The season is still young, but we’ve still seen a fair amount of basketball. Most of the early season non-conference tournaments have already finished, with some interesting results (Purdue lost their first two games then beat Arizona in the 7th-place game, Michigan State blew out North Carolina in their championship game). The teams’ records may not necessarily be indicative of their quality because of differing schedule qualities – for example, Wisconsin is .500 and Illinois and Rutgers are undefeated.
We do know a few things so far. The Spartans are clearly the best team in the Big Ten, like we anticipated. Penn State has exceeded expectations; Northwestern has underachieved. Ohio State might not be as bad as we thought. Richard Pitino can barely handle opponents who are playing with just three players.
Fortunately, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a staple of college basketball’s non-conference season, offers us the opportunity to gauge most of the conference against comparable opponents. Win, lose, or draw (probably draw), we’ll find out more about our conference brethren.
Maryland at Syracuse, 7 ET, ESPN2
Wisconsin at Virginia, 9 ET, ESPN2
Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 7 ET, ESPN2
Florida State at Rutgers, 7 ET, ESPNU
Louisville at Purdue, 8 ET, ESPN
Iowa at Virginia Tech, 9 ET, ESPN2
Illinois at Wake Forest, 9 ET, ESPNU
Clemson at Ohio State, 7:15, ESPN2
Penn State at North Carolina State, 7:15, ESPNU
Michigan at North Carolina, 7:30, ESPN
Miami at Minnesota, 9:15, ESPN2
Boston College at Nebraska, 9:15, ESPNU
Duke at Indiana, 9:30, ESPN
- Notre Dame at Michigan State, 7 ET, ESPN
After the jump, I’ll check in on each team’s season thus far (as well as their matchup this week), in order of their adjusted efficiency margin, which still incorporates some of Kenpom’s preseason projections.
1. Michigan State
As is customary under Tom Izzo, Michigan State has challenged itself during the non-conference portion of the season: they lost against Duke in a 1 vs 2 matchup two weeks ago in Chicago and handled North Carolina easily in the PK80 Tournament last night. Because Connecticut upset Oregon in the first round of that tournament, MSU missed out on a matchup against the Ducks (who are better), but they’ll face Notre Dame in what’s probably the best game of the entire ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Spartans will have a very comfortable month of December; few teams (if any) will have had a tougher November – and may have faced the three best teams in the ACC.
Most impressively, State has had the nation’s best 2-point defense, and they’ve also held opponents to the lowest shooting percentage at the rim of any team in the country. Three of their starters – big men Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson, as well as wing Miles Bridges – each have posted block rates of at least 7.7. Bridges rolled his ankle and missed a game (leading to extended playing time for walk-on Conner George) and Kenny Goins has injured his knee yet again, but State’s frontcourt depth is unparalleled. One on hand, Izzo can keep everyone fresh, but on the other, Ward and Jackson should probably combine for more than just over 40 of State’s 200 available minutes. Here’s how that frontcourt breaks down:
- Jaren Jackson (56% of minutes) – Freshman has the size, length, mobility, and athleticism of an NBA lottery pick. Efficiency is rather low.
- Nick Ward (46% of minutes) – Noticeably slimmed down as a sophomore, and has elite usage rate, offensive rebounding rate, block rate, fouls drawn.
- Ben Carter (28% of minutes) – UNLV grad transfer has only had six shots in 61 minutes, but has the best assist rate of any non-PG on the roster.
- Gavin Schilling (27% of minutes) – Still Gavin Schilling.
- Xavier Tillman (26% of minutes) – Big-bodied freshman is encouraging as a shot-blocker, rebounder, scorer, and that must be why he didn’t redshirt.
(Bridges occasionally plays the four, but Izzo usually has three bigs on the floor).
