Big Ten PG: Contenders Play Defense

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:

Big Ten Notables

* Defense Drives Contenders – It’s not a surprise that the four top defensive teams in the Big Ten are also high in the conference standings. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense at 49.6 points allowed, followed by Ohio State (55.6 ppg), Michigan State (60.2) and Michigan (61.1).

OSU holds a half-game lead over Michigan State in the conference standings with Wisconsin and Michigan a game back.

Indiana coach Tom Crean, whose Hoosiers have played Wisconsin and OSU in recent weeks, was asked about any similarities between the defenses for those two teams.

“I think they’re different,” Crean noted. “The Ohio State length is really an issue. What Ohio State does is they just get up into you. They really force you to make basketball plays. Because of that length, they make the next pass look a little bit harder. Wisconsin’s defense is more indicative of being inside the three-point line. They get into your body on post touches. They do an excellent job of using their chest to create contact. They make the driving lines a little bit harder. They also do a little bit more switching.

“I don’t think it’s an accident they are two of the better defensive teams around. They are both well drilled, well schooled and well coached and they stay committed to what they want to do.”

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said there are some things the Badgers and Buckeyes have in common.

“They both protect the lane and do not foul,” he said. “They both foul more than they did last year, but they limit putting you at the line. They protect the basket. They don’t extend very far. Ohio State goes maybe a little farther out than Wisconsin. Wisconsin does it with overall team defense. Ohio State has great team defense, but they have a good backstop in there with Sullinger.

“They both play good transition defense. Part of that is taking care of the basketball and not taking bad shots where you put yourself in a bind and you end up defending two-on-one or three-on-one. That’s the style that has been successful in our league – taking good shots and taking care of the basketball. That all leads to good defense at the other end.”

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was asked where he picked up his desire for his teams to play such stringent defense.

“Without a doubt, it stems from having a coach in high school that made you guard all of the best players on the other teams,” he said. “Therefore, I grew up without a margin for error defensively or you wouldn’t have me on the court. That made quite a mark.

“I just realized over the years that if you play good defense, you have a chance. Then, Bob Knight’s clinic at Valley Forge in the early 1970s, he shared some principles and I liked the way he presented some things. A lot of the principles I have used over the years with some tweaks have come from Coach Knight.”

OSU coach Thad Matta noted that Wisconsin’s deliberate nature offensively can factor into their effectiveness defensively.

“They’re probably a better defensive team because they don’t play with as many possessions as we do,” he said. “We’re more position-oriented. We probably like to get up and take more chances defensively than they do.”

Matta and Ryan, whose teams will meet for the first time this season Saturday in Madison, first butted heads in the Horizon League. Ryan was the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, while Matta was an assistant and then head coach at Butler.

“Dating back to 12 years ago and coaching against him in (the Horizon League), there are a lot of similarities to what they do now,” Matta said. “He is one guy who has built a program on a system. He has recruited to that system. He does a good job with his system.”

Matta was asked about who influenced his affinity for defensive play.

“I’d probably have to say Barry Collier,” Matta said. “I spent the most time playing for him and working for him. I saw his commitment to the defensive end. He was a great defensive teacher.

“He said you want to try and be as sound as you can and as true to your system. Barry was masterful at looking at his personnel and saying, ‘I think we can do these things with these guys.’ That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from him.”

* Big Day For Hoosiers – Indiana had lost four of its last five games coming into Sunday’s home game against Iowa. That included a disappointing loss at Wisconsin on Thursday, where the Hoosiers led in the second half before falling 57-50.

But Indiana bounced back in a big way. Led by a 26-point effort by freshman center Cody Zeller, they rolled to a 103-89 win over the Hawkeyes.

“Yesterday was a day for us to get out and play a little bit,” Crean said. “We had 20 assists. We had 20 offensiverebounds. We had 44 deflections. When you get numbers like that, you have a chance to be successful. You look at these two games we just played and there is still room for improvement.”

The Hoosiers are 5-5 in the Big Ten headed into a tough week with games at Michigan Wednesday and Purdue on Saturday. The good news is after that IU plays four of its last six Big Ten games at home and also has a nonconference home game with North Carolina Central on Feb. 22.

