Big Ten Weekend in Review: Senior Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 11th, 2014

Throughout many campuses within the conference this weekend there were some sort of Senior Day festivities. In honor of this, and the fact that many seniors submitted some top-notch performances which lead to victories for their teams, the weekend in review will have a different format this time around. Before we get to some of these key performances, something else has to be discussed.

Terran Petteway(right) celebrates during Nebraska's 77-68 win over Wisconsin that could have clinched a spot in the field of 68 for the Cornhuskers. ( Bryan Anderson/Omaha World-Herald)

Terran Petteway celebrates during Nebraska’s 77-68 win over Wisconsin that might have clinched a spot in the field of 68 for the Cornhuskers. (Bryan Anderson/Omaha World-Herald)

Biggest Win: Nebraska continued with their incredible streak of home performances with their victory over Wisconsin on Sunday night. The atmosphere was probably one of the best in all of college basketball this season, as the BTN announcers literally had an app at their disposal where they were periodically checking the decibel level throughout the telecast. Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway essentially got to the basket whenever they wanted, and they both finished up with 26 points. They also got some timely shooting from Walter Pitchford and Ray Gallegos and were able to get the signature win of the Tim Miles era. Most bracket predictions have the team solidly into the field and off of the bubble for now. A win against either Purdue or Ohio State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament would make it inevitable.

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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: 02.28.14 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2014

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  1. For the first time in quite a while, Michigan State should have its full roster intact on Saturday when the Spartans take on Illinois. Branden Dawson will return to action for the first time in nine games, although head coach Tom Izzo doesn’t know how much he’ll be able to play. Dawson will have to wear a brace on his injured hand, but as long as said brace doesn’t hinder his ability to rebound and play defense, it shouldn’t be an issue. Even with players not necessarily playing at 100 percent health-wise, the Spartans will gain a lot of credibility with the selection committee by winning their last three with their lineup fully in place.
  2. Ben Brust has been slightly off shooting the ball as of late. He turned things around last game in the second half against Indiana however, and in the process became the 38th player in Wisconsin history to hit the 1,000-point plateau. Brust credited his teammates for this accomplishment saying, noting that “he was lucky to have good players when I got here to set an example for me.” Brust is shooting a slightly lower percentage (37.0%) on threes this season than in his last two (38.9% in both his sophomore and junior seasons), but he’s posting a much higher offensive rating and is knocking down almost 90 percent of his free throws. He could garner even more space in Wisconsin basketball lore with a hot shooting streak come March.
  3. Illinois is starting to turn things around after the Illini lost eight games in a row during conference play. They’ve now won three out of five games since they switched their starting lineup, putting Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn into the starting unit in place of seniors Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand. With their win against Nebraska on Wednesday night, the Illini guaranteed themselves a .500 record for the regular season. If they can miraculously win out against the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa, they may even have a remote opportunity to play themselves back onto the bubble. In this year’s Big Ten, you never know.
  4. That last statement could definitely also be applied to what happened with Minnesota forward Charles Buggs and his performance Tuesday night at The Barn. In this year’s Big Ten, you never know, and no one would have imagined or thought that someone who had played a grand total of 21 minutes all season could score 13 points and ignite a rally that may have saved the Gophers season. Buggs almost transferred in the midst of the coaching transition, but stick around because he thought his athleticism would work well in their up-tempo system. With Oto Osenieks hobbled with a knee problem, Buggs may have won himself extended time the rest of the season at the power forward spot.
  5. Anyone who saw the transition and success Northwestern had during their mid-season turnaround had to have noticed that JerShon Cobb was a huge part of their efforts. It was announced on Thursday afternoon that due to lingering knee and foot problems, Cobb will not play the rest of the season. Cobb will be heard from again as a senior leader for the 2014-15 version of the Wildcats, but for now they will struggle to win games for the rest of the 2013-14 campaign. This makes an already short bench even shorter, and hurts them defensively by losing Cobb’s length at the guard spot.
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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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Previewing Braggin’ Rights: Illinois vs. Missouri

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 21st, 2013

If one were to grade Illinois’ season performance before heading into Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, they would probably have to give the Illini an “I” for incomplete. John Groce’s team is 9-2 with no especially bad losses, but no significantly good wins either. Their two losses against Georgia Tech and Oregon were on the road and down to the wire; a free throw made or different bounce of the ball and the Illini might currently sit undefeated with a different season trajectory. But Illinois is where it is and today’s game against Missouri provides the last chance for the Illini to notch a non-conference resume win.

