A weekly series on men's basketball in the Big Ten...
Welcome back Big Ten fans! By now, you've probably dug out of the piles of snow/ice/assorted farm animals littering your streets and driveways left by the great snowpocalypse of 2011. Or at least I hope so. If you're still snowed in somewhere, you might want to get on that. I hear cannibalism is less than fun.
Ahem, anyway, while the insanity of the blizzard may have lasted only a day, Big Ten basketball has been experiencing its own wave of crazy for the better part of two weeks. Upsets and near upsets have been the rule of the court these past few days. Some of these happenings were one-offs to be sure, but others have left us with serious questions about the fitness of certain teams for the tournament. And one team, a pre-season favorite, finds itself near to skidding off the tournament plateau all together.
Continuing with the format I introduced in past Basketball Digests, the teams in the Big Ten have been grouped into categories based on their likelihood of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection. (Yes, it's true that the winner of the Big Ten tournament gets an automatic bid, and theoretically any team could win the tournament, but... I'm writing from a rational universe, so I'm discounting that possibility.)
The Definites (RPIs from 1-20)
This category is populated by the teams who, as of this writing, have an RPI rank of between 1-20. When it comes to at-large selections, teams from non-mid-major conferences are generally locks all the way up to an RPI of 35, but the 1-20 range is also a good indicator of the teams that have a serious chance of winning the Big Ten tournament come March.
Ohio State (RPI Rank: 3)
It's been an interesting series of games for Ohio State. The still No. 1 ranked, still undefeated Buckeyes saw a stretch of three games that included a close win on the road at Illinois, an absolute domination at home against Purdue, and a very near upset to Northwestern. While the Buckeyes are so solid of a lock that it would take ten thundersnows directly over Columbus to push them out, these past games have raised questions about their vulnerabilities. They're still the best team in the conference and still the favorite to win the Big Ten tournament, but winning by only one point against a Wildcat team that looks NIT bound was a bit troubling to be sure.
The question then is, can we learn anything from the Northwestern game? What was it about the play of the Buckeyes that had them nearly lose there, and does it provide a roadmap for future opponents in the Big Ten or NCAA tournaments?
I'll use some of KenPom's formulas below to try to make sense of the box score of that game, but the first thing that should be noted is the pace. Northwestern, who was missing their best shooter in John Shurna, purposefully attempted to slow the game down, playing a style of offense that relies on bleeding down the shot clock to keep the final score of the game low.
The most critical point, though, came during a stretch of time when OSU went from being up by 13 to tied. They were still shooting well during this stretch, with an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 70%, though the Wildcats were better at 87.5%. But they had no offensive rebounds. On the entire game they had just 2 (non-team) offensive rebounds. This gives them an offensive rebound % (OR%) of 12.5%. Northwestern's OR% on the game was a respectable 33.8%. (Currently, on the season. OR% ranges from a low of 18.8 to a high of 44.6). Part of this discrepancy is the Wildcats out-rebounding OSU. Part of it is due to fouls. But either way, it's really important. Northwestern was able to out-shoot OSU during this span partly because of it. When you're opponent is out-rebounding you on both sides of the glass, they're getting more chances to make their shots and denying you chances to make yours.
What's this say for future OSU opponents? If you want to have a chance of beating them, you need to: slow down the game, make rebounding on both sides of the court a priority, and hope that by doing so you send OSU to the line. The Buckeyes currently rank 233rd in the country in free throw rate. If an opposing team can force OSU to try to score their points from the line, they stand a good chance of beating the Buckeyes.
Up Next: February 3rd vs. Michigan (6:00 P.M.), February 6th at Minnesota (1:00 P.M.), February 12th at Wisconsin (1:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: No question here, it's the Wisconsin game. Minnesota might be ranked higher right now, but they've been reeling lately. Yeah, Michigan took down a seriously questionable Michigan State team, but I doubt they can handle the Buckeyes. Wisconsin has been doing well so far, and it's important to note that they play a style of ball for every game similar to what Northwestern did against OSU. The game will be a good one.
