The decision by Illinois to fire Bruce Weber (his press conference reaction here) was probably the most speculated on move this season, but when the school did so it was met with swift reaction. The most notable was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo who said that he and his wife shed tears over the firing although we aren’t clear if they were actual or symbolic tears. The firing was also probably the most significant so far this season as it opens up one of the premier jobs in the country, which could lead to a cascade of movement on the annual coaching carousal.
After putting up with three seasons of relatively futility this was supposed to be a glorious March for Verdell Jones, but those dreams came to a crashing halt as he tore his right ACL during Indiana‘s win over Penn State. The loss of Jones, who finishes his career at #23 on the all-time scoring list at the school, appears to have hit the Hoosiers hard and will make their path through the South Region even more difficult. The Hoosiers have the talent to cover up for Jones over brief periods of time, but the experience he gained from his 103 starts will be hard to recreate late in games.
Over the next three weeks you are going to be seeing plenty of video of Christian Laettner, but the one thing you would see or hear mentioned much is that the Duke great will appear in court this week along with his former teammate Brian Davis in the ongoing case regarding loans they took out on real estate investments. Looking through some of the names involved in this case (including Johnny Dawkins) this could turn into a college basketball media circus as more details come out.
While Weber garnered the majority of the headlines over the weekend, two more coaches were fired over the weekend. At Nebraska, Doc Sadler was fired after going 12-18 this season leading Tom Osbourne, the school’s athletic director, to decide to move in a new direction. Meanwhile, Tulsafired Doug Wojcik, who was the school’s all-time leader in wins, citing a 35% decline in season ticket sales among the reasons. To us, the biggest reason for his firing and the one that probably most directly impacted season ticket sales was the lack of a NCAA Tournament appearance in seven seasons despite a 139-89 record including two 25-win seasons.
We tried to keep the selection of NCAA Tournament teams out of this Morning Five, but Miami and Durand Scott would not let us. Late on Friday, the school announced that the NCAA had declared Durand ineligible for taking impermissible benefits. The time of the suspension, the third for the Hurricanes this season (all for different players), could not have come at a worse time for the team as they were just about to play a game against Florida State, which they lost. Although we cannot definitely say that they would have made the NCAA Tournament had they won that game, they were one of the first four teams left out and a win over a team that would have been a #5 seed at worst probably would have put them over the top. Instead, they are let with nobody to blame, but themselves (and possibly their former head coach).
The Bruce Weber era at Illinois is over. So what comes next for the Fighting Illini? As Loren Tate points out, In a lot of ways this group is in trouble next year. Everything from a depleted up-and-coming junior class to this group’s 3-point shooting talent leaves a lot of doubt for the 2012-13 season. The job should draw the attention of some high-profile names, but the new head coach will have a tough hill to climb.
Speaking of Weber’s fate, there’s one big-name coach in the conference who isn’t pleased about how it all went down. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo held nothing back when voicing his displeasure about Weber’s firing after the Spartans’ win over Iowa on Saturday. “My wife and I shed a tear this morning over it,” Izzo said. “And it was half for Bruce and half for my profession.”
Bruce Weber was not the conference’s only casualty on this Black Friday. Nebraska‘s Doc Sadler was fired on Friday, after Nebraska finished tied with Penn State for last place in the conference this year. It was the Cornhusker’s debut season in the Big Ten, but athletic director Tom Osborne made it clear he wants to see the program head in a different direction.
One positive that really emerged at the end of Iowa‘s season was the strong play of senior Matt Gatens, whose career came to an end on Friday in Indianapolis. Gatens scored just 10 points in the game, after being bothered by the Spartans’ defense throughout and not taking his first shot until 10 minutes and 37 seconds were left in the first half. He finishes sixth all-time on Iowa’s scoring list with 1,621 points after averaging 15.7 PPG this year.
If you’re drawing up a game plan to beat Wisconsin, how much energy would you typically pour into defending Rob Wilson? From this point forward, probably a little bit more than before. The senior, who averaged 3.1 points per game entering Friday’s quarterfinal, dropped a cool 30 against Indiana to power the Badgers to the semifinals. “Needless to say we had a player who was in a zone,” said coach Bo Ryan. Ya think?
