Big Ten Season Grades: Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 18th, 2014

Continuing our season-ending analysis, we look at the performances of Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Earlier this week, we handed out grades for Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Ohio State

Grade: C-

This season (25-10, 10-8): What would be a successful season for most programs was a relative disappointment for the Buckeyes. Ohio State did not capture a Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since 2008-09, and similar to that season, they were also bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The issue for the Buckeyes – which was a clear problem area in the preseason – was generating offense without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup. Thomas’ replacement, LaQuinton Ross, almost doubled his scoring average, but the Buckeyes failed to find reliable offensive firepower anywhere else. In the end, Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s excellent showing on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s offensive woes.

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don't expect it to continue next season. (Gettyl)

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don’t expect it to continue next season. (Getty)

Next season: The Buckeyes lose Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Ross, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. They welcome in an elite recruiting class that includes D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate; and they also will get graduate transfer Anthony Lee from Temple next year. These additions along with several talented players already on their roster should have no one worrying about the state of the program going forward. This season was merely a hiccup in the Thad Matta era.

Iowa: C

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Big Ten Tournament: The Future Looks Bright For Illinois

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday’s first round Big Ten Tournament game between Illinois and Indiana in Indianapolis.

Both Illinois and Indiana entered Thursday afternoon’s match-up with winning the conference tournament as their only hope of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so Illinois’ 64-54 victory might be viewed as a ticket to play top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals on Friday. While true at some level, it’s misleading at another — Illinois showed in today’s win through a variety of signs that it will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten as soon as next season. The player of the game for the Illini on Thursday afternoon was junior guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams, who entered the game averaging 10.5 points per contest, exploded for a game-high 25 points (17 of which came in the second half). The Chicago native also showcased his ability to hit big shots by nailing a huge three-pointer with 2:06 to play that increased the Illini’s lead to four and all but secured the victory, as Indiana scored just two more points over the remainder of the game.

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

While Abrams led the charge in the scoring column for Illinois, John Groce’s squad also received contributions from several other underclassmen. Junior big man Nnanna Egwu was limited offensively – he managed just two points on 1-of-8 shooting – but he found a way to impact the game in other facets by collecting seven rebounds and blocking five shots. Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice added 13 points and helped key the defensive effort that forced Indiana into an 0-of-10 performance from behind the arc in the second half. Freshmen guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn showed a bit of why John Groce felt comfortable inserting them into the starting lineup back in early February. Hill finished Thursday’s win with eight points and four rebounds, while showcasing his outside shooting prowess by knocking down both of his three-point attempts. Nunn added 10 points to the winning effort and was primarily responsible for the outstanding defensive effort on Indiana star guard Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell finished the afternoon just 3-of-13 from the field and 2-of-9 from three.

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Illinois Freshmen Lead Their Turnaround and Earns Them Another Look at the Bubble

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 4th, 2014

It was February 4, and Illinois had just been dominated by Wisconsin for the second time this season in front of a fairly empty home crowd; severe weather had been an issue. The loss made it eight straight for John Groce’s team — which for a consecutive season was in the midst of a major losing streak in conference play – and found themselves at the bottom of league standings with a 2-8 record. But unlike last season, there were no talented seniors like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in place to lead a turnaround. This team seemed doomed for a miserable last place finish. That’s when Groce put up the white flag and inserted his top two freshmen — Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill — into the starting lineup, a signal that he was moving on from the current season and looking toward the next one. What has happened since has surprised even the most optimistic of Illini fans. Since the shakeup in the rotation, Illinois has won four of its last six games — including three in a row — which includes road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Odds are that they’re still likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, but their current body of work isn’t that far off from other bubble teams within the conference.

