Sorting Through the Big Ten’s Murky Middle

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 17th, 2014

There have been 142 non-conference games involving Big Ten teams thus far, and yet it can be reasonably argued that we really don’t know much more than we did before the games tipped off on November 14. What we do know is that Wisconsin is still the clear-cut favorite and Rutgers will probably struggle to stay out of the league basement. That means that the other 12 teams are still clustered together into a large pack. Some have bigger wins than others; some have better offenses than others; while some have a marquee player who can get hot and carry them for a while. This exercise is meant to rank those other teams based on a number of different categories to see which is performing as the best and worst of the bunch right now . I’m no math major, so I simply took a look at twelve key categories and ranked each team accordingly. Some are subjective, some are objective, and it’s by no means perfect. But the categories on which I ranked each team are as follows:

Denzel Valentine is leading an efficient Michigan State offense in scoring so far. (Getty)

Denzel Valentine is leading an efficient Michigan State offense in scoring so far. (Getty)

  • Best Win
  • Worst Loss
  • Point Differential in home games against teams ranked #150 or above
  • Eye Test
  • Schedule Strength
  • Best Player
  • Offensive Efficiency
  • Defensive Efficiency
  • Assist Rate
  • Turnovers
  • Rebounding
  • Three Point Shooting

After crunching the numbers, here are the results.

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Big Ten M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 17th, 2014

 

morning5_bigten

  1. Michigan has struggled more than people thought coming off of a National Championship game appearance and an Elite Eight run in the last two seasons. One of the reasons for this season’s struggles has been the loss of key inside players Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. “Morford,” as the duo was nicknamed throughout Big Ten telecasts a year ago may have not been flashy, but they were consistent and did a good job defensively down low. The season is not a lost one yet for the Wolverines, but things will have to get much better on the defensive end of the floor with freshmen Marc Donnal and Ricky Doyle for this unit to even sniff the postseason success they have had recently.
  2. Michigan State plays four games in the next nine days, and they will look to avoid falling prey to an Eastern Michigan team that knocked off state-rival Michigan recently. How the Spartans attack Eastern’s 2-3 zone is just one of the interesting subplots to monitor in the coming days for Sparty. Freshman Javon Bess should make his debut tonight, which will give Tom Izzo some different looks as far as how he can set his rotation.
  3. Ohio State will get tested Saturday when they play North Carolina in Chicago. They have to play North Carolina A&T first on Wednesday, but playing on a neutral floor will be the last real test the team gets in non-conference play against a quality opponent. It will be worth noting whether the Buckeyes can handle a big team that makes its living on the offensive glass, especially since Marcus Paige has been struggling to shoot the ball. Amir Williams and Trey McDonald will have to have good days on the boards for Ohio State to prevail.
  4. Illinois already has more non-conference losses than they did last season, and Saturday’s loss to Oregon at the United Center in Chicago wasn’t exactly their best performance. Should Illini fans really be worried that this team might be destined for another NIT berth? Some disturbing trends from the loss to the Ducks were the fact that Rayvonte Rice had to resort to carrying the offense like he did for a good chunk of 2013-14, and the fact that Oregon was able to score in the paint seemingly at will. Losses to Villanova and Miami (Florida) weren’t bad losses from a resume perspective, but there were signs in those losses as well that this team might struggle later on. Illinois may need quite a few conference wins against Big Ten heavyweights to make the field of 68 for the second time in John Groce‘s tenure.
  5. Joe Lunardi hasn’t released anything yet, but Jerry Palm of CBS has seven Big Ten teams currently in his NCAA Tournament field. One surprise would have to be Penn State coming in as a number ten seed. Despite their 10-1 record, the Nittany Lions only win against a team projected to be in the field was against George Washington. It’s also worth noting that Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Purdue were left out of the field at this time. This saga will be an ongoing one all season, with the national perception of the league not nearly being as strong as it has been in recent seasons. The wins that would have carried more weight in the last couple of years might not mean as much as 2014 turns to 2015.
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Weekly Primer: Don’t Sleep on Mid-December Games

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 16th, 2014

Every Monday (sometimes Tuesday), Henry Bushnell will provide a look ahead at the week to come. He’ll discuss the week’s top storylines, preview the three most prominent and compelling games, put a giant or two on upset alert, and decide which teams are in desperate need of a big week.

