Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Big Ten Hoops So Far

With the Holiday tournaments and B10/ACC Challenge behind us this a nice time to take a look around the league and see what's happened so far, and what we think we know about these teams.  So let's do this, power ranking style of course because we are on the internet after all.  As usual, all stats per kenpom.com. 

1.  WISCONSIN BADGERS.  I told you dopes that as much as it pained me to say that Wisconsin would be really good this year, and it appears I may have actually underrated them.  10-0 right now with wins over top 100 kenpom teams St. Johns (67), Florida (13), Green Bay (87), Saint Louis (28), West Virginia (60), Virginia (19), and Marquette (45).  That is freaking impressive and easily the best list of anybody in the Big Ten and maybe the nation but it's a lot of work to double check that so let's just run with it.  At this point kenpom projects them to win every game the rest of the year other than @Michigan and @Iowa (they don't travel to Columbus or East Lansing), so we're looking at a possible 29-2 with a ton of good wins - a #1 seed for the Badgers?

It's the same formula they use every year - super slow pace of play, good defense, good rebounding, and efficient shooting.  Frank Kaminsky is the newest big dumb slow fat white guy who has suddenly blossomed into a star under Bo Ryan and Sam Dekker has been as good as advertised.  The one problem they might have is they aren't very deep with the five starters all playing 28+ minutes and no bench guys playing more than 15, and their big time reliance offensively on the three pointer.  I suppose that's been their MO, so no need to worry too much.  This is a really good Badger team and it sucks.

Shout out to #1 Badger fan Matty Wisconsin.  Big fan, Yao Ming jersey wearer, and fastest beer chugger I've ever seen.  And he's on twitter!  @strykerpks.  Check it.  He follows @spaghettios and is a big fan of the Beer Stars.

2.  OHIO STATE BUCKEYES.  At 7-0 with two good wins (Maryland, Marquette) and two decent wins (Ohio, Wyoming) the Buckeyes haven't been seriously challenged (all wins by 10+) and they're doing it, no surprise, with their defense.  OSU ranks #1 in total defensive efficiency, #3 in opponents effective field goal %, and #10 in turning their opponent over.  Basically they will force turnovers all the time and when they don't it's really hard to make a shot against them.

Of course everyone expected Ohio State to be elite defensively, but the big question was how the Buckeyes would fare on offense with the loss of DeShaun Thomas.  Everyone wondered who would step up, and although nobody has really stepped into his place is hasn't mattered because everybody has upped their game just a bit and they're doing it by committee - six players average between 9.0 and 11.4 points per game.  It's weird to look at their stats because they only play nine guys - like, literally nine guys as only one other guy has played at all and only two games - and they all play 13+ minutes and all contribute. 

I thought Ohio State would struggle this year on the offensive end and that would knock them down a peg, but they're doing just fine as a collective group.  There may end up being some rebounding issues that could do them in, and they haven't played a truly great team (and won't until January) so there are still plenty of questions, but I'm impressed so far.  Great coaching job by Thad Matta, and I probably should have seen that coming.

3.  MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS.  I still think Sparty will probably end up the best team in this conference, but horrendous effort against North Carolina, particularly at home.  When was the last time Michigan State was out rebounded that badly (49-38)?  It helped that they shot so poorly, of course, and that's another good point because shooting just 40% from 2 is so bad you almost have to try to do that poorly, which would actually explain a lot about that game.

Obviously a loss to North Carolina doesn't wipe out all the good that the early win over Kentucky did, but they've struggled to pull away from teams all year and it's the kind of thing that could bite them in the ass come March.  Letting Oklahoma, Columbia, and Portland hang around is really not great considering those are the exact type of teams that Michigan State is likely to face in the first round of the tournament.  Of course, it's Tom Izzo here, so the team is likely to get better as the season goes on and I can't imagine an Izzo team ever getting bounced in the first round unless it's already happened and I don't remember and if it has don't remind me - I want to remember Izzo as I remember him, not all mixed up with facts and stuff.  That's for nerds.

4.  IOWA HAWKEYES.  They were everybody's sleeper for this year, and they've more than lived up to that billing.  Wins over Drake (#98), Xavier (#65), Notre Dame (#74), and an absolute stomping of UTEP (#90) make up a pretty good resume this early in the season, but Iowa's most impressive outing may have been their overtime loss to Villanova (#5).  The Hawkeyes had a double digit lead well into the second half before Nova got white hot to go up 7 with four minute left before Iowa clawed back to tie it up.

