Big Ten Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-Up

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2012

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference.

Conference Tournament Preview

After a thrilling regular season, it’s on to Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Despite being a three-seed, Ohio State has to be considered the favorite given how well they ended the regular season. If either Michigan State or OSU wins the Big Ten Tournament, they will get strong consideration for a one-seed. Teams like Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue can all improve their NCAA Tournament seeds with strong showings this weekend.

Northwestern is the only clear bubble team in the conference, and as such is under the most pressure to string some wins together. If the Wilcats can beat Minnesota in the first round, they’ll face a Michigan team that they only lost to twice this season, though both losses came in overtime. Two wins in the Big Ten tournament should make them a virtual lock for their first-ever tournament birth, but it’s much easier said than done with this level of competition.

A Look Back

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Checking In On… the Big Ten Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 21st, 2012

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, box fans and life.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • Boiling Over: Give credit to Matt Painter for making a difficult decision in the stretch run of a season. Painter kicked Kelsey Barlow off the team and suspended D.J. Byrd for the Michigan State game for a “violation of team rules.” They’ll miss Barlow’s experience and slashing ability, but sometimes this kind of incident can galvanize a team.
  • Lincoln > Land of Lincoln: Any doubts about whether Illinois was still playing for embattled head coach Bruce Weber were answered when Nebraska used a 52-12 run to bury the Illini, 80-57, on Sunday. Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard combined for 11 total points. You just can’t let the worst offensive team in the Big Ten put up 80 on you. Illinois has now lost eight of its last nine games and Weber seems resigned to his likely fate (see video below).
  • Shurna Can Score: Congrats to John Shurna, a nice kid and a fantastic (if unorthodox) scorer who is now the all-time leading scorer in Northwestern history. His deep three-pointer midway through the second half against Minnesota gave him 18 points to surpass Billy McKinney (1,900 points).  More importantly to Shurna, the Wildcats picked up a win to stay in the hunt for first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.

The Spartans And Buckeyes Have Company At The Top Of The Standings. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

Power Rankings

  1. Michigan State (22-5, 11-3) – Not since Tim Duncan in 1997-98 has a player averaged more than 15 points per game, 10 rebounds a game and three assists per game. But Draymond Green has done just that, and he continued to show his versatility on Sunday at Purdue with a 20-point, 10 rebound and seven-assist performance to lead the Spartans to a road win. He has to be the Big Ten POY if MSU wins the conference.
  2. Ohio State (22-5, 10-4) – William Buford has had big games for Ohio State this season, but his struggles late in the regular season may cost Ohio State a Big Ten crown. He shot a combined 5-for-24 in the Buckeyes’ losses to Michigan State and Michigan, and just hasn’t shown the big game leadership that you would expect out of a senior. Read the rest of this entry »
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Should Meyers Leonard Go Pro After This Season?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 16th, 2012

Uncertainty looms over Assembly Hall in Champaign nowadays as the Fighting Illini lost another game to Purdue on Wednesday night, their seventh loss out of eight games. Will the Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas get rid of Bruce Weber?  Will the Illini make the NCAA tournament?  These are legitimate questions on the minds of the Illini faithful but the biggest question is about their star center, Meyers Leonard’s future: will he come back for his junior season in Champaign? Let’s examine a few non-personal factors that might drive the sophomore’s decision regarding the NBA.

Leonard Has A Tough Decision To Make At The End Of The Season

Why should he leave for the NBA 

  1. You can’t teach 7’1″.” – NBA scouts love to use that cliché. Leonard has all the physical tools to play the center position at the next level. He has shown that he can add muscle over the off-season (added 30 lbs) and certainly has the intensity to hang with the big guys on a nightly basis in the NBA. Averaging eight boards per game isn’t too shabby in the Big Ten, which is known for the physical brand of play. Defensively, he has been a highlight reel during the season as he has swatted balls into the second row of the sidelines, including a game-winning block against Northwestern on the road. Most of the NBA draft boards, such as NBADraft.net have him slated as a potential lottery pick. The scouts will waste no time trying to convince him about going pro after the college season because they might have seen enough for somebody with his physical build. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has reached his ceiling in the college game, or maybe he did under the current coach.
  2. Bruce Weber will coach Illinois in 2013 – Bruce Weber is not a bad coach because he understands the talented sophomore and his significance to the Illini offense. Even though Leonard could improve on his scoring average from this season of 13.2 points per game, he might have hit the ceiling in Weber’s system. True centers that have the skills to play with the back to their basket don’t shine under Weber’s offensive philosophy. The motion offense under Weber has been designed around guards who can shoot the deep ball. Illinois has been at the bottom of the league for years in terms of free throws per game (only 32.5% in 2012) because most of the offensive plays revolve around screens for the shooters rather than an attacking brand of basketball.  During their recent losing skid, Weber tries to commit to the big man over the first few minutes of the game but during the late minutes, most of the shots end up being away from the paint. Historically, centers that prefer to play in the post such as Shaun Pruitt have been frustrated in Weber’s system. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale rarely played with their backs to the basket or in the paint because they relied heavily upon the 15-footer from the baseline coming off the pick-and-roll plays. Leonard’s offensive game is more than a baseline jumper or a post move – he is a monster when he attacks the hoop off the picks but Weber has not and will not be able to utilize him better next season unless he adjusts his system. If Leonard comes back for a third year with an improved game, the skills need to be utilized efficiently by the coach otherwise his draft stock won’t improve after another year in college.
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Is Tonight a Must Win for Bruce Weber (And Illinois)?

