I must admit, I was a bit cautious in projecting Michigan this season. Last year’s team became a force over the second half of the season, and the reason was largely the defense’s sudden improvement. It’s not like the Wolverines lost a tremendous shotblocking presence or yeoman rebounder, but I did see a bit of a regression to the mean for John Beilein.
Purdue picked up a huge victory for their at-large profile at Illinois on Wednesday. This game was mostly decided in the first half, as the Boilers jumped out to a 13-point lead after 16 minutes. Bruce Weber’s team couldn’t stop the smaller Purdue lineup, and it failed to take advantage at the other end by getting the ball to Meyers Leonard. From that point forward, the Illini played much better, even using a triangle-and-two to good effect in the second half, but the Boilers would never fully relinquish their lead. The split of the efficiencies tells the story of too little, too late:
As we hit mid-February, the thoughts of college basketball fans naturally turn to the impending NCAA Tournament, especially to that dreaded B-word that gives college coaches heartburn–bubble. The Big Ten is not immune to this syndrome; in fact, four conference members find themselves squarely on that bubble. One of them was in action last night, while the other three will play tonight. Let’s examine these squads that are teetering on the edge.
Prior to his breakout performance against Ohio State, Adreian Payne had scored double figures in exactly two Big Ten games as a Spartan. And although his offense was certainly a big reason for Michigan State’s victory, his defense probably deserves more credit. Payne did something that few ever will–make Jared Sullinger look like a bad basketball player. The Ohio State big man was frustrated all game long, and although he had 17 points and 16 rebounds, it came at a cost of 10 turnovers (not to mention 4 fouls).
Indiana made a living at the foul line in a chippy 13-point win over visiting Illinois. For about 30 minutes, this was a tight, back-and-forth game, with six lead changes and 14 ties. Over the final 10 minutes, however, the Hoosiers took advantage of the foul-riddled Illini to pull away. Indiana not only got to the foul line at an astounding rate; it also shot incredibly well from there, going 35 of 42 (83 percent). Paired with the Hoosiers’ customary accuracy from the field and a low turnover rate, it powered Indiana to a scorching 1.26 points per possession, the highest allowed by the Illinois defense all season.
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Last Tuesday, we watched Illinois and Michigan State fight it out to a 42-41 final. A week later, Ohio State and Purdue matched that point total on the first possession of the second half in an entertaining 87-84 Ohio State win. Both teams used outstanding three-point shooting and minuscule turnover rates to power themselves above 1.30 points per trip, marking a season-high output for both sides.
The knock on Indiana this season was that while the Hoosiers are nearly unbeatable at home, they’re almost the opposite on the road. To wit, the home and away efficiencies are Stevenson-esque in conference play:
Michigan picked up a nice home win over Indiana that was, depending on your point-of-view, either not as close as or a lot closer than the final margin suggests. John Beilein’s team jumped out to a big early lead, which peaked at 20 points before the Hoosiers got going. Indiana then took momentum into halftime and maintained it out of the break. The Hoosiers were able to whittle the difference down to two points on multiple occasions, but they just couldn’t get over the hump. Michigan then finished with a flurry to arrive at the final 12-point margin. This breakdown of the efficiencies shows just how well the Hoosiers played during the middle of the game:
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Illinois picked up a much needed home victory over Michigan State, and Illini fans would probably appreciate if the discussion ended right there. It was about as ugly as basketball can get, with turnovers and missed shots aplenty. The Spartans had more missed shots than points, and their 26.7 effective field goal percentage represented the program’s worst shooting night in at least 15 seasons (I only have eFG data back to 1997-98). To top it all off, conference player of the year contender Draymond Green, who hadn’t played anyway much due to foul trouble, left the game late with an apparent injury. Green has been diagnosed with a sprained left knee and is considered day-to-day, which is certainly better than many of the possible alternatives.
With about 10 seconds remaining, Northwestern had succeeded in holding Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, Ryne Smith, and Lewis Jackson to a combined 17 points. That trio spearheads the Boilermaker offense, which has stalled at times this season when one of those three is having an off night. And in Purdue’s final possession, with the game tied, Northwestern played some of its best defense of the season, forcing Robbie Hummel into a contested mid-range jumper from the baseline.
