Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Angry Melo Trimble Keeps Maryland in Big Ten Race

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 16th, 2017

If Wednesday night’s performance at Northwestern is any indication, Melo Trimble’s recent shooting slump is officially over. The junior guard came into Evanston having made only three of his last 22 attempts from the three-point line, but according to Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon, Trimble was “pissed off” by some of the comments made about his shooting prowess. The normally reserved guard responded to the criticism with a career-high 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting (4-of-5 from behind the arc) in yet another big road win. Not only does the 74-64 victory keep Maryland’s shot at a Big Ten regular season title alive, but it also shows as March quickly approaches that the Terrapins have a superstar capable of taking over games. The Terps are now 10-3 in Big Ten play, tied with Purdue for second in the standings and just a half-game back of league-leading Wisconsin. In a coincidental twist of scheduling fate, Maryland travels next to Madison to face the Badgers in the Kohl Center on Sunday afternoon. Keeping in mind that the team is 6-1 on the road in Big Ten action this season, another outstanding performance in an opponent’s building could mean that the Big Ten pole position is well within reach.

Melo Trimble torched Northwestern for a career-high 32 points on Wednesday night. (USA Today Images)

Trimble reminded everyone last night that he can carry the offensive load if needed. With Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ taking turns making headlines as the two best players in the Big Ten, Trimble has quietly ceded center stage while remaining an all-Big Ten caliber player. Advanced metrics do not show much faith in the Terrapins (KenPom ranks Maryland 32nd nationally, for example), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore a 22-4 team that is a robust 6-1 against the top 50. Steady play from freshmen Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter has relieved some of the pressure from Trimble, but few teams around college basketball have a legitimate and experienced gamer who has played in two NCAA Tournaments and embraces the big moment. If last night’s performance turns out to be the beginning of a Maryland run into March, it will be because Trimble led the way.

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Can Michigan’s Flashes of Dominance Carry It to March?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 9th, 2017

There are blowouts, and then there’s what Michigan did to Michigan State on Tuesday night. Not four days removed from a home loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines pummeled the Spartans 86-57, shooting 21-of-28 from the field in the first half, grabbing a quick 26-point lead and never looking back. The final margin tied Michigan State’s largest defeat in the rivalry’s long and illustrious history, a beatdown so thorough that Tom Izzo was hard-pressed to find any silver lining (“a complete meltdown,” he said). And it’s not the first time Michigan has crushed an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent this season. On January 30, John Beilein’s club beat Indiana by 30 points; back in November, it toppled Marquette and SMU by 18 and 22 points, respectively. This team has proven capable of excellence when everything clicks. That “when,” though, has also been a major “if” this season, with the Wolverines just as prone to laying an egg as they are to winning by double-figures. With less than a month left in the regular season, the question now isn’t whether Michigan has the potential to do damage in the Big Dance; it’s whether it can remain consistent enough to get there.

On Tuesday, Michigan point guard Derrick Walton was a man on a mission. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

For as superb as Michigan’s offense was earlier this week, its dominance was ignited and sustained on the defensive end. The Wolverines’ played with a clear sense of urgency on the perimeter, preventing Michigan State—a three-point-reliant team—from creating open looks behind the arc. The Spartans attempted just five threes in the first half and looked completely bewildered in their half-court sets, evidenced by three (and nearly five) shot-clock violations in the first 20 minutes alone. “We got late and lost. We just didn’t execute,” Izzo said afterward. All told, Michigan forced Izzo’s group into 21 turnovers at a whopping 31.8 percent turnover rate—by far the highest of any Wolverines’ opponent this season. Spartan super-freshman Miles Bridges alone accounted for five mishaps. The suffocating defensive effort was reminiscent of the Wolverines’ dominant performances against Illinois and Indiana in late January—and noticeably better than Saturday’s showing against the Buckeyes. “They understand there’s another level we can play at,” Beilein said, later adding, “When we show the video of this, it will be the defense that led to the fast break. The steals that led to the fast break.”

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Big Ten Middle Tier Stock Watch

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 27th, 2017

Nine of the 14 Big Tens currently have conference records of either 4-4 or 3-5. It was expected to be a wide open year in the middle of the standings and we have gotten exactly that this season. With 10 regular season games remaining for each of these nine squads, let’s review which teams are trending toward a finish in the upper half of the league standings and a corresponding NCAA Tournament bid (Buy), which teams are still difficult to figure (Hold), and which teams are going to falter down the home stretch of the regular season (Sell).