“We know it will be an extremely challenging week going on the road to Michigan and Purdue,” Crean said.

* Illini Looking For Break – Illinois knocked off then-No. 5 Ohio State 79-74 on Jan. 10 in Champaign. But the Illini have dropped three straight since then with road losses at Penn State and Minnesota sandwiched around a home loss to Wisconsin. That three-game losing streak dropped Illinois to 4-4 in Big Ten play.

The loss at Minnesota was tough to swallow. The Illini led 64-61 in the final seconds, but Minnesota’s Austin Hollins scored and fouled out Illini big man Meyers Leonard in the process with four seconds left. His free throw sent the game to overtime, where Minnesota won 77-72. (The Illini had won the teams’ first meeting 81-72 in double overtime on Dec. 27 in Champaign.)

“It was a tough call,” Weber said of the foul call. “It’s tough being an official. You just hope it doesn’t cost us down the road.”

Weber is ready for a turnaround, but it won’t be easy with Michigan State visiting Champaign Tuesday night.

“It will be a character game to see how we can respond,” Weber said. “Wisconsin lost three in a row and responded. Minnesota lost four in a row and they came back and won four out of five. Indiana went through a rough stretch. That’s part of playing in the Big Ten. It’s a balanced league and we have to see if we have the character to respond against a very good Michigan State team.”

Weber has taken some criticism from Illinois fans thirsting for a winner. But MSU coach Tom Izzo said they need to find another scapegoat besides Weber.

“Bruce has done a great job,” Izzo said. “Some of the heat comes from whether you can get certain recruits or not and I have that happen here. As far as a coach, I think he is as good a coach as there is in the country. (Meyers) Leonard is one of the most improved players in the league and (Brandon) Paul has made great strides.

“The injury to (point guard Sam) Maniscalco hurt them a little bit. Then when you lose a freshman (Jereme Richmond) who would have been a four man for them, you lose guys to the NBA, none of us have enough depth to make it a smooth transition. But if you want to talk about a guy who does it the right way. He works his tail off. I’m predjudiced because he’s a friend, but Illinois better be happy to have him. He’s won a bunch of games there. He’s taken them to a Final Four.”

* Big Dance Invite Still In Mail – Northwestern is the only school in a BCS conference that has never put its men’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion when the Wildcats opened 10-1. But they have lost seven of their last nine and are probably on the outside looking in.

That stretch includes tough home losses to Illinois (57-56) and on Saturday to Purdue (58-56) as Robbie Hummel hit an off-balance baseline jumper in the final seconds for the Boilers.

“I think people talked about it in the beginning of the year,” NU coach Bill Carmody said of his team’s NCAA chances. “We started off pretty nicely at the beginning of the year, so there was more talk about it. Right now, with only two (Big Ten) wins it doesn’t come up that often. If people do start talking about it, we know we’re going to have to go on a winning streak, which we are certainly striving to do.

“When you get close, you start talking about it.”

* Fun Guard Match-Up – It should be a neat match-up Tuesday night as Wisconsin (with lead guard Jordan Taylor) visits Penn State (and its lead guard Tim Frazier).

“We have to do a good job against Jordan,” said PSU coach Patrick Chambers. “He is a heck of a player. He’s one of the best point guards in the nation and what he does for his team with points and assists and defensively, he does a little bit of everything. He’s a big shot taker and a big shot maker. Jordan probably shoots the three better than Tim. But they are very similar with the way they distribute and lead and the way they run a team.”

Frazier leads Penn State in scoring (17.9 ppg, second in the Big Ten), rebounding (4.9) and assists (6.3, first in the Big Ten).

“He’s probably 80 percent of everything we do, maybe even more,” Chambers said. “He comes into practice every day and he’s not looking for days off. If you took Tim Frazier off this team, I don’t know where we’d be right now.”

* Boilers Await Hoosiers – Purdue is off until Saturday’s home game with instate rival Indiana.

