Out in front - Andy Lyons
Roughly halfway through the non-conference slate it's time to take a look at how the conference is shaking out. Purdue's scuffling and Illinois and Minnesota are soaring, but that's really the closest thing to surprises we've got. A tie in the ACC/Big Ten challenge kept the trophy but proved a bit of an embarrassment for the B1G, but the conference remains atop Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings by a comfortable margin.
1. Indiana (8-0 beat Georgetown and UNC)
To this point Indiana has lived up to the hype, blowing out North Carolina and registering an average 29-point margin of victory. The offense in particular has been overpowering as they stand at number one in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings and are scoring at a 1.22 PPP (points per possession) clip, second only to Arizona nationally.
The number one question heading into this season, defensive efficiency, is so far being answered effectively as well. The Hoosiers are 5th in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings and they are allowing just 0.78 PPP for a gaudy efficiency margin of 0.44 PPP. And they're doing it with a deep roster: 9 guys are playing at least 11 minutes a game and no one more than 28.
However, I'm not ready to hand the trophy to Tom Crean quite yet. The other major question facing them, winning outside of Assembly Hall, has not been answered in a resounding way. Their only two neutral site games (no true road games yet) were by far their two toughest and being taken to OT by Georgetown suggests that a tough defense might be able to slow them down enough to make it a contest. (Sort of. IU still scored 82 points in 70 trips.) We're not going to know much more until the conference schedule starts, as it's cupcake city, Butler being the only remaining game of moderate interest.
2. Michigan (7-0 beat Pitt, Kansas St and NC St)
In most years the Wolverines would be in a position to claim the top spot after their dominating start to the season. Their average margin has been 20 points, but against much stiffer competition than the punching bags Indiana has faced
Michigan's success has been largely driven by the offense (1.19 PPP), particularly the spectacular play of their 4 freshmen: Spike Albrecht, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and especially Nik Stauskas.
Dan Hanner published a look at how the top 80 freshmen are playing so far and it makes it clear just how extraordinarily above average Michigan's freshmen have been.
|Glenn Robinson III||131.2||79.3||18.7||17.0|
Stauskas has been so good that he has at least Hanner wondering whether he could even be a one-and-done since he's 6-foot-6 and appears able to play the 2. His shooting line has been positively otherworldly: .957 FT%/.522 2P%/.621 3P%. But before we put him next to David Stern in an ill-fitting suit it might be a good idea to remember this similarly terrific shooting line: .719/.565/.579. Those were Evan Smotrycz's splits in the non-conference last year.
3. Ohio State (5-1 beat Washington, lost to Duke)
I was tempted to rank Ohio State a bit lower here, as in their only real test so far they were solid for a half against Duke before fading badly and taking the loss. There's no shame in losing to Duke at Cameron, but it also doesn't provide much of a barometer for how good the Buckeyes really are. Offense is apparently not going to be a problem: almost no regular has an offensive rating under 100 (Sam Thompson is at 98.5) and Deshaun Thomas in particular has been spectacular with a shooting line of (.913/.526/.441), although his willingness to play the elite level defense Thad Matta normally expects remains in question.
Basically the Buckeyes have performed as advertised, but haven't delivered anything more. Their efficiency margin is a solid 0.21 PPP, but against a non-Duke opposition with an average Pomeroy rank of above 200 that's not especially remarkable. Ohio State has played fewer games than the rest of the conference, and we do need to see more data. The only halfway interesting game left for them is a home contest against Kansas, and their only true road game - Duke - was forced on them by the conference. So the jury's still out.
Interesting note: Matta is perhaps more flexible than we imagined, as he's really lengthened the bench so far this year. 8 different guys are playing at least 15 minutes, including Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel who have combined to do a great job backfilling for the departed Jared Sullinger on the offensive glass. They do seem to be missing Sullinger's contributions on the other end, however, as they are allowing opponents to grab 30% of their own misses back, down from 25.1 for the entire year last year.
4. Minnesota (8-1 beat Memphis, Stanford, Fla St, lost to Duke)
I thought Minnesota was a team on the rise and they've really been impressive this year, largely without a big contribution from star Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe has been playing less than 20 minutes a game with a modest diet of shots (19%) but he's been a beast on the glass at both ends when he's in there. Sophomore point guard Andre Hollins has picked up where he left off last season, Austin Hollins has been terrific at both ends of the court and Rodney Williams is continuing in his Branden Dawson role (63% on twos).
