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Big Ten Recap: Indiana Sets the Pace
Nebraska speeds things up and what to make of Michigan’s odd week
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We didn’t get all of the Big Ten games that were scheduled in the past week due to COVID, but the ones we got - a top-10 battle between Indiana and Maryland and Nebraska’s blowout win over Michigan - held some intriguing lessons for the conference heading into the heart of the calendar.
Let’s start with what might have been a preview of the conference championship game: Indiana’s 70-63 overtime win against Maryland. This game was mostly played on Indiana’s terms, and the stats show it:
Indiana held Maryland to six assists on 21 baskets and forced 19 turnovers. The Terps’ assist-to-turnover ratio for the game of 0.32 was the third-lowest since the 2009-10 season and the lowest in more than 10 years.
The Hoosiers’ effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 48.2% was a little off their season rate of 51.3%, but their defense more than made up for it, holding Maryland to an eFG% of 38.8%. In all four of Maryland’s losses this season, they have scored less than 70 points and had an eFG of less than 40%.
Maryland did not make a three-point shot in the first half and made just three in the contest, tying a season low (this from a team that ranked 12th in three-pointers made last season).
Some of Indiana’s stats aren’t the most impressive: the Hoosiers generate about six steals a game, ranking them 301st out of 356 teams, and they don’t block a ton of shots, either. They don’t take a lot of three-pointers, but they make a decent percentage of the ones they do. What they have is an offense built around veteran leaders and a steady if unspectacular defense that helps control the tempo. They’re not Maryland or Iowa, but they don’t need to be. A year ago, Indiana attempted 78 shots in a tight loss to Maryland. This week they won in OT while taking 57.
Maryland gets a rematch with IU at home and players like Ashley Owusu and Mimi Collins had uncharacteristically poor performances in an otherwise close game. But if Texas showed last season how to throttle the “All Gas, No Brakes” Maryland offense with stifling defense and a deliberate offense, other teams have been paying attention.
Less Gas, More Brakes?
Thanks to its stronger pre-conference schedule and a depleted bench early on, Maryland’s get-out-and-run offense has had to adjust this season. The Terps are one of two Big Ten teams that have seen a significant decrease in the number of possessions per 40 minutes compared to last season, dropping nearly two possessions a game. Wisconsin has seen the largest drop, more than six possessions a game, but that team also has a new coach, whereas Maryland’s roster (players and coaches) are mostly unchanged.
Nebraska and Iowa, meanwhile, have turned on the gas this season. The Cornhuskers’ current average of 73.9 possessions per 40 minutes would be their highest during the time Her Hoop Stats has been tracking (since 2009-10) if it held up, and Nebraska is the nation’s 7th-ranked scoring team. Last season they ranked 94th.
In a conference where the top teams generally don’t get a lot of minutes from the bench, Nebraska has 11 players who average at least 10 minutes a game. That bench is young, but players like freshman Alexis Markowski have shown a willingness to play the physical brand of defense. Markowski is the team’s leading offensive rebounder, too.
A lot of those bench minutes have come in a schedule that so far has hardly equaled Maryland’s or Indiana’s, but a convincing 21-point win at home over Michigan on Tuesday is an eye-opener. At 13-1, with a 72-69 loss to Michigan State hampered by poor shooting the lone blemish, the Huskers will get some clarity on where they stand over the next 10 days: they host Iowa and then visit Indiana and Iowa.
Speaking of Iowa, the Hawkeyes’ jump in possessions per 40 minutes might be a surprise, considering how fast they played last year, and it wouldn’t be a shocker to see that figure fall a bit during conference play, as teams try to slow them down. A weak Evansville team playing its second game in as many days as a replacement for Illinois didn’t provide much of a test for the Hawkeyes, as Caitlin Clark made 16 of 19 shots inside the arc on the way to a season-high 44 points.
Any team with Clark is going to take a lot of shots, and quickly, but what jumps out is Gabbie Marshall’s evolving specialist offensive role: she has drastically cut the number of two-point attempts (just 13 through 10 games) and her three-point rate is above 70%. She is one of eight players who has started at least 10 games that has both a 70%+ three-point rate and is making at least 40% of those shots.
We mentioned Michigan up above in the context of their loss to Nebraska, but before that L, they picked up the rivalry win in convincing fashion, 90-71, over Ohio State. Those two games back-to-back make for quite the confusing dichotomy for anyone trying to get a read on the Wolverines. Michigan’s best category thus far this season has been their total rebounding rate, where the Wolverines’ 57.4% mark is ninth-best nationally. In the Ohio State game, Michigan cleared it by 6.6%. In the Nebraska loss, they missed it by 12.7%.
It seemed like Michigan was just out of sorts across the board in the loss to the Huskers. We did note two specific things that may have contributed, one of which would’ve looked like a bright spot on paper: Amy Dilk made her first appearance since getting hurt in the first minute of this season. It also seemed like former Husker Leigha Brown (who did not play in the last game against Nebraska due to COVID) was pressing a little in her return to Lincoln, finishing five full PPG below her 176th-ranked (out of 3,260 eligible players) average. That said, not every game will be against Brown’s former team, and Dilk will hopefully round back into form. The question is, can they, and the rest of the Wolverines, take the lessons from both these games, but especially the Nebraska loss, and figure them out in time for their next big test, January 16 in College Park?
Rusty or Polished?
Two Big Ten teams have had unfortunately extended Winter breaks, as Penn State hasn’t played since December 18, and Northwestern since the 17th. The question for both teams will be whether they’re rusty from not having faced a squad that doesn’t know their plays, or will be extra-cohesive from having so much time to run their sets.
Both the Wildcats and the Nittany Lions were rolling before their breaks, on four and three-game win streaks, respectively. We will find out really quickly whether those breaks were good or bad for the two teams, as they both have big road tests next up on the schedule. Northwestern heads to Carver-Hawkeye to take on Iowa, while Penn State is at Xfinity to take on Maryland.
Games To Watch
Iowa at Nebraska (Sunday, Jan. 9)
HHS Prediction: Nebraska 79 - Iowa 75 (Nebraska with a 61% chance to win)
The Her Hoop Stats model gives Nebraska a slight edge in this one, and the Hawkeyes have had a few of their recent games canceled due to COVID issues, so rust could be a factor.
Ohio State at Northwestern (Sunday, Jan. 9)
HHS Prediction: Ohio State 71 - Northwestern 69 (Ohio State with a 58% chance to win)
The Buckeyes need a reset after a big loss to Michigan, and should get it on Jan. 6 against Illinois. But a visit to Evanston could be a little bit of a trap game if Northwestern can slow down the three-point barrage that is Ohio State’s offense.