Big Ten M5: Halloween Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 31st, 2014

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  1. It was always going to be a rough introduction into the Big Ten for Rutgers, given that last year the Scarlet Knights weren’t competitive in a mediocre American Athletic Conference. If they are going to turn things around, the effort will need to be led by one of their senior leaders, Kadeem Jack. So head coach Eddie Jordan must be more than a little concerned that last year’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer has been unable to practice due to a wrist injury. Jack is expected to be healthy by the first game of the season against George Washington, but Jordan needs to hope that’s the case as his team is going to need all the wins it can get for a shot at a postseason tournament.
  2. In East Lansing, Michigan State is also dealing with the injury bug. Tom Izzo’s team will lose freshman Javon Bess for at least a month as he will have surgery on his injured foot. Though not a heralded recruit, he seemed to have already earned some respect from his fellow teammates and coach. Izzo called him a “diamond in the rough” while Denzel Valentine said his loss is “gonna be big [to us].” His injury chips at the Spartans’ depth, something the Spartans would like to have as they make their way through another tough non-conference schedule with opponents like Duke, Georgia Tech, Kansas and Notre Dame slated.
  3. The season hasn’t even started, but Richard Pitino is already dealing with some off-the-court issues, as Minnesota dismissed junior Zach Lofton on Wednesday with no specific explanation given for his cause for dismissal. The 6’4″ wing had transferred to Minnesota from Illinois State, where he averaged 11.3 PPG and 3.0 RPG last season. His dismissal has no effect with respect to this season, as Lofton would have had to redshirt this year anyway. But it’s certainly not ideal and leaves a hole in Pitino’s lineup for the 2015-16 season that he will need to fill. Not a great start for the Golden Gophers.
  4. Earlier in the week, SBNation released its Top 100 players list. Yesterday, CBSSports.com did likewise. One big difference between the two lists was with the ranking of Sam Dekker, who came in at #5 on the latter as opposed to #33 on the former. Another huge difference in ranking was Ohio State’s freshman D’Angelo Russell, who was listed all the way up at #44 on CBS and was left off the list altogether on SBNation. They reached some consensus, however, with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Michigan’s Caris Levert as top 10 players. Finally, while SBNation put 15 B1G players on its list, CBS was more bearish on the conference’s talent with only 11 players. These lists make for fun fodder, but honestly, it’ll be nice just to get through all this and focus on the games.
  5. Lastly, Indiana’s Tom Crean is trying to get his Hoosiers squad ready for game shape this week. The Hoosiers lost some key players from last year’s squad, such as Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Noah Vonleh, four-year contributor Will Sheehey, and a bunch of transfers. This lack in continuity is showing as the coach has to impress upon his squad to avoid “defensive fatigue”. While the Hoosiers lost a bunch of talent, they also brought in a quality freshmen class. Crean will need to get his star point guard, Yogi Ferrell, to whip those youngsters in shape if they’re to avoid another disappointing season.
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Vic Law Might be the Most Important Freshman in the Big Ten

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on October 28th, 2014

Here’s a familiar scene. A heralded freshman joins a veteran-laden team. His older teammates are a bit jaded by all the hype and media attention that their younger counterpart receives, but they’re also intrigued with what the young star can do on the floor. Eventually the team is won over by all the potential embedded in their new teammate, and the season-long process of integration takes its first step. This scene usually takes place with elite freshmen and the blue-chip college programs at which they enroll, but at some level, a similar story also involves a four-star recruit in Evanston, Illinois. Vic Law is not the most talented freshman in the Big Ten this season, but he might be the most important. His ability to succeed may change the trajectory of the perennially bottom-dwelling Northwestern program, head coach Chris Collins’ career, and the future pecking order of the Big Ten.

Vic Law is the most heralded freshman at Northwestern in a long time.

Vic Law is the most heralded freshman at Northwestern in a long time.

