Big Ten M5: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 16th, 2015

morning5_bigten

  1. Given the Big Ten’s balance this season, it’s widely accepted that if a team can hold home court and win just a few road games, it will likely finish in the top third of the league. On Wednesday night, Illinois got its needed road win at Northwestern with a 72-67 victory. They were led by Kendrick Nunn (25 points) and Aaron Cobsy (19), each of whom gave their most impressive performances of the season. This is an especially encouraging sign for Cosby, who before this game had been nothing short of awful in the shooting department (18-of-74 in the last 10 games). With leading scorer Rayvonte Rice out with an injury until at least February, the Illini need one or more of their guards to produce in each and every game. If Nunn, Cosby and Malcolm Hill can become more consistent, this team can still be on the bubble when Rice gets back.
  2. In case there was any doubt about Frank Kaminsky’s impact after Wisconsin’s loss to Rutgers without him in the lineup, we were reminded of his greatness once again when he returned from concussion symptoms to lead the Badgers to a 70-55 win over Nebraska Thursday night. The senior center scored 22 points and grabbed five rebounds while providing an effective presence on defense. The Badgers will still be shorthanded for several more weeks while point guard Traevon Jackson heals from a foot injury, but Bronson Koenig was able to slide into Jackson’s spot effectively with 11 points against the Cornhuskers. As long as Wisconsin has Kaminsky in the lineup, the Badgers should have no serious challenger for the Big Ten championship.
  3. The Wooden Award Midseason list was released on Wednesday, and four players from the Big Ten made the cut: Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell and Maryland’s Melo Trimble. Three of the four players were expected to be national names in the preseason, but the freshman Trimble’s inclusion highlights just how integral the dynamic point guard has been to the Terrapins’ success. The snubs include the Big Ten’s two leading scorers: Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Nebraska’s Terran Pettaway. Both players were likely hurt because of their teams’ disappointing play this season, underscoring how team success ultimately factors into decisions about individual awards. It’s also why the Big Ten’s best chance to win the Wooden Award lies with Kaminsky as he leads the Badgers to a possible conference and National Championship.
  4. One of the biggest surprises of the season has been Maryland’s impressive play leading to a 16-2 record and the an early lead with Wisconsin at 4-1 in the conference standings. Like all Mark Turgeon-coached teams, the Terps’ strength lies in their defense (19th in the nation). Not nearly talked about enough, though, has been Maryland’s rebounding performance during conference play. It made a big statement by outrebounding Michigan State two weeks ago, a program that prides itself in how hard it gets after the boards. The secret has been getting players like Jake Layman to commit to rebounding, regardless of position. Thus far, the Terps have won the rebounding battle in three of their first five conference games and all three ended in wins. They’ll have to keep it up this weekend as they once again face a Spartans team that will be looking to redeem themselves.
  5. Finally, Joe Lunardi updated his brackets on ESPN.com yesterday. According to his projections, the Big Ten has six teams currently in the field: Wisconsin (#2 seed), Maryland (#3), Iowa (#8), Michigan State (#8), Ohio State (#8), and Indiana (#9). This would land the conference fourth in bids, with the ACC, Big 12, and Big East each getting more. Given the Big Ten’s lackluster performance in the non-conference schedule and the likelihood that they will continue to beat up on one another, things are unlikely to change much in this regard by Selection Sunday. Bummer.
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Minnesota Finds Itself in the Big Ten Cellar

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 15th, 2015

Minnesota is in a bind. After a strong 11-2 showing in the non-conference schedule — with losses to only Louisville and St. John’s – the Gophers are now 0-5 in conference play after losing to Iowa on Tuesday night. In case you missed it, Minnesota came back from a 17-point deficit in the second half only to lose when DeAndre Mathieu’s game-tying layup came a tenth of a second too late. Now more than a quarter of the way through conference play, Minnesota is one of only two Big Ten teams (Penn State is the other) without a conference win; even lowly Rutgers already has two. To be fair, the rough start can partially be explained by an unfortunate schedule where three of the Gophers’ first four Big Ten games came on the road. This week’s home game against Iowa, however, marked the beginning of a seven-game series that includes five home games. Their hope was to start making up some of that lost ground during the friendly part of their schedule. That will get tougher now, as Minnesota’s offense has proved inefficient and fixing its scoring woes will need to be addressed immediately to find any hope left.

