Big Ten Wonk
Monday, November 14, 2005
Dear Penn State: We set up this intervention because we care....
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on the ever-changing cast of faces and never-changing result (OK, 2001 notwithstanding) that is Penn State basketball, proud members of the Big Ten since 1990....

Last year
7-23 overall, 1-15 in conference.

Geary Claxton (12.7 PPG, 1.02 PPWS, 11.6 reb. pct., 2.0 assists per 100 possessions)
Travis Parker (11.4 PPG, 1.14 PPWS, 11.3 reb. pct., 3.5 a/100 poss.)
Danny Morrissey (7.7 PPG, 1.05 PPWS, 6.2 reb. pct., 3.2 a/100 poss.)
Mike Walker (6.3 PPG, 0.99 PPWS, 3.1 reb. pct., 5.6 a/100 poss.)
Ben Luber (6.1 PPG, 0.88 PPWS, 4.1 reb. pct., 7.4 a/100 poss.)
Brandon Hassell (1.7 PPG)

David Jackson (6-3 G, JC transfer)
Joonas Suotamo (6-9 F, Finland)
Jamelle Cornley (6-6 F, Columbus, OH)
Milos Bogetic (6-10 F, Serbia and Montenegro)
Maxwell Dubois (6-4 G, Hollywood, FL)
Nikola Obradovic (6-5 G, Serbia and Montenegro)

Aaron Johnson (11.8 PPG, 0.99 PPWS, 17.9 reb. pct., 2.5 a/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2005-06
"Making the 10th-place team look good by comparison since 1990."

What we think we know in November
To address a problem one must first understand its magnitude.

First, the good news. Penn State did fine last year on the boards: slightly above average on their offensive rebounding and just a tad below average on the defensive glass. So the rebounding posted by Ed DeChellis's men was equivalent to that of an average Big Ten team.

Now, the bad news. Aaron Johnson is gone--last year's leading rebounder transferred to New Mexico (and promptly got kicked out of the program). So rebounding is now a question mark.

And then there's the really bad news: where there are no question marks there are exclamation points--in the wrong direction.

Look beyond rebounding and Penn State's failure last year was pervasive, systemic, and extreme: in every one of six major non-rebounding statistical categories on both sides of the ball, the Nittany Lions' performance was more than one standard deviation worse than the mean. (To put that number in perspective: last year in the Big Ten as a whole, there were only 17 instances where a team did anything more than a standard deviation worse than the mean--PSU alone accounted for six of those 17 instances.)

Penn State's shooting and ball-handling were catastrophic--so much so that, even with above-average offensive rebounding, their offense was easily the conference's worst. On the other side of the ball their field goal defense and inability to force turnovers were pitiful--so much so that, even with almost-average defensive rebounding, their defense was easily the conference's worst.

To sum it all up: worst offense in the Big Ten by far. And a defense that was worse still.

Such is the challenge confronting Ed DeChellis. It took Penn State years to get to this point and it's not going to be solved in one season--certainly not this season.

So what's to be done?

BONUS pro bono counseling from Wonk!
Management guru David Allen has built a nice career for himself by propounding a beguilingly simple theory. Even the most daunting and seemingly complex task, Allen says, can be broken down into manageable proportions by simply posing the following question: what is the next action that is required?

If I'm Ed DeChellis, I look first and foremost to improve my defense, for two reasons: 1) last year the defense was even worse than the offense; and 2) given the talent in the program right now, playing good defense is a much more realistic goal than playing good offense.

Let's dispel one misconception right at the top: playing better D does not mean slowing the games down; in fact, in this instance, it means speeding them up. The Nittany Lions' field goal defense is terrible--DeChellis can and should work to improve that, of course, but in the meantime it would be nice if the opposing team simply attempted fewer field goals and gave up more turnovers. The way to do that is to push the tempo.

Sound counterintuitive? To any skeptics I say: lassen Sie nach Minneapolis kommen. Minnesota had both the fastest-paced team in the Big Ten last year and its best defense. (Or for that matter look at the ACC: North Carolina had that conference's fastest-paced team last year and its best defense.) When you push the tempo, you will, it's true, give up some easy baskets in transition.

In defense (har!) of giving up easy baskets
And giving up easy baskets in transition is traditionally the deal-killer when coaches ponder pushing the tempo. But yours truly, the inveterate iconoclast, stands here before you to ask: easy baskets? So what?

Again, look at Dan Monson's Golden Gophers last year. Minnesota unquestionably gave up easy baskets at an above-average rate, as demonstrated by the fact that they ranked eighth in the league in opponent 2FG pct.

