Michigan Has the Look of a March Sleeper

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

After dispatching Illinois in their opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday behind 26 points from DJ Wilson and 54.3 percent shooting inside the arc. Now, just two days after an incredibly harrowing incident in which the Wolverines’ plane aborted takeoff, skidded off the runway and nearly ended up in a ravine, the team has the look of a potential NCAA Tournament sleeper. “We’ve been selling the fun of a run,” head coach John Beilein said after Friday’s victory. “You throw in what happened on Wednesday, now they’ve got a lot of memories. We don’t want it to stop.”

Derrick Walton Jr. and Michigan are built to win in March. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Michigan figures to make the NCAA Tournament field come Selection Sunday, likely ending up with a middling seed after amassing a 10-8 record during Big Ten regular season play. Recent history suggests that might not be such a bad thing. Under-seeded major conference teams who are well-respected by efficiency metrics like KenPom have been known to deliver. Last season, Syracuse became the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four. In 2015, Michigan State made the final weekend as a No. 7 seed, and in 2014, No. 11 Tennessee found its way into the Sweet Sixteen after winning a play-in game. After Friday’s win, the Wolverines rank 24th in KenPom, a placement that would put them in line for a No. 6 seed if the Selection Committee seeded strictly on that ranking. Michigan may end up a couple lines lower than that.

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Big Ten Tournament Mission Sheet: What Can Each Team Get From the Event?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

There are 14 teams in the Big Ten and although each team is ultimately playing to win a conference championship on Sunday afternoon, there are smaller, somewhat more realistic goals for each school involved in the five-day hoops extravaganza. Here’s a closer look at what each Big Ten team should look to gain from the event.

  • Illinois: The goal for the Illini is fairly obvious. After losing its regular season finale to Rutgers, Illinois likely has to get to Saturday’s semifinals in order to feel truly confident about its chances.
  • Indiana: Indiana needs to find a way to bottle its offense during the first 10 minutes — wherein the Hoosiers scored 32 points — of last weekend’s win over Ohio State. If Tom Crean’s offense can play at that level in Washington, DC, this weekend, Indiana can legitimately win the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the same goal as Illinois but with less urgency because of the youth of their roster. The longer Iowa stays in this weekend’s tournament, the more quality experience their underclassmen will have heading into next season.
  • Maryland: Maryland has taken a whopping 24 three-pointers per contest over its last nine games, making only 33.8 percent of those attempts. The key for the Terrapins is to return to attacking the rim for easy looks and foul shots. Continued over-reliance on the three-ball from a team that requires greater balance could spell an early postseason exit in DC and beyond.

Derrick Walton Jr. will look to lift Michigan to multiple wins in the Big Ten Tournament. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

  • Michigan: The metrics suggest that Michigan is better than its 20-11 overall record. This means that the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to win the Big Ten tournament and jump a couple of seed lines prior to Sunday’s bracket release.

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The Big Ten’s Shift East Begins in Earnest Next Season

Posted by Alex Moscoso on April 7th, 2016

On Monday night in Houston, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a three-point buzzer-beater to lift his team over North Carolina for the school’s second championship all-time and the first for the remade basketball-only Big East. Having one of the conference’s premier programs reach the sport’s pinnacle gives the Big East a much-needed boost in relevance. However, that sense of accomplishment could be fleeting. Enter the Big Ten, which starting next year will initiate a series of expansive events in the northeastern United States, essentially trying to establish a beachhead in traditional ACC and Big East territory. For example, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament will be in Washington D.C. and the 2018 edition will be in New York. The league will also continue its “Super Saturday – College Hoops & Hockey” double-header in Madison Square Garden until at least 2019. This strategic shift focused on the Northeast marks the beginning of an arms race for the nation’s most coveted television markets.

The Big Ten starts their East offensive with the Big Ten Tournament in DC and New York the next two seasons.

The Big Ten starts its eastern offensive with the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC and New York over the next two seasons.