Purdue (RPI Rank: 11)
Purdue currently ranks second in the conference in both RPI and AP Poll ranking, but their last four games make me seriously question that position. They won convincingly at home against Michigan State and Minnesota, but lost just nearly as badly on the road to both Ohio State and Wisconsin. Checking out the stats for these four games shows somewhat of a pattern. In the wins, Purdue's eFG% was 64% and 52.8%. Their opponents' were 52.3% and 47.1%. In the losses, Purdue's eFG% was 42.8% against OSU and 53.1% against Wisconsin. OSU had a 64.6% eFG in their Boilermaker game and Wisconsin had a 48.1%.
The difference in the shooting stats of the Boilermakers in the OSU game and in the other three games is pretty stark, and accounts for the blowout loss there. The same can be said of the Michigan State game, where it was Purdue's eFG% that was a ridiculous 64%. But, the shooting stats for Purdue in the games against Minnesota and Wisconsin are pretty similar. In those two games, one a victory and one a loss, Purdue had eFG%s of 52.8% and 53.1%. Minnesota and Wisconsin had eFG%s of 47.1% and 48.1%, respectively. But against Minnesota, they won by 12, and against Wisconsin they lost by 7. What happened?
The answer again can be found off the glass. In Purdue's loss to Wisconsin they had an OR% of 16.6%, or, really bad. In the win against Minnesota, by contrast, they had an offensive rebound % of 40%, nearly three times as good. On the defensive glass, however, the splits are pretty similar. Wisconsin had an OR% of 36.6, and Minnesota had one of 30%. The Minnesota and Wisconsin OR%s were pretty close to what Purdue's defense has been allowing all season - around 30.5%. But, Purdue's own OR% in the Wisconsin game was waaay off their season mark of 33.8%.
What's this say about the Boilermakers? Well, first off it says Purdue probably isn't going to dominate you on the defensive side of the glass. They allow their opponents to get offensive rebounds at a similar rate in both their wins and their losses. But the dramatic difference in offensive rebounds for Purdue does suggest that if you can find a way to stop their rebounding, to limit the length of their possessions, you can expose them.
Purdue's schedule really isn't getting any better, either. They get Ohio State and Wisconsin again, and have two dates with the Illini. They're projected as a 4 seed right now, but I think if they keep playing the way they have been lately, they'll probably end up around a 6 seed, and 5 if the selection committee is feeling charitable.
Up Next: February 8th vs. Indiana (6:00 P.M.), February 13th at Illinois (12:00 P.M.), February 16th vs. Wisconsin (5:30 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: I'm picking the Illini game here. Purdue hasn't seen Illinois yet, and this game should give us an idea of the seeding order in the Big Ten. I think Purdue is the conferences' 3rd best team, but if Illinois beats them? I'm not so sure...
Wisconsin (RPI Rank: 20)
Oh Wisky. What to make of you? You looked to be on a roll with a solid win over Indiana and an absolute thrashing of Northwestern. Then, your second half performance against Penn State made me question your mental and physical stamina. But, you took revenge on the Boilermakers once you were back at home. Are you the second best team in the Big Ten? A number 3 or 4 seed in a 5 seed's clothing? Or is your inability to close out weaker foes going to doom you to an early exit from the tourney again?
Truth is, I really don't know at this point. The Badgers looked nearly unstoppable against a Northwestern team that would soon take Ohio State to the wire. And then... Penn State. I mean it's good they rebounded against Purdue, but the NCAA tournament is a single elimination affair. Streaks don't matter, at least not in the loss column.
