Michigan Continues Rolling Despite Key Personnel Losses

Posted by Ryan O'Neil on December 18th, 2018

Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis Has Been a Huge Surprise (USA Today Images)

Michigan is just 11 games into the season but this is already turning out to be John Beilein’s magnum opus. It was reasonable to expect that the Wolverines would take a step back from last season’s national runner-up performance, but Michigan — fueled by an elite defense (third nationally, per KenPom) — has just continued chugging along. A team that lost three starters has already locked up a trio of top-15 offenses (Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue), and when necessary, has also shown that it can dictate tempo. In the Wolverines’ ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over the Tar Heels last month, Michigan struggled with the pace of the game early until settling down and holding the Heels to just 46 points over the final 33 minutes.

Some of Michigan’s defensive success is attributable to how the Wolverines defend ball screens. Beilein teaches his players to “surf” ball screens, where the guard gets over the screen while the big man forces the ball-handler to move sideways or retreat. But the most vital part of any ball-screen defense comes with off-ball rotations, and the Wolverines are particularly adept at rotating and guarding in mismatches. Long and athletic players like Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole give Beilein great defensive versatility: all three can guard the wing, and Matthews and Brazdeikis in particular can defend the post too. Jon Teske has also developed into a defensive force; the anchor in the post has already logged four games this season in which he has recorded three or more blocks.

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Is the Big Ten Better Than Expected?

Posted by Ryan O'Neil on November 20th, 2018

Before the season began, there was a lot of skepticism nationally about the Big Ten, a conference that placed only three teams in the preseason AP Top 25: Michigan State (#10), Michigan (#19), and Purdue (#24). After Michigan State was thoroughly dominated by Kansas at the Champions Classic, the rhetoric only became more harsh. The conference’s presumed best team had been outplayed in every aspect by the Jayhawks, so experts and fans alike were left to wonder if the Big Ten was even worse than previously thought. Two weeks into the season, however, has introduced a different narrative — one of depth and quality rather than shallowness and despair.

Michigan is Rolling Again (USA Today Images)

Although Michigan State began the year as the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten, it appears as if its intrastate rival, Michigan, might just be the best team in the league. In the Wolverines’ Gavitt game, they dominated Villanova from start to finish en route to a 73-46 road win. John Beilein‘s squad, which has been led so far by freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and junior point guard Zavier Simpson, has the best defense in the country (per KenPom), and the Wolverines are particularly adept at turning turnovers (14.9% TO Rate) into points. Michigan’s next big test will be in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge next week against North Carolina.

Indiana also beat a ranked team when the Hoosiers easily knocked off #24 Marquette at home. While the Hoosiers took a one-point loss to Arkansas on Sunday, Archie Miller’s squad is already showing flashes of the team that it could become. The freshman backcourt of Rob Phinisee and Romeo Langford is talented and dynamic, serving as a better complement to Juwan Morgan than he’s had in the past. The biggest question for Indiana will be whether they can consistently win away from Assembly Hall.

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Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Teams

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Can Michigan stay red-hot in the Big Dance? (SI.com)

  • Purdue, #2 seed, East Region. Fatigue played a role in Purdue’s late-season slide, which makes its first-round draw — a Friday match-up against Cal-State Fullerton — especially beneficial. While the Titans are the most aggressive squad in the country, scoring nearly 25 percent of their points at the free throw line, no team in the NCAA Tournament surrenders fewer points at the charity stripe than the Boilermakers. Isaac Haas and the rest of his front line should have no problem limiting Fullerton’s paint production. A potential second-round game with Arkansas could be a different story. The Razorbacks play an uptempo brand of basketball and have the size up front — 6’11” freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 PPG, 2.1 BPG), in particular — to compete. Still, whether it winds up being Arkansas or Butler, expect Purdue to reach the East Regional in Boston.
  • Michigan State, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Despite a 29-4 record and regular season Big Ten title, Michigan State fell to the #3 line because of its dearth of Quadrant 1 wins. As a consolation prize, the Spartans get to play in Detroit, where they’ll take on Patriot League champion Bucknell. The Bison are a balanced, cohesive group that nearly upset #4 West Virginia in last year’s Dance. They also have size up front (namely 6’10” all-league center Nana Foulland) and considerable depth. Michigan State’s size and talent should ultimately overwhelm the Bison, but a harder-than-expected match-up could make the Spartans’ Second Round game a bit more interesting. Arizona State and TCU are two of the best offensive units in the country, while Syracuse boasts the tallest lineup in college hoops.

