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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Big Ten M5: 03.11.15 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 11th, 2015

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  1. After a junior season that saw him dip from a first-team all B1G performer to a third-team selection this season, Terran Petteway still has a decision to make about whether or not to declare for the NBA Draft after the season is over. Nebraska is on Spring Break March 22-30, and with him on pace to graduate in May, look for a decision after the break is over. An argument could be made that he probably should have left after last season when his stock was at its highest. But with what the Huskers were returning this season, one can’t blame the wing for wanting to come back and take Nebraska even further.
  2. Illinois has a great deal to accomplish in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, as they are essentially trying to play their way off of the bubble in trying to avoid a second consecutive season in the NIT. The Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan took a look at five keys for the Illini in advance their opening game Thursday against Michigan, and to keep winning in the tournament at large. Some of the things listed included getting more out of sophomore guards Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, and simply making shots. The Illini have a tough road ahead of them, and may need to upset Wisconsin. A win over Michigan in the second round simple might not be enough.
  3. Another looming NBA Draft decision could happen at Indiana, as junior first-team All Big Ten point guard Yogi Ferrell might have a decision to make as well. His father said that Yogi is leaning towards coming back, but some factors that could play a role in whether he does so include getting some size added to the roster in the offseason, and whether or not Tom Crean remains the coach. The Ferrell family remain some of Crean’s biggest supporters, so that’s an added variable to all the drama in Bloomington right now. Right now, the Hoosiers need to concentrate on taking care of Northwestern on Thursday, because losing that one will make their NCAA Tournament hopes faint.
  4. It’s been a game of musical chairs at the backup point guard position for Purdue this season. PJ Thompson and Bryson Scott have seemingly fallen in and out of favor with Coach Matt Painter. It was Thompson’s turn on Saturday against Illinois, and the freshman didn’t disappoint. He sparked a rally at the end of the first half with a steal and a basket, and ended things with a crucial three-pointer near the end of the proceedings. Octeus will get most of the minutes from here on out this season, but whether it’s Thompson or Scott that emerges as a starter next season is going to be one of the biggest stories that plays itself out before 2015-16.
  5. Minnesota has not had quite the season that it hoped for after finishing with a 6-12 record in conference play. Despite the fact that they’re 61st on KenPom- which is within striking distance of Big Ten bubble squads like Purdue (48), Illinois (53), and Indiana (55)- the Gophers would need a miracle finish to get into the NCAA Tournament. While bad luck played a role, the Gophers really didn’t get the production they needed from their senior class this season. Coming off of the momentum from winning the NIT last year, the senior class just simply didn’t perform many times as they lost multiple close games.
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 3rd, 2015

On the penultimate weekend of Big Ten conference play, the heavy hitters came up with some large performances.Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell, Iowa’s Aaron White, and Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice all stated their cases for all-Big Ten inclusion in leading their teams to key wins. The quartet combined for 99 points over the weekend, showing that they are ready to go as the calendar has flipped to March. Nothing too earth-shattering happened in terms of results from the weekend games, but as always, here are some of the highlights.

Frank Kaminsky managed to put up 31 points in his final home game in Madison Sunday. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Frank Kaminsky managed to put up 31 points in his final home game in Madison Sunday. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

  • Player of the Weekend: As he’s done for the majority of the season, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky lit up the stat sheet against Michigan State in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. If you thought that the Spartans’ front line may have given the Badgers a tough time down low, think again. Rather, Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes had their way inside with Tom Izzo’s team, combining for 28 points in the first half. Kaminsky, quiet from the outside lately, nailed 3-of-4 attempts from deep en route to 31 points for the game. He led the Badgers in scoring, steals and blocks, and tied for the team lead in assists — just a typical game from a senior who’s having an absolutely tremendous season.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: Iowa’s Josh Oglesby hasn’t had a very good senior season. Considered one of the better outside shooters in the Big Ten, he is only shooting 31.4 percent from behind the arc, even after his 4-of-8 effort in Iowa’s 81-77 overtime win over Penn State on Saturday. That number won’t matter if Oglesby can find his stroke to give the Hawkeyes a consistent perimeter threat from here on out. He managed 12 points off the bench, combining with fellow senior Gabriel Olaseni to produce 24 of Iowa’s 27 bench points for the game. The Hawkeyes are still one of the most difficult teams in the country to figure out, but the riddle will be easier to answer if Oglesby can give his team some consistent outside scoring.

