Defense is the Key For the Unpredictable Northwestern Wildcats

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on February 5th, 2014

Going into conference play, the Big Ten was once again touted as the premiere league in the country. With pundits citing its exceptional depth as proof of elite status, we often heard the clichéd phrase “in any given game…,” which has turned out to ring true halfway through league play. But Northwestern was never in those conversations, as the Wildcats (along with Nebraska) were projected as the league’s doormat based upon their weak performance in the non-conference schedule. Things looked to be heading that way when Chris Collins’ team lost its first four conference games by an average of 19.3 points. Now, after having won five of their last seven and four of their last five contests, the Wildcats find themselves in a very strange position — tied for fourth place at 5-5 in the Big Ten.

Drew Crawford, Kelsey Barlow

Drew Crawford

The one constant with Northwestern is that the Wildcats have been terribly inconsistent throughout the season, even during their current winning ways. For example, while they have a defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in efficiency (giving up 0.92 points per possession), they also have experienced games where their defense completely collapses (as evidenced by four games where the Wildcats gave up more than 1.20 points per possession). Also perplexing is the fact that Northwestern appears to have turned its season around as soon as Collins lost the services of the injured David Sobolewski, a player who averaged more than 85 percent of available minutes the last two seasons. So what’s changed over the last couple of weeks to cause the turnaround? The answer seems to lie in the team’s elite defense, despite some of those marked inconsistencies.

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Northwestern Showing Signs of Life But Still Has Problems

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 22nd, 2013

On Wednesday night, Northwestern went into the UIC Pavilion and ran Illinois-Chicago out of its own building. They won by 35 points, outdoing their expected KenPom outcome by 30 points. It was a much-needed win, considering up until then the Wildcats had been the most disappointing team in the Big Ten. Along with the losses of Jared Swopshire and Reggie Hearn, the team is still adjusting to Chris Collins’ new system and has reverted to throwing up threes when their half-court sets have fallen apart. Up until that game, nearly 44 percent of their total shots have been from the three-point line — most in the conference — and when they drove the ball to the basket, they weren’t finishing the play either (42.5 percent). On Wednesday the Wildcats finally began to attack the rim and couldn’t miss – hitting 64.5 percent of their two-point field goals. However, Northwestern’s blowout was more a product of a vulnerable opponent rather than any long-term fix.

Baylor's Athletic Size and Length Confounded Northwestern (AP Photo/C. Cherney)

Dave Sobolewski went for a career high 25 points on Wednesday (AP Photo/C. Cherney)

UIC, a team expected to finish in the middle of the Horizon League, has also underperformed relative to their already mediocre expectations. The Flames started the preseason ranked 262nd in the country, according to KenPom, but has since fallen to 302nd. Their defense has been less than stellar (giving up 106.4 points per 100 possessions) and their weaknesses played right into the Wildcats’ hands: poor perimeter defense and a stark lack of rim protection. For the season, UIC has allowed teams to shoot 46.7 percent from deep (342nd in the country). The Flames didn’t fare any better on Wednesday when they allowed the Wildcats to make 55 percent of their three-point shots. UIC has also allowed its opponents a free pass when they’ve been beaten off the dribble by only blocking 3.2 percent of all possible shots. Once Northwestern cleared space in the lane by sinking some threes, they were able to get to the rim easily. So as it turns out, UIC was a perfect match for the Wildcats to get the team’s confidence going.

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Challenges Aplenty for Chris Collins at Northwestern

Posted by KTrahan on April 1st, 2013

Northwestern announced the hiring of Duke associate head coach Chris Collins as its new head coach last week, and on Tuesday, the Collins era will officially begin in Evanston with an introductory press conference. There was little drama in this coaching search — everyone knew all along the job was Collins’ if he wanted it, and he took it, citing the chance to come home (he’s a Northbrook, Illinois, native) and lead a high-major program. But Northwestern isn’t just any high-major program. Truthfully, it could be the toughest job in all of college basketball. The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA Tournament, and while their last coach, Bill Carmody — a terrific coach in his own right — got NU to heights it had never seen before, the program still lagged far behind most of the Big Ten as far as sustained success goes. Carmody was in Evanston for 13 years and the challenges got even tougher for him throughout his tenure, as he explained in his final press conference.

