“NCAA or Bust.”
That could be the motto for several Big Ten team this season. At Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, a coach who doesn’t go dancing in 2019 is going to put his athletic director in a difficult spot at the end of the season. In other words, Hot Seat City.
Maryland is 6-0 thus far, though they haven’t played anybody with a pulse. They get Virginia on Wednesday, and I don’t think anybody expects them to win that game. So it’ll probably be a while yet before we know anything definite about the Terps. But they’re getting AP votes, so at this point it’s difficult to say they are on pace to miss the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska looks like an elite defensive team at this point, and although Isaiah Roby still hasn’t taken the step up that I think he needs to, if the Huskers’ D remains this good they might have an alternate path to the dance.
Iowa looked great at Madison Square Garden, and their win over Oregon is one of the tent-post non conference victories for the Big Ten so far this season. I said at the beginning of the year that their defense needed to go from awful to just mediocre, and it has so far.
Minnesota has three wins against the KenPom top 100, which is more than anyone else in the league. The bench is thin, but the shooting and rebounding have been good, and the Gophers have been doing a good job of getting to the line (though not a great job of hitting their free throws once they get there). Their upcoming games are against Boston College and Oklahoma State, which are both low top 100 games of the same caliber as their previous three wins. Win those two, and the resume looks pretty darn good.
And then there’s Penn State.
NIT champs last year. Reportedly beat West Virginia in a secret scrimmage earlier this season. It looked like there was a little juice in the Nittany Lion program, who at this point are mainly known for two things among Big Ten basketball fans: always having one guy who’s really good (Lamar Stevens looks like a first-team all-Big Ten player at this point), and playing in front of a half-empty stadium at home.
So far the results haven’t been anything that will help the Lions fill up the Bryce Jordan Center. The Nittany Lions lost in overtime at DePaul and to Bradley in Mexico. Neither of those is a terrible loss on its face, but those are games that NCAA Tournament teams win.
Maybe Penn State beats Virginia Tech Tuesday night and this is all moot, but if we dive into the stats, there are more reasons to be concerned about our friends in State College than a couple of blah losses.
Their Good Defensive Rating Is A Sham
As of Saturday night when this article is being written, Penn State has the No. 10 defense on KenPom. That’s... incredibly good. With a defense that good, you just need a halfway decent offense to be a bubble team. With Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves, the Nittany Lions have a halfway decent offense.
But that defense... no. There is just no way it’s tenth in the country. Some of that is a spillover from last year, when Penn State had a top 20 defense. But why in the world would the computers think that Penn State’s D is better this year?
In short, it’s all because opponents are shooting a low percentage from three. Almost every other single defensive category is trending mildly in the wrong direction. But teams are only shooting 22.9% from behind the arc against Penn State. That’s unsustainable.
Here are two facts: one, teams for the most part have very little control over how well their opponents shoot from behind the arc. It’s easy for a coach to change his defensive philosophy to force opponents to shoot fewer threes. It’s really hard to get teams to take worse threes, though; they’ll just opt to take more twos instead. Last year, PSU opponents took 33.6% of their shots from behind the arc. This year, it’s 37.8%. There is zero chance both the 22.9% and the 37.8% both hold.
Two, by sheer coincidence, Penn State’s three wins against bad teams have all come against teams that are abominably bad shooting the long ball. Colgate and Jacksonville State are roughly equivalent teams. Penn State has already played Jacksonville State; they have yet to play Colgate. Jacksonville State shoots 31% from deep; Colgate shoots an above-average 36%. Penn State’s three-point defense is going to start looking worse because they are going to start playing teams that actually know how to shoot.
A Missing Mike Watkins Is Not The Problem
So far this article has ignored the elephant in the room: Mike Watkins, likely Penn State’s second-best returning player after Stevens, is indefinitely suspended while he sorts out legal issues. Whether he returns or not is an open question. You might say, “Well, if he does, Penn State likely gets a lot better, and their NCAA chances will improve.” Not so fast.
Yes, Penn State’s two-point defense and block rate are much worse than last season. And Mike Watkins blocked a lot of shots. But my God, Penn State already has the No. 10 defense on KenPom. Yes, we know that number is a sham, and it’s going to go down as the Lions’ three-point defense regresses to the mean. Getting Watkins back would mitigate that decrease, but it’s still going to go down. In other words, Watkins or no Watkins, the defensive numbers aren’t ever going to look better than they do right now.
Meanwhile the offense has taken a step back from last year. No surprise, with the departure of Tony Carr. And it’s a Tony Carr-sized hole that shows up in the offensive stats, not a Mike Watkins-sized hole. Last year the Lions rebounded 31.7% of their misses and hit 49.8% of their two-point shots. This year those numbers are 32.1% and 49.7%, respectively. Watkins is out, but there wasn’t a big drop-off in rebounding or two-pointers.
The drop-offs have come in assists and three-pointers. Assists are down from 51.2% to 47.6%. Triples are down from 38.7% to 32.3%. Assists may come up as players get more comfortable playing together, but if the offense flows through power forward Lamar Stevens, who is not a great three-point shooter, I’m not sure you can project that the three-point percentages will do the same.
So Is Penn State Doomed?
There’s a chance Penn State picks up a fluke win against Virginia Tech Tuesday night, beats NC State on December 15, ekes out a .500 record in a much-improved Big Ten, and goes dancing. But I’d bet against it. A lot can change between now and March, but for now, among those Big Ten schools that are in “NCAA or Bust” mode, Penn State is looking like the biggest bust.
Rutgers 3-Point Percentage Watch
Our friends from Piscataway have fallen back to earth somewhat. Last week, they were sitting at an outrageous 45.8%. After games against Eastern Michigan and Boston U, that is down to 40.7%, still good for No. 31 in the nation in that category.
But Rutgers’ shooting woes still continue, though this year it’s from the line, where the Scarlet Knights are shooting an abysmal 56.1%. The main culprit here is Shaquille Doorson, who hits foul shots at just a 27% clip. What is it with guys named Shaq not being able to shoot free throws?