Friday, October 30, 2009

Preview of the Wisconsin 09-10 Season

08-09 Overall Record: 20-13
08-09 Conference Record: 10-8 (T-4th)
09-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: +0.08 (2nd)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 65.2
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 8.2

Of all the previews we've had, this one has to be the most boring to write. And that's not a slam on Wisconsin -- it's praise. Bo Ryan's management of the program all but ensures an effective and consistent team every single year. You could read last year's preview (go ahead, read it), and it would probably give you a pretty good sense of how the Badgers will fare this season. The formula for Wisconsin's success is pretty simple -- recruiting.

That sounds strange to say about a team that doesn't typically reel in McDonald's All-Americans. But there's more than one way to skin a cat (another expression I hate. I mean, is there really some cat-skinning expert out there dispensing knowledge of his trade?). And Ryan's way has been to "balance" his classes. Every year, about 2/3 of the minutes return, and he always seems to have a couple of seniors capable of shouldering a heavy load. Three years ago, it was Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker. Two years ago it was Brian Butch and Michael Flowers. Last year, it was Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft. This year, it will be Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. Next year, it will be Jon Leuer and maybe Keaton Nankivil.

So does that mean that we stop there, figure Wisconsin finishes in the top half of the conference, goes dancing, and call it a day? We could, but Badger fans have to read something (especially now that they've all unsubscribed from Vander Blue's Twitter), so we'll give them some good news/bad news analysis.

First, the good news -- offensively, this team should be every bit as strong as they were last season. Sure, losing their best offensive player is a blow, but there are a lot of pieces in waiting. For one, Leuer and Hughes are fully capable of taking a "go-to" amount of shots, so you probably won't see a lot of "desperation possessions" in Madison. Second, guys like Bohannon and Nankivil are very efficient players (so is Tim Jarmusz, who would be downright scary if he somehow were able to keep his efficiency while increasing his shots). Third, although the freshmen didn't play a lot of minutes last season, it was a big class, and it's reasonable to believe that someone could have a big breakout. Add it all up, and Wisconsin should not have difficulties on offense.

Then there's the bad news -- defense. Ryan's defensive philosophy has been to let the other side take shots, but do not let them get more than one per possession. Last year the Badgers were 4th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. They won't be that good this season. Part of that is simply because it's hard to repeat elite performances like that, but the bigger reason is that they lose a tremendous rebounder in Joe Krabbenhoft. In conference play, Krabbenhoft was the second-best defensive rebounder, behind Goran Suton. The next best Badger, Leuer, ranked 18th in the conference. After Leuer, the highest returning Badger was Jason Bohannon. I submit that when Jason Bohannon is the second best returning defensive rebounder, there's reason for concern.

The guys most likely to fill Krabbenhoft's minutes (Nankivil, Jarmusz), were not impressive rebounders on the defensive end of the floor. Of course, these things could change. After all, Leuer was a terrible rebounder in his freshman season, and he was decent in that area last year. Furthermore, guys like Ian Markoff and Jared Berggren might be monster rebounders that haven't had a chance to show their abilities yet. All these things, however, are conjecture. Here's what we do know -- Wisconsin was a great rebounding team last year, and they do not return a lot of those rebounds. Expect them to take a step back, but I still anticipate that rebounding will be an overall strength. The good news is that the additions of Markoff and Berggren to the rotation will make Wisconsin taller, which should result in more missed shots.


So that's it folks, 11 season recaps and previews to chew on. As we've been alluding to, the Big Ten should be very good this season. We've still got a lot of ground to cover before the season begins - a Preseason All Big Ten, a list of Breakout players, a look at the nonconference slate, and our predictions on the season are still yet to come. We'll be back Monday.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

Just a heads up - we're going to have some new digs this season. We'll let you know more as soon as we can, but you can rest assured that we aren't leaving the Big Ten for the ACC or anything like that. You can expect the same content, just a new address.

We'll still be here tomorrow morning, pontificating on Wisconsin's upcoming season, if you're into that sort of thing.

