-8). They brought in 3 guys 6-8 or taller this season, and 6-8 sophomore Ivan Peljusic figures to see a lot more action this season. Credit Bill Carmody for addressing a big weakness.

As far as the NBA, I think Ohio State loses their freshman center for the 3rd season in a row, and I think Raymar Morgan is a goner unless MSU stumbles. Hummel doesn't pass the eyeball test for me as a guy who leaves after two years, but the numbers don't lie. He lit the nets on fire last season, played defense, and he's got great height for a guy who can play like a guard. If he is able to keep up his efficiency while increasing his shot-load, I think he's a solid candidate to leave early. Also, you have to consider Delvin Roe and William Buford on the one-and-done list. E'Twaun Moore could be gone as well. After that, well, unless Manny Harris or DeShawn Sims go nuts, I don't see any likely candidates.

Ok, take us home - who's your Big Ten player of the year? I think Raymar grabs the hardware on his way to a deep tourney run.

Mike: For me, Big Ten POY comes down to Raymar Morgan, Robbie Hummel, and E'Twaun Moore. Personally, I think Moore will - statistically - be the most productive player of the three, and while I really like Hummel as a do-it-all type player, I agree that Raymar Morgan will likely take the honor before heading to the NBA. Should be another interesting season of Big Ten hoops!

Projected Finish:
1. Michigan State....16-2
2. Purdue..............15-3
3. Wisconsin..........13-5
4. Ohio State.........10-8
5. Illinois...............9-9
6. Minnesota...........9-9
7. Michigan............8-10
8. Penn State..........7-11
9. Northwestern.......6-12
10. Iowa................4-14
11. Indiana.............2-16

Friday, September 19, 2008


Like every blogger, we love feedback. For one, it lets us know what we need to correct, it tells us what the fans are interested in reading about, and most importantly, it's actual proof that someone is reading this thing. We read every single email that we get, and we respond to just about every one of them. And if your email is something that we think many others would be interested in, we will answer your question on the website.
I like your using stats that more accurately reflect how players and teams are doing. How about explaining what all your stat abbreviations (eFG, Offensive Rating, etc.) stand for and how they are figured? Or at least direct us to a site that will explain them.
This is a good point, we haven't done a great job of explaining these things. You can find definitions here and here, you can pick up a copy of Dean Oliver's book to read up on the logic and math of it all, and I offer up my take on each of them below:

Offensive Rating: This number is supposed to be the one number that captures a player's "points produced" per 100 possessions (so above 100 is good, below 100 is not so good). The formula, which you can read about in Oliver's book, is very complicated (because Oliver is very thoughtful about his variables). The inputs are, generally speaking, field goals (and misses!), free throws (and misses!), assists, and offensive rebounds. This stat, however, does not change with playing time. In other words, you can play one minute and have a great "ORtg," but it doesn't make you the best player in the country (far from it). In that respect, it's like batting average for baseball (or for SABRs, like OPS or EqA).

I think ORtg checks out as a good stat, but in doing so much simplifying, the stat obscures. There are many ways to get to an ORtg of 100, and I like knowing which way a player takes. Moreover, I worry that by throwing one number out there, it comes off like some made-up number that lacks credibility. Nobody is reaching into a hat and pulling out "107.3" for Goran Suton - that number comes from real performance - but I understand the frustration. Therefore, I tend to use ORtg for brevity's sake, but I prefer to give more information where I can.

Shot Percentage: This stat is simply the percentage of team shots a player attempts while he is on the floor. Intuitively, 20% is the average (5 guys on the floor, and it has to add up to 100%). A percentage of 15% or lower is strictly a role player who does not look to score often. A player at 25% or above is a go-to player for his team. This stat is tremendously important because good shots are limited. What I mean is that, over a course of a season, there are only so many "good shots" for any given player. Nobody out there is getting 300 wide open 3 pointers over 30 games. So that means players who are taking a lot of shots are often taking a lot of difficult shots as well. That's not a bad thing because somebody has to take them. Taking a high percentage of shots, while maintaining a high conversion rate, is what we look for in First Teamers. It's only a bad thing where these same guys are throwing up bricks, with an eFG hovering around 40%. Speaking of which...

Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG): This stat is exactly like field goal percentage, except it counts a made three pointer 50% more (to reflect the 50% higher point value). If two guys have an identical FG% of 50%, and one shoots only 2s, while the other shoots only 3s, which do you want? Effective Field Goal Percentage captures that.

Offensive Rebounding Percentage (OReb%): This number is the percentage of rebounds off missed shots captured by a player. It's much better than offensive rebounds per game, because it recognizes opportunity. If the team doesn't miss, there are no offensive rebounds to grab. Conversely, if the team can't buy a bucket, then this stat will go through the roof. I think Gasaway said it best -- "missed shots" are the "at bats" of rebounds. Defining a "good" OReb% is different by position. For post players, above 10% is good, and anyone hitting 15% is among the very best in the country.

Defensive Rebounding Percentage (DReb%): Same thing, but now with opponents' missed shots as the denominator. Defenses get more rebounds than offenses (by about 2:1), so the scales shift. For post players, above 15 is decent, 20 is very good, and only a handful of players in the country will hit 30.

Assist Rate (ARate): Simply the number of player assists divided by field goals while he is on the court. Just measures how often a made field goal comes from a player's pass. Again, this takes opportunity out of the equation...somewhat. If the team is a bad shooting team, the assists per game would be lower than they would if the team could shoot better. By putting team FGs into the denominator, we fix that. Of course, a player can still have an unlucky night, where the team seems to prefer missing mostly when he passes them the ball. Of course, we expect these things to even out over the season. I generally define a PG (or someone with PG skills) if the ARate is above 20. Above 30 is very good. Some guys can even push this number to 40.

