Thursday, October 14, 2010

Big Ten Prediction – A surprise pick for champ?

A Note on Midnight Madness

I’m excited for Midnight Madness this weekend, but I caution anyone who tries to learn anything from the inter-squad scrimmage or any of the exhibition games that will follow. Exhibition games are not a great place to evaluate talent. As evidence I provide two anecdotes. Two years ago Maryland’s Jin-Soo Kim (now Jin-Soo Choi) scored 20 points in an exhibition game against Northwood University. The fans were shouting his name and there was serious talk that he was the surprise gem in Maryland’s recruiting class. But Jin-Soo went on to score a grand total of 41 points in his two years with the Terrapins. And if the exhibition games are not a great place to evaluate players, they are not a great place to evaluate teams either. Michigan St. lost to Grand Valley St. in an exhibition in 2007-08, but it did not stop the Spartans from finishing 15th in the Pomeroy Rankings that year. Enjoy meeting the teams, enjoy the atmosphere, and enjoy the theatrics this weekend, but do not take anything too seriously until the real games begin.

A Note on Ken Pomeroy

As I alluded to a few weeks ago, Ken Pomeroy is also in the business of modeling returning talent. I’ll have more thoughts on the various ways to make tempo free predictions in a future post, but for now I will simply steal his punch-line. The Big Ten is a league on the rise.

Big Ten Prediction

Today I roll out the 4th of my tempo free conference predictions, and no league has intrigued me as much as the Big Ten. The traditional consensus seems to have Michigan St. and Purdue as the best teams in the league, but Doug Gottlieb has picked Illinois to win the league this year. So when I first ran these numbers, I was very curious to see what the model would say. But before I get to the full conference prediction, let’s look at the expected change in efficiency margin. I list the losses due to players leaving and the other changes due to recruits, player development, and coaching changes.

First, note that Indiana’s rating in the Players Leaving column is not a misprint. Indiana has a positive rating for Players Leaving. Devan Dumes had the second lowest efficiency rating on the Hoosier’s last year (84.2) and used a ton of possessions. For the Hoosiers, this should be a case of addition by subtraction. By letting other players take Dumes’ shots, the team should be better. But the Hoosiers will improve for a more important reason. They gave playing time to a number of key freshmen last year. And those players are expected to play significantly better this year. That list includes Maurice Creek (who was injured and played in only 12 games last year), Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, and Derek Elston.

Also on the upswing are the fighting Illini who replace the last few spots in the rotation with three top 100 recruits. The model likes last year’s freshman to develop, and it expects Brandon Paul to emerge for the Illini. Paul took a lot of shots last year, suggesting he has the confidence to become a star, but he was also the team’s least efficient scorer last year. Will he play with more consistency as expected, or will Paul find his spot in the rotation taken by another great recruiting class? Regardless, this is the most talented team Bruce Weber has had since his Final Four squad, and the pressure is squarely on Illinois to play at an elite level this year.

On the opposite end, everything went wrong for Michigan this off-season with Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims, and even Laval Lucas-Perry leaving the team. And Minnesota loses Damian Johnson, Lawrence Westbrook, and Paul Carter. Johnson’s loss really hurts because not only was he quietly efficient on the offensive end, he was a key force on the defensive end for the Gophers.

But despite these defections, the Big Ten is clearly a league on the rise. If the Big Ten finishes 5th in the RPI again this year, it will definitely be a disappointment.

The next table shows the expected change in offense and defense. Wisconsin loses its most efficient offensive player in Jason Bohannon, and the team’s second leading scorer Trevon Hughes. And despite Trevon Hughes’ high steal rate, those losses should hurt the offense more than the defense.

Fran McCaffery will need time to bring in more talented offensive players to Iowa. But based on his success teaching defense at his previous jobs, the model predicts Iowa will improve more on defense than offense.

On the other hand, Illinois should expect a bigger offensive improvement than defensive improvement. While the departures of Dominique Keller and Jeffrey Jordan will not mean much on the offensive end, those players did contribute on the defensive end for the Illini.

And what do all these numbers mean for the projected league standings? My projected winner may be a bit of a surprise. My model likes the Buckeyes to repeat as league champs. (OK, my model is not the only source that likes Ohio St. Blue Ribbon picks the Buckeyes for the Final Four. But this is far from the consensus pick.)

Evan Turner is gone, but the Buckeyes bring in an incredible recruiting class and return some phenomenal players. People just don’t have a handle on how well Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, William Buford, and David Lighty played last year. (I’m still having nightmares about Jon Diebler knocking down threes by the way.) Yes Evan Turner was good, but it was not all Turner. While the Buckeyes are expected to slip slightly, my model projects the newcomers will fill most of the void Turner left behind.

Some may be surprised to see Michigan St. picked so low, but it makes perfect sense when you look at the numbers. The Spartans were only fourth in the Big Ten in efficiency margin last season, and they do lose some key players in Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen.

To put it another way, Michigan St. was only a five seed in the NCAA tournament last year, and I’m not sure how wins against Maryland and Tennessee in last year’s NCAA tournament make them a clear Final Four favorite this year. Tom Izzo and his players deserve a ton of credit for what they were able to accomplish, but I think people tend to overlook the fact that the Spartans were not a dominant team last year.

Now, nothing about where I’m projecting Michigan St. says the Spartans cannot win the Big Ten or go the Final Four. But Tom Izzo plays a lot of players and builds a team that peaks in March and not November. If his team has another slow start and is not among the nation’s leaders in efficiency margin, it should not come as a surprise.

Penn St. was the second unluckiest team in all of D1 last year, and I think some people are under-rating the Nittany Lions. It will be no shock if Talor Battle keeps Penn St. in the NCAA tournament hunt this year.

And I’ll be cheering for Northwestern to finally break through and make the NCAA tournament, but the model is not confident. As many people have said, the defense has to take a serious step forward for Northwestern to be a serious NCAA tournament contender.

In the end, the Big Ten is a league with five potentially dominant teams, and three bubble teams. Assuming the league plays as expected in non-conference play, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn St. will have plenty of chances to earn RPI top 50 wins and earn an NCAA tournament spot. But I don’t think any of them are a lock. Minnesota is projected to finish in 6th place, but the Gophers would only be projected as the 8th place team in the ACC or Big 12. This is my way of saying that the Big Ten may be stronger at the top, but some of the other leagues may still be deeper this season.