Big Ten Wonk
Monday, February 13, 2006
11 thoughts
1. Iowa is in first place at 8-3 and has scored 755 points in Big Ten play. Their opponents have scored 721. That's a difference of 34 points. To an Iowa fan this says your team's been good in close games. To fans of ten other teams it says Iowa's been lucky. Either way, the Hawks stand a fair chance of finishing with at least a share of the Big Ten title, as they play three of their last five at home.

2. Ohio State is flirting with being as good as Michigan State was last year. (Flirting with--but not quite there.) And they're doing it by shooting the ball even better than Illinois shot it last year. If you had to pick just one Big Ten team this morning that is likely to make a Final Four run, you'd pick Ohio State.

3. Wisconsin has bounced back nicely from their slumpette and won two in a row--but was it the Badgers or their last two opponents? We'll find out Wednesday night when the Buckeyes come to Madison.

4. Illinois, through halftime of its game against Penn State, had allowed Big Ten opponents 0.89 points per possession. In their last 60 minutes of floor time against the Nittany Lions and against Ohio State, conversely, the Illini have given up 1.24 points per possession. For a team that doesn't shoot very well, this is an ominous trend.

5. Michigan State looks surprisingly ordinary for a team returning four starters that went to the Final Four. And the culprit is even more surprising: rebounding--on both sides of the ball. True, the Spartans have been adequate on the offensive glass and good on the defensive boards. But we expect supremacy here.

6. Michigan's defense has collapsed--utterly and completely. And blaming said collapse on key absences when in West Lafayette, of all places, is either a brilliant use of irony or (more likely) rote cluelessness.

7. Indiana is headed for a dangerous place: State College. A Hoosier win will placate no angry IU fans. And a loss isn't out of the question. This team suddenly has the head-case look, the one they had the past two seasons, the one that was so conspicuously absent through mid-January. There are stats at hand to detail how far Indiana has fallen, of course, but in truth numbers don't do justice to the oddly lifeless outing put on by the Hoosiers Saturday against Iowa on their own floor.

8. Northwestern, for the second year in a row, is shooting the ball surprisingly well. The problem is their opponents are too. And, while Ohio State is proving beyond doubt that you can be a very good team without being even average on the offensive glass, the Wildcats make the Buckeyes look like Connecticut. Four out of every five times, NU is one-and-done on a miss. Their performance on the offensive boards is even worse than last year--and that's saying something.

9. Minnesota is really two different teams--see below.

10. Penn State presents an odd spectacle. On the one hand, their offense has made enormous progress over last year. They're one of four teams that have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the league in their ability to take care of the ball. And they attack the offensive boards....But then there's the defense. Remember how last year the Nittany Lions had one of the very worst defenses in "major"-conference basketball? This year it's worse. Yes, worse than last year. Penn State's allowing an unheard of 1.16 points per possession.

11. Purdue is doing everything in their power to say "Watch out next year." Unforeseen happenstantial wackiness can always betray what looks good on paper, granted (see no. 7, above). But returning four healthy bodies to a team that is already showing surprising resilience should bode well for the future in West Lafayette. (For one thing, this is the best outside shooting team in the Big Ten outside Columbus.)

The Gophers (2.0) are a very tough team
Minnesota beat Michigan State 69-55 in Minneapolis Saturday, as the Gophers did an outstanding job preventing the Spartans from getting out in transition. When you do that you pay a price in offensive boards--and sure enough Minnesota recorded an anemic 27.6 offensive rebound percentage. But on their end the Gophers held on to the ball and hit enough shots for the win. Adam Boone had arguably the best 10-point game of the year: eight assists, one turnover, two blocks and constant harassment of Drew Neitzel. Minnesota had five players in double figures. (Box score.)

It's not too much to say that since Dan Monson inserted Zach Puchtel and Jamal Abu-Shamala into the starting lineup four games ago, Minnesota's been re-born--or at least re-released. So Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Michigan were lucky. They won road games in Minneapolis against the markedly inferior Gopher 1.0 release. No such luck for Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois--the first two of which have already lost to Gophers 2.0 in Williams Arena.

The difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is simple: Minnesota has gone from having an atrocious offense to having a good offense:

Minnesota offense, first six games: 0.83 points per possession (PPP)
Last four games: 1.05 PPP

The Gophers are actually turning the ball over more often with their new-look lineup. But both their shooting and their offensive rebounding have improved dramatically. (Tellingly, Minnesota is shooting much better on their threes--perhaps because they're not shooting as many.)