Wisconsin Recap of the 08-09 Season

It seemed like a massive step back. The Badgers went 20-13 last season, a significant drop from their back-to-back 30 win seasons. However, that step was not as large as it seems at first blush. Wisconsin went 10-8 in conference play last year, but based on their point differential, they played like a team that won 12 or 13 conference games. But you don't need to be Pythagoras to recognize that the Badgers had some tough breaks last season. During a 6 game losing streak in January, the Badgers lost two overtime games, a one-point contest against Purdue, and suffered a 3 point loss in Evanston. That means Bo Ryan's team was 8 points away from winning those four, and that Wisconsin was not as average as their record suggested.

But it's still true that the Badgers were not as good as they had been. Although they were second in the league by conference efficiency, it's easy to forget how dominant Wisconsin was in 2007-08, sporting an efficiency margin of 0.18 in Big Ten play. For reference, those 15-3 Michigan State Spartans of last season "merely" posted a 0.13 number. Sure, Michigan State went all the way to the title game, but evaluating the body of work over the season, the 07-08 Badgers might have been even better.

(America likes to settle things on the field. We want playoffs, we want undisputed champions, and when we aren't getting that, Congress gets involved. That's all well and good, and even if I wanted to change that, this is not the time nor the place. But I will point out that there are some side effects to this approach. It means that a .500 team will occasionally win the World Series, that a mediocre 9-7 team can go to the Super Bowl, and that a skinny kid from Akron can send a dominant team home a week early. Whether or not those things are good or bad is entirely a matter of perspective.)

The cause for Wisconsin's fall is apparent -- defense. Specifically, field goal defense. Forced to shoot over the towers of Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma, opponents shot under 42% on their two pointers. When the team got shorter last season, that figure jumped to 49%. Ryan's scheme has never been about turning teams over. Instead, the Badgers typically rely on creating missed shots and gathering lots of defensive rebounds. They were outstanding on the defensive boards again last year, but there weren't quite as many missed shots as there used to be.

Offensively Marcus Landry had a tremendous senior season, especially during conference play. But it was hardly a one-man show, as five Badgers averaged 9 points or more per game in conference play. Overall, Bo Ryan put together a solid offensive team in Madison, yet again. And yet again, not many people noticed.

That brings me to the "Wisconsin Tax." The following chart details Wisconsin's offensive efficiency under Bo Ryan:



Even at the low points, the Badgers were averaging 1.03 points per possession. That would have ranked 4th in the conference last season. More often, the Badgers find themselves well ahead of that mark. Last year, they were the best offensive team in the conference. No doubt, however, that casual followers of the Big Ten probably don't realize how good Wisconsin usually is at converting possessions into points. Frankly, I think the pace at which Wisconsin plays helps create this perception. The Badgers generally walk it up the floor, and they are content to let the opponent do the same. Pace aficionados can complain all they want about the entertainment value of this approach, but they can't dispute that it can work - Ryan's tremendous success is proof of that. Moreover, the ways in which the offense excels (namely, avoiding turnovers) are not the kind of aesthetically-obvious methods that fit nicely into a 30-second SportsCenter highlight.

But I fear this approach has a harmful element to it as well, because Wisconsin is also perennially underseeded in my opinion.

Year
Pomeroy Rank
NCAA Seed
Should Have Been...
2009
29
12
8
2008
5
3
2
2007
8
2
2
2006
48
9
12
2005
18
6
5
2004
11
6
3
2003
15
5
4
2002
43
8
11

Sure, there were a couple of times when the Committee bailed them out, but generally speaking, Wisconsin gets the short end of it come Selection Sunday. I'm not suggesting Ryan start running a full court trap and attempting high-risk dribble drives. Winning games, after all, is still the highest priority here, and Ryan clearly has found a style that helps his team win. But maybe it's up to the Badger faithful to start some kind of letter writing campaign to their local committee member. Hopefully this practice of taking away 2 or 3 wins away from Wisconsin ends soon. The way the Big Ten is shaping up this season and beyond, Wisconsin probably can't afford to continue shouldering this tax.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Preview of the Purdue 09-10 Season

08-09 Overall Record: 27-10
08-09 Conference Record: 11-7 (T-2nd)
08-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: +0.07 (T-3rd)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 81.6
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes:
12.3

I could tell you that Purdue fans should expect big things this year. I could tell you that the Boilermakers return a lot of minutes from a very strong team, and that defensively, they have few peers. I could tell you that, sure, the offense wasn't spectacular, but with another year of experience it should get better. And I could tell you that Purdue is a favorite to win the conference title thanks to their unmatched starting lineup.

