B1G Rising: Getting Out of the Basketball Cellar

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Buckle in ladies and gentlemen... This one is a long one.

About two weeks ago, MNWildcat and I started ruminating on discussions about how our respective teams would cease to be awful. Then two weeks passed and it came to be that our respective teams were only semi-awful, giving us both some hope for the future. As such, we figured a back-and-forth on what it might take to get out of the cellar, and everything that getting out of the cellar means. Enjoy this incredibly long conversation...

Jesse:

I'm not 100% on how that should look, but let's do this.

MNWildcat:To be honest, I'm not either.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Nebraska 64 90 64 150 130 74
Northwestern 65 83 50 66 132 149
Penn State 52 109 43 127 148 104
Purdue 17 14 10 28 61 107

I rigged up that little table of Kenpom numbers at the end of each season, just as a little jumping off point for me, at least. What jumps out, to begin:

Nebraska and Northwestern follow, so far, an eerily similar timeline, but with Northwestern bumped back just a near. Doc Sadler went after 2012, Bill Carmody went after 2013. Both teams struggle in the subsequent year, though I'm optimistic, based on Tim Miles' 2014 campaign, about Chris Collins in 2014-5.

Same goes, if marginally so, for Penn State. Now, Ed DeChellis wasn't fired (but lol leaving for Navy, where he's 18-58 so far), but Pat Chambers has experienced the same drop-off, albeit with currently a slower rise than Nebraska.
I included Purdue. Because that drop-off is staggering.

I'm optimistic about the "rise" of Northwestern, because I believe that Chris Collins' recruiting is going to get in the necessary components of his system. This will enable the 'Cats to play a more aggressive, athletic style of basketball that, when demanded of Bill Carmody's teams, usually produced a falter or two in winnable games down the stretch. I also think that Northwestern might have a continued drop in this first year under Collins compared to the last year of Carmody. Whereas Miles had his team playing up to a #130 ranking, I can see the 'Cats sticking around #150 (PSU 2013 bad) because of the fact that Collins is going to impose his style in the first year, come hell or high water (and both will continue to roll in), and we're going to lose some games like we did to Iowa last weekend.

With Nebraska winning another game against Minnesota last night, how much of this upstick in Nebraska's performance do you attribute to (1) Tim Miles, (2) Tim Miles' recruiting, (3) a more veteran presence, (4) Pinnacle Bank atmosphere, and (5) the absence of Fat Man Basketball? I know it's not (5), but I'm curious what the general sentiment is in Lincoln.

The last thing: what's "success" this year for this Cornhusker squad? NIT with a home game was the first thing that game to my mind, though I don't have my finger on the UN-L pulse quite like you do. That also, assuming the now officially not-official "No NIT bid for sub-.500 teams," would require the Huskers to go 7-11 in conference to maintain a .500 record.

Then again, perhaps Nebraska is aspiring to a magical CBI run, like Purdue in 2013...

Jesse:

#CBIChampsAreTheBestChamps

Okay, so it looks like you've provided us a jumping off point, let's get on with it. Before I get into actually answering your well-reasoned questions, let me go on a few rants about the data you put out there.

  • What the hell Purdue. What the hell. How do you go from four consecutive Top 30 performances to 61 to 107? I know injuries and such, but this is a trend you really do not want to keep up. Yes, I know you beat Nebraska. No, I don't care. This is still a sad thing. Get your act together and be good at basketball. For all of us.
  • In 2011, all four of these teams were considerably serviceable. In 2013 - just two years later - all four of these teams were much much less serviceable, especially under expectations. Again, Purdue, I get that you were higher than Nebraska in 2011, but we expect you to not suck at basketball. Nebraska has never won a NCAA game. Standards and such.
  • Trending up is easy when you're coming from a low point of 150

Anyhow, let me get to your answers. First off, Nebraska's uptick in performance is completely attributable to Tim Miles. However, Tim Miles is also something of a product of great resources currently. I talked about Pinnacle Bank Arena the other day, and I cannot emphasize the advantage that has given him over every other Nebraska coach ever. It's beautiful, it's loud, it's fun to be in. Simply put, as a recruiter, that place helps sell something that's not all that wonderful on paper. Even so, a pretty arena doesn't make gameplans, motivate hardnosed defense, or get kids to put in the extra effort after practice. Tim Miles does all of that and gets support for his vision by being an all-around awesome person in front of the camera. He has brains + he gets politics. That's the best kind of marriage of skills. In other words, while PBA is a correlated factor to Miles recruiting better players, and Miles recruiting better players allows his coaching to look better, we would all be remiss to not give the direct praise back to Miles. He's using tools given to him, and he's doing it well.

