Big Ten M5: 12.02.13 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 2nd, 2013

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  1. Tom Izzo is not afraid to discipline his star players. Over the past few seasons, he benched Korie Lucious and eventually kicked him out of the team. He benched Kris Allen midway through the season and dealt with the consequences with the media. A few days ago, he benched Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Branden Dawson because they skipped classes during the finals week. Not starting the three stars did not affect the Spartans as they beat Mount Saint Mary’s 98-65 at home. When asked about the decision, Izzo said, “It’s not about missing a class or two. It’s about you get here to finals week and there’s certain things you’ve got to take care of. Unless you’re dead, you’ve got to get ‘em done.”
  2. Nik Stauskas may have the most scrutinized ankle in the Big Ten. He didn’t start against Coppin State over Thanksgiving weekend because he sprained his ankle against Charlotte. Stauskas did not play against Coppin State, but he wasn’t needed because freshman Zak Irvin chipped with 24 points as the Wolverines won the game. John Beilein is unsure about Stauskas’ status for the game against Duke, which is part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. “I don’t know,” Beilein said. He added, “Until he’s practicing 100 percent, he won’t go in there. He’s got to be pretty close to 100 percent to go in there.” Without Stauskas, it will be extremely difficult for the Wolverines to beat Jabari Parker’s Blue Devils in Cameron. Stauskas is averaging 20.3 PPG and has clearly been the best scoring option for Beilein so far this season.
  3. Illinois freshman, Jaylon Tate, was impressive against UNLV by dishing five assists during the game. Tate has surprised the fan base so far, but junior guard’s Tracy Abrams‘ toughness is still more important this season. After an impressive win over the Rebels on the road, the Illini struggled to beat Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 57-55 at home. Abrams was pivotal in leading Groce’s team to a win by scoring 15 points. Groce on Abrams: “This guy right here, without him we probably don’t get it done. He willed us. He had that look in his eyes.” Abrams doesn’t have a great jumper but he wills his way into the paint to bang against the big guys and get to the free throw line off the pick-and-roll play.
  4. Even though Ohio State is ranked in the top 10 in the country,  it is unclear who their best player is this season. We know Aaron Craft is a defensive forcem but he isn’t always reliable to put up points to lead his team against formidable competition. LaQuinton Ross is supposed to succeed Deshaun Thomas as the main offensive scorer this year, but he has averaged just 8 PPG so far this season. So the question remains: who is Ohio State’s “alpha dog”? Despite Ross’ slow start, he still remains the best option for Ohio State, otherwise, they will have a tough time scoring against tougher competition.
  5. Three weeks into the regular season, are we ready to say that Indiana is a contender in the Big Ten? Or are they still “rebuilding,” despite their excellent freshmen: Noah Vonleh and Troy Williams? USA Today interviewed head coach Tom Crean to get his view on this season. When asked about Vonleh, Crean responded, “I think he wants to be one of the best players in the country. He’s well-aware of what other guys are doing because he’s played against those guys.” Vonleh is an absolute beast on the boards (10.4 rebounds per game) and could average a double-double this season. With consistent three-point shooting, the Hoosiers have a legit shot to compete for a Big Ten title, or at least be competitive at home against the top teams from the conference.
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RTC Big Ten Preseason Rankings: #8 to #5

Posted by Jonathan Batuello on November 7th, 2013

With the basketball season set to tip off for some Big Ten teams tomorrow, the five of us at the Big Ten microsite took a poll to see how the 12 teams will finish this upcoming season. If you missed it, yesterday we previewed teams #12 to #9, and today we look at the teams we believe to be in the middle tier. These teams have a chance to finish higher if their freshmen play well and returnees develop, but these same question marks mean they could easily tumble lower too. Be sure to come back tomorrow to see the four teams we picked to land at the top of the conference. And feel free to debate, argue and discuss how much or how little we know what we’re talking about.

8. Illinois

John Groce

John Groce Starts His Second Season With Numerous Questions

  • What they do well: Let’s be honest, there are a lot of question marks with this team thanks to only five returnees. In Groce’s first season as head coach, though, the team took good care of the ball, averaging a turnover on only 14.7 percent of possessions. The new guards will need to continue this trend as Illinois was 25th in the country last year in this statistic.
  • What they don’t do well: Sharing the ball was a struggle for Illinois. It only averaged 10.1 assists per game last season, ranking 319th in the NCAA.
  • Get to know: Rayvonte Rice. The redshirt junior has been lighting it up for Illinois in the exhibition contests and could earn the starting spot at the shooting guard position. He appears to have drastically improved his outside shot and with five freshmen on this team, his play and leadership will be needed.
  • Why they’ll finish eighth: The team takes time to gel and the freshmen, while talented, aren’t quite ready to compete for a Big Ten championship. The loss of players like Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson are too much for the program to overcome.
  • Why they’ll finish higher: They get solid guard play from Tracy Abrams and Rice’s outside shot isn’t just strong in exhibitions. The youth is as talented as believed to be as it wins a lot of early games and has a confidence that carries into Big Ten play.

