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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The Big Ten’s Biggest Early Surprises

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 19th, 2018

Now that we’re roughly one-third of the way through the Big Ten slate, let’s take a look at the biggest surprises and storylines taking shape in the Midwest.

Who had Ohio State pegged as a Big Ten title contender? (Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Chris Holtmann, Keita Bates-Diop, and the Buckeyes. Forget the Big Ten for a moment — Ohio State might be the biggest surprise in the entire country. The Buckeyes began the season ranked 74th overall by KenPom and picked to finish 11th — yes, 11th — in the conference. And after getting blasted by Gonzaga in the PK80 on Thanksgiving Day, those projections appeared to make sense. That is, until Big Ten play rolled around. Since losing to Clemson on November 29, Ohio State has gone 11-1 overall and 5-0 in league play, including a 25-point road drubbing of Wisconsin and dominant win against top-ranked Michigan State. Its KenPom ranking has skyrocketed as a result to 12th overall nationally. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop (19.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG) has emerged as the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year — highlighted by a 32-point effort against the Spartans — while his coach, Chris Holtmann, may be on track for conference (if not national) honors in his own right. Perhaps Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith put it best: “None of us, including me, expected to be here.”
  • Purdue is the clear Big Ten favorite. Who would have expected to be saying that in mid-January? It’s not that Purdue wasn’t expected to be good — the Boilers were picked to finish second, after all — it’s just that Michigan State was supposed to be that much better. Roughly one-third of the way through Big Ten play, however, that’s clearly not the case. Whereas Michigan State has lost two of its last three games, both by double-figures, Matt Painter’s club has been on an absolute tear. Since November 24, Purdue is 14-0 (7-0 in Big Ten play) with eight wins by 25 or more points — including wins against Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Boilermakers rank among the top six nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency while boasting the third-highest three-point shooting mark (42.6%) in America. 7’2″ center Isaac Haas has been more efficient than ever (122.7 ORtg); sophomore guard Carsen Edwards (17 PPG) has been the breakout player some thought he could be; put simply, Purdue has looked infallible. With home games against Ohio State and Michigan left, Painter’s group is in great position to win the conference outright — even if it were to stumble in East Lansing on February 10.

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Five Reasons Why Michigan is For Real

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2018

After losing three of its top four scorers from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team — including point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. — Michigan was a mystery heading into this season. An NCAA tournament bid seemed likely but debatable; a Big Ten title seemed out of the question. After upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday and nearly toppling Purdue earlier in the week, though, expectations have changed. Now 15-4 (4-2 Big Ten) with wins over the Spartans, Texas and UCLA, Michigan — ranked higher in KenPom now than it finished last season — is in position to compete for a conference championship and a favorable seed on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have come a long way fast, and here’s why they’re legit.

Moritz Wagner shredded the Spartans on Saturday. (UM Hoops)

  • They play defense. Michigan is playing some of its best defense in years, ranking 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which — if the season ended today — would be the second-best ever under head coach John Beilein. His stingiest team wound up as the 2013 National Runner-Up. Against the Spartans over the weekend, the Wolverines fought through ball screens, rotated consistently and limited Michigan State’s looks from the three-point line (especially Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, who attempted just three triples). Down low, the Michigan big men prevented Nick Ward (four points) from catching the ball in the deep post, where he’s been nearly unstoppable this season. Perhaps most importantly, Beilein’s group limited transition buckets and forced the Spartans to work hard in the half-court. Even while Beilein’s offense is somewhat less efficient this season, the Wolverines’ improvement on the defensive end could ultimately make them more complete.
  • They finally found a point guard. If there was any question left as to who had won Michigan’s point guard battle, it was put to rest this week. After averaging just 18 minutes per game prior to January 2, Zavier Simpson saw 30-plus minutes of action for the fourth straight game on Saturday, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists in the win over Michigan State. In Michigan’s near-miss against Purdue on Tuesday, the sophomore scored 15 points and secured a career-high six rebounds. In both games, Beilein’s offense was firing on all cylinders. “Zavier Simpson has been key for us,” the coach said on Saturday. “He’s been able to make plays. Especially in the second half.“ Not only is Simpson playing his best basketball of the season, but he’s doing so against the best teams in the conference — if not the country. What began as a dead-even three-man race between Simpson, Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks has now become Simpson’s job to lose. And Michigan’s the better for it.

