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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Introducing the B1G All-Freshman team: Non-Conference Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 31st, 2013

In the first two months of the B1G season, many freshman have debuted to largely mixed results. Coming into the season, there were 13 freshmen in the league who made the top 100 of the recruiting services consensus index, and some have had a greater impact than others so far. What follows is the five best of the bunch as we head into league play starting this afternoon.

Noah Vonleh (right) has been the best freshman in the B1G so far this season.

Noah Vonleh (right) has been the best freshman in the B1G so far this season.

  • Noah Vonleh, Indiana (12.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 56.3% FG). Vonleh has been the best Big Ten freshman by far in the non-conference season. He’s leading the conference in rebounding, and is getting it done on both the offensive and defensive backboards. He’s especially good at grabbing defensive rebounds, doing so at a rate of 29.3 percent (good for eighth in the country). Indiana has struggled to keep him involved in the offense, but he’s shooting a high percentage despite getting many of his points from put backs and trips to the free throw line. If Indiana wants to get off of the bubble and ensure another NCAA Tournament appearance, Vonleh has to be a bigger part of the offense.
  • Bryson Scott, Purdue (9.7 PPG, 1.3 SPG). Scott has fit in rather nicely as a complement to the Johnson brothers pairing at the guard spot for the Boilermakers. He’s shown a strong ability to pressure the ball on defense, where he’s getting steals at the sixth best rate in the conference (4.2%), and he’s also done a nice job in being aggressive and drawing fouls, doing so at the second best rate in the league. He’s already led Purdue in steals seven times and scoring four times, despite only playing 17.5 minutes per game. Matt Painter has played its freshman class a decent amount this season, but Scott has been the player making the greatest impact. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 11.22.13 Edition

Posted by Max Jakubowski on November 22nd, 2013

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  1. Keith Appling has been off to a hot start this season for Michigan State, but make no mistake the heart of the Spartans’ offense is Gary Harris.  Tom Izzo wants him to take at least 15 shots a game.  If Harris is knocking down shots from the perimeter, it will open up more of the floor for Michigan State specifically Adreian Payne. Harris was voted the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and will be under constant pressure to perform at a high level.
  2. A big question mark heading into this season for Ohio State was whether Amir Williams could finally step up and become an offensive threat on the post.  So far, Williams has performed well.  He is averaging 9.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks a game. Last year, the Buckeyes never really had a true post threat as Evan Ravenel saw time and even DeShaun Thomas would play some five.  It will be crucial to the Buckeyes’ success that Williams produces down low, especially against Big Ten foes.
  3. Losing 2014 point guard prospect Quentin Snider was a big blow to John Groce and his Illinois program.  Snider was deemed the point guard of the future once Tracy Abrams last.  However, Illinois may have found their future point guard internally already.  Jaylon Tate has played extremely well in backing up Abrams this season. Tate actually leads the conference in assist to turnover ratio.  The Chicago product may have gotten lost in the shuffle next year, with Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks becoming eligible and Snider was also suppose to be on campus.  Now, Tate looks like the key guy to run Groce’s offense for future seasons.
  4. It’s a given that AJ Hammons is a valuable piece to Purdue.  So its understandable why Matt Painter wants his team to feed Hammons more on the post.  Purdue has been struggling with their three-point shooting, making Hammons low-post scoring even more crucial.  Purdue heads to Anaheim to take on Oklahoma State in the Old Spice classic next week.  Hammons will need to have one of his better scoring games to keep Purdue competitive in this one.
  5. Michigan handled Long Beach State easily in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in Thursday.  But the bigger news for Michigan may have been that their main competition in Puerto Rico lost. Both Georgetown and VCU fell in their first games, opening up the bracket significantly for the Wolverines.  Michigan will take on Florida State and a win would set up a date against either Charlotte or Northeastern. This may not have been the path Michigan envisioned, but the road to a tournament championship certainly seems brighter.
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From LeVert to Dukan: Five Surprising Big Ten Players So Far

Posted by Max Jakubowski on November 15th, 2013

Every season always brings new opportunities for unknown players to become known. If a player performs well, he can become a staple in a team’s rotation and see quality minutes during conference play; if not, he could be banished to the end of the bench never to be heard from again. It’s still very early in the year, but here are five Big Ten players who have been pleasant surprises through one week of the season:

Caris LeVert has been tremendous to start the season. (Getty)

Michigan’s Caris LeVert has been tremendous to start the season. (Credit: Getty)

  • Jaylon Tate of Illinois wasn’t even a recruiting target of head coach John Groce last year. But once Illinois lost out to Demetrius Jackson (Notre Dame) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), Groce went after Tate, who was a high school teammate of fellow Illini Kendrick Nunn and Duke’s super freshman Jabari Parker. After Ahmad Stark’s waiver to play immediately was denied, Tate became the full time backup point guard to Tracy Abrams and he has flourished. Tate is averaging nearly 20 minutes per game and leads the team in assists thus far. Don’t be surprised to see Groce playing both point guards together down the stretch. Read the rest of this entry »
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Three Thoughts About Illinois After Three Games

