Early returns

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

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

Michigan State

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

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

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

Indiana

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

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

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

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

Purdue

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The Gavitt Games are a very welcome addition to the non-conference slate. The atmosphere when P.J. Thompson hit a halfcourt shot at the halftime buzzer in Mackey to tie Villanova is not something often seen in mid-November.

This one's for Harambe. pic.twitter.com/3Xwk41S1ID

— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) November 15, 2016

But ultimately, the Boilermakers fell short. Still, I remain bullish on Purdue. For one, I'm not sure there's anyone playing better basketball in college than Caleb Swanigan. The forward is shooting over 60 percent from 2 and 3, and he currently has more free throw attempts than two-point attempts. Oh, and he's hitting 75 percent of those. Also, I should mentioned he's rebounding everything at both ends of the floor, and currently has more assists than anyone on Nebraska (written just before the Huskers' tilt with Virginia Tech was in the books).

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

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

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

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

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

But the halfcourt offense is a mess as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota
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You guys, Minnesota might be pretty OK.

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

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

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

Maryland

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

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

The problem, however, has been the supporting cast that was already on Mark Turgeon's roster. Michael Cekovsky has had his moments (though he's still a bull in a china shop on defense), but it's been dismal beyond that. For Maryland to get back to the NCAA Tournament, that needs to change. I can't imagine this close game magic will continue all season. If it does, I quit.
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Nebraska
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I suspect Tim Miles doesn't really mean it, but if he does, then I feel bad for his team. The Cornhuskers are currently the 2nd most protective of their possessions of any team in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Coach is telling everyone "turnovers are overrated."

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

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

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

Wisconsin
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At this point, it's safe to say Bo Ryan was no tree, and Greg Gard is no apple.

I believe Gard already has more games with offensive TO% of at least 24 than Bo did in his final 5+ seasons (11-15).

— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) November 21, 2016

It's one thing when Rick Barnes is forcing turnovers, and perhaps you're willing to excuse Georgetown as well. But when it's Creighton? Chicago State? Central Arkansas?

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

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

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

It's a brave new era, Badger fans.

Rutgers
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Rutgers is undefeated!

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

Opponents are shooting a measly 37% on 2s!

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

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


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

  • good
  • young
  • improving

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

Oh, except Illinois. All kinds of bad there.