It is starting to look like there is a chasm developing between the Wolverines and everyone else. Sure, they only played one game last week, but that was a big road win. Led by Tim Hardaway’s 4-of-5 mark, Michigan shot 10-for-20 on threes at Minny and took advantage of 15 Gopher turnovers. Really, it was the focus they had coming out in the second half and getting multiple layups and dunks on the Gophers that impressed me the most. Combine this performance with their comeback at Ohio State, and it’s really hard to imagine Michigan suffering more than three or four losses in this stacked conference. One bright spot for conference foes, frosh phenom Nik Stauskas’ outside shooting has dropped to 30.8% in conference games from 56.5%. He’s still shooting over 5 attempts a game, so let’s hope both of those trends continue for a bit.
2. Michigan State (16-3 / 5-1) W v. Ohio State 59-56, W @ PSU 81-72
Well, look who is in first place in the conference standings! This is how tough the conference is, that Michigan State can get lost in the shuffle and emerge as darkhorse contender for the conference title, up now half a game on all the heavyweights. This lead will likely not last long, with trips to Madison and Bloomington coming up. The MSU team-leader of my efficiency stats, Adriean Payne, has really emerged a scorer in the last two games, hitting 11-for-15 from the field (2-for-2 on threes) and 10-for-13 on the line to go with 12 total rebounds and only one turnover.That’s been a nice boost, because most of his teammates are still struggling to shoot 50% from the floor. Maybe’s he’s the guy they need to make the offense run? Overall, it’s been a bit odd to watch this team, as there is such talent here, and Izzo just has so many guys who might be able to play in pros at some point (five? six?). But due to injuries or whatever else, the pieces haven’t quite fit, and having Dawson and Payne get in a fistfight before a road game (even if it was only PSU) does not reflect good team chemistry.
3. Indiana (16-2 / 4-1) L v. Wisconsin 59 -64, W @Northwestern 67-59
I’m not bumping the Hoosiers to third as I'm panicking (I'm not), or because I want to punish them, or even because I think the Hoosiers are particularly bad right now, but ever since the second half of the Minnesota game, this team has been out of sorts and not playing like one of the best two teams in the conference, let alone the country. I believe they still are one of the very best teams in the country, but the team has not, as a whole, adapted to the higher level of competition. The funny thing is, against some of the most deliberate offenses in the nation, the defense has actually looked fine. There are nits to pick and all, but the Hoosier defense is actually holding up. It’s the Hoosier offense that has me a little concerned, and it is reminding me of the 1991-1992 season, where options on offense abounded, but the scoring still dried up in multiple games, notably in the last four conference games where the '92 squad never scored more than 66 points. Now, Hulls will work his way through his shooting problems, and if Zeller keeps up his dominant play, everyone will enjoy better opportunities. But the bench shooting concerns me, and as I don’t expect Creek or Elston’s returns to really improve that immediately, so I went back and looked at Remy Abell and Will Sheehey’s in-conference statistics last season, and they’re actually playing a bit better overall than they were last season: more rebounds, more assists, fewer turnovers. This is excepting, of course, their shooting percentages, which have tanked. If there is one thing I’m watching with a laser focus in the coming games, it’s for Sheehey and Abell to start knocking down some shots.
4. Minnesota (15-3 / 3-2) L v. Michigan 75-83
The Gophers are so close to establishing themselves as a title contender, but can’t quite put 40 minutes together. In the Michigan game, it was the middle twenty minutes that killed their chances. They were down just one point at 12:31 mark in the first half before Michigan went on a 10-1 run. The Gophers managed to scratch back to a mere six-point deficit at the half. Then, Michigan came out sharp in the second half too, and Minny trailed by 19 when Nik Stauskas dunked on them at the 12:33 mark. Again, they managed to rally and narrow the lead to seven a couple of times in the final minute, although it was much too late by then. Tubby’s team is just digging holes that are too deep to get out of, and doing it against teams that are too good. They’ve got a four game stretch with no ranked teams on the schedule coming up, starting with tomorrow’s game at Northwestern. Let’s see what they do with it.
5. Ohio State (13-4 / 3-2) L @ MSU 56-59
OSU’s offense is looking very similar to Indiana’s under Mike Davis. One guy can score, and everyone else sits around the perimeter looking for an open three. It works well enough to keep you in games, like this game at Michigan State, but the fact that the Buckeyes, playing good defense, hitting 10-of-25 threes, and having DeShaun Thomas go for 28 points, still needed a last-minute double-clutch three to even have a hope of sending the game to OT shows you how thin the margin for error is at OSU. They’ll be in a ton of games, and win more than they’ll lose. But they don’t look like a contender.
