Monday, January 30, 2012

Big Ten: Midseason Report

At the de facto halfway point of the Big Ten season, things are, surprisingly, holding fairly close to preseason prognostications. Ohio State leads the conference by a ½ game over Michigan State. Wisconsin and Michigan are a game back while Purdue is two games out of the conference lead. The teams in the sixth, seventh and eighth range are teams Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota - that were projected to be in this position before the season. Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State, as expected, are playing for pride and the desire not to be the first team in conference history to finish in 12th place.

MAJOR SURPRISE: Michigan State. Losing seniors Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers was supposed to almost immobilize MSU’s offense, forcing Tom Izzo to rely solely on his defense in this “rebuilding” season. Much to Izzo’s excitement, this might be one of MSU’s best offensive teams in recent memory. The Spartans currently rank 9th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (116.2) but have backed that number with superb defense (86.3, which ranks 6th). On the fringe of the Top 25 to start the season, the Spartans have quietly moved into the Top 10 with big-time road wins (Gonzaga and Wisconsin) while playing ACC thoroughbreds North Carolina and Duke close in back-to-back losses to open the season.

MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENT: Northwestern. Let’s be clear on this point: This writer has never fallen for the “This is Northwestern’s year” talk. The Wildcats are good enough to get 20 wins but aren’t good enough to sustain 18 Big Ten games each season. Yes, the Wildcats will beat good teams (see a January 14th win against Michigan State). However, over the course of the season, Northwestern’s flash-in-the-pan success equates to a NIT team. I’ll call Northwestern a disappointment because a 2-6 conference record was not the start anyone envisioned. Northwestern lost home games to Illinois and Purdue by a combined three points. Those are the games that, in the end, will likely keep the Wildcats from making the NCAA Tournament. The second half of the slate is more favorable with home games against Nebraska and Minnesota, two games against Iowa and a revenge home game against Michigan (Northwestern blew a late lead and lost by two in OT at Michigan in early January).

BRACKETOGRAPHY: I'll have a weekly bracket released each Friday. In my first edition of Bracketography 2012, released this past Friday, eight Big Ten teams made the field. Ohio State (No. 2) headlined the group with Michigan State (No. 3) right behind. Indiana (No. 4) and Wisconsin (No. 4) were also protected seeds. Michigan (No. 5) was the best fifth seed and finished off the conference's teams favored to win at least one game in the tournament. Illinois (No. 9) is the only other Big Ten team "safely" in the field. Purdue (No. 12) and Minnesota (No. 13 and slotted in a "First Four"game) are both in precarious territory. It's safe to say both teams will either play their respective ways in or out of the final bracket.

The biggest thing to take away from the bracket is, at the current moment, the Big Ten is sending eight of its 12 teams to the NCAA Tournament with Northwestern squarely on the bubble as a possible ninth. That equates to 2/3 of the conference playing in the Big Dance. Percentage-wise, that would be on par with the Big East's 11/16 teams in last year's Field of 68.

Below is a snapshot at where Big Ten teams stack in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. Per Mr. Pomeroy himself, expect Ohio State to stay No. 1 for the rest of the season, barring a complete collapse. The same can be expected for Wisconsin to stay in the Top 5. Michigan State has been a steady Top 10 team for the past six weeks while Indiana is actually sliding down due to its horrendous defense.

THE WEEK THAT WAS: There wasn’t a “shocker” in last week’s Big Ten games, but there were a few games that note special attention. While other conferences saw heavyweights falter (Iowa State over Kansas and Colorado State over San Diego State were the biggest two shockers), the Big Ten stayed pretty true to form.

Michigan 66, Purdue 64: Mackey Arena used to be a place no one could win in. The Boilermakers are completely reversing that trend this season. Michigan controlled most of the game and while it was always close, it was Purdue who needed to hit big shots to get back in the game. For a team who had won just one road game all season (at Oakland), this was a huge win for Michigan and another puzzling loss for Purdue.

Wisconsin 57, Indiana 50: The Badgers were favored in this game so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Wisconsin held serve at the Kohl Center. However, Indiana will look at this game as one that got away. Wisconsin wasn’t hitting its threes but Indiana kept the Badgers in the game with thoughtless turnovers. This game was the perfect example of two teams heading in opposite directions.

Minnesota 77, Illinois 72 (OT): At the Barn, Minnesota needed a last-second layup plus an inexcusable foul by Illinois to send the game into overtime. There, Minnesota took control and stole a victory against the Jeckyl and Hyde Illini. This was a game between two teams that are destined, if either makes the NCAA Tournament, to be in that 10-, 11-, or 12-seed range; Both teams have hot and cold spells, making both squads completely average.

Ohio State 64, Michigan 49: The one thing people should take out of this game is how Ohio State can win at any pace. Even when Jared Sullinger is negated (and, for the sake of this argument, we’ll call 13 points – more than 20 percent of his team’s production – being negated), Ohio State can still win fairly easily. Yes, the game was a battle for the most part. Nevertheless, even when Michigan jumped out to a 5-0 lead, did anyone really think Michigan was going to win? Don’t read too much into this game for the Wolverines as Michigan will be a tournament team capable of a deep run because of solid outside shooting and tactically annoying-but-effective zone defenses. For the Buckeyes, just know this game shows Ohio State can win a game scoring 80 or can win a game that’s played in the 40s or 50s.

THE WEEK AHEAD: Expect the Big Ten to really take form this week. There are five games worth watching this week and I would expect all of them to be great. The outcomes will likely partition the Big Ten into four groups: Title contenders, Playing for NCAA seeds, Bubblicious, and NIT or bust.

Tuesday, 1/31: Michigan State @ Illinois – I told a friend this will be an ugly, 63-60 game (if the offensive Gods have a heart) between two teams known for defense. Michigan State has already shown the ability to win on the road, but for the Spartans to be considered an Elite Eight or Final Four team, this is the kind of road game that should be a small speed bump, not a difficult hurdle.

Wednesday, 2/1: Indiana @ Michigan – Most people say the Hoosiers have to prove one thing: They are a team that can win on the road. I say that’s item 1B. Indiana’s biggest problem is defense and its inability to stop people. Much is being made that Indiana topped 100 points in a 103-89 victory against Iowa on Sunday. But Indiana gave up nearly 90 points to a below-average Iowa team, allowing the Hawkeyes to make 19 of 24 field goals in the second half. That is more alarming than not winning on the road because porous defense follows a team wherever it plays. That should be the biggest talking point in this game.