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Rutgers’ Garden Party to Michigan’s Run: Big Ten Tournament Postmortem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 7th, 2018

Now that we’ve had a few days to digest what happened in Madison Square Garden last weekend, let’s examine some of the biggest surprises and takeaways from the early Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan dominated the Competition in Madison Square Garden. (Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Michigan established itself as a legitimate national threat. We knew Michigan was playing its best basketball of the season entering postseason play, and we knew it would probably make some noise last week in Manhattan. What we did not foresee was the Wolverines establishing themselves as a serious Final Four threat en route to a second straight conference title. After escaping Iowa in the second round, Michigan put together three of the most complete performances any Big Ten team has displayed this season. The Wolverines hammered bubble-dwelling Nebraska by 19 points. They beat Michigan State by double-figures for the second time in a row. They limited Purdue’s explosive perimeter game to just 4-of-17 three-point shooting. In all, Michigan’s defense — which now ranks sixth nationally in efficiency — held opponents to just 0.96 points per possession over the four-day run, which is remarkable considering that two of those offenses ranked among the nation’s top 10. The Wolverines’ offense, led by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15.0 PPG), executed John Beilein’s low-turnover, pick-and-pop offense to perfection. With its most balance in years and a profile good enough to now warrant a #3 seed, Michigan should no longer be viewed as a Big Ten “other”; the Wolverines are as much a Final Four contender as the Boilermakers and Spartans.

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The Big Ten Tournament’s Most Burning Questions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 28th, 2018

It’s not even March yet and here we are, Day One of the Big Ten Tournament. It’s a strange feeling. Perhaps the only stranger feeling will be watching these predominantly Midwestern schools battle it out in Madison Square Garden, the venue where Willis Reed was immortalized and Frazier beat Ali and no Big Ten school outside of Rutgers sits within easy driving distance. Jim Delaney be damned, let’s examine the most important questions to be answered this week in Manhattan.

Crazy as it sounds, the Big Ten Tournament is in the Big Apple. (scarletknights.com)

  • Can Nebraska do enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid? After losing to Illinois on February 18, Nebraska took care of business by beating Indiana and hammering Penn State on Sunday in a veritable NCAA Tournament elimination game. Which is to say, the Cornhuskers — currently among Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out — still have life. Yet, with a 1-5 record against Quadrant 1 opponents and a 2-3 record against Quadrant 2, they will probably need to beat at least one NCAA Tournament-bound opponent this week in order to have a legitimate case come Selection Sunday. Luckily, Tim Miles’ group should get that opportunity on Friday against Michigan — the lone Quadrant 1 opponent they managed to beat this season. Another win over the Wolverines will give the Huskers an argument; a victory over Michigan State in the semifinals would probably make them a lock. Key number: 29.7% 3FG. Nebraska did a masterful job taking away the three-point line this season, holding opponents to a Big Ten-best 29.7 percent mark from behind the arc — among the best of any power conference team in America.

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What We Learned From a Wild Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2018

From massive upsets to historic comebacks and some ridiculous individual performances in-between, it was one heck of a week in the Big Ten. Let’s examine a few key takeaways.

Purdue should be just fine, assuming Vincent Edwards returns to action. (John Terhune/Journal & Courier)

  • Purdue fans need not panic (unless, of course, Vincent Edwards’ injury lingers). Entering its game against Ohio State on February 7, Purdue had won 19 straight, sat undefeated in the Big Ten (12-0), and looked seemingly unbeatable — especially in Mackey Arena, where it had crushed its opponents by 27 points per game. Then the Boilermakers stumbled against the Buckeyes. Then they dropped a nail-biter at Michigan State, which was followed by a stunning defeat at Wisconsin on Thursday. Suddenly, there were deep concerns about Matt Painter‘s crew. “Something just feels different,” senior Vincent Edwards said of the team’s struggles last Thursday. Take a step back and examine the losses, though, and it’s clear that bad luck was partially at play. Were it not for a last second tip-in against Ohio State and a last second three-pointer versus Michigan State, perhaps the Boilermakers would have gone 3-1 in their last four games. Maybe even 4-0. Their close win over red-hot Penn State on Sunday shows just how fine the line is between a quality win and a “problematic” loss. If there is real cause for concern, it’s this: Edwards (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) missed the game against the Nittany Lions with an injured ankle. Assuming he doesn’t miss extended time down the stretch, Purdue should still be considered a Final Four contender. If his injury lingers, then the Boilers can panic.

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Five Trends to Track During a Big Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 7th, 2018

Ohio State vs. Purdue and Maryland vs. Penn State tonight. Purdue vs. Michigan State on Saturday. Several potential bubble-busters in between. Needless to say, it’s a big week in the Big Ten. Let’s take a look at a few quietly-important trends worth keeping an eye on.