The first thing you need to know about Law is that he doesn’t look like a typical Northwestern basketball player. The Chicago native is a 6’7”, 185 lb. string bean, but he’s remarkably athletic with a versatile game that makes him a threat from both the outside or in the mid-range. In short, he looks like a top-100 prospect. Compare him with several recent Northwestern stars such as Drew Crawford, John Shurna and Kevin Coble, and the gap in their upside becomes even more apparent. No offense to those former players, but they were successful Wildcats as much from their basketball IQ and guile than from their athleticism and talent. During former head coach Bill Carmody’s tenure, that was the formula that successfully got the Wildcats as close to making the NCAA Tournament as they had ever been. But eventually, that approach simply wasn’t able to get over the hump, and a coaching change was made.

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How Does Wisconsin Compare With Other Recent Preseason Top 5 Big Ten Teams?

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on October 27th, 2014

In an earlier post, I argued that Wisconsin’s talent and chemistry made them well-equipped to have another successful season and make a repeat trip to the Final Four. Specifically, the fact that the Badgers return seven of their top eight scorers from last season’s team — including two likely preseason All-Americans in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker — makes them the Big Ten’s best shot at ending its 15-year championship drought. While that sounds hopeful, the Big Ten has had numerous heralded preseason teams since Michigan State’s championship in 2000, and all of them have failed to cut down the nets on the first Monday in April. So, how do these Badgers stack up against some other recent Big Ten preseason top 5 teams? I decided to investigate.

Wisconsin made the Final Four last year, and look to return.

Wisconsin will be in the AP preseason Top 5, and hopes to be the first Big Ten National Champion since 2000. / Andy Manis

Using several metrics, I compared Wisconsin to seven other Big Ten teams that were ranked in the Top 5 of the preseason AP Poll in the past five years. Most metrics are factors that contribute to a team being highly ranked in the preseason: returning minutes, the previous season’s offensive and defensive performances, the previous season’s finish with respect to conference championships and NCAA Tournament advancement, and the quality of the team’s incoming class (based upon Scout.com’s team rankings). The remaining metrics are the team’s preseason AP poll ranking and their finish with respect to conference championship and the NCAA Tournament in that season. The table below compares each team’s metrics.

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Big Ten M5: 10.24.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 24th, 2014

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  1. Obviously, the biggest change this season is the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the league as the Big Ten made the final chess move in this round of conference expansion. Tom Dienhart wrote a nice piece about how expansion may reclaim some east coast favorability for the conference. Now that the as-currently-constructed Big East is no longer the dominant college hoops brand, it leaves a vacuum in the most populous corner of the country. It’s no coincidence that the Big Ten is having their conference tournament in Washington, DC in 2017. They are battling the ACC for the Northeast’s eyes and recruits. And now that they have three teams in the area — and added even more markets to their TV network — they have the footprint to compete.
  2. The Terrapins and Scarlet Knights may be the freshest faces in the league this season, but Chris Collins is still pretty new as he enters his second season as Northwestern‘s head coach. ESPN‘s Myron Metcalf spent some time with the former Duke assistant in Evanston, and asked him when he thought the Wildcats would make the NCAA Tournament. “I definitely think it is [around the corner]. When that happens I don’t know.” That’s as optimistic as you can be for something that’s never happened, EVER. But Collins has reasons to be optimistic, they were a Top 15 team in the country in adjusted defensive rating last season, they return four of their five starters, and Top 100 recruit Vic Law joins their squad. Pair that with everyone besides Wisconsin being a little bit down from last season, there just might be an opening for these Wildcats to make history.
  3. Michigan lost a good amount of its backcourt from last season. This year, all eyes will be on Caris Levert to make up for the loss in scoring and for Derrick Walton Jr. to run the team’s offense. But not as much attention has been paid to the other likely backcourt starter, Zak Irvin. The sophomore and former Mr. Indiana was extremely effective from the outside in limited minutes, but provided little of anything else. However, Wolverine fans had to be happy to hear that he was dominant on the offensive end in Michigan’s European summer tour. If he can expand his game to inside the perimeter, it’ll give this team another dynamic scorer and make our predictions of Michigan basketball taking a step back seem foolish.
  4. I’ve never been to a Midnight Madness, but I’ve heard from those who have attended that after the pomp and circumstance, it’s not really anything to write home about. If there was an exception to this rule, I bet it would lie in Bloomington with Hoosier Hysteria. Indiana has the crazy fan base and history to electrify such an event. One thing that may have me watching is the slam dunk contest with their ridiculous athletes. Now, if only Tom Crean can get those athletes to play as one offensive unit, the Hoosiers may be celebrating at end of the season like they’ll be celebrating on Friday.
  5. Finally, it was rumored that Tom Izzo had the opportunity to leave Michigan State this past offseason and coach an NBA team. He ended up staying for many reasons, but perhaps one of them is the job Mark Dantonio is doing with the football team.  As much of a legend Izzo is in East Lansing, the money will always follow football. So it’s probably not a coincident that Michigan State received its largest single donation of $10 million while the football team seems to be on its way to a consecutive conference championship. Basketball will actually get a plurality of that money for capital improvement in the Breslin Center, but there should be no doubt that the money comes in easier when you have a successful football program that excites big donors.
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Big Ten Basketball Twitter Must-Follows