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Defense has been Illinois’ strength all season as the Illini have held opponents to an adjusted 93.1 points per 100 possessions (14th in the nation), but their anemic offense, especially their complete inability to shoot the ball, wiped away the advantage their defense gave them. In the non-conference portion of their schedule, Rayvonte Rice was able to get to the rim effectively against less athletic teams or catch high-major teams off guard with his deceptive ability to use his strength while driving to the basket. But by the time Big Ten play started, there was enough tape on Illinois for opponents to adjust. Teams started packing the paint as a result, and Rice, who had averaged 18.7 PPG before the team’s slump, scored five points per game fewer during the eight-game skid. Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna Egwu all failed to prove that they could be relied upon for consistent scoring too, so Groce decided to give his freshmen a shot. It seemed the best Illini fans could hope for was that Nunn and Hill would show signs of improvement by season’s end. Instead, the game came to them immediately, as the two young wings have combined for 19.8 PPG since becoming starters. Almost as importantly, Illinois’ defensive performance did not drop with the change in rotation. In the team’s last four games, Illinois has held its opponents to fewer than 0.83 points per possession (h/t John Gassaway). The results have been an improvement on offense to a point where they can once again rely on their defensive prowess to dictate the tempo of the games and turn their season around.

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Previewing Braggin’ Rights: Illinois vs. Missouri

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 21st, 2013

If one were to grade Illinois’ season performance before heading into Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, they would probably have to give the Illini an “I” for incomplete. John Groce’s team is 9-2 with no especially bad losses, but no significantly good wins either. Their two losses against Georgia Tech and Oregon were on the road and down to the wire; a free throw made or different bounce of the ball and the Illini might currently sit undefeated with a different season trajectory. But Illinois is where it is and today’s game against Missouri provides the last chance for the Illini to notch a non-conference resume win.

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Nnanna Egwu and the Illini are hoping to get their first win against Missouri since 2008 on Saturday.

The Tigers have won braggin’ rights for four seasons in a row, but before that run the Illini had won nine years straight. If John Groce is going to start a new streak in the rivalry today, here are three things he’ll need his team to do:

  1. Keep charging the glass and getting offensive rebounds. Unlike last season, this year’s team is not effective at scoring beyond the arc (33.8 percent from deep). The way they’ve countered their lack of long-range shooting is by creating additional scoring opportunities from the offensive glass. The Illini have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.1 percent (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) and three of their starters are averaging two or more offensive boards per game. They’ll need to keep this up against a Missouri team that so far has been excellent at minimizing its opponents’ offensive rebounds. Since the Illini do not rely on a perimeter attack from behind the arc, there should be fewer long rebounds for guards like Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross to grab. Illinois should stick to what it does best — drive to the rim and have others follow behind for putbacks. Read the rest of this entry »
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Oregon Thrives on Offense, Dumps Illinois Despite Defensive Rebounding Struggles

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 15th, 2013

The Oregon Ducks have gotten off to their undefeated start in 2013-14 primarily on the strength of their staggeringly efficient offense. The Ducks ranked third in the nation in effective field goal percentage and were seventh in the nation in free throw rate before Saturday night’s game against Illinois at the former Rose Garden in Portland.

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Aspects of Oregon’s defense are also strong, including a top-50 steal rate and a top-75 block rate. But one thing stands out in the Ducks’ statistical profile: a lack of proficiency on the defensive glass. Despite only playing one top-25 offensive rebounding team this season (San Francisco), Oregon ranks a pedestrian 235th in defensive rebounding rate. Against the Illini, that vulnerability showed up early – six offensive rebounds surrendered in the first half, which ended tied at 32 – and late, when they got a rebound putback from Joseph Bertrand to close the game within three points with less than a minute to go. But Oregon’s scoring was able to again cover for its defensive rebounding deficiency in a 71-64 win.

Oregon (9-0) certainly misses graduated senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who led the nation in defensive rebounding rate in 2012-13, but another senior transfer is attempting to fill that void. Mike Moser – a Portland native who previously played at both UCLA and UNLV – has led the Ducks on the defensive glass all season, including a team-high eight Saturday night, which also came with 14 points, tied for the team lead with fellow senior transfer Joseph Young. The performance of the 6’8” power forward Saturday is made more impressive when considering that Illinois’ starting frontcourt of Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand each gather eight percent or more of available offensive rebounds, and the Illini ranked 36th nationally in offensive rebound rate before the game.

