The Drive for Five: What Lies Ahead for the Big Ten Bubble Dwellers

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 2nd, 2018

The Big Ten has put at least five teams in the NCAA Tournament in every season since 2008, four years before the league expanded to 12 schools and seven years before it expanded to 14. In fact, you’d have to go back to the pre-Rutgers era (2013-14) to reach the last time the conference sent fewer than seven teams to the Big Dance. That will almost certainly change this season. According to Bracket Matrix, only three of 68 recently-updated bracket projections have more than four Big Ten schools in the NCAA Tournament. The fact is, outside of Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, the league’s bubble hopefuls still have considerable work to do before earning serious consideration. With February now upon us, let’s examine which teams still have a shot and what they’ll need to do in order to punch a ticket.

It’s been all smiles for Nebraska lately. But will the Huskers go dancing? (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Nebraska (17-8, 8-4) RPI: 57 | KenPom: 56. Nebraska turned a nine-point second-half deficit at Wisconsin on Monday into a runaway 11-point win, the type of season-saving — perhaps season-defining — win its fans won’t soon forget. The Huskers have no RPI sub-150 losses to their name, but also don’t have much to speak of in the “good win” category. Outside of its home win over Michigan, Nebraska is winless against the RPI top 50. With four of their final six games at home — including contests against fellow NCAA Tournament hopefuls Maryland and Penn State — the Huskers will probably need to hold court and avoid a road loss at Illinois on February 18. Even then, at least one quality Big Ten Tournament win (think Michigan or Ohio State) might be necessary for Tim Miles’ group to feel good heading into Selection Sunday. Considering how well James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland have played in recent weeks, that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

  • RPI Top 50 Wins: vs. Michigan
  • RPI Sub 150 Losses: None
  • Opportunities Left: vs. Maryland (February 13); vs. Penn State (February 25)

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Five Key Questions as Big Ten Play Begins (In Earnest)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2018

With the New Year upon us and conference play picking up for good this evening, let’s consider a few of the most burning questions that could dictate how the Big Ten plays out.

  • Will Bryant McIntosh return in time for Northwestern to preserve its season? Northwestern dodged a bullet when it announced on Sunday that Bryant McIntosh, who went down with an injury against Brown over the weekend, suffered no structural damage to his knee. The initial situation looked much worse. Still, the all-league point guard is listed as day-to-day, with the expectation being that he will miss some time. Perhaps no player on the Wildcats’ roster is as important as McIntosh, who serves as the catalyst for Chris Collins’ pick-and-roll offense. Not only does he lead the team in assists (5.5 APG) and rank third in scoring (13.3 PPG), no one else on the roster possesses his ability to create off the dribble and break down defenders. If he’s sidelined for even a few games, it could spell trouble for a team already lacking in quality wins. While backup guards Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash looked solid on Saturday, upcoming contests against Penn State (Friday) and Minnesota (January 10) will present an entirely new challenge.

Will Bryant McIntosh suffer any lasting effects from his knee scare? (FOX Sports)

  • Does Maryland have enough depth to overcome key frontcourt injuries? Maryland suffered an enormous blow last Thursday when it announced that forward Justin Jackson, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, will miss the rest of the season with a torn labrum. “It is tough, because we set up a lot of our offense for Justin. A lot of things were playing through him,” head coach Mark Turgeon told the Baltimore Sun. As if losing its best two-way player weren’t bad enough, the Terrapins took another lump on Friday when junior Ivan Bender — expected to help fill the void left by Jackson — tore his meniscus against UMBC. The good news is that Maryland is especially deep in the frontcourt, with Jared Nickens (5.4 PPG), Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi (Duke transfer) all capable of stepping in for Jackson and Bender (in addition to centers Michal Cekovsky and Bruno Fernandez (10.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG), one of the league’s best freshmen). The bad news is that Jackson, widely considered a first-round NBA Draft prospect, will be awfully hard to replace. Small forward Kevin Huerter (14.1 PPG) pointed out that Jackson “allowed us to play a lot of different ways. Some of our best lineups were with him at the four [power forward], where he could take advantage of mismatch problems.” The extent to which Nickens and the others can pick up Jackson’s slack will determine whether Maryland can compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.

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Big Ten Christmas Wish List: Buckets, Defense & a Little Good Fortune

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on December 21st, 2017

As Santa’s elves wrap presents and non-conference play comes to an end, let’s examine which Big Ten hopefuls could use a little magic from the jolly man in the big red suit.

