Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, November 03, 2005
No, it's not just you. Indiana games are slow.
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on a certain group of spiffily candy-striped youngsters from Bloomington, IN, proud members of the Big Ten since 1899....

Last year
15-14 overall, 10-6 in conference. Lost to Vanderbilt in NIT first round, 67-60.

D.J. White (13.3 PPG, 1.22 PPWS, 11.0 reb. pct., 1.8 assists per 100 possessions)
Robert Vaden (10.2 PPG, 1.00 PPWS, 8.1 reb. pct., 4.0 a/100 poss.)
Marshall Strickland (7.4 PPG, 0.98 PPWS, 6.0 reb. pct., 6.5 a/100 poss.)
A.J. Ratliff (5.8 PPG, 1.24 PPWS, 8.3 reb. pct., 2.7 a/100 poss.)
Roderick Wilmont (3.6 PPG, 0.99 PPWS, 10.9 reb. pct., 1.3 a/100 poss.)
James Hardy (1.6 PPG)
Errek Suhr (1.6 PPG)
Sean Kline (1.3 PPG)

Marco Killingsworth (6-8 F, transfer from Auburn--13.7 PPG in 2003-04)
Lewis Monroe (6-5 G, transfer from Auburn--6.1 PPG in 2003-04)
Ben Allen (6-10 C, Australia)
Cem Dinc (6-10 F, Turkey)
Earl Calloway (6-3 G, JC transfer)
Kyle Taber (6-7 F, redshirt freshman)
Joey Shaw (6-6 G, Glendale, AZ)

Bracey Wright (18.3 PPG, 1.08 PPWS, 8.5 reb. pct., 4.9 a/100 poss.)
Pat Ewing Jr. (4.0 PPG, 1.03 PPWS, 14.9 reb. pct., 3.0 a/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2005-06
"This year we'd like a shooting and occasionally making guard."

Three things you should know about Indiana:

1. Their games were really slow last year.
And I do mean slow.

Average possessions per game (all stats 2005, conference games only)
1. Minnesota (67.7)
2. Iowa (66.9)
3. Michigan State (64.7)
4. Penn State (64.7)
5. Ohio State (64.6)
6. Illinois (63.7)
7. Purdue (63.1)
8. Wisconsin (63.0)
9. Michigan (62.2)
10. Northwestern (61.4)
11. Indiana (60.0)

So, yeah, the offense is dull--the same offense, mind you, that's often termed "NBA-style." It's NBA-style, alright: the 1953 Fort Wayne Pistons. (Hi-yo!)

Funny thing is: it works. IU's offense performed with admirable efficiency last year.

True, in conference play the Hoosiers shot only slightly better than the Big Ten average--and their offensive rebounding was actually slightly below average.

But their overall offensive effectiveness was undeniably robust simply because they excelled at holding on to the ball. (And "excelled" might be too kind here: goodness knows you should be able to hold on to the ball when you play this slow.) Only Illinois and Michigan State operated more efficiently on offense (albeit, much more efficiently).

Things were different on the other side of the ball, though.

2. IU's defense was slightly below average last year--because of one severe shortcoming.
The Hoosiers' defense in 2005 was sub par. This despite the fact that Indiana's opponents didn't shoot particularly well and indeed were fairly generous in turning the ball over.

Still the D suffered:

Opponent points per possession
1. Minnesota (0.92)
2. Illinois (0.94)
3. Michigan State (0.95)
4. Ohio State (0.97)
5. Iowa (0.98)
6. Wisconsin (1.00)
7. Indiana (1.03)
8. Purdue (1.06)
9. Michigan (1.07)
10. Northwestern (1.08)
11. Penn State (1.14)

Because Indiana was simply eaten alive on the defensive glass:

Defensive rebound pct.
1. Michigan State (78.4)
2. Wisconsin (74.4)
3. Minnesota (72.7)
4. Illinois (72.4)
5. Iowa (69.6)
6. Ohio State (69.2)
7. Penn State (68.8)
8. Northwestern (67.9)
9. Purdue (67.4)
10. Michigan (64.5)
11. Indiana (63.7)

To be sure, IU's defense wasn't so very bad last year--just a smidge leakier than the conference average of 1.01, actually. So the Hoosiers were certainly respectable defensively.

But as a team they can do more. If everything else stays the same and IU improves its defensive rebounding merely to a point where it's on par with the conference average, the Hoosiers will get much love this year.

So the magic number here is 70: other things being equal (they never are), if Mike Davis can get his men to gather in 70 percent of the rebounds on the defensive end, Indiana will be on-track for marked improvement over last year.