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Big Ten M5: 10.25.13 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 25th, 2013

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  1. Senior guards can be a great asset to a coach who is under the pressure of leading his team to a Final Four. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is hoping that senior guard Russell Byrd can provide maturity for the Spartans, both on and off the floor. Byrd averaged just over one point per game last season, but is eager to contribute to the #2 Spartans. He was plagued with injuries during his first two seasons in East Lansing, but is finally healthy enough to help Izzo reach a Final Four. “Russell Byrd [is] much healthier, much more confident,” Izzo said Tuesday during the Spartans’ media day. Even though Byrd may not see more than 10 minutes per game this season, his positive attitude and senior leadership should help the Spartans push toward March.
  2. No other player will be under more scrutiny in the Big Ten this season than Michigan’s Mitch McGary. After a slow start to his freshman campaign, he stepped up during the last six weeks of the 2012-13 season to help the Wolverines get to the Final Four. To make things more interesting, he chose to come back for his sophomore season with the intention to dominate the conference and lead his team to Arlington. He can definitely meet those high expectations, provided he is healthy, but he has had a few issues with his back during the offseason. Heading into November, McGary says that his back is no longer an issue. He said, “There’s no timetable for me being back. We’re just being cautious right now and we’ll see what happens in the future.” The 6’10″ forward will be expected to carry a heavier offensive burden on a more consistent basis this year as the Wolverines adapt to life after NPOY Trey Burke.
  3. While McGary will be the best forward in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s Oto Osenieks will have to earn his playing time on the Gophers this season. The 6’8″ forward averaged 9.1 minutes per game and shot 29.7% from the field – a virtual non-factor for the Gophers last season. But new head coach Richard Pitino remains optimistic about his improvement and believes that the forward can contribute offensively this year. Pitino said, “he was fighting for every single rebound. He’s another guy that has really responded to kind of the challenge. And I thought he did a really nice job defensively.” Andre Hollins (14.6 PPG) will be one of the best scoring guards in the Big Ten, but Pitino will need any help he can get from other players, and Osenieks could chip in at some point this year.
  4. Remember when Matt Painter’s Boilermakers were a dominant Big Ten team? That was only a couple of seasons ago, but Purdue really struggled to score last season. Painter is hoping for a return to relevance with a strong and diverse backcourt. Ronnie Johnson, Sterling Carter, and Bryson Scott will see significant minutes to complement Terone Johnson’s (13.5 PPG) scoring and leadership this season. Carter, a transfer, shot 39% from beyond the arc at Seattle and Painter believes his shooting touch will help the Boilermakers: “He can come off screens and shoot shots with people on him and make them.” Johnson is also quite sneaky off of pick-and-roll action, averaging 10.1 points per game last year using a nice-looking floater in the painted area. This team could surprise.
  5. While Purdue has two new guards in the backcourt, Illinois returns two of their own — Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams – who played significant minutes during John Groce’s first season in Champaign. Both are expected to start, but Groce said that there are a couple of starting spots up in the air as the Illini gear up for their exhibition games. Rayvonte Rice, a transfer guard from Drake, is likely to take one spot as a third guard because of his offensive capabilities. The fifth position is also up in the air and it is possible that Groce will choose to go with a fourth guard instead of another forward. Nnanna Egwu, another returnee, will be the primary big man for the Illini this season.
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Rushed Reactions: #2 Miami 63, #7 Illinois 59

Posted by WCarey on March 24th, 2013

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Walker Carey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game between #2 Miami and #7 Illinois in Austin.

Three Key Takeaways.

