Who Won The Week? Louisville, Marcus Smart, Michigan and The Citadel…

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 28th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

We’ve got more to get to here than usual, so we’ve got a special extended-yet-abbreviated edition of WWTW on tap today.

WINNER: Louisville

Russ Smith won Louisville's game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Russ Smith won Louisville’s game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Your defending national champions – remember them? – are rolling at just the right time in the season. They went into Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first home loss of the season Saturday, 58-57, with a Russ Smith dagger – remember him? – then followed that up by blowing out woebegone Temple 88-66 on Thursday.


Sophomore Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell thrived this past week, as he has since the dismissal of Chane Behanan, scoring 21 points in both games. Going forward, the Cardinals have games left at Memphis and SMU, followed by a home game against Connecticut. Though they’re tied with Cincinnati at the top of the American and on a seven-game winning streak, we’ll know much more about Louisville by the time the conference tournament rolls around.

(Related winners: Smith; Harrell. Related losers: Cincinnati, which squandered its chance at an outright AAC championship by losing at home; Temple, which had its first 20-loss season in school history thanks to Louisville.)

LOSER: Saint Louis

The Billikens, which had been one of America’s last four teams undefeated in conference, took one of the most befuddling losses of the whole season, falling 71-64 on Thursday to a Duquesne team that had won four Atlantic 10 games in Jim Ferry’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. What had been one of the nation’s top 10 shooting defenses gave up an effective field goal rate of 50.7 percent, including 14-0f-18 shooting and 7-of-9 three-pointers by Dukes guards Micah Mason and Jerry Jones. And against one of the nation’s 10 worst defenses vs. three-point shooting, Saint Louis only made 4-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. The Billikens have a top-five defense nationally according to KenPom.com, but their offense ranks 169th in efficiency. Then again, defense wins championships, right?

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Minnesota Half-Court Defense is Cause For Concern

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 28th, 2013

Ed. note: Minnesota finished up its Maui Invitational trip with an 83-68 win over D-II Chaminade on Wednesday afternoon.

Things were going so nicely for first-year head coach Richard Pitino and his Golden Gophers. They had won their first five games in convincing fashion; junior guard Andre Hollins was looking like a possible Big Ten Player of the Year candidate; and they had just taken it to top-ranked Syracuse losing only in the final minutes of their opening round game at the Maui Invitational. They entered their second game in Maui against an Arkansas team who had lost its most electric player in B.J. Young and was not expected to make the NCAA Tournament.  In fact, according to KenPom, the Gophers were expected to win the game by a 10-point margin. Things went as planned in the first half as Minnesota took a five-point lead to the locker room, but after that point, the bottom fell off for Pitino’s squad. The Gophers’ ineffective half-court defense allowed the Razorbacks to come back and win the game, 87-73, and the game tape it created may haunt them throughout the rest of the season.

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Richard Pitino is trying to implement his father’s pressure defense in Minnesota, but its the half-court defense that may cost him.

As one of our fellow RTC Big Ten microsite columnists pointed out earlier this season, the press defense is a feature Pitino is trying to instill at Minnesota. Pitino learned the art of applying  a press from one of the best in the business, his father Rick Pitino. This focus on the press has helped them blow some lesser talented teams out in the early schedule, but it was a complete disaster in the second half against Arkansas. The Razorbacks scored 11 points off turnovers in the second half, but the remaining 41 points were scored in the half-court. Once Arkansas figured out how to break Minnesota’s press and began their offensive sets, they exposed Minnesota’s zone defense.  Unlike Syracuse, the Razorbacks had more than one shooter capable of dropping threes over the zone (four different Razorbacks hit from deep in the second half). They confused Minnesota by switching from attacking with three-pointers and drives, and the Gophers were completely feckless in stopping either. The Razorbacks’ 76 percent true shooting percentage (5-of-7 3FGs, 17-of-28 FGs, 13-of-14 FTs) for the second half was easily the team’s best of the year. The Gophers have been working on their press defense all season, but perhaps as a result, they seem to have completely forgotten what to do when they’re in the half-court.

