Big Ten Geeks: Did Fran lose it?

The easy narrative for Wisconsin’s win over Iowa is that Fran McCaffrey was hit with a double technical foul when his team held a 2-point lead, and that those four points gave Wisconsin the lead, the momentum, and the margin of victory.

But is that true? Iowa held an 11-point lead at halftime, and up until the technical (which were assessed before Nigel Hayes could attempt his free throws on a foul called just prior), Wisconsin was closing fast. If we count Hayes’ free throw make, Wisconsin was on a 16-6 run up until the point when McCaffrey was hit for the technical. And then from that point on, it was really an even battle between the two teams, meaning Iowa played better after McCaffrey was ejected than it did immediately before.

[ MORE: Dienhart: "I hope this is last eruption of Mount McCaffery" ]

Does that mean that the McCaffrey ejection helped his team? Of course not. What it means is that the narrative can always be manipulated into whatever script the storyteller wants. We’ll never know whether Iowa wins the game is McCaffrey keeps his cool, or if the team loses by even more. Narratives are fun and make for easy copy, but they don’t tell you as much about the game as much as they tell you about the person offering the narrative.

It’s too bad that so much of the focus of this game will be on McCaffrey, because there were a lot of interesting elements to it. For one, there’s the fact that Iowa’s great depth was a complete no-show on Sunday night:

Players

Points

Shots

Marble & White

39

29

Everyone Else

32

35

There was also the fact that Wisconsin won despite getting very little offensively out of its Big Two, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker:

Players

Points

Shots

Kaminsky & Dekker

17

20

Everyone Else

58

33

Frankly, if I’m being honest, I think Wisconsin got outplayed in this game, as the numbers below bear out:

Team

2P%

3P%

Free Throws

Offensive Reb. Pct.

TO Rate

Iowa

38.9

40.0

17-25

40.0

14.3

Wisconsin

32.3

45.5

25-35

29.7

17.1

Iowa was better inside the arc, on the glass, and had fewer turnovers. Wisconsin hit more 3s and got to the line more, but all of the latter advantage disappears if you remove Iowa’s late-game fouling and the free throws off of McCaffrey’s technicals. So really, if Wisconsin shoots a more modest 40 percent on its 3s (the team’s season average), the Badgers very well could have lost.

But the 3s went down, and Wisconsin won, meaning there’s a very good chance we’ll see an undefeated Wisconsin team take on Ohio State at home on February 1st. If the Badgers are able to defend their home court in that game as well, then…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Iowa of course acquitted itself well, even if the loss leaves a bitter aftertaste. I don’t know if Iowa’s 11-person rotation is going to continue to hold up in conference play, but this is a good team no matter how many players are in the rotation.

Watch McCaffery address ejection in press conference:

***

Good defense or bad offense? That’s the question I kept asking as I watched Saturday’s games. Indiana managed to score just 56 points in 64 possessions in a home loss to Michigan State. MSU’s defense is good, but Indiana’s offense is also bad. So what was most responsible for IU’s terrible shooting on the interior (36.8 percent on 2s)? Certainly, the fact that the Spartans blocked 24 percent of those attempts has to be an important factor, but were those blocks a product of an Indiana team with little confidence in its outside shooting? On the season, a little over a quarter of Indiana’s shots come from behind the three-point line. Against Michigan State, it was just over 20 percent of the Hoosiers’ attempts.

Of course, that’s not all that uncharacteristic of a Tom Crean offense. His teams eschew the three-pointer with some regularity. The 27-win team of two years ago, for instance, shot 3s at a similar rate. The difference with this season, however, is the fact that those Hoosiers made a lot of those 3s (43 percent of them, in fact). Even after yesterday’s strong showing (5 of 10 from the outside), Indiana is not a good outside shooting team. Is that a problem? I guess it depends on whether our earlier observation is a statistical oddity, or whether we unearthed a critical component to Crean’s offense.

Michigan State, meanwhile, is off to a great start in conference play with two road blowout wins. Gary Harris was a monster in this game, with 26 points in 18 shots, to go with 5 steals and zero turnovers. This sets up a home matchup against the undefeated Buckeyes on Tuesday, which already looks like a pivotal game in the Big Ten title race.

***

Speaking of Ohio State, the Buckeyes went on a 7-0 run to close out the first half against Nebraska, and then opened the floodgates in the second half to win by 31.

In addition to Amedeo Della Valle’s 15, OSU got 13 points from Shannon Scott, on an efficient seven shots. Not to be outdone, freshman Marc Loving also scored 13, but using six. Overall, the Buckeyes converted 47 percent of their 3s, and 58 percent of their 2s. It all added up to 1.3 points per possession.

***

The first half of Illinois’ win over Penn State also offered the conundrum of whether it was good defense or bad offense that led to the combined 52 halftime points. The good news for Illinois was that the question did not need to be asked about the second half as the team scored 47 points in the second frame (while limiting the Nittany Lions to 31) to secure a blowout victory. The game was marred a bit by an altercation between D.J. Newbill and Kendrick Nunn, the former being ejected for his behavior. Looking at the replay, I think both players were at fault, though Newbill’s taking a swing at Nunn clearly should have earned him his walk to the locker room.

With Indiana looking lost offensively, Purdue’s inconsistencies this year, and Minnesota missing a great opportunity against Michigan, Illinois might be the best team in the middle of the conference. Somewhere in that group is also where I expect a border between “NCAA Tournament” and “NIT” as well, so it’s no small thing to be tops in that group. That said, Illinois’ real test will come starting in late January, when it begins a stretch of games that are on the road, against a top Big Ten team, or both. Until then, the Illini simply need to take care of business. However, there is an opportunity to steal a game—a remote one—when the Illini visit Madison next week.

***

There wasn’t much defense on display in the barnburner between Minnesota and Purdue. After going ice cold against Michigan, the Gophers were red-hot in this game, shooting 59 percent on 2s and 46 percent on 3s. Purdue, meanwhile, wasn’t all that good shooting the ball but was able to rebound exactly half of its misses. All together, the teams each scored about 1.3 points per possession, which might hold up as the best offensive performance in conference play for both teams.

The final score doesn’t really tell you much about this game, however. Minnesota stretched a 7-point halftime lead into a 16-point margin with roughly seven minutes to play. From that point on, however, Purdue climbed back in the game thanks to four Minnesota turnovers. Still, it wasn’t enough and Minnesota avoided a loss that would have been pretty painful come March.

***

Also on Sunday, Michigan dominated Northwestern, which is really looking like a mediocre mid-major team trying to play in the Big Ten right now. While Michigan and Wisconsin are both upper-level teams in the conference, the fact that Northwestern can’t manage to keep these games close for more than 10 minutes or so is really concerning.

To put it another way, the difference in Pomeroy rank between Northwestern and the next-lowest Big Ten team (Penn State) is roughly the same as the gap between Indiana State and Ohio State. Right now, there’s only one team from the top 5 major conferences (sorry, SEC and AAC) that ranks lower than Northwestern, and that team was in the Mountain West two seasons ago (TCU).

***

This week kicks off with Ohio State’s visit to the Breslin Center. If the Spartans intend on competing for a conference title, a victory would be a nice way to get an inside track.

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2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
Brian Schwartz (@bwschwa) on 1/6/2014 @ 12:27pm EDT Said:

no, fran didn’t lose it

marlyhuiras on 1/6/2014 @ 12:38pm EDT Said:

Thanks, Fran, for the victory. You didn’t actually win it for us, but you contributed greatly. There’s no doubt your tirade was the turning point.

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