Well, one of the most impressive midwinter weeks that IU basketball has ever experienced just wrapped up. I was hoping for wins over MSU, at Purdue, and Michigan, but the margin of victory of the Purdue game, sandwiched between two 40-minute efforts against final four contenders, is just jaw-dropping. Indiana has been pretty solid and smart defensively. Still, I want to give the league credit here: both Michigan schools look great, and OSU, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all look capable of making Sweet 16 runs. Iowa and Illinois would normally be bubble teams, but the top half of this conference is so good, they don't have room to work through their problems of youth or inexperienced post play.
1. Indiana (20-2 / 8-1) W @ Purdue 97-60, W v. Michigan 81-73
Now, accolades aside, Gasaway was correct to zero in on Indiana's turnover percentage as a weak spot. I also note that was a topic of discussion on among some of our loyal commenters in the offseason at TCQ as well. And for all of the great passing that IU has displayed, they still have more turnovers in Big Ten play than assists. Only Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell have positive assist/turnover ratio. And the fact that only Penn State has a higher turnover percentage in conference play looms pretty large as Indiana's road schedule picks up. Nonetheless, it's one of the few weak links that IU has, especially now that Derek Elston and Maurice Creek are returning to active play and Jeremy Hollowell is raising his level of performance off the bench. I have to say, I've been impressed with IU's in-conference and pre-conference three-point shooting marks, both currently standing at 42.2%, which is above last year's overall mark of 41.4%. Now, I do expect that percentage to fall a little bit with IU's upcoming road games, but nine games in, that looks pretty good.
2. Michigan (20-2 / 7-2) W v. Northwestern 68-46 , L @ Indiana 73-81
If the Hoosiers and the Wolverines meet again in postseason tourneys, they could play some great games. They are simply a good-shooting, good-passing, good-rebounding team. They are also very young. Six of their top rotation players are freshmen, and two are sophomores. Only Jordan Morgan and Tim Hardaway Jr. are juniors, and the 11th man, Matt Vogrich, who gets 2.8mpg in Big Ten play, is the only senior in the rotation. The question in my mind right now is: how many more losses does Michigan take in the conference race? I see only one sure-fire loss on the schedule, which is at Michigan State. And I am hoping Wisconsin actually plays as well against them as they did against IU, which would (assuming no other upsets) give UM at 13-4 conference record heading into their final home game against Indiana.
3. Michigan State (18-4 / 7-2) W v. Illinois 80-75
I know the home win over Illinois was pretty narrow, but I think the Spartans just had a mental let down after their extremely good performance against Indiana. Furthermore, their excellent passing and execution in the Indiana game is perhaps something that we should get used to. For example, the highlights of MSU's comeback win over Illinois featured a couple of very pretty passes that suggest a squad that's meshing well. The Spartans are definitely still in the race (although a totally unshared title remains a bit unlikely for them), with the only likely losses to come in back-to-back games in Columbus and Ann Arbor. However, Travis Trice and Gary Harris are reportedly not practicing due to injuries, and this could be disastrous over the next week. If MSU demonstrates that they are significantly weakened by losing at home to Minnesota and/or at Purdue due to their lack of perimeter depth, I don't even want to think about what Michigan would do to their rival in Breslin on Feb. 12th.
4. Ohio State (17-4 / 7-2) W vs. Wisconsin 58-49, W @ PSU 65-51
The Buckeyes are a bit of the surprise team in the conference, being only one game back and having a bit of control now in the race. They could easily jump to #1 in this poll next week if they win in Ann Arbor (say, taking advantage of a post-loss letdown game by the Wolverines) and then vanquish the Hoosiers in Columbus (say, by feasting on Indiana turnovers). The only tough games remaining would be trips to Bloomington and Madison, and they'd be right there at the end of the season for a piece of the title. Hey, they've already won four straight games and had their chances in the loss at MSU. Still, I don't think it happens. The Buckeyes have well-documented problems getting anyone to step up outside of DeShaun Thomas, they turn the ball over quite a bit (19.4% in conference), and they are surprisingly bad at offensive rebounds, posting a OR% that is comparable only with Nebraska and Northwestern (!). They shoot pretty well, but they have to, because their margin for error is so small. I think they're going to suffer one or two unexpected losses in the coming weeks.
