Three Thoughts on Nebraska’s Loss to Illinois Last Night

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 27th, 2014

Road games should never be taken lightly in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers basketball train came to a halt as Tim Miles’ squad lost for the first time in six games last night. The following are three thoughts from Illinois’ 60-49 victory in Champaign.

Tim Miles' Huskers lost a costly game last night in Champaign. (Getty)

Tim Miles’ Huskers lost a costly game last night in Champaign. (Getty)

  1. Did Nebraska blow its chance at the NCAA Tournament? That may appear to be a harsh statement but the the loss certainly doesn’t help the Cornhuskers’ already-marginal case for an NCAA Tournament bid. For most of the game, Nebraska appeared to be tired, and it manifested itself by rushing way too many shots. An emotionally-draining five-game winning streak can wear down a young team, and even though they should bounce back against Northwestern this weekend, next week’s road trip to Bloomington should be a big concern for Miles. Similar to Illinois, Indiana’s NCAA hopes are practically nonexistent, but Tom Crean’s team will certainly relish the opportunity to play the spoiler’s role. If Nebraska can indeed manage to pull off those next two wins, it would have a very good chance of securing an at-large bid with a quality home win against Wisconsin to finish off the regular season. A March game in Lincoln with the postseason on the line would be a unique situation for the basketball Cornhuskers, a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
  2. Kendrick Nunn may be Illinois’ best player. The Illini stunned Minnesota on the road about a week ago, as Nunn scored a smooth 19 points in the victory. A top-75 recruit from Chicago, it is no secret that he was a talented guard, but it took a while for him to get up to speed with the collegiate game. Once John Groce put him into the starting lineup against Penn State on February 9, he has shown that he has the game to become one of the better players in the entire conference. It wasn’t just his 13 points last night that was impressive, but it was the way in which he went about it —  shooting an efficient 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and with a total of just six shots from the field. He doesn’t force it and lets the offense come to him, which shows a tremendous amount of maturity for such a young player. Read the rest of this entry »
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Two Questions About Illinois vs. Minnesota

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) & Jonathan Batuello on February 19th, 2014

Two teams that are heading in opposite directions will face off on Wednesday night in Minneapolis. Illinois enters the game having lost nine out of the last ten games while Minnesota is trying to keep their NCAA hopes alive. The Big Ten microsite writers – Deepak Jayanti and Jonathan Batuello – discuss two important questions about the game:

Richard Pitino's Gophers can't afford to drop the game against Illinois if they want to keep their NCAA hopes alive.

Richard Pitino’s Gophers can’t afford to lose against Illinois if they want to keep their NCAA hopes alive.

How critical is Andre Hollins continued progression in his return from the ankle injury to Minnesota?

JB: The Gophers took a major skid without him when it lost three of four games. Since coming back he has had good and bad outings. He dropped 22 on Wisconsin, but was barely noticeable against Northwestern. It needs him to be in good form to win and continue on its path from bubble to NCAA Tournament team. What he does in comparison to Rayvonte Rice in this game will be instrumental in who wins. The importance of this game for Minnesota also can’t be understated. It’s three-game stretch after Illinois is at Ohio State, Iowa, and at Michigan, so it needs this win to avoid a potentially disastrous losing streak. Get this one, win one of those three and close out the season with a win against Penn State and it is at 20 wins and likely in the NCAA Tournament. Andre Hollins playing better and getting back to potentially All-Big Ten form will decide that fate.

DJ: Do the Gophers need a healthy Hollins to win a game in the NCAA Tournament? Yes. But they don’t really need him at 100% health to make the NCAAs because the offense runs through Deandre Mathieu and Maurice Walker now. Mathieu’s ability to get into the paint off the screens is a fierce weapon that defenses have struggled to stop over the past four games, as he averaged over 14 points per game during that stretch. Hollins’ three-point shooting will help the Gophers spread the floor but he doesn’t need to carry the offensive burden like he had to during the first few months of the season. Richard Pitino’s squad will make the tourney by pressing hard on defense with their depth, attacking the basket with Mathieu and finishing strong around the hoop with their big men.