It’s a cold, dark Monday night in December. The holiday scent is in the air. Subpar football unwillingly seeps out of a TV. Winter threatens to envelop us – if it hasn’t already done so. On this cold, dark Monday night in December, college basketball doesn’t really matter. Or at least it seems like it doesn’t. The Monday evening slate is tinged with irrelevance. Duke sleepwalks over Elon, and not many take note. The sport still lurks in the distance. Lenses are still out of focus.

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

But this, my friends, is a time as important as any in college basketball. When the final weekend of February rolls around, we’ll be scrutinizing teams inside and out, but December matters too. Just ask a team like Cal, which barely missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Analysts rued their March losses to Arizona State and Utah, but how about that December loss to UC Santa Barbara? That hurt too. Or ask Southern Miss, which built up a solid résumé, but was left to wonder what might have been if it hadn’t slipped up against Western Kentucky during the week before Christmas. On that same day, December 18, 2013, NC State toppled Tennessee. The Wolfpack made the field as one of the last four teams in. That’s not a coincidence.

Don’t ignore this week. Even with those lenses somewhat out of focus, the results will come into plain sight soon enough. It doesn’t matter how you win; your performance doesn’t have to be aesthetic. Just get the job done. Statements can be made. They will not be forgotten.

Three for the Money

North Carolina vs. Ohio State | Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS

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Oregon Showing Signs of Life

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 15th, 2014

It’s very much still football season for Oregon fans, but the basketball team offered Ducks’ faithful a reason Saturday night to also pay attention to them. While Marcus Mariota was busy accepting college football’s highest individual honor at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, Dana Altman’s band of Ducks was carving out their best win of the season against a solid Illinois team playing in its home state. The end result in Chicago – a 77-70 Oregon victory – had to generate minimal buzz back in Eugene (the school’s first Heisman winner casts a substantial shadow), but it represented an important first step for a young team. Nobody should expect the Ducks to become any more predictable than they have been over the course of an up-and-down first month of the season, but consider Oregon’s upside flashed. The good news is that in this year’s wide-open Pac 12 – a league with no proven teams outside of Arizona and Utah — a little potential might go a long way.

Joseph Young Is Known As A Scorer, But His 2014 Assist Rate Of 26.2 Also Reveals An Able And Willing Passer

Joseph Young Is Known As A Scorer, But His 2014 Assist Rate Of 26.2% Also Reveals An Able And Willing Passer

It’s always been about offense in Eugene. Whether discussing the gridiron or the hardwood, Oregon’s success has classically been predicated on dynamic offenses. The recipe should remain the same for the Ducks this season. They haven’t been terrible on the offensive end (51st nationally in offensive efficiency), but both Dana Altman and John Groce agreed that Saturday featured their crispest execution to date. Altman said that decisions to pass up good shots for great ones on three early second-half possessions set the tone for a selflessly efficient half of basketball. Joseph Young (who didn’t start due to a violation of team rules) garnered praise from Groce for his passing, while Dillon Brooks scored an effortless 24 points to lead the Ducks. The freshman will be a key player moving forward. Young is willing and able to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load, but finding a capable second option is imperative. Brooks has yet to display the consistency needed to fill that full-time role, but the stocky forward’s inside (10.1% offensive rebound percentage)-outside (45% three-point) game could make him a nice complement to a gunner like Young.

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Big Ten Sophomore Spotlight: Illinois’ Malcolm Hill

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 11th, 2014

Many sophomores in the Big Ten have a significantly greater role this season than they did as freshmen. That is to be expected, of course, as the second year is often when players make their biggest strides in development. Some highly-recruited guys, however, continue to disappoint, while others who may not have been so highly regarded have by now become viable contributors for their teams. This series of posts is meant to check in on a few of the different sophomores in the league to determine whether they’ve improved in their first year-plus and what it means for their teams going forward. First, here’s a look at Illinois sophomore Malcolm Hill.