Saturday, 2/4: Ohio State @ Wisconsin – Ohio State has already lost two conference road games (at Indiana and at Illinois). This should be the toughest test to date and arguably the toughest for the rest of the season. (NOTE: Ohio State finishes conference play with a road game at Michigan State. Interestingly enough, that is MSU’s senior day which also coincides with Draymond Green’s – MSU’s senior Mr. Everything's – birthday). If the Buckeyes want to be considered serious threats to win the championship, dictating the style of play in this game is huge. Wisconsin will want to play slow but Ohio State will need to exert its will and use its athleticism to play a game in the 70s.

Saturday, 2/4: Indiana @ Purdue – If Indiana is to get a huge road victory, this might be the place. Mackey Arena will be jacked up for the state battle and Purdue has slowly drifted toward the wrong side of the bubble in recent weeks. Expect a great game that, unfortunately, one team will have to lose.

Sunday, 2/5: Michigan @ Michigan State – The Wolverines have beaten MSU three straight games. That hadn’t happened since 1998. After playing poorly for most of the previous meeting and gagging away a chance to win, Michigan State has more than revenge on its mind. MSU was out-toughed in the final 4:07 in the first meeting, a 60-59 Michigan victory. In the final 4:07, Michigan State held the ball for 3:27 to Michigan’s 40 seconds. It was Michigan, however, that scored three baskets in that span while Michigan State’s only two points came on free throws. Expect that to change as MSU keeps its hopes for a Big Ten Championship alive.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where will Murray State be seeded?

No one knows if Murray State, currently 21-0, will finish the regular season undefeated. But, as the nation's only unblemished team left, people are trying to predict the possibility of that happening.

Percentages range from 30-45 percent, depending on who you ask and depending on Murray State's opponent in BracketBusters.

Regardless, the real question isn't whether the Racers can finish the regular season 29-0 before the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. Rather, how high Murray State can be seeded in the NCAA Tournament is the real stumper.

The general consensus is an undefeated Murray State (which would finish 31-0 by winning the OVC tournament) has a ceiling of a No. 3 seed. Many bracketologists believe, as other power conference tournaments unfold, that a perfect Murray State would be a No. 4 seed. That, while some might find insulting, would still give the Racers a preferential site for its first two games (likely in Nashville where it would have a huge following).

Nevertheless, there is no fun in that type of predicting. What happens if Murray State loses a game or two?

A 29-2 Murray State team would be much more intriguing in terms of its seeding.

The best comparison would likely be the 2005-06 George Washington Colonials. That year, GW finished the regular season 26-1 before a first-round loss in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Due to a weak nonconference schedule (323rd in the country), a 26-2 George Washington team was "rewarded" with a No. 8 seed and a second round contest against Duke, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

Using Ken Pomeroy's rankings, the teams are eerily similar. (See table below with Murray State's stats updated through Friday, Jan. 27)

The only difference - and it's a big difference - is that Murray State played a pretty tough nonconference schedule. That number likely will only look better with its BracketBuster game. However, all other numbers - the Pythagorian rating, offensive and defensive efficiencies and overall strength of schedules - are pretty similar.

The A-10 was a 2-bid league that season, mostly because George Washington's loss allowed Xavier to steal the conference's auto-bid and a No. 14 seed.

The OVC is a 1-bid league, unless a similar situation happens with Murray State in the conference tournament.

All this leads me to believe if Murray State stumbles once, a No. 6 seed seems more likely. However, two losses, especially if one would be deemed a "bad loss," would almost assuredly drop the Racers into the dreaded 8/9 game.

What really makes this Murray State discussion unique is while George Washington was 26-1 entering the A-10 Tournament, the Colonials had lost their ninth game of the year. Thus, despite following the 8-1 start with 16-straight victories, George Washington never garnered the national attention Murray State has received as the nation's last unbeaten squad.

As the table above shows, every time the last undefeated team made the NCAA Tournament it was seeded No. 4 or better. Granted, all those teams except St. Joe's and Memphis were BCS-conference teams and, in those respective years, both St. Joe's (13th) and Memphis (3rd) started the year in the national spotlight.

It would be shocking of Murray State didn't receive an at-large bid if it somehow loses in the OVC Tournament. Barring some crazy collapse, the Racers will be dancing. However, the question remains: With what seed will the Racers be dancing?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bracketography: Kentucky, Kansas, 'Cuse & Duke No. 1s


In the first installment of Bracketography 2012, four marquee programs join forces on the top line. Kentucky is undoubtedly the top seed while a small valley separates the Wildcats from the rest of the field. Kansas, on the strength of its wins and overall schedule, gets the nod over Syracuse for the second top seed while Duke's resume allowed it to secure the final spot on the top line.

*As per most bracket projections, this would be my projected field if the season ended today. Boy am I happy that isn't the case. The final 8-10 teams have garbage resumes at this point but the committee needs to find 68 teams, right?

An interesting trend that you'll notice in my projections and others such as Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi: More and more mid-majors are being rewarded with higher seeds (see Murray State as a No. 8, Harvard as a No. 9 and Long Beach State as a No. 11). What does that mean? For starters, it means more and more major conference teams - the ones who finish near .500 in their respective conferences but have registered at least a few good wins - are grabbing those 12 and, believe it or not, 13 seeds. Look at the teams in the "First Four" games: Minnesota vs. Arizona and Iowa State vs. North Carolina State. Those teams are 13 seeds because, regardless of conference affiliation, their resumes are worse than likely conference winners from much smaller leagues.

Don't expect the bracket to change much in that respect. The "First Four" games featuring the final four at-large selections will be either 12 or 13 seeds. Any projection that pits a "play-in" matchup on the No. 11 line is out of touch with reality.

Speaking of reality, one of the greatest things about bracketology is we spend hours debating the last four teams in and out in these fictitious brackets with the understanding that, when March 11 rolls around, the bottom 6-8 teams listed here won't make the field because of auto-bid stealers. So, if you're a fan of at-large teams on those 11-12-13 lines, you should be praying your squad plays itself into the field because other teams will do just that.

LAST 4 TEAMS IN: Minnesota, N.C. State, Iowa State, Arizona

LAST 10 TEAMS OUT: Texas, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Stanford, Oregon, New Mexico State, Northern Iowa, Colorado State, Mississippi, Central Florida.

