Rushed Reactions: #8 Wisconsin 84, #9 Virginia Tech 74

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2017

Wisconsin came out on top tonight in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair that saw the two teams combine for 20 made three-pointers.

Bronson Koenig had a huge night in Buffalo. (Photo: The Sports Post)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Bronson Koenig was awesome. Hampered by a lingering leg injury for much of February, Koenig seemed to be trending toward full health late in the season. His performance on Thursday night put any remaining doubts to rest — the senior point guard is back. Koenig scored 28 points on 8-of-17 shooting from behind the arc, including a 5-of-6 stretch from three-point range during the second half that enabled Wisconsin to maintain its slight advantage. Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the night came near the eight-minute mark, when he knocked down a gutsy triple from several feet behind the arc, then stole the ball on the other end before drawing a foul. On a night where star forward Ethan Happ scored just 10 points, Koenig’s effort was essential. Whether he plays at a high level again on Saturday may determine if the Badgers will return to the Sweet Sixteen.
  2. Wisconsin is living and thriving from behind the arc. For the second time in three games, Wisconsin attempted more three-pointers (31) than two-pointers (30). The staggering ratio worked against Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals — Wisconsin hit 12 threes in that one — and carried the Badgers again on Thursday night (13-for-31 3FG). With players like Happ (13.9 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG) manning the interior, it’s not like Wisconsin can’t score inside effectively. For an offense that’s struggled to find its groove at times this year, though, perhaps the best tonic is simply the freedom to hoist from long range.
  3. Virginia Tech basketball is (and will remain) exciting under Buzz Williams. In just three short years, Buzz Williams has transformed a Virginia Tech offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in 2014 to one of the nation’s best this season. And it showed on Thursday night. The Hokies — a great three-point shooting team — carved up Wisconsin’s interior defense like butter in the second half, as Zach LeDay (23 points) found himself more than a couple powerful dunks to ignite the Virginia Tech faithful. Whether it was half-court sets or unselfish plays in transition, Williams has clearly done a masterful job on that end of the court. Despite the departures of Seth Allen (13.4 PPG) and LeDay (16.3 PPG), it’s hard to imagine the Hokies falling too far down the ACC standings in 2017-18.

Star of the Game. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin (21 points, 8-of-17 3FG). Everything was falling for Koenig in the second half, including a spot-up corner three that hit front rim, bounced off the backboard, and fell through the net. His steady hand and timely shooting helped Wisconsin remain ahead despite several momentous scoring bursts for Virginia Tech down the stretch. In order for Wisconsin to advance past Saturday, the senior needs to continue playing at a very high level.

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Big Ten Survival Guide: The Keys For Each Squad’s First Round Survival

Posted by Brendan Brody on March 16th, 2017

The brackets have been set and all of the Big Ten teams left dancing will begin seven separate quests to bring home the league’s first National Championship since Michigan State did so in 2000. Before anything approaching that level of success can take place, however, each team must win its First Round game. Here’s a brief look at how all seven Big Ten teams can get past their first opponent.

Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor for Minnesota against Middle Tennessee on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

  • Minnesota: The Gophers have almost no depth now with the season-ending injury to senior wing Akeem Springs, which means Reggie Lynch has to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble. As a result, Minnesota will have to win this game with defense. If Lynch suffers early foul issues, Middle Tennessee and its 54.3 percent eFG rate will be able to score in the paint at will.
  • Northwestern: Northwestern has a dangerous tendency to go through long scoring droughts. For the most part the Wildcats runs their offense well, but when they go cold, they go frigid. This cannot happen against Vanderbilt because a three-minute drought will feel like five or more with in a one-and-done format. Vanderbilt shoots 37.7 percent from three-point range on the season, so long dry spells could be disastrous against a team that can effectively bomb away from the perimeter.

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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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Four Big Ten Storylines to Follow in the Final Week of Regular Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 28th, 2017

There are now 14 games left in a Big Ten regular season that has been marked by numerous highs and lows throughout. The major takeaway at this point of the season is that almost nothing in terms of the conference standings has yet been settled. That means that every game over the next six days has considerably more meaning than in other conferences where much is already determined. Here are four other Big Ten storylines worth monitoring during the final week of the regular season.

Scottie Lindsey needs to find his scoring touch in the final week for Northwestern to be as though its safely in the NCAA Tournament (USA Today).

