Big Ten Geeks: Season Preview Back & Forth, Part I

In a tradition unlike any other, we like to begin every season with a back-and-forth dialogue, in which we scan the conference and get out our thoughts and concerns. With the season’s first big games set to tip off tonight, we present our season preview back-and-forth.

Josh: Season number 5 is upon us, and this looks like the best Big Ten yet. But before we get to why it’s good, let’s talk about why it’s not as bad. In particular, let’s talk about the last place teams that should be much improved. I know everyone (myself included) has Nebraska as the last place team, but I’m thinking about flip-flopping. Sure, the Huskers lose a fair amount from last year, but they also welcome one the conference’s best freshmen in Tai Webster, and Shavon Shields should be one of the conference’s better sophomores as well. Plus, Tim Miles’ defensive principles seem sound—he just needs the athletes to execute them.

And it’s not exactly like Penn State is in a plum position. This team actually loses more than Nebraska, with very few returning sophomores to speak of. Yes, Tim Frazier is back, but high-usage performer Jermaine Marshall is gone. That math still leaves too many shots for DJ Newbill, in my estimation.

So talk me out of flip-flopping. Am I just drunk on Husker Kool-Aid?

Mike: I do think the Huskers will be improved from a season ago, and I believe in Miles’ ability to build that program, but I still feel there’s a meaningful gap between them and the rest of the conference. I’d also say that you’re underrating Penn State more than you’re overrating Nebraska.

I’m looking at Penn State in this way–how does Tim Frazier’s supporting cast compare to what he had two seasons ago? In 2011-12, the Nittany Lions finished 127th in KenPom and posted an in-conference efficiency margin of -0.12 points per possession, which is incidentally right about where I envision Nebraska this season.

If we assume Frazier is the same guy he was pre-injury, a comparison of the supporting casts should tell us if we’d expect Penn State to be significantly better than in 2011-12 (and, hence, better than Nebraska this season).

Let’s go down the line, with the in-conference stats for the 2011-12 players lined up with the corresponding 2013-14 player:

2011-12 ORtg Poss% 2013-14
Jermaine Marshall, So. 98 24 D.J. Newbill, Jr.
Cammeron Woodyard, Sr. 103 20 John Johnson, Jr.
Ross Travis, Fr. 105 14 Ross Travis, Jr.
Matt Glover, So. 71 13 Allen Roberts, Sr.
Sasa Borovnjak, So. 102 13 Brandon Taylor, So.
Billy Oliver, So. 102 13 Donovan Jack, So.

I don’t see a single spot where the 2013-14 player isn’t a good bet to match or outperform his 2011-12 counterpart. D.J. Newbill should be able to match Marshall’s sophomore year. John Johnson posted a 104/17 line as a true freshman in the Big East. Ross Travis is clearly better than he was as a freshman. Allen Roberts should be efficient with a smaller usage (he was at 95/30 in the MAC last season). Brandon Taylor and Donovan Jack should be respectable if they are afforded such low usage rates.

I’m not saying this Penn State team will be great, but it should be good enough to finish in the KenPom top 100. I’m less comfortable saying that about Nebraska.

How do you feel about Northwestern in Chris Collins’ debut season? Are the Wildcats clearly ahead of Penn State and Nebraska in your mind?

Josh: Your analysis seems right, although there is the issue of defense to consider—Marshall was also probably Penn State’s best defender, and that was a relative strength of both last year’s team and the 11-12 squad. Still, on balance you’ve convinced me, though I really think Miles has the Huskers headed in the right direction.

It will be interesting to see what Collins does with Northwestern. Carmody was very much a “system” coach in that there was a certain approach his teams had, and that approach was largely the same in 2013 as it was in 2001. Sometimes we view inflexibility as the principled standing by one’s guns; other times it’s the stubborn refusal to consider other viewpoints. I suppose how we view Carmody on that spectrum depends on whether one views his tenure as successful or not. But that’s probably a post for six months ago.

The specific approach that Carmody’s teams took was that they tried to turn games into three-point shooting contests. Nobody shot more threes than the Wildcats during his tenure in Evanston, and nobody allowed more three-point attempts, either (though Tubby Smith probably would have, were he in the Big Ten prior to 2008). Carmody’s philosophy was then to win the shooting contest. This is an oversimplification, but that’s by and large what it amounted to.

