Illinois’ Point Guard Conundrum Continues

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 17th, 2014

Remember when the Illini had three guards who could man the offense with no trouble from 2003-05? Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown could set up the offense without any confusion, move the ball around with confidence, and pull up for a three without any issues if the shot clock was winding down. Yep, that was about 10 years ago. Since the trio left Champaign, though, Illinois has struggled to find a consistent point guard comfortable with both distributing the ball and creating his own shot. Chester Frazier didn’t really have a consistent jumper. Demetri McCamey was versatile on the offense but he couldn’t consistently involve his teammates. Brandon Paul was a combo guard, and while Tracy Abrams commanded respect from his teammates, he just didn’t have enough quickness to utilize his offensive moves and still carry a consistent assist rate. With Abrams now gone, there was a glimmer of hope that incoming transfer Ahmad Starks could be the efficient point guard to finally lead an offense that could launch the program back into the Big Ten elite. But after the first month of the season, the situation appears as bad as the last few seasons in that regard.

Ahmad Starks hasn't been able to exceed Tracy Abrams' performance from last season so far this year.

Ahmad Starks hasn’t been able to exceed Tracy Abrams’ performance from last season so far this year.

Starks’ game has several positives: He is quick to get around screens and has a much better looking three-point shot than Abrams. While a 35 percent mark from three isn’t all that impressive, his average is more a result of poor shot selection than mechanics. He also hasn’t been able to connect with his teammates during the second half of important games. Let’s take the latest loss to Oregon as an example. Even though Illinois assisted on 17 of its successful field goals, the offense looked completely clueless when it mattered. If the ball went inside to the low post, it never came back out. There was no lateral movement. If Starks couldn’t break his defender down, he dumped it over to Malcolm Hill who did the same – scoring only six points. The same goes for Aaron Cosby and Kendrick Nunn. Illini shot a respectable 37 percent from beyond the arc but taking 19 shots from there is concerning. There is no point guard who can set up plays that require ball movement and could actually result in a decent-looking shot in the waning minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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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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John Groce May Finally Have His Flexible Backcourt

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on November 25th, 2014

Four games up and four games down for the Illini. Yes, we know it is early but it is really tough not to wonder if this is the best backcourt John Groce has had during his time in Champaign. He was hired from Ohio after a surprising run to the Sweet 16 when the Bobcats’ offense, led by D.J.Cooper, burst through the first two rounds in March by running a high-powered offense with multiple ball-handlers and shooters. Groce’s first two seasons have been sub-part at Illinois but his track record shows that his offensive system can raise havoc, given the right type of talent. That talent includes ball-handling skills from at least three positions on the floor. After three straight games of scoring 100 games, albeit against weaker competition, the Illini offense looks very promising because of five combo guards who can be dangerous with the rock. The rotation includes Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby, Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Five of them have been playing at least 20 minutes game and they provide Groce with multiple options.

John Groce has five wings that should be fun to watch this season.

John Groce has five wings that should be fun to watch this season.

Both incoming transfers, Starks and Cosby, shot at least 40% from beyond the arc in their prior lives away from Champaign. Shooting skill doesn’t hurt but it is their ball-handling ability that’s more impressive. Tracy Abrams’ loss for the season could have hurt the Illini because he had a good understanding of the offense after two seasons but Starks and Cosby aren’t too far behind. Let’s not forget that they sat out a whole season after the transfer to Illini and practiced with the team, waiting and chomping at an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of the Orange Krush. Remember last season when Rice was terrific during the first 10 games because he was fully prepared after training with the team? Same goes for Starks and Cosby. Speaking of Rice, he doesn’t have to worry about carrying the offense this season because he is surrounded by shooters. Instead, he can play the wing position and take advantage of backdoor cuts and fast-break opportunities. He was a volume scorer last season which hurt his rhythm during key stretches of the conference season – that doesn’t need to happen this year because Groce can save him for crunch time.

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Addition by Subtraction: Tracy Abrams’ Injury Could Propel Illinois to the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on November 11th, 2014

Watching a senior point guard go down with a season-ending injury before his final year is always painful. Years of experience accumulate into something of a valuable commodity. Senior guards going up against younger hot-shots during conference season is a perennial story to watch year in and year out. IllinoisTracy Abrams could have been that that guard but his absence this season may actually help Illinois settle on a more effective rotation because Abrams’ minutes can be passed onto incoming transfer guards, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby. While John Groce could rely on Abrams to run the team because he can trust his senior guard after two full seasons in Champaign, his offense should benefit with quicker, potentially more talented, guards such as the incoming transfers. The concept of “addition by subtraction” matters for teams that are on the cusp of making it into the NCAA Tournament with a few minor tweaks to the personnel. Illinois was a bubble team last year and Abrams’ loss combined with the infusion of new talent may just be enough to push them into the top five or six teams in conference.

