Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Detroit Block City

Michigan State is back in the Final Four for the 5th time in 11 seasons. But yet, it seems like it's been less often than that, and that's true as well - this is "just" Michigan State's 2nd appearance in the last 8 seasons. And Vegas doesn't seem to like their chances all that much. Of course, conference efficiency margin tells a different story:

Team
Conference EM
North Carolina
+0.15
Connecticut
+0.15
Michigan State
+0.13
Villanova
+0.09

The oddball here is Villanova - over the last four seasons, no team had made it to the Final Four with an efficiency margin under 0.10. But even considering that, when you're talking about two games, anything can happen with teams this evenly matched.

The Spartans' first opponent is Connecticut, one of the tallest teams in the country. Not only does that mean they are tough to score on in the paint (where the Spartans prefer to play), but it also means that they are tough to stop in the paint. Like Michigan State, the Huskies don't like shooting 3s either, as they toss up 3s on under a quarter of their possessions (and why would you, with this front line?). That's not great news for the Spartans, who are much better at guarding the perimeter than they are at locking down the paint.

Michigan State might be in a good position to dominate the glass, however. UConn was 5th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage. That doesn't sound so terrible, but their 67.2% mark would have left them in 9th in the Big Ten. The Huskies also aren't great on the offensive glass, recovering just 32.8% of their misses. This is all good news for Michigan State, one of the nation's elite rebounding teams. UConn isn't a great shooting team (49.8 eFG in conference play), so there figures to be a fair amount of missed shots in this one. If there are, MSU could roll.

Where the Huskies really make their living, however, is on defense. It's not difficult to figure out the gameplan either - opponents shot just 41% from 2 point range in conference play against the Huskies this season. And Jim Calhoun has leveraged that shotblocking threat into excellent perimeter defense as well - opponents shoot just 30% from 3 on their infrequent attempts. You might wonder why opponents devote just 30% of their field goal attempts to 3s, given the shotblocking monster occupying the paint. Well, UConn has a similar strategy to that of last year's Stanford team, which was anchored by a pair of shotblockers - have the guards play close on the ball, and know that if any blowbys occur, there's five fingers of Hasheem waiting for any layup attempts.

There's really only one are where this team is really bad - forcing turnovers. That's good news for a Spartan team that can get careless with the ball. UConn doesn't really care about forcing turnovers, because it's not like the other team is going to make many shots anyways.

The game plan seems simple for Izzo's team then - stick with what you know. Izzo has been hanging his hat on rebounding for his entire career, and it's worked out pretty well. This game promises to feature oodles of missed shots, which are the "at bats" for a Tom Izzo offense. I think this contest will come down to the glasswork, and whether or not MSU can grab enough putbacks to offset all of their misses.

Oh, and Izzo Depth should also be a factor. The Huskies go to the line, a lot. And they're the best team in the country in terms of limiting opponent free throw attempts. Expect a disparity.

Also - be sure to check out the other Big Ten team that is still alive - Penn State goes up against Notre Dame in the NIT Semifinal at 8 pm CT tonight.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sparty like it's 1999

Michigan State is back in the Final Four with a 64-52 victory over top-seeded Louisville in a 56 possession game. As per usual, the Spartans owned the offensive glass, but the game was won on the defensive side of the ball. Louisville posted an eFG of just 44.7%, while Michigan State had no problems with Louisville's zone. In the first half it was all Goran Suton, who scored 17 of MSU's 30 points. And about halfway through the second half, the Spartans had figured out Louisville's zone and knocked down open shot after open shot. Tom Izzo's team doesn't normally shoot this well (50%) from the outside, but most of these shots were just that wide open. Meanwhile, the Cardinals just couldn't get anything to go down, thanks to some very stingy defense. Goran Suton led the way with 19 points on 15 shots (along with 10 rebounds). Box score.

With the win, this becomes the second MSU team that won the Big Ten title outright and went to the Final Four (the other team was in 1999). Also, Izzo can continue delivering his pitch that every single player he's recruited at Michigan State that has stuck for all four years has reached a Final Four. Had the Spartans lost, that streak would have ended. But not all Final Four teams are created equal - the last group that Izzo led to the season's finale got there with great offense, which has been a staple of Izzo's teams of late. The defense, on the other hand, has been shaky at times (like in 2003-04, for instance). But this year has brought a different story. Michigan State was 2nd in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, and among the top 10 defenses in the country. The last time Izzo had a defense this good was in his back-to-back-to-back Final Four seasons that sandwiched the year 2000 (i.e., the Flintsone Era). Izzo came out of those seasons with a National Title. Whether or not he gets another one this season rests on the defense's shoulders as well.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

In Michigan State's 67-62 win over Kansas, the Jayhawks out-Spartaned Tom Izzo's team. Specifically, Kansas dominated the glass, and they also bothered Michigan State into a 43.2 effective field goal percentage. But like a tribute band that copies the bad hairstyles of the original, Kansas also picked up the Spartans' penchant for turnovers. The Jayhawks turned it over on 29% of their possessions, and Michigan State needed every one of those. Frankly, had the Hawks been something better than spectacularly sloppy with the ball, they would have won this game. In just about every other aspect, Kansas held the edge. Cole Aldrich transformed the paint into a no-fly zone and was phenomenal in mopping up the misses on offense and defense. And Michigan State had no answer for Sherron Collins and Aldrich (when they weren't turning it over). But give credit to the Spartans for exploiting the weaknesses of the young Jayhawks. Goran Suton and Kalin Lucas led Michigan State with 38 points on 31 shots. Box score.

The reward for Tom Izzo's team is to face a Louisville team that won its game in message-sending fashion, and hasn't lost a game since early February.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Beat at their own game

Purdue's season ended against Connecticut last night, 72-60 in a 70 possession game. The Huskies dominated the Boilermakers on the defensive end - the only thing Purdue had going was that it didn't turn it over much against a team that doesn't force turnovers. Not only did Hasheem Thabeet alter plenty of shots in the paint (4 blocks, Purdue shot just 42% on two pointers), but UConn's guards did an excellent job of locking up the perimeter as well, where the Boilers made just 26% of their attempts. Even though Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson didn't have their best games (30 points on 29 shots), it was a lot better than the rest of the teams' efforts (30 points on 37 shots). Box score.

Purdue fans I'm sure are grumbling this morning about the way the game was called as two Boilermakers fouled out and three more had 4 fouls. Only one of the Huskies had as many as three fouls called on him. One thing to take note of is that UConn leads the country in defensive free throw rate, but it's also no secret that Purdue plays a very aggressive style on defense. The officials in this one weren't going to let them get away with that, and Matt Painter's team didn't adjust.

Michigan State now stands as the conference's last remaining team, and they face Kanas tonight. Tipoff is approximately 8:30 CT.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Meet the Spartans

By most accounts, Michigan State had a mildly disappointing preconference season this year - they beat eventual tourney teams Oklahoma State and Texas on neutral floors, but they also had blowout losses to Maryland and North Carolina. Let's remember, the Spartans were in the preseason top 10 and were picked by some geeks as Big Ten favorites (nevermind that pesky media). Granted, the Spartans were without uber-rebounder Goran Suton for those losses, but it wasn't shaping up to be the season many expected. Then, conference play began. The Spartans ran roughshod over a surprisingly solid Big Ten and mixed in a nonconference beating of Kansas for good measure. What went right? Most importantly, Michigan State rounded into the dominant rebounding team we always expected them to be -a big part of that was Suton's return to health, but we shouldn't discount the emergence of freshmen Delvon Roe and Draymond Green as supreme glass cleaners. This rebounding ability will be put to the test on Friday, as they face...

Kansas

The Jayhawks are the best rebounding team the Spartans have faced since, well, the Jayhawks. When the two teams met in East Lansing on January 10, however, Michigan State dominated the glass and managed a sparkling 15.7 TO% in the easy win. If the Spartans make those two things happen again on Friday and Sunday, they'll be in the Final Four. Kansas is interesting in that their strengths are the same on each end of the floor - their offense is driven by a high eFG% and rebounding, while their excellent defense limits those exact two things. Like the Spartans, Kansas has a turnover problem - they commit too many on their end, and they force too few on the other. The offensive leader for the Jayhawks is junior PG Sherron Collins, and he's amazingly efficient considering his shot diet (north of 30%). Sophomore center Cole Aldrich rebounds, blocks shots, and is an extremely efficient scorer. Kansas also gets some work done at the foul line - the Jayhawks have five regulars that draw over 4 fouls per 40 minutes. Indeed, even at home, the Spartans had Raymar Morgan and Travis Walton foul out, while Suton and Idong Ibok had 4 apiece. The Spartans have a lot of depth inside, but I'm sure Tom Izzo would prefer to be using it by choice.

