Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Can 2007 be a repeat of 2005?
You know, lots of talk about the Big Ten being "down," followed by a March that shows otherwise?

Maybe. To my eyes the Big Ten is currently sorted into five different groups. In hoops socioeconomic terms, those groups are as follows....

Sally Struthers needs to do a commercial
Minnesota (6-8)
No one in the Big Ten has played a tougher schedule than the conference's worst team, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Needless to say, the results haven't been pretty. Granted, a fanatical optimist might point out that, since Jim Molinari assumed the role of interim coach on November 30, the Gophers have at least been competitive in every game. And it is true that Minnesota has started taking better care of the ball. But the problems would appear to run deeper in Minneapolis: this team simply lacks a way to win games. For one thing they don't shoot very well. While Lawrence McKenzie, Dan Coleman, and Spencer Tollackson have all been respectable in terms of scoring efficiency, every other Gopher ranks in the bottom tenth of the conference in PPWS. (One of Molinari's young men currently sports a 2FG pct. of 21.9. Until seeing this team I would have said that's physically impossible.) And their offensive rebounding is even worse than their shooting. On D the Gophers actually force opponents into a surprising number of missed shots from the field--but it hasn't mattered one bit because Minnesota has simply been destroyed on their defensive glass. Nor are there any steals or blocked shots to be wrung from this defense. I never counsel abandoning hope entirely, mind you. But storing it in a safe deposit box may be the wisest course of action for Gopher fans in the near term.

Living from paycheck to paycheck
Iowa (8-6)
The scary thought in Iowa City is that here are the Hawkeyes struggling at 8-6 and yet their best offensive player, Adam Haluska, is actually playing about as well as anyone could have hoped. Indeed, if Haluska were having the kind of "I'm all alone!" struggles that Dee Brown had last year (lots of turnovers and missed shots), the Hawks might be giving Minnesota some company category-wise. Valiantly efficient veteran on an otherwise inefficient young team Adam Haluska, Wonk salutes you! And, um, that salute figures to pretty much be the highlight of Haluska's year because the statistical essentials of his team are pretty frightening. Iowa opponents shoot extremely well while the Hawkeyes struggle to score points. Not a good combination, that....Tyler Smith hasn't exactly been a model of scoring efficiency but he has displayed an unusual ability, for one who's been green-lighted to shoot in his first season, to make the right pass. Keep an eye on him....Yes, he dishes assists, but Mike Henderson is on-course to achieve of level of frequent-TO'ing that even Pierre Pierce never dreamed of. (Henderson actually has a positive assist-turnover ratio. Steve Alford should tell Henderson that if he didn't cough up the ball on very nearly one in every 10 possessions he plays, he'd have even more assists.)...The advance billing was that Kurt Looby would be the new Erek Hansen. In fact, Looby's more well-rounded. He blocks shots like Hansen, yes, but the new guy is much better on the defensive glass than Hansen was. (OK, like Hansen, Looby brings little to the party on offense. Duly noted.)

Penn State (9-4)
In the preseason I said the Nittany Lions would have to improve their interior defense. Well, define "improve." The numbers so far this year are better than they were in-conference last year--but interior D is still the primary weakness of Ed DeChellis's team. That weakness has been mitigated, however, by strikingly good defensive rebounding. The Nittany Lions may not have any single player who's outstanding on the boards but in Geary Claxton, Brandon Hassell, and Jamelle Cornley (and, when he plays, Milos Bogetic), PSU has multiple blue-collar types who are very good on the defensive glass. So the news on D is mixed. Stay tuned...because on offense, which figured to be this team's strength, the news is surprisingly bad. Indeed, Penn State has sprung two new leaks since last year, in the form of turnovers and dismal outside shooting. The Nittany Lions do turnovers about like they do rebounds--no one stands out but everyone (with the notable exception of Mike Walker) does it. This suggests that holding on to the ball will continue to be a concern. And as for the perimeter shooting, Danny Morrissey's been reliable but just about everyone else has struggled.

