staff, March 7, 2012

Josh: It's time to reflect on another season of Big Ten hoops. I think the rest of college basketball has finally taken notice of something that's been true for the past 18 months or so–the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball. Still, you look at the conference today, you see two great teams, 3 pretty darn good teams, a team good enough to make the Dance, and then mediocrity. Heck, even a couple of pretty bad teams. I mean, it's hard to say the conference underachieved, but here goes–the conference underachieved. Sure, this is still the best action you'll find, and it's not close, but we're still talking about a league that's probably going to get 6 bids, with only a couple of standout teams. Does that sound much different than the past decade, when the Big Ten wasn't measuring up to the likes of the ACC and the Big East?

So what happened? The Big Ten also-rans (notably Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern) are handed perfectly good chum in the form of Nebraska, and it doesn't seem to help them at all. Does that mean Jim Delany needs to expand to 14 teams? How is Rutgers feeling about the future of the Big East these days?

Because I cherry-pick these things all the time, I'll let you off easy, for once. Recite the All-Freshman team that absolutely no one will disagree with.

Mike: Ah, tossing me a softball to start. This is an easy one: Burke, Zeller, Dawson, White, and Sobolewski. There really can't be much argument for a different squad, unless you're related to Josh Oglesby. This list includes four starters for NCAA Tournament teams (assuming Northwestern sneaks in), and a couple contenders for the all-conference first team in Burke and Zeller. What's notable is that only two of these guys were top 100 RSCI recruits, meaning most of the highly rated freshmen in the B1G didn't make much of an impact (see Illinois for the most obvious cases).

Another thing that this list brings to mind – how does Branden Dawson's season-ending injury impact Michigan State's outlook?

Josh: I wish there was some shiny spin I could put on this, but I'm afraid losing Dawson is a massive hit to the Spartans. I didn't think I'd say that in December, mind you. Back then the freshman was shooting 40 percent from the floor and averaging about 5 points a game. Now he's brought that percentage up to nearly 60 percent and he's averaging 8 points a game in conference play. But losing Dawson I think will hurt in a couple places. Namely, it will limit Draymond Green's freedom, and it will hurt the defense.

For the past couple of seasons, Draymond has floated a bit more on the perimeter on offense, which isn't a bad thing (the senior from Saginaw is shooting over 40 percent from three this year. Incidentally, I hate it when analysts lament players/teams "settling" for three-pointers. Wherever this meeting was where all the talking heads got together and decided that three-pointers are the bane of basketball, I wasn't there. Dollars to donuts that Bobby Knight was.). Dawson is MSU's best offensive rebounder this season, and obviously offensive rebounds give Tom Izzo the warm and fuzzies. With Dawson out, and many of his minutes likely going to Brandon Wood, I expect we'll see Green float much less, so that he can make up for Dawson's absence on the boards.

Defensively, MSU works because they have a great defender (Green), and two pretty darn good ones in Dawson and Payne. The dropoff between those guys and the rest of the team isn't insignificant. In my book, the Spartans moved from a Final Four "likely" (given Izzo's track record, you toss probability out the window) to "probably not." Still, Izzo's taken worse teams to the final weekend.

Back to you–explain Michigan. This is a good team, sure, but the record isn't supported by the efficiency margin. Not only that, but the offense is average (for Beilein, that's a shocker) while the defense is pretty good (for Beilein, that's more of a shocker). I'm not surprised the team is good–I'm surprised at why. What's going on in Ann Arbor?

Mike: In some ways, Michigan's numbers make a lot of sense. If we had somehow known that Trey Burke would become the latest three-star freshman to blossom under Beilein and would straight-up replace Darius Morris (not an easy assumption), we'd have figured the offense would be basically unchanged from a season ago–and it has been. We'd also have expected some defensive improvement given the large number of returning minutes, and that's happened as well, albeit in a larger dose than might have been predicted. I think we were right to have some pause about Michigan's preseason ranking, but we also didn't assume such amazing things from Burke. Morris was a huge part of Michigan's offense last season, and this three-star freshman has allowed the team to not miss a beat.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this Michigan season has been its trajectory–KenPom's laptop started the season with the Wolverines slotted at 22nd nationally, then they muddled around to fall as far as 52nd just before conference play, and now they're peaking at the right time at 20th. Just as with last season, John Beilein has his team getting stronger as the calendar turns to March. It will be very interesting to see how the Wolverines fare in the NCAA Tournament.

Speaking of teams we got wrong, I'll let you explain what happened with the Hoosiers. We had them as an NIT team, and it's looking like they'll instead get a top five seed in the Big Dance. What did we miss?

