Gophers Looking Golden

It’s another light week for college basketball with many students enduring finals, and the Big Ten is no different. Still, we got a few interesting games last night that are worth discussing, plus the quiet period provides us a nice chance to catch up on some individual player stats. Let’s jump right in.

Minnesota continues to impress without Trevor Mbakwe, as it handled Central Michigan by 20 points. The Gophers are now 5-0 since the ill-fated Dayton game, but that in itself isn’t much of a story–after all, they’ve only faced one decent team in that stretch. Instead, let’s take a look at the raw efficiencies achieved by Tubby Smith’s team pre- and post-injury:

Off. Eff. Def. Eff. Avg. Opp. Rank
with Mbakwe 1.12 0.94 151
without Mbakwe 1.12 0.86 179

I’ve left the Dayton game out of this analysis for simplicity. Look at that defense! How many of you predicted Minnesota would improve their defense with Mbakwe unavailable? Anyone? Bueller?

As always, we must consider context, and Minnesota has indeed played a slightly easier schedule than it did before Mbakwe’s injury. Another way to approach this is by KenPom rating, which already compensates for opponent strength. Before their first game without Mbakwe, Minnesota ranked 48th in the KenPom ratings; now, they rank 43rd. The Gophers have played better post-injury.

How have they done it? One of the obvious changes has been the play of Rodney Williams. The 6-7 junior has always been a phenomenal athlete, but his perimeter skills have often been lacking (evidenced by his career 50 percent free-throw shooting). It seems that his abilities are much better suited to an interior role than a wing–here’s Williams’ per game averages before and after the injury:

MIN PTS FGM FGA 3ptM 3ptA OR DR Stl Blk eFG%
Rodney Williams, pre-Dayton 26.3 8.3 3.2 6.0 0.3 1.2 1.0 2.0 1.7 0.8 55.6%
Rodney Williams, post-Dayton 32.4 11.8 5.0 7.2 0.2 0.4 3.0 4.0 2.2 2.8 70.8%

His most obvious jumps have come in rebounding and shot-blocking, precisely the two areas you need the most help without Mbakwe. Also important is the dwindling number of three-pointers attempted–Williams is starting to recognize his strengths and weaknesses, and his effective field goal percentage has consequently skyrocketed.

Let’s be clear though–Williams is not the only Gopher who is picking up the slack. Julian Welch needed a few games to get comfortable, but he’s averaging 14 points over the last five games (after averaging just seven points prior to Mbakwe’s injury).

The longer this keeps up, the more of a believer I’ll be that the Gophers can still make the NCAA Tournament with their best player in street clothes. That would give the conference nine legitimate bid contenders, which would be truly remarkable.

Wisconsin seemingly had things under control in a visit to Milwaukee, leading by 17 points early in the second half, but the Panthers had other ideas. Milwaukee went on a 16-1 run to whittle down the lead, and it was able to tie the game with five minutes left. To that point of the game, both teams were scoring just below a point per possession, a level of output that Wisconsin has been held below only twice–and both of those games ended in losses.

Over the next three possessions, Jared Berggren and Jordan Taylor combined for seven timely points, and the Badgers were able to hold on for the road win.

In the end, Wisconsin scored 1.06 points per possession, which is actually a decent output against this Milwaukee team. For comparison, these Panthers held Michigan State below a point per trip.

On a side note, the Geek curse lives on–Ben Brust had his worst game of the season, shooting one for nine from the field. Wisconsin was +10 with Brust on the bench and -4 with him on the court.

Some will point to this six-point margin as a sign that the Badgers are overrated, but the KenPom ratings don’t think so–Wisconsin remains tops in the nation after this win. Milwaukee isn’t an awful team, and this was a true road game.

In the night’s other action, Michigan’s defense staked them to a 20-point halftime lead against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Golden Lions were stuck on six points for nearly nine minutes of clock time as the Wolverines built the lead, and things didn’t really get any easier for the visitors until a late 12-1 run made the final margin look respectable.

Michigan’s offense could have been a lot better. They turned it over on nearly 30 percent of their possessions, negating yet another excellent shooting night (13 for 26 from three). Turnovers have been a problem this season:

TO% Rank
Michigan, 2008-09 24
Michigan, 2009-10 13
Michigan, 2010-11 14
Michigan, 2011-12 128

Maybe that is to be expected for a team replacing a top-notch point guard, though Trey Burke has done an admirable job. Beilein’s history suggests this won’t be a problem for long.

