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 Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #1 Villanova (32-4). The Wildcats did nothing to put their ‘favorite’ status into question over the weekend. In fact, they may have actually established themselves as the new odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. After handling #16 seed Radford by 27 points in the First Round, Villanova put on a second half clinic against #9 Alabama in the Round of 32, outscoring the Crimson Tide 49-21 over the final 20 minutes and finishing the game with 17 made three-pointers. On the weekend, in fact, Villanova shot a combined 31-of-68 (46%) from long range, its spread offense looking more lethal than ever. Now ranked #1 by KenPom with the most efficient offense in America, the Wildcats roll into Boston looking Final Four ready — especially considering the season-ending injury to Purdue center Isaac Haas in the other half of this bracket.

Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. (Yahoo Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #5 West Virginia (26-10). We had to put someone here, right? In an overall bracket riddled with chaos, the East Region remained more uniform than most, leaving #5 West Virginia as the “dark horse” if there is one. Entering the NCAA Tournament, KenPom gave the Mountaineers only a 42.6 percent chance of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, odds that changed dramatically once Marshall upset #4 Wichita State on Friday. West Virginia now heads to Boston where it will be a clear underdog against #1 Villanova, which is probably just how Bob Huggins and his aggressive group likes it.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #13 Marshall (25-11). Hunter became the hunted in San Diego, where #4 Wichita State — usually the one busting brackets — fell victim to Marshall’s high-powered attack. Entering Friday, the Shockers had won at least one game as a lower-seeded team in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four as a #9 seed in 2013. Simply put, Wichita State feels comfortable wearing the underdog hat — even in games in which it is favored, like that 2014 classic against #8 seed Kentucky. But this time around, Gregg Marshall’s group felt like Goliath, and perhaps that unfamiliar pressure wore on the Shockers down the stretch. While Wichita State tightened in the second half, the Thundering Herd just kept on shooting. The result was an upset we did not see coming.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #2 Purdue. We fully expected Purdue to reach the Sweet Sixteen. What we did not expect was how much uncertainty it would endure to get there. After pounding Cal State Fullerton in the First Round, the team announced that senior Isaac Haas — the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer and premier post-threat — would miss the remainder of the NCAA Tournament with a fractured elbow. Subsequent reports revealed that he might see limited action. Finally, his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards, meaning the Boilermakers would have to beat Butler without him. They did, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Vincent Edwards (20 points), but not before two days filled with doubt.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Syracuse 55, #3 Michigan State 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Syracuse was all smiles after pulling off the upset. (Paul Sancya | The Associated Press)

  1. Syracuse mucked this game up to perfection. In order for Syracuse to win this game, it was going to have to slow down the pace, force Michigan State to run its half-court sets, and hope the Spartans missed shots from behind the arc. And that’s exactly what happened. The Big Ten champs were completely flummoxed by Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, unable to exploit gaps inside and unconfident from the perimeter. Were it not for a few difficult made threes immediately before and after halftime, in fact, Michigan State’s final box score would have looked even uglier — which is remarkable when you consider that the Spartans finished 8-of-37 from three-point range. Despite getting hammered on the glass, Syracuse’s length inside was too much for big men like Nick Ward (10 points) and Jaren Jackson (two points). Even when Michigan State began passing out of the high post with Ben Carter — its best interior passer — the team’s go-to shooters like Josh Langford simply couldn’t hit. Afterward, Tom Izzo put it simply: “I thought we’d have a little easier time getting it in the middle.”
  2. Michigan State’s offense was atrocious. And it’s not a complete surprise. Michigan State boasted the ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball entering Sunday, largely the product of excellent outside shooting and a great running game. But there were times this season — Michigan, Rutgers, and others — in which the Spartans looked rhythmless and inept in the half-court. That issue reared its ugly head again on Sunday. Against an opponent built to slow teams down, Michigan State wasted far too much shot clock dribbling and handing-off instead of running clear offensive sets. When the pick-and-roll didn’t work — and it generally did not — Cassius Winston (4-of-12) and the Spartan guards were apt to either force a bad shot or hope Miles Bridges (4-of-18) could make something out of nothing. Following Michigan State’s home loss to Michigan on January 13 — a game in which it struggled mightily from the field — Izzo noted, “we have to do some soul-searching.” If Sunday’s performance was any indication, it’s clear that the Spartans never found their soul — at least not offensively.
  3. Jim Boeheim’s system works, no matter what you feel about it. There’s been plenty of chatter this weekend about whether Tony Bennett’s ‘system’ will ever result in March success for Virginia. Meanwhile, Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense — very much a system in its own right — has enabled the offensively-limited Orange to make yet another deep run. For the second time in three seasons, Syracuse is finding the perfect level of cohesion at exactly the right time with an extremely shallow roster (351st nationally in bench minutes). How? Opponents facing Boeheim’s team for the first time simply don’t know how to breach that zone, especially with Syracuse’s length all over the court. The 73-year-old’s success should give those doubting Bennett a moment of pause.

