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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Can Tracy Abrams Save Illinois?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 25th, 2016

Despite the recent signing of five-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon, Illinois head coach John Groce is past the point of selling the future to Illini fans. Rather, competing for a berth in this season’s NCAA Tournament is an absolute necessity. While senior Malcolm Hill is expected to be one of the top 10 players in the Big Ten this year, he needs help that could come from a forgotten name: point guard Tracy Abrams. The sixth-year senior not only went through the personal agony of redshirting the last two years because of injuries, but it was clear that the team missed his leadership and offensive capabilities as well. With Abrams now fully back in action, he may just be the spark plug that Groce needs to position Illinois as an at-large NCAA bid contender from the Big Ten.

After two long years, Tracy Abrams will finally be able spark the Illini offense. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Illini averaged an abysmal 0.97 points per possession last season because they didn’t have a reliable point guard to complement the skill sets of Hill and Kendrick Nunn on the wings. As a result, Jaylon Tate unexpectedly stepped into the point guard role, and while serviceable he wasn’t particularly effective. Nunn and Hill combined to take over 300 shots from beyond the arc, making a meager 35 percent of those attempts. Most of those shots came from plays in isolation because Tate didn’t have the ability to effectively set up his shooters. Tate’s strength is to push tempo on the fast break and find angles for penetration. He has no mid-range game nor a respectable shot from three-point range so defenders essentially give him several feel of space and dare him to shoot.

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Projecting Five Breakout Players

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on November 17th, 2016

Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, Josh Hart, Josh Jackson. Everyone already knows the studs of the game, the Preseason All-Americans, the incoming superstars. But by the end of the season, there are going to be several more names for you to know as a number of players will force themselves into national relevance. Using Sports Illustrated writer Luke Winn’s annual breakout players column as a starting point, here is an incomplete list of who five of those players might be.

  • Kelan Martin, SF, Junior, Butler — With Roosevelt Jones and Kellen Dunham no longer enrolled at Butler, this is now Martin’s team. Last year the 6’7″, 220-lb wing displayed an improved outside shot and enough quickness to get to the rim, registering eye-popping totals like a 35-point outburst against Georgetown. Martin also rebounds well for his position, registering five double-doubles in Big East play last year. He is now the undisputed first option for head coach Chris Holtmann, and stands to see his usage and scoring increase accordingly. Winn, as a matter of fact, projects Martin to lead the Big East in points per game this year. Butler hasn’t had a player with Martin’s all-around dynamism since Gordon Hayward from 2008-10, and he is reason alone to tune into the Bulldogs’ games this year.
It is now Kelan Martin's show at Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

It is now Kelan Martin’s show at Butler. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Jawun Evans, PG, Sophomore, Oklahoma State — Evans missed the final 10 games of Big 12 play last year with a shoulder injury, but before he was hurt the freshman showed why he was underrated as the 33rd-ranked prospect in his class. His season high of 42 points against Oklahoma was the pinnacle, but Evans consistently scored throughout his 22-game season, hitting for double figures 15 times. He was far from one-dimensional, though, as his 41.9 percent assist rate was good for fourth nationally and he managed 4.4 rebounds per game despite his diminutive stature. All of this makes the sophomore a prime candidate to explode in his sophomore campaign (spoiler alert: it’s already started) and perhaps prove to be the most complete player in the Big 12 by the end of the year.

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Big Ten Conference Preview: Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 11th, 2016

The ballots have been revealed and the results have been tabulated. Unlike another round of voting that took place this week, there isn’t as much shock value in seeing these results. We at the Big Ten microsite have voted and determined how the league will shake out this season. The second of three segments lists our middle five teams (the bottom tier can be found here).

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes arguably lost more than any other squad in the Big Ten, with four senior starters moving on from Iowa City. The good news, however, starts with guard Peter Jok staying put for his senior season. Jok will lead an inexperienced crew highlighted by freshman Tyler Cook, and jack-of-all-trades Dom Uhl. The point guard situation here is dicey, but if either Christian Williams or Jordan Bohannon can handle it, this team could still be in the mix for another NCAA Tournament bid. Jok needs to put up large numbers on the offensive end, though, and several secondary scorers need to emerge for this to happen.

Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes are predicted to finish in the middle of the Big Ten. (AP)

Fran McCaffery and his Iowa Hawkeyes are predicted to finish in the middle of the Big Ten. (AP).

Best-Case Scenario: NCAA Tournament Berth

8. Illinois: Things will be much better at Illinois this season if the Illini can simply keep their roster healthy for the first time in two years. The transfer of Kendrick Nunn will sting a bit, but six seniors make this the most experienced roster in the conference. Malcolm Hill is the team’s best player, but the key to the season will be the health of sixth- year seniors Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr. If that pair can stay on the floor, last season’s 135th ranked defense should be much better and that ugly 15-19 record should also improve.

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Five Tweaks to the CBS 100 From a B1G Perspective

Posted by Brendan Brody on October 28th, 2016

CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander published their preseason top 100 (and one) list of the best players in college basketball on Wednesday. Fifteen Big Ten players made the list, with many of the usual suspects appearing at some point in the countdown. The full list is available here, with the stated premise being “it’s a huge game of pickup hoops, you keep picking guys in order of who you think is best.” Here are the five small revisions that one humble Big Ten basketball scribe would offer to Parrish and Norlander.

  • Too Low: Vince Edwards, Purdue (#84): Edwards is one of the most underappreciated players in the Big Ten and nationally. He made steady progress in numerous facets of the game during his sophomore season, specifically in increasing his three-point percentage by eight points to a legitimate 40.7 percent. He led the Boilermakers in assists from the forward spot and can guard both wings and post players. He should be 10 to 15 spots higher.
Vince Edwards is the 84th best player in the land according to CBS. (Jerry Schultheiss).