The S-Curve: 1s-Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Duke; 2s- North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio State, Baylor; 3s-Michigan State, G’Town, UNLV, WVU; 4s-Marquette, San Diego St., Indiana, Wisconsin; 5s-Vanderbilt, Gonzaga, Michigan, St. Mary’s; 6s-Creighton, UConn, Florida St., Florida; 7s-Wichita St., Kansas St., Seton Hall, Miss St.; 8s-Temple, Xavier, Murray State, New Mexico; 9s- Dayton, Alabama, Illinois, Harvard; 10s-St. Louis, Virginia, California, Memphis; 11s- BYU, Long Beach St., L’Ville, Cleveland St.; 12s- Cincinnati, Marshall, Iona, Purdue; 13s-So.Miss, Minnesota, NC State, Iowa State, Arizona...

Defensive Score Sheet: Michigan State vs. Purdue & Minnesota

This week's Project Defensive Score Sheet takes a look at a pair of Michigan State victories: An 83-58 win against Purdue this past weekend and a 68-52 triumph vs. Minnesota. Again, if you're into a traditional box score then this isn't the place for you. This breakdown will evaluate each MSU player's defense against the Boilermakers and Golden Gophers, respectively.

Despite the excuse Purdue had a "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" kind of trip to East Lansing and the fact Minnesota has been without its best player all season, exceptional defense was the key to the pair of emphatic blowout victories.

A QUICK REVIEW
The first step is to collect data. Reviewing game film has been made much easier thanks to ESPN3 and DVR technology.

Typical box scores focus on offensive highlights because, frankly, that's what most people care about. However, outside of blocks and steals, no defensive assertions can be made with fact-based evidence. Sure, you could assume that if Team A's point guard had a terrible shooting game that Team B's point guard did a nice job on defense. That might be true, but it ignores switches on screens, traps and the fact Team A's point guard might have just missed some easy shots.

For a thorough review of the process itself, you can check out this previous post which chronicled Michigan State's first five conference games of the 2011-12 season. You could also browse David Hess' Audacity of Hoops page as he kick started the project.

MICHIGAN STATE VS. PURDUE (1.21.12)


MICHIGAN STATE VS. MINNESOTA (1.25.12)



Defensive Charting Definitions

These numbers come from four sources.

Taken from the traditional box score:

  • Min – Minutes played
  • DREB – Defensive REBounds

Tracked directly by the charter:

  • FM – Forced field goal Miss – when a defender forces an offensive player to miss a shot from the field. Oliver separates FM from Blocks, but we’ve lumped them together here.
  • FTO – Forced TurnOver – when a defender forces an offensive player to turn the ball over. Again, Oliver separates out Steals, but we’ve combined them. One thing to note here is that a player who draws an offensive foul is always credited with a FTO, even if it’s just a moving screen.
  • FFTA – Forced missed Free Throw Attempt – missed foul shots resulting from a defender’s foul
  • DFGM – allowed Defensive Field Goal Made – when a defender’s error or poor play leads to an offensive player scoring a field goal (intentional fouls at end of game excluded)
  • DFTM – allowed Free Throw Made – made free throws resulting from a defender’s foul (intentional fouls at end of game excluded)

Calculated Tallies:

  • Stops – the credit a defensive player gets for actions that contributed to ending an opponent possession. This isn’t as simple as adding FM + FTO + 0.4*FFTA, because the credit for a missed shot has to be shared with the defensive player who rebounds it. The formula is more complex than you might think, and includes a sliding weight for FM vs. DREB, based on how difficult those actions seem to be in each particular game. For full details, see Appendix 3 of Basketball On Paper.
  • ScPos – Scoring Possessions allowed by a player. This is essentially just DFGM plus a FT-related factor. Again, see Basketball On Paper for the full formula.
  • DPoss – [Stops + ScPos] – total Defensive Possessions that were credited to (or blamed on) a player.

Calculated Metrics:

  • Stop% – Stop Percentage — [Stops/DPoss] – the fraction of an individual player’s credited defensive possessions that ended with zero points. Essentially the inverse of offensive Floor%.
  • %DPoss – Defensive Possession Percentage — [(Min/40)*DPoss/TeamDefensivePossessions] (for a non-OT game) – the percentage of team defensive possessions faced by an individual defender. Analogous to %Poss on offense.
  • DRtg — Defensive Rating – [(1–%DPoss)*TeamDRtg + %DPoss*(100*TeamDefPtsPerScPoss*(1-Stop%))] – individual Defensive Rating. Gives a player credit for stops and scoring possessions he was directly involved in, then assumes a nebulous team-average performance in the other possessions. This is the analog of offensive rating.
Takeaways from both MSU victories (MSU 83, Purdue 58 & MSU 68, Minnesota 52)

1. Draymond Green should get more than just token consideration for First-Team All America. While the Spartans were dominant as a team in both games, Green was outstanding. He was 13.5 points better against Purdue and 10.6 points better against Minnesota compared to the team average. A mere five-point difference is noteworthy; Green's performance in both games is to defense what Oscar Robertson was to offense.

2. It probably isn't a coincidence that when the trio of Green, Adrian Payne and Branden Dawson have great games the Spartans win fairly easily. Green not only plays solid man-to-man defense but also dominates the glass nightly. Payne is a shot blocker and shot-alterer type. When he's engaged in the game (not always the case), he controls the paint as he did against both the Boilermakers and Golden Gophers. Dawson didn't allow a made field goal in both games. Digest that for a minute: Dawson played a combined 46 minutes and not once allowed a player to score on him. He did commit a foul which resulted in Minnesota's Joe Coleman splitting a pair of free throws. it's been said that Dawson could guard a man on an island and it is becoming more apparent exactly how true that is. Against Minnesota, Dawson blocked four shots and played do well many might have mistaken him for Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. Athletically, Dawson is a freak; when he's such a menace on the defensive end it is a nightmare for opponents.

3. Derrick Nix's defense isn't that important. This isn't to say Nix is irrelevant on the defensive end, just that he's very susceptible to a player driving by him. In one instance against Minnesota, Ralph Sampson was fed the ball and immediately spun toward the baseline for a reverse layup before Nix could move. What Nix has improved is his ability to body a guy up and help clean up the glass. If Nix forces players like Sampson to shoot the mid-range jumper by sagging off, both he and MSU will be better for it.