But all of those things were true last year, right? So I'll focus instead on what's different.

1. The players that left: Nemanja Calasan was about as soft as they come in the Big Ten. That said, he did figure out how to make the ball go into the hoop in his senior season, which is more than can be said about Marcus Green, who was about 3 inches too short for his skillset. Bobby Riddell was great for converting free throws after technical fouls were called, and for winning games of H-O-R-S-E, but he's overmatched at this level. Overall, the losses were not significant.

2. Hummel's back: It's healthy, right? Hummel may never match the eye-popping efficiency of his freshman season, but simply being on the floor more will represent a big boost to this team. This is especially the case because of Purdue's shaky rebounding.

3. The freshmen: D.J. Byrd appears to be the most talented, but minutes at shooting guard will be tough to come by. The good news is that everyone else is 6-6 or taller, and there's minutes available for anyone who can rebound.

4. Lewis Jackson's eventful offseason: With his legal issues mostly resolved, Jackson's punishment has been handed down: one game suspension.

Assuming things go according to plan, I can see the Boilermakers making some big strides, especially if Keaton Grant and E'Twaun Moore find their shooting strokes. But it would be nice if the Boilers found some offensive rebounding as well. Or shot more 3s. But they ought to do one of the two. While overall the Boilers kept the turnovers in check, a breakdown shows it was a very different story in the conference season:




The offensive rebounding, however, was mediocre throughout the season, despite the fact that Purdue was balanced between 2s and 3s. If Matt Painter expects the rebounding to, well, rebound, then there's no need to change the style. However, if he does not see the offensive rebounding getting much better, perhaps it's time to open up the perimeter attack, which would cut down on the turnovers. This probably depends on which Robbie Hummel shows up, however. The 2007-08 version was an excellent offensive rebounder, last year's version, however, was not. Whatever the case, the "step forward" that Painter is looking for has to take place on offense, because there aren't many more gains to be had on defense.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Purdue Recap of the 08-09 Season

Was last season really a disappointment? Most experts pegged the Boilers to take the conference crown after the unexpected success of the "Baby Boilers" squad. And although that prediction was a reasonable one, it was nonetheless optimistic for a team that did not have more than 8 players that the coach wanted to play. Yet that's the storyline that's been written about Purdue - Robbie Hummel's back, combined with a lack of a suitable backup, led to the "disappointment" of last season.

But I think that assessment is not completely accurate. For one, Purdue's season was hardly a bad one. They won 27 games (2 more than the season prior), and advanced to the Sweet 16 (a round further than the 07-08 version). And where the Baby Boilers were bounced in the first round in the Big Ten Tournament to an upstart Illini team, the sophomore version won the championship. Maybe it's not the progress envisioned by Boiler fans, but it's progress nonetheless.

Though there is no denying that some things took a step back for the Boilermakers. And sure, part of that was Hummel's injury, that's undeniable. But as we detailed last season, E'Twaun Moore and Keaton Grant did not play up to their 07-08 standards, either:

PlayerShot %ORtg
07-08 Moore26.2115.7
07-08 Grant19.6112.7
08-09 Moore27.297.5
08-09 Grant18.097.8

The primary factor behind both regressions was three point percentage. Signs point to Moore's recovery, given his steady and solid free throw percentage, but it's anyone's guess with Grant, who has been all over the place in West Lafayette. Figure he'll hit somewhere in the middle of the two seasons.