Collins Has Been a Fixture on the Duke Bench For Years

Collins Has Been a Fixture on the Duke Bench For Years

“There’s not much different now about what Northwestern offers than it was when Kevin O’Neill was here and (Ricky) Byrdsong and Bill Foster and all those,” he said. “So everyone knows, people have talked about it, it’s sort of like an arms race. So the gap might be widening that way.” These challenges — particularly the lack of good facilities and Northwestern’s stringent academic standards — will still be there for Collins. The question now is if NU is willing to do anything to change them, or if Collins will have to work around them. Facilities-wise, the football program is currently receiving its long-awaited face-lift, so it’s unlikely that basketball will get a similar upgrade in the near future. But what about academics, which could potentially be changed right away? Nobody is expecting NU to accept everyone who applies, but right now, the perception is that the Wildcats won’t bend for good players like Duke, and maybe even Harvard, will.

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Big Ten M5: 03.12.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on March 12th, 2013

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  1. As if the end of Sunday’s Indiana-Michigan game wasn’t crazy enough, Tom Crean made it even more interesting when he approached Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer to confront him about his time as an assistant at IU. Crean told Meyer that he “helped wreck the program.” Meyer was a Hoosiers assistant under Kelvin Sampson and was partially responsible for some of the NCAA sanctions leveled against the program in the late 2000s. Crean said he later called to apologize and that his actions were inappropriate, but Michigan coach John Beilein wasn’t happy. “We’re never going to use victory or defeat as a platform for any frustrations we’re going to have,” he told MLive. I’m really proud of the way Jeff showed great poise and handled himself in the aftermath of the disappointment in that loss.
  2. It’s hard to dispute that the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball right now, but what does that mean for the conference when it comes to the NCAA Tournament? Some would argue that it helps the Big Ten teams, because they’ve been tested so much during the season, but others would argue that it may have worn some teams down. Tom Izzo claims it’s the former. He says it gives him and his players confidence heading into the Big Dance knowing that there’s nothing they haven’t seen. He also said the upcoming Big Ten Tournament has the potential to be “maybe one of the great conference tournaments of all-time.”
  3. Wisconsin has lived and died by the three at times this season, and it barely stayed afloat thanks to a buzzer-beating three by Traevon Jackson to guide the Badgers past Penn State. Threes have led to late-game heroics for the Badgers a few times this season, but Wisconsin must do a better job of finding scoring options inside if it is going to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, or even the Big Ten Tournament. UW can’t afford to keep banking on the long ball, because for every game that the shots are falling, there is going to be a game when they aren’t. It’s going to be hard to win four games in four days if the three is Wisconsin’s only offensive weapon.
  4. As the season comes to a close, Bill Carmody’s seat has gotten even hotter, despite the injuries Northwestern has had to deal with this season. NU will miss the NCAA Tournament once again, and that’s enough for many fans to call for Carmody’s job, even considering all the team’s injuries. However, with or without Carmody, the NU program has some problems. There’s no reason to believe things will get easier for a new coach if the basketball facilities don’t receive an upgrade and the stringent academic requirements aren’t loosened.
  5. Iowa has a very young frontcourt this season, with freshman Adam Woodbury and center Gabe Olaseni splitting time at center; and while they’ve had their ups and downs, they’re playing their best basketball of the year right now. Woodbury scored 20 points combined in Iowa’s final two games, while Olaseni has shown improvement on both ends of the floor. He had seven blocks against Illinois and was also a force on the offensive end against the Illini and Nebraska, thanks to his athleticism in the post. Woodbury and Olaseni both should be much improved next season, but they still have a chance to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament.
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Big Ten M5: 02.14.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on February 14th, 2013