Posted by EJacoby on February 15th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. 

The Fighting Illini may be playing for more than just their NCAA Tournament lives in the next three weeks. Multiple news outlets continue to speculate that Bruce Weber’s tenure as Illinois head coach may also be on shaky ground. Illinois was ranked in the Top 25 one month ago after knocking off Ohio State at home, and it looked like the team’s young talent was starting to come together. But since that game, the Illini are back in a familiar struggling position, having lost six of their last seven. Pressure continues to mount on Weber to turn this talented team around in a hurry, something he has been unable to do for several consecutive seasons. Tonight’s home game against Purdue is crucial for the coach to put the team in position to make a late-season run.

Bruce Weber is Firmly on the Hot Seat; How Will his Team Respond? (AP Photo/M. Conroy)

Illinois won consecutive Big Ten titles in Weber’s first two years at the helm in 2003-04 and 2004-05, and the ’05 team that advanced to the National Championship game before losing a close game to North Carolina was one of the decade’s best teams. But Weber has never been able to build on that initial success and the players that got him to the Final Four were Bill Self’s recruits from the previous regime. Self’s winning percentage from 2000-03 was .765 compared to Weber’s .688 in the nine years since, which includes the Final Four run with a 34-2 team. Since that title game appearance, Weber’s teams are 60-56 in the Big Ten and 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament.

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Big Ten Game On: 02.11.12 Edition

Posted by Ryan Terpstra on February 11th, 2012

It was a quiet Friday night in the Big Ten (because, you know, there were no games), but the action certainly picks up on the court today as two of the top teams in the league face off.  Also, on Sunday we have some schools desperate for a win on the road against opponents who need a victory to keep pace within the conference.  It all bodes for a very interesting Big Ten weekend.

Nebraska at Penn State, 1 pm ET Saturday

  • Though these two teams currently sport the bottom two records in the league, don’t think for a second that this game doesn’t mean something. Nebraska desperately needs to get on the right track in their first season in the Big Ten, and a road win at Penn State would help get things moving in that direction. Meanwhile, Penn State has lost five straight and eight out of their last nine; and in no way do they want that streak to continue. It helps that the Nittany Lions will have the best player on the court in guard Tim Fraizer.

#12 Michigan State at #3 Ohio State, 6 pm ET Saturday

  • This is the biggest marquee game for the league so far this season and not just because it is between two teams that are within a game of each other at the top of the standings. Both teams have good size, tremendous guard play, and it will be strength-vs-strength when the Spartans and Buckeyes do battle on national television (ESPN). In the yesterday’s Big Ten Morning Five there was a link to an article talking about the headache Big Ten coaches have had in trying to figure out how to properly defend Jared Sullinger. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo probably is the best equipped to deal with the Buckeye big man, as beefy Derrick Nix and long-armed Adreian Payne can be used to slow Sullinger down. Draymond Green may also take his turn on Sullinger, but his foremost job will be to continue his Big Ten-best 10.6 RPG along with his 15 PPG. Green’s leadership will also be key for this road test as sophomore guard Keith Appling and freshman forward Branden Dawson will be the other Spartans expected to score. Look for Ohio State guard William Buford to try and loosen things up for Sullinger early on as the senior knows how important a win and two-game cushion over Michigan State would be.