I expect this to be a hard-fought game that comes down to the wire. I'll go ahead and take the Spartans, but I wouldn't bet my life on what is basically a coin toss - and get yourself a damn haircut, Anton.

Louisville

The Cardinals are the tournament's overall #1 seed at 30-5 and Big East champs, but they benefited greatly from the unbalanced Big East schedule, facing Pittsburgh and Connecticut just once apiece. Still, this is an elite defensive team. As you'd expect from a pressing defense, they speed you up and turn you over, but what really makes them great is that they also make you miss an awful lot. Unfortunately for Louisville, their offense isn't quite as impressive. Despite a hyped frontline of Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and Samardo Samuels, the Cardinals shoot a merely-good 51% on twos, are only decent on the offensive glass, and rarely go to the foul line. Their offense basically looks like a POT, but without the turnover reduction benefit. It all adds up to the nation's 41st most efficient offense - that's not bad, but it's not Final Four quality either. The question for the Cardinals, more so than for most remaining teams, will be whether their threes are falling or not.

Arizona

The lone Cinderella in the Sweet Sixteen, Arizona probably shouldn't have even been in the tournament to begin with after losing 5 of 6 to close the season, but they've made good on their inclusion by beating an overseeded Utah team and a merely decent Cleveland State squad. Honestly, those two wins, while not bad, wouldn't be all that impressive on a resume if they happened during the regular season, so I'm still not convinced that Arizona deserves to be in this tournament. That said, here they are, and they do have the offensive firepower to pull a shocker against Louisville - the Wildcat offense is the 7th best unit in the nation, driven by the high-percentage shooting of Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise. Those three guys almost never leave the court, and nobody else takes more than 15.5% of the team's shots, so you can officially dub them a Big Three. Hill is really the team's only good rebounder, which explains part of their defensive struggles. Arizona is very mediocre defensively - the only thing they do well is prevent free throws, at which they are very good (hey, even I could be good at that if I didn't have to stop anybody). This mediocre defense was on full display from February 7th onward, as Arizona allowed over a point per possession in 9 straight games to close the Pac-10 season (and often allowed more than 1.2 ppp!). The fact that they actually won four of those games tells you something about this offense. The Arizona defense was somewhat better against Utah and Cleveland State, but neither of those teams sports a top-50 offense. The game against Louisville figures to showcase an excellent matchup while Arizona has the ball, but at the other end... not so much. Unless the Wildcats really turn it on defensively this Friday, I expect Louisville to advance to the Elite Eight.

Thus far, the Big Ten as a whole has already met or exceeded preseason expectations - I doubt many predicted that the conference would have more than:

  • 7 teams in the tournament
  • 4 teams in the round of 32
  • 2 teams in the Sweet Sixteen

If the conference can get at least one squad into the Elite Eight, anything else would be gravy. The fun continues tonight as Purdue tries to slay mighty Connecticut.


If you are always rebuilding, are you ever rebuilding?

There appears to be some scuttlebutt over in Iowa right now, with potentially four players leaving the program (not to mention a commitment opening up his recruitment). Of course, this comes on the heels of last season's MVP, Tony Freeman, taking his game to SIU for his senior season. Certainly, if the rumors are true, there's a reasonable and heartbreaking explanation for Jake Kelly's departure. But outside of him, there's also definitely a pattern here. By all accounts, Todd Lickliter is an all-around Good Guy, and pretty easy to get along with. Some of the explanation being given is Iowa's slow-paced style. But geez, if Lickliter Ball can't exist in the Big Ten, where exactly can it?

Whatever is going on, this kind of attrition is never good for a program's win column. Just ask Tom Crean.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Big Ten is in the Final Four

Congrats to Ed DeChellis' team for advancing to the NIT Final Four by defeating Florida 71-62 in a 61 possession game. Jamelle Cornley led the Nittany Lions with 23 points and 12 rebounds, even with a clearly still-injured shoulder. Box score. Penn State will face the winner of Notre Dame/Kentucky in Madison Square Garden on March 31.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Friday Night Madness

It wasn't supposed to go like this. The majority of experts were on the Purdue bandwagon at the start of the season. Purdue hasn't been a huge disappointment - winning 27 games and advancing to the Sweet 16 - but most everyone was expected something better than an 11-7 conference record. Us included. But in Purdue's very first conference game, West Lafayette's version of Jason Street went down. Robbie Hummel was the conference's preseason player of the year, and with good reason. Hummel shot 48% from three point range, was a solid rebounder, and had the assist and turnover numbers of a point guard. And he was pretty good defensively as well. Oh, and that was all in his freshman season. The conference has a lot of good players who are good at a lot of things, but no one is as good with as many things as Robbie Hummel.

When Hummel didn't play, the Boilers were 1-3 against conference opponents. Moreover, it's clear he wasn't always healthy even when he did play (see the 1-7 performance against Iowa, for instance). All of those shots that would normally be consumed by a healthy Hummel now had to go to someone else. That someone turned out to be JaJuan Johnson, who flourished in his new role as a go-to weapon. Even with Hummel back and healthy, make no mistake - this is Smash's team.

Connecticut

That makes the next game very, very exciting. Purdue plays #1 seed Connecticut on Thursday, and in case you haven't heard, UConn features college's most intimidating defensive post player. Hasheem Thabeet has blocked 412 shots in his career, and he's only a junior. Over that same time span, the entire Purdue team has blocked 410 shots. Thabeet is a game-changer.

Of course, even Hasheem Thabeet is not invincible. DeJuan Blair lit up the Huskies in their first meeting to the tune of 22 points (of course, the next matchup was much less successful for Mr. Blair - 8 points on 9 shots). Additionally, UConn pays a pricey Hasheem Tax which can result in a lot of second chances for opponents. The bad news is that Purdue doesn't exactly stalk the offensive glass. Nonetheless, for Purdue to pull the upset in this game, I firmly believe that JaJuan Johnson is going to have to be productive against one of the best defenders in the country. He's good enough to pull it off, too.

Memphis

Prediction: Purdue will face the Tigers in the Round of 8. Place your bets now.

The likelier set of Tigers will be those hailing from Memphis. Calipari's team has been holding onto the top spot in the Pomeroy Rankings for weeks now, and it's mostly because of that excellent defense. The only thing Memphis isn't awesome at on the defensive end is guarding the free throw line. I'd mention that points in a Purdue/Memphis matchup will be as rare as a safe investment these days, but for the fact that's likely true of any of the matchups in Glendale. All four of these teams bring a top 10 defense.

On offense, Memphis is prone to struggles from behind the arc. They don't like shooting 3s, and they don't shoot them well (32.9%). Roburt Sallie is the team's designated sharpshooter off the bench, but the best perimeter threat that's usually on the floor is 6-9 forward Robert Dozier, who makes his living inside the arc, as you would expect. Freshman Tyreke Evans consumes a lot of shots and sets up his teammates, but he's no Derrick Rose.

One might think Matt Painter should sag his defense and dare the Tigers to beat them from the outside. They could - but Maryland already tried that and lost by 19. But hey, Purdue's better than Maryland, right?

Missouri

These Tigers are somewhat of conference season superstars. Outside the Big 12, Mizzou had a couple of impressive wins (Cal and USC), one "good" loss (Xavier), and suffered a severe beatdown at the hands of the Fighting Illini, in St. Louis no less. But against conference opponents, the Tigers were 15-4 (including the Big 12 Tournament) and all four of those losses came on the road. Their conference efficiency margin was Spartan-esque. This is a good team.

Coach Mike Anderson clearly buys into Tom Izzo's philosophies on depth. No one averages more than 28 minutes per game. Nine guys average at least 10 minutes per game. No doubt that the Tigers' frequent visits to the scorer's table has a lot to do with the high pressure defense that they employ. As a result of this scheme, Missouri forces up a ton of turnovers - on 25.1% of opponents' possessions in fact. The immovable object clashing with this unstoppable force is Purdue's excellent care with the ball.

