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

morning5_bigten

  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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Big Ten M5: 02.10.14 Edition

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

morning5_bigten

  1. Spartan fans barely had any time to enjoy Adreian Payne’s return, when they got the news that point guard, Keith Appling, will be out for a “couple of weeks.” Backup point guard, Travis Trice, stepped up against Wisconsin by scoring 13 points and hitting a clutch three-pointer during the final minute of the game. Trice’s offense ought to be adequate as long as Gary Harris doesn’t go through a cold shooting slump, but Appling’s health could be concern if he doesn’t come back after two to three weeks because his experience will be pivotal for the Spartans in March.
  2. Speaking of adequate offense, Ohio State‘s struggles with regards to scoring have been well-documented, but when they do put up points in the 60s, they are a tough team to beat. Stating the obvious, when the the “shots fall,” they are an excellent team because their defensive intensity goes up by that much more. Over the past week, Lenzelle Smith Jr. has averaged 14 points per game against Iowa and Purdue, as the Buckeyes are trying to make their way back into the top-25 rankings. Smith is certainly the wildcard because LaQuinton Ross’ 14.2 points per game will need a consistent complement over the next six weeks as Thad Matta’s team hopes to return to the Sweet 16 again in the NCAAs.
  3. Not sure if you have heard, but Michigan’s Nik Stauskas is the team’s best offensive player and the Big Ten defenses have decided to lock him down and force other Wolverines to beat them. Over hte past three games, Stauskas’ has barely averaged 9 points per game because defenses are double-teaming him all over the perimeter, forcing him to pass the ball to the open man on the weak side. Against Iowa, the defensive intensity caused him to turn the ball over four times and he ended up with zero assists. The last three games are not just an anomaly because every team, especially in the NCAAs, will try to force Stauskas to give up the ball, which will not only test his passing abilities but also test Caris Levert and Glenn Robinson’s ability to hit the clutch shots during the final minutes of the game.
  4. More on Iowa‘s defensive intensity, they did not waste any time trying to establish a lead over the Wolverines and were able to shut down Nik Stauskas for most of the game. Their depth on the roster is a strength on the offensive side but can be even more valuable on the defensive end because they can use fresh legs, specifically in the frontcourt, because Melsahn Basabe, Gabriel Olaseni, and Adam Woodbury are formidable defenders in the paint. Roy Devyn Marble, has stepped up defensively too, by guarding Stuaskas for most of the game. Saturday’s win may be a turning point for the Hawkeyes as they continue to gain confidence about their ability to compete with the top teams in the country.
  5. Continuing on the defensive theme, Indiana can’t seem to be get stops when they need to, over the past two weeks. Ten days ago, they lost to the Huskers and they couldn’t hold onto a lead against Minnesota over the weekend either – mainly because of a lackluster defensive effort. “We had some awareness issues at the end of possessions,” Tom Crean said, referring to a handful of defensive breakdowns late in the shot clock Saturday. Crean’s team is technically still on the bubble, but will need to defend, especially against the middle-of-the-pack teams such as Penn State, Purdue or Nebraska.
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A Closer Look at Michigan State’s Game Without Adreian Payne & Branden Dawson

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 6th, 2014

According to the East Lansing Journal, Michigan State’s senior forward, Adreian Payne, will play against Penn State on Thursday night. After missing seven games with a foot injury, his return couldn’t come at a better time for the injury-riddled Spartans, who are also playing without their leading rebounder, Branden Dawson. Dawson will be out for at least more three weeks with a broken hand. Losing two out of three games without two of their best players isn’t completely surprising, but let’s take a closer look at why Tom Izzo needs at least one of them to be healthy by March to maintain any aspirations of contending for the national title. Specifically, let’s examine three statistics that generally show how Dawson and Payne’s absence has affected the Spartans on both ends of the floor.

Michigan State PPP

Per possession, the points allowed and the points scored give us an indication of Michigan State’s efficiency over the last three games. So far this season, the Spartans have only allowed 0.96 points per possession (PPP), and without the forwards, they have allowed, on average, a whopping 1.1 PPP on defense. Getting out-rebounded in each game will do that to you because offensive rebounds will lead to significantly easier buckets than jumpers. Even Denzel Valentine, one of the better rebounding guards in the country, isn’t enough to fill Dawson’s shoes because he is too busy chasing guards around the screens to come back to the defensive glass on every possession. Losing the rebounding edge is an obvious reason for the drop-off in defensive performance, but the Spartans have also been weak on transition defense because they continue to attack the offensive glass, despite a shorter lineup. This metric is tough to measure with the data available, but generally speaking, sending your forwards to the offensive glass on every possession means that the guards will need to run back immediately to cover any transition plays. That’s one area where they specifically miss Dawson because he would often sneak into the paint off the baseline to grab offensive rebounds. And when he did, there was no reason for Valentine to attack the glass, allowing him to run back down the floor to prevent any transition opportunities. Without Dawson and Payne, the Spartans have to change their philosophy of consistently picking up offensive boards – a change that’s tougher to implement because such a move would reduce their overall energy on the court.