Despite not getting much production from leading scorer Andre Hollins, Minnesota has made it to the Final 8 of the NIT. (AP)

Minnesota needs the elite version of Andre Hollins to show up — and soon — if they want to turn their season around. (AP)

In Tuesday night’s game, Minnesota’s offense was a tale of two halves. In the first session, the Gophers were unable to find any rhythm and only managed to shoot 30 percent from the field. In the second half, however, they surged back by shooting over 62 percent from the field and putting together a 29-9 run that just fell short. But does a successful 20 minutes mean that the offense has started to click? The second-half outpouring was driven by two players – Nate Mason and Carlos Morris (37 points combined) — both of whom caught fire rather than the offense running any great sets. A major reason for the team’s offensive struggles has been inconsistency from their veteran leaders. Andre Hollins is not having an all-Big Ten senior season. He chipped in only seven points against Iowa and was a non-factor for the majority of the game. Mathieu has also been unreliable, witnessed by the fact that he went scoreless against Michigan State and only managed four points against Maryland. This duo’s scoring average has dropped by a combined 3.5 PPG from last season, and this decline in production and inconsistency from their veterans has severely and negatively impacted Minnesota’s offense. Richard Pitino, to his credit, is trying just about anything to fix the problem. He removed Morris from the starting lineup against Iowa and he responded by leading all scorers (20 points) in his first game as the sixth man. But time has run out for experimentation — if this offense can’t click during the next three weeks that are mostly at home, the Gophers will be permanently stuck in the Big Ten cellar. That’s something no one saw coming as recently as two short weeks ago.

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Big Ten M5: 01.09.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 9th, 2015

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  1. On Wednesday night, two conference unbeatens met as Purdue went to the Kohl Center to battle Wisconsin, with the Boilermakers falling just short in a seven-point loss. Despite the defeat, Purdue took some positives from the game, such as their effort in outrebounding the Badgers by five. Matt Painter can take some level of pride as his team came close to upsetting a national title contender on the road, something not many figured it was capable of doing this season. The Boilermakers’ impressive 2-1 start to conference play means that their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament is within reach, but they shouldn’t get complacent because they have another tough match-up on Saturday hosting Maryland.
  2. It had been a rough week for Illinois going into Wednesday night’s game against #9 Maryland. The Illini were coming off an 0-2 start in conference play and had just lost their leading scorer and rebounder, Rayvonte Rice, to an injury for at least three weeks. So it’s only natural — given the way that Big Ten play has made so little sense this season — that they shock everyone with a 64-57 victory over the Terps. The Illini were down early but blew up late with a one-man show from Malcolm Hill taking over the game (Hill scored 18 of his 28 points in the second half). It was Illinois’ defense, though, that carried the day in holding Maryland to 36.5 percent shooting and limiting super frosh Melo Trimble to only three free throw attempts (five fewer than his season average). That defense is going to have to continue its newfound effectiveness for the Illini to stay afloat until their senior leader returns.
  3. After last night’s 75-61 defeat of Iowa at the hands of a can’t-miss Michigan State squad, Wisconsin remains the only undefeated team in conference play. This game was a tale of two halves, as the Spartans went into halftime down by 11 points but came surging back with a 25-9 run after the break. The difference was Michigan State’s perimeter game, in which the Spartans made 12 three-pointers and shot at a 70 percent clip — Travis Trice, in particular, was 7-of-8 from deep. This now makes it two blowout wins in a row for the Spartans, as they are starting to look more like the Tom Izzo teams we’re accustomed to seeing.
  4. Indiana will prepare for an important game in Bloomington hosting Ohio State this weekend, as a win over a ranked opponent will mitigate some of the effects from the drubbing Michigan State gave them. Given the Hoosiers’ up-and-down season to go along with the preseason off-court issues, chatter about Tom Crean‘s status on the hot seat has not subsided much. But The Crimson Quarry blog wrote an article using Nebraska football as an example to explain why removing Indiana’s head coach of six years may not be a wise decision. This could be sage advice, as we see every year that it is becoming more difficult to lure desirable coaches from comfortable situations. Look no further than the examples of Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens consistently spurning every college offer that was put in front of them over the past few years.
  5. Finally, the season premiere of The Journey will be on the BTN at 10:30 PM ET after this weekend’s games. If you follow this site, you most likely are already familiar with the program, but in case you’re not, it’s definitely worth watching or recording. It is as well-produced of a series as any other program on television and it takes you deep into off-court storylines of the coaches and players we watch every week. It is must-watch TV every Sunday night.
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Steve Wojciechowski Quietly Rebuilding Marquette With Young Talent