The Tigers are also very careful on offense, coughing it up on just 16.3% of their possessions. That's very impressive when you consider that Missouri's offensive attack is not led by a bunch of guards, but rather consists of about 15 guys standing 6-8 or so. Leading the charge is the senior tandem of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll.

Although it's not how Purdue fans drew it up in the preseason, the Boilers have advanced further than any other Purdue team in nearly 10 years, and are two games away from their first Final Four in nearly 30 years. I'm sure nobody in West Lafayette is fretting all that much about the conference season right now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

So maybe all those preseason magazines were right

Wisconsin opened its play in the NCAA Tournament with a dramatic 61-59 overtime win against Florida State. The Badgers trailed big at the half in this one, but came out on fire in the second half, shooting 50% from three point range. Trevon Hughes hit the game winner - an impossible one-handed shot over two Seminole defenders, and he was fouled. Bo Ryan's team made me sweat, but they pulled out the 5/12 upset I had predicted earlier. Jason Bohannon led Wisconsin with 16 points on 11 shots. Box score.

Wisconsin might have used up all of their shooting on Friday, because they didn't have anything left against Xavier on Sunday, falling 60-49 in a 59 possession game. The Badgers shot just 29% on the game, including 15% on their 20 three point attempts. Bo Ryan's shot-maximization offense was working, as Wisconsin saw 10 more shot attempts than the Musketeers thanks to the low turnover total, but at the end of the day, someone has to put the ball in the hoop. Outside of Marcus Landry, who had 18 points on 14 shots and 10 rebounds, the best offense was Trevon Hughes shooting free throws. Box score.

We'll have more thoughts later on about Wisconsin's season, but overall I think it was a solid season. At this point, however, making the NCAA Tournament every season is expected of the Badgers. And although Bo Ryan's steady stream of seniors doesn't show signs of letting up on that pattern, eventually the natives will start asking for more out of the program.

Ohio State saw its season come to an end with a 74-72 double OT thriller against Siena. Despite how entertaining double overtime games usually are, this was actually a pretty sloppy game, with both teams turning it over on a quarter of their possessions, and shooting well below their seasonal averages. The difference, as everyone has discussed ad naseum, was Siena's rebounding. The heartbreaking part for Buckeye fans is that Siena really isn't a very good rebounding team. Moreover, this was basically a home game for the Buckeyes, who were playing in Dayton - a mere 70 miles from Columbus. Evan Turner led Ohio State with 25 points on 18 shots, to go along with 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Box score.

Frankly, this is a game which elicits a lot of finger pointing. Why didn't the Buckeyes foul when they were ahead by 3 in the game's final seconds of regulation? Why does Matta insist on playing zone defense which keeps the rebounding numbers low? Then again, the rebounding might be acceptable if perhaps the team's best rebounder wasn't forced to play point guard and frequently guard the other team's best player. In a way, this game was somewhat of a microcosm of Ohio State's season. This team is talented. Really talented. There are several NBA talents on this team, perhaps more than on any other team in the Big Ten. But there are two problems with that talent. The first is that it's very young, and young players are prone to mistakes. The second problem is that all these talented pieces don't fit together very well. Ohio State has 4 quality wing players (which would be 5 if David Lighty were healthy), but no point guard. They have two centers but no power forward who can guard quicker big men. As a result of these issues, this team has looked out of sync all season. And the kicker here is that Buckeye fans might need to be prepared for more of the same - there's a very good chance that some of this talent decides to head to the NBA this summer.

Purdue advanced to the Sweet 16 on Saturday with a 76-74 victory over 4th seeded Washington. The Boilers were up by 14 early in the second half before the Huskies stormed back and made a game of this in the game's final minutes. JaJuan Johnson had 22 points on 17 shots, and he also had 4 blocks - two of them coming in the final minute to preserve Purdue's lead. Box score. Matt Painter's team advances to face top-ranked Connecticut, which has steamrolled everything in sight since the Tournament started.

The Michigan State Spartans also had a successful opening weekend of the Dance, advancing to the Sweet 16 as well. First, Tom Izzo's team crushed 15th seeded Robert Morris with their always superb offensive rebounding. The Spartans gathered 46% of their misses, and when this ball hungry squad is able to do that, without turning the ball over (15.3% turnover rate), they are hard to stop. Draymond Green led Michigan State with 16 points on 8 shots. Box score.

The Spartans didn't keep the turnovers in check against USC in the second round, but they won anyways, 74-69 in a 69 possession game. This game was tightly-called with both teams combining for 57 free throw attempts. That's one area where Izzo Depth can really help out. USC's frontline was in foul trouble for much of this contest, especially Taj Gibson. USC is one of the best shotblocking teams in the country, and that's due in no small part to Gibson. Michigan State certainly felt that, with Gibson swatting 5 shots in his 23 minutes. No doubt he would have had more had he not been in foul trouble. Travis Walton led Michigan State with 18 points in a rare scoring outburst. Box score. The Spartans are now staring down a rematch against Kansas. The Jayhawks were throttled by State in East Lansing in January. I expect a more competitive game this time around.

In Michigan's 73-63 loss to #2 seed Oklahoma, the Wolverines actually held their own on the boards. That probably came as a surprise to most considering Big Blue's undersized frontline, and the fact that Blake Griffin plays for Oklahoma. Sure, Mr. Griffin went nuts - to the tune of 33 points and 17 rebounds - but on the whole, Michigan grabbed 39% of their misses. Oklahoma did as well, but hey, just matching the Sooners on the boards was a big upset. Unfortunately, there was another big upset in this one, and that was in the turnover department. Beilein Ball generally limits turnovers, and on the season, the Wolverines have done a fine job in that department. But against the Sooners - who don't force TOs that often - Michigan coughed it up on 23% of their possessions. Anthony Wright and DeShawn Sims each had 14 points in the loss. Box score.

To say that Michigan had a good season is an understatement. The Wolverines nearly turned last season's 10-22 record upside-down, and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 (or 1995, if you're looking for results that haven't been vacated). The job that John Beilein has done in his short time in Ann Arbor has been amazing, and so long as Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims come back next season (hey, you never know), this team is well-positioned to improve on this season's results.

That leaves just two Big Ten teams standing after the first weekend - Purdue and Michigan State (the two teams everyone figured to get this far when the season started). That doesn't sound like a lot, considering the conference received 7 bids, but keep in mind that only the top 4 seeds in each region are "expected" to make it this far. And the conference only received one top 4 seed, so this isn't so bad.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Defense doesn't win the first round

Only four teams in the Big Ten held opponents to under 1.00 points per possession in conference play this season. Two of them were eliminated last night.

Purdue held on to defeat Northern Iowa 61-56 in a 62 possession game. It wasn't the prettiest game, but Purdue is well-versed in the ways of winning ugly. It was typical Purdue ball, in that there was plenty of poor shooting on both sides of the floor, but the Boilers won the turnover battle. E'Twaun Moore led the way with 17 points on 10 shots, and JaJuan Johnson chipped in 14. Box score. The Boilermakers will go on to face Washington, who easily took care of Mississippi State.

Minnesota was downed by Texas, 76-62 in a 67 possession game, putting an end to the Gophers' season. Minnesota was plagued by the problem that has hounded them all season - an inability to simply put the ball in the basket. The Gophers shot just 40% in this one, while Texas was raining three pointers. Lawrence Westbrook led Minnesota with 19 points on 14 shots. Box score. Despite the loss, this was a good season for Minnesota, who went to the Dance for the first time in four seasons. They'll probably be back next year as well, and probably a bit better, as Coach Smith is bringing some quality recruits to Minneapolis.

Michigan pulled an upset over Clemson, 62-59 in a 62 possession game. The Wolverines hounded Clemson into a 36.1 effective field goal percentage, which is usually a good recipe for success. The reason this one was close at all was because the Tigers rebounded nearly half of their numerous misses. Manny Harris was brilliant, with 23 points on 15 shots, as well as 7 rebounds and 6 assists. Box score. Michigan will go on to face Blake Griffin and the Oklahoma Sooners.

