Illinois Finding Consistency During Five-Game Winning Streak

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 21st, 2016

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill is averaging 18.2 PPG and 6.4 RPG in a final season that has so far been nothing short of outstanding. His contributions have been consistent with his talent, but the difference for head coach John Groce this season is that additional weapons across his lineup have mitigated the team’s need to exclusively rely on the senior. Illinois struggled early but has since improved to 9-3 with two of its losses coming against top-30 teams. In a winning streak that is now at five games and includes victories over NC State, VCU and BYU, the Illini have done a much better job in taking care of the ball, have improved defensively, and have had six different players score in double figures. Removing the need for Hill to carry the team on his back enables Illinois to enter Big Ten play next week in good position to end its three-year NCAA Tournament drought.

Tracy Abrams has lead the Illini in scoring over the last two games. (Eric Gay/AP)

Tracy Abrams has lead the Illini in scoring over the last two games. (Eric Gay/AP)

Turnovers were a factor in all three losses, coming to a crescendo when the Illini coughed it up 22 times each in losses to Winthrop and West Virginia — even more troubling was that Illinois seniors (Hill, Jaylon Tate, and Maverick Morgan) were the primary culprits. An average of 12.8 turnovers per game during the winning streak still isn’t great, but it’s an improvement on the 19.0 miscues per game they averaged in the three losses. Another issue that has improved during the last five games is that Illinois has decreased opponents’ three-point field goal percentage from 44.6 percent in the losses to 30 percent since. The Illini have also had three different players lead the team in scoring (Hill, Tracy Abrams, and Leron Black), with several other double-figure scoring outputs coming recently from Jalen Coleman-Lands, Morgan and Michael Finke. Illinois’ improved scoring balance illustrates that the team has options when Hill is struggling.

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.02.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 2nd, 2016

On Wednesday night, the Big Ten lost five of six games to drop the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the first time since 2008. This result represented an already disappointing start to the season for the league, but several teams have an opportunity to right the ship this weekend with solid resume-enhancing wins. In this season’s first weekend look-ahead, we’ll discuss how those teams can get big victories Saturday that may prove consequential on Selection Sunday.

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three point line. (Getty).

For a second straight season, Nigel Hayes is shooting below 30 percent from the three-point line. (Getty).

  • Oklahoma at Wisconsin (Saturday 1:00 PM ET, BTN). This is the Madison installment of a home-and-home series where the Badgers were run off the court in Norman last year. Of course, the Sooners no longer boast three of the seniors – including Naismith POY winner Buddy Hield – who led last year’s squad to the Final Four. Even with all that attrition, it is foolish to bet on a Lon Kruger team to miss the postseason, which means this game is a golden opportunity for Wisconsin to add another victory over a likely NCAA Tournament team (Syracuse) to its non-conference resume. To accomplish this, Wisconsin needs to establish greater offensive balance against a strong Sooners’ defense (24th nationally). Nigel Hayes would be wise to abandon his burgeoning propensity to shoot threes — where he is only hitting 29 percent on the season — and instead establish himself by geting into the paint and earning trips to the free throw line.

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Can Tracy Abrams Save Illinois?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 25th, 2016

Despite the recent signing of five-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, Illinois head coach John Groce is past the point of selling the future to Illini fans. Rather, competing for a berth in this season’s NCAA Tournament is an absolute necessity. While senior Malcolm Hill is expected to be one of the top 10 players in the Big Ten this year, he needs help that could come from a forgotten name: point guard Tracy Abrams. The sixth-year senior not only went through the personal agony of redshirting the last two years because of injuries, but it was clear that the team missed his leadership and offensive capabilities as well. With Abrams now fully back in action, he may just be the spark plug that Groce needs to position Illinois as an at-large NCAA bid contender from the Big Ten.

After two long years, Tracy Abrams will finally be able spark the Illini offense. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Illini averaged an abysmal 0.97 points per possession last season because they didn’t have a reliable point guard to complement the skill sets of Hill and Kendrick Nunn on the wings. As a result, Jaylon Tate unexpectedly stepped into the point guard role, and while serviceable he wasn’t particularly effective. Nunn and Hill combined to take over 300 shots from beyond the arc, making a meager 35 percent of those attempts. Most of those shots came from plays in isolation because Tate didn’t have the ability to effectively set up his shooters. Tate’s strength is to push tempo on the fast break and find angles for penetration. He has no mid-range game nor a respectable shot from three-point range so defenders essentially give him several feel of space and dare him to shoot.

