Levy’s B1G Layup Line: Week 6

Posted by Adam Levy on December 25th, 2015

Christmas is here, and I’m ecstatic to provide you the ever-popular gift of reading material in the form of the Week 6 Layup Line! It was an excellent week of college hoops with only four Big Ten teams recording a loss, thus (almost) concluding the non-conference slate. Next time you visit, conference play will have begun, and we’ll all be better for it. CAN’T WAIT.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals… and a Happy Layup Line!


A: Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State Undressed Kentucky Last Saturday (USA Today Images)

Ohio State Undressed Kentucky Last Saturday (USA Today Images)

After getting blasted on the report card multiple times this season, Thad Matta decided he’d had enough and whipped his students into shape. The result? A convincing win over fourth-ranked Kentucky in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon that featured everyone in the rotation scoring between six and 14 points. In a two-week span, Ohio State has jumped from 78th to 29th in defensive efficiency, thanks in part to its two shot-blocking machines, Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens. At least one of those two rim protectors have been on the court for 97.2% of the past five games. Opponents are beginning to be cautious as they work to get shots off inside the perimeter, as evidenced by Ohio State’s 40.6% opponent two-point field goal percentage (17th in country). What seemed like a lost cause for the first month of the season is now a borderline defensive juggernaut as it heads into conference play next Wednesday. This young Buckeyes team still has a lot of work to do, but beating Kentucky is a huge step in the right direction.

B: Indiana Hoosiers

It’s bizarro week this week, as another team that has gotten blasted in this space multiple times this season has finally earned itself some praise. Indiana was as desperate as any team, in the Big Ten or elsewhere, for a quality non-conference win, and Notre Dame was its only hope of getting one. By now, everyone is familiar with the Hoosiers’ defensive woes, but throughout the final 15 minutes, Indiana looked like Syracuse South as Tom Crean employed a shockingly stingy 2-3 zone that took Notre Dame out of its offensive rhythm. The Irish managed to score on only five of 16 possessions against the zone – good for a measly 10 points.

For the first time since the Victor Oladipo days, Indiana’s defense actually fueled its offense, pushing the Hoosiers over the hump in the gutsy 16-point comeback victory. Troy Williams, who has struggled with decision-making all season (four+ turnovers in seven games; 17 turnovers committed in past four games), actually played fantastic down the stretch. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Whether a Tom Crean-coached team can take this kind of momentum — and defense — into Big Ten play remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting that this was the biggest win for the Hoosiers since their beat down of Maryland last January.

C:  Penn State Nittany Lions

By playing three competitive games in five days, Penn State finds itself on the week six report card. Each game ended with a notable performance from a different player. It started with a road win over Drexel that was headlined by sophomore Payton Banks’ 20 point effort. That was followed up by a one-point loss to Colorado (KenPom #44) in which the Nittany Lions nearly erased a ten point deficit in the final two and a half minutes. Shep Garner led the way with 26 points (4/9 from three, 8/9 from the line) against the Buffaloes. The very next day, Brandon Taylor carried his team to a win over Kent St., scoring 29 points on 12/21 shooting. The Nittany Lions have been a pleasant surprise this season and are holding their own defensively (28th in opponent two-point field goal percentage; 29th in block percentage), and the triumvirate of Banks/Garner/Taylor remains underrated. The bad news? Things are about to get hard. Really hard. Games against Maryland, Michigan, Michigan St. and Purdue are all on the schedule between December 30 and January 13. If we take a longer view, there is good news, however. Pat Chambers will welcome in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history next season, checking in at No. 15 in the Class of 2016 team rankings. There’s hope yet in Happy Valley.

D: Purdue’s Point Guards

Relax, Purdue fans! You didn’t think it would be all sunshine and rainbows this season, did you? Hopefully not. However, despite a hard-fought loss to a very good Butler team in Indianapolis, this team is still a very legitimate final four threat…even if questions remain about their point guard play. The overall numbers for Purdue points guards look solid – per KenPom, PJ Thompson is 13th in the country in offensive rating and has a fantastic 37:7 assist-to-turnover ratio; Johnny Hill is 24th in steal percentage and leads the team in both effective field goal percentage and two-point field goal percentage. But, the usage between these two is minimal (they’ve taken a combined 75 shots this season), and what’s going to happen when they go up against better guards in conference play? If Butler’s Tyler Lewis’ 17-6-4-4 performance is any indication (he got into the paint at will), and Hill doesn’t solve his turnover problem soon (he has a 28.6 turnover rate – a fifth-year senior should be able to do better), Matt Painter will need to figure out who he can trust to run the offense in crunch time, or his team could be in for a disappointing end to its season.

