Now that this blog is over a year old, we can establish traditions simply by doing exactly what we did the previous year. And, last year, I previewed the Big Ten conference season by producing a tempo-free aerial based on the 11 Big Ten teams’ nonconference efficiency ratings. To review:
- Offensive efficiency is points scored per 100 possessions. Defensive efficiency is points allowed per 100 possessions.
- I’m using Kenpom’s “adjusted” efficiency numbers, which account for the quality of a team’s opposition. (Big Ten data; note that I pulled the numbers on Monday.)
- Instead of using 100 as the center points of each axis, as we would for in-conference play, I’ve used 110 for offense and 90 for defense. Those numbers are very close to the Big Ten averages in nonconference play.
- Ideally, you want to be in the upper, right-hand corner of the scatterplot, indicating you excel on both ends of the court.
- Teams in the upper, left-hand corner are better on defense than on offense. Vice versa for the lower, right-hand corner.
Without further ado:
Pretty tough to read those tea leaves.
Last season, we could draw three downward-sloping lines (going from the upper, left-hand corner to the bottom right-hand corner) to neatly separate the 11 teams into four groups. Only two teams ended up finishing outside their respective pre-conference-season groups in the final conference standings: Illinois (due to some combination of bad luck and horrific free throw shooting) and Purdue (due to their stupendous, continuously-improving freshmen).
This year, the only neat downward-sloping line you can draw is between Indiana and the other ten teams in the conference. I decided not to expand the offensive efficiency axis to include the Hoosiers on the graph. Go to the end of the arrow and then continue on to the left for another quadrant width to get to their appropriate placement relative to the rest of the conference.
Among the other ten teams, you can draw an upward-sloping line that cleanly separates the four teams at the top from the six teams at the bottom. Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois, and Northwestern have all excelled defensively to date. The other six teams have been much less impressive on defense, but–with the exception of Penn State–have all been above average on offense.
Among the defensive-oriented group, Illinois has also managed to build an offensive efficiency rating above 110. In fact, the Illini are the only team in the conference in the upper, right-hand quadrant. Normally, you’d expect to see multiple teams located there. Putting aside Indiana and Illinois, everyone’s good at something, but no one appears to be good at everything yet.
Before we try to make any predictions, let’s add to the air of uncertainty surrounding the conference at this point, by posing a key question for each Big Ten team:
- Illinois: Can they score against Big Ten defenses?
Despite their 5-13 conference finish, the Illini were a very solid defensive team last season. They just couldn’t score. This season the results are much more promising so far–their 3-point shooting percentage has jumped from 31.9% to 39.4%–but they’ve only played two teams rated by Kenpom as top-50 quality.
- Indiana: Can they win a game in conference play?
When your turnover percentage (28.9%) is higher than your 3-point shooting percentage (28.6%), you’re in a whole heap of trouble.
- Iowa: Where’d these guys learn to shoot the basketball over the summer?
Last year’s team shooting line was .483/.347/.649. This year’s line is .539/.402/.744. Freshman Matt Gatens (.442/.556/.958) and sophomore Jeff Peterson (.538/.474/.867) lead the way. And they’ve stopped turning the ball over every fourth possession, to boot. Rebounding will be the challenge, with very little up front to go with Cyrus Tate.
- Michigan: Is Laval Lucas-Perry the third scorer the team needs?
The Wolverines have been the best offensive team in the conference by a wide margin. But it’s been based almost exclusively on the performances of Manny Harris (31.6% usage rate) and DeShawn Sims (26.0%). No one else who’s played nine or more games has a usage rate above 20.0%. Given that the 1-3-1 still isn’t being utilized effectively, this team will have to win with offense. Consistency will be the challenge. And Lucas-Perry’s 9-13 start shooting the ball from three-point range after becoming eligible to play this semester is encouraging for Wolverine fans.
- Michigan State: Can we get some defense here?
Between the transition game and the multiple low-post options, we expect MSU should be able to score the ball. But the perimeter defense has been shaky. Allowing opponents to shoot 35.3% from beyond the arc is a negative indicator heading into 18 games in the most three-point intensive major conference in the country.