Indiana was looking like they had turned a corner, building a small lead at the Kohl Center early in the second half. As has happened lately to Tom Crean’s bunch, things fell apart and Wisconsin picked up yet another B1G victory. Let’s look at how it happened.
Michigan picked up its first road win of the season in a hard fought two-point victory over Purdue. This was a mild upset, as Vegas had the homestanding Boilermakers favored by five points and KenPom had Purdue by four. This outcome certainly changes the season outlook for both squads.
After the injury to Trevor Mbakwe, I fully expected this to be somewhat of a “what if?” season for the Gophers. And that certainly appeared to be the case through four conference games, as Minnesota stumbled to a 0-4 start in the Big Ten. But Tubby Smith’s team has responded by winning three straight games, most recently in a stomping of Northwestern at The Barn. And although Minnesota had dropped some close games over its losing streak, the turnaround isn’t simply a matter of fortunate ball bounces:
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After a long break in which it moved into first place, Illinois saw its offense lay an egg in a losing effort at Penn State. It was clear that, despite the rousing win over Ohio State, this is still the same Illinois team we’ve watched all season. Let’s again roll out what we’ll have to start calling the Illini table:
Michigan and Michigan State played a highly entertaining game that lived up to advance billing, with the Wolverines prevailing by the slimmest of margins. This result flew in the face of the conventional wisdom that Michigan can’t win when its threes aren’t falling, as John Beilein’s team scored quite well despite shooting 29 percent from deep. As it usually does with a Beilein offense, the answer lied in a high conversion rate on twos and a low turnover rate.
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It’s certainly been an interesting start to the Big Ten season. Wisconsin looks vulnerable, Indiana looks much improved, and Minnesota is still fighting after losing its star. But what do that numbers say at the one-third mark?
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How do you break a Big Ten losing streak? Last night, the unlikely answer was to take a trip to snowy Indiana. Wisconsin and Minnesota got their seasons back on track with impressive wins in the Hoosier state.
With an amazing 43-point performance from Brandon Paul, Illinois shocked Ohio State in Champaign. Coming in, this looked like a game that the Illini might hope to keep close with their defense, but it seemed unlikely that Bruce Weber’s struggling offense would be able to scrape together enough points against the nation’s top defense. That analysis went out the window once Paul got rolling.
It’s early in the conference season, but not so early that teams don’t have something they need to work on. To get them in shape, let’s hand out some homework assignments.
Illinois picked up a much needed victory at Northwestern, but they sure didn’t make it easy on themselves. The Wildcats came out executing their offense to the tune of 1.13 points per possession in the first half, a very solid showing against a good Illini defense. John Shurna was at the forefront of the attack, putting up 17 first half points. Northwestern built a double digit lead before a late Illinois run made it closer at the half.
Wisconsin and Michigan State squared off last night in a game that will not help the Big Ten’s national image. Via a combination of slow pace, good defense, and missed shots that both teams would normally make, the Spartans and Badgers labored for points. It took Michigan State over 13 minutes of game time to break into double digits–and even then they were only down two points. Wisconsin’s shooting nightmare that began against Iowa persisted, and it truly looked like the first team to 50 would win.
Every year, it’s a test of one’s will to avoid drawing any conclusions prior to the beginning of conference play. For instance, two years ago the Texas Longhorns jumped out to an undefeated mark before beginning their conference slate. Non-conference opponents included Pitt, UNC, and Michigan State. After opening conference play with wins over what turned out to be the bottom of the Big XII, Texas sat atop both polls (I still don’t understand the point of polls in college basketball) and was generally recognized as the best team in the country.
The conference season is officially underway, as every B1G team has played a game (isn’t that 12-team balance nice?). Let’s take a look at the opening performances from Wednesday and Thursday.
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And they’re off! Conference play began last night, and we’ve already been treated to a close game and a Wisconsin blowout–two things we’ll probably see plenty of over the next two-and-a-half months. Let’s get to the details.
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games marked the end of non-conference play for many Big Ten members. With the holiday break looming, let’s run down who has been naughty and nice.