morning5_bigten

  1. Michigan State was always considered one of the better teams in the Big Ten, but it hadn’t been considered one of the favorites for the conference title to this point. The Spartans’ blowout win over Michigan on Tuesday night represented a shift in that thinking. MSU is peaking at just the right time after some inconsistency early in the season. Veterans Derrick Nix, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson are all stepping up, along with star freshmen Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. Tom Izzo’s teams are notorious for their ability to turn things on at the end of the season and play well in March. MSU has to stay consistent, but if the Spartans play like they did against the Wolverines, they’ll be tough to beat many more times this season.
  2. Ohio State needed to fill a void in leadership and on-court production when it lost Jared Sullinger last year, and the most obvious player to fill that void was Deshaun Thomas. Thomas has lived up to the calling and become one of the most productive players in the Big Ten. However, he has changed a lot off the court, as well, thanks to his infant son. Deshaun Jr. was born the night Ohio State played Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament last March and it has changed Thomas’ perspective. Having a son has helped him become more responsible and made him realize that he now has someone looking up to him. That means less time for celebration of games, but it’s still rewarding for him to be able to go home and spend time with his son.
  3. When Fran McCaffery came to Iowa City, his fast-paced offensive style was a welcome change for a program that had just endured three years of slow, unexciting basketball under Todd Lickliter. However, while McCaffery has helped turn the Iowa program around, he recognized the need for better defense if the Hawkeyes were to take the next step. This year, his team has largely delivered on its promise to play better defense. Last year, Iowa gave up an average of 72 points per game through 24 games, but the Hawkeyes are down to 63.9 points per game this year through the same span. Iowa gave up 74.2 points per game through 11 Big Ten games last year, but has given up just 67.2 points per game through that same span this year — and this year’s schedule is far more front-loaded. That’s the largest drop in the conference and a big reason why Iowa is back in the conversation for NCAA Tournament contention.
  4. Over the past week, Illinois has regained the impressive form that it showed early in the season, and part of that is due to the contributions of Sam McLaurin. McLaurin, a fifth-year senior transfer from Coastal Carolina, earned himself a spot in the starting lineup this year and has provided a boost for the Illini on both ends of the floor. McLaurin did a nice job making plays off the ball against Indiana, but Illinois coach John Groce was especially impressed with his performance on defense against Minnesota. Groce said McLaurin received higher grades on defensive hustle stats in that game than any player he has ever coached. For a team that is a bit undersized in the frontcourt, McLaurin’s contributions will continue to be important down the stretch.
  5. Like every year it seems, this was supposed to be the year that Northwestern finally broke its NCAA Tournament curse. The Wildcats seemed to have the talent coming into the season, but they’ve been hit by a number of personnel losses, and two more hit recently. Jared Swopshire and Alex Olah both went down in NU’s loss to Iowa, and while Olah has a concussion and will return, Swopshire is done for the year after having arthroscopic knee surgery. The Wildcats now have very little depth in the frontcourt due to all of this year’s injuries. Sippin’ on Purple does a good job of rehashing all of NU’s injury struggles this year. First, JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season (not an injury, but still a problem), then Drew Crawford went down in December. Freshmen Sanjay Lumpkin and Chier Ajou also had season-ending injuries, while Nikola Cerina, Reggie Hearn and Alex Marcotullio have all dealt with injuries at one time or another this year.
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Big Ten M5: 02.01.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on February 1st, 2013

morning5_bigten

  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

morning5_bigten

  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: 01.11.13 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on January 11th, 2013

