Big Ten Geeks: Standing Tall

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Geeks: Standing Tall

The Big Ten suffered its first losses over the past couple nights, and we learned just a little bit more about the shape of this conference. Let’s dive in. In a formula that might become common this season, Illinois struggled to score over Valparaiso’s length but did enough on defense to secure the victory. After facing two decidedly smaller teams to open the season, Illinois had trouble converting over Valpo’s big and experienced frontline. In fact, the Illini’s 35.6 effective field goal percentage is the lowest mark of the John Groce era, and last season’s team wasn’t exactly a collection of sharpshooters.

Illinois’ shot selection continues to be an issue:

At rim 7 17 41.2%
2-point jumpers 9 31 29.0%
3-pointers 5 18 27.8%

The Illini are lacking in three-point shooters and interior scorers, so their shots come heavily in the midrange. That’s just not a recipe for success, though it should be noted that Illinois missed an unusual number of dunks in this game (41 percent on shots at the rim is about as bad as it gets). Still, even if those dunks had gone down, the Illini attempted way too many two-point jumpers to end up with a high effective field goal percentage. 

It also might seem alarming that a mid-major like Valparaiso was able to bother Illinois with its length, but the reality is that the Big Ten just isn’t that big this season. Here’s the average effective height for the seven major conferences:

Conference Average Effective Height
ACC 2.18
Pac 12 2.02
Big East 1.72
SEC 1.64
American 1.52
Big Ten 1.08
Big 12 1.00

Illinois will face only two teams this season taller than Valparaiso: Iowa and Missouri. With the rise of the stretch four and a relative lack of true centers, the Big Ten has become a perimeter-focused conference.

While the Illini struggled to score over Valpo’s length, it should be noted that Illinois’ man-to-man defense was outstanding. If this team is going to challenge for an NCAA tournament bid, it is going to have to be the defense that paves the way.


Further east, Penn State’s defense was atrocious in a 90-80 loss to Bucknell. Through a combination of layups, open threes, and trips to the foul line, the Bison posted a scalding 1.34 points per possession. The Nittany Lions scored well with their new perimeter-oriented offense, but it didn’t matter.

There’s really no excuse for that kind of defense in year three of the Pat Chambers era. The Nittany Lions are experienced and athletic enough to do better. Penn State’s offense appears to be fairly good, but the defense will have to improve drastically to keep the team out of the cellar. I’m now wondering if Josh was right about the Nittany Lions.


Purdue let out some frustration on Central Connecticut, shellacking the Blue Devils by 36 points. The amazing thing is that the Boilermakers got off to a slow start, trailing by six early, then ended up scoring 109 points in a 40 minute game.

A.J. Hammons made a loud return, scoring 12 points and blocking seven shots in just 17 minutes. This appears to be a very good Purdue offense, so the team’s success will be determined by its progress on the defensive end. This showing against Central Connecticut is a good start.


Iowa demolished one of the worst teams in all of D1, Maryland Eastern Shore. Aaron White led seven Hawkeyes in double figures with 22 points in just 17 minutes. Amazingly, Iowa still has three more games against this type of bottom feeder, so we can expect plenty more highlight reels like this:


Northwestern’s offense could never get off the ground in a 13-point loss at Stanford. As will be customary this season, the Wildcats bombed away from deep, and their three-point accuracy was actually quite good at 36 percent. The problem was something Northwestern fans haven’t had to deal with much in recent years: turnovers. The Wildcats turned it over on a quarter of their possessions, and it’s even more maddening that this happened against a Stanford defense that barely forced any turnovers against Bucknell and BYU.

First Half Efficiency Second Half Efficiency Game Efficiency
Northwestern 0.82 0.96 0.89
Stanford 0.88 1.30 1.09

The good news is that Northwestern’s defense appears to be improved from the Carmody era, despite that rough second half. Through two games, the Wildcats are doing a good job on the defensive glass, and they are chasing shooters off the three-point line. Unfortunately, the Cardinal hit 50 percent of the threes they did attempt, but the low number of open looks is a positive indicator going forward.


This weekend brings some interesting games as nearly half the conference takes to the road. Ohio State visits Marquette, Wisconsin has a deceptively tough game at Green Bay, Michigan travels to Iowa State, Minnesota plays at Richmond, and Penn State takes on Penn.

These should mostly be close games, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see the conference pick up another loss or two. Cupcakes are delicious, but road games are more satisfying and meaningful. We’ll know more about this conference by Monday.