Last year, Louisville provided a prime example of an elite team winning the National Championship while implementing the press on a consistent basis. So this isn’t a gimmick Pitino is trying to enable to mask some other defensive deficiencies. But the Big Ten is at its heart a half-court league, and Minnesota will find itself in numerous situations where it will have to rely on half-court defense to win games. If they can’t shore up that defense enough to at least provide some element of resistance, the conference schedule will expose this Minnesota team night in and night out.

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Brandon Paul: Certified Gopher Killer

Posted by KTrahan on March 14th, 2013

Throughout his career, Brandon Paul has been touted as an ultra-talented player who struggles with inconsistency. Sometimes he showcases his impressive range and versatility, while other times he seems to disappear from the moment. In Thursday’s opening round Big Ten Tournament game, Paul rose to the moment, and then some. He scored 25 of the Illini’s 51 points on 10-of-16 shooting, and was 4-of-8 from beyond the arc in his team’s victory over Minnesota. But he saved his best for last, hitting a 15-footer at the buzzer to get his team a date with Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten Tourney on Friday.

Other than Paul, Illinois struggled mightily. Its next three leading scorers  — D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu — each had just six points. Paul, a guard, was the second-leading rebounder with five, just one behind Egwu. And while Paul shot 50 percent from beyond the arc (4-of-8), the rest of the team was just 2-of-17 from long distance — Tyler Griffey was 0-of-4, Abrams was 0-of-3.

Illinois’ season has taken after Paul’s career, in a way. The Illini have lived and died by the three, which essentially means inevitable inconsistency. On nights when they’re firing on all cylinders, they’ve pulled out impressive wins against Butler, Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State. However, cold-shooting nights have led to bad games — a 14-point home loss to Northwestern and near losses to Gardner-Webb and Auburn. The good wins have offset the bad ones, and they’re why the Illini will surely be dancing next weekend.

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Big Ten M5: 02.15.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on February 15th, 2013

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  1. It’s been a rough few weeks for Glenn Robinson III, one of Michigan’s highly-touted freshmen who started the season strong, but then fell into a cold stretch. As Robinson III has struggled, so has his team, which has dropped consecutive games after finding itself at No. 1 in the nation just a few weeks ago. Robinson III’s five-game struggle has resulted in lower shooting and rebounding numbers, and it’s affected the Wolverines’ entire offense. When he scores at least 10 points, Michigan is 15-0; when he scores less than 10, the Wolverines are 5-4. Over the past five games, he has averaged just 6.2 points per game. Other players need to step up, as well, but for Michigan to turn things around, Robinson III needs to regain the form he showed earlier this season.
  2. Illinois has been wildly inconsistent on offense this year. The Illini are guard-oriented, so they’ve relied a lot on outside shots. When those shots are falling, they’ve been good, but there have also been some bad losses, most notably a double-digit home loss to Northwestern. However, Illinois has been on a recent surge, with wins over Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. The key for the Illini has been offensive efficiency, and they graded out nicely in that area in the win against Purdue. The effective field goal percentage wasn’t great, but the Illini did well with their points per possession and turnover rate. John Groce’s team must continue to put up solid tempo-free stats in order to finish out the season strong.
  3. Indiana’s depth heading into the year was pretty incredible and one of the main reasons the Hoosiers were considered one of the best teams in the nation. While Victor Oladipo has stepped up more than most expected, the rest of IU’s squad wasn’t all that consistent. However, things are starting to get put together, with Cody Zeller and others playing better. Christian Watford is one of those players who has stepped up, and that was evident in the Hoosiers’ blowout of Nebraska. Watford has scored in double figures in 17 straight Big Ten games dating back to last season, and he’s done so in the last 15 games this year. He gives an IU team full of weapons yet another scoring option, and that wealth of options is what makes the Hoosiers so dangerous.
  4. Matt Painter wasn’t happy with much Wednesday night. Not with his team, and certainly not with the officials. Purdue fell to Illinois and the Boilermakers were forced to finish the game without their coach, who was ejected with around eight minutes left in the game. The issue wasn’t in doubt at that point, so Painter was really just trying to light a fire under his team, which has lost five of its last seven games. The Boilermakers have a very young team and were expected to struggle, and now their streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances looks to be in serious jeopardy. Now, it’s about building momentum heading into next year, and Painter hopes Wednesday night’s loss ignites some sort of spark.
  5. Early this season, Minnesota looked like it could have been one of the top 10 teams in the country. However, a recent, long losing streak has started some talk of the Golden Gophers falling back onto the bubble. Tubby Smith still needs to get more consistency from his team, but Thursday night’s overtime win over Wisconsin has to be encouraging for a team that was desperate for a win. Minnesota’s star guard Andre Hollins got his mojo back and led to Gophers to the win in an overall gutsy team performance against the rival Badgers. Even after falling behind by 10 points — a tough deficit to come back from against Wisconsin — Minnesota stayed patient and used strong defense to crawl back into the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it ended up being a possible season-saving win for the Gophers.
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The Battle for Sixth Place in the Big Ten is More Important Than You Think