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Nnanna Egwu and the Illini are hoping to get their first win against Missouri since 2008 on Saturday.

The Tigers have won braggin’ rights for four seasons in a row, but before that run the Illini had won nine years straight. If John Groce is going to start a new streak in the rivalry today, here are three things he’ll need his team to do:

  1. Keep charging the glass and getting offensive rebounds. Unlike last season, this year’s team is not effective at scoring beyond the arc (33.8 percent from deep). The way they’ve countered their lack of long-range shooting is by creating additional scoring opportunities from the offensive glass. The Illini have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.1 percent (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) and three of their starters are averaging two or more offensive boards per game. They’ll need to keep this up against a Missouri team that so far has been excellent at minimizing its opponents’ offensive rebounds. Since the Illini do not rely on a perimeter attack from behind the arc, there should be fewer long rebounds for guards like Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross to grab. Illinois should stick to what it does best — drive to the rim and have others follow behind for putbacks. Read the rest of this entry »
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Oregon Thrives on Offense, Dumps Illinois Despite Defensive Rebounding Struggles

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 15th, 2013

The Oregon Ducks have gotten off to their undefeated start in 2013-14 primarily on the strength of their staggeringly efficient offense. The Ducks ranked third in the nation in effective field goal percentage and were seventh in the nation in free throw rate before Saturday night’s game against Illinois at the former Rose Garden in Portland.

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Aspects of Oregon’s defense are also strong, including a top-50 steal rate and a top-75 block rate. But one thing stands out in the Ducks’ statistical profile: a lack of proficiency on the defensive glass. Despite only playing one top-25 offensive rebounding team this season (San Francisco), Oregon ranks a pedestrian 235th in defensive rebounding rate. Against the Illini, that vulnerability showed up early – six offensive rebounds surrendered in the first half, which ended tied at 32 – and late, when they got a rebound putback from Joseph Bertrand to close the game within three points with less than a minute to go. But Oregon’s scoring was able to again cover for its defensive rebounding deficiency in a 71-64 win.

Oregon (9-0) certainly misses graduated senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who led the nation in defensive rebounding rate in 2012-13, but another senior transfer is attempting to fill that void. Mike Moser – a Portland native who previously played at both UCLA and UNLV – has led the Ducks on the defensive glass all season, including a team-high eight Saturday night, which also came with 14 points, tied for the team lead with fellow senior transfer Joseph Young. The performance of the 6’8” power forward Saturday is made more impressive when considering that Illinois’ starting frontcourt of Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand each gather eight percent or more of available offensive rebounds, and the Illini ranked 36th nationally in offensive rebound rate before the game.

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To Reach Its Goals, Illinois Needs More Than Rayvonte Rice

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 5th, 2013

The game was over. The picture was clear — with a 12-point lead at Georgia Tech and less than seven minutes left, the Illini were going to move to 8-0 on the season and make it five straight wins against the ACC in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. And it was all going to be because of Rayvonte Rice. He had built the big lead for Illinois from a three-point halftime deficit by scoring 15 points in the second half, including a 10-0 run of his own making. He was his usual aggressive self: driving to the basket, getting to the line, and creating fast breaks from steals. But once the Yellow Jackets adjusted their defense to take away those scoring opportunities for the redshirt junior, Rice’s teammates put on a show themselves — one of passivity and fecklessness that would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From that point, Georgia Tech went on a 19-4 run to close out the game and notch its first Challenge win since 2006. In order for the Illini to put this collapse behind them and eventually get back to the NCAA Tournament in March, someone other than Rice will have to evolve into a consistent second option.

Rayvonte Rice went off for 24 points, but was unable to get help from his teammates to secure a win.

Rayvonte Rice went off for 24 points, but was unable to get help from his teammates to secure a win.