Northwestern (10-3)
Through their first ten games the Wildcats' shooting was merely ordinary (32.1 3FG pct.). Over the last three games, conversely, it's been extraordinary (51.1 3FG pct.). Will this last? Of course not! Keep in mind that against Utah the 'Cats posted the best shooting by any Big Ten team in any game since at least 2003-04. So while this kind of unconscious shooting won't continue, the really encouraging news is that NU is taking much better care of the ball this year. As noted here previously, then, I think we may just see improvement this year in Evanston--and who thought that two months ago? Not I....Tim Doyle kind of reminds me of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: he's old, he ain't glamorous, he knows this is his last go-round, and he's willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. For instance: on a team that scores by hitting threes, Doyle is no threat whatsoever to hit a three. Yet he dishes 11.6 assists for every 100 possessions he plays. That's more than Chester Frazier, Travis Walton, or Jamar Butler. In fact, it's more than anyone in the Big Ten except Mike Conley. On the other hand, Kevin Coble reminds me of Andy Garcia in the same movie: the young hotshot with confidence to spare. Coble's confidence is well-founded--get ready to hear more about this freshman. He's one of only two players in the Big Ten to rank in the conference's top ten in both 2FG pct. (61.9) and 3FG pct. (41.9). (The other is Daequan Cook--dig those crazy freshmen.) And while Coble's per-game rebounding numbers will never attract notice (because he plays for a slow-paced team that virtually concedes their own offensive glass entirely), his defensive rebound percentage is in fact higher than Carl Landry's or Greg Oden's. Soon-to-be-discovered-even-though-you're-in-Evanston freshman Kevin Coble, Wonk salutes you!

The uncle with an impressive job title but an "office" no one's ever actually seen
Michigan (12-3)
The Wolverines, like Minnesota, manifestly constitute their own discrete analytical unit. If you saw the Georgetown game you know what I'm about to say: this team just looks so very lifeless. (Except for Brent Petway, who, as always, has looked feisty and indeed has provided invaluable excellence on the defensive glass.) And Lester Abram being lifeless has frankly surprised me. I thought he would command this team and continue his highly efficient scoring. Instead, he's struggled with his shot and coughed up the ball. Yes, we knew coming into the year that Michigan would turn the ball over. But what we didn't know is that their perimeter shooting would be this bad. (Dion Harris is shooting 32 percent on his threes and is apparently dedicating his year to the season Bracey Wright had in 2005.) That plus TOs is killing the offense. (Courtney Sims, as always, is near the top of the Big Ten in both scoring efficiency and turnovers.) On defense the numbers are almost identical but the outlook is brighter--because the one thing Michigan does well (interior D) figures to remain constant, while the one thing they don't (perimeter D) may not. But with Michigan, certainties, it seems, are less certain. BONUS note for future reference! Ekpe Udoh is a shot-blocking monster. And, speaking literally, he's the only Wolverine without a ghastly turnover percentage.

Alternately upwardly mobile and over-indebted
Indiana (9-3)
The beat writers assigned to the Hoosiers are missing a sensational story because it's pretty plain to me that at some point after the Charlotte game but before the Western Illinois game Kelvin Sampson locked all of his players in a room and hypnotized them. Here's what he must have said while they were in their hypnotic state: "You're getting very possessive of the ball....Very possessive....You're going to stop giving the ball away like you're Michigan and start holding on to the thing like you're Wisconsin, do you understand?..." In their first six games Indiana turned the ball over on 26 percent of their possessions. In their last seven games, including last night's loss at Ohio State, IU has given the ball away on just 12 percent of their possessions. Twelve--a number so ridiculously small you can spell it. So everyone gather 'round and meet Wisconsin South: tenacious D and fanatical ball control. That will win you some games, never mind a relative lack of offensive weapons. (Last night I watched Sampson call timeout to stop an early run by the Buckeyes. And coming out of that timeout the play that Sampson drew up in the huddle was for...Lance Stemler. Good kid, nice shooter--but opposing coaches aren't exactly staying up nights worrying about how to stop Lance Stemler.) Weapons, schmeapons: this defense figures to be very good--it has been very good (until last night, anyway)....Roderick Wilmont is a beast, never mind the fact, which by the way is not his fault, that he's a relatively undersized beast. His rebounding numbers will never look pretty because he roams the perimeter on offense but his defensive rebound percentage (19.0) is up there in the Warren Carter/D.J. White neighborhood. Speaking of White, he's been everything I thought he would be for Sampson on defense but on offense his post game isn't quite there yet (as in a 52.0 2FG pct.--compare to Carl Landry's 68.2 or, for that matter, Earl Calloway's 60.3).