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 7th, 2015

The path to a head coaching position at a high major university is not a beaten one; many of today’s coaches ascended different ladders to get to their current positions. Some coaches got there by taking little-known schools to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament; others took an open position at the same school when their boss moved on; while still others first served as high-profile assistants to established coaches in more prestigious programs. Marquette’s first-year head coach, Steve Wojciechowski, falls into the latter category with a pedigree few others can boast. After a successful four-year playing career at Duke, he spent 15 years apprenticing for one of the best to ever coach the sport, Mike Krzyzewski. But despite the unimpeachable regard everyone holds for his former coach and mentor, success at the highest levels has not been guaranteed for Krzyzewski’s acolytes. Now that Wojciechowski is the leader of one of the most tradition-rich programs in the country, he’s hoping to start a tradition of his own in Milwaukee. On Tuesday night in Washington, DC, he came very close to getting the first truly big win of his young career when Marquette battled the Hoyas to a tight six-point loss.

Steve Wojciechowski's first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program.

Steve Wojciechowski’s first job as a head coach is to rebuild a proud Marquette program (Gary Porter).

When the 38-year old accepted the Marquette job last spring, the program was not in the same shape as it had been when it made eight straight NCAA Tournaments from 2006-13. After a disappointing 17-15 season, former head coach Buzz Williams downgraded to Virginia Tech because of the uncertainty of the athletic director’s position (currently being filled by interim AD, Bill Cords), and a general concern about the new Big East’s visibility in moving from ESPN to Fox Sports 1 as its primary television carrier. Another factor in his departure may have been the stark realization that his current roster simply was not all that competitive. After Shaka Smart and Cuonzo Martin passed on the Marquette job, this opened the door for Wojciechowski to become a first-time head coach at a respected basketball program with an opportunity to rebuild it in his own image.

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John Groce’s January Drearier Than Usual With Rice Injury

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 6th, 2015

It appears safe to say that January may not be John Groce’s favorite month. In the two and a half seasons he’s spent as the head coach at Illinois, the 43-year old Indiana native has gone 3-13 in the first month of the year, including Saturday’s loss to Ohio State. Things will not get any easier for him in coming weeks as news was released today that his leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice, will be sidelined for five to six weeks with a broken hand that he sustained during Monday’s practice. This is a devastating blow to Groce and his already-struggling offense as the Illini now have to slog through much of the rest of Big Ten play without their best offensive player.

John Groce's Illinois faces a pivotal game against Indiana to kick off the conference season.

John Groce faces his most difficult challenge yet with Rice out for the remainder of Big Ten play.

Rice’s injury may turn out to be the final wave that capsizes the boat on the Illini’s unfortunate and disappointing season. While a quick look at their resume may not visibly show a sinking team, this squad has not lived up to preseason expectations. With the introduction of two sharpshooting transfers in Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby and an additional year of development for the sophomore duo of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, this season’s Illini were supposed to have resolved last season’s offensive inadequacies. Things initially went according to plan early, but Starks and Cosby have gone cold from the field since December (a combined 31 percent from the field in the last eight games), and Nunn, who started the season injured, has never returned to the same level of play he showed at the end of last season. Hill may be the only player who has lived up to his expected billing, but he too has managed to disappear in a few games.

The only constant for Illinois had been Rice, and now they are without their rock. The Illini will miss more than his scoring, as the senior guard provides contributions all over the court — 6.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, and 48.3% 3FG — but perhaps the most telling statistic that shows his impact is the gulf between his Player Efficiency Rating (31.9) and the next best player, Hill’s (22.5). Now, midway through a trying season, Groce will need to reinvent his roster with the same players who have disappointed him all season. In order to salvage something out of it, someone will have to emerge in the next six weeks to help mitigate the loss of Rice. Otherwise, this winter of Illini discontent will last a lot longer than just January in Champaign.

