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February 3, 2013
Smarter After Saturday
How IU Can Get Even Better

by John Gasaway

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At 20-2 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten, Indiana finds itself alone in first place atop the nation's best conference. With half of the conference season now in the books, Tom Crean's team has outscored its notably strong league by a whopping 0.18 points per possession. Everything about those two sentences screams "national championship contender," and clearly the Hoosiers fit that profile.

But I'm here today to provide aid and comfort to that constitutionally fretful portion of the IU faithful, the one that feels it really must find something to worry about with this dominant team cruising along on a trajectory that rather emphatically points toward Atlanta. Very well, I have something just for you.

No, it's not the Indiana defense. I realize everyone was thinking in that direction in the preseason (including yours truly), and I know there are observers who are still waiting for Jordan Hulls and/or Yogi Ferrell to be exposed as the clear defensive liabilities that they allegedly are. But 602 Big Ten possessions represents a pretty large sample size, and over that span IU has rated out as the conference's No. 3 defense, behind only Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Instead, the only possible source of worry on a very bright Indiana horizon is turnovers. Emphasis on the word "possible." Even as they've given the ball away on one in every five Big Ten possessions, the Hoosiers have still scored 1.13 points per possession. That level of scoring is, of course, excellent (second only to Michigan's 1.19).

Nor is this a case where we can say "No team has ever been this bad at Thing X and still won the national championship." In fact, the mid-2000s were something of a heyday for (relatively) high-turnover national champions. North Carolina in 2004-05, and the back-to-back Florida title teams from 2005-06 and 2006-07 all sported turnover rates as "bad" as (or worse than) what we're seeing from the Hoosiers this season. Those three teams looked awfully good to me. What's the issue here, exactly?

The issue is simply one of oddness. The Hoosiers are indeed significantly worse at taking care of the ball than the last five national champions, but, more to the point, they're worse than they themselves were last season. Indiana now ranks No. 10 in the Big Ten in turnover percentage in conference games (meaning, yes, fans of No. 12 Minnesota should feel free to be really, really worried about their team's March prospects).

IU's relatively high turnover rate is not the doing of any one player. On paper Ferrell has the highest turnover percentage of any Indiana regular, and, sure, his six-turnover effort in the Hoosiers' overtime loss to Butler was somewhat ill-timed. But Ferrell has been as good as if not better than anyone could have expected from a freshman point guard on a national championship-caliber team, and his offensive rating indicates he's a clear benefit to Crean on that side of the ball.

In fact the most common reaction of Indiana fans on Twitter when Ferrell doesn't have the ball in the open floor (and, say, Victor Oladipo does) is one of discomfort, and I think those fans may be correct. In short, it may be the case that this particular rotation operating at the fast tempo that Crean prefers simply gives the ball away one out of every five times down the floor. Maybe that's just the cost of doing offensive business this season in Bloomington.

So be it, but when you watch Indiana bear in mind the opportunity available to this team. Michigan's been more accurate from the floor in Big Ten play than the Hoosiers, but IU's outstanding offensive rebounding (take a bow, Cody Zeller) and, especially, its preternatural ability to get to the line mean that in an imaginary zero-turnover world this offense is actually even better (1.42 points per trip) than UM's (1.39). Indiana has an outstanding offense that may yet become unreal.

Apparently Dominic Artis is somewhat important to Oregon
Take everything I just said about Indiana and turnovers, put it in all-caps with five exclamation points, and apply it to Oregon. With the Hoosiers I'm tut-tutting nervously because the Big Ten's No. 2 offense has had the temerity to turn the ball over 20 percent of the time. In the case of the Ducks, on the other hand, I'm dialing 911 frantically because the Pac-12's No. 8 offense is giving the rock away on fully 23 percent of its possessions.

Ordinarily I'm hesitant to attribute cause-and-effect significance to just one player's absence, but if there were ever a case when doing so would be justified, it might be with Dana Altman's team. Freshman point guard Dominic Artis has missed the last three games with an injured foot. At the time Artis was sidelined, his turnover rate for the season was not especially impressive. But it seems his importance to the Oregon offense can't be measured through individual stats alone.

Here are the ugly numbers that Altman's confronting right now. With Artis in the lineup, the Ducks turned the ball over on 19 percent of their trips in Pac-12 play. Without him, UO has given the ball away on 30 percent of their possessions over the last three games. Incredibly, Oregon won one of those games (an 81-76 victory at home against Washington), but in subsequent road games against Stanford and California Altman's men managed to score just 0.75 points per trip.

No offense, no matter how troubled, will continue to score points at such a meager rate for long, and in fact you can expect prospects to improve for Oregon as it returns to friendly Eugene for home games against Colorado and Utah. That being said, the reports that have Artis returning to action soon have taken on an added importance after his team's 0-2 visit to the Bay Area. The Ducks can't get their starting point guard back soon enough.

Syracuse suddenly has worries (plural)
Just 15 days ago, Syracuse recorded a grueling 70-68 win at Louisville, a victory that pushed Jim Boeheim's team to 17-1 overall and 6-0 in Big East play. In that week's AP poll the Orange received eight votes as the best team in the country, and deservedly so.

Since Boeheim's men walked off the floor at the KFC Yum! Center that day, however, they've gone 1-2 while being outscored by 0.07 points per possession. Part of the problem, of course, is sheer manpower, more specifically a lack thereof. James Southerland has missed the last five games due to an unspecified eligibility matter, and DaJuan Coleman's knee injury is expected to sideline the freshman for a month. That leaves Boeheim with just seven scholarship players.

Then again Syracuse did beat Louisville without Southerland, and I'm not certain Coleman's 10 minutes or three points that day were the X factor either. I don't doubt that the Orange would be a better team with their full complement of players, but I do think the talent that is on hand will need to perform better than what we've seen the past three games.

For Orange fans, the disturbing aspect of those last three contests is that their team has taken a big step backward on both sides of the ball. On offense Syracuse has scored less than a point per trip, hardly surprising when you're an interior-oriented team making just 41 percent of your shots inside the arc. Michael Carter-Williams in particular has struggled over this three-game stretch, connecting on just 36 percent of his twos.

And remember all the talk last season about the Orange's atrocious defensive rebounding? Well, fire up those worries again. In these last three games Boeheim's men have pulled down an abysmal 56 percent of opponents' missed shots. As a result, opposing offenses have made half of their twos over that same stretch. Syracuse is still forcing turnovers, but this team badly needs to do so. In this three-game time of woe opponents are ringing up 1.37 points per effective (turnover-less) possession.

The good news for Boeheim is that his team is still 18-3, and just one game in back of first-place Marquette in the Big East loss column. But make no mistake, if Syracuse continues to perform at the level we've seen recently, the losses will accumulate faster than the wins. I'm watching the Orange closely.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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