Evaluating Maryland’s Freshman Duo: Anthony Cowan & Justin Jackson

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on December 27th, 2016

Losing experienced seniors such as Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon was a big concern for Maryland heading into this season. Without Layman’s energy and Sulaimon’s offensive versatility, the Terrapins needed the talented trio of Robert Carter, Diamond Stone and Melo Trimble to stick around campus. Trimble’s sole decision to return saved whatever was left of Mark Turgeon’s roster, but considering all the key personnel losses, Turgeon has to be pleased with a 12-1 record heading into today’s Big Ten opener against Illinois. The primary reason that the Terps have not dropped off the cliff has been the surprisingly consistent contributions from freshmen Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson.

Anthony Cowan's emergence at the point guard position should help Melo Trimble's offensive production.

Anthony Cowan’s emergence at the point guard position should help Melo Trimble’s offensive production. (Getty)

Cowan’s reliability in handling the ball allows Trimble to roam around to find his shot. This dynamic was blatantly obvious in the second half against Charlotte last week when Trimble nailed multiple long-range shots that were assisted by the freshman. Cowan is averaging a team-high 3.7 assists per game, and while his 2.5 turnovers per contest is too many for a player getting over 70 percent of the available minutes at the position, he will improve as he gains more experience. During Maryland’s one-point wins over Georgetown and Oklahoma State, Cowan took some of the pressure off Trimble by averaging 11 points per contest. Another impressive aspect of the young point guard’s game is his ability to get to the free throw line — he attempted 23 total free throws against Georgetown, Charlotte and Oklahoma State, already showing his maturity in understanding there’s more to the game than long jump shots. Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Tracy Abrams Save Illinois?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 25th, 2016

Despite the recent signing of five-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, Illinois head coach John Groce is past the point of selling the future to Illini fans. Rather, competing for a berth in this season’s NCAA Tournament is an absolute necessity. While senior Malcolm Hill is expected to be one of the top 10 players in the Big Ten this year, he needs help that could come from a forgotten name: point guard Tracy Abrams. The sixth-year senior not only went through the personal agony of redshirting the last two years because of injuries, but it was clear that the team missed his leadership and offensive capabilities as well. With Abrams now fully back in action, he may just be the spark plug that Groce needs to position Illinois as an at-large NCAA bid contender from the Big Ten.

After two long years, Tracy Abrams will finally be able spark the Illini offense. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Illini averaged an abysmal 0.97 points per possession last season because they didn’t have a reliable point guard to complement the skill sets of Hill and Kendrick Nunn on the wings. As a result, Jaylon Tate unexpectedly stepped into the point guard role, and while serviceable he wasn’t particularly effective. Nunn and Hill combined to take over 300 shots from beyond the arc, making a meager 35 percent of those attempts. Most of those shots came from plays in isolation because Tate didn’t have the ability to effectively set up his shooters. Tate’s strength is to push tempo on the fast break and find angles for penetration. He has no mid-range game nor a respectable shot from three-point range so defenders essentially give him several feel of space and dare him to shoot.

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Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2016

With the final member of the Fresh Five, Caris Levert, now gone from Ann Arbor, the burden shifts to seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to lead the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. Since the 2012-13 season, there has been at least one Fresh Five player ready to position Michigan as a Big Ten contender. Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht sparked a run to the National Title game in 2013 before handing the baton to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who then left the program for Levert the last two seasons. Irvin and Walton were supposed to be next in line to support his charge but their performances, regardless of Levert’s injuries, haven’t lived up to expectations. A mediocre 16-16 season was followed by a decent 23-13 campaign last year, but the Wolverines haven’t been in serious contention among the Big Ten elite since 2014. As Irvin and Walton enter their senior campaigns, the overriding question is whether the duo can lead Michigan back to prominence.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to bring Michigan back into the Big Ten Elite.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to push Michigan back into the Big Ten elite. (AP)