Illinois made it interesting at the end, but ultimately they fell short, losing 76-72 to Western Kentucky in a 73 possession game. For most of this game, the Hilltoppers were raining three pointers on the Illini. Then Illinois mounted a furious comeback in the game's final 4 minutes, cutting a 15 point lead down to 2. But ultimately, it wasn't enough - Deron Williams wasn't walking through that door - and the Illini came up short. Trent Meacham led the team in scoring in his final game with 24 points on 15 shots. Box score. Though the Illini limped to the finish line, this was a nice rebound of a season for Bruce Weber's crew. The real sour note here is that Chester Frazier had to finish his career on the bench, sidelined with an injury. He deserved better than that.

In the NIT, Penn State prevailed over Rhode Island 83-72 in a 67 possession game. The Nittany Lions put on a fine offensive display, powered by 31 free throw attempts. This was especially impressive considering Jamelle Cornley was out with an injury. Stanley Pringle led Penn State with 19 points on 11 shots. Box score. They go on to face the winner of Florida/Miami for a chance to head to Madison Square Garden.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Previewing the Pods: South Edition

We'll be marching through each of the Big Ten teams' potential first and second round opponents this week, but we won't be offering any predictions. We don't want you yelling at us when your bracket has been decimated by Sunday.

Illinois

Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers are somewhat of a trendy pick to pull the common 5/12 upset, but I wonder if that's on the strength of last year's Sweet Sixteen run. Western Kentucky's offense weathered the loss of Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazelton well enough, but the defense has taken a significant step back, to the tune of almost 0.07 points per possession. On offense, WKU is a bit weird - a slight POT that's also one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.

Gonzaga
The Bulldogs broke out onto the national scene in 1999 when Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm led the team all the way to the Elite 8. They followed that up with two consecutive years in the Sweet Sixteen. But since then, it's been tough sledding - for the last seven years, Gonzaga hasn't has made it past the first weekend just once. And you've got to like their chances this season - this might be the best Gonzaga team, well, ever. Of course, the Bulldogs have been upset before, so I understand the tempered enthusiasm for this squad. Illini fans probably aren't thrilled to face this defense, given that Gonzaga is one of the tallest teams in the nation. That height definitely bothers shots inside the arc, where opponents shoot just 38.6%. That's not good news for the Illini, who don't like to shoot 3s all that often.

Akron
I'll admit, I'd prefer if the Zips played at a faster pace. In some ways, Akron plays a lot like Illinois does. Sometimes the offense stalls, but the defense is solid, especially perimeter defense. Opponents shoot just 29.3% from distance and turn it over on over a quarter of their possessions. But like the Illini (only moreso), the Zips are vulnerable on the defensive glass.

Michigan

Clemson
Is Trevor Booker an All American? Looking at the statsheet, it's not that far-fetched. Booker has a through-the-roof eFG of 61.0, is an elite rebounder, blocks shots, gets steals, and he doesn't turn it over. Oh, and he gets to the FT line regularly. Against Michigan's undersized front line, he could have a field day. The good news for the Wolverines is that Clemson's outside defense can be suspect, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 36% from 3 point range.

Oklahoma
Blake Griffin is every bit as good as everyone says he is, but this is hardly a one-man team. This team just doesn't miss, especially from two point range, where they're shooting 56%. But where the Sooners really shine is their ability to make teams pay for fouling, and here again, Blake Griffin is not alone. Predictably, Griffin does excel at getting to the line - in fact, he leads the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Not only does that put points on the board, but it puts the other team's players on the bench.

Morgan State
The Bears do just a couple of things well, but they do them very well. They defend shots (12th in the nation in eFG), and they crash the offensive glass (25th in the country in OReb%). But this team has a very difficult time scoring - their best offensive player, Reggie Holmes, is shooting 38.4% from two point range.

NIT Recap

Northwestern's season came to an end last night as the Wildcats were toppled by Tulsa 68-59 in a 57 possession game in the first round of the NIT. Northwestern had severe difficulty containing Tulsa's offense, especially Jerome Jordan, who finished with 16 points on just 4 shots. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore each had 17 for the Wildcats. Box score.

Although the season ended on a low note (three straight losses), that shouldn't detract from the fine season Carmody's crew had. To win 17 games just a year after winning all of 8 is a fantastic turnaround. Although Craig Moore will be difficult to replace, every other significant contributor should be back next season, when the Wildcats figure to have a good shot at finally making the Dance.

Guest Column: Ray Floriani on Siena

Ray Floriani is a writer for several sites focused on college hoops, and Rush the Court's MAAC correspondent. He was nice enough to give us an in-depth report on Siena, who take on Ohio State tomorrow night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

By Ray Floriani, Basketball Times, Hoopville, College Chalk Talk

SOUTH ORANGE , NJ – Of all the first round games the Siena-Ohio State matchup is arguably the best. Siena enters the contest with a 26-7 record and the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) championship. A quick look at the Saints:

Overview : Siena defeated a good Niagara team 77-70 in the MAAC finals at the Times Union Center in Albany. A week ago the Saints suffered a 15 point loss at Niagara’s Gallagher Center. Behind a strong partisan following, the Saints pulled away midway through the second half to repeat as MAAC champions.

Siena had all five starters back from a team that drilled Vanderbilt in the NCAA first round last March before losing a tough one to Villanova. Head coach Fran McCaffrey, a long time assistant in his fourth year at Siena, loaded the non-conference slate with trips to the Old Spice Classic (Tennessee in round one) , Pitt and Kansas. The Saints did not defeat any out of conference ‘heavy hitters’ but were competitive.

As defending champions Siena played with a ‘target’ on their jersey. They took everyone’s best shot and put together a strong 16-2 conference record.

Go to Guy : This is a veteran team with several players that can hurt you. In the clutch the one to watch is Kenny Hasbrouck. McCaffrey’s first recruit at the school, he was responsible for igniting the decisive run in the championship. The 6-3 guard leads Siena with 14.8 ppg. A senior, Hasbrouck is a leader and can either score from the perimeter or take the ball to the basket.

Of Note :

Ewdin Ubiles - A 6-6 forward, Ubiles can score and rebound. He is an effective enough scorer to insure defenses do not pay too much attention to Hasbrouck.

Ryan Rossiter – The 6-9 sophomore has come on strong down the stretch. He rebounded and was effective in the paint through the MAAC tournament.

Ronald Moore – A junior point guard with a gaudy 2.8 assist/turnover ratio. Moore is the unheralded glue that runs the team and makes sound decisions without much fanfare.

Alex Franklin – A 6-5 center Franklin is a wide body who simply goes about his job, again , without much notoriety unless you are on the opposite bench. Franklin can score (13.6 pg) and rebound (7.3 rpg). In addition he does the little things like box out, hustle for a loose ball and set effective screens.

The Numbers :
Pace – 73 poss
Off. PPP - 1.04
Def. PPP - 0.94
TO Rate – 17.0

Siena can play half court but will gladly run, in fact, they prefer an uptempo pace. The Saints defend well. They have a strong TO Rate given the fact their games are generally in transition. Defensively, they are disruptive as their opposing TO Rate is 22%.

Final Note: This is a veteran team that tasted NCAA success last year and wants much of the same. Should be a really good one as OSU mentor Thad Matta, formerly worked at the mid-major level, and respects what programs from that group can do. Matta will stress to his players how important it is NOT to take Siena for granted. If he does get a lapse in practice he can always show the Siena-Vanderbilt tape from last March.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Previewing the Pods: East Edition

We'll be marching through each of the Big Ten teams' potential first and second round opponents this week, but we won't be offering any predictions. We don't want you yelling at us when your bracket has been decimated by Sunday.

Wisconsin

Florida State
The ACC has some great teams. North Carolina and Duke are both legitimate threats to make it to Detroit. Wake Forest has the potential to make a deep tournament run as well. But for some reason, the Committee went ACC-crazy when filling out their bracket. The #10 seed with the lowest conference efficiency margin? Maryland. Lowest margin for a #7 seed? Boston College. #5 seed? That's right, the Florida State Seminoles. What makes this worse for FSU is that the Badgers are criminally underseeded here. Wisconsin had the second best efficiency margin in the Big Ten, yet is seeded like one of the "last teams in. " Want to know why all those 5/12 upsets happen? Bad seeding. There's no 12-seed magic, just plenty of tempo-free cluelessness from the Committee.

That isn't to say FSU is a bad team. They're not. What they are especially good at is defense, specifically swatting shots and creating turnovers, 2 things that generally don't happen to Wisconsin's offense. Something's gotta give. Toney Douglas is Mr. Everything for Florida State - outside of him, there isn't a lot of efficiency in this offense, though 7-1 freshmen Solomon Alabi shoots a high percentage, as you might expect.