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on October 20th, 2014

As the season inches closer, we’re going to be rolling out more and more of our usual preseason analyses, but one of the best ways college basketball fans can stay informed throughout the season is by following the right people and sources on Twitter. I’ll presume you’re already following all the contributors here at the Big Ten microsite: myself (@AlexPMoscoso), Deepak (@dee_b1g), Brendan (@berndon4), and Jonathan (@jcbatuello). But aside from the four of us, there are a plethora of beat writers and team-centered blogs that post well-written stories on the everyday going-ons of all the squads within the league. For your convenience, we’ve come up with a list of the Twitter must-follows for Big Ten basketball and organized them by team below. Enjoy!

If You Follow These Big Ten-Related Accounts, You'll Be Covered

If You Follow These Big Ten-Related Accounts, You’ll Be Covered Throughout the Season

Big Ten- General

Big Ten – Analytical

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Big Ten M5: 10.17.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 17th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. As Tom Izzo enters his 20th season as head coach at Michigan State, he’ll have to deal with the losses of three major contributors from last season — Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne. With only an average recruiting class entering East Lansing, he’ll have to rely on players from last year’s roster to improve. Specifically, the Spartans will look to senior Branden Dawson to keep them competitive in the B1G and possibly challenge for a conference championship. On Thursday at the Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, Izzo said that he’s trying to get Dawson to mold his game like another former Spartan standout, Draymond Green. With the significant loss in production from last year, it would certainly help if Dawson played like Green — who averaged a double-double his final year — this season.
  2. As mentioned, yesterday was Big Ten Media Day, and these events usually produce some notable quotes from the assembled coaches. One comment that caught my attention was Michigan head coach John Beilein’s response to a question about the presumed gap between Wisconsin and the other teams in the conference, stating that “the rest of the league is not far behind on a national stage.” It seems like Beilein is confident that, by the end of the season, several other Big Ten teams will join the national conversation, and maybe Wisconsin won’t run away with the conference championship after all. It’s not an outlandish statement by any stretch, because with coaches like Beilein, Izzo, and Thad Matta in the league, it is always difficult for any team — no matter how talented or experienced — to run away with the conference title.
  3. Of all the familiar faces that left the Big Ten this offseason, the most recognizable of those was probably that of the Buckeyes’ Aaron Craft. The highly decorated four-year player’s strength were intangibles like leadership and tenacity that could not be measured in a stat line. Shannon Scott, a 6’1″ senior guard who averaged 26.9 MPG last season, will attempt to replace Craft at the point guard slot this season. Scott’s numbers weren’t too far removed from Craft’s contributions in 2013-14, so his ability to produce is not really in question. But taking a leadership role could be an issue for Craft’s replacement, as Thad Matta stated on Thursday, “he’s always played a supportive role from teams he’s been on in high school to AAU to here.” The Buckeyes have a nice group of talent once again this season, but if Scott can’t effectively take an on-court leadership role, the Buckeyes will struggle to regain national power status.
  4. One familiar face that did return was Purdue big man and conference-leading shot-blocker, A.J. Hammons. While Hammons improved his block and defensive rebounding percentages from his freshman to sophomore seasons, he did not improve nearly as much offensively. Therefore it must be reassuring to Matt Painter to hear Hammons say that he realizes he has to be more of a leader on offense or Purdue won’t go very far this year. If the Boilermakers have any shot of making a run at the NCAA Tournament — and possibly saving Painter’s job — it will require Hammons to be the focal point of the team on both ends of the court.
  5. Finally, Illinois fans received sad news on Wednesday when they learned former assistant coach and Peoria High School legend, Wayne McClain, had passed away. On Thursday we learned even more about what seemed like the coach’s sudden death. McClain had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013, but only he and his doctors knew about it — not even his wife nor his son Sergio, who played at Illinois from 1997-2001. The younger McClain only found out about his illness by looking through his late father’s smart phone and reading a journal he had written. Wayne McClain was apparently telling his family that he was going to regular doctor visits when he was actually receiving chemotherapy. When his options for treatment ran out, he still kept his illness a secret. It’s hard to imagine most people doing the same, but from reading interviews with his former players and colleagues, McClain seemed to be dedicated to selflessly helping others and not making things about himself. The basketball world seemed to lose a good one this week. Rest in peace, coach.
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Will Wisconsin Make It Back to the Final Four? An Argument For Yes…

