Northwestern on Track But Needs Bryant McIntosh to Find His Groove

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 19th, 2016

Northwestern is now 9-2 after holding on for dear life to defeat Dayton in the State Farm Legends Classic on Saturday night. As the Wildcats progress through the rest of the season, the chatter about whether they can string together enough wins to break their infinite NCAA Tournament drought will pick up accordingly. A quick review of Northwestern’s season so far reveals that star point guard Bryant McIntosh has struggled to match his production from a year ago. His numbers across the board is down — shooting, assists, scoring — and his turnovers are up. This can be viewed two different ways. The first is that a good team can become that much better if McIntosh returns to his previous levels of output. The second view of it is that the Wildcats are likely to face some problems once league play starts if their junior point guard is in the midst of a season-long swoon.

Bryant McIntosh has struggled at times as the lead guard for Northwestern. (AP).

Bryant McIntosh has struggled this season for Northwestern. (AP).

McIntosh’s problems start with a prolonged shooting slump through the first 11 games — he is connecting on a miserable 24.4 percent of shots from distance — down from a career mark of 37 percent coming into the season. His shooting woes have bled into other facets of his game, including a higher turnover rate (20.6 percent, up three percent) and lower assist rate (29.3 percent, down eight percent). There have been some better moments against good competition — a 23-point game against Wake Forest and a 20-point outing against Texas — but his production in the team’s two losses of 9.5 PPG with a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio has been a problem. The Wildcats’ loss to Notre Dame was especially brutal as the team ran several isolation plays for its lead guard during the final few minutes, but he was unable to deliver a bucket.

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.16.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 16th, 2016

We might as well call tomorrow Super Saturday because five of the games involving Big Ten teams are as intriguing of a slate as in recent memory. In addition to the always-enjoyable Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis involving Purdue and Indiana, three other league schools will face off against potential NCAA Tournament teams. This provides each team with a golden non-conference opportunity to a land a resume-enhancing win and build some momentum heading into league play the week after Christmas. Here’s the Weekend Look Ahead:

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the paint in the Crosstown Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP).

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the Crossroads Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP)

  • #21 Notre Dame vs. #15 Purdue (Saturday 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2). With all four teams ranked, the Crossroads Classic couldn’t ask for a better slate. The annual event tips off with Notre Dame’s high-powered offense facing off against Purdue. While the Boilermakers have been impressive all season, they’ve fallen just short in their two chances against elite competition – losing close games to #1 Villanova and #11 Louisville. If Matt Painter‘s group can establish its inside-out game between Caleb Swanigan and outside threats Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline, in addition to submitting a respectable defensive performance, the Boilermakers will walk out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with their best win of the season.

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Maryland: Lucky or Good?

Posted by Jim Root on December 13th, 2016

Is it better to be lucky or good? An argument can be made either way, but the easy answer is to simply be both. Maryland this season appears to have struck a delicate balance between the two, sitting at 11-1 overall with impressive wins versus Oklahoma State and Kansas State as well as a road game at Georgetown. Only a home loss to a respectable Pittsburgh squad tarnishes the ledger, but that’s forgivable given the other successes. So with all of these positives, why do the Terps rank only 61st nationally, per KenPom, and an even worse 73rd according to Jeff Sagarin? The truth is that Maryland’s resume looks better than how well the team is actually playing. Its three resume-enhancing wins came by a combined three points – for the readers without a calculator, that means they won each game by a single point. They also have relatively narrow home wins over minnows American and Stony Brook and needed significant second half comebacks to top Towson and Richmond. Maryland has been slightly more convincing in recent games against Howard and Jacksonville State, but how is this team squeaking by?

trimble-and-turg

Star player Melo Trimble and Mark Turgeon debate their next move. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

One explanation is luck. This is a notoriously difficult metric to quantify, but KenPom calculates a “luck” rating for every team based on “expected wins” from an efficiency standpoint, compared with their actual record. Here’s the concept explained in his own words in 2006 (nerd note: “correlated gaussian method” is a fancy way of saying bell curve):

pommer
The Terrapins are a sterling 10th nationally in luck, as their series of unconvincing performances contrasts with a nearly-perfect record. On the side of the eye test, Maryland clearly benefited from a game-winner for Oklahoma State coming just after the buzzer, among a few other nice breaks, so it does appear to be an element of the Terps’ success. Read the rest of this entry »

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Recruiting Mishaps Showing Their Impact at Ohio State

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 9th, 2016

After Ohio State’s home overtime loss to Florida Atlantic earlier this week, along with the very real threat of missing a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, it is time to admit that something might be wrong in Columbus. Head coach Thad Matta is currently in the midst of the most difficult stretch of his 13-year career with the Buckeyes after a dominant run that included two Final Four appearances, three Elite Eights, five Sweet Sixteens and four Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. The program’s momentum clearly seems to have stalled, and we’re left to wonder if this is a permanent decline for the former rising star or a just an inevitable rough patch after several years of sustained success. One possible explanation for the recent downturn is related to Matta’s recruiting stumbles in recent years — mistakes which may not be evident to many — and the cascading effects they’ve had on the current roster.