Here’s a breakdown on how things went down in the Big Ten tournament’s first day of action:
Matt Gatens led Iowa to a big win over Illinois (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)
Iowa 64 – Illinois 61
The skinny: It’s been a tough season for Illini fans, and now (some would say thankfully) it is over. Myers Leonard was a force down low for Illinois, scoring 18 points and grabbing six boards, but Brandon Paul struggled his way to four points on 2-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Matt Gatens continued his solid senior season with 20 points to lead the Hawkeyes, but it was his defense on Paul that really was the difference in this contest for Iowa. Head coach Fran McCaffery complained earlier this week about Gatens not being included on the all-Big Ten defensive team, and the senior looked every bit an elite-level stopper in this match-up. All-Big Ten freshman Aaron White had 13 points and 9 rebounds including a key offensive board with about 40 seconds left after a missed free throw by Roy Devyn Marble that helped seal the game for Iowa.
Up next: The #8-seed Hawkeyes will face #1-seed Michigan State at noon today. Iowa only played the Spartans once this season, falling 95-61 in a game at East Lansing on January 10.
To win on the road in the Big Ten, someone is going to have to give a special performance. That’s exactly what Purdue got from sophomore Terone Johnson as the Boilermakers handed Michigan their first home loss of the season. Johnson dropped a career-high 22 points on the Wolverines, and was supported by Robbie Hummel and his 17 points. The Boilermakers have now won four out of their last five, and at 19-10, have probably wrapped up their case for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State hit plenty of milestones in its win Saturday over Nebraska. The Spartans are now guaranteed at least a share of the Big Ten crown after Michigan and Ohio State’s losses. Draymond Green also became only the third player in MSU history to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, joining Jumping Johnny Green and Greg Kelser. Besides those accomplishments, the Spartan defense was the star of the game as it held the Cornhuskers to only 34 total points. It was the fewest amount a Tom Izzo team had allowed since a win over Brown in 2006-07.
Once again it is Bubble Watch time in Evanston, and Northwestern had its fans biting their nails in a 67-66 win over Penn State. John Shurna was sent to the line, and calmly knocked down two free throws to give the Wildcats an enormous win in that a loss could have been a death blow to their tournament chances. Now Northwestern embarks on a tough two-game stretch (vs. Ohio State, @ Iowa) to finish out the year and will hopefully do enough to make its first NCAA Tournament in program history. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Northwestern “in” the tournament, but the hopes of the Wildcats and their fans rest on their performance in those final two games.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Just a couple of weeks ago, Ohio State was the toast of the Big Ten and many pundits were asking “who can beat the Buckeyes?” Michigan State answered that question in Columbus, then Michigan did it in Ann Arbor, and now Wisconsin has stolen a 63-60 victory in Value City Arena. Instead of worrying about a conference championship, now OSU has to be concerned about their seeding in the Big Ten Tournament and where they may end up in the NCAA Tournament as well. All is not well for the scarlet and gray as they try to right their ship before postseason play begins.
And Bruce Weber thought HE had it bad. Frustrated Nebraska basketball booster Neal Hawks decided to vent his grievances regarding the program in a full-page advertisement in The World Herald sports section. He also took some time to support beleaguered head coach Doc Sadler. It hasn’t been a very fun season for Husker fans, but plenty of things need to be addressed before the program can move forward. Remedies such as spending more money and finding more support for the program from the fan base have been suggested. There is simply no easy transition when you enter one of (if not the) toughest conferences in college basketball.
For Nebraska, their first foray into Big Ten league play has been a tough one. The Huskers have a 3-9 league record after getting thumped at home by Michigan 62-46 Wednesday night. There is no doubt that the rigors of the Big Ten are much tougher than the Big 12, and Nebraska may be feeling the grind. The team will have to win 6 of their last 7 games to break even in the league, and the lack of success thus far has to be weighing on sixth year head coach Doc Sadler.
It was a good way to begin the week for Northwestern freshman guard Dave Sobolewski, as he picked up co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Sobolewski shared the award with Iowa forward Aaron White, and last night the two clashed on the court as the Wildcats and Hawkeyes did battle. While White had a great effort with 17 points and 12 boards, Sobolewski won the battle and the war as he scored a career-high 23 points and dished 7 assists in an 83-64 Northwestern win. The performance was no surprise for the young player who has been playing big minutes for Bill Carmody.
This season has been a roller-coaster of sorts for Illinois and head coach Bruce Weber. They have upset Ohio State and Michigan State, but have also lost at home to some teams they are expected to beat. Illini fans demand a winner, and while the program can boast plenty of successes, since former guard Dee Brown graduated, Illinois is now 49-50 in Big Ten play after last night’s 84-71 loss to Indiana. While there is no simple way to fix things, there is no doubt that expectations remain high for the program.
