Big Ten Geeks: Inconvenient Truths

This may surprise you, but every now and then we say something that really gets fans riled up. The best example of this is our belief that while Aaron Craft is a very good defender, he is not, nor has he ever been, Ohio State’s best defender. And this year, he’s not even the team’s best perimeter defender. Rather than take this as a complement to Ohio State’s collection of outstanding defenders, a lot of people take this as a slight to Craft.

Well, today I want to say all sorts of things that I think are true, but I have a feeling that plenty of fans will hate these opinions. I guess I’m thirsty for hate mail, or something.

Yogi Ferrell should not be starting.

Yogi Ferrell is a very good basketball player for a freshman. But that’s an important qualifier, because Indiana is an exceptional team. Exceptional teams have the luxury of dispensing with such reservations when doling out minutes, and frankly I don’t think Indiana’s offense is functioning at peak performance with Yogi in the game. Put simply, the guard is not enough of a scoring threat to keep opposing defenses honest.

Against lower-level opponents, Ferrell’s lack of shooting acumen didn’t really hurt, especially because he was getting to the free throw line quite often and setting up his teammates. But in the small sample of Big Ten games, it’s been a different story:

Yogi Ferrell, Big Ten Play

Two-point Pct. Three-point Pct. Effective Field Goal Pct. (eFG) Assist Pct. Turnover Pct.
50.0 23.1 43.1 21.3 19.4

What’s more, this does not appear to simply be a product of a small sample size. In Indiana’s two non-conference games against teams ranked in the top 50 according to Pomeroy, Yogi scored 16 points (on 18 shots), and dished 6 assists against 10 turnovers. It seems both Butler and North Dakota State did the same things that Big Ten teams are now doing: make Yogi shoot.

Bear in mind, if this were just about any other team, I couldn’t make this argument. But other teams do not have the luxury of hyper-efficient alternative options such as Will Sheehey and Remy Abell (it’s fair to point out they’ve struggled recently, but there’s a longer track record to cite to) to put in Yogi’s place. While I think Ferrell will make a fantastic point guard someday, that day is not today.

Illinois’ defense is fundamentally flawed.

When I first researched John Groce in the wake of his hiring, I came to two conclusions: first, the former Ohio State assistant will likely emphasize three-point shooting, and the team’s accuracy will likely improve. Second, if he brings his defense from Ohio, the Illini will be in trouble.

On the first point, it’s been somewhat of a mixed bag. The Illini are definitely shooting more threes, but after a hot start to the season, the accuracy has fallen off a cliff. I think the jury’s still out on whether or not this team is actually any better at shooting three-pointers than last year’s version.

But I want to focus on the second point here. It seems strange to criticize Groce’s Ohio defense, considering that the Bobcats were the very best defensive unit in the MAC last season. But how they achieved those excellent defensive numbers was concerning. For one, there was a bit of luck, as MAC opponents shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc. Still though, this would have been a good defense even if that number was a few points higher. The real concern I had was the fact that Groce’s defenses were built on forcing turnovers. On over a quarter of their conference opponents’ possessions, the Bobcats took the ball away. That’s an extremely high figure, but it’s also extremely unrealistic in the Big Ten.

Simply put, it’s been a long, long time since a defense built around turnovers has been a success in this conference. The point guards are too careful, and the offenses are generally too perimeter-oriented to give up many possessions.

Instead, the way to defend in the Big Ten is to rebound. There are other components, of course, but outstanding defensive rebounding is the foundation upon which the best defenses are built. Sure, there are some mild exceptions here and there (Penn State was always a solid rebounding team under Ed DeChellis, but they were bad at everything else on defense), but by and large, a bad rebounding team will be at best a mediocre defensive team. And John Groce’s Ohio teams didn’t rebound.

And so far, it looks like he’s brought his defensive philosophies from Ohio straight to Champaign. The Illini have forced the most turnovers in conference play, but they also rank 11th in defensive rebounding. Overall, this is the 3rd-worst defense in the Big Ten in conference play so far. Given how similar the profile is to Groce’s Ohio teams, I still have the same concerns about Illinois’ approach on the defensive end of the court.