Keita Bates-Diop (right) has been good, but not quite to the level of expectations he had as a Top 30 recuit (Jay LaPrete, AP).

Keita Bates-Diop (right) has been good, but not quite to the level of expectations of a top 30 recruit (Jay LaPrete, AP).

In his most successful years, Matta relied on top-tier talent to fill out his roster. Ohio State landed a top 10 recruiting class in five of the six cycles between 2006-11, populated by transcendent players like Greg Oden, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, first round talent like Mike Conley, Daequan Cook, Kosta Koufos and Byron Mullens, and college standouts like David Lighty, Jon Diebler, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft. Matta’s 2012 and 2013 classes, however, fell outside the top 25. The effects of this lull in talent procurement were latent because Thomas and Craft played into their upperclassmen seasons. The Buckeyes bounced back with top 10 classes in 2014 and 2015, but for various reasons their results have been mixed.

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Dakota Mathias is Purdue’s Unsung Hero

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 8th, 2016

Purdue is off to a strong 7-2 start with the losses coming in close contests to top 15 teams Villanova and Louisville. From what we’ve seen so far, the Boilermakers have established that they’re on a short list of teams that look like they can win the Big Ten and make a run into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan are the stars who deserve first billing, but it’s also time to note the significant improvement that junior guard Dakota Mathias has made in becoming one of the league’s best shooters as well as the steady hand guiding Purdue’s offense.

Dakota Mathias has been one of the best deep shooters in the B1G this season. (John Terhune, Journal &Courier).

Dakota Mathias has been one of the best deep shooters in the B1G this season. (John Terhune, Journal & Courier)

Mathias has always been a strong long-range shooter, as his 38.6 percent mark from three-point range last season shows. But he’s taken it to another level so far this year, connecting on 24-of-43 threes (55.8%) and sporting one of the nation’s best Offensive Ratings (133.4). More than just a bomber, he has also led the team in assists four times and averages around four rebounds and a steal per outing. And even though he has also increased his turnovers (up nearly six percent over last season), Purdue owns the 14th most efficient offense in the land because it shoots the ball so well all over the court. Mathias leads a corps of shooters such as Ryan Cline, PJ Thompson and Vincent Edwards, all of whom are shooting better than 39 percent from deep. Purdue’s ability to shoot the ball from three-point range so well (44.8%, third nationally) gives the big men Swanigan and Haas numerous easy looks in the post.

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Emerging Frontcourt Providing Michigan With New Ways to Win

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2016

Michigan’s 53-50 victory over Texas on Tuesday night was anything but vintage John Beilein basketball. The Wolverines—usually an offensive-leaning unit heavily led by guard play—scored 0.87 points per possession against the Longhorns, with its veteran starting backcourt combining for just 13 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Instead, Beilein’s group relied upon two facets of the game seldom mentioned in the same breath as Michigan basketball: stingy team defense and major offensive production from its big men—namely, sophomores Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. For a team short on depth and struggling to find a consistent scorer, the newfound production in the paint was a welcome surprise. To understand just how uncharacteristic the victory was, consider this: Michigan had not won a game in which it scored fewer than 0.90 points per possession since February 23, 2008—Beilein’s first year on the job. Much like that contest—a 49-43 win over Illinois—Tuesday’s affair came down to which team could eke out enough late buckets without compromising its defensive intensity. For the Wolverines, both the late buckets and the intensity were supplied by Wagner.

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan's win on Tuesday (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan’s win over Texas (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

“I thought [Wagner] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “He can shoot, he’s 6’11”, he can put the ball on the floor… Tonight he was constantly in attack mode.” Not only did the German import lead Michigan with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, he came up with both the go-ahead putback and the game-winning block in the game’s closing seconds, his emotions pouring out as the clock hit zeroes. The sequence was a testament to both his rare offensive skill set and his improving defensive discipline. “Mo’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life,” Beilein said of Wagner. “He’s learning to be a bigger presence at the rim. I think he’s making major steps defensively right now.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.02.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 2nd, 2016

On Wednesday night, the Big Ten lost five of six games to drop the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time since 2008. This result represented an already disappointing start to the season for the league, but several teams have an opportunity to right the ship this weekend with solid resume-enhancing wins. In this season’s first weekend look-ahead, we’ll discuss how those teams can get big victories Saturday that may prove consequential on Selection Sunday.

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three point line. (Getty).

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three-point line. (Getty).

  • Oklahoma at Wisconsin (Saturday 1:00 PM ET, BTN). This is the Madison installment of a home-and-home series where the Badgers were run off the court in Norman last year. Of course, the Sooners no longer boast three of the seniors – including Naismith POY winner Buddy Hield – who led last year’s squad to the Final Four. Even with all that attrition, it is foolish to bet on a Lon Kruger team to miss the postseason, which means this game is a golden opportunity for Wisconsin to add another victory over a likely NCAA Tournament team (Syracuse) to its non-conference resume. To accomplish this, Wisconsin needs to establish greater offensive balance against a strong Sooners’ defense (24th nationally). Nigel Hayes would be wise to abandon his burgeoning propensity to shoot threes — where he is only hitting 29 percent on the season — and instead establish himself by geting into the paint and earning trips to the free throw line.