Home against Notre Dame
It will be fascinating to see Bonzie Colson take on the Spartans. From my Maui preview:
Colson’s now one of the best players in all of college basketball. Despite being about 6’5, he plays the four and the five, and gets away with it on the defensive end because of his freakishly long arms. His breakout junior season was remarkable: he averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game, posted an excellent 54/43/78 (2P/3P/FT%) shooting line, had the fifth-best offensive rating nationally among players with a usage rate of at least 24%, and was a strong shot-blocker. Colson is the AP preseason ACC Player of the Year, and needless to say, he’d be a very tough test for the Wolverines.
Notre Dame is a perimeter-oriented team, but they have one of the best “big” men in college basketball. Jackson is probably the best individual matchup for him. The Irish are one of the most efficient teams in the country, so it should be a high-level matchup between State’s defense and the Notre Dame offense. ND trailed for most of the Maui final against Wichita State, but came back and outscored the Shockers by 17 in the second half to win by a point. Michigan State’s home-court advantage and depth inside makes them the clear favorite to win this one.
It’s hard to imagine that any team in the country had a more bizarre tournament performance than Purdue did in the Bahamas.
- 78-75 (OT) loss to Tennessee. Despite holding the Vols to under a point per possession, Purdue managed to lose their opener: a three from Grant Williams tied the game in the final seconds of regulation (Williams scored 22 points, all after halftime), and despite a 7-0 run from Dakota Mathias to give the Boilermakers a 5-point lead in early in overtime, they blew it down the stretch.
- 77-73 loss to Western Kentucky. This one was really bad. Former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury landed a five-star recruit at WKU, but that guy left the team before the season started. It was the Hilltoppers’ best offensive performance against a D-1 foe this season; they led comfortably throughout, and even though Purdue came close near the end, they fell short.
- 89-64 win over Arizona. Somehow two of the best three teams in the Bahamas went 0-2 to start the tournament. Arizona entered ranked second nationally in the polls, but they were destroyed by Purdue. Freshman sensation Deandre Ayton put up 22 points and 8 rebounds, and little else went well for the Wildcats. It’s easy to wonder whether the FBI investigations have them shook.
Two other things: Purdue ranks in the Top 50 nationally in terms of average height, but are in the bottom half of defensive rebounding rate. They also have a 7’3 Dutch freshman, Matt Haarms, who’s comfortable putting the ball on the floor and has the 11th-best block rate in the country.
Home against Louisville
It’s hard to know what to make of this matchup. Louisville hasn’t played a game away from home, haven’t had to face a quality opponent, and haven’t really been challenged yet this season. They have their own problems with the FBI – Rick Pitino was fired and five-star freshman Brian Bowen was ruled ineligible – and they’re really an unknown at this point. Big man Ray Spalding has had 18 offensive rebounds in four games thus far, and could pose a problem for the Boilermakers in that regard; wing Deng Adel, big man Anas Mahmoud, and Spalding are all very good defenders.
Kenpom’s algorithm has this as the Big Ten’s likeliest win, but it’s really anyone’s guess as to how this one will go.
The Gophers are undefeated and have two quality wins (at Providence, neutral against Alabama), but I don’t really want to talk about them. I want to talk about COLLIN SEXTON.
Worth watching the whole thing, but especially the last two minutes
Minnesota’s defense is legitimately good – it was last year, and even though opponents have been hitting 40% of their threes, it’s been solid in November of this year – but Collin Sexton helped outscore the Gophers when the Tide were playing three-on-five. Sexton was a five star (and is probably the best point guard prospect in the class, though Oklahoma’s Trae Young is making a name for himself), and the fiery floor general was at his best against Minnesota. He has a Westbrookian ability to fly down the court and bully defenders on his way to the rim; against Minnesota, his step-back was falling and he canned a few ridiculous threes. His final line, in a five-point loss: 40 points on 30 shot equivalents, 6 rebounds, 5 assists.