Vince Edwards is the 84th best player in the land according to CBS. (Jerry Schultheiss).

  • Too High: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (#32): It is certainly understandable that Koenig was selected this high because he has a pedigree of two Final Fours and a Sweet Sixteen to his credit. But with NPOY Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker gone from last year’s squad, he struggled shooting (39.2% FG) and distributing (15.1% assist rate) the ball. He belongs on the list as a top 100 player, but he should not have been listed as the sixth-best player in the Big Ten.

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Big Ten Tournament Storylines: Quarterfinal Friday

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 11th, 2016

We’re now down to eight teams remaining in the Big Ten Tournament after a wild Thursday resulted in significant upsets to Iowa and Wisconsin. Today the top four seeds will take the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse hoping to avoid the same fate that befell the #5 and #6 seeds. As we head into the quarterfinals, here are four storylines to watch during the tournament’s third day in Indianapolis.

Malcolm Hill and the Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

Malcolm Hill and his Illini will have to hope that the slipper still fits against Purdue Purdue on Friday. (USA Today Images)

  1. Can Illinois Keep It Going?: Even with Iowa finishing the season with a whimper, #12 Illinois’ win over the Hawkeyes on Thursday might be the biggest Big Ten upset since Rutgers beat Wisconsin last season. An impressive game from Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn along with continued strong play from freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands could get the Illini into the tournament semifinals. Remember that John Groce’s unit — thanks to 52 points from Hill and Dunn — has already beaten Purdue once this year.  Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Tournament Storylines: First and Second Rounds

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 9th, 2016

This year’s Big Ten Tournament could very well have something for everyone. There are two teams that seem to be peaking at just the right time (Indiana and Michigan State), two others that have won 20 of their last 26 games (Purdue and Wisconsin), and two more that hope to find their way after recent struggles (Iowa and Maryland). Old rivals Michigan and Ohio State are both stuck squarely on the bubble, while Northwestern and Penn State can secure bids in some of the lower-level tournaments with a win or two. Here are three quick storylines to focus on during the first two days of games in Indianapolis.

Michigan needs quality play from Zak Irvin to get the wins they need in the Big Ten Tournament. (Getty).

Michigan needs quality play from Zak Irvin to get the wins it needs this postseason. (Getty)

  1. Bubble Boys: Michigan has a decent chance to make the field of 68 but it would be strongly advisable that the Wolverines avoid losing to Northwestern on Thursday afternoon. When the two teams played a couple weeks ago, the Wildcats were competitive throughout until Michigan pulled away at the very end. A Michigan loss here probably means John Beilein will punch his ticket to the NIT. Ohio State has a much more arduous task ahead with its first test against a Penn State team that has won five out of its final eight games, including victories over Indiana and Iowa. The Buckeyes are full of mercurial talents who don’t always play consistently, but if Thad Matta can get JaQuan Lyle, Marc Loving and Keita Bates-Diop clicking at the same time, Ohio State could make a run. Read the rest of this entry »
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Handing Out Big Ten Awards and Superlatives

Posted by Patrick Engel on March 8th, 2016

With the regular season complete, it’s time for our Big Ten postseason awards. Here are our three all-conference teams, all-rookie team and individual award winners as voted on by our microsite staff. Note that our ballots were submitted before the Big Ten released its official winners on Monday night.

Individual Awards

Tom Crean helped his Indiana team regroup and win the Big Ten after a poor nonconference showing. (Getty)

Tom Crean helped his Indiana team regroup and win the Big Ten after a poor nonconference showing. (Getty)

  • Player of the Year (unanimous): Denzel Valentine (G, Michigan State). The Wooden Award Candidate is the first player to lead the Big Ten in both scoring and assists per game since Iowa’s Andre Woolridge in 1996-97. He’s the Big Ten’s best passer (44.6 percent assist rate) and notched a sterling 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio this season. Valentine takes 30 percent of Michigan State’s shots (over half are three-pointers) and he still has a top-35 offensive rating (126.9) nationally.
  • Coach of the Year: Tom Crean (Indiana). The Hoosiers won the outright Big Ten title with a strong 15-3 record and significantly improved its defense during the Big Ten season. Despite losing one of its best offensive players with James Blackmon, Jr.’s injury in January, Indiana still boast the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense (119.6 points per 100 possessions).
  • Rookie of the Year: Ethan Happ (F, Wisconsin). Happ’s production and consistency on both ends of the floor gives him the edge here. He is tied for second in the conference with nine double-doubles and was an important part of Wisconsin’s resurgence after a 1-3 start to the Big Ten season.
  • Defensive Player of the Year: A.J. Hammons (C, Purdue). Hammons has tallied four more blocks (74) than fouls (70) this season, and he helps Purdue hold opponents to a difficult 42.7 two-point percentage. He also rebounds 23.4 percent of opponents’ misses.
  • Most Improved Player: Peter Jok (G, Iowa). Jok went from an inconsistent reserve as a sophomore to a consistently productive scorer as a junior. Iowa needed a complementary scorer to put alongside Jarrod Uthoff this season, and Jok became that guy.

All-Big Ten First Team

Denzel Valentine has become one of the nation's best players, if not the best, in his senior season. (AP)

Denzel Valentine has become one of the nation’s best players, if not the best, in his senior season. (AP)

  • Denzel Valentine (G, Michigan State): Valentine is the only player in the modern history of college basketball to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game (assists became an official statistic in 1983-84). He also logged two triple-doubles and shot 49.6 percent from beyond the arc in conference play.
  • Yogi Ferrell (G, Indiana): The Hoosiers’ senior point guard is the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer (17.1 PPG), fourth-leading distributor (5.5 APG), 10th-leading three-point shooter (42.1 %) and the conference champion’s best player.

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