Recent championship aside, the Big East’s reorganization of a footprint that left half of its schools in the Midwest resulted in a vacuum. A 12-year contract with the fledgling Fox Sports 1 network, significantly restricting its viewing audience (average viewership for a Big East FS1 game is 91,000 people), hasn’t helped. The Big Ten, on the other hand, has a $1 billion contract with ESPN along with its own Big Ten Network, which reaches 90 million households. It’s with these munitions that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany plans on swamping the East Coast with Big Ten basketball for the rest of the decade. He hopes to capture the market by blowing out any lingering Big East passion and outflanking the ACC in its own surge northward.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 66, Purdue 62

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2016

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Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

Michigan State edged Purdue for the B1G crown. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  1. Michigan State’s front line was up the challenge. In Purdue’s blowout victories over Illinois and Michigan this weekend its massive trio of AJ Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas combined for 67 points (on 36-of-55 FG) and 44 rebounds. Hammons was especially dominant, pouring in 27 points against the Wolverines and looking altogether unstoppable within 10 feet. On Sunday, it was a different story. The Spartans threw every big body they could at the Boilermakers – including seldom-used senior Colby Wollenman – and never allowed Purdue’s lethal frontcourt to take over. All told, Matt Costello, Deyonta Davis, Gavin Schilling and Wollenman held the three-headed monster to just 26 points on 10-of-25 shooting, which – combined with the Boilermakers’ ugly performance from behind the arc (3-of-15 3FG) – proved to be the difference. Costello was especially great, bodying up Hammons each time down the floor and coming up with several huge blocks to seal the victory.
  2. Denzel Valentine is special in late-game situations. Between his ability to handle the ball, make quick decisions and knock down big shots, Denzel Valentine gives Michigan State something few other teams have: a steady hand in late-game situations. That asset was on full display Sunday, with Valentine knocking down an impossible double-clutch jumper with just under two minutes to play, then securing a pair of big rebounds to ice the victory. Even his ability to take the ball up the floor without making careless mistakes – to force the opposition to foul – cannot be overlooked. On its quest for another Final Four, Michigan State will surely face a few more close, taut games likes the ones it played against Maryland and Purdue this weekend. Having a late-game conductor like Valentine could wind up being the difference between a very good season and a banner-worthy, great one.
  3. Despite the loss, Purdue is playing its best basketball. Make no mistake – Purdue is still in excellent shape heading into the NCAA Tournament. If not for some very poor outside shooting (3-of-15 3FG), the Boilermakers – backed by an enormous home crowd in Bankers Life Fieldhouse – would probably be the Big Ten Tournament champions. Not only is AJ Hammons playing his best basketball of the season, but Matt Painter’s club is consistently earning trips to the free throw line (39 attempts against Michigan and Michigan State combined). Purdue was also superb on the defensive end this weekend, holding both Illinois and the Wolverines to well below one point per possession, and nearly doing the same against the explosive Spartans. With a top 25 national ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, along with one of the best frontcourts in the country, the Boilermakers should be a real threat to reach Houston.

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Rushed Reactions: Purdue 76, Michigan 59

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Three Key Takeaways

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

The Boilermakers will play for a B1G title on Sunday. (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

  1. Purdue’s game plan was simple – and it worked. The Boilermakers boast one of the tallest and deepest frontlines in the country, with two players – AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas – standing more than seven-feet tall, and another, Caleb Swanigan, checking in at 6’9”, 250 pounds. Against the much smaller Wolverines, Purdue pounded the ball inside early, often, and to great effect. All told, Hammons, Haas and Swanigan combined for 45 points and 21 rebounds, including a dominant 27-point, 11-rebound effort from Hammons. No matter which team(s) Purdue draws in next week’s NCAA Tournament, they will be hard-pressed to stop the Boilmakers’ dominant big men – especially when Hammons plays like he did on Saturday.
  2. The three-ball betrayed Michigan. The Wolverines found their fair share of good looks, too, but for a team that relies so heavily on three-pointers – Michigan generates nearly 40 percent of its points from behind the arc – not nearly enough of them fell through the cylinder on Saturday. John Beilein’s team shot just 6-for-25 from long distance, including 1-5 from the usually-automatic Duncan Robinson. Had they been able to slow down Purdue in the paint like they did in their 5-point victory over the Boilermakers in February, the Wolverines may have been able to overcome the poor shooting performance. But their lack of answers on the other end culminated in a 17-point defeat.
  3. It’s tough to win three games in three days. Robinson and top scorer Zak Irvin came up short on numerous shots against Purdue, something we might normally chalk up to a “bad game”. But considering the circumstances on Saturday, the pattern was hard to ignore. After expending a great deal of physical and emotional energy in its dramatic victories over Northwestern and Indiana on Thursday and Friday, Michigan could not replicate its same desperate, high-level of play against the Boilermakers. Fatigue truly matters in these tournaments, especially for teams that must win four or five straight games in order to claim the title.