Josh: We missed Indiana shooting 43 percent on three-pointers. Last year, the Hoosiers shot 32.9 percent in conference play on threes. If they did that this year (assuming the same number of three-point attempts, which isn't as crazy as it sounds, because IU is selective on its three-pointers as it is), the offensive efficiency drops from 1.11 to 1.06 (an oversimplification that assumes not a single offensive rebound from a missed 3. That said, offensive rebounds off 3s are a minimal part of any offense), and the efficiency margin moves to a cool zero-point-zero. This makes our 9-9 prediction look awfully sensible. And moreover, making threes is just luck anyways, right? Look how smart we are!

OK, it's not that simple. This team shot 77 percent from the free throw line, so it's hard to discount the fact that there are talented shooters on the team. Shooting 32.9 percent was never on the table. Still, I look at the fact that Derek Elston shot 54 percent on three-pointers this season, and I come to the inescapable conclusion that life from behind the arc won't be so kind next year for the Hoosiers. I don't think that matters, however, because many teams have improved despite losing players of the caliber of Verdell Jones. Plus, IU's bringing in a pretty good class for 2012.

All bets are off, should Cody head to the NBA, however.

Speaking of big men testing the waters, what do you think of Meyers Leonard's upcoming decision? Also, can you give me a more accurate metaphor for Illinois' season than a clown car on fire speeding in reverse off a cliff?

Mike: Leonard is an interesting case, in that it's easy to see why an NBA GM might spend a lottery pick on him in a few months, but he's still not much more than a solid college big man in terms of production. He turns it over way too much, he has more than his share of defensive lapses, and his maturity issues–perceived or real–are well-documented. There's no doubt he should be a better player with another season of college ball, but it's hard to fault a kid for choosing guaranteed millions. For an obvious comparison, I keep hearing that Jared Sullinger cost himself a bunch of money by staying, but I'm not so sure that is true. Sullinger has been just as productive as a sophomore as he was as a freshman. In the interest of a more intriguing Big Ten, I'm hoping Leonard sticks around.

As for Leonard's team, it seems that a flawed squad just crumbled down the stretch when the pressure really mounted. The Illini were never going to be a Big Ten title contender with their offensive struggles, but it appeared for awhile that they could defend their way to respectability. Over the past two months, the team has just stopped guarding, and the result is an epic collapse of 11 losses in 13 games. After the Ohio State win, I wrote that Illinois' at-large hopes had gone from "maybe" to "yes, as long as they don't stumble too badly." Even when including that little caveat, I saw nothing like this coming. In theory, Illinois should be much improved next season, given the team's lack of impact seniors, but it's hard to saw where things will go after such a major unravelling.

Staying with the Land of Lincoln, how do you like Northwestern's chances of breaking the dry spell? What do the Wildcats need to do in Indy for March Madness be graced with the ShurnaShot?

Josh: On Sullinger, I'd also point out that the Ohio State big man's defense is markedly improved this season. Overall, he's a better player.

To your question on Northwestern, I think they have to win at least 2 games in Indianapolis. The opening round win over Iowa won't do much for the resume, and right now Northwestern's resume looks weak, at least on the Jay Bilas "Who Have You Beat and Where Did You Beat Them?" Test. The Wildcats are 1-10 versus the RPI top 50, and that one win was at home. Sure, this team doesn't get upset very often, but it also doesn't look like a threat to make any noise in the Tournament. I've long since given up trying to figure out exactly what the Committee wants to see, but I have to believe that potential to make a run is part of the equation. So long story short, Northwestern needs another quality win.

But let's put the dancing teams and Northwestern aside for the moment. Of those who have (a near) zero chance of winning a National Championship this season, which team's future is the brightest?

Mike: Of the non-dancing group (assuming no miraculous four day runs in Indy), I like most what Fran McCaffery is doing at Iowa. Sure, Matt Gatens will be a real loss, and Bryce Cartwright has his moments, but most of the important pieces of that roster are freshmen or sophomores, and they'll be joined by a promising recruiting class this fall. A frontcourt rotation of Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe, and 7-foot recruit Adam Woodbury could be among the conference's best over the next two seasons, and Roy Devyn Marble and Josh Oglesby are developing nicely in the backcourt. I'm not sure we'll project them as a tourney team this fall, but it isn't out of the question.

How about this upcoming Big Ten Tournament–can anyone be called a prohibitive favorite?

Josh: With Dawson out, the edge goes to Ohio State. But as we've seen this year, anyone can knock off anyone. I do think that one of the four bye teams will win, if for no other reason than they each have one less opportunity to lose. Geez, that's not very helpful, is it?

