Big Ten Geeks: Regular season wrap and hardware

Well, it’s that time again—time to highlight all of our correct predictions, and whitewash all of the things we got wrong! See our Big Ten Geeks Josh Reed and Mike Portscheller wrap up the regular season and hand out hardware in this post.

Josh: I’ll start. Boy, what a great prediction it was to say Michigan had a bigger upside than Michigan State. That was a fairly unpopular call at the time, as most were more than willing to just hand the hardware to the Spartans. But the Wolverines just returned too many sophomore minutes to ignore. I really believe that the sophomore is the single-greatest weapon for an offseason team. Top-5 players are almost always among the best in college basketball, but they generally don’t show up for any team in numbers. And usually, their presence is conditioned on a large void of departing possessions which they can immediately consume. Is Jabari Parker a Blue Devil if he has to share the basketball (and limelight) with Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, and Ryan Kelly? Would Andrew Wiggins defer to Ben McLemore? Would Joel Embiid come off the bench to sub in for Jeff Withey?

All hypothetical, of course, but what isn’t hypothetical is how a large number of sophomores can all play nice in the sandbox. Michigan, of course, is an example this season. Nebraska also has a fine triumvirate of sophomores driving its renaissance (more on that later). But it’s not foolproof. Purdue was supposed to be a lot better with the presence of so many sophomores, and Indiana’s fall from grace I expected to be cushioned a bit more as guys like Yogi Ferrell, Jeremy Hollowell, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea developed.

So what happened there? Why did these teams stumble? And can we blame the water in the state of Indiana? I mean, Butler and Notre Dame had rough seasons, too.

Mike: I still can’t figure out Purdue. The most obvious answer may be that A.J. Hammons has not made your typical sophomore leap and has in fact gotten worse. The interesting thing will be to see how the Boilers do next season, as they will again look good on paper in terms of returning minutes and freshman-to-sophomore minutes. Maybe Hammons figures it out and Purdue makes a huge leap.

As for the Hoosiers, I think the offense is one-dimensional and therefore easy to stop. Other than Yogi Ferrell threes, the entire Indiana approach is to attack the rim. The typical side effects of that approach are free throws and turnovers, and the Hoosiers don’t get enough of the former to counteract the huge negative impact of the latter. Ferrell has a entirely reasonable turnover rate, but the rest of the team throws the ball away at an alarming rate. That should improve as all those freshmen become sophomores next season.

Speaking of states that have had rough basketball seasons, what do you make of Illinois’ recent surge (the Michigan blowout notwithstanding)? Is this a team to fear in Indianapolis?

Josh: Nah, not buying it. The surge was mostly the result of an unsustainable opponent turnover rate. While Groce’s teams typically do pretty good on that end of the floor, I don’t think we’re going to see a Big Ten defense that regularly forces turnovers on 25 percent of opponent possessions anytime soon. This is still a team that can’t shoot, and frankly doesn’t do much well on defense other than force turnovers. I think as long as an opponent stays patient on offense, and doesn’t extend itself on defense, it’s hard for Illinois to win. The good news for Illinois is that the team will see an injection of talent for next season, though will still probably lack a true low-post scorer.

Speaking of low-post scorers, has Nigel Hayes overtaken Noah Vonleh as freshman of the year? And what does his emergence mean for Wisconsin’s chances in the Dance?

Mike: Hayes has been phenomenal, but he has the luxury of coming off the bench for a team with lots of good offensive options. I’m more impressed with Vonleh’s overall game, especially his defense, although Hayes doesn’t appear to be a total slouch on that end either. I’d still take Vonleh as freshman of the year, but Hayes made it a closer race than I had expected. Derrick Walton deserves to be in that discussion as well.

As for the Badgers making a run in the tournament, they actually fit into a larger question that I’ve been pondering. This season, the Big Ten’s best teams can really score but can’t really defend. That’s not exactly new—last season’s Wolverines fit that bill—but I’m curious to see how that kind of extreme slant to one end of the floor plays in the Big Dance for the conference. As a fan, I’d feel more confident heading into the tournament with a great offense as opposed to a great defense, but I don’t really have any data behind that. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa all fit that bill.

