I'm nowhere near Mardi gras, but I hope you all had some enjoyable king cake, and someone else got the baby figurine piece. This was a bit of a disappointing week for Hoosier fans as Indiana failed to execute on the road against a dangerous conference opponent (hmm, is "dangerous" and "conference opponent" redundant?), it was a pretty interesting week in viewing the shape conference overall. To wit -
1) Michigan State is for real! They look like they could be a true Final Four threat again (which would Draymond Green's, what, third Final Four?).
2) Michigan is much better than [I] expected, A lot of pre-conference chatter had them in the top 16, but I didn't believe it. They had a great win at home over the Buckeyes, and have a relatively easy backstretch. Tonight's game at Northwestern should be really interesting.
3) Speaking of Northwestern, they're looking more and more like an at-large team by virtue of just not screwing up. Sure, the non-conference was relatively weak, and they don't have a lot of good road wins, but as long as there aren't too many surprise conference tourney winners, they've got an actual shot to get to their first ever NCAA tourney. (and by the time I posted this - they've gone ahead and lost at home to Michigan. Sigh.)
Rankings and commentary below the jump:
Two really solid wins this week to follow up the jaw-dropping win in Columbus. I did not expect Keith Appling to become such a dangerous scoring point, or Austin Thornton to be such a solid multi-spot sixth man. I did expect Payne & Nix to be a solid one-two, and I'm happy to see Draymond Green start to get some long-overdue Big Ten-POY hype.
Conference Statistic of Intrigue: The Spartans are losing the turnover battle (-16) with their opponents despite notching 18 more steals. Say huh? Still, they're handing some royal butt-kicking on the glass, and shooting much better than their foes, so it matters little at this point.
2.Michigan (10-4) W v. OSU
The Wolverines are in a dogfight for a piece of the Big Ten regular season championship, which I never would’ve thought possible after Darius Morris left. I’ll admit I’ve been wrong about these guys. Of Michigan’s last four games, only Purdue is at .500 in conference play. However, the other three games are on the road, and I expect Northwestern to throw a wrench in their chances tomorrow night.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: Despite a truly mediocre three-point shooting record (33.1%), the Wolverines are winning by not turning the ball over (less than10/game) and hitting their free-throws. I don't know how a heavy three-point shooting team earns so many frees, but they're doing it.
3. OSU (10-4) L @ Michigan, W @ Minnesota
A split on the road wouldn’t be a bad result to any other team besides OSU & MSU this season. The win at Minnesota was nice, the loss at Michigan was not. William Buford seems like he should be too experienced for these up-and-down performances - he’s brilliant in one game and terrible the next. If Buford doesn’t turn it on, the Buckeyes might not have enough perimeter scoring to get to college basketball’s final weekend.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: This is a dominant team by the stats. They've been outshot percentage-wise at the free-throw stripe, barely (.8%), but have taken 75 more attempts. The only other area in which they do not best conference foes is steals, and they've only given up one more steal than they've recorded themselves. How do they have 4 losses?
4. Wisconsin (9-5) L @ MSU, W v. PSU
After a trip to East Lansing, there’s nothing to make a team get their mojo back like hosting Penn State. The Badgers rediscovered their three-point stroke in beating down the Nittany Lions, showing that they may not be the front-runner like they were in recent years, but they still aren’t to be trifled with.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: I look over the stats here, and I just see a mediocre team. Not a dominant one, and certainly not on that's lurking for a share of title. Give Bo Ryan credit, I guess. One thing that is interesting is that the entire team's FG% has nose-dived. In particular Jared Berggren three-point percentage has only dropped from 38% to 36.2%, but his overall FG% has dropped from 46.2% to 38.7%. Ouch.
5. Indiana (8-7) W v. Northwestern, L @ Iowa
A real opportunity got away from the Hoosiers as they played one stinker of a game at Iowa, after toughing out a home win over the pretty durn hot Wildcats. I was happy to see a return of Verdell Jones, making clutch plays down the stretch in yet another game to secure a win for Indiana, but noone really put together a wire-to-wire performance in Iowa. Sure, Matt Roth went 4-for-4 behind the arc, but they made Melsahn Basabe look like a defensive superstar, which... uh... well, that's not the Basabe everyone else has seen this season. Indiana has got to execute against Minnesota on the road if they want any kind of decent seed in the NCAA tourney.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: Sure, the Hoosiers have shot well enough, rebounded well, and drawn even with conference foes on fouling finally. A quick look at a few conference stats scares the heck out of me: IU assists/turnovers stand at 180:193, while their opponents stand at 184:159, IU has blocked 53 shots and nabbed 66 steals, and yet their foes have blocked 71 shots and recorded 99 steals. The Hoosiers do not look capable of making plays or passes in conference play like their foes do. I hope they turn it around, but cue Tim Gunn "I'm concerned."
6. Purdue (7-7) L v. MSU, W @ Illinois
After a nice win at Illinois, it turned into yet another bad week for the Boilers, as chief offensive threat DJ Byrd got himself suspended while coming to the rescue of utility knife and gifted choke-mime Kelsey Barlow, who got himself kicked off the team for not staying away from bars. The Boilers went out and fought Michigan State, but frankly didn’t have the depth to stick with the Spartans, even at home. Still, Purdue keeps its head above water by notching the road win in Champaign.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: Kelsey Barlow is replaceable, perhaps, but he did offer the Boilers a long and athletic presence that was able to get steals, rebounds, and create assists. DJ Byrd's return will be welcome, if for nothing else he's the premier three-point bomber for Purdue at 44.8%. It's a far cry from his freshman year, when he went 0-for-11 behind the arc in regular season Big Ten games.