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In Search of a Big Ten Darkhorse? Look No Further Than Nebraska…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 8th, 2018

Nebraska’s 15-point trouncing of Northwestern last week was a statement win for the Huskers, and not just because it marked their first road victory of the season. It was the confidence Tim Miles’ group played with — dominating the final eight minutes of the contest — that opened eyes in both Allstate Arena and beyond. Defensively, Nebraska held the Wildcats to 0.89 points per possession on just 29.2 percent shooting; offensively, the team’s go-to playmakers came through when it counted. “I think it… solidifies our vision of what we can be. Like, ‘You know what? This is possible,’” Miles said afterward. With a roster that’s deep, experienced and chock full of high-performing transfers, what Nebraska ‘can be’ is a surprise competitor in the Big Ten this season.

Nebraska was one of just three Big Ten teams to win a game in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. (James Wooldridge, Daily Nebraskan)

  • Playmakers. The most striking difference between this year’s Nebraska team and those of recent past is the number of athletic playmakers on its roster. The infusion of several key transfers — namely Isaac Copeland (Georgetown) and James Palmer, Jr. (Miami (FL)) — has given the Huskers multiple players capable of finishing at the rim. Palmer, who leads the team with 15.6 points per game, has emerged as the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon, adept at using his length to both attack the basket (53.4% FTRate) and shoot over smaller defenders (35% 3FG). The now-healthy Copeland (12.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG) — who averaged double-figures in the Big East as a sophomore — is showing flashes of what made him a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Meanwhile, point guard Glynn Watson, Jr. (12.1 PPG) remains one of the quickest players in the league, his ability to penetrate at will enabling the Huskers to pull away from Northwestern last week. Miles, discussing the importance of guys like Palmer, Copeland and Watson, put it simply: “We’ve got more guys that can make plays.”

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Five Key Questions as Big Ten Play Begins (In Earnest)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2018

With the New Year upon us and conference play picking up for good this evening, let’s consider a few of the most burning questions that could dictate how the Big Ten plays out.

  • Will Bryant McIntosh return in time for Northwestern to preserve its season? Northwestern dodged a bullet when it announced on Sunday that Bryant McIntosh, who went down with an injury against Brown over the weekend, suffered no structural damage to his knee. The initial situation looked much worse. Still, the all-league point guard is listed as day-to-day, with the expectation being that he will miss some time. Perhaps no player on the Wildcats’ roster is as important as McIntosh, who serves as the catalyst for Chris Collins’ pick-and-roll offense. Not only does he lead the team in assists (5.5 APG) and rank third in scoring (13.3 PPG), no one else on the roster possesses his ability to create off the dribble and break down defenders. If he’s sidelined for even a few games, it could spell trouble for a team already lacking in quality wins. While backup guards Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash looked solid on Saturday, upcoming contests against Penn State (Friday) and Minnesota (January 10) will present an entirely new challenge.

Will Bryant McIntosh suffer any lasting effects from his knee scare? (FOX Sports)

  • Does Maryland have enough depth to overcome key frontcourt injuries? Maryland suffered an enormous blow last Thursday when it announced that forward Justin Jackson, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, will miss the rest of the season with a torn labrum. “It is tough, because we set up a lot of our offense for Justin. A lot of things were playing through him,” head coach Mark Turgeon told the Baltimore Sun. As if losing its best two-way player weren’t bad enough, the Terrapins took another lump on Friday when junior Ivan Bender — expected to help fill the void left by Jackson — tore his meniscus against UMBC. The good news is that Maryland is especially deep in the frontcourt, with Jared Nickens (5.4 PPG), Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi (Duke transfer) all capable of stepping in for Jackson and Bender (in addition to centers Michal Cekovsky and Bruno Fernandez (10.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG), one of the league’s best freshmen). The bad news is that Jackson, widely considered a first-round NBA Draft prospect, will be awfully hard to replace. Small forward Kevin Huerter (14.1 PPG) pointed out that Jackson “allowed us to play a lot of different ways. Some of our best lineups were with him at the four [power forward], where he could take advantage of mismatch problems.” The extent to which Nickens and the others can pick up Jackson’s slack will determine whether Maryland can compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.

