Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Let the collisions begin!
The conference season is here at last and the first week alone features some great games (Michigan State at Illinois, Iowa at Wisconsin, Ohio State at Indiana, Michigan State at Wisconsin, etc., etc.). Finally. Questions answered, doubts dispelled, pretenders exposed, cliches overused....

And so I want to kick off the festivities with some thoughts on everyone's preseason pick to win this thing. (State of the Team addresses for everybody, originally scheduled for today, now coming this week.)

No clear favorite
As recently as six weeks ago--which is to say, even after the Hawaii debacle--I was stating for the record that Michigan State was the team to beat in the Big Ten. Hardly a bold assertion, right? The Spartans return four starters from last year's Final Four team. How could they not be the favorite?

We've since learned the answer to that question. State's defense has been far too weak for this team to be considered a "clear favorite." They may be right there among the favorites--I in fact think they are--but they no longer merit the singular noun, despite what you may hear from hoops observers merely counting the days since the last loss.

The profusion of points scored by Spartan opponents is not, as some would have you believe, merely an artifact of fast-paced games (which, by the way, aren't all that fast) or too many overtime periods. On the contrary, on a per-possession basis, MSU outscores its opponents by only 0.15 points--incredible, given that theirs is the best offense in the Big Ten.

This much we know simply from plain old boring Kevin Bacon Apollo 13 facts: "I can add." And, while it's true that not every hoops writer has yet made it even this far, many Michigan State fans most certainly have. I hear from them daily. And in the face of these numbers, Spartan fans tend to tell me that everything's going to be alright anyway, for some or all of the following reasons:

1. MSU's playing better of late.
2. Matt Trannon will soon be playing quality minutes--and that helps the D.
3. Tom Izzo's teams always improve as the year goes on.

As a fretful Big Ten homer, my worry about these assertions doesn't concern their descriptive accuracy. (For the record: (1) is incontestably true; (2) is, in my humble estimation, equally so; and (3) is up for grabs: State looked very much improved in beating Duke and Kentucky last March and I rejoiced accordingly. It's also true, however, that I was baffled by the Spartans losing to Iowa just a couple weeks earlier.)

No, my discomfort with these normative claims centers on their prescriptive value. All of the above can be true and Michigan State can still get bounced from the NCAA tournament the first weekend. Bounced by, say, another team that also's been playing better of late; that also has a key contributor back in the lineup; and that also has improved as the year has progressed. The team you play in mid- or (especially) late-March doesn't care if you're better than you used to be. They only care if you're better than they are.

So close thy normative and open thy comparative. Meet Indiana.

A favorite's not a favorite just because everyone--including me--said so two months ago....
Again, Michigan State's outscoring opponents by 0.15 points per possession. As it happens they've done so against the 153rd toughest schedule in the country. Meanwhile Indiana's outscored their foes by 0.25 points per possession, playing the nation's 47th most difficult schedule. State's has been the conference's best offense and--granted, by mere hundredths of a point--its least formidable defense. The Hoosiers' has been the Big Ten's second-best offense and its third-best defense. MSU's done what they've done without Trannon. IU's done what they've done without D.J. White.

Someone, please: remind me again why Michigan State is "the clear favorite" here?

Mind you, I'm not proclaiming on any alleged immutable destiny where the Spartans are concerned. We all saw a team rally from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS not so very long ago despite the uncomfortable little fact that it'd never been done before. So allow me to be unmistakably clear on what I am saying. Recall if you will the apposite scene from Gone with the Wind and picture me as backlit in dramatic silhouette as I make this Scarlett O'Hara-style vow on the matter:

As Frank McGuire is my witness and barring only a 2004 Red Sox-level miracle, Michigan State won't get to Indianapolis playing the way they've played thus far. If they continue to play at this level they will be merely this year's Wake Forest: superb on offense and blessed with NBA-level talent yet defensively hapless and, in the end, sitting at home watching the Final Four.

State's defensive concerns consist in large measure of two items:

1. Perimeter D.
Just 14 games into his sophomore year, Drew Neitzel is already a masterful point guard. As quick with the ball as his blazing-fast teammates are without it (and that, friends, is saying something), Neitzel's cut down on his turnovers and improved his outside shooting (and thus his scoring efficiency) markedly even as he's continued to manufacture assists at the prodigious rate he displayed as a precocious freshman. He is in fact the best point guard in the Big Ten--on offense.

But on defense Neitzel is less impressive. Opposing teams face almost no pressure on the ball and indeed trigger their offensive sets smoothly and wholly at the tempo of their own choosing. Granted, this is not news--Izzo even pulled Neitzel from the Iowa game in the Big Ten tournament last year in what he frankly admitted afterward had been an attempt to get some perimeter D on the floor. And the coach's repeated frets about "lack of backcourt depth" can perhaps be read as Izzo-speak for: this year there's no non-freshman defensive replacement for Neitzel. But then that's part of what I love about hoops: simply being one of the best offensive players in the conference isn't enough. (A little like asking Reggie Bush to work on his pass rushing.)