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Is Northwestern Finally Breaking Through?

Posted by Jim Root on November 30th, 2016

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Northwestern basketball without mentioning its ignominious streak of missing the NCAA Tournament in every year since the event’s inception. While that dishonor receives nowhere near the public interest that north side of Chicago neighbor Cubs’ 107-year World Series drought gets, it’s a similar marker of futility. Wait — what’s that? The Cubs did what this year? Well, I’ll be darned… so can another long Windy City sports dry spell be snapped this year? Early indicators look good.

Bryant McIntosh looks like an all-conference lead guard, both scoring and distributing the basketball. (AP)

Bryant McIntosh looks like an all-conference lead guard, both scoring and distributing the basketball. (AP)

The outlook at this point is relatively positive, as head coach Chris Collins did an excellent job of fixing last year’s primary problem — an incredibly weak non-conference schedule (334th nationally, per both KenPom’s ranking system and ESPN’s RPI formula). The Wildcats have already played a road game at Butler (L), neutral site games against Texas (W) and Notre Dame (L), and beat Wake Forest at home in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week. A win at Butler or against the Irish would have been massively helpful for Northwestern’s at-large cause, but a vastly improved non-conference strength of schedule already puts Collins’ team ahead of last year’s resume. As it’s not even December yet, there’s still work to do. Northwestern cannot afford a loss in its five remaining non-conference home games against shaky-to-very-bad foes, and a December 17 date with Dayton at the United Center in Chicago looms as the team’s last chance to provide substance to its ledger. That game against the Flyers will present the Wildcats with the odd situation of having an interior advantage, something that they are unlikely to experience during the Big Ten grinder. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wisconsin Smashes Syracuse Zone by Getting Back to Basics

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 30th, 2016

Wisconsin‘s match-up against Syracuse last night represented a particularly concerning challenge on the offensive end of the floor. Despite an experienced core that includes two potential All-Americans in the starting lineup, Greg Gard‘s offense has been inconsistent. The Badgers made only 11 of a whopping 39 three-point attempts in their loss to Creighton. They turned the ball over 18 times against a Tennessee team that is one of the least experienced squads in the country. To bolster that point, Wisconsin has committed at least 11 turnovers in all seven of its games this season. The notion of a Badgers team easily solving Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone and its corresponding top 10 defense should have spelled disaster in Madison. Instead, they won by 17 points and showed that by simply getting back to basics, Wisconsin may very well end up being the team many expected to win the Big Ten this season.

Ethan Happ (right) had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin's 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

Ethan Happ had a game-high 24 points in Wisconsin’s 77-60 win over Syracuse on Tuesday night. (USA Today Images)

The biggest takeaway from last night’s win over the Orange was just how well forward Nigel Hayes played as a facilitator. Because of his size and passing ability, the senior is the perfect player to set up shop in the middle of a zone. His repeated simple yet effective passes in high-low sets with center Ethan Happ led to a multitude of layups and dunks. Hayes has proven that he can make threes, but he’s only shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc on the season. The best move for the Wisconsin offense is to play Hayes mostly in the post with occasional flashes out to the perimeter. As Purdue has shown with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas doing likewise, the Badgers should use this option against man-to-man defensive schemes as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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Race for a Top NCAA Seed Begins Early in the Big Ten

Posted by Shane McNichol on November 29th, 2016

At least one team has represented the Big Ten at the Final Four in six of the last nine NCAA Tournaments and seeding is a big part of that. Big Ten teams have been awarded a #1 seed in four of those nine tourneys with seven more conference teams receiving #2 seeds over that period. Being projected among the mix to win the conference title usually means that the jockeying for March begins right away. In the season’s first two weeks, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana all had great chances to put themselves in the Big Ten pole position before conference play even begins. Yes, the NCAA Tournament is still three and a half months away, but the Selection Committee weights all games the same regardless of when they are played. Parsing through the first handful of games among this trio allows us a chance to see which, if any, teams took an early head start in the race for a top-two NCAA Tournament seed.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament.

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament. (AP)

The Spartans’ early struggles have been well-documented so there’s no reason to re-hash them here. With three losses already on the books and a very difficult game at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight, dreams of a #1 seed have been all but dashed in East Lansing. In the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, only one school has been awarded a top seed with seven or more regular season losses — Michigan State in 2012. With games at Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland still to come (not to mention several other potentially tricky road tilts as well as home games against Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin), the Spartans are very likely to surpass that loss figure. The loss of Denzel Valentine and his 28.9 percent usage rate has proven difficult to replace, as the capable role players around him last season have so far failed to step up. Instead, it has been freshmen like Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston who have sparked the Spartans during their better moments. Tom Izzo hasn’t yet found the right combinations but history suggests that he will do so. Whether he can manage to turn things around quickly enough to push Michigan State into the discussion for a #2 seed is an open question.

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