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Big Ten PG: Defense Drives Spartans

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Draymond Green and MSU were too much for Jared Sullinger and OSU on Saturday

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 Lifts MSU Into First Place – Ohio State hosted Michigan State on Saturday with a chance to take a commanding two-game lead in the Big Ten standings with six games to play.

But the Spartans put the clamps on the Buckeyes and got out of Columbus with a 58-48 win, forging a tie for the conference lead at 9-3 in the process. The MSU win also kept Michigan (9-4 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (8-4 Big Ten) within striking distance in the conference race as well.

MSU held OSU to 48 points, about 29 below its previous season average of 77.9 points per game. The Buckeyes also shot a dismal 26.4 percent (14 of 53) from the floor – their worst shooting percentage at home in at least 15 years.

“To get the win at Ohio State, of course, was a marquee win for Michigan State,” said MSU coach Tom Izzo. “We played well defensively, but they did, too. They turned us over a lot. It just came down to them missing some shots. I thought (William) Buford and (Deshaun) Thomas, who both ended up 2 for 12, had been playing really well. It gave us a chance for us to dig down (on Jared Sullinger) with our guards even more.

“In terms of following the game plan, it was one of the best we’ve had in a long time.”

MSU is now rated second in the Big Ten in field goal defense (37.4 percent) and third in points allowed (58.6 percent).

“I’ve been surprised,” Izzo said. “It all starts at the point. (Keith) Appling is an incredible defender for us. Keith has done a very good job. We’ve been solid inside with both of our bigs, (Derrick) Nix and (Adreian) Payne. Draymond Green isn’t necessarily a great defender, but he is a good position defender. He understands the game so well and he has improved. The X factors have been (Branden) Dawson, (Brandon) Wood and (Austin) Thornton.

“We’re giving up 37-something percent, which would be one of the best we’ve ever had. I think our assistants deserve some credit for the job they’ve done in scouting. We’ve simplified some things so we wouldn’t get as confused.”

The Spartans have won three games in a row and five of their last six as they surge into first place. They will host Wisconsin Thursday before making road trips to Purdue and Minnesota. MSU already boasts wins over all three of those schools, but Izzo knows this stretch will not be as easy as it may seem. The March 4 rematch with Ohio State in East Lansing could also be the determining factor in the Big Ten title race and go a long way toward postseason seedings.

“We are in for a hell of a finish with the teams we have left on our schedule,” he said.

Green was the choice for Big Ten player of the week. He averaged 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in Michigan State’s wins against Penn State and at Ohio State. Green posted 23 points, 12 boards and five assists to lead the Spartans to a 77-57 victory against the Nittany Lions. He then notched 12 points, nine rebounds and two assists in the win at OSU.

* Buckeyes Must Regroup -- Ohio State has spent the entire season in the national top 10 and was even ranked as high as second nationally for five consecutive polls (from Nov. 28 to Dec. 26). But the Buckeyes dropped to sixth in both national polls and 10th in the RPI rankings after their home loss to Michigan State.

OSU coach Thad Matta was asked if it was MSU’s defense or poor shooting by the Buckeyes that caused that loss, which snapped a six-game winning streak this year and a 39-game home winning streak as well.

“We had some opportunities,” Matta said. “They played terrific defense. Some shots didn’t fall. That may have taken some wind out of our sail. That was probably a combination of both.”

MSU bottled up the All-American Sullinger by rotating fresh big men Nix and Payne against him and also doubling down with a guard whenever he tried to put the ball on the floor. It was the latest wrinkle opponents have used against Sullinger and it worked as he made just 5 of 15 shots from the floor and committed a career-high 10 turnovers.

“We’ve seen just about every conceivable way that people can defend a low post player,” Matta said.

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, whose Gophers host OSU tonight, talked about the challenge of defending Sullinger and the Buckeyes.

“We do whatever we can to neutralize him,” Smith said. “He is a very good player. Michigan State was able to do some to good things. He was able to still have a good game. With a great player like Jared and so many talented players around him, you have to pick your poison. Do you go down and double him or do you stay out on the shooters.

“Ohio State is best in the league with their inside-outside game. They can score from the outside and also put the ball on the floor. They have the ultimate weapon with balance and size. We have to find ways to counteract that.”

Matta continues to preach about how young his team is and, true enough, the Buckeyes start one senior and four sophomores. The Buckeyes play four of their last six games on the road, including challenges this week at Minnesota tonight and at Michigan on Saturday night.

“We’re still a work in progress,” Matta said. “We’re showing our guys, ‘This is what we didn’t do when we wanted to do it,’ and, ‘This is what we want to do.’ I think that will help us to improve on those areas in the future.”