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Big Ten Feast Week Primer: Part Three

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 24th, 2016

Eight of the 14 Big Ten teams have already started, finished or will play in early-season tournaments this week. The festivities began Monday afternoon with Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational, but continue for much of the week as turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce commingles with basketball in far-flung locales. Here’s the third of a three-part breakdown that discusses what each participating Big Ten team faces this week.

NIT Season Tip-Off

Malcolm Hill will need to display the form that made him a Preseason All Big-Ten player in New York City this weekend. (USA Today Sports)

Malcolm Hill will need to display the form that made him a Preseason All-Big Ten player in New York City this weekend. (USA Today Sports)

  • Teams: Illinois, West Virginia, Florida State, Temple
  • Capsule: Things were looking relatively good for Illinois as it got off to a 4-0 start… and then the Illini lost to Winthrop at home. In what might be a make-or-break season for John Groce, a couple of wins against quality teams in the Big Apple would definitely ease some stress. Illinois squares off today against the national leader in creating turnovers and steals when it plays West Virginia. Those same 22 turnovers against Winthrop will end this game quickly.
  • Key Player: Tracy Abrams will be the key here. The sixth -year senior not only needs to break the Mountaineers’ press, but unlike the offensively-challenged Jaylon Tate, he can also be a threat to score. Abrams needs to max out his experience and ability for Illinois to come away with two wins in New York this week.
  • Prediction: The West Virginia game will be an ugly loss, but expect the Illini to respond and beat Temple in the consolation game on Friday.

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Big Ten Key Offseason Questions: Part I

Posted by Patrick Engel on April 6th, 2016

The college basketball season concluded Monday night with Villanova as this year’s national champion, but the Big Ten’s season ended with North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen trouncing of Indiana back on March 25. A lot has already happened among league teams in the interim, including a coaching hire at Rutgers and a great number of transfers. Over the next few days as we close out the 2015-16 season, we’ll review a key offseason question for each Big Ten team, starting at the bottom of the conference standings.

Rutgers (7-25, 1-17 Big Ten)

Among Steve Pickiell's many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

Among Steve Pickiell’s many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

How quickly can new head coach Steve Pickiell give Rutgers some local recruiting appeal?

Steve Pickiell, who led Stony Brook to the NCAA Tournament this season and won three America East regular season title in five years, is already a known name in the greater New York area. It’s no secret that New York/New Jersey has plenty of basketball talent, and Rutgers is located in the heart of the same recruiting territory. Pickiell didn’t waste any time in accomplishing what Eddie Jordan couldn’t in three years: earning a commitment from a New Jersey high school playerMatt Bullock from prep powerhouse Roselle Catholic will play for the Scarlet Knights next season.

Pickiell has already made a home run hire, luring away Karl Hobbs from Connecticut to become his new associate head coach. His staff would be wise to make offers to a number of the area’s best players in the classes of 2018 and 2019 right away. Rutgers needs to develop good working relationships and credibility with with the region’s top high school and AAU coaches, and getting the program’s name out there now is a key element to that strategy. The school’s local perception can drastically stand to improve, so if Pickiell can snag a couple of the area’s under-recruited but well-known players in the next class, it will pay dividends in future years. Bullock, while a recruit in this year’s senior class, is a good start who fits that description.

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Big Ten Tournament Takeaways: Friday Afternoon

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2016

The Big Ten Tournament’s afternoon session on Friday yielded two starkly different outcomes. In the opener, Michigan upset top-seeded Indiana in dramatic fashion, knocking down a three-pointer just before the buzzer to preserve its NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. The second game was far less dramatic, but perhaps a louder statement – Purdue throttled #12 seed Illinois, 89-58, in one of the more dominant quarterfinal matchups you will ever see. Here are four takeaways from this afternoon’s games.

Michigan reserve Kameron Chatman preserved the Wolverine's NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Kameron Chatman preserved Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes on Friday. (KIICHIRO SATO, NY Daily News)

Indiana: Despite the massive, swarming fan base that filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse like a sea of crimson, Indiana was never able to go on one of its patented runs Friday afternoon. That, plus a high turnover rate and poor shooting from behind the arc (4-of-17 3FG), doomed the Big Ten champs. Tom Crean‘s bunch never went on a run of more than seven points, and was not able to take advantage of its fresh legs like the eighth-year head coach had hoped. “We weren’t as fast in the first half as we were in the second half, and that’s not how we play,” Crean said afterwards. While freshman OG Anunoby had another nice performance (13 points on 6-of-6 shooting), Yogi Ferrell – who seemed in utter command during the Hoosiers’ blowout win over Michigan in February – struggled to find nearly as many good looks against a much-improved Wolverines defense. Indiana’s own inability to cover Duncan Robison and Kameron Chatman on the game’s final two possessions ultimately sealed their fate. The good news? The Hoosiers should be a #3 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is published on Sunday, and will have plenty of time to rediscover the confident basketball that carried it through February.