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Michigan State Grows Stronger Ahead of Selection Sunday

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Tom Izzo’s disappointment in the first half against Ohio State on Friday might be the best indication yet of just how well his Spartans are playing. Less than a week after beating the Buckeyes in East Lansing, Michigan State controlled the opening 20 minutes from start to finish, taking a seven-point lead into the locker room and holding its bubble-bound opponent to just 26 points on 27 shots. “I thought we got off to a bit of a sluggish start,” Izzo said. “We didn’t feel like we were in sync the whole first half.” His team went on to dominate, of course, winning by 27 points and completing a three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes by an average margin of 20.3 PPG. The victory was more than just a necessary step toward a Big Ten Tournament title, though. On a night when the threes weren’t falling, Michigan State – in one of its best defensive performances of the year – took an important stride toward invulnerability heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue improving. (http://247sports.com/)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue to get better. (http://247sports.com/)

Guard Bryn Forbes entered Friday as the nation’s best individual three-point shooter on the nation’s best three-point shooting team, having knocked down more than 50 percent of his 200 attempts from behind the arc. On nights that he and Denzel Valentine (a top 50 three-point shooter in his own right) get hot, Michigan State is incredibly difficult to beat. Friday was not one of those nights; the Spartans shot just 8-of-23 on three-point field goals, and Forbes never got going. For Izzo, it could not have worked out any better. “The best thing that happened was Bryn struggled, best thing for our future, because we had to learn to play without,” he said. Instead of blowing out the Buckeyes with lights-out perimeter shooting, the #2 seeded Spartans blew them out by pounding the glass and finding easy looks inside. Already a top 20 offensive and defensive rebounding team, Michigan State ripped down 14 offensive boards (41.2% OReb) and prevented many Ohio State second-chances on the other end. To score, the Spartans used a combination of high-percentage transition looks, easy put-backs and well-run set plays to blow open the lead after halftime, opening the final 20 minutes on a 14-2 run and never looking back. Spartan big men Deyonta Davis, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling complemented Valentine’s predictably excellent play by combining for 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Junior guard Eron Harris, playing in his hometown for the first time since high school, poured in 13 points of his own. College basketball’s most efficient offense was as efficient as ever (1.27 points per possession), even without its usual perimeter prowess.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Night

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

After Purdue’s blowout victory over Illinois in Friday’s afternoon session, Michigan State and Maryland followed suit with a pair of drubbings of their own. The Spartans used a 14-2 run early in the second half to ease past Ohio State, 81-54, while the Terrapins shot the lights out against Nebraska on their way to an 11-point victory in the late game. Here are four takeaways from quarterfinal Friday in the Big Ten Tournament.

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Maryland took care of business against Nebraska on Friday. (Kiichiro Sato, Lincoln Journal Star)

Michigan State: The Spartans won by 27 points despite shooting poorly for a large stretch of the contest – which probably says something about just how good they are right now. Denzel Valentine was his usual versatile self, scoring 19 points to go along with nine rebounds and eight assists, but it was the play of Deyonta Davis (12 points, seven rebounds), Matt Costello (10 points) and Eron Harris (13 points) – along with stellar defense from start to finish – that made the difference. Watching Iowa and Indiana go down early in the tournament may have also had something to do with the Spartans’ dominant victory: “We saw that those two teams didn’t come out with as much fire as they had throughout the season… we had to be ready to play today,” Costello said afterwards. Next up for Michigan State is a rematch of last season’s Big Ten semifinal against Maryland.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Afternoon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2016

The Big Ten Tournament’s afternoon session on Friday yielded two starkly different outcomes. In the opener, Michigan upset top-seeded Indiana in dramatic fashion, knocking down a three-pointer just before the buzzer to preserve its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. The second game was far less dramatic, but perhaps a louder statement – Purdue throttled #12 seed Illinois, 89-58, in one of the more dominant quarterfinal matchups you will ever see. Here are four takeaways from this afternoon’s games.

Michigan reserve Kameron Chatman preserved the Wolverine's NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Kameron Chatman preserved Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday. (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Indiana: Despite the massive, swarming fan base that filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse like a sea of crimson, Indiana was never able to go on one of its patented runs Friday afternoon. That, plus a high turnover rate and poor shooting from behind the arc (4-of-17 3FG), doomed the Big Ten champs. Tom Crean‘s bunch never went on a run of more than seven points, and was not able to take advantage of its fresh legs like the eighth-year head coach had hoped. “We weren’t as fast in the first half as we were in the second half, and that’s not how we play,” Crean said afterwards. While freshman OG Anunoby had another nice performance (13 points on 6-of-6 shooting), Yogi Ferrell – who seemed in utter command during the Hoosiers’ blowout win over Michigan in February – struggled to find nearly as many good looks against a much-improved Wolverines defense. Indiana’s own inability to cover Duncan Robison and Kameron Chatman on the game’s final two possessions ultimately sealed their fate. The good news? The Hoosiers should be a #3 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is published on Sunday, and will have plenty of time to rediscover the confident basketball that carried it through February.

