staff, February 25, 2013

Any sober look at Iowa in the preseason would have put the team somewhere in the vicinity of the bubble. The team was coming off an 8-10 Big Ten campaign that, albeit one blessed with good fortune, portended good things to come with most of the roster returning this season.

And that?s exactly what?s happened. Iowa is a top-40 team by Pomeroy standards, and sports a positive conference efficiency margin. Generally speaking, that?s a resume that should put the Hawkeyes in a good spot for earning an at-large bid on Selection Sunday. But after Iowa?s road loss to Nebraska, the only way the Hawkeyes will be relevant is if it finishes very strong, and the team might even need to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament. And that?s a shame, because it should not have come to this. But although Iowa sits at 17-10 overall, the Hawkeyes are just 6-10 against teams that rank in the RPI top 180. While that figure is true, it?s also misleading. Of those 17 games, 10 of them have come against the top 50. And the reason for that is that Fran McCaffrey's squad mostly left the challenges of its schedule up to the Big Ten.

Iowa faced just 3 top-100 teams in the non-conference slate, and two of them were wins over in-state rivals Northern Iowa and Iowa State (Iowa also dropped a game to Wichita State). But the Hawkeyes also scheduled a whopping 7 teams with an RPI lower than 250. Put bluntly, that?s not how one goes about scheduling for a nice-looking profile on Selection Sunday. I know that scheduling isn?t simple-athletic directors and coaches have to consider things like budgets and attendance in addition to trying to make the Tournament. Still, the end result is a weak resume heading into March after Nebraska rallied from a 16-point halftime deficit.

Nebraska?s comeback wasn?t anything fancy-the Huskers just took it right to the Hawkeyes, shooting 71 percent on two-pointers in the second half. Much of the damage was done by Dylan Talley, who scored 16 points on 11 shots in the second frame, after netting just 2 points on 7 shots in the 1st half.

1st Half

2nd Half















Iowa was led by Aaron White?s double-double (15 points and 13 rebounds), but the big man was part of the problem on the interior.

Indeed, White?s never been a very good defender, and the story is no different this year (he ranks near the bottom in Stops among post players). White can match almost anyone at the offensive end, but he?s quickly turning into something like a Deshaun Thomas. A fine player, but decidedly at one end of the court.

Ohio State blitzed Michigan State in the second half, turning a 6-point halftime deficit into an 8-point win. What might be most impressive about this win is the fact that the aforementioned Thomas had a terrible game, scoring 14 points but needing 16 shots to get there. For most players, that?s just an off night. For Deshaun, it?s a disaster. But Aaron Craft had one of the best offensive games of his career, scoring 21 points on 12 shots, dishing 6 assists, and only committing 2 turnovers along the way. The junior point guard isn't known for his offense, obviously, so it?s nice that he was able to pick the team up with its leading scorer held in check.

The Buckeye defense was also clicking in this game, holding the Spartans to 0.94 points per possession. This was kind of a paint-by-numbers dismal effort by Michigan State-too many turnovers, too few offensive rebounds, and struggles with outside shooting. That?s been the script when MSU?s offense has been derailed over the past 10 or so seasons. That said, there is one troubling trend with the Spartan offense:

Michigan State?s three-point shooting has been a fixation of mine for much of the season. First I was concerned, then I was relieved. Now the pendulum has swung back, although, maybe it?s time to accept that Michigan State?s offensive philosophy is analogous to a gambler?s investment strategy.

If that?s the case, then I think one would be wise to become a bit more skeptical of this Spartan team. Not that these guys are bad-the defense is capable, and the offense is still at least as good as (if not better than) Ohio State?s. But I think that?s the proper slot for the Spartans, who I believe are more in OSU?s class than Michigan?s. Offensive rebounding is just down this year in East Lansing, and like a bad orange crop drives up prices on frozen orange juice, Michigan State?s lack of second chances is making points a relative scarcity this year in East Lansing.

(Of course, I write all this as Michigan State has the 3rd-best offense in the Big Ten, and this offense doesn?t exactly rely on three-pointers anyways. Fair points. But the intended takeaway here is that I believe a forward-looking view of MSU is one that drops its offensive efficiency just a couple of ticks. Certainly, there?s no need to reach for the panic button.)

Illinois hung around with Michigan for 30 minutes, but the Wolverines had the game well in hand by the time the teams reached the under-four timeout. Trey Burke was special in this game, scoring 26 points (11 shots) and dishing 8 assists while committing just one turnover. In my view, the Michigan point guard is still firmly in the Player of the Year race, along with two (yes, two) Hoosiers.

Player Offensive Rating Possession Pct
Victor Oladipo 129.4 22.8
Trey Burke  125.8 29.2
Cody Zeller 121.8 26.3

Offensively, Burke is the clear leader, and probably followed by Zeller, whose possession rate probably trumps Oladipo?s lead in offensive rating. I know Oladipo?s defense grabs the headlines-and it should-but Zeller is no slouch himself.

In a normal year, you?d get one of these kinds of performance, and picking the player of the year would be simple. It?s not simple this season in the Big Ten, and I think these three should still be in consideration (and maybe Jared Swopshire-more on that in a bit).

But it wasn?t just Burke?s offense that beat Illinois in this game. Credit Beilein for dialing up the ball pressure in this game, which led Illinois to turn it over on 21 percent of its possessions. Taking care of the basketball had been the driver behind Illinois? recent offensive success, and Michigan put an end to that.

Finally, Purdue destroyed Northwestern from the opening tip, holding the Wildcats to just 0.67 points per possession. Over the last three games, Northwestern has scored 125 points in 179 possessions (0.70 PPP). The closest Big Ten three-game streak of futility I could find was Minnesota?s limping end to its 2007 season, which saw it average 0.71 PPP over its last three games (including the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament). This is stunningly-bad offense that we?re seeing from Bill Carmody?s team, so bad that I?m beginning to wonder if Northwestern has at least five players on the floor at all times. It?s one thing for a team to go into a shooting slump, but Northwestern is now shooting 30 percent on two-pointers over that stretch. Twos! Consider that two of those three games have come against Illinois and Purdue, which rank 7th and 10th respectively in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play. While futility against those historic Badgers can be excused, the Boilers and Illini do not feature shutdown defenses.

We?re getting close to the point where the optimal offensive strategy might simply be to heave the ball toward the vicinity of the rim as soon as the Wildcats are able to get the ball past half-court. Frankly, this stretch has me thinking about Jared Swopshire as the Big Ten Player of the Year. Before he was lost to injury, this Wildcat team put together a respectable offense that was near the middle-of-the-pack. Now that he?s out, it?s historically bad. There?s no way that Oladipo, Zeller, or Burke, could possibly have that kind of impact. Heck, you probably could not improve a college team by that much if you put Michael Jordan in the starting lineup-the 26-year old version.

(I?m kidding, of course. Jared Swopshire is not going to be our Player of the Year, and he?s not better than Michael Jordan. But still.)

Tomorrow, Minnesota tries to stop its skid with a home game against Indiana. If anyone else hopes to share the title with the Hoosiers, then they probably need IU to lose this game. Minnesota, meanwhile, has to win this if it hopes to finally finish over .500 in Big Ten play (that would be the first time in the Tubby Smith era). At a minimum, I expect we?ll see some great dunking from two teams long on athletes that love to get out in transition.