Posted by KTrahan on February 11th, 2013

The battle for the top of the Big Ten this season has been well-documented. Indiana and Michigan look like the front-runners right now, but Michigan State has a chance to threaten for the conference crown as well. Then there’s Ohio State and Wisconsin, both of which have knocked off and hung with the top tier teams this season. Unless there’s a major turn of events in the next few weeks, those five teams will occupy the #1-#5 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament, although the order is completely up in the air. The jockeying for position among those teams will certainly be interesting to watch, but after seeing this comment on Twitter last night, the battle for the #6 seed looks almost as compelling.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that race should be extremely interesting and close the rest of the way. All four teams are either 4-7 or 5-6 in conference play right now, but the #6 seed figures to need to finish at 10-8 or 9-9. Purdue’s road to the position is the toughest — the Boilermakers have trips to Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin and visits from Michigan and Minnesota. Still, the jockeying among Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota with the Boilers should be very close. Right now, Iowa and Illinois sit at 4-7 while Minnesota is 5-6. Iowa has the toughest part of its schedule behind it, while Illinois has plenty of momentum looking forward.

First, it’s important to understand why this is important. The difference between being a #6 or #8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament this year really could mean the season for any of these teams. A top-half seed in the toughest conference in college basketball means that team would likely have a strong enough resume to make the NCAA Tournament. That isn’t to say the selection committee will necessarily choose a team based off of  its position in the conference standings — it doesn’t work that way — but it will take a number of quality wins to get to that slot in the Big Ten race, which enhances that team’s resume. It’s also important to draw the #6 seed for match-up and bubble reasons — it’s much easier to have to play #11 seed Nebraska than inconsistent but dangerous teams like possible #9 or #10 seeds Purdue and Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the road to get to the elusive #6 slot for the three teams we’re considering.

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Big Ten M5: 02.01.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on February 1st, 2013