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Big Ten M5: 12.29.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 29th, 2014

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  1. On Saturday, Indiana lost its final non-conference match-up to Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. In the second half, the game became a duel between two former teammates and Indianapolis natives, the Hoosiers’ Yogi Ferrell and the Hoyas’ D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Ferrell scored a team-high 27 points, including two three-pointers that helped the Hoosiers tie the game and send it to overtime. As Zach Osterman explains, there is no shame in losing to Georgetown on a neutral site — the disappointment stems from what would have been gained with a win. A win over a good Big East team would not only have given Indiana a big boost going into its conference schedule, but also earned them their first resume win and mitigated some of the stain from their bad loss to Eastern Washington. Now, the Hoosiers will have to overperform in Big Ten play in order to earn an NCAA bid.
  2. This weekend we also saw the return of Dez Wells when Maryland defeated Oakland. After missing five games with a wrist injury, Wells did not get the start but played 22 minutes, chipping in 10 points and four assists. The senior’s return adds to the momentum the Terrapins have built after going 12-1 in non-conference play. In Wells’ absence, Jake Layman has stepped up his production, emerging as a legitimate scoring option for Maryland; combine that with the standout play of freshman stud Melo Trimble and a healthy Wells and Evan Smotrycz, and Mark Turgeon now has a wealth of talent with which to develop his new rotation, shaping up Maryland to be a force in its first season in the Big Ten.
  3. The slate of Saturday games also included Minnesota’s convincing win against UNC-Wilmington. This was the Golden Gophers’ eighth victory in a row, and it caps off a nice finish to their non-conference schedule after starting 3-2 — they’re now 11-2 with losses only to Louisville and St. John’s (both in KenPom’s top 20). Richard Pitino’s pressure defense has once again been a big part of their success (defensive turnover rate of 28.0 percent, third in the country), but it’s their ability to share the ball that has really boosted the offense and overall play, as evidenced by the 66.2 percent of field goals made that come off of assists (fifth nationally). Minnesota will see if its collegial philosophy on offense will translate to a step up in competition when it starts Big Ten play Wednesday at Purdue.
  4. Now that the non-conference schedule season has wrapped up, it’s worth reviewing what has happened in the season thus far. We will have some look-back posts coming up here on the microsite, but the MaizeNBrew blog from SB Nation has compiled a pretty comprehensive version of its non-conference awards. Wisconsin was honored as the Best Team, while Northwestern shamefully beat out Rutgers to be named the Worst Team. Additionally, the Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky was awarded midseason MVP, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell was Best Freshman, Maryland’s Jake Layman was Most Improved, Wisconsin/Duke was the best game of the non-conference season, Iowa over North Carolina was deemed the Best Win, and Michigan’s infamous defeat to NJIT was identified as the Worst Loss. There are many, many more awards in the article, and it serves as a good recap of the early part of the season for the Big Ten.
  5. Finally, fans have been grasping at straws to make sense of the “mushy middle”of this year’s Big Ten. It seems as if there is not much daylight between teams unless your name is Wisconsin (for good reason) or Northwestern and Rutgers (for not-so-good reasons). If you’re looking for some clarity, Jeff from the BasketballPredictions blog has updated his bracketology predictions to include Saturday’s results. His predictions and seedings reflect what he expects to occur by the end of the season. In it, he has eight Big Ten teams making the Dance: Wisconsin (#1 seed), Ohio State (#4), Maryland (#7), Illinois (#7), Iowa (#8), Michigan State (#9), Michigan (#11), and Minnesota (#12). This leaves out bubble-hopefuls Penn State (and their 12-1 record), Indiana, Nebraska and Purdue. These predictions seem to highlight how much uncertainty there is with any team’s record and/or performance in the non-conference, and that we’ll likely have a slugfest in the conference all season long for those precious NCAA Tournament bids. There are two exciting months of Big Ten play coming our way that will sort all of this out. Get excited!
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Braxton Ogbueze Finds His Place Back Home

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 20th, 2014

In this current era of college basketball, transfers have become as inevitable, and sometimes as commonplace, to teams as graduations. There are many reasons for a player to transfer, but one of the more prominent cause is a player’s lack of playing time at their current institution, leading them to transfer to a school of lesser prestige, but with more available minutes. Braxton Ogbueze fell into this category. The Charlotte-native transferred from Florida after his freshman year (the 2012-13 season) and found his way back home with Charlotte. In the first ten games, he’s been used primarily as a combo guard, starting every game and leading the team in scoring (13.2 PPG). On Saturday afternoon, the sophomore transfer helped the 49ers almost pull an upset at Georgetown — they instead ended up losing by three — and showed he can be the player head coach Alan Major can lean on to lead the program for the next three years.