That has to be the best performance we’ll see all season, right? How many players can manage to handle that situation with such aplomb – how many have the temperament to attack and succeed against an athletic defense while being double teamed on and off the ball? Sure, Minnesota didn’t really know what they were doing (and to be fair, it was a unique situation), but it’s hard to imagine that there are many – if any – players in college basketball could handle that situation like Sexton did, let alone thrive in it. Galin Smith and Riley Norris also deserve credit for Bama’s play in that bizarre scenario (they started the game on the bench), but it was Sexton’s show.
* * *
Since I should probably say something about Minnesota, I’ll mention that Jordan Murphy may be the best player in the Big Ten so far this season. The junior combo forward has averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds per game; his offensive rating (132.0) ranks first nationally among players who have played at least 40% of their team’s minutes and have a usage rate of at least 27%. Murphy had always been an elite rebounder for his size, but he’s now facing up defenders, posting up, and scoring off of savvy cuts and offensive rebounds. In Minnesota’s seven games, he’s been the Kenpom MVP five times.
Home against Miami
Like Louisville, Miami is another talented yet untested team in trouble with the FBI. Their showdown with Minnesota may fly under the radar because other games feature bigger brand name programs, but this may be the best contest of the challenge. The Hurricanes are led by aggressive combo guard Bruce Brown, who turned down a likely first-round selection in the NBA Draft to return to Coral Gables. Miami also has the best eFG% defense in all of college basketball; even though they don’t block a ton of shots, they’ve held opponents (all of whom have been overmatched) to 0.77 points per shot. Minnesota’s at home and has already notched some key wins, but this will be a tough test for the Gophers.
Preseason All-American center Ethan Happ was a known quantity, but other than him, Wisconsin was breaking in a mostly new cast of rotation players. Happ has the highest usage rate among Big Ten players (as well as the highest total usage) and has averaged 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists per game.
They’re still looking for consistency from their next four leading scorers:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, D’Mitrik Trice – last season’s sixth man – is the most consistent and Brad Davison – a well-hyped freshman – has steadily improved. Both those two, as well as Brevin Pritzl and Khalil Iverson, have put up at least one dreadful performance.
The Badgers lost to Xavier at home by ten (despite leading with three minutes left) and comeback efforts against Baylor and UCLA in Kansas City came up short by a combined seven points. Those three are all likely NCAA Tournament teams.
Away against Virginia
Under Tony Bennett, Virginia’s been even more Wisconsin than Wisconsin, playing elite pack-line defense and coasting along at a glacial pace. The last time these two programs met (in 2014), Wisconsin won 48-38. The schedulers of these games played a cruel joke on all of us by setting up this matchup again. Virginia ranks third nationally in Kenpom’s ratings, and they’re at home, so an upset by the Badgers would be a surprise.
5. Penn State
I don’t want to alarm anyone, but Penn State might actually be good at basketball. In fact, they probably are. They could be very good! I’d recommend stocking that backyard fallout shelter you’ve been building with plenty of cases of bottled water, just in case.
Aside from a competitive tournament loss to an excellent Texas A&M team, the Nittany Lions have won all of their games (they’ve come against underwhelming competition, but Penn State has blown out most of them). Their defense has been a major reason why: they have two players who rank in the Top 25 nationally in steal rate (Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler) and a player who’s in the Top 10 in block rate (Mike Watkins). They force turnovers, limit threes, and aside from getting scorched by A&M, they’ve held each opponent to under 0.92 points per possession.
The biggest reason why they’ve been so impressive thus far is because of sophomore point guard Tony Carr, who’s fulfilling his promise as the top recruit to pick Penn State in a long time. Carr is averaging 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game; he put up 31 points against A&M, a team with one of the best defenses in college basketball; he’s currently leading the country in offensive rating for players with a usage rate of over 28% (he and Jordan Murphy are virtually identical in their usage and efficiency numbers). Carr has been sensational: while his 65% shooting from three is bound to fall, his assist to turnover ratio is excellent, and he’ll likely be a very efficient player regardless.