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Big Ten M5: 02.17.14 Edition

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

morning5_bigten

  1. Over the years, we’ve grown accustomed to getting Tom Izzo’s take on various subjects. He was very vocal when Illinois had fired head coach, Bruce Weber, and he usually doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinion about the general state of college basketball. So what’s the newest topic that Izzo has been sounding off about? Twitter. “We used to be able to go to a game and have a bad game, leave the game and you never heard about it,” Izzo said this week, when asked about his take on Twitter, during a post-game press conference. Generally speaking, Izzo’s players haven’t really gotten into trouble with their usage of their 140 characters on Twitter, but that doesn’t stop their coach from sharing his opinion.
  2. John Groce is trying his best to make changes in Champaign, but they haven’t yielded any results over the past few weeks, as the Illini have lost nine out of ten games. Having said that, the players appear to be hanging in there with their coach through the tough times. “The effort that they continue to give, the way they’ve fought, the fact that they come with their hard hat on every day, that motivates me,” Groce said. The offense has stumbled since early January, after they started the conference season with a 2-0 record. At this point, the best they can really do is show some improvement with their younger core of players – Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill – over the next few weeks. By doing that, at least the Illini could set themselves up for a decent season next year.
  3. The hits keep on coming for the Hoosiers. After getting pummeled by the Boilermakers on the road, Tom Crean indefinitely suspended sophomore forward, Hanner Perea over the weekend. Crean said, “The first things I told him were that we loved him and wanted to support him. We are disappointed in him but also disappointed for him. He knows he made some terrible choices which have turned into big mistakes.” Even though Perea has only averaged 3 PPG, the loss might affect the Hoosiers team more negatively off the court, than on the court. With the loss at Purdue, the Hoosiers need a couple of big wins over the next three weeks if they hope to make a run at the NCAAs.
  4. Nik Stauskas had only averaged 10 PPG over four games leading up to the big game against Wisconsin on Sunday. Before the game, John Beilein was urging Stauskas to increase his shot attempts to make sure he could shoot out of his slump. “He can do this,” Beilein said on Friday of Stauskas dealing with aggressive defenses. Against the Badgers, Stauskas struggled early on against the staunch defense from Josh Gasser and ended up with just 11 points from 11 shot attempts. This slump could very well only last a few more games before the sophomore sharpshooter heats up again in March, just in time for the NCAA tournament.
  5. After four years in the Big Ten, Aaron Craft may have thought that he had seen it all, but he might have seen something different during his last trip to Champaign on Saturday. The Orange Krush tried to make fun of Craft by adding, what they might have considered funny, details to the flyer that was handed out to the students before the game. It was a failed attempt because he scored 14 points in just 25 minutes as the Buckeyes continue to keep their hopes alive of receiving a top-5 seed in the NCAAs.
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Big Ten M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 14th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. On a day where love is celebrated, Indiana fans are not feeling much of that emotion toward Tom Crean and his squad after they squandered a double-figure lead at home against Penn State Wednesday night. The Hoosiers were booed off their homecourt after playing as though they had never encountered a full-court press before. They turned the ball over 3 times in the last 2:06 against said press, and coughed it up 20 times total during the contest. Indiana fans have already been on edge due to some uneven performances this season, and now after this latest loss, things aren’t going to calm down anytime soon.
  2. People tend to forget that Michigan has a really young roster. That’s why head coach John Beilein admitted that they’ve had more success than he necessarily envisioned this season. The Wolverines are tied for first in the conference with 6 games left to play, despite losing Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, and Mitch McGary. Nik Stauskas is a Player of the Year candidate, but it’s been a different player stepping forward every night that has lead to their 10-2 league record. The jury is still out as to how far they’ll go come March, but if they get their defense in order, they could be right back in the Final Four.
  3. Lost in the shuffle of Shavon Shields’ 33-point effort for Nebraska on Wednesday night was the play of backup point guard Benny Parker. Parker was an absolute nuisance of that side of the floor, as he had 4 steals and caused countless other disruptions for the Illinois offense in their 67-58 win. While not much of an offensive threat, Parker has seen his minutes increase in the wake of Deverell Biggs being dismissed from the team. Coach Tim Miles essentially counted him out in the preseason, but he’s definitely earned an increase in minutes going forward, especially with the ineffectiveness of Tai Webster in recent games.
  4. In the preseason many people thought that Ohio State would still be really good even with the loss of 2012-13 leading scorer Deshaun Thomas. It hasn’t necessarily worked out that way however, as the Buckeyes currently have a 6-6 conference record with 6 games left. The loss to Michigan Tuesday night highlighted an ongoing theme for this year’s team, the inability to make open shots. The Buckeyes slogged through a 3-for 20 effort against the Wolverines, and they proved that despite having a tenacious defensive unit, their lack of NBA-ready talent and their lack of offensive punch will probably be their undoing during the 2013-14 campaign.
  5. Illinois head coach John Groce are still left searching for answers in the wake of their most recent stumble at Nebraska Wednesday night. Tracy Abrams is one of the major culprits when looking at potential scapegoats for the team’s poor performance ever since Big Ten play started. The junior guard quietly went 0-for-4 from the field against the Cornhuskers, and committed 3 turnovers. Groce isn’t worried about the shooting, but he’s more worried about Abrams playing better defense and taking care of the ball. Veteran players like Nnanna Egwu are still bringing the effort and intensity, as are the five freshman that are on the roster. In watching the Illini however, you have to wonder whether some of the other upperclassmen like Abrams and Joseph Bertrand have already checked out once they realized that their season will not likely include an NCAA berth.
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Big Ten M5: 01.29.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 29th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. We were treated to another great match-up last night when Michigan State came into Iowa and defeated the Hawkeyes 71-69 in overtime. For the Spartans, it was another impressive performance as they registered a big road win with many of their key players out or playing injured. As for the Hawkeyes, this loss may reintroduce some concerns that basketball opinion makers have about this team. As of today, Iowa’s best win is against Ohio State – a win that looked better two weeks ago than it does today. Against top tier teams, the Hawkeyes have consistently fallen short. However, they have performed extremely well against teams they are supposed to beat, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. The bottom line is that we may not have a good handle on how good the Hawkeyes are until the end of the season.
