staff, December 13, 2012

Continuing the discussion of what each team could use this holiday season. Part one here.

Nebraska (6-2)

Already, Tim Miles has been successful in installing parts of his system. His Colorado State and North Dakota State teams dutifully cleaned the glass on defense, and we?re seeing similar results with the Huskers (a cynic would point out that defensive rebounding was a relative strength for Nebraska last year as well. To the cynic-stop being such a Scrooge.).

But the team hasn?t been as quick to adopt Miles? affinity for attacking the basket. In each of his last three seasons, Miles? Colorado State teams led the Mountain West Conference in free throw rate. But this Nebraska team is still running a flavor of a mid-range offense. They don?t shoot a lot of threes, they don?t turn the ball over, and they don?t get to the free throw line.

Low Turnover Profiles

Living in the mid-range is no place to be (just ask Bruce Weber). It?s likely that Miles isn?t going to change what worked well for him in the MWC, so I expect over the long haul that Nebraska will get to the free throw line more. But as of now, it?s firmly on the wishlist.

Northwestern (7-3)
Let?s be different. Let?s assume that Northwestern?s defense is finally for real this year. And really, why can?t it be? Sure, the schedule has been relatively soft, but consider that Northwestern has been the best or second-best defense its opponent has faced in exactly half of their games. Last year, that happened exactly zero times. Granted, it?s early, and someone else will probably hold Illinois State to under 0.93 points per possession at some some this season. But at least a couple of these are bound to stand up over the course of the season. Northwestern?s defense appears to be better, and for that, we can thank freshman Alex Olah.

Northwestern is no stranger to recruiting internationally. It?s not hard to see why, either, as most U.S.-born players probably do not equate the Wildcats with basketball tradition. NU?s academic requirements also likely limit its list of possible players. In the face of those constraints, it makes sense to expand the pool of players.

Olah originally hails from Romania, and played for its under-18 FIBA team, leading the team in scoring and rebounding during the European Championships. Although he?s a freshman, he?s already a solid 275 pounds, and he clearly isn?t getting pushed around by Division One athletes. Olah is proving to be an outstanding defensive rebounder-his 21.8 defensive rebounding percentage is the highest for any player under Carmody. But Olah is also blocking nearly six percent of the opponents? shots, which also leads the team.

So now that Northwestern has its defense, it should be all set, right? Well, as it turns out, the offense hasn?t been quite up to Carmody?s usual standards. Already, the Wildcats have failed to clear the 1.0 point-per-possession threshold four times this season, and that includes games against TCU, Illinois State, and UIC. The last time that Northwestern didn?t hit 1.0 PPP against a mid-major team was two and a half years ago, against Texas Pan-Am. The last time it happened more than twice in a season was in 2006-07. The problem is that this Northwestern team simply isn?t making as many shots as they usually do. So for Christmas, I think it?s time to break out the old T-shirts again.

Some of these problems will get fixed. Drew Crawford is shooting about ten percentage points lower on his twos than his career average. Jared Swopshire is missing his three-pointers, but the real problem is that he?s taking them in the first place. But there is also reason to believe that NU might struggle all season to make shots. A lot of the offenders are freshmen, and that includes Olah (he?s just 50 percent on his twos, and he?s also a terrible free throw shooter). If Northwestern can?t get back to its efficient ways on offense, the defensive gains might all be for naught.

Ohio State (7-1)
Ohio State is another team without a lot of holes, but there is one way in which this Buckeye team is rather deficient as compared to previous Matta-coached team. This team fouls, a lot. Right now, the Buckeyes rank 157th in defensive free throw rate, which measures opponent free throws attempted per field goals attempted. To get a sense of how out-of-character this is, consider that Matta?s Ohio State teams have led the Big Ten in this category in 6 of his 8 seasons. The other two seasons the team finished 2nd and 3rd in the conference.

So it?s strange to see this team fouling so much. But it?s also a trade-off for some of the defense OSU has been displaying. Consider that DeShaun Thomas is the only player that has an especially low foul rate. Before you check, the answer is no-Thomas has not dedicated himself to defense this season, he?s as ambivalent as ever. The regular with the highest rate is Amir Williams, who happens to be an outstanding shotblocker. Second highest is Shannon Scott, who is probably Ohio State?s best defender (and before you think I?m just yanking Michael DeCourcy?s chain again, consider that Scott has a higher defensive rebounding rate, higher block percentage, and nearly twice as high a steal percentage as Aaron Craft. This isn?t close.). It?s naive to think that Ohio State can get just as many blocks, steals, and turnovers with a reduced foul rate. But I think in this case, more marginal gains can be had by limiting the pressure (the Buckeyes aren?t creating a ton of turnovers, anyways), and forcing opponents to shoot the ball (which they haven?t been doing very well against Ohio State) instead.

No doubt Matta is tearing his remaining hair out over all of the fouls, given his history of instilling no-foul discipline. So all Ohio State needs for Christmas is for the players to listen to coach. Don?t foul.

Penn State (5-4)
In previewing the Nittany Lions for this year?s College Basketball Prospectus, I predicted that Chambers? perimeter-based approach would reap more points this season, because ?they can?t get any worse from the perimeter.? I also thought things would be better on defense, where PSU got some back luck in the form of opponents making 38.2 percent of their threes. As these two numbers evened out, things would get better in State College.