4. Brandan Kearney is vastly underrated. Kearney plays anywhere from 8-15 minutes a game in MSU's deep rotation. As a freshman, he is really the team's third-string point guard but has given valuable blows to Keith Appling and Travis Trice throughout the season. Defensively, he's improving daily. His 6-foot-5 frame makes him a tough matchup for smaller guards and it showed against Purdue's quick-but-undersized Lewis Jackson. In nine minutes against Minnesota he was used on more than 43 percent of defensive possessions and held his own like a true defensive stopper.

5. Travis Trice is a defensive liability. The Purdue game is pretty typical of Trice's performances this season. He plays defense with his hands and lacks the quickness to stay with faster guards. If Izzo can get productive backup point guard minutes from Kearney, Trice might find himself on the bench more than he expected. He'll play if healthy (he didn't play against Minnesota with a hip injury), but he might play closer to 6-8 minutes a game rather than the 15 he was recording earlier in the season.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Prince Fielder will be Detroit's new 'Big Daddy'


Should we call him "Little Daddy?"

With the shocking news that Prince Fielder signed a 9-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, many Detroiters are pondering that question with hundreds of others.

Granted, Prince's nickname is far down the list that includes questions like the following:

"Who will play 1st base this season? Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder?"

"When Victor Martinez comes back to DH, does that mean Cabrera will have to play 3rd?"

"Are the Tigers becoming the New York Yankees of the Midwest?"

"Does this make the Tigers the best team in the American League?"

"Detroit owner Mike Ilitch is going all-in to win a World Series. Will this do the trick?"

There hasn't been this much buzz in Detroit since the 2006 World Series. Most of that can be attributed to the Tigers showing they're willing to open the checkbook to compete financially with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world.

When Martinez suffered a freak ACL tear a couple weeks ago, it was doom and gloom. Detroit needed to find a replacement for arguably one of the best switch hitters in the game and someone who could protect Cabrera in the lineup if it wanted to keep its hold as the team to beat in the AL Central.

Fielder was always a "never going to happen" move because he wanted a long-term deal and, with the current roster, the Tigers likely couldn't offer more than a 1-year contract.

I had been clamoring for Detroit to offer Fielder a 1-year deal worth anywhere from $20-$30 million because, the peacemaker that I am knew it would have been a win-win for both sides: Fielder gets a big pay day and then, when the Tigers don't need his services for V-Mart anymore, it would allow him to hit the free agent market when teams like the Dodgers could pony up $200-plus million.

I supposed Ilitch, 82, desperately wants to win a World Series in his lifetime. That desire made him feel more than comfortable to offer Fielder a 9-year deal with an annual salary of $23.77 million.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?
Now, "Little Daddy" will man the position his father, Cecil Fielder, played for the Tigers from 1990-96.

It was Cecil "Big Daddy" Fielder, however, that was the main reason most speculated Prince would never come to Detroit.

Due to his Cecil's gambling problems, money issues became the root of his parents getting divorced. The $47 million Cecil earned in his playing days evaporated. Most of it disappeared in casinos while other millions were lost in bad investments.

The situation finally erupted when Cecil took $200,000 of Prince's MLB signing bonus.

The father and son weren't on speaking terms for years. While time has healed some wounds and Cecil and Prince have spoken recently, the wounds aren't those that can be covered by a band-aid; we're talking about knife wounds resembling that of a stabbing victim.

Maybe coming to Detroit is a major way to begin the healing process.

BRONX BOMBERS, MEET THE MOTOWN MASHERS?
Now the fun begins for Tigers Manager Jim Leyland and his lineup.

Leyland was maligned much of last season, more so in the early part of the season when the many thought the Tigers should have been running away with the AL Central rather than flirting with the .500 mark.

Some of the criticism was unjustified as Leyland dealt with injuries to Magglio Ordonez and Brennan Boesch. However, Leyland's refusal to move Cabrera out of the 4-hole when a top third of the lineup featuring Austin Jackson, Ryan Raburn and Ordonez continually went out 1-2-3 in the first inning was just one of the decisions irking Tigers fans.

Worse, when Ordonez needed a rest, Leyland would plug Don Kelly in the 3-hole instead of moving Cabrera up a spot. Most likely, this cost Cabrera a few dozen plate appearances over the course of the season. There were also those games when seemingly the entire starting lineup needed a rest and Leyland obliged by sitting four starters with Brad "Gas Can" Penny on the mound. It was Detroit waving the white flag before the first pitch in many Tigers' fans' eyes.

With Prince, Leyland can grab a permanent marker and write Cabrera on the No. 3 line and Fielder on the No. 4 line.

YOUR 2012 TIGERS LINEUP
Assuming Ilitch and the Tigers won't be adding any more $200 million men, Detroit's daily lineup should be as follows:

1. Austin Jackson, CF
2. Brennan Boesch, RF
3. Miguel Cabrera, DH/1B
4. Prince Fielder, 1B/DH
5. Delmon Young, LF
6. Alex Avila, C
7. Jhonny Peralta, SS
8. Ramon Santiago, 2B
9. Brandon Inge, 3B

While the lineup looks golden, especially because it alternates R-L-R-L-R-L-R-S-R (Santiago would bat lefty when a right-handed pitcher was on the mound), I would rather Peralta have more at-bats than Boesch. Peralta has shown he can hit and, more importantly, put the ball in play. Boesch's ceiling might be higher, but until he can perform at a high level for an entire season, I would rather Peralta get 40 more plate appearance over the course of the season.

It should also be noted that Ryan Raburn would alternate with Santiago at 2B while Don Kelly would split time with Inge at 3B. Regardless of who starts, that quartet should make up the 8- and 9-hole in every lineup.

THE FINAL RESULT?
Nothing is certain, especially coming off a season when the St. Louis Cardinals flirted with mediocrity all season before getting hot, snapping up a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season, and then, improbably, winning one of the greatest World Series in history.

The Yankees and Red Sox have shown throwing money at players doesn't equal championships. What it has shown, however, is an ability to compete for titles by making the playoffs.

The Tigers were already the team to beat in the AL Central. The White Sox are rebuilding while the Indians still lack the offense and deep pitching staff to compete for a full year. The Twins are always sneaky but haven't done much to a team that struggled all of last year.

It would appear the Royals - yes, those Royals - are Detroit's biggest competition this season. Kansas City's offense will be something to watch but a 1-2-3 starting rotation punch of Luke Hochevar, Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen doesn't scare anyone.

Detroit should cruise to the AL Central title where it'll battle with the following teams to reach the World Series (in no specific order): Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Rangers, Angels.