Containing Jared Sullinger will be the top priority for Michign State. (Greg Shamus/Getty)

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Big Ten Game On: 02.09.12 Edition

Posted by jnowak on February 9th, 2012

We are starting to see things shake themselves out in the Big Ten standings, but all it takes is one full slate of games to change that in a flash. There’s a nice lineup on Thursday night, so let’s take a look at the implications of three games around the conference.

#23 Wisconsin at Minnesota, 7 PM ET

  • It has certainly been a topsy-turvy season of sorts for the Badgers, who have been uncharacteristically mediocre at home, but made up for it with staunch play on the road. This is another test for Wisconsin as it tries to keep pace atop the standings and a critical game for Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament chances. The Golden Gophers are on the bubble with a tough road ahead so they need to capitalize on all reasonable home opportunities with a return date set in Madison for February 28. The Badgers can put the conference’s top scoring defense to the test, while Minnesota — shooting 36% this season, third in the conference, from 3-point range — will try to knock the Badgers down from deep. This game comes down to how well Minnesota, 10th in the Big Ten in turnover margin, protects the ball at home against a stingy Badgers defense.

Illinois at #22 Indiana, 8 PM ET

  • These teams are neck-and-neck in the standings, 3 1/2 games behind first-place Ohio State, but Illinois needs this one just a bit more than Indiana. That said, with the way the Hoosiers have performed at home versus Illinois’ inconsistent play, it will be a tall order for Bruce Weber‘s group. It’s the lone meeting of the year between these two groups, and the Fighting Illini are sure to need another heroic effort out of Brandon Paul (he has scored in double figures in each of his Big Ten games) to keep up with Indiana’s high-flying offense. A loss Thursday and the Hoosiers just may switch places with the Illini in terms of NCAA Tournament chances.

Illinois is going to need a big effort out of Brandon Paul at Indiana. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

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Coach Weber: Please Simplify Your Offense

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on February 9th, 2012

Bruce Weber’s life has been rough lately. Illini Nation is in a state of shock because the program went from winning four Big Ten titles during the first half of the 2000s to none over the past six years. The second half of the Big Ten conference season in particular has not been a strength since Dee Brown left Champaign. Currently, the Illini are 5-5 after starting 4-1 this season. They started conference play 3-0 last year but then stumbled to a 9-9 record. In 2010, they finished with a 10-8 record despite starting 3-0 in conference play. The motion offense that Illinois runs doesn’t always result in true motion or necessarily better looks at the basket. The problem continues to grow and the losses continue to mound. Their latest loss was to Northwestern at home – only their fifth defeat to the Wildcats in Assembly Hall since 1963. The road schedule looks brutal rest of the way – games at Indiana tonight, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Playing on the road at Lincoln hasn’t been a cake walk either and Indiana can attest to that fact, so their road game at Nebraska is not a gimme by any means. Weber stays within his offensive system and usually doesn’t change direction midway through the season, but maybe that is something he ought to consider if he wants to avoid more losing streaks.

Bruce Weber is puzzled with his offense. (Daily Illini)

Illinois only averages 62 possessions per game during conference play. They rank ninth in the Big Ten in that category and they average less than one point per possession – 0.98 to be exact. Why not let the kids run a simplified offense? Weber should consider a few changes to his strict offensive schemes and it may loosen up the players. Here are a few reasons why Weber should consider a change to his offensive sets:

