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February 10, 2010
February Madness
The Messy Big Ten

by John Gasaway

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Just eight short days ago the Big Ten looked like Michigan State's plaything. "Driver's seat" was one term that was often employed, and rightfully so. After all, Kalin Lucas was healthy, Korie Lucious was safely confined to spot duty, and the Spartans held a three-game lead on the rest of the conference at the halfway mark in league play.

Now look. Lucas missed one game entirely and played at a self-described "65 percent" in last night's 76-64 loss to Purdue in East Lansing. Lucious and his Pullen beard are getting major minutes, to the detriment of Tom Izzo's heart rate. And the Spartans are now deadlocked at 9-3 with...Illinois?

I may not be ready to go as far as Brent Musburger and champion Bruce Weber for national coach of the year. (Yes, he said that. Repeatedly, in fact.) But I will say this for the Gene Keady protege: After last night's 63-56 win at the Kohl Center Weber sports a gaudy 3-3 record in Madison as the Illini coach. No, going .500 may not sound all that great, but consider that as of this morning Bo Ryan's record in Madison against Big Ten opponents is 65-6. In other words Weber is 3-3 and his colleagues in the conference, past and present, are a combined 3-62 at the Kohl Center in the Ryan era.

Indeed last night's events were earth-shaking enough to take another look at how the conference stacks up in per-possession terms. I realize we just went through this exercise yesterday, but today officially marks a bold new chaotic era in Big Ten hoops.

Big Ten: Yesterday came suddenly
Through games of February 9, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                      W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Wisconsin         8-4   57.3    1.06    0.94    +0.12
2.  Ohio St.          8-3   62.8    1.08    0.98    +0.10
3.  Purdue            8-3   65.0    1.08    0.99    +0.09
4.  Michigan St.      9-3   64.0    1.05    0.99    +0.06
5.  Illinois          9-3   65.1    1.04    0.99    +0.05
6.  Michigan          4-7   59.9    0.99    1.00    -0.01
7.  Minnesota         5-5   65.9    1.02    1.05    -0.03
8.  Northwestern      5-6   62.6    1.07    1.10    -0.03
9.  Indiana           3-7   65.1    0.95    1.07    -0.12
10. Iowa              2-9   62.0    0.91    1.04    -0.13
11. Penn St.         0-11   61.5    0.96    1.10    -0.14

This sets up to be a jewel of a finish, not least because the best team in per-possession terms, Wisconsin, is a game back in the loss column. A three- or even four-way tie at 13-5 now has to be entertained as one likely outcome. And even with all the Big Ten talk that has arisen this morning, the two words I feel like I'm not hearing often enough are "Leuer" and "Minnesota." So let's take a forward-facing look at each of these top five teams. For easy labeling purposes I'll henceforth refer to this quintet (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois) as the Gang of Five.

1. Wisconsin
Number one in your tempo-free hearts but certainly not in the standings. With a win last night the Badgers would have been in excellent position to finish 14-4 and, quite possibly, win the Big Ten outright. But the loss to Illinois throws the door wide open to a league that may not have realized said door was closing fast.

The good news for the Badgers is twofold. First, based on everything Will Carroll is telling me and everything I'm hearing from Madison-based media peeps, Jon Leuer could well return to action very soon. The Evan Turner Phenomenon (see below) means no non-Turner name can plausibly appear in close proximity to "Big Ten POY," but in a more normal year that is precisely the kind of season Leuer was having before suffering his wrist injury a month ago. Don't echo Hubert Davis and say that Wisconsin "can't score" until you see the lethally efficient and possession-absorbent Leuer in action.

Second, the Badgers have a relatively kind remaining schedule, with just one road game left to play against a Gang of Five opponent (at Illinois, March 6). Then again Wisconsin does have to play at Minnesota next Thursday, and the Gophers are emerging as a key player in this mini-drama. Maybe Tubby Smith's team hasn't met preseason expectations, but they're a Kalin Lucas three-pointer away from being undefeated at home this year. The Gophers will also be hosting Purdue soon (two weeks from today), and the outcomes of those two games in Williams Arena should go a long way toward determining the Big Ten title.

2. Ohio State
The only Big Ten team that's undefeated at home, the Buckeyes will play at Indiana tonight. If they can win there, Thad Matta's men would appear to be on track to finish in the neighborhood of 13-5, with remaining road games at Illinois and Michigan State. During their current seven-game conference winning streak Ohio State has made an insane 58 percent of their twos. That's a team effort, yes, but I also suggest that fans in Columbus savor the presence of a certain Chicago-area product for his last seven regular-season games as a collegiate player.

3. Purdue
Five long months ago I wrote a Big Ten preview where I said the Boilermakers would win the conference title. While watching Purdue win at Michigan State last night, I thought to myself for the first time this season that Matt Painter's team looked the way I thought they were going to look this year. Sort of. With their black road unis and an athletically unprepossessing star like Robbie Hummel, the Boilers have a reputation as hard-nosed defenders that's really hard to shake. But the truth is Purdue's offense is significantly better than its defense this year, thanks in equal measures to good two-point shooting, a lack of turnovers, and, perhaps most surprisingly, a lot of trips to the line. Painter's team is facing consecutive decisive Wednesdays: At Ohio State next week, and at Minnesota the week after that.

4. Michigan State
For my money Izzo's team is the most interesting member of the Gang of Five in this strange new era. Lucas is hobbled and the Spartans are putatively "reeling," but at the end of the day they're still tied for first and they still have perhaps the easiest remaining schedule of any contender. (Put it this way. One in every three remaining Michigan State games will be played against Penn State.) If MSU can just avoid freaking out unnecessarily and pick up a couple road wins at Happy Valley (Saturday) and Indiana (Tuesday), they'll be in good shape to win this thing, possibly even outright. One date to circle is a week from Saturday, when Ohio State comes to East Lansing. Right now that's a contest that soulless know-nothing computers, whether mine or Ken Pomeroy's, give the Buckeyes a surprisingly good (though still less than 50-50) chance of winning.

5. Illinois
The Illini will have ample opportunity to prove that their heroics in Madison last night were no fluke, with road games remaining to be played at Purdue and Ohio State. The first order of business, however, will be holding serve at home against the Buckeyes on Sunday. To win that game Weber will need a big game from his featured scorer, who has quietly improved his performance to the point where it shares some pretty exclusive company.

I don't usually resort to blind taste-tests, but....
Players stats courtesy of kenpom, through games of February 9

           ORtg    %Poss   %Shots   ARate   TORate   2FG%   3FG%
Player A   110.3   26.2     22.5    37.5     21.5    55.6   37.8
Player B   111.4   26.7     23.0    34.9     24.9    50.3   37.3

Among scoring point guards nationally who hoard assists but commit too many turnovers, Demetri McCamey (A) compares pretty well to John Wall (B), though the latter is superior at getting to the free throw line and knocking down the freebies. Still, achieving near-Wall results ain't bad for a guy who was benched for a couple tip-offs earlier this year. And if McCamey starts wearing one of those cool shooting sleeve thingys, who knows how far this Illinois team can go? Probably farther than anyone thought eight days ago.

John gives equal time to non-messy conferences like the Big 12 on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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