What we think we know in December
The first official Wonk team stats of 2005-06 have been posted. They're tempo-free! They're up to date! They're highly misleading this early in the season! Get on over to the sidebar and enjoy.And so with said stats as a background, it has come at last: my first round of State of the Team Addresses. First a disclaimer: it's December. Stats have been compiled against opponents of wildly differing levels. And what's happened in the first five or six games is not necessarily what's going to happen in the next 20. Understood? Very well, then let's get right to it (teams are listed in reverse order according to current winning percentage).Purdue (2-3)Pretty much everything fell apart at the same time for new coach Matt Painter, didn't it? Let's see, where to begin. (How about with pity for Carl Landry?)...Last week the Boilers treated Florida State to one of the most stellar shooting nights this blogger has seen in a while (a 70.7 eFG pct.). Which we might be tempted to write off as one bad night--but for the fact that even when they were winning against Wofford and South Alabama, Purdue was still allowing their opponents to shoot very well. And so it is that the Boilers are off the charts--last in the league by several light years--as far as bad field goal defense. It's early, of course, but that's worrisome news for Painter. Field goal defense is an effort stat and the opponents that shot so well--all of the above plus Xavier and Evansville--are respectable, surely, but not exactly murderers' row. (Speaking of last in the league: Purdue has also been turning the ball over more than any other Big Ten team.) It could be a long year.Northwestern (4-3) Before the beginning of the season, I said the Wildcats would be OK if they improved their field goal defense (a lot) and their offensive rebounding (a little). The good news for Bill Carmody is that his team's field goal defense has indeed improved. What your intrepid blogger didn't count on, however, was that NU's perimeter shooting would be as Edvard Munch-level horrific as it's been so far this year. The Wildcats are shooting 29 percent on their threes--unfortunate, to say the least, inasmuch as 45 percent of their shots are threes (no other Big Ten team devotes more than 37 percent of their FGAs to threes) and their offensive rebounding is still woeful (21.4 offensive rebound pct.; no other Big Ten team is below 31). Multiple things need to change dramatically for Northwestern. (By the way, don't blame Vedran Vukusic for the Cats' poor showing on threes--he's hitting 41.5 percent.)Minnesota (3-2)With a couple of exceptions about to be noted here, the Gophers' numbers actually look pretty good on paper--but this is of course attributable to North Dakota State, UT-Chattanooga, and Coastal Carolina as much as it is to anything Dan Monson's men have done. Basically, this team really needs Vincent Grier back in a hurry. I don't want to fall into the trap of overestimating the absent, but it is true that Grier is a tenacious perimeter defender who shoots a ton of free throws. The Gophers could use those skills. Minnesota's opponents are hitting 41 percent of their threes. And since the Gophers have no interior scoring threat and don't make--or even attempt--threes, a guy who earns his points through free throws is very valuable indeed. On the plus side, these guys look like uncaged monsters on the offensive glass (see their league-leading 44.8 offensive rebound pct.--which includes a 51.3 at Maryland).Penn State (3-2)As early as it is for all teams, I feel like it's really early for Penn State. They've played home games against Cornell, Nicholls State, Long Island, and Clemson, and a road game at Texas A&M. They compiled very nice numbers, of course, against the first three--numbers that to some extent obscure the less impressive (but still surprisingly normal) stats recorded against their last two opponents. But let's start the conjecture anyway, shall we? It looks like the Nittany Lions' strong offensive rebounding may be for real: their 43.4 oreb pct. includes a 40.0 against "major"-conference foes. On the flip side, their success thus far at holding on to the ball looks like it may turn out to be illusory, having coughed up a total of 32 TOs against the Tigers and the Aggies. As for Geary Claxton, be wary of the love that a guy who's averaging about 17 points and nine boards a game is probably about to get: he's scoring more than last year, it's true, but then he's shooting quite a bit more (0.98 PPWS). Aye, verily, down this road lay Bracey Wright--turn back, Geary, while you can! Michigan State (5-2)Now we have proof: the Spartans' outstanding defensive rebounding really did carry