  1. Can Northwestern Earn One More Win? The Wildcats appeared to be a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Wisconsin on February 12, but they’ve since lost three of four and are really struggling to put points on the board. Northwestern closes out the Big Ten season with two home games this week against Michigan and Purdue, where a victory in either contest would likely be enough to certify things. Two more losses, however, would result in a 9-9 record in conference play, creating a teetering mountain of pressure on Chris Collins‘ team to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 20th, 2017

In the third to last weekend of Big Ten conference play, the stars of the league took over. Wisconsin remained at the top of the standings after beating Maryland behind 20-point efforts from Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Purdue likewise kept pace at the top of the standings behind Caleb Swanigan‘s 23rd double-double of the season in a domination of Michigan State. What follows are the highs and lows from a six-game weekend Big Ten schedule.

Caleb Swanigan did nothing to damage his chances at picking up some postseason hardware, as he led Purdue to another Big Ten win. (Boiledsports.com).

  • Player of the Weekend: Caleb Swanigan did to Michigan State what he always does, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in leading his team to a dominant win. The big man’s passing ability really stood out this weekend, as he led Purdue with five assists against only one turnover. Much of the Boilermakers’ offensive damage came from Swanigan either scoring himself or running the high-low game with Isaac Haas on the interior. The sophomore also made 9-of-10 foul shots, elevating his mark on the season to a robust 78.4 percent. Complete efforts like these are the reason that the burly forward is garnering serious consideration for the National Player of the Year award.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: One of the biggest what-ifs this season is how Nebraska might look if Ed Morrow, Jr. had not missed seven games with an injury? The Cornhuskers went 1-6 with Morrow out of the lineup, clearly missing the sophomore forward’s energy and work on the boards (even though the injury also allowed freshman Jordy Tshimanga to take some important strides). Despite only playing 15 minutes with foul trouble on Saturday against Ohio State, Morrow scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and posted a 141.0 offensive rating for the game. This keyed Nebraska’s first road win since a New Year’s Day victory at Maryland.

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Wisconsin’s Big Ten Title Hopes Depend on a Healthy Bronson Koenig

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 2017

Wisconsin’s exclusion from the NCAA Selection Committee’s recent preview bracket left many analysts scratching their heads, especially those located in the upper Midwest. How could the Badgers — 21-3 and on top of the Big Ten — not even garner a top-four seed? Legitimate gripe or not, the consternation in Madison quickly shifted to a far more meaningful issue plaguing Wisconsin: Its offense simply hasn’t been very good lately, especially since point guard Bronson Koenig injured his calf in late January. After back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Michigan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ can keep Greg Gard‘s offense afloat, a fully-healthy Koenig will be critical to their shot at a conference title.

Ethan Happ can only do so much for Wisconsin without Bronson Koenig. (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Since Koenig tweaked his calf against Penn State on January 24 (a seemingly minor issue at the time), Wisconsin has simply not been the same team. In the seven games leading up to his injury, the Badgers scored more than a point per possession (PPP) in six of those, including a 1.23 PPP effort at Indiana and a 1.33 PPP performance against Ohio State. In the six games since his mishap, Wisconsin has reached that threshold just once, and hasn’t topped 1.03 PPP at all (well below its season average). On Thursday night against Michigan, Gard decided to rule out Koenig in order to give him some extra rest; predictably, Wisconsin’s stagnation continued.

But why, exactly? After all, the Badgers have two all-conference caliber forwards in Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and Happ (14.2 PPG, 9.2 RPG), the latter of whom is undoubtedly the team’s best and most important offensive player. Entering Thursday night, Wisconsin was 16-0 when Happ finished the game with an offensive rating of 100.0 or better, and just 5-4 in games in which he didn’t. The 6’10” sophomore currently ranks among the Big Ten’s top-10 players in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block rate, steals rate and free throw rate. His 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage is also among the league’s best, and he currently ranks fifth overall in KenPom’s National Player of the Year standings. Put more plainly, he’s a statistical monster, adept at carving out space in the paint and capitalizing on mismatches. “Happ is as good a pure post player as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said of the sophomore.

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 31st, 2017

We’re now halfway through the conference slate and things still haven’t gotten much clearer in the Big Ten standings. There is a notable top four in Wisconsin, Maryland, Northwestern and Purdue, but nine of the remaining 10 teams reside in the middle of the pack with between three and five conference wins. This has led to quite a few unexpected results, including the weekend haul of Nebraska beating Purdue, Maryland staying undefeated on the road by outlasting a slipping Minnesota squad, and Rutgers very nearly pulling off the biggest upset of the Big Ten season against Wisconsin. Here’s the rest of the weekend’s highlights.

Ethan Happ (right) scored more than half of Wisconsin’s points as it defeated Rutgers on Saturday. (Getty Images).

