Welcome to Big Ten Point Guard!
Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, OSU's Jared Sullinger and MSU's Draymond Green
Hopefully, each week I’ll have a quick read on the Big Ten basketball scene as well as what’s happening in the nation at large. Most weeks this will appear on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.
Without any further ado, let’s get right to it:
The Championship Chase
There are two weeks left in the Big Ten regular season and four teams still have a shot at coming away with at least a piece of the Big Ten championship. Here is a look at the four contenders with thoughts on their championship hopes:
* Record: 22-5 overall, 11-3 Big Ten
* Remaining Games: at Minnesota, Wednesday; vs. Nebraska, Saturday; at Indiana, Feb. 28; vs. Ohio State, March 4.
* Steve Says: This is Michigan State’s championship to lose. The Spartans positioned themselves well with their decisive road win at Ohio State and followed that up with another nice road win at Purdue on Sunday. They need three wins to guarantee nothing less than a tie for the title. Four wins would make it an outright crown. The road games at Minnesota and Indiana won’t be easy, though, and the rematch with OSU in East Lansing will be must-see TV.
Draymond Green also has the inside track to the conference player of the year award. After back-to-back losses at Northwestern and Michigan in mid-January, MSU has won seven of its last eight games. If the Spartans can hang on and win the conference title, it would be Tom Izzo’s seventh in 17 years as the MSU coach and the school’s first since 2010.
* Coach Tom Izzo Says: “It’s been a big week-and-a-half for us in terms of winning games and playing quality people. We’re starting to get more out of more players. Draymond has been unbelievable in what he’s doing. But (Keith) Appling and (Austin) Thornton and (Branden) Dawson have all raised their game. I think that gives us a chance for a good stretch run. We have a heck of a finish coming up.
“We’re happy where we are, but we know we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to compete for this thing in the end.”
* Record: 20-7 overall, 10-4 Big Ten
* Remaining Games: at Northwestern, Tuesday; vs. Purdue, Saturday; at Illinois, March 1; at Penn State, March 4.
* Steve Says: Michigan is also closing on a nice run, winning four of its last five games. The raucous home win over Ohio State on Saturday was another big step forward for the Wolverines. UM has not won a Big Ten championship since 1986. Unfortunately, even if the Wolverines win out, they need MSU to lose at least one game to end that drought.
Michigan plays three of its last four games on the road, but it also already defeated all three of those teams at home. Michigan is doing it with balance as each of its five starters seem to carry an equal load.
* Coach John Beilein Says: “To walk into that arena (Saturday against OSU) was a bit moving and seeing how everybody was. I felt like it wasn’t just a rivalry game. It was playing for and contending for a Big Ten championship. I thought it was special.”
* Record: 22-5 overall, 10-4 Big Ten
* Remaining Games: vs. Illinois, Tuesday; vs. Wisconsin, Sunday; at Northwestern, Feb. 29; at Michigan State, March 4.
* Steve Says: Ohio State still controls its own destiny in its quest to win a third straight Big Ten title, but the Buckeyes may need to win out to do it. That may be easier said than done for an OSU team that has hit an ice patch with two losses in its last three games.
The bigger concern for the Buckeyes is how they’re playing. They are getting next to no offensive contributions from anybody outside the Big Three of Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford (see note below). They will need to find some balance if they’re going to make a run – both here in the Big Ten and also in the postseason. Can the Buckeyes summon a late-season rally, capped with an avenging win at Michigan State? Hmmm.
* Coach Thad Matta Says: “I like the way we have responded (to the losses). We’ve come back to practice and had a good way about us. I think as we go into Tuesday’s game, it will be another test. As a coach – it’s crazy to say it – but you’re excited to see how your guys respond.”
* Record: 20-7 overall, 9-5 Big Ten
* Remaining Games: at Iowa, Thursday; at Ohio State, Sunday; Minnesota, Feb. 28; Illinois, March 4.
