Saturday Big Ten Recap: Three Outstanding QuestionsPosted by Deepak Jayanti on February 19th, 2012
Saturday’s action in the Big Ten featured three coaches who were trying to deal with different issues. One of them was trying to hold on to his job in any way possible – Bruce Weber. Another coach continued to instill confidence into his young team as they beat a Top 10 team at home – John Beilein. The third coach was trying to make a strong case for an NCAA bid as the regular season winds down – Bill Carmody. After Saturday’s games, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern each has an outstanding question as they enter the final two weeks of conference play.
How much longer will Bruce Weber be around the Illinois program?
Weber has had a rough week with the media and yesterday’s game won’t help his case. Chicago media can be brutal with their sports teams — just ask Chicago Bears’ coach Lovie Smith about it. It is tough for them not to pile on Weber after the Illini gave up 80 points (1.17 points per possession) to a Nebraska team that has been averaging only 0.92 points per possession during conference action. Meyers Leonard was seen on the bench practically in tears near the end of the game with a towel over his head. After coming out with some fire over the first few minutes of the game (up 17-9), Illinois fell apart rest of the way and there is nothing Weber could do about it. Clearly he has lost control over his team and the next game might not help his case. The Fighting Illini will travel to Columbus to play the Buckeyes on Tuesday night, a nationally televised game. Ohio State will be seeking payback for their loss in Champaign and get back to their winning ways after a loss in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Barring a miraculous turn of events, Weber won’t be able to make a case for an NCAA bid, but at this point, the Illinois Athletic Director has to consider the image of the program. A player breaking down on national television isn’t a good sign for future recruits interested in the program. If the Illini continue to get embarrassed, when will he pull the plug on the coach? Will he wait until Selection Sunday or wait until they are done playing in the postseason, which seems to be NIT at this point? The Illini nation is already thinking about their next coach but the timing of the coaching vacancy will be a critical factor over the next month if they plan to land a good candidate in Champaign for next season.
Can Northwestern sneak into the NCAA tournament?
Most experts have predicted that the Big Ten will receive seven bids to the NCAA Tournament. But with the recent events at Illinois and Purdue, that number may be changing. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin seem to be locks at this point. Purdue suspended DJ Byrd for the season and kicked Kelsey Barlow off the team. Losing two of their starters for the last four games of the year won’t make it easy on them. Illinois’ struggles have been well-documented already. Keeping these issues in perspective, Bill Carmody can make a final push to get his Wildcats into the Tournament with a strong showing to end the season. Knocking off a fellow bubble team in Minnesota is the right step in that direction. John Shurna set the all-time scoring record at Northwestern in its win on Saturday. Freshman point guard Dave Sabolewski is peaking at the right time by averaging 14.8 points per game over the last five games. Except for the game against Ohio State, they have three games that are not a complete reach – Michigan at home, Penn State and Iowa on the road. Carmody’s crew took Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor earlier this season, so they have a great shot to beat them at home. A win against a Top 20 team will look good on their resume. With the right amount of home cooking and a hot shooting Shurna, this might be Carmody’s best shot at a bid. The mighty Big Ten should get more than five bids, so a reeling Illinois or Minnesota means that Northwestern has a legitimate shot if they can win three out of their next four games.
Can Michigan continue to win without rebounding efficiently?
First of all, congratulations to John Beilein’s group for a gritty win against Ohio State on Saturday. Trey Burke continues to impress as he took over the game in the final minutes against Aaron Craft, arguably the best on-ball defender in the country. Burke drove the lane consistently to get to the line (eight free throw attempts) against Craft’s stifling defense. But Ohio State dominated the Wolverines on the glass 34-24, yet Beilein’s crew continues to win despite losing the rebounding battle. They lost the battle on the glass by six and seven in their wins against Illinois and Nebraska, respectively. Jordan Morgan is the only pure big man on this team and he does his part very well as he grabbed 11 boards against the Buckeyes. But it will be tough to shoot their way into wins in March if the scouting report shows a glaring weakness on the boards. Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr. need to step up to the plate and box out their guys. With Trey Burke dominating the final minutes of games, an extra effort from the rest of the guys on the glass can definitely push Beilein’s team into the second weekend of March.