Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Penn State, Ed DeChellis, and a question of medical ethics
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on the feisty winning-in-Champaign young men from Happy Valley, proud members of the Big Ten since 1990....

Last year
15-15 overall, 6-10 in conference. Lost in first round of NIT to Rutgers, 76-71.

Geary Claxton (15.2 PPG, 1.00 PPWS, 13.1 reb. pct., 2.7 assists per 100 possessions, 3.8 TOs per 100 possessions)
Jamelle Cornley (11.4 PPG, 1.08 PPWS, 11.2 reb. pct., 2.3 a/100 poss., 3.3 TO/100 poss.)
Ben Luber (7.5 PPG, 1.10 PPWS, 3.2 reb. pct., 8.9 a/100 poss., 4.1 TO/100 poss.)
Mike Walker (6.7 PPG, 1.02 PPWS, 4.7 reb. pct., 8.6 a/100 poss., 3.1 TO/100 poss.)
David "Mooch" Jackson (6.7 PPG, 0.98 PPWS, 6.6 reb pct., 6.1 a/100 poss., 3.2 TO/100 poss.)
Milos Bogetic (3.7 PPG)
Brandon Hassell (1.7 PPG)

Danny Morrissey (6-3 G, sat out 2006 with knee injury, 7.7 PPG in 2005)
Maxwell DuBois (6-3 G, redshirt freshman)
Andrew Jones (6-8 F, Philadelphia)
David "D.J." Jackson (6-6 F, Farrell, PA)

Travis Parker (12.2 PPG, 1.09 PPWS, 11.4 reb. pct., 3.7 a/100 poss., 4.3 TO/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2006-07
"No longer risible! Really!"

What we think we know in November (read the warning label)
Regular readers of this blog know I dig old movies and that from time to time I'll drag the oldies into discussions on, of all things, Big Ten basketball. And so it was that my thoughts turned cinematic when I read this write-up of the chatter offered up for consumption at Penn State's media day.

Here's junior guard Mike Walker:

"I believe it's realistic [winning the Big Ten]," said Walker. "I think the Big Ten's gonna be down a little bit this year, I think we're gonna be up a little bit. We kind of got fortunate in that aspect. If we just go out and take care of business, I think we can do it."

And sophomore guard Danny Morrissey says he and his teammates "really think" they can win the Big Ten.

Maybe the Nittany Lions have tempered their expectations slightly in the wake of Geary Claxton's injury--a broken bone in his hand that's expected to keep him out of action for the next few weeks. Still, this kind of media-day talk reminded me of weepies from the 30s and 40s where the main character has a fatal disease but the doctor, to give the patient "peace of mind," has lied and told them all is well.

I know Ed DeChellis knows the truth. I only wonder if he's told his players.

For the truth is harsh:

1. Penn State had one of the worst defenses of any major-conference team in the country last year.

2. The Nittany Lions' problem is fundamental in nature (they're short), extreme in severity (see below), and has been on uninterrupted and debilitating display for 60-plus games.

3. Coming into this season, there appear to have been no dispositive infusions of new (preferably large) personnel.

Things can change, sure. But knowing what we know today, it takes severe DAD to talk about Big Ten titles in Happy Valley just yet.

The problem is simple. Penn State is short and opponents just shoot over these guys....

Worst major-conference interior defenses--opponent 2FG pct. (2006, conference games only)
1. Penn State (57.6)
2. Tennessee (55.1)
3. Missouri (54.3)
4. Georgia (54.1)
5. Iowa State (53.8)

DeChellis does everything he can to stop this bleeding by playing zone and practically begging opponents to shoot threes instead:

Percentage of major-conference opponent FGAs devoted to 3FGAs (2006, conference games only)
1. Penn State (50.2)
2. Marquette (40.1)
3. Northwestern (40.0)
4. Miami (37.2)
5. South Carolina (37.1)

For the record, DeChellis says his team played zone last year because his players "were not really containing the ball. We were giving up drives to the basket." (More: "We must become a much better defensive team, and it all starts with [the] perimeter. If we can't contain the ball on the perimeter, that puts a lot of pressure on our front-line guys.") I think his team played zone last year because his players were so dang short. But whatever the motivation of a given defensive set may be, Penn State must improve its FG defense this year.

