Big Ten Geeks: Away we go

On the final day of 2013, two-thirds of the Big Ten got the conference season underway in entertaining fashion.

Ohio State withstood a valiant effort from Purdue before pulling away for the road win. More than anything else, this game displayed the Boilermakers’ potential, as they played even with one of the nation’s top teams for long stretches.

Purdue nearly managed to score a point per possession on the Buckeyes–a feat which has been accomplished only once this season–despite shooting 3-for-14 from three and getting a lackluster offensive game from A.J. Hammons. The supporting cast did a great job of making twos and limiting turnovers, but Hammons himself struggled in both areas.

On the other end, Hammons was magnificent, blocking five shots and grabbing 10 defensive rebounds while committing only one foul in his 33 minutes. If not for Ohio State shooting an unusually-high 55 percent on unblocked two-point jumpers, Purdue’s defensive effort might have been enough to pull the upset.

All that said, this was still a nine-point home loss for the Boilermakers, which was basically in line with KenPom’s projection. It’s not hard to see how Purdue could turn things around and make a run at the tournament, but it will need to happen soon. A good showing at Minnesota this Sunday would be a start.

The Buckeyes continue to look like they’ll be undefeated for next Tuesday’s visit to Michigan State, which is shaping up to be one of the crucial matchups of the conference race.

Speaking of the Spartans, they used two big second-half runs to put away a feisty Penn State team. The Nittany Lions got off to a great start, droppin 47 points before intermission, but Michigan State started the second half on a 10-0 run that erased Penn State’s lead. From there it remained close for a few minutes, but the Spartans would go on another run–this time 12-0–to put the game away.

All in all, this is an impressive result for Michigan State. Despite the permissive first half, the Spartans held the Nittany Lions to their lowest output of the season, a mere 0.91 points per trip. Michigan State has looked more like the team we expected this season since the return to health of Gary Harris. On this night, it was Branden Dawson that led the way with 20 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks.

The first half hinted at Penn State’s potential to pull upsets this conference season, as its perimeter-oriented offense can overwhelm any opponent when the shots are falling.

It should be noted that the Nittany Lions’ excellent backcourt just got a boost with Pitt transfer John Johnson becoming eligible at the end of the fall semester . Johnson struggled in his first Big Ten action, but he poured in 20 points against Mount St. Mary’s just before Christmas. Penn State also just got SMU transfer Jordan Dickerson eligible, and the seven-footer can provide a nice defensive boost should Pat Chambers elect to use him.

All of this is to say that Penn State will not be a pushover this season, so Michigan State fans can feel good about the second-half effort they saw.

In the day’s most entertaining game, Illinois knocked off Indiana in overtime, a result that could loom large on Selection Sunday for both teams. Truth be told, it felt like the Illini outplayed the Hoosiers, as it took a huge discrepancy in three-point shooting for Indiana to even be in this game. Given the poor outside shooting of both teams this season, the Hoosiers’ 10-for-22 performance from deep was rather fluky, and it coincided with an unusually poor shooting game for Illinois (2-for-17 from three). If the three-point lottery had come out a little more even, this game wouldn’t have even been close.

That said, the Hoosiers displayed their strengths on the offensive end: offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. Freshman Noah Vonleh was instrumental in both areas, as he finished with 16 points on just six field goal attempts. Yogi Ferrell had a monster game, scoring 30 points on 15 shots, though his six turnovers proved costly.

It was defense that failed Indiana, as Illinois was able to get into the lane and finish to the tune of 56 percent shooting on twos. Rayvonte Rice continued his impressive season with 29 points on 20 shots to go along with eight rebounds and just one turnover. It’s safe to say that Rice has exceeded anyone’s expectations after arriving as a high-usage low-efficiency transfer from Drake. If he can keep his shooting percentages up in Big Ten play, Rice really could be an all-conference first teamer.

This win was crucial for Illinois’ tournament hopes, not only because it’s a conference win but also because it keeps the Illini ahead of Indiana in the bubble pecking order. John Groce’s team faces a plethora of toss-up games on its conference slate, so these types of finishes should become familiar to Illinois fans. Close game results can be quite random, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to whether these Illini finish 11-7 or 6-12 (or somewhere in between).

Iowa faced a touch of resistance from Nebraska, but the outcome was never in doubt in a 10-point Hawkeyes win. Iowa’s defense was impressive in holding the Huskers to their lowest output of the season.

As usual, the Hawkeyes played superb two-point defense, holding Nebraska to 31 percent shooting inside the arc, and Iowa’s good fortune in three-point defense continued as well. Opponents are shooting 27 percent on threes against the Hawkeyes, 10th lowest in the nation, and eventually that number will rise. The good news is that Iowa has a good enough offense that an opponent’s three-point outburst won’t necessarily mean a loss.

The rest of the Big Ten tips off conference play on Thursday, with Northwestern hosting Wisconsin and Minnesota hosting Michigan. The latter game should be very interesting, as the Gophers will look to prove they are for real against the Mitch McGary-less Wolverines. Neither team figures to get much on the interior, so it will be a battle of very good backcourts.

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