staff, January 11, 2013

On Wednesday, Minnesota made a statement, beating Illinois by 17 points in Champaign. This was a strange one, as the Illini actually negated the Gophers? huge on-paper advantage on the glass. Instead, it was a big discrepancy in shooting accuracy that told the story. Minnesota, normally a mediocre outside shooting team, hit nine of 15 from behind the arc, while Illinois made just three of its 24 three-point attempts. The Gopher defense certainly had a lot to do with the Illini?s struggles–there just weren?t all that many open looks–but it was also just one of those nights (see Andre Hollins? banked-in three from nearly midcourt to beat the shot clock).

Still, it is the mark of an effective defense to force the opponent to take contested jumpers, and contested jumpers were just about all the Illinois offense could get:

Layups/dunks/tip-ins 11 12 92% 18%
Two-point jumpers 9 29 31% 45%
Threes 3 24 13% 37%

A big part of Illinois' improvement offensively has been better shot selection. Compared to last season, the Illini have been taking fewer two-point jumpers and more three-point jumpers. That's a good strategy (assuming you don't shoot 13 percent from three), but you still need to supplement with easy looks at the rim. Minnesota's defense took that away for most of the night.

The Gophers, on the other hand, took a full third of their shots at the rim. Combined with the hot three-point shooting, it powered Minnesota to a scorching 61.8 effective field goal percentage. Rarely will a team lose when converting like that. With this performance, the Gophers confirmed that they are a legit top 10 team, and they head to Saturday?s huge game at Indiana with oodles of confidence.

Illinois, on the other hand, remains a team with some major question marks. The offense, which was so good for the first month of the season, has been sputtering. Since the Gonzaga win, Illinois has eclipsed a point per trip in just two of its seven games. This isn?t a team constructed to win with defense, so John Groce will have to hope that his team?s three-point accuracy can stop its sharp downward trajectory:

It?s important to remember that this is basically the same group of guys that shot 30.4 percent on threes a season ago. It?s not far-fetched to think that Illinois was simply winning the three-point lottery early in the season, making it look like a better team than it was. The current roster doesn?t really lend itself to playing any other way–even emerging center Nnanna Egwu is primarily a jump-shooter–so the Illini don't have much choice but to continue hoisting the deep ones. They?ll have to get back to making them at a decent clip to avoid following last year?s painful script.


Michigan State gutted out an ugly win at Iowa last night. This game was all about the age-old combination of good defense and bad offense, as each squad posted their worst efficiency of the season. Iowa?s offensive struggles were more understandable with leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble out with an ankle injury, but Michigan State continues to confound.

Tom Izzo has eight former top-100 recruits at his disposal, yet his team managed to convert only five shots that weren?t right at the rim:

Layups/dunks/tip-ins 18 26 69% 46%
Two-point jumpers 2 20 10% 35%
Threes 3 11 27% 19%

Fortunately, the Spartans got a bunch of looks at the rim, but they were downright awful when forced to shoot jumpers. Izzo isn?t known for putting great shooters on the floor, but that?s about as poor of a shooting performance you?ll see in a win.

Part of the reason is that Iowa didn't shoot much better:

IOWA FGM FGA FG% % of shots
Layups/dunks/tip-ins 14 19 74% 37%
Two-point jumpers 5 16 31% 31%
Threes 4 16 25% 31%

Still, despite the poor perimeter shooting, Iowa could have won this game were it not for an ugly turnover rate. No miscue loomed larger than the Branden Dawson steal-and-slam that gave the Spartans their final lead.

Michigan State now moves into its most favorable stretch of the conference season, with games against Nebraska and Penn State lined up. There?s little doubt that this is a tournament team, but it remains to be seen if the Spartans can sneak into the title race. The emergence of a credible eighth man would certainly help.

It?s tempting to say that this Iowa squad has made a complete reversal from last season?s good offense/bad defense combination, what with recently holding Indiana and Michigan State to their worst efficiencies of the season, but that would ignore the insane 1.4 points per trip surrendered at Michigan. Things get a bit more manageable for the Hawkeyes going forward–they still have eight games against the four worst teams in the conference–but a slip-up at Northwestern this Sunday would make the road to an at-large bid quite tenuous.


This weekend brings a bundle of interesting games, starting with Minnesota at Indiana (Saturday 11am CT, BTN) and including Michigan's first tough road test of the season at Ohio State (Sunday 12:30pm CT, CBS).  These are the conference's top four squads according to KenPom, so the Big Ten race should begin to take shape this weekend.