2013-14 Preview: Big Ten’s Best Defenders

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As the 2013-14 season nears, we run down some of the best players in the Big Ten by specialty. Today, we continue with the league’s top ten defenders (returning players only). Previously: Best Rebounders, Best Newcomers

As the nation’s premiere basketball conference, the Big Ten is known for its great players but perhaps even more for its staunch defense. Teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana have built their success with not only tremendous team defense but also terrific individual defenders. Defense isn’t as easily defined by statistics as shooting or passing but there are some tools available. Steal and block percentages calculate the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal or block by the given player while he’s on the floor and we also have a defensive points per possession allowed metric from Synergy Sports.

1. Aaron Craft (6-foot-2, Ohio State) 

Stls/Game: 2.1, Stl%: 3.8, Def. PPP: .703 PPP

Need we elaborate? Aaron Craft is back, and with Victor Oladipo gone, there is little debate that Ohio State’s lead guard is the best perimeter defender in the Big Ten — in fact, Craft may be the best guard defender in the country. Michigan fans are especially aware of Craft’s unique defensive skill set after watching their point guard and consensus Player of the Year be endlessly frustrated by Craft during both of Michigan’s meetings with Ohio State over the last two seasons. Craft’s mastery doesn’t necessarily lie in his ability to steal the ball, though he has some of the quickest hands in the league, but rather in how physical he can be on defense without fouling. Craft is as tough as they come, and an excellent defender in both on-and-off-ball situations. With expert footwork and positioning, if you’re lucky enough to get the ball with Craft draped all over you, it’s unlikely you’re getting to the basket.

2. Shannon Scott (6-foot-1, Ohio State)
Stls/Game: 1.7, Stl%: 5.1, Def. PPP: .552

Two Buckeyes make up the top two spots in our ranking, and it makes sense considering that Ohio State possessed a top-10 defense nationally last year. Shannon Scott’s playing time may have been limited last season, but the guard still managed to be an all-Big Ten defensive team pick because of his nose for the ball. His steal rate of 5.1 percent places him eighth nationally in that category, and he always seemed to position himself in the right place at the right time. Take the Buckeyes’ huge win over then-No.2 Indiana at Assembly Hall last season: Craft was the defensive star, but Scott was the perfect complement, adding four steals of his own and one that arguably decided the game late.

3. AJ Hammons (7-foot, Purdue)
Blks/Game: 2, Blk%: 8.7, Def. PPP: .78

The defensive potential is absolutely through the roof for Purdue’s sophomore center, and he already emerged as a force last season. Hammons’ block rate is behind only Amir Williams of Ohio State, and the 7-footer played more minutes than the Buckeye big man. Hammons is gifted not only with height and length, but also with quick feet and a good defensive awareness that allows him to position himself well against driving guards and provide excellent help defense. That awareness will only get better now that he has a year under his belt. Hammons is also capable of exploding with defensive production — after a slow defensive start to last year’s season, Hammons showed the Big Ten what he was capable of against Nebraska and Penn State in January, with games of  five and six blocks respectively. His ability to protect the rim rubbed off on his team, Purdue had the second 2-point field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten last year.

4. Jordan Morgan (6-foot-9, Michigan)
Blks/Game: 0.1, Blk%: 0.6, Def. PPP: .558

Jordan Morgan’s numbers are nothing to scream at, but are they ever? Michigan’s stalwart big man would be at the top of a list of players who draw the most charges, and thanks to his excellent defensive positioning, Morgan has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive big men and was named to the All-Big Ten Defensive team last season. In a statistic that may come closest to revealing his defensive skill, Morgan was the defender responsible for ending 104 offensive possessions last season — on those possessions, offensive players scored just 58 points. That 0.558 points per possession mark placed him 10th in the country and third in the Big Ten in that category.

5. Branden Dawson (6-foot-6, Michigan State)
Stls/Game: 1.6, Blk/Game: 0.9, Stl%: 3.6, Blk%: 3.8

For Michigan State, Branden Dawson is a do-it-all defender. The athletically gifted swingman saw a dropoff in his block numbers this past season but an uptick in steal numbers. Dawson is capable of guarding nearly any position on the court because of his quickness and athleticism, and the diversity of his defensive accomplishments lends credibility to that statement: Dawson was one of the top 15 players in the Big Ten when it comes to block percentage last season — and is the shortest player on that list — and claimed the fifth-best steal percentage in the conference — while being the tallest player in the top five. Michigan fans may remember Dawson’s defensive prowess from how he shut down Tim Hardaway Jr. during last year’s game in East Lansing, holding the future first-round draft pick to two points.

6. Amir Williams (6-foot-11, Ohio State)
Blks/Game: 1.4, Blk%: 9.7, Def. PPP: .801

Entering his junior season, Ohio State fans are hoping this is the year Amir Williams realizes his potential as a defensive force and inside finisher. Last season, Williams possessed the highest block percentage of any player in the Big Ten, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — he played only around 47 percent of available minutes and his shot-blocking talent is through the roof. The problem last year wasn’t his defense necessarily but his rebounding and his hands. Williams experienced significant difficulty catching the ball off drive-and dish opportunities from his guards, and his defensive rebounding was dwarfed by his teammate Evan Ravenel, who stands three inches shorter. However, Williams came on strong in the NCAA tournament at the end of last season, and we could be looking at a breakout season for Ohio State’s talented big.

