Checking In On… the Big Ten ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 17th, 2012
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter @Bill_Hupp for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.
The Week That Was:
- Gophers Golden Again: Not only did Minnesota win its first two conference games of the season this week, it’s the first time since 2009 that the Golden Gophers have won back-to-back conference road games. UM was led by freshman and Minneapolis native Joe Coleman, whom Tubby Smith inserted into the starting lineup three games ago. This week, Coleman hit four free throws in the final minute to help Minnesota hang on for a 77-74 upset at No. 7 Indiana, then exploded for a career-high 23 points in a win over Penn State. Nobody thought the Gophers were as bad as their original 0-4 Big Ten mark indicated, but learning how to win close games can build a young team’s confidence quickly.
- Brandon Paul Pops Off in Champaign: Illinois junior guard Brandon Paul came into the Ohio State game averaging 12.1 points per game, but he earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after he dropped a career-high 43 points out of nowhere on the Buckeyes. Paul’s 28 points in the second half included some very tough, contested shots near the end of a close game (full video highlights below). His 43 points were the third-most in a game in school history and the most since Andy Kaufmann went for 46 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990.
- Back in Black: Wearing black jerseys at home in a must-win game against No. 7 Michigan State, the Wildcats got an inspired effort from backup center Davide Curletti, who made his first start of the season and finished with season-high 17 points and six rebounds. He gave great energy for Bill Carmody while starting in place of the ineffective Luka Mirkovic. Teams had been averaging just 59.6 points against the Spartans through the first 17 games, but MSU allowed Northwestern to shoot 54 percent in the second half to pull away for an 81-74 win. We’ve said before that the Wildcats would pull off an upset or two in conference play if they shot the ball well, and that’s exactly what happened in Evanston.
- Ohio State (16-3, 4-2) – It’s doesn’t seem fair for opposing teams when Lenzelle Smith Jr., a.k.a. “Ohio State’s forgotten starter” can hit 10-of-12 from the field, score 28 points and grab seven rebounds on a whim. It’s really a “pick your poison” scenario when you are playing a team with so many potential offensive threats.
- Michigan State (15-3, 4-1) – Draymond Green may be a bruising power forward at 6’7’’ and 230 pounds, but he has shown a nice touch from the outside this season. Besides being a force down low, Green leads the Spartans with 24 triples on the season. It’s an offensive skill that has “Day-Day” (as Tom Izzo calls him) a virtual lock for first-team All-Big Ten honors.
- Indiana (15-3, 3-3) – Some uncharacteristically poor three-point shooting this week spelled doom for the Hoosiers, who dropped games to Minnesota and Ohio State. A team that averages nearly 50% from beyond the arc was a combined 11 for 39 (28%). They feel behind early in both games and couldn’t shoot their way back into either contest. One positive this week was that Cody Zeller averaged 19.5 points in the losses.
- Illinois (14-3, 4-1) – With his imposing size and impressive array of skills, the Illini should have the premier go-to scorer in the conference in center Meyers Leonard. Yet too often, it seems like he is catching the ball facing the basket, instead of posting up on the block where he could turn and score over his left shoulder or kick it out to three-pointer shooters like Brandon Paul or D.J. Richardson. Leonard needs to park himself down low where he can maximize his offensive efficiency.
- Michigan (14-4, 4-2) – Michigan barely survived Northwestern at home in OT, then got blasted by 16 at Iowa. In both games, it seemed like the Wolverines stopped attacking the basket and were content to settle for threes, jacking up 30 against NU and 31 against Iowa. Their motion offense, cutting and dribble penetration gets them easy buckets at the rim, so they struggle to score when they get too willing to fire from long range.
- Wisconsin (14-5, 3-3) – It wasn’t especially pretty against Purdue or Nebraska, but the Badgers earned a pair of hard-fought five-point wins to even their conference mark at 3-3. Needing a win to snap a three-game losing streak, Wisconsin blitzed Purdue early hitting five of their first six threes to build a 22-4 lead. They came back to earth after that, however, shooting 2 of 18 from distance against the Cornhuskers.
- Purdue (13-5, 3-2) – Purdue faced a desperate Wisconsin team and dug themselves a 22-4 first half hole at Mackey Arena a before battling back and eventually falling. It’s not a good sign for the Boilers when Lewis Jackson finishes with two points and the team only hits 33% of their three-point field goal attempts.
- Minnesota (14-5, 2-4) – With star Trevor Mbawke sidelined, the Gophers needed other players to step up and help Rodney Williams shoulder the scoring load. Well, it looks like Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins and Julian Welch are starting to come of age. You knew Tubby Smith had plenty of athleticism and talent at The Barn, it was just a matter of fitting the right pieces together. Now he has five starters who are averaging between 8.3 and 12.5 points per game in conference play.
- Northwestern (12-5, 2-3) – Teams often struggle once conference play begins because their young point guard takes a few steps back. Not Northwestern, where starting guard Dave Sobolewski leads the Big Ten and is near the top of the nationally with a 4. 2 assist-to-turnover ratio, and really excels at backdoor feeds.
- Iowa (11-8, 3-3) – Talk about an enigma of a team. After getting destroyed by an average of 32.5 points in road losses to Ohio St. and Michigan St., the Hawks turned around and cruised past Michigan, 75-59 at home on Saturday. Iowa can light up the scoreboard when its shots are falling, which is why they’ve scored 75 points or more in nine of their 11 wins this season.
- Nebraska (9-8, 1-5) – Where were you when Nebraska won their first Big Ten game in school history? Since getting pasted by Ohio State, the Cornhuskers sandwiched their lone conference triumph over Penn State between narrow five-point road losses at Illinois and Wisconsin, holding all three opponents under 60 points. They don’t score much, but NU seems to be a natural fit for the conference in terms of their grinding, methodical style of play.
- Penn State (9-10, 1-5) – One of the most difficult, but important things to teach a young team is how to defend on a nightly basis. The Nittany Lions have dropped three straight, and in each loss, allowed their opponent to shoot over 50%. That’s not going to cut it in any conference, let alone the deepest and toughest in the country.
- Tuesday, 1/17: No. 9 Michigan State @ No. 19 Michigan – One of the most underrated rivalries in college hoops has added significance this season with each team being in the hunt for a Big Ten title. State is looking to rebound after having their 15-game winning streak snapped at Northwestern, while the Wolverines are trying to remain unbeaten at home (11-0). Look for whoever wins the intriguing PG battle between emerging Spartans sophomore Keith Appling and Michigan’s stud freshman Trey Burke to win the game.
- Wednesday, 1/18: Northwestern @ Wisconsin– An important game between two teams with similar styles each desperate to continue the momentum built this past weekend. Both are pretty reliant on the three-point shot (NU first, Wisconsin fourth in three-pointers per game), so whoever has the hotter hand should emerge victorious.
- Saturday, 1/21: Purdue @ No. 9 Michigan State – The Boilers could use a signature win (Butler and Illinois don’t count) to impress the Selection Committee. As always, Ryne Smith and co. will have to knock down treys, but that’s a tall order against MSU, which is stingy on the perimeter (second in conference allowing 30.2% from three).
Caught on Film
It’s amazing how a player’s success on offensive end can carry over to his defensive performance. Brandon Paul poured in 43 points, the highest single-game point total in the Big Ten in 20 years. But he also made his presence felt defensively, grabbing a couple steals and swatting four emphatic shots. As you can see from the below video, he was on fire from distance and a monster on the defensive end.