It used to be there was one tempo-free guru for Big Ten hoops. Now there are scads, but only two of them have a sweet blogging gig at Big Ten Network. It’s not the only thing Mike Portscheller and Josh Reed do for a living, but it’s certainly their favorite. Why else churn through mounds of data and watch every conference game – yes, even Penn State-Iowa – unless you love it?
That’s life for the Big Ten Geeks. They dissect games, box scores and performances, then write about it with a healthy dose of perspective and insight. (And a dash of sarcasm.) Their Twitter feed is essentially the same, just more concise.
Now that conference play has begun in college basketball’s best conference (yes, it’s true; sorry Big East), Josh took some time to answer a few questions in the latest Blogger Spotlight. (Mike was busy blogging.)
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Q: The Big Ten was the top conference last season (regular season at least) and seems to be heading that way again this year. What’s brought about this rise? Retention of players? Coaching stability? Or just a rise in overall play?
A: I think it is the retention of players, and it really had a lot to do with the class of 2007. That particular class is one that won’t be matched anytime soon, and the Big Ten benefited from its 2007 members sticking around for a while. Of the top 100 from that class, the Big Ten captured 18. Of those, only 5 hung around for fewer than 3 seasons.
But now the class of 2007 is all but gone, with Robbie Hummel as the John Uncas of the group (after Trevor Mbakwe’s injury). But because they hung around so long, they limited opportunities for younger guys. Since the class of 2007, only three players from the subsequent classes have declared for the draft. Players are much more likely to transfer in search of more playing time, than to leave.
Q: Tell me someone can give Ohio State a run for the conference title. (Assuming Jared Sullinger’s healthy). Who’s that team?
A: We’re the Big Ten Geeks, not the Big Ten Eye Test Meatheads, so absolutely someone can give them a shot, and the team in the best position to do so is Wisconsin. Sure, even Ken Pomeroy doesn’t seem that thrilled with his computer’s assessment of the Badgers, but scheduling matters. Bo Ryan’s team plays Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan each only once. This is a stark contrast to Ohio State, which sees only one game against each of Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, and Minnesota. And the computer might be on to something — in 12 of their 14 games, the opponent has had its worst or second-worst offensive night (by points per possession) against the Badgers. In those other two games, it was still only the third and fifth-worst offensive showing of their opponent.
I’d also keep a close eye on Indiana, which gave Michigan State all it could handle at the Breslin Center. Sure, the Hoosiers probably won’t shoot 46 percent from three-point range all season, but this is an offense not to take lightly.
Q: Plus, Big Ten Eye Test Meatheads doesn’t really roll off the tongue or make for an easy Twitter handle. If Indiana and Wisconsin are two teams to watch, which teams aren’t as good as their records? I’m leaning Northwestern and Illinois …
A: Northwestern is a solid pick, certainly. Usually it’s the teams certain to finish near the bottom of the conference have 4 or more losses upon entering conference play, but those aren’t the only squads that will do more losing than winning from here on out. Northwestern is certainly one of those — we don’t see any reason to be excited about that defense.
Illinois is a bit of a strange case. In just about every game against non-cupcakes, they’ve played to the opponents’ level. Maryland, Gonzaga, St. Bonaventure, Minnesota, Illinois State, Richmond, and even the elite Missouri. They haven’t blown any of these teams out, but UNLV is the only team that’s clearly outplayed them. This usually isn’t a résumé that belongs to a top-20 team, but we wouldn’t count the Illini out of the Dance just yet.
Another good candidate is Minnesota. They’ve played better without Mbakwe, but that’s probably a fluke. Conference play means your opponent has read the book on you, and Minnesota’s book says it can’t shoot.
Q: When March rolls around, how many Big Ten teams are really Final Four contenders? I’ve been impressed with how well Indiana and Michigan State have played thus far, while Wisconsin and Michigan are teams who should be Top 20 mainstays. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that they’re all limited and ultimately doomed to “only” reach the Sweet 16. One might sneak into the Elite Eight. (As if either is a failure.) Either of you have that feeling or am I just being stubborn?
A: It’s true that no Big Ten team is perfect. But no team is. Is Kentucky too young? Can UNC beat you from outside? Does Brad Stevens have any more magic dust?
If last year taught us anything, it’s that all you need is eligibility. How else could a 9th seed in the Big East win it all, or the 4th-best team in the Colonial end up in the Final Four? I’m confident that the Big Ten will have several teams at the end of the year with better résumés. That’s not to say the Big Ten is filled with teams just hoping to get hot at the right time. Ohio State is obviously loaded, and again, offensive guru Bo Ryan appears to have himself an elite defense. That’s not fair.
