Big Ten Season Preview

Josh: OK, back again. The summer flew, and yet basketball seems like such a long time ago. But here we go!

Every time I write the previews, I go back and look at the computer preseason rankings and find at least a couple of surprises. The one I can't seem to wrap my head around is Wisconsin. For years, I was a Wisconsin apologist—mostly based on Bo Ryan—but I thought the team would finally trip up last year, and it did. Vindication! Yet, the computers see this as a top-25 team just a year later. Sure, there are sophomore leaps (Davison and Reuvers especially) to consider, but that's a 50-rank jump, all based on returning players. Maryland, Iowa, and Penn State each brought back slightly more sophomore minutes the past year, and the results were:

  • Maryland went from Kenpom 46 to 39 (caveat of Jackson going down)
  • Iowa 71 to 88 (caveat of Jok leaving)
  • Penn State 87 to 19

Of those, Penn State sure looks analogous so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. But there's also the 2015 to 2016 Michigan transition which looks similar (74 to 50). I think my hangup is I have to really squint to see significant improvements to be made outside Davison and Reuvers, but then again, your model seems to love D'Mitrik Trice coming back from injury. Is he the key to the season?

Bart: Wisconsin is definitely a conundrum, and I get the skepticism. The big question—which I discuss more in my Wisconsin team preview—is whether last year was a "blip" or a sign of something more permanent as the old Ryan magic fades away. The human brain model of projection, which is a good one, is basically:

Last year's performance - lost players + new players + returners' improvement

Since Wisconsin lost no players and brings in no expected contributors, that model boils down to last year as a baseline (not good) plus however much you think the guys returning will improve. That model is going to be hesitant to project a big jump.

Computer models typically consider more than just last year for the baseline. Team-based models, like Ken Pomeroy's, usually use the last three years or so, with more emphasis on last year. That's one big reason the computers are projecting a jump: they're programmed to see last year as an outlier.

My offensive projections are actually not team-based, though—they are built ground up from the player projections, following the methods of Dan Hanner. (This is a lot harder than team-based projections, and probably not any better—at least when a hack like me is behind them—but it's more fun.) And they still project a big improvement. What gives?

You hit on the highlights: returning freshmen minutes and a good projection for Trice combine to power an expected return to form. It also helps that they have Happ as a possession-ending monster, so no one else is projected to be outside their comfort zone on offense. On Trice, his freshmen year numbers are part of the projection as well. When you consider that he had a 106 ORtg on 18% usage in decent minutes as a freshman, the projection for 109.5 and 18.5 looks pretty reasonable. In other words, the system sees last year as a blip for Trice.

I could go on and on about Wisconsin, so I'll just stop (for now). One other interesting aspect of the preseason Big Ten buzz is the essentially unanimous anointing (by both humans and computers) of Michigan State as the best team in the conference, despite losing two lottery picks from last year's ultimately disappointing team. Are you buying the hype?

Josh: I find myself doing a lot of "on the one hand, on the other hand" with the Spartans. On the one hand, this is kind of a 3-person team. I don't mean to diminish the talents of McQuaid and Bingham Jr., but anyone not named Winston, Langford, or Ward will need a permission slip to shoot the ball.

On the other hand, that's  a really good trio. All three have a very reasonable chance of ending up on the First Team. We tend to dismiss Langford among that group, but he had a higher shot percentage than either Ward or Winston in Big Ten play last year. His overall numbers might have disappointed slightly, but all of that stems from his ghastly 38.5 percent on 2s. The year prior, as a freshman with a healthy sample size, he converted 56 percent of his 2s. I suspect he lands in the middle this season, and that would make him quite the weapon.

Back to the first hand—Tom Izzo likes his depth, whether or not it makes sense. I've documented the Nick Ward situation at length, but neither Winston nor Langford played 70 percent of the available minutes in conference play last year, which, given the delta between those guys and their backups, was equally puzzling. The fact that Winston might be the only available ballhandler is also a concerning situation, because that's not really his strength.

But, finally, I think Izzo tends to do his best coaching jobs with his more limited rosters. I do not have an explanation for that, but there always seems to be some massive unexpected performance leap right when Michigan State needs it (Travis Trice, the exemplar case). The other thing working in the Spartans' favor is that if you look around the Big Ten searching for a dominant team, I think you're going to come up empty. Every team has serious question marks, save Rutgers—I think you know what you're getting there.

Another team getting some conference title talk is Indiana. There's talent, to be sure, and if we knew we were getting a good version of De'Ron Davis I might call them the favorite. How big is this year for the Hoosiers?

Bart: I would say every year is a big year for Indiana—it's Indiana—except that Tom Crean somehow convinced them to accept three years of ineptitude. Archie's not going to get the same runway; Hoosier fans are expecting liftoff now. They know Langford is likely one-and-done, and even before he committed they were expecting very big things out of Juwan Morgan. They're expecting to skip the bubble year in the rebuilding process and go straight to a contending year.