I was wrong.

Overall, Penn State shot 31.1 percent from three-point range last year (even worse in Big Ten play). This season, they?re down to an incredible 26.5 percent. On defense, opponents are also making slightly more of their attempts (38.9 percent). Given Chambers? style of not discouraging opponent three-point attempts, PSU just has to hope the latter figure gets better as opponents miss more open looks (the three-point line is a lottery, after all). But on offense, the Nittany Lions should probably keep Brandon Taylor on the floor as much as possible:

Taylor is the one shooter that can punish teams from the outside, and if I?m Chambers, I have him hunting open threes all game long. Sure, he also shoots 61 percent from two-point range (keep an eye on this kid), but given his low propensity to draw fouls, I think he?s deadlier if deployed as an outside shooter.

Other than that, Penn State could really use someone else that can make an outside jumper.

Purdue (4-5)
At 4-5, which includes losses to at least a couple of teams that won?t be invited to the NCAA Tournament this season, Purdue?s season has not been going according to plan. Matt Painter has been a ridiculously successful coach over his short career, and a lot of that success is tied to his ability to get the most out of his roster.

But this season, I?m not sure that it?s happening. The five guys who have played the most for the Boilers are A.J. Hammons, D.J. Byrd, Terone Johnson, Ronnie Johnson, and Anthony Johnson (we need to come up with a band name for that lineup, immediately. How about ?AJ/DJ and The Johnsons??). That?s essentially a four-guard lineup, but this roster isn?t really built for that. Purdue probably has one decent long-range shooter (Terone is shooting well, but is a consistently terrible free throw shooter, which suggests his three-point shooting will regress. Despite Byrd?s troubles of late, I think he?s a legitimate long-range option over the long term), and for all its guards, the team does not take care of the ball.

So I don?t really love this team?s approach of shooting mostly (mid-range) jumpshots. Purdue does have a lot of offensive rebounding talent on the roster, however. Hammons, Sandi Marcius, and freshmen Jay Simpson all aggressively hit the offensive glass. And for the most part, they aren?t bad finishers. Hammons is shooting 49 percent, but one expects him to improve as the season progresses. Marcius is struggling, but shot over 50 percent on twos last year. And Simpson is making 52 percent of his twos. In any event, even if those percentages all stay the same, Purdue stands to gain by funneling the offense through those guys (the following assumes the Tall Guys stop shooting 3s):
The ?Tall Guys? in question being Hammons, Marcius, and Simpson, while the guards consist of Byrd and the Johnsons (not sure how to fit Donnie Hale into this-he rebounds well on the offensive end, but his offense is mostly mid-range jumpshots).

I think it?s time Matt Painter embraced his inner Frank Martin and aggressively attack the offensive glass, because that?s where this team?s talents lie. Instead of hoping that all those missed jumpshots will start going in the basket, I think the better path is to start treating those missed shots as opportunities. So for Christmas, Purdue needs to go big.

Wisconsin (7-4)
This isn?t the start that Wisconsin was hoping for, either. While none of the Badgers? losses are bad per se, it?s not great to go 0-4 against the top 40 Pomeroy teams on the schedule, either. The easy answer is ?Fix Ryan Evans,? but that may end up a lost cause (hopefully he isn?t the basketball version of Rick Ankiel, but his nosedive from the field corresponds to his abysmal free throw shooting. It?s a failure on all fronts to put the ball in the basket.).

Instead, I?ll focus on the defense. After all, this should be a good defensive team. The Badgers were a great defensive team last season, and they entered the year only losing Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson, neither of whom excelled on that end of the floor. And while Gasser?s loss was significant, it?s hard to make the argument that he was better than Sam Dekker on defense (more rebounds, blocks, and steals for Dekker), or that Ben Brust?s dedication to the boards doesn?t outweigh the loss of Gasser.

Granted, some of last year?s defense was luck:
Starting in the 2009-10 season, Bo Ryan has become obsessed with keeping opponents from shooting threes. That?s a good thing. But even though a team can limit the number of attempts an opponent takes from long range, it?s much more difficult to control how well the opponent shoots the threes that it does take. Most attempts, after all, are relatively open shots. You don?t see a lot of challenged three-pointers.

Last year, the Badgers were fortunate, as opponents made under 30 percent of their threes. The year before, they were unlucky. This season, that luck seems to have evened out.

What?s more difficult to explain, however, is the fact that opponents are making a lot more twos than usual. What?s strange about this is that (1) none of the players Wisconsin lost from last season are post players, (2) Wisconsin is, on the whole, taller at the four and five positions than last year, and (3) this year?s team is blocking more shots than any other Ryan-coached team.

All of that should lead to fewer two-point makes by opponents, not more. But I don?t want to give Badger fans the metaphorical lump of coal in the form of ?wait-it?ll get better any day now.? One thing that UW isn?t doing as well as last year is defensive rebounding (at least, considering the level of competition to this point). To that end, there?s an easy fix, which is to get the freshman to buy in. Sam Dekker does a lot of things well, and he?s steadily earning more minutes as a result. But the young man does not rebound like a good Badger should. Maybe those couple extra rebounds a game are leading to a couple extra close-in looks for the opponent (maybe?).

OK, that?s probably a bit of a stretch. So you get coal, Badger fans. Just wait-it should get better any day now.