Illinois Finding Consistency During Five-Game Winning Streak

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 21st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.16.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 16th, 2016

We might as well call tomorrow Super Saturday because five of the games involving Big Ten teams are as intriguing of a slate as in recent memory. In addition to the always-enjoyable Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis involving Purdue and Indiana, three other league schools will face off against potential NCAA Tournament teams. This provides each team with a golden non-conference opportunity to a land a resume-enhancing win and build some momentum heading into league play the week after Christmas. Here’s the Weekend Look Ahead:

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the paint in the Crosstown Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP).

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the Crossroads Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP)

  • #21 Notre Dame vs. #15 Purdue (Saturday 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2). With all four teams ranked, the Crossroads Classic couldn’t ask for a better slate. The annual event tips off with Notre Dame’s high-powered offense facing off against Purdue. While the Boilermakers have been impressive all season, they’ve fallen just short in their two chances against elite competition – losing close games to #1 Villanova and #11 Louisville. If Matt Painter‘s group can establish its inside-out game between Caleb Swanigan and outside threats Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline, in addition to submitting a respectable defensive performance, the Boilermakers will walk out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with their best win of the season.

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.02.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 2nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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Levy’s Layup Line: Week 12

Posted by Adam Levy on February 26th, 2016

Need proof that the Big Ten is as watered down as it’s ever been? Only 15 – yes, 15 – of the 107 conference games played this year have been won by four points or less, or ended in overtime. That means just 14.0% percent of Big Ten games have been considered “close” – the third lowest percentage of all 32 Division I conferences. As sad as it is that the regular season is nearing its end, it’s nice to know that we soon won’t have to hear, see or think about Rutgers, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State basketball until next fall. It’s Week 12 of the Layup Line.

Tom Izzo

Another year, another ho-hum top of the line finish for Tom Izzo and Michigan State. (Getty)

REPORT CARD

A: Michigan State Spartans

Deja vu for Tom Izzo’s boys. They hit a rough patch in mid-January, then destroyed seven of their next eight opponents. The Spartans completely worked Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio State over the past couple of weeks and should have no issue running the table from here on out. Denzel Valentine has quietly put himself right back into the NPOY conversation, Matt Costello has solidified himself as the best rebounder in the conference (also 10th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage), and the Spartans, as a whole, are shooting a nation-best 43.2 percent from three. This team is going to the Final Four. You heard it here first. Or probably 101st, but whatever. In Izzo we trust.

A: Indiana Hoosiers

Back in December, if you thought Indiana was going to win a Big Ten title after its performances in Maui and at Duke, you were just lying. Nobody had that pick – not with Maryland and Michigan State coming in with those preseason expectations of theirs. But here we are on February 26, and Indiana is coming off a huge week after a home win over rival Purdue (only committed four turnovers for a 6.5 percent turnover rate – the lowest ever rate in a Big Ten game in the entire Tom Crean era in Bloomington, per Luke Winn) and a 27-point shellacking of Illinois in Champaign. Indiana is now 13-3 with a two game lead and two games left against Iowa and Maryland – both of whom are tied for second. Win one and the Hoosiers win at least a share of the title; win both and the title is theirs outright. Indiana control its own destiny.

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Morning Five: 02.22.16 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on February 22nd, 2016

