Big Ten M5: 12.02.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 2nd, 2015

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  1. I’ve grown numb to feelings of empathy for John Groce and Illinois. No man or program who has undergone so much bad fortune in such a short period of time can be innocent of prior wrongdoing. The Basketball Gods have proven angry with the Illini and they’ve recently claimed yet another soul with the likely season-ending injury of Mike Thorne. The graduate senior tore his meniscus in the Iowa State game on Saturday and subsequent surgery has left him out of the lineup indefinitely. Look for Leron Black and maybe even Malcolm Hill to fill in for his time spent at the four, while Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan try to replace his big shoes at center.
  2. Scoring is up this season, which was the goal of this year’s rule changes designed to create a more free-flowing game. But not everyone is happy with these changes. After Michigan State’s Sunday night victory against Providence at the Wooden Classic — a game in which the two main stars, Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn — ran into early foul trouble, Tom Izzo criticized both the officiating and the new rules. It’s not a total surprise that Izzo would react unfavorably to this shift since his style of play isn’t frenetic, but Sparty seems to be adjusting just fine with a 7-0 record and a #3 ranking in the latest AP Poll.
  3. Speaking of the Spartans, Denzel Valentine has erupted onto the national stage with his incredible early performances against Kansas and Providence. Through a couple weeks, he has jumped out in front as the early favorite for National Player of the Year by averaging 19.9 PPG, 8.6 APG, and 8.9 RPG. Yahoo Sports‘ Jeff Eisenberg writes about how the Lansing native has gone from begging Izzo for a scholarship to a legitimate NPOY candidate. The way it’s looking now, Valentine will join a couple of other famous Michigan natives in Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green who also rose to national prominence under Izzo’s tutelage.
  4. We’re in the midst of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this week and the leagues are deadlocked at 4-4 with six games remaining. One of the nicer Big Ten wins last night was Michigan notching a 66-59 victory at NC State. The road victory represents a potential resume-enhancing win, but an ankle injury suffered by guard Derrick Walton may be the most lasting outcome from the game. If the junior needs to miss any significant time, it could spell trouble for the Wolverines as Spike Albrecht, the backup point guard, is coming off a hip injury of his own and is not thought to be fully healthy (although he did play some minutes last night).
  5. Finally, Purdue had the most impressive win of the night when it went into the Pete and defeated Pittsburgh by 13 points. The star of the evening was senior center A.J. Hammons, who recorded a double-double (24 points and 12 rebounds) and came up with several key buckets in the second half to help the Boilermakers close out a tight game. The big man has been coming off the bench since he missed the first few games this year because of an off-court issue. It’s no guarantee that Matt Painter will give him a starting spot back — his replacement Isaac Haas has been outstanding — but it also doesn’t much matter because he will get the bulk of the available minutes. Hammons is so integral to the success of this team that whether he’s technically starting is irrelevant.
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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 11.20.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 20th, 2015

By the second weekend of the season, most power conference teams have moved past playing cupcakes from one-bid leagues — although some of those cupcakes ultimately got the last laugh — and are now moving up in competition. Stiffer tests begin in earnest for two Big Ten squads tonight, as Wisconsin and Michigan take part in marquee match-ups against Big East opponents and wo more B1G teams face challenging mid-majors on Saturday. Here are the four games to watch involving Big Ten teams this weekend.

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig scored a combined 29 points in last year's thriller against Georgetown (Daivd Banks-USA Today Sports).

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig scored a combined 29 points in last year’s thriller against Georgetown (Photo: David Banks, USA Today Sports).