Of course, there were significant steps forward last season as well, mostly in the form of JaJuan Johnson. Over the course of 6 months, Johnson transformed himself from "raw project" to "All Conference." He's everything you want in a big man - makes shots, rebounds, draws fouls, makes free throws, and blocks shots, all without turning the ball over too often. Johnson may spend the next year (or two) at Purdue in an effort to make his body look NBA-ready, but from my perspective he already plays at a professional skill level. He's on the short list for player of the year.

The aforementioned Hummel was efficient when he played, but not as efficient the year before. Sure, you can attribute some of that to the injury that lingered throughout the conference season, but you might also attribute it to the difficulty in repeating a performance that included hitting 50% on three pointers. Nonetheless, Hummel does so many things on the court that he's the only player that can seriously challenge Evan Turner in versatility.

As a team, Purdue is clearly coached by a defensive coach. They sported a top-5 defensive efficiency overall last season, and were third in the conference season behind Illinois and Michigan State. However, it was a bit strange to see Purdue's pressing style translate into a conference turnover percentage that ranked 5th in the Big Ten. Indeed, though the defense overall improved, this area took a significant step back. If the Moore and Grant return to form, and the Boilers can recapture some of those turnovers, they'll go far. I'll discuss how far tomorrow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Preview of the Penn State 09-10 Season

08-09 Overall Record: 27-11
08-09 Conference Record: 10-8 (T-4th)
09-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: -0.04 (T-8th)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 56.6
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 6.4

For the past two seasons, the win totals of Ed DeChellis' teams have exceeded what we would expect based on their play on the court. And really, this has been a staple of the DeChellis Era:

Season
Actual Conf. Record
Pythagorean Record
Difference
08-09
10-8
7-11
+3
07-08
7-11
4-14
+3
06-07
2-14
3-13
-1
05-06
6-10
5-13
+1
04-05
1-15
2-14
-1
03-04
3-13
2-14
+1

Only in two seasons has a Penn State team coached by Ed DeChellis underperformed relative to its Pythagorean projection. On the whole, DeChellis is up a cool 6 games. If it happens again this year, I'm jumping on Gasaway's bandwagon -- I will no longer call it "luck," I will simply call it "DeChellis."

In fact, the Lions will need a bit of DeChellis magic if they are to avoid a pretty significant dropoff from last season. Not only do they lose a fair amount of minutes, the minutes they lose (mostly in the form of Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle) were responsible for much of the scoring. Furthermore, last year's Penn State team did not feature very many freshmen who could be expected to take big leaps forward in their sophomore seasons. Third, the conference as a whole should be better. And finally, there's the whole prospect of Pythagoras exacting his revenge.

Add it up, and it does not look pretty. But a couple of things could change that. For one, Talor Battle's actual shotmaking ability could start to catch up to his reputation. I mentioned Battle's struggles from the field on Friday, and unless he put in a lot of time working on his stroke over the summer, things could get even worse. That's because instead of devoting resources to guarding the likes of Pringle and Cornley, defenses will be focused almost entirely on stopping Battle. He shot 30% from 3 point range with a couple of very capable scorers threatening to make teams pay for guarding Battle too close -- how much can he be expected to improve now that those two are gone? Ideally incoming freshman Tim Frazier can help take a load off here, as well returning sophomore Chris Babb.

The interior scoring might be in even worse shape. Last year, the general idea was to let Cornley go to work in the paint. This year, the Nittany Lions will have some tall bodies (Jeff Brooks, Andrew Ott, Andrew Jones, and David Jackson should all see some action), but they are either reluctant shooters (Jones and Jackson), poor shooters (Brooks), or both (Ott).