morning5

  1. We have been critical of how Johnny Jones has used Ben Simmons this season particularly in late-game situations, but the latest setback for Simmons was of his own doing as he did not start on Saturday due to “academic stuff”. Simmons sat out the first four and a half minutes before coming into the game and ended up with 21 points and 9 assists (along with a season-high 8 assists) in a ugly 81-65 to a Kevin Punter-less Tennessee team. Given the timing of this we suspect it is due to missing classes or a study hall and not something more significant.
  2. It seems like we are on the verge of having quite a few legendary coaches, but just don’t mention it to them. Before Saturday’s game against Miami, CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb mentioned than some people believed that ongoing health issues and the never-ending NCAA investigation would lead Roy Williams to retire at the end of the season. Roy, who probably was in a good mood after his team turned in one of its most dominating performances this season, was less than pleased with the commentary and took a shot at Gottlieb. To be fair to Gottlieb, his comments were taken out of context and aren’t that unreasonable if you don’t try to take it further to mean that Williams is retiring.
  3. Illinois has had enough issues with injuries recently that they don’t need any more issues (the only thing saving them from the cellar of the Big Ten is the fact that Minnesota and Rutgers can’t be relegated). The news that sophomore forward Leron Black was arrested early on Friday morning after allegedly threatening a bouncer at a campus bar with a knife only adds to what an awful season it has been. Black, who has not played since December 5 when he was averaging 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, was charged with a felony and has been suspended indefinitely. Since Black was already sitting out for the season the suspension doesn’t mean anything for the team, but we do wonder how long the Illinois administration will put up with a string of seasons without a NCAA Tournament appearance.
  4. At this point Wake Forest‘s season is lost so the news that they had suspended Devin Thomas (the team’s leading scorer and rebounder) for two games and kicked Cornelius Hudson off the team for an undisclosed violation of athletic department policy. Fortunately for Wake Forest the first of those two games was against Boston College, which let them break their 11-game losing streak even without Thomas. We aren’t sure if the two players were involved in the same incident(s), but it is interesting that they are letting Thomas (a senior star) return while kicking out a less productive sophomore.
  5. It has been a while since we did a Morning Five, but as our long-time readers know our favorite regular link is to Luke Winn’s Power Rankings. Now that the regular season is almost over Luke has a bigger data set to work with, which allows him to dive deeper into things than he could earlier in the season. As always with this column, there is (at least) one thing that jumps out at us and this week it is Purdue‘s splits with the two freshmen it uses in its rotation (you can probably already guess that the results are not what you would expect).
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Starting Five: Five Big Ten Teams Feeling Good About Feast Week

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 30th, 2015

The non-conference portion of the schedule hasn’t been great to the Big Ten so far this season, but Feast Week gave some of the league’s teams positive feelings about the future. Here are five schools that can feel good about themselves after the week that was.

John Groce got his lineup back in full, and his squad looked much better. (USAT Images)

John Groce got his full lineup back and his squad looked much better as a result. (USAT Images)

  1. Illinois: The Illini have a lot of extra dead weight to shed from their 3-4 start to the season, but anyone who watched their win against UAB and the first 30 minutes against Iowa State saw that this is a different and better team with a full complement of players. Kendrick Nunn looked rusty but he averaged 18.5 PPG in the two games — a healthy Nunn, Leron Black and Jaylon Tate showed the potential that exists here. The knee injury to Mike Thorne, Jr., however, is a real downer.
  2. Maryland: After struggling with teams that they shouldn’t have struggled with, the Terps finally put it all together against Rhode Island on Wednesday night in the championship game of the Cancun Classic. It appears as though Maryland’s on-court chemistry and offensive movement are improving with the realization that they any member of the starting unit can carry them for stretches — Rasheed Suliamon and Robert Carter Jr., for example, had moments where they looked like the best players on the floor. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 11.20.15 Edition

