Does the Big Ten owe Tom Crean lunch?
On Saturday afternoon, during Iowa’s ruthless home rout of Michigan, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich hit on a key insight.
Convention would dictate that a coach should check Michigan guard Nik Stauskas with as tall a wingman as he had available -- the better to challenge Stauskas, who spent all of January destroying Big Ten defenses, on the perimeter. But Dakich noted that when Indiana played (and beat) Michigan, Crean used a much shorter player -- 5-foot-11 point guard Yogi Ferrell -- on the Wolverines’ star. Crean didn’t make this decision out of necessity: 6-foot-7 Indiana wing Troy Williams might be the Hoosiers’ best all-around defender, and he would have been convention’s perfect candidate. But Ferrell’s quickness, his ability to stay inside Stauskas’ comfort zone, made him a constant nuisance. Stauskas, who had averaged a scorching 131.0 offensive rating since Dec. 21, who blew kisses to the Breslin Center, who was unstoppable ... finished with six points on 1-of-4 shooting. It was his worst game of the season.
Did Crean crack the code? Michigan’s two games since are suggestive. Stauskas finished with nine points against Nebraska Wednesday; he didn’t attempt a two-point field goal, but then again he didn’t have to. (Michigan won 79-50 in 63 possessions.) Iowa coach Fran McCaffery followed Crean’s lead on Saturday, though, using 6-foot-1 guard Mike Gesell as opposed to Roy Devyn Marble, the obvious size-for-size matchup. It worked: Stauskas used just 11 of Michigan’s 64 possessions and finished 3-of-6 from the field with four turnovers. Among the Wolverines’ many problems Saturday was a star scorer suddenly detached from the offense going on around him.
Say what you want about the frustrating, stop-start 2013-14 Indiana Hoosiers, but it would appear their coach did the rest of the Big Ten a solid.
Of course, Stauskas was probably due for a natural regression at some point. He was never going to sustain 45 percent shooting from 3 and 60 percent from 2. Maybe that regression came along on its own, and teamed up with Crean’s unconventional strategy. Maybe? It’s hard to tease exactly all of this out.
But there is clearly something to the idea of chasing Stauskas around the court with a small, quick, aggressive man-to-man defender. He is more likely to turn the ball over. He is less likely to get to the rim. He may see 3s more easily, but when he was tearing opposing defenses apart in January, any of them would have begged to turn Stauskas back into the semi-manageable spot-up shooter they had to worry about a year ago. Better that than unstoppable all-court destruction, you know? Better him be uncomfortable. Better to take away something.
Ohio State, for all of its issues -- and it another of those inconsistent Big Ten teams with massive, glaring flaws -- does one thing extremely well: perimeter defense. Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are excellent perimeter defenders, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson aren’t far behind. As a group, the Buckeyes force Big Ten opponents into turnovers on nearly 21 percent of their possessions. OSU opponents also shoot the worst percentage in the league (28.6) from 3, and that’s when they even get a shot off, which isn’t often (just 30.6 percent of shots against the Buckeyes are 3s, second fewest in the Big Ten). The Buckeyes’ offense is occasionally a train wreck; it’s usually pretty tough to watch. But Ohio State's defense is still a nightmare for opposing guards.
If you’re Stauskas, there is no worse way to break out of a three-game mini-slump than having Craft and Scott chase you around the perimeter. Whether the league’s coaches have figured out an antidote is almost beside the point. Ohio State had one ready all along.