6. Wisconsin (13-5 / 4-1) W @ Indiana 64-59, L @ Iowa 66-70
Credit to the Badgers, they played a great game in Bloomington, and this is likely the game that gets them into the NCAA tourney if there is any doubt. The single most infuriating thing about seeing Ryan Evans and Traevon Jackson hit big shots in the Indiana game was knowing that they weren’t going to do that again anytime soon against anyone else. (For me, it was much the same as watching Stigall and Barlow do the same thing in the IU-Butler game, although they both just hit big shots that helped Butler steal a win versus Gonzaga). Sure enough, the two of them shoot 3-for-17 against Iowa. Sam Dekker and George Marshall did a good job off the bench making that game look respectable in the end, but that’s also two straight games for Jared Berggren not breaking double figures in scoring, and four straight for Ben Brust. With Michigan State and Minnesota visiting the Kohl center this week, Bo Ryan needs some reliable offense to stay in the conference race.
7. Iowa (13-5 / 2-3) W v. Wisconsin 70-66
I was glad to see Iowa take down Wisconsin, who had been strutting a bit after their win over Indiana. Wisconsin was without their back-up center Frank Kaminsky in this one, which might’ve made a difference, or might not have. The big thing for Iowa was that they didn’t turn the ball over and held their own on the boards. Without the possession advantage that Wisconsin generally enjoys in those areas, the contest came down to the Badgers trying to make up a big deficit through superior shooting, which is not their forte. Now, the Hawkeyes have to win the rest of their home games and pick a couple of conference road wins to secure a place in the field of 68. They’ll have a shot tonight against OSU, but I am doubting that they’ll be able to counter the Buckeye defense.
8. Purdue (10-8 / 3-2) W v. West Virginia 79-52, W @ Nebraska 65-56
The Boilers nabbed a solid non-conference home win over WVU to back up a tidy road win at Nebraska. The four-guard approach (DJ Byrd, Ronnie Johnson, Terone Johnson, and Raphael Davis around AJ Hammons) appears to be working. AJ Hammons held down the paint well against Nebraska (6 blocks!), and the Boilers didn’t suffer any rebounding problems on the road. The road gets much tougher now as Purdue travels to Michigan on Thursday, and then hosts Iowa in a must-win affair for both teams’ post-season hopes.
9. Northwestern (11-8 / 2-4) W @ Illinois 68-54, L v. Indiana 59-67
Just when you think they’re dead, they rise up again. When you think, stick a fork ‘em, they go out and thump Illinois on the road. Then, the Hoosiers come in and breeze to a 14-point halftime advantage that looks like a burgeoning blowout, but NU sucks it up, makes stops and big shots to make it a ballgame in the second half. But really, little else could rekindle hope (or at least confusion) in Evanston like that beatdown in Champaign. The Wildcats came out of the gate fast and were the team with wire-to-wire intensity, nailing outside shots and taking the ball to the rim. They made their free-throws down the stretch, and having Tre Demps and Jared Swopshire willing to take guys off the bounce is giving the offense a much-needed boost.
10. Illinois (14-5 / 1-4) L v. Northwestern 54-68
I didn’t think much of the Illini’s chances to start the season, and it looks like I’m being proved right in the end. And after seeing the Champaign Room celebrate the Hoosiers’ home loss to Wisconsin, it was with no small satisfaction that I enjoyed their trouncing by Northwestern, on their home floor, no less. And it’s been one leaky pipe to fix after another for Coach Groce: he’s got to keep rebounding and turnover disparities in line while getting his guys to some shots. The Illini have simply gone ice-cold shooting-wise, and they won’t be competitive until they figure that one out. Tonight’s game at Nebraska is a must-win.
11. Nebraska (10-9 / 1-5) W @ Penn State 68-64, L v. Purdue 56-65
Hello, Shavon Shields. I expected this kid to contribute this season, but that was a heck of a game in Happy Valley. I had been impressed by his 18-point, 8-rebound effort against the Boilers, but against PSU, Shields hit 10 of 11 shots, including a three, and all eight of his free-throw attempts. He also notched 6 rebounds and 3 steals, although there was the small matter of 6 (!) turnovers. The rest of the team only turned the ball over 4 times total, and with Brandon Ubel back, the Huskers redeemed themselves for the home loss against Purdue.
12. Penn State (8-10 / 0-6) L v. Nebraska 64-68, L vs. MSU 72-81
What can you say when a team, down three points with 30 seconds left, gets a gift-wrapped package of six straight free-throws, and misses five of them? Not much, and PSU has now lost to Nebraska and Northwestern at home. The opportunities for getting a single win in conference play are slipping away fast. I can’t bring myself to fault the coach, or even the players, as Jermaine Marshall and DJ Newbill are certainly going down swinging, but they are still going down. The next best chances to eke out a victory are when they host Purdue on Feb. 5th, or Iowa on Valentine’s Day.