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Big Ten M5: 01.27.14 Edition

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

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  1. On the eve of the Grammys, Bruce Hornsby, a Grammy-winning musician and a huge basketball fan,visited Bloomington for the Illinois vs. Indiana game. Hornsby and Indiana head coach Tom Crean discussed music after the game in which the Hoosiers pulled off a tough 10-point win against the Illini. Both offenses had a tough time finding points during a 26-24 first half, but Crean’s squad was able to hold the Illini to just 22 more points during the second half. Noah Vonleh continues to impress with this rebounding skills by pulling down 14 boards, but the Hoosiers need to continue to hold down the home court in upcoming games against Michigan and Penn State if they want to remain in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid this season.
  2. Speaking of the Illini, they can’t seem to buy a jumper nowadays, as John Groce’s unit lost its sixth straight Big Ten game on Sunday in Bloomington. Illinois has one week before its next game in Champaign against Iowa, and it could use every day of practice to figure out how to refine their offensive sets. They shot 5-of-23 from beyond the arc, but the problem goes well beyond just a shooting slump — Groce can’t seem to find two scorers who can have good games on the same day. While Rayvonte Rice finished with 20 points yesterday, none of his teammates complemented his scoring (Nnanna Egwu was next in scoring with eight points). Similarly, against Ohio State, Joe Bertrand had 17 points but Rice was held scoreless. Without two scorers consistently putting up decent scoring numbers, it is almost impossible to beat most of the teams in this conference.
  3. The losing streak had to stop at some point for Wisconsin, and the first half of Saturday’s game against Purdue wasn’t easy as the Boilermakers were only down by three at halftime. The Badgers needed to get back to the free-flowing offense that has averaged 1.16 points per possession in conference play and freshman forward Nigel Hayes should continue to help in that regard off the bench. Hayes provides a solid post presence on the block as a nice change of pace from Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker, and his solid post game can help slow down the offense when the starters are out, ensuring that they will be fresh for the final few minutes of the game.
  4. Without Branden Dawson or Adreian Payne available on Saturday night, Michigan State could have folded in the second half of their game against Michigan once the Wolverines made a run, but thanks to Keith Appling, they even held the lead with four minutes left. The senior guard was extremely efficient in scoring 10 points and dishing 10 dimes, but more importantly, turning the ball over just once. After the loss, the senior point guard and Tom Izzo were both emotional, considering the injury toll on their team over the past few weeks. When Dawson and Payne comes back, Appling’s efficiency combined with Gary Harris’ scorching shooting (27 points against Michigan) will definitely make the Spartans a great contender for the national title.
  5. While the Spartans are dealing with injuries, it seems that Michigan has figured out how to deal with the loss of Mitch McGary with wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State despite his absence. Without McGary in the lineup, the Wolverines need every starter to be on the ball and freshman guard Derrick Walton may be the newest member to join the party. He scored 19 huge points against the team’s biggest rival and seems to be gaining confidence with each and every game. “I was just the guy called upon tonight and just tried to do it for my teammates,” Walton said. Not much is needed from him when Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III are going off, but if he can chip in some timely buckets and push the ball effectively in transition, the offense will continue to click on all cylinders.
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Illinois Will Continue to Slump Without More Consistent Offense

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 26th, 2014

After a 12-2 non-conference record and a 2-0 start to the conference season, Illinois was considered a likely candidate to make the postseason. However, with an offense that has sputtered to average just 0.95 points per possession in Big Ten play, it appears that the Illini don’t stand a chance against the rest of the conference. Opposing defenses have figured out John Groce’s predictable offense this season and have exposed the team’s biggest weaknesses – a lack of consistent three-point shooting and a play-maker who can create offense in the half-court. An inside scoring presence wouldn’t hurt as well, as Nnanna Egwu has regressed after a decent sophomore season.

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice's offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice’s offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

During the first two months of the season, Rayvonte Rice appeared to be what Illinois fans wanted Brandon Paul to become during his four years in Champaign – a freak athlete who could punish defenses in the paint with his body. In order to understand their offensive issues, let’s review Rice’s slide during the recent four-game losing streak. Against Ohio State, he couldn’t buy a shot and finished without a single point in what was a must-win game. He is good at what he does — penetrate the paint off of screens going to his right — but the same play has become predictable. Egwu and Jon Ekey have the ability to hit an open jumper, but neither is very effective in setting screens to free the ball-handler. In fact, most of the time their screening technique is so flawed that it could be considered an illegal pick. Even without an effective screen, Rice is quick enough to get around most defenders but he needs to have the option to kick out a pass to the corner if the opposing big man bites. The scouting reports have forced teams to back off and simply wait for Rice to barrel through the lane, often forcing him to put up an off-balance and low percentage floater.

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