  2. In their 80-75 win at Michigan State this past Saturday, Michigan put the country on notice that they had no plans in making this a rebuilding year after losing several key players from last season’s National Championship runner-up squad. Now, the Wolverines are alone atop the Big Ten standings and have college basketball experts revising their expectations of them. But, don’t expect John Beilien to buy into the hype; he’s already moved on from their big win and is looking ahead to Thursday’s game against Purdue. “We’ve basked enough, no more basking,” Beilien told a local Ann Arbor radio station on Monday. Michigan’s head man may not want to concentrate on what he’s accomplished this season, but Big Ten fans should. With him at the helm, there is no reason to think Michigan can’t be a dominant force for years to come.
  3. Another surprising team in conference play has been Minnesota. Despite having a first-year coach, Richard Pitino, and losing some significant pieces from last year’s team, the Golden Gophers have kept their own in league play and have impressive wins against Ohio State and Wisconsin. But on Sunday, Minnesota lost some of its momentum when it dropped a game at Nebraska. A major reason for the loss may have been the poor play of DeAndre Mathieu who had 13 points, but also had 9 of the Gophers’ 13 turnovers. While he is not Minnesota’s best player, Mathieu’s steady point guard play has allowed other players, such as likely All-Conference teammate Andre Hollins, to be productive on the offensive side which has led the team to have an adjusted offensive efficiency of 1.18 points per possession (top 15 in the nation). With Hollins out indefinitely, Mathieu will get a lot more attention from defenses and he’ll need to improve his play for Minnesota to continue battling for an NCAA Tournament bid.
  4. Speaking of the Cornhuskers, bad news came out of Lincoln on Monday: Deverell Biggs, Nebraska’s third leading scorer, was dismissed from the team. Although no specific incident or cause was given for  his release, Biggs has had disciplinary issues in the past including a DUI in 2012. The Cornhuskers had been playing the role of spoiler throughout conference play, upsetting both Ohio State and Minnesota within six days. Without Biggs, upsets will be more difficult to come by which could rob Tim Miles of some needed momentum going into the next few seasons as he continues to try and build a respectable program in Lincoln. If either Ray Gallegos or Tai Webster can step up their production, there may still be a shot for Nebraska to make some noise in the conference.
  5. After a six-game losing streak, one thing is apparent in Champaign: this Illinois team is not like last season’s squad. Last year’s team was able to come back from a poor start in conference play because of talented senior guards that led them back to postseason form. This year, Illinois’ offensive woes do not appear fixable. They are last in the conference in eFG percentage (40.5%) and second-to-last in adjusted offensive efficiency (0.92 point per possession) and three-point shooting (25.8%). Despite all this, John Groce admires the fight his team has put up through its slump. While Groce’s enthusiasm is admirable, this can’t be where he thought his team would be when they were 2-0 in the conference and had wins against Missouri and UNLV. He’s been playing his freshmen more often in games, which may be a sign that he is looking towards the future as he grips with the reality his team faces in the present.
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Big Ten M5: 01.27.14 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 27th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. On the eve of the Grammys, Bruce Hornsby, a Grammy-winning musician and a huge basketball fan,visited Bloomington for the Illinois vs. Indiana game. Hornsby and Indiana head coach Tom Crean discussed music after the game in which the Hoosiers pulled off a tough 10-point win against the Illini. Both offenses had a tough time finding points during a 26-24 first half, but Crean’s squad was able to hold the Illini to just 22 more points during the second half. Noah Vonleh continues to impress with this rebounding skills by pulling down 14 boards, but the Hoosiers need to continue to hold down the home court in upcoming games against Michigan and Penn State if they want to remain in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid this season.
  2. Speaking of the Illini, they can’t seem to buy a jumper nowadays, as John Groce’s unit lost its sixth straight Big Ten game on Sunday in Bloomington. Illinois has one week before its next game in Champaign against Iowa, and it could use every day of practice to figure out how to refine their offensive sets. They shot 5-of-23 from beyond the arc, but the problem goes well beyond just a shooting slump — Groce can’t seem to find two scorers who can have good games on the same day. While Rayvonte Rice finished with 20 points yesterday, none of his teammates complemented his scoring (Nnanna Egwu was next in scoring with eight points). Similarly, against Ohio State, Joe Bertrand had 17 points but Rice was held scoreless. Without two scorers consistently putting up decent scoring numbers, it is almost impossible to beat most of the teams in this conference.
  3. The losing streak had to stop at some point for Wisconsin, and the first half of Saturday’s game against Purdue wasn’t easy as the Boilermakers were only down by three at halftime. The Badgers needed to get back to the free-flowing offense that has averaged 1.16 points per possession in conference play and freshman forward Nigel Hayes should continue to help in that regard off the bench. Hayes provides a solid post presence on the block as a nice change of pace from Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker, and his solid post game can help slow down the offense when the starters are out, ensuring that they will be fresh for the final few minutes of the game.
  4. Without Branden Dawson or Adreian Payne available on Saturday night, Michigan State could have folded in the second half of their game against Michigan once the Wolverines made a run, but thanks to Keith Appling, they even held the lead with four minutes left. The senior guard was extremely efficient in scoring 10 points and dishing 10 dimes, but more importantly, turning the ball over just once. After the loss, the senior point guard and Tom Izzo were both emotional, considering the injury toll on their team over the past few weeks. When Dawson and Payne comes back, Appling’s efficiency combined with Gary Harris’ scorching shooting (27 points against Michigan) will definitely make the Spartans a great contender for the national title.
  5. While the Spartans are dealing with injuries, it seems that Michigan has figured out how to deal with the loss of Mitch McGary with wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State despite his absence. Without McGary in the lineup, the Wolverines need every starter to be on the ball and freshman guard Derrick Walton may be the newest member to join the party. He scored 19 huge points against the team’s biggest rival and seems to be gaining confidence with each and every game. “I was just the guy called upon tonight and just tried to do it for my teammates,” Walton said. Not much is needed from him when Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III are going off, but if he can chip in some timely buckets and push the ball effectively in transition, the offense will continue to click on all cylinders.
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Illinois Will Continue to Slump Without More Consistent Offense