Depth for depth’s sake is overrated.

KJ at The Only Colors did a nice study on the relationship between deep Michigan State benches and Michigan State success. The conclusion—a longer bench means more wins. One reasonable conclusion is Michigan State’s depth is a source of the team’s success. Another equally plausible conclusion (that KJ acknowledged) is that Michigan State’s success is the driver of depth. After all, if a team is running up huge leads on opponents, it’s the general practice of most coaches to rotate more players into the game. With blowouts comes playing time for those buried on the bench.

I’ll admit, I’ve never been sold on the argument that Michigan State uniquely relies on depth moreso than other teams. I’m not saying I couldn’t be swayed, but from where I sit, I see too much noise in the data. Admittedly, I’m applying a bit of Occam’s Razor here, and the simplest explanation is that when Michigan State is good, the blowout scores allow for an opportunity to get more people into the game.

All of this is to say that I like the Big Lineup. That is, I like seeing Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix on the floor together, and really, I think it’s fairly self-evident that the starting five of Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Gary Harris, plus the two centers are head and shoulders better than everyone else on the team:

Player Offensive Rating Possession Pct
Harris 116.1 20.2
Payne 115.4 20.8
Nix 108.9 19.5
Appling 107.6 23.2
Dawson 101.0 21.6
Trice 99.5 18.5
Valentine 93.0 19.1
Byrd 80.3 18.7

To me, Trice looks like the sixth man, but I’m not sure that Valentine and Byrd have earned more minutes with their play thus far (that said, I’m a huge fan of Valentine in the long term. He’s an extremely intriguing prospect).

So I say that Izzo should embrace his inner Matta, and shorten that bench.

Lose the point guard, Bo.

When Josh Gasser was lost to injury for the season, it deprived the Badgers of a solid option at the point guard position. And to this point, Wisconsin has yet to find a suitable floor general. Right now, Traevon Jackson appears to have the job. But should he? In conference play, Jackson has more turnovers than assists. He’s made only 11 of 27 field goals, including 2 of 7 from beyond the arc.

George Marshall hasn’t been any better. He’s made just 4 of 16 shots, and has all of 5 assists in 71 minutes against Big Ten opponents. With Ryan Evans regaining some of his offensive mojo, the anchor on this offense now appears to be at the point guard position. And frankly, there’s no reason for that to be the case. In 2007, the Badgers didn’t have a true point guard (case-in-point: 6-11 center Greg Stiemsma had the highest assist percentage of anyone in the rotation), and all that team did was win 30 games.

Further, Wisconsin has the lowest turnover percentage in the nation. In other words, this is not a team that desperately needs ballhandlers (and frankly, Jackson in particular is not doing much to keep the turnovers down). So I’m on record as suggesting that Wisconsin does not have an effective true point guard on its roster this year, and that’s OK.

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Show Comments (1 Comment)
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Mark Johnson on 1/20/2013 @ 3:26pm EDT Said:

I’ve always been a little on the fence on the depth issue for MSU as well . . . one theory is that Izzo demands that guys go really hard, especially on D, and that requires enough depth to give the starters enough of a breather to maintain effectiveness. I’m not sure I buy that explanation because it implies that Matta, Ryan, etc. allow their guys to loaf, which I just can’t buy. Another theory is that the defensive system takes more energy to run effectively. I guess that’s possible. I’ve always kind of thought there’d be a team that came along at some point to buck the trend – that depth is, to date, correlated with success, but that it’s a spurious correlation – or at least not important enough to be strongly predictive.

I agree that our big lineup is the best to roll out there. Payne and Nix were having some difficulty working together at the beginning of the season, but with Payne showing some range on offense, they should be able to use him in the high post and he and Nix won’t be getting in each others’ way. Payne has difficulty guarding smaller, quicker players on the perimeter though. I think it was that defensive vulnerability that squelched the bigger lineup earlier in the season.

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