Meanwhile the defense has gone from average to very good:

Minnesota defense, first six games: 1.01 opponent points per possession (Opp. PPP)
Last four games: 0.93 Opp. PPP

Improvement on D has been less pronounced than on offense but more widespread. Field goal defense, takeaways, defensive rebounding--all have gone from good to better in the past four games.

Monson deserves credit for seeing beyond the "talent" and inserting two players into the starting lineup who each bring something new and badly needed to the table. Abu-Shamala brings the threat of outside shooting. And Puchtel brings toughness.

BONUS love for Zach Puchtel!
The Harvard transfer and Gopher walk-on wouldn't seem to need any love from me--not when he's getting it from the likes of Mike Davis and Tom Izzo. But here goes: Puchtel is the first Big Ten player in a while to have that talent so ably demonstrated by former Illinois scrapper Lucas Johnson. That is, Puchtel clearly gets under opposing players' skins. (And just as clearly, and this is key, he enjoys it). True, he is, at 6-6, undersized (nice euphemism for "too short," that). But he's blessed with a Graham Brown-style barrel chest, his footwork is impeccable, and he fairly exudes a warrior mentality.

Nor is this just feel-good praise for a walk-on. Puchtel may indeed be a walk-on but that merely demonstrates an evaluative error on the part of those handing out scholarships.

Why do we lock in our adjectives so intransigently based on what was thought when a player was 17? Same question in the opposite direction for McDonald's All-Americans who don't pan out--why do we blame the player and not the patently erroneous evaluators? I pledge to henceforth banish the term "walk-on" from all subsequent references to Puchtel. See him for what he is now: a Big Ten starter and a very good one at that, period.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Team stats have been updated. Get on over to the sidebar and enjoy.

The weekend in Big Ten hoops--yesterday!
Ohio State pasted Illinois 69-53 in Columbus. The conflict at issue here was supposed to be between great shooting and great defense but only the former showed up. Jamar Butler and Je'Kel Foster combined for 11-of-14 shooting on their threes. ("Shoot, we've got guys who can't make free throws like that," Bruce Weber marveled.) Nor was the Illini D any more successful on the interior, where Terence Dials scored 19 points on 13 attempts (to go along with 16 boards). Illinois was never in this game--the first time that sequence of words has been apposite in almost two years, since the title game of the 2004 Big Ten Tournament. (Box score.)

The non-Minnesota-Michigan State weekend in Big Ten hoops--Saturday!
Iowa beat Indiana 70-67 in Bloomington in the single weirdest game of the year so far. Some Hoosier fans had pledged to attend this game dressed in black as a protest against the continued retention of Mike Davis as coach. Only problem there being Davis missed the game due to a flu bug. His absence led to rampant speculation among the IU faithful (go figure). Meantime a game was indeed played, one where Indiana was coached by assistant Donnie Marsh. There's no disgrace in losing to a good Iowa team by three, surely, even at home. It was the way the Hoosiers lost that was noteworthy. IU's players looked absolutely lifeless the entire game, as the Hawkeyes led by as many as 16 in the second half before letting Indiana back in the game by not hitting their free throws. "Lifeless" and a 21-17 dub-dub (posted by Marco Killingsworth) make an odd conceptual juxtaposition, granted, but there you are. Hoosier football coach Terry Hoeppner noticed the same thing, exhorting the crowd over the PA at halftime: "You're flat! You're flat!" (Box score.)

Purdue thumped Michigan 84-70 in West Lafayette. "UM Runs Into Another Hot Shooting Squad at Purdue," reads the headline on the official Wolverine site. It may be time for an intervention in Ann Arbor. ("If you do not agree to get help for your perimeter defense today, our relationship will change in the following ways. 1. I will now wear this mask whenever I watch you play defense"....) Attention, Michigan: maybe your behavior is, in part, enabling these outcomes. Outcomes like Marcus Green having a career day for the Boilers, scoring 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting. The Wolverines played without Lester Abram (ankle), Dion Harris (ditto), and Jerret Smith (mono). (Box score.)

Wisconsin dismantled Penn State 82-62 in State College. Kammron Taylor led the Badgers with 24 points on 6-of-7 shooting outside the arc. Brian Butch added a 23-12 dub-dub for U-Dub. BONUS note of statistical extremism! This game had fewer turnovers than any other Division I game this year: eight. Combined. From both teams. (Box score.)

Northwestern beat IPFW 73-49 in Evanston. (Box score.)

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