Back to our season preview. Part one can be found here. We left off with the question of whether Matt Painter is in for a rebuilding year at Purdue.
Josh: I think Painter’s proven to be a master at squeezing everything he can from the roster, but there’s just not enough Big Ten-ready talent this year in West Lafayette. They’re still playing hard on defense (Jacob Lawson, in particular, is proving to be a very capable defender), but the offense is a mess. The backcourt can’t make a shot, and the team is relying on freshman Ronnie Johnson to run the show. While I like Johnson’s long term potential, he’s clearly not ready to orchestrate a high major scoring attack. D.J. Byrd is also finding life to be more difficult now that defenses are keying on him—the sharpshooter is making just 28 percent of his three-point attempts.
Painter’s got a young team, and has some nice recruits lined up in the coming seasons, but yes, this is a rebuilding year.
Speaking of backcourt issues, how concerned are you with Michigan State’s start? Yes, they beat Kansas, but they’ve also struggled against some poor competition (at home), and it turns out that Connecticut team is no good, either. Is Izzo going to turn it around, or is this one of his mediocre seasons that seems to come every 3-4 years?
Mike: This Michigan State offense has yet to figure things out in a post-Draymond world. The Kansas win will pay dividends in March, but I’m beginning to wonder if that was a bit of an outlier—the Spartans shot 55 percent on twos against Jeff Withey and one of the nation’s best two-point defenses. Surely, Michigan State’s abilities had a lot to do with that, but it also may have just been an unusually good night for the Spartans.
Still, this offense could quite easily get on track. Turnovers are always an issue for Tom Izzo’s teams, but they’re almost never THIS big of an issue. Similarly, Izzo’s teams don’t rely all that heavily on threes, but the Spartans haven’t shot worse than 34 percent from deep over the past 10 season (they are currently at 28 percent). Both of these areas will inevitably improve, and Michigan State’s defense has been quite stout. Assuming Gary Harris is really back before the end of December, I still think this team will challenge for the Big Ten title.
How about the Wolverines? Michigan’s three-point attempts are way down, yet the efficiency is way up. Is this John Beilein’s best ever offense?
Josh: A lot of that has to do with the personnel, right? You take guys that love to shoot the 3 in Novak, Douglas, and Smotrycz, and you replace them with guys like Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas, and you’re going to get fewer threes (OK, Stauskas is the outlier in that group). Still, I think we’re going to see this team end up as more of a Beilein offense by season’s end. I mean, it’s not that far off now. The turnovers are down, the two-point percentage is way up, and the Wolverines are not getting to the free throw line. These are all staples of Beilein, just with the three point attempts a smidge low.
The thing with Michigan, however, is that there are so many funny numbers for the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is shooting 71 percent on twos and 48 percent on threes, for example, and he’s rebounding like a center. Robinson (note to head coaches—when an NBA All-Star’s son also plays basketball, he’s probably not half bad) has an effective field goal percentage at 60, McGary has been one of the elite offensive rebounders in the country, and yet Stauskas has been the best of the bunch. No one in the country fouls less than Michigan. They’re a top-3 defensive rebounding team. And I’ve written a full paragraph of all the things the Wolverines are doing well, and I haven’t even mentioned Trey Burke yet.
In short, they’re going to regress. But so is everyone that’s playing at such a high level (Victor Oladipo isn’t going to make over 80 percent of his two-pointers this season, for example). The good news is that Michigan could regress in a lot of areas by a fair margin, and still be good. The early returns are that Michigan is better than we thought they would be.
In fact, should Indiana stumble, I would be surprised if they aren’t the No. 1 team before January 13th. They’ve played through the meat of the non-conference schedule, and they have a soft opening to the conference season. Of course, on January 13th they visit Ohio State, who’s been just as dominating (albeit against inferior competition) thus far. Which brings us to an odd set of circumstances: if Ohio State beats Duke, it really paves the way for Michigan to get the #1 ranking. While Ohio State itself is also a competitor, the Buckeyes still have a game against Kansas looming. And taking down the Blue Devils eliminates them from the top spot. So can we expect the Maize Rage to be rooting for the Buckeyes this week?
Speaking of Ohio State, can you put them above Indiana at this point?
Mike: Ohio State’s offense has been fantastic, albeit against some poor competition. The surprising thing is that the Buckeyes have done it without much from their sophomores. We spoke in our preview about Thad Matta’s need to identify three or four guys to play with Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Lenzelle Smith, but that trio has been so amazing that they haven’t really needed any help. That doesn’t figure to be the case at Duke on Wednesday, so we’ll start to get a read on which guys Matta really trusts. If Ohio State wins that game, I think you do have to put them right there in the discussion with Indiana for Big Ten favorites.