The Penn State game was very much a tale of two halves. The Badgers had an eFG% of 62.5 in the first half, with a ratio of 2pt attempts to 3pt attempts of 17-7. In the second half, by contrast, their eFG% plummeted all the way to 41%. And their 2pt-3pt attempt ratio got a lot more even at 15-13. Some of this was due to the Nittany Lions waking up and remembering how to play defense during the half. But, as big a part is due to the Badgers' frustrating persistence. That change in 2pt-3pt ratio is a bit worrisome. They weren't hitting those shots at the same rate as in the first half (50% 3pt FGM to 30% 3pt FGM) but they kept on trying anyway. In other words, they were throwing away possessions trying to shoot 3s, when they should have been going for the easy two a bit more often. That's how you turn a 9 pt lead into a 4 pt loss.
I still think the Badgers are a good team, but I don't think we'll know how good until they play OSU next weekend. It'll be at the Kohl Center, so I expect a close game, but a victory would make me much more confident in their tourney prospects this year.
Up Next: February 6th vs. Michigan State (12:00 P.M.), February 9th at Iowa (7:30 P.M.), February 12th vs. Ohio State (1:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: The February 6th date against Michigan State has upset potential for the Spartans, but only if Izzo can get his house in order within the next three days. I don't really think that's likely, so I'm going to go with the Ohio State game. With the way Purdue has looked lately, this is effectively a clash of No. 1. vs. No. 2 in the Big Ten, and perhaps a preview of the eventual Big Ten Tournament finale.
The Likelies (RPIs 21-35):
Teams in this range are almost certainly going to the tournament, and are currently hanging out around the 5-7 seed level. Because the Big Ten is not a mid-major conference, worries about snubs are really not a concern for us. But, if you're in this group, it means you've had at least one recent game that gives conference watchers pause...
Minnesota (RPI Rank: 25)
The Gophers sure have been reeling lately. Not as bad as Michigan State, to be sure, but enough to move them out of the definite pile and into the likely heap. Even though they won convincingly against Northwestern (has any team not won convincingly against Northwestern? Oh... Wait...), they lost just as badly to Purdue, and then dropped a game to Indiana. Yeesh.
Really, a lot of Minnesota's problems can be attributed to fate. They lost Devoe Joseph to transferring earlier this year, Trevor Mbakwe has been missing time due to legal troubles, and now their starting point guard, Al Nolen, is out for a while with a broken foot. When you lose two starters completely, and have a third miss time because of off the court issues, it's not hard to see how your game could suffer.
The loss of Nolen could really be seen in the Indiana game. Minnesota had a 42.5% eFG there, and while the Hoosiers were quite tenacious, some of that could be attributed to poor shot selection. This is reinforced by the fact that they actually rebounded decently well, with an OR% of 40.2. So, even though they were getting extra chances at shots, they still weren't making them at a good clip. Bad luck? Maybe. But probably also some bad decision making.
And things might only get worse for the Gophers from here on out. Mbakwe is due in court again in a mere four days, and who knows what the result of that will be. If they lose him too for significant time... well, it makes an early exit from the tournament very likely, assuming they're able to prevent their own Michigan State like swoon.
Up Next: February 6th vs. Ohio State (1:00 P.M.), February 10th vs. Illinois (8:00 P.M.), February 13th at Iowa (5:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: I don't like their chances against Ohio State - especially with Mbakwe's court date the very next day. That's a home game, so I expect he'll play, but with that in his mind, it's anyone's guess how well. I'm going to go with the game against the Illini. Despite Illinois' struggles, they're really making a push for the 3rd or 4th best team in the conference, and back-to-back games against Minneosta and Purdue will tell us how successful they'll be. On the Gopher side, they need to get a win against the Illini to show that they aren't going to pull a Michigan State on us.
Illinois (RPI Rank: 33)
Speaking of the Illini... it really seems like Illinois is developing a disturbing trend. Every loss, since their second to UIC, has been followed by another. Some, like dropping a game to a better Wisconsin team after the loss to Penn State, weren't surprising. But the most recent skid, where a five point home loss to OSU led to a loss at Indiana, are. They bounced back with a convincing win vs. the bubble team that is Penn State, but I still have questions about their ability to hang with better competition.
