Scouting matters. Have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t know your opponent, you’ll get sliced up. So credit Indiana for blowing up Illinois’ offense by stretching its defense well out to the perimeter in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. There was no space to breathe for Illinois’ shooters, and consequently just 6 of Illinois’ 27 field goal attempts were three-pointers in the first half.
Now, it may not seem like a big deal to take the three-pointer away from a team shooting 29 percent on threes in conference play. And because no strategy comes without tradeoffs, this did open things up in the paint for the Illini. But there are two problems with that—first, Illinois does not have good interior finishers. Groce acknowledged as much after the game, commenting that with respect to interior scoring, “to be honest with you, we have got to add some things with our program moving forward through recruiting.”
But more importantly, Illinois’ offense is working when the turnovers are low, which is fueled by a heavy three-point diet. Force Illinois to fight traffic in the paint, and turnovers pour out from the offense. Thus, Illinois’ 0.6 point per possession mark in the first half was largely due to its 23 percent turnover rate, and its inability to convert from close in.
Illinois’ three-point game wasn’t the only problem, however. The Illini could not keep Indiana off the offensive glass, which probably should not come as a surprise—coming into the game, the Hoosiers ranked 5th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Illinois’ defensive rebounding, on the other hand, has not been a pillar of strength (250th). For the game, Illinois allowed Indiana to recover 46 percent of its misses.
The result was Illinois trying to score more than Indiana, with fewer chances. And that’s not going to work. Cody Zeller was hyper-efficient, scoring 24 points on a mere 11 shots (with 9 boards to boot). Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams combined for 32 points, but they took 28 shots to get there.
Of course, even if Illinois is able to shoot a lot of threes, its inability to convert them renders it a limited team offensively. A good example of what that might look like is Wisconsin’s first half. The Badgers had no problems getting three-pointers off—most of them were good looks, too. But they might as well have been shooting from half-court. The Badgers finished the first half making just 2 of their 13 three-pointers en route to a 17-point 1st half performance.
The good news, however, is that Michigan only scored 20 points itself. The Wolverines’ struggles were a bit more multi-dimensional, and included a hefty number of turnovers to go with some of their own mediocre shooting.
The second half was a different story. The Badgers exploded for 1.5 points per possession, thanks to 6 of 9 three-point shooting. Michigan’s offense woke up as well—1.15 points per possession—but even that impressive figure (against the Big Ten’s best defense) wasn’t enough to hold onto the lead. Trey Jackson outplayed his similarly-named counterpart, going for 16 points on 7 shots (though his line was sullied a bit with 4 of Wisconsin’s 9 turnovers). Trey Burke ended up with 19 points, but on an inefficient 22 shots.
Warning: rant ahead
So Wisconsin moves on, but I still don’t understand everyone’s treatment of these Badgers. Sure, I get that Michigan fans don’t much care for Wisconsin’s brand of basketball right now. The wound is fresh. But why does everyone else hate these guys? When the Badgers lose in March, we hear how his system is consistently good in Big Ten play, but his players aren’t talented enough to win when it counts. When they win, there’s plenty of reverence for the coach (inasmuch as it’s a compliment to win ugly), but it all comes with backhanded compliments to the players. After yesterday’s win, reporters twice asked how the Badgers are able to keep on winning without elite recruits (one of those questions was specifically directed toward the players, which seems a bit gauche). Ryan hears this kind of stuff all the time—”tell us, coach, how are you able to win with these mediocre players?”—and I wouldn’t blame him for going full Bobby Knight in press conferences at this point. But he doesn’t, and neither do his players. He cracks jokes. His players are constantly being self-deprecating (Bruesewitz: “We’re not really concerned about what other people think. Clearly, [i]f I did, I wouldn’t have this ridiculous haircut. And I don’t think [Ryan] would recruit some of the guys. We’ve got some ugly dudes on this team, so if he cared what other people thought I don’t think he’d recruit some of us.”). It would be easy for this team to have an Us versus Them mentality, to embrace the role of a villain. But they don’t.
I, for one, like watching Wisconsin basketball. The games aren’t sloppy. It doesn’t turn into a free throw contest. There’s an emphasis on taking good shots. Not everyone likes those things, but let’s not pretend you would be crazy to enjoy watching basketball that’s all of three possessions slower than an average Big Ten game (the horror!), a margin that can be fairly explained with a lack of balls thrown out of bounds or fouls that forcefully bring a possession to a close. But even aside from the aesthetics of how they play, I like these guys because in a sport dominated by platitudes and clichés, they’re constantly reminding us that it’s just basketball. Give this team a chance—you might like it.
The evening session featured an Ohio State team that came out of the gate slowly, allowing Nebraska to jump out to a 14-3 lead. But it was smooth sailing from then on. The Buckeye defense quickly tightened up—coincidentally right around the time Shannon Scott checked in the game. With both Scott and Aaron Craft on the floor at the same time, Ohio State has the best defensive backcourt in the country. The second half pretty much turned into a Buckeye highlight reel, as Tim Miles’ team paid no attention to his halftime tweet, as Nebraska turned it over on about a quarter of its possessions. Sam Thompson had a career-high 19 points on a mere 9 shots in his hometown. Brandon Ubel led the Huskers with an efficient 16 points (8 shots) to go with 7 rebounds.
In the finale, Michigan State struggled to hit jumpers, as they were 3 of 15 from three-point range. Although the Spartans dominated the glass, they had trouble stopping Iowa’s balanced attack (all 10 Hawkeyes that played, scored, and none were in double figures). Still, impressive play from the Spartans in the paint (including The Dunk) helped them hang around Fran McCaffrey’s squad.
But with about 5 minutes remaining, the shackles came off of Michigan State’s offense, and Iowa was shell-shocked. The Hawkeyes hit a drought with about five minutes left, while the Spartans went on a 14-0 run to take control of the game. But then Iowa ripped off a six-point run of its own, to pull within 1 point with a minute remaining, and a Tournament berth on the line. The game eventually turned on a fouled called on Aaron White, who attempted to block Gary Harris’ jumper. It was…controversial. After Harris sank both free throws, Iowa was left trying to hit a three-pointer to tie the game. That’s not a position this team ever wants to be in, as it is the worst outside shooting team in the Big Ten (and with 3 teams below 30 percent, that’s saying something).
Iowa’s prognosis for an at-large bid isn’t great at the moment, but plenty of other teams on the bubble lost early in their conference tournaments. There’s still hope yet.
We now have an all-chalk semifinal round, with only the top-four seeds still alive. Indiana will be looking to complete its sweep of the Big Ten (Wisconsin is the only team Indiana does not have a win over), while Ohio State takes on Michigan State in a rubber game. Be sure to check out BTN Connect and @bigtengeeks to follow the action.