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 26th, 2014

After a 12-2 non-conference record and a 2-0 start to the conference season, Illinois was considered a likely candidate to make the postseason. However, with an offense that has sputtered to average just 0.95 points per possession in Big Ten play, it appears that the Illini don’t stand a chance against the rest of the conference. Opposing defenses have figured out John Groce’s predictable offense this season and have exposed the team’s biggest weaknesses – a lack of consistent three-point shooting and a play-maker who can create offense in the half-court. An inside scoring presence wouldn’t hurt as well, as Nnanna Egwu has regressed after a decent sophomore season.

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice's offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

Big Ten defenses may have figured out Rice’s offensive game. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette)

During the first two months of the season, Rayvonte Rice appeared to be what Illinois fans wanted Brandon Paul to become during his four years in Champaign – a freak athlete who could punish defenses in the paint with his body. In order to understand their offensive issues, let’s review Rice’s slide during the recent four-game losing streak. Against Ohio State, he couldn’t buy a shot and finished without a single point in what was a must-win game. He is good at what he does — penetrate the paint off of screens going to his right — but the same play has become predictable. Egwu and Jon Ekey have the ability to hit an open jumper, but neither is very effective in setting screens to free the ball-handler. In fact, most of the time their screening technique is so flawed that it could be considered an illegal pick. Even without an effective screen, Rice is quick enough to get around most defenders but he needs to have the option to kick out a pass to the corner if the opposing big man bites. The scouting reports have forced teams to back off and simply wait for Rice to barrel through the lane, often forcing him to put up an off-balance and low percentage floater.