  1. Keep running: The Illinois guards are excellent defenders because they force turnovers. Opposing guards turn the ball over on about 20% of their possessions and the Illini rank in the top half of the league in that category. Despite the turnovers, Weber’s team don’t create consistent points off of those mishaps. After Tracy Abrams forces a turnover, the other guards don’t always run towards the hoop but rather settle for spot-up jumpers in transition. D.J. Richardson goes straight to the corners, which often forces the guard leading the fast break to dish it out rather than lead to an easy layup or dunk. Illinois’ opponents average 31.4% on the offensive glass and this implies that the Illini have strong defensive rebounding abilities. But the defensive boards should result in a quicker transition game. Another indicator of their slow pace is their overall free throw-attempts per game. Fast break opportunities should result in more trips to the free throw line but Weber’s crew ranks eighth in the Big Ten in this category – only 34% of their total field goal attempts result in a free throw. All that speed in the backcourt  is useless if the guards refuse to drive towards the hoop.
  2. Get rid of the designated shooters: Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson account for over 70% of Illinois’ total three-point attempts. Unlike Richardson, Paul would rather attack the hoop than settle for jumpers. Paul’s free throw rate is 46.7 compared to Richardson’s 16.9. Neither of them are efficient from long-range – Paul’s average is 35% while 38% of Richardson’s three-point shots go in. One way to cut down your offense’s reliability on the jump shot is to remove your best shooters from the lineup. Brandon Paul should continue to keep his minutes because he has the ability to attack, but Richardson’s minutes need to be limited. Joe Bertrand and Tracy Abrams would rather push the ball anyway – both of them have only attempted 26 attempts from the long-range this season. Substituting Mike Henry for Richardson might force the offense to move at a faster pace. Bertrand has shown great ability to penetrate and can shoot a consistent floater in the lane similar to Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. There are at least 10 possessions during the game when Weber calls a play for Richardson, though. The play usually consists of Meyers Leonard or Bertrand setting screens for him to get an open look from the corners. Paul stays at the top of the key looking for him but the scouting report is too obvious and the opponents prepare for these specific plays. Weber should surprise the rest of the Big Ten teams by introducing a four-guard lineup with Paul, Henry, Abrams and Bertrand. This lineup also plays into the strengths of Leonard because he would rather not play in an offense that “grinds” it out.
  3. Meyers Leonard: Leonard is a star. Every Illini game on ESPN showcases Leonard as one of the best big men in the B1G. He deserves every bit of that attention but his skill-set is not maximized in Weber’s offensive schemes. The offensive system at Illinois stays away from the paint during most possessions as indicated by the low number of  free throw attempts. Weber’s offensive sets consist of post-up plays designed for Leonard but that’s not the best way to utilize his skills. Weber uses the talented sophomore in two ways – to post him up down low or to set screens for the guards. Leonard’s post moves are not very polished yet, though. Asking him to play with his back to the basket is not an efficient use of his existing skill set. Using him to set screens is underutilizing his talent. Once again, transition opportunities and a free-flowing offense where the guards penetrate will help Leonard’s overall efficiency. He has developed a nice 14-foot shot this season where Bertrand and Paul often draw double teams in the paint when they drive and that leaves him wide open to drain that 14-footer. He is also very quick to get up the court, so most fast break opportunities ought to go through him and not through Richardson.

Most players on Illinois can create their own shot… if they are allowed to do that. Bertrand had a coming-out party against Missouri when he hit 10-of-11 shots in a fast-paced game, most of which were on his way to the basket. Abrams is a gutsy kid who doesn’t turn the ball over and plays unselfish basketball despite his youth. Paul is their go-to guy who is a jack-of-all-trades, but Weber needs to trust them and understand that the kids have been playing basketball for over 10 years. Teaching them complicated offensive sets in the motion offense may confuse them especially in late-game situations. Clearly something hasn’t been working with their offense, so a change might not be such a bad idea after all.

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Halfway Home: Our Midseason Big Ten Awards

Posted by jnowak on February 2nd, 2012

Continuing with our midway point theme from yesterday, it’s time to take a closer look at who — if the season ended right now — should be taking home some hardware.

The most interesting (and often important) thing about examining All-Big Ten and conference Player of the Year candidates is what they’ve been able to do over the course of the season versus what they’ve done in Big Ten play. It’s not that hard to pull in a double-double against a cupcake non-conference opponent, but you have to be able to do it against Big Ten competition to merit lofty mention.

All-Big Ten First Team

  • Tim Frazier, Penn State: Frazier has really burst onto the scene in conference play. After averaging just 5.0 and 6.3 points per game in his first two seasons at PSU, he’s averaging 18 per game this year. He hasn’t scored fewer than 12 points in a Big Ten game this season.
  • Draymond Green, Michigan State: Green is the most versatile player in the Big Ten and will go down as one of the few best captains Tom Izzo has had at Michigan State. He currently ranks in the top 15 among Big Ten players in nine categories, while leading in rebounding (10.3 RPG) and coming in 10th in scoring (14.9 PPG).

Draymond Green has been fantastic leading the Spartans this year. (Al Goldis/AP)

  • Brandon Paul, Illinois: Like Frazier, Big Ten play has been Paul’s real coming-out party, as he is the top scorer during Big Ten play (19.8 PPG). He almost singlehandedly led the Fighting Illini to an upset of Ohio State and has scored in double figures in every Big Ten contest.
  • Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Arguably the best overall player in the conference, and the leader of the Big Ten’s top team, Sullinger is a matchup nightmare, ranking fourth in the conference in scoring (17.1 PPG) and second in rebounding (9.1 RPG).
  • Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin: As steady as they come, Taylor has helped lead the Badgers back to the top tier of the conference by scoring (16.5 PPG in Big Ten play) and distributing the ball (3.4 APG in conference). Bo Ryan will have a tough time finding Taylor’s successor to run the offense.
All-Big Ten Second Team
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Checking In On… the Big Ten Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 17th, 2012