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 17th, 2015

Valentine’s Day weekend in the Big Ten was dominated by love for the three-pointer. Indiana showed its affection for the trifecta by bombing away to the tune of a school-record 18 makes against Minnesota. Purdue was able to nail eight threes of its own in a key win against Nebraska, including four from a struggling Kendall Stephens. Northwestern hit on nine attempts from long distance in its surprising upset of Iowa. Finally, Michigan State’s aptly-named Denzel Valentine broke hearts all over the Buckeye State by hitting a game-winning three in the waning seconds of its win. Here are the rest of the highs and lows from an interesting weekend around the league.

Troy Williams led Indiana in reboudning as they dominated the glass against Minnesota.  (Chris Howell/Herald Times)

Troy Williams led Indiana in reboudning as the Hoosiers dominated the glass against Minnesota. (Chris Howell/Herald Times)

  • Player of the Weekend: In a weekend full of great performances, Indiana’s Troy Williams gets this weekend’s nod in that he managed to do his usual work on the glass (nine boards) while also scoring 19 points on a very efficient 10 field goal attempts. The sophomore also tripled his three-point output for the season, hitting both of his attempts after entering the game only 1-of-6 on the year. If Williams can add a long-range shot to his offensive arsenal, he will be a certain first-round pick whenever he chooses to leave Bloomington for the professional ranks.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: Chicago Catholic League alumnus and Northwestern freshman Scottie Lindsey has largely struggled to adapt to Big Ten play. Heralded as a knockdown outside shooter, the lanky swingman didn’t hurt Iowa over the weekend with his shooting prowess. Instead, Lindsey subbed for fellow freshman Vic Law (foul trouble) and played a season-high 38 minutes off the bench. He contributed seven points, six rebounds, a couple assists and three of his team’s 13 blocks as the Wildcats notched a win that they desperately needed.

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Fresh Faces Emerging as Big Ten Injuries Pile Up

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 28th, 2015

Big Ten training staffs have been working overtime this season, as many notable names have already missed significant time with injuries. Just last weekend, Aaron White, Robert Johnson, Bishop Daniels, Brandon Taylor, and Mike Williams all suffered various ailments that could result in missed action. This piles on to the already large injury toll suffered by conference teams, with Illinois (Rayvonte Rice), Indiana (Hanner Mosquera-Perea), Michigan (Caris LeVert), and Wisconsin (Traveon Jackson) all losing key starters for multiple games. Injuries, of course, are a part of the game, but it means that others must step in and make contributions in their absences. Here’s a look at how some of these Big Ten understudies have performed with the resulting boost in minutes they’ve received.

Kendrick Nunn has stepped things up offensively in the wake of Rayvonte Rice being out of the lineup. (USA TODAY)

Kendrick Nunn has stepped things up offensively in the wake of Rayvonte Rice being out of the lineup. (USA TODAY)

  • Illinois has gone 3-3 since its star Rayvonte Rice went down in practice. The senior had been logging 11.1 shots per game before his injury, and his primary replacement, Kendrick Nunn, has barely left the court since (36.2 MPG in the six games that Rice hasn’t played). The sophomore has been productive in his absence, though, contributing 16.7 PPG along with 4.5 RPG and 1.3 SPG. Rice’s biggest improvement had been shooting from deep, where he got off to an insane 29-for-60 start, but Nunn has been equally adept from three-point range, making 18-of-39 attempts in six games. On balance, Nunn has effectively matched Rice’s production, but Illinois’ main problem right now is depth. Without Rice and with Aaron Cosby (also sidelined), John Groce is pretty much running a seven-man rotation right now. Should Nunn or forward Malcolm Hill struggle offensively, there really aren’t many other options.