their D last year. Look no further than this year, where everything else on defense is effectively the same as it was last season: field goal defense (giving opponents a 50.2 effective FG pct. so far this year, State gave Big Ten opponents a 49.7 eFG pct. last year) and takeaways (19.7 opponent TO pct. this year; 21.0 in conference last year). But MSU's defensive rebounding has fallen off a cliff, from 78.4 percent last year (in conference) to 67.3 so far this year. Result: the Spartans have the most generous defense in the league so far this season, giving up 1.07 points per possession. True, Michigan State, with the possible exception of Iowa, also happens to have played the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team. But here's the really scary part: these numbers aren't all that much better against Hawaii, Chaminade, IPFW, and Arkansas-Little Rock (allowing 1.04 points per possession) than they are against Gonzaga, Arizona, and Georgia Tech (allowing 1.11 PPP). Don't blame Paul Davis--he's hauling in boards (27.5 defensive rebound pct.) and piling up double-doubles like a man possessed. But I continue to entertain the possibility that fans and pundits alike don't realize the true importance to this team of Matt Trannon. Indiana (4-1)The numbers on the Hoosiers are, needless to say, beautiful and, to my eyes, they pose a fundamentally non-quantitative issue. Given that a 64.5 effective FG pct. is, to say the least, unsustainable (last year Illinois led the Big Ten with a 56.7 eFG pct), the interpretive question on the table is as follows: what will happen when Indiana's shooting comes down to earth? Specifically, will opponents continue to shoot as well as they've been shooting? (Said opponents are hitting 43 percent of their threes and have a 51.8 eFG pct.) There are two schools of thought. Maybe the Hoosiers haven't shown their true defensive colors because they haven't had to--finding fault with the defense of a team that's blowing opponents away is thus merely an exercise in nit-picking. On the other hand, maybe IU is falling into the habit of having to outscore opponents (a la Michigan State this year, apparently). I don't know which school of thought to believe just yet. One thing your intrepid blogger does know: Marco Killingsworth gives his team a chance to beat any team anytime anywhere. (Backfill: before the season I said I wanted to see more defensive rebounds and more possessions from the Hoosiers this year. They're fulfilling this blogger's desires with admirable responsiveness, leading the conference in defensive rebounding and averaging 74 possessions a game.)
Wisconsin (5-1)The young Badgers have surprised this blogger on several fronts. For starters, their offense (excellent) is carrying their defense (meh). Not to mention their offensive rebounding (superb) and ability to hold on to the ball (unequalled) are making up for their shooting (meh). And, while we're on surprises, my "meh" verdict on shooting most certainly does not apply to Kammron Taylor, who's hit 18 of his 34 threes and indeed has posted a gaudy Salim Stoudamire-in-2005-like 1.37 PPWS. Brian Butch is, like Taylor, scoring efficiently (1.28 PPWS) and hitting the boards. And Alando Tucker, while nowhere near his mates in scoring efficiency (1.01 PPWS), nevertheless helps those numbers along by absorbing the brunt of the opposition's defensive attention. Will surprises never cease with this team? Iowa (7-1)At first glance the Hawkeyes would appear to be paying a tribute to the 2005 Minnesota Golden Gophers: terrific defense and horrendous offense. The defensive side of the comparison, at least, is apt: Iowa's D has been outstanding. Nor do the numbers become less impressive if we look only at the "heavies" on the Hawkeyes' schedule. Against Kentucky, Texas, and NC State, Steve Alford's team allowed just 0.83 points per possession, a level of defense that would lead the Big Ten. Just imagine if this team weren't last in the league in shooting--ye gods. Will this level of D continue? Of course not--but neither will this level of offense. Conventional wisdom says Iowa's a smidge too thin to sustain suffocating defense over an entire season. Then again, Adam Haluska and Jeff Horner won't continue to shoot a combined 29 percent on their threes over an entire season, either. (For a much more detailed--i.e., better--discussion of the prospects for Iowa's D the rest of the season, see this morning's post from canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska at Hawkeye Hoops.) Ohio State (3-0)Wow, that home win against Virginia Tech suddenly looks much more impressive, doesn't it? And that's about all we have to go on with the Buckeyes, by far the most reclusive