Archive | February, 2018

Big Ten Tournament Preview

28 Feb

Who Should Win: 1 seed Michigan State

Sparty is the most balanced team in the country, clocking in as the only team ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. MSU finished the regular season on a 12 game winning streak, but the only truly notable win that stretch was a narrow home victory over Purdue. MSU doesn’t really have a discernible weakness outside of Cassius Winston’s occasional recklessness with the basketball, but he atones for those errors with the nation’s best three point shooting. Winston is canning threes at an absurd 57% while posting the nation’s third highest assist rate. With an elite wing in Miles Bridges, a dominant post in Nick Ward, and a budding superstar 4 in Jaren Jackson, it’s easy to see why Winston has such a high assist rate and sees so many open perimeter looks within his Hawk action half court offense.

This is the best Sparty defense since the 2012-13 season, as they’re excellent in almost every facet. Ward has caught some unwarranted flak for his defense, but he’s actually been an elite post defender and makes up for his lack of overall quickness with some of the best post footwork I’ve seen in a several years, and his pick and roll defense is improving as well. Sparty will have trouble with big ball handlers (Ohio State) and mobile bigs (Michigan), but Jackson has improved his defense mightily as the season has progressed, particularly defending in isolation and off screens. That defense could really be put to the test with a potential semifinal rematch against Michigan, who dominated the Spartans in the second half in East Lansing.

If Not Them Then: 3 seed Purdue

The Boilers seemingly righted the ship with a three game winning streak to close the regular season, and with one of the country’s most prolific and efficient post players in Isaac Haas surrounded by deadly shooters at every position, Purdue can be extremely difficult to defend. Purdue grades out in the 98th percentile nationally in post offense efficiency, while running offense through the block at the 5th highest rate in the country. Matt Painter meanwhile runs some of the best off ball offense (Iverson sets in Purdue parlance) with Carsen Edwards, Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and PJ Thompson all shooting 40% or higher from 3 on the season. When the shots are falling when Haas is being doubled in the post, Purdue is the best team in the league.

The Boilers aren’t without exploitable weaknesses however. While Purdue plays outstanding team defense, Mathias is really the only strong individual on ball defender, and Purdue is prone to getting beat one v one by big, athletic guards. Purdue also has some issues creating offense when the three isn’t falling at a typical rate. In Purdue’s three league losses, they shot just 18-56 from 3, and Carsen Edwards is really the only “go get a bucket” guy on the team (although a healthy Vince Edwards helps in that regard). Despite all the size in the world, Purdue is a poor rebounding team, and exploitable in transition off the defensive glass and with offensive putbacks. Purdue doesn’t allow a lot of transition opportunities, but they aren’t capable of defending on the break when they do.

Purdue’s path to the title game is loaded with potential pitfalls, as the Boilers’ half of the bracket contains 2 seed Ohio State and 7 seed Penn State. OSU of course defeated Purdue in West Lafayette, and PSU nearly knocked off the Boilers on the road as well (although Purdue was playing without Vince Edwards). While I think PSU can beat 10 seed Northwestern (the Lions didn’t have the league’s best defensive player in Josh Reaves when they lost to NU in the regular season), they’re likely going to struggle to get past OSU without Mike Watkins available (questionable as of right now). PSU is 22 points per 100 possessions better when Watkins is on the floor, with most of that value residing on the defensive end, where PSU holds opponents to just .98 points per possession when he’s on the court, compared to 1.13 points per possession when he’s off. It was also evident in the regular season finale that Tony Carr’s efficiency offensively will take a hit if Watkins is indeed out for the tournament as suspected. Nebraska showed zero respect for Julian Moore in 1-5 pick and roll, and the fact that Carr scored 27 points while being trapped on ball screens was a testament to his NBA talent level. It’s a shame for the Lions that they likely won’t be at full strength, because they match up extremely well with Ohio State, as evidenced by their sweep of the Bucks. PSU is one of the few teams that can contain the bullying perimeter length of Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate thanks to Lamar Stevens and uber defender Reaves. As it is, Purdue is likely to run into a Buckeye team that has the big athletic guards/wings that can give Purdue fits.

Of course the Boilers will likely have to get past one more giant hurdle to even get to that rematch, as a vastly improved Indiana team lurks at the 6 seed. The Hoosiers will first have to defeat the winner of 11 seed Minnesota and 14 seed Rutgers, but the depleted Gophers can’t defend Juwan Morgan inside (no team in the country allows a higher FG% at the rim than Minnesota, per, and Rutgers was miserable against IU’s pack line defense. The Hoosiers will be licking their chops to get another crack at Purdue after losing to the Boilers in Assembly Hall, a game in which they held a second half lead. IU is a different team with Devonte Green playing with confidence at the point over Josh Newkirk, and the Hoosiers finally started to grasp Archie Miller’s pack line scheme as the season progressed.

Sleepers: 4 seed Nebraska, 5 seed Michigan

My two favorite sleepers in the bracket will likely cross each other in the quarterfinals. No one wants to see Michigan in a tournament setting after last year, and the Wolverines are following an almost identical script. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is doing his best Derrick Walton impersonation over the past several games, Moe Wagner remains an unstoppable force in pick and roll offense, Zavier Simpson has morphed into one of the league’s best on ball defenders on the perimeter, and frosh Jordan Poole is getting the hang of Beilein’s 2 Guard offense. Additionally, the defense is playing at the same level as the offense right now, making the Wolverines the team to beat in my eyes. However, the Huskers gave Michigan all they could handle and more in a 20 point win in Lincoln. Since Tim Miles went to the small “Death Lineup”, Nebraska is essentially the worst match up for Michigan’s pick and roll offense. Miles switched on every single screen against Michigan, as he uniquely has the personnel to do it with Isaiah Roby, James Palmer, Isaac Copeland, and Evan Taylor all capable of defending Wagner in pick and pop situations. Since the Huskers were able to switch on everything, Michigan could barely get an open look from 3 (4-18) from deep, and Wagner was stymied into his worst offensive game in two years. The Huskers will also be playing with the knowledge that they probably have to win that hypothetical match up to get into the NCAA Tournament. The potential Michigan/Nebraska meeting could be the game of the tournament in a lot of ways.

Deeper Sleepers: 6 seed Indiana, 9 seed Wisconsin, 13 seed Illinois

I discussed Indiana’s potential earlier, and Illinois is playing the best basketball of their season, even if the results aren’t necessarily there. It’s been a struggle for the Illini to pick up Brad Underwood’s ball pressure, extreme denial defense, but some improvement is starting to show, and they should be able to overwhelm Iowa’s guards and prevent Tyler Cook and Luka Garza from dominating at the rim like they did in the Hawkeyes’ big comeback in the first meeting.

Wisconsin meanwhile is playing their best basketball of the year as well since losing at 8 seed Maryland on February 4. The Terps can’t guard Ethan Happ in the post, and since Mark Turgeon went to a smaller lineup out of necessity, he’s used less pick and roll and more motion, which is music to the Badgers’ ears, as they’re bad all over in pick and roll defense, and they couldn’t contain Anthony Cowan in the first meeting.

Final Prediction: Michigan over Purdue