Friday, January 18, 2013
Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten
By Eamonn Brennan
In a league like this, road wins might be the most valuable currency, and we had a couple of doozies this week. Let's get to the rankings:
1. Michigan. Michigan's win at Minnesota Thursday night was one of the most impressive of the season. Why? Because the Wolverines weren't only met with Minnesota, one of the 10 best teams in the country. They also were met with a euphoric Barn crowd, a long-suffering group ready to scream its head off in communal celebration of its best team -- and certainly its most exciting -- in 16 years. And from the opening tip, but for the occasional Minnesota spurt, that crowd was deflated. The Wolverines did everything they needed to do on the court to neutralize that unquantifiable emotional advantage, and from there it was all clinical: Tim Hardaway draining jumpers, Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary neutralizing the Gophers' advantages inside, Trey Burke running the whole show (and breaking Minnesota's second-half press) and looking awfully cool doing it. Michigan wields the nation's most efficient offense, and they can bludgeon even the Big Ten's best teams with it -- anywhere, anytime.
2. Wisconsin. If Michigan's road win at Minnesota was "one of the most impressive of the season," Wisconsin's win at Indiana has to take the title. The Hoosiers have been nigh unstoppable at home in the past season and a half, and Wisconsin waltzed in, unveiled its classic Bo Ryan game plan -- long shot clocks, great transition defense, no turnovers -- and came away with the win of the season to date. As such, they get the No. 2 spot this week, up all the way from No. 8 (ha!) in last week's rankings.
I have no problem marking this drastic move up the charts for a handful of reasons.
Wisconsin's tempo-free statistics have been as flattering as ever this season, but with the four nonconference losses (and Pomeroy's system's inherent love for Wisconsin) they were easier to dismiss than usual. A few backcourt growing pains aside, though, this team looks just like the Wisconsin we've come to rely on.
Indiana fans are so furious about the home loss, so angry that coach Tom Crean didn't make the required second-half adjustments to free Cody Zeller from Wisconsin's late post-dribble double-teams, and so concerned that their squad can't play against physical and slow-paced teams that eschew offensive boards to race back on defense, that I honestly doubt I'll get too much angry feedback. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.
Look: Is Wisconsin going to be better than Indiana over the long haul? I doubt it. I still think the Hoosiers' talent, and their improvement on the defensive side of the ball, will hold them in good stead as the year rolls on. But when you win at Assembly Hall, you earn the right to a massive, knee-jerk boost in your power rankings position. So it was written, and so it shall be done.
3. Indiana. I tend to get a lot of feedback from Indiana fans, and they were almost uniformly apoplectic about the Wisconsin loss. From what I received, the basic breakdown seems to go like this:
At worst, Bo Ryan outcoached Tom Crean. At halftime, Ryan told the TV cameras that his defense was intentionally overplaying shooters, but would have to sink in on Cody Zeller (who went 8-for-8 in the first half) to stop him from getting at the rim, and then did exactly that in the second half, collapsing on Zeller after his first dribble and forcing him into quick, awkward decisions. (Zeller didn't score a field goal in the second half.) Crean never adjusted. He played zone too long and didn't pressure Wisconsin's ball handlers. His team got stagnant and stopped moving the ball, and didn't have a go-to set or play to run to break out of it.
At best, Indiana fans are acknowledging IU's limits. It only knows how to play one style -- its own -- and can't adjust to slow, physical play. Good coaches have figured out how to play Jordan Hulls (run him off 3s at all costs). Will Sheehey and Remy Abell, the two key bench players, have disappeared in Big Ten play. Hanner Mosquera-Perea isn't ready to contribute. Neither is Jeremy Hollowell. Christian Watford disappears, and Zeller gets pushed off the post. Yogi Ferrell is too sheepish. And because of all this, IU fans had to watch their 11th straight loss to Wisconsin while Mike Bruesewitz smiled.
