NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Edition

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 17th, 2019

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State looks to carry its momentum into the Dance. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
  • Michigan State, #2 seed, East Region. Michigan State backed up its regular season conference co-title by beating Michigan on Sunday en route to the Big Ten Tournament title. It was the Spartans’ third win over the Wolverines in three weeks, giving them more Quadrant 1 wins than any team in America. Their reward? A potential date with #1 overall seed Duke in the Elite Eight. Of course, Tom Izzo’s club will have to get there first, which is easier said than done. Assuming it gets past #15 Bradley (and it’s never safe to assume), Michigan State would play either Louisville — a team it lost to in November — or Big Ten foe Minnesota in the Round of 32. Still, the Spartans are superior to both teams and should reach Washington, DC. Once there, a win over #3 LSU or #6 Maryland (or Cinderella) would set up a highly-anticipated matchup with the Blue Devils. With Cassius Winston at the helm and forward Nick Ward back in the lineup, Michigan State has enough depth and physicality to hang with the Blue Devils for 40 minutes. Whether it’s enough to beat a trio of top-5 NBA Draft picks remains to be seen.
  • Michigan, #2 seed, West Region. The Wolverines hung on to a #2 seed despite dropping five of their last 13 games, setting up a rematch with Montana, which they played in the First Round as well just last March. Like that contest, Michigan’s elite defense should have no problem shutting down the sharp-shooting Grizzlies. A Second Round date with #7 Nevada or #10 Florida — both inconsistent down the stretch — also poses little danger to last season’s National Runner-Up. A trip to Anaheim, however, would be a different story. Assuming #3 Texas Tech avoids another bizarre upset, Michigan would likely face the Red Raiders in a Sweet Sixteen matchup between the nation’s two stingiest defenses. Are the Wolverines capable of winning that game and knocking off #1 seed Gonzaga for another trip to the Final Four? Absolutely. But their up-and-down offense will have to start scoring more consistently for that to happen.
  • Wisconsin, #5 seed, South Region. What are we to make of the Badgers? Always beloved by advanced metrics, Wisconsin finished the season ranked #12 overall in KenPom thanks to a rock-solid defense that led the Big Ten in efficiency during conference play. Not to mention Ethan Happ (17.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.6 APG), who ranked among the league’s best in nearly every statistical category known to man. One category not worthy of praise, of course, is free throw shooting (46.5% FT), which has proved to be Happ’s — and perhaps the team’s — kryptonite this season. That could be an issue against a red-hot Oregon team that has size, length, and fouls at a high rate. The #12 Ducks are good enough to beat Wisconsin and may well do so if they grab an early lead. If the Badgers can control the game flow, though, wins against both Oregon and an equally methodical, defensive-minded Kansas State team in the Round of 32 are also within the realm of possibility. For a team with only one consistent offensive threat, a fourth Sweet Sixteen berth in five seasons is probably Wisconsin’s ceiling.
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Rushed Reactions: Big Ten Semifinal Saturday

Posted by Walker Carey on March 16th, 2019

While Minnesota‘s upset victory over Purdue on Friday night prevented the Big Ten’s top four seeds from all advancing to the conference tournament semifinals, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin making it through to Saturday encapsulated how much of the conference season was dominated by the league’s top teams. The league will still likely send at least six teams to the NCAA Tournament — depending on your feelings about bubble teams Ohio State and Indiana — but this weekend’s action further illustrated that the class of the league possesses the necessary firepower necessary to make a significant run in the main bracket. Tomorrow’s Michigan State vs. Michigan final will crown a Big Ten Tournament champion, but it will also give the national audience a glimpse at two of the few Big Ten teams that can make some noise when NCAA Tournament play commences. Here are some of the key takeaways from Saturday afternoon’s action in Chicago.