Purdue (11-3)
My thoughts on the Boilermakers are here. I would only add that since that post Purdue lost a game at Indiana State because Matt Painter's men could not control their defensive glass. This will continue to be a concern: the Boilers are thin down low--more to the point they're pretty short down low. Carl Landry has had arguably the best year of any Big Ten player to date but he is simply not built to dominate the defensive glass.

Illinois (12-3)
My thoughts on the Illini are here. I would only add that since castigating them in that post for looking underwhelming in beating Missouri, Illinois went out and looked underwhelming in losing at Xavier. But here's the thing: the "if"s with this team are a little more numerous than with any other Big Ten team. If the team can stay healthy (as they have not) and if Brian Randle can stay on the floor and out of foul trouble (which he has not) and if Rich McBride can come out of his shooting slump (which he has not), then you have a group that could be that proverbial third-best team in the conference. (Jamar Smith appears to have made a surprisingly smooth transition from freshman gunner to legitimate and continuing outside threat.) In Randle, Shaun Pruitt, and Warren Carter, Bruce Weber has a formidable front line, one that can both score (assuming Pruitt sees the ball on occasion) and defend (assuming they're on the floor together). If only....

Michigan State (13-2)
The Spartans win my vote as the most mysterious Big Ten team. They sport a surprisingly strong record for a team so young but are 1-2 against "power"-conference foes. They figure to improve when Raymar Morgan and Maurice Joseph return from the injured list but we've seen so little of both players we really can't say how big the improvement will be. MSU currently ranks as the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten but they're also one of the teams least likely to attempt a three. It's all a bit perplexing. My guess, though, is that State may well continue to surprise--albeit in a somewhat more ugly fashion. In the preseason I said the strength of this team figured to be its D and, indeed, Marquise Gray has delivered on the promise displayed in an injury-marred season last year and proven himself to be an outstanding defensive rebounder. The pleasant surprise, however, has been that Goran Suton has joined Gray as a partner in crime on the defensive glass. (Proving once again one of this blog's earliest dictums: prolonged exposure to Tom Izzo is alone sufficient to improve one's rebounding.) Travis Walton has provided some badly needed defensive chops on the perimeter for Izzo. And the Spartans' interior defense has been astonishingly good, holding opponents to under 40 percent on their twos. On offense, however, the outlook's a little less rosy. True, Drew Neitzel's been draining threes at an admirably efficient clip (42.1 3FG pct.). But Gray and Suton both have a knack for turning the ball over. The TOs will almost certainly continue to occur in abundance because this team is young and because the players coughing the ball up are the pillars of the defense. The shooting will have to make up the difference.