Turnover Rate (TORate): The percentage of "personal possessions" that end in a turnover. This one is tricky, and very dependent on position. PGs have more TOs, because they do so much dribbling and creating. On the other end of the spectrum are the "catch and shoot" players, or "catch and do nothing" players (like Lance Stemler). You can live with a PG with a TO Rate above 20, but above 25 isn't very good. Post players are ideally below 15.

Block Percentage: Simply the percentage of opponents' 2 point FGAs that are blocked by a player while on the court. It's two pointers because, well, three point blocks are rare and including them would only dilute the pool so that everyone looks more similar. Anything over 7 or 8 is great. The best shotblockers are the ones who don't sacrifice rebounding.

Steal Percentage: The percentage of possessions on which the player records a steal. Small numbers here, and I tend to think that players above 3% have a real skill with it. A very small handful in the country get above 5%.

Well, I hope that helps. Questions, comments? Shoot us an email.

Preseason Defensive Team

I have a confession to make: All-Defensive teams annoy me. The reason is two-fold - first, the statistics available for measuring defense are painfully inadequate. Sure, we can measure blocked shots, steals, and rebounds, but that's not all of defense. Not nearly. What about limiting shot attempts? Or playing a lot of defense without fouling? These things are a big part of defense, but we have no way to calculate it all. That leads to my second problem with All-Defensive teams - they're too subjective. Not only that, it seems year after year there are players on these teams that are pretty bad offensive players. It makes me wonder if college basketball has its own version of Nichols' Law. Now, some will argue that these guys must be good at defense because, after all, they play a lot of minutes for their teams in spite of their limited offensive abilities. Surely the coaches must be putting them in for a reason, the argument goes.

That's all well and good, but team defense would seem to fly in the face of this reasoning. Unlike individual defense, we have pretty good stats available for team defense. The biggest one of all is defensive efficiency, which is simply a measure of opponents' points scored divided by the number of opponent possessions. It's simple, intuitive, and relatively easy to calculate. What strikes me is that, year after year, the top defensive teams in the country are also pretty good offensive teams, by and large. Kansas, UCLA, Memphis...even Wisconsin was a top-30 offensive team last season. My guess is that you'll find a pretty strong correlation between offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. So at least from a team defense perspective, it does not appear that the Chris Kramers and Chester Fraziers of the world are shutting opponents down.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we give up and just throw the best offensive performers on the All-Defensive team. Instead, we should be content to use the numbers that are available to us (Block%, Steal%, DReb%) in order to come up with our top performers. From a team defense perspective, good defenses have these things in spades. Kansas, for example, was the top defense in the country last season, ranked #5 in Block%, #16 in Steal%, and #23 in DReb%. The truth is, a high Block% doesn't just mean a lot of blocked shots - it means a low 2 point percentage. Now, be careful in how far you take this logic, but we do know that getting blocks, steals, and rebounds are really important. With that in mind, I give you the Big Ten All Defensive Team, and I promise that I didn't look at the offensive numbers for these guys.

Damian Johnson, F, Minnesota
Conference Stats: 6.3 Block%, 4.8 Steal%, 12.7 DReb%

I really like Johnson's potential as a lock-down defender. But it's hard to call him an elite defender at this point because of that lackluster rebounding. The guy is 6-7, athletic (shown by his ability to block so many shots at 6-7), and frankly, not competing with any great rebounders on his own team. With leading rebounder Dan Coleman gone, Johnson's rebounding numbers should go up a tick this season, and I think he could end up being one of the best defenders in the country. He's my favorite for defensive player of the year.

Goran Suton, F, Michigan State
Conference Stats: 2.5 Block%, 1.6 Steal%, 24.5 DReb%

The best returning rebounder in the conference, and it's not close. Most defensive lists sell the rebounding big men short, but that would be a mistake. Unlike a blocked shot (which voters pay much more attention to), a defensive rebound ends an offensive possession every time. Suton is also a very skilled offensive player, and will battle with incoming freshman BJ Mullens as the conference's best post player. My money is on Suton.

Chris Kramer, G, Purdue
Conference Stats: 1.9 Block%, 5.0 Steal%, 12.1 DReb%

Ok, so maybe Chris Kramer isn't just a Nichols' Law selection. But I think there is a big dropoff on this team after Johnson and Suton. Kramer does get a lot of steals, but so do guys like Trevon Hughes and Al Nolen. What separates Kramer is his willingness to rebound.

Robbie Hummel, F, Purdue
Conference Stats: 2.7 Block%, 2.6 Steal%, 14.8 DReb%

Hummel doesn't excel in any specific area, but he does a little bit of everything. It's likely that Hummel will so more time defending the post this season, and that might mean less opportunity for blocked shots (as Hummel will not tower over his opponent), and more rebounds instead.

JaJuan Johnson, C, Purdue
Conference Stats: 8.5 Block%, 1.9 Steal %, 11.3 DReb%

Johnson is the conference's best returning shotblocker, and he could be scary-good in that regard this season. Ekpe Udoh, who would be the conference's best shotblocker if he wasn't transferring to Baylor, had a block rate 11.4% last season as a sophomore. His freshman Block% was 8.9. Purdue fans hope Johnson is on a similar path.

What's the takeaway from this team? Well, if the rest of Purdue can put together adequate defense, the Boilermakers should be very difficult to score on.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Big Ten Breakout Players

We're about a dozen posts into this blog, and already readers probably recognize that we're not big fans of "traditional" statistics. Points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game, etc. (per game) all fail to capture an important variable: opportunity. If the other team doesn't miss, there are no rebounds to grab. If the other team slows down the game so much that there are half as many possessions as usual, the scoring and assist numbers will fall. None of that speaks anything to the rebounding, scoring, or assist skills of the players on the floor. These things are very real, but "traditional stats" ignore them. One team, having a terrible shooting night, nonetheless is lauded for grabbing so many offensive rebounds. Of course that will happen - with more opportunities for offensive rebounds come more rebounds. That doesn't make them good rebounders - just bad shooters.