OK, now let's see the glass as half-full, shall we?
That being said, Penn State made tremendous progress on offense last year. The strength of that offense is PSU's offensive rebounding. Not unlike Bo Ryan's swing offense, Penn State can at times be seen running sets designed to pull opposing bigs away from the hoop. Unlike the Badgers, however, the Nittany Lions choose to pursue the resulting opportunities on the offensive glass. This will henceforth be known 'round here as the Penn State Schwing Offense.

Even more important, if less readily apparent, Penn State was able to hold on to the ball last year, something they were utterly unable to do in 2005.

BONUS salute to boring necessities mastered by Penn State! Limiting turnovers is both invisible to and mandatory for good offense. No one ever points and says, "Wow! Great non-turnover!" But (insert Levon Helm voice here) there would appear to be a demon in the sky out there at about 23 percent of possessions--turn the ball over that many times or more and the consequences are not pretty. (That being said, limiting turnovers shouldn't be confused with fretting about eliminating them entirely. The national champion each of the past two years has coughed the ball up more frequently than your garden-variety conference leader in this category.)

Funny, that's exactly what the AP movie critic said about Gigli
From an AP story on Penn State, regarding last year's defense: "It worked at times."

Yes, I suppose it worked before each opening tip, during halftimes, and in the intervals between each final buzzer and the next opening tip. Oh, and since March.

Exquisitely tactful anonymous phraseologist of the Associated Press, Wonk salutes you!

First-team all-Big Ten....
Geary Claxton was named to the preseason All-Big Ten first team by the media--then promptly went out and broke a bone in his hand in Penn State's first exhibition game. The 6-5 junior takes more shots by far than any other Nittany Lion--and it doesn't take a good deal of imagination to see DeChellis's stated wish that Claxton learn "to make other guys around him better" as coach-speak for: stop shooting so damn much.

Nevertheless, Claxton is indisputably a beast on the offensive boards (and that's highly unusual for a player who channels so much of his team's offense). Indefatigable monster of the offensive glass Geary Claxton, Wonk salutes you!

BONUS Claxton clarification! This wire story says Claxton is "the leading returning rebounder in the conference." Not even close to correct, of course. Here's the truth as far as rebounding and returning players are concerned:

Rebound pct., 2006 (all games, 15+ min. per game)
1. Shaun Pruitt, IL (16.0)
2. Courtney Sims, MI (15.9)
3. Joe Krabbenhoft, WI (14.7)
4. Brian Butch, WI (14.1)
5. Geary Claxton, PSU (13.1)

Rebound pct. represents the percentage of available boards hauled in by a given player while he's in the game. In this case, Claxton rebounded about 13 percent of all missed shots--by opponents and by his own team--during his time on the floor last year. His number for rebounds per game is higher than any of the players named above simply because he was on the floor for 85 percent of the possible minutes. By contrast, his nearest competitor in minutes from the above list, Brian Butch, played just 60 percent of his team's minutes. For two years now this blog has been adding its small mite to the efforts of other civic-minded hoops types to once and for all put this utterly worthless "rebounds per game" stat beyond the pale of respectability--it would be logically equivalent to a patently useless "hits per game" stat in baseball. One of these days, by Godfrey, we shall succeed.

Is there a Sophomore of the Year award? ("SOY"?)
Like Claxton, Jamelle Cornley is an undersized hard worker in the paint. He doesn't rebound as well as Claxton but last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year scores more efficiently. (Although this characterization of Cornley's rebounding is going to need serious revision if the young man maintains anything close to the 23.4 rebound percentage he's posted in the first two games this year.)

Fewer TOs and more points
Ben Luber represented, all by himself, much of the progress made by Penn State on offense last year versus 2005. Most notably Luber's turnovers declined significantly while his scoring efficiency improved dramatically. The skeptic in me says a 65.5 percent free throw shooter (2006) can't hit 44.8 percent of his threes two years in a row. Then again Luber was an 89.6 percent FT shooter (!) in 2005. Which means an impostor shot the free throws one of those years--jinkies! Is there a Velma in State College? Walk up to "Luber" and yank off his rubber mask!