Portly CEOs benefiting from uncannily well-timed stock options
Ohio State (11-2)
And, lo, it came to pass that a one-handed Greg Oden did not revolutionize college basketball as we know it, after all. (For instance: he blocks a ton of shots, yes, but only a few more, on a tempo-free basis, than Ekpe Udoh, and no one's comparing him to Chamberlain, Alcindor, and Walton.) Now, my own controversial view is that a player with two functioning hands is a really good thing to have. So I don't think Oden's performance to date says much if anything about where he'll be when he finishes his career in Columbus (whenever that is). But--yo, Thucydides!--who cares about legacies? This team's going to Madison in six days....If all you saw was the Florida game (or the way the Buckeyes shot threes against Indiana last night) you're not going to believe this but trust me: Ohio State's shooting has been phenomenal. That pushy weenie known as regression-to-the-mean suggests, of course, that the Buckeyes' shooting can't continue to be this good. (And indeed Ron Lewis is already mired in a miserable slump from outside, having hit just four of his last 25 threes.) But I don't think the drop-off's going to be all that steep on a team with Oden (66.1 2FG pct.--with just his left hand), Daequan Cook (1.35 PPWS), Ivan Harris, and Jamar Butler. (Nor should opposing teams pin their hopes on the alleged volatility of a team that shoots this many threes--in fact, the Buckeyes have done even better vs. the conference average on their twos.) As for the D, I've said my piece: basically it will come down to whether this team can duplicate the perimeter D achieved last year by an almost entirely different (older, less talented) roster. If "yes," look out. BONUS overlooked note! Forget Oden: if present trajectories continue, Cook and Mike Conley (leads the conference with 13.5 assists per 100 possessions) will each be able to claim truthfully they would have won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors had they entered the conference last year or the year before. (And if this were a first-year player award instead of one given to freshmen, Othello Hunter could make a case, sporting a Big Ten-leading 19.4 offensive rebound percentage.) Not a bad recruiting class landed by Thad Matta.

Wisconsin (14-1)
The Badgers are the consensus conference favorites of the commentariat right now. Bo Ryan's team is said to be "old" (read as: older than Ohio State) and has the fewest losses--'nuff said. And, say this for the coach, Ryan's methods are proven: the strength of this team to date is its offense and the strength of this offense is its Big Ten-leading ability to hold on to the ball. That being said, the biggest difference between this team and the one we would have seen in Madison on January 3, 2006, is improved shooting. Take Alando Tucker. Last year his 2FG pct. was 48.6. This year so far it's 55.2. That may not sound like earth-shattering improvement but when you're talking about a player who takes more than 25 percent of your team's shots by himself, believe me, that's significant. As for the rest of the year, the turnovers will stay low: bank on it. And it will be critical that the shooting stays accurate because Wisconsin's offensive rebounding is about to taper off, due in large part, I think, to conscious stylistic choices made by Ryan and not by the improved competition. (Last year Wisconsin entered Big Ten play having rebounded about 39 percent of their misses. In-conference that dropped to about 32 percent.)...Kammron Taylor has matured into a very good Big Ten guard. His turnovers are down and he's hitting his threes (49.1 3FG pct.)....Brian Butch averages less than 20 minutes a game but he is lethal when he's on the floor: the best defensive rebounder in the Big Ten. BONUS hey-wait-a-minute-note! Around this time a year ago Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma were declared ineligible for the rest of the season. Wisconsin proceeded to go 9-7 in-conference and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Arizona. The lack of depth caused by the loss of Landry and Stiemsma, it was said, was decisive. Based on this year, however, that may have been only half-right. Landry's been solid in limited action (and spectacular swatting away shots against Marquette) but Stiemsma averages less than 10 minutes per game, perhaps because he turns the ball over--ultimate Bo no-no--about eight times for every 100 possessions he plays.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Ohio State beat Indiana 74-67 last night in Columbus. Not too much stranger looking than a really slow (60-possession) game where both teams are scoring consistently. The Hoosiers had their best night of three-point shooting this year, hitting 12-of-22. But that shooting coincided with IU's worst night of D in the Kelvin Sampson era, by far: 1.23 points per possession for the opponent. Ohio State, while cold from outside, had Greg Oden: 21 points and 9-of-10 on his still left-handed free throws. Mike Conley recorded 10 assists and zero turnovers. (Though he was bailed out of one TO when the possession arrow pointed his way on a tie-up he'd dribbled into.) Joey Shaw hit 4-of-7 threes and led the Hoosiers with 16 points. A.J. Ratliff, still nursing a sore wrist from the Ball State game, sat this one out. (Box score.)

Hoops tonight!
Illinois plays Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Purdue plays Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Northwestern plays Penn State in State College.

The last hoops of 2006 played out like this....