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter @Bill_Hupp for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was:

  • Gophers Golden Again: Not only did Minnesota win its first two conference games of the season this week, it’s the first time since 2009 that the Golden Gophers have won back-to-back conference road games.  UM was led by freshman and Minneapolis native Joe Coleman, whom Tubby Smith inserted into the starting lineup three games ago.  This week, Coleman hit four free throws in the final minute to help Minnesota hang on for a 77-74 upset at No. 7 Indiana, then exploded for a career-high 23 points in a win over Penn State. Nobody thought the Gophers were as bad as their original 0-4 Big Ten mark indicated, but learning how to win close games can build a young team’s confidence quickly.
  • Brandon Paul Pops Off in Champaign: Illinois junior guard Brandon Paul came into the Ohio State game averaging 12.1 points per game, but he earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after he dropped a career-high 43 points out of nowhere on the Buckeyes. Paul’s 28 points in the second half included some very tough, contested shots near the end of a close game (full video highlights below). His 43 points were the third-most in a game in school history and the most since Andy Kaufmann went for 46 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1990.

Brandon Paul's Game To Remember Against Ohio State Stole The Headlines From The Big Ten Race (Heather Coit/AP)

  • Back in Black: Wearing black jerseys at home in a must-win game against No. 7 Michigan State, the Wildcats got an inspired effort from backup center Davide Curletti, who made his first start of the season and finished with season-high 17 points and six rebounds. He gave great energy for Bill Carmody while starting in place of the ineffective Luka Mirkovic. Teams had been averaging just 59.6 points against the Spartans through the first 17 games, but MSU allowed Northwestern to shoot 54 percent in the second half to pull away for an 81-74 win.  We’ve said before that the Wildcats would pull off an upset or two in conference play if they shot the ball well, and that’s exactly what happened in Evanston.

Power Rankings

  1. Ohio State (16-3, 4-2) – It’s doesn’t seem fair for opposing teams when Lenzelle Smith Jr., a.k.a. “Ohio State’s forgotten starter” can hit 10-of-12 from the field, score 28 points and grab seven rebounds on a whim.  It’s really a “pick your poison” scenario when you are playing a team with so many potential offensive threats.
  2. Michigan State (15-3, 4-1) – Draymond Green may be a bruising power forward at 6’7’’ and 230 pounds, but he has shown a nice touch from the outside this season.  Besides being a force down low, Green leads the Spartans with 24 triples on the season. It’s an offensive skill that has “Day-Day” (as Tom Izzo calls him) a virtual lock for first-team All-Big Ten honors.
  3. Indiana (15-3, 3-3) – Some uncharacteristically poor three-point shooting this week spelled doom for the Hoosiers, who dropped games to Minnesota and Ohio State. A team that averages nearly 50% from beyond the arc was a combined 11 for 39 (28%). They feel behind early in both games and couldn’t shoot their way back into either contest.  One positive this week was that Cody Zeller averaged 19.5 points in the losses.
  4. Illinois (14-3, 4-1) – With his imposing size and impressive array of skills, the Illini should have the premier go-to scorer in the conference in center Meyers Leonard. Yet too often, it seems like he is catching the ball facing the basket, instead of posting up on the block where he could turn and score over his left shoulder or kick it out to three-pointer shooters like Brandon Paul or D.J. Richardson. Leonard needs to park himself down low where he can maximize his offensive efficiency.
  5. Michigan (14-4, 4-2) – Michigan barely survived Northwestern at home in OT, then got blasted by 16 at Iowa. In both games, it seemed like the Wolverines stopped attacking the basket and were content to settle for threes, jacking up 30 against NU and 31 against Iowa. Their motion offense, cutting and dribble penetration gets them easy buckets at the rim, so they struggle to score when they get too willing to fire from long range.
  6. Wisconsin (14-5, 3-3) – It wasn’t especially pretty against Purdue or Nebraska, but the Badgers earned a pair of hard-fought five-point wins to even their conference mark at 3-3.  Needing a win to snap a three-game losing streak, Wisconsin blitzed Purdue early hitting five of their first six threes to build a 22-4 lead. They came back to earth after that, however, shooting 2 of 18 from distance against the Cornhuskers.
  7. Purdue (13-5, 3-2) – Purdue faced a desperate Wisconsin team and dug themselves a 22-4 first half hole at Mackey Arena a before battling back and eventually falling. It’s not a good sign for the Boilers when Lewis Jackson finishes with two points and the team only hits 33% of their three-point field goal attempts.
  8. Minnesota (14-5, 2-4) – With star Trevor Mbawke sidelined, the Gophers needed other players to step up and help Rodney Williams shoulder the scoring load. Well, it looks like Joe Coleman, Austin Hollins and Julian Welch are starting to come of age. You knew Tubby Smith had plenty of athleticism and talent at The Barn, it was just a matter of fitting the right pieces together. Now he has five starters who are averaging between 8.3 and 12.5 points per game in conference play.
  9. Northwestern (12-5, 2-3) – Teams often struggle once conference play begins because their young point guard takes a few steps back. Not Northwestern, where starting guard Dave Sobolewski leads the Big Ten and is near the top of the nationally with a 4. 2 assist-to-turnover ratio, and really excels at backdoor feeds.
  10. Iowa (11-8, 3-3) – Talk about an enigma of a team. After getting destroyed by an average of 32.5 points in road losses to Ohio St. and Michigan St., the Hawks turned around and cruised past Michigan, 75-59 at home on Saturday. Iowa can light up the scoreboard when its shots are falling, which is why they’ve scored 75 points or more in nine of their 11 wins this season.
  11. Nebraska (9-8, 1-5) – Where were you when Nebraska won their first Big Ten game in school history? Since getting pasted by Ohio State, the Cornhuskers sandwiched their lone conference triumph over Penn State between narrow five-point road losses at Illinois and Wisconsin, holding all three opponents under 60 points. They don’t score much, but NU seems to be a natural fit for the conference in terms of their grinding, methodical style of play.
  12. Penn State  (9-10, 1-5) – One of the most difficult, but important things to teach a young team is how to defend on a nightly basis. The Nittany Lions have dropped three straight, and in each loss, allowed their opponent to shoot over 50%. That’s not going to cut it in any conference, let alone the deepest and toughest in the country.

Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Showed The Nation That The Buckeyes Go Beyond Sullinger, Craft And Buford (Getty)

Looking Ahead

  • Tuesday, 1/17: No. 9 Michigan State @ No. 19 Michigan – One of the most underrated rivalries in college hoops has added significance this season with each team being in the hunt for a Big Ten title.  State is looking to rebound after having their 15-game winning streak snapped at Northwestern, while the Wolverines are trying to remain unbeaten at home (11-0).  Look for whoever wins the intriguing PG battle between emerging Spartans sophomore Keith Appling and Michigan’s stud freshman Trey Burke to win the game.
  • Wednesday, 1/18: Northwestern @ Wisconsin– An important game between two teams with similar styles each desperate to continue the momentum built this past weekend. Both are pretty reliant on the three-point shot (NU first, Wisconsin fourth in three-pointers per game), so whoever has the hotter hand should emerge victorious.
  • Saturday, 1/21: Purdue @ No. 9 Michigan State – The Boilers could use a signature win (Butler and Illinois don’t count) to impress the Selection Committee.  As always, Ryne Smith and co. will have to knock down treys, but that’s a tall order against MSU, which is stingy on the perimeter (second in conference allowing 30.2% from three).

Caught on Film

It’s amazing how a player’s success on offensive end can carry over to his defensive performance. Brandon Paul poured in 43 points, the highest single-game point total in the Big Ten in 20 years.  But he also made his presence felt defensively, grabbing a couple steals and swatting four emphatic shots. As you can see from the below video, he was on fire from distance and a monster on the defensive end.

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ATB: On Baylor’s Legitimacy, Brandon Paul’s Explosion, and Frank Martin’s Billy Gillispie Moment…

Posted by rtmsf on January 11th, 2012

Tonight’s Lede. It wasn’t just any other Tuesday night, as a number of ranked teams were in action and there was more than enough intrigue around the country to keep everyone interested. Whether it was a team few people seem to believe in slowly swaying hearts and minds, or a much-maligned former prep star bringing forth the game of his life, or an acerbic coach showing his true colors in a postgame interview, there was a lot to cover tonight. Let’s jump right in…

Will Some Pundits Begin to Take Baylor Seriously Now? (AP/C. Riedel)

