Five Thoughts From the Big Ten Tournament: Thursday Afternoon EditionPosted by WCarey on March 14th, 2013
Walker Carey attended the afternoon session (Minnesota vs. Illinois and Penn State vs. Michigan) of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center on Thursday afternoon and filed this report. Follow him on Twitter @walkerRcarey
- Both Illinois and Minnesota are probably far too inconsistent to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Illini and the Golden Gophers have struggled with consistency issues all season and all Thursday’s game proved was that neither team has alleviated those issues. If you recall, both teams started the season red hot — the Illini were once 12-0 and the Gophers were once 15-1 — but after Big Ten play commenced, both squads began to struggle. Both teams finished their conference slates with an 8-10 record. While such a record would usually not raise many eyebrows, Illinois and Minnesota have grabbed a lot of national attention due to some impressive victories and some head-scratching defeats. The Illini scored great victories over Ohio State and Indiana, but they also were defeated at home by a Northwestern team that finished 11th in the conference. Minnesota notched wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Indiana, but Tubby Smith’s squad also suffered setbacks to Northwestern and Nebraska. It is fair to assume that both teams are solidly in the field of 68, but when you have to question what version of both teams will show up, it is also fair to assume that both teams will not be in the tournament for long.
- Illinois is going to miss Brandon Paul next season. While the senior guard has had an up-and-down career in Champaign, he once again showed Thursday that he is plenty capable of taking over a game and leading his team to victory. Paul scored 25 of the team’s 51 points and drained an 18-footer to beat the buzzer and give the Illini the 51-49 victory. Paul, whose legacy might be tarnished a bit due to his place on some subpar Illini teams, should be remembered for his ability to take over games like he did Thursday. Paul’s performance against Minnesota was quite memorable, but it was not the most memorable of the season. In Illinois’ December 8 win over currently top-ranked Gonzaga, Paul exploded for 35 points, shooting 10-of-16 from the field and 5-of-9 from deep. Paul’s talent and play-making ability is something that had been missing from the Illinois program since the days of Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams, and because of that, the Illini are really going to miss him after their season ultimately concludes.
- Michigan still has some issues defensively. The Wolverines were able to exert some revenge on Penn State with their 83-66 victory, after falling to the Nittany Lions on February 27 in what was one of the upsets of the year in college hoops. While Michigan is undoubtedly happy with the victory, its defensive deficiencies were exposed yet again. The Wolverines allowed Penn State to shoot 50% from the field in the first half by giving up plenty of open looks due to poor rotations and lackluster communication. While it defended with much more tenacity in the second half, the fact remains that Michigan still goes through stretches where its defense allows way too many open shots. While it did not hurt them Thursday, the Wolverines are going to need to improve their defensive effort as the postseason progresses.
- Mitch McGary and Jon Horford both showed they are capable of providing Michigan with an inside presence. A knock on Michigan all season has been its lack of an inside presence. In its win over Penn State on Thursday, Michigan had freshman forward Mitch McGary and redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford come off the bench and provide it with great production. McGary, who has rightfully gained the reputation of being an energy guy, entered the game early for the Wolverines and made an immediate impact by recording 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first half — he finished the contest with 10/11. Horford has battled injury issues this season, thus he has consistently been the team’s third big man (behind junior forward Jordan Morgan and McGary). Horford did not play like a third big man at all against the Nittany Lions as he tallied a season-high 11 points, while recording five rebounds and blocking two shots. If Michigan can continue to get similar performances from McGary and Horford going forward, the worries about its post play are bound to disappear.
- Indiana/Illinois and Wisconsin/Michigan are going to be fun rematches of great regular season games. Indiana only played Illinois once in the regular season and Wisconsin only played Michigan once as well, but both of those games ended in thrilling fashion. When the then-top ranked Indiana visited Illinois on February 7, the Illini stormed back from a 12-point halftime deficit to defeat the Hoosiers 74-72 thanks to a buzzer-beating layup from forward Tyler Griffey. Just two days later, Michigan held a 60-57 lead at Wisconsin with less than three seconds remaining before Badgers guard Ben Brust drained a half-court heave to take the game to overtime. In overtime, Brust hit another big three to help Wisconsin secure the 65-62 victory over then-second ranked Michigan. While both of those games were played over a month ago, it would be illogical to think that those losses are still not fresh in the minds of both Indiana and Michigan. With higher stakes — the winner will move to the semifinals — the rematches could be more fun than the regular season contests.