Just as obvious is that you can't score a point, assist a basket, or grab a rebound from the bench. Or if another player is gobbling up all of the shots and rebounds. All of the guys listed below had their opportunities "blocked" in some fashion last year, and those impediments appear to be significantly reduced in the coming season. Moreover, when these guys were called upon, they performed very well. Add it up, and we think it's fair to project massive improvement in stat sheet. Now this isn't an exact science - every player reacts differently to an expanded role in the offense - but there were enough indicators for each of these guys for us to feel good about their chances to blossom in the coming season.

Blake Hoffarber

Hoffarber's freshman season was remembered mostly for his last second game winner against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament. However, Hoffarber showed lots of promise for the upcoming season. While he doesn't do much rebounding, or setting up his teammates, Hoffarber is an excellent scorer. His eFG was high (58.7%) on a healthy shot diet (22.0%). This enabled Hoffarber to put up over 8 points per game in 20 minutes of play. With Lawrence McKenzie gone, Hoffarber should see much more action this season, and there's a good chance he will become Minnesota's go-to scorer.

Jason Bohannon

Bohannon is a similar player to Hoffarber, but a slightly downgraded version on a better team. Bohannon's eFG wasn't as high (54.2), and neither was his Shot Percentage (17.3). That figures to change this season, as Bohannon will be needed to help pick up the scoring slack to make up for the losses of Michael Flowers, Brian Butch, and Greg Steimsma. As long as his eFG does not suffer too much as he takes more shots, Bohannon should reach double-digit scoring numbers this season.

Lawrence Westbrook

With Lawrence McKenzie gone, Westbrook will be the primary ballhandler for the Gophers. But in order to be successful, Westbrook will have to improve on his TO Rate from last season (23.8). In order to do so, Westbrook might want to consider keeping his game more perimeter-focused. This might also help his eFG - Westbrook took almost twice as many 2 pointers as 3s last season, despite the fact that he's a good three point shooter (39.3%), and a mediocre 2 point shooter (43.6%).

Chris Allen

With Drew Neitzel, Travis Walton, and Kalin Lucas fighting for time for the Spartans, and a midseason injury, Chris Allen had trouble seeing the floor. But when he did, he was effective. He put up a 53.2% Effective Field Goal Percentage last season, while taking 25.9% of the available shots while on the floor. If Allen can put up the same numbers with more minutes, he and teammate Kalin Lucas will form the best backcourt in the Big 10.

Zack Gibson

The 6'10'' Gibson quietly put together a very nice sophomore season for the Wolverines, primarily off the bench. In conference play, he shot 65.9% on 2 pointers and kept his TO rate low, resulting in a very nice Offensive Rating of 111. He wasn't just a role player either, as he took 22.2% of his team's shots while on the floor. Gibson's minutes figure to increase with the transfer departure of Ekpe Udoh - Gibson and DeShawn Sims are the only Michigan returnees taller than 6'6''. If Gibson can maintain his efficiency with increased minutes, he could give the Wolverines a third double-digit scorer behind Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.

Mike Tisdale

Tisdale had a season very similar to that of Zack Gibson, except Tisdale put up his numbers as an 18-year-old freshman instead of a 20-year-old sophomore. His Offensive Rating of 107 came on a steady shot diet of 22.8%, and he also brings a legitimate shotblocking presence (block rate of 7.2). More minutes (and shots) are now available with the graduation of interior players Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle. Like Gibson, the main concern with Tisdale is his defensive rebounding - his DR% barely cracked double digits. If he can rebound well enough to stay on the floor, Tisdale figures to put up some nice numbers.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Preseason All Big Ten Team

Now that we've finished the team projections, we're going look at what we can expect from individual players. First, the easy part - identifying the conference's best players. All of these guys were pretty good last year, so they weren't exactly hard to find. Unlike most individual awards, however, we're not taking team performance into account.

Kevin Coble, F, Northwestern

2007 Stats:
85.9 Min%
55.2 eFG
27.8 Shot%
17.3 Defensive Rebound Percentage

It was criminal to leave Coble off of the All Big Ten 1st, 2nd, and 3rd teams last season. It certainly didn't help that Northwestern won only one conference game last season, but that wasn't Coble's fault. There weren't many players who took so many shots for their team, and converted them at such a high rate. Coble also boasts a very low turnover rate (12.6) and while he's not point guard, he does involve his teammates (12.0 Assist Rate). Northwestern should be improved this season, and that should improve Coble's chances for postseason accolades.

Raymar Morgan, F, Michigan State

2007 Stats:
70.1 Min%
58.3 eFG
24.3 Shot%
9.3 Offensive Rebound Percentage
15.5 Defensive Rebound Percentage

Morgan's third year in East Lansing figures to be his last. Last season, Morgan demonstrated only two shortcomings in his game: his outside shot (27.8% 3P percentage), and his turnover rate is a bit high (20.4) for a player who spends so much time in the paint. That said, Morgan is a tenacious rebounder and converts a high number of shots. With Neitzel gone, Morgan will be the focal point for Michigan State's offense. If Michigan State makes a run for the Big Ten title, Morgan is in line for player of the year.