Malcolm Hill has shined in an expanded role for Illinois this season.(Mark Jones, Illinois Athletics)

Malcolm Hill has shined in an expanded role for Illinois this season.(Mark Jones, Illinois Athletics)

  • 2013-14: 4.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 38.3% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 77.0% FT, 14.1 MPG, 19.8% usage, 99.4 Offensive Rating
  • 2014-15: 14.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 54.8% FG, 43.8$ 3FG, 71.1% FT, 25.4 MPG, 26.3% usage, 120.1 Offensive Rating

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Nnanna Egwu is the Defensive Linchpin for Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 9th, 2014

At 7-1 with only a road loss to Miami (FL), John Groce has Illinois once again playing well in its non-conference schedule. But one notable difference this year is how improved the Fighting Illini have been on offense. Due to the addition of a couple of offseason transfers, Illinois finds itself with a wealth of combo guards and wings who can score in bunches. While that revamped offense has gotten good publicity thus far, it’s been Illinois’ ongoing successes on the defensive end (91.0 adjusted defensive rating), that has Groce’s squad primed to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. The anchor of that defense, and the only reliable inside presence on the team, is senior big man Nnanna Egwu. Illinois faces #7 Villanova in Madison Square Garden tonight and it will need Egwu to lead the charge in slowing down the Wildcats’ top 15 offense (110.7 adjusted offensive rating).

Nnanna Egwu covers up a lot mistakes on defense for the Illini.

Nnanna Egwu covers for a lot of defensive mistakes for the Illini.

Egwu is the lone active senior this year – Illinois’ other senior, Tracy Abrams, is out for the season with a torn ACL – and he is averaging 7.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.9 BPG in a shade under 30 minutes per contest. The native Nigerian didn’t start playing basketball until the eighth grade, but his quick development led to significant playing time on Groce’s first team in Champaign. The big man still does not have much of a back-to-the-basket game on offense, but he has nice touch and can step out and shoot from the perimeter (5-of-14 from three this season). Whatever his limits are in scoring, what he brings to Groce’s defense supersedes it. Egwu is one of the top rim-protectors in the country, serving as a safety net for guards who get beaten off the dribble. His presence inside allows Illinois’ guards to be more aggressive and gamble for steals, the proof being the Illini’s top 100 steal percentage (10.8%) despite not having the prototypical athletic and long players that dominate this category.

When the Illini play Villanova tonight at Madison Square Garden, Egwu will have his hands full guarding 6’11” center Daniel Ochefu, who converts on 63.6 percent of his attempts near the rim. In addition to Ochefu, he’ll also have to act as the eraser if Wildcats’ guards Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis penetrate the lane to get to the bucket — where both are also shooting over 60 percent. With no capable replacement on the bench, Egwu must avoid fouling to stay on the court, otherwise it’ll be open season on the Illini inside the paint (Egwu to this point has avoided a disqualification on fouls this season). Illinois has relied on its center to provide a foundation to its high-quality defense, and to have any chance of walking out of the Mecca with a Top 10 scalp tonight, it will fall on Egwu to answer that call once again.

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Big Ten/ACC Challenge: What Did We Learn?

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 5th, 2014

In the aftermath of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, we might have expected to learn a great deal about Big Ten teams as they matched up against foes that were generally their peers. In the big picture, however, what that means to the Big Ten race remains a mystery. Wisconsin appears to be a notch or two above everyone else despite losing to Duke. Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State each has its fair share of issues. There are seven or eight other teams that have decent chances to become NCAA Tournament teams. As we head into the slowdown of finals and the Christmas holiday season, here’s a brief snapshot of one takeaway per squad after their Challenge contests.

Ahmad Starks had a horrible shooting night against Miami. (Stephen Haas, Lee News Service)

Ahmad Starks had a horrible shooting night against Miami. (Stephen Haas, Lee News Service)

  • Illinois: Taking 30 three-pointers probably isn’t a good idea for this team. Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby won’t combine to shoot 15.4 percent very often, but Nnanna Egwu shooting three bombs by himself probably isn’t a good idea for future success.
  • Indiana: Emmitt Holt has been a borderline revelation, leading the team in scoring and giving Tom Crean another solid freshman to rely upon. Having only nine turnovers is something the Hoosiers should try to bottle for use all season.
  • Iowa: Telling Mike Gesell that his former AAU teammate Marcus Paige is on the other team every single game might just get him to play like a First Team All-B1G selection.

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Battle of Unbeatens: Key Questions in Illinois vs. Miami

Posted by Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells on December 2nd, 2014

As the ACC and the Big Ten teams get together on the hardwood this week, the ACC and Big Ten microsites (Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells, specifically) have also decided to team up to break down some of the key questions for a few of the games. What follows is a look at tonight’s Top 25 battle between two unbeatens: the 6-0 Illini and the 7-0 Hurricanes.

