Big Ten Wonk
Thursday, March 08, 2007
Why is it so tough to know what we know in basketball?
No doubt due to our collective memories of past ugly-but-good Oklahoma teams coached by Kelvin Sampson, there appears to be a persistent belief afoot that this year's Indiana team is good on defense and so-so on offense. In fact the precise opposite is true, as a glance at the numbers or even a handy chart would reveal.

And yet the belief persists. This kind of persistence has repeatedly lured me away from what I thought I'd be doing with a hoops blog. I got into this thinking I'd aim for an impossible target like, say, "Roger Angell for college hoops," with jiggers of Easterbrook and Kaus thrown in for good measure.

But then I found teams with good offenses whose fans were complaining about bad offense. "Wait a minute," I would say in the blog, "according to the numbers I have here, this offense is good." And then I'd go back to my prosey works only to find people emailing me and saying their offense was bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Do other sports harbor such insistent misapprehension? Maybe, but it certainly doesn't seem as frequent or egregious. You know if your team's pitching staff is getting shelled. You know if your team is scoring touchdowns.

So what is it about basketball in particular that enables fans to watch an entire season and be mistaken on something as basic as whether they have a good offense or not? A guess:

The incorrigibly cumulative nature of hoops
The object of baseball is to score runs and each run is a big deal. One run can win a game. The object of football is to score points and each touchdown or even field goal is a big deal. One touchdown can win a game.

Basketball's different. While the object is to score points, each basket is not a particularly big deal. One basket will not win a game, not even a Northwestern game (hi-yo!).

In fact, points in basketball are devalued to an extent that would be unthinkable in other sports. So much so that a coach will on occasion deliberately seek to draw a technical foul even though doing so in effect gives points to the other team. (In Saturday's Michigan-Ohio State game, Tommy Amaker was praised for showing rare passion and drawing a T. Dion Harris was faulted for missing the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute. Both actions had the same net effect.)

Idea for an experiment
Before the installation of a mini-scoreboard within the padded scorer's table at halfcourt, Indiana fans in the very top rows underneath the balcony in Assembly Hall had no view of any scoreboard. What if we recreated those conditions, played a game, and polled fans afterward on who'd won? The guess here is this would be—for me, for you, for anyone—a much tougher question, sans scoreboard, in basketball than in baseball or football.

And because it's a tough question there's value in going back afterward and looking at a record of what took place: a box score. (Note that the official scorer in football is far and away the least prominent example of the species, with good reason. We don't need him.)

In the case of Indiana, going back afterward and looking at the record tells me that the Hoosiers played 1,003 possessions in Big Ten games this year. They scored 1,125 points and gave up 1,033.

All I know is that's good offense and so-so defense.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
It's a funky year at the Big Ten tournament. Michigan State is playing Thursday (against Northwestern) but, barring a loss, is considered a good bet to get into the NCAA tournament. Iowa, conversely, doesn't play until Friday but is widely seen as needing a win-it-all miracle. And Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

So welcome to Thursday: sitting at the dork table in the Big Ten cafeteria, as Patriot-News writer David Jones put it well last year. Three more or less bubbly teams, each looking to avoid a catastrophic loss against one of the conference's untouchables....

(8) Michigan vs. (9) Minnesota (ESPN2, noon)
Last year a loss to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament sent Michigan to the NIT. I see only two ways for this to occur again this year: 1) the Wolverines beat themselves, or 2) freaky three-point shooting by the Gophers. Otherwise, this is a fortuitous opponent for a turnover-prone Michigan team, for Minnesota opponents turn the ball over less often than do the opponents of any other Big Ten team.

Courtney Sims says his team assumes it needs to win today and tomorrow, too; Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi says he'll talk to several candidates, including interim coach Jim Molinari, about becoming the permanent replacement for Dan Monson: "I've been honest with [Molinari] that if he's interested I will talk to him because he's earned that. Yet he also knows that I'm going to look beyond him."

(7) Michigan State vs. (10) Northwestern (ESPN2, 2:30pm)
The Spartans had a tough Big Ten schedule and their record reflects that. Now they get a struggling Northwestern team in the first round. So, as William Mulholland said: there it is, take it. Beat the 'Cats and a bid is almost certainly assured.

Drew Neitzel is dealing with a personal loss; Kevin "glimmer of hope" Coble says his team has "nothing to lose"; Bill Carmody says MSU is a tough match-up: "They're a very physical team and a strong rebounding team. Those are two things that have hurt us."

(6) Illinois vs. (11) Penn State (ESPN2, 5pm)
On paper, the Illini have been paired up with the best possible opponent, not just in the Big Ten but quite possibly in "power"-conference hoops as a whole. For Bruce Weber's men struggle on offense and Penn State has perhaps the worst defense in major-conference basketball. Of course, the same might be said for the Nittany Lions and the opponent they've drawn. How perspectival!...

Jamelle Cornley says his team needs to increase their "effort and intensity on the defensive end"; Shaun Pruitt says his team feels a "sense of urgency"; Warren Carter watches "SpongeBob SquarePants"; Bruce "play basketball and enjoy it" Weber says he'd feel good about his team's chances for a bid "if we got to Saturday, and really good if we got to Sunday. But Thursday is big, there's no doubt."

In today's less dork-ish venues....
Ohio State will sport new Nike LeBron-logo'd uniforms in Chicago this weekend, despite a tepid response from Buckeye fans afforded a sneak preview.

Wisconsin is struggling on offense; more points from Joe Krabbenhoft could help.

Wonk back!
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Down to it
Dear Wonk,

It seems that every year we hear that it is a "down year" for the Big Ten, and I cynically tend to believe that this label is cast about out of convenience—because it is already there, and most analysts seem to recycle talking points and clichés whenever possible—rather than scrutinizing the data throughout the season and making an informed decision from a location outside of the echo chamber within which they normally operate.

And so I look to you to shed some light on actual quality of product the Big Ten puts out, especially as we are likely to hear about the "down year" even more once we find out how few/many teams from the conference are invited to the tournament.

Jason P.

The relationship between being discursively "down" and success in the NCAA tournament is well nigh nonexistent.

In 2005 the Big Ten ranked a lowly sixth in conference RPI and was beaten up all season long for being "down." That year the conference sent three teams to the Elite Eight and two to the Final Four.

In 2006 the Big Ten ranked an impressive first in conference RPI and was the subject of admiring profiles all season long about how it was "back." That year the conference sent no teams beyond the second round.

As for this year, Ohio State and Wisconsin can play—have played—with anyone. Indiana's outside shooting gives them a shot (har!) to go further than they "should"—or get bounced with surprising speed. Michigan State can be lethal if they can just hold on to the ball. Etc., etc....

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