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Big Ten M5: 01.26.15 Edition

Posted by Eric Clark on January 26th, 2015

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  1. Illinois has dealt with a multitude of injuries this season, and Andy Patterson of Big Ten Powerhouse has broken down how the Illini have performed since they lost their star, Rayvonte Rice. Illinois’ best win of the season came the day after Rice’s inury was announced, a 64-57 home upset of Maryland. Since that point, though, they’ve gone 3-3 with losses to Nebraska, Indiana and Purdue. Kendrick Nunn’s scoring has skyrocketed but the team is getting little production from Nnanna Egwu. If Illinois wants to ultimately make the NCAA Tournament, he’s got to turn his season around; but with a loss in any of their two upcoming games against Penn State and Rutgers, they should consider themselves toast.
  2. Northwestern had a program-defining win over Maryland in College Park slip right through its fingers on Sunday night, blowing an 11-point lead in the final 4:32 of game action. The Wildcats are no strangers to close losses, having dropped their last three games by a total of five points. With such a young team, head coach Chris Collins should be worried that all of these heartbreaking defeats are killing his team’s morale. This team has shown several flashes of brilliance, but those moments have rarely occurred in the final minutes of the second half.
  3. Ohio State notched its first win over a ranked opponent this season on Sunday, topping No. 23 Indiana, 82-70. The Buckeyes used an unconventional method to grab their most impressive victory of the season by employing a smaller-than-usual lineup, replacing starting lineup mainstays Amir Williams and Marc Loving with smaller forwards Anthony Lee and Jae’Sean Tate. While Lee would only log six minutes, Tate scored 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting from the field. The smaller lineup came in part as a response to Indiana’s lack of center Hanner Mosquera-Perea – and head coach Thad Matta said his future lineups would hinge on the unique match-ups presented by other Big Ten foes, despite the success of this weekend’s lineup.
  4. Michigan took Wisconsin to the brink on Saturday night, eventually falling 69-64 to the Badgers in overtime. The loss, though, came with many positives for the Wolverines. Freshmen Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all showed obvious improvement against a team likely to grab one of four No. 1 seeds in March’s NCAA Tournament. Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin led Michigan on the scoring front, but seemed to run out of gas in overtime. John Beilein’s team is showing solid improvement after losing players to both injury and the NBA, and this team should be very, very good in the near future.
  5. Nebraska’s Walter Pitchford was ejected during the Cornhuskers’ win over Michigan State on Sunday after throwing a punch at Matt Costello, but he won’t be looking at mandatory bench time meted by the Big Ten. At the time, the loss of Pitchford was seen as a major blow to Nebraska’s chances of beating the Spartans – he dropped 18 points in last season’s win – but the Huskers would prevail without him by a score of 79-77.
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 20th, 2015

Points were relatively easy to come by in the Big Ten’s third weekend of play, as only three teams of the 12 with games failed to crack the 1.00 point per possession plateau. There were also some outstanding individual scoring games on display, with Penn State’s DJ Newbill (37 points) and Minnesota’s Andre Hollins (31 points) leading the way in that regard. From a team perspective, Purdue and Indiana got crucial road wins to stay among the top half of the league standings, while Maryland continued its outstanding start by dismantling Michigan State in College Park. Elsewhere, Minnesota is no longer winless in conference action, and Penn State remains the only team still looking for a conference win. Well, at least their freshman guard brings a celebrity cousin to the table.

Melo Trimble torched Michigan State as they knocked off the Spartans by 15 on Saturday. (David J. Philip/AP)

Melo Trimble torched Michigan State as his team knocked off the Spartans by 15 Saturday. (David J. Philip/AP)

Player of the Weekend: Melo Trimble has had issues at times in knocking down perimeter shots, but he had no such problems against Michigan State on Saturday. The freshman combo guard simply went off, scoring 24 points on 8-on-16 shooting from the field. He also hit six threes, five of which came in the first half. Trimble not only should be considered a c0-favorite with Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but he’s also making a legitimate case for First Team all-Big Ten consideration. Usually he’s a menace for opposing defenses with his keen ability to get to the free throw line, but he only shot two freebies in this game. Instead, he made nearly every shot from behind the arc that he took in the opening stanza. With Jake Layman scoring 23 himself and with Dez Wells capable of going off in any given game, Maryland is one of the few league teams with three legitimate threats on offense. That’s what makes the Terrapins so dangerous. Nothing I’ve said here can top watching this clip, so take a look for yourself. Rest in peace, Tum Tum.