Still another prolific assist-maker
Mike Walker turns the ball over even less than Luber and his (tempo-free) assist numbers are almost as good. However, Walker struggled with his perimeter shot last year.

No, it's a greater honor for me
David "Mooch" Jackson used to be known simply as David Jackson--until the Nittany Lions brought in a freshman this year named David Jackson. (As we speak, PSU assistants are out on the recruiting trail and going hard after '08 prospects Geary Claxton, Jamelle Cornley, and (this was the tough one) Joonas Suotamo.) For the record: the senior is Mooch and the freshman is D.J. Got it? As for Mooch, he started all 30 games for Penn State last year. DeChellis has praised Jackson's defense (that's rare) and voiced a desire for more offense.

Trudging slowly over wet sand....
Sophomore guard Danny Morrissey, newly returned from a year lost to a knee injury, shot 35.8 percent on his threes in the notably challenging 2005 season.

With the departure of Travis Parker, there are minutes available down low alongside Claxton and Cornley and the contenders for the PT are Brandon Hassell, Milos Bogetic, Joonas Suotamo, and Andrew Jones. For more on all of the above, read the briskly efficient candidates guide authored by indefatigable Nittany Lion savant Jeff Rice.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Minnesota beat North Dakota State 63-49 last night in Minneapolis, a game that was 6-5 (no, not a typo) at the under-8 timeout in the first half. Oklahoma transfer Lawrence McKenzie led the Gophers in minutes, shots, rebounds (10) and points (20). Dan Monson said losing an exhibition game to Division II Winona State helped prepare his team: "I really believe this in my heart that if we wouldn't have gotten embarrassed like we were on Wednesday, we probably wouldn't have won this game." Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse says Minnesota's "intriguing athletes" gave the Bison no open looks. (Box score (pdf).)

Indiana beat Lafayette 91-66 in a hideous whistle-filled foul-fest as part of first-round action at the Preseason NIT at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis last night. D.J. White enacted a moving tribute to James Augustine's performance in the 2005 national championship game and played just eight foul-blighted minutes. (His fourth foul was whistled when he blinked too loudly on the bench.) BONUS very sophisticated analysis from alert reader Nate D.! If White can play "more than ten minutes, this team could be pretty good." Indeed! Indiana led by just three with less than eight minutes remaining but put the game away with a 12-0 run. Roderick Wilmont led the Hoosiers in shots and points (24). Earl Calloway added 22 while leading IU in minutes and assists (nine). Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich says "considerable work will be required to upgrade [Kelvin Sampson's] first Indiana basketball team." File under "Hoosier fans smiled nervously": Wilmont attempted 11 threes. It worked out last night but, believe me, opponents will take that. (Box score.)

Penn State beat UNC-Greensboro 69-56 last night in State College. The Spartans actually outshot the Nittany Lions in this game but offensive boards (14 vs. 7) and trips to the line (24 vs. 6) did the trick for the home team. Jamelle Cornley led PSU in shots, rebounds (11), and points (23). Ben Luber went 3-for-5 on his threes; the rest of the team went 1-for-13. Could Brandon Hassell be the answer to Penn State's chronic need for height? Indefatigable Nittany Lion savant Jeff Rice says yes, if last night's any indication: "The 6-foot-11 junior forward recorded a career-high 28 minutes and a career-high nine points. He added five rebounds and four of Penn State's eight steals in what was easily the best performance by a Lion of his height in at least three years." (Box score (pdf).)

Illinois beat Austin Peay 80-35 in Champaign last night. Jamar Smith led the Illini in shots and points (19) but left the game early in the second half with a sprained ankle. ("Most likely it's a sprained [left] ankle, probably a little higher sprain than we'd like," said Bruce Weber afterward. "I would anticipate he'll be out a little bit—a week, two weeks, whatever.") Add to that the fact that Brian Randle played just nine minutes before suffering a "tweak" to his strained groin and you have noteworthy injury concerns for Weber's team....Chester Frazier recorded eight assists but turned the ball over six times; Weber: "Some of it is that Chester is going too fast." Governors coach Dave Loos praised Illinois for playing "overwhelming" and even "psychologically damaging" defense. "I hope we don't see that kind of pressure in our league that we saw tonight. We'll have a problem if we do." (Box score.)

