Big Ten Geeks: Season Preview, Part One

Time for our season preview! As is BTG custom, Mike and I discuss the season as only we know how—long-windedly.

Josh: OK, so we’re a couple weeks in, and the Big Ten still looks like the nation’s best conference. Miles ahead of everyone else. I have the Big Ten winning the Challenge, easily. So with the Big Ten so good, does the “8 and 10 and In” campaign start now?

Mike: I’ve wondered the same thing. Illinois has looked quite good, and Pomeroy still has the Illini projected to go 8-10 in the conference. You’d like to believe that the mantra of “who did you beat and where did you beat them” would override the visuals of an 8-10 B1G team getting in over a 9-9 ACC team, but I’m sure John Groce would rather not find out. That .500 line can be a strong mental barrier.

In that regard, Tim Frazier’s unfortunate injury might actually help the Big Ten squeeze another bid or two, as Penn State will now sacrifice wins to the middle of the conference that they may not have otherwise gotten. Speaking of the Nittany Lions, do you think they can avoid the cellar without Frazier?

Josh: Yes, I think they can, but that’s only because there’s another terrible team to take that spot in the form of Nebraska. But give Tim Miles credit—he’s getting the Huskers to play well, as they already have a couple of wins over not-terrible teams. And given that their ACC opponent is a very bad Wake Forest team (who was housed by Iona), Nebraska might actually pull some weight in the Challenge this year. Still, Nebraska is a long way from being in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament. It will be interesting to see how that program grows under Miles. Less than 2 million people live in the entire state (compared to about 13 million in Illinois), and you can bet that every shooting prodigy from Oklahoma to the Dakotas is going to be directly in the sights of schools such as Kansas, Iowa, Iowa State, and Minnesota—all of which have a lot more tradition to sell.

As for Penn State, well, Pat Chambers just does not have the horses to run his style of basketball. Chambers’ teams generally like to take a lot of threes, and they’re also content to play the lottery and let the opponent fire away as well. Problem is, this team can’t shoot. Chambers is essentially challenging everyone to a game of Horse, but that’s not a great game for a squad currently shooting 20 percent from beyond the arc. It’s going to be a long winter in State College.

Speaking of shooting, what in the Dee Brown has gotten into the Illini? It’s one thing for a team to get a little hot for a few games, but the frequency at which these guys have been launching treys has me thinking there’s been a real transformation in Champaign. Have I been chugging the Kool Aid?

Mike: I think there really has been a transformation in Champaign. John Groce preaches aggression, and I think that attitude has led to much better shot selection for Illinois. Instead of working the ball around in the motion offense, looking for the perfect shot until the shot clock expires, the Illini are now using ball screens and taking the first good look they see. They are no longer letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s still early, but this has a chance to be Illinois’ best offense since Dee Brown graduated.

Speaking of teams above their recent norms, what in the world is going on with Northwestern’s defense? Has Carmody finally turned that corner?

Josh: We’ll find out soon enough as Northwestern enters the teeth of its non-conference schedule. But I’m not convinced. If you look under the hood at Northwestern’s defense (which, mind you, sits only at 59th in the nation in adjusted efficiency), I think there’s some fool’s gold. The obvious one is that the Wildcats’ free throw “defense” is the best in the country, as opponents are shooting only 49 percent (!) from the stripe. That kind of good fortune has already earned them a win over a pretty good Illinois State team. Northwestern won in overtime, and ISU shot 50 percent from the free throw line. It’s not hard to make the case that this was a game Bill Carmody’s team should have lost.

But Northwestern is also uncharacteristically defending the paint, holding opponents to just 38 percent on two-pointers. Even if this were real (and it probably isn’t—the team isn’t blocking shots, and isn’t very tall), it’s not going to stay that low all season. That will normalize, and so too will the free throw shooting. And as I mentioned earlier, the defense is just ranked 59th. Once those two wildly aberrant numbers regress to the mean, we’re probably talking about a defense ranked in the 80s or 90s. And while that’s better than usual in Evanston, it’s also something that’s happened before under Carmody, and probably not good enough to get the cats dancing in March.

But what about Iowa’s early defensive makeover? As opposed to NU, the Hawkeyes are blocking shots, and they are tall, so that two-point defense looks less like a mirage. Do you agree, and is that enough to take them back to the Tournament?

Mike: Iowa’s defensive improvement certainly looks more sustainable, but some of the same caveats apply. It’s clear that the Hawkeyes’ schedule has been weak (313th nationally), but it’s even weaker if you just look at the offenses they’ve faced (332nd nationally). Wichita State put up 1.10 points per possession on Iowa—teams like Howard and DePaul have fared better than that against the Shockers.

So, while Iowa’s defensive improvement seems logical, there’s still a lot to prove, and we may have to wait awhile for that proof. The Hawkeyes don’t face a top 50 offense until a New Year’s Eve tilt with Indiana. Talk about a shock to the system.

To answer your question, I do think an improved Iowa defense, if this really is one, would be enough to get into the NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes’ offense has scuffled a bit, but I expect it to improve from here–Aaron White hasn’t been as involved as he should be, and the turnover issues should come under control. If Iowa can really play top 50 defense, an at-large bid should be within reach.

Sticking to the middle, what is going on with Purdue? Matt Painter’s squad has two cupcake blowouts and three losses to decent-but-not-great teams. With such a young roster, should a rebuilding year be expected in West Lafayette?

We’ll have words for the rest of the conference tomorrow, as well as our predicted standings.

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