2009-2010 Season

Preseason Q&A with John Gasaway

John Gasaway, of Basketball Prospectus, (and formerly the Big Ten Wonk) agreed to answer some questions about Michigan and the Big Ten. Gasaway is a pioneer when it comes to college basketball analysis and although he left the Big Ten Wonk for greener pastures beyond the Big Ten, he’s still one of the best in the business. 

You guys have listened to me babble for six or seven months about the upcoming season, so I figure it’ll be good to hear from a fresh voice. Thanks again to John for taking the time to answer the questions – you can follow him at Basketball Prospectus, on Twitter (@johngasaway), and he also just finalized his book, The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview.

Expectations are so high across the conference that someone is bound to be disappointed. If you had to pick one, which of last year’s seven NCAA tournament teams (MSU, Purdue, Illinois, OSU, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan) do you see taking a big step back this year? Is the Big Ten a 7 bid league again this year?

To be honest, I don’t see any of those seven taking a big step back, though Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin would figure to be the most vulnerable to backtracking since they return fewer minutes than the other four teams. That being said, the number of bids that the Big Ten receives will not be simply a function of the league’s quality. It will also be a function of what’s out there beyond the borders of the slowest-paced league in the land. The SEC, to take one teachable example, will definitely absorb more bids this year than they did last year. And bids are a zero-sum game.

Michigan fans are clearly excited after ending their NCAA tournament drought and putting together one of their best seasons in the last decade. What do you think of this year’s Michigan team that returns Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims? Do they have what it takes to compete for the Big Ten title and make a run in March?

Michigan fans are right to be excited–goodness knows they’ve paid their dues. While I don’t expect the Wolverines to win more games than Purdue in the Big Ten this year, I do expect John Beilein’s team to make the NCAA tournament with ease and secure a really nice seed.

Now, if you have any UM fans among your readership who really insist on seeing that glass as half-empty, shake them vigorously and remind them of the years 1999-2007. Then tell them: OK, you have a point. (A small and splenetic one, but a point.) Your coach is pretty plainly invested in "going small" with this current generation of talent and playing Sims at the 5. (I say in our forthcoming book that Sims is underrated.) Beilein is probably one of my five favorite coaches in the country. If he says bringing in Gibson and moving Sims to the 4 would cost more points on offense than it would prevent on defense, I for one believe him. It does mean, however, that Michigan will continue to give up a lot of twos on defense. That is the limiting factor I see with this year’s team.

But let’s take a step back. Look how we’re talking here. I say I think Michigan has a limiting factor. So what? Even my answer assumes the Wolverines will get to the tournament and do well. Would you have taken that two years ago?

In fact, I want to pipe up on behalf of one of your players. I read the interview you did with KJ of The Only Colors and I have to take issue with your statement that Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas "is easily the best point guard in the conference." Really? What about a certain Manny Harris? Oh, I know last year there were always other Wolverines on the floor alongside Harris who proudly wore the "point guard" label (Kelvin Grady, C.J. Lee, Stu Douglass, etc.). I for one don’t buy it. Harris had by far the highest assist rate on the team and, more importantly, he ran this offense in the literal Beilein-ian sense. Plus Lucas is hapless inside the arc, making an anemic 40 percent of his twos last year. I’ll grant you that Lucas made Sherron Collins look really bad at a propitious moment (less than a minute left in a tie game) in the Sweet 16 and is clearly superior to Harris when it comes to nailing threes. I’m just sayin’. Not open and shut from my chair.

"Beilein ball" has been the subject for plenty of criticism since John Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor. The most common argument that is thrown around is that there is some sort of ceiling to how far a Beilein-led three point hoisting team can make it in the rugged Big Ten or in March Madness. Can a John Beilein team compete for Big Ten and national championships?

Of course. What rubbish. In the past five years: Illinois and Ohio State have each come within a whisker of winning the national championship by shooting a ton of threes; Florida won the national championship (2007) by shooting a ton of threes for six games in the tournament; and Beilein himself came within a free throw of the Final Four (2005). I suppose no team was supposed to win a national championship with a zone defense, either, until Syracuse did it in 2003. Carmelo Anthony helped that along, sure, but that’s kind of my point. The talent legitimizes whatever wacky scheme you happen to have. This year Bill Self could play a scheme where his players pantomime scenes from The Godfather and they’d still be the favorites to win the national championship.

The conference that you once dedicated yourself to appears to finally be on the cusp of putting together a premiere year. Will style of play still hold back the Big Ten’s national perception? Is this the year the Big Ten finally wins the Big Ten/ACC Challenge?

Yes, style of play will hold back the hosannahs. Not because of the style per se, but because it’s so pervasive in the Big Ten. Craig Robinson (Oregon State) and Tony Bennett (Virginia, via Washington State) play at a Big Ten pace but they’re commonly regarded as "neato" as the young people say nowadays. The problem isn’t tempo, the problem is 11 teams playing the same tempo. (Granted, Michigan State would play faster if the conference’s opposing defenses would let them.)

And as for getting off the schneid in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, yes, this could well be the year, just like last year would have been the year with just a bounce here and a tip-in there. The advantage the ACC has always held is that their mid-section and lower tier have traditionally been much, much better than the corresponding sections of the Big Ten. Last year and, indeed, this year those matchups figure to be much more even. I’m not expecting a win from Iowa in the Challenge, mind you, and even an improved Indiana should still be pretty callow at that point. But otherwise the Big Ten should be competitive.

By my untrained eye, Kansas appears to be a cut above the rest of the country this year. Are they your #1 team in the pre-season? And an important question for my Michigan faithful, come mid-December, are they beatable?

They won’t run the table, if that’s what you mean by "beatable," but yes, they’re the favorites. Keep in mind that if Sherron Collins hadn’t gotten it into his head to try to record his first block of the season against Kalin Lucas in the final minute of KU’s Sweet 16 game against the Spartans, the Jayhawks may well have advanced and we’d be sitting here talking about an Elite Eight or even Final Four team for Bill Self that lost no one.

Tell me about the book, this year’s version is downloadable?

Yes, it will be availa
ble at the website this year
, either as a pdf or as a print-on-demand book. You make the call. It will have in-depth previews of each team in the six major conferences. They were done by yours truly, Ken Pomeroy, and Dan Hanner. I make no promises for the ones I wrote, but I will tell you that Ken and Dan’s are the best previews you’ll read anywhere. Their previews tell coaches things they didn’t know before about their own teams, much less fans. Pick it up. (Read more here.)  

How can we keep track of you this year? I seem to recall your writing popping up in a couple other places besides Basketball Prospectus last year?

My parents have the same complaint. I will again be moonlighting at ESPN.com but regularly punching the time clock and procrastinating in the small kitchen at the Basketball Prospectus complex. I do know of one additional and surprising place where you’ll be able to find me for two weeks in February, but that’s all I can say right now. I promised the gals at The View that I wouldn’t say a word about my upcoming "spontaneous" flight over eastern Colorado in a homemade helium balloon…. Doh!

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