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BTN’s Jim Jackson caught up with six Big Ten names working out at the NBA’s pre-draft combine in Chicago. Jackson talked to Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Draymond Green, Jordan Taylor, Meyers Leonard, and Robbie Hummel. If you’re running games down at the gym, that’s a pretty good first six right there.
Illinois center Meyers Leonard has opted to turn pro. And it isn’t a shock. “This was a very difficult decision because I love the University of Illinois,” Leonard said in a statement released by the school. “But I feel the timing is right for me to follow my dream of playing in the NBA and having the opportunity to provide for my mom and family.”
Josh: It’s time to reflect on another season of Big Ten hoops. I think the rest of college basketball has finally taken notice of something that’s been true for the past 18 months or so–the Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball. Still, you look at the conference today, you see two great teams, 3 pretty darn good teams, a team good enough to make the Dance, and then mediocrity. Heck, even a couple of pretty bad teams. I mean, it’s hard to say the conference underachieved, but here goes–the conference underachieved. Sure, this is still the best action you’ll find, and it’s not close, but we’re still talking about a league that’s probably going to get 6 bids, with only a couple of standout teams. Does that sound much different than the past decade, when the Big Ten wasn’t measuring up to the likes of the ACC and the Big East?
With Saturday’s win over Michigan, Purdue has seemingly punched its ticket to the Dance. At 9-7 in conference play, the Boilermakers are probably right where most expected them to finish this season–still solidly in the field of 68, but not a serious contender for the conference championship. But how they got to this point is very unexpected. Ever since the Baby Boilers arrived at West Lafayette, defense has been the calling card of this team:
It was looking like it would be an historic night in Evanston. In front of a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Northwestern Wildcats were locked in a tight battle with the visiting Michigan Wolverines. With a win, Northwestern would move one step closer to the 9-9 conference record that would almost certainly earn the program its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. As a cherry on top, the Wildcats’ signature nonconference win was looking even better as Seton Hall had just finished off an impressive win over Georgetown. If Bill Carmody’s team could just pull out this victory, it could be argued that it would be the most important night in Northwestern basketball history.
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.
Tuesday’s Michigan State-Illinois game was far from a thing of beauty. In the final minutes of the first half, in fact, ESPN play-by-play guy Mike Tirico begged, “This half NEEDS to end!” As inept as the offenses were in the 42-41 decision at Assembly Hall, there were a couple highlights: Meyers Leonard’s alley-oop and Brandon Paul’s poke.
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.
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.
It’s no secret that Illinois’ Meyers Leonard is blessed with a lot of athleticism. The 7-foot-1 big man moves and leaps unlike most guys his size, and he displayed it once again Wednesday at Northwestern. Late in the first half – a frustrating one for Leonard and the Illini – the breakout sophomore jumped out of the gym on a one-handed slam. Look at how high he got up there. And listen to that rim rattle! As BTN color commentator Shon Morris put it: “I think that rim is going to file assault charges.” Watch the dunk now and see his game-sealing block in this post.
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.
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.