staff, March 25, 2013

When the dust settled on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten had four teams standing in the Sweet Sixteen. Here are some scattered thoughts on the action, bullet-point style:

  • Wisconsin lost exactly the way I said it would-by going cold from long range. This is a perimeter-oriented team that does not shoot all that well from the perimeter, and that means that it?s bound to go ice cold at least once every few games. Unfortunately, that came in the very first round of the Tournament. I know Marshall Henderson is outspoken and scored a lot of points (19, to be exact), but that output required more than his share of shots (21, to be exact). Ole Miss was held in check by the vaunted Badger defense (scoring just 0.92 points per possession), but that?s just fine when the other team manages just 0.74 points per possession. The Badgers were awful from the outside (7 for 30), but insult was added to injury with some putrid shooting inside the arc (8 for 29). Shooting has been the Achilles? heel all season, but expect that to change for next year.

  • After a successful tune-up win over Iona, Ohio State beat Iowa State thanks to a three-pointer from Aaron Craft with 0.5 seconds left in regulation. Craft finished with 18, which complemented Deshaun Thomas? 22 and LaQuinton Ross? 17 quite nicely. The Buckeyes needed that scoring, as this was the rare game where the defense did not show up. The Cyclones torched OSU?s defense to the tune of 1.15 points per possession, with ex-Spartan Korie Lucious (19 points on 9 shots) doing much of the damage. That said, this game had ?fluke? written all over it. ISU made 12 of its 25 three-point attempts and rebounded nearly 40 percent of its infrequent misses. The earlier is easily brushed aside, and the latter is likely also a one-time event, given that offensive rebounding is a low priority for the perimeter-oriented Cyclones. The game gave Buckeye fans some heartburn, but this team still looks on track for Atlanta.

  • Indiana was also given a score against Temple, and frankly, the Hoosiers are lucky to still be playing basketball. Not only did a couple of questionable calls go against the Owls late, but on the game Temple made just 3 of its 24 three-point attempts. Temple isn?t the most accurate team in the country, but had just a couple more of those gone down (a modest 21 percent, mind you), Tom Crean?s team is sitting at home. But they didn?t, and that?s what matters now. IU will now face Syracuse, a team that gives up a bunch of threes and isn?t particularly good at keeping teams off the offensive glass (because of the zone, of course). This will be a great game to test out the Boeheim Exception, but on paper I like the Hoosiers.

  • Michigan had no trouble with a couple of very good offensive teams in South Dakota State and VCU. The Wolverines held both teams to well under a point per possession, and that?s going to be the key for this team going forward. Michigan scores as well as anyone, but if they?re going to make the Final Four, the team needs to defend. What?s encouraging is that the Wolverines are suddenly back to their early-season selves on the defensive glass. A big part of that turnaround has been Mitch McGary, who has 16 defensive boards over the last two games. Oh, he?s also scored an efficient 34 points over that span as well. If McGary keeps this up, he?s going to start getting some NBA buzz, for this year?s draft.

  • Michigan State was also playing lock-down defense over its first two games, especially against the Memphis Tigers, whom the Spartans limited to 34 percent shooting inside the arc. MSU is also controlling the defensive glass, which is one of the more boring and predictable things one can say about an Izzo-coached squad. But this team isn?t boring-now we?re seeing fights in game huddles. This provides an excellent platform for me to decry the nonsense of ?team chemistry.? By any reasonable measure, Michigan State has been lacking in this supposed essential ingredient for years, dismissing the likes of Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, players getting in fights, and now this. But you can have your elusive team chemistry-I?ll take the team that rebounds and plays defense.

  • Minnesota made it a game for a bit in the second half, but in the end Florida turned out to be the juggernaut that its tempo-free numbers had been declaring all season. The Gators made two-thirds of their twos, and half of their threes. It?s hard not to blow teams out shooting that well. Still, as moral victories go, this was a big one: Minnesota became just the 5th team this season to clear the point per possession threshold against the nation?s 2nd best defense. So there?s that. Even so, this was a disappointing end to a once-promising season. This Gopher team started the season 15-1, with a sole loss to Duke, and wins over Tournament teams South Dakota State, Memphis, Illinois, and Michigan State. And all of those wins were by 9 points or more. Next year is likely to be a rebuilding year as well, as Tubby?s team bids adieu to Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Julian Welch, and Andre Ingram. This year was probably the window to do something special, and it?s closed.

  • Finally, Illinois came up short in its upset bid against Miami. While the Fighting Illini controlled the glass for much of the game, Miami capitalized on second chances in the latter part of the second half to hold on for the win. Still, we did see the rare occasion when Illinois was misfiring from long range (7 for 27 from three), and still managed to score well (1.05 points per possession). Brandon Paul finished his collegiate career on a high note, scoring 18 points (though it took 20 shots). But it wasn?t enough, as John Groce?s team came up just a couple of shots short. Groce did a fine job this year, especially with the offense. Converting a mid-range team into a three-point shooting team resulted in massive offensive improvement, even though this team did not shoot threes all that well (which goes to show what a poor shot a mid-range attempt is). But the bad news is that Illinois is going to take a couple of steps back next season, as the team loses four seniors and cannot expect to see any sophomore breakouts. So I guess that means Illinois fans will have to focus more on footba-check that-Game of Thrones. It?s a really good time to catch up.

It?s likely the Big Ten will have at least one team in the Final Four, and I think they?re likely to get at least two. But the games aren?t getting any easier, as the conference now tackles blueblood programs such as Duke, Arizona, Syracuse, and Kansas. Geez, it would be nice if some of that much-publicized parity could make its way to the Big Ten in the Tournament.