Super Sub of the Weekend: AJ Hammons might win this award multiple times if Purdue keeps winning weekend games. The junior posted his second double-double in the last four games (and his third on the season) with 21 points and 12 rebounds against Penn State on Saturday. While those numbers are nice and all, the biggest takeaway from his effort was that his hustle essentially gave Purdue the opportunity to win the game in overtime. During the game the broadcasters raved about the game-tying three that Kendall Stephens made in the final seconds, but it was Hammons who spun through two Penn State defenders to somehow tip the ball on a missed free throw out to him so he could take the shot in the first place. It’s not a play he would have made in his first two seasons as a Boilermaker, but it shows how far he’s come. You don’t see it all statistically, but if you watch Purdue extensively, you can see all of the subtle improvements he’s made in his productiveness.

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Big Ten M5: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 16th, 2015

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  1. Given the Big Ten’s balance this season, it’s widely accepted that if a team can hold home court and win just a few road games, it will likely finish in the top third of the league. On Wednesday night, Illinois got its needed road win at Northwestern with a 72-67 victory. They were led by Kendrick Nunn (25 points) and Aaron Cobsy (19), each of whom gave their most impressive performances of the season. This is an especially encouraging sign for Cosby, who before this game had been nothing short of awful in the shooting department (18-of-74 in the last 10 games). With leading scorer Rayvonte Rice out with an injury until at least February, the Illini need one or more of their guards to produce in each and every game. If Nunn, Cosby and Malcolm Hill can become more consistent, this team can still be on the bubble when Rice gets back.
  2. In case there was any doubt about Frank Kaminsky’s impact after Wisconsin’s loss to Rutgers without him in the lineup, we were reminded of his greatness once again when he returned from concussion symptoms to lead the Badgers to a 70-55 win over Nebraska Thursday night. The senior center scored 22 points and grabbed five rebounds while providing an effective presence on defense. The Badgers will still be shorthanded for several more weeks while point guard Traevon Jackson heals from a foot injury, but Bronson Koenig was able to slide into Jackson’s spot effectively with 11 points against the Cornhuskers. As long as Wisconsin has Kaminsky in the lineup, the Badgers should have no serious challenger for the Big Ten championship.
  3. The Wooden Award Midseason list was released on Wednesday, and four players from the Big Ten made the cut: Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell and Maryland’s Melo Trimble. Three of the four players were expected to be national names in the preseason, but the freshman Trimble’s inclusion highlights just how integral the dynamic point guard has been to the Terrapins’ success. The snubs include the Big Ten’s two leading scorers: Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Nebraska’s Terran Pettaway. Both players were likely hurt because of their teams’ disappointing play this season, underscoring how team success ultimately factors into decisions about individual awards. It’s also why the Big Ten’s best chance to win the Wooden Award lies with Kaminsky as he leads the Badgers to a possible conference and National Championship.
  4. One of the biggest surprises of the season has been Maryland’s impressive play leading to a 16-2 record and the an early lead with Wisconsin at 4-1 in the conference standings. Like all Mark Turgeon-coached teams, the Terps’ strength lies in their defense (19th in the nation). Not nearly talked about enough, though, has been Maryland’s rebounding performance during conference play. It made a big statement by outrebounding Michigan State two weeks ago, a program that prides itself in how hard it gets after the boards. The secret has been getting players like Jake Layman to commit to rebounding, regardless of position. Thus far, the Terps have won the rebounding battle in three of their first five conference games and all three ended in wins. They’ll have to keep it up this weekend as they once again face a Spartans team that will be looking to redeem themselves.
  5. Finally, Joe Lunardi updated his brackets on ESPN.com yesterday. According to his projections, the Big Ten has six teams currently in the field: Wisconsin (#2 seed), Maryland (#3), Iowa (#8), Michigan State (#8), Ohio State (#8), and Indiana (#9). This would land the conference fourth in bids, with the ACC, Big 12, and Big East each getting more. Given the Big Ten’s lackluster performance in the non-conference schedule and the likelihood that they will continue to beat up on one another, things are unlikely to change much in this regard by Selection Sunday. Bummer.
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Big Ten M5: 01.07.15 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 7th, 2015