Let’s talk about the Hoosiers. They’ve absolutely crushed some cupcakes, but the results against Georgia and Georgetown didn’t indicate a dominant team. We figured the offense would be great, but is this defense for real?
Josh: The 8th-best defense seems a little high, and seems partially fueled by some luck behind the free throw line. Indiana isn’t chasing teams off the perimeter, but the teams are just missing shots. And it’s not like the opponent has been chucking threes for lack of better options inside, because the Hoosiers aren’t blocking many shots, either. The good news is that North Carolina isn’t the best perimeter team out there, so it’s a very good matchup for IU.
But despite Indiana’s shortcomings on defense, this is still the team to beat, both in the Big Ten and nationally. And with Watford, Hulls, and likely Zeller gone after this season, this really represents Indiana’s best shot for at least a couple of seasons at a 6th title. They should get off to a running start as well—IU’s non-conference schedule is relatively soft, and all four games against Ohio State and Michigan come after January.
One team that isn’t off to a running start is Wisconsin. Is this the year Bo Ryan finally misses the Tournament?
Mike: I honestly don’t see a whole lot wrong with Wisconsin. Sure, the Badgers have lost a couple games and struggled with Arkansas, but there’s no glaring weaknesses on their statistical profile. Now, there is an argument to be made that Wisconsin’s stats are skewed because of their annihilation of bad teams, but that’s true every year. Last season, the Badgers lost their first two top 50 games and went on to grab a four seed. In 2010-11, it was the exact same story. Until proven otherwise, I’m going to believe that Bo Ryan will get things in order and easily make another NCAA tournament.
We’ll see if that’s true fairly quickly. Over the next two weeks, Wisconsin faces Virginia, California, and Marquette, all teams that figure to be on or near the bubble come March. If the Badgers don’t win at least two of those three, it’s fair to sound the alarms.
The only team we haven’t discussed yet is Minnesota. The Gophers still aren’t hitting the defensive glass, but shot blocking and turnovers are fueling a very good defense. Do you still feel that it’s 2010 all over again for Minnesota?
Josh: Shotblocking? Turnovers? That’s so 90s. The last Big Ten team that was crummy on the defensive glass but still good defensively was the 2007-08 Ohio State team that featured Evan Turner and Kosta Koufos. Sure, there’s some chicken/egg to that (outside of Michigan State, Big Ten teams don’t crash the offensive glass, so there’s some built-in defensive rebounding competency for everyone), but I think it’s fair to say that Tubby has tried his pressure approach for a while now, and it hasn’t worked yet.
That said, this defense still could be “good enough.” The 2008-09 Minnesota team forced a lot of turnovers and was mediocre on the glass as well, but their stalwart interior led to the Big Ten’s 4th-best defense. If the offense were any good (it wasn’t), they very well could have had a big year. As it was, they defended their way to 9-9 in conference play. But that was a much worse Big Ten than the one we have today, and I don’t think the same defense will fare as well.
There is one other good sign, however, which is that Minnesota is allowing very few three-point attempts. It’s early, but if the Gophers can keep that up, it will be huge. Tubby always seems to have shotblockers, and this year is no exception. If the team can funnel opposing offenses to Trevor Mbakwe, Elliott Eliason, and Rodney Williams, it might be enough to get them over the hump.
Still, this isn’t a team without its shortcomings. For instance, even after Andre Hollins’ big weekend, Minnesota is shooting just 32 percent from three-point range. They’ve struggled in this area in the past, and teams have responded by packing it in. The Gophers will need shooters to step up to keep defenses honest. A good start might be to stop allowing Oto Osenieks to shoot from distance. The sophomore is now 11 for 52 on threes in his career, and he’s a 47 percent free throw shooter to boot. The guy can’t throw it in the Osen!
OK, time for some final words. Any chance the ACC wins the Challenge? And what do you think the chances are that at least one Big Ten team is in the Final Four?
Mike: The numbers say that the Big Ten will win the Challenge either 7-5 or 8-4. The ACC is improved from last season, but much of that stems from a few teams going from bad to mediocre.
I don’t see any way the ACC manages better than a 6-6 tie, given that Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, and Penn State are all at home against teams ranked lower than them in KenPom. A couple B1G road teams are slight favorites (Minnesota at Florida State, Michigan State at Miami), and even the worst on-paper chance for the Big Ten has Nebraska as only a five-point underdog at Wake Forest.
I’m taking the Big Ten by an 8-4 margin. How about you?
Josh: Same. And we should totally put “Challenge” in quotes afterward.