Big Ten M5: 03.10.14 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 10th, 2014

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  1. Everybody knew that Michigan had essentially wrapped up the outright title before the weekend had begun, but there was still something special about their win over Indiana on Saturday. UMHoops tries to summarize the Wolverines’ magical journey to the conference title, despite losing their big man Mitch McGary in early January. Jordan Morgan, an unheralded role player that helped the Wolverines, was emotional after the win. When asked about his composure during the ceremony, he said, “That was pretty calm compared to when they had to do The Journey interview, I couldn’t even finish that interview.” It is likely that the Wolverines will be a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and are definitely a favorite to reach the Sweet 16 or beyond.
  2. Tom Izzo‘s press conferences have been, for lack of a better word, interesting, over the past week or so. After the loss to Illinois a week ago, he lashed about the energy levels of his squad and after the loss to Ohio State on Sunday, he didn’t hide his frustrations either. Right after the loss, he “exchanged a few words,” with a fan in Columbus and he didn’t appear to be happy at the presser. Couple of the reporters pushed him about the fan and he responded: “She was kind of a jerk.” Putting the issue with the fan aside, the Spartans lost a close game and they might need at least two wins in the Big Ten tournament to lock up a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
  3. Illinois‘ roller coaster season took another turn on Saturday as Jon Ekey nailed a three at the buzzer to upset Iowa on the road. With an 18-13 record, the Illini are not sniffing the NCAA Tournament, not yet at least. But with two wins in the Big Ten Tournament, anything is possible especially if the Gophers drop their first game in Indianapolis. For starters, John Groce’s squad will be in the 8/9 game, and the Illini should be able to find a way to win especially if Kendrick Nunn continues to have a big impact. When asked about his team’s huge win on the road, Groce said, “Obviously for our team to finish with winning three in a row on the road, it kind of adds to that momentum.”
  4. Continuing with the Big Ten Tournament theme, the Illini will try to get past Indiana in the first round. So what’s interesting about the game, other than the fact that both teams are trying to end their season on a high note? Tom Crean’s team will be sporting special adidas uniforms for the game. “Our players are excited to have something that will be unique to their time at Indiana,” Crean said, when asked about the uniforms. Back to the game itself, the Hoosiers split the series with the Illini this year, but have favorable match-ups specifically at the point guard position because Yogi Ferrell should be able to get scorch the Illini backcourt, but expect Kendrick Nunn to take the primary defensive assignment of stopping him. 
  5. After a disappointing season, Purdue head coach Matt Painter is taking responsibility for his team’s performance. After a tough loss to Northwestern, Painter said,”First of all, it’s my fault. It’s my job to get guys to play together, it’s my job to get guys to play hard, it’s my job to get guys to play smart, and we don’t do any of those. And so that is my fault.” Even though the head coach appears to be very harsh on himself, the Boilermakers’ future isn’t too bleak. Two key juniors next season, A.J.Hammons and Ronnie Johnson, should be pivotal players not only for their team, but also in the Big Ten. Both of them are still learning their position, but they have the athleticism to excel as they mature in their careers.
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The RTC All-Big Ten Team: Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 7th, 2014

Next up on our countdown of the RTC all-Big Ten team is Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Bo Ryan’s had a number of big men who could shoot over the past few years — Keaton Nankivil and Brian Butch, to name a couple — but Kaminsky is so unique because of his combined ability to drive to the basket and hit the perimeter shot with ease. Without Kaminsky’s 13.3 PPG, the Badgers wouldn’t be second in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, averaging 1.13 points per possession. Outside of just pure scoring, his main contribution to the team is his versatility and flexibility.

Frank Kaminsky is the fifth best player in the Big Ten.

Frank Kaminsky is the fifth best player in the Big Ten.