Tracy Abrams' loss may actually help the Illini this season.  (Stephen Haas, Lee News Service)

Tracy Abrams’ loss may actually help the Illini this season.
(Stephen Haas, Lee News Service)

Before understanding how Abrams’ loss helps this season, it is crucial to understand the Illini’s key weakness from last season: long-range shooting. They shot 30.4% from the long-range, ranking tenth in the conference. Shooting from beyond the arc is not Abrams’ strength but that didn’t prevent him from hoisting 111 attempts and only making 27% of them. Pulling up from from the top of the key during crucial possessions in the second half was one of the worst traits of his game. He quickly gave up pushing the ball into the paint which resulted in a horrible free-throw rate — the Illini ranked dead last in the league averaging only 30.6% of free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Groce could count on Abrams to be calm during crunch time but his shot selection was questionable at best. Take these negatives out of the equation and add two excellent shooters, Starks and Cosby. Both Starks and Cosby shot 40% from beyond the arc at Oregon State and Seton Hall respectively and they will certainly boost the Illini offense that is desperate for outside shooting.

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Big Ten M5: 10.29.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on October 29th, 2014

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  1. Northwestern surprised many people last season with the transformation it made halfway through conference play, leading to road wins against Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Drew Crawford was the most important player on that team, so it should be shocking to no one that head coach Chris Collins is still trying to figure out how the Wildcats are going to replace him. Two likely candidates are JerShon Cobb and freshman Vic Law. Cobb topped 20 or more points four times as a junior, while Law is one of the most gifted players coming into the program in quite a while. Northwestern has more depth than last season, but whether the Wildcats can collectively replace one of the best players in the Big Ten is worth watching.
  2. Purdue received its first Class of 2016 pledge on Tuesday, as Indianapolis Tech point guard CJ Walker chose the Boilermakers over Butler and Cincinnati. Walker won a class 4A championship as a sophomore, where he shot 51 percent from the field and averaged 3.2 assists per game. Walker should join Bryson Scott and fellow Indianapolis native PJ Thompson at the point guard spot for the 2016-17 campaign.
  3. Illinois and head coach John Groce have gotten some highly-rated players from Chicago and elsewhere in the state of Illinois. Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate and Malcom Hill are three that come to mind, for example, from his first recruiting class. But one former Illini great thinks that Groce has more work to do. Deon Thomas – the school’s all-time leading scorer and the state’s Mr. Basketball in 1989 from Chicago’s Simeon High School — says that talents like Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander would have stayed home and played for Illinois in the past. He cites AAU culture as a leading factor for Chicago kids choosing to play outside the state. Groce has made some nice headway with in-state kids, but it will take a top-15 type of player from Chicago staying close to home for many Illini fans to truly believe in his recruiting abilities.
  4. Ken Pomeroy released his preseason rankings to the masses on Sunday night and the Big Ten put 13 of its 14 teams among the top 80 in the country. One theme in the ratings is how balanced and equal teams #2 through #11 in the standings could be this season. As an example of how tight things are, Michigan State comes in at second in the league and 12th nationally while Purdue is 11th in the conference but 40th nationally. Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois are all ranked between #32-#38 in the nation. The equality of the teams in the middle of the pack makes predicting the Big Ten race largely a guessing game, and the first set of Pomeroy numbers seem to show that, outside of Wisconsin, he feels that the rest of the league is wide open.
  5. Tis the season for lists and preseason superlatives, and the Big Ten was well represented in SBNation‘s list of the top 100 college basketball players. Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky (#8) and Michigan’s Caris LeVert (#9) both cracked the top 10 nationally, while Nebraska’s Terran Petteway (#15) and Michigan State’s Branden Dawson (#26) made it into the top 30. All told, 15 B1G players made the cut, which left the league tied for second among power conferences with the Big 12. The SEC had the most players on this list with 16, six of whom play for Kentucky alone. The post also listed 50 more players who just missed the cut, which included Penn State senior guard DJ Newbill and Wisconsin sophomore Nigel Hayes.
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Big Ten Season Grades: Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 18th, 2014

Continuing our season-ending analysis, we look at the performances of Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Earlier this week, we handed out grades for Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Ohio State

Grade: C-

This season (25-10, 10-8): What would be a successful season for most programs was a relative disappointment for the Buckeyes. Ohio State did not capture a Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since 2008-09, and similar to that season, they were also bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The issue for the Buckeyes – which was a clear problem area in the preseason – was generating offense without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup. Thomas’ replacement, LaQuinton Ross, almost doubled his scoring average, but the Buckeyes failed to find reliable offensive firepower anywhere else. In the end, Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s excellent showing on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s offensive woes.