Miami Outlasted the Surging Illini Sunday (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Miami Outlasted the Surging Illini Sunday (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  1. The way Miami won this game was important. The Hurricanes have received a great deal of national attention due to the fact that their roster had zero NCAA Tournament experience before this year’s event. Miami coasted to an easy win over Pacific in its first game, but as a two-seed, that type of win is expected. Needing a test to prove its NCAA Tournament toughness, the Hurricanes definitely received one from Illinois. The Illini took a 55-54 lead with 1:24 to play and Miami kept its collective cool and was able to come back and grab the victory. On the possession after Illinois took the lead, Miami sophomore guard Shane Larkin nailed a ridiculously difficult step back three-pointer at the 1:04 mark to give the Hurricanes a two-point lead. Miami was able to maintain that lead and earn the victory by calmly going 6-of-6 from the free throw line down the stretch and not allowing Illinois to get anything easy on the offensive end of the court.
  2. Illinois deserves a lot of credit for the way it played. The Illini did not shoot the ball very well all night – just 37.7% from the field and 25.9% from three – but it fought hard all game and pushed Miami to the brink. In his postgame remarks, Illini coach John Groce spoke of how his team has battled hard all season and that they have gotten contributions from everyone all season. That was definitely the case against Miami, as different guys stepped up in different spots to make an impact. On a night where the usually solid D.J. Richardson was just 1-of-11 from the field, senior forward Tyler Griffey stepped up for the Illini with 12 huge points on a 4-of-6 performance from deep. Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu was a force inside all night, as he finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds while playing very rugged defense against the Miami frontline. Senior guard Brandon Paul struggled at-times with his shot, but he certainly showcased his ability to take over a game with his performance Sunday night. The Illini might not have been victorious, but their effort and the way they played was certainly admirable.
  3. A blown call definitely had an impact on the game. When Richardson missed a three-point attempt with 43 seconds to play in what was a 57-55 game at the time, it clearly looked like the ball last touched the hand of Miami forward Kenny Kadji before going out-of-bounds. The ball was incorrectly rewarded to Miami, which resulted in guard Durand Scott nailing two clutch free throws to give the Hurricanes a four-point lead. While the Illini were able to trim the lead down to two again with 22 seconds to play, they never again had the chance to tie. There were many other reasons why Miami won and Illinois lost, but this call certainly had an impact on the last 43 seconds of what was a thrilling game.

Star(s) of the Game. Rion Brown and Shane Larkin, Miami. The junior Brown was outstanding for the Hurricanes off the bench. He finished with 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-10 shooting from deep. In a game where every shot was crucial, it seemed like every one Brown made was of great importance to the outcome of the game. Larkin turned in a normal stellar performance – 17 points and five assists – but the reason he makes this category is due to the ridiculous step back three-pointer he nailed to give his team a lead it would never relinquish with one minute to play.

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A Closer Look At Illinois’ Issues During The Losing Streak

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on January 22nd, 2013

Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.

After a surprising 13-1 start to the season, Illinois has been in a funk over the last two weeks. Losing at Purdue to tip off the Big Ten season could be written off as an aberration because it was the first road game of the conference season but their recent three-game losing skid has raised several questions about the team’s future in the near term, specifically as to their quest for an NCAA Tournament bid. The main reason behind their hot start was their deadly long-range shooting but the good old saying, “You live by the three and you die by the three,” has certainly been true in the Illini’s recent losses to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. During those three games, Illinois as a team has shot just 8-of-58 (14% 3FG) from beyond the arc! It is no secret that they lack a true big man who could hold his own in the low post, and therefore the team has no choice but to depend on perimeter shooting in its offensive sets. But a closer look into these three losses reveals that there are two other aspects of their game that have hurt them in addition to their shooting woes, but the good news is that these areas can certainly be improved to get out of the slump.