Why Frank Kaminsky is the fifth best player in the league: During the first two months of the season, Kaminsky showed that he can put up points with ease, but the main reason behind his ranking here is his performance over the last five games. During a key stretch of the season, he averaged 17.4 PPG against the likes of Iowa, Indiana and Michigan. After a mid-season slump when the Badgers lost five of six games, Kaminsky led them back to top-15 status and making them a lock for a top-three NCAA seed. It is clear that he isn’t just a three-point shooter, as he has begun to attack the basket consistently with a signature turnaround move in the paint. Few big man defenders can come out to the perimeter to guard his three-point shot off the pick-and-roll and at the same time cycle back on defense if he chooses to take it to the rack. His versatility is indicated the following metrics: 62.9% TS and 41% 3FG.

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Can Iowa Shore Up Its Shoddy Defense in Time?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 4th, 2014

After three seasons at the helm, Fran McCaffery will finally take Iowa back to the NCAA Tournament. That’s the good part about the Hawkeyes’ season. The next logical question is whether they can win more than one game there. With a 20-9 record and an RPI in the 30s, it is likely that the Hawkeyes will be on one of the top six seed lines, which could put them in a dreaded #5/#12 match-up against a decent team. Even if they get past that round, they’ll have to beat a Top 25 quality team that is likely to be offensively talented. At this late point in the season, it is still unclear if the Hawkeyes can defend well enough to beat a team that can run in a track meet with them. Over their last four games they have given up 1.21, 1.31, 1.12 and 1.06 points per possession, respectively, against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Purdue. Those numbers do not bode well for a team looking to make some noise as we head into March.

McCaffery's Hawkeyes will need to get some stops if they hopse to get to the Sweet 16. (AP/C. Neibergall)

McCaffery’s Hawkeyes will need to get some stops if they hopse to get to the Sweet 16. (AP/C. Neibergall)

Defense has been an issue for Iowa all season long, and a lack of it is the main reason they have been unable to close out many games.  Their record is a bit deceiving because they have won all of the games that they were supposed to, but they really only have two quality wins on the year: at Ohio State and vs. Michigan in Iowa City — even in both of those games, the Hawkeyes gave up more than a point per possession to the Buckeyes and the Wolverines. A win against Xavier, another NCAA Tournament team, is impressive, but an argument can be made that the absence of Musketeers’ star Semaj Christan during the second half helped the Hawkeyes. These observations are not intended to take anything away from Iowa’s resume this season, but merely to point out that its stay in March Madness could be a short one unless they find some answers on defense, and soon.

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The Curious Case of Lenzelle Smith’s Offense

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on March 2nd, 2014

Have you ever seen glimpses of talent from an underclassman and begin to extrapolate his talent over the next two or three years? Of course you have. The freshman may only play a supporting role at the time, but he shows enough in those flashes that you expect him to take off once the upperclassmen in front of him move on. Ohio State senior Lenzelle Smith, Jr., reminds me of one such player, who, for some reason or another, has never been able to take that next step. Over the last several years, Ohio State has lost one of its best offensive players and expected Smith to step up in his wake, but it just hasn’t happened. It was first Jared Sullinger, followed by Deshaun Thomas, but Smith wasn’t able to become that necessary second best scoring option on the Buckeyes. This discussion is not about whether Smith has underachieved to this point in his career — after all, averaging 11.8 PPG for a Top 25 squad is not a bad thing — but given his obvious talent and athleticism, we’re left wanting more from him. Let’s try to understand if there were other structural reasons why he hasn’t yet become the player that we all thought he could become.

Lenzelle Smith's (right) offense never really took off as expected.

Lenzelle Smith’s (right) offense never really took off as expected.

It is no secret that since Sullinger left Columbus, the Buckeyes have struggled to consistently score points. Averaging 1.03 points per possession during conference play isn’t too shabby, but there really isn’t a go-to player in Thad Matta’s offense. When Sullinger was still around, the guards always had the option to dump the ball inside and expect a kick-out pass for a wide open shot from the perimeter, but since his departure, they have been forced to find shots without the luxury of a low post presence. It took a while last season for Thomas to figure out that he could score in the paint, so most of Smith’s junior year was spent throwing up long-range shots (he made a solid 37 percent of those attempts). This year, the Buckeyes average 34.0 percent from beyond the arc (32.6 percent against B1G teams), and Smith in particular is shooting a career-low 35.3 percent.