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  1. Before the season, Keith Appling wasn’t even a Michigan State captain. Tom Izzo was looking at the veteran point guard to become a leader on an off the court for the Spartans, who had lost last year’s emotional leader Draymond Green. Appling has now earned captain status and Izzo has noticed a big change from his junior point guard. Izzo said Appling is doing a better job of communicating on the floor and showing his confidence after sitting down with former MSU point guard Mateen Cleaves. Appling learned to fight through adversity after a rough past, and now he’s doing it on the court, becoming the leader Izzo had hoped for at the beginning of the season.
  2. Ohio State has had trouble finding players outside of Deshaun Thomas, Sam Thompson and Aaron Craft to step up this season. The Buckeyes certainly have talent, but its supporting players — Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and LaQuinton Ross, to name a few — haven’t been consistent. That has resulted in inconsistent playing time among that bunch. OSU has been searching for an alternative offensive option to Thompson and it appears it may have found its answer in Ross. Ross has seen the court much more recently, and part of that is due to his improved listening to coach Thad Matta. He’s taking in more direction from the coaching staff, and subsequently seeing more of the floor.
  3. There aren’t many legitimate criticisms of No. 1 Michigan right now, considering how the Wolverines have been playing. However, people are always trying to find something wrong with top teams, so the common criticism of UM in recent weeks is that its roster isn’t deep enough. After all, the Wolverines rank 326th in the country in bench minutes, according to Ken Pomeroy. But part of the reason the Wolverines don’t go to their bench much is that the starters have played so well. Now though, in the wake of Jordan Morgan’s injury, Michigan is proving that it has enough depth. Jon Horford started the Wolverines’ game against Northwestern earlier this week and gave his team solid minutes, while freshman Mitch McGary also played well. Michigan may not have a star big man, but its frontcourt has proven it can play well this year, even without Morgan manning the paint.
  4. The press has been Minnesota’s best friend and its worst enemy this season. After struggling with its execution earlier in non-conference play, the Gophers’ press worked very well against Nebraska, returning to the form we saw during the non-conference season. Minnesota struggled to press against teams that like to slow things down like Northwestern and Wisconsin, but the Gophers were able to be successful against Nebraska, which employs the same tempo strategy. The bigger issue against the Wildcats and Badgers was their failure to execute in other areas of the game, such as free throw shooting. That prevented the Gophers from ever going all out with the press in those contests.
  5. It’s tough to find a bright spot out of a 97-60 loss, especially a home loss to your rival when coming off a solid win. However, Purdue’s A.J. Hammons was a bright spot for the Boilermakers in their drubbing at the hands of Indiana earlier this week. Hammons was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, but like most freshman big men, he has been inconsistent in his first college season. However, he was exceptional against Indiana, scoring 30 points and blocking five shots in 28 minutes, showing the potential we’re likely to see from him down the road. While he didn’t get much help against the Hoosiers, his consistency will be key to how Purdue finishes its season.
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Big Ten M5: 01.25.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on January 25th, 2013

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  1. Full disclosure, when I’m not writing for RTC or going to school, I run a site called InsideNU along with RTC columnist Chris Johnson. I don’t typically plug my own articles, but after Northwestern’s win over Minnesota I wrote this feature breaking down the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 defense. NU was getting dominated on the boards by Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers in the first half and the beginning of the second half, so the Wildcats switched to the zone, stifling Minnesota’s offense and helping Northwestern get into transition. NU ended up holding the Gophers, whose previous season-low was 66 points, to a paltry sum of 48 in that game. The 1-3-1 also helped NU keep things close with Indiana, and suddenly, it appears as if the Wildcats may be able to make things interesting with respect to postseason play.
  2. A victory over Nebraska isn’t all that impressive of a win, but Illinois’ 20-point blowout against the Huskers was just what the doctor ordered. The Illini had been reeling since a win a couple of weeks ago against Ohio State — suffering losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern — so the win over Nebraska was a much-needed confidence booster. Now comes a five-game stretch that could define Illinois’ season: vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Wisconsin, vs. Indiana, at Minnesota. The Illini may not be favored in any of those five games, but it’s important that they fight through to get at least a couple of wins in order to avoid a collapse similar to last season.
  3. It doesn’t take much offense to beat Penn State this year, and Indiana’s 72 points earlier this week were more than enough to take down the Nittany Lions. Still, the Hoosiers found their offense in unexpected places. Cody Zeller finished with just two points on 0-of-4 shooting — a career low. However, IU got other players to step up, including Will Sheehey, who has struggled with consistency at times this year. Sheehey came into the game with IU up just 23-14, but he hit two threes and helped the Hoosiers eventually increase their lead to 41-19, essentially putting the game away.
  4. In Tuesday’s game against Michigan State, Wisconsin lived and died by the three-point shot. When the Badgers were hot, they were tough to stop, but there were too many cold stretches and low percentage shots for UW to escape with a win. The Badgers came out strong in the first half, but struggled to keep up that pace throughout the game. Wisconsin shot a season-low 29.6 percent from the field, mainly because half of those shots were threes. The three-point shot can be the great equalizer if it’s working, but on days that it’s not, the Badgers must find another way to score through high-percentage shots.
  5. After years of enduring second half collapses, you can’t blame Minnesota fans for getting restless in the midst of a three-game losing streak, especially following a loss to Northwestern. This year, Minnesota has enough talent to earn consideration as a top four seed or better in the NCAA Tournament, but the Gophers must be more consistent in order to reach that goal. In fear of yet another collapse, some Minnesota fans are already calling for coach Tubby Smith’s head on Twitter. It’s just a three-game losing streak and the Gophers will still be ranked, but a few more bad losses could cause Smith’s seat to get a little bit warmer.
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Big Ten M5: 01.16.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on January 16th, 2013

