The Big Ten’s Biggest Early Surprises

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 19th, 2018

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

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

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

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

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Big Ten Christmas Wish List: Buckets, Defense & a Little Good Fortune

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 21st, 2017

As Santa’s elves wrap presents and non-conference play comes to an end, let’s examine which Big Ten hopefuls could use a little magic from the jolly man in the big red suit.

The defensively-stout Scarlet Knights need guys like Geo Baker to make more shots. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Rutgers (10-3): All I want for Christmas is… a shooter (or two). The Scarlet Knights picked up their biggest win in years on Saturday, upsetting intrastate rival Seton Hall, 71-65, at the RAC. Steve Pikiell called it “a very good day for Rutgers Nation” as his team held the Pirates to just 0.89 points per possession, their worst offensive performance of the year. Now if only Pikeill’s group could put the ball in the basket. While the Scarlet Knights rank 27th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, their offense is by far the Big Ten’s worst, ranking 219th in efficiency despite a low turnover rate. The problem? Shooting, plain and simple. Rutgers ranks 334th in effective field goal percentage (44% eFG), including paltry numbers from outside the arc (29.4% 3FG), inside the arc (44% 2FG), and at the free throw line (65% FT). More than anything else this holiday season, Pikiell could use some consistent shooting, whether it be from top-scorer Corey Sanders — who shot a very good 9-of-16 FG against Seton Hall — or fellow guard Geo Baker, who’s quietly been one of the league’s best freshmen. If the Scarlet Knights can improve those shooting numbers, their days in the Big Ten cellar might soon be over. Especially considering their stout defense. 

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

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2017

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

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

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

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Rushed Reactions: #22 Baylor 70, Wisconsin 65

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage of The Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Three Key Takeaways.

Baylor Was Just Too Much For Wisconsin Tonight (USA Today Images)

  1. Baylor survived a scare. Baylor asserted its experience, athleticism and range in the early going over Wisconsin tonight, leading by as many as 19 points before letting up in the second half and allowing the Badgers’ Ethan HappBrad Davison and Brevin Pritzl to get loose. While the Bears ultimately prevailed and will advance to the Hall of Fame Classic championship game, it felt more like Wisconsin simply ran out of time in its comeback attempt. Baylor is a highly formidable team and is fortunate to have one of the country’s best free throw shooters in Manu Lecomte (93.9% this season) to put close games on ice the way he did Monday night, but the Bears might not be so lucky the next time they take their foot off the gas.
  2. Wisconsin had the right game plan, but a lack of early execution early did them in. Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard had the right idea in how to attack Baylor’s aggressive 1-3-1 zone, running side pick-and-roll actions to open up backdoor passing lanes and baseline drives. The problem was that the Badgers couldn’t get a number of close looks to go down early. As Baylor built up its lead, the Badgers fell out of sorts and started to panic. Wisconsin certainly didn’t give up after a difficult start, though, narrowing that 19-point gap to just two in the final two minutes, but its early mistakes were just too much to overcome. Still, as the new core develops and Gard learns who he can trust, it became increasingly clear that Wisconsin will return to Big Ten contention before long.
  3. Jo Lual-Acuil flashed some seldom-seen range. To this point in his career, the Australian senior’s game has been all about defense and low post play. But tonight, Lual-Acuil nailed a couple threes and showed a comfort level with the shot that you don’t often see from a seven-footer. He’ll never be mistaken for a sharpshooter, but he’ll certainly be an increasingly frustrating big man to guard if he continues to show a serviceable face-up game.

Player Of The Game. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin. Though his team came up short tonight, Happ led by example, pacing his team in points (23), rebounds (13), assists (4) and blocks (3). The junior All-America candidate utilized an impressive array of back cuts and post moves in frustrating Baylor’s more athletic frontcourt, almost single-handedly willing the Badgers back into the contest.

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Introducing the RTC Preseason All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on November 8th, 2017

With the season tipping off on Friday, there’s no better time to roll out our 2017-18 RTC Preseason All-America Teams. More than anything, these three groups of outstanding players are here to foster and encourage discussion over the next four months. Our crack panel of 10 writers provided their ballots over the last week and this is where we ended up.

