What We Learned From a Wild Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2018

From massive upsets to historic comebacks and some ridiculous individual performances in-between, it was one heck of a week in the Big Ten. Let’s examine a few key takeaways.

Purdue should be just fine, assuming Vincent Edwards returns to action. (John Terhune/Journal & Courier)

  • Purdue fans need not panic (unless, of course, Vincent Edwards’ injury lingers). Entering its game against Ohio State on February 7, Purdue had won 19 straight, sat undefeated in the Big Ten (12-0), and looked seemingly unbeatable — especially in Mackey Arena, where it had crushed its opponents by 27 points per game. Then the Boilermakers stumbled against the Buckeyes. Then they dropped a nail-biter at Michigan State, which was followed by a stunning defeat at Wisconsin on Thursday. Suddenly, there were deep concerns about Matt Painter‘s crew. “Something just feels different,” senior Vincent Edwards said of the team’s struggles last Thursday. Take a step back and examine the losses, though, and it’s clear that bad luck was partially at play. Were it not for a last second tip-in against Ohio State and a last second three-pointer versus Michigan State, perhaps the Boilermakers would have gone 3-1 in their last four games. Maybe even 4-0. Their close win over red-hot Penn State on Sunday shows just how fine the line is between a quality win and a “problematic” loss. If there is real cause for concern, it’s this: Edwards (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) missed the game against the Nittany Lions with an injured ankle. Assuming he doesn’t miss extended time down the stretch, Purdue should still be considered a Final Four contender. If his injury lingers, then the Boilers can panic.

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Five Trends to Track During a Big Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 7th, 2018

Ohio State vs. Purdue and Maryland vs. Penn State tonight. Purdue vs. Michigan State on Saturday. Several potential bubble-busters in between. Needless to say, it’s a big week in the Big Ten. Let’s take a look at a few quietly-important trends worth keeping an eye on.

Purdue’s defense has been mediocre in recent weeks. (Anthony Souffle – Purdue Exponent)

  • Purdue’s Struggling Defense. Just because because the Boilermakers own the nation’s longest winning streak of 18 games doesn’t mean all is rosy in West Lafayette. After holding 12 of its previous 14 opponents to less than one point per possession, Purdue has recently allowed five straight opponents to exceed that mark — including Rutgers, which scored 1.17 PPP in a near-upset of the Boilermakers on Saturday. In just a few weeks, Purdue has dropped from fifth nationally in defensive efficiency to 15th, a slump that’s coincided with four straight games decided by fewer than 10 points. Purdue won all four, of course, but when you consider that 10 of its previous 11 victories were absolute blowouts, you begin to understand why it’s worth pointing out. Matt Painter’s group has looked visibly less active in guarding the perimeter over that stretch, and part of the problem may also be rim protection: shot-blocking maven Matt Haarms has only swatted six shots since January 20, his lowest five-game stretch of output this season. It will be interesting to observe how the Boilers fare against Keita Bates-Diop in tonight’s big showdown with Ohio State.
  • Michigan State’s Troubling Late-Game Execution. On January 22, Michigan State led Illinois by 18 points with 4:29 left, only to see the Illini cut the lead to eight in a matter of three minutes. Against Penn State last week, a 15-point lead with 1:09 to play shriveled to six — and nearly three — in just 30 seconds. Up 10 at Indiana on Saturday night, Michigan State mustered just three field goals in the game’s final 12 minutes, giving the Hoosiers a chance to tie it at the buzzer. Part of Sparty’s problem has been shear boneheadedness, like Miles Bridges’ and-1 foul of Devonte Green in the closing seconds against Indiana. But these late-game struggles also shed light on a broader weakness: the Spartans are simply less productive and more turnover-prone in the half-court, where their offense has often lacked rhythm. It wasn’t an issue in Tuesday night’s scare at Iowa, but it could be against Purdue on Saturday.

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Michigan State’s Turnover Bug is a Real Problem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 26th, 2018

If you glance only at the final score, Michigan State’s performance at Illinois on Monday was an unqualified success: The Spartans won by 13 points and trailed for only 1 minute and 51 seconds of game time. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the preseason Big Ten favorite should have probably won by more — perhaps a lot more. The Spartans shot a ridiculous 68 percent from the floor (to Illinois’ 43 percent) and doubled up the Illini at the free throw line. They also crashed the offensive glass at their highest rate yet in conference play (60% OReb). Unfortunately, turnovers — a whopping 25 of them — prevented Michigan State’s ‘good’ performance from being great. It’s been a recurring issue this season, and one that could wind up the Achilles’ Heel for an otherwise complete National Championship hopeful.

Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges Have to Clean Up the Turnover Issue (USA Today Images)

To be sure, the Spartans’ eye-popping turnover figure on Monday — their most since 2005 — was in part due to Illinois’ aggressive style — the Illini force miscues at the sixth-highest rate in college basketball. But it was also the result of Michigan State’s often-stagnant half-court offense. When the Spartans don’t score in transition (where they’re especially lethal), their attack often devolves into a lot of dribbling around the three-point line with limited off-ball movement. For point guards Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn, that’s often been a recipe for disaster. Case in point:

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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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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Big Ten Running Out of Non-Conference Chances

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 15th, 2017

Michigan’s 59-52 win at Texas on Tuesday was important for the Big Ten, and not just because it could use some respect after taking a beating in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Rather, the road victory was big because it helps provide some much-needed heft to the league’s overall non-conference resume. With several bad losses under its belt and an underachieving middle tier, the Big Ten needs every quality win it can get before for turning on itself in conference play.

Iowa, like several Big Ten teams, has struggled during non-conference play. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

The Good. As of Thursday, the Big Ten has eight teams ranked in both the KenPom and Sagarin top 50, which suggests there is some depth of quality in the league. In fact, Michigan State and Purdue rank second and third overall in the latter ranking system. Although the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) remains the most widely-referenced metric, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has been increasingly influenced by advanced metrics in recent years. The more teams viewed favorably by advanced analytical tools, the more opportunities for quality intra-conference wins in the committee’s view. What’s more, the league does have a few quality non-conference true road wins to its name. Minnesota beat Providence (KenPom #52) by double-figures in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Purdue pounded Marquette (KenPom #52). Michigan topped them both by upending Texas this week (KenPom #31). According to reports last summer, the committee will be “placing greater emphasis on winning road games.” Victories like these — on the road against NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents — will go a long way towards boosting the the Big Ten’s overall profile.

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Big Ten Preview Part II: Key Questions for Illinois & Ohio State

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 30th, 2017

With the season just a few weeks 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 Illinois and Ohio State.

#12 Illinois Does Brad Underwood have the backcourt to create more of his first year magic?

Point guard Te’Jon Lucas will be key for Illinois this season. (Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY Sports)

As a first-year, first-time head coach in 2013-14, Brad Underwood led Stephen F. Austin to a 32-3 overall record, including a 29-game winning streak and the Lumberjacks’ first NCAA Tournament victory in school history. In his first and only year at Oklahoma State, Underwood pulled his team out of an 0-6 Big 12 hole, proceeded to rip off 10 victories in 11 games, and ultimately took the Cowboys dancing. Now, after receiving an offer too good to refuse, Underwood finds himself at Illinois, where another first-year NCAA Tournament run seems dubious. Gone are three of the Illini’s top four offensive weapons — including Malcolm Hill (17.2 PPG) — which presents a problem for a coach whose teams thrive on sharp ball-movement and shooting. That’s why sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas, Wright State transfer Mark Alstork, and touted freshman Mark Smith probably hold the keys to success. If Lucas, a pure passer, can open up Underwood’s spread offense and find efficient looks for Alstork (19.0 PPG in 2016-17) and Smith (Illinois’ Mr. Basketball), Illinois has a chance to discover the offensive rhythm it generally lacked under previous head coach John Groce. The ability of forwards like Michael Finke (41% 3FG) and Slovenian freshman Matic Vesel to stretch the floor — along with marked improvement from frontcourt anchor Leron Black (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG) — will also be imperative. Realistically, there are probably too many “ifs” in Champaign for Underwood to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat this season, even with a backcourt that already seems to fit his system. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Preview Part I: Key Questions for Rutgers and Nebraska

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 27th, 2017

With the season just a few weeks away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posting a season-defining key question for each team. This week, we start at the bottom.

#14 Rutgers – Will the Scarlet Knights score enough to climb out of the cellar?