* Steve Says: Wisconsin hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2008 and the Badgers admittedly are a long shot to win it this year, down two games with four to play. The Badgers need a lot of things to fall into place – most notably winning out, two losses for Michigan State and one loss each for Michigan and Ohio State – to get a share of the title. That seems highly unrealistic, but we bring it up just because it remains a possibility.
The good news is the Badgers recovered so well after their 1-3 conference start. They’ve won eight of 10 since then. They also get a pair of winnable home games at the end to build momentum for the postseason.
* Coach Bo Ryan Says: "If the juices aren't flowing for what we've got coming, you need help. We've got quite a stretch coming up here. There’s an old saying (about) three things that you have control over: how you think, how you feel and how you behave. So what we've got to do in our practices is think about the things that we can do and do them well and hopefully feel good about them in the end. But that's all we can do right now.”
Big Ten Notables
* Buckeyes Need To Find Balance – Ohio State has been at or near the conference lead for much of the Big Ten season. With the season winding down, the Buckeyes have become more reliant on their Big Three of Sullinger, Thomas and Buford.
In the season’s first 22 games, those three accounted for 58.4 percent of the team’s scoring. In the last five games, that percentage has jumped to an alarming 75 percent. OSU was 3-2 in that five-game stretch.
“Obviously, I think that would help us,” Matta affirmed. “You look at those five games, you’ve had some hard fought and contested games. Hopefully, we can get some guys putting some more points on the board for us. But by the same token, we want those three guys to lead us. They’re going to usually lead us in shots. That’s no secret.”
Buford, a senior and the sixth-leading scorer in school history, has been the definition of inconsistent. His scoring over the last five games: 11 points at Wisconsin, 29 vs. Purdue, 4 vs. Michigan State, 24 at Minnesota and 6 at Michigan. OSU lost the two games where Buford failed to reach double digits.
“We’re trying everything we can to get him to be consistent,” Matta said. “We know we don’t necessarily need him to play great, but to play well. I don’t want to hang it on Will that we lost a game because of him. We didn’t lose the Kentucky game (last year) because of him. We always have other chances.
“There’s nobody in this world that wants William Buford to play better than I do.”
* No Place Like Home For Hoosiers – It has been a renaissance season for Indiana, which has reached the magical 20-win plateau. But IU still hasn’t completely solved the task of playing away from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall.
For the year, IU is 4-6 away from home. That includes a Big Ten road mark of 2-6. The latest loss came on Sunday with a 78-66 defeat at Iowa – a team the Hoosiers blew out 103-89 at home on Jan. 29.
“We missed shots we usually make,” said IU coach Tom Crean. “They defended well. The bottom line was the aggressiveness battle of the backboards. That’s where they hurt us the most. Those 50/50 balls went their way.”
The good news is Indiana has one more road game (at Minnesota on Sunday) to go with a nonconference home game with North Carolina-Central and Big Ten home games with Michigan State and Purdue.
“Every game is different,” Crean said. “There are certain constants you have to have on the road. You have to shoot a high percentage and make some open jump shots. You have to get easy baskets and get to the foul line. But more importantly than that, you have to have a collective defensive mind-set where everybody understands what you’re trying to do.
“You can’t afford too many breakdowns on the road. At Iowa, we had too many of those at costly times.”
The Hoosiers are headed to The Big Dance for the first time since 2008. The only question will be their seeding.
“It’s meant a lot,” Crean said of reaching 20 wins. “That’s a number you want behind you. It’s something these guys have worked extremely hard for, especially the guys who have been here the last couple of years. They worked extremely hard to get it turned around. As exciting as that is, you want to move on to the next thing.”
* Could Iowa Reach .500 In Big Ten? – Iowa’s win over Indiana puts the Hawkeyes at 14-13 overall and 6-8 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes need a 3-1 finish to get to 9-9 in the Big Ten. An NIT bid could also be a possibility if Iowa finishes over .500.
The Hawkeyes host Wisconsin Thursday before visiting Illinois and Nebraska and hosting Northwestern. Iowa stunned UW 72-65 in Madison on Dec. 31.