To help his team attain the expectations being placed on it by others, Neitzel must improve defensively.

2. Defensive rebounding.
Here's a paradox for you: MSU's defensive rebounding is an area of concern despite the fact that (or even because) it's far and away the defensive strength of this team. Indeed, in the abstract, State's defensive rebounding is just fine: fourth-best in the league, no less.

But the pivotal importance of the defensive glass to the Spartans' prospects is anything but abstract. Here are the givens: Michigan State's opponents can be expected to cough up very few turnovers--such was the case last year and this season opponents are giving the Spartans even fewer TOs. Spartan opponents can also reasonably be expected to shoot very well. They did last year and they're doing it again this year--both from outside and from in close.

So, given State's level of performance in creating turnovers and in FG defense, defensive rebounding is truly the only pole holding up this tent. And last year this very same arrangement indeed worked beautifully: representing far and away the best defensive rebound pct. in the Big Ten, MSU's sublime work on the defensive glass offset their other shortcomings to such an extent that theirs was the third-best defense in the conference. Couple that with an outstanding offense (second only to that of Illinois) and you have a Final Four team.

Moral of the story: State's defensive rebounding this year will most likely have to be outstanding--thus far it has been merely very good. Paul Davis is without question pulling his weight and more minutes for Trannon will certainly help. Stay tuned.

What happens now
Michigan State's not doomed. In fact they have a couple things going in their favor. Their league-best offense appears poised to stay at or near the top: only 28 percent of their shots are three-point attempts. If the Spartans start firing blanks from outside, then, it should be much easier for them to continue scoring anyway than it will be for, say, Ohio State (devoting 37 percent of their shots to threes). And this Davis-Ager-Brown nucleus has now played together forever. They finish each other's hoops sentences out there on the floor, as it were. Occasional Carmelos notwithstanding, it was interesting to me that last year's title game featured dueling old-geezer nuclei, each of whom had also been together forever.

No, State's not doomed. They just haven't played as well as I thought they would--or as well as a lot of people are saying they have. (Last year, conversely, MSU spent almost the entire year playing much better than people said they were playing.) Even with a Big Ten schedule that does their team no favors, optimistic Spartan fans are right about one thing: this team has the ability to get to the Final Four.

But they need to play better.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana plays Michigan tonight in Bloomington to tip off the conference season. Good news for the Wolverines: students are still on break at Indiana and with the game tipping off at 6 Eastern, this is the only non-sellout on the Hoosiers' home floor this year. Today's odd opening line award goes to this little item: "It's not enough to be more talented. Teams have to be mentally tough to win road games in college basketball." Who said Michigan's more talented than Indiana?

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says he works hard for a reason: "When I watch a [Gene] Keady, or I watch what [Steve] Mariucci's gone though this year, I mean, I never feel comfortable. And that's kind of good."

Wisconsin guard Kammron Taylor says he has to play better than he did in the Badgers' New Year's Eve loss to Pitt: "I didn't help the team out at all. I was turning the ball over. I wasn't hitting shots. I have to be consistent. To be one of the better guards in the conference, I definitely have to bring it every night."

Blogger extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy says Iowa, along with Washington State, is about to test how far a team can go with an outstanding defense and a middling offense.

Get your Big Ten previews here
From Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (link), Dave Dye of the Detroit News (link), and Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times (link).

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Ah, that heartiest of perennials! The year's first whack at the RPI....
On New Year's Day there were only four games played nationally, thus furnishing a rare controlling-other-variables window into that thing known as the RPI. What happened that day is that Northwestern bludgeoned a hapless Northern Colorado team by 35 points--and promptly saw their RPI plummet.

Wonk's readers respond!

I noted that Northwestern's RPI ranking was 97 through games of Dec. 31. After adjusting for the four games played on January 1, Northwestern fell to 127.

One's first assumption would be that Northwestern must have lost to a lower-rated team. No, in fact, Northwestern beat No. 326 Northern Colorado by 35 points.

I've always known that it was usually better for a team's RPI to lose to the No. 1 team by 50 than to beat No. 330 by 50, but I have rarely seen such dramatic evidence of this.

This 26-place fall in ranking is not attributable to other games as there were only three other games on Sunday (none of them involving Northwestern opponents). I have no idea whether NU is the 97th best team, the 123rd best team or worse. But what I do know is that any ranking that has a metric that causes a team to fall 26 places after a victory is not worth much as a measure of a team's strength.

To give some credit to Pomeroy, no similar fall in his ranking system occurred.

Ben B.

Duly noted, Ben. Thanks!

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