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On Point: Know Your Opponents

by Chris Mackinder | December 11th, 2007

When analyzing matchups, experts tend to look at the obvious: rankings, star players, and big-name coaches. All of these play a factor, but sometimes a win just comes down to knowing your opponent.

How does the opposition score? From the foul line? Mid-range jumpers? Three-pointers? And, almost as important, where are your team’s defensive weaknesses? Can your team stop penetration without fouling? Does your team surrender the 3-point shot, taking its chances that a team gets cold?

Butler, until Saturday night, was undefeated and ranked No. 13 in the country. Then the Bulldogs ran into the mighty Wright State Raiders. Now in this example, the stats just don’t explain the end result.

Butler scores 52.4 percent of its points from 3-point range. Think about that number for a second. That means if the Bulldogs put up 57 points, 30 of those came from behind the arc (10 3-pointers made). To beat Butler, there is one easy solution: stop the trey. Ironically, in Butler’s 43-42 loss to Wright State, the game ended when Butler’s A.J. Graves missed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

Let’s first focus on Big Ten teams and then analyze the Butler-Wright State game.

Northwestern loves the 3-point shot, scoring 46.6 points from behind the arc. It should also be noted the Wildcats, because of their dependency on the triple, do not get to the foul line often, scoring just 12.1 percent of their points from the charity stripe. Interestingly enough, Northwestern’s defensive prowess mirrors its offense. The Wildcats allow opponents freedom from 3-point range by allowing 42.1 percent of opponents’ points from behind the 3-point line (eighth worst in the NCAA). Northwestern also doesn’t commit many fouls.

Michigan, not surprisingly considering new coach John Beilein’s offense, lives and dies by the triple. The Wolverines are in the NCAA top 50 by scoring nearly 37 percent of its points from 3-point range. They also find themselves in the NCAA’s bottom 10 when it comes to 3-point defense. Opponents score 41.7 points from beyond the arc. Michigan also doesn’t foul, and is No. 3 in the nation in allowing just 10 percent of opponent points from the foul line.

Penn State is pretty balanced with about half of its points coming from 2-point range. The Nittany Lions, however, score just 14.4 percent of their points from the stripe.

Minnesota also is rather balanced, although Tubby Smith has the Golden Gophers shooting the three more. The Gophers score 31 percent of their points from 3-point range. Minnesota’s defensive weakness is fouling. Opponents score 23.4 percent of their points from the foul line, in the top 20 percent of the NCAA.

Ohio State lost Greg Oden to the NBA but Kosta Koufos and Othello Hunter guard the paint like an army guarding a castle. Just 12.1 percent of opposing points come from the foul line, meaning the Buckeyes not only play great defense, but opponents can’t get to the stripe. For the most part Ohio State is balanced on offense, though it relies on the 3-point shot (30.7 percent) more than getting to the foul line (18.1 percent).

Iowa is the definition of a balanced team. The Hawkeyes have the following numbers on offense (FT-2pt-3pt): 21-51-28. Defensively, Iowa surrenders a higher average from 3-point range (31.9), in the nation’s bottom third, but nothing too drastic.

Knowing it has trouble shooting the rock, Illinois understands its strength is to get easy looks. That translates into plenty of 2-point baskets. The Fighting Illini score 55 percent of their points from inside the arc while roughly a quarter (25.5 percent) of their points from long range. But Illinois, also realizing its strength is defense, locks up the opposition and allows only 25.8 percent of opponent points from behind the 3-point line.

Indiana sacrifices the 3-point shot to get to the foul line. The Hoosiers are in the top 20 percent of the NCAA in points from the foul line (22.9 percent) and in the lower third in 3-point shots (25.2 percent). Defensively, Indiana doesn’t foul, keeping the opposition from shooting many free throws but occasionally that means easy baskets. Opponents score 54 percent of their points from 2-point range against the Hoosies.

Wisconsin does what Bo Ryan’s offense is meant to do–get easy 2-point shots. Nearly 58 percent of Wisconsin’s points come from 2-point range, while the Badgers getsjust 22.5 percent of their points beyond the arc, in the lower 20 percent of the NCAA. Defensively, Wisconsin is vulnerable from long distance (31.1 percent).

Purdue is the best Big Ten team at getting the ball in the post for easy 2-pointers. The Boilers score 59.3 percent of their points from inside the arc and are one of the worst in the nation at putting up points from long range (19.8 percent). Defensively, Purdue plays tough defense in the post and keeps opponents off the line (just 16.2 percent of opposition points come from the stripe). The Boilers do allow 31.9 percent of opponents’ points to come from long range.

Michigan State gets inside and gets fouled. The Spartans are in the nation’s top 50 in both 2-point shots (57.8 percent) and free throws (23.2 percent). That means even with Drew Neitzel and his knack for late-game triples, the Spartans score just 19 percent of their points from long range. Defensively, however, MSU is vulnerable. Opponents score 32.4 of their points from 3-point range against Michigan State and that is necessary since the Spartans allows just 48.6 points from 2-point range, in the top third in the country.

What does it all mean? It means when playing a team, know where to score and where to focus your defense. Wright State, interesting enough, is the best team in the country at getting to the foul line (32.1 percent). Butler knew that and had just 12 total fouls and held Wright State to just six attempts from the charity stripe. Wright State returned the favor, holding Butler to 7-for-21 shooting from 3-point range. It came down to the simple fact that, while both teams corralled their opponent’s strength, someone had to win.

In the Big Ten, know the following: Michigan and Northwestern love the 3-pointer; Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin get the ball in the paint; Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota get to the foul line. You know that, defensively, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue don’t foul often; Indiana and Purdue are vulnerable in the paint; Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State virtually give you the 3-point shot.

With that information, a game plan should not be difficult to contrive. Now, just go and follow it.

Point Distribution Statistics (compliments of Kenpom.com)

Offense FT — 2pt — 3pt, Defense FT — 2pt — 3pt

Illinois 19.5 – 55 – 25.5, 22.5 – 51.7 – 25.8

Indiana 22.9 – 52 – 25.2, 18.6 – 54 – 27.5

Iowa 20.8 – 51.3 – 27.9, 18.2 – 49.9 – 31.9

Michigan 17.4 – 46.5 – 36.1, 10 – 48.3 – 41.7

Michigan St. 23.2 – 57.8 – 19, 19.3 – 48.2 – 32.4

Minnesota 21.4 – 47.6 – 31, 23.4 – 50.8 – 25.8

Northwestern 12.1 – 41.4 – 46.6, 16.1 – 41.8 – 42.1

Ohio State 18.1 – 51.2 – 30.7, 12.1 – 51.6 – 36.3

Penn State 14.4 – 53.7 – 31.9, 21.5 – 50.1 – 28.4

Purdue 20.9 – 59.3 – 19.8, 16.2 – 51.9 – 31.9

Wisconsin 19.8 – 57.7 – 22.5, 17.8 – 51.1 – 31.1

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