Big Ten Opening Week: A Primer

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 13th, 2017

Honestly, there’s not much good about winter as a season. If you live in a city like Chicago, for example, the only good thing about the cold is that college basketball has returned. That’s it. There is nothing else. Your face may freeze off outside but it’s a trade-off we have to make. What do you have to look forward to in the world of the Big Ten? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are three things this week.

1. Duke vs. Michigan State, a Final Four Preview?

Two titans of the game set to go at it again this week. (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the first thing that has to be addressed. I don’t make the rules. It just has to happen this way. It’s the biggest game of the opening week in college basketball and, in all likelihood, the biggest of the opening month. We know nothing about these teams. We think we know things. We know some things, but others are educated guesses. Things go awry, outliers exist — that’s why we love the sport. I’ll be 100 percent there for Rush the Court preseason All-Americans like Miles Bridges and Nick Ward on the Michigan State side and Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley on Duke’s. Beyond that, it seems a little different than just an early season game. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where either team falls off the top two seed lines. You’re looking at the two teams with arguably the most talent in the country, and we could easily see them match up again in San Antonio next April. Will Michigan State, the less proven of the two teams, be ready for the moment? If so, I’ll certainly feel better about picking Sparty to cut down the nets. Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Ten Preview Part VII: Key Questions for Minnesota & Michigan State

Posted by Chris Hatfield on November 10th, 2017

With the season almost here, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posing season-defining key questions for each team. Today we address Minnesota and Michigan State.

#2 Minnesota – How will Richard Pitino handle elevated expectations?

Was Richard Pitino really on the hot seat last year? Maybe. After coming off an eight-win season the year prior, there was certainly pressure to be better. Just how much better is difficult to quantify, but it’s in the rear-view mirror now. The Gophers were improved, much improved last season, notching a 24-10 overall record (11-7 Big Ten) despite ending the season on a sour note with a First Round NCAA Tournament loss to Middle Tennessee State. Things are different now. Minnesota was picked to finish third in the Big Ten this preseason, is ranked 15th in the USA Today/Coaches Poll, and you would have to think making it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is a reasonable expectation.

Amir Coffey has the chance to be special. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Guard Amir Coffey — arguably the catalyst of the offense for the Gophers last year — could be the star. As a first-year starter, he ranked second on the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game while leading the team with a true shooting percentage of 55 percent. You would expect him to take another step forward this year. If that leap includes getting more shots right around the basket, that would be huge benefit for a Minnesota team that finished 77th in adjusted offensive efficiency last season. Freshman Isaiah Whitehead will join the fold and figures to impact things immediately as well. He’s a first-year talent the likes of which hasn’t been around Minneapolis for some time. Senior guard Nate Mason was voted preseason all Big-Ten along with inclusion on the Bob Cousy preseason watch list. All the pieces are in place for Pitino this season, but it will be for naught if Minnesota cannot adapt to the unfamiliar role of favorite. The head coach’s challenge will be ensuring that the Gophers are not overlooking teams and losing games they shouldn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #12 Middle Tennessee 81, #5 Minnesota 72

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

Middle Tennessee proved that last year was not a fluke in knocking off a higher-seeded Big Ten team for the second consecutive year. The Blue Raiders enjoyed a balanced attack with four players scoring in double-figures. Minnesota made a nice second half run to cut the lead to four points before Middle Tennessee eventually pulled away.

Middle Tennessee Beat a Big Ten Team in the First Round for the Second Year in a Row (USA Today Images)

Three Key Takeaways. 

  1. Foul trouble and a lack of depth killed Minnesota. It’s apparent at this point for anyone that Minnesota center Reggie Lynch is an elite shot blocker who is the reason why this team performed so well in a multitude of defensive categories this year. If Lynch picks up quick early fouls, Gophers’ defense becomes merely adequate. Lynch, Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry all had three fouls, so multiply this effect threefold. There was little defensive aggressiveness on the Minnesota side for the rest of the game, and therefore no comeback.
  2. Middle Tennessee can make the Sweet Sixteen. This was not a fluke result by any stretch of the imagination. The Blue Raiders were athletic, smart and tough in a game against a power conference team that didn’t play that poorly. They aggressively attacked the rim and got mostly whatever they wanted over the last 17 minutes. They looked just as good if not better than Butler earlier today, which should make for a very interesting match-up on Saturday.
  3. Minnesota will be back next year. The Gophers’ core aside from Akeem Springs is expected to return next season. A First Round NCAA Tournament loss obviously hurts now, but Richard Pitino‘s club — assuming it stays together and makes a normal level of improvement —  should be just as good, if not much better, in 2017-18.

Star of the Game. Middle Tennesseee’s Brandon Walters saved the day for the Blue Raiders in the first half with eight points and six rebounds seemingly out of nowhere, but Reggie Upshaw was dominant in the second half en route to 19 points and nine rebounds. The senior saved his best work for when Minnesota had cut the Blue Raiders lead to four with about 6:30 remaining — Upshaw went on a personal 5-0 run, scoring seven points in a row for his team and basically cementing away the victory. He was bold and aggressive all night, setting the tone throughout the game with his clutch play.