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on October 16th, 2014

Welcome back, Big Ten readers. Just like Wisconsin, most of our B1G microsite team is returning from last year. And speaking of the Badgers, there’s no doubt that they’re the overwhelming favorite to win the conference this season, as over 80 percent of their scoring and minutes played from their Final Four roster returns. That said, getting back to the Final Four is no easy task. Aside from the unpredictable nature of the NCAA Tournament itself, the Badgers will have to compete with several other nationally elite teams like Kentucky, Duke and Arizona. The likelihood that the Badgers return to the Final Four has sparked an internal debate between fellow B1G contributor Deepak Jayanti and myself. I think this Wisconsin team is special, and will indeed make it to Indianapolis next April — so, in my first post of the year, I state my case for that belief.

Sam Dekker and his NBA-game could lead the Badgers to another Final Four.  (Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports)

Sam Dekker and his NBA potential could lead the Badgers to another Final Four. (Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports)

Here are three reasons why the Badgers will make it two Final Fours in row.

  • Lots and lots of talent. This season’s Wisconsin roster may be the most talented in the Bo Ryan era. Sam Dekker, a junior wing, is a rarity in Madison as a former top 20 national recruit. He upped his production from his freshman season by chipping in 12.4 PPG and 6.1 RPG last year, but beyond his statistics, Dekker’s potential is evident when he’s working on the perimeter, where he’s big enough to shoot over his defender and athletic enough to beat him off the dribble and finish with a vicious dunk. And if you can believe it, he actually grew two more inches over the summer and managed to impress many observers at the LeBron camp. Add in the likely Preseason Big Ten POY, Frank Kaminsky, and the Badgers easily have the best frontcourt in the conference by a wide margin.  Kaminsky was the Badgers’ leading scorer and rebounder at 12.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG last season, and he was the most efficient scorer in the conference to boot.  The rest of the starting five – Traveon Jackson, Josh Gasser, and Nigel Hayes – are all high-quality players who have played significant minutes in pressure-filled situations. With all of that experience and two certain future pros in Dekker and Kaminsky, this doesn’t look like your typical Wisconsin team.

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Big Ten Season Grades: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 30th, 2014

To close out the season for good, we’re finishing our official Big Ten grades with the four top tier teams: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska. Yes, take that in one last time — Nebraska ended the season in the top four of the standings in the best conference in the country. For our previously-published grades on the eight other teams in the Big Ten, here are Part I and Part II.

Michigan

Grade: A

This season (28-9,15-3): Last year, Michigan broke through to make it all the way to the National Championship game. And while that was an impressive run, the coaching job that John Beilein did this season — leading the Wolverines to their first outright B1G title since 1986, and finishing just one play from another Final Four appearance — may be even more impressive. It’s important to note where this program was two years ago to fully appreciate the leap that Beilein has guided Michigan basketball through. In 2012, the Wolverines hadn’t yet been able to escape the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament under his direction, and Beilein’s squads were thought of as good but not great. This season, he proved that his success was not just the product of a special player like 2013 NPOY, Trey Burke; it is fundamentally anchored in player development and buy-in from his kids. This season was a successful one by any standard and it looks like the head coach in Ann Arbor has gone and rebuilt himself an elite program in Ann Arbor.

