Big Ten Geeks: Wolverines on Top

Saturday night brought a clash of the only two remaining conference unbeatens when Michigan traveled west to take on State in East Lansing. The Spartans were down their frontcourt, as Branden Dawson’s hand lost a bout with a table earlier in the week, and Adreian Payne was still a week or two away.

But would it have mattered?

I know that sounds ridiculous, considering Dawson and Payne are two of the best players in the conference. But Michigan diced up the Spartans’ defense in ways that I’m not sure Dawson or Payne could have helped with. Notably, the Wolverines scorched MSU from the outside to the tune of 11 for 19 on 3s, many of them from the quick-triggered Nik Stauskas (who finished with 19 points on 12 shots). The other primary way in which the Wolverines scored was at the line, where they made 25 of their 30 attempts.

That kind of accuracy is how a team can post 1.3 points per possession on one of the best defensive teams in the nation, despite making a mere 36 percent of two-point attempts. To be fair, Michigan did get a few more offensive rebounds than they would have with Dawson and Payne present, but the greater point is that Michigan is Reaganing Beilein Ball right now. The premise behind Beilein’s spread-out offense is to clear the paint for easy 2s, while shooting a lot of 3s to keep turnovers down. A misconception about Beilein’s teams is that they shoot the 3 very well—truth is, his teams are usually mediocre or average in that department. That’s not a severe criticism, but just the reality of taking so many 3s. When you’re less picky about what qualifies as a “good” three-point attempt, you’re going to take some bad 3s.

Well, this year, Beilein Ball is in overdrive:

2P Pct

3P Pct

TO Pct

Points per Possession

Raw

58.2

40.0

15.1

1.19

Conference Rank

1st

1st

3rd

1st

Despite Saturday’s dismal performance in the paint, Michigan is still the best in the conference at finishing off easy looks close to the hoop. OK, that’s underselling it—Michigan is the best team in the nation at finishing looks at the rim (data via hoop-math.com):

Team

FG Pct. at the rim

Michigan

79.2

Wyoming

77.5

Arizona

77.0

Utah

72.0

Minnesota

71.5

Beilein Ball requires not only shooters at the 1-4 positions, but these days also requires a big man that knows how to screen and where to go after screening. It requires patience from everyone, knowing when to cut to the hoop and when to avoid cluttering up the lane. It’s not easy, and it’s not for everyone. But when it works, there might not be a better attack out there. And we’ve seen “copycat” offenses sprout up with a heavy reliance on the 3 coupled with open driving lanes (Iowa State, SMU come to mind). In fact, Beilein Ball might soon become the spread offense of basketball.

OK, enough gushing over Michigan. While Mike pushed some chips into the Stauskas Player of the Year campaign last week, right now I find myself on #TeamHarris. Gary Harris put up 27 points on 15 shots while only committing a single turnover, and—this is what separates him from Stauskas—played defense. For all the scoring Michigan’s preening shooting guard is capable of, the best thing you can say about Stauskas’ defense is that at least he doesn’t play very much of it. Defense matters, and that’s why I think Harris is the frontrunner right now.

The good news for Michigan State is that the team was down its entire frontcourt, and this was a game it still led most of the way. When Payne gets healthy, this is going to be a different team, and as long as the Spartans can keep pace with Michigan until then, I still think they have an excellent shot at taking home the Big Ten title.

Oh, and this happened. His desperation to get his teammates to notice his game-changing message is the most McGary thing ever. Never change, college.

***

Wisconsin got back on track by beating up Purdue at Mackey, ratcheting up the defense to hold the Boilermakers to 0.91 points per possession. Of course, the Badgers were helped by the mid-rangey nature of Purdue’s offense (45 percent of Purdue’s shots were two-point jumpers). It was almost enough to make Bo Ryan vomit.

I don’t know why, but that’s the last straw for me—I’m hereby banishing any thoughts I harbored about Purdue making it into the Dance this season. Despite all of the talent on the roster, the team is plagued with poor shot selection, dumb fouls, and careless ballhandling. The rotations don’t seem to make much sense, either—eleven Boilermakers saw double-digit minutes on Saturday, despite the fact that no one picked up more than 3 fouls (so it’s hard to blame it on some heavy foul trouble). I don’t know if any team in the Big Ten has enough talent for 11 guys to be in the rotation, so it would be pretty surprising if that team happened to be 6th-place Boilers.

Wisconsin now has a stretch of winnable home and away games before hitting the road to take on Michigan and Iowa. If they don’t drop anything between now and then, the Badgers will have a chance to get right back into the title hunt.

***

Dave Sobolewski played and Northwestern got the snot kicked out of them at home. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

***

For all of the fine work Richard Pitino has done with the Minnesota offense (currently 5th in points per possession, with a largely overhauled roster from last season), the defense is in poor shape. This was on full display in yesterday’s loss to Nebraska. The Cornhuskers put up 1.2 points per possession, which is bad because they are not a very good offensive team.

But as defense goes, Minnesota is the worst in the Big Ten, and it’s not close. Why? Well, before the season began I expressed doubts that a pressing defense could succeed in the Big Ten, because forcing turnovers has not had a big impact on the bottom line. Wish I could say that my omniscience knew no bounds, but the reality is that for all Minnesota’s pressing, there’s been an oddly scant number of turnovers. Of course, that’s just one part of what’s wrong with Minnesota’s defense. The truth is that the Gophers don’t do anything all that well on that side of the court.

My sense is that the Gophers’ shortcomings are a mix of approach and personnel. The results so far have done nothing to soften my stance against pressing defenses, but there’s also the fact that Minnesota almost always has three guards on the floor alongside a forward and a center. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that both the forwards and center are all foul-prone, and the forwards play a “defense-optional” brand of defense.

Nebraska, meanwhile, is proving to be a very tough out at home. Tim Miles’ team has played Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota at the Pinnacle Bank Arena, and they won two out of three. Expect the team to start rocketing up the standings as their next five home games come against Indiana, Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, and Northwestern. Everyone picked the Huskers last this year, but Miles isn’t having any of it.

Terran Petteway had a very impressive 35 points on just 15 shots. It’s not quite a top-5 type performance, but probably something in the top-10 range. Not bad at all.

***

Indiana beat Illinois in what was ostensibly a “basketball game” in Bloomington yesterday. Neither team was particularly close to posting a point per possession, and from my angle it was not the result of good defense. Rather, these teams just cannot shoot. Combined, they were 8 of 35 from three-point range, and the 2s were also bad (44 percent). Indiana won this game because it got to the free throw line and Illinois did not, which is to say that the Hoosiers won this game in the most boring fashion possible.

Both teams are playing for an NIT spot, though they will have to earn it. It’s hard to see that selection committee picking either of these teams based on aesthetics.

***

This week is a bit on the quiet side, as conference play goes, with Michigan State facing Iowa tomorrow. Despite how strong these teams have played, both really need a win to keep up with the Wolverines.

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