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Rushed Reactions: Michigan State 62, Maryland 58

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 14th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

Michigan State Has Put Things Together (USA Today Images)

Michigan State Appears to Have Put Things Together (USA Today Images)

  1. Melo Trimble was borderline unstoppable early. The freshman was on fire from the opening jump and Michigan State’s defense struggled to contain him. When Trimble is knocking down threes off the dribble, he’s a considerable problem. His first three triples and five shots all found the bottom of the net, helping Maryland jump out to a quick and commanding 23-7 lead. However, after that initial spurt, two things slowed him down. Michigan State’s help defense improved on his touches and the Spartans also got a bit more physical with the youngster. That clearly threw him off his game — and after starting 5-of-5, Trimble made just two of his final 11 shots on the afternoon. This was the single biggest reason that Michigan State was able to climb back into the game.
  2. Michigan State’s frontcourt was great. Matt Costello was at it again and Marvin Clark got in on the act too. Izzo said in the postgame press conference that Clark “idolizes” Branden Dawson, and while Dawson struggled for long periods of the game, Clark came in and brought great energy. He and Costello combined for 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and after allowing Maryland to hit the offensive boards early, they dominated the paint late. When Dawson finally got going, his athleticism took over the game late. He’s the most physically dominant player in the conference with his combination of size, strength and leaping ability, and he used it proficiently down the stretch. Dawson finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
  3. Maryland finally lost a close game. These teams were about as evenly matched as possible. When that had been the case previously this season, the Terps had won every single time. They came into today with an 11-0 record in games decided by six points or fewer, and that’s why KenPom rated them as the luckiest team in the nation. That record was unsustainable though, and as a result, Maryland finally picked up its first close-game blemish.

Player of the Game. Travis Trice. His statistics — 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting — tell some of the story, but it was how and when he got those numbers that made him so important. The two most crucial periods of the game were a first half stretch when Michigan State recouped some of the points it spotted Maryland right off the bat, and then an early second half run that ultimately gave the Spartans the lead. Trice was the best player on the floor during both of those stretches. The diminutive guard is never going to overpower his opponents, especially not against guards as strong as those at Maryland, but he was Sparty’s catalyst all afternoon long.

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Rushed Reactions: Wisconsin 71, Michigan 60

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 13th, 2015

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Three Key Takeaways.

The Badgers Were All Smiles Today in Chicago (USA Today Images)

The Badgers Were All Smiles Today in Chicago (USA Today Images)

  1. Michigan Played With Great Confidence. Both Bennet Hayes and I, along with some other media members with whom I spoke before the game, thought Michigan had a real shot today. There was something about the swagger with which the Wolverines had dominated Illinois yesterday that made this seem like a distinct possibility. And early in the game, it appeared to be true. Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht combined for 18 of Michigan’s first 22 points, each hitting two three-pointers in leading Michigan to an early nine-point lead. Even though Michigan’s shot-making wouldn’t continue at the same rate, the team’s intensity and focus certainly would, which is what kept this quarterfinal competitive throughout.
  2. Wisconsin Asserted Itself. The Badgers methodically climbed back into the game by clamping down defensively, especially on Albrecht. During a 10-0 Wisconsin run to end the first half, every Wolverines’ shot attempt was well-contested. The only way that Michigan was able to regain a second half lead was by getting out in transition — something Wisconsin uncharacteristically let them do — but as usual, the Badgers’ half-court defense was tough to solve.
  3. Wisconsin Has Too Many Weapons. While Michigan had one or two players doing things to keep the Wolverines in the game, so many Wisconsin players made plays down the stretch that it was simply too much for Michigan to overcome. Josh Gasser hit a big three; Duje Dukan was awesome off the bench; and Nigel Hayes was a pain in Michigan’s rear end all day long. Then, with about 3:40 to go, there was a single play emblematic of Wisconsin’s victory. Frank Kaminsky missed a shot at the rim, got his own rebound, and then, while falling to the floor, found Gasser on the perimeter. Gasser immediately penetrated, kicked the ball out to Bronson Koenig, who made the extra pass to Sam Dekker as he stepped into and drilled a three. The Badgers were too solid at all five spots on the floor to be beaten by a valiant but short-handed Michigan team today.

Player of the Game. Zak Irvin, Michigan. He was on the losing side of today’s ledger, but Irvin had a tremendous game. He scored 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting, pulled down 11 rebounds and was the only Michigan player who stayed in attack mode for all 40 minutes.

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