There are plenty of issues that coaches face every week in the Big Ten, but one that continues to puzzle everyone is how to matchup with Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger. He is a beast down low, so don’t try to put a smaller defender on him. But you can’t guard him with a 7-foot statue either, because Sullinger has great feet and plenty of post moves. Collapse the defense around him and he’ll beat you with his passing. Send him to the line, and he hits 76% of his free throws. You understand the dilemma.
Speaking of Sullinger, he grew up with and was a high school teammate of Michigan freshman point guard Trey Burke. In fact, Burke was coached by Jared’s father Satch Sullinger. The two have a special relationship, and it has been given an interesting twist as Sullinger and Burke now are on opposite sides of the bitter Ohio State – Michigan rivalry. They still remain friends off the court, but on it, there’s no chance they will take it easy on each other.
It’s not been an easy go of it at Michigan State for senior guard Brandon Wood, who is in his first season under Tom Izzo after transferring from Valparaiso. Wood has had ups and downs on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, but responded well to coming off the bench in the Spartans’ 64-54 win against rival Michigan on Sunday. It wasn’t until after his nine-point, four-rebound, four-assist afternoon that it was discovered that Wood had been dealing with hardship off the floor, as his stepbrother, 23-year-old Taurean Jones, was shot in the head during an altercation on January 29. Wood said Jones was lifelined to an Indianapolis hospital, where he remains in an induced coma. “I just knew I had to stay tough for him and focus on the task at hand,” Wood told reporters. His coach noticed some positives this weekend as well. “Give him credit,” Izzo said of Wood, but not in reference to the shooting incident. “I think the kid grew up a little today. I’m happy for him. It’s going to make us a better team. It’s going to make him a better guy.”
After the tremendous and somewhat surprising start Indiana got off to this season, defying many folks’ expectations for the young Hoosiers, it’s been easy to lose sight of what a success the year has been. Indiana has lost five of its last eight games, but secured a major road win this weekend against rival Purdue. All that said, as the Indiana Daily Student‘s Avi Zaleon points out, it’s important for Hoosier fans not to forget where this team was expected to be this year and that it can still very easily be considered a success. The Hoosiers have a great shot at an NCAA Tournament berth in a season, as Zaleon says, that was supposed to be the prologue of the rebirth — not the first chapter.
Jordan Taylor‘s shooting numbers are down from a year ago. But, Bo Ryan told reporters on Monday that one of the most important thing Ryan looks for in his players has not changed for Taylor: his eyes. “Every day we come to practice I always check the eyes of my players,” Ryan said. “I will check the eyes of my players and facial expressions and demeanor when they walk on the court and file it away. Jordan has never changed. I haven’t seen anything different in him.” Taylor’s three-point shooting percentage is down to 31.5% from 42.9% since last season and to 39.1% from 43.3% overall. His scoring is also down from 18.1 points to 14.0 points, but Taylor has helped keep Wisconsin in contention for the Big Ten title.
Minnesota is in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings with a 3.5-game deficit behind first place Ohio State. But destiny is in the Golden Gophers’ hands, writes Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It won’t be easy for Minnesota to finish 4-3 the rest of the way to land at 9-9 in the conference, but doing so would mean knocking off some big-time opponents along the way. Four of the Gophers’ last seven games come against Wisconsin (twice), Michigan State and Ohio State, which hold the conference’s top three spots in the standings. Wins against those clubs would improve Minnesota’s record, but also their standing in the eye of the NCAA Tournament selection committee with an accompanying boost in strength of schedule.
Nebraska center Jorge Brian Diaz has been troubled by foot and knee pain since last season, but coach Doc Sadler was still hoping he’d be able to get double-digit minutes out of Diaz this season. Now, the Lincoln Journal Star reports, he may not get any minutes at all. The injury has become so troubling that the Cornhuskers may lose Diaz for the season. “Ya’ll see him. He can’t play. He can’t walk,” Sadler said after Nebraska’s 69-61 loss to Minnesota. “You can’t compete at this level with your feet killing you.” Diaz missed the final two games of the non-conference schedule and the first three of Big Ten play before sitting out the Minnesota game this weekend.
Both Purdue and Michigan have been trying some lineup experiments over the last few days, and one team is seeing immediate benefits while the other may still be trying to work out the kinks. The Wolverines are now 3-2 with senior guard Stu Douglass in the starting lineup after beating Indiana on Wednesday night, and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz starting on the bench. Purdue, meanwhile, is a perfect 1-0 with a smaller lineup that features basically Robbie Hummel and four guards. The new-look Boilermakers will surely be tested this weekend against Indiana’s Cody Zeller down low.