Brendan Brody: After a mediocre 17-16 mark last year, Miami is back in the Top 25 with Big 12 transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) deservedly getting most of the credit. Let’s talk about how other key players like Tonyi Jekiri and Manu Lecomte have also had an impact, and how they will affect the outcome of this game.

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Lathan Wells: Lecomte looks much more comfortable playing off the ball and allowing Rodriguez to run the show this season. The result is enormously efficient basketball, as he is averaging 13.3 PPG and shooting 56.7 percent from the field. If Rodriguez and McClellan are being stifled, he offers a third excellent perimeter scoring option. Jekiri, to his credit, has blossomed into a force around the basket, averaging just shy of 11 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. For a team relying on consistent guard and perimeter play, he has helped to keep the Hurricanes balanced. While it’s true Rodriguez and McClellan are driving Miami’s hot start, don’t be surprised if Lecomte comes up with a few key baskets or if Jekiri helps keep Miami on the plus-side of the rebounding margin. Illinois hangs its hat on defense first, but the Illini rank fifth in the country in averaging 90 points per game. How will they handle a lower scoring contest if Miami is able to slow things down?

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Big Ten/ACC Challenge: Which League Has the Upper Hand?

Posted by mpatton on December 2nd, 2014

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge wasn’t the original inter-conference, made-for-TV battle, but it’s still the best. It represents a clash of styles, histories (especially with most of the Big East now in the ACC) and talent between two of the top basketball leagues in the country. The ACC dominated the Challenge from its inception, winning the first 10 meetings from 1999-2008, but the Big Ten is in the middle of a furious comeback by winning three in a row from 2009-11 before the ACC managed to eke out a couple of ties. This season the challenge expanded to a whopping 14 games, and on paper it looks like it will be another close one.

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers Headline the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Monday (Big Ten leads 2-0)

The Challenge started on Monday night, with Big Ten schools coming away victorious in two blockbuster middling match-ups. Florida State and Clemson have disappointed to start the season, so their losses to Nebraska and Rutgers weren’t surprising. But it’s not like those two schools have looked like powerhouses either. It’s also important to note that both games took place on ACC turf, which means the ACC needs to steal at least two road games of its own in order to break even the rest of the way. That these were considered toss-ups is also somewhat troubling. Regardless, let’s look at the remainder of the schedule.

Tuesday

  • Pittsburgh at Indiana (7:00 PM ESPN2): Recent history says this match-up will be awesome, but this season has been a disappointment so far for both teams. Jamie Dixon’s Panthers took an unexpected loss to Hawaii on its way to the Maui Invitational; likewise, the Hoosiers lost a shocker at home to Eastern Washington. Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh appears to be the better team, but without Durand Johnson (suspended for the season) and the game in Bloomington, there are plenty of questions. Prediction: Pittsburgh
  • Minnesota at Wake Forest (7:00 PM ESPNU): Look at this game on paper and it looks like a blowout. The Demon Deacons have finished near the bottom of the ACC during the last four years, and they’re also coming off a loss to Delaware State (at home). But Minnesota looks beatable here — especially if Codi Miller-McIntyre plays up to his potential. The Gophers are more experienced, but Danny Manning’s team should be able to pull off a couple of a head-scratching wins this season at home (I mean, Jeff Bzdelik pulled the feat last year), so this game isn’t as straightforward as it looks. Prediction: Wake Forest

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Back and Forth: Best of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Posted by David Harten on December 2nd, 2014

For the past 15 years, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge has done its part to give the college basketball community some great early season games. But as you scroll through the annals of the event’s fun history, it’s not chock-full of historic moments. Don’t get me wrong — there were a number of great games to choose from, but aside from the hardcore college basketball aficionado (/raises hand), it’s tough to isolate a few stand alone plays or performances to define this stable of yearly games between two of the country’s best conferences. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the bottom line is that the Challenge has not been an event known for so many great moments as much as great basketball.

Fourteen Years of ACC/Big Ten Challenges Have Produced Some Great Moments

Fifteen Years of ACC/Big Ten Challenges Have Produced a Few Great Moments

Still, there have been a few. Here are some of those moments and games.

