Michigan has only played four Big Ten games but we’ve learned as much or more about this team during the first two weeks of Big Ten play than we did over two months of non-conference play. The Wolverines sit at 3-1 in conference play but their three wins are over teams that currently sit in the bottom third of the league standings. Here’s a rundown of observations, notable improvements, predictions and warning signs going forward into Big Ten play.
Single Plays Setup Tough Schedule
Michigan plays Wisconsin (home), Minnesota (home), Iowa and Nebraska just once this season and those four teams sit at the bottom of the current standings. Wisconsin will improve, Iowa is better than it appeared in preseason but Minnesota is reeling and Nebraska is likely to reside in one of the league’s bottom spots. All of that means that the Wolverines are likely to play one of the tougher Big Ten schedules when the dust settles in early March.
Sticking with the strength of schedule meme, several of Michigan’s non-conference opponents have made strides lately. Michigan’s RPI now sits at 25th with a 2-3 record versus RPI top-50 opponents. Here’s a rundown of how some of the Wolverines notable non-conference foes have fared:
- Memphis lost five non-conference games but they were all to top-30 RPI teams and the Tigers still sit comfortably in the RPI top-50 with a big home league game on Wednesday versus Southern Miss.
- Virginia keeps on winning, sitting at 14-1 with a Thursday night trip to Cameron Indoor on the schedule. The Cavaliers look like an NCAA tournament team assuming their defense can continue to dominate in an ACC that appears very average after North Carolina and Duke.
- Iowa State opened Big 12 play 2-0 with wins over Texas and at Texas A&M. The Cyclones’ season could probably still go a number of ways but right now they are a top-50 team with a legitimate chance at the NCAA tournament.
- UCLA is bad and the Pac-12 isn’t going to provide much opportunity to revive their season. The league is down and UCLA sits at 2-2 but a strong finish could move the Bruins up to the RPI top-100 when all is said and done.
- In the Summit League it turns out that Western Illinois might be a better team than Oakland. the Leathernecks won at Oakland but its unlikely that either team ends up in the RPI top-100.
Brian pointed this out yesterday at MGoBlog, and it stands out whenever I look at Michigan’s KenPom profile, but Michigan has a treacherous stretch of schedule coming up bookended by games versus Michigan State:
- No. 7 Michigan State
- at No. 79 Arkansas
- at No. 28 Purdue
- at No. 1 OSU
- No. 8 Indiana
- at No. 7 Michigan State
That stretch is just about survival. Michigan plays 8 of its final 12 games on the road and still hasn’t won a true road game this year. There are plenty of hurdles ahead despite Michigan’s 13-3 (3-1 B10) record, top-15 ranking and big win over Wisconsin.
Michigan’s defense was a legitimate concern headed into Big Ten play but early returns have been encouraging. The most obvious improvement has been the Wolverines ability to force turnovers. Michigan’s defense rarely forced turnovers in non-conference play but leads the Big Ten in forced turnover rate through four games. Michigan has forced Big Ten opponents to turn the ball over on 22 percent of their possessions and that’s been consistent through each game. All four of Michigan’s Big Ten opponents, even the turnover abhorring Badgers, have turned the ball over on at least 21 percent of their possessions against Michigan.
What’s most impressive is that Michigan has been able to force turnovers without fouling. Wolverine opponents have a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of just 21.8%, second best in the Big Ten, and Michigan has outscored its opponents 52-27 at the free throw line in Big Ten games.
Three Point Defense Remains Dicey
The most obvious red flag when looking at Michigan’s defensive profile is three point shooting defense. Big Ten opponents have made 40 percent of their threes against the Wolverines, up from the 36% that Michigan’s opponents have made on the season. Indiana is the league’s best three point shooting team and they made 63% of their long range looks but Minnesota and Wisconsin are average three point shooting teams that hit 42% and 35% respectively. Michigan’s upcoming game against Northwestern should be a great test in this department as the Wildcats shoot as many threes as anyone in the league.
Individual Quick Hitters
- Trey Burke is tied for the conference lead in free throw attempts (24) with Christian Watford. Burke’s five assists per Big Ten game rank second in the conference to Penn State’s Tim Frazier.
- Stu Douglass has made 9-of-16 three point attempts in four Big Ten games, that’s 56% and sixth best in league games.
- Jordan Morgan is the best offensive rebounder in conference games, grabbing 18 percent of Michigan’s missed shots and 16 offensive boards in four games.
- Tim Hardaway Jr. is 3-of-21 on threes in Big Ten games but 21 of 40 on two point attempts. The good news is that he was two-for-three against Wisconsin and was much more selective with his three-point attempts.
Efficiency Margin Holds Strong
It’s still way too early for efficiency margins but Michigan’s early numbers look good. The Wolverines have outscored their conference opponents by .16 points per possession which is on par with the league’s only undefeated team, Michigan State, and behind only Ohio State – who’s outscoring its opponents by a ridiculous .32 points per trip.
Big Ten Efficiency Margins: January 10th, 2012
|Team||W||L||Poss.||Off. Eff.||Def. Eff.||Eff Margin|
A few other notable observations in the way too early efficiency margins:
- Michigan State’s numbers are impressive especially considering the Spartans have beaten Indiana and won at the Kohl Center. The Wolverines and Spartans both play Iowa and Northwestern this week and four wins could setup a huge in-state showdown next Tuesday night at Crisler Arena.
- Indiana’s defense is a legitimate concern, it’s actually the worst in the Big Ten this far. The Hoosier offense can run and gun with anyone but Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan have all scored the ball relatively easily against Indiana.
- As most would have guessed, Wisconsin is probably a little bit better than its 1-3 record indicates.
- Illinois’ offense doesn’t appear to stack up with the rest of the league’s upper half but its defense is significantly better than Purdue and Indiana.
- Northwestern’s numbers are skewed by playing just three games, one of which was a 33-point less to Ohio State, but this is a big week for the Wildcats – at Michigan, vs. Michigan State – if they want to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.
- Nebraska is in all sorts of trouble and the concerns start on the offense which simply can’t compete with the rest of the league.