Wednesday night went much better than Tuesday night for the Big Ten, as a 4-2 showing salvaged a second-consecutive tie in the Challenge. Overall, this was a good result for the conference, but the discussion at the end of the night focused on who to blame for the Big Ten’s failure to outright win the thing.
Responses were mixed, but a slight majority pointed their fingers at Michigan State, a team that was ranked #1 in the polls and was playing at home against a North Carolina team that had just lost at UAB. That’s not an entirely fair characterization of the competition, as these Tarheels are a decidedly inconsistent bunch.
Let’s not forget that North Carolina knocked off the defending national champions a week and a half ago, and that loss certainly doesn’t doom Louisville from Final Four contention. In fact, the Cardinals responded to that loss with two impressive blowouts that restored them to the top spot in KenPom’s rankings. Losing to North Carolina as a solitary result does not mean Michigan State is a disappointment.
It does, however, raise some questions about this Michigan State offense, which was been strangely unable to get to the free throw line.
At the same time, Michigan State is not getting much in the way of second chances.
Even more alarming, these numbers have been compiled mostly against opponents outside the top 100. This is clearly a different offense than Tom Izzo is used to running out there. The Spartans are taking more threes and turning it over less. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a perimeter-oriented offense, but it’s about as close to one as Izzo would ever allow.
This makes sense given the personnel. Of Michigan State’s top six players, only Branden Dawson is a true interior player, and he’s low-usage. Adreian Payne has a track record of grabbing offensive rebounds and getting to the foul line, but it seems his discovery of the three-point shot has muted those abilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–after all, he’s shooting 48 percent from three–but it changes the complexion of this offense.
At the moment, Michigan State appears to be about as good it was last season. That’s still a very good squad, but this was expected to be a national title contender. It might still be, but the necessary offensive improvement has yet to materialize.
In the interest of brevity, let’s go bullet-point for observations on the other Wednesday games.
- Wisconsin showed flashes of last season’s dominant defense in a road win over Virginia. The Cavaliers aren’t a good offensive team, but it’s impressive to hold any opponent to a 24.5 effective field goal percentage. Suddenly the defense that we thought would be the Badgers’ weakness is looking like a strength, and this might actually be a Big Ten title contender. Wisconsin certainly has the most impressive resume of any Big Ten team, sitting at 9-0 with six top-100 wins (only one of which came at home).
- Purdue played its most complete game of the season in a pounding of Boston College. Sure, the Eagles aren’t good, and the game was at Mackey, but the way the Boilermakers defended a good offense was encouraging. There’s still a long way to go to look like a tournament team, but this is a start.
- Ohio State dismantled a decent Maryland team. LaQuinton Ross’ 20 points on 13 shots was an excellent sign for an offense that truly needs him. The Buckeyes continue to have the nation’s top defense, and it’s hard to see them being challenged until a January 7 visit to Michigan State. A 15-0 start looks entirely reasonable.
- Nebraska impressed on the defensive end in a surprisingly easy win over Miami. Tim Miles has quickly put his stamp on this program, and the Huskers appear headed for relevance by year three.
- Northwestern continued to look like the conference’s worst team in a drubbing from NC State. Before the season, we thought the return of some experienced players coupled with some sophomore leaps could have the Wildcats mildly competitive, but it’s really just been a mess. Drew Crawford did what he could with 17 points and nine rebounds.
After the flurry of the Challenge, the Big Ten rests. Most of the conference returns to action on Saturday, with Wisconsin’s hosting of Marquette looking like the most interesting contest. Nebraska has an opportunity to make a statement in a Sunday visit to Creighton.