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on November 14th, 2013

John Groce’s Illini have several new faces this season after the departures of Brandon Paul, D.J.Richardson and Tyler Griffey from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. Over the past three seasons, Paul and Richardson were fixtures in the Illinois offense. Richardson was also pivotal on the defensive end as he picked up the toughest assignment on the wing. After three games this season, we can start discussing how the newcomers fit into the rotation and complement the existing core of returnees Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. All three played significant minutes last season and are expected to be the primary scoring options for Groce this year. Let’s examine the three new players – Rayvonte Rice, Jaylon Tate and John Ekey – that could really help Illinois reach its goals this season.

Rayvonte Rice will be one of Illinois' best scoring options this year.

Rayvonte Rice will be one of Illinois’ best scoring options this year.

  • Rayvonte Rice: The Drake transfer is already known for his scoring prowess based on his career in the Missouri Valley Conference, where he averaged 16.8 PPG as a sophomore. But it will be interesting to see how Rice will fit into the Illini offense because his game is very similar to Bertrand’s. They are both athletic and prefer to cut to the basket rather than pull up for jumpers, but Rice seems to have a tendency to shoot from beyond the arc more than Bertrand – he has already averaged 3.5 three-point attempts per game. He is clearly not afraid to pull the trigger, fitting well with Groce’s philosophy of a free-flowing offense, but he will need to be a bit more selective with this shot selection going forward. That said, there is no designated long-range specialist on this squad, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rice attempt an unhealthy amount of three-pointers. Shooting 28 percent from the perimeter is far from effective shooting, but Rice’s athletic ability to attack the basket will definitely add another dimension to help the Illini this season.  

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B1G Freshmen First Impressions

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 11th, 2013

I stay away from trying to analyze freshmen before they step on a college court for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I follow recruiting to the point where I generally know the top 100 players and pay attention to where they sign. I just don’t feel comfortable going off of high school/AAU scouting reports and am of the mind that every newcomer steps in with a clean slate until they play at least once in their college careers. What follows are simply some first impressions of a handful of Big Ten freshman as they made their collegiate debuts this past weekend.

Noah Vonleh won the first B1G Freshman of the Week award of the season after a double-double effort on Friday.

Noah Vonleh won the first B1G Freshman of the Week award of the season after a double-double effort on Friday.

Indiana had six freshmen make an appearance in its blowout win against Chicago State on Friday night. After getting a chance to see Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams for the first time, my first thoughts were about how much length and athleticism they provide. The Hoosiers should have a chance to be scary good defensively. Between these two and Jeremy Hollowell, they will influence a number of shots in the paint, causing teams simply launch threes instead of coming at them inside. Vonleh had a nice overall line with 11 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks, but he really got my attention by grabbing offensive rebounds and leading the fast break. He showed flashes of a number of different skills that will no doubt have him on the NBA’s radar. Williams, on the other hand, was drawing comparisons to Victor Oladipo throughout the telecast, and while he may never get to that level defensively, he has a chance to become a legitimate stopper on that side of the ball. Stanford Robinson and Devin Davis didn’t get as much time as the other two, but they also are nice, athletic wings who have a chance to earn more minutes for the Hoosiers down the line, especially if they can knock down shots from the perimeter.

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Can Tracy Abrams be the Point Guard John Groce Needs?

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 23rd, 2013

Things went well for John Groce in his first year as Illinois’ head coach. The Illini started the season 12-0, won the Maui Invitational for the first time in school history, beat #1 ranked Indiana in thrilling fashion, won an NCAA Tournament game (only their second since 2006), nearly upset #2 seed Miami in the Round of 32, and received commitments from two Top 50 recruits this summer. Groce did an impressive job motivating his team. Consider that the Illini had a 2-7 record in conference play in the beginning of February and closed the regular season 7-4 to make the NCAA tournament. The long term looks good for the Illini too. Groce has secured a top 10 recruiting class and is waiting on an influx of transfers who are scheduled to play next year. But this year, the Illini are expected to take a step back, only returning three players who logged significant minutes from last year’s team. Of these three, junior guard Tracy Abrams, and particularly his ability to play the point more effectively, may be the biggest factor that determines whether the Illini go dancing in consecutive seasons.