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Three Thoughts on Nebraska’s Loss to Illinois Last Night

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 27th, 2014

Road games should never be taken lightly in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers basketball train came to a halt as Tim Miles’ squad lost for the first time in six games last night. The following are three thoughts from Illinois’ 60-49 victory in Champaign.

Tim Miles' Huskers lost a costly game last night in Champaign. (Getty)

Tim Miles’ Huskers lost a costly game last night in Champaign. (Getty)

  1. Did Nebraska blow its chance at the NCAA Tournament? That may appear to be a harsh statement but the the loss certainly doesn’t help the Cornhuskers’ already-marginal case for an NCAA Tournament bid. For most of the game, Nebraska appeared to be tired, and it manifested itself by rushing way too many shots. An emotionally-draining five-game winning streak can wear down a young team, and even though they should bounce back against Northwestern this weekend, next week’s road trip to Bloomington should be a big concern for Miles. Similar to Illinois, Indiana’s NCAA hopes are practically nonexistent, but Tom Crean’s team will certainly relish the opportunity to play the spoiler’s role. If Nebraska can indeed manage to pull off those next two wins, it would have a very good chance of securing an at-large bid with a quality home win against Wisconsin to finish off the regular season. A March game in Lincoln with the postseason on the line would be a unique situation for the basketball Cornhuskers, a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
  2. Kendrick Nunn may be Illinois’ best player. The Illini stunned Minnesota on the road about a week ago, as Nunn scored a smooth 19 points in the victory. A top-75 recruit from Chicago, it is no secret that he was a talented guard, but it took a while for him to get up to speed with the collegiate game. Once John Groce put him into the starting lineup against Penn State on February 9, he has shown that he has the game to become one of the better players in the entire conference. It wasn’t just his 13 points last night that was impressive, but it was the way in which he went about it —  shooting an efficient 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and with a total of just six shots from the field. He doesn’t force it and lets the offense come to him, which shows a tremendous amount of maturity for such a young player. Read the rest of this entry »
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Watch Out: Wisconsin’s Offense is Clicking Again

Posted by Brian Buckey on February 25th, 2014

Wisconsin opened the season scoring 75 or more points in 10 of its first 16 games. The offense was clicking in ways it hadn’t in the past under Bo Ryan. After that 16-0 start, however, the offense hit a rough patch, failing to hit that mark in seven of its next eight games. In three big wins over the past 10 days, the Wisconsin offense appears to be back, scoring 78 points in a home win over Minnesota, 75 in a road win at Michigan and 79 over the weekend at Iowa. Going back a bit further, the Badgers had also put up 75 points against Illinois, making it four of the last five contests in which Wisconsin has reached the magic number. So what has gone right for the Badgers in recent five-game winning streak? The following are several key thoughts explaining the improvement in the Badgers’ offense:

Ben Brust and the Badgers seem to be firing on all cylinders at the right time. (Photo credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters).

Ben Brust and the Badgers seem to be firing on all cylinders at the right time. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

  1. Frank Kaminsky is back to scoring at a high rate. Before the recent two wins over Michigan and Minnesota, Kaminsky had logged four straight games with 10 or fewer points. He broke out with a dominant 25-point, 11-rebound performance at Michigan, and he also scored 17 points against Minnesota. Kaminsky has carried the team in the past two games, helping stretch the floor by scoring both from the inside and on the perimeter. Kaminsky actually did most of his damage from inside the three-point arc in the past two games, though, hitting 10-of-14 shots from two against Michigan, and adding one three-pointer. When he is aggressive and looking for his shot, Wisconsin’s offense is so much more efficient. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 02.24.14 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 24th, 2014

