staff, March 19, 2012

As of this writing, there is a 45.9 percent chance your NCAA Champion will be from the Big Ten. It was a good weekend for the conference, as four teams advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. But before we get to that good stuff, let?s deal with the unpleasantness.

Michigan fell to Ohio 65-60 in the first round, in a game that the Bobcats pretty much controlled from end-to-end. There was nothing fancy to Ohio?s attack, they just significantly outshot the Wolverines. OU converted nearly 60 percent of their two-pointers and 40 percent of their threes on the game–with numbers like those, all a team needs is something other than a horrible turnover rate and it will be efficient. It was the second game in a row that Michigan gave up 1.14 points per possession. Prior to this game, it was Ohio State that scored frequently against Beilein?s defense (one wonders how much John Groce talked with Thad Matta this past week).

Dylan Burkhardt sums it up well:

The final four minutes were so agonizing because they were the antithesis of Michigan?s season. Whether it was against Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern or Minnesota, the Wolverines have prevailed more often than not in late game situations. The things that had gotten Michigan this far suddenly dried up and took a turn for the worse.

Indeed, I?ve nearly tattooed on my arm the maxim that one should not count out Beilein?s teams over the past 2 seasons, no matter the deficit or time remaining. But the truth is that Michigan plays a lot of close games–24 games have gone to overtime or were decided by 5 points or less over the past two seasons (which accounts for 35 percent of all of Big Blue?s games). If we limit the sample to conference and NCAA Tournament games, that percentage jumps to 49 percent. And more often than not, Michigan prevails in those tight contests. But I don?t care who the coach is or who the players are, luck is probably the biggest single factor of determining the outcome of close games. And on this particular roll of the dice, Michigan came up short. The real loss came with the fact that this was a tight game in the first place. When the best part of the Wolverine offense is rebounding, something?s gone wrong.

But the good news for UM fans is that next year?s version of the Maize and Blue might be even better. Assuming Trey Burke comes back for a sophomore season, Michigan probably has the best backcourt in the Big Ten with Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Beilein?s also got a great class coming in, though we shouldn?t dismiss the tall task of replacing someone with an offensive rating over 120. But my biggest concern is how these pieces will fit–Beilein will have 3 big men who are good enough to start in Jordan Morgan, Evan Smotrycz, and Mitch McGary. But for the past four seasons, Beilein?s been content to run four guards and wings around a single post player. With all that talent on the frontline, it will be interesting to see what changes might come. But the takeaway here is that Michigan is trending upward.

The same probably cannot be said for Purdue. The Boilermakers lost a heartbreaker to Kansas in a game they pretty much controlled the entire way. What?s especially difficult to swallow is the fact that Purdue lost this game because it lost the turnover battle, something they had in hand against St. Mary?s. Normally one does not see a lot of finger-waving as a result of a 10-turnover performance, but the resulting 17 percent turnover rate is well above the Boilers? season average. Believe it or not, this was the 7th-best offense in the country this season, and most of that credit is due to the fact that Purdue led the country in terms of taking care of the basketball. The last of Purdue?s turnovers was particularly costly, as Lewis Jackson lost his dribble near the top of the key which led to an easy Jayhawk hoop and a Jayhawk lead, both of which were quite rare to that point in the game. The loss spoiled one of the finest games in Robbie Hummel?s career (26 points on 13 shots to go with 9 rebounds). And really, it spoiled a great coaching job by Matt Painter. I, for one, did not expect Purdue to open up double-digit leads on Kansas and control the game for 39 minutes. But all that counts is the final score.

Purdue now faces a future without Hummel, or fellow seniors Jackson and Ryne Smith. The immediate impact will be negative, though Painter already has commitments from six quality players in the classes of 2012 and 2013. So while next year I expect the Boilermakers to take a step back, Purdue?s long-term future still looks bright.