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  1. Despite a valiant comeback effort that nearly resulted in a win at Assembly Hall, Minnesota ended up falling to Indiana in its first Big Ten loss on Saturday. The Gophers fell behind by 23 at halftime due to a slow start, and Tubby Smith said part of that was due to a lack of aggressiveness. The Indiana game wasn’t the only slow start Minnesota has had. The Gophers also got into an early hole against Illinois before coming back for an impressive win. They did the same against some inferior competition in non-conference season. Minnesota has the talent to hang with anyone in the country, but in games against top teams,the Gophers must make sure they are strong from the start.
  2. The Big Ten has some fairly active coaches on Twitter. Indiana’s Tom Crean tweets a lot of biblical passages while Nebraska’s Tim Miles tweets about his games at halftime. But don’t expect Tom Izzo to join Twitter any time soon as the Michigan State coach hates the social media platform. There are a lot of good quotes in that article from Izzo, who said he thinks his players listen to criticism more because of it. He has also had conversations with Derrick Nix, who searches his name after every game to retweet fans who criticized him during the game.
  3. In Tim Miles’ first season in Lincoln, nobody expected Nebraska to make much noise in the Big Ten. And while the Huskers have still yet to win a conference game, they have kept things close with both Michigan and Michigan State on the road, thanks to stellar defensive play. Tom Izzo came away impressed with Miles’ squad and said, “I don’t think anybody wants to play them home or away.” Even more impressive, Nebraska held its own against Michigan State without top player Brandon Ubel.
  4. Ohio State has struggled to score this year, and that was very evident at Illinois in a lopsided loss. The Buckeyes have been able to score in transition and have gotten points in the paint at times, but they don’t have consistent shooters. However, the defense was outstanding in their win over Michigan on Sunday and the offense was good enough. Aaron Craft frustrated Trey Burke and the Buckeyes did the same to freshman stars Nick Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. The Wolverines admitted to noticing the pressure. Considering how inconsistent the offense is, Ohio State’s season outlook could depend on how the defense plays from here on out.
  5. When Wisconsin arrives at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, Iowa will be facing the Big Ten’s lone undefeated team. That plus the prospect of playing a rival makes the game a good one, but an added emotional dimension will be in play, as well. The Hawkeyes will be honoring the legacy of former player Chris Street, who died in a car accident 20 years ago. Rick Brown of The Des Moines Register has a nice story on Street’s legacy, his family, and the impact he has left on the University of Iowa.
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Big Ten M5: 12.26.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on December 26th, 2012