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Morning Five: 01.23.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 23rd, 2014

morning5

  1. The case of Bubu Palo is one of the more unique ones that we can remember. Palo was charged with second-degree sexual assault in May 2012, but the charges were eventually dropped. Iowa State’s Office of Judicial Affairs determined that Palo had violated student conduct rules and he was dismissed from the team. Last week a district court ruled that Palo should be able to rejoin the team. Now Iowa’s attorney general, on behalf of school’s Board of Regents, filed a motion to essentially prevent Palo from rejoining the team. Palo’s case will likely be heard by Iowa’s Supreme Court as the Board of Regents is claiming that the district court decision essentially stripped the school of its power to decide who can represent its university. There have been several other cases like this (Dez Wells and Michael Dixon come to mind), but we cannot remember one where the school had to go to such extreme lengths to prevent a player from coming back to a team.
  2. In the past few weeks we have seen quite a few coaches have loud outbursts both on and off the court. This is nothing new and coming at this point in the season it should not be too surprising. What is new is the contrition that some coaches are showing. John Groce is only the latest example to come out and apologize for his outburst. And he is not alone as Frank Martin, Fran McCaffery, and others have come out in the past month and publicly apologized for their outbursts some of which may have cost their teams games. Are we seeing a kinder, gentler coach or just a more politically correct one?
  3. Yesterday the Wooden Award Advisory Board released its Midseason Top 25 featuring the front-runners for the end of the year award. The usual suspects are on there (McDermott, Parker, etc.), but most of the focus for lists like this is on who got snubbed. In this case, the names that jump out are Nik StauskasGary Harris, and Joel Embiid not to mention Xavier Thames and Sean Kilpatrick. We have no idea how anybody could put together a group of the 25 best players in the country and not include those five, but the one saving grace of this list is that being absent from it doesn’t eliminate the players from consideration for end of the season awards.
  4. As we have pointed out before the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week award continues to confuse us as it has been almost exclusively awarded to players who have no shot of receiving any postseason honors. Obviously this award is meant to reflect a single week’s work rather than a season’s contribution, but it is striking to see that just two of the seven winners (Doug McDermott and DeAndre Kane) this season will even be in contention for any national honors at at the end of the season. This week’s winner was Naadir Tharpe, who at this point is not even assured of having his starting point guard job secure at Kansas.
  5. We are not sure what to make of Mark Titus’ newest power rankings. Gone is the usual ridiculous non sequiturs and instead we have an interesting set of rankings that is backed up by actual analysis (still a little light on the numbers). The thing is looking at these rankings it is pretty clear how big of a mess it is after the top two teams because we would totally rearrange the next ten spots on the list, but we don’t necessarily have any significant issues with Titus’ rankings because we can see his reasoning too.
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Big Ten M5: 01.22.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 22nd, 2014