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don't expect it to continue next season. (Gettyl)

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don’t expect it to continue next season. (Getty)

Next season: The Buckeyes lose Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Ross, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. They welcome in an elite recruiting class that includes D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate; and they also will get graduate transfer Anthony Lee from Temple next year. These additions along with several talented players already on their roster should have no one worrying about the state of the program going forward. This season was merely a hiccup in the Thad Matta era.

Iowa: C

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Michigan 64, Illinois 63

Posted by Walker Carey on March 14th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday afternoon’s Big Ten Tournament action between Michigan and Illinois in Indianapolis.

Michigan and Levert Survived Friday Afternoon

Michigan and Levert Survived Friday Afternoon

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Illinois showcased great resilience. When the Illini fell behind by 13 at the 16:13 mark of the second half, they could have easily wilted under the pressure that was being strongly applied by top-seeded Michigan. Instead Illinois switched up its defense, made some timely shots, and battled to the very end. After Michigan shot 52 percent in the first half and made its first four shot attempts of the second against Illinois’ straight man-to-man defense, Illini coach John Groce switched into a 2-3 zone for nearly the rest of the game. This switch caused major issues for the Michigan offense, as it only made four of its final 18 shot attempts. The strong defense led to an effective offense and those coupled together led to Illinois being in the game until the final buzzer sounded.
  2. Michigan is terrific at keeping its composure in late-game situations. When Michigan has needed to make a winning play this season, it has succeeded and that is one of the major reasons why John Beilein‘s squad took home the regular season outright Big Ten title. For example, Michigan needed to make a winning play with 2.9 seconds left in overtime at Purdue in late February and the team executed a play to perfection that resulted in a game-winning buzzer-beating shot from Glenn Robinson III. Michigan needed a winning play again Saturday when it trailed 63-62 with 19 seconds left. Out of a timeout, Wolverines sophomore guard Nik Stauskas drove the lane before dishing a gorgeous pass to senior forward Jordan Morgan for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Tournament: The Future Looks Bright For Illinois

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday’s first round Big Ten Tournament game between Illinois and Indiana in Indianapolis.

Both Illinois and Indiana entered Thursday afternoon’s match-up with winning the conference tournament as their only hope of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so Illinois’ 64-54 victory might be viewed as a ticket to play top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals on Friday. While true at some level, it’s misleading at another — Illinois showed in today’s win through a variety of signs that it will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten as soon as next season. The player of the game for the Illini on Thursday afternoon was junior guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams, who entered the game averaging 10.5 points per contest, exploded for a game-high 25 points (17 of which came in the second half). The Chicago native also showcased his ability to hit big shots by nailing a huge three-pointer with 2:06 to play that increased the Illini’s lead to four and all but secured the victory, as Indiana scored just two more points over the remainder of the game.

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

While Abrams led the charge in the scoring column for Illinois, John Groce’s squad also received contributions from several other underclassmen. Junior big man Nnanna Egwu was limited offensively – he managed just two points on 1-of-8 shooting – but he found a way to impact the game in other facets by collecting seven rebounds and blocking five shots. Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice added 13 points and helped key the defensive effort that forced Indiana into an 0-of-10 performance from behind the arc in the second half. Freshmen guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn showed a bit of why John Groce felt comfortable inserting them into the starting lineup back in early February. Hill finished Thursday’s win with eight points and four rebounds, while showcasing his outside shooting prowess by knocking down both of his three-point attempts. Nunn added 10 points to the winning effort and was primarily responsible for the outstanding defensive effort on Indiana star guard Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell finished the afternoon just 3-of-13 from the field and 2-of-9 from three.

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Illinois Freshmen Lead Their Turnaround and Earns Them Another Look at the Bubble

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 4th, 2014

It was February 4, and Illinois had just been dominated by Wisconsin for the second time this season in front of a fairly empty home crowd; severe weather had been an issue. The loss made it eight straight for John Groce’s team — which for a consecutive season was in the midst of a major losing streak in conference play — and found themselves at the bottom of league standings with a 2-8 record. But unlike last season, there were no talented seniors like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in place to lead a turnaround. This team seemed doomed for a miserable last place finish. That’s when Groce put up the white flag and inserted his top two freshmen — Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill — into the starting lineup, a signal that he was moving on from the current season and looking toward the next one. What has happened since has surprised even the most optimistic of Illini fans. Since the shakeup in the rotation, Illinois has won four of its last six games — including three in a row — which includes road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Odds are that they’re still likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, but their current body of work isn’t that far off from other bubble teams within the conference.