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  1. It’s been hard to convince anyone who has watched or covered Hawkeye basketball for much of the past decade to jump onto the “Iowa is back” bandwagon just yet, and for good reason; the Hawkeyes have been inconsistent at best. But this year, after an 11-2 start, Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette is ready to jump on the bandwagon. The Hawkeyes have a very young team and have been inconsistent at times, but they have impressive wins against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and they’ll be a tough out at home this year. The Big Ten slate starts off against Indiana at home and then with two on the road against Michigan and Michigan State, so it certainly won’t be an easy task to get to March. Still, with a Big Ten slate that is easier than most teams’ schedules in the conference, this may finally be the year Iowa returns to the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Non-conference basketball means cupcake season for the most part, and that has led to criticism of top teams like Indiana that play so many guarantee games in November and December. However, Terry Hutchins of the Indianapolis Star said that the criticism is misguided, because much of the reason for the easy schedule is revenue-driven. The Hoosiers need to make sure that they have 18 to 20 home games per year, and an easy way to do that is to pay teams a fee to come to Assembly Hall for a beatdown. That leads to more home games and more ticket sales, which is what non-conference games are all about. The Hoosiers always go to some early season non-conference tournament, play an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, and, this year, will have a very difficult Big Ten schedule. Playing a few cupcakes in the first two months of the season certainly isn’t something to get up in arms about.
  3. Minnesota has a history of starting fast in the non-conference season and then slumping at the start of Big Ten play, but this year’s Gophers have put together an impressive resume and look like the real deal. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently handed out a report card on Minnesota’s non-conference schedule, and a lot of the focus is on Trevor Mbakwe, a player who is starting to look like he did before last year’s ACL injury. He is gaining strength and could potentially re-enter the starting lineup which already features stars Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. The Gophers have so much depth that this certainly looks like Tubby Smith’s best team yet in Minnesota. Now, with conference play about to start, we’ll get some more answers about a team that has a lot of potential but still also some unknowns.
  4. When eight-year-old Mackenzie Kelley found out that her favorite player, Penn State star Tim Frazier, might not be able to play next year if he isn’t granted a medical hardship waiver, she decided to take the matter up with Santa by asking him to put a good word in with the NCAA. Kelley is a diehard Penn State fan and has met Frazier a couple of times. After she met him initially at a preseason event, she met him again and was excited to find out that “out of all the people he meets he remembered me.” Frazier got a hold of the letter and thanked Mackenzie on Facebook; luckily for Mackenzie — and Frazier — the injury happened early enough in the season that Frazier should be back on the court next year, a gift from old St. Nick indeed.
  5. Derrick Nix has been asked to take on more of a leadership role for Michigan State this year after the departure of Draymond Green, and he’s still improving, as exhibited by a career high 25 points to go along with 11 rebounds in a win on Saturday against Texas. However, the area in which Nix has improved the most isn’t something you would expect from a man his size — free throws. Nix was a bad free throw shooter when he first got to MSU, but endless hours of practice has helped him become much better, improving from a 27 percent free throw shooter as a freshman to a 70 percent free throw shooter this season. Nix said that coach Tom Izzo would rather he was moving around more before practice, but he’s always at the free throw line practicing his shot, and it’s paid off for the Spartans in the long run.
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Big Ten M5: 12.07.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on December 7th, 2012