“Obviously, it’s a good rivalry,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “Both programs have a lot of basketball tradition. It’s always a great game, especially for the fans to get excited to see their team play their rival. Whether we play Ohio State, Michigan State or Illinois, this is like any other game in the Big Ten. You’re going to have a sellout and your fans are going to be into it.

“We need to keep our focus on what we need to do in terms of executing and playing good defense and making good hustle plays.”

Painter was glad to see his senior star Hummel come through with the game winner against Northwestern.

“We were in a tough spot,” Painter said. “They were in man-to-man in the end and we called timeout. They switched up to a 1-3-1 zone. We really wanted to attack and get deeper penetration. We wanted to get to the high post area. We kept it spread and Lewis Jackson used his quickness, even though his pass was deflected. Rob did a good job of collecting it – he even got tripped a little bit. But then he made that runner.

“It was great. We were able to make that play late in the game. It was good especially for Rob. He had some good looks late in the game against Michigan that didn’t go down. He was fortunate enough to knock that down. That should be good for his confidence.”

* Accolades For Spartans – MSU guard Branden Dawson was named as the Big Ten freshman of the week after he had 16 points in his team’s win over Minnesota. He also had four rebounds and four blocked shots.

Izzo was asked if Dawson could be MSU’s third scoring option behind senior forward Draymond Green and sophomore point guard Keith Appling.

“Branden has worked very hard on his shooting,” Izzo said. “He is a ways from being what I consider a consistent shooter from (three-point) range yet, but he knows it. He works on it and he doesn’t take a lot of bad shots. He should be one of those slashers. He is learning to go to the basket.”

Green shared the Big Ten player of the week honor with Nebraska’s Brandon Richardson. Green scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and added six assists in Michigan State’s 68-52 win over Minnesota.

Green is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring (15.3 ppg), first in rebounding (10.4) and ninth in assists (3.7).

“I think it’s been a (Big Ten) MVP season for him,” Izzo said. “Most valuable player means what would that team be like without him. I’m not sure we’d be anywhere close to this kind of team. Some MVP guys have to score or rebound or whatever. He has to do them all. The advantage is if teams double team him, he just becomes a passer, a rebounder and a defender. If they don’t, he becomes a scorer.

“No matter what people do, it doesn’t ruin his day. He scored 32 against Gonzaga and helped us win. He’s been one of the most consistent and best players in this league. We ask so many things of him. And don’t forget: He’s one of the best leaders I’ve had here in a number of years. We wouldn’t be where we are without Draymond Green.”

* Buckeyes Coming Together – Ohio State won its fourth straight game with Sunday’s 64-49 win over Michigan at home. Matta was asked if the loss at Illinois helped focus his team, which moved into sole possession of first in the conference with the win.

“People forget how young this basketball team is,” Matta said. “I don’t. Sometimes, it takes getting knocked down to open your eyes and see what’s going on around you. We’re learning to practice more efficiently and with more of a sense of purpose for what our team needs and what we need to do in terms of preparation.

“Obviously, we looked at being up 10 points in the second half against Illinois and tried to show them why things happened the way that they did.”

Matta was asked if sophomores Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger, who have now played nearly 60 college games, have emerged as leaders.

“That’s something that evolves over time,” Matta said. “Obviously, the more experience you get in games over time, the more comfortable you feel. I give our guys credit. We’ve got great kids with character. They’re starting to see the bigger picture and that there is more to it than just going out and playing basketball. Those guys are doing a good job of providing leadership.”

* Home Sweet Home – During conference play so far, home teams have won at a .660 clip with 35 wins in 53 games.

“Playing in the Big Ten, you’ve got the best crowds,” Matta said. “They’re educated. They understand the game of basketball. I don’t see a lot of difference from year to year. It is always hard to go on the road and win a game.”

Matta was asked how OSU approaches road trips.

“We will change a few things because every team is different,” he said. “Guys do like repetition. I think that helps the flow of practice and the trips. You are constantly trying to find what works the best.”

Izzo summed up the status of the league.

“This league is so good that somebody has to lose,” Izzo said. “There are about five of us in the same boat and that’s Michigan and us and Illinois and Purdue, Indiana and even Minnesota. We’re all like a coin flip in each and every game.”