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  1. When Michigan head coach John Beilein refers to a schedule that includes three games against top 10 opponents consecutively as an “incredible opportunity,” some might claim that the rigors of Big Ten play have made him slightly insane. If the Wolverines can somehow win all three of these games against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, however, his quote will prove rather prophetic. Winning against Iowa tonight won’t be an easy task though, and Beilein acknowledges as much when he states that the Hawkeyes’ length, versatility, and experience make for a opponent different from any team his Wolverines have seen so far. It will certainly be interesting to see how they match up with the waves of players Iowa can throw at them.
  2. Two desperate teams will meet in Columbus tomorrow night. In advance of this crucial game between Ohio State and Illinoishead coach John Groce gave his team a much-needed day off on Sunday. The Illini had just come off of a stretch of three games in seven days, all of which resulted in losses and a drop from being ranked to completely off of the NCAA bubble. Maybe getting a chance to rest up and hit the reset button will be the cure for what ails this team.
  3. Speaking of bubble teams, Minnesota is going to need both Andre and Austin Hollins to be at full strength for the Gophers to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. That’s why it has to be moderately disturbing to learn that Andre Hollins has been playing through a toe injury. Head coach Richard Pitino said that the injury is probably why he has had some trouble with effectiveness in the second half of recent games. There really isn’t much margin for error if Minnesota wants to let him rest and fully recover. Unlike Michigan State — a team boasting a deeper roster that enables the Spartans to rest injured star Adreian Payne — the Gophers need every win they can get. Hollins is just going to have to play through the pain of the injury for the team to get to the postseason in Pitino’s first season in Minneapolis.
  4. Iowa has been somewhat hit or miss with its shooting from the three-point line despite the Hawkeyes’ 15-3 overall record. They have a pretty good percentage on the year (38.2%), however, and this number has risen lately thanks to the hot shooting of junior Josh Oglesby. The junior went 5-of-7 from deep as the Hawkeyes turned a close game into a blowout against Minnesota on Sunday. Oglesby, Jared Uthoff, Roy Devyn Marble, and Mike Gesell can all get hot and knock down a handful of threes in a given game. They’re all somewhat streaky, but the ability to get this kind of production from multiple players is just one of many reasons why Iowa remains extremely dangerous in the long run.
  5. Wisconsin is coming off of a two-game losing streak, and the Badgers’ lack of production from the bench has been a key part of that. Freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig now realize with the intensity of the conference season in full swing that they can’t play like rookies anymore. They both have learned what to expect after dealing with the crowd at Indiana’s Assembly Hall last week. Hayes is needed to provide frontcourt depth, and Koenig needs to be able to come in and spell the Badgers’ guards. The quicker these two can morph into consistent bench options, the better the chances for the Badgers to go on another long winning streak.
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Deja Vu: John Groce’s Illini Slumping in Early January Again

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 15th, 2014

Illinois’ loss to Northwestern on Sunday night was eerily similar to a horrible stretch for the Illini last season. On January 12, 2013, John Groce’s squad was thumped in Madison by the Badgers — a 23-point loss where its offense had no answers for Bo Ryan’s defensive schemes. That was followed up by a home loss to an injury-plagued Northwestern squad, which along with a previous home loss to Minnesota, represented an early three-game losing streak in conference play. On Wednesday of last week, Groce’s offense again could not find a decent shot in Madison, losing 95-70 to the Badgers, and the team looked completely off in scoring just 15 points in the first 24 minutes of the game in Evanston. Losing to an unimpressive Wildcats squad puts the Illini in a tough spot because they are about to enter a tough seven-game stretch where they will be favored to win just one of those games — a home contest against Purdue. The Illini really needed to enter that stretch with at least three Big Ten wins and the most recent loss very well could put a dent in their ultimate postseason plans.

John Groce's Team is Slumping in Early January Again This Season (AP)

John Groce’s Team is Slumping in Early January Again This Season (AP)

According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Illini have a 73 percent chance of beating Purdue tonight. But the next few games include match-ups against Michigan State, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. And their “winnable” game after that stretch is a road game against Penn State in Happy Valley — not necessarily a guaranteed win, either. Extrapolating over the next few weeks, the Illini could easily end up with 3-7 league record by February 9, with a must-win game coming against the Nittany Lions to salvage their season. They were in a similar spot a year ago, but were able to dig themselves out with a home buzzer-beater against Indiana and a tough win over Minnesota on the road (thanks largely to D.J. Richardson’s scorching shot). Is there a reason to panic yet in Champaign? Absolutely. It is troubling that Rice felt no sense of urgency over the first 20 minutes of the game in Evanston, as he was held to zero shots from the field. When he was able to eventually find his offense, he forgot to play defense by letting the Wildcats’ Tre Demps hit a couple of wide-open shots from beyond the arc. Not to pick on Rice, but as the best offensive player on the team, he needs to set the tone by driving to the basket and assuming a leadership role over the next few weeks if the Illini hope to win road games at Indiana or Penn State.

