staff, December 4, 2013

The Big Ten put itself in a hole Tuesday night, going 2-4 against the Atlantic Coasters. Let's take a look at just how it happened. We had predicted a split on the Challenge's opening night, and we were awfully close to going six-for-six. How close?

Well, in the one game we missed, Illinois held a 12-point lead over Georgia Tech with the ball and seven minutes remaining. In that situation, Georgia Tech had a win probability of just 2.8 percent. If you set up those teams with that time and score a hundred times, you'd expect Illinois to lose only three of those hundred. Illinois lost.

To illustrate this in another way, consider that the score was 60-48 Illinois at the aforementioned moment. Georgia Tech had scored 48 points in 33 minutes. If Illinois simply held the Yellow Jackets to that same rate of scoring over the final seven minutes, the game would have ended in a 60-58 Illini victory. At that moment, Illinois could almost literally not score again and still win if its defense held up.

Unfortunately, the Illini seemingly did the same math, as their offense came grinding to a halt down the stretch. After scoring so well over the game's first 50 possessions, Illinois' offense stagnated and seemed more concerned with the shot clock than a good shot.

ILLINOIS OFFENSE Points Efficiency
First 50 possessions 60 1.20
Final 13 possessions 4 0.31

The resulting loss is one that will sting for a long time, especially if this team manages to scrap its way onto the bubble. Georgia Tech is projected to go 14-17 overall this season and will almost certainly not be a top 100 team. The road to an NCAA tournament berth just got a lot tougher for the Illini.


Michigan didn't put up much of a fight in a 79-69 loss at Duke. The Blue Devils never trailed, and the lead ballooned to 18 points before the Wolverines scored a ridiculous 19 points over the final two minutes to salvage a respectable margin.

This was a poor showing on both ends for Michigan. Duke has a very good offense, but it can be slowed–both Alabama and Arizona held the Blue Devils under a point per trip. At the other end, Duke's overplay defense eliminated the three-pointer as a weapon for the Wolverines, who made only one before the aforementioned garbage time flurry.

This loss certainly doesn't mean Michigan is a bad team, but it adds to the growing evidence that the Wolverines are merely good and not great. This looks like a borderline top-25 team that won't really compete for the Big Ten title. That's a disappointment for some, but it's not so bad given the loss of fantastic players like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.


Penn State surprisingly hung with Pitt for 38 minutes before falling by 9 points. Even more impressive is that the Nittany Lions did it without the benefit of hot three-point shooting, as they went only 4-for-15 from downtown (27 percent).

Indeed, it was Penn State's much-maligned defense that kept it in the game, as the Panthers were held to their lowest offensive rebounding percentage and second-lowest effective field goal percentage of the season. It was a team effort on the glass, as five Nittany Lions had three or more defensive rebounds.

Penn State's offense wasn't terrible, but Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill just didn't get enough help. The duo combined for 45 points on 30 shots. The rest of the team combined for 24 points on 25 shots.

The Nittany Lions are clearly no pushover this season, and the offense is legit. If the defense can continue to improve, this could be a much better season for Penn State than anybody expected.


Minnesota rode its perimeter advantage to a nice win over Florida State. The Seminoles had a huge advantage inside, which manifested itself in many ways. Florida State shot 55 percent on twos. Minnesota shot 30 percent (!) on twos. Minnesota's three big men combined for an absurd 14 fouls in 53 minutes. Looking at these numbers, you'd assume the Gophers were manhandled and badly beaten.

Instead, Minnesota's guards won the day. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins combined for 37 points on 27 shots, and they got excellent support from Dre Mathieu, Malik Smith, and Maverick Ahanmisi (a combined 14 points, 5 assists, and no turnovers).

This will be the formula if the Gophers are to make the NCAA tournament: force turnovers and get stellar guard play. They did both in this game, and the result is a win that should pay dividends in March.


Indiana continued its struggles against the Syracuse zone in a blowout loss, but it was really the Hoosiers' defense that was disappointing. Compared to last season's meeting in the NCAA tournament, Indiana's offensive efficiency wasn't quite so bad this time around:

March 28, 2013 December 3, 2013
Indiana 0.77 0.90
Syracuse 0.94 1.20

Now, 0.90 points per possession is nothing to strut about, but it's not the complete and utter shutdown that Indiana suffered in March. Indeed, if the Hoosiers had been able to slow the Orange offense at all, this might have been a semi-close game. Syracuse got anything it wanted on the offensive end, making Indiana's struggles against the 2-3 zone less relevant this time around.

The Hoosiers now have only one remaining opportunity for a good nonconference win (December 14 against Notre Dame), but there's also very little potential for a bad loss. Indiana will have to base its NCAA tournament resume on its showing in conference play.


As we thought might happen, Iowa's defense suffered some reversion to the mean against Notre Dame, but the Hawkeyes' own offensive explosion kept the Irish at bay.

Notre Dame shot a scalding 8-for-17 on threes, and it had plenty of success inside the arc as well–former Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman scored 29 points on 18 shots. All told, the Fighting Irish scored 1.28 points points per possession, which will almost always be enough for a win.

Fortunately, Iowa put up the type of efficiency it normally reserves for the dregs of D1, scoring 1.35 points per trip. The Hawkeyes did pretty much everything right on offense, shooting 58 percent on twos, 54 percent on threes, and 86 percent on their many free throws.

Iowa put five players in double figures, and Roy Devyn Marble was downright deferential with a season-low 18 percent usage rate. Aaron White had 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in an outstanding performance.

The Hawkeyes are looking like darkhorse Big Ten title contenders, but like all teams not named Michigan State or Ohio State, their defense may not be up to snuff. Still, this is a dangerous team that can score on anyone.


So, after all that, it was a night where every home team held serve, which is bad news for the Big Ten's hopes of winning the Challenge. The conference will now have to win five-of-six tonight to take a victory, which is possible but not likely:

Team KenPom Chance of Victory
Ohio State 87
Michigan State 78
Nebraska 65
Purdue 59
Wisconsin 32
Northwestern 27

For our Geeky predictions on these games, check out our Wednesday preview. This Challenge is not over.