Big Ten Geeks: It isn't the Little Ten

Illinois’ weaknesses were exposed in a road loss against a mediocre Purdue team last night. The concerning thing isn’t so much that Illinois lost—Purdue isn’t a terrible team, just a terrible offensive team—it’s that it lost to Purdue despite hitting 10 three-pointers (38% from three on the night). Thus, it appears the “Illinois wins when it shoots well” maxim is incorrect. This team can shoot well, and still lose.

The fact of the matter is that Illinois is a mediocre defensive team, and especially awful on the defensive glass. Purdue grabbed 44 percent of its misses—including four off of missed free throws. The biggest rebound of the game was D.J. Byrd’s offensive board with a two-point lead after Jacob Lawson missed both of his free throws. The blame for Illinois’ defensive woes might be squarely placed with its frontcourt. None of Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Egwu, or Sam McLaurin sport a defensive rebounding percentage above 12.0. As a point of reference, Indiana’s point guard, Yogi Ferrell, who is charitably listed at 6-0, beats all but Griffey with his 11.2 defensive rebounding percentage. Indeed, Ferrell is probably a better defensive rebounder when one considers that he was to fight Cody Zeller and Christian Watford for those rebounds, while Illinois’ big men are going up against teammates much shorter than themselves.

Egwu and McLaurin look especially bad when comparing them against the other Big Ten centers:

Only Frank Kaminsky rivals the Illinois centers’ defensive rebounding ineptitude (a badge of dishonor amongst Badgers, which may explain why his lethal offense cannot get unglued from the bench).

Of course, the blame might not entirely rest with the centers, either. John Groce’s Ohio teams were likewise mediocre-to-bad on the defensive glass, so it just may not be a point of emphasis with the new coach. In any event, if Illinois expects to be anything better than a mid-level Big Ten team—either this year or going forward—it must do better on the glass. The Big Ten is a rebounders’ league, and teams that fail to adhere to that principle are punished in conference play.

Looking at this season, Illinois might really regret this loss in March. The Illini still don’t look to be better than a .500 conference team, and this was a winnable road game. While it’s possible Illinois will defend its home court against all of Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan, the reality is that it’s going to lose at least one, if not 3 or 4, of those games. To compensate for that, Illinois will have to win some road games. The Illini don’t play Penn State on the road, meaning Nebraska and Northwestern are the only remaining road games that look favorable to Illinois right now.

For Purdue, this was a nice breath of fresh air for Matt Painter’s team, which really struggled in the non-conference slate. While I don’t think that this will be the beginning of an incredible run that takes the Boilermakers into the NCAA Tournament, it will at least provide some relief to the Purdue faithful that this is not a terrible team. Purdue is very good on defense, and it struggles on offense. This is not a pushover by any means. Terone Johnson led the way with 25 points on 18 shots.

Ohio State easily destroyed Nebraska on Wednesday, limited the Huskers to just 0.68 points per possession. While that’s pretty bad, Nebraska had three outings against Big Ten teams last season that were even worse. Bigger than the score was the loss of Andre Almeida, who left the game with an ankle injury. He’s one of the few Huskers that can put points on the board, so it would be a big loss if he misses any more games. DeShaun Thomas was his usual outstanding self, scoring 22 points on 14 shots to go with 8 rebounds. Lenzelle Smith pitched in 17 points on 9 shots.

Also tearing apart its opponent was Michigan, who blasted the Northwestern Wildcats to the tune of 1.36 points per possession. It was the worst defensive performance for NU since Wisconsin lit up the Wildcats at Kohl a couple years ago. While Bill Carmody has a shorthanded team (last night, they were without Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and Reggie Hearn), that’s still some terrible defense. And it’s not a good sign for the remainder of the season. Crawford and Cobb won’t be playing again this year, and although Hearn should be back soon, he’s not the difference between a middling defense and the kind that Northwestern appears to have this year. Complicating things further is the fact that NU’s offense is not the usual brand of efficiency that we’ve become accustomed to recently. With Crawford and Cobb due back next season, it appears the “wait ‘till next year” slogan has already been co-opted from the Cubs by the nearby Cats.

Michigan, meanwhile, keeps on rolling. The team is now shooting over 40 percent from three-point range, and nearly 60 percent on twos. Defensively, the Wolverines are enjoying one of their better seasons under Beilein as well, so it’s hard to see a lot of teams getting them better of them. Big Blue has a couple of tune-ups at home before taking on Ohio State in Columbus during what should be a monster weekend for Big Ten hoops.

Wisconsin survived a bit of scare from Penn State last night. The Badgers were ice cold from long range (18 percent) and even at the free throw line (50 percent). The struggles of senior Ryan Evans have been documented in this space before, so I won’t rehash them here. But I resubmit my suggestion that Ryan Evans see a reduced role in this offense. He’s a good defender, and Wisconsin’s best rebounder (even better than Ben Brust, who has one of the more awesome nicknames of “Bennis Rodman”), so I don’t mind that he’s on the floor. But right now, Evans cannot make threes and visits to the free throw line are perilous. That makes him largely just a two-point scorer. When a team is reduced to only two-pointers, the offense generally stinks (that’s how you get results like this). It’s no different for individual players. Even if Evans were accurate with his jumpers (he’s not), he would be inefficient. So it makes little sense for him to hoist 15 attempts in Wisconsin’s win last night, while the uber-efficient Jared Berggren only attempts 7 shots. Both players ended up with 13 points, but Berggren consumed less possessions to get there. At this point in the season, it’s probably too late to hope that Evans will snap out of his funk. The Badgers are still a good team this year, but not so good they can afford to indulge Evans during Big Ten play.

Penn State fans, on the other hand, are probably upset with the way the officiating went. The Nittany Lions attempted just one free throw on the night, despite the fact that over 80 percent of their attempts were twos. Meanwhile, Wisconsin attempted 26 at the charity stripe (fouling out two Lions in the process) despite the fact that nearly half of Wisconsin’s shots were from beyond the arc. I can’t remember seeing any egregious oversights, but I’m not wearing blue and white goggles, either.

This weekend brings us some quality matchups, the highlight probably being Ohio State’s visit to Champaign to take on the Illini on Saturday. This is probably a bigger game for Illinois, who face Minnesota followed by a visit to Wisconsin next week. They could be looking at an 0-4 start, especially if they continue to struggle on the boards.

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