But the Gophers more than made up for that with very strong perimeter D (first in the league in opponent 3FG pct.) and, of course, by taking the ball away at a prodigious rate (first in the league in opponent TO pct.). So it is that, even with the easy baskets given to their opponents, Minnesota had the best defense in the Big Ten.

Moral of the story: easy transition baskets for your opponent aren't necessarily the end of the world. Coaches--Big Ten coaches in particular--are likely too squeamish on this front. In fact, giving up some easy baskets is a worthwhile investment if two conditions are met: 1) the tempo that leads to the easy baskets yields enough TOs from your opponent to offset said baskets; and 2) your chances on your offensive end of the floor are better if you're running than if you're going against a halfcourt defense.

It's like Shelby Foote said of Robert E. Lee: the general took long chances because he had to. So think of DeChellis as Lee and this season as Chancellorsville.

Besides: "depth" is for good teams to worry about
And here's where a relative lack of talent in the program actually works, kind of, in your favor: DeChellis doesn't lose a lot by going to the bench. Sure, Geary Claxton and Travis Parker are a notch above the rest of their teammates in terms of ability. And, sure, Ben Luber is notably superior to anyone else on the roster when it comes to dishing assists.

Things like athletic ability and creating assists are irrelevant luxuries, though, on a team that last year had arguably the worst "power"-conference defense in the nation outside of Waco, Texas. (Sorry, Baylor fans. It's true. Baylor's opponents in the Big 12 last year scored points at a per-possession rate superior to that posted by the Illinois offense in Big Ten play. Ponder that statement.)

Memo to Penn State: model yourself on the 2005 edition of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and use all those new bodies and fresh legs you say you have. Push the tempo, go POT on offense (PSU's three-point shooting last year was that rarest and most precious of endeavors: not one standard deviation below the mean!) and take some long chances. You'll recruit better and draw more interest. You may even win more games.

In other words, take some concrete action; as opposed to expending effort on cosmetic non-steps like taking players' names off the backs of jerseys....

Oh, wait, you already did that. Doh! Now how am I supposed to tell Milos Bogetic from Nikola Obradovic?

But isn't removing names from jerseys, by definition, just as superficial as putting them on?
David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News has also weighed in on the sassy new nameless jerseys: "First, there was the news that third-year head coach Ed DeChellis has removed the names from the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys. Which, considering that half the team is new, will make life more confusing for those lonely souls who straggle into the Jordan Center this season."

Acerbic gimlet-eyed Nittany Lion observer David Jones, Wonk salutes you!

Now let's see you score four more points a game with two fewer shots a game
Geary Claxton was the Nittany Lions' leading scorer last year as a freshman and thus the one good-news story for anyone looking for one of those in State College. But he needed a lot of shots to get those 12 points a game and he turned the ball over quite a bit. I don't want to be too critical of a player who was just a freshman and who wasn't exactly surrounded with grade-A talent. Still, this blogger will look for improvement across the board from Claxton this year.

The lone senior
Travis Parker is a survivor. Every other player he entered the program with has long since fled in horror and joined a veritable diaspora of evacuees from State College, but Parker is seeing this thing through to the end. (Kind of like a battered but still devoted spouse you'd see on Maury Povich.)

But it's not just his Tammy Wynette gene that makes Parker vital to this team. The only (and I mean only) Nittany Lion who scores efficiently, the 6-5 senior also rebounds capably (so does Claxton--Penn State's rebounding may be OK this year, even without Johnson) and is a fair (36.5 percent) three-point-shooter--which, in State College, means he was the best one on the team last year.

Penn State's answer to Vincent Grier (they hope)
Meet David Jackson, a 6-3 guard and juco transfer who's averaged 13 points a game as a starter in the two exhibition contests that the Nittany Lions have played thus far.

A true point guard
Meaning the Pennsylvania legislature should pass a law prohibiting him from so much as attempting to score: but Ben Luber does dish the assists.

Mike Walker can, like Luber, make the assist but, with the arrival of Jackson, it appears that the 6-2 sophomore is going to have to come off the bench for his minutes.

Freshman Jamelle Cornley started Penn State's first exhibition game and the 6-6 youngster acquitted himself well, scoring 14. (Just 2-of-7 at the line, though.)

Brandon Hassell saw limited duty as a freshman last year but may get some minutes this season. The 6-9 Hassell will likely shoot few technicals, however, judging from his 3-for-11 performance on the free throw line last year.

