Big Ten Geeks: On the chin

The Big Ten had a relatively bad weekend, dropping marquee games against other high-major conference teams. The main event was a battle between two top-10 teams when Kansas visited Columbus. Given that the game was on the Buckeyes’ floor, Ohio State should have won this game, and probably by more than just a point or two. Instead, Kansas ended up with a relatively comfortable 8-point win. The Jayhawks led most of the way, and started pulling away with about ten minutes left. There was no great mystery as to why OSU lost—they were terrible shooting the ball, both inside and outside the arc. On twos, Ohio State converted just 35 percent, and they were at 26 percent on threes. Kansas, meanwhile, shot 53 and 46 percent, respectively. Otherwise, OSU outplayed the Jayhawks, but shooting trumps all.

This was not Aaron Craft’s best game. The junior scored just 7 points on 9 shots, had four turnovers against three assists, and committed four fouls. His defense wasn’t that spectacular, either, as Kansas’ backcourt duo of Ben McLemore and Elijah Johnson combined for 35 points.

After a strong start to the season, Craft has been struggling mightily. He hasn’t scored in double figures in about a month, and his propensity for turnovers has been creeping back as well. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if Craft should be playing ahead of Shannon Scott. Scott was the only other offensive bright spot against Kansas other than DeShaun Thomas, as the sophomore guard poured in 15 points on 12 shots, 4 assists, and zero turnovers. So far this season, Scott is shooting better than Craft, getting to the line more, dishing out more assists, and doing it all with fewer turnovers. And it’s not just offense, either. On defense, Scott is getting more steals, blocks, and rebounds. I doubt Thad Matta will demote Craft anytime soon, but should the junior keep struggling in Big Ten play, you have to wonder how long Matta will keep one of his best players on the bench in favor of his longtime starter.

For the fourth year in a row, Illinois was beaten by Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis. Before the season began, the biggest concern I had about Illinois was its defensive rebounding, and whether there was enough size in the frontcourt to match up against bigger teams. Against Missouri, the answer was a resounding “no.” The Tigers rebounded over half of their misses, which compensated for a poor shooting night from Phil Pressey (3-19). Illinois was led by Brandon Paul’s typical jack-of-all-trades effort: 23 points (18 shots), 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal.

Though sophomore center Nnanna Egwu scored well in the game (12 points on 11 shots), Missouri’s frontline dominated him otherwise. At first glance, Egwu’s line featuring 9 rebounds looks like a solid effort, but 6 of those were offensive. For the game, there were 39 available defensive rebounds for Illinois. Egwu played 35 of 40 minutes, so we can probably safely assume that Egwu only secured 3 of the 34 or 35 defensive rebound chances with which he was presented. This has been a consistent hole in Egwu’s game all season, as he’s the second-worst defensive rebounder among Illinois’ starters, (barely) rating ahead of Tracy Abrams. Put simply, the big man has done little to quell fears about Illinois’ weakness on the glass.

Another disturbing trend is Illinois’ three-point shooting. The Illini were 8 of 32 in this game, and it marked the third game in a row in which the team failed to shoot 30 percent from behind the three-point line. Without three-pointers, this is a mediocre offense with a rebounding problem on defense. It could be a rough ride for Illini fans if the shooting doesn’t improve.

Speaking of poor shooting, Michigan State was also in action this weekend. Although the Spartans aren’t blessed with much shooting acumen, they were able to overpower Texas on the inside in a defensive struggle. Neither team hit the 1.0 per possession mark, which I think will be something of a trend for Tom Izzo’s team this year. MSU does not have enough perimeter shooting to prevent teams from sagging in the paint, but MSU’s defense has been outstanding so far this season. Texas converted just 39 percent of their two-pointers, and they were denied second chances as MSU captured about 70 percent of the available rebounds. Derrick Nix had a monster game, with 25 points (10 shot) and 9 rebounds. Denzel Valentine had a Mike Tisdale Special, fouling out in just 9 minutes of court time.

On Friday, Northwestern came up short in its rally attempt against Stanford. As is typical with Northwestern, the Wildcats scored enough points to win (1.08 points per possession) had they done an average job on defense. But the Cardinal was hot from the outside (46 percent on threes), leading to a 1.11 PPP output. The good news is that it’s nice to see the Wildcats score so well even without Drew Crawford (Alex Olah continues to impress—16 points on 12 shots), but the result is all the same. Although NU did a pretty good job defending inside the arc, where Stanford made just 44 percent of its attempts, Bill Carmody’s team permitted Stanford to secure over 40 percent of the available offensive rebounds. Dave Sobolewski had a tough night, with just 1 point on 6 shots, to go along with 4 fouls.

There isn’t much action this week as everyone gets a few days off for the holidays, and then it’s a smattering of cupcakes next weekend as non-conference play closes. But before we close the book on 2012, we’ll be treated to the first games of the Big Ten season. Can’t wait.

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Steve Kandelman on 12/27/2012 @ 11:42am EDT Said:

The Illini were 12-1 last year and were 15-3 after 18 games before their colossal collapse. Tougher perimeter defense and a major weakness in defensive rebounding could lead to a similar collapse. Let’s not give Groce Big 10 Coach of the Year or Brandon Paul, Player of the Year before the real season starts.

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