morning5_bigten

  1. Northwestern suffered through two straight blowouts to open Big Ten play, so the Wildcats were desperately in need of a confidence booster. They got that in by routing Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday night. NU had been struggling with its shooting and its freshmen had suffered some discouraging performances, as most freshmen do, but the shooting improved and the freshmen got involved in the win over the Nittany Lions. A blowout like that is just what the doctor ordered, writes Chris Emma of Scout.com. NU is still a longshot to make the NCAA Tournament this season, but this year is all about helping the freshmen gain confidence and improve, and they certainly showed as much against Penn State, which could carry over in the coming games.
  2. People keep wondering if this is finally the year that Iowa breaks through and makes the NCAA Tournament under Fran McCaffery, and while an NCAA berth is certainly coming soon, it may still be a year away. The Hawkeyes have had three chances for marquee wins in the Big Ten so far, with the latest coming Thursday night at home against Michigan State, but they’ve come up empty in each. Thursday’s game was there for the taking, but Iowa couldn’t close it out, which is the mark of a young and inexperienced team. The Hawkeyes need a big win to get over the top, says Mike Hlas of The Gazette, and a close game with the Spartants was an outstanding opportunity to do that to springboard into the rest of the Big Ten season. Now, Iowa is still searching for such a win, and Big Ten games are becoming much more important as its losses pile up.
  3. The “greatness” debate comes up whenever a very good team seems to be on the verge of a special season, and with Michigan undefeated and about to hit the toughest part of its schedule, that debate has arrived in Ann Arbor. There are some criticisms of this team that aren’t really fair, and given the outstanding talent the Wolverines have on hand, there’s no reason that John Beilein’s team can’t be special. Soon we’ll know for sure if Michigan can silence its critics, as the Wolverines go on the road to face Ohio State and Minnesota in the next week. It’s gut check time for this young group of players. Even losses in those games don’t mean Michigan can’t win in March, but two wins could certainly solidify this group as the top team in the country.
  4. When Michigan heads to Columbus for its game against Ohio State this weekend, it will be a homecoming for the Wolverines’ star point guard Trey Burke. It’s rare that a Columbus product would end up in Ann Arbor, but in this case it’s because Burke didn’t even have an offer from the Buckeyes. Thad Matta has to be regretting that decision now, as Burke could have given the Buckeyes just about everything they lack — a consistent, versatile scorer with the ability to burst for bunches of points. The Buckeyes already have a very good point guard in Aaron Craft, and it’s tough to know which recruits will pan out, but OSU has to wonder how different things might have been if Burke were wearing scarlet and gray rather than maize and blue this weekend.
  5. Recruiting never stops in college basketball, and thanks to an NCAA rule change that allows high school juniors to take official visits after January 1, Indiana will have a special visitor from halfway around the world coming to this weekend’s game against Minnesota. The Hoosiers will be hosting Dante Exum, who ranks as the No. 17 guard in the 2014 class by Rivals. He’s also being looked at Boise State, Georgetown, LSU, SMU, Tulsa and Vanderbilt. If there were ever a game for Exum to fly halfway around the world to see, it would be this one, as Assembly Hall will be packed and should have an electric atmosphere for a top 10 match-up.
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Next Year Looking More and More Like “The Year” For Northwestern

Posted by KTrahan on December 18th, 2012

Every year, the question remains the same for a Northwestern team perpetually on the bubble: Can the Wildcats sneak into the NCAA Tournament? Last summer, it certainly seemed like this could be the year that NU would make the Big Dance for the first time in school history. Bill Carmody finally had two big men, an impressive recruiting class, a graduate transfer, and a solid group of returning stars including Drew Crawford, Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn and JerShon Cobb.

The Loss of Drew Crawford Leaves Northwestern Searching For Answers

The Loss of Drew Crawford Leaves Northwestern Searching For Answers

However, things don’t always go as planned in college basketball, and NU certainly learned that quickly this year. Cobb was suspended for the season due to academic problems, the new players haven’t adjusted as quickly as fans had hoped, and Crawford wasn’t playing at all like himself. Now, we at least have an answer for the latter issue, as NU announced over the weekend that Crawford will miss the remainder of the season to have surgery on a torn labrum. Adding Crawford’s injury to the doubts following an inconsistent start to the season, it’s looking more and more like this won’t be “the year” for the Wildcats. But could that be a good thing for NU?