The high general productivity of his players has enabled Tubby Smith to employ the ball-hawking, high-intensity, frequent substitution style he loves. 11 guys are playing at least 8 minutes a game and they are forcing a lot of turnovers (24% def. TO%). Unfortunately the offense is turning it over almost as often (22.7%), which could be their Achilles heel. For now, though, the Gophers have climbed to #9 in the Pomeroys and look like a formidable foe in the conference.
Odd fact: Minnesota is the top offensive rebounding team in the land, recovering just short of half their own misses at 49.3% OR% (which makes up for a lot of turnovers, by the way). And they've been very nearly as bad on the defensive glass, allowing opponents to get back almost 40% of their own errant shots. Lots of second chances in Gopher games.
5. Illinois (8-0 beat Butler, Ga Tech)
Against an admittedly tissue-soft schedule, Illinois is off to a flying start. Most noticeable is a surprisingly efficient offense which is scoring at 1.11 PPP without any noticable fall-off in defense. John Groce is getting solid contributions from expected (Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson) and unexpected (Tyler Griffey) sources in leading Illinois to an 8-0 start. I haven't seen enough Illini games to know just how much point guard Brandon Paul is playing, but the experiment, or whatever Groce is doing, seems to be working as the numbers suggest Paul's consistency and decision-making have significantly improved: 1.7 assists/TO, up from 0.9 last year.
We still don't know a lot for sure about Illinois, but we will soon. They go to Gonzaga in a true road game against an extremely strong team and have Missouri in a neutral site game as well.
Odd fact: Illinois is still not getting to the foul line, an enduring characteristic of Bruce Weber's teams but not John Groce's Ohio squads, who were generally middle-of-the-pack in this regard. The Illini are currently shooting only 3 free-throws for every 10 shots they take, which puts them at #279 in the country.
6. Michigan State (6-2 beat Kansas, lost to UConn, Miami)
KJ's pretty much got this one covered, at least from an individual player perspective. From a team perspective the Spartans have been perhaps mildly disappointing but, given injuries and youth, results can't be too much of a surprise. The tough part of the schedule is behind them now and they have 4 games against less-than fearsome opposition left to get healthy and get their rotations set before facing Texas on December 22.
From a team perspective the defense has been the bright spot. They're still making it tough to score (42.6 opp eFG%) and have been excellent on the glass. It's easy to forget that a lot of Draymond Green's rebounds were rebounds the rest of the team might have had anyway and the Spartans don't seem to be missing a beat in that department. They're even forcing a few turnovers (21% opp TO rate) thanks to Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris.
The bad, as if I had to tell you, is turnovers (22.7% TO rate) and three-point shooting (31.8%). It's hard to know about the 3-point shooting, but Izzo is usually able to bring the TOs down from horrendous to merely bad by the end of the year.
7. Wisconsin (4-3 lost to Fla, Creighton, UVa)
After three losses so far, including one at home to Virgina, there's a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the Badgers, including speculation that they might miss the Tournament for the first time in the Bo Ryan era. I'll believe it when I see it. They're clearly missing the contributions of injured point guard Josh Gasser and, although they have looked bad at times, most notably against Florida on national televsion, there are some suggestions that they're running into some bad luck as well. For example, opponents are shooting 75% against them from the free-throw line - 84% in their losses - and they're shooting an uncharacteristically low 66.7% themselves, some of which can be attributed to Ryan Evans' atrocious 13-32 performance.
Speaking of Evans, Bo Ryan would probably be well-advised to try and shift some of his share of the offense (25% shot%, .406 FT%/.466 2P%/.077 3P%) to rookie Sam Dekker (.600/.562/.480), who is only playing 20 minutes a game. Ryan's reluctance to use freshman is well known, but it's hard to see a lot of other Badgers able to generate offense like Dekker can.
The first sign of a recovery was Wisconsin's destruction of previously unbeaten Cal. A reasonably tough rivalry game at Marquette remains but otherwise they should be fattening up their Pomeroy ranking on a bunch of cupcakes and we may need to wait till 2013 and the start of conference play to get a real read on this Badger team.