E'Twaun Moore, G, Purdue

2007 Stats:
78.3 Min%
54.9 eFG
26.2 Shot%
24.3 Assist Rate
12.9 TO Rate

Last season, Moore made the 2nd team All-Big Ten, while teammate Robbie Hummel was put on the 1st team. Despite that, I predict Moore will have the better season this year. Moore played more minutes, took more shots, and had slightly better assist and turnover rates as well. Hummel's advantage was entirely in his higher eFG (59.5). While it makes sense that the 6-8 Hummel will hold his advantage in 2 point shooting, it will be difficult for Hummel to duplicate his sizzling 3 point success (47.6% in conference). Purdue will count on both players to have big seasons to help make up for the loss of Scott Martin.

Manny Harris, G, Michigan
2007 Stats:
85.0 Min%
45.6 eFG
28.0 Shot%
22.0 Assist Rate
22.7 Turnover Rate

I can't determine if this is a controversial choice or not. Harris is the conference's leading returning scorer (16.9 points per game in conference), so this choice fits well with "conventional stats." However, Manny's tempo-free stats were not pretty last season. In particular, his 45.6 eFG. But looking behind the numbers, Harris' eFG figures to go up significantly this season. As a 6-5 guard, Manny's 2 point percentage figures to improve (41.1%). His 81.7% FT percentage foreshadows improvement in his 3 point percentage as well.

Robbie Hummel, F, Purdue
2007 Stats:
68.0 Min%
59.5 eFG
21.9 Shot%
21.6 Assist Rate
13.5 Turnover Rate
9.9 OReb%
14.8 DReb%
2.7 Block%
2.6 Steal%

There's a lot of numbers for Hummel listed, because he's easily the conference's most versatile player. Simply put, Hummel did it all last season, and he's going to have to do even more this season, now that Purdue's frontline is a little thinner. Hummel is unlikely to duplicate his sky-high eFG on a larger shot diet - no shame in that - but so long as he's able to keep it better than 50-52% he's going to be a very productive player.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Wisconsin

Wisconsin (Last season: 31-5, 16-2, #5 Pomeroy ranking): Considering how dominant Wisconsin was prior to the postseason, last season's abrupt end in the Sweet 16 at the hands of one-man wrecking crew Stephen Curry has to be considered a disappointment. Prior to that game, Wisconsin lost 4 games - at Duke, against Marquette, and both ends of the Purdue series. It was Bo Ryan's best team ever in Madison, and it was certainly good enough to be in the Final Four. Unfortunately the Badgers ran into The Best #10 Seed Ever, and were run out of the building.

What's so remarkable about last season is that, despite being so dominant, nobody saw it coming. Ok, almost nobody. The key to Wisconsin's success has been continuity. Rare is the Wisconsin player that leaves early, and rare is the Wisconsin recruiting class that is a flop. Bo Ryan has found his wheelhouse in college basketball - recruit the best local talent that he can, even if they aren't All-Americans, and keep them for four seasons. Brian Butch, Michael Flowers, Alando Tucker, Kammron Tucker, Mike Wilkinson...all of these guys hung around for 4 years (sometimes 5), and ensured that Wisconsin was above all else, experienced. Much has been made of Wisconsin's style - the swing offense, the deliberate pace, the "don't foul" defense, and some of it is actually true. But the real key to Wisconsin's success is seniors. The Badgers go as far as the seniors take them.

Of course, after Wisconsin blasted through the league this past season, there's been a collective vow on the part of the national media to never sleep on them again. However, if there's ever a time to sleep on Wisconsin, that time is now. The Badgers will still be good enough to make the tournament, and they're probably a good pick for 3rd in the conference, but that's a big step back from a 31-win season. Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the country last year, holding opponents to 87.6 points per 100 possessions. To have a defense that good, a lot has to be working well. Opponents had a miserable 43.4 eFG, captured only 28.2% of the available offensive rebounds, and attempted only 25.6 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts (Wisconsin, by no means a stripe-heavy team, made 28.2 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts).

Going even further, we can probably identify the root cause of the low eFG and the rebounding: Wisconsin was really tall, and had some great rebounders. Butch and Steimsma were elite rebounders and Steimsma was perhaps the best shot blocker in the Big 10. Not only that, but Wisconsin played "tall." Flowers (6-2) and Hughes (6-1) were pretty normal, but opponents also had to contend with 6-7 forwards Landry and Krabbenhoft (each of whom could match up against guards), as well as a 7-footer in either Butch or Steimsma.

I'm confident Ryan can teach his returning players how to make up for the scoring that left town with Butch and Flowers, and that he can teach the new kids how to guard someone without fouling (or, if you're into conspiracy theories, that Ryan can continue his propoganda campaign). But I'm equally confident that Ryan can't teach height. To his credit, he has a couple of 7-foot freshmen coming in, but it is doubtful they will contribute significantly (such that they replace the seniors) in their first seasons. Ryan could opt to insert Jon Leuer into Butch's spot, but Leuer was an abysmal rebounder last season (8.9% DReb Percentage), and also did not show much shotblocking ability. It's likely Ryan will go small quite a bit, and move Landry to the 5 spot, Krabbenhoft to the 4, and use 3 guards with Hughes, Bohannon, and "TBD." This lineup is talented enough offensively, but it lacks the defensive abilities that can shut down opponents. Even so, Wisconsin should make the tournament, this year, and for the foreseeable future.

Projected Wisconsin rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Monday, September 15, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Purdue

Purdue (Last season: 25-9, 15-3, #23 Pomeroy ranking): Fueled by an outstanding freshmen class, the Boilermakers enjoyed their best season in ten years. That leads to high hopes for this season, and predictably enough, Purdue is the popular favorite to take the conference title this season. And why wouldn't they be? After all, they enjoyed a 0.11 Efficiency Margin in conference, and return 82% of the minutes from last year.

