Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pod people in Minneapolis

Ironically enough, I received Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the Donald Sutherland version) from Netflix yesterday. But I think Minnesota's win over Illinois was a pretty decent remake. Illini fans probably didn't recognize the team that took the floor last night. After all, this was one of the better shooting teams in the conference, but in this one they made just 29% of its shots, en route to losing the 59-36 contest. Depending on your point of view, this was the worst offensive performance in the conference season, or it was the best defensive performance. Either way, it was a bad night for Weber's team, but an equally joyous occasion for Tubby Smith's squad, who snapped a 20 game losing streak against the Illini.

Not only did the Illini struggle to make shots, but they were silent on the boards and rarely visited the free throw line. Minnesota, on the other hand, cleaned up over 40% of the available offensive boards and attempted 17 more free throws than the Illini. Lawrence Westbrook continued his impressive conference play with 15 points on 9 shots. No one on the Illini reached double figures, though Dominique Keller chipped in 9 points on 8 shots. Box score.

With this impressive win, Minnesota has vaulted itself into the conversation for the conference crown. Illinois' efficiency margin took quite a hit as well, nearly being cut in half. The question is whether this was just a bad game, or whether it's just the beginning. The Illini were not seen as title contenders coming into this season, even by those who recognized how out-of-whack their conference record was last season compared to their point differential. Illinois returned roughly two-thirds of the minutes last season, and a lot of those were played by freshmen, so improvement was expected. But until last night, Illinois looked like the best team in the Big Ten, a scenario that no one foresaw. So the question is, was this the correction we've all been waiting for? Stay tuned.

Michigan State
easily dispatched of Iowa, 71-56 in a 63 possession game last night. This was one of those games where everything goes to script. Both teams shot well enough, both teams coughed it up too often, but Michigan State's dominance at the free throw line and on the offensive glass was the difference. It's been said before, but Lickliter's squad turns it over way too much for a team that likes to keep it on the perimeter. The coach is still searching for answers, but I'm afraid I don't have any here. It's one of the bigger mysteries of the past season and a half.

There was no mystery on the other side of the ball, as Michigan State dominated from the opening tip. Even more impressive was that the Spartans were without a healthy Raymar Morgan, who was limited due to an illness. Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers picked up the slack, combining for 45 points on 22 shots. Jeff Peterson led the Hawkeyes with 14 points on 11 shots. Box score.

Bad defense? Bad offense? Bad defense and bad offense?

Northwestern survived a scare from Indiana last night, prevailing 77-75 in a 69 possession game. This game featured a lot of accurate shooting, but also a lot of turnovers. As it was, both teams averaged about 1.1 points per possession, and if you subtracted the turnover possessions, that number would be around 1.5. The shooting was incredible as both teams were 12-23 from behind the arc. So neither defense was particularly effective. In fact, the only thing that stopped these teams from scoring were themselves. They combined for 41 turnovers, and viewers were confused as to whether they were watching an entertaining high scoring event or a sloppy battle featuring plenty of passes to the scorer's table.

The Wildcats appeared to have this one in hand midway through the second half, opening up a ten point lead. But the Hoosiers fought back, tying the game at 75, and they even had a chance to win it with six seconds left. Unfortunately, Kevin Coble stole the inbounds pass to seal it for Northwestern, but you have to be impressed with how Crean's team battled back. I still think Indiana will beat someone in the conference this season. Those home games against Northwestern and Iowa look like solid possibilities.

Craig Moore led the Wildcats with 21 points on 11 shots, and Devan Dumes had 26 on 16 attempts for the Hoosiers. Box score.

Ohio State blasted Michigan, 72-54 in a 66 possession game. This was definitely an encouraging sign for Buckeye fans. The defense has been a weakness for Thad Matta's team ever since conference play began, so this easily qualifies as their best effort against a Big Ten team. And just as you would expect for a team featuring two of the country's best shotblockers, things were not easy for Michigan on the inside. The Wolverines shot just 35% from two point range, and this on a night when their outside shots weren't falling either (27%). Oh, and on top of that, they committed 21 turnovers.

Manny Harris had a bizarre line - he scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but he also had ten turnovers. Harris was scintillating in the non-conference season, but he's struggled in conference play. At this rate, he's not going to make the Third Team All-Big Ten.

Evan Turner, on the other hand, was his usual efficient self, scoring 24 points on just 9 shots. Ohio State again put on a shooting clinic, shooting 71% from two point range. Michigan was just too short for the Buckeyes' imposing front line. Box score.

Tonight, Michigan State visits Iowa, while Illinois looks to make it 21 straight against Minnesota.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nervous in Madison

Wisconsin dropped its fifth conference game in a row, losing to Purdue at home 64-63 in a 56 possession game. The reason the Badgers lost this one is the same reason they've lost the other four - they don't make the other team miss all that much. The Boilers shot 66% from 2 point range and 46% from three. Ballgame. On the season, Wisconsin's defensive eFG isn't that bad, relatively, to the rest of the conference. But that includes a game in which Northwestern couldn't throw it in Lake Michigan. Subtract that one, and Wisconsin's eFG jumps to 52.2, only ahead of Michigan and Indiana (both of whom have very little in the way of tall players). Over the last four five games, Wisconsin opponents have put up the following effective field goal percentages:
  • 49.1
  • 52.5
  • 54.6
  • 54.8
  • 66.7
And that's really too bad, because it wasted a couple of nice offensive outbursts (like last night's). Now sitting at 3-5 in the conference, Wisconsin is destined for bubble status. They have 5 home games left, and another road game at Indiana. Assuming they win all of those, that's 9 wins, which gives them 18 on the season. Given that the Badgers lack a marquee win, that might not be enough. The next easiest win is either at Northwestern this weekend or a visit to Penn State. A win in either (or both) of those games could save Wisconsin's season.

As for Purdue, this was an uncharacteristically mediocre defensive performance, but it's clear the offense loves facing the Badgers. The Boilers have cracked the 1.15 points per possession mark twice in conference play, and both came against the Badgers. In fact, Purdue seems to have Wisconsin's number of late, winning four straight against Bo Ryan's team. After a sluggish start, the Boilers are back in the thick of things, and right there with Michigan State and Illinois in what looks to be a three team race for the title.

E'Twaun Moore led Purdue with 17 points on 9 shots, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and just one turnover. Keaton Nankivil had a "where did that come from?" performance for Wisconsin, scoring 21 points on 8 shots (hitting on all five of his three point attempts). Box score.

Tonight, Michigan visits Ohio State, and Indiana takes on Northwestern.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


They're up, they're in the sidebar, and so far they're plenty interesting. John Gasaway has already pointed out a couple of anomalies - such as Indiana's curiously strong rebounding and Bo Ryan's "foul often" defense. There are some other oddities that appear in the numbers at this stage - such as Purdue's sudden inability to force turnovers, Iowa's frequent FT makes, and Illinois' continued success with the mid-range jump shot.

I'll be adding some more to these over the next few days, stay tuned.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Big Ten Slow Ball

Everything is 65 possessions and under - but hey, at least it's faster than those snails out west.

Michigan State exploded in the second half to take down Ohio State, 78-67 in a 61 possession game yesterday. The Spartans had 52 second half points, which is quite an accomplishment for such a slow game. Ohio State's shotblockers did little to prevent the MSU from scoring inside, allowing them to shoot 56% on two pointers. They weren't bad on three pointers or from the free throw line, either. Oh, and they grabbed 50% of the available offensive rebounds. Frankly, the Buckeyes didn't slow down the Spartans in any way. And so continues the defensive struggles of the Ohio State. They need David Lighty back, and soon.

This represents another quality win for Coach Izzo's team, as Michigan State maintains its lead on the rest of the conference. This team isn't perfect, especially defensively, but the offense is so good that it might not matter. Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers combined for 46 points on 26 shots. Box score.

On Saturday, Illinois protected its home court with a 64-57 win over Wisconsin in a 61 possession game. The Illini shot the ball very well, going 53% from 2 point range and 40% from three. Good thing too, because Wisconsin allowed Illinois to grab only 3 offensive rebounds all game. On the other side of the ball, the Badgers couldn't make a shot, going 39% from two and 29% from three. The reason the game was so close was because they took excellent care of the ball, turning it over just seven times. This is a staple of Bo Ryan's team, and that will keep them in most games.

Joe Krabbenhoft had himself a game in this one, scoring 16 points on 10 shots to go along with 12 rebounds. A big part of this was that Illinois tried to guard the forward with someone giving up nearly half a foot, but one wonders why Krabbenhoft doesn't shoot more. He's an effecient scorer when he puts it up (53.1 eFG entering this game), but he's awfully selective (16.1 shot percentage). Wisconsin isn't loaded with playmakers, so there's room for Krabbenhoft to hoist up a few more attempts.

For the Illini, Demetri McCamey led the team on the offensive end, scoring 25 points on 10 shots to go with seven assists. It's a testament to how many great guards there are in the Big Ten when you consider that McCamey might not be the third best point guard in the conference, because McCamey is pretty good. Box score.

