Big Ten Wonk
Monday, January 23, 2006
That good or that bad?
One weekend of Big Ten hoops, six games, and, by my lights, four surprises--if not in who won, then by how much. When confronted with a surprise, the question that occurs is this: is the winner that good or is the loser that bad?

Forget Notre Dame--maybe the 12th Big Ten team should be North Dakota State
North Dakota State beat Wisconsin 62-55 in Madison Saturday. Yes. In Madison. In the Kohl Center.

Here it was: Wisconsin's reductio ad absurdum. Alando Tucker takes more shots than any other Badger and Tucker misses a ton of shots: QED, Wisconsin misses a ton of shots, right? Well, no, not really. At least not until Saturday. UW had managed to transcend Tucker's prolific rim-denting and put points on the board because, like industrious subordinates covering for an incompetent boss, the non-Tucker Badgers had proven to be notably efficient in translating shots into points.

But it all fell apart Saturday. Tucker ricocheted from inefficient to indescribable--and his teammates followed him into the abyss. Wisconsin missed 56 shots against the Bison. (True story: I let out a horrified yelp, audible to the Wonk Wife, when I opened this box score Saturday afternoon.)

How bad is that? Perhaps the words "worse than Maryland-Eastern Shore" capture the futility best....

Lowest effective FG pct. by or against a Big Ten team, 2005-06
1. Wisconsin (vs. North Dakota State): 25.0
2. Maryland-Eastern Shore (vs. Iowa): 28.0
3. Seton Hall (vs. Northwestern): 29.4
4. Tennessee-Martin (vs. Purdue): 30.8
5. Iowa (vs. NC State): 31.6

Tucker was 2-of-18. Kammron Taylor was 6-of-24.

Is this a fluke? Of course. (At this morning, Andy Katz calls it "the season's biggest upset." Stewart Mandel agrees at But it's a fluke that speaks to a continuing concern for Wisconsin: despite averaging 18.7 points a game, Tucker is in fact a much less efficient scorer (0.93 PPWS) than Bracey Wright was in 2005 (1.08). And, like "worse than Maryland-Eastern Shore," the words "much less efficient than Bracey Wright" say a lot.

Can the Hawkeyes play D in calendar 2006 if the other jersey does not say "Illinois"?
Just 16 short days ago, Iowa was beating Illinois by 15, the fans were storming the court at Carver-Hawkeye, Steve Alford had finally--in his seventh year in Iowa City--achieved the kind of defense that got him the job in the first place, and all was right with the world.

Now look. The Hawkeyes were blown off the court by Michigan State on Saturday, 85-55. Don't be fooled by the score--it wasn't that close. The Spartans could have easily ventured north of 90 but Tom Izzo had a bench full of who-dats to showcase. Iowa was outscored by the big three of Mo Ager (25 points), Paul Davis (19) and Shannon Brown (17) alone. (Box score.)

For Iowa fans, the ominous here-we-go-again possibility is this: the Hawkeyes' defensive woes have not been limited to just this one game and, worse, are not merely a matter of facing better competition in conference play. Iowa's strong non-conference schedule in fact gives us enough "major" conference opponents for a rough comparison of five games then versus five games now:

Iowa defense vs. Kentucky, Texas, NC State, Iowa State, and Arizona State: 0.83 points per possession
Iowa defense vs. Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan State: 0.98 PPP

Simply put, the Hawkeye D has taken a step back. And if this team doesn't have D, they don't have anything.

As for the Spartans, not to put too fine a point on it but they're the best team in the Big Ten right now. In their last three games they've defeated Indiana, Ohio State, and Iowa--and by far the worst performance of the three was the win against the Buckeyes: a road win over a ranked opponent. Over the course of those three games MSU's scored 1.12 points per possession and allowed just 0.90.

In other words, after 16 games of more or less uneven play, the Spartans have at last put together three games that add up to classic Final Four numbers (i.e., an efficiency margin north of 0.20.). Should we believe the first 16 or the last three? In the near-term, at least, we're likely to see more support for believing the latter. If State takes care of business Wednesday night in Ann Arbor, they'll be looking at a W smorgasbord: Penn State, Northwestern, Purdue, and Minnesota. They've earned it.

Watch out for falling expectations
The total collapse of Minnesota has been swift and stunning. We saw a similar implosion two years ago and the consensus chalked it up to the NBA-targeted me-first play of Kris Humphries.

Maybe we all owe Humphries an apology. This year's Gopher roster has no one who will ever come closer to the next level than an Antonio Davis visit to their seat. And yet here we are again. Minnesota is busily disintegrating.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's the defense that's failed the Gophers this year. Their offense is woeful, it's true, but it was (almost) as bad last year. Having one of the best defenses in the nation covered a multitude of offensive sins in 2005.

Not so this year. Big Ten opponents have hit 37 percent of their threes against Minnesota--and that includes Iowa's 1-for-20 effort from outside the arc. (Last year in-conference: 27 percent.) The 2005-vintage Gophers would not have permitted Daniel Horton to come into Williams Arena and hit six threes, as he did Saturday night in Michigan's surprisingly easy 71-55 victory. (Box score.)