Will they? I think it really depends on whether Langford is a transcendent player or just a really good freshman. Many are expecting transcendence, but that's a tall task for a freshman. Even if he does live up to the hype, Big Ten teams that rely on freshmen for scoring have been a mixed bag over the last ten years or so:

All of these teams were at least .500 in conference play, and many contended for the title. But, for what it's worth, none were on a team that made a big tourney run. I don't want to make any grand theory out of it—the point is really just that freshmen five-star recruits are always superstars until we see them play. Relatedly, I took some flak from IU fans for the projections that Langford would score "only" 14-ish points per game. But as you can see that's pretty decent company.

As with Wisconsin, the other nagging question with Indiana is coaching. Miller has proved he can close in recruiting, which frankly could be enough to have phenomenal success at Indiana. But Tom Crean had some pretty phenomenal success, too—when he had the horses. I'm not yet convinced that Miller will maximize the wins of a team that has some holes (something Crean clearly could not). But he can go a long way to convincing me of that by contending this year.

The team I am probably most down on compared to the consensus is Purdue. Carsen Edwards is going to have to carry quite the load if they are going to live up to top 25 billing. Think he can manage it?

Josh: Edwards is a great player who will probably win the Player of the Year award, partly because I think Happ's consumption will be undervalued. Edwards has been a consistent 40 percent from 3-point range, and last year turned himself into a bit of a point guard while taking it to the basket more. He does not shy from the spotlight, as evinced by his willingness to lead his team in usage despite the presence of four seniors in the starting lineup. I suspect he'll keep eating as long as he gets fed.

And that might be the problem, in that I do not see any especially appealing candidates to take the fork away, except Evan Boudreaux, who is making a large leap from the Ivy League. Your model sees a 28 percent usage for Edwards, which is slightly down from last year, despite some high-usage departures. I'm thinking he might make a run at 35 percent. And as Happ knows all too well, efficiency pays dearly for usage increases, especially at the top end.

The game plan, night in and night out, for Purdue opponents will be to make someone else beat you. They'll need someone else besides Boudreaux to step up. Eastern has an interesting skillset, and was a solid recruit, but he was raw last year to say the least.

Moving on to the likely non-contenders for a minute here, which approach do you think turns out better for a couple of teams rebuilding from a similar place—Illinois' slash an burn approach to the roster, or Iowa's retention model?

Bart: First, I agree that the projection of Edwards' usage is too low—it's mainly being driven by a too-high projection of Boudreaux's usage. I do think it's reasonable that those two will combine for 55, but 35/20 is probably more likely than the projected 28/27.

Good question on  Iowa / Illinois. Maybe a copout, but I think both are probably taking the best route for their circumstance. Underwood is trying to remake a program. He's a man with a plan. Is it a good plan? Maybe, maybe not. But he's not sitting back and making do. He's bringing in his guys and culling the guys who don't fit. Underwood has a distinct style, and it certainly won't work with guys who don't fit.

On the flip side, Fran has a track record at Iowa. He's had some good teams, so there's reason to believe that he knows what he's doing there. Last year they were exceptionally young, with what appears to be a solid (offensive) core in Bohannon, Cook, Garza, etc. It's fair to question whether they can be competent on defense, but Fran's more experienced teams have been decent on defense. So the blueprint for Iowa is to get some firepower in, let it mature and cohere into a team that at least knows what it's doing on the defensive end, and flame out in the tourney. (Sorry, cheap shot.) But that might not happen till next year with this crew, which still has just one senior in the expected rotation.

Two more expected contenders left to discuss: Michigan and Nebraska. I did a little B1G wins over/under exercise on Twitter, and was surprised that 84% of voters took the under on 13 wins for Nebraska. Was I really that off with that line?

Josh: Well, it could be a couple of things working against that line. First and foremost is that we're now on a 20-game conference schedule, not 18. So, 13-7 is much more achievable than 13-5, and maybe not everyone accounted for that. But I do think it's more likely than not that Nebraska falls short of that. For one, you can make that claim about Nebraska in any season and your hit rate will be very good. Second, there's the scheduling to account for. Last year, the Huskers had single plays against Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, and Michigan State (and Northwestern). They retain some of those single plays for this year (Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern), but overall it's a more difficult average opponent.

Still, the 10-10 mark the computers are seeing feels light. I'd probably put the O/U at 11.5 or so. They have a great top-4 in the rotation, but that's only if Isaiah Roby decides to be more assertive. But it doesn't take long for Miles to reach to his freshmen to fill minutes, and that's likely to be a significant dropoff.

Michigan will be interesting to watch, for a couple of reasons. First, we'll get another data point in the debate over whether a coach can learn defense several decades into a successful career that's largely ignored it. Second, I'm curious whether this team's offensive identity centers around Charles Matthews, or whether it's more of an ensemble cast. Matthews is underappreciated but I have little doubt that the Wolverines have a higher upside if his usage is kept well below 30. Trey Burke was the last real possession-consuming monster in Ann Arbor, and that turned out pretty well. But Matthews almost certainly does not have that ability. Shooters shoot, though.

Who has a better shot at the Dance in your view—Ohio State or Maryland?