Posted by Patrick Engel on November 20th, 2015

morning5_bigten

  1. A healthy Peter Jok is huge for Iowa. The junior wing scored 20 points last night as the Hawkeyes pasted Marquette to give the Big Ten a 4-3 lead over the Big East in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. Before the season began, we detailed Jok’s importance to the team’s success, but an injury sustained in the Hawkeyes’ first game of the season put him on the shelf. Sophomore Dom Uhl and freshman Brady Ellingson combined for 38 points on 14-of-18 shooting and eight rebounds in Jok’s absence, but in only 28 minutes of action this season, Jok has accounted for 28 points himself. Nevertheless, Uhl and Ellingson’s production is an encouraging sign for Iowa’s depth, which was a significant question mark entering the season.
  2. Rutgers may have found itself a leader. The Scarlet Knights lost a heartbreaker to St. John’s on Thursday when Bishop Daniels’ game-winning three-pointer left his hand just after the clock hit all zeros. But the silver lining in the loss was the continued emergence of freshman Corey Sanders, who played at least 30 minutes for the second straight game and is averaging 4.5 APG on the season. On Rutgers’ last possession yesterday, head coach Eddie Jordan trusted Sanders to call and run the final play that was very close to producing a buzzer-beating victory. Even if Rutgers struggles mightily again this season, Sanders is quickly looking like a key building block for the program’s future.
  3. The early signing period ended on Wednesday, and Wisconsin and Rutgers were the two Big Ten programs that failed to land any signees. Every other conference team signed at least one player, and all but Purdue signed two. Rutgers lost its lone commitment — three-star point guard Kwe Parker — in early November when he decided to reopen his recruitment. Wisconsin whiffed on two of its bigger targets, top-100 point guards Xavier Simpson and JaQuori McLaughlin, down the stretch. Neither team has enough space for a large incoming class, but Bo Ryan and Eddie Jordan have work to do before the next signing period in April.
  4. Purdue’s backcourt is proving itself. We touched on the Boilermakers’ need for additional backcourt help before the season started, and so far it has delivered. In the team’s first three games, forwards Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, A.J. Hammons and Vince Edwards made a combined total of 41 field goals — the backcourt or Edwards (a wing who does a little of everything) assisted on 20 of those. Meanwhile, incumbent guards Rapheal Davis, Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and freshman Ryan Cline are averaging a combined 40 points per game and are shooting 48 percent from behind the arc. The biggest open question was with UT-Arlington transfer Johnny Hill, who was brought in to be the starting point guard. So far he boasts an 11-to-4 assist-turnover ratio with seven steals, yet another reason why Purdue has won three games by an average of 34.7 points per game.
  5. Illinois’ freshmen are surviving trial by fire. With Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black (who returned to action after missing one game) and Tracy Abrams all sustaining various injuries since the start of the school year, Illinois has needed some mileage from its freshmen, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands. While not perfect to this point, the trio has been productive. Williams started the first two games and only totaled four points, but he had zero turnovers and just one foul. Jordan has averaged 8.0 points per game with an 8-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. Coleman-Lands ranks third on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game and has averaged 24.3 minutes of action off the bench. He also leads the team in steals (five), three-pointers (nine) and three-point percentage (56 percent). All of this hasn’t been enough to get Illinois more than a single win against North Dakota State, but the experience that the youngsters are getting will be invaluable when conference play starts in January.
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John Groce’s Illini Simply Can’t Catch a Break

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 3rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Football and women’s basketball scandals. The revelation that Illini football coach Tim Beckman was a real life Bud Kilmer — and appropriately fired one week before the start of the season — summoned a dark cloud over the entire athletic program. Ultimately, a different investigation found no wrongdoing into claims of racial discrimination against the women’s basketball coaching staff, but the public relations damage had already been done. These external distractions do not create an environment for the kind of administrative “support” the head basketball coach needs coming into a make-or-break season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on January 23rd, 2015