And yet....

3. There's a chance that neither the slow pace nor the woeful defensive rebounding will change--much.
In his discussion with yours truly (posted this morning), indefatigable Hoosier beat writer Terry Hutchens chalks up last year's somnambulant pace to shortcomings in IU's personnel--shortcomings that no longer apply.

He may be right. The reports thus far on Lewis Monroe and Earl Calloway suggest that this year's edition of the Hoosiers will have more speed in the backcourt than last year's. So it could be that Indiana will push the tempo in 2006.

Then again, slowness is a condition of some duration and persistence in Bloomington. During the 2004 Big Ten season, for example, the Hoosiers appear by my (expeditious plug-and-chug) reckoning to have averaged about 62.7 possessions per game. A little faster than 2005, yes, but still slower than Wisconsin was last year. And the words "slower than Wisconsin" tell you all you need to know.

So don't be fooled by the similar-looking 60-something numbers for possessions per game: last year Indiana was the slowest "power"-conference team in the nation by a statistically significant margin. (In stat terms, the Hoosiers were more than two standard deviations slower than the average of these 82 teams. That's equivalent to saying you're as aberrantly slow as Michigan State is aberrantly spectacular at defensive rebounding or as Northwestern is aberrantly horrific at offensive rebounding.) Simply put: this degree of slowness is extreme.

Of course, fitting in statistically is not by itself sufficient reason to change your style of play. If this pace made strategic sense given the Hoosiers' personnel and their competition, I'd be front-row center waving pom-poms and leading cheers for (gulp) still more 55-possession games. A coach's first duty is to efficacy, not stylistic mimicry.

Fine. Granted. Now, the thing about playing this slow if you're Indiana: it doesn't make strategic sense, for the following reasons:

(1) Skills on hand. Barring an unforeseen collapse, Indiana is going to put a team on the floor this season that scores more points per possession than they give up. In other words, their best players are more than skilled enough offensively to compensate for what may be continued mediocrity on defense. If this is true, the Hoosiers increase their chances of winning with every possession they add to a game.

(2) Depth. This appears on paper to be the deepest team Davis has had since he took the job as head coach. But depth is largely irrelevant at 60 possessions per game. The irrelevance of depth in a slow game is good news, of course, for the underdog. But Indiana's not an underdog. (UPDATE: Davis agrees! "Sometimes you just don't have the horses," he says. "But that's not the case with us this year." Precisely.)

(3) Recruiting. This is the big one. Of late there's been fretting in Hoosierland to the effect that key in-state recruits are choosing other schools. I usually put little stock in such laments (fans fret about recruiting everywhere and at all times). One thing is certain, though. No recruit ever explained his choice of program by saying: "I've always dreamed of playing for the slowest-paced team in major-conference basketball."

Will this year's team play faster? Maybe. Davis is on the record as saying he's "going to make a big push to get points in transition." So this may be the year Davis takes his foot off the brake. I'll keep you posted.

So what about the defensive rebounding?
Surely the numbers on the defensive glass will improve this season, right? After all, throw a stick at the Hoosier bench this year and it seems like you'll hit about 17 new guys who're 6-10. That has to translate into better defensive rebounding, doesn't it?

Maybe. And yet....

Let's look at those 6-10 guys. Aussie Ben Allen better be a stud on the boards because he may need to be. His teammate and fellow 6-10 person, Cem Dinc, is reputed to be an excellent shooter and is actually listed on the official Indiana roster as a (6-10!) "guard/forward." That doesn't exactly sound like a nascent Big Ten glass-eater to Wonk. (Not to mention Dinc's been quoted as saying he'd like to play shooting guard.)

As for 6-8 Auburn transfer Marco Killingsworth, see this excellent post from indispensable blogger Ryan Kobliska at Hawkeye Hoops: IU's new power forward posted a defensive rebound percentage at Auburn in 2004 that puts him on a surprisingly ho-hum level with notably shorter humans like Purdue's David Teague and Penn State's Travis Parker.

Alright, then. What about D.J. White?

...And if Rick Majerus looked like Melissa Theuriau, he'd be really hot.
I loved this classic non sequitur from one website on White: "He could become one of the better rebounders in the Big Ten if he can pick up his level of play in that area."

Well, um, yes, I suppose. Problem is: White was extraordinarily ordinary on the boards last year, recording a rebound percentage (11.0) inferior not only to ones posted by beasts like Paul Davis (18.4) and James Augustine (17.4) but even to those notched by who-dat non-beasts like Ohio State's J.J. Sullinger (12.3) or the aforementioned Travis Parker of Penn State (11.3).

