The Stats Guys' Big Ten Tournament Preview
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I'm a Northwestern graduate. I'm used to telling basketball fans this and watching as their face makes the Mean Girls-patented "Oh, I'm so sorry" look. I know all about the lack of NCAA Tournament bids (the only major-conference school to never go!), and I was there last March as Minnesota upset the Wildcats in overtime in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. I know all about how tough this conference can be.
This season, the rest of the nation found out as well. This is a conference that has had six different Final Four participants in the past eight seasons, but never has the Big Ten been respected like it has this season. Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State have all been in the top ten recently. Wisconsin and their infuriating brand of offense (I can't wait for 50-49 NCAA Tournament games) has to be considered a favorite to make at least the Sweet 16 again. And depending on the bracket, Minnesota and Illinois could very well be a solid upset potential choice because of the quality of teams they have played.
It's almost enough to make me proud that Northwestern had a disaster of a season. Nobody wants to play these teams.
Before we get to the Big Dance, though, these teams are going to spend four days beating up on each other. Just like the Big Ten has provided for months, it's must-see TV. What you haven't seen, though, is the advanced analytics behind the grandest Big Ten matchups. That's where we come in.
Most Underrated Teams
3. Michigan Wolverines
Calling Michigan underrated as a five seed is like calling Trey Burke halfway decent. You could only get more obvious if you said "Jim Delany likes expansion a little bit". When the dust settles, the Wolverines will be a much higher seed in the NCAA Tourney than they were in their conference tourney.
Michigan's offense has the raw firepower to take anybody out. After adjusting for opponents, the Wolverines are the third-best team in the country at 119.85 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, Indiana scores 121.2 points per 100 possessions to lead the Big Ten. Michigan is second. The third best team? Minnesota... nearly 10 points per 100 possessions (or 0.1 points per possession) lower.
However, their defense may just be their downfall. Sitting at a measly 85th in the country, the Wolverines allow 96.80 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponents. While there is obviously a large disparity between points scored and points allowed on average, the same large difference exists for all the top teams. It's all about relative weakness, and Michigan has one. And that defense is not helpful when your potential BTT final four opponent is that Indiana squad who has the single-most efficient offense in the country according to our metrics.
2. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers have been getting a lot of publicity about a potential eight or nine seed in the NCAA Tournament, but if their offense is any indication, they should be even higher. As already mentioned, Minnesota has the third-best offensive efficiency in the Big Ten. That number's even better when you realize that it's in the top ten percent of all NCAA teams, sitting at 29th overall. And considering their low-variance from game to game (their variance is in the lowest 15 percent of NCAA teams), they have the consistency to always light up on their end of the floor.
While defense could be considered a slight problem, the 72nd percentile of NCAA teams isn't that bad. Instead, the issue for Minnesota will purely be the schedule. If they can get by Illinois - the second-toughest first round opponent they could have drawn behind Michigan - they get one-seeded Indiana. If they beat Indiana, then they get either Wisconsin or Michigan, the other two teams on this underrated list. It's not going to be an easy road for Minnesota to go far.
1. Wisconsin Badgers
Ugly? Even more than the Badgers' offensive line. Slow? In the bottom five percent in the NCAA in terms of pace. Effective? Our numbers say absolutely.
Most of the hype for the Badgers has to do with their defense, and rightfully so. This season, their 89.65 opponent-adjusted defensive rating sits 12th in the NCAA and first in the Big Ten. Among NCAA Tourney challengers, only Florida, Louisville, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Kansas, and Georgetown have been better.
Their offensive efficiency, though, is what has me excited about their chances of beating Michigan and Indiana. Watching that offense, would you believe that Wisconsin is in the 85th percentile of collegiate teams in terms of points per 100 possessions? Believe it. Just because their possessions are slow doesn't mean they are ineffective; the Badgers averaged 1.091 points per possession this season. That's fifth among Big Ten teams, or better than Michigan State, Illinois, or Iowa.
Most Overrated Teams
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
I like the Ohio State Buckeyes; I don't like them as the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten. Sitting fourth in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the conference rankings, the team just doesn't have a particular facet to their game like Michigan's offense or Wisconsin's defense that can put them over the top. I suppose the "well-rounded" argument could be made, but who's going into March excited about the nation's 34th-best offense and defense? Not I, said the writer.