Who knows, maybe this is finally the year that Bo Ryan breaks through to the Final Four. The Badgers did knock off two of the current KenPom top three in the nonconference schedule (Florida and Virginia). As we’ve discussed in the past, Ryan does not actually have a history of underperforming his seed in the tournament, so any concerns in that area are unfounded.

How about Iowa’s combination of great offense and poor defense? Do you think the Hawkeyes can stop losing close games and make a run?

Josh: I have to admit, as far as the “eye test” goes, Iowa absolutely belongs with the top of the conference. And yet they have 9 losses in conference play. By efficiency margin though, this is more like a 12-6 team, one that just knows how to lose close games. On the season, they’re 2-7 in games decided by 6 points or less, which goes a long way in explaining their 11-loss record.

Even so, Iowa’s defense doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. How is the 4th-tallest team in the country the 3rd-worst team in the Big Ten in two-point defense? You would think that if you put three cardboard cutouts the size of Iowa’s front line they’d be—at worst—middle of the pack.

But from watching Iowa, a lot of their struggles on defense stems from their guards’ inability to keep anyone in front of them. Roy Devyn Marble is one of the finest offensive players in the Big Ten, but he’s a poor defender, and Josh Oglesby is horrific on that end. With Marble moving on after this season, four of Iowa’s best five players will likely stand 6-9 or taller; (seriously, Aaron White might play the 2 on next year’s team). Sometimes I wonder if Fran isn’t better off going to that tall lineup this season by just rolling with one guard and four bigs on the floor.

Speaking of lineups, Izzo’s used about 20 different ones in Big Ten play. Do you see the Spartans (finally) putting it all together and making a run in March?

Mike: I don’t think Michigan State will flip a switch and be a different team from the one that ended the regular season, but there is still reason for optimism. Ken Pomeroy has shown in the past that the preseason AP poll has fairly strong predictive power, and these Spartans were very nearly the #1 team in the preseason AP poll (Kentucky was just a sliver ahead). Given that this is the same roster (minus Derrick Nix) that made the Sweet Sixteen last March, a nice tournament run is certainly not an unreasonable hope.

Besides, if we didn’t know anything about Michigan State’s preseason expectations and injury issues, we’d look at the on-paper results and think that this is a very dangerous team. The Spartans finished with a very good +0.09 efficiency margin in conference play, and you could even argue there was some bad luck in that number (opponents shot 36 percent on a heavy diet of threes).

Michigan State has as good a chance of making a deep tournament run as any Big Ten team, and the Spartans offer the best balance of offense and defense. We shouldn’t consider The Streak over just yet.

While we’re at the top, I’ll ask you the big question. Is Michigan a national title contender?

Josh: In a world where last year never happened, I’d probably say no. That Michigan team looked excellent in non-conference play, but the conference season exposed a soft defense that finished 6th in Big Ten play. The offense was just as powerful as before, but could a team that gave up 84 points to Penn State really make a run all the way to the Final Four?

Of course, we then saw the Full McGary and the Wolverines advanced all the way to the title game. So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a porous defense. That said, Michigan seems to be baiting the doubters this year. On paper, the conference efficiency margin is nearly identical to last season’s (+0.107 against +0.105). But this year, the chasm between Michigan’s offense (best in the Big Ten by a country mile) and defense (10th, behind the likes of Penn State) is even larger. While one might dismiss Michigan’s chances based on this imbalance, consistency would demand the dismissal of a lot of other teams as well.

Team

Pomeroy Rank

Adj. Offense Rank

Adj. Defense Rank

Difference

Duke

7

2

80

78

Creighton

9

1

100

99

Michigan

10

3

93

90

Wisconsin

12

6

55

49

Ohio State

14

119

2

117

VCU

15

116

3

113

Iowa

17

4

105

101

Cincinnati

18

101

7

94

Now, maybe this just means we have a lot of pretenders due for a tumble out of the top-20 once the madness begins. Or maybe Duke is going to hold Creighton to 37 points in the regional final and see its defensive rank rocket up the charts. All I know is, if I had to fill out a bracket today, at least one of these teams would end up in my projected Final Four.

That’s a very long way to state the obvious, but yes, I think John Beilein’s team has a real shot at bringing home a national championship. I don’t know that any team in the Big Ten ought to be considered a frontrunner, but certainly there’s at least a couple that should be in the conversation. And Michigan is one of those.

