Sunday, January 11, 2009

Three Big Ten Recaps

#14 Purdue 65, Wisconsin 52
There were three Big Ten games today, all played back-to-back-to-back, but none was more important than this one. For Wisconsin, the chance was there to bury Purdue while moving to 4-0 in the Big Ten, firmly placing their name as a serious challenger to Michigan State. But the motivation for Purdue was greater: desperation. So Wisconsin faced what Stanford faced last night, which is a desperate team riding the energy of a desperate crowd, and that's always tough. Also, I think Purdue just has Wisconsin's number, as they were the cause of both of Wisconsin's Big Ten losses last season. Their guards just match up really well with Wisconsin's guards, and the smaller Badgers had no answer on the inside for JaJuan Johnson (20 points and 10 rebounds). For Purdue, this win keeps alive their hopes of competing for a Big Ten title, as there is just a monumental psychological difference between being 1-2 in conference and being 0-3 in conference. For Wisconsin, there is a silver lining to this game, which is that they played awfully and couldn't buy a shot, and still hung in there on the road against a desperate and very talented Purdue team. If they can bounce back with a win over Minnesota then they'll be right back in the conference title race.

#19 Minnesota 79, Penn State 59
Speaking of Minnesota, they continue to build on their Tournament resume with this very impressive thrashing of Penn State. Penn State actually played fairly well, but there was nothing anybody could do against a team that was as hot from the field as the Gophers were. They shot 63% from the field and 100% from behind the arc (9-for-9). In a peculiar quirk, they only shot 10-for-15 from the line. Somebody somewhere will have to look up when was the last time that a team took at least nine shots from three-point land and from the line, and shot a higher percentage from behind the arc. Either way, Penn State managed to draw even on turnovers and assists, and rebound more efficiently, all while losing by 20 points. That's got to be insanely frustrating for a Penn State team that slips to 13-4, with decent wins and decent computer numbers, but with neither being quite good enough to get them into the Tournament if the season ended now. They're going to have to find a way to go 10-8 in the Big Ten in order to earn an at-large bid. Minnesota meanwhile jumps to 15-1 with wins over Louisville, Ohio State and Virginia. Watching them play I don't see how they're in the same class as Michigan State, but the resume speaks for itself. If they can find a way to beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Thursday then we really are going to have to consider them as true Big Ten contenders.

Michigan 64, Iowa 49
Michigan's fierce perimeter defense just blew away an Iowa team that is really suffering without Cyrus Tate. With 17 made field goals and 18 turnovers, Iowa just cannot wait to get their star back, who shouldn't be out too much longer. I believe he was actually listed as "doubtful" for this game, which suggests that he'll be back soon. Iowa slips to 1-3 in the Big Ten, but that one win was at home over Indiana. No game the rest of the season will be as easy as a home game against Indiana. And with the stretch they've got coming up (at Purdue, Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan State, at Illinois), Iowa's Tournament hopes might be over within about two weeks. They need a near-miracle. For Michigan, things are much brighter. They move to 3-1 in the conference, even if that record is deceptive due to their easy opponents. Their schedule is very back-loaded, so they need to take care of business in games like this early in the Big Ten regular season. I still believe that they're a bit overrated because of two fluke upsets, but you have to consider them as having an excellent shot at the Tournament. One thing they have to be careful of is finishing too low in the conference standings. Assuming that Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota are all looking pretty good for a Tournament bid, that means that Ohio State and Michigan might end up dueling for sixth place in the conference. Will the Big Ten get seven Tournament teams? Maybe, maybe not. So those two schools with so much history knocking each other out of bowl games during the fall might end up fighting to knock each other out of the Tournament in the spring. The Buckeyes come to town on Saturday in what will be a huge test for the Wolverines. A loss there will really damage their Tournament hopes.


Anonymous said...

Why do you make the comment that Michigan's upset victories over Duke and UCLA were 'fluke'? There was no last second shot. There was no questionable call. Doesn't the mere fact that there were two of them reduce the 'flukiness' of either one on its own.

Jeff said...

No, I'm using a different meaning of the word. They are flukes in that if you replayed that Michigan/Duke game 100 times, Duke will win 90+ times. That was apparent to anybody that watched the entire game (as I did). It was one of those games where everything was falling right for Michigan, where the crowd really got behind them, and Duke looked like they didn't want to be there. But at no point could any objective person have watched that game and thought that Michigan was as good as Duke.

This is as opposed to the Michigan/Iowa game, where Michigan played very well and was fortunate to win by as much as they did, but it was clear that it was not a fluke win: replay that game 100 times and Michigan wins more than 50 of them.

This is not to say that fluke wins count any less to the Selection Committee than solid wins. But they are important when we project into the future. Too often you see a decent team pull off a couple of fluke wins early in the year and give their fans irrational expectations. This year those teams are Michigan and Arkansas. The fact is that Michigan is not an elite team, and while they've got an excellent chance to make the Tournament, their results the rest of the season will not be as good as their results thus far.

The computer rankings agree with me. Sagarin, for example, gives them an ELO_CHESS of 18 and a PREDICTOR of 48. In other words, their resume thus far is 18th best in the nation, but they have only been the 48th best team. We can quibble over those numbers, because no computer ranking system is absolutely perfect. But when I see a team with that large of a disparity, even if I haven't seen them play, I know that they are due for a reality check as the season goes along.