Iowa let one get away at Penn State, losing 59-63 in a 57 possession game. The Hawkeyes appeared to have this one in hand, leading by 14 in the second half. But the Nittany Lions closed the game on a 22-5 run to sneak out with the victory. Road wins aren't going to come easily for Coach Lickliter's team, so this was a big loss. But the story of this game was Jamelle Cornley. After picking up a technical foul, Cornley hit big shot after big shot to bring Penn State back. All in all, the big man had 24 points on 17 shots, playing all 40 minutes. Talor Battle also chipped in with 20 points on 12 shots, to go with 6 assists and one turnover.

After a game like this, it's hard to say whether one team made a miraculous comeback, or whether the other guys just choked. In most cases, it's probably a bit of both, and that's what I saw here. Yes, Penn State hit some big shots, and they get a lot of credit for that. But there were some questionable plays by Iowa as well. David Palmer shooting a three pointer with 11 seconds left, for instance.

As tough a loss as this was for Iowa, it would have been nerly disastrous for Penn State, who is still aiming for an NCAA Tournament berth. Defending the home court is paramount, and while Iowa is no cupcake, they appear to be headed near the bottom of the conference standings. And make no mistake - Penn State caught a bit of a break here. The normally-accurate Hawkeyes aren't going to shoot 4 of 17 from the three point line very often.

Big Ten Geek breakout candidate Jake Kelly led Iowa with 19 points on 10 shots, but with 4 turnovers. David Palmer's magic appears to have worn off, as he had just 6 points in this one. But Todd Lickliter reached into his bottomless bag of players and got a good game out of Aaron Fuller, who scored 16 in this one. Fuller had been averaging less than 4 points a game. Are we sure that Anthony Tucker isn't just wearing disguises out there? Every game, it seems Iowa gets an unexpected big game out of someone. Box score.

Usually when Manny Harris doesn't have a good game, Michigan is in trouble. Usually. But the Wolverines got plenty of contributions from the supporting cast in defeating Northwestern 68-59 in a 57 possession game. It's not often that the better shooting team loses by nearly double digits, but that's exactly what happened in Ann Arbor on Saturday. The difference was rebounding. The Wildcats grabbed just 10% of their available offensive rebounds while the Wolverines snagged 40% of theirs. It's hard to stop the other team when you let them keep shooting until they finally make a basket. The effort on the boards was especially concerning was Coach Carmody's team because over half of Michigan's attempts were three pointers. Another very un-POTish aspect of Michigan's offense were all the trips to the line. Although both teams attempted roughly the same percentage of three pointers, the Wolverines saw 18 free throw attempts to the Wildcats' three. Ah, life on the road.

Harris only had 8 points on 9 shots, but he found other ways to contribute, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing four assists. Not only is Harris an elite scorer, but he's also one of the Big Ten's best rebounders and distributors. Michigan fans - enjoy him while you can, he might not be around much longer. DeShawn Sims led the Wolverines with 15 points on 8 shots, and also had seven rebounds. Kevin Coble propelled Northwestern's offense with 21 points on 18 shots, 7 rebounds, and five assists (0 turnovers). Box score.

Minnesota escaped Bloomington with a win over Indiana yesterday, prevailing 67-63 in a 65 possession game. This one was tight throughout, as Indiana overcame its usual turnover problems with strong offensive rebounding and hot outside shooting. The numbers were pretty similar for both teams, but the Hoosiers had just a couple more turnovers in the game, and that was the difference. Like the game against Michigan, this is another one that just got away. Certainly Indiana fans can point to the 52% free throw shooting as evidence that they should have won this one.

Minnesota was led by forward Damian Johnson in this one with 18 points, but I was awfully impressed with freshman Ralph Sampson, III, who might become sort of a darkhorse candidate for freshman player of the year if he keeps playing like this. Sampson didn't have quite the accolades of B. J. Mullens, William Buford, or Delvon Roe, but his game was plenty impressive yesterday. Not only did he score 13 points and grab 8 rebounds, but he also swatted six Hoosier shot attempts.

Indiana was led by Devan Dumes, who had 19 points on 11 shots. Box score.

Tonight, the conference takes the night off. Tuesday, Purdue visits the Kohl Center in a pivotal matchup. Can Wisconsin really lose five straight Big Ten games?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sometimes, it just comes down to shooting

In their only matchup of the regular season, Purdue went on the road and defeated Minnesota, 70-62 in a 68 possession game. This game illustrated that, sometimes, it just comes down to who makes their shots. Both teams turned the ball over a lot (as you'd expect against these two defenses), both teams got to the foul line a lot (uncharacteristically), and both teams grabbed a lot of offensive rebounds. The only real difference was in how the two teams shot the ball, and it wasn't even close - Purdue made it their fourth game out of five in which they shot north of 50% eFG, while Minnesota was frigid (33% from two, 16% from three). E'Twaun Moore and Keaton Grant seem to be emerging from their season-long slumps - they combined to go 4 for 5 from downtown, scoring 25 points on 14 shots. JaJuan Johnson also had a nice game - 19 points on 10 shots, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks.

Whether it was great defense by Purdue or just cold shooting, Minnesota really struggled from the field. They came into the game 23rd nationally in eFG%, driven by a nice balance of threes and twos. Turnovers and poor rebounding are nothing new for the Gophers, but this was easily their worst shooting night of the season (30.2% eFG). There's plenty of blame to go around, as nobody shot well except for big men Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III - and they took only 7 shots combined. Against a thin Purdue front line (including Robbie Hummel playing at less than 100%), you'd think that the Gophers would have tried to go to their big men a bit more. Of course, JaJuan Johnson's shotblocking might have discouraged those thoughts. Box score.

This is a big win for Purdue - Minnesota is going to win a lot of games in The Barn, plus this was the only chance for Purdue to grab the tiebreaker against the Golden Gophers. The Boilermakers still have a tough stretch ahead - 3 of the next 4 are road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Illinois - but this win keeps them squarely in the title hunt.

Minnesota, meanwhile, loses their second home game of the season - the other to Michigan State. I think it's becoming clear that the Gophers aren't title contenders this season, but they're still in great shape to grab an at-large bid at season's end. Considering expectations coming into the season, that's still a nice surprise.

The conference takes a break until Saturday, with the following games on tap (all times CT):

Wisconsin @ Illinois - 3pm - ESPN
Iowa @ Penn State - 5pm - Big Ten Network
Northwestern @ Michigan - 7pm - Big Ten Network

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yes, that score is right

Northwestern shocked Michigan State, 70-63 in a 64 possession game last night. In East Lansing. Just when you think you've figured out this conference, something like this happens. The Wildcats are definitely improved over last season, and they did post a solid victory over Minnesota in Evanston. Heck, there's a good chance they end up in the NIT. But taking down the Spartans? On the road? Tom Izzo likely didn't get much sleep last night.

The Wildcats did a couple of things to disrupt MSU's normally-efficient offense in this one. The first isn't all that surprising - force turnovers. The Spartans have struggled in that area over the past few seasons, though for the most part they seemed to have that under control this year. But against a defense that's among the best in the country at forcing turnovers, Michigan State was sloppy, coughing it up 18 times.

The second thing Northwestern did was encourage Michigan State to shoot from the perimeter. A full 45% of MSU's shots came from beyond the arc, which is highly uncharacteristic for Tom Izzo's team. Just a couple of days ago I noted that Tom Izzo was proclaiming his newfound affinity for the three point shot - one wonders if he carries any such notions today. The Spartans shot just 24% from behind the arc last night.

Of course, turnovers and plenty of missed shots will doom any offense. It's a credit to the offensive rebounding and solid work at the free throw line (20 of 24) that MSU still nearly scored a point per possession. But when the opposition features one of the conference's best players having the game of his life, that's not enough. And that's the real story in this one. Kevin Coble was unconscious. He scored 31 points on a mere 16 shots, and he did it in a pretty balanced way - 14 points on 2 pointers, 9 points on 3s, and 8 points from the charity stripe. He was unguardable, everywhere. It's only Thursday morning, but I think the junior forward has locked up the Big Ten Player of the Week.

One wonders if this game could have been different had Michigan State fed the monster a bit more. As good as Coble was, Goran Suton might have been even better had he received a few more touches. With a mere 6 shot attempts, the big man scored 15 points, and that's in addition to his 14 rebounds. And foul trouble was not a factor as Suton was not whistled once. Frankly, the Wildcats had no answer for him. But that was not exploited by the Spartans. Box score.

Iowa prevailed over Wisconsin in an overtime thriller, 73-69 in a 62 possession game (those 62 possessions translate into 55 per 40 minutes...certainly not doing much for fighting those Big Ten stereotypes). Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor nailed a 30 footer at the buzzer to send it off in the extra frame, but Iowa's offense was just too powerful in this one. The Hawkeyes shot a blazing 59% from inside the arc, and turned it over a mere 9 times. Wisconsin's offense wasn't so bad either, averaging 1.11 points per possession. But this game is a sobering illustration at how far the Badger defense has fallen from last season. This kind of defensive performance from last year's squad is almost unthinkable - the Badgers held opponents to 41.7% two point shooting. That number has jumped nearly 6 percentage points this year.

Iowa's two point attack was led, again, by David Palmer. Even Hawkeye fans probably don't know who this guy is. He played sparingly up until Cyrus Tate went down, and suddenly he's scoring over 20 points a game. Did Todd Lickliter not realize he had a Big Ten MVP on his bench? Did Palmer forget to bring his shoes to every game? Did he finally overcome his agoraphobia? In this one, Palmer had 21 points on 12 shots, to go with 7 rebounds. Joe Krabbenhoft had the prettiest line for Wisconsin with 11 points on 6 shots, to go with 7 rebounds.