Your Watercooler Moment, Part I. Baylor Stakes a Claim of Legitimacy. One of the knocks against Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears to date has been its lack of exceptional road wins this season. Apparently the non-believers did not take seriously wins at BYU and Northwestern, although neither the Marriott Center nor the Welsh-Ryan Arena these days are the easiest places to escape victorious. Still, Kansas State’s Bramlage Arena is universally regarded as a tough-as-nails venue, borne out most recently by K-State’s dominant weekend victory over an unbeaten Missouri squad. Baylor’s mid-second half run to come back from seven points down behind several eye-popping defensive transition dunks, along with its ability to hold K-State to a single bucket in the last four minutes of the game, showed America how things have changed. Last year, Drew’s Bears hardly played defense, generally preferring to use that end of the court to rest before another wild LaceDarius Dunn field goal attempt. This year, long green-and-yellow-clad arms and legs seem to cover all four corners of the court, and in fact, the two game-saving plays on this night resulted from a strip from behind of Angel Rodriguez with three seconds remaining, and a deflected pass on the ensuing inbounds play. The Bears are not going to win every game this season, but they’ve already won 16 and have survived one of their four toughest road tests on the schedule. With Pierre Jackson (10/11 assts) running the show, Brady Heslip (13/4 stls) providing scoring punch, and an elite corps of forwards in Quincy Acy, Perry Jones, III, and Quincy Miller wreaking havoc defensively, it’s time to stop questioning Scott Drew’s team and take the Bears seriously as a national title contender.

Your Watercooler Moment, Part II. Brandon Paul Hits Everything, Leads Illini Over Ohio State. In two-and-a-half seasons at Illinois, Brandon Paul has been better defined by what he is not rather than what he is. The former Chicago-area prep star who came to Champaign with sky-high expectations has largely disappointed, gradually improving his scoring output over three years but never shooting the ball efficiently (career 37.2% shooter) nor becoming an effective distributor (2.0 APG). Paul must have eaten a full bowl of his Wheaties this morning. The 6’4″ junior literally took over tonight’s game against OSU, scoring his team’s last 15 points en route to a career-high 43 points on 8-10 shooting from behind the arc. Unless you saw the game, you cannot comprehend just how ridiculous a couple of the late threes that Paul hit were, perhaps none more so than his final trey which gave Illinois a four-point lead with 43 seconds remaining.

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Set Your TiVo: New Year’s Weekend Edition

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 30th, 2011

Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him @botskey on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the official RTC Star System.

A quality Friday night Big East game leads us into a Saturday full of terrific matchups. There are a couple good games on Sunday, but if you’re going to watch any basketball around the New Year’s holiday, make sure you are in front of a television on Saturday.

West Virginia @ Seton Hall – 9:00 PM EST Friday on ESPN2 (***)

Kevin Jones Has His Mountaineers Surging

  • Since losing at Mississippi State four weeks ago, West Virginia has reeled off six wins in seven tries with the only loss coming in overtime to a top 10 Baylor squad. The Mountaineers have an imposing trio of Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli but the timely contributions of freshmen such as Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne, and Aaron Brown have pushed West Virginia over the top in a few of these close games. Bob Huggins runs the vast majority of his offensive sets through Bryant and Jones with Kilicli chipping in as well. West Virginia is not a good outside shooting team but it should be able to take advantage of Seton Hall’s interior defense, rated #258 in two-point percentage.
  • Seton Hall ran out to a hot 11-1 start but the reality check came at the hands of Fab Melo and top-ranked Syracuse on Wednesday night. Melo blocked 10 Pirate shots in the blowout win, a game that got out of hand shortly after the opening tip for Seton Hall. Kevin Willard’s team needs to rebound in a big way tonight, the second of three difficult games to open their Big East schedule. Going up against Jones, Herb Pope has to stay on the floor and play a strong game. After a strong start to his season, Pope has averaged only 8.7 PPG over his last three outings. If he doesn’t get well into double figures, Seton Hall will have a hard time winning. Jordan Theodore needs to be a pass-first point guard in this game rather than a guy who shoots 15+ times. Getting Pope, Fuquan Edwin and three point specialist Aaron Cosby involved will be important for the senior Pirate point guard.
  • It’s likely that Pope/Jones and Bryant/Theodore cancel each other out meaning the game will be decided by the supporting casts. Kilicli could be that guy for West Virginia while Seton Hall will look to Edwin and/or Cosby to make a winning impact. Edwin had an awful game against Syracuse but he should rebound nicely in front of the home folks and a less imposing front line. These teams have played five overtime games between them and another could be in the offing here. West Virginia is probably the better team but the Hall playing at home evens this contest up. Neither team shoots the ball well from the charity stripe but it’s something that just may decide this game.