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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Big Ten Running Out of Non-Conference Chances

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 15th, 2017

Michigan’s 59-52 win at Texas on Tuesday was important for the Big Ten, and not just because it could use some respect after taking a beating in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Rather, the road victory was big because it helps provide some much-needed heft to the league’s overall non-conference resume. With several bad losses under its belt and an underachieving middle tier, the Big Ten needs every quality win it can get before for turning on itself in conference play.

Iowa, like several Big Ten teams, has struggled during non-conference play. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The Good. As of Thursday, the Big Ten has eight teams ranked in both the KenPom and Sagarin top 50, which suggests there is some depth of quality in the league. In fact, Michigan State and Purdue rank second and third overall in the latter ranking system. Although the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) remains the most widely-referenced metric, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has been increasingly influenced by advanced metrics in recent years. The more teams viewed favorably by advanced analytical tools, the more opportunities for quality intra-conference wins in the committee’s view. What’s more, the league does have a few quality non-conference true road wins to its name. Minnesota beat Providence (KenPom #52) by double-figures in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Purdue pounded Marquette (KenPom #52). Michigan topped them both by upending Texas this week (KenPom #31). According to reports last summer, the committee will be “placing greater emphasis on winning road games.” Victories like these — on the road against NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents — will go a long way towards boosting the the Big Ten’s overall profile.

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Five Key Big Ten Takeaways From a Dreadful ACC Challenge Week

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 1st, 2017

This year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge was a wake-up call for the Big Ten, as the conference dropped 11 of the 14 contests, including five losses by more than 10 points. Its 3-11 mark represents the league’s worst record, by far, in the event’s 19-year year history. And while it’s only fair to judge a conference so much based on a single set of match-ups in November, there’s still reason to worry. Let’s examine a few of the most glaring takeaways, both good and bad, from the four-day drubbing.

Maryland’s loss at Syracuse was one of many for the Big Ten. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

  • The “best of the rest” might not be so great. Michigan State and Purdue were pegged #1 and #2 in the Big Ten preseason media poll, and both took care of business this week. The Spartans knocked off their second-straight top-10 ACC opponent, while the Boilermakers used a crowd-fueled second-half surge to defeat #17 Louisville. As for the remaining “upper echelon” squads? The ACC/Big Ten Challenge did not go very well. Preseason #3 Minnesotashorthanded, to be sure — lost at home to Miami (FL), unable to keep big man Dewan Huell (23 points) and the Hurricane guards from carving them up on the pick-and-roll. Northwestern, picked fourth, mustered just 0.88 points per possession in a buzzer-beating loss at Georgia Tech. Michigan and Wisconsin were soundly defeated on the road against North Carolina and Virginia, respectively, while Maryland — just three days after losing to St. Bonaventure — fell at Syracuse. While one could simply blame the bulk of these losses on bad match-ups, that would be ignoring the fact that several of these programs were unknown quantities heading into the season. The Terps lost Melo Trimble to the pros; Wisconsin and Michigan each lost three of their top four scorers to graduation; Northwestern hasn’t finished among the top four of the Big Ten since 1968. This week’s results may be nothing more than a few bad match-ups playing out in the ACC’s favor; then again, they may also be indicative of Big Ten that is not quite as deep — or simply as good — as some expected. At the very least, the one-sided outcome could do lasting damage to the conference’s seeding profile come Selection Sunday.

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Despite Four Losses, It’s Far Too Early to Lose Faith in Wisconsin

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2017

Wisconsin’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge loss to Virginia on Monday — its fourth defeat of the young season — rounds out the program’s worst month of November since 2002, when the Devin Harris-led Badgers lost to Weber State and Hawaii en route to a 3-6 start. This season, close defeats at the hands of Xavier, Baylor and UCLA, along with this week’s poor showing in Charlottesville, has left some wondering whether Wisconsin simply doesn’t have the firepower to remain a top-tier challenger in the Big Ten. After all, most programs don’t lose four heavily-used seniors and simply bounce right back. But Wisconsin isn’t like most programs. With Ethan Happ looking every bit the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate he was pegged to be and a key freshman emerging in the backcourt, the Badgers — one of the most consistent programs in college basketball — should still be viewed as a contender. Especially with the history that’s on their side. 