And is it just me, or does it seem like Lickliter has an endless bench? Anthony Tucker started out the season as the go-to guy, but missed a lot of time with off court issues (now, it appears, he's done for good this season). No problem - Jermain Davis suddenly appears for a couple of big games. Cyrus Tate out with an injury? Lickliter just reaches down his bench and pulls out David Palmer. One wonders what were to happen if Lickliter catches a bad flu. Would Dean Smith miraculously start pacing the sidelines?

Although Wisconsin didn't defend very well in this one, Badger fans are no doubt howling about Iowa's 35 free throw attempts (Wisconsin had 10). Given that Wisconsin normally doesn't foul much and that Iowa generally doesn't draw fouls (and although they had effective two point shooting in this one, 49% of their shots were 3 pointers), this one does look a little suspicious. But that's life on the road. Box score.

This conference is very balanced, top to bottom, as last night's results show. And as you can see in the crowded tempo free aerial, many of the teams are winning the same way - with good offense and mediocre defense. And yeah, everyone's playing at nearly the same pace again this season. Like a sorority house, the Big Ten is starting to conform quite a bit. It wouldn't surprise me if a pillow fight broke out in the Big Ten Tournament.

Tonight, Purdue visits Minnesota in a game that should feature a lot of pressure defense.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Superstars silenced

Illinois clamped down on Ohio State, prevailing 67-49 in a 64 possession game. Offensively this was Ohio State's worst game of the season, scoring just 0.77 points per possession. Not a lot went right for the Buckeyes, but the biggest problem was the 20 turnovers. Whether or not this is an aberration remains to be seen, I think. OSU's turnovers have been creeping upward in Big Ten play, but then again, teams like Illinois and Minnesota are pretty good at forcing teams into them. Stay tuned.

I also have to tip my cap to Weber's strategy to contain Evan Turner, the Buckeyes' best and most important player (who finished with just 4 points). Although he gives up nearly half a foot, Chester Frazier was stuck on Turner for most of the game. But as soon as Turner received a pass, all of the Illini swarmed on him, and Turner was not reluctant to pass to the open teammate. Basically, Weber wanted anyone else on Ohio State to beat him, and they didn't.

On the other side of the ball, the box score of this game might make it on Dallas Lauderdale's personal bulletin board. The Illini shot 60% from inside the arc against the Buckeyes, as Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, and Dominique Keller combined for 35 points on 23 shots. And yes, some of those were mid-range shots that I thought might give OSU's shotblockers trouble. But a great many of them were not. Just a bad game for a normally elite interior defense. Given how ineffective OSU's 2 point defense was, it's actually a little surprising the Illini didn't score more in this one. Mike Tisdale led the Illini with 15 points on 7 shots. B. J. Mullens led Ohio State with 14 points on 8 shots, to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks (4 turnovers, however). Box score.

Penn State shut down Michigan's Manny Harris, and when you can do that, you often win. Harris finished with just 4 points as the Nittany Lions blitzed Michigan, 73-58 in a 61 possession game. The Wolverines just couldn't make any of their shots, and seemed bothered by Penn State's zone all night long. But behold the power of POT - Michigan shot just 17% on their very numerous three point attempts last night, and still posted 0.95 points per possession.

But that's not going to get it done on a night when Penn State's big three are all playing well. Jamelle Cornley, Talor Battle, and Stanley Pringle combined for 44 points on 32 shots, 19 rebounds, and 8 assists. The entire PSU team didn't miss very often, posting an eFG of 67.0. This game was over early, as Penn State was up by about 25 points before garbage time. Ed DeChellis actually got to rest his big three as well (a total of 25 minutes!). Cornley led the Nittany Lions with 17 points on 10 shots, to go with 11 rebounds. DeShawn Sims led Michigan with 21 points on 14 shots, and also had 11 boards. Box score.

This game tells us a couple of things. First, Penn State is proving to be a pretty solid team - solid enough to start talking about the NCAA Tournament. Second, Michigan is proving that those upsets over Duke and UCLA earlier this season were just that - upsets. The Wolverines figure to spend life on the bubble this season. Hey, that's still progress, right?

Tonight, Northwestern visits Michigan State, while the Badgers play Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tom Izzo is making more promises

Well, not so much promises, but more...pronouncements, because he's talking about the current season:

"Tom Izzo basketball" has been defined over the years by dominant rebounding and defense. Those are team strengths this season, too. But what's different is Izzo's willingness to give players more freedom to showcase their offensive skills.

"I don't want to be known as just a physical team," Izzo said. "I don't want to be known as just a defensive team. I want us to put the whole package together -- now."

That means more 3-pointers and jump shots -- often earlier in the shot clock -- more plays that spread the floor, more screens and a livelier transition game.

Well, let's see if there's anything to this. Here's where the current Spartans rank against previous Michigan State teams in terms of 3PA/FGA:


Well, it doesn't appear that Izzo's team is changing up their style at all. Readers of this blog will also remember that Izzo promised a faster pace at the start of this season. How is that promise working out so far?
Well, at least there's some truth to that one. While the Spartans are by no means a "running" team, they are faster than the national average, which is a pretty rare thing for a Big Ten team. From watching the green & white this season, I think a better way to characterize them is as a "selective running" team. Unlike UNC, for instance, they don't run on every single possession change. Just the ones where they feel they have the best chance for an easy basket. But if it's not there, the Spartans don't force it (UNC does, but then again, they have the talent to get away with that) and they run their offense. Their decidedly two-point, crash-the-glass, occasionally turnover-prone, and rarely inefficient, offense.

With that said, maybe a few more three pointers wouldn't hurt. For instance, is there any reason why the 6-0 Kalin Lucas is shooting over three times as many 2s as 3s? It's especially surprising considering he's a fine three point shooter (40% this year, 36% last season), even outshooting his two point percentage (36%). And it's not like there isn't a precedent for that kind of outside bombardment. In fact, it was hanging around East Lansing last season, wearing #11 and shooting 22 footers. The more Lucas plays like Drew Neitzel did, the better off the Spartans will be, I think.

Tonight, four teams will be looking for a big win that could help them get off the bubble in March. Ohio State visits Illinois after notching a big win at Ann Arbor, and Michigan looks to bounce back against Penn State. For Illinois, a win here (and at home against Wisconsin on Saturday) I think knocks them off the bubble and firmly into the NCAA Tournament, barring anything disastrous. For Ohio State, it wouldn't be a bad loss as much as a big win, and it gives them a good chance of finishing within the top 3 in the conference. Obviously, a big part of the matchup will be in the post, as this game will feature two of the Big Ten's best frontcourts (who would have thought we'd be saying that about Illinois this season?) who have very different stregths. Illinois' Mike-Heavy Frontcourt is one of the best scoring frontcourts in the conference. Tisdale and Davis shoot often, and those shots generally go in (53% two point shooting for each). And if you foul them, they'll hurt you at the line (both are shooting over 75% there). And when they get the ball, they don't turn it over. And when they get tired, the equally-efficient Dominique Keller will see time.

Ohio State's big men, on the other hand, are defense-heavy. Now yes, when he isn't turning it over, B. J. Mullens can put it in the hoop, and yes, when he's confident enough to take a shot, Dallas Lauderdale is automatic, but it's the shot-swatting these guys do that make them tough. Combined, they block nearly 22% of the opponents' two point shots while they're out on the floor. That will make a lot of teams nervous about taking it inside the paint, and indeed, that's what has happened this year. OSU opponents are devoting 38% of their shots to three pointers this season. If Illinois falls in line with that, they probably won't win. The Illini don't shoot a lot of threes, which is probably a big reason why their three point percentage is as high as it is - they're being selective. But perhaps Illinois' mid-range game is built exactly for attacking this kind of shot blocking defense. If Davis and Tisdale can make their 10-12 footers over OSU's big men, it could be a long night for the Buckeyes.

The Penn State/Michigan battle looms large because these teams will jockey for position in the middle of the Big Ten all year long. Stealing one at Penn State's place would be very big for the Wolverines. In this one, I think we can expect a lack of two things - turnovers and defense. Both teams take excellent care of the ball, and neither team forces turnovers all that well. In fact, neither team does much of anything on defense. Guard afficionados should tune in to watch the matchup between Talor Battle and Manny Harris, two of the best in the country. How good are these guys? Well, not only do they score efficiently despite having to shoot so often, but they also set up their teammates well while maintaining low turnover rates. In fact, you could make an argument that either one is not only the best shooting guard in the Big Ten, but also the best point guard in the conference. But that's not the most impressive thing to me. No, what's impressive about these two is that they are also excellent defensive rebounders. And no, I don't mean "for their size." I mean for anyone's size. What's great about that stat is that it means that these guys aren't taking plays off, which is often the difference between being talented and being phenomenal.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Spartans emerge victorious, Ohio State's defense emerges

Michigan State now sits 2 games ahead of everyone else in the conference after defeating Illinois, 63-57 in a 66 possession game. These were the two best teams in the conference, according to efficiency margin, but they sure didn't play like it yesterday. The Spartans and the Illini combined for 36 turnovers, and they also shot 8-37 from behind the arc. But a win is a win, and MSU has sprinted out of the gate in the conference season. That said, some of their toughest road games are yet to come. They're going to need better play from Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan, however. The two combined for only 18 points on 18 shots. Illinois' entire starting five apparently missed the bus up to East Lansing. Only Mike Davis scored in double figures, with 10 points. In total, the starters combined for 25 points on 29 shots. Box score.