You’re right though that the Big Ten is very offense-heavy this year (in conference games, the teams averaged 1.04 points per possession). If you want one data point on how that kind of play translates in the NCAA Tournament, look no further than 2012, when the conference posted the same exact efficiency numbers. A fairly balanced Ohio State team (which had a +0.16 efficiency margin in conference play) made it to the Final Four. No one else made it past the Sweet 16.

But that season was nothing compared to 2011, when the conference posted an average efficiency of 1.08 (!). Only Ohio State and Wisconsin made it to the Sweet 16, where they were both eliminated. Let’s hope the conference does better than that this year.

Speaking of good offense and bad defense, what do you make of Richard Pitino’s inaugural season? Did the Gophers show you enough to instill some long-term confidence?

Mike:  I’m tempted to say that Pitino’s defensive approach is clearly wrong for this conference, but that might not be fair. Sure, Minnesota had the Big Ten’s worst defensive efficiency in conference play, but there’s a couple caveats. First, there’s some bad luck at work, as opponents shot a scalding 37 percent on threes. Second, this collection of Gophers was destined to struggle on the defensive end no matter who their coach was. The roster is devoid of good defensive options at the four spot, and Elliott Eliason, for all his rebounding and shotblocking goodness, is still too foul-prone. This group of players was bad defensively in Tubby Smith’s final season, and that was with Trevor Mbakwe, so we shouldn’t have expected defensive miracles.

This is all to say that the jury is still out on Pitino at Minnesota, as it probably should be after only one season. We picked the Gophers to finish 7-11, and they ended up a game better than that. I’m still in a wait-and-see mode.

Speaking of first-year head coaches, what do you make of Chris Collins’ first season at Northwestern? The defensive improvement is striking, but should the offense really be that bad?

Josh: Well, it’s worth noting that the offense was really bad last year, too. And while Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb were added to the team, there were important losses from that team as well.

But yes, this offense was a complete disaster. The Daniel Moore Indiana teams? The Ben Luber years at Penn State? The inaugural season of Lickliterball? Those all look like Michigan compared to these guys. At 319th in adjusted offensive efficiency, this might be the worst Big Ten offense we’ll see in our lifetimes. Seriously.

(Rutgers can’t be that bad, can it?)

I guess the good news then is that it can’t get any worse on offense in Evanston. And the fact that Collins was able to construct the 14th-best defense in the country with a roster that’s largely outmatched athletically in conference play is quite an accomplishment.

I think what Collins showed this year is that while he’s not a basketball savant that can take any old roster to the Dance, he’s also not clearly in over his head, either. He looks to be a fantastic defensive coach, at least. Now, whether that means he ends up as the next Tony Bennett or the next Kevin O’Neil probably depends on how his recruits play. At the end of the day, there’s only so much that Xs and Os can do—every good team ultimately has good players.

Speaking of good players, there’s been no shortage of those in Columbus under Thad Matta. But even so, it looks like we’re seeing a brief dip in the performance of the typically outstanding Buckeyes as fewer McDonald’s All-Americans have been enrolling at Ohio State of late. Long term, that looks to be a temporary problem that’s going to be fixed in short order.

But what about this year? Can Ohio State do any damage in the postseason to avoid being just as predictable as we imagined?

Mike: Sure, it’s possible that Ohio State makes a run. You don’t have to look too hard to find a team with a similar profile that made some major tournament noise.

The 2011-12 Louisville Cardinals were strikingly similar to these Buckeyes, with a great turnover-inducing defense and a lackluster offense. That team went an unimpressive 10-8 in the Big East, but it went on to win the conference tournament and reach the Final Four. I’m certainly not predicting such feats for this Ohio State squad, but a defense-heavy profile does not doom a team to postseason failure.

Of course, one can draw a less flattering parallel for the Buckeyes, as they also look similar in efficiency terms to last season’s first-round-losing Wisconsin Badgers.

How about those Huskers? Given the total lack of talent on campus when Tim Miles took the job, how in the world did he get Nebraska to this point?