Xavier beat Illinois 65-59 at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. The Musketeers shot 36 free throws and turned the ball over just nine times in a 62-possession game. The Illini shot eight free throws and turned the ball over 17 times. Jamar Smith led Illinois with 16 points, which is highly misleading--12 of those points came in the last three minutes as the Illini tried to rally from a 52-40 deficit. Shaun Pruitt posted an 11-11 dub-dub. Nine of Pruitt's rebounds came in the first half. (Box score.)

BONUS magnanimous note! I've made quite the little cottage industry out of gnashing my teeth audibly in the blog whenever an announcer screws up rebounding stats. (That is, whenever an announcer refers to rebounding margin.) So let the record show that during the Xavier-Illinois game Fran Fraschilla put on a welcome display of precision when he spoke of the Illini's prowess on the offensive glass in terms of the percentage of misses they rebound. Indeed, Fraschilla is currently the best friend tempo-free stats has at the announcers' table. Refreshingly and, I trust, portentously tempo-conscious hoops analyst Fran Fraschilla, Wonk salutes you!

Penn State beat VMI 129-111 in State College. Don't be surprised by the Phoenix Suns-like point total. The Keydets are the fastest team in the nation, averaging 95 possessions per game. And because this game was faster still, clocking in at 102 possessions, it was in fact the fastest game played by a Big Ten team since at least 2003-04. (This breaks the previous record of 96 possessions set by Ohio State on November 10. The Buckeyes' opponent that night? VMI.) Geary Claxton posted a 31-11 dub-dub for the Nittany Lions. The Keydets attempted 54 threes in 40 minutes. (Box score.)

Georgetown beat Michigan 67-51 in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines suffered through their worst shooting of the season, while the Hoyas--like NC State before them--back-cut the large-but-not-quick men in maize and blue without mercy. (Northwestern take note.) Dion Harris led Michigan with 16 points but made just 1-of-8 threes. (Box score.)

Ohio State beat Coppin State 91-54 in Columbus. Daequan Cook led the Buckeyes with 23 points on 10 shots while Greg Oden posted an 18-16 dub-dub in 26 minutes. And Jamar Butler was apparently told to start shooting--he did, hitting 5-of-9 threes. (Box score.)

Michigan State beat Loyola College (MD) 74-61 in East Lansing. Drew Neitzel suffered through some cold shooting (hitting 2-of-7 threes) but recorded 12 assists and just one turnover. Goran Suton led the Spartans with 27 points on 16 shots while Marquise Gray put up a 19-11 dub-dub in 24 minutes. (Box score.)

Indiana beat Ball State 71-57 in Bloomington. D.J. White led the Hoosiers with 16 points on 10 shots. He also recorded three blocks. (Box score.)

Purdue beat Southeast Missouri State 102-65 in West Lafayette. Definition of a blowout: 10 Boilermakers hit double-figures in minutes and six Boilers hit double-figures in points. As to the gaudy point total, yeah, Purdue played its best offense of the year (1.36 points per possession) in a 75-possession game. (Box score.)

Iowa beat Cornell 65-50 in Iowa City. This was a two-point game with 11 minutes left but the Hawkeyes closed the evening on a 23-10 run. Adam Haluska hit 6-of-9 threes and scored 29 points to go with four steals. This is the best shooting Iowa's displayed this season. (Box score.)

Minnesota beat Southeastern Louisiana 63-61 in Minneapolis. Spencer Tollackson tipped in a missed shot by Lawrence McKenzie at the buzzer to give the Gophers the win. Minnesota won despite hitting just 1-of-10 threes.(Box score (pdf).)

Wisconsin beat Georgia 64-54 in Athens. The Dawgs couldn't shoot worth a lick but they gave 10 other Big Ten teams some must-see tape by beating the Badgers to a pulp on Wisconsin's defensive glass. That's unusual--and Bo Ryan will address this before Ohio State comes to town. Alando Tucker led the Badgers with 29 points on 19 shots. (Box score.)

Northwestern beat Northwestern State 85-59 in Evanston. Kevin Coble led the Wildcats with 19 points on 10 shots in 23 minutes. Tim Doyle recorded nine assists and two turnovers in 27 minutes. Northwestern's reserves played in this game. That doesn't happen often. (Box score.)

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