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Big Ten Resolutions: New Year’s Advanced Statistics Check-In

Time to improve those numbers

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

It’s New Year’s. For most of us, that means we make a resolution to go to the gym and work off the holiday pounds we’ve put on.

Well it’s no different for Big Ten basketball. Having feasted on cupcakes the past week or so (except for Rutgers, who choked on not one, but two of them), it’s time for your squad to get back in shape before the conference season begins in earnest.

We’ll take a look at what each team needs to improve on, in reverse order of projected order of finish. Numbers are based on KenPom as of Sunday morning.

Rutgers

  • Projected conference record: 5-13
  • New Year’s resolution: Learn how to shoot

Rutgers might be the worst shooting team in the country. There are 351 teams in D-I men’s basketball. Between effective FG percentage, 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage, and free throw percentage, Rutgers’ best mark is No. 314. That’s really bad. That’s why the Scarlett Knights are expected to finish last in the league again this year despite being one of the best (No. 35) defensive teams in the country. If Rutgers had one knock-down shooter, they might have a shot at finishing in the top half of a bad Big Ten this year.

Illinois

  • Projected conference record: 6-12
  • New Year’s resolution: Slow down

Illinois plays at the quickest pace of any team in the Big Ten at 73.4 possessions per game. They’ve played the following teams with a pulse: DePaul, Wake Forest, Northwestern, Maryland, UNLV, New Mexico State, Missouri, and Grand Canyon. They are 3-5 in those games. In their 5 losses, the number of possessions were 71, 71, 74, 79, and 86. In their three wins, the number of possessions were 77, 69, and 69, with the two 69’s coming in their two most recent games.

If you look back to Brad Underwood’s Oklahoma State squad from last year, they started out 0-6 in the Big 12 before slowing the tempo down. They finished 9-9 and made the NCAA tournament. Mid-season turnarounds are possible, Illinois fans. You just need your coach to not play so fast.

Iowa

  • Projected conference record: 6-12
  • New Year’s resolution: Fewer live ball turnovers

Iowa’s point guard struggles are well-known, so it should come as no surprise that they have the ball stolen from them on 10.6% of their possessions. That’s good for No. 316 in the country. Iowa’s total turnover rate is right around the national average, which tells me the Hawkeyes are much better than average at not traveling, palming, and getting called for charges.

All turnovers are not equal, however, and it’s those live ball turnovers that lead to easy fast break points for the opposition. Get it cleaned up, Iowa. (If Connor McCaffery can get healthy, that will help.)

Indiana

  • Projected conference record 6-12
  • New Year’s resolution: Take all games seriously

The Hoosiers have a good coach and much better players than anyone else in the Big Ten basement. Purdue grad that I am, I’m still higher on the Hoosiers than most, and I think they’re better than their KenPom ranking indicates. Their ranking is being dragged down big time by the two home blowout losses to in-state opponents. The Indiana State loss dropped them 13 spots. The Fort Wayne loss dropped them 21 spots. If you think those games were aberrations, the Hoosiers are a team that played Louisville and Duke close and came back to beat a then-ranked Notre Dame squad.

Of course, there is still one game left on the schedule at Assembly Hall against an in-state opponent. But a 20-point loss to Purdue won’t kill their numbers.

Nebraska

  • Projected conference record: 7-11
  • New Year’s resolution: Stop giving up offensive rebounds

Nebraska is a mediocre defensive team, but they would be a good defensive team if they didn’t give up so many rebounds. They let the offense grab 33.6% of their misses, when the D-I average is 29.2%, which puts them at No. 305. Their other defensive numbers are OK-to-good, especially their block rate of 12.8%. For a team with no starter taller than 6’9”, that’s pretty good.

It makes sense that there’s a correlation between a high block rate and an inability to stop defensive rebounds, though. A defender selling out to block a shot puts himself in poor position to grab the rebound. And you win more games with good rebounding than with blocked shots. Stay on your feet, Cornhuskers, and then box out once the shot goes up.

Wisconsin

  • Projected conference record: 8-10
  • New Year’s resolution: Stop turning the ball over

It feels strange to call out the Badgers for turnovers when they are in the top 50 in that category, but in Bo Ryan’s final seven years Wisconsin was never worse than 5th. Not in the Big Ten. In the country.

The tempo is the same (still one of the slowest in the country), and Greg Gard was a long-time assistant for Bo Ryan, so stylistically the Badgers don’t look much different than they have since 2000. Except for those turnovers.

Wisconsin doesn’t have any bad losses. The seven team that have beaten them have an average ranking of about No. 40. There are only four teams in the Big Ten ranked higher than that. It’s plausible Wisconsin’s streak of top-4 finishes in the league continues. But if they want to keep Bo’s streak alive, they need to keep his excellent ball control alive, too.

Northwestern

  • Projected conference record: 9-9
  • New Year’s resolution: Please let Bryant Macintosh be OK

As I write this, the status of Bryant Macintosh’s knee injury is unknown. He’s been the best player on this Wildcat team for four years. For a senior and preseason all-Big Ten player to miss the bulk of conference games in his final year would be terrible. Hopefully by the time you read this word has come out that he’s going to be back on the court soon.

Minnesota

  • Projected conference record: 9-9
  • New Year’s resolution: Avoid getting into a 3-point shooting contest

This is obvious, but a 3-point shot is worth 50% more than a 2-point shot. That means that if you want to go on a run, the fastest way to get up big or mount a furious comeback is to hit a lot of threes.

