Three Thoughts From Illinois’ Bubble-Saving Win Over Michigan State

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 2nd, 2017

A senior wing on a mission to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career guarding a freshman wing determined to complete his comeback from an early injury was an appropriate ending to last night’s game between Illinois and Michigan State. The Illini’s Malcolm Hill has been on a complete tear lately, averaging approximately 20 points per game in leading his team to four straight wins to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive. The Spartans’ Miles Bridges did his part with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but the freshman could not close the deal in Champaign. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Illinois (18-12, 8-9 Big Ten) is clearly back on the bubble while Michigan State (18-12, 10-7 Big Ten) cannot afford to lose a pivotal road game against Maryland. Let’s review three key takeaways from the Illini’s 73-70 victory over the Spartans last night.

Malcolm Hill is Carrying the Illini on to the Bubble (USA Today Images)

  1. Malcolm Hill isn’t ready to finish his career without a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Illinois’ senior wing has played over 130 games for the Illini without a single minute in college basketball’s marquee event. As a freshman, Illinois didn’t have a point guard to support his offensive versatility. As a sophomore, a late season swoon cost the Illini a chance at an otherwise promising season. Last year, the team’s second-best offensive player wasn’t healthy. As a senior, Hill hasn’t had a consistent complementary player on the offensive end of the floor. Despite these many setbacks over his career, Hill has persevered. On Wednesday night, the senior contributed 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals — including the game-winning free throws — as Illinois played itself back on to the NCAA Tournament bubble after appearing all but dead just a few short weeks ago. Read the rest of this entry »
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Four Big Ten Storylines to Follow in the Final Week of Regular Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2017

There are now 14 games left in a Big Ten regular season that has been marked by numerous highs and lows throughout. The major takeaway at this point of the season is that almost nothing in terms of the conference standings has yet been settled. That means that every game over the next six days has considerably more meaning than in other conferences where much is already determined. Here are four other Big Ten storylines worth monitoring during the final week of the regular season.

Scottie Lindsey needs to find his scoring touch in the final week for Northwestern to be as though its safely in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today).

  1. Can Northwestern Earn One More Win? The Wildcats appeared to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Wisconsin on February 12, but they’ve since lost three of four and are really struggling to put points on the board. Northwestern closes out the Big Ten season with two home games this week against Michigan and Purdue, where a victory in either contest would likely be enough to certify things. Two more losses, however, would result in a 9-9 record in conference play, creating a teetering mountain of pressure on Chris Collins‘ team to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 26th, 2017

In a season where up has often meant down and down has meant up, it’s fitting that the second to last weekend in the Big Ten was chaotic. The league’s three Top 25 teams all lost while several teams with solid to middling chances at NCAA Tournament bids (Minnesota, Michigan and Michigan State) won somewhat convincingly. Illinois and Indiana also picked up crucial wins that kept both teams’ faint bubble hopes alive. The standings are still in a state of complete flux with only the #14 seed in the conference tournament currently set in stone. Here’s the rest of the superlatives from the second to last weekend of Big Ten play.

Nick Ward (center) led Michigan State in scoring and rebounding as Michigan State defeated Wisconsin. (Rey Del Rio, Getty Images).

Player of the Weekend: After a season low point in which Michigan State big man Nick Ward may have purposely tripped Michigan’s Moritz Wagner during a 29-point loss, the freshman has been on a tear. Against Wisconsin on Sunday, Ward bulled his way to 22 points and nine rebounds, bolstering his average of 15.4 PPG over the last five games. Those thinking that the Spartans are turning the corner just in time for the postseason can point to Ward and his fellow freshmen’s stellar play as a reason to believe. Read the rest of this entry »

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Spartan Swap: Will Josh Langford Seize Eron Harris’ Role?

Posted by Jim Root on February 22nd, 2017

“Will Eron Harris step up and become a leader for a young Michigan State team?” After waiting almost the entire season to learn the answer to this question, the issue was rendered meaningless over the weekend as Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Spartans’ road loss at Purdue (for the record, the evidence was pointing toward a resounding ‘no’). The question now becomes who will step up in his absence? Tom Izzo’s team is still very much in the thick of the bubble battle, and losing a skilled (if inconsistent) scorer is a tough pill to swallow. Sixty percent of the Spartans’ potential preseason starting lineup now sits in street clothes (Harris joins center Gavin Schilling and forward Ben Carter), and Izzo is left with little choice but to embrace the youth movement on his roster.