While Irvin’s strength is in his long-range jumper, he shot a terrible 29 percent from beyond the arc last year. Despite his quick release off the dribble, Big Ten opponents have figured out that he regularly looks to go right for a pull-up at the top of the key. His other primary scoring option is to run pick-and-roll action with Walton for a corner three off the pick-and-roll. Two years ago, Levert’s dribble-drive penetration freed Irvin in the corners but Walton hasn’t been as successful in creating those same opportunities. As a result, Irvin experienced a big dip in offensive production — from 14.8 PPG during his sophomore season to 11.3 PPG last year. Unless Irvin has spent the summer really improving his game off the dribble, he could continue to struggle in finding his spots on that end of the floor. Unlike Burke, who had the gifted offensive services of Mitch McGary and Robinson available, Walton has not had an effective pick-and-roll partner over the last two seasons. Sure, Mark Donnal can set good picks but he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to make a play when the ball comes his way. Duncan Robinson simply hasn’t proven that he is strong enough to execute the pick-and-roll either. Defenders tend to therefore stick with Walton, which is a good strategic bet.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Nigel Hayes Become the Face of Big Ten Basketball?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 26th, 2016

As we look ahead to the upcoming season, an immediate question arises about the Big Ten conference: Is there a dynamic personality among the league’s players who can represent the conference as well as Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine did last year? Or how Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell caught the league by surprise with his incredible poise and court vision two years ago? Who is that player this season? In several ways, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes seems to be the most legitimate candidate to represent the Big Ten in 2016-17. After three years in college with two Final Four appearances to his credit, Hayes’ game should be more mature than ever. His team, with Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ as his sidekicks, also appears ready to make some national noise. And based on his recent showing at ESPN’s College Gameday, Hayes seems poised to make a splash beyond just joking around with the media.

Hayes’ junior year wasn’t as much of a breakout season that many had expected. While he led the Badgers in scoring (15.7 PPG) and was selected First Team All-Big Ten, he faltered in the NCAA Tournament and it was clear to observers that the emergence of Happ alongside him required an adjustment. In an effort to create space in new head coach Greg Gard’s system, Hayes had a tendency to shoot too many three-pointers, only 29.3 percent of which found the mark. With NPOY Frank Kaminsky manning the post two seasons ago, Hayes shot a sterling 39.6 percent from three-point range. Now that Hayes has had a full offseason to learn the subtleties of Gard’s offense, expect improvement in that area this season. His ability to play both inside and out is a matchup nightmare for opposing forwards generally uncomfortable with that level of offensive versatility.. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Key Offseason Questions: Part III

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on April 8th, 2016

We continue to address key questions for each Big Ten team as they head into the offseason. Today we will tackle Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Parts I and II can be found here and here.

Michigan (23-13, 10-8 Big Ten)

John Beilein will need a dominant presence in the paint to compete for the Big Ten title. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

John Beilein will need a dominant presence in the paint to compete for the Big Ten title. (Lon Horwedel/AnnArbor.com)

Will the Wolverines have any presence at all in the paint?

With the unexpected departure of Ricky Doyle, John Beilein suddenly has a dearth of big men on his roster. The Wolverines ranked 12th in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage and badly need a big man who can consistently hold his own on the defensive glass. Michigan returns a lineup of athletic wings with excellent range on their jumpers, but it won’t rise to the top of the Big Ten standings without better rebounding — particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

Iowa (22-11, 12-6 Big Ten)

Can the Hawkeyes fill the huge void left by their four well-traveled seniors?

Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury were the foundation of a Hawkeyes’ squad that spent over a third of this season ranked among the top 10. Peter Jok will be the team’s primary offensive weapon next season, but the rest of the roster will be very inexperienced. Dom Uhl showed good range in shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc; he is in line for a big increase in minutes and production.