7. Purdue

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Can Tracy Abrams be the Point Guard John Groce Needs?

Posted by Alex Moscoso on October 23rd, 2013

Things went well for John Groce in his first year as Illinois’ head coach. The Illini started the season 12-0, won the Maui Invitational for the first time in school history, beat #1 ranked Indiana in thrilling fashion, won an NCAA Tournament game (only their second since 2006), nearly upset #2 seed Miami in the Round of 32, and received commitments from two Top 50 recruits this summer. Groce did an impressive job motivating his team. Consider that the Illini had a 2-7 record in conference play in the beginning of February and closed the regular season 7-4 to make the NCAA tournament. The long term looks good for the Illini too. Groce has secured a top 10 recruiting class and is waiting on an influx of transfers who are scheduled to play next year. But this year, the Illini are expected to take a step back, only returning three players who logged significant minutes from last year’s team. Of these three, junior guard Tracy Abrams, and particularly his ability to play the point more effectively, may be the biggest factor that determines whether the Illini go dancing in consecutive seasons.

Tracy Abrams will need to be more effective in his point guard duties this season for the Illini to get back to the tournament (Eric Gay/AP)

Tracy Abrams will need to be more effective in his point guard duties this season for the Illini to get back to the tournament (Eric Gay/AP)

Last year, Abrams shared ball-handling duties with now-graduated Brandon Paul, and was the Illini’s third leading scorer (10.6 PPG). But Abrams’ grind-it-out style isn’t what Groce would prefer to see in his point guard. The Illinois coach wants to play an up-tempo offense with a point guard who can make smart decisions at different speeds. Abrams, who averaged 3.4 assists per game last season, was second on the team in turnover percentage, averaging 19.4 turnovers for every 100 possessions. He also shot poorly from deep last season (27.2 percent), which hinders Groce’s designed system of opening up the floor. However, what Abrams lacks in natural point guard abilities, he makes up in competitiveness and moxie. He was voted MVP by his veteran teammates at the end of his freshman year because of the effort he displayed throughout the season, and he has shown an ability to step up his game in crucial moments. Last season, he scored 27 points in a win against Auburn when the rest of his team struggled, and he hit a three to seal a win at Minnesota in a pivotal conference game. Read the rest of this entry »

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Breaking Down Pac-12 Non-Conference Schedules: Oregon and Oregon State

Posted by Connor Pelton on October 9th, 2013

October is here, and that means we are just weeks away from real, live basketball games. In order to prepare you for the first two months of the season, we’re going to break down all 12 non-conference slates over the next couple of weeks. Up next; the Oregon schools.

Teams are listed in order of which they will be played. Last season’s RPI in parenthesis. Potential opponents (one round in advance) are italicized. All times listed are Pacific.

Oregon

Dana Altman's Oregon Team Is On The Rise, But They Have A Few Tests To Handle Before Pac-12 Play Begins In January. (credit: Alex Brandon)

Dana Altman’s Oregon Team Is On The Rise, But They Have A Few Tests To Handle Before Pac-12 Play Begins In January. (credit: Alex Brandon)

Cream of the Crop: vs Georgetown (11), vs Illinois (40)

Oregon has managed to get two high profile, neutral site games on its non-conference schedule. The Ducks will face Georgetown on opening night at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, in a game to be televised by ESPN. The Hoyas finished 2012-13 with a 25-7 record and notched six victories over Top 25 opponents. Of course, the last time we saw Georgetown, it was getting dunked all over by Florida Gulf Coast in an NCAA Tournament opener. Oregon’s second marquee opponent is Illinois, who they will meet in Portland on December 14 at 6:00 PM in a game also televised by the ESPN family of networks. It looked as if this would be a return game for former Oregon State point guard Ahmad Starksbut his transfer waiver was denied last week by the NCAA. The Fighting Illini are still loaded at guard, with both Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand returning.