In the final six minutes of the game, the Illlini (at least those without Rice on the back of their jersey) went 1-of-9 from the field, including an oh-fer from deep, and committed two poorly-timed turnovers. With Rice unable to affect the game, this left the door open for players like Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey to carry the load and seal the win. None of this group were aggressive in trying to find their own shot and it seemed as if the team’s game plan was to simply run out the clock. Particularly disappointing was Abrams who was instrumental in willing Illinois to a win over IPFW last Friday, scoring eight of his 15 points in crucial moments of the second half. As the player with the most big game experience (he leads the Illini in career minutes), and as someone known for his toughness and moxie, he managed only to take one shot (not including the final prayer at the buzzer) while Georgia Tech was storming back.

In previous outings, it has been either Abrams, Bertrand or Ekey who has stepped up to complement the steady hand, Rice. But none of these three players have proven they can be consistent scoring threats on any given night — all three players have had multiple single-figure scoring outings this season. Therefore, the scouting report is out on the Illini — focus on stopping #24 and let someone else beat you. In order to get to the other side of the bubble by March, John Groce is going to need to motivate one of his other talented but inconsistent players to become this year’s D.J. Richardson to Rice’s Brandon Paul.

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Big Ten M5: 11.19.13 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 19th, 2013

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  1. For the past thirteen years, Michigan State has had great players lead them to success – players like Shannon Brown, Kalin Lucas, and Draymond Green. Now, this Spartans team, led by Gary Harris, has done something those other teams haven’t- be the #1 ranked team in the AP poll. This is their first top ranking since January 8, 2001. The Spartans fully expect to make the Final Four - just like each of those other teams did - but what the Spartans really seek is a National Championship, something that’s eluded them since 2000. Despite their impressive showing at the Champions Classic last week, some believe the Spartans won’t be able to match the talent on teams like Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas come March. But this Spartans team, like all successful Spartans teams of the past, will rely on execution and rebounding to bridge any talent gaps. And it would seem silly to bet against Tom Izzo, especially when he has the #1 team in the country.
  2. With the departure of Deshaun Thomas, we wondered who would pick up the scoring in his stead for the Ohio State Buckeyes. While no one is coming close to replicating Thomas’ 19.8 PPG, Sam Thompson has upped his contribution significantly this year, improving his 7.8 PPG from last season to 13.0 PPG. The increase in points scored is not simply due to an increase in shots taken; Thompson has an eFG% of 55.4 percent and a player efficiency rating of 20.8. Despite coming off the bench, Thompson may be Thad Matta’s most important player. He has the highest ceiling, as far as potential, because of his elite athleticism and his ability to hit the long ball. If Thompson is able to improve throughout the season, the Buckeyes’ concerns on offense may be answered.
  3. Rayvonte Rice has been the most important addition to the Illini this season. But the other starting transfer, Jon Ekey, made his presence known on Sunday night against an old Missouri Valley foe, the Bradley Braves. Ekey was brought in to be a stretch 4 but had started the season ice-cold, going 3 for 12 from the three-point line in his first three games. He got out of his slump against the Braves scoring 19 points including going 5 for 7 from deep. The Illini are hoping he can keep this up since no one in their starting backcourt is a consistent threat from deep. An effective Ekey from three will open up the lane for Rice and Joseph Bertrand to be more effective off the dribble where the Illini have been very effective thus far.
  4. Michigan took their first loss of the season when they got hit by Hilton Magic, losing to Iowa State 77-70. But while everyone was caught up with Iowa State’s impressive victory, they may have missed something that became clear on Sunday: Nik Stauskas has developed into a complete player. His stat line for the game - 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists – speaks for itself. But more impressive than that was John Beilein calling plays for the Canadian sophomore at the end of the game. This is a clear sign that Beilein trusts him, above other players, to lead the team at the end of games. The Wolverines have the impossible task of replacing Trey Burke this season. They will need players like Stauskas, and others like Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, to take on bigger roles than last season for continued success in Ann Arbor.
  5. Bo Ryan doesn’t like to rely on freshmen. The Wisconsin ”way” has players learn the system as underclassmen and then seamlessly transition into the starting lineup and contribute significantly as upperclassmen. Yet, when George Marshall suffered a concussion before the UW-Green Bay game, Ryan was forced to let freshman Bronson Koenig played his first extended minutes. Koenig played 23 minutes and scored 7 points on 3-of-3 shooting. But Ryan was happier with the poise Koenig showed throughout the game than with his scoring. In all likelihood, we won’t see much of Koenig once Marshall returns. Still, it must be reassuring to Badgers fans, and Ryan, that they have another talented underclassman waiting in the wing and for his turn to continue the tradition of great Badger basketball.
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Big Ten M5: 11.07.13 Edition

