Analyzing the Final Stretch of the Big Ten Basketball Season (and see where each team will finish)

Updating Current Standings, Talking Underachievers (and see where each team will finish)

49 games left in the 108 game season

Now that every team has rounded the corner and is into the home stretch, I figured we would evaluate the conference landscape again.  And maybe alter the predictions a bit since we have more information about each team.  Following are the current Big Ten standings, along with the deviation each team has made from the results I predicted at the beginning of the season.

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The deviation isn’t calculated by total wins and losses compared to the final standings, but by wins and losses accrued compared to their expected total at this point of the season.  For example, the Iowa Hawkeyes have performed right in line with their expected results through their first 10 games (win% = 60%), not with their expected results through all 18 (66.7%).

As you can see, most of the teams want to be .500, as seven teams are separated by two wins!

For comparison, here were the starting predictions from the beginning of the season (click to embiggen n such).

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The overachievers so far this season fall into two categories.  The Michigan Wolverines are the lone “surprise” team to qualify as a conference contender, while the second category of “surprises” dragged any potential Big Ten bubble teams into NIT oblivion.  This bottom of the barrel category includes the Northwestern Wildcats and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who currently combine to be 6 games better than their expected records.

The underachievers are teams that had stellar tournament resumes in the non-conference portion of their schedules, yet couldn’t produce amidst the tight, suffocating Big Ten defenses – as Minnesota and Illinois are currently a combined 7 games below their expected records.  By struggling mightily out of the gate, each team blew their shot at a reasonable seed on the bubble and made their NIT championship aspirations clear.

For some reason, these two seemingly-perennially talented teams can’t put together a cohesive, mistake-free basketball team.  Only essentially winning out or winning the Big Ten tournament would get these teams in the field.  (Indiana would normally fall into this category as well, but concerns about their returning talent made this drop-off more foreseeable.)  The common thread connecting these struggling teams are their new head coaches.  The Illinois Fighting Illini are led for the second year by head coach and former Michigan-killer, John Groce.  You may remember him from such times as Michigan’s 2012 loss to Ohio in the round of 64.  Richard Pitino, son of Michigan-killer Rick Pitino, is the Minnesota Golden Gopher’s man at the helm for the first year.  His only prior head coaching experience is an 18-14 campaign for Florida International (maybe we should figure out the correlation between years head coaching at a school and the success of that school in the Big Ten).  I will talk more about these teams in a moment, after the expected final standings.

For clarity, the deviations from the expected results of each game so far leads to the following expected final standings.  The predictions of each game that give these final standings have not changed from the beginning of the year due to observation bias of each team.  I resisted the urge to come up with an alternate set of predictions to penalize struggling teams like Illinois and reward teams like Northwestern because I believe they will revert back to the mean somewhat over the rest of the season.  That means we get funky results like…. The Wisconsin Badgers continue to lose and Michigan doesn’t fall ball to Earth from the Blazing-Ball-Of-Winning it is currently riding.  Which, maybe it will happen? But maybe not. Anyway, I’m sticking with it and here are the adjusted final standings to be expected.

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Underachievers

Thus far, a couple teams have underperformed expectations, but not severely (the Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes).  They can make their way back into the championship race.  Other teams have imploded in the worst way possible, leaving no hope for the rest of the season (Minnesota and Illinois).

While Minnesota hasn’t brought in a Rivals 4-star recruit since Rodney Williams in 2009, every coach has to understand the necessity of high-level talent to compete for a championship – so there can be no sympathy for Richard Pitino there.  The obvious star-ranking disclaimer applies here: Trey Burke was rated lower than 140 other players in his class. Star-rankings are not infallible; they are just very, very, predictive..  So the lack of 4-star recruits isn’t alarming by itself.

However, Minnesota’s offense has been so lackluster that the talent-void is a problem.  They play at one of the slowest paces in the country, which allows them to miraculously lose games consecutively at Nebraska, to Northwestern, and at Purdue, while winning others at home against Ohio State and Wisconsin.  By itself, a team that plays at a slow tempo is not bad.  Positively, it can suggest that a team forces its defenders to work for the whole shot clock on a long, brutal, well-orchestrated possession.  However, with Minnesota’s 165th nationally ranked field goal percentage, it suggests Minnesota struggles to get open look chances for drivers and shooters.  Likewise, in the Big Ten, they commit the 9th most turnovers and 10th most fouls, a product of an undisciplined team.

On the other hand, Illinois has NO excuse for their less than inspiring performances in Big Ten play so far.  They have a balance of talented players in each class and a pair of senior leaders in guard Joseph Bertrand and three-point shooting forward Jon Ekey.  Their problems run so numerous it isn’t conducive to count them all here.  The most alarming statistic is their inability to create assists for each other, ranking dead last in the conference and 330th in the country in total assists.  They simultaneously can’t make three-pointers, ranking 275th in three-point field-goal percentage on offense, while allowing their opponents to make them at a 34.5% clip, good for 193rd in the country.  It’s an ugly combination.

Home Stretch

Amongst all the contenders, Michigan has the least favorable closing schedule.  In fact, only Illinois and the Purdue Boilermakers have a tougher remaining schedule in the whole conference.  This makes the Michigan’s final expected record incredibly tough to attain.

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For comparison’s sake, Ohio State essentially has the advantage of playing the #62 team in the country eight times instead of playing the #42 team in the country eight times.  That is the difference between St. Bonaventure/Colorado/Stephen F. Austin (#61,#62,#63) and Kansas State/St. John’s/Xavier (#41,#42,#43).  What slate looks easier?

In breaking down the final stretch of games for the two frontrunners, Michigan and Michigan State, the Michigan State Spartans have the clear advantage.  While no games in the Big Ten season are considered “gimmes,” MSU has a few games that would qualify as the equivalent of a four-foot tap-in putt, as their home slate eases up considerably.  Following is the schedule for each team’s final home and away games, ordered from top to bottom by toughness.

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Michigan State has three home games left against lower-tier teams where they should hold home-court easily, whereas Michigan only has two.  On the road however, the Spartans have a tough slate filled with dangerous teams, including their return leg to Ann Arbor.

In order to not lose ground, both teams will need to win on the road against Purdue.  A similar situation occurs as they both have to play in Columbus against Ohio State.  OSU will be anxious to make up ground in the conference race against Michigan and may be fighting for a piece of the conference title against MSU on the last day of the season.  Besides the rematch in Ann Arbor between UM and MSU, the away games against OSU will be either Michigan team’s best chance to take an inherent advantage in the race and register a W instead of an L.

Finally, common games in opposite barns (home/away) against Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois will be the coin flip to decide who deserves the title.

Whereas….

Michigan has Wisconsin at home and Iowa and Illinois on the road

Michigan State has Wisconsin on the road and Iowa and Illinois at home.

(Substituting Indiana for Northwestern at home looks like a disadvantage, but it isn’t – Northwestern has actually done better on the road in conference!)

That makes three toss-ups for Michigan and only two for MSU (playing Illinois at home no longer counts as a tough game).  Unfortunately, Michigan could stumble their way across the gate with five or six more losses if nothing goes well, whereas MSU can really only suffer a maximum of four more.

The only sure thing left about the season is that whoever wins the rematch between the two teams in Ann Arbor will have their nose just about crossing the finish line first.

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