Big Ten Storylines Heading Into Next Season

Posted by Brendan Brody on April 17th, 2015

There are still some dominoes to fall in terms of Big Ten roster turnover in coming weeks but we already have a pretty good idea of how the league will look next year. Here are a few things to ponder as Big Ten fans brace themselves for seven months without any games with which to occupy their time.

Melo Trimble could be a first team All-American next season for Maryland. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Melo Trimble could be a first team All-American next season for Maryland. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

  • Return to Multiple Conference Championship Contenders: Wisconsin essentially went wire-to-wire this season, going from the unanimous preseason favorite to winning both the conference regular season and postseason titles. Next season should be a bit more like the 2013-14 campaign with several teams with a realistic shot to win the league. Maryland is rightfully getting a good deal of love in the preseason “way-to-early” top 25 lists. The Terps will return two of their top three players in Melo Trimble and Jake Layman and will add a bruiser down low in freshman Diamond Stone. Indiana (assuming both Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. return to Bloomington), and Michigan State could also very well start the season in the top 15 nationally. Thomas Bryant will give the Hoosiers someone to keep defenses honest inside, while Sparty adds Eron Harris, Devonta Davis, and Caleb Swanigan to a nucleus of eight players who were contributors on a Final Four squad. These three should all challenge for the top spot in Big Ten play next season.
  • Wisconsin Rebuild: It will be fun to observe how Bo Ryan replaces the multiple talented pieces that he is losing from a group that went to back-to-back Final Fours. He has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt so as to figure that players like Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter will break out with more playing time next season. Getting key starters Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig back is also a pretty decent starting point. How far will the Badgers actually fall, and how long will it take for the newcomers to make an impact?

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Big Ten M5: 03.06.15 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on March 6th, 2015

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  1. Indiana’s Tuesday night loss to Iowa marks another defeat in the Hoosiers’ recent skid, where they’ve only won four times in their last eleven games. After the latest loss, fans could be heard heckling Tom Crean. This prompted Indiana athletic director, Fred Glass, to come out and give a statement of support, “He has my full support. I have a great deal of confidence in Tom’s body of work. This team overachieved early and then hit a tough patch”. Glass has a point. Crean is a victim of his early success this season, but the Hoosiers are still in a much better position than many thought they would be at the start of the season. This season — unlike other Crean campaigns in Bloomington — Indiana has overachieved.
  2. Illinois eeked out a win in its final home game of the season against Nebraska on Wednesday. It was also senior night where both Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu were honored. Egwu was recruited by Bruce Weber to play for Illinois, but the head coach he thought he would be playing for was fired after his freshman year. But the native-born Nigerian quickly won over the new coaching staff with his work ethic and model behavior off the court. Egwu may have not have fully developed on offense like Illini fans had hoped, but he’s proven himself to be a well-rounded student-athlete — something fans should be proud of.
  3. On Thursday, Wisconsin defeated Minnesota 76-63 in Minneapolis to claim its first Big Ten championship since 2008. Like seven years ago, it was an outright title and guarantees the Badgers the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The win caps off what’s been an amazing season that’s met the lofty expectations placed upon the Badgers in the preseason. With Frank Kaminsky as the slight favorite for National Player of the Year, this season is one for the ages for both Wisconsin and Bo Ryan . And it should be recognized as such no matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament.
  4. The regular season is coming to an end, which means soon all the end-of-the-year accolades by different media sites will start being published. BTN kicked it off with a poll of Big Ten beat writers asking “Which teams were the most surprising and disappointing this season?” Purdue was the hands-down winner for most surprising team as they turned their season around after going 8-5 in the non-conference with two bad losses. Both Minnesota and Nebraska were chosen as the most disappointing teams. I described earlier this week what a disappointment the Cornhuskers have been, but the Gophers have also suffered a severe setback this season. After barely missing the NCAA Tournament and winning the NIT championship last season, Minnesota is now fighting just to stay out of the bottom four in the league.
  5. With Selection Sunday only nine days away, the bracketologists have been out in full force with their predictions. And the most popular one, Joe Lundari, just put out his most recent projections. Wisconsin (#2 seed), Maryland (#3), Iowa (#7), Michigan State (#7), and Ohio State (#8) all seem to be safely in the field. Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue, however, are squarely on the bubble. The Boilermakers and Hoosiers are currently in the field, while the Illini have some work to do.
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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on February 10th, 2015

The weekend before Valentine’s Day in the Big Ten was hardly easy on the eyes. Only five teams were able to crack the the 1.00 points per possession mark, and 10 of the 14 league teams had double-figure turnovers. As an example, Nebraska only managed 13 first half points en route to a 29.4 percent shooting performance in its ugly loss to Penn State. Maryland found itself down by a score of 23-2 to Iowa before finally waking up to make the score a little more respectable (71-55). All in all, it wasn’t a good weekend if you were looking for aesthetically pleasing hoops. As always, though, there were a few highlights and solid performances, so here are some of the best.