  1. Georgetown vs. Wisconsin (Friday, 5:00 PM ET, ESPN). Oddly enough, this game isn’t part of the slate of Gavitt Tipoff Games but instead a part of the 2K Classic event taking place in Madison Square Garden over the weekend. It’s also a rematch of a classic from last season, when the Hoyas — behind a 29-point effort from D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera — nearly upset the second-ranked Badgers in the Battle 4 Atlantis. These teams look to be more evenly matched this year, with Smith-Rivera perhaps looking to finish what he started a year ago in the Bahamas. Both squads have already suffered unexpected home losses to teams they have no business losing to (Wisconsin to Western Illinois; Georgetown to Radford), so the loser here will find itself in an early hole in its pursuit of a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Xavier at Michigan (Friday, 9:00 PM ET, BTN).  The Wolverines will host the Musketeers tonight in the final game of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Caris Levert‘s team has looked resurgent in its first two outings, beating its two opponents by a combined 54 points in an effort to erase memories of an injury-plagued and disappointing 2014-15 season. Michigan will face its first real test when Trevon Bluiett’s Musketeers invade the Crisler Center. It’ll be a mismatch of styles — the Wolverines are a quintessential jump-shooting team while Xavier thrives off attacks of the rim and getting to the free throw line —  so whichever team sets the tone early will earn a distinct advantage. Read the rest of this entry »
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Levy’s B1G Layup Line: Week 1

Posted by Adam Levy on November 19th, 2015

Welcome to Rush the Court’s first ever edition of Levy’s B1G Layup Line, a weekly column set to give you all the water cooler material you need for all things Big Ten basketball. If you’re reading this, congratulations – you’re losing your virginity to this column, and so am I. We’re now linked together forever as eskimo brothers; if we’re going to embark on this season-long journey together, we may as well check ourselves into the EBDBBnB and enjoy it.

Before we do that, though, let’s break in the 2016 season by recapping what was a very interesting first week in the Big Ten.

REPORT CARD

Denzel Valentine Put on a Show in Chicago Tuesday Night

Denzel Valentine Put on a Show in Chicago Tuesday Night

A: Denzel Valentine

I could make this all about Michigan State’s incredible come-from-behind victory against a rock-solid Kansas team poised to win its 12th straight Big 12 title. But I won’t. Reason being: Denzel Valentine is a freak of nature. The captain of both a veteran Spartans’ team and the “How is He Still In College?” team made history on Tuesday night in front of 50+ NBA executives and scouts at the United Center, becoming the fourth player in Michigan State history to post a triple-double (Magic Johnson – 8; Draymond Green – 3; Charlie Bell – 1) with an absurd 29/12/12 stat line and earning himself a postgame phone call from Magic Johnson. Valentine scored or assisted on 22 straight points in the second half to dig his team out of an 11-point hole and give Sparty a permanent lead. Without him, Michigan State loses by over 20. You don’t usually see the best individual performance of the season happen in mid-November, but this very well may have been it.

B: Caleb Swanigan

Speaking of Michigan State, their favorite non-Spartan had himself a weeeek. He recorded a double-double in each of his first two collegiate games (12.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game), earning his first Freshman of the Week honor in as many tries. With two massive seven-foot centers and no big to stretch the floor last season, Swanigan was the key missing variable to solving Purdue’s frontcourt equation. Now that AJ Hammons is back, it’s absolutely terrifying to think about what that frontcourt is capable of doing.

C: Maryland Terrapins

You’d be hard pressed to find a basketball fan out there who didn’t think Maryland was a top-five team nationally heading into the season. What those people need to be reminded of is that 60.0 percent of this team’s starting five is brand new (Rasheed Sulaimon; Robert Carter; Diamond Stone). It will take more than a week for Mark Turgeon to mold the clay and allow his team time to develop chemistry and learn to play together. It was no surprise to see Maryland struggle to put away a gritty Georgetown team in a game where Melo Trimble did not score until about five minutes left in the first half. And after all that talk about Maryland’s top notch frontcourt, it was the Terps’ small-ball lineup (Jake Layman at the four; Carter at the five) – the method that led to their 28 wins last season – that won out. Sure, a win’s a win. But this thing will take a little time. Patience, people.

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John Groce’s Illini Simply Can’t Catch a Break

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 3rd, 2015

Everyone has had one of those days where NOTHING goes right. You wake up late and burn the coffee, only to realize there isn’t enough time to make another pot. You try to brush your teeth but forgot you threw out your toothbrush last night, so you have to use your finger. You leave the lunch you made the night before in your fridge. This and more, all before 9:00 AM.

John Groce has had a rough offseason; exactly when he needed a break or two.

At a time when he needed a break or two, John Groce has had a rough off-season.

