staff, January 6, 2012

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.

In the second half, Illinois' defense finally showed up. Northwestern managed just three points in the first nine minutes after the break, but the Illini were only able to build a five point lead during that stretch. Still, baskets remained tough to come by for the Wildcats, and it resulted in Illinois holding a seven point lead, with the ball, with just 1:32 remaining. Bruce Weber's team would simply have to make free throws and play a little defense to salt away the victory.

They basically did neither. Brandon Paul missed the front end of a one-and-one;  Alex Marcotullio hit a three. Meyers Leonard forced a layup with 15 seconds on the shot clock and missed it; Shurna hit a three. Leonard made one of two at the line; Northwestern missed a three and Drew Crawford tipped it in. Suddenly the game was tied. That's an 8-1 Northwestern run on three possessions, and it took just 77 seconds.

At this point, Illinois was probably a bit shell-shocked, which is the only way to explain what they did on their final possession. With Weber declining to call timeout, Paul drove way too early–nearly committing an offensive foul–and missed a shot with a full seven seconds left on the game clock. Luckily for Paul, Myke Henry was there to get fouled on the put-back attempt. Fittingly, Henry made just one of two, and Northwestern had the final shot to win–the exact scenario Illinois should have been looking to avoid. It is imperative to get the final shot of the game in that situation, or at worst give the opponent time for no more than a desperation heave.

Crawford drove to the basket and had a decent-looking attempt swatted away by Leonard as the horn sounded. Illinois escaped, continuing their trend of pulling out close games. The problem with this one, as it has been with several of Illinois' close victories, is that the Illini shouldn't have allowed it to be close in the first place. Simply make free throws and Northwestern probably never even gets a shot at the win.

Regardless, this is an important win for Illinois, as Northwestern was a slight favorite coming in. The manner in which the Illini won will not inspire confidence, but that might be soon forgotten with a home game against Nebraska looming. For the Wildcats, it was a valiant effort to make the comeback, and they did a solid job defensively all game, but the Northwestern offense was flat-out shut down in the second half. Here's how the efficiencies broke down:

First Half Second Half
Illinois 0.97 0.91
Northwestern 1.13 0.70

For the game, the Wildcats scored just 0.93 points per trip–only Baylor and Ohio State have held them lower. The flipside is that Illinois scored just 0.94 points per possession; that means teams like Mississippi Valley State, Eastern Illinois, and Stony Brook fared better against Northwestern's D than the Illini did. At least this time it was simply poor shooting that held down Illinois' efficiency, opposed to the turnover issue that has plagued them recently. The Wildcats don't normally force all that many miscues, but it's still a positive that Illinois kept their turnover rate to a reasonable 18 percent with starting point guard Sam Maniscalco sitting due to injury. Freshman backup Tracy Abrams deserves a lot of credit for playing 30 minutes without a single turnover.

In Wednesday night's other action, Iowa picked up another surprising road victory, this time at Minnesota by two. The Hawkeyes must have been studying the Illinois Handbook of Finishing Ballgames, as they very nearly gave the game away by missing their final six free throw attempts. Still, this is another very good win for Iowa, and they did it primarily by playing solid second half defense. The Gophers found themselves attempting three after three as the game moved along, and they shot just 17 percent from distance. This perimeter-oriented approach also kept Minnesota off the foul line–despite Iowa's late struggles, they still made eight more free throws than the Gophers.

Matt Gatens had one of the finer performances of his career, posting 19 points, six rebounds, three steals, three assists, and zero turnovers. Aaron White continues to make my Jon Leuer comparison look pretty good; the freshman put up 10 points and six rebounds off the bench.

Suddenly Iowa is looking like a decent team, as they hold an in-conference efficiency margin of +0.06 after three relatively tough games. The Hawkeyes have two wins, and they still have four games against the likes of Penn State and Nebraska, not to mention winnable looking home games against Minnesota and Northwestern. Win all of those and that's an 8-10 conference record. That wouldn't be enough for bubble consideration, given the poor nonconference performance, but that would still be quite a step forward for Fran McCaffery's program. Iowa's next game is at home against Ohio State on Saturday. They can't possibly win that one… can they?

Minnesota is now behind the eight ball, sitting at 0-3 in the conference with seven games still left against teams currently in the KenPom top 10 (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State). It's too early to be declaring any team done, but the Gophers face an uphill battle to even reach nine conference wins.

On Thursday night, Penn State shocked Purdue with a 20 point spanking. Matt Painter said after the game that his team had become "fat and sassy" after starting conference play 2-0. Besides being hilarious, it's probably also true, as it's otherwise hard to explain this performance. Certainly some of it was reversion to the mean, as Purdue's shooting was off the charts in the win over Illinois, but the effort seemingly just wasn't there either. In many ways, Penn State did to Purdue exactly what the Boilers usually do to other teams–namely, force turnovers and knock down threes. Billy Oliver played the Robbie Hummel role to perfection, shooting seven of 11 from three for 21 points.

This loss certainly changes the season outlook for Purdue. The Boilers dropped 10 spots in the KenPom rankings, which is a sizable move at this stage of the season. Their resume suddenly looks vulnerable, as losses to Butler and Penn State will tend to cancel out solid wins over Iona and Temple, and that Xavier loss is looking worse by the week. Purdue is still a good bet to make the NCAA Tournament, but that's looking a lot less secure than it did yesterday. Sunday's trip to Minnesota is big for both teams.

Thursday's other game was extremely entertaining, as Michigan kept fighting but came up just short in a visit to Indiana. Early in this one, it looked as though the Hoosiers might run away with it, but Michigan kept running their stuff until shots started to fall. Perhaps most impressive to this Geek was the unfailing confidence of freshman Trey Burke.  I took note in the first half that he was probably having the worst game of his young career, but the point guard never lost his aggression and ended up contributing down the stretch. Burke put up 10 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds, although it took him 15 shots and four turnovers to get there.

This game had a couple very interesting matchups of similar players, most notably Tim Hardaway Jr. vs Victor Oladipo and Evan Smotrycz vs Christian Watford. Hardaway got the better of his matchup, scoring 19 points to Oladipo's five, but Watford carried the Indiana offense with 25 points on just 11 shots. Watford is having a fantastic junior season.

For Michigan, this performance is rather encouraging even given the loss. John Beilein's offense scored 1.07 points per trip at Assembly Hall, which is better than Kentucky or Ohio State managed in the same venue. The simple fact is that Indiana is going to be very tough to beat at home this season, so chalk this one up as a moral victory and move on to the big home game against Wisconsin.

Indiana is now 3-0 in games decided by four points or less, boosting an already good season into great territory. The Hoosiers really do have a chance at winning the Big Ten this year, something we Geeks didn't think possible. Tom Crean deserves all the credit in the world for bringing that program back from oblivion in four short years, and the future looks even brighter.

This weekend, the big swing games on paper are Purdue at Minnesota and Wisconsin at Michigan, but there's always the chance for surprises. If there's anything the wild first two weeks of conference play have taught us, it's that the games aren't played on paper for a reason.