I won't talk about defense here because Penn State is routinely mediocre in that area, and I don't see any reason for that to change, unless Ott improves enough to be on the court long enough to disrupt a healthy amount of shots. Or unless DeChellis changes his "don't foul" scheme to something that better fits his roster. So it'll be up to the offense, yet again, and probably with an assist from some DeChellis fairy dust if this team is going to flirt with the Dance again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Penn State Recap of the 08-09 Season

I think the Big Ten owes Penn State an apology. The Nittany Lions were 22-11 (10-8 in conference play) last year come Selection Sunday, and the Committee left them at home. And I have little doubt that a perception of the league (much of it deserved) played into that. Whether it was years of mediocrity, slow play, or heck, even some revenge for Jim Delany's constant meddling with the BCS, Penn State was a team that probably would have gone dancing had they been in some other power conference. It seems crazy to think about now, but pundits were calling the Lions' road win at the Breslin Center a "bad win." That's right - beating the National Runner Up at their own place is somehow less deserving than squeaking out a one point victory over a Wyoming team that went 7-9 in the Mountain West. Consider it punishment for the league as a whole.

Give Penn State credit, however. After receiving the disappointment that they were headed for the NIT, all the Nittany Lions did was go out and win the whole thing. And frankly, most of the games weren't that close, with the exception of the opening victory over George Mason. After the title game, senior Jamelle Cornley lifted his tournament MVP trophy and waved to the fans, creating a scene that summed up his entire career. Cornley was too short for his position, but he always outworked most guys on the floor. From a statistical perspective, he was a capable if unspectacular rebounder, and very good scoring inside the arc. In his senior year, he even developed an outside shot, making 38% of his 50 three point attempts.

That display was nothing compared to the barrage library enthusiast Stanley Pringle unloaded on opponents last season. Pringle shot 45% on his 160 attempts from downtown. Inside the arc was a different story as Pringle shot just 38% on his 2s in conference play.

The final member of Penn State's Big Three is the only one that returns from last season. When most people think of Talor Battle, they probably think of a guy that takes (and makes) a lot of big shots. That's definitely true. Also true is the fact that Battle really isn't that great of a shooter. He shot 36% from the field in conference play (30% on his 3s), down from a 37.2% effort in his freshman season. Battle makes up for this by creating opportunities for others without turning the ball over, and he also gets to the line at a pretty decent clip.

Beyond those three, everyone else was pretty much a role player. But that's going to have to change for next season. One thing that probably won't change with Battle's steady hand is Penn State's distaste for turnovers.

Team
Off. TO% + Def. TO%
Notre Dame
28.1
Connecticut
34.3
Iowa State
34.4
Penn State
35.1
Wisconsin
35.3

Only 3 major conference teams' games featured less turnovers per possession than Penn State's (and yes, Notre Dame led the nation in preventing turnovers on both ends of the floor). As you can imagine, this aspect of Penn State's play has dramatic effects. On offense, it means Penn State was able to score much better than they shot. But it also helped opponents score (and they did, to the tune of 1.04 points per possession in conference play). The Nittany Lions were an elite defensive rebounding team, and they weren't bad at defending shots either. But their real strength was limiting free throw opportunities for opponents (they ranked 2nd nationally in defensive free throw rate). Of course, that's part of the problem - teams that don't foul also tend not to create turnover opportunities. With a tall, slowfooted team that makes shooting in the paint a nightmare (without sacrificing rebounds), it works great (Connecticut is one example here). But for a short team like Penn State? Probably not the best utilization of personnel. PSU figures to get a little taller next season, as guys like Andrew Ott and Jeff Brooks play more, but this is still a short team. Seems like they would do well to pressure the ball more. However they attack it, the defense is going to have to improve to offset the losses of Cornley and Pringle. We'll pick that subject up on Monday.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Preview of the Northwestern 09-10 Season

08-09 Overall Record: 17-14
08-09 Conference Record: 8-10 (9th)
09-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: -0.04 (T-9th)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 79.1
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 25.4

On paper, everything points to a possible, if not probable, NCAA Tournament berth for the Wildcats. They return a ton of minutes (Craig Moore's departure is the only significant one), have a lot of sophomores with playing time experience, and they're coming off a 17-win season in which they sniffed the bubble.