5. Wisconsin (15-7 / 6-3) L @ Ohio State 49-58 , W v. Illinois 74-68
The story of the Badgers has to be Free-throws. Zero at Ohio State, 42 versus Illinois. The Illinois number is eye-popping of course, and sure, the Illinois gave the Badgers another 14 (maybe sixteen) chances at the line intentionally, but that still means that Illinois put Wisconsin on the line almost 30 times in 38 minutes, in addition to allowing 49 shots. That also meant that the Illinois game was a 68-possession affair, which has to be, like, four standard deviations above the mean for a Badgers game (I kid. But seriously, unusual!). The Ohio State was a much more typical affair for a Bo Ryan team, at 53 possessions, and the Badgers did shoot a lot from the outside, and did it pretty well (11-for-28, 39.3%) while only coughing up the ball seven times. Still, these two games will probably be utilized at some point as the exemplar for homecourt advantage in Big Ten play.
6. Minnesota (17-5 / 5-4) W v. Nebraska 84-65, W v. Iowa 62-59,
Minnesota can thank Iowa for its generosity, allowing the Gophers to get back above .500 in a home game they really shouldn't have won. Smith is lucky to have
Andre Hollins, a guy who always believes his shot is going in, no matter the circumstances or pressure (the Iowa defender looked thisclose to blocking the go-ahead three). Late edit: Austin Hollins, of course, hit that final three. And of course, a visiting Nebraska team is likely to make you look good. The Gophers still are looking closer to being an Iowa level team right now than the top-three contender that they appeared to be when they entered the conference season. What's most interesting to me is that the Minny bench looked deep and capable entering conference play, and Tubby is known utilizing his benches, but that's not the case this season. The only starter averaging under 30 minutes/game is Joe Coleman at 29.3, and most productive guy off the bench (Julian Welch) is averaging 11.7 minutes/game and just 2.8ppg. The most illustrative example I can find here is that Oto Otosenieks was averaging 11.4 minutes and 3.1 points per game last season, and this season he's stuck at 6mpg and 1.1ppg despite apparent across-the-board improvement as a player. Puzzling! On the other hand, the Gophers are still putting up 1.11 points per possession in league play, which is third only to Michigan and Indiana, so what do I know?
7. Iowa (15-8 / 3-6) W v. Penn State 76-67, L @ Minnesota 59-62
I said last week "This team is starting to remind me of the 2010-2011 Hoosiers .... but they are just not quite ready to win the tough games." They fought off the Nittany Lions at home, but straight up gave away a road game that they should've had in hand. What's not helping in conference play is that Roy Devyn Marble is absolutely struggling from the field. In Big ten games he's shooting 21.4% on threes and 31.1% on twos. Unsurprisingly, Aaron White has taken over the role of go-to guy, but as we saw against Minnesota, when the Hawkeyes need a guard to create good things in crunch-time situations, they are going with freshman Mike Gesell, with mixed results (at best). Also notable, McCaffrey's trying this weird big lineup with White, Adam Woodbury, and Melsahn Basabe all starting. It's not really working so far, as they've been getting off to slow starts.
8. Northwestern (13-10 / 4-6) L @ Michigan 46-68, W v. Purdue 75-60
Good win against Purdue. Since Reggie Hearn came back healthy, he and Sobolewski have put their stamp on the team, and that's been a good thing. My early efficiency numbers put Hearn surprisingly high, and some loyal readers questioned whether he really should be ranked above Terone Johnson. They don't always match up head-to-head, but look at their lines in Welsh-Ryan Arena:
Hearn: 38 minutes, 11-17 FGs, 3-8 threes, 1-1 FTs, 5 rebs., 1 TO, 26 points
Johnson: 32 minutes, 2-11 FGs, 0-2 threes, 1-2 FTs, 2 rebs., 3 assists, 1 TO, 5 points
Ouch. Also, props to redshirt freshman Tre Demps for working his way into the starting lineup. I still think Alex Marcotullio is the better player, but I would definitely support getting the underclassmen so more minutes this season at the expense of wins. I don't think Carmody agrees with that sentiment, or maybe he just can't stand Kale Abrahamson.