First Team All-Americans

  • Jalen Brunson, Villanova – There are few things more daunting in college basketball than a talented team with a heady, veteran playmaker at the point guard position. Brunson certainly fits that bill, as he enters the season with great expectations following a sophomore campaign where the point guard earned unanimous all-Big East honors while averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game. Villanova is the preseason favorite to win the Big East title — and if that prediction comes true, it will be Brunson’s third in three years running the show for Jay Wright’s squad. Factoid: Many players with Brunson’s pedigree would at least test the NBA Draft waters either after their freshman or sophomore seasons, but Brunson is different, stating, “The NBA is not going anywhere. I can wait. I can still get better. I can still get my degree. That’s the approach I had. I talked it over with my parents, and they’re just 100 percent fully supporting me. So that’s where I am.”
  • Allonzo Trier, Arizona – Arizona experienced some offcourt drama late in the offseason when longtime assistant Book Richardson was arrested by the FBI on charges of bribery, corruption, conspiracy, and fraud stemming from improper conduct on the recruiting trail. That news figures to overshadow much of Arizona’s early season — which is a real shame, as the Wildcats are projected to be among the nation’s best teams. A major reason for that is the return of Trier for his junior year. The talented wing returned from a 19-game performance enhancing drug suspension during his sophomore season to lead the Wildcats to the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles. Many were surprised when Trier opted to return to Tucson in lieu of entering the NBA Draft, but he has acknowledged that last season’s suspension definitely factored in his decision to come back to school. Factoid: Trier was the subject of a New York Times Magazine feature when he was in sixth grade that highlighted his precocious basketball ability at a young age with an introduction to the AAU scene.
  • Michael Porter Jr., Missouri – A coaching change can often make a massive difference in a program’s fortunes. That was definitely the case with Missouri when the Tigers fired Kim Anderson in March after an underwhelming tenure and replaced him with Cal’s Cuonzo Martin, a coach who has long enjoyed a sterling reputation for his ability to recruit at a high level. Martin hiring paid off almost immediately when he secured the services of Porter, who was listed by 247Sports as the third-best player in the Class of 2017. The 6’10” forward will provide Missouri with scoring on the wing and has the versatility to defend a variety of positions. The Tigers are projected as one of the most improved teams in the country — and with Porter now in the fold, it will be intriguing to see just how far they can advance in the postseason. Factoid: It is a family affair for the Porters in Columbia this year, as Michael Porter, Sr. is an assistant coach, Jontay Porter reclassified to play with his brother, sisters Bri and Cierra Porter play for the women’s team, and aunt Robin Pingeton is the head coach of that women’s team.
  • Miles Bridges, Michigan State – Michigan State was the recipient of one of the best offseason surprises when the sure-fire lottery pick Bridges decided to return to East Lansing for his sophomore year. Once the national shock of the decision wore off, it became clear the Spartans would be one of the teams to beat in college basketball this season. Bridges will look to build on a terrific freshman year where he averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. With a strong supporting cast in tow and uncertainty with many teams in the Big Ten, the star sophomore should lead the Spartans to a prosperous season on both the conference and national landscapes. Factoid: Like most of us, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo assumed Bridges would be a one-and-done player, going so far as to joke about how Bridges will have to carry bags this year as an NBA rookie. In response, Bridges may have hinted at his ultimate decision by questioning, “Coach, why you always trying to get rid of me?”
  • Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame – It is not a stretch for anyone to reference Colson as the most unique player in college basketball. After a turn as a significant role player on Notre Dame’s Elite Eight teams in 2015 and 2016, Colson became The Man in South Bend during his junior season. Standing at just 6’6″, Colson was the only ACC player last year to average a double-double — 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Notre Dame currently finds itself in one of the most successful stretches the program has ever had, and with the talented and experienced Colson as its go-to guy, look for the Irish to continue that run this season. Factoid: Throughout Colson’s career, he has stayed true to two beliefs: play hungry and stay humble. The ACC Preseason Player of the Year vows that will not change as he enters his senior season as one of the country’s top players.

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Big Ten Preview Part V: Key Questions For Wisconsin & Michigan

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 6th, 2017

With the season just a few days away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Wisconsin and Michigan.

#6 Wisconsin – Just how much can Ethan Happ do?

In 2017-18, the Badgers will go as far as Ethan Happ takes them. (Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Ethan Happ was Wisconsin’s best player last season and there’s not much argument otherwise. Despite playing just 27.8 minutes per game — fourth-most among the Badgers’ starters — the forward led his team in rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, all while scoring at a coolly efficient clip (58.6% FG). According to KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, in fact, Happ was the eighth-best player in the entire country a season ago. But he also had help in the form of four seniors — Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG), Nigel Hayes (14.0 PPG), Zak Showalter (8.3 PPG), and Vitto Brown (6.8 PPG) — whose years of experience in the Wisconsin system helped the big man flourish. With that group no longer around, Happ must carry an even bigger load this season. And he might well have the tools to do it. An excellent passer out of the post, Happ used 28.4 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions while he was on the floor (ranking in the top 100 nationally) while posting a 23.3 percent assist rate, among the highest in college basketball by players standing 6’10” or taller. Which is to say, Wisconsin often ran its offense through Happ, and — whether by scoring or passing — he generally made good things happen. With sophomore D’Mitrik Trice taking over the Badgers’ point guard duties and not much backcourt depth to speak of, Happ’s ability to distribute good looks from the blocks will be more than just an added benefit this season; it will be crucial to the team’s success. What’s more, the crafty post scorer reportedly worked on adding a mid- and long-range jumper to his offensive skill set over the summer. For a highly efficient scorer who also dominates the glass on both ends, led the Big Ten in steal rate, and ranked among the top 10 nationally in block rate… that’s a scary notion. Wisconsin has not finished below fourth place in the Big Ten since 2001. If Happ can be Mr. Everything and his young supporting cast — including a talented group of incoming freshmen — can provide consistent offensive support, this preseason projection of sixth place will look quite foolish. Read the rest of this entry »