The entire freshman class, sans Scott Martin, will return to West Lafayette, and put up productive seasons last year (in-conference numbers):

At #62 RSCI, Robbie Hummel was probably underrated. Along with these freshmen, the Boilers return junior guard Keaton Grant, who also had himself a pretty good sophomore campaign. So again, why would anyone expect the Boilers to do anything but burn right through the Big 10, and leave all other teams in their wake?

Well, depth.

Imagine you're Matt Painter. You're trying to put together a starting lineup. Moore, Hummel, and Grant are definitely in there. All three are likely to make the All Big Ten 1st or 2nd teams. Easy enough, and now you've got three guard positions settled. At center, you start Johnson, who's not only the team's tallest player, but as a freshmen was also a capable rebounder (16.0 DReb) and a formidable shot blocker (7.2 Block%). Four outta five, and we're almost home. Just scan the roster, find a forward, and we're done.

Matt Painter is still looking.

Scott Martin wasn't a world-beater, but he was more than capable. He struggled shooting the ball, an affliction not all that uncommon to freshmen. He also showed he could rebound well, get to the line, and hold onto the ball. He was also pretty good defensively. Purdue has plenty of scoring options heading into next season, but what they need is someone to do those other things.

Now, what's likely to happen is that Chris Kramer will step in at a guard spot, and shift everyone down the line, effectively leaving Robbie Hummel to play the 4 spot. This isn't the end of the world - Hummel is 6-8 - but it's not ideal. Still though, the lineup of Kramer/Moore/Grant/Hummel/Johnson figures to be one of the Big 10's best, if not the best. But beyond those five lies the problem. On the bench, there's 6-9 Nemanja Calasan, about whom the best thing you can say about the guy is that he shoots over 60% on free throws. After him? No one taller than 6-4. Can Hummel guard a post player? Can Johnson consistently stay out of foul trouble? These things will determine how far Purdue will go. The starting 5 will play a lot of minutes this season, and a lot will be asked of Hummel and Johnson defensively. If everything breaks right, this team could end up in the Final Four. But no team's success in the Big 10 is more dependent on staying healthy and out of foul trouble than Purdue.

Projected Purdue rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Friday, September 12, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Penn State

Penn State (Last season: 15-16, 7-11, #108 Pomeroy ranking): Penn State was all set to have a good season, until about 7 minutes into the first half against Wisconsin. Although the season had a slow start, the Nittany Lions had strung together 7 consecutive victories, including a road win at Illinois. But while going after a rebound, Geary Claxton tore his ACL, and his senior season was lost. In an instant, the Nittany Lions faced the prospect of playing the rest of the season without one of the best players in school history, and the unquestioned leader of the team.

Without its star, Penn State didn't exactly play well, but they did get their fair share of wins. Despite the fact that the Nittany Lions posted the second-worst efficiency margin in conference games, they finished with 7 wins, finishing ahead of Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, each of whom had better efficiency. All but one of Penn State's conference wins were by 9 points or less. Four of their seven wins were by 4 points or less. Furthermore, Penn State lost by 15 or more points five times. Close games have the same effect on the standings as blowouts, but are often decided by a bounce of a ball, or the whistle of a referee. If this preview seems harsh, it's because the numbers say that Penn State played like a 10th place team last season, even if the standings told a different story.

Penn State was very short last season. The tallest player that saw 20 minutes or more last season was 6-6 freshman David Jackson. Normally, opponents would seek to pound the ball inside against such a height disadvantage, but Penn State's zone defense kept things out on the perimeter. Of course, that doesn't help much when opponents shoot 35.6% from behind the arc. No doubt, Penn State was sagging in that zone, determined not to be exploited on the inside. Also, with Claxton out, there was not a lot of experienced depth, so coach Ed DeChellis likely wanted to avoid getting his post players into foul trouble.

Penn State figures to get taller this season, as 6-9 sophomore Andrew Jones figures to get more minutes. Also, 6-10 transfer Andrew Ott will be eligible at midseason. That said, DeChellis has been playing zone for as long as I can remember, so the defense might not change all that much. But with more depth on the interior, DeChellis might be more willing to stretch that zone and challenge perimeter shots a bit more this season.

On offense, Penn State just needs to shoot better. They were 46.7% on two pointers (which isn't terribly surprising given their lack of height), 34% on three pointers, and just 62.2% on free throws. The Nittany Lions actually rebounded well and took care of the ball last season, so if they can learn to shoot it a bit better, big gains can be made. And that brings us to the focal point of Penn State's offense - Talor Battle. The slight (5-11, 160 lbs) freshman had a very uneven season. On the year, it looks like a disaster. He took a ton of shots (23.7%), and bricked a lot of them (42.3 eFG, including 28.4% on 3Ps). Although he took care of the ball very well for a freshman, his inability to put the ball in the bucket grinded the Penn State offense to a halt.

Or did it? A closer look reveals that Battle really picked up his play in conference games, which were also Penn State's toughest opponents. He took even more shots (25.8%), but this time, he was making more of them (46.3 eFG, including 32.7% on 3Ps). The narrative of "freshmen improves as he becomes more comfortable against better competition" is an easy one to write, but is it true? On the season, Battle shot 68.7% on his FTs, and it wasn't much different in conference games. While this doesn't rule him out as a deadeye shooter, it certainly doesn't prove it at this point either. Which Battle shows up next season goes a long way in determining the Nittany Lions' success.

A big piece of good news is that the team returns 77.5% of the minutes from last year, so it should take another step forward. The Lions will likely end up with a similar record as last season, assuming their good luck doesn't repeat itself. If Battle becomes the star that DeChellis envisioned when he recruited the point guard, this team could be punching a Dance ticket within the next couple of years.

