Running and gunning in the Big Ten: Breaking stereotypes in the Midwest

Aaron White love to run up and down the floor. And he loves to dunk. - Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Not every team in the Midwest plays like Wisconsin.

On Sunday afternoons in the winter, the nation tunes into Big Ten hoops. It seems that practically every week the Wisconsin Badgers are involved in these Sunday games, and are locked in a low possession battle where one or both teams will end up scoring fewer than 65 points. This is Big Ten basketball, where defensively-oriented teams walk the ball up the court, and struggle against physical half court defense.

This is the way the Big Ten works. This is the league of Bo Ryan, and before him of Dick Bennett, Gene Keady, and Bobby Knight.

Or at least that is the reputation. The Big Ten is far less homogeneous than this caricature suggests. While Wisconsin is one of the slowest and most methodical teams in the nation, and Big Ten games do see fewer possessions than all but a handful of leagues, not every team in the Midwest is content to walk the ball up the floor. Some Big Ten squads like to play fast.

Visualizing transition scoring

I am not the first person to look at the spread of pace of play among Big Ten teams. This is a topic that has received some attention over at the SB Nation Michigan State blog The Only Colors. You can read their takes here and here, both using data from last season.

To help visualize the different paces of play in the Big Ten conference, along with how successful each team is in transition, I have made the plot below. In it, I plot the percentage of attempts for each team that come in transition on the horizontal axis, and each team's effective field goal percentage in transition on the vertical axis. All data come from hoop-math.com.

(It is important to define what I mean by "transition." Here I have defined transition attempts that occur within the first ten seconds of a possession that starts with a steal, defensive rebound, or opponent score. These are all live ball situations where the offense can attempt to beat the D down the floor.)

For reference, I have also indicated on this plot above the teams that shoot the highest and lowest proportion of their attempts in  transition from across D-I. The fastest team in D-I is Northwestern State, of the Southland Conference, while the slowest team is Joe Scott's Denver Pioneers.

Looking at the plot above, we see that Wisconsin's reputation for playing slowly is well earned. Only 10  teams in the country shoot less often in transition than do the Badgers. Although on the rare occasions that they do shoot quickly, Bo Ryan's team does fairly well in transition. Leading the charge when the Badgers do shoot quickly is perimeter threat Ben Brust. 42 of Brust's 166 three point attempts have come in transition, and Brust has been predictably good on these shot attempts, hitting 45 percent.

Northwestern is another team that plays at a stereotypical Big Ten pace. The Wildcats currently average 0.88 points per possession in Big Ten games -- they just have a difficult time scoring. Going in transition helps some; Chris Collins' team has an effective field goal percentage of 54 percent, compared with 44 percent on non-transition shots.

Some teams in the Big Ten prefer to run

Not every team in the league plays like Wisconsin or Northwestern. The rest of the league plays faster than these two squads, and several Big Ten teams look to aggressively push the ball in transition.

By any measure Iowa is one of the fastest teams in the country. Only four teams in D-I take a higher percentage of their attempts in transition than do the Hawkeyes. And none of those four teams shoot the ball as well in early in the shot clock as Fran McCaffery's team; Iowa boasts a 61 percent effective field goal percentage in transition.

To a large extent, the thing that makes Iowa so effective on the break is the way that they finish. The Hawkeyes get a little less than half of their transition attempts as layups and dunks, and they convert these shots 74 percent of the time. There are very few players in the country that finish better than 6-9 junior Aaron White, who has made 87 percent of shots at the rim in transition, and has to be on the short list of best dunking redheads in the college game.

Iowa isn't the only Big Ten team that likes to run. Michigan State also pushes tempo when it can. The Spartans attempt 29 percent of their field goal attempts in transition, and like Iowa, Tom Izzo's squad also manages an effective field goal percentage of 61 percent when they shoot quickly.

Gary Harris leads the charge in transition for the Spartans. The sophomore guard loves to take the ball to the rack. Harris has converted 75 percent of his 44 transition attempts at the rim.

And then there is Indiana. A season ago, a talented Hoosier squad took 29 percent of its attempts in transition, and converted in transition at an effective field goal percentage of 62 percent. Only five teams nationally shot more often in transition.  This season Tom Crean's team still plays an up tempo style, shooting 28 percent of their attempts in transition. But they are far less effective,  with only a 51 percent effective field goal percentage on the break.

Why the dropoff in transition offense? A season ago, the Hoosiers converted 70 percent of their layups and dunks, and roasted opponents from three, making 44 percent of their transition shots from beyond the arc.

But Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford were responsible for most of the long range damage last season, when both players were seniors. This year, the Hoosiers have made only 27 percent of their transition threes; Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon are a combined 5-29 from beyond the arc in early offense. In addition, Crean's men are converting a pedestrian 59 percent of their transition layups and dunks. They miss players like Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, both of whom were reliable finishers in the Indiana break.

Michigan runs less, but is highly effective when they do

While the Michigan Wolverines run less than do their counterparts in East Lansing, Bloomington, and Iowa City, they are hard to stop when they do go in transition. John Beilein's team boasts an effective field goal percentage of 69 percent on early offense, the second highest total in the nation. The Wolverines have converted 90 percent of their layups and dunks and 46 percent of their threes in transition. Glenn Robinson III is 24-24 when he gets to the rim in transition this year, while Nick Stauskas is 20-36 when he shoots a transition three.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Michigan break is when they like to run. Iowa likes to push the ball up the floor whenever possible, but Michigan is more selective. When Michigan grabs a defensive rebound, it looks to push the tempo. Just under 18 percent of the Wolverines' initial shots come in transition after a defensive rebound.  This is the 14th highest rate in D-I. But after a made basket, Michigan almost never looks to score quickly. Less than 2 percent of Wolverine initial attempts come within the first ten seconds of an opponent score. Only two other teams  in D-I shoots less frequently in transition after an opponent scores than John Beilein's team. The net effect of this is that Michigan shoots a bit less than 22 percent of its shots in transition, which is ever so slightly above the D-I median of 21 percent.


Everyone plays a little different in the Big Ten

It is easy to lean on simple stereotypes -- because after all they sure do save time. But sometimes a stereotype isn't helpful; it is hard to stereotype the style of play of every team in a league that contains both Wisconsin and Iowa.

The Big Ten is a little slower than average, when compared with other conferences across the country. But this average pace of play across a league is hardly a useful number; when Wisconsin and Northwestern square off, the results will look a little different than what you get from a contest between Michigan State and Iowa.

So leave the stereotypes alone. Kids from the Midwest get up and down the floor, too.

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