Painter was asked if the first half of the league season has identied the contenders and pretenders.

“Normally when you have a competitive league, it will get bunched up in the middle,” Painter said. “You’ll have a couple of teams drift toward the top and a couple drift toward the bottom. As a whole, it’s tough to predict. The thing to keep in mind, the first nine or 10 games may have helped some teams a little bit. Every game is difficult. We have a lot of good coaches and a lot of good teams.

“Some of these coaches could be looking at their schedule and wondering when they’re going to get their next win. When you think that way, it means you have a good league.”

* Bracketology – In the latest Bracketology columns, CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm has nine Big Ten teams in the field while ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has eight. (Sorry Northwestern)

Check out their work here:

ESPN’s Lunardi

CBSSports’ Palm

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Michigan State at Illinois, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – The Illini want to snap a three-game losing streak, while MSU needs a win to join Ohio State in first.

* Indiana at Michigan, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. (BTN) – Indiana squeaked out a 73-71 win on Jan. 5 in Bloomington.

* Minnesota at Iowa, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. (BTN) – If Minnesota wants to be viewed as a real NCAA team, the Gophers can ill afford a loss at Iowa (126 RPI).

* Ohio State at Wisconsin, Saturday, 2 p.m. (ESPN) – This has been the league’s best rivalry over the last five or six years. The Badgers downed then-No. 1 OSU 71-67 last year in Madison.

* Indiana at Purdue, Saturday, 7 p.m. (BTN) – The Hoosier state shuts down when IU and Purdue hook up.

* Michigan at Michigan State, Sunday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – Michigan gutted out a 60-59 win Jan. 17 in Ann Arbor.

National Games To Watch This Week

* Connecticut at Georgetown, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN2) – Georgetown is trying to stay in the Big East hunt, while UConn is trying to snap a three-game losing streak.

* Vanderbilt at Florida, Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – These teams each enter the week 5-1 in SEC play, just behind conference unbeaten Kentucky.

* Marquette at Notre Dame, Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – Marquette sits a game behind Syracuse in the Big East, while ND dealt Syracuse its only loss at South Bend.

* Virginia at Florida State, Saturday, 1 p.m. (ESPN3, ACC syndicated) – Two surprise teams in the ACC try to stay in the top three with Duke and North Carolina.

* Kansas at Missouri, Saturday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – Border war has a top-10 match-up with Big 12 lead on the line.

My National Top 16

Here’s what I have: Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State, Missouri, North Carolina, Baylor, Duke, Kansas, Murray State, Michigan State, UNLV, Florida, Creighton, Georgetown, Marquette, Virginia.

Again, this is real early, but opening weekend NCAA Tournament site breakdown for the four-team pods could be:

Albuquerque – Baylor, UNLV

Pittsburgh – Syracuse, Ohio State

Portland – Georgetown, Marquette

Louisville – Kentucky, Missouri

Columbus (OSU can’t play there) – Michigan State, Virginia

Greensboro – North Carolina, Florida

Nashville – Murray State, Duke

Omaha – Kansas, Creighton

Big Ten Standings, Schedule

TEAM CONF OVERALL
Ohio State 7-2 19-3
Michigan State 6-2 17-4
Wisconsin 6-3 17-5
Michigan 6-3 16-6
Purdue 5-4 15-7
Indiana 5-5 17-5
Illinois 4-4 15-6
Minnesota 4-5 16-6
Nebraska 3-6 11-9
Iowa 3-6 11-11
Northwestern 2-6 12-8
Penn State 2-7 10-12

Tuesday’s Games

Michigan State at Illinois, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Wisconsin at Penn State, 8 p.m. (BTN)

Wednesday’s Games

Indiana at Michigan, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Minnesota at Iowa, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)

Thursday’s Games

Nebraska at Northwestern, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Saturday’s Games

Ohio State at Wisconsin, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Penn State at Iowa, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)
Indiana at Purdue, 7 p.m. (BTN)

Sunday’s Games

Minnesota at Nebraska, 1 p.m. (BTN)
Michigan at Michigan State, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Northwestern at Illinois, 3 p.m. (BTN)

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