Xavier
For the third year in a row, Xavier finished first in the Atlantic 10, but the truth is, this was Sean Miller's finest performance. The Musketeers returned just 44% of the minutes from last season, which normally results in a significant step back unless you're getting significant contributions from freshmen. But for the most part, this team is led by guys who were on campus last year. And none have played bigger than junior Derrick Brown. Brown was a bit of a role player last season, albeit an efficient one. This year, he's become a go-to player, but he's still kept that high efficiency. He and B.J. Raymond make a lethal combination - both shoot over 40% from 3. Heck, the whole team shoots 40% from 3. The bad news for Badger fans is that Xavier's actually better on the defensive end.

Portland State
The Vikings are actually a pretty good outside shooting team as well, connecting on 38% of their three pointers. But they aren't very good on the defensive side of the ball, which bad news for facing the offensively gifted Badgers. But that doesn't make these guys pushovers - they beat Gonzaga in Spokane and narrowly lost by a point on Washington's home floor.

Minnesota

Texas
The #7 seed is the Longhorns' lowest since 2005, but it's deserved. Texas just wasn't that impressive in conference play, going 9-7 and outscoring Big 12 opponents by just 0.04 points per possession. The problem has been the offense. In fact, this is Rick Barnes' worst offense since the 2001-02 season. Some might be quick to point to the absence of D.J. Augustin or another capable point guard, but the turnovers are still low, and the Longhorns generally don't depend on assists all that much anyways. The real problem has been the shooting, especially from distance, where Texas shoots just 32.1%. If Texas has to make a living inside, that's good news for the Gophers, the best shotblocking team in the country.

Duke
Much has been made of Duke's early exits from the Dance in the past 2 seasons, and some even point to specific perceived attributes of Duke as underlying causes, as if the Blue Devils have unveiled the recipe for tournament success that has eluded thousands of bracketologists for decades. Pick any Duke-ish trait - overplay defense, for example - and there's sure to be a logical-sounding reason why a less talented team could beat them (after all, it's happened). But that's not nearly good enough - everyone can be upset - that's why it's been over 30 years since a team last ran the table in college basketball. Duke's first round game against VCU in 2007 probably presented less of a challenge than Clemson on the road, or non-conference games against Indiana and Georgetown (who advanced to the Final Four that season). Sometimes, these things just happen.

This year's version of the Blue Devils is an offensive juggernaut, led by the three-headed monster of Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson, and Jon Scheyer. While all three are excellent shooters, they also excel at getting to the free throw line. But the biggest problem for the Gophers might be Duke's defense, which forces a lot of turnovers. Minnesota hasn't exactly been careful with the rock this season.

Binghamton
There's not much chance of this happening. The Bearcats won the America East Conference tournament and although they swept Vermont, Vermont was probably the better team. The tallest player on the court for Binghamton usually goes about 6-6. If Duke goes down in the first round this year, the pitchforks will be out in Durham.

NIT Recap

Penn State won a overtime thriller over George Mason last night, 77-73 in a 69 possession game. Talor Battle hit a 3 as time expired in regulation to send it to overtime, and then scored 8 more points in the extra period. Battle actually had a couple of earlier attempts to try and take the lead in regulation, but didn't convert either of them. But Jim Larranaga learned what the rest of the Big Ten already knows - when the game is on the line, make someone else shoot. The Nittany Lions will go on to face Rhode Island (who defeated Penn State back in November) tomorrow. Battle ended up with 24 points on 18 shots. Box score.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Previewing the Pods: West Edition

The West Region of the 2009 NCAA Tournament contains just one Big Ten team...

Purdue

Northern Iowa
The Panthers were a surprise regular season co-champion of the Missouri Valley, but only made the NCAAs by winning an overtime thriller to get the auto-bid. Northern Iowa has a solid offense (57th nationally) that is basically perimeter-oriented except for two excellent inside scorers - 6'8'' 245 Adam Koch and 7'1'' 280 Jordan Eglseder. Koch is the team's leading scorer and kills teams at the foul line (5th nationally in FT Rate and shoots 77%), while Eglseder is an outstanding rebounder and shotblocker and also hits 62% from two (while taking a whopping 31.6% of the team's shots while he's on the floor). Make no mistake, Eglseder is a dominant big man when he's on the floor, but he's played just under half of the available minutes this season. The other leader on this team is PG Kwadzo Ahelegbe - the physical sophomore shot 36.5% from downtown and also gets to the line often. Most of the remaining rotation consists of three-point specialists, except for 6'6'' bruiser Lucas O'Rear. Defensively, the Panters are mediocre, but they do a great job of limiting second chances (8th nationally in opponent OR%).

Washington
Another surprising regular season champ - this time from the Pac 10 - the Huskies play very fast but actually have the nation's 11th best defense. They don't stand out in any one defensive category, but are solid across the board and feature one of the nation's best rebounders in 6'7'' 255 Jon Brockman. Offensively, Washington thrives on offensive rebounding and free throws - they're actually a mediocre shooting team and rarely attempt threes (only Evansville takes a fewer percentage of their shots from downtown). Their backcourt is extremely small - the top three guards (Isaiah Thomas, Justin Dentmon, and Venoy Overton) are 5'8'', 5'11'', and 5'11'' - but, amazingly, they all get to the foul line frequently and all shoot at least 48% from two. The only legit three-point threat in the regular rotation is Dentmon at 42.2%. This is an unconventional team - short and fast-paced but excellent in the paint.

Mississippi State
The Bulldogs stole a bid by running the table at the SEC Tournament (4 wins in 4 days), but this isn't a bad team either. Their defense is anchored by the nation's best shotblocker, 6'9'' 210 Jarvis Varnado, who's also an efficient scorer and good rebounder to boot. Unfortunately, Varnado doesn't get much help on the glass, so Mississippi State is frequently outrebounded on both ends. Their decent offense is driven by lots of threes - 40% of their shots are from downtown, and they convert at a 36% clip, led by 6'7'' Ravern Johnson and 6'2'' Barry Stewart. It should be a fast-paced, short vs tall matchup when the Bulldogs face Washington - except the tall team shoots a lot of threes and the short one hardly takes any. This is a game I'm definitely interested in watching.

Purdue has a pretty tough draw for the first two rounds. Northern Iowa isn't as good as the Boilermakers, but the Panthers will actually have an inside size advantage and could hope to get Purdue into foul trouble early. I still like Purdue in this matchup, but honestly wouldn't be shocked in Northern Iowa gave them a scare. Washington would likely be the second round matchup, and Pomeroy puts the Boilers and Huskies at 14th and 16th nationally - in other words, both teams are good enough to play in the Sweet 16 but would instead meet in the round of 32. Add in the fact that Washington is playing a lot closer to home (Portland) and it's clear that it will be no easy task for Purdue to emerge from this pod.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Previewing the Pods: Midwest Edition

We'll be marching through each of the Big Ten teams' potential first and second round opponents this week, but we won't be offering any predictions. We don't want you yelling at us when your bracket has been decimated by Sunday.

Michigan State

Robert Morris
The Colonials marched through the Northeast Conference, going 15-3 and winning the conference tournament (which was played on their home floor). If there's one thing that you see a lot of in a RMU game, it's turnovers, and that likely makes Spartan fans sweat just a little. Michigan State, of course, has struggle to control its turnovers over the past four seasons. The good news is that RMU doesn't just force turnovers, but they also cough it up quite a bit themselves. With better care of the ball, this would be a much better team - they're #27 in the nation by eFG.

Boston College
I'm not going to lie - the Eagles feel overseeded here. BC went just 9-7 in the ACC, lost handily to Harvard at home (days after taking down UNC in Chapel Hill), and sport the second-worst conference efficiency margin of all tournament teams in the top 9 conferences (that list might not represent the top 9, however. Yo John, what's with the A-10 diss?). But wins over Duke and UNC go a long way, and the Eagles have ridden them all the way to a #7 seed. Like Michigan State, Boston College is one of the finest offensive rebounding teams in the country. Unlike the Spartans, they absolutely suck on the defensive glass. You can hear Goran Suton salivating over this matchup right now.

