Big Ten Basketball: Year of the Blowout

Tom Izzo, hoping to run up the score, calls for a 2-point conversion. - USA TODAY Sports

Was this the most competitive year in the Big Ten or the most lopsided?

Year after year, the Big Ten is near the very bottom of the country in aggregate tempo, measuring the average number of possessions per game. This year, the Ivy League (62.3) and the Big Ten (62.9) finished last and next-to-last, respectively, among the 32 conferences in that category.

So it's no surprise that by kenpom.com's count of blowouts, the Ivy ranked last with three such games. Only 5.4 percent of league games ended with a margin of victory greater than 19 points. The theory being, with fewer possessions teams will score less frequently and therefore be less likely to fall behind by such a margin.

One would expect the Big Ten to fall somewhere nearby on that list. Surely this season, in which the conference race came down to the final day and the league's quality was championed from the hilltops, right?

Wrong. A whopping 21.3 percent of Big Ten games were blowouts in 2012-13. Furthermore, while 23 contests saw margins of 20 or more points, a mere 17 games were decided by fewer than four points or in overtime. That's just 15.7 percent of the 108 league games that Ken Pomeroy considers "close" -- and Wisconsin was in six of them!

Bo Ryan's crew went 4-2 in those close games and 4-0 in blowouts over Illinois, Ohio State, Northwestern and Nebraska.

Conference champ Indiana was 5-0 in blowouts, 1-1 in close games. The Hoosiers were involved in several more 4-point games, which don't count in the totals, presumably because they represent a two-possession lead.

Contributing factors

We all know fouling strategies, late free throw shooting and meaningless buzzer beaters at the ends of close games can skew a final score. But another factor has to be that the top of the conference is a bit stronger than usual, while the cellar is noticeably weaker, as well.

Indiana and Michigan were ranked in the top 10 in both major polls the entire season. Ohio State sat in the top 20 all year, too. Four other Big Ten teams were ranked for long stretches of the year, while the remaining five teams did not even sniff a vote.

When I looked into the numbers and results, I found the top five teams in the conference posted a 16-2 record in blowout games and the two losses came at the hands of a fellow top-tier team. The bottom three teams, universally acknowledged as awful, went winless in 13 blowout situations while the middle tier of teams vying for NCAA tourney bids went a predictably even-keeled 7-8.

Big Ten: 2013 records in blowouts (>19 pts.) vs. close games (<4 pts.)
Team Blowouts Record Close games Record
Indiana 5 5-0 2 1-1
Ohio State 3 2-1 3 1-2
Michigan State 2 2-0 4 3-1
Wisconsin 4 4-0 6 4-2
Michigan 4 3-1 5 2-3
Iowa 3 2-1 5 1-4
Purdue 5 1-4 1 1-0
Illinois 4 3-1 1 1-0
Minnesota 3 1-2 4 2-2
Nebraska 4 0-4 1 1-0
Northwestern 6 0-6 0 -
Penn State 3 0-3 2 0-2

As much as I'd love to blame Nebraska for joining the league and watering down our basketball, last season only featured 15 blowouts (13.9 percent) and 23 close games. (Truth be told, if the data went back to 1993, I'll bet Penn State has been the cause of any possible increase in blowouts.)

But even if Penn State is to blame, this season has been the anomaly over the past decade. The last season where the percentage of blowout wins even approached this year's level was back in 2004-05, when 17 of the 88 games (19.3 percent) were barely contested. The percentage of close games (19.3 percent) was higher in that season, too. That year, once-beaten Illinois (15-1) ran through a number of teams along with 13-3 Michigan State, and most teams beat up on Penn State (1-15). But the teams in the middle had less variance in their performance from game-to-game.

Was the Big Ten not as competitive as we thought in 2013? Wins by Penn State and Purdue over Michigan and Wisconsin seem to fly in the face of that idea.

If you look at the influx of young talent into the conference, most Big Ten teams have less experience on their roster this season than the NCAA average. This is normal for a power conference, since better players arrive and leave earlier than they would at an Ivy, Horizon or SWAC school. The NCAA average is 1.70 years of experience this season, compared to 1.66 years last season. Seven Big Ten teams were above last year's average, eight this year.

Big Ten: Average experience (in years)
Team 2013 (rank) 2012 (rank)
Illinois 2.23 (35) 1.43 (244)
Minnesota 1.95 (99) 1.14 (305)
Nebraska 1.82 (149) 2.54 (2)
Wisconsin 1.80 (155) 1.89 (104)
Indiana 1.69 (186) 1.61 (190)
Ohio State 1.67 (191) 1.27 (286)
Penn State 1.52 (233) 1.25 (290)
Northwestern 1.52 (233) 1.92 (91)
Michigan State 1.30 (287) 1.71 (162)
Iowa 1.24 (298) 1.51 (122)
Purdue 1.16 (312) 1.96 (81)
Michigan 0.80 (338) 1.54 (207)

Seven teams had a net loss of of experience from last season, and youthful inexperience is often cited as a reason for inconsistency. Looking at the lowest four programs on that list, sure enough, Purdue and Michigan were involved in two of the wackiest outcomes of the year. Both were far below the average experience level for Division I along with Iowa and Michigan State. The top conference finishers were all below the national average, as well.

In 2012, the top six teams in the Big Ten standings were evenly split in experience above and below the NCAA mean.

The numbers certainly don't explain teams like Illinois and Minnesota, which routinely are among the most inconsistent in their performance but in 2013 are the two most experienced clubs. Which leads me back to the same conclusion people have been coming to all season long in college basketball: this game is beautifully crazy.

So maybe we're in for a real stinker of a conference tournament. More blowouts. Chalk through the bracket.

Then again, I doubt it -- you just never know what those darn kids are gonna show you.

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