Others have touched on it, but a lot of this has to do with the problems that Demetri McCamey has been having lately. All of his major stats have dipped, and he really seems to be in a funk. This was part of the problem in the Indiana game. The Illini made just 25% of their 3pt attempts, and McCamey had more than a third of those attempts. The lack of shots made becomes an even bigger issue when you consider the fact that the Illini were letting themselves get out-rebounded by Indiana, who doesn't exactly have a size advantage on them. Measured by OR%, Illinois was actually doing better in grabbing potential offensive rebounds, but that's because Indiana out-shot Illinois to the tune of 42 eFG% to 36 eFG%. In other words, Indiana was landing more shots, creating fewer opportunities for them to even get offensive rebounds in the first place.
The Penn State game went much, much better of course. Even though McCamey still had his issues, the rest of the team was able to compensate, and they shot a full 16 percentage points better on the night than they did against Indiana. What really helped against the Nittany Lions, though, was the Illini taking away the 3pt shot. Penn State made 17 3pt attempts in that game, and made only 2 of them.
The bottom line for the Illini is that they really do have the talent to make a run in the Big Ten and NCAA tourneys, but they need to get McCamey going with consistency again. If he can get hot, and stay that way, they could go really far against slightly depleted Big Ten competition...
Up Next: February 5th at Northwestern (12:00 P.M.), February 10th at Minnesota (7:00 P.M.), February 13th vs. Purdue (12:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: I want to see how the Illini take on a reeling Gopher team. Can they show they belong in the top 3 or 4 of the conference? A big win there could lead to another at home against Purdue, which would really boost their tourney seed stock...
On the Bubble (RPIs 36-50):
Teams in this region are by no means assured to get a tournament berth. The closer to 35, the better, but really, you don't want to be in this group at all. Both of these teams need strong finishes to stay at a decent seed in the tourney or even make it in at all...
Michigan State (RPI Rank: 41)
Wow, Sparty. What on earth has happened to you? I know Korie Lucious was dismissed, but... well... it's not like the rest of your team has looked particularly good lately. Or even like they care. I can forgive those losses against Illinois and Purdue - both are pretty good teams in the conference. The loss against Michigan, though, was seriously disappointing. You were at home! Come on!
I think what's really more troubling were the back to back games against Indiana and last night's game against Iowa. Yes, they won the Indy game, but they're starting to make a trend out of going to overtime against teams that they should be able to put away. And that 20 point loss to the Hawkeyes? It's like they didn't even want to be playing basketball.
Let me put this plainly. Iowa is not a good team this year. Before the MSU game, they had a single conference win - against Indiana, before Indiana started getting things together. And Sparty lost by 20 to them. This game really wasn't close. And it really makes me question the effort on the part of the Spartans. Draymond Green was the only one who ended up with barely respectable stats on the night, but even he had his issues on defense throughout the game. Yeah, Michigan State out-rebounded Iowa, but that's only because they let Iowa make pretty much every shot the Hawkeyes took - okay, that's an exaggeration, but allowing a 60.5% eFG is not good - and the worst thing is, it wasn't just this game. This whole lack of shooting defense is becoming a trend. In their last five games, the Spartans have only held a team to under 60% eFG once. And in that game, the overtime win against Indiana, they allowed a 58% eFG. Where's the pressure? The fire? I just don't understand.
If anyone but Tom Izzo was coaching this team right now, I'd write them off from the tournament this year. But Izzo is a wizard, and he might still have some magic left in him. Thing is, he's got to turn this shit heap around quick, or we'll watch one of the most remarkable falls of a team in recent memory... pre-season No. 2 to the NIT.
Up Next: February 6th at Wisconsin (12:00 P.M.), February 10th vs. Penn State (6:00 P.M.), February 15th at Ohio State (7:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: With the way things have been going lately, the dates at Wisconsin and Ohio State are not going to be pretty. So I'm tapping the game against fellow bubble team Penn State as the best game to watch. If Michigan State wins by more than a couple, it might signal a righting of the ship. If they lose? Penn State might be tourney bound, and the Spartans, well...
