Big Ten Geeks: Illinois, Ohio State win thrillers

The headliner to the Big Ten’s wild weekend was Ohio State’s improbable comeback over Notre Dame. The Irish held an 8-point lead with under a minute to play, but OSU’s frenzied press led to four Notre Dame turnovers, which fueled a 14-3 Buckeye run. It was an unreal comeback, so hopefully you saw it, and weren’t like, trying to get a toddler to go to sleep. That would have been unfortunate.

But as good as OSU’s comeback was, it’s hard to come away from this game with a lot of positives other than getting a victory over a high major team away from Columbus. Thad Matta’s team is a defensive juggernaut, as its three best defenders each have a legitimate claim as one of the best in the country.

But offensively, this team has been very inconsistent. LaQuinton Ross has performed nicely as Deshaun Lite, but the Buckeyes need someone else to help shoulder the scoring load. Against Notre Dame, this team scored just 0.94 points per possession. And just like a typical Mike Brey-coached team, this year’s version of the Fighting Irish is as indifferent as ever on the defensive end. The teams that Notre Dame has held to fewer than 0.94 points per possession includes such lightweights as Bryant, Stetson, and Army.

All of this is to say that offense is a real problem for Ohio State. On nights when the outside shooting is cold (Saturday night, the team went 3 of 18 from three-point range), scoring becomes a struggle. The defense is incredible, and that’s going to be plenty to put the team in contention for the Big Ten title. But for the Buckeyes to make good on any Final Four predictions, the offense is going to have to improve.

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For the first time in five years, Illinois beat Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. The game went down to the final possession, but it was Jon Ekey’s three-pointer that gave Illinois a two-point lead that kept the team in the game. And although Rayvonte Rice has been Illinois’ best player so far, Jon Ekey’s surprising transformation from his time at Illinois State has been huge for John Groce:

Year

Usage

3P Pct.

Offensive Reb. Pct.

Defensive Reb. Pct.

13-14

15.0

41.5

10.1

16.1

12-13

14.0

34.8

7.0

13.5

A caveat should be included here that Illinois still has not played a very tough schedule, even after its games against Oregon and Missouri. But a couple of things really stand out about Ekey. The most surprising is that he’s actually consuming more possessions than he did while playing in the Missouri Valley conference. That’s very much the opposite of what usually happens with “transfer-ups.” Usually, a player becomes more deferential to his improved teammates, but a byproduct is gains in efficiency.

But Ekey is more efficient and more assertive. Plus, his rebounding on both ends of the floor is vastly improved, as well. We’ll see if this holds for the remainder of the season, but so far Groce deserves a ton of credit for squeezing everything he can out of Ekey. That said, the star of the game was Tracy Abrams, who continued his recent strong play with 22 points (16 shots), 6 rebounds, and one turnover.

[ MORE: Twitter: Reaction to Illinois' rivalry win ]

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Michigan State looked like Michigan State again in pulling away from Texas on the Longhorns’ own floor. Granted, Texas is as puzzling as they come—they can beat (an equally confusing) UNC on the road, but also lose to BYU and get taken to overtime by Temple—but this was a 14-point win in a true road game. Texas is at minimum an NIT team, so this counts as an impressive win.

Adreian Payne was the conference’s best player over the weekend, putting up a line of 33 points (13 shots) and 9 rebounds. When Payne plays like this, the Spartans can beat anyone. His performance was especially welcome on a day where Keith Appling had a rare off day. Appling is now in a bit of a mini-slump, having gone 0 for 7 from 3 over the past two games.

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Michigan hung on for a win over Stanford in Brooklyn. The Wolverines got the lead early in the first half, and led the rest of the way, but the Cardinal hung around all game. Michigan was without the services of Mitch McGary, so it was very encouraging that the team was able to keep Stanford off the offensive glass (UM grabbed 82 percent of Stanford’s misses). That’s especially impressive given that both Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford fouled out, and Max Bielfeldt nearly did so in just 12 minutes of action. Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas combined for 46 points on 21 shots.

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Purdue finished off the weekend with an impressive road win at West Virginia, and the team pulled the upset largely with outside shooting. This is significant, because ever since Robbie Hummel left campus, Matt Painter has gone all Bobby Knight on the 3s:

While Purdue was not a great outside shooting team last year, it was a passable one. And the Boilermakers were not supplementing their offense with free-throw attempts, either. In other words, Purdue was scoring two points at a time, which is no way to win in today’s game.

This year, it’s a little better, but I think Purdue could still stand to take a few more 3s a game. For one, the team is making them at a pretty decent clip (up to 35.4 percent after yesterday). Additionally, the team still isn’t getting to the free-throw line. In fact, getting to the free-throw line has never been a strong component of Matt Painter’s offense. It strikes me that Purdue’s offense would therefore benefit with a return to a more balanced approach.

The Johnson brothers led Purdue with 34 combined points on 29 shots.

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Believe it or not, the non-conference season is now basically over. The teams will finish off the remaining cupcakes, and then conference play tips off on New Year’s Eve.

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