USC
Don't be the least bit surprised to see the Trojans playing Michigan State instead of Boston College. In fact, this is almost a carbon copy, efficiency-wise, of the OJ Mayo-led Trojans of last season. Last year, USC was bounced by the criminally underseeded Kansas State. This year the tables are turned, as USC faces off against the criminally overseeded Boston College. Like last year, the Trojans are a defense-first team, led by the shotblocking monster of Taj Gibson. Tim Floyd's team also all-but pretends the 3 point line doesn't exist. Just 21.7% of USC's field goal attempts are from distance.

Ohio State

Siena
The Saints (as in St. Bernard's, not St. Do-gooder or St. Jazz Tune) are in the Dance for the second year in a row. Last year they pummeled Vanderbilt in the first round, a fact Thad Matta has no doubt shared with his team. Few teams win the turnover battle as handily as Siena does, and that's bad news for an Ohio State team that tends to struggle in that department. Another thing to watch for in this one is the amount of trips to the FT line. Neither team likes to foul very much, though Siena doesn't punish teams when they do get there anyways (66.2%).

Louisville
Are the Cardinals deserving of a #1 seed? At this point, the discussion is academic, that's what they are. Rick Pitino's team has succeeded, as per usual, with suffocating defense. The Cardinals rank #2 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and were heads and shoulders the best defensive team in the Big East (where only 3 teams held opponents to under a point per possession). What's more, unlike last season, this feels like a Pitino defense. Lots of turnovers. No three pointers. It's 1997 all over again. The flipside is that despite the dominating defense, the Cardinals finished a mere third in the Big East in efficiency margin. True, the Big East was very top heavy. But there's another point to be made here - as good as Pitino is at molding great talents into great defenders, the offense consistently lags the defense. Maybe it's because the scouting is off (Earl Clark has been in everyone's lottery for a year now, even though the guy can't shoot), or maybe it's something more fundamental. In any case, the worry for Matta shouldn't be whether the Buckeyes can contain the likes of Clark, it's whether the likes of Clark can contain Evan Turner.

Play In Winner
It's either Alabama State or Morehead State that will earn the privilege of getting beat by Louisville. Pomeroy says Morehead State is more likely, who Louisville pounded by 38 points back in November. Expect something along the same lines.

Heartbreak in Happy Valley

Purdue finished off its run with a 65-61 win over Ohio State in a 64 possession game. The Boilers appear to have perfected the art of winning without making shots. Purdue shot just 34% in this game, but took 13 more shots than Ohio State because of their careful ballhandling and their superior offensive rebounding. E'Twaun Moore led the Boilers with 17 points on 15 shots, while Evan Turner contributed 22 points and 10 rebounds. Box score.

So congrats to Matt Painter's team for notching the school's first-ever Big Ten Tournament title. I know that in many respects Purdue has been somewhat disappointing this season, but perhaps this is an indication that they're ready to be the team that everyone was expecting all along.

Ohio State also deserves some credit for playing so well in the conference tournament. Their superior shooting will make them dangerous in the Dance, especially if they can keep the turnovers under control.

In other news, the Big Ten got seven teams in the NCAA Tournament:

Midwest
  • #2 Michigan State vs. #15 Robert Morris
  • #8 Ohio State vs. #9 Siena
West
  • #5 Purdue vs. #12 Northern Iowa
East
  • #5 Florida State vs. #12 Wisconsin
  • #7 Texas vs. #10 Minnesota
South
  • #5 Illinois vs. #12 Western Kentucky
  • #7 Clemson vs. #10 Michigan
Obviously, the Selection Committee has a very difficult job, and they probably hear more criticisms than compliments, no matter how well they do. With that said, there are a few things we can take away from all of this, and I think this has been true in past seasons as well:

1. Signature Non-Conference Wins Are More Important Than Signature Conference Wins, Except When They Happen In The Conference Tournament


I don't know where this phenomenon comes from, but it definitely exists. I think that's the only way to explain why Minnesota and Michigan are comfortable #10 seeds while Penn State is headed to the NIT. The Wolverines had wins against Duke (at home) and UCLA (on a neutral floor). They went 2-3 in the regular season over Michigan State, Illinois, and Purdue (and lost to the Illini again in the conference tournament). Minnesota went 1-3 against those 3 (and lost to the Spartans again in the conference tournament). Penn State went 4-2 against those 3 (and lost to Boilermakers in the tournament). And if you're keeping score, that means that Penn State had to play each of those teams twice (they also played Wisconsin twice), which Michigan nor Minnesota had to do.

But at least Minnesota and Michigan went .500 in the conference season. Maryland couldn't pull that off, going 7-9 in the ACC. The Terrapins also have a really horrible loss against Morgan State (at home) on their resume. And while Georgetown might be a better team than they've shown in Big East play, that 25 point spanking isn't looking so great now either. But Maryland does have a non-conference win over Michigan State and they beat Wake Forest to advance to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament (where they lost to Duke).

The Committee regards the conference season as just regular Ws and Ls. The games don't seem to matter too much outside of their effect on the bottom line of a team's record.

2. After A Certain Point, Quality Wins Don't Matter Anymore

Tom Izzo is well-known as an aggressive scheduler. Every year, the Spartans have a challenging non-conference slate. This year was no different, and Michigan State prospered, with more wins against the top 50 RPI teams than anyone else. By a healthy margin as well (I believe Kansas, Oklahoma, and Illinois were all tied for 2nd).

Frankly, when it comes to picking the highest seeds, the Committee looks for 4 teams from power conferences with the best records. If there aren't a clear 4, then they look to other teams like Memphis or Gonzaga. Had Louisville lost the Big East Tournament finale, that would have left them with 6 losses, and yes, I think the Committee might have gone searching elsewhere for that #1 bid.

3. In The Physical Universe That We Occupy, It Is Impossible For An ACC Team To Be Seeded Lower Than #10

I looked over the last 10 years and got sick of looking. But I think that's evidence enough - there is a floor for ACC teams that make the Tournament, and it's a #10 seed. That's why Maryland is where it's at. Had the Terps traded that "0" for a "1," the universe would have folded onto itself and we'd all be nothing right now.

Now, it's true that sub-10 seeds aren't exactly common for power conferences (in that same span, the Big Ten has had exactly two), but I think it was clear to all that Maryland was definitely one of the last teams in (sub-.500 conference record, 13 losses, mid 50s RPI), yet they end up with a #10 seed. That it would have killed us all seems like the simplest explanation.

Of course, all of this adds up for heartbreak for Penn State. Ed DeChellis' team was done in by Cleveland State, Temple, and Mississippi State. Overall, the Nittany Lions were likely punished for their strength of schedule. There's an argument here that playing the likes of N.J.I.T. isn't that much different than playing Northern Arizona - they're both easy wins - but I won't pick that up now. Instead, I'll just express my heartfelt condolences to Nittany Lion fans, as Talor Battle will have to wait at least another year to hold his coming out party.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Live blog: Purdue/Ohio State

Blowout

Ohio State dominated Michigan State in the second half yesterday, prevailing 82-70 in a uncharacteristically-quick 69 possessions. Michigan State actually took 24 more shots than the Buckeyes, but still lost by a sizable margin. The reason was Ohio State's excellent shooting (62.8 effective field goal percentage). Evan Turner led the Buckeyes with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Kalin Lucas had 17 points on 12 shots for the Spartans. Box score.

In their run to the final, the Buckeyes haven't exactly "solved" their turnover problems, but their normally excellent shooting has gotten even better. It takes a heck of a lot of turnovers (and some bad defense) to lose while posting an eFG above 60.0. Ohio State has done that before (twice), but generally you have to like their chances when they shoot like this.

Michigan State's loss probably ends all talk of a #1 seed. It didn't sound all that important to Tom Izzo anyways, and I don't think it changes their Final Four chances. This team is good enough to make it to Detroit, but in order to do so they'll need to shoot better than they did yesterday.

In the other semifinal, Purdue pummeled Illinois 66-56 in a 63 possession game. The Boilermakers took advantage of some ice-cold shooting in the first half by the Illini, who missed 15 shots in a row at one point. Purdue wasn't exactly hot from the field, but they took very good care of the ball, committing just 5 turnovers. Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson combined for 39 points on 27 shots. Dominique Keller led Illinois with 16 points on 11 shots. Box score.