#10 Louisville @ #3 Kentucky – 12:00 PM EST Saturday on CBS (*****)

Jones and Company Invite Louisville to Rupp Saturday Afternoon

  • Kentucky has blasted every inferior team it has played this season but the Wildcats have played closer games against Kansas, North Carolina and Indiana. Louisville is the fourth good team Kentucky will see so far, and given the passion in this rivalry, another relatively close game should be expected. The Wildcats are the better team but you can throw rankings and records out in rivalries as bitter as this one. Kentucky must use its superior offensive talent to its advantage, namely Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Louisville is highly vulnerable to the deep shot making Lamb a key player. Jones is the best player on the floor and needs to use his versatility to rack up fouls on Louisville’s interior players or step out and knock down a deep ball. Six Kentucky players average double figures and Louisville just can’t match the Wildcats offensively.
  • Where Rick Pitino’s team can match Kentucky is on the defensive end. Louisville’s game plan has to be intense full court defense, making Marquis Teague work for every dribble and every pass. Teague averages 3.2 turnovers per game and Louisville is one of the better teams in the nation at forcing turnovers. Offensively, this is not a typical Pitino team. Louisville doesn’t shoot the three-ball well but Gorgui Dieng, Russ Smith and Kyle Kuric can put the ball in the basket. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they don’t do it consistently enough to be an offensive force as a team. Peyton Siva has to be the catalyst in this game. The quick Louisville point guard has good vision but must cut down on turnovers. If Kentucky is getting runouts, it’s lights out for Louisville.
  • It’ll be hard for Louisville to score points on the road against the elite Kentucky defense but the Cardinals can force turnovers and get easy buckets. Both coaches don’t mind speeding up the game but that would favor John Calipari in this particular matchup. Pitino has to design a game plan that adeptly probes the Kentucky defense and gets quality shots. Siva is the key to execute that, plus the Cardinals must crash the boards and get second chance opportunities. That’s easier said than done against Jones and Anthony Davis. Davis has the potential to neutralize Dieng and anyone else who dares enter the paint for Louisville. The Cardinals will defend but they simply lack the offensive firepower needed to win this game at Rupp. We would be surprised if Kentucky loses at home for the first time under Calipari but this will be a fun game to watch regardless.
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Checking In On… the Big Ten Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 23rd, 2011

Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.

Reader’s Take 

 

The Week That Was

  • Bo Knows Defense: There are several tenets that a Bo Ryan-led team will always posses: It will slow the tempo down and limit the number of possessions in a game; Wisconsin’s big guys will be able to knock down a three; they’ll limit turnovers and take care of the basketball; and they will guard you from start to finish. You can stay close in a lot of games when you are holding opponents to under 45 points per game. Unlike Missouri, Ryan’s defense isn’t predicated on quickness and forcing a lot of turnovers. Rather, they require you to stay patient on offense and make contested shots. Not a lot of teams can do that consistently in college basketball, which is why the Badgers rank in the top three in the country in scoring defense (first – 44.7 PPG), field goal percentage defense (second – 33.7%) and three point FG percentage defense (third – 23.7 %) – all this despite playing teams like Marquette, North Carolina and UNLV in their non-conference slate.
  • He Went to Jared: No matter how many other weapons Ohio State has on the floor, it really needs Jared Sullinger to man the middle. The super sophomore has missed a couple games in December with nagging injuries (back spasms and a sprained tendon in his left foot) and its clear the Buckeyes missed him. You just don’t replace a guy averaging nearly a double-double (16 PPG and 9.2 RPG). His presence on offense alone keeps the defense honest and opens up the floor for Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas and William Buford to get shots. In their only loss, Kansas All-American Thomas Robinson exploited this weakness to post 21 points and seven boards. It’s obvious that any team missing their first-team All-American will be worse, but just how much worse became readily apparent that day in Lawrence.
  • Fattening Up On Cupcakes: Super soft non-conference schedules have led to rather gaudy records for Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern. But according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, those squads are ranked 42nd, 55th and 58th in the country right now, respectively.  The best of those 34 collective wins was probably Illinois’ 82-75 home defeat of Gonzaga. Minnesota hasn’t played a true road game yet and their best win is by three points over Virginia Tech.  Northwestern has decent wins over Georgia Tech, LSU and Seton Hall – but they have lost their two most difficult games to Baylor and Creighton.  Each of these schools need strong showings in conference play to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Cousy Award Nominee Trey Burke Is Having A Standout Year That Many Didn't See Coming. (Angela J. Cesere/annarbor.com)

Power Rankings

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