With those three games comprising the week’s entire slate so far, let’s take a look at some individual player stats. First of all, let’s get a feel for what type of competition each team has faced. Through Sunday’s games, here’s a rundown of each team’s strength-of-schedule:

Team SOS Rank Off SOS Rank Def SOS Rank
Northwestern 170 242 86
Michigan St. 171 206 119
Michigan 72 37 144
Indiana 248 293 179
Wisconsin 161 134 187
Minnesota 252 276 215
Penn St. 218 193 230
Purdue 214 167 247
Ohio St. 237 196 267
Nebraska 203 120 276
Illinois 318 292 329
Iowa 320 286 334

The second column shows overall strength-of-schedule, the third column shows how good opponents have been offensively, and the fourth column (which I’ve sorted by) shows how good opponents have been defensively. Northwestern has faced the toughest slate of defenses, while Michigan has faced the toughest slate of offenses. Overall, Michigan’s schedule has been the toughest, while Iowa and Illinois have faced extremely weak opponents.

These differences are important to remember as we’re looking at individual player stats–numbers put up by Iowa or Illinois players should be taken with a much larger grain of salt than numbers put up by Northwestern or Michigan State players.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some player stats. I’m not going to spend much time on the guys that are doing what we’d expect–after all, we all knew that Jared Sullinger, William Buford, John Shurna, Robbie Hummel, and Tim Hardaway are good offensive players. It’s way too early to be crowning anybody, but you could do worse than those five for an all-conference team. Let’s instead spend time on other more interesting cases:

  • Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin (ORtg 107, Poss% 25) – The most surprising thing about the above paragraph is that I listed a potential all-conference team without mentioning Taylor. It’s not that Taylor has played poorly–he’s still sporting a stellar 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio–but his shooting has been rather cold (38 percent on twos, 33 percent on threes). Wisconsin’s offense has taken a tiny step back as it tries to replace Jon Leuer, but it’s truly remarkable that Taylor is shooting even less as a senior than he did with Leuer alongside him. The breakouts of Jared Berggren (ORtg 115, Poss% 22) and Ben Brust (ORtg 121, Poss% 21) are largely responsible.
  • Bo Spencer, Nebraska (ORtg 106, Poss% 28) – I wasn’t especially kind to Spencer in my Nebraska preview, but his efficiency numbers look solid so far. This is one case, however, where schedule must be considered, as Nebraska has faced only one good defense all season (USC at 29th nationally). Every other Nebraska opponent has had a defense outside of the nation’s top 100, so it’s too early to say that Spencer has proven me wrong. His 13 turnovers in the past two games aren’t a positive indicator.
  • Victor Oladipo, Indiana (ORtg 109, Poss% 26) – While the entire team has played well, Oladipo probably isn’t getting the credit he deserves for Indiana’s resurgence. The sophomore has the highest usage rate on the team, and he’s shooting 54 percent on twos while getting to the free throw line at a high rate. Throw in his rebounding and excellent defense, and you’ve got a player that will make some serious noise in the Big Ten this season and beyond. Teammate Will Sheehey (ORtg 117, Poss% 25) also deserves a mention for his fantastic contributions off the bench.
  • After Sullinger, who is the conference’s second-best center? So far it’s a three-way battle between Cody Zeller (ORtg 129, Poss% 22), Meyers Leonard (ORtg 126, Poss% 22), and Jared Berggren (ORtg 113, Poss% 22). Berggren is more of a perimeter player than the other two and doesn’t possess the same rebounding ability, but his block and steal rates show he is no defensive liability. None of these guys are seniors, so the Big Ten could have some impressive bigs for years to come (barring NBA defections, which is a real possibility for Zeller and Leonard).
  • Evan Smotrycz, Michigan (ORtg 112, Poss% 22) – This 6-9 shooter deserves some love for his breakout sophomore season. Smotrycz is not only shooting lights out (65% eFG percentage), he’s also rebounding and blocking shots. It’s too early to be thinking about next season, but the Wolverines could be downright scary when you add five-star recruit Mitch McGary to a front-line that will still include Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan.
  • Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa (ORtg 111, Poss% 21) – There haven’t been a lot of positives for the Hawkeyes, but the development of Marble as a playmaker certainly qualifies. The sophomore still has work to do on his shot, but his gaudy 4.0 assist-to-turnover ratio indicates that Iowa should be just fine at point guard next season.

Tonight, Ohio State might again be without Jared Sullinger as they host South Carolina-Upstate (6:30pm CT, BTN). The Buckeyes obviously don’t need the big man to win tonight, but his absence will continue to be a longer-term concern. Freshman LaQuinton Ross may see his first action of the season tonight.

That’s the lone Big Ten game of the evening, and Northwestern and Wisconsin will face cupcakes tomorrow night. Fear not, dear fans–more interesting opponents are only days away.

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