This sets up the showdown between Ohio State and Purdue in the final, both teams that should feel secure in their NCAA Tournament status. I'll go on record here and state that I think 8 Big Ten teams should get in, and anything less than 7 would be ridiculous. But the talking heads have gotten to me - I expect the ridiculous right now (Jim Nantz declared Illinois was an "8 or 9 seed" in yesterday's game, Clark Kellogg agreed. Egads, if the 2nd place Illini are an 8/9 seed, that doesn't bode well for the rest of the conference hopefuls.). Someone in the Big Ten will get snubbed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Live blog: Illinois/Purdue

Live blog: Michigan State/Ohio State

Don't need no credit card to ride this train

Purdue absolutely waxed Penn State 79-65 in a 60 possession game. Matt Painter is apparently good friends with Doc Brown (and owns a DeLorean), as the Boilers looked like last year's team that won 15 conference games. Keaton Grant, version 2007-08, was kind enough to make an appearance, scoring on 15 points on 6 3-point shots. Robbie Hummel was also healthy and active, going for 20 on 12 shots. Jamelle Cornley led the Nittany Lions with 20 points on 17 shots. Box score.

The Nittany Lions certainly have some anti-fans, but this team deserves to go to the Dance. Do they have the best RPI? No. The best strength of schedule? No. But they do have a 4-2 record over Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan State, along with 11 wins over conference opponents. And it's not like they have any disaster losses, either.

Ohio State
edged Wisconsin, 61-57 in a 57 possession game to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes once again put on a shooting clinic (56.5 eFG), and they took good enough care of the ball to advance. Yet, Bo Ryan's offense still strikes me as ingenious. Normally, a team that posts a 43.0 eFG does not score a point per possession. But again, the Badgers took care of the ball (just 7 turnovers), which resulted in more shot attempts. Wisconsin doesn't make the most of their opportunities as much as they try and get the most opportunities. Evan Turner led Ohio State as per usual with 19 points on 15 shots, while Trevon Hughes had 15 on 11 shots for the Badgers. Box score.

Sad to say, but Wisconsin might be sweating a little this week. I thought of the two teams, Ohio State was in a better position to weather a loss. After all, the Buckeyes have nice non-conference wins over Butler, Miami, and Notre Dame. The Badgers don't have any bad losses, but they also don't have any great wins. Their best win is a home victory over Illinois. I don't think they're necessarily in big trouble, but I do think Bo might be doing some scoreboard watching.

Michigan State
advanced past Minnesota, 64-56 in a 64 possession game. Chris Allen led the Spartans with 17 points on 11 shots, while Damian Johnson scored 19 on his 11 shots. Box score.

The Spartans have turned into a defensive powerhouse in the second half of the season. Over their last 9 regular season games, opponents have averaged just 0.84 points per possession. Minnesota didn't do much better, scoring just 0.875 points per possession in this one. The Spartans now have a top 10 defense nationally. In fact, this is Tom Izzo's best defense at Michigan State, edging out the 99-00 team. Someone tap Joe Lunardi's shoulder - this is definitely #1 seed material here.

On the flip side, Minnesota continues to struggle to make shots. And their normally-reliable free throw shooting was nowhere to be found here, as the Gophers made just 13 of their 27 attempts from the stripe. I think they're in, but I suppose that depends on whether the Selection Committee is drinking from the same punch bowl as ESPN's talking heads.

Illinois took it to Michigan in the second half, turning a one point lead into a 20 point advantage before holding on for the win 60-50 in a 59 possession game. For Illinois, the story was winning convincingly without their senior leader Chester Frazier. Mike Davis was a big part of that, posting a 22/10 dub-dub. The Wolverines, on the other hand, couldn't make a shot, posting an effective field goal percentage of 41.2. Few players for Michigan had more points than shots, but Zack Novak was one of them, with 10 points on 8 shots and 7 rebounds. Box score.

The consensus seems to be that Michigan is in, and I can't disagree there. The Wolverines' resume stacks up very well against the rest of the bubble, and they seem to get a lot of mileage out of those wins over Duke and UCLA.

Today, Michigan State faces Ohio State at 12:40 CT, and Illinois/Purdue is scheduled to tip off around 3. Again, I'll be live blogging the action, so stop on by.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Live blog: Purdue/Penn State

Live blog: Illinois/Michigan

I've got what doctors call "a little bit of an image problem."

We've seen a decent amount of talk on ESPN lately (most notably from Digger Phelps) about how the Big Ten isn't as good as the numbers say (#2 in RPI) - I saw Doug Gottlieb say the other night that (paraphrasing) "people who watch basketball know that the Big Ten isn't that good - I don't care what the numbers say." Well, to be fair, there is some truth that the Big Ten isn't the #2 conference in the land, but it's not like they're miles behind the other big boys. Pomeroy's conference ratings (which just averages the Pomeroy rating of each team in the conference) says that the ACC and Pac-10 are the best, followed by the Big East, Big 12, and Big Ten, with a big dropoff to the SEC. In other words, the Big Ten is pretty close to the Big East and Big 12 when it comes to average team strength - on a side note, it's interesting how Big East backers go on and on about the strength at the top (rightfully so) but conveniently ignore the awful teams that occupy the bottom. If you want to talk about conference strength, you can't just cherrypick the top.

Anyway, my point here is that the Big Ten has an image problem. Regardless of non-conference performance (which is what drove that RPI number), most of the national media - and, by extension, casual fans - think that the Big Ten is full of teams that can only hope to succeed by defending like mad and somehow sneaking away with wins against the clearly superior competition. Even Big Ten fans themselves will sometimes buy into the stereotype that the conference is all about defense, lamenting the fact that these outstanding Big Ten defenses make each other look bad and lead to this unpleasing brand of basketball.

Well, I think the Big Ten's image problem isn't because of defense - it's because of tempo. In fact, the Big Ten isn't all that impressive defensively this year aside from the top 4 defenses (Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota), which are all in the top 20 nationally. Beyond that, you've got a bunch of decent defenses that rank anywhere from 60th to 116th (except for Indiana at 183rd). Compare that to the Big East, which also has four top 20 defenses, plus three more in the top 50. The Big Ten has some great defense being played, but it's not necessarily any better than the other major conferences.

The big difference is in tempo - check out the Big Ten and their adjusted tempo rankings (fastest is 1st, slowest is 344th):

127 - Michigan State
132 - Purdue
165 - Indiana
215 - Minnesota
265 - Michigan
275 - Illinois
300 - Ohio State
309 - Penn State

326 - Northwestern
334 - Wisconsin
343 - Iowa

That's some seriously slow basketball. Keep in mind that these are adjusted tempos - the raw tempos (which is what you actually observe in a given game) are even slower, since you've got two inherently slow teams playing each other so often in the Big Ten.

So, we've got 6 Big Ten teams that are slower than average and could be considered NCAA hopefuls (shown in bold). Compare that to the Big East, where the only "good" or "bubble" team considerably slower than average is West Virginia at 201st nationally (Pitt is right around average in tempo). All the other at-large contenders in the Big East are faster than average.

You see a similar pattern with the other major conferences - here's the full list of BCS-conference teams that are slower than average nationally (with the bubble or at-large teams in bold):

Miami (ACC)
NC State (ACC)
Texas A&M (B12)
Iowa State (B12)
Nebraska (B12)
Colorado (B12)
St. John's (BE)
DePaul (BE)
West Virginia (BE)
Rutgers (BE)
Cincinnati (BE)
Georgetown (BE)
South Florida (BE)
Arizona (P10)
USC (P10)
Arizona State (P10)
Oregon State (P10)
Washington State (P10)

So, in the six BCS conferences, there are 11 teams under serious consideration for the NCAA Tournament that are slower than average - the Big Ten has 6 of them, over half. I think we're seeing a backlash against slow tempo, and the Big Ten is the biggest supplier of slow-paced NCAA Tournament-level teams.

As best I can tell, there's nothing inherently bad about playing slow, other than perhaps being less entertaining (which is debatable). Good teams can be slow, good teams can be fast. For whatever reason, the Big Ten is full of coaches that love to slow it down, and their national reputation seems to be suffering because of it.

Live blog: Wisconsin/Ohio State

Live blog: MSU/Minnesota

Ideally, less blowouts today.

No trouble on the bubble

Minnesota put an end to Northwestern's hopes for a near-miracle, winning 66-53 in a 54 possession game. The Gophers collected 49% of their misses with their much-taller front line. Northwestern's offense was out of sorts, as they turned it over on a quarter of their possessions and posted a woeful 40.3 eFG. Lawrence Westbrook led the Gophers with 14 points on 9 shots, while Kevin Coble scored 21 points on 11 shots. Box score.