9. Illinois (15-8 / 2-7) L @ Michigan State 75-80, L v. Wisconsin 68-74
Forty-two. The Illini put Wisconsin at the free-throw line 42 times. At home. There's a joke somewhere there about the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Still, the crazy thing to me is that they put the Badgers there so much on 27 fouls. They had just committed 26 fouls at Michigan State, and the Spartans shot 34 free-throws. And now they're hosting Indiana, who's 51% Free-Throw Rate is head and shoulders above Wisky's 30.6% or Sparty's 36.4%. Hmmm. I think I know what IU's strategy might be. On the upside.... uh.... well, the Illini only turned the ball over an average of 8.5 times against two of the conference's tougher defenses. That's something.
10. Purdue (11-9 / 4-5) L v. Indiana 60-97, L @ Northwestern 60-75
OK, that was a pretty bad week for the Boilers. I enjoyed the the huge IU victory as much as anyone, but I have to point out that in earlier conversations with other TCQ members about the possibility of back-to-back wins in Mackey, we figured out that the only previous occurrences of that happening when was Indiana was historically good or Purdue was historically bad. And I think this was a case of the former rather than the latter, IU's just playing pretty well right now. And even though the Boilers went out and got smacked in Welsh-Ryan, they didn't quit. They played hard in the second half, and NU fans reported to me that they were worried in the second half that Purdue might break through. That said, the Boilers are still losing by a lot rght now, and they're looking vulnerable as they visit Penn State. PSU's been awful, but Coach Chambers is probably circling this date as the slump-buster right now. It'll be an interesting game to watch. Still, how about AJ Hammons? Following up a 30 pt., 5 reb., 5 block performance against the Hoosiers with a 19 pt., 13 reb., 3 assist (and 1 block) line at Northwestern? Pretty good. Especially since in all three of his previous games *combined* he had only 13 points, 17 rebounds, 6 blocks, and zero assists. Way to pick it up!
11. Nebraska (11-12 / 2-8) L @ Minnesota 84-65, L v. Ohio State 56-63
After the beatdown from Minny, Nebraska fell behind to the Buckeyes at home but rallied to cut their lead to five with 2:40 left. They just couldn't break through, though, and now the Huskers have some time off to regroup, not playing again until they host Penn State on the 9th. The Minnesota game was a bit brutal though. Ray Gallegos had 30 points, shooting 6-of-9 from three, and they still lost by 19. The Dylan Talley-at-point experiment has gone off the rails a bit after some initial success. In the last four games Talley has 7 assists and 12 turnovers, and outside of the home win over Northwestern, neither he nor the Huskers as a team have had much success.
12. Penn State (8-13 / 0-9) L @ Iowa 67-76
At least the Iowa road loss was competitive-ish. In fact, if they don't turn the ball over quite so often (17 times), or give up so many offensive boards to Iowa (13), they would've had a good shot of getting their first road win despite shooting under 40% from the field. They jumped out to a 10-3 lead, and were still only five points down at the first media timeout in the second half. They fought back late, but never really had the firepower to get over the hump. If PSU doesn't win one of the next three games (v. Purdue, @ Nebraska, v. Iowa) the odds of getting a conference victory become very slim indeed. The only good news I can really glean here is that sophomore Jon Graham finally seems to be getting out of Coach Chambers' doghouse, averaging 16 minutes over the last three games. He's chipped in 3.7 points and rebounds/game, and notably, 2 blocks per game as well.