For Illinois head coach John Groce, this kind of bad day must have felt like it lasted for the entire offseason. Now entering his fourth season as the Illinois head coach, the 44-year old is at a breaking point in his tenure. The Illini have missed two consecutive NCAA Tournaments and are an uninspiring 24-30 in conference play over the same span. Memories of the excitement of his first season in Champaign are long gone; in those days, the Illini were a play or two away from the Sweet Sixteen and in the mix to land a few different blue-chip recruits. But monumental setbacks this offseason both within and outside his basketball program have the likelihood of a comeback campaign feeling quite remote. The head coach needs to coax some signs of life out of his program soon in order to rally the troops.

The list of mini-crises that have adversely affected the Illinois basketball program is long; here are a few of the lowlights:

  1. Football and women’s basketball scandals. The revelation that Illini football coach Tim Beckman was a real life Bud Kilmer — and appropriately fired one week before the start of the season — summoned a dark cloud over the entire athletic program. Ultimately, a different investigation found no wrongdoing into claims of racial discrimination against the women’s basketball coaching staff, but the public relations damage had already been done. These external distractions do not create an environment for the kind of administrative “support” the head basketball coach needs coming into a make-or-break season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Storylines Heading Into Next Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on April 17th, 2015

There are still some dominoes to fall in terms of Big Ten roster turnover in coming weeks but we already have a pretty good idea of how the league will look next year. Here are a few things to ponder as Big Ten fans brace themselves for seven months without any games with which to occupy their time.

Melo Trimble could be a first team All-American next season for Maryland. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Melo Trimble could be a first team All-American next season for Maryland. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

  • Return to Multiple Conference Championship Contenders: Wisconsin essentially went wire-to-wire this season, going from the unanimous preseason favorite to winning both the conference regular season and postseason titles. Next season should be a bit more like the 2013-14 campaign with several teams with a realistic shot to win the league. Maryland is rightfully getting a good deal of love in the preseason “way-to-early” top 25 lists. The Terps will return two of their top three players in Melo Trimble and Jake Layman and will add a bruiser down low in freshman Diamond Stone. Indiana (assuming both Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. return to Bloomington), and Michigan State could also very well start the season in the top 15 nationally. Thomas Bryant will give the Hoosiers someone to keep defenses honest inside, while Sparty adds Eron Harris, Devonta Davis, and Caleb Swanigan to a nucleus of eight players who were contributors on a Final Four squad. These three should all challenge for the top spot in Big Ten play next season.
  • Wisconsin Rebuild: It will be fun to observe how Bo Ryan replaces the multiple talented pieces that he is losing from a group that went to back-to-back Final Fours. He has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt so as to figure that players like Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will break out with more playing time next season. Getting key starters Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig back is also a pretty decent starting point. How far will the Badgers actually fall, and how long will it take for the newcomers to make an impact?

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News & Notes: Day Two at the Big Ten Tourney

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

An afternoon of upsets (Michigan and Penn State both toppled higher-seeded foes) gave way to a more predictable evening at day two of the Big Ten Tournament. Meanwhile, the two bubble teams in action may have each punched tournament tickets… to different, less-prestigious tournaments. Indiana may be good to dance after defeating Northwestern, but Illinois is surely NIT-bound after its decisive loss to Michigan. A few other news and notes on Thursday’s action from the United Center:

John Groce’s Seat Warming Up: Thursday’s loss to Michigan means Illinois is almost certainly headed to the NIT, where the Illini will seek to salvage some shred of meaning from a disappointing season. John Groce has recruited well since arriving in Champaign, but the former Ohio University head man has yet to finish a season with a winning Big Ten record. His only NCAA Tournament appearance at Illinois came in 2012-13, and that happened with a team largely constructed by his predecessor, Bruce Weber. Groce is going nowhere this offseason, but if the Illini find themselves in a similar spot next postseason, his job status will be far less certain. The good news for Illinois is that the return of Tracy Abrams and another talented incoming freshman class could, and maybe even should, lead to a happier result in Champaign a year from now. It will be interesting to see how much the Illini miss Rayvonte Rice next year. On the one hand, he was a legitimately efficient volume scorer – a player prototype that doesn’t exactly grow on trees. But Illinois’ 6-3 record without Rice this season raise the question of whether his ball-dominating nature might have often been counterproductive. We’ll find out in a critical 2015-16 campaign for Groce and the Illini.