Penn State (RPI Rank: 47)
Speak of the devil. Or speak of the Lions? Either way, Penn State is our next bubble team. They've been hanging around this RPI rank range all season, and constantly flit in and out of the bubble discussion. One week they're in the list of play-in games, the next they're out. This is because though they've been terribly inconsistent, they've had an ability to pull off the upsets just when they need them the most.
Though the 17 point loss to Illinois recently is... bad... a good chunk of that can be due to the loss of their best rebounder, Jeff Brooks, who was out for half of that game. He only dislocated his shoulder, though, so the Nittany Lions shouldn't be without him too long.
Still, Penn State doesn't have the Izzo magic like MSU does. It might be unfair, but the truth is they need to put together a better run to get tournament consideration than the Spartans do. Winning the next three against Michigan, MSU, and Northwestern would be a good step. After that, things get tough, with 4/5 of their last opponents being ranked teams. They have been able to get upsets there, so don't write those games off. I think, at max, they can get 4 more losses and still sneak into the back edges of the tournament. Max. Really, if they can somehow go 5-3 or 6-2 over the final stretch they'll be in a much safer position.
Up Next: February 6th vs. Michigan (11:00 A.M.), February 10th at Michigan State (6:00 P.M.), February 13th vs. Northwestern (2:30 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: Okay, so losing to either Michigan or Northwestern would be bad news for PSU, but I still think the MSU game is the one to watch. If they can make noise in a game like that on the road, then I really like their prospects of sneaking into the tournament...
On the Outside Looking In (RPIs 50+):
If you're here, then you're probably not going to the tournament. I say probably because the first couple of these teams are still theoretically in the discussion, but it will take either a huge run over the next eight games, or getting to the final game in the Big Ten Tournament to make it happen. Don't do either of those things, and these teams will either be in the NIT or sitting at home.
Michigan (RPI Rank: 71)
The Wolverines have been on a little bit of a run lately, after a disastrous game at Northwestern on January 18th. Yes, they dropped the very next game to Minnesota, but that was by only 5 points, which is pretty good for a match-up like that. Then they added a strong win on the road at Sparty, and a convincing performance versus Iowa.
The game against Sparty was really quite pretty for the Wolverines. A total 60.4 eFG% on the night compensated for iffy offensive rebounding. And, they had just enough defense in them to keep Michigan State below a 50% eFG. A lot of success for them in that game came by way of the 3. They made 10 out of 21 attempts, led by Zack Novak going 6-for-8.
I think, much like Northwestern below, Michigan is going to have an extremely difficult time sneaking into the tournament. They aren't quite dead yet, but, like the dude in Monty Python, they really aren't far off.
Still, this team is very young, and a strong finish this year could presage an NIT run, or perhaps a good season in 2011-2012.
Up Next: February 3rd at Ohio State (6:00 P.M.), February 6th at Penn State (11:00 A.M.), February 9th vs. Northwestern (5:30 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: The game against Ohio State is the type of game Michigan fans should watch through their fingers, with remotes at the ready to change the channel, much like their recent football games against the Buckeyes. But, the Penn State game, now there's one that could be exciting. If Michigan plays well they could definitely upset the Nittany Lions, and might even be the spoiler to PSU's tourney bid.
Northwestern (RPI Rank: 76)
As much as I hate to say it, Northwestern is probably done as far as the NCAA tournament goes. If they go undefeated over their next stretch, or drop only one or two, then maybe... but... I'm just not confident in their ability to do that at this point.
Yeah, that 1-pt loss against OSU was a nice moral victory, but that game is really emblematic of their season thus far. They can take better opponents down to the wire when they show up to play, but then they can't close it out. Without upsets of the like that PSU has been stringing together, they just don't have anything compelling on their tournament resume.
Still... if they're going to make a tournament run, it needs to start now. Against Illinois. They lost pretty bad on the road to them in January, but maybe they can squeak out a win this time around.