Minnesota probably remains on the bubble, but now they're probably on the better side of it. Unless a lot of goofiness ensues in the other conference tournaments, I have to believe they're in right now. They take on Michigan State tomorrow.

Northwestern is likely headed to the NIT, which isn't the worst outcome in the world for a team that went 1-17 in conference play last year. Moreover, a lot of pieces return for next season, and they could be primed for another run.

Michigan looked awfully good in demolishing Iowa 73-45 in a 60 possession game. DeShawn Sims apparently took a liking to our placement of him on our 1st team, scoring 27 points on 16 shots. Manny Harris was nearly as effective, scoring 18 on 11 shots (and dished 8 assists and grabbed 7 rebounds). Cyrus Tate had 12 points on 5 shots for Iowa. Box score.

Michigan is probably in a similar spot as Minnesota. A win against Illinois cements their status, but they probably feel pretty good even if that doesn't happen. Of course, if Michigan continues to play like this, they'll win the tournament. It was the largest margin of victory over a power conference opponent, coming off a road win against Minnesota. The Wolverines are picking a good time to peak.

Short of a CBI bid, Iowa's season is likely done. Give some credit to Lickliter here - considering the attrition he had over the season, they've done relatively well. Cyrus Tate is the only departing senior who saw significant time this season, so look for a lot of improvement for next season.

Penn State ended Indiana's misery, 66-51 in a possession game. Jamelle Cornley went off for 22 points on 12 shots, which helped the Nittany Lions prevail despite Talor Battle's low output (3 points on 3 shots). Verdell Jones had 23 points on 11 shots for Indiana. Box score.

Penn State isn't a popular NCAA team in some circles given their low RPI and strength of schedule, but I just don't see how you leave out a team with 11 Big Ten wins. But I'm not on the committee, and I'm sure Ed DeChellis will tell his team that there's still work to be done against Purdue.

Indiana's season now comes to a close, and that's probably good for Tom Crean's health. I've said before that Crean wasn't going to be judged on the number of wins this season, and the bigger priorities were to keep the fans happy, keep the players in good spirits, recruit, and stay out of trouble. He's accomplished all of that. Now comes the hard part.

I'll be live blogging all the action in today's games - tune in for the tip off between Minnesota and Michigan State at 11 central time.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Live Blog: Penn State/Indiana

Somebody guard DeShawn Sims

Got a late start on this, but I'll be live blogging the entire Big Ten Tournament (from here on at least). If we're real lucky, Mike just might stop by on occasion. Michigan and Iowa are about halfway through the first half, and we'll pick up the action from here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Now, the guys the Verve Pipe would love...

You can see the "official" selections here, but we thought we'd honor our own Big Ten Geeks All-Freshman team as well (numbers are for conference games only):

B.J. Mullens
ORtg: 108.0
Shot%: 23.2

Mullens came into Columbus bearing huge expectations (#8 RSCI), but got off to a bit of a muted start, scoring in double figures just twice in his first 12 games and shooting a mortal 53% from the field. Once the calendar turned to 2009, however, the athletic big man figured out that dunks usually go in and proceeded to assault rims across the midwest. For the conference season, Mullens shot 70% from the field, which in itself makes you an efficient scorer even if you can't hit free throws (49%) and have a turnover problem (23.0 TO Rate). Mullens was also Ohio State's best rebounder by a longshot (13.6 OR%, 19.5 DR%) and was the conference's 7th best shotblocker (6.5 Block%). This may not have been quite the freshman season that was expected of Mullens, but it's a good one by any measure.


William Buford - BTG Freshman of the Year
ORtg: 108.2
Shot%: 27.6

Another highly touted Buckeye (#12 RSCI) that took a little time to get comfortable, Buford was a superb offensive weapon on the wing, shooting 50% from two and 35% from three in conference play. When David Lighty went down, Buford soaked up the extra minutes and provided an instant upgrade on the offensive end (on the defensive end, not so much). The one disappointment with Buford's offensive game is his inability to get to the line - he earned only 23 free throw attempts during the entire Big Ten season (making all but one), and a guy of his size and athleticism should be able to add that dimension. Assuming he's back next year, I expect he'll improve in this area and really terrorize defenses, as long as he doesn't go all E'Twaun Moore on us.

Delvon Roe

ORtg: 105.7
Shot%: 16.9

Tired of seeing guys from the state of Ohio yet? Roe lost his senior season of high school to knee surgery, leaving him unable to practice at full-speed until the nonconference season had already started. As he rounded into form, Roe proved himself not only a capable scorer, but, more importantly, an absolute monster on the glass. He was the Big Ten's second best offensive rebounder (behind only Minnesota's Paul Carter) and was sixth in the conference in DR% (which, amazingly, put him only third-best on his own team). Roe also swatted away 5.5% of Big Ten opponent's twos while on the floor. If Kalin Lucas and Roe both stick around, Michigan State will be well on their way to another championship run next season.

Matt Gatens

ORtg: 112.3
Shot%: 21.6

The expectations for Gatens weren't quite as high as the previous players on this list (#89 RSCI), but he may have been more important to his team than any other Big Ten freshman. Gatens was an ironman, starting all 18 conference games and playing 89.1% of the available minutes. More impressive is the efficiency with which he played all those minutes - Gatens posted a eFG% of 50.9, while keeping his turnover rate to a low 13.4. He shot 36% from downtown, and was the conference's second-best foul shooter (87.3%). Gatens seems to be a perfect fit for Todd Lickliter's offense, and I expect he'll be a big part of Iowa's resurgence in the next year or two.

Ralph Sampson III

ORtg: 108.2
Shot%: 15.7

Like Delvon Roe, Sampson wasn't especially aggressive offensively, but he did put up a nice efficiency in his smaller role. Sampson's biggest contributions to his team's success occurred in the paint on the other end of the court - his Block% of 7.1 was sixth in the conference and second among freshmen (slightly behind teammate Colton Iverson). Consider that Minnesota won with their defense, and their defense was driven by two things - turnovers and limiting 2-point FG%. The 2-point portion of that formula is where Sampson came in (along with Iverson and Damian Johnson). Sampson was also solid on the glass (8.4/15.9 OR/DR) for a team that needed it.

Purdue fans will surely make note of our sole difference from the official selections - Ralph Sampson over Lewis Jackson. We realize that Jackson played meaningful minutes for a good team, and that in itself is worthy of recognition, but the individual numbers just aren't there for Jackson. His offensive contribution (92.9 ORtg, 18.8 Shot%) puts him pretty far behind these other freshmen, and his defense (while good) doesn't quite make up that ground for us. Jackson does have his offensive positives, but they're all matched by corresponding negatives - he's a great distributor, with the conference's third best assist rate (30.2), but he also had a huge turnover problem (27.6 TO Rate). He amazingly shot pretty well from two-point range (48%), but hit just 6 for 20 (30%) from downtown and rarely got to the foul line. It's tough for a 5'9'' guy to be a great player when he can't shoot outside, so that will be the challenge for Jackson going forward. His defense and penetration will continue to be weapons for Purdue.

Other notables include:

Matt Roth
- The sharpshooter did one thing and did it well, hitting 38% from downtown. Now if only he played for Todd Lickliter.

Luka Mirkovic
- An under-the-radar performer that was solid offensively (118.5 ORtg, 14.5 Shot%) and provided an inside presence for Northwestern (7.3/17.6 OR/DR%, 3.6 Block%). The most impressive thing about this big man is his passing - 18.7 Assist Rate vs 15.2 TO Rate. Put in more conventional terms, he had a 2.4 Assist-to-Turnover ratio, good for 5th in the conference. I expect Mirkovic to be a part of an NCAA Tournament team before he's done at Northwestern.

Zack Novak
- Put up a nice efficiency (109.8 ORtg) in a smallish role (14.1 Shot%), and even contributed a bit on the glass. Fits the Beilein system perfectly.

There's quite a few other guys who showed promise in their freshmen campaigns - John Shurna, Nick Williams, Verdell Jones, Stu Douglass, Devoe Joseph, Tom Pritchard, Colton Iverson... when combined with the excellent sophomore class, it appears the conference is in good hands for years to come.