Illinois led for most of this game, helped out by 14 first half MSU turnovers. When the Spartans didn't turn it over, however, they were tough to stop. They grabbed 50% of the available rebounds on the offensive end. But when they were turning it over before getting a shot up, offensive rebounding doesn't matter. This was a familiar sight for Spartan fans - a great offense when they can hold onto the ball. In fact, their seasons often turn on whether or not they can minimize the turnovers. For example, in 2006-07, the Spartans turned it over on 24% of their possessions, and went a mere 8-8 in conference play. However, in 04-05, they kept that rate below 20%, and they made it all the way to the Final Four. Turnovers are a big deal for Michigan State. And in the second half last season, MSU turned it over just 4 times, and outscored Illinois 36-23. Goran Suton led the way with 12 points on 8 shots to go with 6 rebounds.

The Illini had their chances, but were done in by giving up too many second chances to Michigan State. Illinois does so much so well on defense, but rebounding is their true weakness. They force turnovers, defend shots, limit FT opportunities (and even work some telekenisis to get opponents to miss those chances from the line). But they don't rebound, and it's the frontline's fault. Yesterday was a good example - the Illini had 18 defensive boards, and Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham grabbed half of them. And a team like Michigan State is the kryptonite that exposes that frontline.

Ohio State's defense, on the other hand, was working on Saturday. defeating Michigan 65-58 in a 59 possession game. Sure, 0.99 points per possession isn't a spectacular number, but the Wolverines are a very good offensive team. This was the 4th-worst mark for Michigan's offense all season. The Wolverines shot just 37% from 2 point range, no doubt influenced by the presence of the shotblocking duo B. J. Mullens and Dallas Lauderdale. Speaking of Mullens, the big man is coming along nicely. In this one, he posted 15 points on 9 shots to go with 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. In fact, OSU's other highly-touted freshman, William Buford, also recorded 15 points on 10 shots, and made his presence felt defensively with 4 steals. If there was dark spot in this game for the Buckeyes, it was the 15 turnovers. Evan Turner's otherwise spectacular line (19 points, 12 shots, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) was blemished with 5 turnovers. And Michigan is not a team that forces turnovers all that well. Perhaps this is OSU's lack of a point guard materializing.

For Michigan, it was a familiar story. Manny Harris can do almost everything, but he can't do everything. Despite scoring 21 in this one, on 16 shots to go with 7 rebounds (and 6 assists), Michigan's offense was not clicking. Harris needs his partner in crime, DeShawn Sims, to be more of a factor than he was on Saturday (10 points on 13 shots). Michigan's defense is probably not going to win them a lot of games this season, so when the offense isn't clicking, they generally lose. Box score.

Purdue crushed Iowa on Sunday, 75-53 in a 67 possession game. The Boilermakers were red-hot from the outside, shooting 10-15 on their 3 pointers. Keaton Grant is finally showing signs of waking up. Grant had 12 points on just 6 shots in this one, and he's now made 6 of his last 10 three point attempts. On defense, Purdue was suffocating, as Iowa just couldn't get anything going, especially inside the arc, where they were just 9-30. They also coughed it up 19 times, and I think it's fair to say that Iowa's turnover problems are back. Unless that changes, the Hawkeyes might not win more than a handful of conference games this year. When Iowa isn't shooting very well, they just don't have many ways to win. It didn't help that Cyrus Tate was out with an injury in this one, but his replacement, David Palmer, converted his 14 attempts into 19 points (to go along with 8 rebounds). This begs the question - where has Lickliter been hiding this guy? Coming into this game, Palmer had played all of 10 minutes in conference games since joining Iowa in 2006. This game might have earned the big man some PT. Box score.

Northwestern won its first Big Ten game of the season, defeating Minnesota 74-65 in a 67 possession game in Evanston. The Wildcats shot very well, including 52% from inside the arc against the nation's best shotblocking team. Craig Moore and Kevin Coble were on fire, scoring 42 points on 22 shots (though they also combined for 8 turnovers). The Wildcats also forced Minnesota into 19 turnovers, but Gopher fans will no doubt point to the free throw disparity as a key component to this game. The Wildcats received 27 attempts at the stripe, while the Gophers saw just 11. There might have been a little bit of home cooking in this one, as neither team is especially gifted at getting to the line. But that's hardly a rare phenomenon, and frankly, that's one of the reasons winning on the road is so difficult. And Northwestern is no exception. Sure, this was their first conference win, but they had played Penn State, Michigan State, and Purdue all very tough. I still think Northwestern is a very improved team, but I'm not sure Wildcat fans have woken up to that yet. There's still not very much support for the squad in Welsh Ryan. It's hard enough for teams to play 9 conference road games, 18 is asking too much. The guys in purple are probably a little sick of hearing "De-fense!" when they have the ball at home.

For Minnesota, this was a big loss. After defeating Wisconsin on the road, Tubby's team was well positioned to separate themselves from the pack. But I have a feeling that won't come easy for any teams in the conference this season. I think Damian Johnson had the line of the night for Minnesota, scoring 14 points on 9 shots, to go with 4 rebounds and 3 blocks. Box score.

Penn State dispatched Indiana on the road, 65-55 in a 64 possession game. Just like every other team, Penn State's defensive numbers will get a boost after their game against the Hoosiers. Indiana posted a 39.8 eFG, and even the two point shooting was bad against PSU's less-than-collosal frontline. This represented one of Indiana's best chances at winning this season, but they never got closer than 6 in the second half. Jamelle Cornley, Stanley Pringle, and Talor Battle combined for 48 points on 33 shots. But even against IU, they all played at least 33 minutes. Devan Dumes led the Hoosiers with 13 points on 9 shots. Box score.

The conference has the day off before play resumes tomorrow. Ohio State's visit to Champaign figures to be the highlight.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Home team, I laugh at your 14-point lead. Behold my AP ranking.

It wasn't a good night to be ahead by 14 points in the second half, as both Northwestern and Wisconsin blew that sizable margin - at home, no less - to fall to ranked opponents.

Purdue somehow managed to beat the Wildcats despite turning it over on a full third of their possessions. Just how did they do it? The Boilermakers shot the ball well (50% on twos, 38% on threes) and played outstanding interior defense - Northwestern shot just 30% from inside the arc and Purdue blocked a whopping 14 shots. For whatever reason, Bill Carmody gave just 3 minutes each to starting big men Kyle Rowley and John Shurna; he instead gave extra run to reserves Jeremy Nash and Ivan Peljusic, who each played more than double their season average. Neither played especially poorly, mind you – Nash applied excellent pressure to Purdue’s guards and recorded 3 steals (though we won't mention his missed breakaway that would have retaken the lead with under a minute left - oh wait). Ultimately, Northwestern just didn’t quite have enough in the tank, as Purdue went on a 18-6 run over the final 6:32 to complete the comeback.

Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson were each one board away from a double-double, and Johnson also swatted away 7 feeble Northwestern attempts. E’Twaun Moore grabbed a surprising 11 rebounds, but he also committed 7 turnovers and took 8 shots to score just 8 points. On the other side, Craig Moore played a good overall game in a losing effort – 16 points on 14 shots, 6 boards, 4 assists (0 turnovers), and 2 blocks. Box score.

This comeback was huge for Purdue, as a loss would have put them at 1-3 over a stretch that, frankly, looked like a possible 4-0 start for the Boilers. They now sit at 2-2 and still have road games remaining against all 6 of the better Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan). It's still a very tough path for Purdue to win the conference, but it at least still seems possible after pulling out a close one in Evanston.

In the other game, Minnesota was the team storming back, outscoring Wisconsin 22-10 over the final 4:43, including a Lawrence Westbrook three with just 3 ticks left to send the game into overtime. The Gophers then scored the first 7 points of the extra period on their way to the big win. How did Minnesota get this improbable road victory? Defense. They held the Wisconsin offense well below their season adjusted efficiency (96.2 vs 112.8) by forcing the normally-steady Badgers to turn it over 18 times. Al Nolen was a huge part of this effort with 5 steals.

Offensively, Westbrook came up huge, scoring 29 points on just 16 shots, with 18 of those points coming in the final 3 minutes of regulation and overtime. JUCO transfers Paul Carter and Devron Bostick continued their recent surge - Carter had a 10-11 dub-dub, including 5 big offensive rebounds, and Bostick chipped in 11 and 3. Box score.

For Wisconsin, this is a bitter pill to swallow - they led by 6 with just 48 seconds remaining, yet somehow ended up losing. The Badgers now sit at 3-2 in the conference, and this home loss effectively negates their road win at Michigan in terms of the Big Ten title race. The Badgers are still right in the thick of it, but a home win here would have kept them a leg up.

The conference resumes play on Saturday, with three games of varying sizzle:

The big matchup is Illinois at Michigan State (3pm CT on ESPN). An Illini win would put them in the driver's seat in the Big Ten title race - could anybody else possibly hope to win at both Michigan State AND Purdue?

Penn State travels to Indiana in the hopes of getting back to even in the conference (5pm CT, Big Ten Network). Meanwhile, the Hoosiers are looking at perhaps their best remaining chance to win a conference game (according to Pomeroy, at least).