Roy Marble looks like he's going to be one of the top players in the conference this year, Aaron White has suddenly morphed into a complete player, and transfer Jarrod Uthoff is way, way better than I ever expected.  Those three have plenty of room to operate too, because the team's two point guards (Anthony Clemmons and Mike Gesell) both hate shooting and they don't really have a center.  Well they have three, but they're all pretty horrible and are basically the poster children for not developing past your freshman year (seriously they may as well have been coached by Tubby).  The Hawkeyes still don't shoot the ball very accurately, but they've done everything else so well this year that it's covered up that issue.  Interested to see what happens down the road.

5.  MICHIGAN WOLVERINES.  This is probably the hardest team to evaluate.  They have three losses, but all are explainable (the neutral court loss to Charlotte is a little head scratching, but it's not like they're a bad team).  Because of those losses (the other two were @Duke and @Iowa State) the only good win they have is against Florida State in overtime, and the rest are against scrubs.  Granted, they've taken care of business against said scrubs and their advanced metrics look good (ranked #27 overall), but there's nothing truly impressive at all in the results, so I mostly have them at #5 based on the belief that they'll come around.

I expect they will mainly because they haven't struggled the way I expected after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, in that they're taking care of the ball just fine (14th best in TO%).  They're still missing out on that driving ability Burke and Hardaway had, although Nik Stauskas is doing his best to fill that role.  Right now they only have three real offensive threats, and Glen Robinson seems to be regressing and I have trouble believing Caris LeVert is for real (mainly because of that terrible name).  I expect Michigan to end up a Top 25 team, but I won't be shocked if they don't.

6.  MINNESOTA GOPHERS.  I believe I had them at seven when I did my preseason rankings, so this says I'm impressed enough to move them up a spot, which I suppose is a good thing.  I still have one jillion questions about this team, and unfortunately none of them are going to be answered until conference play starts in January because the next three opponents are pretty much worthless as a measuring tool.  The rebounding and interior defense will likely continue to be an issue, but Drizzy Matheiu is better than I could have hoped and the guards are going to keep them in a bunch of games and maybe even manage to sneak out and upset or two.  I still don't think this is quite an NCAA Tournament team, but it's getting closer.  That win over Florida State impressed me.  Looking forward to Big Ten play.

7.  INDIANA HOOSIERS.  I get this impression that people think Indiana is good and guess what?  They really aren't.  What have they done besides show everyone how big a chucker supposed "point guard" Yogi Ferrell really is?  Ok, sure they played a great game against UCONN that went down to the wire.  Ok, I'll give you that one.  But then they got crushed by Syracuse and they have nothing else on the resume.  The win against Washington sounds good, but the Huskies are absolutely terrible.  The win over Stony Brook is probably their best win.  I actually think the Hoosiers are less likely to bomb out than Michigan, but there are plenty of questions here.

Basically with so many players suddenly thrust into new roles with everything they lost last year the team is struggling with who fits where and how to play together.  Thus they're turning the ball over at an alarming rate (21.5% of possessions, ranks 310th) and just not sharing the ball well (328th in assists per field goal).  It probably does help when your point guard shoots all the time, but he's also their most efficient player so what do you do? They're very talented and very deep, so a great coach like Tom Crean I'm sure will eventually get this all straightened out.

Ha ha just kidding Crean sucks and is a terrible person and I hope he burns the program to the ground.

8.  ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI.  Illinois has a nice shiny 8-1 record, but it's a completely empty 8-1 record.  There isn't a single good win on that resume.  A win over UNLV sounds good, until you realize that UNLV is a shitbox this year, and Valpo is the only other win they have that's even close to going to matter at the end of the year.  They had a good chance at a quality win on the road against a somewhat frisky Georgia Tech team, but they let the Yellow Jackets finish the game on a 19-4 run so Illinois lost by three.

Despite a new coach and a whole new group of players they're still doing the traditional Illinois thing where they like to sit around and shoot jump shots.  And, also a tradition at Illinois, they're not very good at having those jump shots go in.  Luckily, thus far, they've been extremely good at rebounding their own misses, something that is unlikely to continue once we get into Big Ten play.  They don't create turnovers at all, either, which means their only means of getting extra possessions is by those offensive boards, and, like I said earlier if you were paying attention, I doubt that keeps up against Big Ten teams. 