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  1. Better late than never, but Michigan’s Caris LeVert is starting to get his due for his contributions to the Wolverines this season. After a 23-point performance against rival Michigan State on Sunday — his fourth 20+ game in the last four — he has catapulted his team to a one-game lead in the loss column of the Big Ten standings. His marked improvement, specifically on the offensive end, sets up the Wolverines to control their own destiny with four games left in pursuit of the conference championship. The LeVert-Nik Stauskas combo will be very dangerous in March, and has, at least for the moment, helped make Maize and Blue faithful forget about Mitch McGary.
  2. John Groce’s Illini are unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament, but the last few weeks of play should ultimately yield positive results for his young team. Against Minnesota, freshman guard Kendrick Nunn scored 19 points and showed that he has the makings of a future superstar. He has great form on his shot, and he is also excellent on the defensive end. He has proven to be a player with a knack for the ball during key possessions, and his experience and continued growth over the final few weeks will allow him to gain more confidence heading into next year.
  3. Indiana‘s season has gotten derailed over the past few weeks, but the Hoosiers snapped their recent three-game losing streak by beating Northwestern in Evanston over the weekend. At this juncture of the season, Tom Crean can only find several small moral victories in an otherwise disappointing season. His team was committed to feeding the post against the Wildcats, which led to a season-low seven turnovers in the game. Crean said, “These guys know if we get good looks and if we get a chance to get on that board and if we get to that foul line, we can be pretty good.” It is unlikely that the Hoosiers will surge towards the NCAAs in the final few weeks, but a confident young core should be pay dividends next season.
  4. It has been an up and down season for Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky. After pouring in 43 points against North Dakota early in the non-conference season, he struggled a bit in January during Big Ten play. However, he is making a strong comeback over the past three games, averaging 21.0 PPG in three wins to lead the Badgers into third place in the Big Ten standings. Already equipped with an excellent jumper from the beyond the arc, Kaminsky is challenging defenses by taking his game into the paint and utilizing a nice spin move to create angles for easy shots. If Kaminsky can keep up his recent offensive surge, the Badgers become a very interesting team at both the conference and national level.
  5. Injuries have been a persistent issue for Tom Izzo’s Spartans this season. First it was Adreian Payne who was sidelined; then it was Branden Dawson; and finally Keith Appling got bit by the injury bug a few weeks ago. Payne is now back and healthy, but Appling’s return against Michigan on Sunday was concerning. Playing with a sore right wrist, he scored just six points and clearly appeared to be banged up as the Spartans tried to prevent the Wolverines from running away with the Big Ten title. Dawson’s contributions are necessary for Michigan State to reach its potential, but yesterday’s game proved that Appling might be the most important player in the Izzo’s lineup.
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Marveling at Caris LeVert’s Versatility

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 22nd, 2014

Have you ever played a basketball video game with your favorite team, and you pick a single player – usually a guard – to try to excel in every aspect of the game? On defense, you try to lock down the best offensive player from the opposing team. On offense, you try to set up plays in the half-court, penetrate into the paint, finish around the basket, and also nail a long-range shot from time to time. Michigan’s Caris LeVert is one of those players. Over the past five games, LeVert has averaged 17.0 PPG for the Wolverines, helping to make up for Nik Stauskas’ slump. LeVert’s surge has put Big Ten defenses in a tough spot, because the Wolverines are more than just a one-man wrecking crew on the offensive end.

Caris LeVert (right) is arguably the most versatile player in the Big Ten.

Caris LeVert (right) is arguably the most versatile player in the Big Ten.

Statistically speaking, LeVert’s 13/5/3 averages do not necessarily indicate greatness, but John Beilein can always count on him to bail out the team on broken possessions. After Michigan’s loss to Charlotte during the non-conference season, Beilein turned to LeVert to set up plays in the half-court because freshman Derrick Walton Jr. wasn’t yet ready for that responsibility. Stauskas is just as valuable playing the quasi-point guard role, but he is more effective running off screens and looking for his shot. You rarely see LeVert stumble with the ball on the offense, almost reminding you of an excellent soccer midfielder who isn’t necessarily quick but always keeps the ball alive, looking for the next play. When he does attack the basket, he doesn’t just zip through the screens; rather, he gets there methodically and looks to dish to the open player in the corner, and if that option is unavailable, he is crafty with his layups. Look no further than his 33.2 percent free throw rate and 82 free throw attempts to understand his effectiveness in the lane. Even in the team’s losses, he didn’t stray away from the game plan and tried to keep the Wolverines in the game by relentlessly attacking the basket.