Michigan State Advances to the Big Ten Tournament Final Where It Will Face Rival Michigan (USA Today Images)
  1. Cassius Winston is Michigan State’s star, but the Spartans need their role players to continue their strong play. The Big Ten Player of the Year turned in another star effort on Saturday afternoon, finishing the semifinal game with 21 points and six assists. While Winston’s heroics are mostly expected at this point, it has been the emergence of Michigan State’s role players that has been an important component in the team winning nine of its last 10. That was on full display in today’s win over Wisconsin. Veteran forwards Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman were outstanding against the Badgers, combining for 30 points and 19 rebounds while providing the Spartans with stout defense in the post. Freshman swingman Aaron Henry also turned in a noteworthy performance, as he continued to make strides in his all-around game by collecting 11 rebounds. For the Spartans to get to Minneapolis, they are going to need the team’s complementary players to continue to turn in impressive efforts — Winston is a terrific player, but he cannot take Michigan State to the Final Four on his own. The role players Tom Izzo has developed seem capable of making sure Winston has the necessary help to put together a deep run.
  2. Wisconsin’s plodding offense could be its downfall. Throughout most of Wisconsin’s 20+ years of sustained success, the Badgers have been synonymous with a low-tempo offensive attack that limits possessions and aims to take as many high percentage shots as possible. That strategy has served Wisconsin very well in the past, but Saturday’s loss to Michigan State showed this Badgers team may have to make a few tweaks if they want to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans ran out to a 15-4 lead to begin the game and Wisconsin’s lack of offensive prowess made that early deficit nearly impossible to overcome. The Badgers finished the game shooting just 35.3 percent from the field and a ghastly 10.5 percent from the three-point line. Starters D’Mitrik Trice, Brad Davison, and Nate Reuvers combined to shoot just 5-of-26 from the field and their inability to get anything going resulted in Michigan State putting more of an emphasis on containing standout forward Ethan Happ in the post. Greg Gard will need to scheme a plan to get his offense back in rhythm or there will likely be a repeat of the Michigan State loss awaiting the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament.
  3. Postseason Michigan is back and looks to be dangerous as ever. John Beliein‘s program went a combined 15-2 in the 2017 and 2018 postseason — the Wolverines are the two-time defending Big Ten Tournament champions, and they went to the Sweet Sixteen and National Championship game in successive seasons. If this week’s results are any indication, Michigan seems bound for another successful postseason run. After a convincing win over Iowa in Friday’s quarterfinal, the Wolverines destroyed Minnesota in Saturday’s semifinal. Like in most of its victories this season, Michigan was led Saturday by junior floor general Zavier Simpson, who contributed 15 points and nine assists to the dominant effort. Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers came off the bench and poured in a career-high 21 points on an 8-of-10 shooting performance. The Wolverines entered the game second in the country in defensive efficiency and their suffocating effort on that end of the floor set the tone in the first half which allowed Michigan to go into halftime with an insurmountable 38-19 lead.
  4. Tomorrow’s Michigan State vs. Michigan championship game should be a dandy. Sunday’s title game will be the third time the Spartans and Wolverines will meet on the hardwood this season. Michigan State won the first two match-ups against its intrastate rival by using strong second half charges to emerge victorious. Tom Izzo and John Beliein are two of college basketball’s most talented tacticians and respected leaders. Cassius Winston and Zavier Simpson are two of the country’s most valuable point guards. If you are a college basketball fan, you will be well served to catch Sunday afternoon’s battle for the Big Ten Tournament title.

Quotable.

  • “Kenny (Goins) has probably been the guy that has changed our team throughout the last two and a half months. He is one of our best defenders. He is our best rebounder. He is maybe our best-conditioned guy, and he has really figured out how to shoot the ball and does it with high percentage.” – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, commenting on the emergence of senior forward Kenny Goins.
  • “They obviously came out and they were knocking down almost every shot. They were hitting every three, getting to the rim, and things like that. I think we just have to start faster with a different mindset, especially on the defensive end.” – Wisconsin guard D’Mitrik Trice, acknowledging how Michigan State’s quick start ultimately sealed his team’s fate.
  • “I am going to throw it in the green river.” – Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, describing what he is going to do with the game tape from his team’s blowout loss.
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2018-19 RTC16: Week Seven

Posted by Walker Carey on January 7th, 2019

Winning conference road games is difficult — it always has been and always will be. #8 Kansas and #11 Nevada were reintroduced to that notion on Saturday, with both top-10 teams falling hard in hostile road environments. The Jayhawks’ loss at Hilton Coliseum to a strong #15 Iowa State squad was not necessarily surprising — the Cyclones closed as a two-point favorite — but it was the way in which Bill Self‘s group faltered that raised some eyebrows around the country. Kansas finished the 77-60 defeat with an astounding 24 turnovers while also hitting just six of their 20 three-point attempts, while usual standout performers Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson combined for just 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting. The weekend went from bad to worse for Kansas on Sunday when Self announced that big man Udoka Azubuike — who was sidelined in Saturday’s loss — will miss the remainder of the season with a hand injury. Nevada’s loss was more unexpected, as the Wolf Pack dropped an 85-58 laugher to a New Mexico team that entered the contest with a paltry 7-6 record. Eric Musselman‘s team suffered through an uncharacteristically poor offensive outing — shooting just 33 percent from the field — and it let a 12-point halftime deficit balloon to the final margin with a no-show second half. Standout forward Caleb Martin had a particularly brutal evening, finishing with just eight points on 2-of-14 shooting. It was a rough weekend for these two teams, but knowing college basketball, a majority of the other top squads will also stumble on the road at some point over the balance of the season. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Big Ten Wrap-Up: Lasting Impressions and an Early Top Five

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 6th, 2018

Has Donte DiVincenzo stop hitting shots yet? Okay, good. Now that Monday is behind us, let’s take a moment to reflect on the season that was and look ahead to 2018-19.