9.  PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS.  I don't know what it is about my attraction to Penn State but I can't stop being infatuated.  I'm like Freddie Prinze looking at Jessica Biel.  No wait that one made sense.  More like I'm some handsome devil like Ryan Gosling and I ended up falling in love with that lumpy chick from Girls.  Penn State has all kinds of flaws and I shouldn't be attracted to their fat ass and busted teeth, but there are enough good things here that I keep overlooking those flaws and fixating on that great personality, sense of humor, and alcoholism.

Ok that was a pretty tortuous analogy, but the point is that Penn State is probably horrible but I love them anyway.  A couple of really good guards including maybe the best one in the conference, a team that never turns the ball over and shoots well, a patchwork front court that fits together just well enough to be dangerous, and a horrible defense that ensures their games are going to entertaining.  Then they get a sharp shooting transfer from Pitt eligible in the second semester.  They haven't necessarily done anything impressive, but they do have wins over St. John's and LaSalle.  I dunno, I'm rooting for them.  WHAT'S WRONG WITH ME!??!?!

10. NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS.  Nebraska has actually been a pleasant surprise this year.  Pleasant as in I, and many others, expected them to be completely horrible, while instead they've been somewhat competent. Wins over Miami and Georgia aren't great, but they're solid enough, and they've been competitive against good teams like Creighton, UAB, and UMass.  The advanced metrics aren't great as they're the only Big 10 team outside the top 100 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (a near loss to Northern Illinois and they're 305 ranking doesn't help things), but they are looking better than they have the last couple of years.

Tai Webster, the much heralded freshman point guard from New Zealand, hasn't worked out as well as hoped yet as he struggles with his shot and turns the ball over far too frequently, but those are problems most freshman point guards deal with so there's no reason to panic.  The Huskers have gotten solid play from their transfers, with Terran Petteway (Texas Tech), Deverell Biggs (Juco, reshirted last year), and Walter Pitchford (Florida) all in the team's top four in scoring and rebounding.  Perhaps Nebraska is taking a page out of Iowa State's and becoming transfer U.  No just kidding. 

11.  PURDUE BOILERMAKERS.  Purdue beat Boston College 88-67 in the Big 10/ACC Challenge, and I feel confident in saying that's the first good thing they've done all year.  Really.  Despite being 8-2, before beating BC and following that up by beating Eastern Michigan this weekend, the Boilers wins were all over teams outside the Top 208 with four of those wins by less than double figures.  One loss was fine (to Oklahoma State) but the other was pretty wretched (to Washington State).

What's gone wrong?  They're just thoroughly mediocre as Matt Painter has been unable to bring in top tier talent lately.  Nine of the twelve Big 10 teams could be consider elite offensively or defensively, but Purdue (along with Northwestern and Nebraska) is just blah.  The Boilers are playing at a lightning quick pace, their fastest ever under Painter, perhaps due to their overall lack of size, but it's not translating to easy baskets, and they're giving up way too many easy ones on the other end.  Purdue is going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.  They're really bad.

12.  NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS.  I cannot think of a single good thing to say about Northwestern this year other than that they probably have a really good combined IQ.  They've basically been crushed by every single decent team they've played so far while sneaking wins against crap teams.  This is how it's going:  Northwestern is ranked #140 overall by kenpom's advanced metrics.  The next worst team in the Big Ten is Nebraska all the way up at #92.  There isn't a worse team in the ACC.  There's just one worse in the Pac-12 and Big 12, and two worse in the Big East.  They've been one of the worst teams in major conference basketball.

They're the worst team in the conference in offensive efficiency, and the second worst in defensive efficiency.  I thought the return of Drew Crawford would mean this team would have an outside chance to rise to the level of competitive, and he's been fine, but the rest of the team has been crap.  Dave Sobolewski has been absolute garbage, Alex Olah is putting up embarrassing rebounding numbers for a seven footer, and Tre Demps is still a terrible chucker.  Chris Collins will likely find a way to make the program more competitive, and he's already got a nice recruiting class for next season coming in, but this year is the kind of year where a team with tournament aspirations needs to sweep Northwestern.  Which, as you know, means the Gophers are headed to splitsville.  Come on Pitino, break that curse that I just made up.

So that's where we stand with just a few short weeks to go until conference play.  I see three teams with a shot at a #1 seed, two others who are almost certain to get bids, and then a small group of teams who will be around the bubble.  I think the Gophers and Indiana are a step ahead of teams like Illinois and Penn State, but as usual it's going to come down to who defends home court and who can steal some games.  I'm happy to say I see the Gophers right in the mix for a bid at this point, so hopefully that keeps up.  Should be a pretty entertaining league this year with a lot of teams very close together in talent and skill level.  Avoiding losses to the bottom three teams will be key.

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