staff, January 1, 2013

In the opening game of the conference season, Minnesota held serve at home by pulling away from Michigan State in the final minutes. Over the last 10 minutes of the game, the Gophers outscored the Spartans 22-6, erasing a three-point lead by MSU. This was a game between two teams that play very similar styles. For the most part, neither squad is blessed with outside shooting, and they know it-only Purdue shoots fewer three-pointers than these teams.

Instead, both squads rely heavily on getting second chance opportunities, and it showed on Monday. Michigan State grabbed 39 percent of its misses, while Minnesota was able to pull down an incredible 47 percent of its available offensive rebounds. Basically, each team?s shot attempt was just the opening volley of each possession. Minnesota?s performance is all the more remarkable given the fact that Michigan State is one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the country. Indeed, this was the worst defensive rebounding effort by the Spartans on the season, and it?s been a couple of years since a Big Ten team has grabbed that many offensive rebounds against MSU.

But Minnesota didn?t stop there. Despite the fact that Michigan State features one of the best two-point defenses in the country, Minnesota attacked the interior of the Spartan defense. Coming into the game, opponents were making fewer than 40 percent of their two-point attempts against Tom Izzo?s squad, but the Gophers didn?t seem to care, converting 60 percent of their shots inside the arc. Andre Hollins led the way with 22 points on 10 shots, as he was easily the best player on the floor between both teams.

There?s been some talk that this win proves that Minnesota is ?for real,? but I suspect that?s just the annual amnesia that afflicts so many when conference play opens. Not that I don?t believe in Minnesota-I happen to think this squad is very likely to finish in the top half of the conference (and this year, that?s saying something)-but just that a home win over Michigan State isn?t proof of that. That?s not an indictment of MSU, either. Last year?s Spartan squad was a Branden Dawson ACL tear from being a Final Four team in this author?s humble opinion, but that team nonetheless dropped road games to each of Northwestern and Illinois, both of which finished with losing conference records. The season is long, and life on the road isn?t easy for anyone.

And that?s precisely why Indiana?s win over Iowa is a much stronger victory. Tom Crean has the right idea, explaining that ?[w]e kept saying that if we get a win in (Iowa) it?s going to be a big deal, because not a lot of teams are coming in here and winning.? While Indiana led almost the entire game, the deficit was almost always within a couple of possessions.

What?s strange about this game was that neither team was able to score a point per possession. It?s the first time that?s happened to Indiana all season, and one would figure Iowa would be somewhat similar in profile to last year?s team (good offense, mediocre defense). Frankly, I?ve been in a bit of denial myself about Iowa?s 180 turn this year, and figured it would straighten itself out once Big Ten play began. So if there is such a thing as a moral victory, the fact that Iowa?s defense stepped up against the best offense in the country is probably as good an indicator as any that these Hawkeyes have gotten serious about shutting down opponents.

The flip side to that, however, is the fact that Iowa is having some real trouble scoring this season. The weak link has been outside shooting, and that was on display against IU as the Hawkeyes converted just 3 of 17 attempts from behind the three-point line. Not that the team was any better from two-point range, as they made just 39 percent of those attempts (much of that being missed layups in the first half). Indiana was led by Cody Zeller, who poured in 19 points (12 shots) to go with his 10 rebounds. Jordan Hulls is going to want to burn the tape of this one, as the senior guard posted a rare goose egg on 10 shots, although he did dish out six assists without committing a turnover.

Conference play continues on Wednesday, as Nebraska visits Ohio State followed by Purdue hosting Illinois. Both games are on BTN, and I?ll be joining Brent Yarina and Tom Dienhart for a live chat during all of the action. Stop by, as I?m sure to once again debate the merits of Aaron Craft?s defense.