Michigan had another year to remember. (PHOTO BY AP/DAVID J. PHILLIP)

  • Michigan is an elite basketball program. Before John Beilein took over in Ann Arbor in 2007, Michigan hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1998, a nine-year drought that made the historically great football school seem like just that — a football school. But that’s changed. Since the drought ended in 2009, Beilein has led the Wolverines to eight NCAA Tournaments, including finishes in the Sweet Sixteen (2017), Elite Eight (2016), and twice in the National Championship game (2013, 2018). After years of mediocrity, Michigan basketball now represents offensive efficiency, outstanding player development and clutch play in March. This season, Beilein — always considered an offensive mastermind — took an unproven collection of talent and won big with his defense, suggesting that the 65-year old coach is still evolving both as a tactician (he recently moved away from the 1-3-1 zone) and manager: His hiring of Illinois State assistant Luke Yaklich as “defensive coordinator” was crucial to the Wolverines’ run. With a decade of excellence under its belt and plenty of talent returning next season, Michigan has firmly established itself among the Big Ten’s elite programs.
  • This season will forever sting for Michigan State and Purdue fans. Michigan State went 30-5 and won the outright regular season Big Ten championship. Purdue finished at 30-7, at one point winning 19 straight games. And yet, this season will probably leave a bad taste in both programs’ mouths for some time. For the Spartans, 2017-18 was a Final-Four-or-bust kind of year, with the return of Miles Bridges alongside future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson ostensibly giving Tom Izzo his best chance at a National Championship from a talent perspective since 2000. Instead, a season of offensive inconsistency led to an offensively-inept loss to Syracuse in the Round of 32. For the Boilermakers, bad luck prevailed when 7’2″ center Isaac Haas fractured his elbow in the First Round against Cal State Fullerton, his absence proving too much for Purdue to overcome against Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. On paper, both seasons appear successful. In actuality, postseason disappointment will likely overshadow their 60 combined wins.

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Rushed Reactions: #11 Syracuse 55, #3 Michigan State 53

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 18th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Syracuse was all smiles after pulling off the upset. (Paul Sancya | The Associated Press)

  1. Syracuse mucked this game up to perfection. In order for Syracuse to win this game, it was going to have to slow down the pace, force Michigan State to run its half-court sets, and hope the Spartans missed shots from behind the arc. And that’s exactly what happened. The Big Ten champs were completely flummoxed by Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, unable to exploit gaps inside and unconfident from the perimeter. Were it not for a few difficult made threes immediately before and after halftime, in fact, Michigan State’s final box score would have looked even uglier — which is remarkable when you consider that the Spartans finished 8-of-37 from three-point range. Despite getting hammered on the glass, Syracuse’s length inside was too much for big men like Nick Ward (10 points) and Jaren Jackson (two points). Even when Michigan State began passing out of the high post with Ben Carter — its best interior passer — the team’s go-to shooters like Josh Langford simply couldn’t hit. Afterward, Tom Izzo put it simply: “I thought we’d have a little easier time getting it in the middle.”
  2. Michigan State’s offense was atrocious. And it’s not a complete surprise. Michigan State boasted the ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball entering Sunday, largely the product of excellent outside shooting and a great running game. But there were times this season — Michigan, Rutgers, and others — in which the Spartans looked rhythmless and inept in the half-court. That issue reared its ugly head again on Sunday. Against an opponent built to slow teams down, Michigan State wasted far too much shot clock dribbling and handing-off instead of running clear offensive sets. When the pick-and-roll didn’t work — and it generally did not — Cassius Winston (4-of-12) and the Spartan guards were apt to either force a bad shot or hope Miles Bridges (4-of-18) could make something out of nothing. Following Michigan State’s home loss to Michigan on January 13 — a game in which it struggled mightily from the field — Izzo noted, “we have to do some soul-searching.” If Sunday’s performance was any indication, it’s clear that the Spartans never found their soul — at least not offensively.
  3. Jim Boeheim’s system works, no matter what you feel about it. There’s been plenty of chatter this weekend about whether Tony Bennett’s ‘system’ will ever result in March success for Virginia. Meanwhile, Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense — very much a system in its own right — has enabled the offensively-limited Orange to make yet another deep run. For the second time in three seasons, Syracuse is finding the perfect level of cohesion at exactly the right time with an extremely shallow roster (351st nationally in bench minutes). How? Opponents facing Boeheim’s team for the first time simply don’t know how to breach that zone, especially with Syracuse’s length all over the court. The 73-year-old’s success should give those doubting Bennett a moment of pause.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Michigan State 82, #14 Bucknell 78

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2018

RTC will be providing coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish. Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) is in Detroit this weekend. 