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Big Ten M5: 01.06.14 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 6th, 2014

morning5_bigten

  1. Indiana’s center, Luke Fischer, will be transferring to Marquette – a move that will get him closer to home. “I am excited to say I will be transferring to Marquette University to play for Coach (Buzz) Williams and the Golden Eagles,” Fischer said on Twitter. Even though he only averaged 2.8 points per game this season, he will be missed over the next three years in Bloomington. It is likely that Noah Vonleh will enter the NBA Draft after his freshman season, which could have opened the door for Fischer to step into the role as the starting center for Tom Crean. Without Fischer, Hanner Perea will likely take a bigger role next season after the potential departure of Vonleh.
  2. As if Gary Harris‘ 26 points against Indiana in Bloomington wasn’t enough, Tom Izzo promises that the fans can expect more from the sophomore over the next three months. “He’s a special player, and I promise he’s not even close to where he’s going to be,” Izzo said. Harris, who has been plagued with health issues, may slowly be coming back to 100% health, but should eventually improve his game with more practice. His offensive versatility was on full display at Bloomington as he shot 5-10 from beyond the arc and was active defensively with five steals. A healthy and active Harris will be the main offensive option in March when Michigan State needs to put up points against tougher competition.
  3. Before Illinois‘ game against Penn State in Champaign on Saturday, the Flyin’ Illini were honored because it is their 25th anniversary of their Final Four run in 1989. They are, arguably, the best team in Illini history, but the 2005 squad with Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head could give them a run for their money. Mark Tupper discusses which team might be the best team in Illini history. My stance on this topic: the 2005 team was about 30 seconds (close losses to Ohio State and North Carolina) away from being the first undefeated team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers squad, so I’ll take them over the electrifying Flyin’ Illini. Regardless, it will be tough to surpass either of these teams in the history books.
  4. After disappointing decisions by Quentin Snider and Cliff Alexander, John Groce‘s recruiting took a brief hit over the last two months. However, he landed a commit from four-star guard, Aaron Jordan, for the 2015 recruiting class. The 6’4″ guard will provide much needed three-point shooting for an Illini squad that doesn’t have a designated gunner on their roster. Even though Jon Ekey is shooting 38% from beyond the arc, the Illini need at least one guard to shoot 42% from the long-range to diversify their offensive sets in the future.
  5. Jarrod Uthoff‘s transfer issues have been documented fairly well over the past year and half or so. In brief, he wanted to transfer to Iowa, but there were a few issues in getting the transfer approved by head coach Bo Ryan. Uthoff is averaging 10.9 points per game as a Hawkeye, but one has to wonder if there is any friction between Ryan and Fran McCaffery over the transfer. When asked about this topic on Big Ten Media Day, Ryan responded, “I don’t even know why that would be a question, I don’t understand the question.” Setting this topic aside, both of these teams match up fairly well and both of the games should be excellent match-ups this season. Uthoff’s entrance into the game on Sunday night in Madison didn’t really trigger many boos from the crowd.
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Evaluating Key Transfers in the Big Ten: Jon Ekey

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 28th, 2013

Transferring to another basketball program required a lot of effort until a few years ago when the NCAA relaxed the rules which resulted in a growing flood of transfers. Even after these changes, few players have an immediate impact on their new teams because they have to learn a new system and establish chemistry with players that have already been playing together for a while. Adapting and shaping a role in the lineup of the new team requires a tremendous amount of maturity. Jon Ekey, a 6’7 senior forward for Illinois, is a perfect example of how a player can insert himself into the rotation by identifying the necessary voids and making an immediate contribution. After transferring from Illinois State, Ekey is averaging 9.1 PPG and 6.3 RPG through 12 games with the Illini. The following are two specific aspects of his game that have helped the Illini during the non-conference season.

Jon Ekey has been the best long-range shooter for the Illini.

Jon Ekey has been the best long-range shooter for the Illini.

  1. Offensive Rebounding: It has been over a year since Meyers Leonard left Illinois for the NBA, but there hasn’t yet been a dominant rebounding forward to fill his shoes. Other than Nnanna Egwu (5.3 RPG), John Groce has not had any forwards who could hold their own on the defensive glass against tough competition. Ekey’s 10.1 percent offensive rebounding rate ranks in the top 10 among Big Ten players, and without his 6.3 RPG this season, the Illini would probably have lost a couple more games so far this season. What’s most impressive about his rebounding ability is his skill at tipping it around in the paint. There is no good statistic to measure tips, but by keeping the ball alive on the offensive end, he provides an opportunity for teammates to pick up loose balls and earn an extra possession. The primary wing players for the Illini – Joseph Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice – average at least 5.0 RPG themselves, which wouldn’t be possible without Ekey’s persistence in keeping the ball alive on the offensive end. Considering that Egwu struggles to stay out of foul trouble, Ekey’s presence on the glass is even more important to keep the Illini from getting dominated underneath. Read the rest of this entry »
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