OK, time for the meat and potatoes. Who is your Player of the Year (and why)? Who rounds out your first team?

Mike: For B1G POY, I've got to take Draymond Green just ahead of Jared Sullinger. Day-Day is Sully's equal in rebounding, shot-blocking, and steals, and he shoulders a larger chunk of his team's offense with his diverse game. That said, I couldn't really fault anyone for taking Sullinger instead. Both are worthy choices.

My all-conference first team would pair Green and Sullinger with Jordan Taylor, Cody Zeller, and Robbie Hummel. John Shurna just misses the cut–his offensive numbers are nearly identical to those of Hummel, but Hummel gets the edge for defense and a better team. I've seen some heated discussion of which point guard should be on the first-team: Taylor, Trey Burke, or even Aaron Craft. Craft is an excellent defender for his size, but that alone is not enough to boost him above the other two. Craft's offensive game, while reasonably efficient, is far too shot averse and turnover prone to be in this discussion. Burke presents a more reasonable challenge to Taylor, as you could argue Burke's higher usage rate makes up for Taylor's higher efficiency. Ultimately, I'll take the extreme turnover avoidance of Jordan Taylor for my all-conference point guard.

Any quibbles with this squad? How about the all-defensive unit and defensive POY?

Josh: Agreed on Green, and his defense clinches it for me. As you could also probably guess, I'm not going to keep Taylor off my first team, either. But I'm torn between Gatens, Zeller, and Shurna. These guys are all pretty average defensively for the positions they play, so it's really all about offense. Gatens represents the uber-efficient model, while Shurna chews up the most possessions and shots. Zeller's right in the middle on both counts, but I think he's the last of the 3 for me. Gatens shoots just as often, and the gap in possessions can be explained largely by turnovers. In other words, if Gatens would just turn it over a few times more, he'd be Zeller's offensive equal.

So I think it comes down to Shurna or Gatens. Mr. Northwestern or Mr. Iowa. Do you have a coin I could flip? Any preference between the two?

As for my Defensive Player of the Year, I'll give that to Green. For All-Defense…I'd like to pass. If you want the best 5 defenders, you'd have 5 post players. But that's not a real team. And I'm not a fan of awarding honors simply based on the position that the coach happens to pencil in. But if I must give an answer, I'd go with Green, Sullinger, Hummel, Buford and Oladipo.

OK, any last words before we head off to Indy?

Mike: I appreciate what Gatens has done this season, but I'd have a tough time putting a guy on the all-conference first team when he isn't even the top usage player on a lower-half team. Gatens had a fantastic season as a dead-eye shooter, but he didn't create for others and wasn't special on the defensive end. Shurna was a clear go-to guy with a shot diet of nearly 32 percent, and he had a decent assist rate to go along with it. So, for me, the argument would come down to Shurna vs. Zeller. This one is awfully close. I'd give Zeller an edge on the defensive end, as his addition is a big part of the reason the Hoosiers went from terrible on defense to mediocre, and the Stops numbers bear out an advantage there for Zeller as well. Still, Shurna's overwhelming efficiency on such a high shot diet is tough to pass up. You've convinced me to replace Zeller with Shurna.

As for closing thoughts, I'd just like to say what a pleasure it has been for the conference we cover to turn out to also be the nation's best conference for two years running. We've got what I consider to be the best four weeks in sports just ahead of us, and it's a privilege to be so close to it. That said, Big Ten fans should make sure to savor this next month–not only will it be seven long months before college basketball returns, it's also unclear as to just how good the conference will be next season. Look at our all-conference discussion–Green, Taylor, Hummel, Shurna, and Gatens are all seniors, and it wouldn't be at all surprising for Sullinger to take his talents to the next level. The conference will move on as it always does, but we could very well be looking at the last four weeks of Big Ten supremacy for awhile. Let's all make sure to enjoy it.

Big Ten Geeks All-Conference Team:
Draymond Green, Michigan State (Player of the Year)
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Robbie Hummel, Purdue
Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
John Shurna, Northwestern

Big Ten Geeks All-Defensive Team:
Draymond Green, Michigan State (Defensive Player of the Year)
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Robbie Hummel, Purdue
Victor Oladipo, Indiana
William Buford, Ohio State

Big Ten Geeks All-Freshman Team:
Cody Zeller, Indiana (Freshman of the Year)
Trey Burke, Michigan
Branden Dawson, Michigan State
Aaron White, Iowa
Dave Sobolewski, Northwestern