Three Key Takeaways.

Miles Bridges was high NBA-caliber Friday evening in the Spartans’ tournament opener. (Raj Mehta/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Miles Bridges took over down the stretch. After a back-and-forth first half that ended with Michigan State up just four, the All-American and future lottery pick asserted himself when Michigan State needed him most. In a three-minute period midway through the second half, Bridges ripped off 10 straight points, including a monstrous tip-slam over Bucknell center Nana Foulland. The sophomore finished with 29 points in all — 19 in the second half alone — in the type of performance Spartan country envisioned he would upon announcing his return last summer. Everything from Bridges’ talent to his assertiveness has been questioned by someone at some point this season, deserved or not. But on Friday, there was no questioning his excellence, and no denying that Michigan State is scary when he plays this well.
  2. Zach Thomas’s effort shouldn’t be forgotten. The Patriot League Player of the Year was awesome on Friday night (27 points), despite fouling out on a technical foul with six minutes remaining and despite playing with cotton swabs in his nose. The 6’7″ senior scored 20 points in the first half alone, drilling cold-blooded three-pointers and taking advantage of mismatches when Tom Izzo sat his best bigs. In a world where one-and-done players often rule the conversation, it’s great to see talented. little-known  four-year players put on a show against top-notch competition. “There wasn’t much of one. I mean, we didn’t defend him,” Izzo said of his team’s game plan for Thomas.
  3. Jaren Jackson needs to stay out of foul trouble. While discussing Zach Thomas’s skillset after the game, Bucknell coach Nathan Davis made a point of saying that the senior could post-up anyone on the floor “except maybe Jaren Jackson.” The rest of his statement had nothing to do with Jackson, but that comment spoke volumes — there simply aren’t many players in college basketball with Jackson’s length and defensive ability. And that’s why the freshman can’t afford to find himself in foul trouble like he did on Friday, or like he did in Michigan State’s two Big Ten Tournament games. Jackson, who has a 7’4″ wingspan, is an elite rim-protector capable of defending multiple positions; when he is on the floor, opponents becomes far more one-dimensional. And that’s not even taking into account his offensive versatility. Though the Spartans were able to overcome his absence against Bucknell, they might not be so lucky against better, bigger opponents in future rounds.

Star of the Game. Miles Bridges, Michigan State. The super-sophomore had one of his best performances of the season on Friday, finishing with 29 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes of action. Izzo spoke after the game — as he has before — of always wanting Bridges to be more aggressive. If he he keeps playing like this, Michigan State will go very deep into March. Read the rest of this entry »

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: Big Ten Teams

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 11th, 2018

Below is a review of how the selection process concluded for each Big Ten team and what they should expect in the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Can Michigan stay red-hot in the Big Dance? (SI.com)

  • Purdue, #2 seed, East Region. Fatigue played a role in Purdue’s late-season slide, which makes its first-round draw — a Friday match-up against Cal-State Fullerton — especially beneficial. While the Titans are the most aggressive squad in the country, scoring nearly 25 percent of their points at the free throw line, no team in the NCAA Tournament surrenders fewer points at the charity stripe than the Boilermakers. Isaac Haas and the rest of his front line should have no problem limiting Fullerton’s paint production. A potential second-round game with Arkansas could be a different story. The Razorbacks play an uptempo brand of basketball and have the size up front — 6’11” freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 PPG, 2.1 BPG), in particular — to compete. Still, whether it winds up being Arkansas or Butler, expect Purdue to reach the East Regional in Boston.
  • Michigan State, #3 seed, Midwest Region. Despite a 29-4 record and regular season Big Ten title, Michigan State fell to the #3 line because of its dearth of Quadrant 1 wins. As a consolation prize, the Spartans get to play in Detroit, where they’ll take on Patriot League champion Bucknell. The Bison are a balanced, cohesive group that nearly upset #4 West Virginia in last year’s Dance. They also have size up front (namely 6’10” all-league center Nana Foulland) and considerable depth. Michigan State’s size and talent should ultimately overwhelm the Bison, but a harder-than-expected match-up could make the Spartans’ Second Round game a bit more interesting. Arizona State and TCU are two of the best offensive units in the country, while Syracuse boasts the tallest lineup in college hoops.