Projected Penn State rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Thursday, September 11, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Ohio State

Ohio State (Last season: 24-13, 10-8, #29 Pomeroy ranking): In his last 2 seasons, Thad Matta has taken his teams to the championship game in the postseason, and he's 1-1 in those games. Problem is that the loss comes in the NCAA game, and the win was last year in the NIT. Matta found out just how much returning minutes mean -- he lost 62% of the minutes from the Final Four team. Keep in mind, he also brought some pretty highly ranked recruits:

Kosta Koufos: #12
Evan Turner: #54
Jon Diebler: #61
Dallas Lauderdale: #70

Still, those players weren't enough to keep OSU in the tournament (though, I think Matta has a legitimate complaint that the Buckeyes were snubbed). For this year, I'm afraid, I'm seeing some deja vu. Ohio State loses 53% of last year's minutes, and again, brings in some great looking recruits:

B.J. Mullens: #8
William Buford: #12
*Terrelle Pryor: #53
Anthony "Noopy" Crater: #100

While nothing has been decided, I doubt Pryor will be suiting up for the Buckeyes on the hardwood (call it a hunch, given his potential on the gridiron), so this class gets thinner if that's the case. Nonetheless, this class is a bit more top heavy than the 2007 class, which is a good thing. That said, I don't see how this team improves from last year. When OSU lost 62% of the minutes, and brought in 4 top 70 players, they went from national runner-up to NIT champs. That's a big dropoff. This year, they lose 53% of the minutes, and bring in 3 top 100 players. While I wouldn't expect the same dropoff, it's not hard to see that OSU is in similar, if not identical, circumstances here. Barring something unforeseen, OSU will not see much improvement this season (of course, they were probably better than an NIT team last season).

So where will the Buckeyes be weak? Well, Mullens should be able to replace the departed Kosta pound-for-pound (and maybe then some), and perhaps Lauderdale can help offset the loss of Othello Hunter. So the interior production should be fine. While OSU struggled shooting from the perimeter (33.6%), it's hard to imagine Jon Diebler getting any worse (28.9%). However, Jamar Butler's absence will hurt this team tremendously, because outside of him, Ohio State was pretty careless with the ball last season:

TO Rates (returning players in Bold)
Kosta Koufos: 12.6
Othello Hunter: 17.1
Jon Diebler: 18.9
Matt Terwilliger: 19.3
Jamar Butler: 19.7
David Lighty: 23.5
Evan Turner: 28.8
Dallas Lauderdale: 38.3
P.J. Hill: 26.8

It's hard to see how this team won't have a turnover problem. For one, P.J. Hill didn't flash much of a PG skillset last season (15.7 Assist Rate is shooting guard-esque), so he's probably not going to replace Butler. That means it's likely up to Buford, Turner, or Crater. Buford and/or Turner would both be playing out of position, and Crater is a true freshman...and not of the "instant impact" variety. Thad's going to have to get creative with the position, but if he manages to keep the team TO Rate under 21.5 or so, it will be an excellent achievement. Only 3 BCS teams made the NCAA tournament with a TO Rate above 21.5, and only one made the Dance with a rate above 22.0 (bubble-esque Kentucky). I see a real battle for OSU to return to the tournament this season, and they'll likely find themselves on the bubble, again.

Moreover, there's a significant chance that Mullens and Buford will be gone after this season, and OSU will be in the same predicament for the third year in a row. One might think that Matta would tire of these one-and-done players, as it seems he needs at least three of them in order to reach the Final Four. Well, Matta doesn't appear to be developing any such distaste -- he's already locked up top 10 talents DeShaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger for 2010.

Projected Ohio State rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Northwestern

Northwestern (Last season: 8-22, 1-17, #158 Pomeroy ranking): Ouch.

That about sums up Northwestern's 07-08 campaign. Were it not for the heroics of Craig Moore, the Wildcats would have gone winless in conference.

It was a fairly typical Northwestern season. On offense, the team survived by keeping the ball on the perimeter, shooting a lot of threes, and thus minimizing turnovers. All of this came at the expense of offensive rebounding and getting to the line, where the Wildcats were among the worst in the nation. On defense, Northwestern's trapping style forced a lot of turnovers, but when opposing teams held onto the ball, they scored at will (55.8% 2P, 38.8% 3P, 37.5% OReb).

I wouldn't expect the style to change much, but I do think that Northwestern will grab a few more boards and disrupt a few more shots this upcoming season. Part of that is the best recruiting class in school history, but most the optimism comes from returning players. Northwestern returns 91% of its minutes from last season. That kind of retention is what took Baylor from 15-16 to 21-11 (ok, that and LaceDarius Dunn). Now, I'm not expecting any miracles here - the Wildcats will almost surely miss out on the NCAA tournament yet again - but they should be able to win more than three Big 10 games (the amount of conference wins in 06-07 and 07-08 combined). If things break right, this is a team that could battle for 6th in the Big 10, and could get an NIT bid.

Wildcat fans have to be happy with the direction of the program as well. Kevin Coble is only a junior this season (and should be on the short list of candidates for preseason player of the year...yes, really), Michael Thompson is one of the best young point guards in the conference (who, like other young guards, needs to learn to stay outside the arc), and the aforementioned recruits should improve the team tremendously in the next 4-5 years. If everyone stays healthy, this is an NCAA tournament team soon, possibly as soon as 2009-10. For now though, the Wildcats will be satisfied that they are no longer in the basement of the conference.

Projected Northwestern rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Minnesota

Minnesota (Last season: 20-14, 8-10, #61 Pomeroy ranking): Tubby's first season in Minnesota was wildly successful, in that the Gophers more than doubled their win total from the year, but the 2007-08 season also demonstrates the value in returning minutes. The Gophers brought back over 85% of their minutes, and the results were fueled by the play of experienced upperclassmen. Seniors Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie played the most minutes, took the most shots, and were the team's best players.