Any given day could produce various results. The Rangers look poised to reach the World Series for the third-straight season while the Yankees' acquisition of Michael Pineda might be the missing link to another title quest. Don't sleep on the Rays either.

With its potent offense and 1-2-3-4 rotation of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, Detroit will compete with any team.

Don't chain yourself to the "World Series Championship or Bust" mindset just yet. Prince's 9-year deal coupled with the other pieces locked up in Detroit for the next handful of years means Tiger fans should be able to celebrate relatively soon.

With expectations sky high for 2012 a letdown is a major possibility. If that happens, there is always 2013 when - gasp! - Victor Martinez gets added to the lineup. Enjoy the ride, Detroiters; this is only the beginning of what will be remembered as Detroit's Roaring Teens.

While always worthy of the hype, Duke's flaws exposed annually in true-road games

Despite Duke being a great program, with a great coach and great fan base, the Blue Devils have been able to hide their flaws for the past 5 1/2 years and keep an aura of unmatched greatness.

How? Scheduling.

I've called Coach K, and whoever at Duke helps him create the Blue Devils' yearly schedule, a RPI master. The way Duke's schedule is crafted in pure genius, as it "tricks" the selection committee and its "nitty gritty" sheet into assume Duke is a lot better than it really is.

The biggest trick: Loading up on neutral-site games against teams good enough to stay in the RPI Top 100, but not good enough to contend in their own conferences, let alone handle Duke for 40 minutes. And, for the sacrificial lambs willing to play at Cameron Indoor Stadium, well, it doesn't matter who that opponent is; the Blue Devils are surely going to protect their home floor. (Let's face it, before Florida State shocked Duke on Saturday, only one ACC team in the last five years - North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 - had beaten Duke on its own floor).

The RPI formula is weighted heavily by winning road and neutral-site games while also not losing at home. Yes, it takes into account who you've played and who you've beaten and lost to, but having the, ahem, huevos, to play away from home is a big plus.

Duke knows this and the Blue Devils have made other venues their annual semi-home arenas. Madison Square Garden seemingly hosts Duke every year for at least one game and as many as three. The Greensboro Coliseum also is a Duke favorite.

(Note: NCAA rules prohibit a team from playing at a site during the NCAA Tournament that it played more than three games in during the regular season. Therefore, when Greensboro is a host site, Duke makes sure it doesn't play more than three games there).

All the types of games listed above tend to be Duke victories. With a typical year garnering at least 25 wins and either an ACC regular season or ACC Tournament title (or both), Duke gets NCAA Selection Committee love in terms of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. It helps, as I've said, that Duke is a great program which features very good to great teams every year.

But with all Duke's nonconference success there is one major flaw: Puzzling losses.

When analyzed, the losses aren't so puzzling at all; They're actually pretty predictable. Most are on the road.

In the last 5-plus years, Duke's nonconference schedule (see graphic below) has features 12 road or semi-road games. Duke's record: 6-6.

Those dozen games include three games with St. John's. The game was always an easy victory until St John's brought in Steve Lavin last year. Naturally, with the talented Lavin pushing the right buttons and the game at the Johnnies' home gym, St. John's ran Duke off the floor, 93-78, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates.

The other four wins were against Temple, Purdue, Oregon and UNC-Greensboro. Obviously, those teams don't compare at all to Duke and only Purdue is a team that, at the time, was projected to make a real game out of the contest.

Check out the other five losses: Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Ohio State and Temple*. What do these games all have in common? They were against good-but-not-great teams (outside of Ohio State this season) that Duke played in a hostile environment.

(*Note: The first meeting with Temple came in a season where the Owls finished 21-12 and 11-5 in the Atlantic 10 before losing as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In current Bracketology projections, Temple is as high as a No. 5 seed with an average in the 8-9 range.)

By avoiding big-time road games, Duke racks up wins in the nonconference and then, outside of North Carolina, has a relatively weak ACC to deal with each year.

It's true that Florida State and Virginia Tech, in any given year, play Duke very well and occasionally steal victories in Tallahassee and Blacksburg, respectively. Before Maryland slipped into oblivion approximately three years ago Gary Williams' team would always give Duke a battle in College Park. Add Virginia to that list this season as the Cavaliers pushed Duke to the brink in Durham before losing, 61-58 this past week. Nevertheless, the league's bottom feeders are so bad that Duke rarely breaks a sweat in home games and road games tend to provide little stress en route to ACC dominance.

No wonder Duke hasn't won fewer than 28 games since 2007. Heck, over the past 15 years, Duke has won 178 ACC regular season games, slighly less than 12 per season. In fact, just once in that decade and a half did Duke fail to win at least 11 conference games (Duke went 8-8 during the 2006-07 season). The large win total coupled with some quality neutral-site victories and ACC dominance usually results in a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for Duke.

With Greensboro being a host, Duke again plays semi-home games for the first two rounds of the tournament. It makes it much less surprising to understand how the Blue Devils had that streak of 9-straight Sweet 16s.

Due to the gaudy record and typical Sweet 16 success, most people don't realize Duke has major flaws. When do they get exposed? The next round where Duke plays a non-Duke friendly neutral-site game.

In recent years, Duke's NCAA downfalls have been in the following games: Playing Virginia Commonwealth (79-77 loss) in Buffalo; squeaking by Belmont (71-70 win) before losing to West Virginia (73-67) in Washington D.C.; getting blown out by Villanova (77-54) in Boston; and losing to Arizona (93-77) in Anaheim. All those years Duke reached the Sweet 16 before losing, the first and second rounds were played in either Greensboro or Charlotte. Talk about home cookin'!

It should be noted that Duke's 2009-10 NCAA National Championship didn't feature any type of semi-home game in the tournament. In fact, Duke won its first two games in Jacksonville, it's next two in Houston (with the Elite Eight game being against Baylor), the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Still, one great run doesn't hide the simple fact: Duke has a serious inability to win road games or semi-away games against good teams.

So, don't forget when you're handed a bracket this year and Duke is on the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 line, pencil the Blue Devils into the Sweet 16 (the first two rounds - or, to be correct in the new format, rounds two and three - will likely be in Greensboro). Then take a serious look at the opponents and ask yourself: Will Duke really win a tough, neutral-site game against that team? Chances are 50-50 at best.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

NFL Playoffs - Conference Championship Preview

After a wild Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, we are now down to the NFL's final four. Sunday's match ups will determine who will meet up in Indy for Super Bowl XLVI.