John Beilein has cemented himself as a premier coach after winning the outright title. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

John Beilein has cemented himself as a premier coach after winning the outright title. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

Next season: The Wolverines lose a lot of their roster: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary. They will bring in heralded recruit Kameron Chatman with returning players like Caris Levert, Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and Spike Albrecht joining him. In short, Michigan loses all of its frontcourt experience and its two best backcourt players. The Wolverines seemed poised to fall back a notch, but that was also the popular thought when McGary went out for the rest of this season. The bottom line is that Beilein will find a way to get this team competitive and back to the NCAA Tournament — and he has enough returning talent to get there.

Wisconsin

Grade: A+

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Big Ten Season Grades: Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 18th, 2014

Continuing our season-ending analysis, we look at the performances of Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Earlier this week, we handed out grades for Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Ohio State

Grade: C-

This season (25-10, 10-8): What would be a successful season for most programs was a relative disappointment for the Buckeyes. Ohio State did not capture a Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since 2008-09, and similar to that season, they were also bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The issue for the Buckeyes – which was a clear problem area in the preseason – was generating offense without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup. Thomas’ replacement, LaQuinton Ross, almost doubled his scoring average, but the Buckeyes failed to find reliable offensive firepower anywhere else. In the end, Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s excellent showing on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s offensive woes.

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don't expect it to continue next season. (Gettyl)

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don’t expect it to continue next season. (Getty)

Next season: The Buckeyes lose Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Ross, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. They welcome in an elite recruiting class that includes D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate; and they also will get graduate transfer Anthony Lee from Temple next year. These additions along with several talented players already on their roster should have no one worrying about the state of the program going forward. This season was merely a hiccup in the Thad Matta era.

Iowa: C

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On Wisconsin, Bo Ryan and the Future…

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 16th, 2014

At the start of the season, we, along with most everyone else, slated Wisconsin to finish in its usual place among the top four of the Big Ten standings, but also noted that the team would once again be limited in what it could accomplish in the NCAA Tournament. Examining the preseason roster, we thought the Badgers would be be better on the perimeter with the return of the Josh Gasser; we knew Sam Dekker was a pro talent, the likes of which doesn’t usually wear a Wisconsin uniform; but we also wondered whether Frank Kaminsky was capable of stepping up and playing at the level that Jarred Berggren had provided. Without mincing words, we were wrong. Six months and a Final Four appearance later, we now know that these Badgers were the most talented squad Bo Ryan has coached in Madison, and although they came up just short of a shot at the title, next season looks even brighter. Almost the entire roster is coming back and Wisconsin will be projected as an elite team by almost every prognosticator based on this year’s run. A run to the Final Four wasn’t supposed to happen with this group, so how’d they do it?

Bo Ryan has finally reached college basketball's mountain top.

Bo Ryan has finally reached college basketball’s mountain top. (AP)

Wisconsin’s 30-8 season was built on the talents of individual players who outperformed expectations and this particular squad’s great offensive chemistry in Ryan’s system. The junior Kaminsky emerged as a terrific college player and a legitimate future contender for National Player of the Year. After averaging only 4.2 PPG and 1.8 RPG in 2012-13 behind Berggren, Kaminsky led the Badgers in scoring (13.9 PPG) and rebounding (6.3 RPG) and was the second-most efficient player in the conference (127.5 Offensive Rating). Additionally, Nigel Hayes went from an unheralded high school recruit to a spot on the All-Big Ten freshmen team behind his 7.7 PPG and 2.8 RPG. The emergence of a viable scoring frontcourt — combined with a versatile wing like Dekker and a deep shooting back court in Traevon Jackson, Brust, and Gasser — created the most potent offense Ryan has ever put on the floor. By the end of the season, the Badgers carried an adjusted offensive efficiency of 1.21 points per possession (fourth in the country).