Minnesota is No. 315 in the country in terms of the percentage of points they get from beyond the arc. And their 3-point defense is below average. That means that if the Gophers get down, it will be that much harder to climb out of a hole. And if they get up, they aren’t as safe as they could be.

Minnesota is a good rebounding and an elite shot-blocking team. They will win a basketball game played primarily in the paint. If you want to beat the Gophers, you need to turn the game into a 3-point contest.

Penn State

  • Projected conference record: 10-8
  • New Year’s resolution: Hit your free throws

Penn State’s defense has been excellent, but their offense has been mediocre, driven mainly by a free throw percentage that’s No. 201 in the country. That’s not terrible, but it won’t get you to the NCAA tournament. Free throws win close games, and Penn State has no margin for error if they want to go dancing.

Michigan

  • Projected conference record: 10-8
  • New Year’s resolution: Hit your free throws

Penn State could stand to get a few more points from the line. Michigan is egregiously bad. They get a fewer percentage of their points at the line than all but two other D-I teams. Both the number of free throws they attempt and the percentage they make once they actually do get to the line are in the bottom 25. This is actually the best defense John Beilein has ever put on the court. If the Wolverines could even be mediocre at the line, they could make some noise in the league.

Maryland

  • Projected conference record: 10-8
  • New Year’s resolution: Stop turning the ball over

What Michigan was to Penn State as regards free throws, Maryland is to Wisconsin as regards turnovers. The Badgers could stand to get a little better. Maryland is among the worst in the nation. 12.3% of their offensive possessions end with a steal, fourth worst in America.

Their free throw defense is also among the nation’s worst, but teams have very little control over that. Though Maryland fans do pride themselves on being the rowdiest in the country. Step it up, Terrapins. Teams are hitting 77.3% of their free throws against you.

Ohio State

  • Projected conference record: 11-7
  • New Year’s resolution: Just enjoy it, man

At the start of the year, it wasn’t completely crazy to pick the Buckeyes to finish 13th or 14th in the league. Poor performance last year, roster depletion, and the need to break in a new coach all seemed like valid reasons to put Ohio State in the basement. And here they are, projected to finish third. (To be fair, they’re helped by a weaker-than-average conference schedule.)

Enjoy it, Ohio State fans. You aren’t going to catch Michigan State or Purdue. Win a lot of games, watch Keita Bates-Diop play like First Team All-Big Ten player, and dream of a bright future under Chris Holtmann.

Purdue

  • Projected conference record: 15-3
  • New Year’s resolution: Focus like a senior-led group ought to

I’m a Purdue fan, but I’ll come right out and say it now: I don’t think there’s any way Purdue wins at the Breslin Center this year. MSU is an elite offensive rebounding team, and giving up offensive rebounds is Purdue’s kryptonite. The atmosphere in East Lansing will be electric. A game in Mackey, the Boilers would have a chance. But since the only meeting between Sparty and Pete is a road game for Purdue, that puts the Boilers one game back of the Spartans, even though KenPom has both teams at 15-3.

Purdue can still repeat as league champs, but they need to take care of business in all their other games. No letdowns like against Nebraska and Iowa last season. There are four senior starters on this team, and they’ve been through this all before. If they want to win the Big Ten, they have to bring maturity and intensity night-in and night-out. Michigan State is a younger team than Purdue. They may slip up on the road. Purdue can’t afford to.

Michigan State

  • Projected conference record: 15-3
  • New Year’s resolution: Don’t lose

This might be the best opportunity for a Big Ten team to go unbeaten since 2005 Illinois. That Illini squad fell to Ohio State in their last regular season game. No Big Ten team has finished the conference season unbeaten since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The Spartans can do it. They are head-and-shoulders above every other team in the league except Purdue, and they get Purdue at home. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Michigan State will be heavy favorites in all 16 remaining contests.

The Spartans do turn the ball over more than their opponents. Apart from that, their numbers are stellar, especially their 2-point defense, which is once-in-a-lifetime good. Teams are shooting 32.6% against Michigan State. Cincinnati is No. 2. Teams are shooting 39.4% against the Bearcats. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is 6.8 percentage points. That’s as big as the gap between No. 2 and No. 75.

Big Ten Fans

  • New Year’s resolution: Watch as much Big Ten basketball as possible.

Lastly, a resolution for the fans. Watch as many games as you can, even (or especially!) if Dan Dakich is announcing. You can complain that the league is down, that playing the conference tournament a week early in New York is silly, and that the officiating is inconsistent. Maybe so. But this league of ours leads the nation in attendance every year and has for four decades. That’s because conference matchups in January and February are like nothing else.

Yes, March Madness is the goal and it’s great. Yes, there’s nothing quite like having fans of all fourteen teams together in one city at one time, even if you have to fly to the east coast to experience it. But the heart of college basketball is a cold evening, snow piling up outside, thousands of students packed in behind the basket, and an electric atmosphere that, in my opinion, is unmatched anywhere else in sports.

For all the lows, the highs are higher. For all the heartbreak, the hope makes it worth it. For all the frustration, all the dumb plays, all the missed shots and bad fouls, when your team goes on that 8-0 run in 30 seconds to tie the game late in the second half, you realize this is why you watch the game.

See y’all right here at BT Powerhouse in 2018.