You may never have heard of Joonas Suotamo (no, let me amend that: you definitely have never heard of him) but the 6-9 freshman started one of the Nittany Lions' exhibition games, indicating DeChellis likes (or wants to like) something about the lanky Finn.

Shooting guard Danny Morrissey is out and may miss the entire season after dislocating his left knee during practice on October 21. I flew to State College yesterday and obtained this EXCLUSIVE interview with Mr. Morrissey:

Q. So, Morrissey--is it alright if I call you just "Morrissey"--how'd the injury occur?
A. Trudging slowly over wet sand, back to the bench where your clothes were stolen.
Q. Um, my clothes weren't stolen. Really, what were you doing when you injured your knee?
A. Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg.
Q. Yeah? What'd she think of your poetry?
A. What she asked of me at the end of the day--Caligula would have blushed.
Q. You sly dog! Anyway, I notice you're dressed rather monochromatically.
A. I wear black on the outside 'cause black is how I feel on the inside.
Q. What kind of reaction do you get when you wear that out?
A. Panic on the streets of Carlisle.
Q. Look, let's wrap this up. I'm hungry. Anyplace to eat around here?
A. I would go out tonight but I haven't got a stitch to wear.
Q. Man, gotta tell ya: that came out a bit fey.
A. If I seem a little strange that's because I am.
Q. O-kay. Listen, thanks for the interview. I appreciate you doing this on a Sunday.
A. Everyday is like Sunday.
Q. Later.
A. Trudging back over pebbles and sand....
Q. Stop that. Please.

In today's (and this weekend's) less Wonk-ish venues....
In the first regular season game played by a Big Ten team this year, Northwestern beat Lehigh 61-59 in Laramie, Wyoming, last night in first-round play in the BCA Invitational. After trailing by as much as 11 in the first half, the Wildcats tied the score at 37 early in the second half and played a nip and tuck game with the Mountain Hawks the rest of the way. Vedran Vukusic led all scorers with 25 and hit the go-ahead basket with 12.8 seconds left. Depending on how one looks at things, steals won this game for the Wildcats--or turnovers lost it for the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh had 19 TOs in a slow (62-possession) game, giving them an even-worse-than-Michigan-in-2005 TO pct. of 30.7. Mohamed Hachad led NU with four steals. BONUS self-congratulatory note! (Because these occasions don't arise very often.) Getting TOs key to the Wildcats' success? Now where have I heard that before? (Recap and box score.) Tonight Northwestern will play Charlotte in Laramie in the semifinals.

Iowa opens its regular season tonight in Iowa City against Maryland-Eastern Shore, part of first-round action in the Guardians Classic. (Colgate and Utah Valley State will square off in Carver-Hawkeye Arena before the Hawkeye game.)...Season-ticket sales are down at Iowa compared to last year. (Carver-Hawkeye Arena hasn't been sold out on a season-ticket basis since the 2000-01 season.) This despite the fact that student season-ticket sales have doubled since the price was reduced from $204 to $95.

Michigan beat Northern Michigan 101-56 in an exhibition game in Ann Arbor Friday night. Freshman Jerret Smith led Michigan in scoring with 17 points. Courtney Sims went down in the second half with what is being called a strained left knee. Sims says he'll be fine for the Wolverines' home opener against Central Michigan this Friday. (Recaps here and here; box score.)

Michigan State beat a presumably fatigued Northern Michigan squad by the surprisingly non-lopsided score of 77-58 in an exhibition game Saturday night in East Lansing. In a fast game with about 80 possessions, the Spartans turned the ball over no fewer than 26 times against a defense playing its second game in 24 hours (see above). Maurice Ager led State with 25 points. (Recaps here and here; box score.)...As part of its continuing series on "college basketball prototypes," looks at the "versatile high flyers" who have set the template over the years for the "Michigan State athlete."

Purdue beat Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 78-72 in an exhibition game in West Lafayette last night. Carl Landry posted a double-double for the Boilermakers with 24 points and 13 boards in 27 minutes. (Recaps here and here; box score.)

Ohio State beat Ashland 100-67 in an exhibition game in Columbus yesterday. Ron Lewis led the Buckeyes with 18 points in just 19 minutes. (Recap and box score.)...The Buckeyes have suspended Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger for one game. Both players appeared in a charity three-on-three event last spring. Butler and Terwilliger will be held out of Ohio State's regular-season opener against Chicago State.

Wisconsin will play Lawrence in an exhibition game in Madison tonight.

Adam Rittenberg of the Daily Herald previews Minnesota this morning and says Dan Monson's team needs to form an identity--at least according to Monson.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber says defense will have to carry his team early in the year--because the motion offense isn't in synch yet.

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