“When you look at where we stand, that Wisconsin win was a win that gave us some confidence and put us in a position where we are right in the mix here if we can finish strong,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
McCaffery was asked about the late-season play of senior guard Matt Gatens. He has been in double figures his last 10 games, including a season-high 30 points in Sunday’s win over Indiana.
“His ride has been so unique,” McCaffery said. “He committed when he was a freshman in high school and I’m his third coach. There was talk of him leaving after playing for his second coach. He has just stuck with it and been the model of consistency for his work ethic and how to prepare and how to work.
“To turn around and watch him perform at this level, it’s a good feeling because he has earned it.”
* Biggest Northwestern Home Game Ever? – After winning four of its last six games, Northwestern is firmly in the hunt for its first-ever NCAA at-large bid at 16-10 overall. NU is 43rd in the all-important RPI rankings, which is usually good enough to make it. The Wildcats’ schedule is ranked 10th nationally.
That mark should only improve after tonight’s game against Michigan, which is 14th in RPI. NU has winnable road games at Penn State and Iowa, which would bolster the cause, and also hosts Ohio State (seventh in RPI). A 3-1 finish (and a 19-11 record going into the Big Ten tournament) could be enough to cinch a bid.
NU coach Bill Carmody was asked if tonight’s game against red hot Michigan is the most important game in school history.
“Ah, please, come on,” Carmody said. “Baylor was the one and they sort of smoked us and then you still survive and you go on. It’s an important game because you have four left. If you win a few, you’re in the discussion. But if you lose, you’re not out of it. You just keep going.
“Like Bill Parcells says, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ There’s a lot of truth to that. In two more weeks, we’ll know who we are and where we are. All of them are important. I don’t know that any of them are more important than any other.”
Senior wing John Shurna leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.2 points per game. Despite his unorthodox shooting motion – where he almost shoves the ball toward the basket from his chest – Shurna is sixth in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage at 43.2 percent. His 70 made threes are the most in the Big Ten this season.
“It is a funky looking thing,” Carmody said. “In AAU ball, you could see in warmups that it looked a little different. When he got here, my assistants and I talked about it. But the thing we noticed was it went in a lot. We didn’t mess around with it.
“You’ve seen guys over the years who look a little bit different. I think about the guy with the Pistons, the Microwave, Vinnie Johnson. That thing looked nasty, but it went in a lot. That’s the same thing with John. We never did anything with it. It looks different like a push shot. But he is 6-9 and it comes off his hand great.”
* Purdue Momentum Stymied By Off-The-Court Incident – Purdue’s young team has been searching all year for a positive headline. They got it last Wednesday with a 67-62 win at reeling Illinois. That win got the Boilers to 7-6 in Big Ten play and 17-9 overall.
But a day later, the good news turned bad as coach Matt Painter had to dismiss guard Kelsey Barlow from the team and suspend wing D.J. Byrd for a game after an altercation at a campus-area bar. Barlow had been operating under a zero tolerance policy and Painter had no choice but to let him go.
Playing without those two regulars, Purdue grabbed a 38-35 halftime lead on Michigan State on Sunday. But the Spartans put the clamps down and the Boilers went 1 for 23 from the field to start the second half on their way to a 76-62 defeat.
“In between games, we had a disappointing incident happen where we had to suspend D.J. Byrd for a game and we had to dismiss Kelsey Barlow from our team,” Painter said Monday. “As a coach, it’s just disappointing because you’re playing good basketball and you’re moving in the right direction and then you have a distraction.
“But it will also bring out the true character of our team here. Anytime you face adversity like this, it’s time for the next guy to step up and everybody to come together and play the right way and act the right way.”
* Nebraska Adjusts Recruiting – Injuries have marred what should have been a promising first year in the Big Ten for Nebraska.
During a recent off week, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler commented that he and his staff had a chance to do some recruiting. Nebraska’s roster consists of players from nine different states, including four from the home state of Nebraska. But none of them hail from the eight-state region that has been known as Big Ten territory. Sadler has two Kansas high school players and two Iowa junior college players in his 2012 class. His one verbal for 2013 is from Arkansas.