The final matchup is an interesting one - Ohio State at Michigan (7pm CT, Big Ten Network). After fattening up with cupcakes (Houston Baptist and Indiana), can the Buckeye defense slow down Michigan's potent attack?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shootout in State College

Neither of Penn State nor Michigan State's strengths are on the defensive side of the ball, so it's no surprise that this one featured plenty of offense. While the Nittany Lions made it close there at the end, the Spartans won 78-73 in a 67 possession game. Both teams shot equally well (51.7 eFG for MSU, 51.9 eFG for PSU), and both teams got the the FT line frequently (each team had 27 attempts). The outcome of this game depended on whether Penn State could hold onto the ball well enough to offset MSU's second chances because of offensive rebounding. The Spartans had 10 more offensive boards, and only four more turnovers. Advantage Michigan State. Raymar Morgan led the green and white with 17 points on 9 shots, to go with 5 rebounds. Jamelle Cornley and Talor Battle combined for 46 points on 26 shots (each played the entire game as well). Box score.

Tom Izzo summed up my thoughts about this game pretty well:
"I am disappointed that we're still not finishing, you know? We're still not finishing, and probably some of the reason is that these teams are good. There's a lot of good teams in this league. When I hear people say there are eight or nine (Big Ten) teams with NCAA possibilities, I believe that."
This league is good, Tom. I don't think this is a "disappointing" win by any stretch - Penn State is a squad that's good enough to compete for a NCAA Tournament birth. Road wins against teams of that quality do not come easily.

One thing that might hold the Nittany Lions back from that goal is depth. DeChellis played his big 3 (Cornley, Battle, and Stanley Pringle) a total of 112 minutes last night, and this wasn't out of character. Are these guys going to have anything left in the tank in March?

Meanwhile, Illinois is proving to be the class of the conference, defensively, in the Big Ten. The Fighting Illini prevailed over Michigan, 66-51 in a 60 possession game. Michigan has been held to under a point per possession all of three times this season - against Duke and UCLA in New York, and now against Illinois in Champaign. Last night's 0.86 mark was the second-lowest figure for this Wolverine squad all season. Beilein's squad shot just 36% from inside the arc, and only 27% from 3 point land, and that kind of shooting isn't going to put many points on the board.

The Wolverines were also on the wrong end of a Pittsnoggling at the hands of Mike Tisdale. The big man finished with 24 points on just 12 shots, to go along with 3 blocks. Tisdale can be a load on offense, but he's not going to be All-Big Ten material until he starts getting it done on the boards. Despite playing 34 minutes in this one, Tisdale grabbed just 2 rebounds. It didn't really hurt Illinois last night, and Michigan isn't a great rebounding team, but Illinois needs more than guard-like work on the boards from its center. Box score.

Tonight, Purdue visits Northwestern while Minnesota takes on Wisconsin in the Kohl Center.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What do you know - the Wall Street Journal has a sports section

and it's tempo free!

Ohio State hosts a block party

Nothing like a visit from Indiana to heal what ills you. Ohio State had been struggling on the defensive side of the ball, but that was nowhere to be seen last night as the Buckeyes rolled, 77-53 in a 65 possession game. The Buckeyes had seven blocks, and no doubt altered a great many more attempts. IU shot just 41% from 2 point range and 19% from 3 in this one. Dallas Lauderdale led the defense with 4 blocks in just 25 minutes. He didn't score a point, but was nonetheless a big factor in this one. Jon Diebler probably had the best line in this one with 17 points on 11 shots, to go with 5 assists (1 turnover).

Also, I think this game might signal the end of P. J. Hill's run of significant playing time. Despite playing 20 minutes against MSU, Hill saw just 8 minutes in this blowout. Thad Matta will probably just rely on Diebler, Jeremie Simmons, and Evan Turner more until David Lighty is ready to come back. That was a good strategy in this one, as the Buckeyes made it rain, shooting 13-24 on their three pointers.

Indiana was led by a 16/11 dub-dub from Tom Pritchard, on 14 shots. The turnover problems appear to be back for good, as the Hoosiers coughed it up 18 times against a team that doesn't force turnovers all that often. Box score.

Conference Efficiency Margins

The efficiency margin tells us numerically what the tempo-free aerial tells us graphically. It's just the difference between the offensive and defensive efficiencies of the teams. Obviously, the higher the better:

Conference Games Only:
  1. Michigan State (0.13)
  2. Wisconsin (0.08)
  3. Purdue (0.07)
  4. Illinois (0.07)
  5. Ohio State (0.02)
  6. Minnesota (0.01)
  7. Michigan (-0.02)
  8. Penn State (-0.04)
  9. Northwestern (-0.04)
  10. Iowa (-0.08)
  11. Indiana (-0.19)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Conference Walkthrough

Sorry for the late posting. Sometimes my "job" makes me "work" in order to collect a "paycheck." I know, totally lame.

Anyway, now that we're a whopping 20% of the way through conference play, I thought I'd go through what each team is trying to accomplish this season, and what they must do to get there.

Goal: Make the NCAA Tournament
Prognosis: Very good
What they need to do to get there: The Illini continue to be the tough nut to crack on offense. They're the POT without the P - substituting three point shots for mid-range jumpers. It's no secret that particular shot has not been a good one for most teams, but the Illini have made it work, posting the 33rd most efficient offense in basketball. The remaining question is how long this can hold up. If the Illini can continue to be this successful with 12-18 foot jumpers, then they'll make the Tournament, and will serve as the success story for the new three point line.

Goal: Show up
Prognosis: Excellent
What they need to do to get there: To outsiders, Tom Crean appears to be in a tough spot. Bruce Weber even said that he wouldn't wish Crean's current situation on anyone. But once you think about it a little, it's really a pretty good spot to be in. The fans have zero expectations for this season, beyond keeping the program clean. And for the future, the guy has oodles of playing time at one of the country's most storied programs to sell to recruits. It's really a "no lose" position. Any conference win would be a satisfying upset.

Goal: Reach the NIT
Prognosis: So-so
What they need to do to get there: Lickliter's crew has put up a decent offense this season, and the engine behind that offense has been hot shooting. The Hawkeyes are shooting 40% from three point range, which is a deadly weapon for a team that takes 41% of its shots from behind the arc. But the problem for Iowa is that they're bad in the other areas of offense (taking care of the ball, rebounding, and getting to the line), and what's more, it might be getting worse. Last year, Iowa was the worst team in the country in FT Rate, and they lost the least turnover-prone players from that team. Somehow, they weren't coughing it up earlier this season, but in the last two games against Michigan and Minnesota, Iowa's TO Rate is hovering around 30%. If that trend continues, Iowa's offense will take a nosedive, no matter how good they shoot.

Goal: Make the NCAA Tournament
Prognosis: Good
What they need to get there: There's little doubt in my mind that John Beilein is one of the most gifted offensive minds in basketball. This year's Michigan team is the 21st most efficient offense in the country, and that's exactly in line with what Beilein did while he was at West Virginia. But what was equally true at WVU, and now in Ann Arbor, is that Beilein's teams don't play very good defense. Now, a couple of reasons for that aren't Beilein's fault. For one, Michigan opponents are shooting a red-hot 72% from the FT line. Secondly, the Wolverines' 2 point defense is sorely missing the shotblocking presence of Ekpe Udoh, who transferred to Baylor. The good news is that bad defense hasn't hurt Michigan in the W/L column yet, with only 3 losses to Duke, Maryland, and Wisconsin. But there have been a lot of scares, and that will eventually lead to losses unless the Michigan defense tightens up.

Michigan State
Goal: Win the conference title
Prognosis: Good
What they need to do to get there: The Spartans have switched into another gear since conference play started. The turnovers have been under control, and the defense has tightened up. And now they're the only team undefeated in conference play. But they still have the toughest portion of their conference schedule to play, starting with this Saturday's game against Illinois. But as long as the defense holds up and the turnovers are kept under control, they're the frontrunners.

Goal: Make the NCAA Tournament
Prognosis: Good
What they need to do to get there: Minnesota's record at 15-1 looks better than their efficiency, but those wins have been "banked" - you can't take them away. Moreover, they already have a signature win over Louisville on a neutral court. At this point, a .500 conference record might be enough to get the Gophers in. To feel real good about those chances, however, they probably need to get to 24 wins, which would require them to go 11-7 in conference. My only suggestion to Tubby would be to shorten his bench a little. Right now, 11 guys are seeing significant time, and that might be too many. Only one player has been on the floor more than 55% of the time (Al Nolen). Playing his best players more might raise the Gophers' efficiency.

Goal: Make the NCAA Tournament
Prognosis: Very Bad
What they need to do to get there: Maybe that's a lofty goal for the Wildcats, but I think it's a reasonable for a team that returned as much talent as they did. But that goal is slipping away. The Wildcats are 0-3 right now in conference play, and they're staring down 0-4 with a visit from Purdue looming. The problem has been rebounding on both sides of the ball. In their 3 conference games, Northwestern has grabbed just 19 offensive rebounds, compared to 50 for their opponents. Those extra second chances add up, and the Wildcats will have to make rebounding more of a priority if they're going to make any postseason tournament.

