Set Your Tivo: 02.22.11Posted by Brian Otskey on February 22nd, 2011
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
Illinois and Tennessee will look to lock up bids on the road tonight while Michigan State and Minnesota fight for survival. All rankings from RTC and all times Eastern.
Illinois @ #1 Ohio State – 7 pm on ESPN (***)
After starting the season 24-0, Ohio State has lost two of its past three games, both coming on the road. The Buckeyes return home to Columbus tonight to take on an Illinois team looking for that marquee road win that will push them off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. At 17-10 (7-7), Illinois is probably in the field as of now, but still has work to do. With a road game at Purdue still to follow, it seems the best the Illini can do is 9-9 in league play, although a win tonight would give them a great shot to go 10-8 while also locking up a bid.
Getting that win obviously won’t be easy. Ohio State hasn’t lost at home in just over a year, their last loss at Value City Arena coming on February 17 of last year to Purdue. In fact, the Buckeyes have only lost twice at home in the last two calendar years, their second most recent home defeat coming at the hands of the Illini exactly two years ago on February 22, 2009.
The Illini have played the best defense of any Big Ten team when you look at conference games only. Overall, Illinois is a solid #16 in defensive efficiency nationally. They defend the three very well, ranked eighth in the country at 29.2%. Stopping a Buckeyes team that shoots almost 40% from deep has to be priority #1 for Bruce Weber. Ohio State shot 46.7% from three point land in the first meeting between these teams, a 73-68 Ohio State victory in Champaign on January 22. Jon Diebler did most of the damage outside while Jared Sullinger dominated the paint to the tune of 27/16 in that game. Illinois actually shot better than Ohio State, but Sullinger got to the foul line 15 times and made 13. Aaron Craft locked up Demetri McCamey, holding the Illinois senior to 2-11 FG in that game. It’s only gotten worse for McCamey since then, but he has shown signs of life over the past two games, going 7-14 from deep. Illinois has to get a solid effort out of their senior point guard to have any chance of winning this game on the road. The Buckeyes have a terrific turnover margin, great at protecting the ball while forcing opponents into giving it away. Rebounding will be important for Illinois although they did manage to hold an edge on the glass in the first meeting. In tonight’s game, Illinois has to contain Sullinger and win the battle of the boards to win, certainly a highly difficult task. They’ll have a chance if McCamey comes to play and Sullinger has an off night, but Ohio State is so tough at home. Illinois has lost five of their past eight games and chances are it will be six of nine after tonight.
Tennessee @ #18 Vanderbilt – 9 pm on ESPN (***)
Tennessee is in a similar position to Illinois, although the Volunteers have two marquee non-conference wins and the #2 SOS to fall back on. That said, Tennessee still could use a couple of more wins to lock up their spot in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve lost four of their past five and none of the remaining four games are gimmes. They’ll face tricky tests from Mississippi State and South Carolina (on the road) along with a home date against Kentucky, plus tonight’s game. The Vols may not do better than 8-8 in league play so three losses down the stretch would be highly problematic despite the solid computer numbers. To win tonight, Tennessee will have to put forth a strong defensive effort against a Vanderbilt team that shoots the ball very well. The Commodores are #29 in eFG% and shoot 39.3% from three, mostly due to John Jenkins’ outstanding perimeter acumen. Jenkins has hit 16 of his last 31 threes (51.6%) over a three game stretch and scored 21 points against Tennessee last month, a game Bruce Pearl’s team won at home by three points after falling behind early. The problem for Vanderbilt was the 21 turnovers that led to 23 extra shots for the home squad. Five Vandy players had at least three giveaways and Tennessee was able to come back and win. The Commodores haven’t had a turnover number that bad during their current five game winning streak and have to continue protecting the ball in this game. Turnovers will fuel the Tennessee transition attack and allow them easy buckets. The Vols shoot only 43.5% from the floor, so fastbreak opportunities leading to easy baskets will be welcome news for Pearl. Turnovers and rebounding will be able to give the Volunteers the extra shots they need to offset their poor shooting.
UT ranks #11 in offensive rebounding percentage, led by Brian Williams and his 7.7 RPG in an average of only 23 minutes per game. However, Vanderbilt can match him with Festus Ezeli, pulling down 6.2 caroms in roughly the same amount of playing time. Whoever controls the glass in this matchup will give their team an excellent chance to control the game. For Tennessee, the plan should be to go inside. Vanderbilt defends the three very well while the Vols shoot 32.2% from deep, so working inside the arc will allow for better looks and some offensive rebound chances. Going inside can also get Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor in foul trouble, two key players for Kevin Stallings. Tennessee will use Scotty Hopson to go right at Taylor in an attempt to draw fouls, though Taylor is an excellent defender. Hopson had 32 points in a home loss to Georgia on Saturday but he needs help from his teammates. Hopson and Tobias Harris combined for 50 of Tennessee’s 63 points in that game. To win this game they’re either going to have to out-shoot the Commodores on their home floor or force a ton of turnovers like in the last meeting. We don’t see that happening this time around and Vanderbilt should take this one.
Michigan State @ Minnesota – 9 pm on Big Ten Network (***)
The Spartans have played much better of late, winning two of three and giving Ohio State a game in Columbus within the last 12 days. If they can earn a win tonight and follow that up with a couple more, Tom Izzo will likely have his team back in the NCAA Tournament for the 14th straight season. Minnesota comes in trending the opposite direction, having lost five of their last six games, all without point guard Al Nolen who broke his foot last month. Even at 6-8 in Big Ten play, Minnesota is not dead yet. Three of their final four games come at home with the road game being a winnable one at Northwestern. The opportunity is there for the taking but the Golden Gophers now have to bear down and put the last month behind them.
Minnesota can win tonight with good rebounding and ball handling. Both teams have struggled with turnovers all year and the Gophers were -8 against Penn State in a loss last week. Minnesota’s strength is inside, but opponents have feasted on their defense all year from the outside, firing up threes at a high rate and connecting almost 35% of the time. Penn State was 12-31 from deep against them and that, along with the turnover margin, allowed the Nittany Lions to overcome Minnesota’s dominance on the boards. Not many opponents want to deal with the height on the back end of Minnesota’s zone, so they resort to threes and succeed more than Tubby Smith would like. Blake Hoffarber does the best he can from outside to match that but it usually isn’t enough. The good news is they’ll be facing a Michigan State team that hasn’t shot the three ball well in a while, including a 3-15 effort against Illinois on Saturday. Durrell Summers has been slumping but Kalin Lucas has seemingly returned to being the player we all used to know. While his outside shot is to be respected, Lucas looks to have regained his fearlessness in terms of penetrating into defenses, and he gets to the free throw line effectively, a place where he shoots 80.2%. He had 25 points in the win on Saturday and no other Michigan State player managed to crack double figures. Lucas is leading the way and his play will determine how the Spartans finish up this season. For Minnesota, their offensive attack will be centered around Hoffarber outside and Trevor Mbakwe inside. Mbakwe had 16/12 against Penn State and played well in the first meeting between these clubs in East Lansing. Minnesota has a significant height advantage in this game and MSU’s best defender Delvon Roe has been playing through pain caused by recurring injuries. If the Gophers can assert themselves in the paint and on the glass, it will be hard for Michigan State to win on the road. Izzo’s teams, however, have shown incredible resilience in the past and a win tonight would make it clear that this year won’t serve as an exception to that rule. Minnesota can win this game at home but the trend points to Michigan State. This is a critically important game for both teams and we’re going to call it a tossup. With so much on the line, this will be a fun and intense game tonight at Williams Arena.