Brandon Paul and the Illini need to improve their defense to remain competitive in the Big Ten (Joe Robbins/Getty)

Brandon Paul and the Illini need to improve their defense to remain competitive in the Big Ten (Joe Robbins/Getty)

  • Perimeter defense: Illini guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Joseph Bertrand may have gone cold from beyond the arc recently, but they also need to do a better job of defending the three-point shot on the other end of the court. Their opponents have knocked down 51% (27-of-53) of their attempts from long range over the last three games. If you can’t find your jumper, the least you can do is to step up your defense and make the opposition earn its points. Bill Carmody’s Wildcats had a horrible game offensively against Iowa, but their wings drained five three-pointers in the first half in Champaign to build a 15-point lead which forced the Illini to play catch-up for the last 30 minutes of the game. Groce’s guards have also played poor transition defense and have given up open shots to opposing guards who prefer to drive rather than shoot, such as Minnesota’s Joe Coleman. Coleman torched the Illini by scoring 29 points from all over the floor – he shot 2-of-3 from beyond the arc and picked up three easy baskets in transition following a missed three-pointer by the Illini — and it was obvious that Paul or Richardson were more frustrated about their shooting slump than getting back on defense. The lackadaisical defensive effort by these players can clearly be attributed to their offensive struggles. When they can’t find their offensive rhythm, they often run back down the court without picking up their assigned man. The lack of good perimeter defense exacerbates these offensive woes because once they fall behind in the game, they have no choice but to rely on the trey even more to cut into the lead. Defensive issues can easily be corrected considering the team’s depth at the guard position. With Tracy Abrams, Paul, Richardson, and Bertrand at his disposal, Groce has four guards who can be part of an effective rotation. Even though 6’7″ wing Mike Henry has struggled with his defensive rotations, he still has the athleticism to become effective on the defensive end. Read the rest of this entry »
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Two Key Observations From Illinois’ Win Over USC in Maui

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 20th, 2012

Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.

In case you did not stay up until the wee hours on Monday night to watch the Maui Invitational, you probably missed Illinois’ dominating 30-point win over Southern California. The Trojans brought in a slew of talented transfers this season and are expected to be competitive in the Pac-12 and potentially make a run at an NCAA bid. The game was supposed to a close contest between two good teams but John Groce’s Illini took off with the game immediately from the tip-off. The Illini shot 45% from beyond the arc on their way to building a 30-point lead during the first half. Illinois fans are cautiously optimistic about their team because they have been used to late season slumps after a hot start, but last night’s group had a different feel to them. There was an extra hop to the steps of DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul and company that was non-existent during the last two months of the 2011-12 season. Keeping in mind that it is just one game against a team that is not a juggernaut, the following are two key takeaways from last night’s game:

D.J. Richardson and the Illini look like a revamped group so far this season.

  1. Defensive Intensity: When Illinois played three guards (D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams) along with a wing (Myke Henry or Joe Bertrand), they were very quick on defense in disrupting the passing lanes. They lack the depth in the frontcourt and may be exposed in the paint but the guards caused a ruckus by being extremely active and pressing the ball-handlers in the half court sets. The Illini big men – Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey, may not be able to defend the post effectively which means that the opponents can push the ball inside but this strategy will backfire if the Illini guards make it very tough for the guards to make an effective entry pass. The USC forwards — Aaron Fuller and Eric Wise -– were never truly comfortable in the paint because their guards could not settle down. During most of the Trojans’ inbound plays, Egwu jumped up and down in front of the  player who was trying to inbound the ball which forced him to throw the pass to the other end of the court and a reset of their offense all over again. Paul, Bertrand and Abrams were all over the USC guards and forced 16 turnovers including 11 steals. Every Illini fan is expecting the guards to push the tempo offensively but Groce might have convinced them to make a difference on the defense immediately. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Edition M5: 11.19.12 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 19th, 2012