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Rushed Reactions: #2 Purdue 74, #15 Cal State Fullerton 48

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is reporting from Detroit. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Purdue dominated Cal State Fullerton in Detroit. (Image from Purdue University/Twitter)

  1. Purdue looked elite in the second half. There was a time earlier this season when Purdue looked as dominant as any team in the country. Then the Boilermakers lost three straight games in February, the defense regressed and tired legs appeared to take hold. Above all, they seemed to lose their confidence. Friday’s effort against Cal State Fullerton might have represented a big first step towards regaining that edge, as Purdue’s defense — which dropped to 32nd nationally in efficiency after once ranking among the top-10 — completely shut down the Titans’ attack-first offense. The Boilermakers held the Big West champs to just 36 percent shooting while rediscovering their shooting stroke in the second half (6-of-11 3PT). If Matt Painter’s group can repeat its second half effort against Arkansas/Butler and beyond, Purdue very much has a chance to reach San Antonio.
  2. Carsen Edwards is Purdue’s most important weapon. This might seem counterintuitive considering how much attention Isaac Haas receives, but not only is Edwards Purdue’s leading scorer (18.5 PPG), he’s also perhaps its only player capable of getting to the rim at will. When the Boilermakers couldn’t buy a shot in the first half — including several Haas rim-outs — the sophomore took it upon himself to attack the lane and either force help, draw a foul or make a bucket. Edwards, who accounted for 13 of his team’s 30 first half points, showed once again why he’s the player who takes Purdue’s offense from good to great.
  3. The long layover seemed to help. After struggling to find its shooting stroke in the first half, Purdue overwhelmed Fullerton with its size and shooting ability in the final 20 minutes. Senior forward Vincent Edwards, who suffered an ankle sprain in late February that sidelined him for two games, looked especially fresh, logging 15 points and seven rebounds while playing outstanding defense — including one of the best transition blocks you’ll see all tournament. Even while Painter acknowledged that the layoff may’ve slowed his team down early, there’s no denying that fresh legs helped the Boilermakers maintain their dominance down the stretch. When it’s all said and done, the week-early Big Ten Tournament may’ve been the best possible scenario for Purdue.

Star of the Game. Vincent Edwards, Purdue. While Carsen Edwards was key to Purdue’s first half lead, it was the senior Edwards — who finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and one huge block — who played the best all-around game. His two-way effort was an encouraging sign for Purdue, considering the ankle injury he suffered in February.

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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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Ten Questions to Consider: Conference Races Heat Up

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on February 23rd, 2018

As the first conference tournaments begin as soon as early next week, here are 10 questions I have for this weekend’s slate of important conference games.

Texas Tech is Flagging But Still Alive in the Big 12 Race (USA Today Images)

  1. How can Texas Tech keep its dreams of a Big 12 title alive? Having now lost two games in a row, Texas Tech sits a game back of Kansas in the Big 12 standings. In order to sweep the series against Kansas and knot things up in the conference race, the Red Raiders must replicate their earlier performance of dominating the offensive glass and winning the free throw battle. Texas Tech must also hope that the toe injury to leading scorer Keenan Evans has improved, as Evans has scored just six points over his last two games.
  2. Will Arizona be focused for its game at Oregon? Arizona was 10-0 in conference play last season before a 27-point loss at Oregon. This season, Arizona has been much shakier on the road, having lost close games at Washington and Colorado and barely surviving a trip to Stanford. Oregon, on the other hand, improves its points scored and allowed averages by four points per game in Eugene.
  3. Can Wichita State keep the pressure on Cincinnati? Sitting just a game out of first-place in the AAC, Wichita State travels to Dallas to play an SMU team that already has one win over the Shockers. In that loss to the Mustangs, Gregg Marshall’s team allowed them to shoot an exceptional 76 percent on their two-point field-goal attempts.
  4. Is Arkansas’s bubble close to popping? While Arkansas currently sits as a consensus #8 seed in Bracket Matrix, the Razorbacks still have three Quadrant 1 games remaining on their SEC schedule. They also have a 2-5 road record in SEC games heading into this weekend’s trip to Alabama. While Arkansas has the profile of an NCAA Tournament team as of today, a losing streak to end the season coupled with some shaky wins mean the Razorbacks’ position on the bubble is anything but safe. Read the rest of this entry »
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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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