Bart: I expect them both to be on the bubble. Maryland probably has more talent, but Holtmann and Ohio State are more likely to wring wins out of the talent they have. Put it together, and I'd put them both 50/50 at this point.

But I do give a slight edge to Ohio State because of its schedule. Not because it's easier, but because they'll likely have better chances to pick up the all-important "Quadrant I" wins. The Buckeyes have four winnable non-con games that could turn out to be Q1: at Cincinnati, at Creighton, versus UCLA, and home against Syracuse. The only sure Q1 game on Maryland's schedule is at home against Virginia, which figures to be a tall task. They also play Seton Hall at home and Loyola Chicago on a neutral court, which might qualify.

If Ohio State can win two of those four games, and win all their buy games, they'll probably be in good position to get into the tourney with 10 Big Ten wins. Maryland might need to do better unless they can beat Virginia.

Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State ... Do you see a sleeper in that bunch?

Josh: Probably not, but that answer's no fun. If I were to pick the most likely sleeper, I'd go with Penn State. Minnesota just has too much dead weight on offense, and Curry just got hurt again. We've yet to see a Richard Pitino team worth a damn defensively that did not heavily feature Reggie Lynch.

Northwestern is going to be relying on transfers, one of them making a large jump in competition level, and there's not much talent that will be surrounding them. Nance would have to have a big impact for the Cats to do much damage.

Penn State has Lamar Stevens, who has size, a recruiting pedigree, and a willingness to do a bit of everything on the court.

Usage eFG DR% ARate TORate Blk% 2P% 3PM/3PA
Player A 19.1 49.7 17.3 5.3 13.4 5.1 52.1 15/51
Player B 24.3 53.7 14.8 8.3 16.2 3.6 54.7 17/51

Both of these guys were sophomores (this is conference play only). One was 6-7, the other 6-8. You know one of them is Stevens (the bottom one), the other one is Keita Bates-Diop. Now, the caveats—I'm not saying Stevens will turn into that kind of player. And KBD was not great until two seasons after this, though we'll never know how his junior year would have played out. I only note this because there's a version of this universe where Lamar Stevens is the Big Ten Player of the Year either this year or the next. And wherever that universe is, he'll look very similar in retrospect to the Normal, Illinois product.

So I guess I'm saying Penn State is my sleeper because I can accommodate the possibility that we are living in the Elite Lamar Stevens universe.

OK, home stretch here. In my Rutgers preview, I made the fascinating and completely new argument that there's a lot to fix with the Rutgers basketball program. But you always gotta start somewhere, and my suggestion was that the Knights needed to shoot more 3s. I don't even care whether or not they go in. They just need to start playing the same game as everyone else.

But what about you—you take what might be the hardest job in college basketball, what do you do first?

Bart: Shooting more threes is what everybody else is doing, Josh. Rutgers has to forge its own identity. Where others zig, Rutgers must zag. Or maybe even come up with something totally different, like zug.

In a sport where three-point attempts are increasing and offensive rebounds are disappearing, Steve Pikiell has so far stuck to his guns and focused his offensive game-plan around sending guys to crash the glass to collect missed mid-range jumpers. That's right, Pikiell's teams have been practitioners of that "lost art" of the mid-range game. Last year, according to my play-by-play parsing, Rutgers shot 40.2% of its shots in no-man's land (inside the arc, but not close to the rim). That was good for 344th in the country (or 8th, depending how you look at it!), last in the Big Ten by a huge margin, and a full five percentage points more than any other high-major team. Corey Sanders alone took 241 mid-range shots.

I sort of respect this, at least the offensive rebounding part. Not respect in a "I think this will work" way, but respect in a "hey, go down swinging—you do you" way. It worked for Pikiell at Stony Brook, where he had remarkable success his last five seasons. It's always possible that there's room for an outlier strategy to have some success—a style that few play or practice against, that might allow you to recruit to traits that other teams devalue.

But ultimately it seems likely that Pikiell will end up replicating his Stony Brook teams too closely, the best of which topped out at 60th at Kenpom. If they can show some improvement this year and get into the top 100, he'll probably get another couple years to see if there's any room for a throwback style in the at-large field. (Spoiler alert: there won't be.)

I think we've done our duty by at least mentioning all 20 or so Big Ten teams. Time to put it on the line and project the final standings. Having considered this for a full five seconds, here goes:

Rk Team Record
1. Michigan St. 15-5*
2. Michigan 13-7*
3. Wisconsin 13-7*
4. Nebraska 13-7*
5. Indiana 12-8*
6. Purdue 11-9*
7. Ohio St. 11-9*
8. Penn St. 9-11
9. Iowa 9-11
10. Maryland 9-11
11. Illinois 8-12
12. Northwestern 7-13
13. Minnesota 6-14
14. Rutgers 4-16

*Tourney teams

One crazy prediction: neither Happ nor Edwards wins conference player of the year.

Any final thoughts or crazy predictions?

Josh: At least two teams will be filling coaching vacancies this offseason! Is that even crazy? I don't know, but I'm sticking to it. OK, enough talk, time for the tip.