But there are three things standing in Northwestern's way, as I see it. For one, the conference as a whole should be better (more on that in a later post). The second issue is a bit more hair-raising: have we reached the limits of Bill Carmody's offense? Last year's team was easily his most efficient, and it's not hard to figure out why. The Wildcats shot 39% from 3 point range as a team, and dedicated 42% of their shots to the deep ball. It was enough to make Todd Lickliter and John Beilein green with envy. Not only did they shoot 3s often and well, but they also limited turnovers in true POT fashion, coughing it up on just 17.8% of their possessions.

In short, Northwestern played its style perfectly. But that's the thing - even having done that, the Wildcats "only" ranked 4th in the conference in offensive efficiency. Northwestern's trouble areas are obvious and longstanding. They don't rebound their misses (last in the conference), they don't get to the line (9th in the conference), and they don't shoot 2 pointers well (8th in the conference). These are the classic symptoms of a short team. The bad news is that Northwestern was not short last season. In fact, they were one of the tallest teams in the country, as we noted yesterday. Sure, they were better than they were in 07-08 in these areas, but they were still pretty bad. Ultimately, there are limitations in every offensive scheme, and Carmody's version of the Princeton offense appears to suffer considerably when it comes to "in the paint" stats. Making matters worse is Kyle Rowley's uncertain status after fracturing a bone in his left foot.

All of this means that if the Cats are to improve on last season, most of the gains will be seen on the defensive end. Carmody has some built-in benefits here, however, as his zone consistently creates turnovers. Even when they went 8-22, this was an elite team in terms of getting opponents to cough up the ball. John Shurna's statline indicates he can be a capable defender, and Craig Moore's absence will ensure that he gets a lot of minutes (given Shurna's offensive abilities). Beyond him, Northwestern fans hope that Rowley's defensive presence includes more blocked shots, and less blocked forearms.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, someone is going to have to start pulling down rebounds. In Big Ten play, opponents grabbed bearly 40% of the available boards on the offensive end. In other words, the average Big Ten team became Michigan State on the glass when playing against Northwestern.


The above graph tracks the offensive rebounding of Northwestern's conference opponents as well as the offensive rebounding of Michigan State. Over the past five years, it's been a coin flip as to whether NU opponents or MSU will have the better offensive rebounding season. Given the amount of time Izzo & his squad put into going after boards, that's a very bad thing. Bill Carmody is certainly aware of the problem, but so far he's been short on solutions. In any case, defensive rebounding figures to play a big part in whether or not Northwestern goes to its first Dance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Northwestern Recap of the 08-09 Season

For about four days, Northwestern fans got a taste of what it feels like to be excited about basketball in March. On March 4, the Wildcats upended Purdue (ranked in the top 20 at the time) in West Lafayette. The win pulled the Cats' record to 17-11, and 8-9 in conference play. They were staring down a matchup against Ohio State in Columbus for the regular season finale, and the Buckeyes were coming off a near loss to Iowa. During this four day span, I wonder how many purple sweatshirts made their journey from the back of the closet. Heck, I'm pretty sure I even saw a couple of Vedran Vukusic jerseys in Chicago. I can't blame the fans for being a bit shy about their team -- it's now common knowledge that Northwestern has never before been to the NCAA Tournament. And they really did come so close last season.

But unfortunately, Northwestern didn't win another game after Purdue. They lost at Ohio State, got trounced by Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, and Tulsa finally put them out of their misery in the NIT. It's a sad ending to what was a pretty nice story.

The turnaround from 8-22 to 17-14 consisted of a lot of factors. And give Coach Bill Carmody credit, because many of them were his doing. One of the offseason projects from Carmody was clearly to get taller. Northwestern ranked 267th in Effective Height in 2007-08, but they improved to 18th in the country last year. Carmody welcomed five freshmen last season, all of whom were at least 6-5. Three of them instantly became the tallest guys on the team. Here are a few areas where that height helped:


Northwestern 07-08
Northwestern 08-09
Offensive Rebounding %
20.6
27.5
FTA/FGA
23.8
29.4
Defensive Rebounding %
62.5
64.0
Block %
7.0
9.8

That's across-the-board improvement in all of the areas we would expect height to play a major factor. Well, except one...