The defensively-stout Scarlet Knights need guys like Geo Baker to make more shots. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Rutgers (10-3): All I want for Christmas is… a shooter (or two). The Scarlet Knights picked up their biggest win in years on Saturday, upsetting intrastate rival Seton Hall, 71-65, at the RAC. Steve Pikiell called it “a very good day for Rutgers Nation” as his team held the Pirates to just 0.89 points per possession, their worst offensive performance of the year. Now if only Pikeill’s group could put the ball in the basket. While the Scarlet Knights rank 27th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, their offense is by far the Big Ten’s worst, ranking 219th in efficiency despite a low turnover rate. The problem? Shooting, plain and simple. Rutgers ranks 334th in effective field goal percentage (44% eFG), including paltry numbers from outside the arc (29.4% 3FG), inside the arc (44% 2FG), and at the free throw line (65% FT). More than anything else this holiday season, Pikiell could use some consistent shooting, whether it be from top-scorer Corey Sanders — who shot a very good 9-of-16 FG against Seton Hall — or fellow guard Geo Baker, who’s quietly been one of the league’s best freshmen. If the Scarlet Knights can improve those shooting numbers, their days in the Big Ten cellar might soon be over. Especially considering their stout defense. 

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Big Ten Preview Part I: Key Questions for Rutgers and Nebraska

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 27th, 2017

With the season just a few weeks away, Rush the Court’s Big Ten preview will tip off its coverage by posting a season-defining key question for each team. This week, we start at the bottom.

#14 Rutgers – Will the Scarlet Knights score enough to climb out of the cellar?

Can Steve Pikiell lift Rutgers out of last place? (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

In Steve Pikiell’s first year, Rutgers doubled its overall win total, won its first-ever Big Ten Tournament game, and climbed nearly 150 spots in the KenPom ratingsOf course, the Scarlet Knights still finished dead-last in the league for the third year in a row, stymied by three-point, two-point, and free throw shooting percentages that ranked among the worst 25 teams nationally. The good news for Pikiell is that significant incoming talent — headlined by four-star power forward Mamadou Doucoure and three-star combo guard Geo Baker — should help diversify Rutgers’ scoring potential. Doucoure, who joins the 2017 class after reclassifying in August, adds needed size to the Scarlet Knights’ frontcourt and should take defensive pressure off senior Deshawn Freeman, who’s proven to be a capable scorer in addition to his rebounding prowess (7.8 RPG). Baker — by all accounts an adept passer and playmaker — adds sorely-needed perimeter shooting and offensive versatility. He should help fill the shoes of Nigel Johnson, a departing graduate transfer who was the team’s best three-point shooter a season ago (36% 3FG). Equally important will be the addition of JuCo transfer Souf Mensah, whose presence at point guard should help leading scorer Corey Sanders (12.8 PPG) play off the ball more regularly and, presumably, score at a more efficient clip. Like Pikiell’s best teams at Stony Brook, Rutgers’ improvement was defined by hard-nosed defense and rebounding last season. Coupling that identity with a more capable offensive attack would make the Scarlet Knights far more competitive in 2017-18.

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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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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 7th, 2017

Chaos has been a commonality throughout this Big Ten season and it was on full display Saturday afternoon when all four road teams won games in opposing venues. Purdue earned possibly its biggest win of the season by coming back from a double-figure deficit in the second half to knock off Maryland. Rutgers won its first conference road game of the year by besting Penn State in Happy Valley. Fading Minnesota picked up a much needed road win at Illinois. Finally, Ohio State won a battle of two teams that have become increasingly difficult to figure out by beating Michigan in Ann Arbor. Things normalized a bit on Sunday with Wisconsin taking sole possession of first place in defeating Indiana at home, while Iowa likewise held serve in its own gym against Nebraska. There are now only four weekends left in the regular season, so look for more surprises as the pressure intensifies and the calendar flips to March. Here’s the best and worst of the Big Ten from the first weekend of February.

Corey Sanders led Rutgers to its second conference win in scoring 25 points as they knocked off Penn State (USA Today Images)

  • Player of the Weekend: Corey Sanders started off the 2016-17 campaign by figuring out how to adequately co-exist with Kansas State transfer Nigel Johnson in the Rutgers backcourt. Things have improved for the sophomore in recent weeks, however, as the dynamic point guard has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 games. He’s taken over primary ball-handling duties, which has led to a more effective Rutgers offense. Sanders was dominant on Saturday, scoring 25 points and making 4-of-5 threes in leading Rutgers to its first ever Big Ten road victory. He also notched six rebounds, four assists and three steals. The Scarlet Knights are hoping that they can ride his enhanced scoring to a handful more wins to close out the regular season.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: Iowa’s Nicholas Baer has drawn comparisons to Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ during a couple of Big Ten telecasts this season because he call fill up the stat sheet without providing the most beautiful of performances. The sophomore wing contributed seven points, six rebounds and three blocks against Nebraska on Sunday, cementing his status as Iowa’s second best player, regardless of whether he he starts or comes off the Hawkeyes’ bench.

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Three Biggest Surprises & Disappointments in the Big Ten

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 3rd, 2017

Each and every season people like myself who cover college basketball make predictions as to how the season will go. Each and every season people like myself are wrong. What follows are three of the biggest surprises and disappointments in the Big Ten so far this season. Whether they will hold true over the next two months is anybody’s guess.