  1. Amir Williams was a star recruit coming out of high school, but the sophomore center rode the bench for much of his freshman campaign. Now, Ohio State is counting on Williams to be a major contributor, but before he becomes the star that many projected, he has to improve his consistency. He had 10 rebounds in a loss to Duke, but has struggled to rebound in other games. Free throws have been an issue at times, too, but he was 6-of-7 from the line against the Blue Devils. The potential is there, but the stat sheet needs to reflect that potential every game. As for the hype, coach Thad Matta isn’t a big fan of those recruiting sites: “I think that’s what’s kind of wrong with society today. Joe Blow’s got an opinion and everybody think that’s the gospel.”
  2. After a fast start to the season, Michigan State freshman guard Gary Harris suffered a shoulder injury and missed two games. In the three games since coming back, he’s been inconsistent shooting the ball, and part of that could be due to a shoulder harness that he’s been forced to wear. However, Harris refuses to use the harness as an excuse for his poor shooting. He said confidence isn’t an issue, but each game it takes him some time to get used to the harness. Despite a poor shooting start in the Spartans’ game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, he still provided a spark for his team and finished with 13 points and three steals.
  3. Minnesota is ranked anywhere between No. 14 and No. 21 in the nation in various polls, and is likely just a few wins away from being the highest-ranked Gophers team in the Tubby Smith era. There is certainly star power in Minneapolis, as the Gophers boast Andre Hollins, Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams, but the depth of this team is equally impressive. Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman have both been key contributors. The scary part? Mbakwe comes off the bench, since he is struggling with injuries. The last time Minnesota was ranked this high, it ended up missing out on the NCAA Tournament. As long as the depth stays solid, that isn’t likely to happen this year.
  4. Trey Burke is having an All-America-caliber sophomore start for Michigan after a breakout freshman year, and he’s drawing high praise from the national media. Burke will be in the NBA soon enough, and he’s already drawing comparisons to one of the NBA’s best in Chris Paul. ESPN has a nice article comparing the two, highlighting their exceptional passing abilities. Not only are both good at getting their teammates involved, but they also both know how to score when necessary. Of course, Burke still has a long way to go in order to reach Paul’s status, but he certainly has the potential to eventually become an NBA star.
  5. Last year, Baylor’s big men dominated a Northwestern team that essentially didn’t have one en route to a huge win in Evanston. This year, however, the Wildcats’ frontcourt — still considered a weak link — took it to the Bears in Waco for their best win of the season to date. NU out-rebounded Baylor 34-27 and unheralded Wildcats freshman Alex Olah outplayed Bears blue-chip recruit Isaiah Austin at center. The physicality from Olah, Drew Crawford, Jared Swopshire and Reggie Hearn was a welcome change from how the Wildcats normally operate. Their consistency still needs to come, especially at center, but the Wildcats showed they have the potential to play with teams that are much more talented then them on the inside.
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Big Ten M5: 11.29.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on November 29th, 2012

  1. Defense seemed optional for last year’s Iowa Hawkeyes squad, but this year, coach Fran McCaffery and his team claimed things would be different. A week ago, Iowa staged a comeback against Gardner-Webb that was led primarily by defense, and the Hawkeyes had yet to give up more than 75 points. That was before Tuesday, when Iowa gave up 95 points in a loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to Virginia Tech. It looked like last year’s Iowa team all over again, but McCaffery claimed that his team simply didn’t follow the game plan. The game plan certainly needs to be defense, and lots more of it, if Iowa wants to go dancing in March. With big games against in-state rivals Iowa State and Northern Iowa coming in December, we’ll find out soon if Tuesday’s game was a fluke or a possible warning sign that not enough has improved on the defensive end.
  2. Teams often underachieve following a coaching change, but Illinois has exceeded expectations this year under first-year coach John Groce. The Illini are undefeated and ranked No. 22 in the latest poll, and a big reason for that is how well the current players have bought in. That’s especially true of seniors Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey, who have both improved their offensive outputs this season. Despite being picked ninth in the Big Ten during the preseason, enough unexpected players have stepped up for Illinois to certainly make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Michigan has been a guard-oriented team for a long time, and that’s no different this year, as Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the Wolverines’ two leaders. However, coach John Beilein says that this team has a different feel to it — it can also play with anyone in the post. Finally, in addition to good outside shooting, the Wolverines can compete inside and have solid athleticism down low too. Freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III are leading the way for UM’s frontcourt, and with that increased inside presence, Beilein’s offensive system has been able to change for the better. That all adds up to a No. 3 national ranking and a marquee ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over NC State.
  4. Nebraska figures to have some growing pains this year under new coach Tim Miles, but the Cornhuskers got a big win on Tuesday by defeating Wake Forest 79-63 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It was also a win for the record book, writes Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World Herald. The 16-point win was the Huskers’ largest margin of victory in a true road game in nine years, and Miles became the first Nebraska coach to win his first road game since Paul Schlisser in the 1919-20 season. It was also just the Huskers’ sixth true road win in the last four seasons. It’s too early to call this a turnaround in Lincoln, but there are some bright spots for a team that was picked to finish last in the Big Ten.
  5. Minnesota finished up a long road trip with a win over Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and the Gophers proved why they’re considered a sleeper in the conference this year. In fact, they showed exactly how they need to play, writes Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Minnesota put together a clean and balanced offensive game, getting help from both its frontcourt and the backcourt. They got up early on Florida State and put the game out of reach fairly quickly. Defensively, the Gophers pressured the Seminoles and forced them into 14 turnovers. If Tubby Smith’s team plays like that all year, Minnesota will be very dangerous — and, of course, it will help if forward Rodney Williams continues to do things like this.
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Big Ten M5: 11.02.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on November 2nd, 2012

