NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.

Kansas Rolls Into KC as the Clear Midwest Region Favorite (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.

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

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 9th, 2017

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

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

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

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Michigan’s Defense is the Difference Between NCAA and NIT

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2017

It doesn’t take a hoops junkie to recognize that a good, balanced effort on both sides of the ball generally equates to success. And maybe it would be overly simplistic to offer an unbalanced team such advice as “be better on defense.” For this year’s Michigan squad, however, there may not be a more apt prescription. The Wolverines—the Big Ten’s most efficient offensive unit—simply haven’t had a defense to match this season, ranking dead-last in conference play on that end of the court. On nights when they have defended well, the offense has taken a step back. Put simply, the pieces have rarely come together. After an inspired wire-to-wire victory over Illinois on Saturday, however, John Beilein’s group appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. Michigan was stout defensively, received contributions up and down the lineup, and—for perhaps the first time since November—played a complete game against a quality opponent. With a crucial five-game stretch coming and an NCAA Tournament berth still far from guaranteed, the Wolverines’ newfound balance has arrived just in the nick of time.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like the team that pounded SMU and Marquette back in November. (mgoblue.com)

“Blue-collar” defense. Following Illinois’ 85-69 thrashing of Michigan on January 11, Illini center Maverick Morgan referred to the Wolverines as a “white-collar team,” a comment which—at least at the time—seemed completely on point. Due to a mixture of lax perimeter defense and some bad luck, Michigan entered the weekend surrendering an astounding 52.4 percent from three-point range (53-for-101) against Big Ten opponents, including a 9-of-14 effort against the Illini in that first meeting. On the whole, Beilein’s team after came into Saturday’s game surrendering more than 1.2 points per possession, and yet, on the heels of an encouraging effort at Wisconsin, the defensive tide shifted drastically. Michigan held Illinois to just 0-of-5 from three-point range in the first half, and 2-of-12 for the game. Illini ball-handlers were forced into a Big Ten-high 17 turnovers, and Morgan, who made all but one shot from the field in the first meeting, was held in check underneath the basket. “We were active, we were in gaps, swarming to the ball, flying around,” Beilein said after the game. “That was as hard as we’ve played on defense all year.” Before the weekend, Wolverines’ guard Zak Irvin lobbied his team to wear its road blue jerseys to represent the “blue-collar” attitude with which it intended to play. And Michigan didn’t disappoint, holding Illinois to 0.86 points per possession in its strongest defensive effort since the calendar turned to 2017.

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Emerging Frontcourt Providing Michigan With New Ways to Win

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2016

Michigan’s 53-50 victory over Texas on Tuesday night was anything but vintage John Beilein basketball. The Wolverines—usually an offensive-leaning unit heavily led by guard play—scored 0.87 points per possession against the Longhorns, with its veteran starting backcourt combining for just 13 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Instead, Beilein’s group relied upon two facets of the game seldom mentioned in the same breath as Michigan basketball: stingy team defense and major offensive production from its big men—namely, sophomores Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. For a team short on depth and struggling to find a consistent scorer, the newfound production in the paint was a welcome surprise. To understand just how uncharacteristic the victory was, consider this: Michigan had not won a game in which it scored fewer than 0.90 points per possession since February 23, 2008—Beilein’s first year on the job. Much like that contest—a 49-43 win over Illinois—Tuesday’s affair came down to which team could eke out enough late buckets without compromising its defensive intensity. For the Wolverines, both the late buckets and the intensity were supplied by Wagner.

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan's win on Tuesday (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan’s win over Texas (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

“I thought [Wagner] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “He can shoot, he’s 6’11”, he can put the ball on the floor… Tonight he was constantly in attack mode.” Not only did the German import lead Michigan with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, he came up with both the go-ahead putback and the game-winning block in the game’s closing seconds, his emotions pouring out as the clock hit zeroes. The sequence was a testament to both his rare offensive skill set and his improving defensive discipline. “Mo’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life,” Beilein said of Wagner. “He’s learning to be a bigger presence at the rim. I think he’s making major steps defensively right now.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Michigan Starts Finding Answers on Opening Weekend

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 14th, 2016

When Michigan was again forced to adjust to life without star shooting guard Caris LeVert — whose college career ended after suffering a season-ending leg injury last December — it posed two silver linings. On the one hand, it was a blessing in disguise. The Wolverines still snuck into the NCAA Tournament, and the increased workload for guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin gave the experienced duo more to build on entering 2016-17. LeVert’s exit, however, also marked the first in a series of unforeseen departures which have created more questions than answers entering this season, even with the team’s starting five fully intact. If its opening weekend victory over IUPUI is any indication, Michigan’s questions will take some time to fully answer—but the blueprint for progress is there.