Three Surprises

  1. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: That the Purdue sophomore is having a massive impact this season isn’t the surprise — the surprise, rather, is in the level of dominance he has displayed 14 games into the season. Swanigan is averaging 18.5 PPG, 13.0 RPG and 2.9 APG in high-possession usage, while shooting 41 percent from the three-point line, 59 percent inside the arc and converting 77 percent of his free throws. He has already notched four 20/20 games in points and rebounds, including a few flirtations with a triple-double. Swanigan made the preseason All-Big Ten team with good reason after a freshman campaign where he led the conference in rebounds, but his play to this point makes him the early frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year.

    Caleb Swanigan has played like a potential All-American so far this season. . (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

    Caleb Swanigan has played like a potential All-American so far this season. . (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

  2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights were 44-84 over the last four seasons and that’s why little was expected of them despite adding a new coach (Steve Pikiell) and some impact newcomers this year. An 11-2 non-conference record has ceded to an 0-2 start in the Big Ten (losses at Wisconsin and vs. Penn State), but Rutgers should be commended on the defensive end for protecting the rim (ranking among the nation’s best 25 teams in two-point field goal percentage defense and block percentage). Someone on this microsite mentioned that the Scarlet Knights’ goal this season should be to win 10 games and a 15-win season seems reasonable on this trajectory. In a position that requires a certain kind of coach, Pikiell appears to be the right person to eventually turn this program around. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Conference Preview: Rutgers, Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State, Northwestern

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 10th, 2016

The ballots have been revealed and the results have been tabulated. Unlike another round of voting that took place this week, there isn’t as much shock value in seeing these results. We at the Big Ten microsite have voted and determined how the league will shake out this season. The first of three segments lists our bottom five teams.

14. Rutgers: There’s a new coach and correspondingly new enthusiasm at Rutgers. Eddie Jordan is gone and former Stony Brook head coach Steve Pickiell has taken over. There’s still some talent on this roster, with sophomore lead guard Corey Sanders returning along with Mike Williams on the wing. The Scarlet Knights’ biggest issue is that they need to shoot the ball much better all over the floor, ranking 282nd on three-point percentage and 311th on two-point field goals last season. Things weren’t much better defensively, but they added some size and versatility with graduate transfer CJ Gettys and the return of Deshawn Freeman. Pickiell has a great reputation for development, but this won’t be a quick rebuild in the Garden State.

Best Case Scenario: Double-figure wins

Corey Sanders is the leading returning scorer for Rutgers. (Getty).

Corey Sanders is the leading returning scorer for Rutgers. (Getty)

13. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers actually improved by three wins last season, but the program has still fallen sharply after making the NCAA Tournament in 2014. This team loses a second-team all-conference performer (Shavon Shields) as well as an honorable mention selection (Andrew White, transfer to Syracuse). They will replace some of that talent with Louisville transfer Anton Gill, but the majority of the roster aside from senior Tai Webster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Scoring is going to be a question mark for this team, but the defensive side doesn’t look much better (last year’s team dipped from 28th in defense efficiency in 2014-15 to 114th last season). It looks like another long season in Lincoln.

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Big Ten Key Offseason Questions: Part I

Posted by Patrick Engel on April 6th, 2016

The college basketball season concluded Monday night with Villanova as this year’s national champion, but the Big Ten’s season ended with North Carolina’s Sweet Sixteen trouncing of Indiana back on March 25. A lot has already happened among league teams in the interim, including a coaching hire at Rutgers and a great number of transfers. Over the next few days as we close out the 2015-16 season, we’ll review a key offseason question for each Big Ten team, starting at the bottom of the conference standings.

Rutgers (7-25, 1-17 Big Ten)

Among Steve Pickiell's many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

Among Steve Pickiell’s many tasks as Rutgers head coach will be to gain recruiting appeal in New York and New Jersey (Photo: Julio Cortez — The Associated Press).

How quickly can new head coach Steve Pickiell give Rutgers some local recruiting appeal?

Steve Pickiell, who led Stony Brook to the NCAA Tournament this season and won three America East regular season title in five years, is already a known name in the greater New York area. It’s no secret that New York/New Jersey has plenty of basketball talent, and Rutgers is located in the heart of the same recruiting territory. Pickiell didn’t waste any time in accomplishing what Eddie Jordan couldn’t in three years: earning a commitment from a New Jersey high school playerMatt Bullock from prep powerhouse Roselle Catholic will play for the Scarlet Knights next season.

Pickiell has already made a home run hire, luring away Karl Hobbs from Connecticut to become his new associate head coach. His staff would be wise to make offers to a number of the area’s best players in the classes of 2018 and 2019 right away. Rutgers needs to develop good working relationships and credibility with with the region’s top high school and AAU coaches, and getting the program’s name out there now is a key element to that strategy. The school’s local perception can drastically stand to improve, so if Pickiell can snag a couple of the area’s under-recruited but well-known players in the next class, it will pay dividends in future years. Bullock, while a recruit in this year’s senior class, is a good start who fits that description.

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