  1. Conference realignment is a hot topic again, but this time the focus is squarely on the Big Ten. The conference reportedly is interested in expanding to the east coast markets, specifically targeting Maryland and Rutgers to become a 14-team league. University officials at Maryland may make a decision as early as early this week on whether to apply for admission in the B1G. Maryland will have to pay approximately $50 Million if it chooses to leave the ACC, and if Maryland leaves its conference, it is likely that Rutgers will follow suit from the Big East. From a basketball perspective, the Terps would make an excellent addition to the Big Ten.
  2. ESPN is putting Bobby Knight in some tough situations during this year’s broadcasting schedule. First, he called a Kentucky game, and now he is scheduled to call an Indiana game. Knight will call the IU game against Georgia with Dan Shulman on Monday’s ESPN telecast . It is well settled that Knight has not associated himself with the Hoosiers since he was fired over a decade ago but he will have to cross paths with the university now. The broadcast will likely be oriented around the game as usual and there might not be much else to this event except for Knight being around thousands of vocal Hoosiers fans during the game.
  3. Coming into this season, Illinois head coach John Groce has expressed his concerns about the guard play on the Illini roster. Despite depth at the guard position, he was not sure if there was a true point guard fit to run his up-tempo offense without turning the ball over. After three games, Tracy Abrams is doing a great job at that position but Groce has bigger issues with his big men. The Illini were outrebounded by 20 by Hawaii on the road on Friday night, and it took a buzzer beater by D.J. Richardson to win the game. Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin will continue to be a focal point as opponents will try to dominate the Illini in the paint and this could be a concern for Groce as the season goes on.
  4. Speaking of big men, Michigan State freshman forward Matt Costello played for about 11 minutes against Texas Southern and that was enough to impress coach Tom Izzo. Costello injured his back during an exhibition game and had not seen any playing time until Michigan State’s home opener over the weekend. Freshman guards Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine have already shown their abilities but Costello may provide some valuable minute for Izzo off the bench to complement Derrick Nix. He averaged 25.1 PPG and 19.1 RPG in high school but understands that he needs to be patient throughout this year and hopes to constantly improve his game to earn more minutes on the floor.
  5. Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas is doing everything he promised so far this season. He scored a career high 31 points against Washington as the Buckeyes beat the Huskies 77-66 on Sunday. But Thad Matta knows that his team needs a “third guy” on offense in addition to Thomas and Aaron Craft who can consistently contribute. Lenzelle Smith Jr. was supposed to be that third option but he did not score a single point on Sunday. Matta understands that there will be certain days when Craft or Smith won’t be effective so he needs a couple of the sophomores to step up in order to achieve their long-term goals. Amir Williams and Laquinton Ross may be able to provide that spark over time — Williams is more effective defensively but Ross has the offensive skills to contribute 8-10 PPG for the Buckeyes.
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Big Ten M5: 11.08.12 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2012