  • Player of the Weekend: There’s no easier way to show it than to let the numbers tell the story. Ethan Happ scored 32 of Wisconsin’s 61 points in an overtime victory at Madison Square Garden. While most of the Badgers were busily clanking away from the outside (Wisconsin shot an ice-cold 12 percent from three-point range), Happ utilized his quickness advantage over CJ Gettys to cause all kinds of damage around the rim. His defensive efforts also led to four steals (the sixth time the sophomore has had more than three steals in one game this season), as the center appears well on his way to a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive team for the second year in a row.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: With apologies to Jack McVeigh and the 21 points he notched in leading Nebraska to an important win over Purdue, Iowa’s Brady Ellingson picked up the scoring load for the Hawkeyes in the absence of leading scorer Peter Jok. The injured senior has been a do-everything wing for a struggling team, so expectations were low heading into Saturday’s match-up with Ohio State. Instead, Ellingson scored 17 points on 5-for-7 shooting from three-point range, part of a big surge in Iowa’s bench production (44 points). In easily his most productive game in conference play, the sophomore also added four rebounds and three assists with zero turnovers. Ellingson could become a viable threat off the bench for the Hawkeyes the rest of the season.

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Handicapping the Midseason Battle for the #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on January 20th, 2017

The College Football Playoff has caught a lot of flak for a system that rewards four teams in an environment where five power conference champions all feel that they are deserving. The NCAA Tournament with its 68 teams is obviously a lot more inclusive, but the pursuit of the four top seeds shares some of the flaws of the football system. College basketball features a less defined definition of its power conferences, but depending on your opinion of the Big East and American, our landscape features a minimum of six power conference champions which presumably would have a shot at the top line. On top of that, there are always a handful of mid-majors capable of having a stake in selection of the #1 seeds. With the American sitting at eighth in the RPI this season, Cincinnati would likely need to run the table for a chance at a top seed, an unlikely outcome. That leaves seven entrants, loosely defined to include conferences, for only four spots. Let’s examine each in turn.

Are Wisconsin fans gearing up for a possible #1 seed? (Photo by David Stluka)

  • Big Ten. Thanks to a pair of unexpected swoons by Indiana and Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin seem to be the only Big Ten teams with a semi-realistic chance of making a run at a #1 seed. However, the margin of error is already thin for both. The Boilermakers have four reasonable losses with wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin, while the Badgers’ likely best win came at Assembly Hall against a struggling group of Hoosiers. It would be difficult to imagine that these resumes could turn into top-seed material by March. The Big Ten’s best teams appear to have suffered too many hiccups before conference play and are now slowly cannibalizing themselves into the lower seed lines.

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Breaking into the Rotation: Surprise Big Ten Contributors

Posted by Jim Root on January 16th, 2017

My colleague Brendan Brody recently wrote about three of the biggest surprises and disappointments in the Big Ten this season, and I wanted to piggyback his idea by analyzing Big Ten rotations. As much as we think we know about a team’s lineup in the preseason, unsung players will inevitably force their way into playing time. While the four players below may not yet be household names in Big Ten circles, they’ve significantly exceeded expectations this year and their futures seem very bright.

DJ Wilson Has Caused a Stir With His Game and Fashion Sense (credit: MLive)

  • DJ Wilson, Sophomore, F, Michigan – The best and most exhaustive college basketball preseason preview comes from Blue Ribbon, and because of how deeply they dive into each team, it’s a great way to identify “out of nowhere” players. To that point, Michigan’s Wilson was the very last player discussed in the Wolverines’ section, barely registering a courtesy mention. Instead, he’s used a combination of long arms and short shorts to become one of John Beileins’s most important players this season – he leads the Wolverines in offensive rating (19th nationally); he’s easily their best rebounder; and he’s even hitting 44 percent from the land of plenty. He’s the captain of (and the inspiration for) this year’s team.
  • Cordell Pemsl, Freshman, F/C, Iowa – Continuing to use Blue Ribbon as a tool for this exercise, we come upon another disregarded forward in Iowa City. Like Wilson, Pemsl was also the 11th player mentioned in the Iowa preview, and although the Hawkeyes’ roster was more uncertain in the preseason, it’s still impressive how important the freshman has been thus far. After bouncing back from a twice-torn meniscus (and an intentionally broken leg) in high school, he’s now averaging over 10 points and nearly five rebounds per game while shooting an absurd 65 percent from two-point range. He’s also shown a nice penchant for getting to the free throw line and blocking shots early in his career. He, along with fellow freshman Tyler Cook, will make Iowa’s frontcourt a force to be reckoned with for the next three-plus years.

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