Ohio State
Goal: Finish in the top 3 in the conference
Prognosis: Bad
What they need to do to get there: Early in the year, Ohio State was looking like a defensive juggernaut. Obviously, there was the game in which they held Samford to 22 points, but holding offensively-gifted Notre Dame to less than a point per possession might have been even more impressive. But in their last 4 games against BCS opponents (including the Buckeyes' three conference games), Ohio State opponents have broken the point-per-possession barrier, and they've gone 1-3 (the lone win being a hard-fought home victory against Iowa). I mentioned yesterday that a parallel for OSU's defense might be last year's Connecticut team. That might not sound so bad - after all, UConn won 24 games last year. But UConn's offense was also vastly superior to OSU's.

Penn State
Goal: Make the NCAA Tournament
Prognosis: So-so
What they need to do to get there: This is another lofty, if attainable, goal based largely on returning minutes. Penn State has won the games they were supposed to, and they've even grabbed a good win over a shothanded Purdue. But they still need to steal a couple of games in order to get to 20 wins on the season, which is probably at least what they'll need to get to the dance (assuming they don't win the conference tournament, obviously). The weakness of this team is familiar to Penn State fans - defense. What's more is that it's easier to predict the defense getting worse before it gets better. Usually the weakness for the Nittany Lions is two point defense, and while that's still not an area of pride here, it's better than it's been in the past. However, you have to keep in mind that those numbers have been posted against weaker non-conference teams for the most part, and that Penn State is not any taller than they've been in years past. Indeed, Big Ten opponents have shot well over 50% on their two pointers against PSU's short frontline. Since they can't get taller, the Nittany Lions need to figure out a way to overcome that. Oh, and the trio of Jamelle Cornley, Talor Battle, and Stanley Pringle must stay healthy. Each averages at least 30 minutes a game, and they also represent the best offensive options on the team, by far. If one goes down, it would be disastrous.

Goal: Win the Big Ten title
Prognosis: Bad.
What they need to do to get there: Purdue has had a rocky start to its conference campaign, and now sits at 1-2, including a loss on their home court at the hands of Illinois. Purdue's defense has been outstanding all season, and I don't see that changing anytime soon, with the on-ball pressure to go with JaJuan Johnson's shotblocking presence in the middle. But the offense has taken a step back this season, and there appear to be two reasons for that. The first is the offensive rebounding, and the solution to that problem is practicing in South Bend these days. The second problem is that Keaton Grant has yet to find his stroke. Last year, Grant shot 44% on his threes and averaged over 11 points a game. This season, the junior guard is shooting 29% from three and averaging less than 8 points a game. Matt Painter has even cut his minutes despite the fact that the Boilers have been banged up this year (and they weren't exactly deep to begin with). Coach Painter has instead preferred to play freshman Lewis Jackson more, which is like treating sprained ankle with amputation. Sure, Jackson is shooting 50% on his threes, but his 13.7% shot percentage screams "role player." Further, his 47% FT shooting indicates that outside marksmanship might be fleeting. Plus, Jackson has shown he's not immune from the freshman turnover bug. It's not a stretch to say that Purdue's hopes ride on Grant finding his shot.

Goal: Win the conference title
Prognosis: Not bad
What they need to do to get there: I admit, even I was a little concerned about our earlier prediction that the Badgers would finish third in the conference. After all, they whiffed on their non-conference games against elite teams, including a whipping at the hands of UConn. Further, they sweated out wins over the likes of Idaho State and Iona. But Wisconsin has gotten it together in conference play, including a convincing victory on Michigan's home floor. You'll likely hear a lot about the Badger defense this season, but most of that is a mirage. Wisconsin's defense isn't poor, mind you, but it's not nearly as good as it was a year ago. Sure, the Badgers are allowing opponents to score less than 60 points per game, but if that was the measure of great defense, then Wisconsin's best defensive play might be walking the court up the floor on offense. No, the strength of this team has been offense fueled by hot outside shooting. The Badgers are shooting 38% from 3 point range this season, but therein lies the concern. Wisconsin shot only 35.6% last year, and that was with Michael Flowers and his 41%. The team has increased their percentage despite his absence largely due to the deadeye shooting of Trevon Hughes, who's doing a fine impression of Drew Neitzel this year. But we've seen this act before. At this point last year, Hughes was shooting 37% from downtown. He finished the season at 31%. A similar dropoff could hurt Wisconsin's chances to compete for the conference crown.

So there you have it - a filler post on a filler day. We'll be back to recap the OSU/Indiana game tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dallas is the new Hasheem

Ohio State put on an impressive offensive display on Friday, scoring 89 points in a 68 possession game in a win against Houston Baptist. William Buford led the way with 19 points on just 13 shots. The 1.3 points per possession was the best figure the Buckeyes have posted all season, but that's not all that unexpected against an opponent like Houston Baptist, who now sits at 1-16. Box score.

But the defense for OSU was just so-so, as their opponent scored 0.95 points per possession. That's not a bad figure, but against this kind of team, it's mediocre. The engine that was driving OSU's great early-season defense is slowing down. Dallas Lauderdale had zero blocks in this one, and the Buckeyes just had 2 as a team. To be fair, HBU shot 27 three pointers, so they weren't exactly excited to take shots in the lane. But that reluctance was true of OSU's previous opponents as well, and they still blocked a ton of shots. This isn't to say that OSU's two point defense won't be good the rest of the year. It most likely will - after all, Lauderdale recorded 3 blocks in just 18 minutes against Michigan State - but the other facets of OSU's defense aren't good enough to allow the Buckeyes to field an elite defense when the shotblocking falls south of staggeringly-good. Writing this made me think of a parallel: the 2007-08 Connecticut Huskies. See, although UConn's defense was, on the whole, good last season, it wasn't as good as you would expect out of a team with a 7-3 AutoSwat machine in the middle. They finished the season barely better than average defensively in the Big East, and the similarities to Ohio State are uncanny. UConn led the nation in block percentage, ranked #2 in the country in opponents' 2 point field goal percentage, and even matched the no-foul tendencies of the Buckeyes, ranking 5th in the country in opponent free throw rate. But their struggles in forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding kept them from anything more than just being "pretty good" defensively. It appears OSU might be on a similar path.

dominated Indiana on Saturday, 76-45 in a 60 possession game. This game was pretty much over after Illinois opened with a 21-2 run. The Illini averaged close to 1.3 points per possession, while the Hoosiers averaged 0.75 points per possession. A game like this is pretty easy to sum up - everything went right for the Illini, while everything went wrong for the Hoosiers. However, there was a silver lining for Indiana - rebounding. The Hoosiers posted a 44.4 offensive rebounding percentage, while limiting Illinois' offensive rebounding to just 20.8 percent. Actually, this is probably more appropriately a dark lining on an otherwise silver cloud for the Illini. Indiana's rebounding has been so-so on both sides of the ball all season (and when so much is going poorly, you don't worry about the so-so stuff), so this is likely not the start of a new trend. However, Illinois' rebounding has been a weakness for them all season, and there's a good chance that will be the case for them all season. Outside of Mike Davis, Illinois' post men have been poor on the boards, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. That was again the case on Saturday - outside of Davis (who had 8 rebounds), the leading rebounder for the Illini was Trent Meacham, who had 3. Meacham also had 21 points on just 10 shots. Nick Williams led the Hoosiers with 12 points on 11 shots. Box score.

Michigan State nabbed another impressive non-conference win by defeating Kansas, 75-62 in a 70 possession game in the Breslin Center. As usual, the Spartans were clicking on offense, but the defensive performance impressed me the most here. MSU's defense has been a trouble spot this year, but of late it has been rounding into form. Kansas, a good offensive team, was held to just 0.89 points per possession, and the reason was typical for for an Izzo team - rebounding. The Jayhawks nabbed just 21.4% of the available offensive rebounds, well below their 39.2% season average. And while Kansas is unranked at the moment, their efficiency numbers suggest that this is a quality team. Another recent positive development for the Spartans is the improved shooting of Kalin Lucas, whose 3 point percentage is now sitting at 40%. He still has a ways to go on his 2 point shooting (and I'll reiterate my plea for Lucas to keep it on the perimeter more), but if Lucas is shooting the ball well, he's a complete point guard. Lucas was great on Saturday, scoring 22 points on just 11 shots. Box score.

Michigan held serve against Iowa at home, winning 64-49 in a 60 possession game. The game would have been closer had the Hawkeyes taken better care of the ball. Iowa turned it over on 30% of their possessions yesterday, which is a startling high number for a team that took 40% of its shots from 3 point range. As Iowa fans know all too well, this is not a new development. Last year Iowa turned it over on 25% of their possessions - good for dead last among BCS teams. Iowa's done better this season, but conference opponents promise to make things a little tougher for Lickliter's crew. And it doesn't matter how good the Hawkeyes shoot (over 40% from 3 coming into this one), a perimeter oriented team can't turn it over so much.

Michigan didn't shoot great in this one, but they reaped the benefits of POT-dom, turning it over on just 18% of their possessions. Manny Harris was the lone exception to the ball-careful Wolverines, coughing it up four times. But he made up for it with 18 points on 12 shots, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Matt Gatens led Iowa with 11 points on 8 shots and 8 rebounds. Box score.