Sadler was asked if he will try and skew Nebraska’s recruiting efforts toward the fertile Big Ten region in years to come.
“You always try to focus in on the local talent,” he said. “That’s what we have done. The next best thing is to go in the area that kids are familiar with. We had a situation going into the Big Ten that a lot of the areas we recruited in the past were because we were in the Big 12.
“Now, you go into another area where the Big Ten still doesn’t know much about Nebraska. But you’re trying to build a program with as much familiarity as you can with it. There’s no question that your area will change quite a bit as we get into the Big Ten.”
* Illinois Situation Reaching Desperation – It’s hard to believe that Illinois has won just one game since its 79-74 upset of then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10. Even harder to believe is that lone win in the last nine games was against Big Ten-leading Michigan State on Jan. 31 (42-41).
This rough stretch got worse Saturday with a lopsided 80-57 loss at Nebraska. Illinois center Meyers Leonard was seen crying on the team’s bench late in that loss. And there are no real gimmes left for Illinois, which is 16-11 overall and 5-9 in the conference. They visit Ohio State tonight, host Iowa and Michigan and finish at Wisconsin.
"I can't have my own pity party," embattled Illini coach Bruce Weber said Monday. "They can't have it. There's no sympathy from anyone. Obviously, you guys know it. It's out there. If we keep feeling sorry for ourselves, we're going to let the season slip by. We have to man up. Tough times stop; tough people don't.
"I told all the guys I don't want any more tears until the end of the season. We just got to play."
Weber is hoping to insulate his players from the negative vibes.
"It gets to the kids," Weber said. "It gets to everyone. We have to create as much positive energy as we can."
* MSU’s Green, UM’s Burke Honored – MSU senior Draymond Green is making a real push for Big Ten player of the year honors. He won the player of the week award for the second week in a row and fourth time this season.
He averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in MSU’s wins over Wisconsin and at Purdue. Green also helped contain Purdue’s Robbie Hummel in the decisive second half of that win at West Lafayette.
Michigan guard Trey Burke was named the freshman of the week for the fifth time. He had 17 points and five assists in UM’s 56-51 win over Ohio State. Burke hit a pair of clutch jumpers in the final 1:10 to clinch the win for the Wolverines.
* The Indianapolis 12 – We are just two weeks away from the biggest ever Big Ten tournament.
Once again we will project the seedings for the Big Ten tournament. It is set for March 8-11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (formerly Conseco Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis. As of now, those would be:
Projected Opening Round (March 8): Iowa (8 seed) vs. Illinois (9), 11:30 a.m. (BTN); Indiana (5) vs. Penn State (12), 1:55 p.m. (BTN); Northwestern (7) vs. Minnesota (10), 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2); Purdue (6) vs. Nebraska (11), 7:55 p.m. (ESPN2).
Projected Quarterfinals (March 9): Michigan State (1) vs. Iowa-Illinois winner, noon (ESPN); Wisconsin (4) vs. Indiana-Penn State winner, 2:25 p.m. (ESPN); Michigan (2) vs. Northwestern-Minnesota winner, 6:30 p.m. (BTN); Ohio State (3) vs. Purdue-Nebraska winner, 8:55 p.m. (BTN).
Semifinals (March 10): Quarterfinal winners, 1:40 p.m. and 4:05 p.m. (CBS).
Championship Game (March 11): Semifinal winners, 3:30 p.m. (CBS).
One other notable: With Indiana and Purdue – at least as things stand now – in separate sessions on both Thursday and Friday, tickets for all four of those sessions could be at a premium. The demand typically loosens up, though, on Saturday and Sunday as teams fall by the wayside and their fans dump their tickets before leaving Indy.
The championship game the last two years -- with Ohio State playing Minnesota in 2010 and Penn State last year – has been by far the easiest ticket.