Solid Names: San Francisco (167), Pacific (97), Cal Poly (164), @ Mississippi (48), UC Irvine (126), BYU (63)

Mississippi headlines the second group, and the Ducks and Rebels will meet December 8 in Oxford. The game will tipoff at 2:00 PM and be carried by ESPNU. Dynamite senior Marshall Henderson is back after leading Ole Miss with 20.1 PPG last year, and while the guard is currently suspended, he will likely be back by December. Outside of him, however, the Rebels are pretty thin, and a finish in the lower half of the SEC is likely. BYU presents a challenge for Oregon. The Ducks and Cougars will play December 21 in Eugene, and the team that won 24 games in the 2012-13 campaign is expected to compete with Gonzaga for the WCC title. Pacific is the only other team on Oregon’s non-conference slate with a double digit RPI.

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Big Ten M5: 03.04.13 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 4th, 2013

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  1. March is upon us and as teams wind down their regular season over the next week, they will also honor the senior classes during the last home game. Illinois seniors – D.J.Richardson, Brandon Paul, Sam McLaurin, Tyler Griffey – did not want to lose their last home to Nebraska, a team that they couldn’t afford to lose on Saturday. Fortunately for them, Tracy Abrams chipped in 16 points to lead the Illini to a 72-65 win over the Cornhuskers and the seniors were very emotional in Champaign. “I was under my shirt crying,’’ said guard Brandon Paul, who evidently shed a few tears after the grind-it-out victory. The Illini finish the regular season with two road games against Iowa and Ohio State; they could use one more win to lock in a good seed for the NCAA tournament.
  2. While the Illini seniors won their last home, the Badgers’ senior class were upset by the Boilermakers on Sunday. Matt Painter’s team stunned the Badgers by beating them 69-56 and dominated for most of the second half at the Kohl Center. Mike Breuesewitz, Ryan Evans, and Jared Bergren shot a combined 9-24 from the field in a loss that will be booked under the “bad” category by the selection committee on Selection Sunday. “They were just hitting tough shots. This game kind of reminded me of the Cornell game my freshman year,” Evans said, referring to the 2010 NCAA tournament game in which the Big Red shot 61.1 percent from the field and 53.6 percent from three in an 87-69 defeat of the Badgers.
  3. Senior guard Julian Welch (3.3 PPG and 1.6 APG) of the Gophers had a great performance on Saturday against Penn State by scoring 10 points and dishing out seven assists. Welch hasn’t seen much playing time during the season so far because Tubby Smith has used a tight rotation, but this performance could catapult his minutes over the next few weeks as they get ready for the postseason. “It’s just been hard for him to get into the lineup,” Smith said. “It’s always tough when you’re a senior and a junior college transfer and the expectations were to play a lot more. But he showed a lot of character in stepping up today. I’ve got a lot more confidence in him now.”
  4. Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes have had some issues offensively over the past two weeks and the first half against Indiana over the weekend was no different because they only scored 14 points. The Hoosiers led 26-14 at the halftime and pulled away to win 73-60 at home as they inch towards a Big Ten title. “I wouldn’t call it a freeze-up,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “It was a really good defensive effort by a good defensive team.” The Hawkeyes can’t afford to fall behind in the first half on Tuesday against the Illini because they could really use that game to make a case for the Selection Committe that they deserve a bid to the NCAA tournament.
  5. Speaking of the Hoosiers, freshman Yogi Ferrell scored a career-high 19 points and dished out five assists against the Hawkeyes. Senior guard Jordan Hulls has struggled against Iowa, shooting 0-17 during the two games this season, but Ferrell had a huge offensive game. After the game, head coach Tom Crean said,  “Tonight he went to the rim and didn’t try to get the contact. In the Minnesota game, he tried to get the contact, and he didn’t get either. Tonight he really focused on making the basket, and he did a much better job with that.” Ferrell hasn’t carried the offensive load this season but having a game like this one should help his confidence as the Hoosiers get ready to make a run at the Final Four and potential the national title.
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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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B1G Weekly Question: Which Player Needs To Step Up?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on December 13th, 2012

Every week the Big Ten Microsite writers – Deepak Jayanti, Joey Nowak and Kevin Trahan – will address a specific question about the conference. This week’s question: which player needs to step up his game to improve his team? 

Amir Williams (left) needs to be more consistent in the paint for the Buckeyes.

Amir Williams (left) needs to be more consistent in the paint for the Buckeyes.