Also working in Minnesota's favor was an easy schedule. The Gophers were a below .500 team in the Big Ten (with a matching -0.02 Efficiency Margin in conference games), yet somehow ended up with 20 wins. The reason was largely because Minnesota's non-conference schedule was within the bottom 20th percentile in terms of difficulty in all of college basketball. Minnesota played 2 teams in the top 75 of Pomeroy's Rankings, and they got pasted both times. To be fair, though, both games were on the road (at FSU and UNLV). Minnesota's schedule isn't out as of this writing, but it's unlikely to be as easy this season (Ed. Note: Minnesota's schedule has been released, and other than a neutral court game against Louisville, the non-conference portion looks pretty tame) (More Ed. Note: It seems others agree with this assessment. Also, was Tubby making a joke with that Notre Dame comment?).

Minnesota will also have to replace Coleman and McKenzie, along with Spencer Tollackson. Tollackson played hard, but was not an elite-level big man. His eFG was a middling 51.5%, and he was a mediocre rebounder his entire career. That said, Minnesota's bench was not filled with quality big men last season. Rising junior Damian Johnson should be able to replace the production of Coleman pretty well, but there aren't any immediate candidates to match Tollackson's output. More likely, the Gophers will rely on the backcourt to take more shots, and incoming top 100 RSCI big man Ralph Sampson, III to grab rebounds. It's not an ideal fix, but a workable one.

This is especially true because the Gophers have some attractive options in the backcourt. The unquestioned leader of the team figures to be junior Lawrence Westbrook, who showed massive improvement from a very ugly freshman campaign. Westbrook can shoot it from deep (39.3%), but needs to learn to stay behind the line a bit more this season. While he's gifted at getting into the lane, his size (6-0) doesn't allow him to finish all that well on two pointers (43.6%). He shot almost twice as many 2s as 3s -- if he can reverse that ratio without changing his field goal percentage, he'll be a much better player.

Junior Damian Johnson is already a great defensive player (he easily met the Renaldo Balkman Threshold last season), and so long as he recognizes he's strictly an interior scorer (25% 3P), he'll be alright on offense. Al Nolen had a promising freshman campaign, and was 9th in the country in Steal Percentage. However, what I'm excited to see is what Blake Hoffarber can do. Yes, that one. And that one. It's my working theory that Blake will be remembered for more than last-second shots by the time he's done. His numbers from last season are as impressive as any non-"1 and dones." No, Blake doesn't rebound well, he doesn't create for others, either. But he's a deadeye shooter (59.5% eFG), and not just a guy who picks his spots (23.2 Shot%). As you would expect from a shooter, he doesn't turn it over, either (13.1% TO Rate). Over 40 minutes, he averaged 16 PPG in conference games. Because his Shot% was so high last season, I don't expect much of a dropoff in that rate as his minutes increase. Blake has a bright future, and is a possible breakout scorer this year in the Big 10.

So what to expect from Minnesota? Well, about the same, which I guess means they'll finish with anything between 15-20 wins as a NIT/bubble team. But the real payoff comes in 2009-10. Minnesota doesn't lose much after this season, and they also welcome McDonald's All-American candidate Royce White. Tubby's turned this team around quickly, and the future looks bright.

Projected Minnesota rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Monday, September 8, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Michigan State

Michigan State (Last season: 27-9, 12-6, #15 Pomeroy Ranking): It’s easy to believe that Michigan State should take a step back this season. Drew Neitzel was among the conference’s most valuable players last season. He took the lion’s share of shots (26.1% Shot%), converted them at a high efficiency (52.5 eFG), created for others (24.8% Assist Rate), and rarely turned the ball over (12.8%). Although D.J. White took player of the year honors, a good case can be made that Neitzel was the conference’s MVP.

However, despite Neitzel’s departure, the Spartans should be loaded this season. Last year, they managed a 0.09 efficiency margin in the conference, good for 3rd. Furthermore, the Spartans return 73.6% of the minutes from last season, the 4th most in the conference. On top of that, the Spartans welcome 6-7 forward Delvon Roe, the #10 ranked recruit in the nation. Roe figures to join the starting rotation alongside Raymar Morgan, Goran Suton, and Kalin Lucas. What Izzo does with the remaining spot, however, might determine how far the Spartans go.

For all that the Spartans do well on offense (shooting, rebounding), they struggle with holding onto the ball. In fact, the last time the Spartans had a turnover rate under 20%, they went to the Final Four in 2005. It was also the last year that the Travis Walton did not play big minutes for MSU. Now, that’s not to say that Travis Walton is singularly responsible for a lack of MSU Final Four appearances. Tom Izzo’s a good coach, and obviously felt Walton’s play gave MSU a better shot to win those ballgames. That said, Izzo found last year that he had alternatives to giving Walton big minutes at PG. As Kalin Lucas saw more time at point guard, and as Walton’s minutes dropped, so did MSU’s turnover rate. The last time Walton saw 30 minutes was against Purdue on February 12th. After that game, MSU’s TO rate was 16.5%. Although Lucas was only a freshman, his 19.8 TO Rate represented a substantial improvement over Walton’s 31.3.

This isn’t to say there’s not a place for Travis Walton on the 2008-09 Spartans – it’s just not as the starting point guard. Walton has always been a well respected defensive player, and although he missed his only 7 three point attempts last season, he shot 35.7% in conference games as a sophomore. If he can provide that shooting again off the bench, he would provide MSU with outside scoring to help make up for the loss of Neitzel.