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Big Ten Survival Guide: The Keys For Each Squad’s First Round Survival

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

The brackets have been set and all of the Big Ten teams left dancing will begin seven separate quests to bring home the league’s first National Championship since Michigan State did so in 2000. Before anything approaching that level of success can take place, however, each team must win its First Round game. Here’s a brief look at how all seven Big Ten teams can get past their first opponent.

Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor for Minnesota against Middle Tennessee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

  • Minnesota: The Gophers have almost no depth now with the season-ending injury to senior wing Akeem Springs, which means Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. As a result, Minnesota will have to win this game with defense. If Lynch suffers early foul issues, Middle Tennessee and its 54.3 percent eFG rate will be able to score in the paint at will.
  • Northwestern: Northwestern has a dangerous tendency to go through long scoring droughts. For the most part the Wildcats runs their offense well, but when they go cold, they go frigid. This cannot happen against Vanderbilt because a three-minute drought will feel like five or more with in a one-and-done format. Vanderbilt shoots 37.7 percent from three-point range on the season, so long dry spells could be disastrous against a team that can effectively bomb away from the perimeter.

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RTC Bracket Prep: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017

All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the South Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC South Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCSouthRegion).

South Region

Favorite: #2 Kentucky (29-5, 16-2 SEC). It’s hard to pick a true favorite when examining the top three seeds in this region, as North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will all garner buzz as Final Four candidates. However, the Wildcats get the RTC nod as region favorites after a dominant SEC Tournament title run. The Tar Heels are the more experienced unit, but it’s possible that no team in the field can match the talent of these young Wildcats. At the very least, Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG, 4.8 APG) make up the scariest backcourt – freshmen or not – in the entire country, and we’ve heard that guard play matters a little bit this time of year. The Wildcats loom as a favorite in a top-heavy region.

Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox have Kentucky rolling into this NCAA Tournament (Photo: USA Today Sports)

Should They Falter: #1 North Carolina (27-7, 14-4 ACC). The Tar Heels enter the NCAA Tournament with less momentum than Kentucky, but the ACC regular season champions have proved plenty dominant all season long. Whether it was during a three-game romp to the Maui Invitational title in November, or its perfect campaign at the Dean Dome, North Carolina sprinted past opponents like so many other Roy Williams coached teams have before. Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) evolved into the go-to offensive weapon many thought he would never become, while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have manned an extremely effective frontcourt operation. The Tar Heels’ notation as secondary favorites in the region should not be perceived as a slight; this is a very good team that at worst is the 1B to Kentucky’s 1A.

Grossly Overseeded: #5 Minnesota (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten). If you are trying to make sense of Minnesota’s placement on the #5 seed line, do not look at the committee’s S-Curve for clarification. The Gophers are closer to a #4 seed than a #6 at #18 overall, and the slew of teams right behind them – Notre Dame, Iowa State, SMU, Cincinnati – all feel significantly more deserving/scarier than Minneapolis’ favorite team. As is always the case in situations like these, it’s important to note the merit of Minnesota’s season – Richard Pitino turned last year’s disappointment into success faster than any Gopher fan could have hoped – but a #5 seed this is not. Middle Tennessee State stands to benefit, and you don’t have to dig deep into the memory banks to recall a Blue Raiders’ March takedown of a Big Ten foe.

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Five Key Storylines in This Week’s Big Ten Tournament

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

The Big Ten Tournament begins this afternoon in Washington, D.C., when Penn State takes on Nebraska. It will end Sunday afternoon presumably with a postseason picture looking much closer to clarity. In anticipation of the proceedings, here are a handful of quick potential storylines to keep an eye on over the next five days.

Whether or not Malcolm Hill can lead Illinois to a couple of Big Ten victories is one of many questions heading into the B1G Tournament. (Getty)

Bubble Teams: Two of the more fascinating games in the early portion of the Big Ten Tournament will be Illinois vs. Michigan and Iowa vs. Indiana. With late-season surges, both the Illini and the Hawkeyes have moved into bubble consideration. Illinois has improved defensively over the past month but will be tested by Michigan’s sixth-most efficient offense in the country. Iowa has won four in a row (including a win over the Hoosiers) on the strength of 10.5 made three-pointers per game at a 46.7 percent clip. If both teams lose early this week, the number of Big Ten teams heading to the NCAA Tournament will essentially be set. Two wins, however, will keep the debate alive.

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Big Ten Tournament Mission Sheet: What Can Each Team Get From the Event?

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 8th, 2017

There are 14 teams in the Big Ten and although each team is ultimately playing to win a conference championship on Sunday afternoon, there are smaller, somewhat more realistic goals for each school involved in the five-day hoops extravaganza. Here’s a closer look at what each Big Ten team should look to gain from the event.

