Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

December 7, 2008

Sudden Ascendances in the Big Ten

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:35 pm

On the heels of yet another defeat for the Big Ten in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the conference was given some welcome good news on Saturday, as two of its less heralded teams beat opponents ranked in the top seven nationally. For one day at least, traditional rivals Ohio State and Michigan were brothers in arms, cooperatively salvaging just a little of their conference’s reputation.

The Buckeyes took down Notre Dame 67-62 on that most neutral of all basketball floors, an NFL end zone (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis). One prolegomenon for this game was certainly OSU’s memorable and similarly-scored (65-64) upset of number 1-ranked and undefeated Illinois in Columbus at the close of the 2005 regular season. Put it this way: Thad Matta knows how to frustrate a more experienced opponent that likes to shoot threes. ND’s Kyle McAlarney, last seen lighting up North Carolina for 39 points in Maui, played the full 40 minutes and yet all he had to show for it was 0-of-6 shooting on his threes. 

OSU’s sophomore wing Evan Turner has received most of the post-upset attention, and not without reason. He scored 28 points on 16 shots and recorded ten boards. In fact this season Turner has emerged as far and away the Buckeyes’ best shooting option, whether from the field or the line. He also shares the ball and has even been excellent on D, recording steals at a rate not seen in Columbus since Mike Conley was in residence. With any luck Turner will indeed develop into a multi-threat force of nature for the Buckeyes. Then again it’s not too much to say that he’s been a walking turnover so far this year, up to and including committing six of the miscues in question on Saturday. Besides, Ohio State’s offense isn’t really where the story has been for this team. The key to the Buckeyes’ success thus far has actually been defense, and the thanks for that goes primarily to the big man down low.

No, I don’t mean highly-touted freshman B.J. Mullens, who’s seen limited playing time but could still be in the NBA this time next year. As it happens I’m talking about the guy we know will still be in Columbus 12 months from now: 6-8 sophomore Dallas Lauderdale.  

Given that Lauderdale never shoots, his offensive rebounding’s been only fair, and his defensive rebounding can be charitably termed as non-existent, his presence on the floor can be traced to one fact and one fact only. He has been an absurd shot-blocker in his team’s first five games. By “absurd” I mean “significantly better than either Hasheem Thabeet or Jarvis Varnado last year.” This season Lauderdale has personally blocked nearly one in every four two-point shots that opponents have attempted during his minutes on the floor. To put that figure into perspective, last year there was no team in the country, not even Connecticut, that was able to block that many of their opponents’ twos. 

Lauderdale’s numbers for blocks will of course come down to earth. The larger point here, however, is that Ohio State looks like they’ll have an outstanding defense this year. Big Ten beware.  

Then again you may not hear much about OSU’s defense if Michigan continues to hog all the attention with that wacky 1-3-1 of theirs. UCLA memorably fought the 1-3-1 and lost in Madison Square Garden a couple weeks ago. Then, as you may have heard, Duke fell to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Saturday, 81-73. Funny thing is, the hero here wasn’t the 1-3-1, it was the Michigan offense. And if (I stress “if”) this means the young Wolverines are starting to play a John Beilein level of offense, that’s fairly ominous news for the rest of the Big Ten. After seeing UM lose at Harvard by double digits last year, the rest of the conference will be forgiven for thinking this moment was still a year out or more.  

Take Manny Harris. If you want to understand his effectiveness so far this year, the player you need to look at, strangely enough, is actually Tyler Hansbrough. Harris, like a certain player toiling in shameful anonymity in Chapel Hill, combines frequent trips to the line with deadly free throw accuracy. And in both cases that combination is cumulatively lethal to opposing defenses.

Or consider DeShawn Sims, he of the 28 points (on 16 shots) and 12 rebounds on Saturday. In any given minute of floor time he is actually more likely to shoot than even Harris, and he’s made 60 percent of his twos on the young season. Sims is also far and away his team’s best defensive rebounder. I for one am happy that Beilein finally saw fit to find space for the scrappy young lad in the starting lineup. (Seriously, what was that sixth-man thing all about?)

Now, do I harbor questions about how a team that still hasn’t convinced me it can hit threes consistently will implement Beilein’s three-happy system? Maybe. Is a nine-point win at home really any more revealing than a 15-point neutral-court loss just 15 days before to the same opponent? Perhaps not.

But surely no one who knows this program’s recent or even not-so-recent history would suggest that this is the moment to see this particular glass as half-empty. Keep in mind that for the balance if not the whole of the 2000s, “Michigan” has been synonymous with “Crisler Arena,” “lethargy,” “funereal,” “underlit,” “empty yellow seats,” “comically abundant turnovers,” and, of course, “no NCAA appearances.”

Suddenly it’s all ancient history. Michigan beat Duke on Saturday. For now, at least, the Wolverines’ cup runneth over.  

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