Which is why you can even ask the second question. Nebraska's goal should probably be to get to .500 and make the NIT. Nebraska probably needs to win 6 out of its final 11 to get to that point, which means they are probably going to have to pick someone off on the road. I would target both the Northwestern and Illinois games as possibilities for that to happen. Of course, this team lost at Penn State, so who knows probability factors. This allows for a Wisconsin loss at home to finish the season because I still think they just have more talent than Nebraska. Now, in that same breath, success is not going to be completely measured solely by making the NIT. In fact, I would argue that just getting to almost .500, no bad losses, and marked improvement will be enough to bring fans back for what could be an interesting 2014-15 season in which the reinforcements - especially down low - are coming. I'm cautiously optimistic that things are trending up, but this team needs to mature and that's what is important.

Now that I've blathered on a bit, tell me a few things about Northwestern. After what looked like a disastrous start and what was shaping up to be a historically bad season has turned into an interesting, if not wholly impressive, run by Collins. How are Northwestern fans feeling right now? Is there a chance that the Wildcats could get over the proverbial hump and make the tournament under the new coach? More importantly, how much time does he get to make that happen?

MNWildcat:

I like the rant. Sensible, on-point, and anti-Purdue. I will comment on trending up from the "low points," though. You would think a similar statement would be true of Northwestern this year, by that logic, though the 'Cats have fallen to 149 from 132. If anything, it hopefully means everything's coming up Milhouse next year. I'm hoping, though, that this season it's more an indictment of the changing styles in Evanston. It certainly wasn't helped, though, by Northwestern's abysmal non-conference play.

As a Northwestern fan, I'm feeling optimistic enough right now, but I think the general sentiment is that we know we're playing the long game here. The optimistic timeline, to the best of my understanding, is that a Purdue-esque CBI bid in achievable this season, an NIT bid next year, and a bubble team by 2015-16. Is that a little demanding? Yes. But with a 4* recruit and two 3* recruits joining the program in Evanston next season, we're excited to watch the maturation process. We'll see the phasing out of Princeton Offense types like Dave Sobolewski (a good kid, but no one will be sad to see him go), the addition (hopefully) of purer shooters and better, more athletic slashers like the aforementioned 4* Vic Law, and the introduction of a more up-tempo offense not relying on THE BURN to keep us in games.

I give Collins about 5 years. His contract is for 7, but I think that by the time this "best recrootin' class evah" is through, I think we should see results. Now, I'm sure Northwestern fans out there will note how unfair I'm being, as I was a Carmody advocate to the cold, bitter end, and he got 13 years. Collins, however, is spending his entire tenure at this university being given even resource possible--administration support, facilities upgrades (coming down the pipe for basketball)--in order to succeed. I think within 5 years, if Northwestern hasn't been a bubble program for the last 2-3, Collins is under severe fire. If he takes us to the Promised Land, he has a statue erected in his honor outside Welsh-Ryan Arena.

I really like the Tim Miles-Chris Collins comparisons in general. While Miles has the coaching experience, Collins' pedigree, in my mind, balances that out well enough. Both men are really concerned, right now, with changing the culture at their respective schools. Miles has the shiny new stadium, Collins hopefully has facilities upgrades on the way. So, my questions: why, besides the obvious lack of interest, are we not including Pat Chambers and Penn State in this discussion? And which, of Tim Miles and Chris Collins, is gone first?

Jesse:

Wait. Northwestern is keeping track of Basketball Stars in recruiting? WHAT IS THIS WORLD WE'RE LIVING IN?!?! But seriously, that's awesome. I've always thought the Wildcats were a good coach and some institutional show of support away from being not-awful. You've got the coach and as you say, hopefully you have the support. But that's not what you asked, is it.

So here's the thing about Penn State... Pat Chambers is a reflection of the dichotomy that is overachieving and underachieving. On one hand, I think that most people on the outside looking in, especially going into this year, would argue that Penn State was finally trending in the right direction. In fact, I had read a few previews that said Penn State could be the surprise team of the B1G this season, and with a little luck, perhaps Chambers - and PSU - would be on its way to being a basketball school. In fact, in year three of the Chambers experience, the Lions were lined up great. Unfortunately, Penn State did not live up to that hype at all. In fact, more important to Chambers' rep is the fact that he really has seen very little progression in the W-L columns. Taking that a step further, you could argue that his teams may actually be regressing in reality. Despite a slight jump in KenPom rankings this year, would anyone argue that Penn State has been a success? Moreover, outside of Chambers being an all-around good guy, would a Penn State fan be mad if he was let go?

