Dienhart: 3 keys for each Big Ten NCAA team

On the eve of the NCAA tournament, hope spring eternal for every team. Get hot, rip off six victories in a row, and you will be national champion.

With seven teams in the field, the Big Ten has a good chance to see its first national championship since Michigan State won it all in 1999-2000. In fact, the Big Ten has four teams seeded among the top four in various regions: No. 1 Indiana; No. 2 Ohio State; No. 3 Michigan State; No. 4 Michigan.

And Wisconsin is a No. 5 seed. No. 7 Illinois and No. 11 Minnesota also are in the field. What does each have to do to enjoy success?

[ RELATED: These players are key to Big Ten NCAA success ]

Here are my three keys for each team:

No. 1 Indiana, East, No. 16 LIU Brooklyn/James Madison

  • Run the offense through Cody Zeller. It sounds simple. But, at times, the Hoosiers can forget to make the 7-0 sophomore the fulcrum of the offense. Zeller needs to touch the ball on most every possession, allowing him to make a move in the post or kick it out to one of an array of shooters. Zeller is a unique weapon whose skills must be maximized.
  • Get out in transition. Yes, Indiana can play in half-court set if needed. But this team is best when it’s able to get out and score in transition. The Hoosiers have athletes like Victor Oladipo, Yogi Ferrell and Christian Watford who excel in the open court. This team can score a lot of points in a short period of time.
  • Bench production is key. This team isn’t as deep as many believe. Aside from Will Sheehey, Indiana doesn’t get a lot of consistent production from its bench. Players like Remy Abell and Jeremy Hollowell also need to chip in.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Indiana NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 2 Ohio State, West, vs. No. 15 Iona

  • This is one of the hottest teams in the nation, ripping off eight victories in a row as it begins the Big Dance. A major reason for that hot skein has been defense. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (57.9). Aaron Craft is the leader, but players like Shannon Scott have stepped up their effort, which must continue.
  • Ohio State has the ultimate stud in Deshaun Thomas. The junior forward never has met a shot he didn’t like. He’s capable of huge scoring games and doesn’t shy from the spotlight. A few big shots will need to be made if the Buckeyes want to march to a second consecutive Final Four. And Thomas can and must hit them.
  • This team is peaking at the right time. Yes, the defense has been huge. But a more balanced offense also has been key. Thomas, Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. don’t have to carry huge loads each night for the Buckeyes to win. Scott, Evan Ravenel and LaQuinton Ross—among others–have been coming on. There are many options that now must be defended.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Ohio State NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 3 Michigan State, East, vs. No. 14 Valparaiso

  • Keith Appling must play well. The junior point man is coming off four solid games of double-figure scoring. But before that, he was struggling with consecutive six-, three- and nine-point games. He also had a combined nine turnovers in those games. Not surprisingly, the Spartans lost all three games. Appling must hit some shots and limit turnovers.
  • Gary Harris has to be OK. The conference freshman of the year has dealt with some injury issues (back/shoulder) that have hampered him at times. In fact, his shoulder seemed to be acting up in the Big Ten tourney. Michigan State needs his shot-making ability.
  • Adreian Payne must be a star. The 6-10 junior emerged this season as a well-rounded player and one of the Big Ten’s elite talents. His size makes him a force on the interior. But it’s his ability to now step out and hit a 3-pointer that makes him special. Payne can be a dominating force.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Michigan State NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 4 Michigan, South, vs. No. 13 South Dakota State

  • Keep protecting the ball. Few teams do it better than Michigan, which is No. 1 in the Big Ten in turnover ratio and commits a league-low 9.2 turnovers per game. Every possession in March is precious.
  • Trey Burke needs to be a star. In fact, he may be the biggest star in the NCAA tourney. The sophomore sensation scored at least 15 points in every Big Ten games this season. And he has shown the ability to take over a game and carry his team to victory. No doubt, if the Wolverines are to make a deep run, Burke likely will have to hit some big shots in crunch time with America watching.
  • We all know this is a prolific offensive team, averaging 75.2 points. But defense and rebounding? They often times can be spotty for the Wolverines. Michigan has yield 70 or more points five times in the last nine games. Defense on the interior often is an issue, though Jordan Morgan is capable. Michigan is just eighth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin. And it’s last in blocks. It’s just too easy at times to get inside and score, and to out rebound this team.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Michigan NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 5 Wisconsin, West, vs. No. 12 Ole Miss

  • The big fellas have to shoot well. Players like Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Sam Dekker need to hit shots—especially Berggren, who has struggled most of the season from the perimeter. Often times, the Badgers go as he goes.
  • Keep playing great defense. That’s the backbone and staple of the program. The Badgers are No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (55.9). They excel not just at limiting 3-pointers made—but also 3-pointers attempted. They simply work to limit the attempts of opponents. Wisconsin also has active hands and the players almost always are in good position, rarely fouling.
  • Patience. That’s a trademark of the Badger offense. Wisconsin works the shot clock, making opponents play defense for almost the entire duration of the 35-second shot clock. If and when there is a breakdown, the Badgers seize it with a cut or drive to the basket—or an open 3-point shot.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Wisconsin NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 7 Illinois, East, vs. No. 10 Colorado

  • Brandon Paul has to be big-time. And that means scoring a lot of points. To do that, he’ll need to shoot well. The 6-4 senior can be an assassin from the perimeter, and he’s hit his share of ridiculous shots. He has scored over 20 times 11 times this season with a high of 35. Paul can take over a game—and win it by himself. Sidekick D.J. Richardson also is capable of a big game.
  • The Fighting Illini need to get some production in the paint. That has been at a premium all season for a team that lacks size and, quite honestly, toughness. Watch the rebounding numbers for a team that’s 10th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin.
  • Teams typically don’t survive long in March without good defense. And, Illinois’ isn’t very good. The Fighting Illini’s field-goal percentage defense is ninth in the Big Ten (42.7 percent). Their 3-point field-goal percentage is 10th (34.3). And only one Big Ten team allows more points per game (65.3)—Penn State.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Illinois NCAA tourney preview ]

No. 11 Minnesota, South vs. No. 6 UCLA

  • Trevor Mbakwe has to avoid foul trouble. Tubby Smith has said he will sit the sixth-year senior if he gets into early foul trouble, refusing to let him play around the issue. And that drives some Gopher watchers bananas. A Minnesota team that’s riding a three-game losing skid needs to have Mbakwe on the court.
  • Andre Hollins needs to be on top his game. March is all about point guard play. And Hollins needs to be a playmaker. But the sophomore has battled some turnover issues this season. In fact, he has 74 in 32 games this season. Last year, he had 79 in 37. That’s why this team is 11th in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Hollins also needs to hit some jumpers to open the lane.
  • Where has Rodney Williams gone? The 6-7 jumping jack has reached double-figures just three times in the last nine games. Over that span, he has gone scoreless three times. Injuries (shoulder) have been an issue for Williams. Still, he needs to be a factor in what has been a disappointing senior season as his scoring and rebounding numbers are down from last season.

[ RELATED: Dienhart: Minnesota NCAA tourney preview ]

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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2 Comments

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shookwriter27 on 3/20/2013 @ 4:16pm EDT Said:

If Illinois hits three pointers in the tournament like they did in the non-conference season they could go a lot farther than expected.

Delmar Jones on 3/20/2013 @ 10:38pm EDT Said:

To shookwriter27 Illinois was hitting threes non-conference and conference through the Ohio State game but since and not been good at them. I don’t think that anything is going to change, but who knows. Ohio State drawing of Iona is a good thing because they will have to play defense from the start and will put them in the right mine set. GO BUCKS