D'Angelo Russell and his freshmen cohorts lead Ohio State's efforts in their win Sunday over Rutgers. (Kyle Robertson, Columbus Dispatch)

D’Angelo Russell and his freshmen cohorts lead Ohio State’s efforts in their win Sunday over Rutgers. (Kyle Robertson, Columbus Dispatch)

  • Player of the Weekend: D’Angelo Russell continues to strengthen his candidacies for both Big Ten Player of the Year and National Player of the Year, notching Ohio State’s first triple-double since Evan Turner recorded one in 2010. We can probably just go ahead and make it a post rule that if someone earns a triple-double and his team wins, he will end up with the Player of the Weekend award. Russell didn’t make the handful of spectacular plays that he’s become known for in this game, but he continued to just put up numbers in an efficient way. He scored a ‘quiet’ 23 points, including 17 in the first half on only 13 attempts. He also had six rebounds and seven assists by halftime, making it almost a forgone conclusion that the triple-double was imminent. Granted, all of this production came against Rutgers, but a Player of the Year race that once looked like an easy win for Frank Kaminsky has now become much more competitive. The March 8 tilt between the two stars in Columbus might ultimately decide the award.
  • Super Sub of the Weekend: Ohio State freshmen accounted for 61 of the Buckeyes’ 79 points on Sunday night, and Keita Bates-Diop enjoyed his most productive game of the season. Stepping in because Marc Loving was still suspended, Bates-Diop boosted his confidence by hitting two threes early in the first half. From there, he managed to either tie or post career-bests in all five major statistical categories. He tied a career-high in points (19) and assists (three), and set career-highs with his nine rebounds, two steals and three blocks. Not bad for 19 minutes of action. The Buckeyes are getting great contributions from their freshmen right now, and Thad Matta’s first-year players may decide how far this team goes.

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Big Ten Weekend in Review

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 20th, 2015

Points were relatively easy to come by in the Big Ten’s third weekend of play, as only three teams of the 12 with games failed to crack the 1.00 point per possession plateau. There were also some outstanding individual scoring games on display, with Penn State’s DJ Newbill (37 points) and Minnesota’s Andre Hollins (31 points) leading the way in that regard. From a team perspective, Purdue and Indiana got crucial road wins to stay among the top half of the league standings, while Maryland continued its outstanding start by dismantling Michigan State in College Park. Elsewhere, Minnesota is no longer winless in conference action, and Penn State remains the only team still looking for a conference win. Well, at least their freshman guard brings a celebrity cousin to the table.

Melo Trimble torched Michigan State as they knocked off the Spartans by 15 on Saturday. (David J. Philip/AP)

Melo Trimble torched Michigan State as his team knocked off the Spartans by 15 Saturday. (David J. Philip/AP)

Player of the Weekend: Melo Trimble has had issues at times in knocking down perimeter shots, but he had no such problems against Michigan State on Saturday. The freshman combo guard simply went off, scoring 24 points on 8-on-16 shooting from the field. He also hit six threes, five of which came in the first half. Trimble not only should be considered a c0-favorite with Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but he’s also making a legitimate case for First Team all-Big Ten consideration. Usually he’s a menace for opposing defenses with his keen ability to get to the free throw line, but he only shot two freebies in this game. Instead, he made nearly every shot from behind the arc that he took in the opening stanza. With Jake Layman scoring 23 himself and with Dez Wells capable of going off in any given game, Maryland is one of the few league teams with three legitimate threats on offense. That’s what makes the Terrapins so dangerous. Nothing I’ve said here can top watching this clip, so take a look for yourself. Rest in peace, Tum Tum.