Make no mistake: White picking up even an extra three points of rebound percentage would be a blessed event for Hoosier fans. It could happen--we'll see.

Meantime: relying on the likes of Dinc, Killingsworth, and White for the bulk of the defensive rebounding may be bad news for the defense.

Good news for the offense, though.

The Hoosiers' D only needs to be average--because their offense should be very good.
If Dinc really is an excellent shooter that would be a welcome study in contrast for the Hoosiers, who last year looked on helplessly as Bracey Wright shot enough bricks to build a replacement for Assembly Hall. (It can't come soon enough.) As for White, with the possible exception of Carl Landry, he is already the best pure low-post scorer in the Big Ten. And Killingsworth posted a very strong 1.22 PPWS at Auburn in 2004. Considering he shot just .642 on his free throws, this indicates extremely efficient scoring from the field--if he can learn to hit the freebies he can achieve Augustine-like PPWS numbers.

BONUS pro bono hoops consulting for Mike Davis!
Coach, give the bulk of your shots to Killingsworth, White (1.22 PPWS last season), and (when he comes back from his injury) A.J. Ratliff (1.24). Forbid any shooting whatsoever from Roderick Wilmont (0.99), Marshall Strickland (0.98), or Lewis Monroe (1.00 at Auburn in 2003-04).

And what about Robert Vaden, you ask?

Baffling statistical anomaly Robert Vaden, Wonk salutes you!
Mr. Vaden is what we in the trade call a special case. He's a solid three-point shooter (37.0 last year, even better in-conference) and hits his freebies at an 80.3 clip. Nice numbers, no?

Absolutely. So, um, not to bring up an awkward question but: if you're shooting 37.0 on your threes and 80.3 on your free throws, how in the world do you have such a low PPWS? Answer: Vaden's 1.00 reflects an absolutely abysmal--and, to this observer, puzzling--two-point FG pct. of 38.1.

Just how bad is a two-point FG pct. of 38.1? Put it this way: two entire teams (Illinois and Wisconsin) shot better in the Big Ten last year on their threes. (Heck, Vaden himself came close to that same feat.)

A two-point percentage almost as bad as your own (quite good) three-point percentage? Wow. Robert Vaden, you intrigue Wonk!

The rest of the lineup for 2006....
Despite his struggles from two-point land, Vaden is currently slated to start at the 3, with either Monroe or JC transfer Earl Calloway playing the point. Former starting point guard Marshall Strickland, it would seem, has been moved to the shooting guard slot--an interesting development, to say the least.

Strickland would seem to lack certain, um, qualities that one looks for in a shooting guard (3FG pct. last season: 30.1). Nevertheless, the experiment is about to be fairly tried, apparently, as to whether shooting improves when a guard is "relieved" of the point guard duties. In any event, say this for Strickland: he's the only returning Hoosier anywhere on the court who dishes assists.

The injured (and due to return in December) Ratliff, on the other hand, is the bizarro Strickland: no apparent ability to distribute the ball (yet) but the kid can shoot the rock, hitting 43.6 on his threes. Problem was he only jacked up 55 of the things all year. (Ratliff also rebounds pretty well for someone listed at 6-2--but the aforementioned Wilmont wins Wonk's first-ever Surprisingly Good Hoosier Rebounder Award in a walk with a gaudy (for a 6-4 guy) 10.9 rebound percentage.)

As for Calloway, the stats from his time at Georgia Perimeter College are sketchy yet noteworthy: a 43.7 shooter on his threes, Calloway averaged five steals and 18 points per game. Alas, savvy Wonk readers demand to know: do we have a sense of what these last two numbers mean in tempo-free terms? None whatsoever! Georgia Junior College Athletic Association, take heed! Post your teams' totals for FGAs, offensive rebounds, TOs, and FTAs. You don't want Wonk on your case!

Great Wonkpectations: Indiana 2006
--Continued (and counterproductive) glacial slowness
--Even with more turnovers, improvement in an offense that was already good
--Less perimeter shooting
--Slightly improved but still below-average defensive rebounding (and thus defense)

So the hunch here is for continued mediocrity on defense and an above-average but achingly dull offense. Say, about like Syracuse last year--in numbers if not in entertainment value. Good news for Hoosier fans, right? The 'Cuse started 20-1 and hit the tournament as a 4-seed.