College basketball analyst / Twitter meme Jon Rothstein may be right:
Don't be shocked if Penn State's Tony Carr emerges as Big Ten's best guard by January. 13.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG as a true freshman. Stud.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 12, 2017
Away against North Carolina State
NC State was the first team to upset Arizona in the Bahamas, though they lost their next two games against Northern Iowa and Tennessee. The Wolfpack are an interesting team: their three-point shooting is terrible (28%), but their offensive rebounding rate is terrific (37%). Seven-footer Omer Yurtseven underwhelmed as a highly touted freshman from Turkey, but he’s developed into one of the better rebounders in college basketball. Lennard Freeman crashes the glass as well; he’s been insanely efficient thus far; Abdul-Malik Abu is recovering from a knee injury and he’s a major force inside. Penn State will need Watkins to stay out of foul trouble and hold his own on the defensive glass in Raleigh.
The Terrapins were expected to rely heavily on a trio of sophomores who each started all of last season: point guard Anthony Cowan and wings Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson are the nucleus of this team and they each lead the team in a major statistical category (Cowan in scoring, Huerter in assists, and Jackson in rebounding). Cowan’s cooled off a little bit after a great start – he had 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in a win over Butler – but he’s been the most impressive player of the three (which is not something I expected).
Maryland’s also relied heavily on two freshmen though, center Bruno Fernando and wing Darryl Morsell. While several upperclassmen play in supporting roles off the bench, five of the top six Maryland players are freshmen or sophomores (the sixth is junior Dion Wiley, a shooting specialist who missed last season with an injury). Fernando has been particularly impressive: he’s averaging over ten points per game, and is ranked in the Top 100 nationally in block rate and defensive rebounding rate. The Angolan big man is a player to watch as conference play ramps up – he has a ton of potential.
They haven’t played a Top 50 opponent yet, but Maryland has faced three Top 100 opponents: they handled Butler with ease, barely escaped with a win over Bucknell, and dropped a close one to St. Bonaventure. Their shooting against the Bonnies (5-23 from three) is the main reason why they aren’t undefeated.
Away against Syracuse
This is an opportunity for a great win in a tough environment for this young Terps team. Syracuse has missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three seasons (though they did have a shocking run to the Final Four as a ten-seed in 2016). They boast the nation’s best shot-blocker, Pachal Chukwu, in the middle of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. They’re led by a very good sophomore swingman in Tyus Battle – and you know what, I don’t want to talk about them anymore. Go Maryland.
While there’s a lot to talk about – Charles Matthews! Jon Teske! (the point guards…) – I’m going to stick to one thing: Moritz Wagner’s rebounding. The big German ranks fourth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage; surely some of the advice he received from the NBA was to improve as a rebounder, and he has (many of his other defensive attributes need work though).
Four of the six top rebounding performances of his career have come so far this season:
Yellow: 2017-18. Black: 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Away against North Carolina
There will be more on this game later, but I have to mention that UNC scored just 0.62 points per possession against MSU last night. Hopefully they didn’t get all their bricks out of the way against the Spartans.
Chris Collins and the Fightin’ Janitors have been a disappointment thus far, starting with a home loss to Creighton a few weeks ago. Things got worse from there though:
That’s how you can slide from 18th nationally to 50th in the Kenpom rankings in less than a month. Texas Tech outscored Northwestern by 0.59 points per possession – a margin that’s really difficult to fathom. The Wildcats could manage to make the NCAA Tournament (the loss to Tech won’t be that bad when all is said and done), but early returns have not been promising.
A worrying subplot is that they don’t have a backup point guard: Bryant McIntosh has played the most minutes of anyone in the Big Ten and has been tasked with plenty of offensive responsibility. He’s been effective – his assist to turnover numbers are great as always, and he’s been more efficient than he was last season – but the cumulative effect of so many minutes could wear him down once the schedule flips to February and March.
Maybe Johnnie Vassar could have helped ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I promise I won’t keep bringing that up, but I have to admit that I’m annoyed that a program that did this merits constant praise as a feel-good story. I blame all the Medill grads in sports media.