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Three Statistics That Favor Wisconsin Over Notre Dame

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 25th, 2016

January 12, 2016, was a low point for Wisconsin basketball. Not only did the Badgers lose to a sub-par Northwestern squad on the road, but they also appeared to have dug themselves into a dangerous and perhaps irrevocable hole with a 1-4 record in the Big Ten. Nobody then would have expected that team to have a legitimate chance of making the Elite Eight two months later. Ken Pomeroy’s model predicts a one-point win for the #7 seed in its regional semifinal versus #6 Notre Dame tonight. The oddsmakers in Vegas, however, originally pegged Notre Dame as a one-point favorite, although that appears to have moved toward Wisconsin as well since then. Here are three statistics that indicate that KenPom is accurate in considering Wisconsin tonight’s favorite.

Bronson Koenig should have plenty of good looks from beyond the arc against a porous Irish defense. (AP)

Bronson Koenig should have plenty of good looks from beyond the arc against a porous Irish defense. (AP)

  • Opponents shot 38.7 percent from three against the Irish during ACC conference play. Notre Dame ranked 12th of 15 ACC teams in this defensive category this season, so poor perimeter defense will be an issue against a hot Bronson Koenig, who went 6-of-12 from behind the arc against Xavier last weekend. As a team, the Badgers shot 38 percent from three-point range during conference play, and Koenig’s long-range efforts have been complemented effectively by Vitto Brown‘s 40 percent shooting. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia will have their hands full in keeping up with Wisconsin’s hot-shooting backcourt.

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Key Matchups Loom Large in UNC-Indiana Battle

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 25th, 2016

During a postgame interview after Indiana’s tough win over Kentucky, Indiana head coach Tom Crean said that he “didn’t want to stop coaching this team.” His sentiment makes sense. Crean has a fun and talented team, led by one of the best players in Hoosiers history. But while Yogi Ferrell played his heart out (18 points, five rebounds, four assists) against Tyler Ulis and the Wildcats, he can’t do it by himself against North Carolina. The Hoosiers should be in good shape on the offensive end, especially if freshman Thomas Bryant continues to stay out of foul trouble; however, expect Indiana to be challenged in different ways by the Tar Heels. For Crean to get his wish and continue coaching this team, the Hoosiers will have figure out the answers to tonight’s following matchups.

Tom Crean's defense will have its work cut out against Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige in the Sweet 16 round. (Getty)

Tom Crean’s defense will have its work cut out against Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige in the Sweet Sixteen. (Photo: Getty)

  • Brice Johnson vs. Troy Williams or Thomas Bryant. Johnson has been arguably the best forward in the country over the course of a season in which he averaged 16.8 PPG and 10.5 RPG. His athleticism around the rim will definitely demand double-teams from the Hoosiers’ defense. Indiana’s help defense against Kentucky’s big men was successful because neither Alex Poythress nor Marcus Lee are comfortable with their backs to the basket; Johnson, however, has the exact opposite skill set. Bryant has the weight to push Johnson away from the paint but the Tar Heels big man could run circles around him if he chooses to face the basket. Williams, on the other hand, has the wingspan to defend Johnson but will be susceptible to picking up easy fouls against him. Those would hurt the Hoosiers considerably on the other end of the floor. Even if they end up letting Johnson get his 20 points in the paint, protecting the defensive glass is paramount. It will not be a close contest if Johnson ends up with multiple second chances on the offensive end.

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Three Scenarios That Could Hurt Big Ten Teams This Weekend

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 16th, 2016

The spectacular odds of correctly predicting a perfect bracket during the NCAA Tournament has been well-documented over the years. Put simply, it is next to impossible. It is incredibly tough to predict the idiosyncrasies of 18-22 year olds during a 40-minute game multiplied 63 times, and any number of scenarios can tilt the game toward the underdog. In order to evaluate each Big Ten team’s chances of making it to the Final Four, it is crucial to understand what kinds of matchups can hurt them. Below, we examine scenarios that could be an Achilles Heel for Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State will be in trouble if Bryn Forbes slumps from beyond the arc.