Sunday's main event saw Purdue take care of business against Wisconsin, 65-52 in a 55 possession game (Wisconsin = slow). The Boilers were great in every facet on offense, except shooting. They weren't bad per se (49.0 eFG), but not very good for a game in which they post nearly 1.2 points per possession. Indeed, shooting is just one part of offense. And while it's the most important part, the other three key areas matter a lot too. The Boilers turned it over on just seven percent of their possessions. They grabbed 38 percent of the available offensive rebounds. They went to the line 19 times (many Big Ten fans complain about Bo Ryan's "no foul defense," and their frequent free throw advantage. That wasn't the case on Sunday, as the Badgers saw just 6 attempts at the line). The Boilermakers still haven't found their shooting stroke, but they showed they can score even without lighting the nets on fire. This was a big game for Purdue - starting out 0-3 in conference play would have put them behind the 8 ball for the conference title race. JaJuan Johnson led the attack with 20 points on 10 shots, to go with 10 rebounds. Joe Krabbenhoft scored 13 on 7 shots and pulled down 7 rebounds for the Badgers. Box score.

Of course, lighting the nets on fire is still the recommended method for scoring a ton of points. That was the strategy for Minnesota yesterday, as the Gophers dismantled Penn State, 79-59 in a 61 possession game. That's 1.3 points per possession for those of you scoring at home. Sure, the Gophers turned it over on 25% of their possessions, but when they actually got a shot off, it frequently went in. They were 54% from 2, and a ridonkulous nine for nine from three point range. That's going to win some games. Shockingly, none of those attempts came from Big Ten Geek favorite Blake Hoffarber. No, the Gophers were led by the 10th and 11th men, Paul Carter and Devron Bostick, who combined for 33 points on 14 shots. Bostick has been shooting pretty well, but coming into this game, Carter was shooting 29.5% (including O-fer on his 6 three point attempts). We all have days like Ed DeChellis had yesterday. As The Dude would say, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you. But defense is a problem for Penn State (again), and that's something to keep an eye on this season. When the Battle/Pringle/Cornley trio is off (and they were, combining for 36 points on 36 shots and 9 turnovers) offensively, the Nittany Lions will struggle. Box score.

Tonight, the conference takes the night off. Tuesday, IU visits Ohio State.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Minnesota wins ugly in Iowa City

It took some outstanding second half defense, but Minnesota came back from a 13-point deficit to defeat Iowa, 52-49. The Gophers forced 17 Iowa turnovers, which is an astronomical number considering the game's slow pace (55 possessions).

With 17 minutes remaining in the game, Iowa had a 7 point lead and still seemed in control. During the next 12 minutes, Iowa turned it over 8 times and went 0 for 6 from the field, scoring only on a pair of free throws. Over the same stretch, Minnesota had just one turnover and crashed the backboards hard, getting themselves 18 shots from the field. The Gophers only made 6 of them, but that was still enough (along with some free throws) to complete a 17-2 run, grabbing a lead they would not relinquish.

Iowa's deadeye shooting deserted them as they posted an eFG of 46.4%. That may not sound too bad, but it's Iowa's 3rd worst showing of the season. The Hawkeye offense relies almost entirely on accurate shooting, as they still commit a fair number of turnovers and don't grab many offensive rebounds. Iowa took over half of their shots from downtown and converted on just 30.4% of them, and it's tough for Iowa to score without hitting threes.

Minnesota actually shot a lot worse than Iowa, but the Gophers kept their turnovers more reasonable (20% TO rate) and hit the offensive glass hard (45.0 OR%) - sorta the anti-Iowa. It wasn't a pretty performance, but it was enough. Travis Busch had a nice game off the bench, scoring 10 points on 7 shots and grabbing 4 rebounds. Lawrence Westbrook also had 10 on 7 shots.

For the Hawkeyes, Matt Gatens had another good all-around game, scoring 11 points on 5 shots, grabbing 5 rebounds, and dishing 3 assists (2 turnovers). Jeff Peterson scored 16 on 10 shots but committed 8(!) turnovers. The bigger story for Iowa may be the health of their only real inside presence, Cyrus Tate - he came down on Colton Iverson's foot and was helped off the floor with what appeared to be a badly sprained ankle. If he misses significant time, a small Iowa team gets even smaller, and defensive rebounding becomes a major concern.

Minnesota really needed this win to keep their momentum going - they next face Penn State at home, but then have three consecutive tough ones: at Wisconsin, at Northwestern, vs Purdue. Pomeroy's ratings only gave the Gophers a 28% chance of winning at Iowa, so this is a bigger victory than it might initially appear. For Iowa, this could end up being one of those games they wish they had back come Selection Sunday. Box score.

Tonight, Ohio State figures to get back on track against lowly Houston Baptist, which features Purdue transfer Gordon Watt. Six of their top 7 players are seniors, including several D1 transfers, but they've managed only one victory this season. PG Baron Sauls is a nice player that can both pass and score. Tipoff is at 6pm CT on the Big Ten Network.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Big Ten's doormat is Michigan's mountain

Last season, Northwestern's only conference win came against Michigan in Ann Arbor. Last night, this year's likely cellar dweller Indiana gave the Wolverines all they could handle before coming up short in overtime, 72-66 in a 73 possession game (65 possessions per 40 minutes). The Hoosiers actually held a 20 point lead early in the second half of this one before Michigan started clawing their way back. The Wolverines shot 18 three pointers in the first half, and made only 3 of them. IU, on the other hand, was 5-8 from deep and 15-30 overall in the opening half. In the second half, everything was reversed. Michigan was 7-17 from deep (and 14-27 overall), while IU shot just 2-9 (and 9-25 overall) in the final 20 minutes of regulation. But IU still had their shots to win this one in overtime, but went 3-9 from the FT line in the extra period. Michigan survived this scare, but this game will likely serve as a cautionary tale to the rest of the conference. Don't expect the rest of the teams to take the Hoosiers lightly after this one.

IU had three players in double figures, but Nick Williams probably had the best line with 14 points on 12 shots, to go with 7 boards and only one turnover. Manny Harris led Michigan with 17 points on 12 shots to go with 11 boards, but he did cough it up 4 times. Box score.

I know Michigan is a POT and all, but maybe that philosophy should take a backseat when playing IU. The Hoosiers have only 2 players taller than 6-5 in the rotation, and Kyle Taber isn't much of a shotblocker. That lack of height shows up on the statsheet as well, as the Hoosiers allowed opponents to shoot 52.1% from two point range coming into this one (good for 297th in the country). Nonetheless, Michigan dedicated 66% of their field goals to three pointers against the Hoosiers, and they happened to be pretty cold last night (making just 30% of those attempts). Beilein's been pretty successful with his perimeter-focused scheme, but a night like this shows what happens to a POT offense when the shots aren't falling.

Wisconsin manhandled Northwestern, 74-45 in a 61 possession game in the Kohl Center. This was, by a wide margin, Wisconsin's best game of the year, statistically. The Badgers averaged over 1.2 points per possession and held Northwestern to just 0.73 points per trip. On offense, everything went well, including the normally-tepid offensive rebounding. On defense, the Badgers held the Wildcats to 31.4% shooting (including 3-17 from behind the arc) and didn't allow many second chances. Jason Bohannon had a pretty line, with 20 points on 12 shots, to go with 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and just one turnover. Things were not so good on the other side of the court, as no Wildcat scored in double figures. Box score.

Despite a less-than-impressive non-conference performance, the Badgers are suddenly looking like the title contenders everyone figured they'd be when the season started. The offense has played well all season, but now the defense is starting to pick up. Is this the elite unit that shut down the rest of the conference last season? No, not even close - after all, Michigan and Penn State put up over a point per possession against the Badgers. But those are two pretty decent offenses, and that beats the heck out of allowing a point per possession against the likes of Long Beach State, Idaho State, and Virginia Tech (who actually posted an obscene 1.3 PPP). A big test looms this Sunday, when the Badgers visit Mackey Arena, to take on what must be a very angry Purdue squad.

The Wildcats started out the non-conference with such high hopes, but now sitting at 0-3, many fans are probably ending whatever thoughts they had of making the NCAA Tournament this season. But two road contests against Penn State and Wisconsin, along with a home game against Michigan State were not automatic Ws for this team, so it's not like they've underperformed. And in the first two games, Northwestern let second half leads slip away. The Wildcats have a week off before facing Purdue at home, which means there's a real possibility that they start out the conference season 0-4. If that happens, this team will be up against a wall.

Tonight, Minnesota visits Iowa at 6 pm (ESPN2).

Also, Illini fans might want to check out an interesting story on how Chester Frazier ended up at Illinois.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

O-ver-rat-ed! (CLAP, CLAP, CLAP-CLAP-CLAP)

I thought I'd take a glance at public perception. Specifically, I'm looking at the opinions of the AP writers and college coaches who are responsible for the weekly polls, those strange creatures that determine the number displayed before your team's name as they scroll across the bottom of your huge plasma (and, for some fans, determine the success of your season-to-date). We at Big Ten Geeks are more likely to refer to Pomeroy rankings on a daily (hourly?) basis, and don't usually care much about the polls, so these mainstream numbers can sometimes come as a shock when we haven't looked at them in awhile. This feeling led me to throw some numbers into a spreadsheet (the way Geeks do). Here's what I did:
  • For both the AP and ESPN/USA Today rankings, I included all the teams "receiving votes", even though the polls aren't really meant to rank those teams. So, the first team listed as "receiving votes" got the 26th ranking, the next team got 27th, etc.