7. Northwestern (6-8) L @ Indiana, W v. Minnesota
Can the Wildcats finally break the longest never-been streak to make the NCAA tournament? It really could happen.... but probably won’t. They’ve got to earn home wins over Ohio State and Michigan, as well as close out the dangerous Penn State and Iowa teams on the road even to get to 10-8 in the conference.. and they’d still need to make some serious noise in the Big Ten conference tourney to assure themselves a place. I see a 2-2 finish and another year on the outside looking in for Carmody’s kids (but I’ll be rooting for them to make it, yet again). At least good guy John Shurna is now NU’s all-time leading scorer (look for some good commentary on his "jump shot" here: my favorite is "John Shurna's jumper looks like it has been refined by years of indoor one on one games with Will Ferrell on set of Elf" )
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: The only statistics anyone cares about in Evanston is that Shurna now leads NU scoring list at 1,902, and has a great chance to become the first 2,000 point scorer. Maybe the other number Wildcat-lovers have on their mind is "68" as in Field of 68. Really, nothing else matters.
8. Minnesota (5-9) L @ Northwestern, L vs Ohio State
As Joe Coleman’s shooting went south, so did the Gopher’s chances for a NCAA tourney bid. The home loss to OSU probably sealed their doom. At least fellow frosh Andre Hollins is playing well again. This week pretty much torpedoed the Gophers' at-large chances, giving room for the Wildcats to make their case. To be fair, noone expected these guys to compete at the level they have once Mbakwe went down, and I didn't expect it before then, honestly.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: This team seems a tiny bit unlucky, specifically in reference to finishing close games with losses (5 so far), not even to mention the various injuries that have plagued the Gophers. Individually, Ralph Sampson's resurgence seems to have plateaued, and it's not that he's playing bad, just mediocre - per-game stats aren't always revelatory, but 7.7 ppg, 4.9rpg, and less than one block per game in Big Ten matches is really underwhelming.
9. Iowa (6-8) W v. Indiana, L @ PSU
The Hawkeyes, down a point guard and a part-time starting wing, still put the hurt on the Hoosiers at home. This after losing at a short-handed Nittany Lions club. If they knock off Wisconsin at home this week, they have an excellent chance at finishing the regular season 5-0 and getting above .500 in conference play - something noone would’ve predicted in December. However, they still wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament. They’d make the NIT, probably but they’ll have to win the Big Ten tourney to get into the Big Dance at this point.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: Black Heart Gold Pants was musing on the possibility that Bryce Cartwright being out and Zach McCabe being in foul trouble was actually god news for the Hawkeyes, as these might be the two weakest links in the Iowa defense. And sure enough, Cartwright gets fewer stops (Def. Reb.+Steals+Blocks) than anyone in the playing rotation, and only Eric May gets fewer stops than Zach McCabe, and May plays only a little more than half the minutes that McCabe does. Maybe I'll put together that stat next week, unless anyone else knows of a site that compiles it for conference games only.
10. Nebraska (4-10) W v. Iowa
Everyone in the conference has experienced the joy of a home blowout now that the Husker whupped Illinois by 23 points.This was a game where everything went right for Nebraska, after it seemed like the bottom had dropped out in their preceding four-game losing streak. Doc Sadler’s club has four winnable games left, but only Iowa is at home. I would expect that Nebraska finishes the season with 5 conference wins, which is a couple less than I pegged them for at the start of the year. At least there's always next year?
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: Nebraska looked like they were sliding into the conference cellar before Illinois taught them a lesson on how to lose without pride. This isn't a terrible team, but the fact is that the Huskers' conference foes take more shots (achieved by better rebounding and fewer turnovers) and hit a better percentage inside and outside the arc. You're just not ever going to be a winning team when that's the case.
11. Penn State (4-10) W v. Iowa, L @ Wisconsin
A loss in Madison doesn’t diminish the fact that the Lions have pulled together a bit after the loss of Billy Oliver. I don’t like their chances at Purdue, or really even versus Northwestern at home, but I’d watch out for them against Michigan in their final regular season game. Four conference wins is still twice as many as I would've predicted for this team before the season started, and I didn't even think the Big Ten would be as tough as it is. Pat Chambers has very quickly given this program hope - good for him!
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: How about the fact that Iowa fouled a 35% free-shooter in the final minute, and Jon Graham went ahead and knocked both ends of the one-and-one? He had quite a night, going 4-for-4 from the stripe and 3-for-3 from the floor. The redshirt freshman is starting to look like a mainstay in the Nittany Lions' rotation for years to come.
12. Illinois (5-9) L v. Purdue, L @ Nebraska
Yeah, sure, Bruce Weber’s team could win its final four games, reach .500 in conference play, and get to the NCAA tourney. I just think with games at Ohio State and Wisconsin on the docket, it’s not going to happen. I’d look for some fire still, and for the Illini to finally show some pride against Iowa and Michigan at home, but these guys now look like the NIT team I thought they’d be at the start of the season. This week, though, they totally deserve a last place ranking for the way they got rolled at Nebraska.
Conference Statistics of Intrigue: I recall saying something a while ago about Brandon Paul putting up nice scoring and assist numbers this season, but that turnovers would likely sink his efficiency and the Illini's chances at team success. Lo and behold, Paul has 57 turnovers in 15 conference games, or almost 4/game. Hail to the Orange has probably the definitive succinct statistical analysis for the Illinois at this point, and that graph had a lot to do with me placing the Illini last.