Northwestern 07-08
Northwestern 08-09
Opponent Block %
12.0
13.4

Geez, just how many of Michael Thompson's layups are getting swatted?

Mind you, Northwestern wasn't exactly good in any of these categories last year. But they were a cut above "horrific," which is where they were two years ago. Other than those improvements, this was largely the same team. They shot lots of 3s, took care of the ball, and created tons of turnovers with their zone defense. On an individual level, Kevin Coble and Craig Moore provided the bulk of the scoring. Thompson was steady and efficient at the point guard spot, and freshman John Shurna showed flashes.

That said, there's a window here, and it's closing. The Cats lose Moore from last year's team, and after this season they'll lose Coble. After that happens, there might not be enough talent left on the roster to make another run at the Dance. I'll explore Northwestern's chances for this season tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Preview of the Ohio State 09-10 Season

08-09 Overall Record: 22-11
08-09 Conference Record: 10-8 (T-4th)
08-09 Conference Efficiency Margin: +0.02 (5th)
Percent of Returning Minutes: 88.8
Percent of Returning Freshman Minutes: 17.6

Last year, Ohio State was arguably the most talented team in the conference, with seven RSCI top 100 players on the roster. But the pieces didn't fit very well together, and more significantly, that talent was very inexperienced. This year, the team is less talented ("only" 5 RSCI top 100 players remain), but more experienced. The pieces, however, still don't fit very well.

We predicted last year that the Buckeyes would struggle with turnovers due to a lack of a true ballhandler, a prediction that held true. Unfortunately, a steady point guard has not materialized in Columbus, so turnovers will still be an issue this season. However, everyone else returned, and the overall numbers should get better, if still a liability. The point guard responsibilities will likely again fall to Evan Turner, who did an admirable job considering he's ideally suited for the small forward position. For most teams, that situation would result in disaster. For Ohio State, the result was an NCAA Tournament berth, which was due in no small part to Mr. Turner's skills. Simply put, there is no better one-on-one player than Turner in the conference, and probably all of college basketball right now. He's quick and skilled enough to easily drive past big men, and he's tall and strong enough to shoot over smaller players. The "21" number on the back of his jersey is appropriate, considering that it usually takes 2 men to guard the 1 Mr. Turner.

All of that attention devoted to stopping Turner opened things up for the rest of the Buckeye offense, one of the better shooting teams in the country. The 57.2 eFG for Thad Matta's team easily outpaced the league. The difference between Ohio State and the next best shooting team (Northwestern) was greater than the difference between Northwestern and the worst shooting team in the conference (Minnesota).

To be fair, a lot of that shooting came on a result of a play that has been summed up as "Mongo Go To Rim." There really isn't enough information out there to know if Mongo's replacement, Zisis Sarikopoulos (can't wait to see the 10 point font on that jersey), is equally adept with the skill of catch-ball-and-make-go-through-orange-circle, but based on his statline at UAB, we can probably expect a less aggressive player than Mullens, and probably less efficient at scoring when he does shoot.

That's not too much of a problem, however, considering how many other options are present in Columbus. David Lighty returns for his final season after missing most of last year with an injury, though his presence is mostly felt on the defensive end. Jon Diebler regained his shooting touch after a disastrous freshman season, making 46% of his 3-point attempts in conference play last year. However, the biggest piece of the puzzle returning alongside Turner is last year's Freshman of the Year, William Buford. Though he didn't get a lot of credit for it, Buford was every bit as efficient as, say, Eric Gordon was a year before:


Gordon
Buford
Offensive Rating
109.1
108.1
Shot Percentage
28.4
27.6

Although they were different players style-wise (Buford is much more of a pure shooter than Gordon was), the efficiency and usage rates were quite similar. But there is one big difference -- Gordon never returned for his sophomore season (not that you could blame him, given the NBA millions and the circus in Bloomington at the time). Buford figures to improve on his freshman numbers, and he and Turner comprise the best duo in the Big Ten. In short, when this team doesn't turn the ball over, they will be extremely difficult to stop.