Braxton Ogbueze transferred from Florida back to his hometown university, Charlotte, and has become a much needed scorer for the 49ers.

Braxton Ogbueze transferred from Florida back to his hometown university, Charlotte, and has become a much needed scorer for the 49ers (AP).

Coming out of high school, Ogbueze was considered one of the top point guard prospects in the nation and a Top 50 recruit overall. He committed to a resurgent Florida program that was coming off an Elite Eight appearance, and had talented roster set in place which made them poised for continued success. But all that seemed attractive of joining an elite program, like Florida, quickly soured with Ogbueze when playing time became sparse with no relief in sight, given the players in front of him like Scottie Wilbekin, Kasey Hill, and Eli Carter. So, he returned home. Ogbueze has provided an additional scoring punch to Major’s squad, scoring double digits in eight of his first eleven games (including two 20-point outings) as a 49er. He’s been especially deadly from deep, making 20 three-pointers already and shooting at a 40.8 percent clip.

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Is Penn State A Pretender Or Contender?

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 17th, 2014

Last Sunday, Penn State got its best win of the season when it soundly defeated a talented George Washington team at the Bryce Jordan Center. The victory pushed the Nittany Lions’ record to 10-1, which is tied for best in the Big Ten — the lone loss a double-overtime bout with Charlotte. While the number of wins is impressive, a deeper look into the record reveals the absence of any other resume-enhancing wins. Even last weekend’s win against the Colonials, while no easy task, represents a victory over a team that hovers around the top 50 in both the KenPom and Sagarin ratings. Also concerning is the fact that Penn State has not exactly been blowing out its inferior opponents (they won by fewer than five points against Virginia Tech, Marshall, and Duquesne, but they still won). This presents something of a paradox between their on-court performance and their record, leaving Big Ten fans to guess how good Penn State really is. In this post, I’ll explore both sides of whether Pat Chambers’ squad is really a contender or pretender as he pushes forward toward what could possibly be his first NCAA Tournament bid as the head coach.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year (Mark Selders/GoPSUSports.com).

  • Penn State is a pretender. Look no further than the Sagarin ratings to show the true discrepancy between the Nittany Lions’ record and performance. Specifically note the Elo rating component, which is a formula that solely considers wins, losses and who they’re against, and compare it with the Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings, two metrics that take into account point differential. Based on the Elo rating, Penn State is ranked 49th in the country; his Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings list the Nittany Lions at 128th and 119th, respectively. That’s an approximate gap of 70-80 teams, with the difference accounting for actual on-court performance. KenPom makes a similar case in his ratings, as he ranks the team 89th but notes that it is among the top 40 in luck, a metric that measures how much a team’s record has been above its expected play on the court. So if you’re looking at these metrics alone, it’s undeniable that the 10-1 record is somewhat misleading.

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Big Ten M5: 12.12.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 12th, 2014

