Big Ten Geeks: The Brandon Paul Game

With an amazing 43-point performance from Brandon Paul, Illinois shocked Ohio State in Champaign. Coming in, this looked like a game that the Illini might hope to keep close with their defense, but it seemed unlikely that Bruce Weber’s struggling offense would be able to scrape together enough points against the nation’s top defense. That analysis went out the window once Paul got rolling.

The athletic junior made plays all over the court, but his most obvious contribution was an incredible eight for 10 shooting performance from three. While it is true that Paul was shooting just 28 percent from three coming in–a fact well noted by national analysts–it’s been clear all season that his main issue has been shot selection, not shooting ability. When Paul gets his feet set, he’s a good shooter, and you can see from this highlight reel that he consistently got his feet set and squared against Ohio State. The obvious exception was Paul’s final three, the dagger that beat the shot clock and gave Illinois a four point lead with 43 seconds left. There’s really nothing more the Buckeyes could have done on that one–look at the stellar defense played by Aaron Craft on that play:

That shot was a microcosm of the game for the Buckeyes. They didn’t play all that poorly, but it simply wasn’t their night. If this game is played 10 times, I’d expect Ohio State to win eight, but that doesn’t matter–the game is over and Illinois won it, and with it its season outlook changes dramatically.

For one night at least, our preseason comparison of Brandon Paul to Kemba Walker didn’t look completely ridiculous. Paul showed his potential in last night’s explosion, but he still has plenty of work to do–he did turn it over seven times, after all. A productive Brandon Paul could transform this Illinois team, as they already have a very good defense.

In some ways, Illinois is having a charmed season. The Illini are now 16th nationally in KenPom’s Luck statistic, which measures how a team’s actual winning percentage varies from their predicted winning percentage (based on efficiencies). The basic idea is that a team with a lot of Luck has had its best performances come at the right times, so it ends up winning close games against both superior and inferior competition. If Paul had exploded like this against Nebraska, it would have just changed a close win into a blowout win. He does it against Ohio State, and it results in a close win that changes Illinois’ season. That’s some fortunate variance there. This program was probably due for a bit of luck after last season’s struggles in close games, and we shouldn’t diminish just how well the entire team played last night. You need more than luck to score like that on the Buckeyes.

Lost in the crazy shooting performance was some solid Illinois defense down the stretch. With 13 minutes left, William Buford dunked to give the Buckeyes a seven-point lead. Check out how the offensive efficiencies shifted from that point forward:

Ohio State Illinois
First 45 possessions 1.20 1.04
Last 21 possessions 0.95 1.52

Without holding the Buckeyes under a point per trip over the final 13 minutes, the Illini might have seen Paul’s heroics go wasted. As it is, Illinois goes into an eight-day break on a high note, and its outlook for an at-large bid goes from “meh, maybe” to “yes, if they don’t stumble too badly.” The extra rest for ailing point guard Sam Maniscalco (remember him?) should help the team’s prospects.

Ohio State already has two conference losses, and Thad Matta’s team still has visits to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Michigan State on the docket. Needless to say, the B1G title race has opened up, and it is now the Spartans in the driver’s seat (with the Hoosiers and Buckeyes riding shotgun).

Speaking of Michigan State, it had no trouble at home against Iowa. This one became a blowout very quickly as the Spartans posted an effective field goal percentage of 70 percent–their best shooting night in four seasons. Keith Appling and Draymond Green led the attack, combining for 37 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists, and just one turnover. You’re not going to see two teammates play much better than that.

It can be easy to brush this game aside and say, “hey, it was Iowa,” but let’s not forget that the Hawkeyes just won at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Iowa isn’t a great team, but it isn’t the little sisters of the poor either. This beat-down is a very positive sign for Tom Izzo’s team, as the Spartans are clearly running on all cylinders as they prepare for what could be a couple tricky road games against Northwestern and Michigan.

Tonight, we have a doubleheader on BTN, with Michigan hosting Northwestern  at 5:30pm CT, followed by Penn State visiting Nebraska. The Wildcats are starting a tough four-game stretch, and it would work wonders to surprise the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. The late game could play a factor in who becomes the first ever No. 12 seed in the Big Ten Tournament this March.

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