Big Ten basketball used to be a strain on the eyes; unless of course you preferred to watch methodical offenses slowly trying to plod through stingy, physical defenses. Shot clocks were drawn out, offenses were built on top of endless screens, and one-on-one battles were seemingly frowned upon.
But anyone holding that sentiment has not been paying attention this season.
The league’s two best teams, No. 1 Michigan and No. 3 Indiana, will showcase all that is right with the current state of Big Ten basketball on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET in Bloomington, Ind. These two teams are at the forefront of Big Ten basketball's slow transition away from its label as a boring league.
Indiana is the NCAA’s highest-scoring team this season (84 points per game), while Michigan ranks 13th in the country with its 78 points per game. Traditionalists, though, should take solace given that their point totals aren’t coming at the expense of lackluster defenses.
Through Jan. 27, Michigan (zone) and Indiana (man-to-man) were the Big Ten's third- and fifth-best defensive teams, respectively, each allowing near 60 points per game, according to BigTen.org. Both teams play aggressive defense, keen on deflecting passes and forcing turnovers. Their aforementioned high-scoring offenses afford them more leeway on the defensive end.
So what’s the secret formula that everyone (minus Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan) would likely emulate?
Both teams have broken the mold of traditional players, and instead of locking a player into a defined position, each coach has consistently recruited remarkable athletes to litter his roster.
Take for example Michigan’s three 6’6’’ starters: Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. Which one of them would be considered the “power forward” or “shooting guard” in John Beilein’s offense? All three are excellent running mates for Trey Burke, but they can also help stretch the floor from the perimeter in half-court sets.
Notice how the Wolverines spread the floor in their win against Northwestern on Jan. 3.
Since the majority of their players are three-point threats, the lane is routinely open, which is a significant advantage when Burke is breaking down his defender. Also, there aren't many capable perimeter players like Hardaway Jr., who can knock down 41 percent of his threes while also finishing the kinds of acrobatic dunks he's thrown down this season.
All four, including Burke, rank in the Top 175 in the country in terms of effective field-goal percentage (which takes into account three-point efficiency), according to KenPom.com (subscription required). A quick scan of the top four shooting teams in the country, according to the website, and you’ll find Michigan and Indiana within the country’s elite.
Forcing mismatches comes down to versatility, and both teams thrive on making themselves impossible to defend.
How do you a peg an athlete like Indiana’s Victor Oladipo into a singular position?
He’s averaging a league-leading 2.5 steals per game and knocking down 65 percent of his shots, eighth-best in the country. Oladipo’s numbers are also due to his tenacity on the offensive glass, where his 55 rebounds rank third in the Big Ten, just five shy of seven-footer Cody Zeller.
Watch as Oladipo (30-second mark) jumps a seemingly easy perimeter pass in the recent win over Purdue. He anticipated the pass to Boilermaker Terone Johnson, jumped it and forced the turnover. Also, notice that Oladipo's steal never would've happened without Yogi Ferrell's full-court defensive pressure.
In another nod to Indiana’s flexibility, the Hoosiers have seamlessly adapted to freshman Ferrell running the offense instead of senior Jordan Hulls, who dictated Indiana’s passing the past three years. Hulls is still a lethal three-point shooter (48 percent on the year) and has thus found ways to contribute despite manning a new role for the Hoosiers.
Finally, one other common denominator between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines is their mobile big men. Zeller and Michigan's Mitch McGary are both active offensive players who don't just stand on the block and demand the ball. Their activity keeps the lane open and gives their offense numerous possibilities.
Obviously, there are only a limited number of “switchables,” but there are signs Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota are following suit. The Buckeyes have a strong core of multifaceted players who’ve yet to completely develop, and the Spartans have a star in the making in 6’5’’ freshman Gary Harris. But no team can match the overall versatility of either Michigan or Indiana.
Thanks to these two teams, the Big Ten can no longer be considered a boring league.