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Derrick Walton and the Wolverines looked sharp over the final 30 minutes vs. IUPUI. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

Emerging Frontcourt Depth

The Wolverines’ chief concern is depth, and not just because LeVert is gone. 2013 Final Four hero Spike Albrecht briefly retired last December because of a hip injury before eventually heading to Purdue. In April, guard Aubrey Dawkins (6.5 PPG) transferred to Central Florida to play for his father. A month later, frontcourt role players Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman—whose clutch triple against Indiana last March helped Michigan reach the Dance—also departed. The spate of transfers has left John Beilein with a short and inexperienced bench; on Sunday, only seven players saw meaningful minutes. The good news? One of those players, forward D.J. Wilson, looked like a breakout star. After barely seeing the floor last season, the springy sophomore scored seven points and ripped down 14 rebounds in a career-high 30 minutes against the Jaguars, providing a much needed spark off the bench. Read the rest of this entry »

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Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2016

With the final member of the Fresh Five, Caris Levert, now gone from Ann Arbor, the burden shifts to seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to lead the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. Since the 2012-13 season, there has been at least one Fresh Five player ready to position Michigan as a Big Ten contender. Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht sparked a run to the National Title game in 2013 before handing the baton to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who then left the program for Levert the last two seasons. Irvin and Walton were supposed to be next in line to support his charge but their performances, regardless of Levert’s injuries, haven’t lived up to expectations. A mediocre 16-16 season was followed by a decent 23-13 campaign last year, but the Wolverines haven’t been in serious contention among the Big Ten elite since 2014. As Irvin and Walton enter their senior campaigns, the overriding question is whether the duo can lead Michigan back to prominence.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to bring Michigan back into the Big Ten Elite.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to push Michigan back into the Big Ten elite. (AP)

While Irvin’s strength is in his long-range jumper, he shot a terrible 29 percent from beyond the arc last year. Despite his quick release off the dribble, Big Ten opponents have figured out that he regularly looks to go right for a pull-up at the top of the key. His other primary scoring option is to run pick-and-roll action with Walton for a corner three off the pick-and-roll. Two years ago, Levert’s dribble-drive penetration freed Irvin in the corners but Walton hasn’t been as successful in creating those same opportunities. As a result, Irvin experienced a big dip in offensive production — from 14.8 PPG during his sophomore season to 11.3 PPG last year. Unless Irvin has spent the summer really improving his game off the dribble, he could continue to struggle in finding his spots on that end of the floor. Unlike Burke, who had the gifted offensive services of Mitch McGary and Robinson available, Walton has not had an effective pick-and-roll partner over the last two seasons. Sure, Mark Donnal can set good picks but he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to make a play when the ball comes his way. Duncan Robinson simply hasn’t proven that he is strong enough to execute the pick-and-roll either. Defenders tend to therefore stick with Walton, which is a good strategic bet.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Levy’s B1G Layup Line: Week 6

Posted by Adam Levy on December 25th, 2015

Christmas is here, and I’m ecstatic to provide you the ever-popular gift of reading material in the form of the Week 6 Layup Line! It was an excellent week of college hoops with only four Big Ten teams recording a loss, thus (almost) concluding the non-conference slate. Next time you visit, conference play will have begun, and we’ll all be better for it. CAN’T WAIT.

Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals… and a Happy Layup Line!

REPORT CARD

A: Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State Undressed Kentucky Last Saturday (USA Today Images)

Ohio State Undressed Kentucky Last Saturday (USA Today Images)

After getting blasted on the report card multiple times this season, Thad Matta decided he’d had enough and whipped his students into shape. The result? A convincing win over fourth-ranked Kentucky in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon that featured everyone in the rotation scoring between six and 14 points. In a two-week span, Ohio State has jumped from 78th to 29th in defensive efficiency, thanks in part to its two shot-blocking machines, Trevor Thompson and Daniel Giddens. At least one of those two rim protectors have been on the court for 97.2% of the past five games. Opponents are beginning to be cautious as they work to get shots off inside the perimeter, as evidenced by Ohio State’s 40.6% opponent two-point field goal percentage (17th in country). What seemed like a lost cause for the first month of the season is now a borderline defensive juggernaut as it heads into conference play next Wednesday. This young Buckeyes team still has a lot of work to do, but beating Kentucky is a huge step in the right direction.