8. Iowa (6-2 lost to Wich St, Va Tech)
Iowa is the only team I haven't seen play yet but the numbers suggest that Fran McCaffery's squad may not be quite ready to jump into title contention in the B1G just yet. They dropped their only true tests of the season to Wichita State in Cancun and at Virginia Tech but have dispatched the usual array of non-conference doormats with satisfactory prejudice.
Neither the offense nor the defense has been spectacular or spectacularly bad, which is actually an improvement for the defense, which struggled mightily to contest shots last year. They're playing McCaffery's brand of creating turnovers (21.4% defensive TO rate) without fouling (30.4 opponent free-throw rate) but are getting worn out a bit on the defensive glass, where opponents are getting second chances on 1 out of 3 shots. Melsahn Basabe is still struggling to get back to his freshman year form and his normally exemplary defensive rebounding is significantly down this year, to 14% from 18.4 and 19.6 the prior two years.
Somewhat surprising to me is how little Adam Woodbury is playing as a 7-footer who's hitting 58% of his twos and rebounding at both ends - he's starting but only logging 17 minutes a game. On the other hand, McCaffery has 11 guys playing at least 7 minutes and I would expect the bench to shorten up some as rotations are finalized.
In-state rivalry games with Iowa State and Northern Iowa are the remaining tests for the Hawkeyes and they should give us a better idea of where the rebuilding program in Ames stands at this point.
9. Northwestern (6-2 beat Ill St, lost to Maryland, UIC)
It has the look of a long season in Evanston, where NU has dropped their last two after starting 6-0. And they weren't exactly losing to Duke or Florida. Maryland is at #67 in Pomeroy's rankings while they took a bad loss at home to #145 Illinois-Chicago. The offense is clearly struggling to replace all-time leading scorer John Shurna while the defense has been pretty much what it always is under Carmody: meh to bad.
Drew Crawford has not stepped up as much as they probably needed him to (101.5 ORtg, 24.3% usage) and, though he's getting help from Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, who's shooting .909/.500/.364 and Reggie Hearn (.636/.621/.500), the rest of the team is not taking on much of the offensive load.
With games against Butler, Baylor and Stanford remaining the Wildcats probably need to take at least two of those to have any realistic shot at the Tournament this year and the NIT is looking more and more like the ceiling.
10. Purdue (3-4 beat Clemson, lost to Bucknell, Villanova, Oregon St, and Xavier)
This figured to be a rebuilding year for the Boilermakers, but things have been a bit rocky even so. Their win at Clemson was crucial to the Big Ten escaping with a tie in the ACC/Big Ten challenge, but they've lost every other tough non-conference game they've had, two of them at home. If they lose to Notre Dame, who has already beaten Kentucky, they'll almost have to have a winning conference record, a tall order, to have a chance at the tournament. The Big Ten Geeks, in fact, just took a look at this issue yesterday.
An indication that these may not be your usual Boilermakers can be seen in the chart below. Part of Purdue's identity under Matt Painter has always been forcing turnovers on defense, avoiding them on offense and being solid if not spectacular from beyond the arc. This year's team seems to be diverging from the past, in the wrong direction, in all of those areas.
11. Nebraska (5-1 lost to Kent St)
I was pretty sure Nebraska would have no close company in the B1G cellar this year after losing practically all their production from a team that was already pretty awful. Seems there's more in Tim Miles' cupboard than I imagined. It turns out that Andre Almeida is not only built like Josh Smith but he has a similar touch around the basket. He looked terrific in their Challenge domination of (an admittedly horrible) Wake Forest team and was recently named the conference's player of the week. Combined with terrific shooting from Brandon Ubel and Ray Gallegos it might be enough to keep Nebraska out of that cellar.
12. Penn State (4-3 beat Bucknell, lost to NC St, Akron and BC)
For a while I was wondering if there might be an interesting battle for the conference cellar. Penn State lost star point guard Tim Frazier for the season with an achilles injury and there are few teams more dependent on a single player than the Nittany Lions were on Frazier. When he went down he was using 31% of his team's possessions and doing pretty much everything on the court. Surprisingly PSU put it together the next game to beat the same Bucknell team that had handed Purdue a loss in Mackey. Things seem to have gone south since then, however, with DJ Newbill attempting to single-handedly assume Frazier's role, just not quite as well and with no second banana of his own, though freshman Brandon Taylor has stepped up some. Other than Jermaine Marshall, though, there's just no one else on this team that can, or is willing to, score.