Purdue’s defense has been mediocre in recent weeks. (Anthony Souffle – Purdue Exponent)

  • Purdue’s Struggling Defense. Just because because the Boilermakers own the nation’s longest winning streak of 18 games doesn’t mean all is rosy in West Lafayette. After holding 12 of its previous 14 opponents to less than one point per possession, Purdue has recently allowed five straight opponents to exceed that mark — including Rutgers, which scored 1.17 PPP in a near-upset of the Boilermakers on Saturday. In just a few weeks, Purdue has dropped from fifth nationally in defensive efficiency to 15th, a slump that’s coincided with four straight games decided by fewer than 10 points. Purdue won all four, of course, but when you consider that 10 of its previous 11 victories were absolute blowouts, you begin to understand why it’s worth pointing out. Matt Painter’s group has looked visibly less active in guarding the perimeter over that stretch, and part of the problem may also be rim protection: shot-blocking maven Matt Haarms has only swatted six shots since January 20, his lowest five-game stretch of output this season. It will be interesting to observe how the Boilers fare against Keita Bates-Diop in tonight’s big showdown with Ohio State.
  • Michigan State’s Troubling Late-Game Execution. On January 22, Michigan State led Illinois by 18 points with 4:29 left, only to see the Illini cut the lead to eight in a matter of three minutes. Against Penn State last week, a 15-point lead with 1:09 to play shriveled to six — and nearly three — in just 30 seconds. Up 10 at Indiana on Saturday night, Michigan State mustered just three field goals in the game’s final 12 minutes, giving the Hoosiers a chance to tie it at the buzzer. Part of Sparty’s problem has been shear boneheadedness, like Miles Bridges’ and-1 foul of Devonte Green in the closing seconds against Indiana. But these late-game struggles also shed light on a broader weakness: the Spartans are simply less productive and more turnover-prone in the half-court, where their offense has often lacked rhythm. It wasn’t an issue in Tuesday night’s scare at Iowa, but it could be against Purdue on Saturday.

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The Drive for Five: What Lies Ahead for the Big Ten Bubble Dwellers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 2nd, 2018

The Big Ten has put at least five teams in the NCAA Tournament in every season since 2008, four years before the league expanded to 12 schools and seven years before it expanded to 14. In fact, you’d have to go back to the pre-Rutgers era (2013-14) to reach the last time the conference sent fewer than seven teams to the Big Dance. That will almost certainly change this season. According to Bracket Matrix, only three of 68 recently-updated bracket projections have more than four Big Ten schools in the NCAA Tournament. The fact is, outside of Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, the league’s bubble hopefuls still have considerable work to do before earning serious consideration. With February now upon us, let’s examine which teams still have a shot and what they’ll need to do in order to punch a ticket.

It’s been all smiles for Nebraska lately. But will the Huskers go dancing? (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Nebraska (17-8, 8-4) RPI: 57 | KenPom: 56. Nebraska turned a nine-point second-half deficit at Wisconsin on Monday into a runaway 11-point win, the type of season-saving — perhaps season-defining — win its fans won’t soon forget. The Huskers have no RPI sub-150 losses to their name, but also don’t have much to speak of in the “good win” category. Outside of its home win over Michigan, Nebraska is winless against the RPI top 50. With four of their final six games at home — including contests against fellow NCAA Tournament hopefuls Maryland and Penn State — the Huskers will probably need to hold court and avoid a road loss at Illinois on February 18. Even then, at least one quality Big Ten Tournament win (think Michigan or Ohio State) might be necessary for Tim Miles’ group to feel good heading into Selection Sunday. Considering how well James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland have played in recent weeks, that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: vs. Michigan
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: vs. Maryland (February 13); vs. Penn State (February 25)

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Michigan State’s Turnover Bug is a Real Problem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 26th, 2018

If you glance only at the final score, Michigan State’s performance at Illinois on Monday was an unqualified success: The Spartans won by 13 points and trailed for only 1 minute and 51 seconds of game time. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the preseason Big Ten favorite should have probably won by more — perhaps a lot more. The Spartans shot a ridiculous 68 percent from the floor (to Illinois’ 43 percent) and doubled up the Illini at the free throw line. They also crashed the offensive glass at their highest rate yet in conference play (60% OReb). Unfortunately, turnovers — a whopping 25 of them — prevented Michigan State’s ‘good’ performance from being great. It’s been a recurring issue this season, and one that could wind up the Achilles’ Heel for an otherwise complete National Championship hopeful.

Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges Have to Clean Up the Turnover Issue (USA Today Images)

To be sure, the Spartans’ eye-popping turnover figure on Monday — their most since 2005 — was in part due to Illinois’ aggressive style — the Illini force miscues at the sixth-highest rate in college basketball. But it was also the result of Michigan State’s often-stagnant half-court offense. When the Spartans don’t score in transition (where they’re especially lethal), their attack often devolves into a lot of dribbling around the three-point line with limited off-ball movement. For point guards Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn, that’s often been a recipe for disaster. Case in point:

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