Big Ten Geeks: Better to be lucky than good?
Wednesday and Thursday brought some interesting results on the Big Ten hardwood. Let’s jump right in. After Michigan’s last road game, we opined that the Wolverines were fortunate to leave Minneapolis with a victory. As if to troll us, John Beilein’s team found an even luckier way to win a Big Ten road game, this time in Nebraska’s brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena.
This one point victory included a half-court make at the halftime buzzer by Derrick Walton, then a point-blank miss at the end of regulation by Nebraska’s Leslee Smith. If either of those shots goes the way you’d expect, the Huskers are celebrating the first Big Ten win of their new arena. Instead, Michigan is 3-0 with two fluky one-possession wins.
Good fortune aside, the Wolverines were magnificent on offense, shooting 76 percent on twos and 35 percent on threes. The former number was propelled by fantastic interior finishing, but it was also helped by unusually good mid-range shooting.
|FG% at rim||FG% 2pt Jumpers||FG% 3pt|
The fact that Michigan probably should have lost a game in which they shot this well speaks to how poorly the Wolverines played on defense. The Huskers scored 1.17 points per possession, a figure they have eclipsed only three times this season (against bad defenses from Georgia, Florida Gulf Coast, and South Carolina State). Michigan’s offense can score with anybody, but defense will hold the team back from competing for a Big Ten title.
Minnesota sweated out a close win at Penn State, one that was aided by the late game absence of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill. Both players fouled out, and Frazier’s fifth foul was particularly puzzling. Frazier injured his leg and picked up his fourth foul on the same play with 2:08 remaining, and he did not realize how many fouls he had when he returned. Frazier then committed a foul well away from the basket to foul out. After the game, coach Pat Chambers discussed the play:
“We have to do a better job” Chambers said. “It’s on me. We have to go to the scorebook and say, ‘Who was that foul on?’ It’s that simple. “I looked up at the scoreboard, but you can’t trust the scoreboard; they didn’t put it up right away. It’s not a smart foul anyway. He’s 50 feet from the basket. He’s has to be smarter and (D.J.) Newbill has to be smarter. It’s upsetting.”
All that said, Minnesota made the necessary plays down the stretch to win, even if that final minute didn’t include Penn State’s two best players. For just the second time this season, the Gophers were held below a point per trip (the other was the home loss to Michigan), and it was largely due to an off shooting night. Minnesota needed this victory badly, and it ultimately got it.
Wisconsin demolished Illinois in a game that was a blowout almost immediately. After 10 minutes of clock time, the Badgers held a 19-point lead, and the Illini never were able to get that smaller than 17 points the rest of the way. The Wisconsin offense scored over 1.3 points per trip, a lofty level that the Badgers have nevertheless reached seven times this season. Illinois ended up with a decent offensive showing of almost a point per possession, but much of the production came after the game was out of reach.
The win gave Wisconsin its best start in school history, and it might be time to ask if this is the best team Bo Ryan has ever had. The 2007-08 Badgers had three eventual NBA players (maybe four if Brian Butch’s D-League play gets him a shot) and won both the Big Ten regular season and tournament, but it ran into the Stephen Curry buzzsaw in the Sweet Sixteen. The conference is much stronger now than it was then, but it’s very possible for this squad to surpass those accomplishments. Could this team get Ryan that elusive Final Four?
For Illinois, the way the loss happened was demoralizing, but it wasn’t a game you’d expect them to win anyway. The Illini need to sweep the next two games, which are both winnable (at Northwestern, vs Purdue). A quick start was important given Illinois’ tough later schedule, and 4-1 looks possible. A slip-up in either of these games would make a tournament berth an uphill battle.
Speaking of Northwestern, the Wildcats took another pummeling, this time at the hands of Iowa. The Hawkeyes ran out to a 10-0 lead and never looked back. Iowa scored at will, shooting 57 percent on both twos and threes while making constant trips to the foul line. It appears the Hawkeyes are well primed for Sunday’s visit to Ohio State.
This weekend brings some fun matchups, headlined by the aforementioned Iowa at Ohio State tilt. The Hawkeyes could shake up the title race and thrust themselves into the discussion with a road win, but nothing comes easy against the Buckeyes.