The problem was that the rest of the Big Ten was usually better at shooting against Northwestern than vice versa, especially on the interior where the Wildcats were frequently undersized. That might actually not be the case this season, as NU features a 7-0 center (Alex Olah) that weighs close to 300 pounds, and only one starter standing shorter than 6-5. Combine that with the overplaying Duke defense that Collins is likely to bring to Evanston, and suddenly this defense might not be so bad. And that’s saying something—over Carmody’s 13 seasons, the Wildcats had the worst defense in the Big Ten a whopping 6 times. In fact, Northwestern has had the Big Ten’s worst defense in each of the last four seasons. Hiring a defensive-minded coach could pay some big dividends, and as a Duke disciple Collins is likely to be just that.

Frankly, I think he’s going to look like a genius this season, whether or not he deserves the label. The Wildcats welcome a ton of returning sophomore minutes, and they also get both JerShonn Cobb and Drew Crawford back, who should offset the losses of Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire. They’ll improve, but the problem is that this is still the Big Ten. In the SEC, they might win more than 20 games. But this conference is going prevent any real talk of making the Tournament.

Moving on to our other new coach, what do you make of Richard Pitino’s promise to play uptempo? Is that strategy as doomed as I make it out to be?

Mike: It will certainly be interesting to watch. Pitino’s track record is obviously really short, as he spent just one season as the head coach at FIU, but his team there did run. Pitino’s Panthers were the 30th fastest team in the nation in terms of average offensive possession length, and they did force lots of turnovers.

Of course, as you’ve pointed out, that approach is questionable when playing in a conference full of teams that don’t turn the ball over. I think that’s true in the sense that a team with inferior talent won’t be able to level the playing field by generating turnovers in the Big Ten like might be possible in a smaller conference.

There’s an obvious counter-argument here, and it’s that this approach has worked just fine for Richard’s father, Rick Pitino, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that recent Louisville teams wouldn’t be successful playing in the Big Ten. While coaching strategy is important, I’m of the belief that success ultimately comes down to talent. I think Rick Pitino’s Louisville squads could win just about as much playing a different style of defense. I don’t ascribe Louisville’s success mainly to the defensive approach.

So, if Richard Pitino starts bringing in a different level of recruit to Minnesota, then yeah, the Gophers might win while pressing all the time. I agree with you that it would probably be more prudent to focus on defensive rebounds than turnovers, but I don’t think Pitino’s approach would prevent a talented team from doing really well in the Big Ten. It should be fun to find out.

Speaking of coaches that like to force turnovers, what needs to go right for John Groce and Illinois to return to the NCAA tournament this season?

Josh: Shooters. Sounds simple, but it is. From the beginning, we know Groce wanted to bomb away. But after last season, some 200-plus made three-pointers walked out the door, and there’s no easy solution for how those will be replaced. For the Illini to repeat on last year’s success, they’ll need one of the new faces to surprise and shoot well and efficiently from the outside. This is where the Ahmad Starks waiver denial really hurts.

But that’s why they play the games, I guess. Who knows, maybe one of the freshmen will surprise.

Speaking of freshmen, how good does Noah Vonleh need to be for Indiana to remain a contender for the Big Ten title?

Mike: That’s a tall order. I’m expecting Vonleh to be very good as a freshman (I picked him third team all-conference), and I still don’t think Indiana will contend for the conference title. The Hoosiers lost nearly 70 percent of their Big Ten minutes, and while there is still a lot of talent present, it’s very unproven. Can Yogi Ferrell remain efficient in a larger role? Can Will Sheehey produce when the defense can focus on him? Will Jeremy Hollowell start knocking down shots at a high level? Those are three big questions, and we haven’t even looked past the starting lineup.

I feel like every unknown would have to break in Indiana’s favor for this to be a title contender. Instead, I see the Hoosiers as a talented young team that will hover in the 20-25 range nationally, with much bigger things waiting next season.

Staying in the Hoosier state, what’s up with Purdue? Does the fortunate victory over Northern Kentucky say that the Boilermakers might not be a tournament-level team?

Josh: I mean, it’s just one game. So the statistician in me should just dismiss it as a one-off. But then again, had the Boilers lost, it might have been the worst loss by a Big Ten team in over a decade. That kind of distinction should raise alarm bells, A.J. Hammons or no A.J. Hammons. And Purdue can’t even blame this on the new hand-checking rules, as NKU attempted just 11 free throws.

But to your question, I think the answer is yes, yes it does throw Purdue’s at-large hopes into question. For now, I think it’s more likely they make the Tournament than not, but I’m looking for an excuse to sell at this point. A 40-point beatdown of Central Connecticut would do wonders.

OK, onto the main course. Tell me about Wisconsin. Is this team becoming the Atlanta Braves of college basketball? Always a good team, always in the postseason, but never a real threat to win it all?

**

Check back later today for part two of our back-and-forth, in which we reveal our picks for conference POY, freshman of the year, and conference W-L records for every team.

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