“The Big Ten is down.”
“The Big Ten is slow.”
“The Big Ten is boring.”
It’s difficult to make pronouncements about a conference as a whole, but that doesn’t stop some people from trying.
The Big Ten does admittedly look as if they may be down, but that’s due in a no small part to a terrible showing in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge back in December. A league is ultimately judged by how its teams do in March, and the top four teams in the Big Ten are all capable of making some noise in the tournament.
Slow? Wisconsin for years was the stereotypical Big Ten team, and you can indeed still call Greg Gard’s team is methodical (if you’re a Badger fan) or plodding (if you aren’t). But Wisconsin is down this year, and there are other Big Ten schools who like to get after you and get up and down the floor. Nevertheless, this is something we can quantify a little more easily than the Big Ten being “down”. More on this in a minute.
As for boring, who can say what makes basketball good or bad? High efficiency could mean the offense is great (which is not at all boring) or that the defense is bad (which usually is). A game with a high turnover percentage is exciting if your team is West Virginia and generally awful if your team is Virginia.
Nevertheless, KenPom shows numbers for conferences in aggregate based on all conference games played (so far). So let’s take a closer look and see if we can identify a Big Ten style in the numbers and determine whether that style is boring.
There are 32 conferences in the country. Of those 32, the Big Ten is No. 29 in tempo, averaging 66.5 possessions per game. For years the Big Ten was known as one of the slowest leagues, though that reputation was less and less deserved in recent years. The speeding up of the league seems to have reversed itself this year, though, since 66.5 possessions is lower than than both last year and the year before.
Among power conferences, the SEC and ACC are also both relatively slow, at 67.8 and 67.9 possessions per game. The Big East is fastest, No. 2 in the nation at 71.6. I’m not sure if the AAC should be considered a power conference or not, but they’re one of the few leagues that plays slower than the Big Ten, at 66.2 possessions per game.
As I said earlier, high efficiency can mean great offense or bad defense. For a conference as a whole, this is a value-neutral metric. All we can do is judge whether a league is titled more strongly towards offense or more strongly towards defense.
Believe it or not, despite its reputation the Big Ten actually leans slightly more towards the offense. 1.05 points per possession is good enough to put our beloved league at No. 12. The Big East (1.08), Big 12 (1.07), and Pac-12 (1.06) are even more heavily tilted towards offense, whereas the ACC (1.05) and SEC (1.05) are close to the Big Ten but ever so slightly more heavily titled towards defense. The most defense-heavy league in the nation is the Missouri Valley, at a flat 1.00 points per possession.
That tendency towards offense over defense is driven by two factors: Big Ten teams don’t turn the ball over, and Big Ten teams rack up lots of assists.
In terms of turnovers, the Big Ten is No. 3 in the country, seeing a turnover on just 17% of its possessions. That’s tops among power leagues. And the league is No. 6 in assist rate, seeing an assist on 54.3% of its made field goals. Only the Big East is better among power conferences.
Like efficiency and tempo, turnovers are value-neutral. But an assist rate is not. More assists are a good thing, no matter what. The game of basketball is most beautiful when teams move and share the ball. Given that my team was going to lose a game by giving up, say, 70 points, I’d much rather see them give up that 70 on assisted field goals than unassisted field goals. There is nothing more frustrating than getting beat in ugly, one-on-one basketball.
In this area, at least, the Big Ten is beautiful.
And we’re fun on defense, too.
At present, defense is much more difficult to quantify statistically than offense. Until we have NBA-like video tech that can show us where each player on the floor was at any given moment in any given game, we can’t quantify things like over-rotations or missed help-side recoveries. There’s only one easy-to-measure defensive stat: blocks.
And a good block is the most exciting play in basketball.
A monster dunk and a monster three are up there, but they lack the unexpected shift in momentum that a monster block provides. If you want a crowd to go nuts at a point other than the last five minutes of a close game, the best way is to come out of nowhere and swat a shot into the fifth row.
And the Big Ten has lots of blocks. We’re No. 3 out of 32 with a block rate of 10.9%, behind only the SEC and Big 12, with the ACC right behind.
In fact, this is the category the power conferences dominate more than any other. Of the six power leagues (sorry, AAC), five are in the top 6 in block percentage. Only the Big East bucks the trend, sitting at No. 23.
Free Throws and Threes
The Big Ten is middle of the pack in free throw percentage (No. 14) and percentage of shots taken from behind the arc (No. 13). I’d argue that both those things improve the quality of games (though there can be such a things as hoisting up too many long balls), so the Big Ten doesn’t help or hurt its case here.
Close Games & Blowouts
These categories are where the objective nature of statistics help us overcome our human cognitive errors. I can remember a ton of close games in the Big Ten this year, but it’s only the close ones that stick in your head. Call it memorability bias. Has the Big Ten had more close games (defined by KenPom as games that ended with the victor winning by fewer than 4 points or in overtime) than anyone else?
Not really. About 20% of Big Ten games were decided by a possession, good for only No. 19 in the nation. That doesn’t sound great, but the SEC and ACC were worse, and the league with the most close games is the Ivy, followed by the MEAC at No. 2. Just because games are close, that doesn’t mean the basketball is good.
Blowouts, though, are boring, except in the case of a game like Fort Wayne winning big at Indiana, and there are no David-and-Goliath stories in-conference. KenPom defines blowouts as wins by 20+ points, and almost 20% of Big Ten games fit this category. That’s fifth in the country and the most among power conferences. If you want to argue the Big Ten is boring, a good argument would be that the good teams are really good, the bad teams are really bad, and the number of blowouts reflects that.
Now, these two stats are a spot where it’s interesting to go back and look at history, since changes in rules or style of play won’t skew this metric like it will some others. From 2010 through 2017, the close game percentages in the Big Ten have been, respectively: 18%, 23%, 21%, 16%, 20%, 23%, 14%, and 26%. The blowout percentages in those same years were: 14%, 14%, 14%, 21%, 10%, 12%, 21%, and 12%.
So while the number of close games is trending around its historical average, the number of blowouts is at the high end of what we’d ordinarily expect.
Home Win Percentage
This is the most ambiguous aggregate conference statistic that KenPom tracks. Efficiency can tell you about style of play. Blocks are fun. So are close games. Home winning percentage doesn’t tell you any of that. You can make a case that road wins are more exciting because they’re more unexpected. But you can also make the case that home wins are more exciting because they get the crowd involved, and crowd size is the one stat where the Big Ten has been the undisputed king for the past 40 years and will be for the next 40.
Big Ten teams win 63.5% of the time in conference games. That’s No. 12 out of 32 conferences. That’s the lowest among power leagues except the Big East, which just had its worst team in St. Johns win on the road against its best team, Villanova.
Here’s something interesting, though: the league at the top is the Ivy at 75%. But last season, the Ivy was dead last at 50%. That tells me that season-to-season the results in this category are pretty random. Home teams win more often, but just how much more often likely isn’t part of a conference’s stylistic fingerprint.
Is the Big Ten boring? It depends what you like. If you’re a Big Ten hater, there are definitely stats that you can point to to make the case. If you’re a Big Ten homer, as I most certainly am, you have stats to back up the case that the Big Ten is exciting. All I know for sure is that digging into advanced stats is anything but boring, and I’m going to keep on doing it every week.