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Rutgers’ Garden Party to Michigan’s Run: Big Ten Tournament Postmortem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 7th, 2018

Now that we’ve had a few days to digest what happened in Madison Square Garden last weekend, let’s examine some of the biggest surprises and takeaways from the early Big Ten Tournament.

Michigan dominated the Competition in Madison Square Garden. (Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Michigan established itself as a legitimate national threat. We knew Michigan was playing its best basketball of the season entering postseason play, and we knew it would probably make some noise last week in Manhattan. What we did not foresee was the Wolverines establishing themselves as a serious Final Four threat en route to a second straight conference title. After escaping Iowa in the second round, Michigan put together three of the most complete performances any Big Ten team has displayed this season. The Wolverines hammered bubble-dwelling Nebraska by 19 points. They beat Michigan State by double-figures for the second time in a row. They limited Purdue’s explosive perimeter game to just 4-of-17 three-point shooting. In all, Michigan’s defense — which now ranks sixth nationally in efficiency — held opponents to just 0.96 points per possession over the four-day run, which is remarkable considering that two of those offenses ranked among the nation’s top 10. The Wolverines’ offense, led by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15.0 PPG), executed John Beilein’s low-turnover, pick-and-pop offense to perfection. With its most balance in years and a profile good enough to now warrant a #3 seed, Michigan should no longer be viewed as a Big Ten “other”; the Wolverines are as much a Final Four contender as the Boilermakers and Spartans.

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The Big Ten Tournament’s Most Burning Questions

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 28th, 2018

It’s not even March yet and here we are, Day One of the Big Ten Tournament. It’s a strange feeling. Perhaps the only stranger feeling will be watching these predominantly Midwestern schools battle it out in Madison Square Garden, the venue where Willis Reed was immortalized and Frazier beat Ali and no Big Ten school outside of Rutgers sits within easy driving distance. Jim Delaney be damned, let’s examine the most important questions to be answered this week in Manhattan.

Crazy as it sounds, the Big Ten Tournament is in the Big Apple. (scarletknights.com)

  • Can Nebraska do enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid? After losing to Illinois on February 18, Nebraska took care of business by beating Indiana and hammering Penn State on Sunday in a veritable NCAA Tournament elimination game. Which is to say, the Cornhuskers — currently among Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out — still have life. Yet, with a 1-5 record against Quadrant 1 opponents and a 2-3 record against Quadrant 2, they will probably need to beat at least one NCAA Tournament-bound opponent this week in order to have a legitimate case come Selection Sunday. Luckily, Tim Miles’ group should get that opportunity on Friday against Michigan — the lone Quadrant 1 opponent they managed to beat this season. Another win over the Wolverines will give the Huskers an argument; a victory over Michigan State in the semifinals would probably make them a lock. Key number: 29.7% 3FG. Nebraska did a masterful job taking away the three-point line this season, holding opponents to a Big Ten-best 29.7 percent mark from behind the arc — among the best of any power conference team in America.

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What We Learned From a Wild Week in the Big Ten

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2018

From massive upsets to historic comebacks and some ridiculous individual performances in-between, it was one heck of a week in the Big Ten. Let’s examine a few key takeaways.

Purdue should be just fine, assuming Vincent Edwards returns to action. (John Terhune/Journal & Courier)

  • Purdue fans need not panic (unless, of course, Vincent Edwards’ injury lingers). Entering its game against Ohio State on February 7, Purdue had won 19 straight, sat undefeated in the Big Ten (12-0), and looked seemingly unbeatable — especially in Mackey Arena, where it had crushed its opponents by 27 points per game. Then the Boilermakers stumbled against the Buckeyes. Then they dropped a nail-biter at Michigan State, which was followed by a stunning defeat at Wisconsin on Thursday. Suddenly, there were deep concerns about Matt Painter‘s crew. “Something just feels different,” senior Vincent Edwards said of the team’s struggles last Thursday. Take a step back and examine the losses, though, and it’s clear that bad luck was partially at play. Were it not for a last second tip-in against Ohio State and a last second three-pointer versus Michigan State, perhaps the Boilermakers would have gone 3-1 in their last four games. Maybe even 4-0. Their close win over red-hot Penn State on Sunday shows just how fine the line is between a quality win and a “problematic” loss. If there is real cause for concern, it’s this: Edwards (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) missed the game against the Nittany Lions with an injured ankle. Assuming he doesn’t miss extended time down the stretch, Purdue should still be considered a Final Four contender. If his injury lingers, then the Boilers can panic.

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