  • Ohio State: Amir Williams - Sooner or later, teams are going to recognize that if they shut down Deshaun Thomas (observe Kansas in last year’s Final Four) the Buckeyes’ scoring ability wanes dramatically. Both Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross can both do more to share the scoring load, but the Buckeyes need production in the post from the sophomore Williams. He came to Ohio State as a highly-touted recruit and hasn’t blossomed in his time in Columbus thus far. He’s averaging just under 16 minutes a game this year, but scoring fewer than 4 PPG isn’t going to do enough to keep opponents’ big men honest.
  • Indiana: Maurice Creek - There isn’t really anybody on Indiana’s team that needs to be doing much better than they are right now, but if we’re picking someone who could potentially give the Hoosiers a little more, it would be Maurice Creek. Creek sat our last year due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, but he has been slow to get back into the swing of things and win minutes from the players ahead of him. IU already has tremendous depth, but Creek could provide yet another strong option for the Hoosiers at guard.
  • Michigan: Jordan Morgan - This is nitpicking, really, because Michigan has played just about as well as anyone could ask up to this point. The highly touted freshman class has lived up to its billing so far, which has caused a drop in minutes and stats for Jordan Morgan. Of course, if everyone else in front of him is playing well, it’s tough to fault Morgan, but he needs to make sure he keeps improving in case the Wolverines need to call on a veteran at some point. Morgan could help Michigan by becoming more of a scorer when he’s in the game, as he’s seen his scoring average drop in each of the past two years. Read the rest of this entry »
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Tyler Griffey Looks Like a Brand New Player In John Groce’s Offense

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on December 4th, 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.

Illinois head coach John Groce talked at length about instilling confidence into the Illini during the offseason. He talked about pushing the tempo. He talked about making the players tougher specifically during the late stretches of the game. After an 8-0 start, it is very clear that there is a change to these Illini when compared to last season. Winning the Maui Invitational and pulling out gutsy wins against Gardner-Webb and Georgia Tech in Champaign proves that Groce’s coaching style is beginning to work. No other player has benefited the most from the new coaching staff after the first three weeks than senior forward Tyler Griffey. An overall offensive philosophy that includes a reliance on the three-point shot helps Griffey because of his inherent strengths, including great range on his jumper and also the ability to handle the ball in half-court sets. Let’s examine how the new coaching staff has affected Griffey’s performance on the court.

Tyler Griffey has been extremely effective under the new coaching staff in Champaign

  1. Groce won’t bench him for a shooting slump: Griffey likes to shoot and the best shooters always try to shoot their way out of slumps. Confidence is huge for perimeter-oriented players and they shouldn’t be penalized for taking an ill-advised shot once in a while. Groce’s offensive schemes rely on guards who can handle the ball but who also can shoot from multiple spots on the floor. Griffey is no longer afraid to take a good shot and miss because he isn’t looking over his shoulder to the bench hoping that he isn’t pulled from the game. Over the past couple of seasons, if Griffey missed a few consecutive shots, it was likely that ex-coach Bruce Weber would bench him and make him think about those misses for an extended period of time. Sure, Griffey isn’t the greatest defender because he has a tough time against bigger forwards, but his offensive skills can outweigh his defensive drawbacks when he catches fire from beyond the arc. By riding the bench for a while, a shooter’s confidence gets rattled and Griffey felt like he could never get into a consistent rhythm during his first three seasons. But under the new coaching regime, he can afford to miss a couple of wide-open shots here and there before finding his rhythm. A perfect example was his performance in the Gardner-Webb game. A few days beforehand, Griffey was absolutely on fire in Maui as he shot 7-9 from beyond the arc and scored a total of 34 points. During the G-W game, he was 1-7 at one point in the second half, but Groce stuck with him even when the game was down to the wire and it paid off as he drilled a three-pointer to take the lead with two seconds left. Shooting yourself out of a slump and hitting the big shot is just as much of a confidence booster as it is to shoot over 75% during a three night stretch at Maui. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten M5: 12.03.12 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on December 3rd, 2012