  • For each team inside the Pomeroy top 50 (an arbitrary cutoff), I filled in their blanks by giving each poll the extreme benefit of the doubt. For example, the AP Poll had 46 teams receiving votes this week. If a team was top 46 in Pomeroy but missing entirely from the AP Poll, I assumed that the AP Poll ranked them 47th. This means any top 46 Pomeroy team that missed the AP Poll gets a tie for 47th in my spreadsheet.
  • I also gave the polls perfect credit for any team that was outside of the Pomeroy top 46 and didn't get ranked. For example, Rhode Island is 49th in Pomeroy's ratings, and didn't receive any votes, so the AP Poll gets credit in my spreadsheet for ranking them 49th. Like I said, I gave the polls the extreme benefit of the doubt.
When that was done, I averaged the two polls to get a "Mainstream Ranking." This is probably as good a measure as any of the public perception of a team, since a lot of casual fans don't go beyond the rankings they see on ESPN. I then subtracted the Mainstream Ranking from the Pomeroy Ranking to get a value I call "Overhyped". The higher the number, the more undeserving a team is of their mainstream rankings. Negative numbers mean a team isn't getting nearly enough national love. This is all an oversimplification (after all, Pomeroy rankings aren't the end-all determinant of success), but let's go with it.

Dear readers, I present to you the 25 most Overhyped teams in the nation (Pomeroy rankings through games of January 5):

Of course, Arkansas had to go out and beat (also overhyped) Texas last night to make the pollsters look good, although the Razorbacks only jumped 10 or so spots in the Pomeroy ratings, so would still be high on this list if I were to re-run it.

Sadly, the Big Ten is featured prominently on this list, taking up 5 spots. I was honestly expecting the fabled "east coast bias" to expose itself, but it's really nowhere to be found. The ACC has only 3 of the 25 most overhyped teams; the Big East has only 4, which is pretty good considering how much you hear about the Big East on ESPN. Here's the conference breakdown of these 25 teams:

Big Ten: 5

Big 12: 4

Big East: 4

ACC: 3

SEC: 2

A10: 2

Pac-10: 1

Horizon: 1

Missouri Valley: 1

Mountain West: 1

West Coast: 1

Wow. I really did not set out to show that the Big Ten is overhyped, but there it is. Maybe we can find some happy news on the other side of the coin - here's the 25 most underhyped teams:

The numerical values of these rankings are a little more iffy than the previous list, since the top consists mostly of teams with which I had to "fill in the blanks," but the overall order seems to make sense. Kansas State received zero votes in either poll, yet is #12 in the nation according to Pomeroy. Here's the conference breakdown for this list:

Pac-10: 5

Big 12: 4

Big East: 3

Mountain West: 3

SEC: 2

Big Ten: 2

ACC: 2

A10: 1

Conference USA: 1

Horizon: 1

West Coast: 1

The Pac-10 has only one team that's overhyped (UCLA, just barely overhyped at that), and has 5 teams that are underhyped (although that includes 3 teams that can't really complain much). The Mountain West is the other conference with a legitimate gripe - they have 3 underhyped teams (BYU, San Diego State, and Utah) and just one overhyped team (UNLV).

So, it looks like maybe there isn't so much of an "east coast bias" as there is a "anti-west coast bias" - that may just be semantics to some, but I think it's a much more accurate statement. The midwest and southern conferences seem to get their due just as much as their east coast brethren, but the guys tipping off games at 10:30pm Eastern on Fox Sports Net (or, worse yet, The Mountain) seem to be vastly under-appreciated.

Team Offensive and Defensive Efficiencies

Conference Games Only:

Points Per Possession
  1. Wisconsin (1.08)
  2. Ohio State (1.07)
  3. Michigan State (1.07)
  4. Northwestern (1.03)
  5. Purdue (1.02)
  6. Michigan (1.02)
  7. Penn State (1.00)
  8. Iowa (0.99)
  9. Illinois (0.99)
  10. Minnesota (0.99)
  11. Indiana (0.93)
Opponent Points Per Possession
  1. Illinois (0.92)
  2. Michigan State (0.93)
  3. Purdue (0.95)
  4. Minnesota (0.98)
  5. Wisconsin (1.00)
  6. Michigan (1.04)
  7. Penn State (1.04)
  8. Ohio State (1.05)
  9. Northwestern (1.07)
  10. Iowa (1.07)
  11. Indiana (1.13)

Hummel-less Boilermakers fall to Penn State; Spartans hold serve

Without starters Robbie Hummel (back spasms) and Chris Kramer (foot), Purdue couldn't quite overcome an awful start and fell on the road to Penn State, 67-64. To give you an idea of how bad this start was, Purdue's first 6 possessions ended like this: turnover, turnover, missed three, missed three, missed layup, turnover.

Meanwhile, Penn State was all over the offensive glass early, putting up attempt after attempt, leading to their first 7 possessions ending like this (not including the many misses): layup (and one), layup, layup, turnover, made jumper, made jumper, made three. All told, Penn State took a whopping 14 shots in their first seven possessions, making 6 of them - it's nearly impossible to stop somebody when they're getting that many opportunities, and Purdue's offense happened to be terrible as well for the same stretch.

So just like that, Penn State had a 14-0 lead 5 minutes in. Purdue did manage to come back, and even led briefly in the second half, but Penn State, to their credit, managed to regain control late and held on for the win.

The big story here was rebounding - Penn State rebounded over half of their misses, and it's very tough to beat a team that does that. We most often think of Robbie Hummel as an outstanding offensive player, which he is, but he's also Purdue's best defensive rebounder by a large margin. Even with Hummel, Purdue is a mediocre rebounding team; without him, they're downright awful.

Andrew Jones had 8 offensive rebounds to spearhead Penn State's bonanza, while Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle scored 21 and 18 points respectively. E'Twaun Moore led Purdue with 21 points on 14 shots.

It's unclear whether Hummel will be healthy enough to play against Wisconsin this Sunday, although it sounds possible. Another home loss to go to 0-3 would seriously threaten Purdue's conference title hopes. Penn State picked up a nice resume win, as I'm not sure that the selection committee would look close enough to realize that they beat a shorthanded Purdue squad. Box score.

In the other matchup of the night, Michigan State held serve at home to go to 3-0, defeating Ohio State by a score of 67-58. This game was tight until a 12-0 Spartans run late in the first half, and OSU was never really able to make much of a dent in the margin.

In a disturbing trend, Ohio State's once-stout defense again allowed more than a point per possession - actually 1.11 points per possession. Now, that's below Michigan State's adjusted efficiency for the season (1.16), but not by much. That's now four straight games in which a Buckeye opponent scored at least 1.07 points per possession. That streak should end promptly, as Ohio State next faces Houston Baptist and Indiana, but Thad Matta will have to figure something out defensively if the Buckeyes hope to contend in the conference.

Michigan State did two things well - grab offensive rebounds and get to the foul line. Kalin Lucas led them in the latter, helping him net 20 points on just 8 shots. Raymar Morgan had a 13-10 double-double, and Goran Suton came oh-so-close with 9 and 9. Box score.

Here's tonight's games (all times CT):

5:30pm - Michigan at Indiana - Big Ten Network
7:30pm - Northwestern at Wisconsin - Big Ten Network

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Where has Ohio State's defense gone?

Through most of the non-conference season, Ohio State was an elite team defensively. And just like last year (and the year before that), it was a combination of two point defense and an aversion to fouling opponents that drove the defense. But in each of the last 3 games, Ohio State's defense has been torched, giving up 1.15 points per possession. Now, there are a couple of obvious things that could be at work here. For one, the Buckeyes lost David Lighty just prior to these games. Second, the likes of West Virginia, Iowa, and Minnesota are a bit more formidable than Samford, Delaware State, and Bowling Green.

But I think there's more to the story here. For one, OSU's defense was already showing cracks before Lighty went down (mighty Jacksonville averaged more than a point a possession). And OSU had no defensive issues against Notre Dame, Miami, and Butler. So what's the problem? Well, let's take a look at how the Buckeyes are giving up points over these three games (season numbers in parenthesis):

2P%: 53% (43.1)
3P%: 38% (32.8)
Block%: 11% (19.3)
Steal%: 10.5% (11.8)
Opp. Off Reb%: 36.3% (33.3%)

From the looks of it, everything took a dip, which isn't surprising given the swing in the defense. But the biggest swing appears to be in the 2 point percentage, and the accompanying block percentage. And for that, the problem is clear - Dallas Lauderdale is no longer going nuts. His Block Percentage has dipped below 15.0, and it wasn't that long ago that it was about 25.0. For that swing to occur, his Block percentage was well below either of those numbers for this three game stretch. Consider that he had 28 blocks through OSU's first 6 games, and that over the last 6 he's had just 7 blocks. This decline provides an incredible "boost" to opponents' 2 point percentage.

The problem with OSU's defense is that Dallas Lauderdale is not Superman. We all knew that he wasn't, but what we didn't know until now is whether the Buckeyes needed him to be in order to field an elite defense. Ohio State's D will still be a formidable one, but not one that will allow the offense to disappear (like it did against West Virginia and Minnesota) and still get wins.

Regression to the mean is an evil mistress.

Tune in tonight to see if Dallas can don the cape against what is likely the Big Ten's best front line.