Tracy Abrams will need to be more effective in his point guard duties this season for the Illini to get back to the tournament (Eric Gay/AP)

Tracy Abrams will need to be more effective in his point guard duties this season for the Illini to get back to the tournament (Eric Gay/AP)

Last year, Abrams shared ball-handling duties with now-graduated Brandon Paul, and was the Illini’s third leading scorer (10.6 PPG). But Abrams’ grind-it-out style isn’t what Groce would prefer to see in his point guard. The Illinois coach wants to play an up-tempo offense with a point guard who can make smart decisions at different speeds. Abrams, who averaged 3.4 assists per game last season, was second on the team in turnover percentage, averaging 19.4 turnovers for every 100 possessions. He also shot poorly from deep last season (27.2 percent), which hinders Groce’s designed system of opening up the floor. However, what Abrams lacks in natural point guard abilities, he makes up in competitiveness and moxie. He was voted MVP by his veteran teammates at the end of his freshman year because of the effort he displayed throughout the season, and he has shown an ability to step up his game in crucial moments. Last season, he scored 27 points in a win against Auburn when the rest of his team struggled, and he hit a three to seal a win at Minnesota in a pivotal conference game. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten M5: 10.10.12 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 10th, 2012

  1. Do Wisconsin fans even care about preseason rankings? Does it even matter if the Badgers get any hype before tip-off? Bo Ryan’s squads are perennially left out of key lists in the preseason and none of the Badgers are listed in the top 100 players in college hoops per CBSSports.com. A handful of players are on the list from the following Big Ten teams – Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Penn State and Minnesota – but none from Wisconsin. The omission is not necessarily outrageous because there is no particular standout on this year’s squad. Jordan Taylor was an All-American last season but Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren will be the veterans on this team. Evans averaged 11 PPG last season and Berggren scored about 10.5 PPG. Both of their statistics will go up with an increased role in the offense and one of them ought to be a top 15 player in the conference by the end of the season. Freshman phenom Sam Dekker may just steal the whole show by February if he can pick up Bo Ryan’s swing offense quickly.
  2. Michigan State’s Branden Dawson seems to be recovering well ahead of schedule according to the medical staff in East Lansing. Dawson’s knee brace will be coming off soon and should see an increased role during practice. Dawson tore his ACL towards the end of last season and could not help Tom Izzo during the postseason. But his recovery indicates that he should be in fairly good shape by early next year. Izzo doesn’t expect Dawson to contribute heavily on the offensive end but will need his defensive intensity during the conference season. Dawson averaged 8.4 PPG but also pulled down 4.5 RPG and defended the best wing of the opposing teams. Returning junior Keith Appling will be expected to carry the offensive load for the Spartans and his 11.4 PPG from last season should increase with the departure of Draymond Green.
  3. Speaking of defensive stoppers, the Hoosiers will heavily bank on Victor Oladipo to assume that role as they begin the season with high expectations. Alex Bozich breaks down Oladipo’s game on Inside The Hall and stresses his significance on the preseason #1 team.  Oladipo can pick his fair share of points on the offensive end as he averaged 10.3 PPG last season but he possesses the athleticism to guard the best player on the opposing teams. Even though the time at the point guard position will be split by Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell, expect Oladipo to put pressure on other Big Ten guards such as Ohio State’s Aaron Craft or Michigan State’s Keith Appling. Tom Crean’s team is loaded with talent and the secret sauce to winning the championship will be to convince each of the players to assume their specific role and embrace it. If Oladipo can take a step back on the offensive end and channel his energy towards locking down the best guards, the Hoosiers might just finish the season as the top ranked team in the country.
  4. Another key player who needs to understand his role on a preseason top 10 team is Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr. UMHoops asked a group of Michigan writers about what to expect from the junior wing this season. Several writers pointed towards his 28% shooting from beyond the arc has a weakness. Hardaway can’t afford to be in a shooting slump and continue to take shots because there will be other teammates who can pick up the slack on any given night. The addition of freshman Glenn Robinson III will increase the depth of John Beilein’s team, so Hardaway should just let the game come to him rather force bad shots. He also needs to step up on the defensive end because the Big Ten features very good offensive guards such as Keith Appling and Christian Watford. Last season, senior guards Zach Novak and Stu Douglass would pick up the defensive duties but Hardaway will need to fill those shoes if Michigan hopes to make a serious run at the Final Four.
  5. Illinois head coach John Groce will make his debut in the Big Ten in less than a month. IlliniHQ writes that most of the fan base so far has been very impressed with Groce on the recruiting front. Groce has been active on the recruiting trail by receiving commitments from top 60 players such as Kendrick Nunn. He also understands that recruiting in the Chicago Public League will establish relationships and improve the communication about future recruits as he settles down in Champaign. Groce also recruited another guard for the 2013 class from the Simeon academy – Jaylon Tate. He understands the need for a true point guard on next year’s squad because current sophomore Tracy Abrams will need a backup. Even though Abrams only averaged 4.3 PPG last season, he will see an increased role in Groce’s guard oriented offense this year. Illini fans eagerly await to evaluate Groce’s coaching abilities because he has shown them enough about this zeal on the recruiting front. Expect a high tempo, guard oriented offense that will consistently push the ball up the floor.
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