Jess Settles, BTN men's basketball analyst, January 25, 2016
This feature is called "Three Takes," but I'm going to bend the rules and offer four thoughts this week.
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Indiana, Iowa & Michigan State
Indiana and Iowa have rolled to undefeated 7-0 records in conference play, and Michigan State seems to be back on track with Denzel Valentine returning to form. Something all three teams have in common: They have stars who are making their teammates better.
The Hoosiers destroyed Northwestern at home and continues to run an offensive clinic. Over the last two games, both victories by 30-plus points, 11 different Hoosiers have connected from beyond the arc! In Tuesday's home win vs. Illinois, Indiana hit a Big Ten conference game record 19 triples, besting its own mark (18), set last season vs. Minnesota.
The Hawkeyes went on a 26-6 run to start the second half against Purdue, thanks to baskets by seven different players! The run helped Iowa record an 83-71 victory and clinch the season sweep, this coming one week after claiming the season sweep of Michigan State. Jarrod Uthoff continues to be Jarrod Uthoff, but the Big Ten's top player continues to get help from the rest of the rotation.
The Spartans can finally exhale after their gutty performance in a victory over then-No. 5 ranked Maryland on Saturday night. Everyone plays better when Denzel Valentine is at full strength, which he appears to be nearing following a near triple-double. Bryn Forbes finished with 25 points and Matt Costello rose to the occasion with 15 points and 12 rebounds against the intimidating Terps front line.
Let?s take a look at three former role players who have drastically improved this season and are major reasons why Indiana, Iowa and Michigan State are having successful seasons.
Robert Johnson, Indiana. It would be easy to acknowledge several Hoosiers here, but I find myself glued to Johnson when he plays. Since conference play tipped off, Indiana?s defense is the most improved in the Big Ten, by far, and he is a big reason why.
Here are some interesting stats, via Insidethehall.com:
- Indiana has now held each of its seven Big Ten opponents to less than one point per possession.
- Last season, Indiana held a total of three Big Ten foes to under a point per possession.
Yes, Thomas Bryant is a burst of energy on the defensive end, but Johnson is keeping quality guards out of the paint and forcing them into tough shots. Northwestern star guard Bryant McIntosh finished 2-12 against the Hoosiers. Offensively, Johnson knows when to shoot and when to move the ball from side to side. He is deceptively quick and when he gets to the paint he is always looking to drop the ball off to an open teammate. Johnson knows how the game of basketball is supposed to operate at both ends, and his increased production is why Indiana is tied for first place heading into a challenging game at Wisconsin.
Peter Jok. Iowa. At times over the last two seasons, Jok was a defensive liability. He failed to stay in a stance and his stamina was sometimes lacking. He has always been a great shooter, but struggled to put the ball on the floor when defenders closed out hard on him. Not any longer. Jok is off to an All-Conference start in Big Ten play, and the Hawkeyes are thriving due to his efforts on both ends. He is arguably the most improved defender in the Big Ten, leading the conference in steals. Jok is jumping passing lanes and is constantly around the ball.
When I was the head coach at Iowa Wesleyan University, I attended an AAU event in Ames, Iowa, and happened to catch a game Jok was playing in. At one time early in his prep career, he was one of the top-ranked players in the country. By the time I watched him play, both of his knees were injured, he looked timid, and many colleges had lost interest. Give Fran McCaffery and his staff credit for sticking with a kid who was a long way from being a Big Ten player. And give them credit for making him into a great player. Every area of his game has improved and the freedom of movement rules have helped make him unguardable during stretches of the game. Jok plays with a smile on his face and every time he rises up, odds are the shot is going in.
Matt Costello. Michigan State. Costello couldn?t practice the day before the Maryland game due to a sprained ankle. There was no way he would sit the game out, but how could he be effective operating on one wheel against the size of Terrapins? He simply battled. On every shot he crashed the boards, and that proved to be the difference in the win. Michigan State missed a lot of shots, shooting 36 percent, but they ripped down 17 offensive rebounds. Costello grabbed six of them, including the big one with the game on the line and Michigan State clinging to a one-possession lead. He also made the game-sealing block against Rasheed Sulaimon. To top it all off, as he exited the game in the final seconds, he picked up Tom Izzo and twirled the coach to celebrate the signature win.
Costello has been through a lot of brutal Michigan State practices. He has played through pain and has struggled at times to trust his ability to score in the paint. He has caught the wrath of his fiery head coach more than a few times over his career. And yet he keeps showing up ready to battle. That?s why he is a champion, and why Michigan State is optimistic it can make another Final Four run.
If there has been one blessing in disguise from Denzel Valentine?s injury, it?s the emergence of Costello. In Big Ten play, he has posted three double-doubles, while averaging 13.2 points, 11 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and one steal. Costello now knows he can make plays against any opposing center or forward. And if he spins baseline on a defender, get ready to be posterized.