- Minnesota: Can you have too much balance?
Point guard Al Nolen is the only Gopher playing more than 57% of the team’s minutes. Eight players are scoring 5 points or more per game, but none is scoring more than 13 points per game. Minnesota has been very efficient offensively in going undefeated in nonconference play, but they’ve played only one top-75 team. Can they continue to score efficiently in conference play, or are they just a nice collection of role players?
- Northwestern: Does their 1-3-1 zone really work?
Ideally, a 1-3-1 zone should force both turnovers and tough shots (the weakness of the scheme being rebounding). Last year, the Wildcats forced a lot of turnovers but very, very few tough shots, as they allowed their opponents to post an effective FG% of 56.8%. This year, they’re doing both. Opponents are shooting just 41.6% on 2-point attempts, as Northwestern’s block percentage has jumped from 7.0% to 11.9%. Again, the schedule is the question–with just one top-50 team played to date.
- Ohio State: Who’s going to knock down some jump shots?
Thad Matta once again has a young Buckeye team playing very good defense (Saturday’s performance against West Virginia excepted). But the loss of Jamar Butler shows on offense, with the team shooting just 32.2% from 3-point range. And Anthony Crater’s transfer means Juco transfer Jeremie Simmons is the only player resembling a point guard left on the roster. Evan Turner can’t do it all.
- Penn State: Are their guards really this good?
They’re bizarro IU, with a 3-point shooting percentage (40.2%) nearly two and a half times greater than their turnover percentage (16.6%). Talor Battle (43.2% and 12.9%, respectively) leads the way. Without a single top-50 opponent played to date, though, we’ll hold off on proclaiming them the next great Big Ten POT.
- Purdue: Can anyone score on them?
Based on adjusted defensive efficiency, the Boilermakers are the stingiest team in the entire nation. In addition to forcing their opponents to turn the ball over on 26.8% of possessions, they’re holding their foes to a 2-point shooting percentage of 37.6%–pretty remarkable for a team that almost always has only one true big man on the floor. And no one in the conference, outside of our Spartans, has too much to throw at them in terms of low-post threats. The key for Purdue will be finding enough scoring to not drop a few games played in the 50s. Robbie Hummel (43.1%) has been their only consistent 3-point threat to date, which could be an issue for a team that has 3 or 4 guards in its lineup at any given time.
- Wisconsin: Who’s the defensive stopper?
The Badgers have never seemed to miss a beat when a star graduates, but Michael Flowers could turn out to be the exception. Usually you worry about a team missing its star on the offensive end, but in this case it’s the defensive end that’s the concern. Without Flowers available to lock down the opponent’s top scorer, Wisconsin’s defensive 2-point percentage has jumped 5 points and its defensive 3-point percentage has jumped 3 points. Can Hughes, Bohannon, and Krabenhoft keep up with the top guards in the conference?
Add that all up and no prediction beyond Indiana finishing last seems safe. Nevertheless, here’s my best shot at predicting the final conference standings:
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State
The words “grain of salt” come to my mind. Purdue and MSU are at the top largely because they have the most talent on paper; Purdue has utilized that talent more effectively to date. You can make a pretty solid argument for any order among the teams I have between #3 and #8, and Iowa and Penn State look a lot better than teams that will end up in the bottom quarter of the conference standings.
At this point, my preseason expectations of MSU going 15-3 in conference play definitely looks to be on the high side. The over/under on NCAA tournament teams from the Big Ten stands at six. Outside of the two games against the Hoosiers, and maybe the home games against Penn State and Iowa, nothing looks like a gimme at this point. 13 or 14 wins is now a more realistic goal, as well as being the threshold to be in the running for a conference title. To me, Purdue is the only team with the potential to put up 15 or 16 wins, but that will require 3-point shooting breaking their way in an extremely favorable manner.
In any event, settle in for two and a half months of what should be a very entertaining Big Ten conference season, starting with Illinois-Purdue tonight (7:00, ESPN2).