of the Big Ten teams. They've yet to leave Value City Arena, they don't play again until Saturday (against St. Joseph's in Philly), and we've only seen them against the Hokies, Chicago State, and Butler. Sure, their numbers are nice and the character of those numbers hints at a possible shift in emphasis this season for Thad Matta's team (fewer threes and more boards). But who knows after just three games?Michigan (5-0)I saw most of Michigan's win over Notre Dame on Saturday and I was impressed with the Wolverines' composure down the stretch in a tight game. Then I found myself thinking: why shouldn't they be composed? They're old! And experience is universally acknowledged as a good thing--so maybe this is "the year"? After all, Daniel Horton isn't just scoring efficiently, he's a veritable PPWS paragon (1.40). Courtney Sims has continued his high-efficiency OK-rebounding ways. And Graham Brown has picked a good time to eat his Wheaties and hit the boards. So things are good in Ann Arbor. Sure, this blogger wonders whether Michigan can continue to shoot 41 percent on their threes. But so what? Only 29 percent of this team's shots are threes to start with. No, the only question I have for Tommy Amaker is: why so strong on the defensive boards and so weak on the offensive glass?Illinois (7-0)Wow, that road win at North Carolina suddenly looks much more impressive, doesn't it? Be that as it may, defense is indeed carrying this combination young-and-old team, just as Bruce Weber told us it would have to: Illinois is third in the Big Ten in field goal defense and in fact leads the league in defending the three. And so the question posed by the Illini's performance thus far is: what can this team do if Dee Brown starts hitting his shots? Brown's had a catastrophic start to the year, hitting only 29 percent of his threes and posting a PPWS of just 0.93. His misses limit the Illinois offense because he takes (and likely will continue to take) far more shots than any of his teammates, more even than James Augustine (he of the 1.38 PPWS). Until such time as Brown's shots start falling, then, the Illini will need to continue to hit the offensive glass and to get surprisingly efficient contributions from relative newcomer Brian Randle and true newcomer Jamar Smith. In today's less Wonk-ish venues.... Busy weekend with everyone but Ohio State in action....FridayIowa beat Fairfield 75-59 Friday night as part of the host team's Hawkeye Challenge. Greg Brunner had a 23-11 double-double on 8-of-8 shooting. (Box score.)SaturdayMichigan beat Notre Dame 71-67 in South Bend. Dion Harris hit an 18-footer with 16 seconds left in the game to break a 67-all tie. Daniel Horton fed Harris on the play and led the Wolverines with 19 points. See the spanking good recap on this one chipped in by canonical blogger Brian at mgoblog--make haste! (Box score.)Illinois beat Xavier 65-62 at the United Center in Chicago. The Illini trailed the Musketeers by 15 in the first half and by 10 at the break. Bruce Weber's team shot miserably in this game and rebounding and turnovers were a wash. So how did the men in orange win? Free throws. Illinois shot 31 of them, Xavier attempted just 13. (The Illini needed all those attempts--they missed five free throws in the game's final four minutes.) James Augustine led Illinois with 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting. (Box score.)Indiana beat Eastern Michigan 79-63 in Bloomington. Facing a 2-3 zone focused on Marco Killingsworth, the Hoosiers got 18 points from Robert Vaden and 15 from Ben Allen. Killingsworth scored 14 before fouling out in the game's final minutes. (Box score.)Iowa beat Valparaiso 72-59 in the championship game of the Hawkeye Challenge in Iowa City. Jeff Horner (19 points), Mike Henderson (15), and Adam Haluska (14) scored in double figures for the Hawkeyes. Canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska of Hawkeye Hoops fame has posted a weekend recap that takes in both Iowa victories--make haste! (Box score.)Michigan State beat Arkansas-Little Rock 72-67 in Grand Rapids, MI. Paul Davis led all scorers with 23 points, while Drew Neitzel recorded nine assists and just one turnover. Also: Matt Trannon saw his first action of the year. (Box score.)Texas A&M beat Penn State 60-55 in College Station. Geary Claxton had a 15-12 double-double for the Nittany Lions, who pulled to within three after trailing the Aggies by 15 at the half but could not quite record the road win. (Box score.)Wisconsin beat Pepperdine 71-55 in Madison. Alando Tucker led the Badgers with 16 points but the postgame talk centered on surprising Jason Chappell, who hit 2-of-3 threes on his way to 15 points. See the customarily excellent