Some of these things are true, but some of them are the purest form of fandom: overreaction. Let's see how IU does with a few more of these delightfully brutal Big Ten games to come before anyone starts claiming seats on the lifeboat.
4. Minnesota. I've been riding hard for the Gophers all season long, and while there will be no small measure of recrimination for falling deeply behind in two straight losses -- at Indiana, versus Michigan -- I'm finding it hard to lose much faith. Lest we forget, Indiana and Michigan are pretty good, and the Gophers' main strength (offensive rebounding) isn't going to wax and wane like shooting percentage. But we should also be clear: You can't turn over the ball as much as Minnesota does (21.9 percent of their possessions) and rely on the offensive boards; as Bruce Pearl said at halftime, you have to put it up on the glass and go get it, and you can't do that if Mitch McGary is busy enjoying a fast-break dunk.
5. Michigan State. The Spartans are starting to get past their customary early-season turnover yips. For the season, their turnover percentage is still at 21.1, but in five Big Ten games they've turned it over on only 16.5 percent of their possessions, fifth-best in the league. That is good news, because Ohio State guard Aaron Craft has been known to force a few turnovers, and the Spartans will have to avoid those if they plan to maintain their home court against the Buckeyes on Saturday. It also would be good if they stopped punching each other in the face. Just a thought.
6. Ohio State. The Buckeyes got a big win over Michigan last Saturday, when the Wolverines' offense -- so good so often this season, including Thursday night -- completely sputtered until a late second-half run. But give Ohio State some credit too: The Buckeyes own the nation's ninth-ranked adjusted efficiency defense, per KenPom, and anytime you hold the nation's best offense to 0.88 points per trip, it's not all user error. This weekend offers a really compelling trip to Michigan State, where we'll see great defense, Craft harassing MSU's previously turnover-prone backcourt, and a Buckeyes team trying to prove it is very much a Big Ten title contender.
7. Iowa. With the exception of Iowa State, Iowa still hasn't beaten anyone ranked in the KenPom top 50; their neutral-court win over Northern Iowa and their 20-point road win at Northwestern are the only wins over teams ranked higher than 160. Even so, the Hawkeyes are playing top-20-level defense, and you can hardly fault them for dropping their first three Big Ten games (against Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State). On Saturday, they'll try to keep Wisconsin from doing what it did to Indiana, when it turned an ostensibly fast-paced team (the Hawkeyes average 70.3 possessions per game) into a confused half-court mess.
8. Illinois. Illinois' woes are pretty easy to diagnose. I'll let the original Big Ten Wonk himself (never forget) deposit this knowledge into your cranial:
Illinois' Big Ten opponents have hit 42% of their 3s. The Illini have made 23%. Add in too many fouls, and that's the whole 1-4 story.
Not only have the Illini cooled off from 3 — they went just 3-of-20 in Thursday night's horrific blowout home loss to Northwestern — but their opponents have shot the ball exceedingly well, too. Calling this a regression to the mean would be too harsh, because the mean is not 23 percent, either. The Illini have to level out somewhere.
9. Northwestern. As ugly as the season has been for the Wildcats and their fans, dominating the ranked downstate big brother in its own orange-drenched building has to feel exceedingly good. I might actually listen to Chicago sports talk radio today to see if they mention it. Fingers crossed.
10. Purdue. Not much to glean from Purdue's first two three Big Ten wins, because beating Penn State and Nebraska is wholly expected, even for a transitional 9-8 group. (An earlier version of this post omitted Purdue's home win over Illinois, but Purdue fans claiming that should give the Boilermakers license to move up the list -- I'm not seeing it just yet.) Fun fact: D.J. Byrd took 151 3s all of last season; he already has shot 109 this year.
11. Nebraska and 12. Penn State. Combined, these teams are 0-10 in Big Ten play. Penn State ranks 11th in per-possession offense and defense; Nebraska ranks 12th in the former and eighth in the latter. It's never fun to be rebuilding from (essentially) scratch in the Big Ten, but this season is less fun than most.