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  1. Michigan has had as bad a week as you could have after consecutive losses to inferior opponents, first to NJIT on Sunday followed by Eastern Michigan on Wednesday. Yesterday, it came out that Spike Albrecht has been dealing with an unspecified lower body injury since the offseason. This on top of the toe injury to point guard Derrick Walton. As John Beilein said, “when your two point guards are banged up, it could impact you.” Albrecht says he’s been playing through the pain all season and it has not affected his play, but Wolverines fans must hope that’s the case because things won’t get easier for them as they face Arizona in Tucson Saturday.
  2. If Michigan had the worst week, Nebraska may be a close runner-up after they dropped a home game to Incarnate Word on Wednesday, losing 73-74. The Cornhuskers were shorthanded against the Cardinals as senior Moses Abraham did not play due to a broken hand suffered in practice the day before. Nebraska now has three losses on the season, including two at home which is more than they had all last season. With Terrran Pettaway and Shavon Shields already carrying a disproportionate amount of the scoring, losing an experienced big man like Abraham is only going to put more stress on them. They’ll need to figure out how to remedy their offense quick, as Cincinnati and their Top 40 defense come into town this weekend.
  3. Over on the east coast, Maryland is also going through its own health issues with two of their starters, Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz, out for an extended period of time. Unlike the Cornhuskers, the Terrapins have been able to navigate through their injuries due to the excellent play of their freshman point guard, Melo Trimble. One of the best traits of the first-year player is his ability to get to the free throw line. On Wednesday’s 67-56 win over North Carolina Central, Trimble was perfect from the free throw line and scored eight of his total twelve points from the charity stripe. It’s his ability to generate points even during an off-shooting night that makes him so valuable and keeps this Maryland team afloat despite injuries to key personnel.
  4. On Tuesday, Indiana lost 74-94 to Louisville in large part due to their poor rebounding – the Cardinals out rebounded the Hoosiers 52 to 34, which includes grabbing 26 offensive rebounds. Indiana has been dealing with their deficiencies in rebounding since the loss of Noah Vonleh to the NBA Draft during the offseason. As Tom Crean and company contemplate how to fix their rebounding woes, an obvious starting point would be for the lone true big man in the starting lineup, Hanner Mosquera-Perrea, to be more consistent in his effort to grab boards. Indiana still has challenging opponents in its non-conference schedule, such as Georgetown, and they’ll need to improve their rebounding performance, otherwise they’ll be relying on getting hot from the three point line to win games.
  5. Finally, Ohio State may have found another offensive weapon on their roster with the impressive performance of Kam Williams in their 97-43 win over High Point. The freshman guard scored a career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting including 4 three pointers. The Buckeyes already have an arsenal of weapons with D’Angelo Russell, Marc Loving, and Sam Thompson. So, Thad Matta won’t need a scoring output like this from Williams every night, but it must be nice to know that he has another potential high-scoring wing waiting on his bench.
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Josh Smith Again Shows His Talent Despite Georgetown Loss

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 11th, 2014

Games like Wednesday’s 70-75 loss to Kansas have to sting for a team like Georgetown. The Hoyas managed to come back from a 12-point deficit and take a late two-point lead against the Jayhawks, but failed to play enough mistake-free basketball down the stretch to seal the resume-enhancing win. But John Thompson III can take solace in some encouraging signs from his team’s performance, as it was apparent to anyone watching the game that the Hoyas played generally as well as Kansas, with the outcome of the game coming down to the discrepancy in three-pointers (Kansas: 10-of-17; Georgetown 5-of-16). One especially bright spot was the dominant performance from Hoyas’ center Joshua Smith. It must have been performances like this that Thompson had envisioned when he sought the Washington native and UCLA transfer almost two years ago. With Big East play on the horizon, Smith’s growing assertiveness still paints a bright picture for the season despite this week’s disappointing defeat.

Joshua Smith kept the Hoyas in the game against Kansas (USATSI).

Joshua Smith kept the Hoyas in the game against Kansas (USATSI).

The battle Smith faced inside against Jayhawks’ leading scorer Perry Ellis and super-recruit Cliff Alexander presented the biggest challenge to Smith so far this season (Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky challenged Smith by pulling him away from the basket). The Georgetown center finished with 20 points and five rebounds and dominated Alexander by going right at the rookie’s chest and establishing better position underneath the basket. The freshman Jayhawk couldn’t do much of anything to stop the 350-pound senior from getting wherever he wanted in the paint. Georgetown rightly exploited this mismatch as much as possible by running the offense through Smith – he was involved in a team-high 34 percent of its possessions – and keeping the senior big man on the court for 27 minutes, a season high. It was Smith’s play that, despite an off-shooting night by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (3-of-15) and a career shooting night for Kansas’ Brennan Greene’s (5-of-5 from the three-point line), kept the Hoyas in the game and gave them a chance to win.

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Nnanna Egwu is the Defensive Linchpin for Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 9th, 2014

At 7-1 with only a road loss to Miami (FL), John Groce has Illinois once again playing well in its non-conference schedule. But one notable difference this year is how improved the Fighting Illini have been on offense. Due to the addition of a couple of offseason transfers, Illinois finds itself with a wealth of combo guards and wings who can score in bunches. While that revamped offense has gotten good publicity thus far, it’s been Illinois’ ongoing successes on the defensive end (91.0 adjusted defensive rating), that has Groce’s squad primed to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. The anchor of that defense, and the only reliable inside presence on the team, is senior big man Nnanna Egwu. Illinois faces #7 Villanova in Madison Square Garden tonight and it will need Egwu to lead the charge in slowing down the Wildcats’ top 15 offense (110.7 adjusted offensive rating).

Nnanna Egwu covers up a lot mistakes on defense for the Illini.