Here's a quick check on this year's picks records - after a strong season (even though he forgot to submit his picks before the deadline twice this season, making some of his wins questionable), Chris claimed the title this year for the Regular Season. However, both Mike and Chris are even up to this point through the Playoffs.

Now here's a look inside this week's Conference Championship games!

Baltimore @ New England (Sunday, 3 ET, CBS)

Mike:
The Patriots are on fire - TE Rob Gronkowski is setting all-time records, Wes Welker is piling up the receptions, and it's just another ho-hum Tom Brady season with All-Pro numbers. However, they say that defense wins championships, and more times than not, they are usually right. Baltimore sports the 3rd best defense in the league, allowing less than 300 yds/game and fewer than 200 pass yds/game. By forcing Brady and the Pats out of their rhythm, the Ravens' defense will keep them out of the end zone enough to provide dual threat Ray Rice the opportunity he needs to run over a mediocre-at-best Patriots defense both by ground and by air. The Patriots will be sure to stay in it til the end, but the Ravens come out on top. Baltimore 27, New England 23.

Chris:
The most telling stat of this postseason (other than the fact the offense-driven season has seen two of the top three offenses already sent home) is that the Ravens have only faced one offense ranked in the Top 10 this season. ONE! Naturally, the Ravens lost the game, a 34-14 thumping to the San Diego Chargers. The Patriots are hot right now, but with the Giants' recent roll, people tend to forget New England has been rolling for a few months. The once porous defense isn't great, but it is playing like a middle-of-the-road defense now rather than one that had been ranked in the 30s in most major statistical categories all season. Couple that with the exceptionally-efficient offense and New England will be tough to stop. Against the 2000 Ravens' defense, I might take New England in a 10-7 game. Against the 2012 version of Baltimore's defense, there isn't a comparison. New England 34, Baltimore 14.

New York Giants @ San Francisco (Sunday, 6:30 ET, FOX)

Mike:
What a way to make a return to the NFL Playoffs! After a nine-year hiatus, the Niners showed that their stellar regular season was no fluke, matching the New Orleans Saints blow for blow until a statement-making last minute drive to advance to the NFC title game. For the Giants, of course, getting here was no cakewalk - coming off of just as impressive of a win, arguably more impressive, the Giants couldn't have put together much more convincing wins the past two weeks. Like their matchup back in November, this is sure to be a gritty, hard-fought, defensive battle. That likely gives the edge to the Niners, who as witnessed last week, are the best of the best at forcing turnovers and capitalizing on them. Both teams are motivated and gelling right now, but expect to see Eli Manning making his patented sad little boy face late Sunday night, as the home atmosphere and some big defensive plays by San Francisco should help the Niners earn their way to their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years. San Francisco 26, New York 21.

Chris:
I love how everybody overreacts after one game. The Giants beat the Packers... at Lambeau Field... in dominating fashion. Apparently that means the rest of the playoffs will be skipped and we'll be handing Elite Manning... errr... Eli Manning the Lombardi trophy tomorrow. From that game, I've now heard the great Jerry Rice say the Giants offense is on par with that of the Packers. It's one game, people! Listen, the Giants front four has been playing exceptional. But the last four games have included wins over the falling-apart Jets, the ridiculously-overrated Cowboys, a struggling Falcons team and the Packers. So forgive me if I'm not crowning the Giants for beating one really good team team, a solid team and two below-average teams in the last four weeks. Remember, the Giants are still a 9-7 regular season team. Their opponent, the forgotten 49ers were 13-3 and are now 8-1 at home after last week's classic win against the Saints (the hottest team entering the playoffs). I think both teams could win the game but the better team (from September to January) has been San Francisco. Alex Smith is better than people think and the 49ers have Frank Gore this time around against the Giants (Gore didn't play in a 27-20 San Francisco win in Week 10). I see a similar result with Eli Manning trying to do too much and the San Francisco magical season continuing. San Francisco 30, New York Giants 20.

Here's to a Sunday full of entertaining football as we approach Super Bowl XLVI! Enjoy!!

Draymond Green does everything for MSU, except play well against archrival Michigan

Michigan State's Draymond Green is one of those basketball players that comes around every decade or so.

He's a coach on the floor.

He will address the team almost as much as head coach Tom Izzo will in huddles and during pre- and post-game talks.

He's a 6-foot-7, 230-pound point forward that reminds those in East Lansing of a stud nicknamed "Magic."

He can seemingly do everything.

Well, everything except play well against bitter intra-state rival Michigan.

Overall, his stats have increased each year in most categories (see table below).



Yet, when it matters in the battle for state supremecy, Green seems to shrink.

In six career games against Michigan, Green has scored a grand total of 37 points, grabbed 30 rebounds and dished out 19 assists.

Green's averages in the rivalry games: 6.1 points, 5 rebounds, 3.1 assists. That's not terrible - for a role player.

Now, one would argue that in Green's first two years - which resulted in a pair of Final Four appearances and a 3-0 record against the Wolverines - Green was more of a role player. He did play behind Goran Suton, Marquise Gray and Idong Ibok during Michigan's State's 2009 NCAA Runner-up season. The following year he was the team's sixth man, but still played behind then-fellow sophomore Delvon Roe.

Nevertheless, the numbers haven't gotten better in the last two years. Despite averaging 31 minutes in those three games, Green hasn't scored in double figures. Worse for Spartan fans, Michigan has won the last three games against Michigan State for the first time since 1998.



Michigan State fans always will be grateful for everything Green has done in East Lansing. There are two things he could do that would make him an unforgettable Spartan: Winning a national championship and having a monster game against Michigan.

Obviously, Winning a national championship is the biggest goal for any player. (Note: Green initially committed to Kentucky when Billy Gillispie was the coach. Ironically, this year's Wildcats would have given him one of the best chances to achieve that national championship goal). And while all teams and players have that dream, I think even Green would acknowledge that reaching a Final Four this season - his third in four years at MSU - would be a phenomenal feat. But, having a monster game - say, 20 points and 10 rebounds - in the state showdown would be the final validation of a storied career.

Three games stand between now and a date circled on Green's calendar: February 5, 2012. It's not circled because of Super Bowl XLVI, but because that'll likely be Green's last chance - barring a matchup in the Big Ten Tournament - of staring in the rivalry game. For the Spartans' MVP, I expect a MOP-type game against the Wolverines. Finally.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Defensive Score Sheet: Mich St. @ Michigan

Whoever says the Michigan-Michigan State hoops rivalry is nonexistent is clueless. All one has to do is watch the teams' defensive prowess on the court.