Q: How often do you guys find yourselves defending the league’s “slow” image? Or do you even bother? After all, if playing “slow” yielded results such as Wisconsin’s, we should all be so lucky, right?
A: It comes with the territory. One-half of the Geeks actually grew up an ACC fan, so learning to love the Big Ten’s pace was a process. Contrary to a common viewpoint, the league is not slow for lack of athletes. Rather, it’s slow because just about every team is obsessed with not giving up easy baskets. The only team with a long track record of throwing caution into the wind in order to crash the offensive glass is Michigan State. And it bears mentioning that, despite recruiting a bevy of talent to East Lansing, that approach doesn’t always work out for Tom Izzo (for example, last season).
It’s necessarily a subjective discussion, but our preference is for efficient basketball — a game with a minimum of careless turnovers, defensive lapses, and missed open shots and free throws. That kind of game can be played at any speed.
Q: Best player in the league? Jordan Taylor? Jared Sullinger? Draymond Green? Someone else? I’d go Green because I love how he’s emerged as a scorer this year, but maybe I’m biased. Always been a sucker for guys who a little bit of everything then do it all even better as a senior. (My heartstrings also get tugged by Hummel.)
A: Taylor was our preseason pick for conference player of the year, but Carlton has struggled with his shot all season. It’s remarkable that he’s still very efficient despite his inaccuracy. Sullinger is an easy pick, especially because his defense has improved quite a bit.
As much as we like watching Green play, the past season and a half have shown that he was probably better suited with a little less responsibility in the offense. As the focal point, his accuracy has suffered.
If Hummel stays healthy all year, it’s probably a two-man race with Sullinger (expand to three if Taylor finds his shot). A darkhorse candidate is Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr.
Q: I once asked this to KJ from The Only Colors, so I’ll ask you guys too: I swear a vast percentage of the best college hoops blogs are based around Big Ten teams. Agree? And how does that happen?
A: If Dean Smith invented tempo free, Dean Oliver taught us how to calculate the numbers, and Ken Pomeroy brought the numbers to the masses, then it was John Gasaway who spread the word and told us what the numbers meant. The reason so many people got into this stuff is because the Wonk was so fun. It was a must-read for Big Ten fans, and when the Wonk went geeky, we all followed.
Q: So. About the blog. Why did you guys start? What’s a typical week look like for you in terms of workload? How’d you settle on the name? Do you ever worry about those eye-test meatheads beating you up?
A: We started largely because the Wonk stopped. We were used to reading about Big Ten hoops every morning at that URL, and then one day John decided the Big Ten wasn’t enough, and there wasn’t as much to read. Moreover, the stuff that was out there seemed so antiquated in comparison to all this tempo-free we’d been digesting. The blog was actually my idea, but I didn’t want to go it alone, so I recruited Mike. We actually didn’t even know each other prior to starting the blog — we just bumped into each other on message boards.
Regarding workload for a typical week, we watch every single conference game. Keep in mind, we both have real jobs outside of the blog, so this can be a challenge. But even if it’s two cellar-dwellers facing off in a meaningless battle in late February, we’re watching at least a good portion of that. Our job isn’t just to summarize the numbers, it’s to make sense of them. And it’s hard to do that just from box scores.
We also try to do more than just recap what went right and what didn’t. We want to inform our readings of trends, oddities, and things to look for going forward. That means our workload really varies depending on how inspiration strikes. If there’s a lot of data mining involved, it could take hours to write a single post. There’s one in the works right now that several weeks of data collection. But sometimes it’s 30 minutes.
Mike came up with the name. It sounded better than “nerd.” We don’t spend too much time worrying about Eye Test Meatheads like Gregg Doyel beating us up. We just got a new alarm system set up in Mom’s Basement.
Q: How long do you guys envision doing this? Blogging can be a grind, but it seems you guys relish having a narrow focus on specific timeframe in which you write.
A: It has to end, right? We can’t be doing this when we’re 60 (for one, the Big Ten will be about 36 teams by then. And still called the Big Ten.). For now though, it’s still fun. BTN has been really great too, they don’t censor us or tell us what to write, and they’ve supported us wherever we’ve asked. It’s been a great partnership.
And I think the narrow focus helps us, too. We don’t have to know whether Miami is going to shoot a lot of threes this season. We have our familiar teams with their familiar tendencies. Ohio State won’t dig deep into the bench, Wisconsin plays slow, Purdue and Illinois defend, Michigan State crashes the glass, Northwestern shoots threes, Michigan spreads the floor, Iowa wants to run, Minnesota utilizes depth, and so on. The basic philosophies don’t change, so we don’t have to relearn all that stuff. Just focus on the challenges for the teams for each new season.
More of the Geeks’ work can be found here at BTN.com. Follow them on Twitter @bigtengeeks.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.