Super Sub of the Weekend: AJ Hammons might win this award multiple times if Purdue keeps winning weekend games. The junior posted his second double-double in the last four games (and his third on the season) with 21 points and 12 rebounds against Penn State on Saturday. While those numbers are nice and all, the biggest takeaway from his effort was that his hustle essentially gave Purdue the opportunity to win the game in overtime. During the game the broadcasters raved about the game-tying three that Kendall Stephens made in the final seconds, but it was Hammons who spun through two Penn State defenders to somehow tip the ball on a missed free throw out to him so he could take the shot in the first place. It’s not a play he would have made in his first two seasons as a Boilermaker, but it shows how far he’s come. You don’t see it all statistically, but if you watch Purdue extensively, you can see all of the subtle improvements he’s made in his productiveness.

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Big Ten M5: 01.14.15 Edition

Posted by Brendan Brody on January 14th, 2015

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  1. Northwestern has gotten off to a decent 10-6 start overall with an extremely young lineup. Vic Law came from Chicago’s famed Catholic League as what Wildcat fans hoped would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Chris Collins and the Windy City’s best high school players. Fellow freshman Bryant McIntosh has shined, while Law has struggled to adapt to the physicality of Big Ten basketball.  It’s too early to write him off as a bust, but Law needs to produce more than the 2.7 PPG and 4.0 RPG he has contributed in his first three B1G games.
  2. While things haven’t been great this season for Michigan, they have something to look forward to on January 24. Consensus top five wing Jaylen Brown will make an official campus visit on that Saturday when the team takes on Wisconsin at the Crisler Center. Brown would obviously be an enormous coup for the Wolverines. The team they have this season is mainly made up of underclassmen. Even if Caris LeVert were to leave early, having Brown to go along with most of the pieces that should return to Ann Arbor could make the 2015-16 Michigan unit one to be reckoned with in the league next season.
  3. Hanner Mosquera-Perea suffered a knee injury on Monday in practice, leaving Indiana and their already undersized frontline even smaller. The junior from Columbia is averaging 7.5 PPG and 5 RPG this season in a little under 21 minutes of court time. He had been in Tom Crean’s doghouse for getting into early foul trouble in recent games, and now it looks as though Emmitt Holt and Collin Hartman will get most of his minutes inside for the Hoosiers. Hartman played 23 minutes with Holt logging 13 in their win over Penn State last night, but it’s worth monitoring the situation to see how Indiana survives after going from very little size to no size at all.
  4. Frank Kaminsky will be back in the Wisconsin lineup Thursday night when they take on Nebraska in Madison. The senior who leads the team in four major categories (points, rebounds, steals, and blocks), missed the loss against Rutgers after suffering a concussion in the Purdue game last week. The Badgers will still be shorthanded as they will be missing Traveon Jackson due to injury, but with Nebraska playing better with their whole team now healthy, the return of Kaminsky is needed.
  5. Illinois faces a critical test when they travel to Evanston to face their in-state rivals tonight. Despite losing Sunday night against Nebraska, their defensive effort was pretty solid. The problem they’re having without Rayvonte Rice is that they simply can’t shoot the ball. Loren Tate of the Champaign News-Gazette broke down just how pedestrian the shooting numbers have been as of late. Two specifics he mentioned were the fact that Nebraska played off of Jaylon Tate, daring him to shoot from deep. He also mentioned the fact that Nnanna Egwu simply can’t score in the post when he isn’t facing up. If Aaron Cosby and/or Ahmad Starks can break out of their collective year-round slumps, then things might change. Otherwise this team will be buried before Rice returns to the lineup.
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Nnanna Egwu is the Defensive Linchpin for Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 9th, 2014

At 7-1 with only a road loss to Miami (FL), John Groce has Illinois once again playing well in its non-conference schedule. But one notable difference this year is how improved the Fighting Illini have been on offense. Due to the addition of a couple of offseason transfers, Illinois finds itself with a wealth of combo guards and wings who can score in bunches. While that revamped offense has gotten good publicity thus far, it’s been Illinois’ ongoing successes on the defensive end (91.0 adjusted defensive rating), that has Groce’s squad primed to make a return to the NCAA Tournament. The anchor of that defense, and the only reliable inside presence on the team, is senior big man Nnanna Egwu. Illinois faces #7 Villanova in Madison Square Garden tonight and it will need Egwu to lead the charge in slowing down the Wildcats’ top 15 offense (110.7 adjusted offensive rating).

Nnanna Egwu covers up a lot mistakes on defense for the Illini.

Nnanna Egwu covers for a lot of defensive mistakes for the Illini.