Ethan Happ and Brad Davison should keep the Badgers competitive. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

The prevailing narrative for Wisconsin entering 2017-18 was that Happ, its ultra-skilled big man, would have to shoulder a massive load for the Badgers to be successful. “Now he’ll have to be even better,” the Wisconsin State Journal recently said, referencing the fact that Happ would need to improve upon his already-great 2016-17 campaign. Luckily, early results suggest the junior is more than up to the task. Through seven games, Happ is averaging 17.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per night, posting an offensive rating (111.8) and shooting percentages on par with last year despite playing more minutes and using more possessions. He currently ranks third in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, and his second-half scoring surges against Xavier and Baylor were key to the Badgers staging late-game (if ultimately unsuccessful) comebacks. Perhaps most impressive so far has been Happ’s ability to distribute the basketball. Often serving as a point forward in and around the paint, Happ currently boasts an assist rate (26.5%) that would make most point guards jealous. The notion that “Wisconsin will only go as far as Happ takes them” sounds far less scary now that the junior appears fully capable of carrying that heavy load. Read the rest of this entry »

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Get to Know Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy Before Everyone Else

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 28th, 2017

Who expected this? Certainly not the media members who failed to vote for Minnesota junior forward Jordan Murphy on any of their preseason All-Big Ten teams. Probably not Richard Pitino, the head coach who talked often — and usually glowingly — about stalwarts Nate Mason, Isaiah Washington and Amir Coffey during the preseason, but not Murphy. Certainly not myself, who picked the Gophers as a Final Four team in the preseason, but did not believe Murphy would be a leading reason why.

Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy Has Been a Star This Season (USA Today Images)

Despite all that, Murphy’s name is slowly becoming more familiar across the college basketball landscape. The 6’6″, 250-lb. power forward isn’t on many mock NBA Draft boards because of his undersized frame, but if he continues to dominate everything in his path, he will find his way there too. He is averaging a double-double (22.0 PPG, 12.3 RPG) and has been consistent in his output, logging seven double-doubles in seven games — something even Duke standout freshman Marvin Bagley hasn’t accomplished. He’s also currently the second most efficient player in college basketball with a 37.9 efficiency rating, according to Sports-Reference, trailing only Notre Dame’s Bonzie ColsonThere are few individual statistical categories in which he is not within the national top five, especially on the offensive end of the floor. He’s been everything the Gophers have needed and more than they could have ever wanted.

Efficiency is His Calling Card

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Big Ten First Impressions: Purdue Very Much a Title Contender; Indiana, Not So Much…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 17th, 2017

With a full week of Big Ten basketball already under our belts, let’s assess some of the strongest first impressions from around the league — for better or worse.

Issac Haas and the Boilermakers have looked excellent in the earlygoing. (AP)

  • It’s not a “hot take” to suggest Purdue can win the league. Michigan State was the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten this season, and for good reason — the Spartans are loaded, and Miles Bridges might be the best player in college hoops. But Purdue is also very good, and early returns suggest it may have been seriously undervalued in the preseason polls. After scoring 1.38 and 1.42 points per possessions against SIU-Edwardsville and Chicago State, respectively, last week, the Boilermakers handled Marquette in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, 86-71, as part of the Gavitt Tip-Off Games. The most impressive aspect of the win wasn’t so much the 15-point margin as it was Purdue’s ability to shrug off the Golden Eagles’ patented three-point surges, time and again answering the home team’s offensive spurts with flawless execution of its own. Matt Painter’s group was especially great in the half-court, working much of its offense through center Isaac Haas; the senior finished with 22 points in 20 minutes, using a whopping 44 percent of the possessions while he was on the floor. What’s more, the emergence of 7’3″ Dutch freshman Matt Haarms — who is averaging 19 minutes, nine points, and nearly three blocks per game — suggest that Painter has someone who can consistently (and productively) spell Haas when he sits. The scariest part? Purdue’s usually-excellent three-point shooting was lackluster against Marquette (4-of-12 3FG). Instead, the Boilers thrived on key defensive stops (like this Carsen Edwards’ chase-down block) and outstanding interior ball movement. On nights when Vincent Edwards, Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson make it rain from the perimeter — like they did in the team’s first two games (combined 19-of-36 3FG) — Purdue will be nearly impossible to beat. Experienced, balanced, and offensively dominant when Haas plays like he did on Wednesday, Purdue has all the pieces to compete neck and neck with Michigan State in the Big Ten this season.

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