F: Richard Pitino

Richard Pitino (USA Today Sports Images)

Richard Pitino is Struggling at Minnesota (USA Today Sports Images)

It’s been a rough go for Richard Pitino and Co. since he took over the Minnesota program for the legendary Tubby Smith in 2014. In six seasons as head coach, Smith led the Golden Gophers to three NCAA tournament appearances. There have been no such bids in Pitino’s first two seasons, and he’s led his team to a combined 14-22 record in Big Ten play, a win percentage that feels destined to get even worse. Minnesota is coming off four losses in its past five games (the lone win came against Chicago St., KenPom #331) and, per KenPom, is predicted to finish the conference slate at 5-13 (thank god for Rutgers!). The biggest thorn in Pitino’s side has been an inability to win close games. Last year, Minnesota lost nine games by one or two possessions; this year, it has already lost three such games. Its defense is an absolute mess, and it’s tough to see any improvement going forward. The one thing Pitino has going for him: he hasn’t really gotten ‘his guys’ in yet. That said, good coaches should see improvement from year one to year three, regardless of whose “guys” are playing. This is Big Ten basketball, Richard. Get it together by next season, or you’ll be back on the sidelines with daddy sooner than you think.


John Groce Had a Decent December (USA Today Images)

John Groce Had a Decent December (USA Today Images)

  1. Triple-doubles: Hooray for thirty-second shot clocks! Only a month and a half into the season and there have already been nine triple-doubles across the nation. The crazy thing is that four of them have been recorded by Big Ten players, all of whom play their home games in the state of Michigan. Derrick Walton Jr. became the newest member of the club after he posted a 10-11-13-4 stat line in a 59-point drubbing of Youngstown State on Saturday. Last week, I touched on Michigan’s lack of point guard depth potentially becoming an issue as the season wears on, but Walton Jr. hasn’t skipped a beat since his return from injury. As long as he is putting up triple-doubles, the Wolverines should be just fine.
  2. Illinois’ December: We talked ad nauseam early on about Illinois’ struggles and string of misfortunate luck, but the Illini have been a completely different team since the turn of December. A five-point loss to Notre Dame at home to open the month was an encouraging but difficult pill to swallow, but Illinois is 5-0 since then, and for two very specific reasons: Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. They’ve both been featured in this column before, but given what they’ve done for their team thus far, they deserve to be featured again. Hill and Nunn are the top two scorers in the Big Ten, averaging 18.7 and 18.5 points, respectively; they’re leading their team in rebounding, pulling down 5.7 and 5.3 boards, respectively; they’re also the two best free throw shooters on their team and they are tied for the Illini lead in steals, averaging 1.5 each. What this duo is doing is nothing short of incredible, and they’ve rallied the troops after Mike Thorne Jr.’s injury and have gotten Illinois in a feel-good position as it preps for Michigan next week. Don’t look now, but Chief Illiniwek seems to have lit a fire under the bash brothers from Champaign. Shockingly, there are dim but real NCAA Tournament hopes at Illinois again.


  1. Michigan State without Denzel Valentine: This season, no player is more important to the success of his team than Denzel Valentine. Michigan State finally had a real scare Tuesday night…against Oakland…without Valentine. It took overtime and 99 points to take down the Grizzlies and its uptempo, high-powered offense but, let’s be honest: a six-point OT win would have likely been an easy 15-point victory with Valentine on the court. Sure, the Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris coming out parties will be huge for this team going forward – they combined for 59 points on 16/28 shooting, 9/12 from three and 18/23 from the line – but with three road games in its first four games of conference play, Sparty will need its leader to heal up from his arthroscopic knee surgery quickly if it’s going to win the Big Ten title.
  2. Lack of Watchable Games this Weekend: Kentucky and Louisville is literally the only game in Division I on Saturday. That’ll be a great one. Problem is that it’ll be over by 1:00 CT – not sure what I’ll do with myself after that until dinner time. May have to force myself to watch the Indiana-Duke New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Yay! Maryland, Ohio State and Northwestern play terrible teams on Sunday, and there’s a bunch more games of that variety. Oh and I’m definitely not trying to watch Harris Stowe (???) vs. Southeast Missouri State.



Biggest takeaway: Northwestern has jumped from 61 to 45 in over the past two weeks thanks to a vastly improved defense. Chris Collins has his team taking every possession seriously on that end, as evidenced by the nation’s eighth-best opponent effective field goal percentage (42.1%), eight-best opponent two-point field goal percentage (39.4%) and 46th-best block percentage (sup, Alex Olah). They beat absolutely no one in non-conference play, though, so they’ll need to pick up some big wins throughout the next few months if they’re going to snap the famous tournament drought. It would be nice to think they’re capable of such.

Adam Levy (12 Posts)

Adam Levy is an analytics consultant by day and Big Ten columnist for Rush The Court by night. He is also the founder, editor, and writer at chicitybs.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChiCityBS.

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