B: Indiana Hoosiers

It’s bizarro week this week, as another team that has gotten blasted in this space multiple times this season has finally earned itself some praise. Indiana was as desperate as any team, in the Big Ten or elsewhere, for a quality non-conference win, and Notre Dame was its only hope of getting one. By now, everyone is familiar with the Hoosiers’ defensive woes, but throughout the final 15 minutes, Indiana looked like Syracuse South as Tom Crean employed a shockingly stingy 2-3 zone that took Notre Dame out of its offensive rhythm. The Irish managed to score on only five of 16 possessions against the zone – good for a measly 10 points.

For the first time since the Victor Oladipo days, Indiana’s defense actually fueled its offense, pushing the Hoosiers over the hump in the gutsy 16-point comeback victory. Troy Williams, who has struggled with decision-making all season (four+ turnovers in seven games; 17 turnovers committed in past four games), actually played fantastic down the stretch. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. Whether a Tom Crean-coached team can take this kind of momentum — and defense — into Big Ten play remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting that this was the biggest win for the Hoosiers since their beat down of Maryland last January.

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Levy’s B1G Layup Line: Week 5

Posted by Adam Levy on December 18th, 2015

Finals week is the absolute worst. You’re stuck at the library through the wee hours of the morning, cramming information that you may or may not have ever seen before into your brain and trying to memorize it for 24 to 48 hours (what, you didn’t study like that?). On top of that, there is legitimately no watchable college basketball throughout the week, which is actually way worse for people like myself who aren’t in college anymore. Only five Big Ten teams played a game this week, and the rest of them have not played since last weekend. It was a super boring week for almost all college basketball fans, and the Big Ten was no different. The Layup Line is back but on a small diet for week five due to all the inactivity around the nation; it promises to eat and drink its way through Christmas Eve next week and come back strong.

REPORT CARD

A: Northwestern Wildcats

Chris Collins and Northwestern had a good week. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Chris Collins and Northwestern had a good week. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

 

Sure, Northwestern annihilated two of the 12 worst teams in the country (actually) this week, but they looked damn good doing it and earned themselves a promotion to the no. 45 ranking in the Bilas Index. Many pundits (like myself) were high on Northwestern heading into the season but low on them when Vic Law was lost for the season. They have yet to beat a ranked team, and their strength of schedule to date is incredibly weak (338th nationally), but wins are wins. They’ve proven they have the experience and balance to win games they should (see Virginia Tech and Missouri) as well as stay competitive in games they probably shouldn’t (see North Carolina). In what looks to be a fairly weak Big Ten this year, the Wildcats could have some prime opportunities to do something special.

B: Malcolm Hill

Much like most of the Big Ten teams, Ilinois only played one game this week against dreadful Illinois-Chicago and only won by four. Take Malcolm Hill out of the equation and they’d likely have lost this game, the Yale game and the Chicago State game. The junior’s length and athleticism make him a mismatch for a lot of opposing guards, and the play of him and Kendrick Nunn have impressively kept this team floating just above water. Hill can certainly stand to improve his shot, but the “underrated-ness” of his all-around game cannot go unstated. He’s third in the Big Ten in points (17.1) and free throw attempts (65), sixth in steals (1.45) and 12th in assists (3.9). Here’s to hoping Hill can help the Illini win their last two games of the non-conference season (South Dakota and Missouri) so they can enter conference play on a hot five-game win streak.

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RTC Big Ten Preview: The Top Tier (#7 – #1)

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 11th, 2015

We continue our Big Ten microsite predictions and superlatives with the second half of our preseason standings. We presented our preseason standings with teams #14 – #8 on the microsite yesterday; today, we unveil the top half. These are the teams that we as a group believe will finish near or atop the league when all the dust settles and will result in the likely conference representatives in the NCAA Tournament.  Enjoy!

It's Jarrod Uthoff's turn to lead the Hawkeyes to another NCAA Tournament.

It’s Jarrod Uthoff’s turn to lead the Hawkeyes to another NCAA Tournament.

  • 7. Iowa: With Aaron White now graduated, all eyes turn to senior Jarrod Uthoff to take the baton and lead the Hawkeyes to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament— something this program hasn’t accomplished since the early 1990s. With players like Adam Woodbury, Peter Jok and an experienced backcourt to work with, Uthoff will have a supporting cast with enough talent to get it done.
  • 6. Michigan: The Wolverines are a talent-laden team with a number of players similar to Caris LeVert who fit perfectly into John Beilein’s prolific three-point offense. Both he and Derrick Walton were sidelined with injuries for the majority of last season, which gave the rest of the young roster experience to draw from this year. Now fully healthy, Michigan is set up for a comeback campaign pushing toward the top of the Big Ten.

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