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Big Ten M5: 12.14.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on December 14th, 2012

morning5_bigten

  1. Michigan coach John Beilein isn’t scared to use his five highly-touted freshmen this year, and he solidified that this week when he said he would stick with a nine-man rotation, including all five of those rookies. Freshmen Nick Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III will continue to start alongside Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan, but Caris LeVert, Mitch McGary, Spike Albrecht and Jon Horford will all see significant minutes, as well. The Wolverines have one of the deepest teams in the league, and with the freshmen living up to the hype so far, they have the potential to put a dangerous lineup on the court for the entire game.
  2. With so many new faces, Northwestern has been fairly inconsistent en route to a 7-3 start. The Wildcats won at Baylor, but have home losses to Maryland, Illinois-Chicago and Butler, with Texas State and Stanford coming to Evanston next week. Northwestern has spent the last four years on the NCAA Tournament bubble and fans are becoming restless about the team’s chances this year. CBS Chicago’s Dave Wischnowsky wonders how much more “close but no cigar” NU will accept, and whether coach Bill Carmody will be shown the door if things don’t turn around this season.
  3. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has been hitting the recruiting circuit hard recently, looking at top recruits Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander and Tyus Jones, among others, but the Spartans’ head coach isn’t a fan of such road trips. Izzo would like the NCAA to shorten the length of time in which coaches are able to evaluate recruits in order to allow coaches more time with their families. Coaches have very little time off from September to March, and a change in the rules would also allow them more time to spend with their teams during the season. Izzo admits that his words go “on deaf ears,” but he thinks teams could get the same players even if the rules were changed.
  4. Iowa has three freshmen in its starting lineup this year, which means that some veterans have had to embrace bench roles. Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe, in particular, have given up playing time for the newcomers, but they’re OK with it if it helps the team. Coach Fran McCaffery is impressed with how his upperclassmen have bought into the program and accepted their new roles this season, even if it means they won’t be in the starting lineup. It’s not all bad for McCabe and Basabe, though, as both see minutes comparable to what the starters see. As long as they’re winning, the Hawkeye players don’t really care how it happens, even if that means sitting on the bench to start the game.
  5. It’s mid-December, which means it’s cupcake season in college basketball. Ohio State picked up a routine 85-45 cupcake victory over Savannah State this week, which will put another tally in the win column for the Buckeyes, but Rob Oller wonders if the game was really that beneficial. It’s a way for players — especially role players — to gain confidence, but there isn’t much good that it does for the starters. Since it’s difficult for players to get up for this kind of game, coach Thad Matta was forced to exaggerate what Savannah State brings to the table, all adding up to a yawner. But if this kind of game can inspire confidence in the players, that, says Oller, is really all that’s important.
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Andrew Smith Shows His Importance to Butler’s Long-Term Fortune

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 9th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC correspondent. He was in Evanston for Butler’s 74-65 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. You can follow him @ChrisDJohnsonn

The biggest weak spot in Butler’s season body of work entering tonight’s game at Northwestern was a road defeat at Xavier. It was the Bulldogs’ second game of the season, and their only true road test. It was hard to know what to make of that result, mostly because Xavier itself remained something of a mystery. But over the next four weeks, as Butler notched impressive victories over Marquette and North Carolina at the Maui Invitational, and handled three consecutive home tune-ups against Hanover, Ball State and IUPUI, the perception lingered – however faint – that Butler needed to prove itself in a hostile road environment before drawing a long-term prospectus about the Bulldogs’ chances of competing in the new and improved Atlantic 10.

The Bulldogs dominated the paint against Northwestern, with Smith leading the charge en route to his best performance of the season (Photo credit: AP Photo).

Those doubts all but evaporated at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. Butler showed the poise, savvy and steadfast discipline that’s come to define Brad Stevens’ recent wave of national success. More importantly, it flashed newfound strength on the low block, a physical disadvantage that’s limited Butler in recent seasons against athletically superior teams. Senior center Andrew Smith had scored the ball at an efficient rate through the early part of the season, posting a 114.0 offensive rating and a 55.1% effective field goal percentage, but his usage rate (19.6 percent of available possessions) ranked behind two teammates and his main priorities typically hinged on defense and rebounding. Smith proved Saturday night he’s more than capable of carrying the load offensively. “I thought he played his best game of the year,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said following the Bulldogs’ 74-65 victory in at Welsh-Ryan Arena. “We needed every bit of it.”

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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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