Can Steve Pikiell lift Rutgers out of last place? (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

In Steve Pikiell’s first year, Rutgers doubled its overall win total, won its first-ever Big Ten Tournament game, and climbed nearly 150 spots in the KenPom ratingsOf course, the Scarlet Knights still finished dead-last in the league for the third year in a row, stymied by three-point, two-point, and free throw shooting percentages that ranked among the worst 25 teams nationally. The good news for Pikiell is that significant incoming talent — headlined by four-star power forward Mamadou Doucoure and three-star combo guard Geo Baker — should help diversify Rutgers’ scoring potential. Doucoure, who joins the 2017 class after reclassifying in August, adds needed size to the Scarlet Knights’ frontcourt and should take defensive pressure off senior Deshawn Freeman, who’s proven to be a capable scorer in addition to his rebounding prowess (7.8 RPG). Baker — by all accounts an adept passer and playmaker — adds sorely-needed perimeter shooting and offensive versatility. He should help fill the shoes of Nigel Johnson, a departing graduate transfer who was the team’s best three-point shooter a season ago (36% 3FG). Equally important will be the addition of JuCo transfer Souf Mensah, whose presence at point guard should help leading scorer Corey Sanders (12.8 PPG) play off the ball more regularly and, presumably, score at a more efficient clip. Like Pikiell’s best teams at Stony Brook, Rutgers’ improvement was defined by hard-nosed defense and rebounding last season. Coupling that identity with a more capable offensive attack would make the Scarlet Knights far more competitive in 2017-18.

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Five Key Storylines in This Week’s Big Ten Tournament

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

The Big Ten Tournament begins this afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Penn State takes on Nebraska. It will end Sunday afternoon presumably with a postseason picture looking much closer to clarity. In anticipation of the proceedings, here are a handful of quick potential storylines to keep an eye on over the next five days.

Whether or not Malcolm Hill can lead Illinois to a couple of Big Ten victories is one of many questions heading into the B1G Tournament. (Getty)

Bubble Teams: Two of the more fascinating games in the early portion of the Big Ten Tournament will be Illinois vs. Michigan and Iowa vs. Indiana. With late-season surges, both the Illini and the Hawkeyes have moved into bubble consideration. Illinois has improved defensively over the past month but will be tested by Michigan’s sixth-most efficient offense in the country. Iowa has won four in a row (including a win over the Hoosiers) on the strength of 10.5 made three-pointers per game at a 46.7 percent clip. If both teams lose early this week, the number of Big Ten teams heading to the NCAA Tournament will essentially be set. Two wins, however, will keep the debate alive.

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Big Ten Tournament Mission Sheet: What Can Each Team Get From the Event?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

There are 14 teams in the Big Ten and although each team is ultimately playing to win a conference championship on Sunday afternoon, there are smaller, somewhat more realistic goals for each school involved in the five-day hoops extravaganza. Here’s a closer look at what each Big Ten team should look to gain from the event.

  • Illinois: The goal for the Illini is fairly obvious. After losing its regular season finale to Rutgers, Illinois likely has to get to Saturday’s semifinals in order to feel truly confident about its chances.
  • Indiana: Indiana needs to find a way to bottle its offense during the first 10 minutes — wherein the Hoosiers scored 32 points — of last weekend’s win over Ohio State. If Tom Crean’s offense can play at that level in Washington, DC, this weekend, Indiana can legitimately win the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the same goal as Illinois but with less urgency because of the youth of their roster. The longer Iowa stays in this weekend’s tournament, the more quality experience their underclassmen will have heading into next season.
  • Maryland: Maryland has taken a whopping 24 three-pointers per contest over its last nine games, making only 33.8 percent of those attempts. The key for the Terrapins is to return to attacking the rim for easy looks and foul shots. Continued over-reliance on the three-ball from a team that requires greater balance could spell an early postseason exit in DC and beyond.

Derrick Walton Jr. will look to lift Michigan to multiple wins in the Big Ten Tournament. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

  • Michigan: The metrics suggest that Michigan is better than its 20-11 overall record. This means that the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to win the Big Ten tournament and jump a couple of seed lines prior to Sunday’s bracket release.

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Four Big Ten Storylines to Follow in the Final Week of Regular Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2017

There are now 14 games left in a Big Ten regular season that has been marked by numerous highs and lows throughout. The major takeaway at this point of the season is that almost nothing in terms of the conference standings has yet been settled. That means that every game over the next six days has considerably more meaning than in other conferences where much is already determined. Here are four other Big Ten storylines worth monitoring during the final week of the regular season.

Scottie Lindsey needs to find his scoring touch in the final week for Northwestern to be as though its safely in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today).

  1. Can Northwestern Earn One More Win? The Wildcats appeared to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Wisconsin on February 12, but they’ve since lost three of four and are really struggling to put points on the board. Northwestern closes out the Big Ten season with two home games this week against Michigan and Purdue, where a victory in either contest would likely be enough to certify things. Two more losses, however, would result in a 9-9 record in conference play, creating a teetering mountain of pressure on Chris Collins‘ team to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
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