staff, December 5, 2011

Sometimes, it is how you lose. In the big picture, losing by 3 on Xavier?s home floor is no reason for Purdue fans to be upset. But that?s a tough sell in light of the fact that the Boilermakers enjoyed a 19-point lead with under 10 minutes to play. Matt Painter?s team dominated the first 30 minutes of the game on defense, forcing 20 turnovers. But over the final stretch, the Boilers forced two. Meanwhile, the Musketeers? offense (especially Tu Holloway) came to life, and outscored Purdue 30-8 over the final quarter of the game. It should be noted that Robbie Hummel battled cramps throughout the game, and that certainly might have affected his performance down the stretch. But it?s no secret that Hummel isn?t the most durable player–even beyond his two ACL tears he?s missed games for smaller injuries. I don?t see why that would change this season, so Purdue should expect to be without its best player for at least stretches of games. What that means is that Matt Painter needs to find a second scorer to support Hummel while he?s healthy, and to lead the offense when he?s hurt.
Also on Saturday, Wisconsin was upset by Marquette at home. The Badger offense looked awful (0.85 points per possession), especially when it came to shooting. Indeed, the only time Wisconsin offense output fewer points per possession last season was in the throwback 36-33 Big Ten tournament loss to Penn State. On Saturday, Wisconsin shot just 35 percent from inside the arc, and 26 percent from long range. Even so, this isn?t the first time UW has shot poorly–there were plenty of bricks being thrown around in Chapel Hill earlier this week for instance–but this time it was paired with uncharacteristically sloppy ballhandling. I mean that in a relative sense, of course. Usually when a team coughs it up on under 20 percent of its possessions, it doesn?t jump off the box score. When Jordan Taylor increases his career turnovers by about 5 percent in a single game, however, it?s noticeable. Give credit to Marquette, as the Badgers certainly aren?t the easiest team to shut down, and I have a feeling the Golden Eagles will be making some noise later on this season.

In some good news, Illinois protected its home floor by prevailing over Gonzaga. This game was hyped as a battle between two talented centers, and it did not disappoint. In the first half, Gonzaga?s Robert Sacre held the edge, scoring 14 points and planting Meyers Leonard on the bench with two fouls. In the second half, however, it was a different story. Leonard scored 17 of his 21 points over the final 20 minutes while largely avoiding foul trouble. Not only that, but Leonard actually fouled Sacre out–with all 5 of his fouls coming in the second half. It was definitely the best game of the sophomore?s career to date, and it?s yet another sign that the Big Ten is a conference full of tremendous frontlines. For Illinois, the team moves to 8-0 for the first time since 2005-06. There?s no dispute that this is the most talented team that?s been in Champaign for a few years, the only question was whether a lack of experience would hold them back. If they can get by UNLV in a couple of weeks, Illini fans should be pretty excited.

Also on Saturday, Minnesota continued to rally without Trevor Mbakwe. USC isn?t a great team, but without Mbakwe, neither are the Gophers. This game thus helps shore up the bottom of the Big Ten as the best basement in the country. JUCO transfer Julian Welch led the Gophers with 16 points, which only adds to the games of ?what if? being played by Minnesota alums.

Believe it or not, Ken Pomeroy?s computer actually had Northwestern as slight favorites over Baylor in Evanston. This is a reflection of a few things: 1) these (or any other) rankings are not quite ripe, 2) Northwestern?s offense was due for some regression, and 3) Baylor is really good. The Bears? favorite shot on Sunday was dunking, and there was plenty of that to go around. Meanwhile, the Wildcats couldn?t MAKE SHOTS, converting just 31 percent on twos and 15 percent on threes. Bill Carmody?s team has one more chance to pick up a quality win in the non-conference slate when it visits Creighton later this month, but the reality is that Northwestern needs to pick up at least 9 wins in conference play to really make dancing a possibility.

Nebraska also blew a chance to pick up a quality win when it fell to Creighton. The Blue Jays already look like one of the premier mid-majors of this season, and it?s not hard to predict them as a NCAA Tournament team. But the Huskers? offense once again fell flat. A big reason for that was the normally productive Dylan Talley produced one of the more awful lines you?ll see in a game: 20 minutes, zero points (4 shots), zero rebounds, 1 assist, two turnovers, and four fouls. I think Doc Sadler would rather see trillionaires than that. We?re just now entering December, and Nebraska?s rotation has already shrunk to about 7 players. It can?t afford off nights from one of its more productive players.

Finally, I was somewhat encouraged by Penn State?s narrow loss to Ole Miss. The Rebels should be at least an average team in the SEC, so hanging with them is a good sign, even if it was at home. Still, we?re a month away from conference play, and no one has yet emerged as a second scoring option after Tim Frazier. But it?s not for lack of effort on new coach Pat Chambers? part. There are a full nine Nittany Lions averaging over 14 minutes a game (although just 7 saw significant action last night). That?s quite a change from DeChellis? tenure, where 6 or 7 man rotations were the norm.

This week is a tune-up of sorts, as the conference mostly picks on cupcakes. So rest up for this weekend, when things get a lot more interesting.