Posted by Jonathan Batuello on November 7th, 2013

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  1. In the first regular season contest for Nebraska in its brand new arena, the Cornhuskers’ leading returning scorer won’t be playing due to a suspension. Head coach Tim Miles announced yesterday that senior Ray Gallegos has been suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. Miles said he learned of the infraction before Monday’s exhibition game, but that Gallegos did not play in that game because of a hip injury. The suspension length was a coach’s decision and has Gallegos missing the season opener against Florida Gulf Coast tomorrow and Tuesday’s game against Western Illinois. The opening game loss of Gallegos, along with guard Deverell Biggs serving a three-game suspension for a DUI, could provide a problem against “Dunk City” and returning guard Brett Comer. The Eagles have a new coach, but some of the players who helped them get the moniker and upset top teams last season are back. It certainly doesn’t help Nebraska to be without its top returning scorer against a team that likes to score and run.
  2. There seems to be a consensus about the top teams and players in the Big Ten this season. NBCSports came out with its preseason report on the conference yesterday and Michigan State and the Spartans’ Gary Harris were seen as the top team and player. It also sees at least six teams–Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana–joining the Spartans in the NCAA tournament and potentially up to nine with Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota on the bubble. The most interesting question this piece raises, though, is whether Indiana‘s Yogi Ferrell might be the most important player in the conference. Ferrell certainly will play a big role in the Hoosiers’ success or struggles this season, but the team will also need improvement and solid play from guys like Will Sheehey and Jeremy Hollowell. Plus, there are lots of guys coming back to teams that have vastly bigger roles or need to have huge seasons for their team to be successful (see: Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III for Michigan just to start).
  3. Thad Matta has something new this season in his 10th year of being Ohio State’s head coach. Not only will he have to find some different scoring threats, but he’ll also have an experienced squad. Of course, this is something Matta is more than happy to have, as he exclaimed, “Thank god, huh. Two seniors! We’ve got two seniors this year!” With big question marks surrounding exactly who will score for the Buckeyes this season, it certainly helps to have guys around who have been in the program for years to fill that void. Outside of the two seniors in Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State also has seven juniors on the roster. This is the most experienced squad Matta has ever led, and we will get a good assessment of how far experience can go in helping a team without a surefire NBA lottery picks on its roster.
  4. Illinois has a young and new team, with only five players returning from last season’s squad. With this influx of freshmen and transfers, it appears John Groce is finding leadership and consistency from one of the newcomers. Graduate student Jon Ekey, a 5th year transfer from Illinois State, has proved he can provide the squad with an example on the court and in practice for the freshmen and others to follow. Ekey, a 6′ 7″ forward, is a career 36.5 percent 3-point shooter, so he shows versatility on the court, but his ability to help the freshmen adapt to the college game could be his biggest asset to this team. He wasn’t a star at Illinois State, averaging 6.4 points per game last season, but his ability to play multiple positions and lead will get him time on the court. With a lot of question marks surrounding exactly how much this team will need to grow and improve, it certainly is a good sign they have a player others can model themselves after.
  5. From unknown to hero to footnote, Spike Albrecht had quite a game in the NCAA Tournament Championship for Michigan. Now, following up his 17 point first half barrage, the Wolverines sophomore is trying to follow-up his momentary celebrity status by earning a starting spot in Michigan’s lineup. He’s currently in a battle with top-40 freshman Derrick Walton to see who gets the starting nod as both started one of the exhibition games. It’s tough to see the Spike the sensation maintaining the starting position over a potential All-Big Ten Freshman, but if he can provide leadership, push Walton and give solid minutes of the bench once again, Albrecht will have a chance to make some other memorable moments.
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