  1. Illinois head coach John Groce has iterated multiple times during the offseason about the need to push the tempo in Champaign. He wants his guards to increase the pace of the game but limit their turnovers. Illinois is loaded with guards such as Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams but what about the big guys? Sophomore forward Nnanna Egwu returns after playing only 10 MPG last season. Meyers Leonard is now a key part of the Portland Trailblazers so Egwu will need to do his best to provide that inside presence to Illinois. He does not have the offensive skills yet but he brings a bunch of energy in his minutes and will fit in fairly well with a fast-paced system because he runs the floor very well. The Daily Illini discusses Egwu’s role for the Illini and what the Orange Krush can expect from him in Groce’s offense.
  2. Speaking of forwards, Wisconsin has an excellent trio returning for their senior seasons. Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans will provide valuable on-court experience for Bo Ryan this season. All three of these players understand the swing offense very well and know the particulars of the Wisconsin system. Berggren shoots the deep ball very well for a big man (38% 3FG) and Bruesewitz is a jack of all trades, especially on defense. Evans averaged 6.8 RPG last season but can score from several positions on the floor. If all of these players are healthy (a big if right now), they will provide a great foundation for Ryan despite a largely unproven backcourt of Ben Brust and George Marshall.
  3. Transitioning from experienced forwards to a freshman version, Michigan’s Mitch McGary is working hard to slim down before the regular season. The top-25 recruit is currently 6’10″ and weighs 262 lbs. but is trying to get leaner and improve his conditioning in preparation for a season that could result in a potential Final Four. McGary is specifically focused on staying near the rim and defending the post which will be extremely important against the other top big men in the league such as Cody Zeller and Trevor Mbakwe. John Beilein should be happy about McGary’s work ethic and his keen understanding of his defensive role for the Wolverines.
  4. Penn State’s Tim Frazier will be one of the best players in the Big Ten this season. Every team in the league will focus their defensive sets to send multiple defenders at Frazier but that strategy might not work because of two other wings on the Penn State roster. Guards D.J.Newbill and Jermaine Marshall have improved over the offseason and should be poised to take advantage of any double-teams drawn by Frazier this season. Marshall averaged 10.8 PPG last season while Newbill transferred from Southern Miss after averaging 9.2 PPG as a freshman. Newbill in particular will provide some depth on the perimeter and could match up well against the second- or third-best defenders on opposing teams if he plays alongside Frazier and Marshall.
  5.  Michigan State’s Branden Dawson has been watching a lot of film of some of the great guards that have passed through East Lansing over the years. Dawson is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered last March and has used the time off to improve his game outside of the gym by focusing on game film. Tom Izzo’s staff has been showing the sophomore tapes of other legendary Spartans such as Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell. Dawson has the right mixture of athleticism and size to eventually be as good as any of those names if he can stay healthy. He proved that he was a very cerebral player last season when he assumed the role of a defensive stopper which is very impressive for a freshman to become in a competitive conference.
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Big Ten Non-Conference Schedule Analysis: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 23rd, 2012

The Big Ten microsite will be analyzing the non-conference schedules for all of the Big Ten teams in the coming weeks. Today, we continue with the Northwestern Wildcats. Check out their full schedule here.

Where we left off: Bruce Weber’s Illini set the expectations very high after winning the first 10 games of the non-conference schedule during the 2011-12 campaign. Illinois handled Maryland comfortably on the road (71-62) and beat a ranked Gonzaga team (#18 at the time), 82-75 in Champaign. But the confidence from those wins quickly deteriorated after the Illini got run over by UNLV in Chicago (64 – 48) and lost to Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, 78-74. Overall, their 11-2 record during the non-conference season indicated to Illini fans that they might enjoy a successful season before the wheels fell off during the final 14 games of the season where the team sputtered to a miserable 2-12 record. The schedule appears to be tougher this season especially for a team that needs to adjust to a new offensive system under head coach John Groce and deal with the departure of their big man Meyers Leonard to the NBA.

Can Brandon Paul and the Illini win more than eight games in the non-conference season?

Major Tournaments: The timing couldn’t be worse for the Illini to play in arguably the most prestigious preseason tournament, the Maui Invitational. Illini fans envisioned a completely different team for this event when the field was announced over a year ago. First off, Bruce Weber was still expected to be coaching in Champaign. Few expected Meyers Leonard to stick around for a senior season, but he wasn’t viewed as a sure lock for the NBA after just two seasons either. Guard Crandall Head was supposed to play an integral role in his junior year rather than transferring out of the program after just one season. Regardless of the personnel changes on the team, the fans expected Illinois to fly to Maui as one of the top contenders. But the reality is that they might not even be the fourth-best team in the field this year. North Carolina, Marquette, Texas and Butler are most certainly better equipped than the Illini to win the title and the first matchup against USC is not a guaranteed win. If the Illini manage to muscle their way past the Trojans, they will then face the Longhorns as a heavy underdog. This tournament will test Groce’s ability to keep his team together under adversity. If Brandon Paul and company can compete against USC and/or even Texas, it should be considered a very positive early season sign for the Orange Krush and the Illini faithful.

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