Away against Georgia Tech
This is a very winnable game for Northwestern. Georgia Tech has had a strange season thus far: they lost the opener by three to UCLA in a well-publicized trip to China (what you probably didn’t hear is that the Yellow Jackets also had a few key players suspended). Point guard Tadric Jackson is back, but shooting guard Josh Okogie is still out for a few more games. Those two had the top usage rates for Georgia Tech last season. The matchup between Dererk Pardon and Ben Lammers down low should be a good one.
Fran McCaffery’s young Hawkeyes team has a few things going for it: they play a fun, up-tempo style, they have been scoring efficiently (especially due to their three-point shooting), and they have a deep, talented stable of big men led by sophomore Tyler Cook and freshman Luka Garza. They are really young though – their top seven rotation players are first- or second-year players, and they rank 339th nationally in Kenpom’s experience metric.
Young teams are prone to letdowns:
First of all, LMAO INDIANA WYD.
Anyways, Iowa has two bad losses already and if they want to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid, they’ll have to atone for them. This core will probably wind up being really good, but they’re at least another year away.
Away against Virginia Tech
The Hokies are clear favorites in this game. They have the best eFG% in the country thus far – they’ve made 64% of their twos and 50% of their threes. The rotation looks considerably different than it did when Virginia Tech upset Michigan a year ago as part of this challenge.
10. Ohio State
I regret to inform you that Ohio State isn’t as terrible as we thought they’d be. Their loss to Butler yesterday was really bad though, not because Butler is a bad team, but because of how they lost.
According to ESPN, Ohio State had 99.6% win probability when leading 54-39 with less than 4 minutes left. So #Butler, at 0.4%, was 250-to-1 to win at that point.
— David Woods (@DavidWoods007) November 27, 2017
Andrew Dakich has been in the rotation as a backup point guard. His season stats: 105 minutes, 20 points, 4-8 on 2s, 1-3 on 3s, 9-10 on FTs, 15 rebounds, 17 assists, 11 turnovers.
Home against Clemson
Dakich will face off against former teammate Mark Donnal, who grad transferred to Clemson. Donnal’s season stats: 78 minutes, 32 points, 6-11 on 2s, 5-7 on 3s, 5-5 on FTs, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block. Dakich has more rebounds per minute than Donnal does.
As the graphic in the Iowa section said, Indiana lost to Indiana State by 21 at home. It was the first game of the Archie Miller era, and the Sycamores shot 17-26 from three, and a late cold spell prevented them from getting to 100 points in Bloomington. It’s unfortunate that this video isn’t longer:
I would watch a supercut of all the Indiana State threes an embarrassing amount of times.
Home against Duke
Duke is the #1 team in the country and has the NPOY frontrunner in Marvin Bagley. This one will probably get ugly.
The Illini are 6-0, all at home. Their best win came against DePaul (#125 according to Kenpom), and their closest win came against Tennessee-Martin (#274). Ask again later.
Away against Wake Forest
This is one of those games between mediocre teams that are huge in terms of winning this (meaningless) challenge.
Nebraska is 5-2: they’ve won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose. Aside from poor defensive rebounding, they have the makings of a team that may be able to lean on their defense a little bit. What killed them in their losses at St. John’s and UCF was their offense – they put up 0.77 and 0.87 points per possession in those respective games. Transfers from Miami (James Palmer) and Georgetown (Isaac Copeland) have made immediate impacts in their first season in a Husker uniform; along with Evan Taylor and Anton Gill, who played last season, four of Nebraska’s five leading scorers started their careers at another program.
Home against Boston College
This is another one of those games between mediocre teams that are huge in terms of winning this (meaningless) challenge.
The Cable Subscribers are 6-0, all at home. Their best win came against East Carolina (#249), and their closest win came against Central Connecticut State (#322). Ask again later.
Home against Florida State
Rutgers is the biggest home underdog in the challenge aside from Indiana. FSU is similarly unproven, but they were a three-seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament and chances are that they’re probably way better than RU this season.