* Bracketology – We are 19 days from the release of the 2012 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket. The Big Ten, once thought to get as many as nine teams in the NCAA field of 68, now looks closer to only getting seven or maybe only six.
ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi releases his updated bracket here. He has Michigan State moving up to a one seed in the West, joining Syracuse, Kentucky and Missouri as one seeds. His seven Big Ten teams include MSU, Ohio State (two seed in the Midwest), Michigan (three seed), Wisconsin (four seed), Indiana (five seed), Purdue (10 seed) and Northwestern (12 seed).
CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm releases his bracket here. Palm’s bracket, last updated, on Friday still had nine teams in the field. They include Michigan State (two seed), Ohio State (two), Indiana (four), Michigan (four), Wisconsin (five), Purdue (10), Illinois (11), Northwestern (13) and Minnesota (14).
Big Ten Notable Games This Week
* Illinois at Ohio State, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Both teams need a reversal of fortune. OSU is 17-1 at home and wants to avenge its earlier loss to the struggling Illini.
* Michigan at Northwestern, Tuesday, 8 p.m. (BTN) – Michigan took a 66-64 win over NU in overtime on Jan. 11 at Ann Arbor. A payback win would help NU’s NCAA cause immensely.
* Purdue at Michigan, Saturday, 6 p.m. (BTN) – Michigan also took a 66-64 win previously over Purdue at West Lafayette. The Wolverines, unbeaten at home this year, will have a senior send-off for Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.
* Indiana at Minnesota, Sunday, 1 p.m. (ESPN) – The Gophers stunned Indiana 79-74 in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 12 in Bloomington. Minnesota desperately needs a win to bolster its NCAA hopes.
* Wisconsin at Ohio State, Sunday, 4 p.m. (CBS) – The Buckeyes are going for a two-game regular season sweep of the Badgers for the first time since 1999-2000. This will be the senior send-off for William Buford.
National Games To Watch This Week
* Kentucky at Mississippi State, Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – Can the talented but enigmatic Bulldogs deal No. 1 Kentucky its first SEC loss?
* Duke at Florida State, Thursday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – FSU stunned Duke 76-73 on Jan. 21 in Durham.
* Louisville at Cincinnati, Thursday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – UC has won four of its last five to improve its NCAA chances. UL is also hot with seven wins in its last eight games.
* Marquette at West Virginia, Friday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – The Golden Eagles are in the running for an NCAA two seed, but can ill afford a loss at Morgantown.
* Vanderbilt at Kentucky, Saturday, noon (CBS) – The Commodores took UK to the limit before falling 69-63 on Feb. 11 in Nashville.
* Missouri at Kansas, Saturday, 4 p.m. (CBS) – These top-five teams open the week tied for the Big 12 lead at 12-2. The winner would take a step closer to the league title and a coveted one seed for the NCAA Midwest Region in St. Louis.
My National Top 16
Here’s what I have: Kentucky, Syracuse, Missouri, Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Georgetown, Marquette, Michigan, Florida, Baylor, Florida State, Wisconsin, Murray State.
Big Ten Standings, Schedule
TEAM CONF OVERALL
Michigan State 11-3 22-5
Ohio State 10-4 22-5
Michigan 10-4 20-7
Wisconsin 9-5 20-7
Indiana 8-7 20-7
Purdue 7-7 17-10
Northwestern 6-8 16-10
Iowa 6-8 14-13
Minnesota 5-9 17-10
Illinois 5-9 16-11
Nebraska 4-10 12-13
Penn State 4-11 12-16
Illinois at Ohio State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Michigan at Northwestern, 8 p.m. (BTN)
Nebraska at Purdue, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
North Carolina-Central at Indiana, 7 p.m. (BTN.com)
Michigan State at Minnesota, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
Wisconsin at Iowa, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
Purdue at Michigan, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. (BTN)
Northwestern at Penn State, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Indiana at Minnesota, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Wisconsin at Ohio State, 4 p.m. (CBS)
Iowa at Illinois, 6 p.m. (BTN)