Buy: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State

Michigan State has been inconsistent, but it would be foolish to bet against a Tom Izzo coached team making the NCAA Tournament. (Getty Images).

  • Michigan leads the list in the Buy category for a number of different reasons. Not only do the Wolverines already have three top-100 KenPom wins — two of which are looking better by the day (SMU and Marquette) — but they also have the best record (4-2) against the other middle-tier teams. John Beilien has coached in a National Championship game and two of his starters have played as far as the Elite Eight. Clear buy.
  • Michigan State is only 12-9 to this point in the season but it would be unwise the count this team out. How many times have we seen Michigan State struggle during the regular season only for Tom Izzo to have Sparty firing on all cylinders by mid-March?  Keep a close eye on the progression of Miles Bridges, who is starting to play like a legitimate superstar and can carry the Spartans through rough patches. Sell at your peril.
  • Ohio State started conference play 0-4 but the Buckeyes have won three of their last four to creep back into bubble consideration. Thad Matta does not have a long history of his teams tanking in Big Ten play, while Trevor Thompson has possibly become the best post player in the league not outside of Caleb Swanigan and Ethan Happ. Buy the Bucks.

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Michigan’s Defense is the Difference Between NCAA and NIT

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2017

It doesn’t take a hoops junkie to recognize that a good, balanced effort on both sides of the ball generally equates to success. And maybe it would be overly simplistic to offer an unbalanced team such advice as “be better on defense.” For this year’s Michigan squad, however, there may not be a more apt prescription. The Wolverines—the Big Ten’s most efficient offensive unit—simply haven’t had a defense to match this season, ranking dead-last in conference play on that end of the court. On nights when they have defended well, the offense has taken a step back. Put simply, the pieces have rarely come together. After an inspired wire-to-wire victory over Illinois on Saturday, however, John Beilein’s group appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. Michigan was stout defensively, received contributions up and down the lineup, and—for perhaps the first time since November—played a complete game against a quality opponent. With a crucial five-game stretch coming and an NCAA Tournament berth still far from guaranteed, the Wolverines’ newfound balance has arrived just in the nick of time.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like the team that pounded SMU and Marquette back in November. (mgoblue.com)

“Blue-collar” defense. Following Illinois’ 85-69 thrashing of Michigan on January 11, Illini center Maverick Morgan referred to the Wolverines as a “white-collar team,” a comment which—at least at the time—seemed completely on point. Due to a mixture of lax perimeter defense and some bad luck, Michigan entered the weekend surrendering an astounding 52.4 percent from three-point range (53-for-101) against Big Ten opponents, including a 9-of-14 effort against the Illini in that first meeting. On the whole, Beilein’s team after came into Saturday’s game surrendering more than 1.2 points per possession, and yet, on the heels of an encouraging effort at Wisconsin, the defensive tide shifted drastically. Michigan held Illinois to just 0-of-5 from three-point range in the first half, and 2-of-12 for the game. Illini ball-handlers were forced into a Big Ten-high 17 turnovers, and Morgan, who made all but one shot from the field in the first meeting, was held in check underneath the basket. “We were active, we were in gaps, swarming to the ball, flying around,” Beilein said after the game. “That was as hard as we’ve played on defense all year.” Before the weekend, Wolverines’ guard Zak Irvin lobbied his team to wear its road blue jerseys to represent the “blue-collar” attitude with which it intended to play. And Michigan didn’t disappoint, holding Illinois to 0.86 points per possession in its strongest defensive effort since the calendar turned to 2017.

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Evaluating Purdue’s Shooting Against Recent Big Ten Teams

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 19th, 2017

As recently as the 2012-13 season, Purdue ranked among the bottom 100 teams nationally (253rd) in three-point shooting. As the team’s perimeter marksmanship has steadily improved since hitting a low point of 32.7 percent the following season, the Boilermakers’ record has tracked correspondingly. Now, at the midpoint of the 2016-17 campaign, Matt Painter’s team is shooting a scorching 40.6 percent from behind the arc, already making 10 or more threes in seven games this season. If Purdue’s hot shooting continues, it has a chance to become one of the best deep shooting teams in the Big Ten over the last five years. How do the Boilermakers compare with the best in the league over this time span? And what does it mean as we slowly turn the corner toward March?