Egwu is the lone active senior this year – Illinois’ other senior, Tracy Abrams, is out for the season with a torn ACL – and he is averaging 7.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.9 BPG in a shade under 30 minutes per contest. The native Nigerian didn’t start playing basketball until the eighth grade, but his quick development led to significant playing time on Groce’s first team in Champaign. The big man still does not have much of a back-to-the-basket game on offense, but he has nice touch and can step out and shoot from the perimeter (5-of-14 from three this season). Whatever his limits are in scoring, what he brings to Groce’s defense supersedes it. Egwu is one of the top rim-protectors in the country, serving as a safety net for guards who get beaten off the dribble. His presence inside allows Illinois’ guards to be more aggressive and gamble for steals, the proof being the Illini’s top 100 steal percentage (10.8%) despite not having the prototypical athletic and long players that dominate this category.

When the Illini play Villanova tonight at Madison Square Garden, Egwu will have his hands full guarding 6’11” center Daniel Ochefu, who converts on 63.6 percent of his attempts near the rim. In addition to Ochefu, he’ll also have to act as the eraser if Wildcats’ guards Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis penetrate the lane to get to the bucket — where both are also shooting over 60 percent. With no capable replacement on the bench, Egwu must avoid fouling to stay on the court, otherwise it’ll be open season on the Illini inside the paint (Egwu to this point has avoided a disqualification on fouls this season). Illinois has relied on its center to provide a foundation to its high-quality defense, and to have any chance of walking out of the Mecca with a Top 10 scalp tonight, it will fall on Egwu to answer that call once again.

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Big Ten Season Grades: Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 18th, 2014

Continuing our season-ending analysis, we look at the performances of Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. Earlier this week, we handed out grades for Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.

Ohio State

Grade: C-

This season (25-10, 10-8): What would be a successful season for most programs was a relative disappointment for the Buckeyes. Ohio State did not capture a Big Ten regular season or tournament title for the first time since 2008-09, and similar to that season, they were also bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The issue for the Buckeyes – which was a clear problem area in the preseason – was generating offense without Deshaun Thomas in the lineup. Thomas’ replacement, LaQuinton Ross, almost doubled his scoring average, but the Buckeyes failed to find reliable offensive firepower anywhere else. In the end, Aaron Craft and Ohio State’s excellent showing on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the team’s offensive woes.

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don't expect it to continue next season. (Gettyl)

Thad Matta had a let-down of a season relative to his own success. Don’t expect it to continue next season. (Getty)

Next season: The Buckeyes lose Craft, Amedeo Della Valle, Ross, and Lenzelle Smith Jr. They welcome in an elite recruiting class that includes D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, and Jae’Sean Tate; and they also will get graduate transfer Anthony Lee from Temple next year. These additions along with several talented players already on their roster should have no one worrying about the state of the program going forward. This season was merely a hiccup in the Thad Matta era.

Iowa: C

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Big Ten Tournament: The Future Looks Bright For Illinois

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2014

Walker Carey is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this report after Thursday’s first round Big Ten Tournament game between Illinois and Indiana in Indianapolis.

Both Illinois and Indiana entered Thursday afternoon’s match-up with winning the conference tournament as their only hope of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament, so Illinois’ 64-54 victory might be viewed as a ticket to play top-seeded Michigan in the quarterfinals on Friday. While true at some level, it’s misleading at another — Illinois showed in today’s win through a variety of signs that it will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten as soon as next season. The player of the game for the Illini on Thursday afternoon was junior guard Tracy Abrams. Abrams, who entered the game averaging 10.5 points per contest, exploded for a game-high 25 points (17 of which came in the second half). The Chicago native also showcased his ability to hit big shots by nailing a huge three-pointer with 2:06 to play that increased the Illini’s lead to four and all but secured the victory, as Indiana scored just two more points over the remainder of the game.

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

Abrams and the Illini Appear to Have a Bright Future (B.Tse)

While Abrams led the charge in the scoring column for Illinois, John Groce’s squad also received contributions from several other underclassmen. Junior big man Nnanna Egwu was limited offensively – he managed just two points on 1-of-8 shooting – but he found a way to impact the game in other facets by collecting seven rebounds and blocking five shots. Redshirt junior guard Rayvonte Rice added 13 points and helped key the defensive effort that forced Indiana into an 0-of-10 performance from behind the arc in the second half. Freshmen guards Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn showed a bit of why John Groce felt comfortable inserting them into the starting lineup back in early February. Hill finished Thursday’s win with eight points and four rebounds, while showcasing his outside shooting prowess by knocking down both of his three-point attempts. Nunn added 10 points to the winning effort and was primarily responsible for the outstanding defensive effort on Indiana star guard Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell finished the afternoon just 3-of-13 from the field and 2-of-9 from three.