BONUS fretting over the fate of democracy!
Adherents to ratiocinative elitism and other pessimistic weenies who've worried in print about this country's ability to sustain democratic government have been known to justify their anxieties by pointing to certain historical examples of crowds living down to our expectations: surprisingly low IQ scores among US Army draftees in World War I; the panic triggered by Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast; the success of Richard Nixon's 1952 "Checkers" speech; and the popular support enjoyed by red-baiting US Senator Joseph McCarthy up to 1954, to name but a few. If the masses can exhibit such low intelligence, the pessimists say, what hope is there for democracy?

Alas, in 2005 those spooked theorists now have a new and infinitely more damning piece of evidence to wield in their fret-pieces. It is this:

Last March, the members of the press named Bracey Wright first team All-Big-Ten.

Here, truly, is the most damning indictment imaginable of our polity's capacity for self-government. Wonk, longtime Tocquevillean romantic on the topic of civic enhancement through self-governance, is reduced to mute and sorrowful defeat in the face of this event. For if rational men and women can be led to believe that Wright was one of the five best players in the Big Ten last year, there is indeed no hope for democracy--unless those same men and women can be effectively walled off from the deliberating body politic.

I therefore recommend the following screening procedure be instituted at all polling places in future elections:

Q. Are you able to demonstrate your residence in this county?
Q. Are you able to read and understand the instructions on this ballot?
Q. In 2005 did you vote for Bracey Wright for first-team All-Big-Ten?

Recall that last year Wright didn't even make one out of three from beyond the arc. He shot 32.9 percent (50 of 152) overall and just 30.0 (21 of 70) in the Big Ten. Repeat: he shot 30.0! Good grief, with just one fewer make in-conference, Wright would have come in under the three-point Mendoza line, as it were.

Conclusion: Bracey Wright being named first-team All-Big-Ten ranks alongside Milli Vanilli's Best New Artist Grammy as the epitome of travesty-by-award.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Purdue University student Antonia Wang, 19, was selected to participate in this year's college tournament on the TV quiz show Jeopardy! (Um, that exclamation point is in the show title, not the sentence. Actually I'm not real excited about this.)

Why is this link here? Because the Lafayette Journal & Courier, alone among the dozens of newspaper websites in Wonk's field of vision, continues to demonstrate what this blogger thinks is a nice bit of eccentricity by insisting on aggregating their Purdue sports stories with other "campus news."

"My buzzer hand was shaking sometimes, but it didn't affect me too much," Wang said after the show's taping.

Proficient buzzer-hand-wielder Antonia Wang, Wonk salutes you! This blogger thinks "My Buzzer Hand" would be a really cool name for a band.

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Whither Brown?
Esteemed Wonk,

Allow me to make a rock solid prediction: Dee Brown will not be the Big Ten player of the year, let alone the national player of the year. There's no way to go back and confirm this, but I'd wager that well over 50 percent of Brown's points last year were scored off one of the following two situations:

1) Wide open three-pointers
2) Fast break layups

Both these situations were functions of Illinois unbelievable perimeter talent--great ball movement creating the three-point opportunities and suffocating perimeter defense creating the fast break layups. With Williams and Head gone, I just can't envision Brown being able to create his own offense. I'm not even saying he won't be the best player in the conference--just that he won't be able to put up the offensive stats generally needed to win player-of-the-year awards.

On an unrelated note, great job on the opening post on tempo-free basketball stats. I've long wished someone would come up with measures of offensive/defensive prowess that control for the number of possessions in a game. My beloved Spartans often are ranked high on the traditional points-per-game scale through nonconference play, only to have that number plummet once they start playing their more plodding conference rivals.

Keep up the good work.

Kyle J.
Lansing, MI

Thanks, Kyle! My long-held personal belief, of course, is that "rock-solid prediction" is an oxymoron like "enjoyable committee meeting" or "Mike Krzyzewski's humility."

Nevertheless, you may have a point: Brown is the sixth consecutive preseason Big Ten POY from Illinois. Of the previous five, only one (Brian Cook in 2002-03) went on to win the real POY award in March.

On the other hand, this Illini fan wouldn't want to see Brown average 20 a game anyway. That'd be too one-dimensional--which doesn't get you to the Final Four. See the 2005 editions of Michigan State, Louisville, Illinois, and North Carolina.

And I'm glad you're digging the tempo-free stats. We hoops fans certainly owe a debt of statitude to the legendary numbers dudes, be they first generation (Dean Oliver, John Hollinger), second (Ken Pomeroy), or third (Ryan Kobliska).


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