Ryan Cline is one of five Purdue players connecting on over 40 percent from the three-point line. (John Terhune, Journal &Courier).

For the sake of this exercise, three components were analyzed: team three-point percentage; team effective field goal percentage; and the number of players shooting over 40 percent who make at least one three-pointer per game. Ten Big Ten teams have made at least 37.9 percent of their three-point shots since the 2012-13 season. The best of the bunch was last season’s Michigan State squad at 43.4 percent, which led the nation. Purdue’s marksmanship so far this season ties for third. From an eFG perspective, last year’s Indiana team led the nation (58.7%), while Purdue’s 57.0 percent through 19 games comes in behind the Hoosiers. Finally, that same group from Indiana boasted five excellent shooters, as do this year’s Boilermakers. In the aggregate, Purdue finishes no worse than third in any of these metrics, which means that if it maintains the pace, it should definitely be mentioned as one of the best shooting teams in the Big Ten over the last five years. Here’s a look at the data.

  • Indiana 2012-13: (40.3% 3FG, 54.8% eFG, Watford 48.4%, Hulls 44.4%, Oladipo 44.1%)
  • Michigan 2012-13: (37.9% 3FG, 54.6% eFG, Stauskas 44.0%)
  • Michigan 2013-14: (40.2 3FG, 55.7% eFG, Stauskas 44.2%, Irvin 42.5%, Walton 41.0%, LeVert 40.8%)
  • Michigan State 2013-14: (39.2% 3FG, 54.5% eFG, Kaminski 49.4%, Trice 43.4%, Payne 42.3%)
  • Indiana 2014-15: (40.6% 3FG, 54.4% eFG, Hartman 47.5%, Zeisloft 45.0%, Ferrell 41.6%)

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Breaking into the Rotation: Surprise Big Ten Contributors

Posted by Jim Root on January 16th, 2017

My colleague Brendan Brody recently wrote about three of the biggest surprises and disappointments in the Big Ten this season, and I wanted to piggyback his idea by analyzing Big Ten rotations. As much as we think we know about a team’s lineup in the preseason, unsung players will inevitably force their way into playing time. While the four players below may not yet be household names in Big Ten circles, they’ve significantly exceeded expectations this year and their futures seem very bright.

DJ Wilson Has Caused a Stir With His Game and Fashion Sense (credit: MLive)

  • DJ Wilson, Sophomore, F, Michigan – The best and most exhaustive college basketball preseason preview comes from Blue Ribbon, and because of how deeply they dive into each team, it’s a great way to identify “out of nowhere” players. To that point, Michigan’s Wilson was the very last player discussed in the Wolverines’ section, barely registering a courtesy mention. Instead, he’s used a combination of long arms and short shorts to become one of John Beileins’s most important players this season – he leads the Wolverines in offensive rating (19th nationally); he’s easily their best rebounder; and he’s even hitting 44 percent from the land of plenty. He’s the captain of (and the inspiration for) this year’s team.
  • Cordell Pemsl, Freshman, F/C, Iowa – Continuing to use Blue Ribbon as a tool for this exercise, we come upon another disregarded forward in Iowa City. Like Wilson, Pemsl was also the 11th player mentioned in the Iowa preview, and although the Hawkeyes’ roster was more uncertain in the preseason, it’s still impressive how important the freshman has been thus far. After bouncing back from a twice-torn meniscus (and an intentionally broken leg) in high school, he’s now averaging over 10 points and nearly five rebounds per game while shooting an absurd 65 percent from two-point range. He’s also shown a nice penchant for getting to the free throw line and blocking shots early in his career. He, along with fellow freshman Tyler Cook, will make Iowa’s frontcourt a force to be reckoned with for the next three-plus years.

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 10th, 2017

The second weekend of conference action did nothing to solve the Big Ten puzzle. Wisconsin could have gotten a massive head start in the league race by winning at Purdue, but instead the Badgers were stymied by Matt Painter’s team. Maryland had looked vulnerable in losing a home game to Nebraska, but the Terrapins bounced back by winning at Michigan. Indiana, coming off a three-game losing streak, thoroughly outplayed Illinois in Bloomington and reminded everyone how well the Hoosiers were playing earlier this season. You get the idea. If you like chaos and unpredictability, the Big Ten is your conference this season. Here’s the best and worst of the weekend.