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Illinois Freshmen Lead Their Turnaround and Earns Them Another Look at the Bubble

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 4th, 2014

It was February 4, and Illinois had just been dominated by Wisconsin for the second time this season in front of a fairly empty home crowd; severe weather had been an issue. The loss made it eight straight for John Groce’s team — which for a consecutive season was in the midst of a major losing streak in conference play — and found themselves at the bottom of league standings with a 2-8 record. But unlike last season, there were no talented seniors like Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson in place to lead a turnaround. This team seemed doomed for a miserable last place finish. That’s when Groce put up the white flag and inserted his top two freshmen — Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill — into the starting lineup, a signal that he was moving on from the current season and looking toward the next one. What has happened since has surprised even the most optimistic of Illini fans. Since the shakeup in the rotation, Illinois has won four of its last six games — including three in a row — which includes road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Odds are that they’re still likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament, but their current body of work isn’t that far off from other bubble teams within the conference.

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Kendrick Nunn entering the starting lineup has given the Illini hope. (Ruszkowski/USA TODAY)

Defense has been Illinois’ strength all season as the Illini have held opponents to an adjusted 93.1 points per 100 possessions (14th in the nation), but their anemic offense, especially their complete inability to shoot the ball, wiped away the advantage their defense gave them. In the non-conference portion of their schedule, Rayvonte Rice was able to get to the rim effectively against less athletic teams or catch high-major teams off guard with his deceptive ability to use his strength while driving to the basket. But by the time Big Ten play started, there was enough tape on Illinois for opponents to adjust. Teams started packing the paint as a result, and Rice, who had averaged 18.7 PPG before the team’s slump, scored five points per game fewer during the eight-game skid. Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna Egwu all failed to prove that they could be relied upon for consistent scoring too, so Groce decided to give his freshmen a shot. It seemed the best Illini fans could hope for was that Nunn and Hill would show signs of improvement by season’s end. Instead, the game came to them immediately, as the two young wings have combined for 19.8 PPG since becoming starters. Almost as importantly, Illinois’ defensive performance did not drop with the change in rotation. In the team’s last four games, Illinois has held its opponents to fewer than 0.83 points per possession (h/t John Gassaway). The results have been an improvement on offense to a point where they can once again rely on their defensive prowess to dictate the tempo of the games and turn their season around.

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Previewing Braggin’ Rights: Illinois vs. Missouri

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 21st, 2013

If one were to grade Illinois’ season performance before heading into Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, they would probably have to give the Illini an “I” for incomplete. John Groce’s team is 9-2 with no especially bad losses, but no significantly good wins either. Their two losses against Georgia Tech and Oregon were on the road and down to the wire; a free throw made or different bounce of the ball and the Illini might currently sit undefeated with a different season trajectory. But Illinois is where it is and today’s game against Missouri provides the last chance for the Illini to notch a non-conference resume win.

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Nnanna Egwu and the Illini are hoping to get their first win against Missouri since 2008 on Saturday.

The Tigers have won braggin’ rights for four seasons in a row, but before that run the Illini had won nine years straight. If John Groce is going to start a new streak in the rivalry today, here are three things he’ll need his team to do:

  1. Keep charging the glass and getting offensive rebounds. Unlike last season, this year’s team is not effective at scoring beyond the arc (33.8 percent from deep). The way they’ve countered their lack of long-range shooting is by creating additional scoring opportunities from the offensive glass. The Illini have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.1 percent (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) and three of their starters are averaging two or more offensive boards per game. They’ll need to keep this up against a Missouri team that so far has been excellent at minimizing its opponents’ offensive rebounds. Since the Illini do not rely on a perimeter attack from behind the arc, there should be fewer long rebounds for guards like Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross to grab. Illinois should stick to what it does best — drive to the rim and have others follow behind for putbacks. Read the rest of this entry »
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Oregon Thrives on Offense, Dumps Illinois Despite Defensive Rebounding Struggles

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 15th, 2013

The Oregon Ducks have gotten off to their undefeated start in 2013-14 primarily on the strength of their staggeringly efficient offense. The Ducks ranked third in the nation in effective field goal percentage and were seventh in the nation in free throw rate before Saturday night’s game against Illinois at the former Rose Garden in Portland.