Now, we know as well as anyone the dangers of throwing out the old guard for the sake of change. As I've always believed, especially in college sports, coaching changes are a step backwards until proven they aren't. That is, change disrupts everything. However, you start to get a feeling that Chambers is similar to a Doc Sadler type. Really nice guy, supported by everyone, decent enough coach, but really in over his head when it comes to major college basketball. I'd like to believe this isn't the case, but until Penn State can string together something, they just can't be taken seriously. Is it an issue of talent or scheme? Well, I've only seen two Penn State games, so I can't answer that in greater depth, but if I had to guess, I'd take both.

With that all in mind, you ask who goes first - Collins or Miles. As much as this probably sucks to hear for you, it's Collins. He has NBA connections, he has the Duke job in his back pocket whenever Coach K retires, he has ACC roots all over the place, and until Northwestern proves they can ante up and pay for a guy like that, his success seems to be a stepping stone. Not that Nebraska is an end game for Tim Miles either, but there is some institutional support seen there that gives me a little comfort that he's being taken care of. On top of that, if he's successful, he'll be the hero of Nebraska for life. I think a guy like him thinks about these things. Just like Collins probably hopes to be the guy to take Northwestern to the tournament. What is amazing is that we are finally living in a world where Nebraska and Northwestern dream of the tournament. That is... remarkable.

So let's close this thing down. Give me your back half outlook on the bottom third of the B1G. How does Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern, and Nebraska finish this season? Do any of these teams make a postseason tournament?

MNWildcat:

Oof, a Doc Sadler-to-Pat Chambers comparison. I'm sure a couple PSU fans out there winced at that one. Unfortunately, it feels like you really might have that one pegged, though I want to wait and see Northwestern and Penn State play this year before I really come to that conclusion.

Don't worry about it sucking for me to hear Collins to be the first to go. I'm right there with you. It feels like as soon as this guy makes the tournament, no matter what Northwestern pays him or what they do to Welsh-Ryan, Collins will never feel totally at home at a non-basketball school like Northwestern. There will always be a Duke or some other job out there that can offer a bigger, better combination of money, facilities, and fandom than Northwestern. On Miles...I hope, for your sake and not ours, that you're right on that one. Seems like Nebraska would be the ultimate final stop for a South Dakota native, but I just have that nagging feeling that if something a little more burnt orange ever came calling... Well, that's pure speculation. We're agreed on Collins leaving first AND that this is a crazy world in which I suddenly can talk about recruiting stars and we both think we're getting closer to the tournament.

For the rest of the season:

  • I think Purdue finds themselves in the awkward position, heading down the stretch, that they need to win 4 of the 5 (@PSU, MN, IU, @Neb, NU) to find an NIT berth. With a 10-3 non-con record, a 6-12 conference record might be enough to sneak in on, but 7-11 would yield a more comfortable 17-14. Unfortunately, I don't see Purdue finishing any better than that. I'd put Purdue as somewhere around 66% to make the NIT.
  • Nebraska has FIVE games at home against unranked teams: IU, Ill, PSU, Purdue, NU. It's scary to speculate that the Huskers could hold serve in all five of those, but they've looked some kind of magical at Pinnacle Bank this year. I don't think they close perfect at PBA, but Nebraska's only got three more games total against ranked teams: MSU, Mich, and Wisconsin. With a suboptimal 8-4 non-conference record, 7-11 with a win in the first round at minimum would seem like enough to get the Huskers there, but that means 5 more wins in the B1G, plus a good first-round draw. It's eminently doable for this Huskers team, though they'll suffer for scoring with the loss of Deverell Biggs. I'll give Nebraska about 40% to make the NIT, with a CBI berth if they don't.
  • Northwestern's also operating with just three ranked opponents the rest of the way, and all on the road. Just don't watch those. They'll be ugly, unless Ohio State can't shoot. With two games against Minnesota and two against Nebraska, the 'Cats have all the opportunities in the world to keep this exciting first run for Collins alive. Unfortunately, I think the 'Cats take likely take around 3 (a couple splits, maybe beating PSU) and draw an Illinois or Purdue again in the BTT. I put Northwestern at about 10% to make the NIT, about 66% to make the CBI.
  • Penn State...that's a rough schedule. Five ranked teams on the schedule, with only one game against Northwestern? If the Nittany Lions can find an upset a la Michigan 2013, more power to them. I don't see more than 3 wins, in a really, really PSU-friendly world, on that schedule. I'll give PSU 5% to make the CBI.

Feel free to wrap up with whatever you want...this has been fun! Glad we did it.

Jesse:

I like your thoughts, so I won't spoil them with my crazy predictions. Let's just say I'm hoping you're right about Nebraska going to the NIT. That would be sweet.

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