Nnanna Egwu covers for a lot of defensive mistakes for the Illini.

Egwu is the lone active senior this year – Illinois’ other senior, Tracy Abrams, is out for the season with a torn ACL – and he is averaging 7.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.9 BPG in a shade under 30 minutes per contest. The native Nigerian didn’t start playing basketball until the eighth grade, but his quick development led to significant playing time on Groce’s first team in Champaign. The big man still does not have much of a back-to-the-basket game on offense, but he has nice touch and can step out and shoot from the perimeter (5-of-14 from three this season). Whatever his limits are in scoring, what he brings to Groce’s defense supersedes it. Egwu is one of the top rim-protectors in the country, serving as a safety net for guards who get beaten off the dribble. His presence inside allows Illinois’ guards to be more aggressive and gamble for steals, the proof being the Illini’s top 100 steal percentage (10.8%) despite not having the prototypical athletic and long players that dominate this category.

When the Illini play Villanova tonight at Madison Square Garden, Egwu will have his hands full guarding 6’11” center Daniel Ochefu, who converts on 63.6 percent of his attempts near the rim. In addition to Ochefu, he’ll also have to act as the eraser if Wildcats’ guards Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis penetrate the lane to get to the bucket — where both are also shooting over 60 percent. With no capable replacement on the bench, Egwu must avoid fouling to stay on the court, otherwise it’ll be open season on the Illini inside the paint (Egwu to this point has avoided a disqualification on fouls this season). Illinois has relied on its center to provide a foundation to its high-quality defense, and to have any chance of walking out of the Mecca with a Top 10 scalp tonight, it will fall on Egwu to answer that call once again.

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Paul White’s Emergence is Another Step in the Right Direction for Georgetown

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 8th, 2014

It was than less two weeks ago when Georgetown reintroduced itself to the college basketball world as a team to be feared. Its win over Florida in overtime and near-defeat of national title contender Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis demonstrated as much. Despite finishing the event with a disappointing loss to Butler (and a 1-2 record), it was not enough to dissuade what experts had seen with their own eyes, which was a poised team with a healthy mix of veteran and talented young players. This was expressed succinctly by ESPN’s Jay Bilas when he said “Georgetown hoops is back!” during its run at the Badgers. One of Georgetown’s budding stars is Paul White, who scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the Hoyas’ 78-46 win against Towson on Sunday afternoon at the BB&T Classic. White has scored in double-figures during the last four games and represents the depth of Georgetown’s potential that impressed so many pundits two weeks ago.

paul white

Freshman Paul White has scored double-figures for Georgetown in their last four games. (Tim Aylen/AP Photo).

White is a Chicago native who played for Whitney Young, a virtual incubator for high-major talent — his teammates in high school were Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and current Hoya L.J. Peak. Despite being a top 75 recruit himself, White got overshadowed as the Chicago media focused most of its attention on the more captivating pursuits of Okafor and Kansas’ Cliff Alexander. Coming into this season, it was his teammates Peak and Isaac Copeland who were expected to make an immediate impact for John Thompson’s team, but White was presented an opportunity to distinguish himself given Georgetown’s relatively shallow bench. The lanky forward initially stayed within the comfort zone of jump shots, earning him only 10 points over the first three games. But since the trip to the Bahamas, White has been more amenable to absorbing contact on his drives, leading to nine free throw attempts in his last four outings (when he previously had none). By getting to the charity stripe regularly, White averaged 10.0 PPG during the Battle 4 Atlantis, more than double what he had averaged coming into the islands.

On Sunday, the young Chicagoan continued to show the versatility of his game against Towson, making a career-high three three-pointers on four attempts. For the season, White now has a true shooting percentage of 63.8 percent and an offensive rating of over 110.0 (more than 130.0 in the last three games). Hoyas’ fans are hoping that this was a prelude for what’s to come from him in the team’s match-up against Kansas (and Alexander) on Wednesday night. If the young stretch forward can keep playing at an efficient level, and Josh Smith remains on the floor, and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera continues to fill the stat sheet, the Hoyas should have a great chance to secure the marquee non-conference win that they let slip through their hands against Wisconsin. In the long term, White’s emergence will speed up the maturation process for the team as a whole by reducing the load that the others will have to carry, resulting in a more diversified offense that can get the Hoyas back to where they belong — in the NCAA Tournament.

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