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Aspects of Oregon’s defense are also strong, including a top-50 steal rate and a top-75 block rate. But one thing stands out in the Ducks’ statistical profile: a lack of proficiency on the defensive glass. Despite only playing one top-25 offensive rebounding team this season (San Francisco), Oregon ranks a pedestrian 235th in defensive rebounding rate. Against the Illini, that vulnerability showed up early – six offensive rebounds surrendered in the first half, which ended tied at 32 – and late, when they got a rebound putback from Joseph Bertrand to close the game within three points with less than a minute to go. But Oregon’s scoring was able to again cover for its defensive rebounding deficiency in a 71-64 win.

Oregon (9-0) certainly misses graduated senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who led the nation in defensive rebounding rate in 2012-13, but another senior transfer is attempting to fill that void. Mike Moser – a Portland native who previously played at both UCLA and UNLV – has led the Ducks on the defensive glass all season, including a team-high eight Saturday night, which also came with 14 points, tied for the team lead with fellow senior transfer Joseph Young. The performance of the 6’8” power forward Saturday is made more impressive when considering that Illinois’ starting frontcourt of Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand each gather eight percent or more of available offensive rebounds, and the Illini ranked 36th nationally in offensive rebound rate before the game.

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Big Ten M5: 10.25.13 Edition

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on October 25th, 2013

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  1. Senior guards can be a great asset to a coach who is under the pressure of leading his team to a Final Four. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is hoping that senior guard Russell Byrd can provide maturity for the Spartans, both on and off the floor. Byrd averaged just over one point per game last season, but is eager to contribute to the #2 Spartans. He was plagued with injuries during his first two seasons in East Lansing, but is finally healthy enough to help Izzo reach a Final Four. “Russell Byrd [is] much healthier, much more confident,” Izzo said Tuesday during the Spartans’ media day. Even though Byrd may not see more than 10 minutes per game this season, his positive attitude and senior leadership should help the Spartans push toward March.
  2. No other player will be under more scrutiny in the Big Ten this season than Michigan’s Mitch McGary. After a slow start to his freshman campaign, he stepped up during the last six weeks of the 2012-13 season to help the Wolverines get to the Final Four. To make things more interesting, he chose to come back for his sophomore season with the intention to dominate the conference and lead his team to Arlington. He can definitely meet those high expectations, provided he is healthy, but he has had a few issues with his back during the offseason. Heading into November, McGary says that his back is no longer an issue. He said, “There’s no timetable for me being back. We’re just being cautious right now and we’ll see what happens in the future.” The 6’10” forward will be expected to carry a heavier offensive burden on a more consistent basis this year as the Wolverines adapt to life after NPOY Trey Burke.
  3. While McGary will be the best forward in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s Oto Osenieks will have to earn his playing time on the Gophers this season. The 6’8″ forward averaged 9.1 minutes per game and shot 29.7% from the field – a virtual non-factor for the Gophers last season. But new head coach Richard Pitino remains optimistic about his improvement and believes that the forward can contribute offensively this year. Pitino said, “he was fighting for every single rebound. He’s another guy that has really responded to kind of the challenge. And I thought he did a really nice job defensively.” Andre Hollins (14.6 PPG) will be one of the best scoring guards in the Big Ten, but Pitino will need any help he can get from other players, and Osenieks could chip in at some point this year.
  4. Remember when Matt Painter’s Boilermakers were a dominant Big Ten team? That was only a couple of seasons ago, but Purdue really struggled to score last season. Painter is hoping for a return to relevance with a strong and diverse backcourt. Ronnie Johnson, Sterling Carter, and Bryson Scott will see significant minutes to complement Terone Johnson’s (13.5 PPG) scoring and leadership this season. Carter, a transfer, shot 39% from beyond the arc at Seattle and Painter believes his shooting touch will help the Boilermakers: “He can come off screens and shoot shots with people on him and make them.” Johnson is also quite sneaky off of pick-and-roll action, averaging 10.1 points per game last year using a nice-looking floater in the painted area. This team could surprise.
  5. While Purdue has two new guards in the backcourt, Illinois returns two of their own — Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams — who played significant minutes during John Groce’s first season in Champaign. Both are expected to start, but Groce said that there are a couple of starting spots up in the air as the Illini gear up for their exhibition games. Rayvonte Rice, a transfer guard from Drake, is likely to take one spot as a third guard because of his offensive capabilities. The fifth position is also up in the air and it is possible that Groce will choose to go with a fourth guard instead of another forward. Nnanna Egwu, another returnee, will be the primary big man for the Illini this season.
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