7. Mitch McGary (6-foot-10, Michigan)
Stls/Game: 1.1, Blks/Game: 0.7, Stl%: 3.4, Blk%: 3.9

McGary is rare breed in many ways, but one of the most obvious is the way he plays defense. Michigan’s star big man, at 6-foot-10, is equally adept at stealing the ball as he is at blocking shots. Michigan fans are very familiar with the way McGary uses his uncanny quickness to jump passing lanes at half court, but don’t be surprised if his block numbers go down a bit this season. Last year, McGary found himself out of position on the defensive glass because of recklessly attempting blocks, a habit Beilein likely wants to curtail.

8. Austin Hollins (6-foot-4, Minnesota)
Stls/Game: 1.7, Stl%: 3.7, Def. PPP:.74

Austin Hollins was a major part of Minnesota’s success last season, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. But despite scoring over 10 points per game for the Gophers, Hollins is known for his defense. Almost always guarding the opposing team’s toughest matchup, Hollins notched the fourth-best steal rate in the league last year — and most of his best defensive nights came against Minnesota’s toughest opponents; Hollins racked up six steals against Memphis and four steals each against Michigan, Illinois and UCLA.

9. Nnanna Egwu (6-foot-11, Illinois)
Blks/Game: 1.4, Blk%: 6.3, Def. PPP: .778

Egwu is yet another in the line of extremely talented, young Big Ten shot-blockers looking to fulfill their potential on the defensive end of the floor. Egwu had a solid year defensively last season with good block numbers, but given his quickness, he should be even better this season — Michigan fans will remember his curious tendency to switch onto Trey Burke off pick-and-rolls last year, and his even more curious tendency to stay in front of last year’s Player of the Year on the perimeter.

10. Keith Appling (6-foot-2, Michigan State)
Stls/Game: 1.3, Stl%: 2.4, Def. PPP: ..784

The more Appling struggles on offense, the less attention gets paid to his defense, which has been consistently very good since he arrived in East Lansing. While his numbers aren’t off the charts, Appling consistently matches up with the opposing team’s best offensive players despite his usual size disadvantage. NBA scouts love his defensive ability, and Appling anchors what is consistently one of the Big Ten’s best defenses year-in and year-out.

  • geoffclarke

    Ha! Love that photo. I’m assuming Niang got called for the foul.

    • Michaeltheoriginal

      Excellent summary and the rankings are on the mark. I would only add that Morgan’s defense adds a new level by his ability to communicate with his teammates on the floor. The whole team plays better defense when he is barking out commands and getting his teammates in the proper position. I also think that we will hear from Zak Irvin on the defensive end this year. A little too early to crack the top 10 but his length, dexterity, and “Craftiness” will make him a difficult guy to play against.

      • Lynette Gascoigne

        Spot on! He has the intangibles that don’t show up in the stats box!

  • section13row15

    Was that picture taken during a game or was that in Craft’s spare time?

  • MBBMFB

    Craft might be less effective this year due to the new emphasis on hand checking on the perimeter

  • guestavo

    If GR3 slides over to the 3 spot then he will be top 5 defender in the conference.

    • Northern Blue

      agreed, he is very underrated defensively, because he didn’t have the mentality of a guy like Novak in terms of being able to play much bigger than his size against the big guys. Put him at the 3, and he will be very good there as he moves his feet very well, and has had some success guarding the perimeter. Just watch his scouting video from draft express for evidence. I am hoping that UM is dedicated to starting each half with a Walton-Stauskas-GR3-Morgan-Mcgary lineup with Morgan playing a centre role on offence while guarding the 4 on defence. From there the matchups may need to dictate, as whether it is the best fit or not for Glenn he will have to play some 4 because there is just too much talent on the perimeter on this team.

  • BlueBasketeer

    Having both Morgan and McGary on the list doesn’t quite pass the eyeball test. Our team defense, and interior defense in particular, just wasn’t that good last year. We had the worst defensive efficiency by far of any top 10 team last year, an area we need to improve significantly in. Our offense was top-notch, but without Burke and Hardaway, it will probably be down a notch. Our D needs to be up a notch to have any chance of a BT title.

    • guestavo

      McGary didn’t play starter minutes. Morgan missed significant time. Our defensive inefficiency had to do with mismatches and lack of size, but if GR3 plays the 3 and McGary the 4 then we will be better. Not to mention Levert/ Irvin off the bench gives us wing stoppers.

  • jakelam2116

    It definitely will be interesting to see how Craft’s defense is affected by the rule changes. I think he’ll still be very good, but the whistle might get blown a bit more often.

    These will all now be considered fouls:

    • Keeping hand or forearm on an opponent.

    • Putting two hands on an opponent.

    • Continually jabbing an opponent by extending an arm or placing a hand or forearm on the opponent.

    • Using an arm bar to impede the progress of a dribbler.

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