staff, December 11, 2013

It's hard to believe, but nearly a third of the 2013-14 regular season is already in the books. There's still a lot we don't know about the Big Ten, but certain trends and qualities have emerged. With preparation for final exams taking precedence over meaningful basketball games this week, let's take this opportunity to pause and evaluate what we've seen.

LaQuinton Ross Has Emerged

In our Ohio State preview, we compared LaQuinton Ross' sophomore conference season to that of Deshaun Thomas with the following table:

Poss% Shot% eFG% 3PA/FGA Free Throw Rate Assist% TO% ORtg
Deshaun Thomas, sophomore 20 25 56 0.29 30 6 7 127
LaQuinton Ross, sophomore 24 26 54 0.34 14 4 25 91

Here's what we had to say about it:

"They look like basically the same guy until you get to the last two columns-Turnover Rate and Offensive Rating. Ross has a serious turnover problem, and that destroys his efficiency. If Ohio State?s offense is to avoid a sizable drop-off, LaQuinton Ross will have to be much smarter with the basketball. There?s really no excuse for a guy with an assist rate that low to be turning the ball over so much. Ross needs to take a page from the Deshaun Thomas book of chucking-just put the ball up."

It's only been eight games, mostly against poor competition, but Ross is pulling that off. His turnovers are way down, and he's taking a high volume of shots with respectable accuracy. Schedule-strength caveats apply in droves, but here's a comparison of the two players' junior seasons:

Poss% Shot% eFG% 3PA/FGA Free Throw Rate Assist% TO% ORtg
Deshaun Thomas, junior 27 32 51 0.36 29 9 9 114
LaQuinton Ross, junior 25 31 48 0.42 29 6 10 107

Thomas' numbers were compiled over a full season, including 18 conference games and seven postseason games, so it's certainly not a given that Ross ends up looking so similar come March. Right now, this is a case of "so far, so good" for Ross as Ohio State's go-to scorer.

It should also be noted that Ross is on fire lately. After averaging just six points per game over the first five, Ross has averaged 20 points per game on torrid shooting (70 percent on twos, 53 percent on threes) over the past three. With the bad defenses lined up to face the Buckeyes over the next three weeks, those kind of numbers should continue.

Maybe Penn State Really Does Have Best Backcourt in the Country

A year and a half ago, Penn State coach Pat Chambers made a bold statement:

?Can?t wait! I think we?re going to have the best backcourt in the country! You heard me, in the country,? he exclaimed, referring to Newbill and Frazier. ?The reason is because those two together.? 

While Chambers' excitement clearly damaged his sentence structure, it also raised eyebrows. Could Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, a low-usage transfer from Southern Miss, actually comprise the nation's best backcourt?

It took a year longer than expected to find out, but the answer appears to be a surprising "maybe."

To look at this objectively, I took KenPom's list of the top 100 offensive ratings in the nation (minimum 24 percent usage and 40 percent minutes played – we want high usage, high efficiency starters, not great role players).  I then filtered the list down. First, since we're looking at duos, I eliminated players that did not have a teammate also in the top 100. Then, I eliminated duos that included a player that is clearly a forward and not a guard in the context of his team.

We are left with this list:

Player Team Ortg Usage
Russ Smith Louisville 121.6 31.1
Tim Frazier Penn St. 120.9 28.7
Jordan Adams UCLA 134.6 28.3
D.J. Newbill Penn St. 120.0 25.2
Kyle Anderson UCLA 118.3 25.0
Chris Jones Louisville 121.2 24.7

Admittedly, this is a quick and dirty approach. Defense is not considered, nor is schedule strength. We're also only a third of the way into the regular season, so there's a lot of basketball left to be played.

With those grains of salt taken, we're left with three contenders for the nation's best backcourt (so far): Russ Smith and Chris Jones at Louisville, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson at UCLA, and Frazier and Newbill at Penn State. An argument could be made that UCLA's 6-9 Anderson isn't really a guard, but his assist rate and lineup usage suggest otherwise.

It doesn't appear that Chambers was completely insane when he made that bold statement. There's a long way to go, but Frazier/Newbill has a chance to be the best backcourt in the country, at least on the offensive end.

One of These Things is Not Like The Others

It's become fairly common for major conference teams to take it easy in November and December. That said, there seems to be more cupcakes on the platter for Big Ten teams than usual.

Behold KenPom's nonconference strength-of-schedule rank for each team in the conference.

Team Nonconference SOS Rank
Wisconsin 33
Michigan St. 127
Northwestern 171
Penn St. 187
Minnesota 238
Nebraska 245
Michigan 263
Ohio St. 272
Indiana 276
Iowa 303
Purdue 316
Illinois 337

Wisconsin has faced a tough schedule and Michigan State has sprinkled in a couple marquee matchups, but otherwise it's been largely a bland slate. That's an average NC SOS rank of 231, well behind last season's average of 187.

Of course, there's still a few weeks of nonconference play remaining. Iowa has a big trip to Iowa State this Friday. Michigan's next two games are against Arizona and Stanford. Illinois takes on Oregon and Missouri on consecutive Saturdays. Purdue has games away from Mackey against Butler and West Virginia.

The strength-of-schedule numbers should improve a bit, but this will probably remain a weak nonconference schedule for the Big Ten. Of course, that's not a problem if you perform, and the conference has again done well in that regard.

The gap isn't as large as last season, but this is still clearly the best college basketball conference in the land. That's a very good thing for Big Ten bubble teams, who will likely need that reputation to bolster resumes lacking in quality nonconference wins.