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2016-17 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on March 30th, 2017

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what will come during the upcoming season. There will always be several players who fall short of expectations and there will always be several relatively unknown types who will unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our outfit of seven RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-America teams in November; nobody could have guessed that only five of the 15 players chosen would live up to their hype; Villanova’s Josh Hart, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Iowa State’s Monte’ Morris, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, and Kansas’ Josh Jackson. Hart was the only player projected to be a first-teamer who ended up there. The 10 other players who did not make our postseason team are Duke’s Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum, California’s Ivan Rabb, Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, NC State’s Dennis Smith, Xavier’s Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett, and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo. All turned in varying degrees of productive seasons but were surpassed in achievements by the names that moved ahead of them on our list. Here are the 2016-17 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

  • Frank Mason, Senior, Kansas (consensus) (20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 49% FG, 47.1% 3FG). After being little more than a complementary contributor during his first three seasons in Lawrence, Mason wrapped up his collegiate career this season in spectacular fashion. What the point guard lack lacks in stature (he is listed at just 5’11”), he made up for it in big time performances. Kansas earned its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title and advanced to the Elite Eight this season, and neither of those would have been possible without Mason elevating his game to a superstar level. One of the coolest things about college basketball is when a relatively unheralded recruit develops into one of the country’s most accomplished players – and Mason certainly personified that in his senior season. Kansas fields a great team every year, but it is certain the Jayhawks will miss Mason’s services when they hit the hardwood again next fall.
  • Josh Hart, Senior, Villanova (consensus) (18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 51% FG, 40.4% 3FG). Hart starred on last season’s National Championship team, but he took his game to another level during his senior season. The Big East Player of the Year joined Villanova legend Kerry Kittles as the only players in program history to amass 1,800 points, 700 rebounds, 250 assists, and 150 steals. Villanova’s season ended with a surprising Second Round loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament, but that defeat should not cloud anyone’s perception of Hart’s season, as he was phenomenal from the opening tip of the first game to the final buzzer of the last one.
  • Lonzo Ball, Freshman, UCLA (consensus) (14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.0 RPG, 55.1% FG). Last year at this time, UCLA was coming off a very disappointing 15-17 season that suggested the 2016-17 campaign would be a make-or-break year for Steve Alford in Westwood. Luckily for the Bruins’ head coach, the arrival of Ball as the gem of a star-studded recruiting class aided significantly in morphing UCLA from a losing team to a Sweet Sixteen squad. A dynamic point guard known for his incredible court vision and ability to make his teammates better, Ball also helped had a knack for making key plays in big games – most notably in a December win at Kentucky and in a February home win over Oregon. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, they will not get to experience more of those star performances, as Ball quickly made his intention to enter the NBA Draft known following UCLA’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky.
  • Justin Jackson, Junior, North Carolina (18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG). Following North Carolina’s heartbreaking defeat to Villanova in last year’s title game, Jackson chose to test the NBA Draft waters before ultimately returning to Chapel Hill for his junior season. At the time, Jackson stated, “The best choice for my basketball future is to return to school and play for the Tar Heels next season.” His statement turned out to be prophetic, as he became North Carolina’s go-to guy on his way to leading the team in scoring and earning the ACC Player of the Year award. The Tar Heels are a balanced unit with talent littering the roster, but Jackson’s emergence to stardom is the most important reason why Roy Williams’ team has another chance to play for the title this weekend in Phoenix.
  • Caleb Swanigan, Sophomore, Purdue (18.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 52.7% FG, 44.7% 3FG). The sophomore big man was a double-double machine for the regular season Big Ten champion — finishing a stellar year with 28 double-doubles and having four games where he grabbed 20 or more rebounds. A big reason for Swanigan’s increased productivity in his sophomore campaign was improved conditioning, as his minutes per game rose from 25.7 to 32.5. He also added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal, improving his percentage in that are of the game to a robust 44.7 percent. As a result, the Boilermakers advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2010, and that charge was led by a monster season from the All-American.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 Florida 84, #8 Wisconsin 83 (OT)