Josh: Mostly, with defense. The Cornhuskers have the 2nd-best defense in conference play, driven by pretty solid field goal defense and excellent defensive rebounding. The latter has been a staple for Tim Miles, while the former looks mostly like a blip. There’s also been a fair amount of luck, as opponents shot just 67 percent at the Free throw line.

Even still, this is a heck of an achievement for a team that was picked to finish in last place but just about everyone. And frankly, that ought to be the baseline for the next few seasons. Each of Shavon Shields, Terran Petteway, and Walter Pitchford are sophomores. That’s not a bad core to start out with. This team is really only a couple of pieces away from being a top-25 team. For Nebraska, that’s nearly unthinkable. In short, Tim Miles’ Geeks’ Coach of the Year award is well-deserved.

If there’s a downside to all of this, we could be seeing the beginning of the end of Tim Miles and his jokester “Aw, shucks!” persona at Big Ten press conferences. It’s not hard to keep things light when the expectations are low and the team is beating them. Once the bar is raised, though, fans and the media lose patience. But that’s a long ways off, of course. Tim Miles might have more rope right now than anyone in the Big Ten outside Beilein.

At the other end of the spectrum is Pat Chambers, who might have hit a short-term high-water mark at 6-12 in Big Ten play. With Tim Frazier leaving the program after this season, do you see much hope for a turnaround anytime soon?

Mike: I haven’t been impressed by the Chambers era at Penn State, but that’s not the easiest place to win either. It’s hard to envision the team getting better without Tim Frazier, but that might actually happen. As it stands, the Nittany Lions should return nearly 80 percent of their minutes, and around 10 percent of their minutes will be going freshman-to-sophomore. Those figures point to improvement, and Penn State is already not that far from respectability. I’m not seeing a tournament team next season, but a small improvement is entirely possible.

Now that we’ve touched upon every team, let’s get to the individuals. We’ve contributed our votes to the All-BTN.com teams, and it looks like we were alone in our Big Ten player of the year pick. Everybody else went Full Stauskas, but we picked Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky wasn’t  even a consensus first team pick by our fellow BTN.com writers, so it appears we have some defending to do. Make the case for Kaminsky.

Josh: Well, the first thing to note is that offensively, the two are nearly indistinguishable:

Player

Offensive Rating

Possession Pct.

Stauskas

123.0

23.9

Kaminsky

122.7

25.4

If you’re going to give an edge to one player based on the above, I think that edge goes to the Wisconsin center. Now, throw in defense. Kaminsky has evolved on that end from a liability to an above-average performer. Of Big Ten starters, he ranks 5th in defensive rebounding percentage. Stauskas is basically a no-show on the glass. Kaminsky also has the same number of steals as Stauskas in conference play, and 23 more blocks than the Canadian sharpshooter.

Stauskas is a great player and perhaps the most exciting one in the Big Ten. But Frank the Tank has been the best this season.

OK, take us home—who do you like in Indianapolis? I’ll be boring and say Michigan.

Mike: The Big Ten tournament feels more wide open than in seasons past, with the top five teams all occupying a narrow band in the KenPom ranks (10th-17th nationally). As such, I fully acknowledge that any one-team pick is very likely to be wrong, but I’ll cast my lot with Michigan State.

Here are our complete Big Ten Geek Awards:

All-Geek Team
Frank Kaminsky (POY)
Nik Stauskas
Terran Petteway
Roy Devyn Marble
Gary Harris

Freshman of the Year: Noah Vonleh

Defensive POY: Noah Vonleh

Coach of the Year: Tim Miles

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2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
Lance Schulz on 3/11/2014 @ 11:06am EST Said:

Maybe you guys know this – I can’t find any national stats on fouls. This season Ben Brust has committed 23 fouls in 31 games while averaging 35 minutes per game. Does this rank pretty high among players committing the fewest fouls? Obviously to anyone who has watched him he actually plays very hard on the defensive end. Thanks!

    Josh Reed, Big Ten Geeks on 3/11/2014 @ 11:20am EST Said:

    Your hunch is a good one, Lance. Brust ranks 2nd nationally in fouls committed per 40 minutes (0.8), behind LIU-Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman (0.6).

    That said, I do think there is something to the idea that anyone playing very good defense necessarily will get called for fouls at least semi-regularly. Wisconsin’s defensive style might be a bit unique in that regard, however.