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  1. Nebraska has gotten off to a sloppy start in conference play after dropping another game to Iowa on Monday night. A big part of the Cornhuskers’ problem is a lack of depth, as they currently play (mostly) seven players. Next season might be a different story, however, as Tim Miles’ squad recently received its fourth commitment from the Class of 2015 in Australian shooting guard Jack McVeigh. With recruits like Glynn Watson and Edward Morrow coming into the program from Chicago, and Kansas transfer Andrew White eligible after sitting out this season, depth will not be an issue with Nebraska next season. As for this year’s team, it might still be a bit premature to declare this a lost season in Lincoln, but at 8-6 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, it’s getting rather close to that point.
  2. Maryland was considered questionable to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid before the season began, but after a 14-1 start including two wins in conference play, the Terps are now listed as no less than a #5 seed in various bracketologies on different sites. Dave Tucker of Testudo Times maintains that there’s still a long way to go before the Terps have proved anything yet, but pointed out that things have shifted quite a bit to where Maryland fans are complaining about mock seedings as opposed to worrying about an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Illinois has had a rough 24 hours given the recent news that Rayvonte Rice has been lost to a broken hand for up to six weeks. The show must go on, however, and the Illini won’t exactly start out with an easy grace period having to play Maryland in Champaign Wednesday night. Someone needs to replace Rice’s 17.2 PPG and 48 percent shooting from three, and the most likely candidates are Kendrick Nunn and Aaron Cosby, both of whom need to take advantage of the available shots with Rice out of the lineup. If they can’t hold down the fort beginning with this game against the rising Terps, things look bleak for the Illini going forward.
  4. Sam Dekker is back, and Wisconsin is reaping the benefits of his return. Dekker didn’t miss any games despite an ankle injury in the preseason, but he’s back in the sense that he’s returned to being the offensive weapon that many expected him to become. In his last six games, the junior forward has made 11-of-22 of his three-point attempts, bringing his overall field goal percentage for the season up to a sterling 54.2 percent. That balky ankle is finally healed, which has allowed him to get better lift and feel more comfortable in shooting the ball. Wisconsin can reasonably make a claim to having the best frontcourt in all of college basketball, and that case is bolstered when Dekker plays like he has been.
  5. Even after starting Big Ten play with a 2-0 record, Purdue head coach Matt Painter is still figuring things out with his rotation. Bryson Scott is perhaps the clearest example of this idea, after he went from starting against Minnesota to not playing at all against Michigan. The sophomore point guard has struggled to find consistency, but teammates like Raphael Davis and AJ Hammons still believe in him. He is a solid perimeter defender who has a knack for getting into the lane off the dribble, but Jon Octeus brings senior leadership and athleticism that Painter trusts in key situations. With a deep roster and two other point guards on hand, minutes aren’t always going to be readily available for the growing player.
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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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Illinois’ Point Guard Conundrum Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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Battle of Unbeatens: Key Questions in Illinois vs. Miami

Posted by Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells on December 2nd, 2014

As the ACC and the Big Ten teams get together on the hardwood this week, the ACC and Big Ten microsites (Brendan Brody and Lathan Wells, specifically) have also decided to team up to break down some of the key questions for a few of the games. What follows is a look at tonight’s Top 25 battle between two unbeatens: the 6-0 Illini and the 7-0 Hurricanes.

Brendan Brody: After a mediocre 17-16 mark last year, Miami is back in the Top 25 with Big 12 transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) deservedly getting most of the credit. Let’s talk about how other key players like Tonyi Jekiri and Manu Lecomte have also had an impact, and how they will affect the outcome of this game.

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive force so far for Miami. (Gerry Broome, AP)

Lathan Wells: Lecomte looks much more comfortable playing off the ball and allowing Rodriguez to run the show this season. The result is enormously efficient basketball, as he is averaging 13.3 PPG and shooting 56.7 percent from the field. If Rodriguez and McClellan are being stifled, he offers a third excellent perimeter scoring option. Jekiri, to his credit, has blossomed into a force around the basket, averaging just shy of 11 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. For a team relying on consistent guard and perimeter play, he has helped to keep the Hurricanes balanced. While it’s true Rodriguez and McClellan are driving Miami’s hot start, don’t be surprised if Lecomte comes up with a few key baskets or if Jekiri helps keep Miami on the plus-side of the rebounding margin. Illinois hangs its hat on defense first, but the Illini rank fifth in the country in averaging 90 points per game. How will they handle a lower scoring contest if Miami is able to slow things down?

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