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Big Ten Tournament Storylines: Quarterfinal Friday

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 11th, 2016

We’re now down to eight teams remaining in the Big Ten Tournament after a wild Thursday resulted in significant upsets to Iowa and Wisconsin. Today the top four seeds will take the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse hoping to avoid the same fate that befell the #5 and #6 seeds. As we head into the quarterfinals, here are four storylines to watch during the tournament’s third day in Indianapolis.

Malcolm Hill and the Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

Malcolm Hill and his Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

  1. Can Illinois Keep It Going?: Even with Iowa finishing the season with a whimper, #12 Illinois’ win over the Hawkeyes on Thursday might be the biggest Big Ten upset since Rutgers beat Wisconsin last season. An impressive game from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn along with continued strong play from freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands could get the Illini into the tournament semifinals. Remember that John Groce’s unit — thanks to 52 points from Hill and Dunn — has already beaten Purdue once this year.  Read the rest of this entry »
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The RTC Big Ten Podcast: And Your Big Ten Champion Is…

Posted by Alex Moscoso on March 1st, 2016

The Big Ten microsite crew is back to chat the league as the regular season winds down. In the second RTC Big Ten PodcastAlex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso), Brendan Brody (@berndon4) and Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_) discuss a slew of topics that include Iowa’s now-familiar late-season meltdown, Indiana clinching a share of the regular season title, Denzel Valentine’s dominance, John Groce’s grip on his team, Wisconsin’s resurgence back to relevance, the amazing group of rookies in the Big Ten, and whether adding Rutgers was worth it. The full rundown is below. Push play and enjoy the lively banter between three Big Ten basketball heads, and let us know if you want us to cover any new topics for the next episode at @rushtheB1G.

  • 0:45 – 6:30 — Iowa’s late season meltdown
  • 6:31 – 12:59 — Indiana as Big Ten champs
  • 13:00 – 28:53 — Denzel Valentine’s historic season (with some ranting about Illinois and John Groce in between)
  • 28:54 – 37:59 — Wisconsin’s resurgence
  • 38:00 – 53:15 — The league’s best rookies
  • 53:16 – 59:40 — Quick hits: Ohio State’s postseason and Rutger’s ineptitude
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The RTC Big Ten Podcast: Debut Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on February 2nd, 2016

Welcome to the first-ever Big Ten microsite podcast! Big Ten microsite writers Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) and Patrick Engel (@PatrickEngel_) are here to give you a quickish overview of the league at the turn. In this episode, we analyze the two first-place teams in detail, select a few others that are poised to challenge for a regular season title, discuss whether any of the teams currently outside the bubble can get back on to it, consider a few Big Ten POY candidates, and finally talk about the few coaches on the hot seat. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast and, if so, what topics we should cover next time, at @rushtheB1G. The complete rundown is below.

  • 1:06 – 8:35 — Indiana and Iowa
  • 8:36-17:39 — Maryland and Michigan’s regular season title hopes
  • 17:40-25:59 — Ohio State and Nebraska’s chances at an at-large bid
  • 26:00-31:41 — Jarrod Uthoff and A.J. Hammons as possible Big Ten POYs
  • 31:42-47:00 — Coaches on the hot seat
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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 01.29.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 29th, 2016

The Big Ten season is about halfway done and it looks like the top six schools–Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Purdue, and Michigan State – are putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the conference. While there are no head-to-head matchups between any of these teams this weekend, there are still a handful of consequential games. Here are the three most important of them:

Shavon Shields faces a huge frontline this weekend when they face Purdue. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Shavon Shields will take on a huge frontline this weekend when the Cornhuskers battle Purdue. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

Nebraska at #21 Purdue (Saturday 4:30 pm ET, BTN). Time is running out for the Cornhuskers’ hopes for an at-large bid. While they have a nice win at Michigan State, they’ll need another win over a highly-ranked team to make up for some of the questionable losses of late 2015. They will get a great opportunity to do so this weekend when they travel to West Lafayette. The Boilermakers are still ranked in the Top 25 and sit 27th in RPI. But Purdue has also recently had some shaky performances, most notably a loss at Illinois and a near-defeat at Minnesota. If the Boilermakers look past Nebraska towards a matchup with Maryland next week, they could easily be upset. Look for Shavon Shields to try to find some open lanes against the massive Purdue frontcourt; if he’s successful, the Cornhuskers will have a shot at a critically important victory.

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