The Michigan half of the question (are they that good?) is easy enough: we don't know that they're as good as they looked. Granted, it's not their fault that they were playing Minnesota but, um, they were playing Minnesota: everyone (except Iowa) shoots well from the outside and everyone's D looks good when the Gophers are the opponent. Let's see what happens Wednesday night against Michigan State.

O, D.J., where art thou?
Indiana beat Purdue 62-49 Saturday in Bloomington, as the notably low-scoring Hoosiers hit only 37 percent of their two-point shots--their worst performance of the year inside the arc. (Box score.) The surprise here isn't the score, it's the fact that the Boilers were actually in this game until the final few minutes--and that they did it with no help from three-land (3-of-12). For the second consecutive game, the Hoosiers conferred the adjective "career-high" upon a Chicago-bred opposing post player's scoring total. First it was Shaun Pruitt of Illinois recording 17 points. On Saturday it was Marcus White's turn: the Connecticut transfer scored 19 points in 22 minutes.

So the book, it would seem, is clear. Take it inside against IU: Marco Killingsworth (like Terence Dials last year and, maybe, this year) will mince daintily out of the way of any and all contact for fear of picking up a foul (he's there to score, thank you); Robert Vaden is very tough but very undersized; and Ben Allen is a human stat-stuffer for opposing post players. Ten other coaches in the conference are reading said book: Indiana's Big Ten opponents have devoted just 29 percent of their shots to threes. Only Ohio State's opponents (28 percent 3FGA/FGA) have pounded it inside with more single-mindedness.

BONUS clarification! Last week I shared the fruits of my possession-by-possession charting of the Indiana-Illinois game and noted that the IU defense was vastly more effective for the 58 or so possessions when Killingsworth was on the floor than it was for the eight or so possessions when he was on the bench. This was indeed the case but I offered this nugget more in a Roethlisberger-makes-the-big-tackle tone than in any dispositive sense. It need hardly be said, surely, that eight possessions aren't enough to overturn the verdict of our eyes. Watch the tape of Pruitt (no Paul Davis he) driving baseline on Killingsworth early in the first half. High school coaches from Bangor to Bakersfield are using that tape to show their big men what not to do on D.

Etc. Your intrepid blogger's been watching hoops for a long while but I've never seen what happened to Matt Kiefer happen before. Off an IU turnover, Kiefer went in for an uncontested breakaway dunk, threw the ball down with two hands--and it came back out. Replays showed the ball went all the way down past the rim but the net caught it and tossed it back up through the cylinder. Incredible.

No surprises here, folks. Move along....
Illinois beat Northwestern 58-47 in Evanston Saturday. (Box score.) Bruce Weber's team is a weird hybrid: best defense in the Big Ten right now (Vedran Vukusic went 1-of-14) but also a POT (meaning lots of attempted threes but not many turnovers or offensive rebounds). Those two don't usually go together but it's becoming increasingly clear that this is what we have in Champaign this year. The good news is it simplifies things analytically: Michigan notwithstanding, an Illinois opponent isn't going to score a lot of points. Consequently, if the Illini are hitting their threes they'll probably win (42 percent in their three conference wins). If they're not they may well lose (17 percent in their two conference losses).

Ohio State beat Penn State 75-64 Saturday in State College. (Box score.) The Nittany Lions were in this most of the way and, indeed, if they could have hit some threes (they were 3-of-19) and taken care of business on the defensive glass (they allowed the Buckeyes to post a 42.3 offensive reb. pct.) things could have been interesting. But then such is the grammar in which PSU has found itself imprisoned for five long years: their best-case scenario is to be spoken of in the subjunctive in a close loss.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
COMING tomorrow! I'll make the jump to in-conference numbers for this blog's tempo-free team stats. Mmmm, in-conference: tempo-free numbers compiled against very similar opponents. (In the admirably symmetrical Pac 10, where every team plays every other team home and away, these would be well nigh the Archimedean ideal. Go to it, yet-to-emerge Pac 10 Wonk!) Tune in tomorrow!

Michigan wing Lester Abram sprained his left ankle in Saturday's win at Minnesota and his status is in doubt for the Michigan State game Wednesday night.

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

Latest update from alert reader and die-hard Hoosier fan Nate

You stated IU was a Big Ten contender after winning "ugly" against Illinois Well, this weekend's victory over Purdue was the clinical definition of UGLY.

I feel IU is more of a pretender than contender, with two straight offensive struggles. IU didn't deserve to win but, thankfully, they played the walking wounded remaining at Purdue. With a game at Iowa next, Coach Davis better get the O fixed, pronto. Wilmont had another good game (as compared to everyone else) and IU will need him to play well, as A.J. Ratliff isn't doing much right now.

The player of the game was Sean Kline....okay, maybe not the player of the game, but his block of Kiefer led to a Wilmont three and a charge he took a few possessions later sealed the game. IU will need him to eat minutes when Killingsworth needs a rest (or is in foul trouble). Though, Kiefer's missed dunk was a bit of a highlight too, it pretty much sums up Purdue's season.

Thanks for the time to rant.

Nate D.

Thanks, Nate!

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