staff, February 5, 2012

The knock on Indiana this season was that while the Hoosiers are nearly unbeatable at home, they?re almost the opposite on the road. To wit, the home and away efficiencies are Stevenson-esque in conference play:

   Offensive Points Per Possession       Defensive Points Per Possession   
Indiana at Home 1.19 1.08
Indiana on the Road 1.01 1.13

The numbers here represent IU?s performance prior to the win over Purdue in West Lafayette. After rolling over the Boilermakers, Indiana no longer looks like a team doomed to falter in a postseason filled with neutral courts. BTG favorite Victor Oladipo came out of his funk to drop 23 on Purdue, but the story in this game was Indiana?s defense. We?ve criticized the Hoosiers this season for being too permissive on the defensive end, and although one game does not cure all ills, this was a great sign. Indeed, winning with defense on the road was the best refutation Tom Crean could have summoned to answer those bearish on IU. Purdue was held to just 0.90 points per possession, which was the best defensive showing against a Big Ten team by Indiana this year.

I also think that Purdue was exposed a bit on Saturday. Namely, the Boilers have nothing resembling an effective center on the roster. Travis Carroll is first in the rotation, but all he did was commit 4 fouls and not much else in 9 minutes of playing time. Jacob Lawson hasn?t earned Painter?s trust at this point, so for the most part Purdue was relying on Robbie Hummel as a de facto center. Frankly, that?s probably the best lineup the Boilers have. Hummel has proven time and again that he can play any spot on the floor (on Saturday all he did was score 16 points, grab 10 rebounds, block 5 shots, and secure 2 steals with only 1 turnover and 2 fouls), but even as good as he is, he?s not going to be able to shut down the better offensive centers (to wit, Cody Zeller ended up with 16 points on just 7 shots). Moreover, Hummel generally relies on jumpshots to score, which is emblematic of the entire team. There?s nothing wrong with being a jumpshot offense, assuming those jumpshots are coming from behind the arc. But Purdue isn?t especially good at hitting threes, as the team has made just under 33 percent of its attempts in conference play. The Boilers? offense is powered by its refusal to tolerate mistakes. No team turns it over less than Matt Painter?s crew. But even with a minuscule turnover rate, this is just the 6th-best offense in the conference. Purdue is like that tennis player that everyone hates–the guy that hits safe shots, and wins by virtue of a lack of unforced errors. A lack of tunovers isn?t a bad thing of course–it?s a sign of a very well-coached team–but Purdue doesn?t have a lot of playmakers on offense, particularly on the interior.

Northwestern also went on the road and picked up a huge win over Illinois in Champaign. The Wildcats scored at a blistering 1.28 points per possession, by far the most given up by the Illini all season. While John Shurna made plenty of creative and awkward ShurnaShots, a good chunk of Northwestern?s points came as a direct result of what seemed like a disinterested Illinois team. Given how huge this game was for Illinois (if they simply took care of business at home, this team was a lock for the Dance. Now, not so much.), one wonders if the team wasn?t keeping an eye on the score of the Puppy Bowl. In the category of ?other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?,? this was the best offensive output of the conference season for Illinois. But at home against the league?s worst defense, that?s no great accomplishment. Any way you look at it, this was a devastating loss for the Illini.

For the Wildcats, this win keeps their at-large hopes alive. But there?s not much margin for error. Even if Northwestern holds serve at home, that leaves the team with a losing record in conference play, which might not be enough given the non-conference slate. Further, one of those home games is against Ohio State. So while this was a huge win for the Wildcats, they?ll need to pull off another upset or two in order to finally go dancing.

Speaking of Ohio State, the Buckeyes asserted their dominance with a win over the Badgers in Madison. While the standings only show a game of difference between OSU and Michigan State, the truth is there is a vast gulf between the Buckeyes and everyone else in the Big Ten:

Conference Leader    Efficiency Margin Gap to Next-Best Team   
Kentucky +0.16
Syracuse +0.11
Ohio State +0.09
New Mexico +0.07
Kansas +0.06
UNC +0.01

If you want a shortlist for Final Four contenders, you could do worse than pick from the top three teams in this table.

The Big Ten?s next-best hope for a deep tournament run blitzed its in-state rival at the Breslin Center. This ended up at a respectable-looking 10-point loss, but this game was never really close. To say Michigan State dominated the boards is quite the understatement. Draymond Green, showing no ill affects from his sprained knee, secured 16 rebounds on his own. That?s the same number of rebounds grabbed by all the Wolverines, combined.

Also winning on the road was Minnesota. The Gophers flexed their interior dominance, hitting on over 60 percent of their two-point attempts against Nebraska. Now at 5-6 with 5 home games left (albeit against the likes of OSU, MSU, Indiana, and Wisconsin), Minnesota?s at-large hopes are very much alive. Even if the Gophers come up short, Tubby?s got my vote for coach of the year. What his team has done after losing Trevor Mbakwe has been remarkable.

It's another full slate of games this week for the conference, with the highlights coming Thursday, when Wisconsin visits a surging Minnesota team and Illinois goes to Bloomington with its back against the wall. Both of these games are critical to the Gophers and Illini, so I expect to see these go down to the wire.