Friday, December 21, 2007

Fear the Underdog

Conventional wisdom and conference affiliation say the Wisconsin men's basketball team is a favorite on Saturday over Valparaiso, a new member of the Horizon league. But don't get too cocky-- Valpo is 10-1, their best starting record since 1945, and their only loss came at Vanderbilt, and only by nine points. Vandy is undefeated and currently ranked 17th. As the Journal-Sentinel's Mark Stewart notes, Valpo garnered more total rebounds than Vandy in that game, and, in fact, pulled down a colossal 21 offensive boards.

Now, what we have learned so far is that when Wisconsin is not playing against a team with top notch dribble penetrators (Duke, Marquette), they play outstanding defense, especially when it comes to preventing easy baskets. The stats bear this out as well, as Ken Pomeroy continues to have UW rated as the most efficient defensive team in the country, and notes that, so far, UW has only allowed opposing teams to 39% of their two-point shots. That's the sixth best two-point defense in the country.

Worryingly, this doesn't match-up well with Valpo's offensive forte, which is shooting the three-ball. As a team, Valpo has been shot over 42% from outside the arc this season, and they get a ton of their points from outside. (For stat heads, this means Valpo is 8th in the country in percentage of points they get from threes.) Wisco's D against three-point shooting has been quite good, even including the Duke first-half debacle, but not as stellar as their interior defense.

What's also troubling is how Bucky's offensive strength is negated by Valpo's defensive one. The Badgers aren't a great outside shooting team, inside shooting team, or free throw shooting team. Instead, UW is a great offensive rebounding team-- rated 7th nationally in the percentage of its own misses that it gets back. (Of course, this stat is padded by the team's big men missing so many bunnies and having to try again and again, but anyway.) I think that's largely due to Butch and the Hoft being excellent rebounders and being on the floor more this season. Anyhow, this stat bears out in real life. As any person who's watched more than a couple of UW games this season could tell you, Wisconsin gets around its mediocre shooting by hitting the boards hard and getting easy put-backs. Alas, Valpo is an excellent defensive rebounding team so far this season, rated 21st nationally in glass-clearing on defense. And if UW can't get put backs, they may have serious trouble scoring. Uh oh.

So anyway, look out for a tough one. Valpo is a team that rebounds well and shoots well from outside, plus they've been very successful this season. This seems like a match-up that's tailor made to punch UW right in the wiener. It's on the Big Ten Network tomorrow night at 7:30 pm Central.

And even though you may think I'm crazy, I'm starting to worry about the Bears. The Chicago defense, with Nathan Vasher finally back with mended groin at cornerback, looked much improved at Minnesota on Monday. Their offense stinks, yes, and Kyle Orton and Adrian Peterson (the Bears' current starters at QB and RB) are questionable "talents." But the Bears will be playing for pride and to disrupt the Packers' excellent season. And the Packers defensive tackle rotation keeps getting thinner and thinner, with Harrell, Corey Williams and Ryan Pickett all now getting nicked up.

Plus, McCarthy just announced that the Packers were, again, going to do squib kickoffs against the Bears for fear of kicking it to Devin Hester. Listen, Hester is an amazing talent. But if you look at his stats, he's actually a far more dangerous punt returner than kickoff guy. Plus, a squib gives the receiving team excellent field position. Hell, the Bears started every damn drive at the 40 when they beat the Packers in October. And the Bears are adapting to squib kicks, by having back-up returners in front of Hester who are ready to take the squib and run. Plus, the Packers' kickoff coverage units have been playing great. Football Outsiders has that unit rated fourth best in the NFL. So boot it out of bounds on punts, yes. But not on kickoffs. This strategy is a bad idea, and it burned the Packers in the teams' first match-up.

1 comment:

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