Big Ten Wonk
Friday, November 05, 2004
Wonk didn’t really need another reason but this sure helps
Yesterday Wonk waved around some free-lance editorializing by indefatigable Indiana beat writer Terry Hutchens of the Indianapolis Star to support my low expectations for the Hoosiers this year.

More of the same, only this time it’s spade-work done by Mr. Hutchens: coach Mike Davis is reportedly high on a sharp-shooting 5’8” walk-on.

And that's just not where you want your program to be.

Missing the point
This time a year ago Michigan State was ranked #3 in the nation in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today preseason polls. Only Jason Andreas (2.8 ppg) and Rashi Johnson (0.8) are gone from last year’s roster. And with the addition of freshman point guard Drew Neitzel, one could make a case that this edition of the Spartans has better talent than last year’s team—provided Neitzel plays to the level of his advance advertising. So why in the world are the Spartans getting no preseason respect?

It’s not, contrary to popular belief, for lack of an experienced point guard. The beloved national championship 2000 Spartans led by point guard and fabled floor general Mateen Cleaves had a 1.06 assist/turnover ratio. The maligned 2004 Spartans with point-guard-by-committee had a 1.00 a/t ratio.

As if anticipating Wonk’s devastating statistical analysis, Minneapolis Star-Tribune scribe Jeff Shelman, in a handy here’s-Neitzel piece for, makes a fairly persuasive argument that the Spartans have suffered not so much from poor play at the point as from the lost production they would have otherwise had from Chris Hill and Alan Anderson. Still, Wonk begs to differ. Shelman assumes that what ails the Spartans is production on offense.

But Tom Izzo’s teams have never been especially productive on offense—with the glaring and teachable exception of last year, when they were first in the Big Ten in scoring, field goal percentage, and three-point field goal percentage, and second in the conference in assists (see below for a statistical appreciation of an underappreciated year on offense). And as for lost opportunities with players forced to play point, Hill, granted, has had some great games at 2-guard (the 34-point explosion in a losing effort against Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in 2003 comes to mind) but let us speak plainly here….

The show-me attitude being taken toward Michigan State this preseason can be traced to the fact that after last season their two best players, Hill and Paul Davis, are widely believed to be soft. And I mean Lute Olson soft. Here is the statistic that Izzo has probably printed in block letters over the players’ entrance to the court at the Breslin Center:

Last season Michigan State tied for third in the Big Ten in rebounding margin.

Wonk rubs his eyes in disbelief at that sentence. But Wonk wrote it so it must be so.

Ask Pedro Martinez and he’ll tell you to just call Wisconsin the Spartans’ Daddy: no active Michigan State player has ever won against the Badgers. (The last victory came in 2001, with Tim Bograkos watching from the bench in street clothes as a redshirt freshman.) Last year Wisconsin beat Michigan State no fewer than three times: home-and-home and in the Big Ten tournament semis. Yes, two of those losses were by a total of six points—they’re still L’s.

The Spartans have also been outscored 145-91 in their last two games at Illinois (reason enough to thank their lucky stars they don’t have to go to Champaign this season). They’ve dropped two games at home each of the last three seasons. And when last we saw the Spartans they were being run out of the gym by a Nevada team that, true, went to the Sweet 16 but that also lost during the year to the likes of Boise State and Rice.

Bottom line: Neitzel’s most important contribution can be as a leader. Even with their shortcomings on the boards and in their hearts, Michigan State was one Hill free throw away (or, if you like, one no-call in the Illinois-Ohio State game away) from a piece of the Big Ten title. Who knows? Maybe all this loaded team needs is just one Kirk Hinrich-type to return to the good life: conference title, a 1-seed, and playing beyond the first weekend.

Or maybe they’ll just miss like last year. Wonk does not yet know. Neither does Tom Izzo.

BONUS statistical note on the 2004 Spartans
Michigan State as a team shot .434 from three-point range in conference play. (Second place in the category, by instructive contrast, went to Iowa, which shot “only” .395.) An individual who did that would have been the sixth-best three-point shooter in the conference last year. This level of shooting, extended over the entire year, would have been unequalled nationally; Birmingham Southern led the nation at .430.

