Big Ten Battles

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

OHIO STATE TRIES TO BOUNCE BACK FROM PURDUE LOSS VS. ILLINOIS

The challenges continue for Ohio State, who's seen a sudden decline in defense lead to a pair of recent losses on the Big 10. After losing Sunday afternoon to Purdue by 13 points on national TV, the Buckeyes hope to bounce back tonight on ESPN when they host Illinois.

With the Big 10 being a big story this past weekend (Michigan State hosted the ESPN "GameDay" crew when they played Illinois Saturday in prime time), and continuing to be a big story from this point forward, this seemed like the perfect day to get everyone caught up with our key indicator stats. Last week we looked at all the mid majors (as well as the Pac 10). We'll finish off the majors over the course of the next several days.

Here are the Big 10 margin averages through Sunday's action. Everyone's played 14-15 games now against extremely similar schedules. So, these can be used as virtual Power Ratings because they express the point differences between teams in a confined space. You might be surprised at how things shake out up top...

BIG 10 MARGIN AVERAGES
Purdue: +7.9
Wisconsin: +7.3
Ohio State: +7.1
Illinois: +3.1
Minnesota: -0.1
Penn State: -0.9
Michigan State: -2.9
Michigan: -3.2
Northwestern: -4.5
Indiana: -4.8
Iowa: -7.2

Yes, Ohio State has fallen to third in this stat despite having just two losses. They've played more nailbiters than the other contenders, and then lost on the road to both Purdue and Wisconsin as well. Very little separates the "big three" right now, suggesting an exciting Big 10 tournament if the powers can avoid upsets. Of course, that tournament is famous for the powers being unable to avoid upsets!

Michigan State has fallen down to 7th place, which is a bit odd because ESPN's Bracketology has them in the Big Dance right now as the fifth best team. We have respect for how well Tom Izzo's teams have closed the season in prior years. Let's MAKE them do that before considering them as a top team!

We'll get to the full Bracketology in a second. Here's how Big Ten teams rank in the critical area of two-point defense. Once again, Ohio State will surprise you. They were a disappointment the last time we looked, and that evidence foreshadowed subsequent road troubles.

BIG TEN TWO-POINT DEFENSE
Minnesota: 43%
Purdue: 45%
Wisconsin: 45%
Illinois: 45%
Michigan State: 45%
Indiana: 46%
Penn State: 47%
Ohio State: 48%
Michigan: 50%
Iowa: 50%
Northwestern: 52%

Wow, 48% for the Buckeyes! It's actually 47.5% but we rounded up. That's way off the pace of what you expect from champions. And, it's the biggest strike against the Buckeyes in terms of the postseason. Can they string together neutral court wins with a defense that's softer than most other competitors inside the arc? They underachieved last year, and could well do it again based on the proven predictive history of this key stat.

Minnesota plays the best defense in the Big 10, but doesn't have enough offense to put them over the top as a real contender. Just below Minnesota are real contenders in Purdue and Wisconsin. Heck, EVERYONE who matters is at 45% outside of Minnesota and Ohio State. The top five above and the Buckeyes represent the six teams currently slated to make the Dance according to ESPN's Bracketology.

BRACKETOLOGY
Ohio State: projected #1 seed
Purdue: projected #2 seed
Wisconsin: projected #3 seed
Illinois: projected #8 seed
Michigan State: projected #11 seed
Minnesota: projected #12 seed

Oddly, Minnesota is not listed as one of the "last four in" as we go to press, even though two teams who are #11 seeds are listed there. Let's assume they're one of the last five in, and sitting on the right side of the bubble at the moment. Michigan State has a decent early resume, but then fell off the map for a few weeks. It's possible that they can stumble out of the Dance too...though they are playing better the past few days.

Should Ohio State really be a #1 seed? Let's crunch the numbers from their Sunday loss at Purdue for some insights into their potential vulnerability...

PURDUE 76, OHIO STATE 63
Shooting Percentage: Ohio State 38%, Purdue 51%
Three-Pointers: Ohio State 4/15, Purdue 7/20
Free Throws: Ohio State 23/29, Purdue 13/18
Rebounds: Ohio State 29, Purdue 27
Turnovers: Ohio State 18, Purdue 14
Phantom Score: Ohio State 57, Purdue 69
Vegas Line: Pick-em, total of 139
Notebook: You can see that two-point defense was a huge problem. Purdue only shot 35% on treys, but was at 51% for the game. The Buckeyes also showed weakness in the turnover category, losing the ball 18 times. Yes, this was a road game against a high quality team. Still, under pressure, Ohio State could only shoot 38% while giving the ball away 18 times. Awful! Combine that with a poor two-point defense, and you get a double digit loss. The Buckeyes are definitely better than they showed here, but have yet to prove their so good that something like this can't happen again away from their home floor against a top contender.

For you newcomers, Phantom Score is a secondary stat we developed several years ago. It's simply two-point scoring plus rebounding. It often confirms the final score. When there's disagreement, it's the Phantom Score that typically has better predictive value down the road. Here, it confirmed the final score.

Ohio State at least knows what it needs to emphasize as they host Illinois tonight on ESPN. Let's see what happened when Illinois visited Michigan State this past Saturday Night...

MICHIGAN STATE 61, ILLINOIS 57
Shooting Percentage: Illinois 37%, Michigan State 42%
Three-Pointers: Illinois 5/19, Michigan State 3/15
Free Throws: Illinois 8/10, Michigan State 16/23
Rebounds: Illinois 25, Michigan State 37
Turnovers: Illinois 9, Michigan State 11
Phantom Score: Illinois 59, Michigan State 73
Vegas Line: Michigan State by 4, total of 135
Notebook: An ugly, defensive game. It was neck and neck much of the second half, with Michigan State getting the job done in the final moments. Note that Phantom Score was much more one-sided in favor of the hosts. The Spartans won rebounding handily. Had they been able to make a normal percentage of treys, it would have been a much more comfortable win.

So, we at least see the potential for Michigan State to keep improving. Illinois is falling off the pace when you look at the most important indicator numbers. Also of note, that was the SEVENTH loss in Big 10 play for the Illini. They've lost close ones on the road to Northwestern, Penn State, and Indiana, in addition to the failure in East Lansing. That's not an 8th seed in our book. We may learn in a few weeks that Illinois was more like a 12th seed, while Minnesota and Michigan State were more like NIT teams.

Maybe Illinois will change our minds about that tonight.

This week's Big 10 schedule...

TONIGHT
Illinois at Ohio State on ESPN
Michigan State at Minnesota (nice test for both)

WEDNESDAY
Wisconsin at Michigan (tester for Wiscy)
Purdue at Indiana

THURSDAY
Penn State at Northwestern

SATURDAY
Michigan at Minnesota
Iowa at Illinois

SUNDAY
Indiana at Ohio State
Purdue at Michigan State (Big one)
Northwestern at Wisconsin

Note that both Indiana/Ohio State and Purdue/Michigan State have been time/changed from Saturday tipoffs to Sunday for those of you using popular rotation schedules.

Big week for the Big 10. And, we certainly expect at least one Big 10 school to play a huge role in the Big Dance. Somebody's likely to sneak through (as Michigan State did last year, all the way to the Final Four). There will be some disappointments too.

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