  1. Exhibition season has officially begun in college basketball and Minnesota kicked off the year with an 81-56 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato Thursday night. The Gophers started the exhibition with the same starting five as the end of last year — Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, Joe Coleman, Rodney Williams and Elliot Eliason — because that group has performed well in practice together, but coach Tubby Smith also mixed in star forward Trevor Mbakwe, who was injured last season, and Mo Walker, who redshirted last season. Walker had eight points in 11 minutes, while Mbakwe had four points and three rebounds. Minnesota has another scrimmage against Southwest Baptist on Monday before opening the regular season on November 9 against American.
  2. If Michigan is going to have the season many media members predict — challenging for the conference crown — then the Wolverines’ freshmen are going to have to step up. They did just that in Thursday’s 83-47 exhibition win against Northern Michigan, as Nik Stauskus, Spike Albrecht and Glenn Robinson III led Michigan with 17, 16 and 13 points, respectively, along with junior Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 13 points. At one point, coach John Beilein had five freshmen in the game at the same time and he said he didn’t even realize it. Of course, there’s a long way to go before we crown his team as the next Fab Five, but these freshmen certainly didn’t disappoint in their first time on a college court. The Wolverines have another exhibition, this time against Saginaw Valley State, on Monday before opening the regular season on November 9 against Slippery Rock.
  3. Like Minnesota’s Mo Walker, Indiana’s Maurice Creek shined in his exhibition game following a redshirt year. Creek, who had to sit all of last year with a ruptured Achilles’, had 12 points to lead the Hoosiers in their 86-57 win over Indiana Wesleyan. Indiana also received contributions from preseason national player of the year Cody Zeller and Will Sheehey, who both had 11 points and five rebounds. Christian Watford had 11 points and six rebounds, while Victor Oladipo had 10 points and seven rebounds. This is a deep team, and while a win against Indiana Wesleyan proves nothing, IU certainly showed it has plenty of options and can spread the ball around.
  4. Wisconsin has yet to play a game this year, but it has already dealt with injuries to two key players — Mike Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser. Bruesewitz will be back in the non-conference season, but Gasser is out for the season with a torn ACL. CBS Sports has a first-hand account of Gasser’s injury from guest blogger Zach Bohannon, a Badgers forward. Bohannon gives an emotional account of Gasser’s injury and the effect of an ACL injury on teams in general. It was a shocking injury for the Wisconsin players, as Bohannon said they saw Gasser as “indestructible.” It’s a humanizing account of “the face of the program” and puts the careers of college basketball players into perspective.
  5. The Big Ten is known for its low-scoring games and its defense, so it’s not surprising that two of the top 10 scariest defenders in the game, according to ESPN.com, play in the conference. ESPN ranks Ohio State’s Aaron Craft as the scariest defender in the country, citing his one-on-one defensive skills on the perimeter and his ability to steal the ball. Indiana’s Victor Oladipo checks in at No. 5, due to his versatility and ability to defend on the perimeter and in the post. Craft has a reputation throughout the nation as a top defender and he has an effect beyond standard statistics, as laid out by the Aaron Craft Turnometer created by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn. Only a junior, Big Ten teams likely have two more years of dealing with Craft’s spectacular defensive skills.
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