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon (Getty Images)

Nittany Lions Drop Hawkeyes: Iowa was a trendy sleeper pick heading into the action yesterday, but Penn State quickly and effectively ended the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament. The loss changes little for the Hawkeyes except for the fact that Fran McCaffery’s team is now squarely staring down the barrel of a dreaded #8/#9 game. Things could be worse, though – they seem to be safely in the field, and unlike last year, shouldn’t be headed to Dayton. On the other side, Penn State won its third straight Big Ten game — no small feat considering the Nittany Lions had won just three of 17 league games before embarking on their recent surge. More good news for Penn State fans: Purdue awaits the Lions in the next round. No disrespect to the Boilers and their impressive 12-6 Big Ten season, but they are clearly the easiest option among the four teams that received double-byes. Penn State pushed Purdue to overtime in State College in their only meeting of the season; can the tournament’s most unexpected quarterfinalist find a way to extend its stay in Chicago for at least another day?

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Big Ten Tournament Preview

Posted by Henry Bushnell & Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2015

Henry Bushnell and Bennet Hayes will be in Chicago all week delivering coverage of the Big Ten tournament. In advance of the action tipping off Wednesday night, they sat down to tackle a few questions on the week that lies ahead.

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin enters the Big Ten Tournament as a heavy favorite. Which team besides the Badgers has the best shot at winning it all this week

  • Bennet: Michigan State‘s regular season was no exemplar of consistency, but with Branden Dawson expected to return to the lineup for Friday’s quarterfinal game, they’ve officially made it to March in one piece. Betting against Tom Izzo this month is always a dicey operation — particularly with the experienced Valentine/Trice/Dawson core once again intact. Furthermore, snagging the #3 seed and delaying a potential rematch with Wisconsin until the championship game is another nice coup. The double-bye should also minimize the impact of depth issues that have at times proved troublesome. Michigan State never got the Badgers on its home floor this season; here’s guessing Sparty wouldn’t mind a crack at them in neutral territory. Izzo’s bunch has the chops to win three games in Chicago this week.
  • Henry: I like the Sparty pick, but I’ll take Ohio State. I know a lot of people will be scared off by the beatdown Wisconsin put on the Buckeyes in Columbus in the regular season finale, but that result was a lot more about the Badgers than Ohio State. Thad Matta still has a very talented team, and one that on a per-possession basis has far outperformed its record. And if there’s one player in this tournament who can take over a game and engineer an upset of Wisconsin in the final, it’s D’Angelo Russell.
D'Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run In Chicago This Week

D’Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run This Week In Chicago. (USA TODAY Sports)

Which player are you most looking forward to watching?

  • Henry: I can’t wait to see Branden Dawson. I know he’s had an up-and-down year with some recent injury issues, but he should be ready to go on Friday. He’s one of those players where a television screen simply doesn’t do his game justice. I’ve seen him play live twice this year from the upper levels and he wowed me both times with his athleticism and sheer power. At the United Center, we should have a front row seat, and I expect his game up close to be even more eye-popping.

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Evaluating Rayvonte Rice’s Career at Illinois

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 8th, 2015

Despite averaging 16.0 PPG over two seasons in Champaign, Rayvonte Rice’s Illinois career has had several bumps along the way. There is no argument about his offensive ability but his leadership could be called into question because the Illini — depending on the next seven days — have not made an NCAA Tournament on his watch. He struggled during Big Ten competition last season as the Illini lost eight straight at one point, and although the team has been better during his senior season, he hasn’t been able to close out some games because he was too predictable. If the Illini get back to the NCAAs next week, all may be forgiven; but assuming they do not after a tough loss to Purdue yesterday, let’s examine the three primary reasons why Rice’s game didn’t translate to more wins at Illinois.