Josh Langford drives against Florida Gulf Coast in East Lansing on November 20th. (247 Sports)

The burden to replace Harris will fall most heavily on the shoulders of freshman wing Josh Langford, a consensus five-star prospect who has mostly flown under the radar while deferring to Harris and fellow freshmen Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. His usage while on the floor is only 14.8 percent this season, per KenPom, a ratio that Pomeroy’s data refers to as filling a “Limited Role.” To wit: In a four-game stretch several weeks ago, these were Langford’s usage rates: 8%, 13%, 10%, 4%. He’s essentially wearing an invisibility cloak! Prior to Harris’ injury, Langford was playing only three fewer minutes per game than the redshirt senior, yet he’d taken 106 fewer shots. Langford has hit a higher percentage of his threes (42% vs Harris’ 39%) and twos (58% vs 47%), and with nine new shots available per game, the Spartans could really benefit from Langford embracing a higher-usage role while maintaining those pristine percentages. Read the rest of this entry »

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Maryland’s Postseason Goals Require Supporting Upperclassmen to Step Up

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 21st, 2017

Despite losing four starters from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad, Maryland has bounced back with a surprisingly strong 22-5 (10-4 Big Ten) record and appears poised to earn its third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. The Terrapins’ this season are once again led by junior star Melo Trimble, who excels in his role as leader and best player, as well as a precocious freshman class that has already produced three new starters (Anthony Cowan, Justin Jackson and Kevin Huerter). For this year’s unit to make a run into the second weekend of March Madness, however, head coach Mark Turgeon needs better contributions down the stretch from his supporting upperclassmen.

Maryland needs upperclassmen like Damonte Dodd to thrive as the calendar turns to March. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Turgeon uses the services of five upperclassmen who contribute between 11 to 20 minutes per game. Seniors Damonte Dodd and LG Gill, along with juniors Jaylen Brantley, Jared Nickens and Michal Cekovsky have all had good moments at some point this year. In the Terrapins’ most recent loss to Wisconsin on Sunday, however, the quintet managed only 15 combined points, seven rebounds and three assists. Their lack of rebounding was especially troublesome because Wisconsin logged a +17 advantage on the glass, including a robust 18 that came on the offensive end of the floor. The Badgers’ frontcourt of Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes combined for 41 points and 17 rebounds, while reserve Terrapin bigs Dodd, Cekovsky and Gill did nearly as much fouling (13) as scoring and rebounding. As a contrasting example, these five supporting players contributed an average of 24.5 PPG in recent road wins against Ohio State and Northwestern. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 20th, 2017

In the third to last weekend of Big Ten conference play, the stars of the league took over. Wisconsin remained at the top of the standings after beating Maryland behind 20-point efforts from Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Purdue likewise kept pace at the top of the standings behind Caleb Swanigan‘s 23rd double-double of the season in a domination of Michigan State. What follows are the highs and lows from a six-game weekend Big Ten schedule.

Caleb Swanigan did nothing to damage his chances at picking up some postseason hardware, as he led Purdue to another Big Ten win. (Boiledsports.com).

  • Player of the Weekend: Caleb Swanigan did to Michigan State what he always does, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in leading his team to a dominant win. The big man’s passing ability really stood out this weekend, as he led Purdue with five assists against only one turnover. Much of the Boilermakers’ offensive damage came from Swanigan either scoring himself or running the high-low game with Isaac Haas on the interior. The sophomore also made 9-of-10 foul shots, elevating his mark on the season to a robust 78.4 percent. Complete efforts like these are the reason that the burly forward is garnering serious consideration for the National Player of the Year award.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: One of the biggest what-ifs this season is how Nebraska might look if Ed Morrow, Jr. had not missed seven games with an injury? The Cornhuskers went 1-6 with Morrow out of the lineup, clearly missing the sophomore forward’s energy and work on the boards (even though the injury also allowed freshman Jordy Tshimanga to take some important strides). Despite only playing 15 minutes with foul trouble on Saturday against Ohio State, Morrow scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and posted a 141.0 offensive rating for the game. This keyed Nebraska’s first road win since a New Year’s Day victory at Maryland.

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Angry Melo Trimble Keeps Maryland in Big Ten Race

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 16th, 2017

If Wednesday night’s performance at Northwestern is any indication, Melo Trimble’s recent shooting slump is officially over. The junior guard came into Evanston having made only three of his last 22 attempts from the three-point line, but according to Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon, Trimble was “pissed off” by some of the comments made about his shooting prowess. The normally reserved guard responded to the criticism with a career-high 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting (4-of-5 from behind the arc) in yet another big road win. Not only does the 74-64 victory keep Maryland’s shot at a Big Ten regular season title alive, but it also shows as March quickly approaches that the Terrapins have a superstar capable of taking over games. The Terps are now 10-3 in Big Ten play, tied with Purdue for second in the standings and just a half-game back of league-leading Wisconsin. In a coincidental twist of scheduling fate, Maryland travels next to Madison to face the Badgers in the Kohl Center on Sunday afternoon. Keeping in mind that the team is 6-1 on the road in Big Ten action this season, another outstanding performance in an opponent’s building could mean that the Big Ten pole position is well within reach.