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Defense has been Illinois’ strength all season as the Illini have held opponents to an adjusted 93.1 points per 100 possessions (14th in the nation), but their anemic offense, especially their complete inability to shoot the ball, wiped away the advantage their defense gave them. In the non-conference portion of their schedule, Rayvonte Rice was able to get to the rim effectively against less athletic teams or catch high-major teams off guard with his deceptive ability to use his strength while driving to the basket. But by the time Big Ten play started, there was enough tape on Illinois for opponents to adjust. Teams started packing the paint as a result, and Rice, who had averaged 18.7 PPG before the team’s slump, scored five points per game fewer during the eight-game skid. Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna Egwu all failed to prove that they could be relied upon for consistent scoring too, so Groce decided to give his freshmen a shot. It seemed the best Illini fans could hope for was that Nunn and Hill would show signs of improvement by season’s end. Instead, the game came to them immediately, as the two young wings have combined for 19.8 PPG since becoming starters. Almost as importantly, Illinois’ defensive performance did not drop with the change in rotation. In the team’s last four games, Illinois has held its opponents to fewer than 0.83 points per possession (h/t John Gassaway). The results have been an improvement on offense to a point where they can once again rely on their defensive prowess to dictate the tempo of the games and turn their season around.

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Big Ten M5: 03.04.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on March 4th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. Indiana has not gotten the type of offensive breakout season, or consistency, they would have liked from Will Sheehey in his senior outing. But he’s been coming around as of late and was especially effective in their big win against Iowa on Sunday when he dropped a career-high 30 points. In a week where the Hoosiers played three games, the senior wing averaged 18.7 PPG and 4.3 RPG which was good enough to earn him Player of the Week honors. The Hoosiers are making a late push to get on the right side of the bubble, and they’ll need Sheehey to continue to play well, along with Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh, if they are to have any shot at the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Another team making a late season push is Illinois. Unlike the Hoosiers, the Illini are not looking to a senior as a catalyst, but instead are relying on a pair of freshmen. Kendrick Nunn, one of the two rising stars for Illinois, has added the ability to shoot the deep ball to the Illinois rotation — an area where they were sorely lacking. In the six games since he’s become a starter, Nunn has hit on 16 of his 30 attempted three-point shots (53.3 percent). And for a consecutive week, Nunn has won Rookie of the Week honors in the league for his performances that helped the Illini beat both Nebraska and Michigan State. Nunn’s ascendancy bodes well for John Groce, as the visible success of a Chicago Public School product could open up more recruiting pipelines between Illinois and the Windy City hoops scene.
  3. Speaking of John Groce and recruiting, an interesting story came out yesterday telling the story of how one of Michigan’s most improved player, Caris Levert, was originally hoping to join Groce at Illinois. Levert, an unheralded recruit in high school, was originally committed to Groce when he was the coach at Ohio University. After making it to the Sweet Sixteen, Groce then accepted the head coaching position at Illinois. Levert was told he would receive a phone call from the head coach personally about what the move meant about his commitment — that call never came. Levert ended up committing to Michigan and the rest is history. It’s an interesting recruiting story among Big Ten programs and Groce probably wishes he made that phone call now, especially since he’ll have to take on Levert and the Big Ten champion Wolverines tonight.
  4. Lately, Iowa hasn’t seem like the same team it was earlier in the year — a team thought to have an outside chance to make a Final Four. On Sunday, the Hawkeyes snapped a three-game losing streak when they pulled out a win against Purdue. While a win is a win, the game did not really boost confidence in the team as they blew a big halftime lead in the second half. Iowa is safely in the NCAA Tournament as of right now, but they’ll need to find some sort of defense, which has been nonexistent recently, if they are to get back to playing at the high level that made us all believers in this team earlier in the season.
  5. Finally, Michigan State lost consecutive games for the first time this season when they were beaten at home to Illinois on Saturday. Tom Izzo was visibly frustrated after the loss and expanded on it yesterday, “I’ll have a bit of chip on my shoulder from here on out”. There’s been some talk that we will never see a fully healthy Spartan squad with Keith Appling and Adreian Payne continuing to play with nagging injuries. But Tom Izzo has gotten to Final Fours with lesser teams, and if he is able to transfer the chip on his shoulder to his squad, it may put in them the urgency needed to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, this team might be labeled as one of the bigger disappointments in Spartan history relative to their national championship expectations in the preseason.
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