Michigan State will be in trouble if Bryn Forbes slumps from beyond the arc. (AP)

  • Cutting Bryn Forbes out of Michigan State’s offense. At this juncture of the season, it is safe to assume that Denzel Valentine cannot be stopped in the pick-and-roll. A defense has to cover him no matter where he roams, but it can choose where to focus its help defense. Either it lets Matt Costello cut through the paint for easy layups or it allows Bryn Forbes to nail daggers from beyond the arc. A hot Forbes — currently shooting a whopping 48 percent from three-point range — takes Michigan State’s offense to a different level and allows Valentine to save his offense for crunch time. Costello (10.4 PPG) isn’t used to high levels of production so it is better to force him to carry the burden.

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Reflecting on Denzel Valentine’s Versatile Career

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 3rd, 2016

In Fall 2012 Denzel Valentine was an overlooked freshman guard in a class defined by top-25 recruit Gary Harris. Four years of growth later, Valentine leaves East Lansing with an impressive skill set and leadership skills that represents an excellent case study in player development. Since his freshman year, his scoring has nearly quadrupled (from 5.0 PPG to 19.6 PPG); his long-range shooting has significantly improved (from 28 percent to 45 percent); and his assists have tripled (from 2.4 APG to 7.2 APG). While his improvement in several major statistical categories over his career is impressive, his ability to do so without forcing his way into Tom Izzo’s system is worthy of discussion.

Denzel Valentine (right) had to carve his own identity after Keith Appling (left) graduated (AP Photo/D. Martin)

Denzel Valentine (right) had to carve his own identity after Keith Appling (left) graduated (AP Photo/D. Martin)

Being the third option in an offense that traditionally highlights only two guards in the backcourt isn’t easy, yet Valentine was that guy for two seasons behind Harris and Keith Appling. When he was on the floor, he had to learn how to both play off the ball and without screens because Appling controlled the offense and Harris was the designated three-point gunner. Despite the lack of offense run for him, he found other ways to actively contribute, such as grabbing six rebounds per game as a sophomore. Valentine’s first two seasons highlight his perseverance and efforts to impact the game despite not having an integral role within Michigan State’s offense.

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Evaluating Iowa’s Recent Slump

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 25th, 2016

In a home loss to surging Wisconsin last night, Iowa again refused to control its own destiny on the way to a Big Ten title. Every time Indiana or Maryland slips up and leaves the Hawkeyes with a big opening, Fran McCaffery’s team just can’t seem to string together a consistent 40 minutes. The loss to the Badgers is Iowa’s third in its last four outings, with the only win coming against cellar-dwelling Minnesota. The perplexing part of the Hawkeyes’ recent slide is that there hasn’t been a clear statistical reason for it — rebounding and turnovers, for example, have been within normal ranges. Rather, a consistent theme in the losses seems to be a relative lack of leadership and a diverse offensive tool kit which doesn’t expand much beyond the three-point shot. Let’s evaluate both of these concerns.

McCaffery's Hawkeyes need to prove they can win out-score their opponents in the half-court. (AP/C. Neibergall)

McCaffery’s Hawkeyes need to prove they can win out-score their opponents in the half-court. (AP/C. Neibergall)

  • Limited offensive game plan. A three-point percentage of 27.8 percent last night from a team that relies so heavily on the three-point shot is a troubling sign, but the bigger concern is limited shot selection from its sharp-shooters, Jared Uthoff and Peter Jok. While Jok prefers to be set up for this threes, Uthoff likes to create his own shot in isolation. Both of these maneuvers have become too predictable. The formula for defensive success here includes initially cutting off the corners and the trailing Hawkeye during transition. Once Iowa settles into the half-court, Mike Gesell usually tries to take his defender off the dribble, but smart defenders give him space to shoot a long two. Gesell is reluctant to shoot the three, so limiting his options to a shot at the top of the key is a much better strategy than letting him draw and dish to Jok or Uthoff in the corners. Putting Uthoff in isolation is another worthy defensive gamble because it typically extends the length of the offensive possession. Iowa’s average offensive possession length is 16.3 seconds, but isolation tends to slow down activity for everyone else without the ball. Uthoff shot a paltry 6-of-23 from beyond the arc during the recent three losses so he needs to be more mindful of defenses challenging him to put the ball on the floor rather than allowing him to line up open jump shots.

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