Obviously, MSU figures to be very Izzo-esque next season, featuring outstanding offensive rebounding led by one of the conference’s best frontlines, highlighted by Goran Suton. That said, unless MSU figures out its turnover issues, the Spartans won’t see the Final Four. With Roe and Raymar likely departing for the NBA, and with Suton graduating, it may be their last opportunity for a while.

Projected Michigan State rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Friday, September 5, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Michigan

Michigan (Last season: 10-22, 5-13, #112 Pomeroy ranking): John Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor was a rocky one. The Wolverines lost 4 productive seniors from the 06-07 squad, and consequently saw their record flipped upside-down. Like Lickliter, Beilein also carries the "system" tag, and it's pretty much the same system – keep the ball on the perimeter, keep the turnovers low, and don't be shy about taking three pointers. Unlike Lickliter's Iowa squad, Michigan did keep the turnovers down…somewhat. The figures didn't threaten to break the 15.0% threshold (as they did with Beilein's West Virginia squads), but Michigan did see its TO Rate go from 23.1% to 19.7%. And that's while losing your four best players and relying on a freshman to handle the ball. Sure, maybe not a runaway success, but it was certainly progress.

That's not the only bit of progress we can see in Michigan. While it did not appear spectacular on the season, Michigan's defense was significantly improved in the second half. Through the first 22 games, Michigan held only 3 opponents to an offensive efficiency under 100: Radford, Brown, and Eastern Washington. However, in the last 10 games, only 3 teams had an efficiency over 100. Among those held under the 100 threshold were conference powerhouses Wisconsin and Purdue. Oddly enough, Beilein's West Virginia teams were not especially great on the defensive end, so it will be interesting to see whether the trend continues into the new season.

On offense, it's clear that Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims own this team. Last season, they combined to take 58% of the available shots while on the floor. Of course, the shots didn't necessarily go in the hoop. Sims sported an eFG of 45.2%, while Harris checked in at 43.2%. For Harris, that figure is almost sure to go up. For one, it really can't get much worse. Secondly, it's unlikely that an 82% free throw shooter continues to shoot 32% on three pointers. Sims also figures to improve on that (a 6-8 player with his ability is unlikely to shoot 45% on the 2 pointers again), but might not be an ideal fit for Beilein's system (69% free throw shooter shot 30% on three pointers). Furthermore, Sims' more frequent three point shooting likely impacted his offensive rebounding percentage (from 12.5% as a freshman to 8.1% last season).

Michigan returns more than Harris and Sims, however. In fact, the 73% of the minutes will return to Ann Arbor this season, so it's likely that the Wolverines will see significant improvement. On the other hand, some the lost minutes were pretty big, literally and figuratively. Ekpe Udoh is taking his game to Baylor. While not a big contributor on offense (14.9% Shot Percentage), Udoh was a force on defense (12.3% Block Percentage). Not surprisingly, Michigan's D was relatively stronger in 2 point defense and shotblocking. Without Udoh, this will almost certainly cease to be the case. Whether the rest of the team can step up on defense remains to be seen.

Projected Michigan rotation (statistics are for conference games only):

Thursday, September 4, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Iowa

Iowa (Last season: 13-19, 6-12, #116 Pomeroy ranking): Do system coaches really exist? That’s the question that Iowa’s season begs. In his first year at the helm, Todd Lickliter’s Hawkeyes struggled. This was no surprise – they lost a whole buch ‘o minutes from the likes of Adam Haluska and Tyler Smith…and they were only 17-14 the prior year anyways. So Iowa fans were probably not envisioning a deep tourney run.

That said, the way in which the Hawkeyes lost was somewhat surprising. Lickliter has a reputation for being a “system” coach from his years at Butler. Looking through the numbers, that system is apparent – keep the ball on the perimeter, and keep those TOs low.

By being so careful with the ball, Lickliter's teams had a knack for taking down more talented opponents. This led to outsiders referring to Lickliter's "system." The thinking goes, it's not the talent on the floor per se, but rather the unique way in which these guys play basketball.

Is there something to the idea of a "system coach?" I don't know, but I do know that if Lickliter has a system, he didn't bring it with him to Iowa City. Last year the Hawkeyes were an awful 326th in the nation in turnover percentage. What's more worrisome is that the Hawkeyes turned it over so much even though they kept the ball on the perimeter! Indeed, Iowa was 23rd in the nation in 3PA/FGA (44%). So what happened?

Well, maybe nothing. Maybe it wasn't just Lickliter's system. Maybe it was also A. J. Graves and Bruce Horan. Whatever the case, Iowa had a big turnover problem, and figures to have the same problem this season. The only players without eye-popping TO issues on the team last season were now-departed senior Justin Johnson (17.1% TO Rate), and outgoing transfer Tony Freeman (23.2%, but with significant PG duties). Freeman's taking his game and last remaining year of eligibility to SIU, and it's not really known why. Regardless of the reason, Iowa has to move forward without him.

Iowa returns only 48.3% of the minutes from a team with a 13-19 record. That's not a recipe for success. Make no mistake – this is a team that figures to be near the bottom of the conference. But why focus on the bad – let's find some silver lining! Jake Kelly showed some promise in his freshman season, shooting the ball well from deep (43.5%). Beyond some freshman ball security issues, the 6-6 Kelly struggled to make 2 pointers (39.4%). For a guy who figures to be taller than guy guarding him most nights, this is likely to change. Iowa also brings in 6 recruits, though none of them figure to be the program-changing type. How well those freshman play once they arrive on campus will give a sense as to whether Lickliter is up for the challenge of the Big 10. In the short term, however, Hawkeyes likely will battle it out with Indiana for 10th place next season.

Projected Iowa rotation (statistics are for conference games only):