Melo Trimble torched Northwestern for a career-high 32 points on Wednesday night. (USA Today Images)

Trimble reminded everyone last night that he can carry the offensive load if needed. With Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ taking turns making headlines as the two best players in the Big Ten, Trimble has quietly ceded center stage while remaining an all-Big Ten caliber player. Advanced metrics do not show much faith in the Terrapins (KenPom ranks Maryland 32nd nationally, for example), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore a 22-4 team that is a robust 6-1 against the top 50. Steady play from freshmen Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter has relieved some of the pressure from Trimble, but few teams around college basketball have a legitimate and experienced gamer who has played in two NCAA Tournaments and embraces the big moment. If last night’s performance turns out to be the beginning of a Maryland run into March, it will be because Trimble led the way.

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Can Michigan’s Flashes of Dominance Carry It to March?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 9th, 2017

There are blowouts, and then there’s what Michigan did to Michigan State on Tuesday night. Not four days removed from a home loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines pummeled the Spartans 86-57, shooting 21-of-28 from the field in the first half, grabbing a quick 26-point lead and never looking back. The final margin tied Michigan State’s largest defeat in the rivalry’s long and illustrious history, a beatdown so thorough that Tom Izzo was hard-pressed to find any silver lining (“a complete meltdown,” he said). And it’s not the first time Michigan has crushed an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent this season. On January 30, John Beilein’s club beat Indiana by 30 points; back in November, it toppled Marquette and SMU by 18 and 22 points, respectively. This team has proven capable of excellence when everything clicks. That “when,” though, has also been a major “if” this season, with the Wolverines just as prone to laying an egg as they are to winning by double-figures. With less than a month left in the regular season, the question now isn’t whether Michigan has the potential to do damage in the Big Dance; it’s whether it can remain consistent enough to get there.

On Tuesday, Michigan point guard Derrick Walton was a man on a mission. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

For as superb as Michigan’s offense was earlier this week, its dominance was ignited and sustained on the defensive end. The Wolverines’ played with a clear sense of urgency on the perimeter, preventing Michigan State—a three-point-reliant team—from creating open looks behind the arc. The Spartans attempted just five threes in the first half and looked completely bewildered in their half-court sets, evidenced by three (and nearly five) shot-clock violations in the first 20 minutes alone. “We got late and lost. We just didn’t execute,” Izzo said afterward. All told, Michigan forced Izzo’s group into 21 turnovers at a whopping 31.8 percent turnover rate—by far the highest of any Wolverines’ opponent this season. Spartan super-freshman Miles Bridges alone accounted for five mishaps. The suffocating defensive effort was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ dominant performances against Illinois and Indiana in late January—and noticeably better than Saturday’s showing against the Buckeyes. “They understand there’s another level we can play at,” Beilein said, later adding, “When we show the video of this, it will be the defense that led to the fast break. The steals that led to the fast break.”

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 7th, 2017

Chaos has been a commonality throughout this Big Ten season and it was on full display Saturday afternoon when all four road teams won games in opposing venues. Purdue earned possibly its biggest win of the season by coming back from a double-figure deficit in the second half to knock off Maryland. Rutgers won its first conference road game of the year by besting Penn State in Happy Valley. Fading Minnesota picked up a much needed road win at Illinois. Finally, Ohio State won a battle of two teams that have become increasingly difficult to figure out by beating Michigan in Ann Arbor. Things normalized a bit on Sunday with Wisconsin taking sole possession of first place in defeating Indiana at home, while Iowa likewise held serve in its own gym against Nebraska. There are now only four weekends left in the regular season, so look for more surprises as the pressure intensifies and the calendar flips to March. Here’s the best and worst of the Big Ten from the first weekend of February.

Corey Sanders led Rutgers to its second conference win in scoring 25 points as they knocked off Penn State (USA Today Images)

  • Player of the Weekend: Corey Sanders started off the 2016-17 campaign by figuring out how to adequately co-exist with Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson in the Rutgers backcourt. Things have improved for the sophomore in recent weeks, however, as the dynamic point guard has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 games. He’s taken over primary ball-handling duties, which has led to a more effective Rutgers offense. Sanders was dominant on Saturday, scoring 25 points and making 4-of-5 threes in leading Rutgers to its first ever Big Ten road victory. He also notched six rebounds, four assists and three steals. The Scarlet Knights are hoping that they can ride his enhanced scoring to a handful more wins to close out the regular season.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: Iowa’s Nicholas Baer has drawn comparisons to Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ during a couple of Big Ten telecasts this season because he call fill up the stat sheet without providing the most beautiful of performances. The sophomore wing contributed seven points, six rebounds and three blocks against Nebraska on Sunday, cementing his status as Iowa’s second best player, regardless of whether he he starts or comes off the Hawkeyes’ bench.

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