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Big Ten M5: 04.08.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on April 8th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. Another season over, another non-B1G champion crowned. In all honesty, congrats to Connecticut for winning the title. And while it’s a bit disappointing that our conference came up short again (especially with three teams in the Elite Eight), next season looks to be another strong season for the Big Ten. Wisconsin came the closest winning a title as they lost to Kentucky by a point on Saturday night in a game that went to the last second. Traevon Jackson and the rest of the Badgers were disappointed as they fully expected to compete for the national title. We’ll have to see if Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky follow through on their plans to return next year, but if they do, Wisconsin will once again be national title contenders and look to end the Big Ten’s championship drought.
  2. One of Kentucky’s other B1G victims was Michigan, who got bounced out of the Elite Eight by one of many miracle shots by Aaron Harrison this NCAA Tournament. Looking ahead to next year, the Wolverines are eligible for an overseas trip this off-season and are planning to go to Europe for some exhibition games. This means as much as ten days of additional practice to the summer. Michigan may need these additional workouts to build new chemistry if Nik Stauskas declares for the NBA draft and leaves along with senior Jordan Morgan. Bottom line: Beilien will have more time than usual to fine tune his team which should compete for another Big Ten title.
  3. Along with Michigan, Michigan State will need to regroup and get used to an even more revamped roster. The first order of business is to make sure they don’t lose their Hall of Fame coach to the NBA. After that, they’ll have to figure out life without Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and (most likely) Gary Harris. The Spartans do not have any heralded recruits coming in next year and suffered another recruiting loss yesterday. Michigan native Yante Maten had wanted to join the Spartans from the get-go but decided to join Mark Fox in Georgia as Izzo come too late with a scholarship. With uncertainty surrounding their coach and roster going into the off-season, these are strange and unusual times in East Lansing for a typically steady program.
  4. Continuing with our theme of teams in major transition, Indiana has had as difficult of an off-season as anyone. First, they lose Noah Vonleh to the NBA Draft. Then, a slew of players, including the talented Jeremy Hollowell, decide to transfer leaving the Hoosiers thin and bringing up questions of whether Tom Crean has built a program that players want to be a part of. But seemingly, Crean has blocked out the negativity and concentrated on getting back to the recruiting trail. The Hoosier head coach has had a knack for getting elite talent to Bloomington; this year he brings in talented freshmen like James Blackmon Jr. Crean will need to keep bringing in the talent to Indiana if he is to get the naysayers off his back next season.
  5. Another player whose team awaits their decision about the NBA Draft is A.J. Hammons. Without Hammons, Purdue loses the league’s premier rim protecter and all of the other potential tied to the young big man. As of now, Hammons is projected to be drafted in the second round, so a return to West Lafayette is not out of the question. But Hammons’ decision doesn’t just affect his future, it possibly determines his coach’s fate too. Matt Painter will likely start the season on the hot seat after finishing the last two seasons below 0.500. Without Hammons, Painter’s roster loses a pro-level talent, making it harder to get the program back on track.
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Previewing Michigan State vs. Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 28th, 2014

It’s been an enigmatic season for Michigan State due to a host of injuries and resulting inconsistent play. For seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, it’s been four years without a Final Four, a relative disappointment. Stress the word “relative” here, because compiling a record of 103-40 over four years would be roundly successful in 99 percent of other programs. But in East Lansing, a team that starts the season ranked #2 and ends up as a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is viewed as disappointing. As for those seniors — despite two Elite Eight and one Sweet Sixteen appearance — failure to make the Final Four this year would earn this group the distinction of being the only class in the Tom Izzo era without a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend. Tonight Sparty looks to remove that monkey off its back as it meets Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen.

Adreian Payne has made his presence known in the NCAA Tournament thus far. Virginia stands in his way as he vies for a trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

Virginia stands in Adreian Payne’s way as he vies for a trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Al Goldis).

The Cavaliers are not regulars in the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend; it’s the school’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1995. This run marks the culmination of all that was expected of head coach Tony Bennett when he was hired from Washington State five years ago. While he had only made one NCAA Tournament appearance in the previous four seasons, a trip back to the Big Dance and a top four finish in the ACC was expected from this squad due to its top five scorers returning. Bennett’s team far surpassed expectations by sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament, which garnered the Cavaliers a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. What may be most shocking is that Bennett accomplished all of this with a system traditionally more tailored for the Big Ten than the up-and-down ACC (although in some ways that is changing there too). Their slow-paced – averaging 61 possessions per game, near the very bottom nationally — and defensive-focused system has stifled some high-powered offenses in that league.

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