recap of this one contributed by Wonk fave and blogging UW fan Chris West. (Box score.)Evansville beat Purdue 75-69 in Evansville, IN. Here's a stat: since winning at Minnesota in February 2004, Purdue is 1-18 outside of Mackey Arena. (Box score.)Minnesota beat Coastal Carolina 75-57 in Minneapolis. Recall that in my preseason walk-around of the Gophers, I termed Rico Tucker "a TO-creating monster." And now here we are: Tucker's been taken off of "academic lockdown" by Dan Monson and saw his first action of the season Saturday against Coastal Carolina. And all he did was record six steals in just 21 minutes. For more, see the briskly efficient game recap at Gopher Hoops. (Box score.)Northwestern beat Delaware State 61-54 in overtime in Evanston. Despite hitting just 1-of-5 three-pointers, Vedran Vukusic led the Wildcats with 19 points. (Box score.)Tonight's gamesMinnesota plays at Arizona State. Newly reinstated Gopher guard Rico Tucker, fresh off making his first appearance of the season Saturday against Coastal Carolina, says he's ready to prove himself. Illinois hosts Arkansas-Little Rock. The Illini will face the Trojans having not practiced yesterday, due to an NCAA mandate requiring one day off per week.Wonk back! Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!Michigan without PetwayWonk,Regarding your expectations of Michigan: "For now let me say that what I will look for this month from Tommy Amaker's team is consistency in the areas in which they should, it says here, have an advantage: rebounding and field goal defense."Don't forget that Brent Petway, the team's best rebounder and shot blocker, is academically ineligible until whenever it is that he's eligible again--end of this semester? Beginning of next semester? The dust settles at the registrar's office? If the Wooferines beat their nonconference opponents on the boards without Petway, they should be a pretty good rebounding team come the Big Ten season.Keep up the good work,Richard C.I promise not to forget Petway, Richard. But I still want to see the likes of Courtney Sims and Graham Brown rebound well.Backfill: Wisconsin at WakeHey, Wonk, First off, I think your site is great. It's so accurate and in-depth, I can't believe you're not getting paid to do this. One thing, though: you really think the Badgers looked great losing to Wake Forest? Maybe it's the pessimistic fan in me but I thought their interior defense was non-existent and they gave up far too many easy baskets. Granted, I attended UW during the Dick Bennett days. But I still don't quite believe a Badger team gave up 91 points. Also, I think Alando is the most exciting player the Badgers have had since Michael Finley but occasionally he gets too shot-happy. When the Badgers got back into the game in the second half, there were too many possessions where Tucker just drove the ball into the lane and fired up a missed shot or ill-advised turnaround. Hopefully he'll figure this out as the season goes on--but he did this same thing last year too. Oh, and you're exactly right about Kammron Taylor: he takes tons of bad shots, but makes just enough of them to be exciting. He sort of reminds me of Sam Cassell in that respect. Anyway, again, keep up the great work. And of course, I'm glad to hear you think the Badgers look good--you're probably much more objective than me. I need that every now and then.Gregg S.Thanks, Gregg. You're right: very little defense was played by either team in Winston-Salem that night. (Wake, 1.18 points per possession; Wisconsin, 1.15 PPP.) And it's also true that Tucker forced some shots. I was mostly happy with both, however. This is a young Badger team and, by giving Wake everything it could handle on their own home floor, this new generation showed me they'll be a good team--good news for the Big Ten. And I was delighted that, when confronted with a fast and potent team, Bo Ryan did not go Dick Bennett but instead played them on their own terms. Wisconsin's interior defense was indeed porous (Wake had a 2FG pct. of 53.8) but I think what truly sealed their doom was the fact that they gave Wake 18 offensive boards (the Deacons rebounded half of their misses) and 29 free throws.And as for Tucker, early in the year I am extending to him what I call my Dion Harris-in-2005 exemption: for those who shoot because no one else on his team can or indeed should. Brian Butch is a good option, of course, but other than that it's probably best that Tucker be the one pulling the trigger right now. (And the deafening silence from the not-exactly-shy Ryan on this issue suggests to me he feels the same way.) That being said, I'd expect Tucker's shots to decrease as the season progresses and his teammates get their bearings.