Michigan State as a team shot .522 from the floor in conference play. (Second place in the category, by instructive contrast, went to Illinois, which shot “only” .471.) An individual who did that would have been the tenth-best shooter in the conference last year. This level of shooting, extended over the entire year, would have been unequalled nationally; Oklahoma State led the nation at .513.

And here is Wonk’s favorite: Michigan State came within just five field goals of making more shots than any other team while attempting fewer shots than any other team. One would be hard pressed to define efficiency on offense more precisely than that. The Spartans needed only 778 attempts to convert 406 field goals in conference play last season. Illinois, by contrast, put up 873 shots to record 411 makes. In other words, the Illini, no slouches in efficiency on offense last year, had to jack up 12 percent more shots just to record an additional 1 percent in makes.

All of the above leads Wonk, who never makes a prediction, to make a prediction:

Michigan State’s numbers on offense—definitely in efficiency terms and likely in absolute terms—will be down this year from last year, Neitzel or no Neitzel.

Last season’s torrid shooting covered a multitude of sins. The point is not that the Spartans will have fewer wins but that they will need to come up with a different formula to stay in the first division of the Big Ten. One piece of the formula is already in place: a favorable schedule, one that does not include a game at Illinois. This gives the Spartans a slight but real advantage over the Illini before the first game is played.

But what about the turnovers?
OK, Michigan State suffered a fair number of turnovers last year. Only Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa had more in conference play. Surely a steady hand at the point will help here, right?

Maybe. The relationship’s not as straightforward as we think. Last year Iowa, led by savvy responsible floor general Jeff Horner, led the league in turnovers. Nor, of course, can all of Michigan State’s turnovers be attributed to poor backcourt play. The Chris Hill-Alan Anderson composite point guard averaged 2.2 turnovers per game in conference play last year. But then big man Paul Davis averaged 2.5 and no one’s scanning the horizon for a savior to replace him. Hill and Anderson may even turn the ball over more often this year in the act of trying to be scoring 2-guards or wings than they did in the act of trying to run the offense. Scorers turn the ball over more often than role players.

But the main point is simply this: improving your turnover stats is not necessarily going to translate into more wins. Last year the Spartans actually turned the ball over more in their conference wins (average 13.7 per game) than in their conference losses (13.2).

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Wonk reads 'em so you don't have to!

Indiana defeated Division II Bellarmine 101-64 in an exhibition last night in Bloomington. New regulations from the NCAA forbid traditional non-NCAA exhibition opponents from past Novemebers, such as “Athletes in Action.” (What, Wonk always wondered, did Athletes in Action do the other 50 weeks of the year?)

Located in Louisville, Kentucky, Bellarmine apparently inculcates a mom-like stone-cold zeal for safety in its students, judging by the picture of the stern co-ed with safety goggles on their home page. (Keep refreshing ‘til it comes through. It’s worth it: she’s warily eyeing a spiral notebook that could leap up and poke her eye out.)

Tim Bograkos is scrappy as all get-out, injured freshman Goran Suton is weight-conscious, and Tom Izzo is pondering his redshirt options, according to today’s miscellany in the Lansing State Journal.

Wisconsin “has become a basketball school in a basketball state,” sayeth Dale Hoffman’s column in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Nobody’s won more Big Ten games over the last three years than the Badgers,” observes Hoffman. True enough. Equally true: “Nobody’s won more Big Ten games over the last three years than Illinois.” Both teams have won 35 Big Ten games over the last three years. Mr. Hoffman has a future as a presidential press aide.

(Wisconsin’s not a true basketball school. Their football team’s too good. Illinois, on the other hand….)

Illinois plays an exhibition tonight against Division II Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (links here and here). Coach Bruce Weber is reportedly pleading with freshmen Shaun Pruitt and Calvin Brock to redshirt. If they play, even in an exhibition, the redshirt’s gone, unless a medical necessity arises.

Minnesota coach Dan Monson, conversely, has decided this season he will go redshirtless, if that’s a word.

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