5) 11/29/06 – Purdue 61, No. 25 Virginia 59: Crump For The Win. Tarrance Crump only averaged 5.0 points per game and shot 41 percent from the field in his two seasons with the Boilermakers, but the floater he hit with 1.8 seconds left in the Challenge game to give Purdue the win over a ranked Virginia team may have been the biggest shot of his career. His game-winning shot was set up after Virginia’s Sean Singletary hit two free throws to tie the game with 29 seconds remaining. The win was notable in that it was Purdue’s first over a ranked non-conference opponent at home in 21 years. (Challenge result: 8-3 ACC.)

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Big Ten Feast Week Recap

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 1st, 2014

After 38 games in seven days, Big Ten teams had some noteworthy performances of both the good and bad variety. In all, three teams came away with championships in the tournaments they played in. Illinois won the Las Vegas Invitational, Maryland took first in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, and Wisconsin won the stacked Battle 4 Atlantis field. While it was impossible to watch absolutely everything, especially with the whole pesky, “hang out with relatives on Thanksgiving” getting in the way of hoop watching, here’s a brief recap of what went down during the last seven days.

Bronson Koenig keyed a second half rally as Wisconsin came back to beat Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis. (Reuters)

Bronson Koenig keyed a second half rally as Wisconsin came back to beat Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis. (Reuters)

  • Wisconsin Shows Off Depth That Matters: Many times when announcers or others cite depth when discussing a certain team, it simply means that the coach plays a lot of players. A team with true depth has players coming off the bench that can win a game for them. This is exactly what happened in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, as Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan combined to score 18 of the team’s 33 points in the second stanza, with the Badgers holding off a pesky Georgetown team in the process. With Frank Kaminsky struggling and Traveon Jackson and Josh Gasser in foul trouble, they just found a way to win with other guys doing the heavy lifting. Things were back to normal in the championship game, as Kaminsky and Jackson led the way. This team has so many weapons, and is off to a 7-0 start that is making preseason projections look really solid right now.

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Big Ten M5: 12.01.14 Edition

Posted by Eric Clark on December 1st, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. Maryland lost Dez Wells to a fractured wrist in their win over Iowa State last week, leaving a major void in their starting lineup. The Terps struggled without Wells in their five-point victory over Monmouth, but were able to put a solid performance together on Sunday in a 95-77 victory over VMI. Graduate transfer Richaud Pack dropped 22 points and while junior Jake Layman and freshmen Dion Wiley and Melo Trimble picked up 19. The thing Maryland will miss the most from Wells is his leadership on the court – at one point in time, Maryland played a lineup entirely made up of players in their first year as Terrapins. Maryland’s youth will be tested soon as they’ve got a date with No. 8 Virginia on Wednesday, and the Cavaliers are a veteran-laden crew with their top five players being juniors or seniors.
  2. Michigan State fell to Kansas in the Orlando Classic title game on Sunday and their depth was tested as the Spartans ran into foul trouble very early on in the matchup. Head coach Tom Izzo was forced to insert a current walk-on and a former walk-on into his lineup, allowing Kansas’ Cliff Alexander to feast on the inexperienced Spartans in the post. Michigan State played 4 games in 6 days and Branden Dawson played with flu-like symptoms throughout the week, and the Spartan’s turn around quickly as they face Notre Dame on Wednesday.
  3. Illinois had a great Thanksgiving week, capping it off with a win over Baylor in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational on Saturday. Rayvonte Rice earned tournament MVP honors while Malcolm Hill and Nnanna Egwu joined Rice on the all-tournament team. The win over the Bears was huge for the confidence of Hill, who has made tremendous strides since his freshman season. Illinois faces stiffer competition this week in the form of No. 17 Miami (FL) and No. 12 Villanova.
  4. Indiana’s defense is a major concern for Tom Crean as the Hoosiers prepare for a tough December schedule that puts them against Pittsburgh, Louisville, Butler, and Georgetown. Indiana gave up 98 total points in the paint versus Eastern Washington and Lamar – not exactly college basketball powerhouses. Those types of interior issues should make their opponents mouths water, especially after Indiana struggled with UNC-Greensboro on Friday. The Hoosiers ranked 150th in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rating (98.6), and that number has to improve quickly before they start playing the big boys.
  5. Purdue closed its appearance at the Maui Invitational with a two-point victory over BYU by the hands of J. Hammons, who connected on a game-winning hook shot in overtime. The Boilermakers are 5-1 and are set to face undefeated N.C. State on Tuesday. Nathan Baird highlighted five early season trends that have led to Purdue’s successful start – including the Boilermaker’s impressive use of length and freshman Vince Edwards stellar play.
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