Thomas Bryant did not miss a shot from the field as Indiana beat Illinois on Saturday. (Kelsey Kremer, Des Moines Register).

  • Player of the Weekend: Unlike his sophomore counterpart in West Lafayette who is generating buzz for Player of the Year recognition, Thomas Bryant has not yet broken out this season. His statistics are down across the board, and much of this is attributable to no longer having one of the best point guards in the nation (Yogi Ferrell) to find him in premium scoring situations. It was therefore encouraging that Bryant went for a season-high 20 points and added a team-high six rebounds in Saturday’s 96-80 victory over the Illini. The Hoosiers made a point of finding their big man when Illinois started to make things interesting, and he responded by showcasing some nifty post moves to seal the win. For Indiana to make its way back to the top of the Big Ten, it will need to get Bryant going down low more frequently.

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Six Big Ten X-Factors Heading Into Conference Play

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 26th, 2016

Conference play is almost here, and after a 138-42 (.767) combined non-conference start, Big Ten teams will begin squaring off against each other tomorrow afternoon. As of right now, it looks like three front-runners (Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana) have emerged, followed by a group of good-not-great teams competing for the top of the next tier — a glance at the most recent KenPom ratings reveals eight teams ranked within the NCAA Tournament at-large sweet spot of #29-#68. With things so relatively even, a number of x-factors around the league could very well swing the race with improved performances. Here are six players who could heavily influence how the Big Ten standings ultimately end up.

Carsen Edwards (USA Today Images)

Carsen Edwards is a Possible X-Factor For Purdue (USA Today Images)

  • Carsen Edwards, Purdue: One of the reasons why Purdue is a perceived title threat is because the majority of their players are reasonably consistent. Edwards, however, is the biggest wild card in the rotation, and his continuing development could be the key for the Boilermakers in March. Since the freshman moved into the starting lineup on December 3, he has averaged 9.3 PPG and a couple assists per outing. His shooting can stand to improve, but he’s a blur in the open court and causes havoc defensively on the perimeter. If Edwards can become a more efficient scorer during Big Ten play (95.0 Offensive Rating on 24.9 percent usage), Purdue’s offense (as well as the team) could move into the top 10 nationally.
  • D’Mitrik Trice, Wisconsin: With five returning starters this season, little was expected from Wisconsin’s lone true freshman. And yet Trice has been an efficient and capable third guard off the bench, including some outstanding shooting from deep so far (18-of-30 3FG). He has basically stolen the minutes that were going to Jordan Hill last season, and if he continues to give the Badgers another backcourt option beyond Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter, Wisconsin could make another run at the Final Four.

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Emerging Frontcourt Providing Michigan With New Ways to Win

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 8th, 2016

Michigan’s 53-50 victory over Texas on Tuesday night was anything but vintage John Beilein basketball. The Wolverines—usually an offensive-leaning unit heavily led by guard play—scored 0.87 points per possession against the Longhorns, with its veteran starting backcourt combining for just 13 points on 4-of-19 shooting. Instead, Beilein’s group relied upon two facets of the game seldom mentioned in the same breath as Michigan basketball: stingy team defense and major offensive production from its big men—namely, sophomores Mortiz Wagner and D.J. Wilson. For a team short on depth and struggling to find a consistent scorer, the newfound production in the paint was a welcome surprise. To understand just how uncharacteristic the victory was, consider this: Michigan had not won a game in which it scored fewer than 0.90 points per possession since February 23, 2008—Beilein’s first year on the job. Much like that contest—a 49-43 win over Illinois—Tuesday’s affair came down to which team could eke out enough late buckets without compromising its defensive intensity. For the Wolverines, both the late buckets and the intensity were supplied by Wagner.

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan's win on Tuesday (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Forward Moritz Wagner was instrumental in Michigan’s win over Texas (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

“I thought [Wagner] was the best player on the floor tonight,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said afterwards. “He can shoot, he’s 6’11”, he can put the ball on the floor… Tonight he was constantly in attack mode.” Not only did the German import lead Michigan with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, he came up with both the go-ahead putback and the game-winning block in the game’s closing seconds, his emotions pouring out as the clock hit zeroes. The sequence was a testament to both his rare offensive skill set and his improving defensive discipline. “Mo’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life,” Beilein said of Wagner. “He’s learning to be a bigger presence at the rim. I think he’s making major steps defensively right now.” Read the rest of this entry »

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