The three teams that Ohio State's efficiency most closely compares to don't offer much hope, either. At a 97.0 percent match, the '10-11 Coastal Carolina squad played very similarly to Ohio State, but after a 26-4 regular season, the Chanticleers lost in their conference tourney and were blown out by Alabama in the NIT first round. The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners were perhaps even more similar cosmetically, gaining a one seed after winning the Big 12. However, they could never beat more than an eight seed in the Tourney and flamed out in the Elite 8 against Syracuse. No. 3 comparable 2012 Murray State, meanwhile, were a popular upset pick last year, at least until they flamed out against Marquette after one win.
Michigan and Indiana's top five comparables, by the way? Michigan's contains a recent champion: 2007 Florida. Indiana's, meanwhile, contains four different Final Four teams: 2005 Louisville (No. 1 comparable), 2012 Ohio State (No. 2), 2001 Michigan State (No. 3), and 2009 Connecticut (No. 5).
2. Illinois Fighting Illini
Want the worst defense in the Big Ten Tournament outside of the bottom three seeds? Then I've got the team for you!
Illinois allowed 99.49 points per 100 possessions this season after adjusting for opponents, or just under a point per possession. That places them in only the 58th percentile among NCAA teams, directly ahead of basketball powerhouses USC, Winthrop, IPFW, and Utah. Of course, I'm not comparing the Illini to those teams; Illinois has a better offense that ranks... seventh in the Big Ten. Welp.
Illinois also has the misfortune of being the second-most inconsistent team in the Big Ten according to our rankings; that would explain the losses to Minnesota and Northwestern. However, that could also explain the victories against Ohio State and Indiana; inconsistency works both ways. However, I'd tend much more towards the former in the Big Ten Tournament: efficiency trumps all, especially against a solid (as already explained) Minnesota team in the first game.
1. Michigan State Spartans
Let's get this out of the way first: Michigan State is a solid team. It's just at third in the Big Ten in both defensive efficiency and sixth in offensive efficiency, they don't have any particular strength that warrants them being called one of the best teams in the country. Indiana and Wisconsin beat them at both offensive and defensive efficiency. Michigan and Ohio State both have them beat in difference between points scored and points allowed per possession as well. Out of the Big Five, they have to be considered fifth.
Then there's the problem of variance. Michigan State is the most up-and-down team in the Big Ten in terms of game-to-game consistency. Our analytics have them in the 41st percentile; Illinois is the next lowest at the 55th percentile. With such up-and-down consistency, the Spartans are more ripe for upset in the second round (as I'll get to later).
We ran Michigan State's top five most comparable teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, and the results are telling. The top comparable is the 2012 Wagner Seahawks; they went 25-6 but lost in the Northeast Conference Tournament. The 2011 UNLV Runnin' Rebels lost as a eight seed in the first round. The second-seeded 2009 Duke Blue Devils barely survived seven-seed Texas in round two before getting killed by Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. The 2007 Louisville Cardinals lost in the second round as a six seed to Texas A&M. And the 2011 Temple Owls barely beat Penn State before succumbing to San Diego State in Round 2. That's who Michigan State is emulating? No thank you.
Three Questions We're Watching
1. Who will win the battle of pace?
Michigan and Wisconsin both play at a snail's pace, with both teams playing below the 20th percentile in terms of possessions per 40 minutes. Indiana, meanwhile, likes to run the floor and plays in the 65th percentile. Whoever controls the game pace may just control the game when Indiana paces either Wisconsin or Michigan (sorry, Penn State fans) in the final four.
2. Which Michigan State Team Will Show up?
Of the top ten seeds in the tournament, the Spartans have the highest variance in their potential game outcomes, sitting with a score of 41 out of 100 in terms of stability. This makes sense: this is a team that was one score away from losing to both Louisiana-Lafayette and Iowa, which would have changed up the resume just a tad. This means to expect the unexpected: they could very well lose to Iowa in the second round if their 73rd-ranked defense can't get anything going against the Hawkeyes' 42nd-ranked defense. They could also end up winning it all with their own 27th-ranked defense, higher than both Ohio State and Michigan.
3. Will the rest of the country watch?
The Big Ten has had some entertaining basketball, but it hasn't exactly been the breakneck pace that fans of, say, the Pac-12 or ACC are used to. With scores regularly in the 70's and 60's (even 50's!), the quickest pace in the Big Ten is the Indiana Hoosiers, who rank a Manti Te'o-quick 118th in the country in number of possessions per 48 minutes. More teams rank in the bottom fifth of the Division I in pace (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan) than rank in the top half (Indiana, Iowa, Illinois).
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