Defensively, however, Ohio State was mediocre, and this one I pin on Matta. For three seasons in a row, Matta has had two outstanding shotblockers in his starting rotation. Over that same time period, however, the defense has allowed opponents to make plenty of three point shots. That's excusable -- every defense has a weakness. What I don't understand is why Matta installs a zone defense that encourages opponents to play to OSU's weakness, rather than its strength. This season, Ohio State will again feature outstanding shotblocking talent. Whether or not the Buckeyes get any mileage out of it will depend on the scheme Matta goes with. And there are signs that some changes might be coming.

Regardless, because of this team's offensive ability, the only way this team misses the NCAA Tournament is if Evan Turner goes down (knock on that wood, Buckeye fans). Frankly, the talent and experience is there for this team to compete for the Big Ten title.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ohio State Recap of the 08-09 Season

Recapping Ohio State's 2008-09 season is a matter of perspective:

Glass Half Empty: Thad Matta again enters the season with a freshman center after last year's freshman declares for the NBA draft. Without the steady hand of Jamar Butler, the Buckeyes struggle all season along with turnovers. The closest thing to a point guard on the roster transfers after becoming frustrated with his playing time. OSU's most experienced player, David Lighty, sustains an injury and misses the rest of the season. West Virginia pounds the Buckeyes at home. In January, Illinois defeats Ohio State for the first time in 4 years, and in February, they beat them again in Columbus. Defensively, OSU ranks behind Penn State. The Buckeyes sweat it on the bubble before Siena bounces them in the first round of the Tournament. Thad Matta does not recruit a single player for the 2009 class. For the third season in a row, the Buckeyes lose their freshman center to the NBA draft.

Glass Half Full: Thad Matta again enters the season with a McDonald's All-American at center. With do-it-all phenom Evan Turner leading the offensive attack, the Buckeyes jump out of the gate with 9 wins to open the season, including impressive victories over Miami, Notre Dame, and Butler. OSU continues its success in Big Ten season, going 10-8 as freshman William Buford puts on a show. Buford ends up as the conference's freshman of the year, spearheading an impressive shooting display. The Buckeyes advance to the title game of the Big Ten Tournament, and are the last team to defeat Michigan State before the NCAA Championship. Miraculously, Evan Turner postpones his payday to return for his junior season in Columbus. Team cancer B.J. Mullens leaves the team, but everyone else comes back.

The real story is some combination of the two. Whether or not the season is a success depends on your expectations, though I doubt very many in Columbus are clamoring for Matta to leave anytime soon. The guy just recruits too well. In the three classes spanning 2006-08, Matta recruited 11 top 100 RSCI players. Imagine a roster with B.J. Mullens as the backup to the backup center behind Greg Oden. A team with Evan Turner, DaQuan Cook, David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler at the wings. With Mike Conley backed up by Noopy Crater at the point, and with Dallas Lauderdale as a defensive stopper down low. Frankly, that's an NBA team, and that's been the problem: 5 of those 11 are currently in the NBA. Another one transferred. And there's the rub with recruiting top talent, it doesn't stick around for long.

That makes Matta somewhat a victim of his own success. By recruiting superstars, he increases the likelihood he's going to have to continuously overhaul his roster. And despite the success of the 2006-07 team, most freshmen-dominated teams do not go on deep tournament runs. The attrition that Matta virtually guarantees himself also limits the success of his teams.

And that's why Evan Turner's frustration was so important. In fact, one might argue that Siena's upset for Ohio State last year was actually a good thing. After the game, a frustrated Turner remarked that he felt he had unfinished business to take care of, and that the NBA would have to wait for at least another season. Turner is the best player in Matta's tenure that chose to stay in school, and if the Buckeyes had made it past the first weekend, that might not have happened. Suddenly, the team with the revolving door returns 89% of their minutes. And the portion that they lose (B.J. Mullens) will be replaced by another highly-regarded 7-0 newcomer. Some habits are hard to break.