Ohio State put away a pesky Gonzaga team to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. Against the Bulldogs, we saw some vintage MattaBall, which is comprised of uncanny shot-making ability. The Buckeyes shots well on their twos (55 percent) and threes (38 percent), and it was no thanks to the bench (another staple of MattaBall). Indeed, not a single point was registered by the reserves. I don?t find this all that concerning–OSU has been winning without reserves for years–but I wouldn?t count on the hot shooting continuing. Unlike past seasons, these Buckeyes are (gasp) downright average when it comes to putting the ball in the bucket. And really, that weakness is entirely confined to three-point shooting. Jon Dieblers don?t grow on trees, but it is nonetheless an odd state of affairs when Jared Sullinger is the best deep threat on the team, and not by a little. If Ohio State is to make it to New Orleans, the defense will have to compensate for the lackluster outside shooting.

Indiana survived Virginia Commonwealth?s havoc defense and now stares down a rematch against Kentucky. The Hoosiers posted their highest turnover rate in years–the 33.5 percent figure hasn?t been matched since Daniel Moore was running point guard duties for the team. Give credit to Shaka Smart, but this is still concerning: only six teams have posted a higher turnover rate against the Commodores this season. And one of those was Towson. Less concerning, however, was IU?s shooting. The Hoosiers shot 55 percent on twos and 46 percent on their three-pointers. That?s been a staple of this team all year, of course, and there?s no reason for that to change. Indeed, we?ll soon be treated to one of the nation?s premier offenses going against one of the best defenses. But if there is a weakness to the Hoosier attack, it?s turnovers. The very excellent news for Indiana fans is that UK doesn?t really bother to force turnovers. To sum up, Kentucky is stupid good, yes, but, maybe that game at Assembly Hall wasn?t much of a fluke. Hoosier doubters, take notice.

Wisconsin didn?t always look pretty, but did make it to the Sweet 16 with a win over Vanderbilt. It wasn?t so long ago when Bo Ryan?s offense was rather balanced. One only needs to remember the days of Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft. But as of late, the Badgers have become an extreme POT (perimeter oriented team). You might guess it?s because over that same time, the offense has flowed through the All-American point guard, Jordan Taylor, but I can?t say he?s the cause given that Taylor reliably attempts about 100 more two-pointers than threes in a given season. Really, it?s because you have big men like Keaton Nankivil and Jared Berggren shooting threes in volumes that would shock and awe Brian Butch and Mike Wilkinson. This POT focus has shifted the turnover rate into a microscopic number, but this shift has not come without costs. Most of these have been borne at the free throw line, which is used about as often as my laserdisc player. It?s hard to believe now, but no Big Ten team got the free throw line more in 2007-08 than Wisconsin. In the four years since, the Badgers have been well below average in this regard. All of this is to say that the stagnation one saw when Vanderbilt switched to a zone defense near the end of the game should be cause for concern, as it turned a jumpshooting team into a jumpshooting team that didn?t even bother to look for good jumpshots, let alone shots in the paint. Further, the Badgers are now staring down the stewards of the zone defense, a team that has, for the past couple of decades or so, transformed the average Division I team into a jumpshooting team. So here?s your two sentence unremarkable preview of the next round: expect a lot of jumpshots from Wisconsin on Thursday. If they go in, the Badgers will win.

Michigan State held off a late Saint Louis rally to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. I have somewhat of a blind faith in the Spartans after viewing them in Indianapolis. Then Branden Dawson goes down, and they get a terrible draw, but I?ve yet to adjust. I probably should though, considering how MSU put away the Billikens. They didn?t dominate the glass, didn?t draw fouls, and didn?t choke off SLU?s attack. They just (as was the theme this past weekend) outshot the opponent. Although this same strategy was deployed successfully in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, I have a feeling that the Spartans will at least need to rebound better on the offensive end moving forward. What luck, then, that MSU now draws Louisville, a team that is prone to giving opponents second chances. If Draymond Green and company can own the boards, it should make up for the fits that Louisville?s pressure defense is likely to cause.