In the wake of Wisconsin’s lopsided loss at the hands of Florida, I urged caution. It was early. Florida is really good, and they were playing at home. Surely, it wouldn’t be long before Bo Ryan had his team playing well enough to put any fears about the Badgers missing the NCAA Tournament to rest.
But after Wisconsin lost to Creighton, and had to rely on a second-half comeback to beat a mediocre Arkansas team, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone in Madison for doing a bit of hand-wringing. If you wanted to go by resume-building, Creighton was an excellent chance to snag a victory over a tournament team. But there are still chances left for the Badgers, and frankly, it’s likely that a 9-9 Big Ten team goes to the dance this year without any further examination of a resume. The conference season is probably where Big Ten bids will be earned this season, so it’s still premature to start playing RPI doctor.
More concerning is how the Badgers are struggling. Against lesser competition, the Wisconsin machine appears to be in fine working order. Turnovers are at a minimum, the defensive glass is clean, hacking is non-existent, and, thanks to Jared Berggren, opponents are shooting a very low percentage inside the arc. But against quality opponents (and Arkansas), some of that goes out the window. The offense is fine—while Wisconsin struggled to shoot against Florida, that’s not something Ryan’s teams hang their hats on. Moreover, the turnovers are still very low even against good teams. But on defense, the opponent is recovering a concerning number of caroms, and what’s more, Wisconsin is fouling quite a bit.
There’s two ways to look at this. The first is to recognize that one or two incidents is just the normal variance over the course of a season. Moreover, for all of Jordan Taylor’s talents, defense was not chief among them. Wisconsin’s defense was stellar last season, and everyone who was key to that success is back, so it’s unlikely that the defense has transformed over the offseason. But now we have three occasions on which Wisconsin opponents have scored over a point per possession, and what’s more, they’ve all happened the exact same way. The only non-conference opponent who hit that mark last season was Syracuse, who bounced the Badgers from the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin’s upcoming games against Virginia and California will provide further samples where we can examine the defense. If the Cavaliers and Golden Bears are able to crash the offensive glass and get to the free throw line, the Badgers might be in a real fight to make the postseason.
Elsewhere, both Michigan and Illinois won their preseason tournaments. The Wolverines were a second-half team during the preseason NIT, taking down two good teams in Pitt and Kansas State. The Beilein offense is hitting on all cylinders, including hitting on nearly 40 percent of the frequent three-pointers. A nice bonus is Michigan’s defensive rebounding. Thus far, this is the third-best defensive rebounding team in the country. A big part of that has been due to Tim Hardaway, Jr., who, in addition to hitting 70 percent of his twos and 48 percent of his threes, has been pulling down rebounds like an All Big Ten center. I don’t think any of those things will keep up over the course of the season, but it’s a good sign nonetheless.
Illinois stormed through a Maui field with its hot three-point shooting. The Illini are now over 40 percent on three-pointers, and they aren’t shy about heaving them, either. And don’t tell John Groce that the Maui field is weaker than usual. In response to the suggestion, Groce told reporters “[c]all Roy Williams and ask if he thinks Butler’s any good.” Duly noted. Of course, Illinois followed up the Maui performance with a too-close win over Gardner-Webb, needing a three-pointer from Tyler Griffey to survive. The question going forward is whether this team brings its best effort, no matter the stage or opponent.
After easily dispatching of their first four opponents, Minnesota came back to reality a bit at the hands of Duke. To be fair, Duke is not only very good (after beating Minnesota, the Devils took down VCU and #2 Louisville), but shot 80 percent on three-pointers. But it wasn’t like Duke was raining threes on Minnesota—even if they shot a more pedestrian 30 percent, Duke still wins. Nonetheless, Minnesota bounced back and beat Memphis and Stanford. Andre Hollins was spectacular against the Tigers, with 41 points on a mere 15 shots. It didn’t get a lot of national play, but that was a huge performance from the sophomore. He followed that performance up with making game-winning free throws against the Cardinal, after Stanford’s Chasson Randle pulled a Shelvin Mack (or is a Nasir Robinson?) and fouled Hollins on his halfcourt desperation heave as time expired. Time will tell whether either of these wins stand up over the course of the season, but it’s likely that at least one of them will. While Minnesota probably isn’t the top 10 team it was playing like prior to the Duke game, the Gophers are off to a promising start.
Also over the long weekend, a Frazierless Penn State beat Bucknell—the same Bucknell that took down Purdue in West Lafayette, and Northwestern needed overtime to dispatch Illinois State (who figures to be one of the better teams in the Missouri Valley).
This week is Challenge Week, as the ACC comes to take its medicine, starting on Tuesday. After we win again, don’t forget to gloat. It wasn’t so long ago that Big Ten fans had plenty of mockery thrown their way when it was annually beaten. Turnabout is fair play and all.