Rayvonte Rice Has Had an Up and Down Illinois Career (USA Today Images)

Rayvonte Rice Has Had an Up and Down Illinois Career (USA Today Images)

  1. Over-reliance on the long-range shot and predictable moves. Rice’s athleticism is too much to handle during the non-conference season because most of those teams don’t have defenders with enough strength to prevent him from getting to the rim. Big Ten defenders, however, are just as strong as him, and the coaches are too smart to allow him to get to the basket off of screens. Double-teams are common when he comes off screens to his right as opposing defenders force him to shoot from beyond the arc. His junior season was plagued with horrible shot selection, attempting 156 threes and only making 30 percent of them. Frustrations mounted during his slumps as he continued to force shots instead of sharing the ball with his younger teammates. The insertions of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn into the starting lineup last season helped to ease the burden somewhat, but it came a bit too late. Rice should have let the game come to him and relied more on his teammates. Read the rest of this entry »
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Aaron Cosby’s Injury Hurts Illini But Not Insurmountably

Posted by Eric Clark on January 22nd, 2015

llinois’ season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan, as its roster has been ravaged by injuries on its way to a mediocre 13-7 overall record (3-4 Big Ten). News released prior to Wednesday night’s game against Purdue (a 66-57 win) revealed that junior guard Aaron Cosby tore the retina in his left eye early in Sunday’s 80-74 loss to Indiana, playing approximately 16 minutes with the injury. The Seton Hall transfer went 0-of-5 from three-point range in that game, but has been a solid contributor — 7.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG — for John Groce’s team all season. The junior is expected to miss the next two weeks.

Junior Aaron Cosby suffered a torn retina in his left eye Saturday vs. Indiana. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Junior Aaron Cosby suffered a torn retina in his left eye Saturday vs. Indiana. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Illinois’ backcourt was one of the deepest in the Big Ten heading into this season with experienced guards Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice returning, young but seasoned sophomores Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn back, and transfers Ahmad Starks and Cosby entering. Abrams of course tore his ACL before the season even began, and Rice is currently sidelined with a broken hand. Hill has been solid – his high-water mark of 28 points and seven rebounds coming in the team’s upset of Maryland. Cosby was a 38.8 percent three-point shooter in his two years at Seton Hall and was expected to be a legitimate scoring threat but he has struggled from both long-range (31.1 percent) and inside the arc (25.9 percent). His turnover rate is also the second highest among Illini guards this season (15.3 percent). Despite all of those ugly offensive numbers, Illinois’s disappointing season will be worse for wear without him in the lineup for the next two weeks.

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John Groce’s January Drearier Than Usual With Rice Injury

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 6th, 2015

It appears safe to say that January may not be John Groce’s favorite month. In the two and a half seasons he’s spent as the head coach at Illinois, the 43-year old Indiana native has gone 3-13 in the first month of the year, including Saturday’s loss to Ohio State. Things will not get any easier for him in coming weeks as news was released today that his leading scorer, Rayvonte Rice, will be sidelined for five to six weeks with a broken hand that he sustained during Monday’s practice. This is a devastating blow to Groce and his already-struggling offense as the Illini now have to slog through much of the rest of Big Ten play without their best offensive player.

John Groce's Illinois faces a pivotal game against Indiana to kick off the conference season.

John Groce faces his most difficult challenge yet with Rice out for the remainder of Big Ten play.

Rice’s injury may turn out to be the final wave that capsizes the boat on the Illini’s unfortunate and disappointing season. While a quick look at their resume may not visibly show a sinking team, this squad has not lived up to preseason expectations. With the introduction of two sharpshooting transfers in Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby and an additional year of development for the sophomore duo of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, this season’s Illini were supposed to have resolved last season’s offensive inadequacies. Things initially went according to plan early, but Starks and Cosby have gone cold from the field since December (a combined 31 percent from the field in the last eight games), and Nunn, who started the season injured, has never returned to the same level of play he showed at the end of last season. Hill may be the only player who has lived up to his expected billing, but he too has managed to disappear in a few games.

The only constant for Illinois had been Rice, and now they are without their rock. The Illini will miss more than his scoring, as the senior guard provides contributions all over the court — 6.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, and 48.3% 3FG — but perhaps the most telling statistic that shows his impact is the gulf between his Player Efficiency Rating (31.9) and the next best player, Hill’s (22.5). Now, midway through a trying season, Groce will need to reinvent his roster with the same players who have disappointed him all season. In order to salvage something out of it, someone will have to emerge in the next six weeks to help mitigate the loss of Rice. Otherwise, this winter of Illini discontent will last a lot longer than just January in Champaign.

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