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Two Questions About Illinois vs. Minnesota

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) & Jonathan Batuello on February 19th, 2014

Two teams that are heading in opposite directions will face off on Wednesday night in Minneapolis. Illinois enters the game having lost nine out of the last ten games while Minnesota is trying to keep their NCAA hopes alive. The Big Ten microsite writers – Deepak Jayanti and Jonathan Batuello – discuss two important questions about the game:

Richard Pitino's Gophers can't afford to drop the game against Illinois if they want to keep their NCAA hopes alive.

Richard Pitino’s Gophers can’t afford to lose against Illinois if they want to keep their NCAA hopes alive.

How critical is Andre Hollins continued progression in his return from the ankle injury to Minnesota?

JB: The Gophers took a major skid without him when it lost three of four games. Since coming back he has had good and bad outings. He dropped 22 on Wisconsin, but was barely noticeable against Northwestern. It needs him to be in good form to win and continue on its path from bubble to NCAA Tournament team. What he does in comparison to Rayvonte Rice in this game will be instrumental in who wins. The importance of this game for Minnesota also can’t be understated. It’s three-game stretch after Illinois is at Ohio State, Iowa, and at Michigan, so it needs this win to avoid a potentially disastrous losing streak. Get this one, win one of those three and close out the season with a win against Penn State and it is at 20 wins and likely in the NCAA Tournament. Andre Hollins playing better and getting back to potentially All-Big Ten form will decide that fate.

DJ: Do the Gophers need a healthy Hollins to win a game in the NCAA Tournament? Yes. But they don’t really need him at 100% health to make the NCAAs because the offense runs through Deandre Mathieu and Maurice Walker now. Mathieu’s ability to get into the paint off the screens is a fierce weapon that defenses have struggled to stop over the past four games, as he averaged over 14 points per game during that stretch. Hollins’ three-point shooting will help the Gophers spread the floor but he doesn’t need to carry the offensive burden like he had to during the first few months of the season. Richard Pitino’s squad will make the tourney by pressing hard on defense with their depth, attacking the basket with Mathieu and finishing strong around the hoop with their big men.

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Big Ten M5: 02.17.14 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 17th, 2014

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  1. Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to getting Tom Izzo’s take on various subjects. He was very vocal when Illinois had fired head coach, Bruce Weber, and he usually doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinion about the general state of college basketball. So what’s the newest topic that Izzo has been sounding off about? Twitter. “We used to be able to go to a game and have a bad game, leave the game and you never heard about it,” Izzo said this week, when asked about his take on Twitter, during a post-game press conference. Generally speaking, Izzo’s players haven’t really gotten into trouble with their usage of their 140 characters on Twitter, but that doesn’t stop their coach from sharing his opinion.
  2. John Groce is trying his best to make changes in Champaign, but they haven’t yielded any results over the past few weeks, as the Illini have lost nine out of ten games. Having said that, the players appear to be hanging in there with their coach through the tough times. “The effort that they continue to give, the way they’ve fought, the fact that they come with their hard hat on every day, that motivates me,” Groce said. The offense has stumbled since early January, after they started the conference season with a 2-0 record. At this point, the best they can really do is show some improvement with their younger core of players – Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill – over the next few weeks. By doing that, at least the Illini could set themselves up for a decent season next year.
  3. The hits keep on coming for the Hoosiers. After getting pummeled by the Boilermakers on the road, Tom Crean indefinitely suspended sophomore forward, Hanner Perea over the weekend. Crean said, “The first things I told him were that we loved him and wanted to support him. We are disappointed in him but also disappointed for him. He knows he made some terrible choices which have turned into big mistakes.” Even though Perea has only averaged 3 PPG, the loss might affect the Hoosiers team more negatively off the court, than on the court. With the loss at Purdue, the Hoosiers need a couple of big wins over the next three weeks if they hope to make a run at the NCAAs.
  4. Nik Stauskas had only averaged 10 PPG over four games leading up to the big game against Wisconsin on Sunday. Before the game, John Beilein was urging Stauskas to increase his shot attempts to make sure he could shoot out of his slump. “He can do this,” Beilein said on Friday of Stauskas dealing with aggressive defenses. Against the Badgers, Stauskas struggled early on against the staunch defense from Josh Gasser and ended up with just 11 points from 11 shot attempts. This slump could very well only last a few more games before the sophomore sharpshooter heats up again in March, just in time for the NCAA tournament.
  5. After four years in the Big Ten, Aaron Craft may have thought that he had seen it all, but he might have seen something different during his last trip to Champaign on Saturday. The Orange Krush tried to make fun of Craft by adding, what they might have considered funny, details to the flyer that was handed out to the students before the game. It was a failed attempt because he scored 14 points in just 25 minutes as the Buckeyes continue to keep their hopes alive of receiving a top-5 seed in the NCAAs.
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Derrick Walton Jr. is Coming Into His Own at Michigan