Keys to that game are going to be much much better offensive rebounding, and much better shot defense. In the last game against Illinois, the Wildcats allowed the Illini to have an 80.6 eFG%. That's ridiculous. They also were completely anemic when it came to offensive rebounds - with just a 16.2% OR. The rebounding problems compounded their inability to make baskets on the first attempt, which is why they had scoring issues.
I'd really like to see the Wildcats try a variation of their strategy against Ohio State on Illinois. The Illini's losses to inferior teams in Penn State and Indiana both saw them score 55 points or below. I think if the Wildcats can bleed out the shot clock and make smart shooting decisions, they might be able to pull off the upset.
Up Next: February 5th vs. Illinois (12:00 P.M.), February 9th at Michigan (5:30 P.M.), February 13th at Penn State (2:30 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: The game against the Illini. Make no mistake, of the upcoming trio, the Wildcats need that game the most. I just hope they realize it and show up.
Indiana (RPI Rank: 121)
Since I don't need to talk about Indiana's non-existent tournament prospects, I can have a bit more fun and focus on the good stuff, namely, their two major recent upsets. Tom Crean finally got his first win against a top 25 opponent when the Hoosiers managed to take Illinois to the wire and hang on. After a narrow overtime loss to the Spartans, Indiana would do it again against Minnesota, despite playing without one of their best players - Christian Watford.
So what made those two wins possible? Well, the first was basically the Jordan Hulls show - he went 6-for-9 on 2pters and 4-for-5 on 3pters, while grabbing 3 rebounds and being perfect from the line.
Despite that fact that he had a slight down night against Minnesota, the rest of the team stepped in, led by Tom Pritchard's big 5-for-5 night and Victor Olidapo's nine, yes, nine rebounds off the bench.
In particular, I was really impressed by Indiana's ability to grab the ball off the offensive glass in both games. That kind of effort and tenacity, against two teams that have significant size advantages on you, suggests that the Hoosiers are not a team to take lightly. When you add Cody Zeller to this mix, they will be a good team. Not top of the conference good, but they might just have enough to make the tourney next year...
Up Next: February 5th vs. Iowa (3:00 P.M.), February 8th at Purdue (6:00 P.M.), February 12th at Michigan (3:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: I'm seriously excited about the clash with Purdue. Don't get me wrong, Purdue is a superior team, and this will be on their turf... but Indiana has been playing well lately, and if they catch the Boilermakers napping, they might pull down their third victory over a ranked team in almost as many games.
Iowa (RPI Rank: 143)
Iowa basketball... not so good this year. Or really any year recently. But, hey, they did totally embarrass Michigan State the other night by 20 points, so that's a plus. Gotta take the good times where you can get ‘em.
After back-to-back 14 pt losses, it was nice to see the Hawkeyes show real fire against the Spartans. Say what you will about this season, but these kids haven't given up, and it's good to see them coming out to play even when there isn't much to look forward to down the road.
This game wasn't just a win... it was a throttling. Herky jumped all over Sparty pummeled him like they were in a bar fight. Iowa has a 60.5% eFG on the night, with Jarryd Cole going 6-for-6, and Matt Gatens making 2 out of 3 of his 3pt attempts, while also going 5-for-5 from the line. I think this game had to feel really good for Iowa, and I'm glad to see them do it. Unlike the Hoosiers, Iowa doesn't really have stellar future recruit news, but there's still room to grow. Maybe the NIT next year?
Up Next: February 5th at Indiana (3:00 P.M.), February 9th vs. Wisconsin (7:30 P.M.), February 13th vs. Minnesota (5:00 P.M.)
Best Game to Watch: The Indiana game could be interesting, but I'm also intrigued by the match-up against the Gophers, so that's the one I'm going to pick. Though the Hawkeyes lost to Minnesota by 10 the last time they met, the Gophers are in danger of starting a Michigan State like slide due to recent player injuries and other assorted troubles. And we remember what happened when a sliding MSU team came to visit Iowa, don't we?