Posted by Justin Kundrat on March 25th, 2017

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) is in New York City this weekend.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. In a battle first of defenses and then of hero ball, Florida was just a little bit better. The three-headed trio of KeVaughn AllenKasey Hill and Chris Chiozza flustered Wisconsin’s ball-handlers all night long, picking them up full court and playing with a hand in their jerseys on every screen. It forced the Badgers into an uncharacteristic funk, one in which they committed 16 turnovers and struggled to work their patented inside-out offense to its full effect. Wisconsin is usually a team that dictates its own pace on the offensive end, so being pushed into a higher tempo affair undoubtedly worked to Florida’s advantage. Nonetheless, Wisconsin down the stretch channeled its penchant for late game heroics yet again, overcoming a 10-point deficit that culminated with an acrobatic runner to tie the game… only to be topped with the answer of all answers in overtime. Sometimes, luck bests itself.
  2. Florida’s pick-and-roll offense dismantled Wisconsin’s defense. Simply put, Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter were not quick enough to stick with Florida’s guards off the screens, and Florida’s roll men are skilled at drawing fouls. Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown found themselves glued to the bench down the stretch with foul trouble, further exposing the Badgers inside. The Gators are highly efficient around the rim, converting on 65.3 percent of their shots, so it should come as no surprise that they were able to take advantage of the undermanned front line.
  3. He might be third on the team in scoring, but Wisconsin’s offense runs on Nigel Hayes. Florida’s first half run coincided with Hayes spending time on the bench in foul trouble. His eventual return quickly righted the ship and reignited the Badgers’ offense. The 6’8″ senior plays a “bully ball” type of offense in which he utilizes his physicality and speed to torture both big and small defenders. He posed an inherent mismatch for the Gators’ front line and capitalized on every opportunity, particularly in overtime, totaling 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. But to Wisconsin’s demise, his overtime efforts were ultimately undermined by missed free throws.

Star of the GameKeVaughn Allen, Florida. After a rugged start to the NCAA Tournament, the Gators’ leading scorer got back on track tonight. He picked apart the Badgers with a combination of steals, three-pointers and drives into the paint before finishing with 35 points on 11-of-24 shooting.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Wisconsin 84, #9 Virginia Tech 74

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2017

Wisconsin came out on top tonight in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair that saw the two teams combine for 20 made three-pointers.

Bronson Koenig had a huge night in Buffalo. (Photo: The Sports Post)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Bronson Koenig was awesome. Hampered by a lingering leg injury for much of February, Koenig seemed to be trending toward full health late in the season. His performance on Thursday night put any remaining doubts to rest — the senior point guard is back. Koenig scored 28 points on 8-of-17 shooting from behind the arc, including a 5-of-6 stretch from three-point range during the second half that enabled Wisconsin to maintain its slight advantage. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the night came near the eight-minute mark, when he knocked down a gutsy triple from several feet behind the arc, then stole the ball on the other end before drawing a foul. On a night where star forward Ethan Happ scored just 10 points, Koenig’s effort was essential. Whether he plays at a high level again on Saturday may determine if the Badgers will return to the Sweet Sixteen.
  2. Wisconsin is living and thriving from behind the arc. For the second time in three games, Wisconsin attempted more three-pointers (31) than two-pointers (30). The staggering ratio worked against Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals — Wisconsin hit 12 threes in that one — and carried the Badgers again on Thursday night (13-for-31 3FG). With players like Happ (13.9 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG) manning the interior, it’s not like Wisconsin can’t score inside effectively. For an offense that’s struggled to find its groove at times this year, though, perhaps the best tonic is simply the freedom to hoist from long range.
  3. Virginia Tech basketball is (and will remain) exciting under Buzz Williams. In just three short years, Buzz Williams has transformed a Virginia Tech offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in 2014 to one of the nation’s best this season. And it showed on Thursday night. The Hokies — a great three-point shooting team — carved up Wisconsin’s interior defense like butter in the second half, as Zach LeDay (23 points) found himself more than a couple powerful dunks to ignite the Virginia Tech faithful. Whether it was half-court sets or unselfish plays in transition, Williams has clearly done a masterful job on that end of the court. Despite the departures of Seth Allen (13.4 PPG) and LeDay (16.3 PPG), it’s hard to imagine the Hokies falling too far down the ACC standings in 2017-18.

Star of the Game. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (21 points, 8-of-17 3FG). Everything was falling for Koenig in the second half, including a spot-up corner three that hit front rim, bounced off the backboard, and fell through the net. His steady hand and timely shooting helped Wisconsin remain ahead despite several momentous scoring bursts for Virginia Tech down the stretch. In order for Wisconsin to advance past Saturday, the senior needs to continue playing at a very high level.

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