Jordan Taylor receives a bulk of the credit when it comes to Wisconsin‘s backcourt — and rightfully so — but Taylor knows fully well that he wouldn’t have his level of success without a lesser-known Badger: George Marshall. The freshman, a redshirt this season, has been instrumental on the scout team, writes Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal, particularly in imitating opposing teams’ best backcourt player. This week, that meant Penn State’s Tim Frazier. Marshall must have done his job well, as the Badgers rattled off their sixth straight win with a victory against the Nittany Lions.
Nebraska coach Doc Sadler has a simple explanation for why his club’s free throw percentage is at 75%, considerably higher than the average of 69.1% in his first five seasons. “The right guys are getting fouled, I guess,” he told the Omaha World-Herald. Nebraska leads the conference in free throw shooting and is 21st in the country in that statistic. The Huskers only have three Big Ten wins to their credit, but if they keep up that performance from the charity stripe, it could help account for a few more.
Michigan State fans are surely thrilled with the news that senior Draymond Green‘s knee injury does not appear to be serious and that he could practice this week before a big Sunday showdown against Michigan. Green tweaked his left knee in the final minutes of Tuesday night’s loss to Illinois and did not return to the game. The versatile forward is averaging 14.9 points, 10.3 rebounds (tops in the conference), 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game this season for the Spartans.
Minnesota, which is capitalizing on every spark it can find as the Golden Gophers try to bounce back from a discouraging Big Ten start, is relying heavily on the burst of Chip Armelin. “He’s one of our worst three-point shooters, but now since we’ve been playing in the Big Ten he’s been one of our better three-point shooters and he’s got a lot of confidence,” coach Tubby Smith said of the sophomore, who had six points and four rebounds Wednesday against Iowa.
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, PR, various city river walks, and life.
The Week That Was
Tom Izzo is a Big Ten Legend: The emotional Michigan native won his 400th career game this week when Tom Izzo guided the Spartans to a comfortable 68-52 home win over Minnesota. No matter who leaves, the guy simply gets the most out of his teams year in and year out by emphasizing selflessness, defense, rebounding and toughness. There’s a reason that Michigan State always seems to be playing its best ball by the time March rolls around.
Up Comes Frazier!: Raise your hand at home if you had Penn State’s Tim Frazier as a likely first-team All-Big Ten candidate in February. If you did, you are a basketball savant and should be writing this column [Ed. Note: Or you are a Penn State homer.]. The 6’2” junior dominated against Penn State’s soft non-conference schedule, but hasn’t slowed down in Big Ten play. In league games, he is leading the conference in scoring (18.7 PPG), assists (5.3 APG), and steals (2.5. SPG). Admittedly, wins have been hard to come by for the Nittany Lions this season, but Frazier has been a bright spot in Happy Valley.
Welcome Back, Wisco: With Bo Ryan still at the helm, nobody thought Wisconsin would be down for long, and while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Badgers ran their current winning streak to five games after they downed Indiana at the Kohl Center this week. During this streak, they ground out tough road wins over Purdue and Illinois and claimed home victories over Nebraska, Northwestern and Indiana.
After a 3-2 start to conference play, Ohio State Has Won Its Last Four Games By A Combined 90 Points. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)
Ohio State (19-3, 7-2) – Value City Arena isn’t the first Big Ten gym to come to mind when you think of fearsome places to play in the conference, but teams that have entered “The Grey” recently haven’t had much success. The students are passionate and the place is big and cavernous, more of a professional arena than a cozy college gymnasium. There’s a reason why the Buckeyes have won 38 straight at VCA andare winning their home Big Ten games in the nation’s best conference (according to the RPI) by an average of 24 points.
Michigan State (17-4, 6-2) – Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Michigan State’s win over Minnesota was that it proved that point guard Keith Appling can go 1-8 from the field and score seven points … and the Spartans can still win by double digits. Freshman Branden Dawson continues to show flashes of brilliance, as he stepped up to score 16 points in Appling’s stead. Someone needs to provide a second scoring option to Draymond Green and if it can’t be Applingthat day, it falls to Dawson or Valpo transfer Brandon Wood. Read the rest of this entry »
Jack Campbell is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten You can also find his musings online at CBBJack or on Twitter @CBBJack.
Reader’s Take – How Many Big Ten teams will make the NCAA tournament?