Take last night's knock-down, drag-out brawl between the green-clad Spartans and maize-draped Wolverines at the Crisler Center for instance.

The 60-59 Michigan victory, sealed when MSU's Draymond Green missed a runner in the lane in the closing seconds, sent the Maize Rage and Wolverine faithful into euphoria. For Spartan fans, it hurt more than a traditional loss.

The Wolverines dominated the game for the first 30 minutes. It's true Michigan State pulled to within one with about three minutes to play in the first half, but the game never felt close.

The closing quarter of the game was different. Right after Michigan built its largest lead of the game (47-36), the Spartans went on a 14-2 run to take their first lead on the night.

From that point, it was nip and tuck until the end when questionable clock management by Tom Izzo, extraordinary defense by Michigan, and Green's off-target floater allowed the Wolverines to protect home court and, in the process, defeat the Spartans for the third-straight game. That hasn't happened since 1998 during Michigan's Tractor Taylor days.

Defensively, both teams struggled at times. The difference was when Michigan State got a basket to fall, it seemed to really have to work for it. Michigan was able to capitalize on "turnovers for touchdowns" as Izzo calls them. Those breakaway layups negated MSU's half-court defensive strength.

As the below defensive project score sheet will show, no individual who logged significant minutes (sorry, Black McLimans. Your one basket allowed in two minutes doesn't count.) had a worse defensive evening than MSU's Adrian Payne.


It was the second-straight game Payne lacked energy and seemed to be a bit slow. Against the Wolverines, the only "stop" he recorded was when a player he fouled - Trey Burke - missed his And1 free throw.

Travis Trice, as noted many times during the telecast, seemed lost on the defensive end. He couldn't keep up with Michigan's Burke and was a defensive liability all night. It was such a bad night the hashtag #medialovestrice was MIA.

Even Green and Keith Appling had below-average games for the Spartans.

Collectively, Michigan played solid team defense. Jordan Morgan played exceptionally well in the post for the Wolverines, causing three turnovers. For a big, that's pretty significant.

Tim Hardaway Jr., also played a real solid game for the Wolverines, taking a pair of second-half charges and forcing 3.5 turnovers on the evening.

One player who is getting some love for his "big plays" last night is Zack Novak. Conversely, Novak overall was pretty lousy on defense. I respect the Novaks of the world. Novak doesn't have much talent but the guy works extremely hard. It also helps that Novak is an above-average 3-point shooter, fitting perfectly into Michigan's offense.

That said, for all the great plays Novak seems to make, he allows players to score more than most will suggest. Last night's game was a perfect example.

That perception could be because, as the ESPN telecast mentioned, "Novak plays great help-side defense." I would argue that, 90 percent of the time, all Novak does is play help-side defense. Whenever the ball enters the post, Novak is there like a stalker, positioning himself for a faux double team. Once teams recognize this - as MSU did late in the second half - a kick out to Novak's man results in a fairly open shot.

No player in last night's game allowed more field goals than Novak. The numbers don't lie.

Luckily for Novak, he could have allowed one more field goal. He was responsible for Green in the closing seconds. He stayed with green at the 3-point line but, once Green started toward the hoop, Novak peeled back. If Green makes that shot, the Spartans likely win and Novak's defense on the play becomes a major talking point.

But, Green missed (credited as a team miss because while Novak was responsible, he didn't defend the actual shot and no Michigan player stepped up leaving Green with a pretty much uncontested floater) and Novak and the Wolverines are "state champs" on the hardwood for the third-straight game.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Project Defensive Score Sheet: Michigan State

Box scores are like movie previews; they give enough information to engage the viewer into forming his own opinion but don’t unveil all the juicy details inevitably making the formulated opinion flawed.

This is especially true when quantifying an individual player’s defensive impact. Examining game film, possession by possession, is the only way to truly attach a value to an individual’s defensive prowess.

This summer, Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Luke Winn spearheaded the task of rating individual defensive performances. The chore is very subjective, but, done correctly, opens an entire new world in terms of understanding the value of individual players.

Winn enlisted help from David Hess, a writer for Audacity of Hoops and TeamRankings.com. This fall, Hess sent out a feeler in the Twittersphere to see if college basketball junkies would be willing to track these statistics for individual teams.

I took the bait and, along with my evening job of covering all Michigan State games for STATS, LLC., have been tracking individual defensive statistics for the Spartans’ conference games.

Below are the five defensive box scores (click for a larger view) for Michigan State's first five Big Ten games. (Explanation after the first table).

GAME 1: MICHIGAN STATE 80, INDIANA 65


DEFINITIONS

  • Taken from the box score
    • Min – Minutes played
    • DREB – Defensive REBounds
  • Tracked by me
    • FM - Forced field goal Miss – when a defender forces an offensive player to miss a shot from the field. Oliver separates FM from Blocks, but I’ve lumped them together here.
    • FTO – Forced TurnOver – when a defender forces an offensive player to turn the ball over. Again, Oliver separates out Steals, but I’ve combined them, partly because because I don’t know which plays the official scorekeeper would actually count as steals. One thing to note here is that a player who draws an offensive foul is always credited with a FTO, even if it’s just a moving screen.
    • FFTA – Forced missed Free Throw Attempt – missed foul shots resulting from a defender’s foul
    • DFGM – allowed Defensive Field Goal Made – when a defender allows an offensive player to score a field goal over him or by dribbling by him
    • DFTM – allowed Free Throw Made – made free throws resulting from a defender’s foul
  • Calculated Tallies
    • Stops – the credit a defensive player gets for actions that contributed to ending an opponent possession. This isn’t as simple as adding FM + FTO + 0.4*FFTA, because the credit for a missed shot has to be shared with the defensive player who rebounds it. The formula is more complex than you might think, and includes a sliding weight for FM vs. DREB, based on how difficult those actions seem to be in each particular game, so I’ll just refer you to Appendix 3 of Basketball On Paper.
    • ScPos – Scoring Possessions allowed by a player. This is essentially just DFGM plus a FT-related factor. I’ll again refer you to Basketball On Paper for details.
    • DPoss – [Stops + ScPos] – total Defensive Possessions that were credited to (or blamed on) a player.
  • Calculated Metrics
    • Stop% – [Stops/DPoss] – the fraction of an individual player’s credited defensive possessions that ended with 0 points. Essentially the inverse of offensive Floor%.
    • %DPoss – [(Min/40)*DPoss/TeamDefensivePossessions] (for a non-OT game) - the percentage of team defensive possessions faced by an individual defender. Analogous to %Poss on offense.
    • DRtg – [(1–%DPoss)*TeamDRtg + %DPoss*(100*TeamDefPtsPerScPoss*(1-Stop%))] – individual Defensive Rating. Gives a player credit for stops and scoring possessions he was directly involved in, then assumes a nebulous team-average performance in the other possessions. This is the analog of offensive rating.

