Checking In On… the Big Ten ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on February 8th, 2012
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, PR, various city river walks and life.
The Week That Was:
- Halfway Home: As of this week, the regular season conference schedule is officially more than halfway done. And – with apologies to Dennis Green– teams are pretty much who we thought they were at the beginning of the season. Ohio State is the class of the conference; Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana are solid NCAA Tournament teams; Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, and Northwestern are fighting for seeding while Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State pick up the rear. Of course, there have been some upsets and many compelling games, but now that the dust is starting to settle, the cream of the crop has risen to the top.
- Super Shurna: Leave it to a savvy veteran to catch fire at just the right time. With Northwestern’s hopes of making its first NCAA Tournament fading fast, John Shurna won co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors after he shot a blistering 71% from the field and averaged 26 points, four rebounds, and two steals to lead the injury-depleted Wildcats to a home win over Nebraska and a road victory over Illinois. Shurna is up there with Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor as the most valuable players to their respective teams.
- Close Calls: Illinois may be struggling at the moment, but they aren’t getting blown out. Each of the Illini’s last six games has been decided by five points or less. Unfortunately for the Orange Crush, they are just 2-4 in those games. Now they get to go on the road for four of their next five, starting with a doozy of a week with games at Indiana and at Michigan.
- Ohio State (21-3, 9-2) – With the amount of scoring options Thad Matta has, it’s really just a matter of if Ohio State wants to defend you. They didn’t do that against Indiana or Brandon Paul (though he was just on fire that day), and sure enough, they lost both games. Purdue gave the Scarlet-and-Gray all they could handle before OSU escaped with an 84-81 win. Buckeyes face an interesting test when Michigan State comes calling to Columbus on Saturday. A win would put them in a comfortable position to win the regular season crown.
- Michigan State (18-5, 7-3) – All of East Lansing waited with baited breath to learn the results of Draymond Green’s MRI. After Green left the game with a minor knee injury, Michigan State struggled mightily in a 42-41 upset loss. They bounced back nicely against their in-state rivals, and sure enough, Green led them with 14 points and 16 boards. As good a season as State has had, it could be even better: Two of the three conference losses have been by a single point on the road.
- Wisconsin (18-6, 7-4) – It almost goes without saying by now, but Wisconsin can really put the clamps down defensively, especially if they force you to play at their tempo. Holding the top two scoring teams in the conference (Indiana and Ohio State) to 50 and 58 points, respectively, is no small feat and is a testament to the Badgers’ ability to get you out of your desired style of play.
- Michigan (17-6, 7-4) – The Maize and Blue held true to form this past week, running away from Indiana early and winning big at home, then getting overmatched in East Lansing and losing. It’s a somewhat streaky team – when they’re making three-pointers, running their system, and getting their athletes like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the rim, they are tough to beat.
- Indiana (18-6, 6-6) – One factor that has been overlooked in examining Indiana’s resurgence this season has been the nice depth of the Hoosiers. Despite missing Verdell Jones III with a shoulder injury, Tom Crean still went nine deep. Freshman Remy Abell was the man of the hour, pouring in a career-high 13 points to compliment Victor Oladipo’s own career-high of 23.
- Purdue (15-9, 5-6) – The Boilers may have slipped below .500 in conference with their three-point loss at Ohio State, but it’s not because they’re turning the ball over. Purdue only coughed it up three times in their 84-81 defeat. They lead the conference in turnovers per game, turnover margin, and assist-to-turnover ratio. That has to do with having a senior point guard (Lewis Jackson) and smart players who value the ball.
- Minnesota (17-7, 5-6) – Beware of taking the ball deep into the paint against Minnesota. Even with imposing center Trevor Mbawke absent due to an ACL tear, the Gophers still lead the conference in blocked shots per game. Rodney Williams is a quick leaper with great timing and Ralph Sampson III is just like his dad – tall and lanky with good anticipation and eager to swat shots.
- Illinois (16-7, 5-5) – It’s pretty rare that a team can shoot 32.6% from the field – and still win. The shooting was so bad that Illini coach Bruce Weber said afterward, “When the shots go up, I just say, ‘Please, God, let it go in,'” Weber said. “Some of the shots just sat in there and then popped out.” Yes, the Illinois win 42-41 win over Michigan State was ugly, but it’s a statement win that will mean something in March.
- Northwestern (14-8, 4-6) – No rest for the weary for Northwestern. They went 2-0 last week, but need to at least split games against Iowa and at Purdue this week. Fortunately for the Wildcats, it looks like reinforcements are on the way in the form of guard Jer’Shon Cobb and center Luka Mirkovic easing their way back into the lineup this week.
- Iowa (13-11, 5-6) – Apparently, all the Hawkeyes needed was some home cooking. Iowa snapped a three-game skid with two home wins over Minnesota and Penn State, and now hit the road for two winnable games at Northwestern and at Penn State this week. Finishing above .500 in conference play would be a huge victory for the Hawks and coach Fran McCaffrey.
- Nebraska (11-10, 3-7) – He doesn’t get much attention because he plays his ball in Lincoln, but Bo Spencer is quietly putting together an All-Conference type senior season. He’s averaging about 15 points per game in Big Ten play and has led Nebraska in scoring in eight out of their 11 conference games. He’s a versatile scorer, able to knock a trey (1.9 per game this season) or get to the line (where he shoots the second-best percentage in the Big Ten at 89.7).
- Penn State (10-14, 2-9) – The road has not been kind to Penn State this season. The Nittany Lions are 0-6 on the road in conference and just 2-9 overall away from Happy Valley. They were competitive this week, but ultimately saw their losing streak run to four games with road losses to Wisconsin and Iowa this week. Ultimately, most of Penn State’s problems revolve around their poor shooting. They rank last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (37.1) and 3-point field goal percentage (only team under 30).
- Thursday, 2/9: Illinois at #23 Indiana – This rivalry has been particularly fierce ever since Eric Gordon spurned the Illini for the Hoosiers. Indiana bounced back last week with a nice road win over Purdue and has been dynamite at home this season (13-1). Illinois, meanwhile, is desperate to get off the schneid as they head into a difficult stretch with four of their next five games away from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall. The battle in the paint between Cody Zeller and Meyers Leonard should be a treat to watch.
- Saturday, 2/11: #9 Michigan State at #3 Ohio State – If any Big Ten team is a threat to snap the Buckeyes’ 39-game home winning streak, it’d be the Michigan State. They have the right mix of toughness, style and experience. They also have the horses to stay with Ohio State, but they’ll definitely want to limit the possessions, force the game to be played in the half-court and keep in the low-mid 50s. To do that, MSU needs senior leader Draymond Green to be at or near 100 percent healthy.
- Sunday, 2/12: Illinois at #21 Michigan – The Illini finishes up their brutal week with a late trip to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have been pretty inconsistent as of late, alternating wins and losses in each of their last seven games (albeit against a strong schedule). Tim Hardaway Jr. hinted this week at disharmony with point guard Trey Burke. So the question becomes, which Hardaway Jr. will show up?
When he gets going, Purdue’s Kelsey Barlow can get to the rim as well as anyone in the conference. And, as the video shows, he can also finish with (said in a Bill Raftery voice) alacrity!