The toils of blogging once again having worn me down physically, mentally, and spiritually, I am retreating to warmer climates tomorrow for a seven-day stay. I do plan to blog more regularly while on vacation than I have in the past, but content intensity will likely be down through next Saturday.
The Conference Schedule
After seemingly getting hosed by the Big Ten schedule maker every season the conference utilized the 16-game format, this year’s schedule finally gives us an advantage (albeit a relatively small one), in the conference title race. We don’t have to make the dreaded trip to Madison, and we won’t have to face our suddenly-giant-slaying in-state rivals at home.
I’d rank the schedules of the seven teams with conceivable hopes of competing for the regular season championship as follows (from most to least favorable):
- Michigan State (Michigan, at Wisconsin)
- Wisconsin (Michigan State, at Ohio State)
- Minnesota (Iowa, at Purdue)
- Ohio State (Wisconsin, at Penn State)
- Illinois (Northwestern, at Iowa)
- Michigan (Indiana, at Michigan State)
- Purdue (Minnesota, at Indiana)
(Full list is here. But home/away designations are inverted.)
Northwestern Game Preview
7:00 Saturday. Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Illinois. Big Ten Network.
Northwestern comes in with an un-Northwesternlike record of 8-3. The losses are all against quality teams on the road: Butler, Stanford, and Penn State. The wins are, for the most part, against patsies. The Wildcats’ best win was a 14-point home victory over Florida State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Statistically, Northwestern is much improved over last season, even accounting for schedule strength. They rank 69th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Wildcats have held all but one opponent under a point per possession offensively. Their strengths have been (1) forcing turnovers and (2) forcing tough shots. The first strength is not surprising, as their defensive turnover percentage of 25.6% is only slightly higher than last year’s 24.3%. The 1-3-1 zone continues to force opponents into bad decisions.
The sea change has come in the effective field goal % department. That figure has plummeted from 56.8% last season to 43.7% this season. Opponents are shooting just 39.9% from 2-point range. One factor appears to be Northwestern’s increased depth up front. Five players, three of whom are freshman, have block percentages of 3.0% or better.
The key, as always, against the Northwestern zone is holding on to the ball and making good passes to create good shots. Hopefully, Allen, Lucas, and Summers can knock down some 3-pointers. But it will also be incumbent on Goran Suton and the other frontline players to pass the ball well on the interior. If Delvon Roe can’t play again, that’ll hurt the interior passing options somewhat. Raymar Morgan’s increased assist totals of late are a good sign, though.
On offense, effective field goal % is also the big change. The Wildcats still take care of the ball (TO% of 19.2%) and can’t rebound a lick (OffReb% of 28.6%). But they’re shooting the ball a lot better this season. Four players are taking more than two 3-pointers per game, and all four are making at least 38% of their attempts. Senior guard Craig Moore leads the way with 35 made 3-pointers, shooting 46.7% and averaging 13.5 points/game. The MSU guards will have to defend the perimeter at least as well as they did against Minnesota, as the Wildcats have more outside shooting threats than the Gophers did.
On the interior, Northwestern’s top six shooters are all hitting at least 50.0% of their 2-point attempts. Kevin Coble has taken the most shots inside the arc, making 51.2% of his 82 two-point attempts and averaging 14.3 points/game. While the Wildcats have added some height inside, they haven’t added individual playmakers. They rank 8th in the nation in the percentage of their baskets that are assisted. MSU has to stay home in the man-to-man defense and force the Wildcat players to try to make individual plays.
The goods news is that, if MSU can force a tough shot, Northwestern is unlikely to get a second chance at scoring. And, despite their good FG shooting percentages, they don’t shoot free throws well, making just 64.1% of their shots from the line. In their three losses, offense has been the problem: they’ve shot the ball OK (eFG%s of 56.8/54.2/52.9), but turned the ball over (TO%s of 28.0/27.3/16.1), failed to get offensive rebounds (OffReb%s of 32.5/16.4/5.3[!]), and not found their way to the free throw line (FTRs of 13.6/27.1/9.8).
Beyond Moore, Coble, and point guard Michael Thompson (4.1 assists/game), Bill Carmody rotates six or seven other players (mostly big men) into the game on a fairly even basis. Freshman 6’8″ forward John Shurna looks to be a versatile contributor, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game with a shooting line of .600/.379/.677.
The Wildcats continue to play at a very slow pace (61.5 possessions/game). Izzo may shorten the bench in this one and use a smaller lineup to defend the three and focus on passing/shooting on offense, since Northwestern is unlikely to take advantage on the boards or in the low post. Historically, Izzo’s been good at finding ways to beat the 1-3-1 zone. MSU has put up effective FG%s of 54.0, 67.1, 71.9, and 55.8 in the last four meetings with Northwestern. Whether the Wildcats have improved enough on defense to put an end to that streak remains to be seen.
Kenpom predicts a 66-62 Wildcat win in a 64-possession game. I’d expect the point spread will swing the other way. Two road wins to start conference play would certainly give us a leg up on the rest of the league.
I won’t be able to see this game, so the game recap is on you guys. Post your thoughts and analysis below.
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