morning5_bigten

  1. On Tuesday night, Iowa suffered an embarrassing 32-point loss at Wisconsin. While that certainly wasn’t the outcome the Hawkeyes were hoping for, it didn’t hurt their postseason aspirations in the grand scheme of things. However, an incident that occurred during the game has escalated into an off-court dispute between head coach Fran McCaffery and ESPN analyst Dan Dakich. The issue in question was whether Iowa center Adam Woodbury intentionally poked two different Wisconsin players in the eyes. Dakich felt his actions were intentional and called the Hawkeyes junior “cowardly” and “gutless” as a result. On his weekly radio show, McCaffery responded to Dakich’s accusation by saying that “It’s absolutely inexcusable that his network would allow him to say those things” and later demanded an apology. Dakich is known for being boisterous but he may have crossed the line with his harsh criticism here.
  2. On Wednesday night, Michigan State eked out a win at home against Penn State. The Spartans have been unusually mediocre this season and are right now headed for a relatively low seed in the NCAA Tournament — or worse yet, the bubble. A major issue has been the poor performance from their veteran backcourt of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice. Despite being Tom Izzos’ top two scorers, they haven’t been aggressive of late and are shooting 45 percent and 39 percent from the field on the season, respectively. The frontcourt has been picking up the slack, but if history is any indication, the Spartans will need to have their guards play well to have any kind of late-season success.
  3. A battered Illinois team managed to fend off Purdue and get a much-needed win in Champaign on Wednesday night. Before the game the school announced that Aaron Cosby would be out for two weeks due to an eye injury he sustained in the Illini’s previous contest against Indiana. This meant that freshman Leron Black would get an opportunity to showcase the potential many saw in him at the beginning of the season. And boy did he ever. Black had a breakout night, registering his first career double-double (15 points and 13 rebounds) and hitting the dagger three to seal the game. If the Memphis native can turn his seemingly endless energy level into consistent production, the Illini will have yet another backcourt weapon at their disposal when they get back to full health.
  4. No team may be having a better week than Indiana. After getting an important road win at Illinois on Sunday, the Hoosiers backed it up with a statement win by blowing out Maryland in Assembly Hall on Thursday night. Currently, Mark Turgeon and Bo Ryan are the front-runners for B1G Coach of the Year, but Tom Crean should also be considered for the job he’s done this season. This program was thought to be on the decline — and the firing of its head coach imminent — after a turbulent offseason and dubious loss to Eastern Washington in November. But Crean has managed to keep his team together and now has the Hoosiers tied for first place in the conference standings.
  5. Finally, as we found out last weekend, Michigan’s Caris LeVert is done for the season because of a fractured foot. But last Saturday’s game against Northwestern may have also been Levert’s last game in a Michigan jersey given that the junior LeVert is projected to be a first-round pick. If he declares himself eligible for the NBA Draft in April, that would mean John Beilein has turned a once-unheralded recruit into a first round pick going on three years in a row (Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas are the others). That might be a nice thing to brag about, but all of the attrition from unexpected sources has to be frustrating on some level and possibly make it more difficult to get Michigan back into contention for Final Fours.
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RTC Big Ten Preseason Rankings: #9 to #5

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 13th, 2014

We continue our preseason Big Ten rankings today with spots #9 through #5. The bottom tier of teams, #14 to #10, released earlier this week. These middle tier teams will be fighting to be on the right side of the bubble — and providing us with great drama — all season long.

9. Maryland

  • What they do well: Defense. Mark Turgeon has had a top 40 squad in adjusted defensive efficiency the past couple seasons and it’ll likely be his area of focus once again.
  • What they don’t do well: Retention. Seth Allen, Charles Mitchell, Nick Faust, Roddy Peters and Shaquille Cleare all transferred out of the program in the offseason — not exactly inconsequential players.
Dez Wells is one of the few familiar faces in College Park this year. (Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback)

Dez Wells is one of the few familiar faces in College Park this year. (Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback)

  • Get to know: Melo Trimble. The top 40 recruit will need to use his offensive skill set to help replace all the lost scoring from last season.
  • Why they’ll finish 9th: The exodus of key players and unfamiliarity in the Big Ten will cause some very sharp growing pains for the Terrapins.
  • Why they’ll finish higher: This team still has talent and is used to playing top-notch competition. If they can get all their new pieces to gel together, they can compete in a relatively down Big Ten.

8. Iowa

  • What they do well: Offense. Last season, the Hawkeyes were fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and they bring a majority of that roster back this year.
  • What they don’t do well: Mental toughness. Last season, Iowa wilted in close games against Villanova and Iowa State. Things really spiraled out of control at the end of the season when they lost seven of their last eight contests.

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