  1. Great coaches don’t rest easy even after a 27-point blowout against a mid-major team. Ohio State beat Northern Kentucky 70-43 but Thad Matta is still concerned about their cohesiveness on the offensive end. Sophomore wing Laquinton Ross played 29 minutes and scored a career high 22 points along with eight rebounds, but Matta didn’t see enough “fluidity” in their transition offense and hopes to improve that by the end of December. The Buckeyes play seven homes games this month which should help them tie up a lot of loose ends and establish their rotation before the conference season begins. Ross and fellow sophomore Sam Thompson will continue to see more playing time because the small forward spot in the starting rotation is open for either of them based on their performance.
  2. Speaking of players who are trying to establish their identity on their team, sophomore forward Alex Gauna has really impressed Tom Izzo over the first few weeks of the season. Gauna has been used some in the pick-and-pop type of plays but he has been working on his rebounding during practice. Even though he might not play more than 10-12 minutes per game this season, he provides much-needed depth for Izzo along the front line if Adreian Payne or Derrick Nix get into foul trouble. Nix usually does not play more than 30 minutes per game, so Gauna’s improvement gives Izzo more options if he continues to improve different facets of his game. Gauna has the size (6’9″, 245 lbs) to become an integral part of Izzo’s rotation especially if he continues to show his commitment to defense.
  3. Elliott Eliason is another big man who could be a big factor for his team, the Minnesota Gophers. The starting center is not expected to spearhead the Gophers’ offense by any means but he has shown that he can provide stability in the paint and finish around the basket. Even though it is only a matter of time before he takes a backseat to star forward Trevor Mbakwe, Eliason has shown signs of improvement offensively and that might be enough for Tubby Smith to keep him in the rotation. The 7’0″ center lost 10 pounds over the offseason and has been defending the paint fairly well. Rodney Williams is another forward option but he doesn’t have the size to defend true power forwards during conference play, therefore Eliason and Mbakwe could see some minutes together when they play teams with great size in the paint.
  4. Michigan head coach John Beilein has his designated three-point gunner in freshman guard Nik Stauskas. Beilein moved him into the starting rotation against Bradley and it appears that senior guard Matt Vogrich might be coming off the bench for rest of the season. Stauskas has averaged 14 PPG this year and continued his hot shooting against Bradley by scoring 22 points and hitting 4-of-5 shots from beyond the arc. He is shooting 62% from the perimeter and his commitment to defense has convinced Beilein to insert him into the starting lineup. As defenses collapse on Tim Hardaway Jr. or Trey Burke on their drives to the basket, Stauskas will continue to see great looks if he consistently moves into the available openings on those possessions.
  5. Illinois head coach John Groce strongly believes in positive encouragement and that could be one of the major reasons for the Illini’s unbeaten record after the first three weeks of basketball. After a 15-3 start last season, the Illini finished the season with just a 17-15 overall record which of course led to the firing of Bruce Weber. Many fans believe that Weber lost control of his team as the players lost confidence in themselves and his ability to lead them. But Groce has picked up those pieces and his “upbeat approach” has instilled new life into seniors Tyler Griffey, Brandon Paul and D.J.Richardson. The Illini guards have the green light to pull the trigger in transition and continue to push the tempo with some freedom in the offense. But there is a drawback to that approach, as point guard Tracy Abrams shows in that he has averaged 3.4 turnovers per game so far this season. Abrams was on the bench during the last two Illinois games during crunch time.
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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 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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Big Ten Team Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 22nd, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Illinois Fighting Illini. 

Where we left off: The last two months of the 2011-12 season were just an absolute mess for the Illini. After beating Ohio State at home on January 10, Bruce Weber’s team ended the season in a major slump (2-12) to finish with a record of 17-15. Weber clearly had lost complete control of his team and was fired after the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini did not even get invited to play in the NIT amidst the chaos and the coaching search created even more negative press coverage for the program. VCU’s Shaka Smart reportedly rejected the job offer and rumors about Brad Stevens’ interest in the opportunity were squashed immediately. Nonetheless, the Illini hired an excellent young candidate, former Thad Matta assistant John Groce from Ohio University. Groce brings a much-needed positive attitude to the program and hopes to instill some new energy, and more importantly, toughness into the program.

Will the Illini buy into John Groce’s direction in Champaign?

Positives: Bruce Weber recruited quality talent to Champaign over the past three seasons. Guards Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams were all top 100 recruits in their class coming out of high school. Weber did not fully utilize Paul’s athleticism but the junior exhibited his offensive versatility as he averaged a team-leading 14.7 PPG last season. John Groce’s success at Ohio has been driven by an up-tempo, guard-oriented offense and requires a backcourt who can not only shoot the ball but also consistently attack the basket. Paul and Richardson’s experience will be helpful if they can buy into Groce’s system which is not as stringent as Weber’s motion offense that revolved around several set plays. Abrams only averaged 4.3 PPG last season but showed his maturity during the season of turmoil. Illini fans have been waiting for an offense that will let the guards facilitate drives to the hoop and make plays rather than adherence to drawn plays that revolve around the perimeter.

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