  • Illinois: The goal for the Illini is fairly obvious. After losing its regular season finale to Rutgers, Illinois likely has to get to Saturday’s semifinals in order to feel truly confident about its chances.
  • Indiana: Indiana needs to find a way to bottle its offense during the first 10 minutes — wherein the Hoosiers scored 32 points — of last weekend’s win over Ohio State. If Tom Crean’s offense can play at that level in Washington, DC, this weekend, Indiana can legitimately win the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the same goal as Illinois but with less urgency because of the youth of their roster. The longer Iowa stays in this weekend’s tournament, the more quality experience their underclassmen will have heading into next season.
  • Maryland: Maryland has taken a whopping 24 three-pointers per contest over its last nine games, making only 33.8 percent of those attempts. The key for the Terrapins is to return to attacking the rim for easy looks and foul shots. Continued over-reliance on the three-ball from a team that requires greater balance could spell an early postseason exit in DC and beyond.

Derrick Walton Jr. will look to lift Michigan to multiple wins in the Big Ten Tournament. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

  • Michigan: The metrics suggest that Michigan is better than its 20-11 overall record. This means that the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to win the Big Ten tournament and jump a couple of seed lines prior to Sunday’s bracket release.

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Four Big Ten Storylines to Follow in the Final Week of Regular Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2017

There are now 14 games left in a Big Ten regular season that has been marked by numerous highs and lows throughout. The major takeaway at this point of the season is that almost nothing in terms of the conference standings has yet been settled. That means that every game over the next six days has considerably more meaning than in other conferences where much is already determined. Here are four other Big Ten storylines worth monitoring during the final week of the regular season.

Scottie Lindsey needs to find his scoring touch in the final week for Northwestern to be as though its safely in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today).

  1. Can Northwestern Earn One More Win? The Wildcats appeared to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Wisconsin on February 12, but they’ve since lost three of four and are really struggling to put points on the board. Northwestern closes out the Big Ten season with two home games this week against Michigan and Purdue, where a victory in either contest would likely be enough to certify things. Two more losses, however, would result in a 9-9 record in conference play, creating a teetering mountain of pressure on Chris Collins‘ team to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 26th, 2017

In a season where up has often meant down and down has meant up, it’s fitting that the second to last weekend in the Big Ten was chaotic. The league’s three Top 25 teams all lost while several teams with solid to middling chances at NCAA Tournament bids (Minnesota, Michigan and Michigan State) won somewhat convincingly. Illinois and Indiana also picked up crucial wins that kept both teams’ faint bubble hopes alive. The standings are still in a state of complete flux with only the #14 seed in the conference tournament currently set in stone. Here’s the rest of the superlatives from the second to last weekend of Big Ten play.

Nick Ward (center) led Michigan State in scoring and rebounding as Michigan State defeated Wisconsin. (Rey Del Rio, Getty Images).

Player of the Weekend: After a season low point in which Michigan State big man Nick Ward may have purposely tripped Michigan’s Moritz Wagner during a 29-point loss, the freshman has been on a tear. Against Wisconsin on Sunday, Ward bulled his way to 22 points and nine rebounds, bolstering his average of 15.4 PPG over the last five games. Those thinking that the Spartans are turning the corner just in time for the postseason can point to Ward and his fellow freshmen’s stellar play as a reason to believe. Read the rest of this entry »

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Finding a Parachute for Four Teams Fading Fast…

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 11th, 2017

In Sports Illustrated‘s recent profile of former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, he asked two philosophical questions about the game of basketball: “Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” Those questions are silly on their face, but they stuck in my head this week while evaluating the NCAA Tournament resumes of a few teams whose seasons have clearly stagnated. Is there something to be said for viewing a team’s record of wins and losses without the associated construct of time, completely freeing its resume from any particular front-to-back narrative? This idea, in many ways, ties into the cutesy “blind resumes” gimmick we see on television so much throughout late February and early March. When we remove the bias that everyone inherently brings to the analysis, how does that change our opinions?

Is Tom Crean Destined for the NIT? (USA Today Images)

In the end, the individuals comprising the selection committee will bring their own biases along with them regardless of how the narratives are constructed. So as we sit here in mid-February, we thought it would be a useful exercise to re-evaluate a handful of teams who have seemingly lost control of their seasons. Indiana, USC, Clemson and Minnesota looked well on their way to the NCAA Tournament as recently as a month ago, but conference play has taken a significant toll on each. The narratives attached to these teams will greatly affect how they are viewed by the selection committee over the last month of the season. Can any of this quartet recover?

  • Indiana: The obvious poster child for this phenomenon, the Hoosiers were among the nation’s top 10 and projected as a #2 seed by ESPN‘s Joe Lunardi as recently as December 12. Since that date, Indiana has suffered injuries to key players (OG Anunoby and James Blackmon) and compiled a 7-8 record as a result. Fortunately for the Hoosiers, their only loss to an opponent outside the RPI top 100 came in a true road game at Fort Wayne, but with four of the Hoosiers’ last five Big Ten games on the road, concerns about a bid remain if Indiana can’t right the ship.

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