FIVE NOTES ON THE DATA COLLECTION PROCESS

1. Undoubtedly all the decimals in the “tracked by me” stats are puzzling you. The reason is pretty simple: defensive actions aren’t as clear cut as offensive ones. We know who scored a basket (that player gets 100% of the points) and, when applicable, who assisted on the basket (that player gets 100% of the assist). Defensive plays are much more varied. Take turnovers for instance. If a two-man trap causes a player to travel, isn’t it only fair and “right” to give each trapping player with 0.5 of a forced turnover? And, believe it or not, sometimes there are more than two players responsible for a defensive play. Hence, you’ll see occasional .25 and .33 calculations as well.

2. Official box scores aren’t 100 percent reliable, especially for the home team. This is a known fact for offensive stats as some players are given assists to boost their statistical line when, in reality, that player would only get an assist if, like hockey, two assists were given on plays. Yes, it actually happens when Player A passes to Player B who then passes to Player C for a basket. Somehow, the box score will give Player A an assist. So, just because a box score credits a player with three steals doesn’t mean he was 100 percent responsible for all those steals. That’s why there might be discrepancies in these defensive score sheets and the actual box score.

3. As noted, these numbers are extremely subjective. Luckily, changing a few plays doesn't make as much of a difference as you might think. The numbers will move, but it won't change a good defensive game to a bad one, or vice versa.

4. Defensive Rating (DRtg) is essentially the answer to the question, "If Player X were on the floor for 100 possessions, engaging in his normal rate of plays, how many points would his TEAM yield? The lower a DRtg, the better. Because defense is a team concept, a player's DRtg is largely based on team performance. So, if a player's DPoss% [the portion of plays he directly engages in] is 20.0, then 20 percent of his DRtg would be based on those plays alone, and 80 percent would be based on the team's overall defensive performance.

5. In any given game, credit/blame had to be assigned for a number of misses/baskets to the "team" as a whole, such as wide-open misses, or points scored on solo-runout fastbreaks, or putback points where one player can't be blamed for a missed boxout. All of those "team" possessions needed to be factored into DRtg, as well as the team's overall performance. DRtg should be assessed only within the context of a team, not across teams, and small variations should be viewed as significant. (For example, a player whose DRtg is much better than the tam's overall rating should considered a great defender, and the few players whose DRtg is lower than their team's should be considered liabilities.

Against Indiana, it is obvious Michigan State had many great individual performances (above score sheet). Only freshman point guard Travis Trice played significant minutes and deviated noticeably from the team's DRtg. Draymond Green's numbers took a little bit of a hit by being credited with 8 1/2 baskets allowed, but that's typically what'll happen when someone is assigned to a player who, win or lose, goes off in a virtually unstoppable manner. Indiana's Christian Watford scored a game-high 26 points in the game and Green was responsible for Watford much of the night. Typically of Tom Izzo defenses on pick-and-rolls, Green really sagged, almost baiting Watford to take 3-point shots. Watford did, making enough to throw a few chinks into Green's defensive armor.

GAME 2: MICHIGAN STATE 68, NEBRASKA 55

***Another smothering team effort from the Spartans. Obviously, junior center Derrick Nix dominated the paint defensively while senior forward Austin Thornton had one of his better defensive games up to this point in the season. MSU's guards all struggled, mostly because each was assigned at some point to Nebraska do-it-all point guard Bo Spencer.


GAME 3: MICHIGAN STATE 63, WISCONSIN 60 (OT)

***Keith Appling, known as MSU's best on-ball defender, obviously struggled against the Badgers. More specifically, he struggled when Wisconsin senior point guard Jordan Taylor (who scored a game-high 28 points) attempted to carry his team back from a large deficit. At one point, Taylor scored 12 straight points, many coming from off-balance and unguardable shots. Appling played well, but being assigned to a defensive score sheet assassin like Taylor is a nightmare.

GAME 4: MICHIGAN STATE 95, IOWA 61


***There are a lot of great numbers here. This, of course, is what happens in a 34-point blowout. At one point, the Hawkeyes trailed by 45 points. It wasn't until Michigan State had five scout team players on the floor that Iowa got the losing margin in the 30s.



***Michigan State picked a good time to lose as it shows exactly how a team's overall defensive performance alters every player. Keith Appling played exceptional against the Wildcats as shown by forcing three of Northwestern's six turnovers as well as forcing misses on 7 1/2 shots (more than 25 percent of Wildcat misses). Still, because the team's DRtg was 124, Appling's stellar game amounted to a 116.8 DRtg, by far his highest in conference play. This was a game that the backdoor cut absolutely killed Michigan State. I counted nine backdoor layups scored by Northwestern. Defensively, freshman swingman Branden Dawson was the biggest culprit, being burned four times. Austin Thornton was burnt twice while Brandon Wood, Adrian Payne and Derrick Nix were each caught sleeping once. What I find most surprising is that while Nix and Payne were given much of the blame for Michigan State's defensive woes in the paint, Nix actually played fairly well. Yes, he's a little slow, but that makes it more likely he won't hedge so much. By not hedging, Nix, had he played more than 16 minutes, would have been in the paint more and likely would have disrupted Northwestern's Princeton-style offense. Nevertheless, Izzo was so fed up with Nix and Payne that, for a great stretch in the second half that he went with a small lineup with Thornton eating up minutes. The numbers suggest that wasn't a good decision by a man who is known for making great decisions daily.

FINAL IMPRESSIONS: It's clear through five Big Ten games that Appling and Green are MSU's best defenders. However, don't underestimate the impact both Nix and Payne have in the middle. If those two refuse to take games off - especially on the same night - the Spartans can be one of the best defensive teams in the country. That, as we all know, could have the Spartans making late-March reservations in New Orleans for the Final Four.