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 15th, 2014

During the era of super freshmen in college basketball, we rarely try to understand how much they can grow over the course of the season. After all, 18- and 19-year-olds will take some time to adjust to the tempo and athleticism of the game. With Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Tyler Ennis dominating the headlines with their regularly impressive performances, it is easy to forget about some of the other freshmen who have stepped up their games during conference play after an initial period of adjustment. Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan’s rookie point guard, is one such example. Forget filling Trey Burke’s shoes in the Michigan offense; Walton doesn’t need to be the same player. But he has shown glimpses of his ability to run the team in recent weeks, averaging a solid 10.6 PPG and 4.o APG in the Wolverines’ last five games. We wrote back in November about the need for Nik Stauskas to step up as the lead guard because the offense was flailing during the non-conference season, but Walton now appears to be firmly in control as the primary initiator of the offense and a sparkplug in the open court.

Derrick Walton Jr. has been impressive during the past two weeks. (credit: ap.org)

Derrick Walton Jr. (left) has been impressive during the past two weeks. (credit: ap.org)

Before we begin to understand his growth as a player, it is essential to recognize that Walton is a talented scorer, and compared to Burke, he actually has a quicker release on his jumper. Shooting 40 percent from long range is not too shabby, but the main difference with Burke is that he likes to be set up for shots instead of creating them off the dribble. The most impressive part of his game is his ability to get to the basket off of screens. He’s always had great talent, but it has taken him a while to understand his role in the offense considering the strengths and versatility of Michigan’s wings, Stauskas and Caris LeVert.

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Evaluating Devyn Marble’s Offense: This Season Versus Last

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 11th, 2014

On Saturday, Iowa did not waste any time in jumping out to an 11-4 lead on its way to a huge win over Michigan. Thanks to Devyn Marble’s scorching start — he nailed three shots from beyond the arc to begin the game — the senior forward ended up with 27 points and has been one of the best scorers in the country this season. Averaging 16.5 PPG is impressive on its own, but we have access to more informative statistics to understand the improvements that Marble has made in his offensive game from last year to this one. The table below shows some key differences between seasons, so let’s use the data to understand how he could turn into of the most explosive players of the postseason.

Marble Comparison

Let’s start with the easy one: Marble’s offensive rating has increased a tick from his junior season, and one of his most notable improvements is better confidence from distance. Last season, he took way too many shots from beyond the arc — 150 attempts — while only hitting an inefficient 33 percent. This season, his 38 percent shooting is a huge weapon in his arsenal, which has led to an overall increase in his effective field goal percentage as well. Putting aside those statistics, the diversity of his attempts from deep are even more impressive. Against the Wolverines, he shot 6-of-10 from three but those six shots came from all over the floor: he pulled up in transition; he came off of screens; and he was able to pull up off the dribble. His release is significantly quicker and smoother compared with last year, which shows he put in the requisite time and focus on it during the offseason. In February of his junior year, Marble hit a prolonged two-week slump because opposing defenses were able to cut off his dribble-drive ability and force him to beat them from pull-ups in the mid-range. That defensive option will not work this season based on what we have seen, which only makes him more dangerous with the ball in his hands.

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