Purdue beat Northern Colorado 90-58 last night in West Lafayette. The Bears turned the ball over 33 times in a 77-possession game, giving the visitors an unheard of turnover percentage of 42.7. BONUS very sophisticated analysis! If you turn the ball over on 42.7 percent of your possessions, you're going to get stomped....Carl Landry led the Boilers with 18 points, as six Purdue players hit double-figures. After sitting out two exhibition games due to an undisclosed violation of team policy, 6-7 Boston College transfer Gordon Watt got the start, as Matt Painter decided not to go with the four-guard lineup he'd used in the preseason. David Teague said it was good to have Watt on the floor: "He is a motivator and defender. We missed him in the first two games." After sitting out last season with a knee injury, Teague says his knee still bothers him from time to time. (Box score.)

Iowa beat The Citadel 75-53 in Iowa City last night. Adam Haluska led the Hawkeyes in minutes, shots, and points (29). But what about this Kurt Looby character? The young man blocks shots like Erek Hansen (three last night) and hits the boards (14) like Greg Brunner--yikes! Tony Freeman recorded 11 assists and Cyrus Tate added 13 points in 18 minutes. ("I felt good," Tate said afterward.) Steve Alford said he was happy with his young team's offense: "We moved the ball maybe as well as I've had a team move the ball here." (Box score.)

BONUS all-about-me note!
This blog's total number of hits over its brief career attained a big round number yesterday afternoon at 3:06 Eastern. Anonymous but laudably Big Ten-focused employee of a biotech firm in Albany, NY, Wonk salutes you! Give me an email with proof of IP address and maybe we can get you a cool bumper sticker like this one:

(No, not Dad. DAD.)

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

Tempo-free pre-backlash backlash
Yesterday I applauded ESPN for their plan to roll out Ken Pomeroy-assembled tempo-free stats on selected telecasts this season.

The readers respond!

From your 11/13 post:

"Something as simple as points per possession--for and against, spread far and wide by ESPN and its ilk--can put such bad old days quickly behind us. Seven months ago I voiced a desire for '
baby steps' along these very lines. The first such, it appears, are about to be taken."

Cue the backlash in It might not happen quite so quickly, but I suspect that we'll see a bit of what we've seen out of the mainstream baseball media in the face of the sabrmetric revolution: abject horror at the prospect of having to do basic math and accept that what used to pass for expertise was, lo and behold, bunk all along. Mix in two parts malicious bashing of those who follow the new, improved path (in baseball, those who consider Billy Beane a "failure" for doing nothing more than getting to the playoffs with a second-tier payroll year in, year out), and you have the damnation of the revolution in...well, I guess I've only laid out one simple step, but there you go.

Hope it doesn't play out that way, but I'll take November 21 in the first negative comment towards tempo-free stats on ESPN pool.

Excellent work, by the way; thanks, and keep it up.

David K.

San Rafael, CA

Thanks, David. I too hope it doesn't play out that way, for reasons I've already offered:

Tempo-free stats are a fad, if by "fad" you mean something that's being perceived as "new" (though, in this case, the perception is incorrect) and is being adopted at an ever-accelerating rate. I would hazard a guess that batting average started as a "fad."

But I think the most common misconception related to this particular fad is a belief that these stats must surely represent something irreducibly complex and esoteric. I think the truth is pretty much the exact opposite. The value of tempo-free stats is precisely that, like a batting average, they enable us to perform the most mundane and least esoteric of descriptive housekeeping, to wit: "That team has a good defense." "This player is a better rebounder than that player." "That team turns the ball over a lot."

This type of mundane statement comes in really handy. It'd be nice if the announcers on the game we're watching on a given night could be trusted to make this type of statement dependably....

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