The Week That Was
This is the first Conference Check-In for the 2011-2012 season, so this is less a review of the past week than it is a review of the season to date. It is far too early to be passing judgment on surprise teams but there are three Big Ten teams who have impressed us enough in the first couple of weeks to warrant mention right away.
Indiana, Northwestern, and Nebraska were each picked by most to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten, but they produced some of the Big Ten’s most impressive wins this week. Indiana won a true road game at Evansville, a good MVC program, in dominant fashion. Nebraska, went on the road and beat USC in overtime before coming home and dominating a pretty good A-10 foe in Rhode Island. Finally, Northwesterntook out an SEC team in LSU and a Big East team in Seton Hall, along with one of the better C-USA programs in Tulsa on the way to winning the Charleston Classic.
These three teams have started the season in fine fashion and they are worthy of our attention.
Michigan State's Loss To The Tar Heels Is Unforgettable For Its Setting, But Tom Izzo Hopes The Schedule Strength Will Pay Dividends Down The Road.
Ohio State(3-0)Thad Matta’s Buckeyes looked good against a Florida Gators team that some believe is a contender for the national title. One of the interesting things to watch in Columbus is to see if Matta will look to play a big lineup using either Amir Williams or Evan Ravenal along with Jared Sullinger or if Matta will be content to surround the big man with wings and a PG again.
Wisconsin(3-0) Wisconsin is thoroughly dominating overmatched competition from an efficiency standpoint. It is early, but this Wisconsin team looks poised to live up to its preseason ranking and more. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Two games from the ESPN marathon highlight tonight’s slate but don’t sleep on a potential upset special in South Bend and a power conference battle in LA.
Detroit @ Notre Dame – 9:00 PM EST on ESPNU (***) (cross-posted on RTC Live)
Eric Atkins Looked Great in ND's First Game This Year
Point guard Eric Atkins carried the Fighting Irish to victory in their first game this season, one of four (including tonight) without senior forward Tim Abromaitis, currently sitting out due to a suspension. The sophomore Atkins poured in 27 points on 6-7 FG (along with six assists) in a win over Mississippi Valley State on Saturday. Against star Detroit point guard Ray McCallum, Atkins will have to protect the ball and run the offense effectively against a hungry Titans squad looking to upset a Big East squad on its home floor. As a result, Atkins’ scoring opportunities may be reduced. Without Abromaitis, Notre Dame is very thin and must turn to Scott Martin for a big offensive output. If Martin or Atkins is held in check, the Irish could be looking at their first loss in only their second game of the season.
Detroit’s offense is loaded with scoring threats from McCallum to Chase Simon and Nick Minnerath, among others. While McCallum deservedly gets most of the press, Minnerath and his front court teammate, LaMarcus Lowe, could be the difference in this game. Notre Dame has a collection of 6’5” and 6’6” type guys on its roster with only Jack Cooley and Mike Broghammer providing any kind of bulk in the paint. The Titans have a chance to really take advantage of the mismatch in the lane and offset any advantages Notre Dame may have elsewhere. Detroit and Notre Dame play at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of pace. Expect the Titans to push the pace all night, attacking Atkins defensively in search of turnovers and easy basket opportunities in the open floor. With McCallum’s play-making ability and Atkins coming off a four turnover game, this matchup sets up well for Detroit.
Will Mike Brey counter with the burn offense? It’s possible but Brey trusted Ben Hansbrough to run that for all 40 minutes last season. He’s no longer around so we doubt Brey will use it all game with a sophomore point guard. You may see it at times, especially if Detroit picks up a lot of easy buckets early, but the Irish just need to execute their normal half court offense and avoid turnovers. Pace, rebounding and defense will be what to watch for in this game. Cooley had ten rebounds last time out and a repeat performance may be needed for the Irish to avoid a loss. Neither team has a reputation for defending well so this could be a high scoring game. With Abromaitis out, Detroit may actually have more weapons to turn to offensively. The Titans have a terrific chance to win this game on the road.
Nebraska @ USC – 10:30 PM EST on Prime Ticket (**)
USC returns only one starter from last year’s team, Maurice Jones. At 5’7”, Jones has trouble getting his shot off and it showed against Cal State Northridge on Friday, going 0-7 (a major part of USC’s 0-15) from deep. It won’t get easier against Doc Sadler’s defense. USC is going to have to score points inside to win this game. Dewayne Dedmon and Aaron Fuller can do that but the Cornhuskers ranked #6 in two point defense last season. Kevin O’Neill also has to find some way for his team to rebound since Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson are no longer in LA. Nebraska outrebounded South Dakota 42-24 in its Friday victory.