* The Road Honey Badgers – Wisconsin has more road wins overall and in Big Ten play than any other team in the conference. The Badgers are 6-2 on the road this season, including 5-1 in Big Ten.

They have Big Ten road wins at Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois, Penn State and Minnesota. That Minnesota win last Thursday was a 68-61 decision in overtime. UW’s lone Big Ten road loss was at Michigan on Jan. 8 (59-41).

UW will try and pad that record when it visits Michigan State on Thursday.

“We won a few road games last year,” said UW coach Bo Ryan. “Since we’ve been here, according to our SID, that record is better than anybody else in the Big Ten. You just want to have a chance when there is five minutes to go. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.

“At Michigan, we didn’t have a chance. They had thoroughly outplayed us. In the other games, we gave ourselves a chance. That’s all you want to do. It’s just about our guys being committed to giving ourselves a chance. That’s the only way you can get anything done on the road.”

* Spreading The Wealth – Michigan has won three of its last four games, putting the Wolverines just a half-game behind league leaders OSU and MSU. UM’s calling card has been its balance offensively with six players averaging between seven and 15 points per game.

“That is probably the key to our success so far,” said UM coach John Beilein. “We haven’t had to rely on one or two guys in every game. It’s good. We probably came as close to it as we have against Illinois, where nearly everybody played well. We shot it well and defended well.”

Despite winning the 1989 NCAA championship and making back-to-back national title game appearances with the Fab Five in 1992-93 (since vacated by NCAA sanctions), Michigan has not won a Big Ten men’s basketball championship since 1986. A win over Ohio State at home on Saturday would keep UM in that discussion down the stretch.

“We’re talking all the time about being champions,” Beilein said. “We want to be champions in the Big Ten, but we also want to be champions at life. When we talk about that all the time, it’s not just about life or the Big Ten. It’s about both. The players know the standings. You do the math and you see we have a great opportunity here against a good team.

“They know we’re in it. But it can change quickly with a few wins here and there.”

* Where’s The Love For Frazier? – Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said his star junior guard Tim Frazier isn’t getting the kind of acclaim he deserves. Frazier nearly pulled off a triple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Saturday’s 67-51 win over Nebraska.

“Tim Frazier was one assist away from a triple-double,” Chambers said. “That was pretty amazing and it’s been that way all year. For him to keep us at a high level and compete in every game is a tribute to him.”

Frazier leads Penn State in every meaningful category and is also among the Big Ten leaders. He is second in the conference in scoring (18.5 ppg), 16th in rebounding (5.0 rpg), first in assists (6.4 apg) and second in steals (2.2 spg).

“As a coach, I’m not going to promote my player,” Chambers said. “I probably should but I don’t. You watch the Big Ten Network and you watch ESPN. The fact he doesn’t even get a mention when he’s one assist away from a triple-double or for whatever you want to call it – player of the weekend or player of the day – it’s mind blowing. Yeah, we were 2-10 at the time and he doesn’t get any exposure or notoriety.

“But he’s earned the right to be in the same breath with Jordan Taylor and all the great point guards in this league and across the country. He is probably 85 percent of what we do as a team and he does more than that because he’s our leader and our captain.”

Chambers bid to upgrade the PSU program got a big boost last week as he got a verbal from 6-6 win Brandon Austin of Philadelphia Imhotep Charter High School. Austin is regarded as one of the state’s top prospects for 2013.

Click here for more on this key verbal commitment.

* Weber On The Hot Seat – It was another rough week for Illinois with losses at Indiana (84-71) and at Michigan (70-61). The Fighting Illini have now lost three in a row and six of their last seven since their upset of then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10.

New Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas has already shown he will make a change if need be after firing Ron Zook in December. Bruce Weber is in his eighth year as the Illinois coach, but he could well be on the hot seat. Thomas told a Champaign radio station he will assess his performance after the season.

"Yes, obviously, that's something people are paying attention to right now," Thomas said. "As I've always said, I will assess the situation at the end of the season no different than I do with the other 18 sports, no different than I did for the football program.

"I need to look at the total body of work and all of the things that come into play as far as making those decisions. Because those are important decisions and they affect a lot of people. I'll tell you this: No one wants to win more than I do. I'm here to win championships."

The recent losses have dropped Illinois to 16-9 overall and 5-7 in Big Ten play. The Illini host Purdue for a critical game Wednesday.

"For us, we have to compete at the highest level with our men's basketball program," Thomas said. "There's no doubt about. We have to be in the higher ranks of the Big Ten Conference. Let's face it, in the Big Ten, not just men's basketball but for anything, if you're in the upper crust, you're a top team nationally.

"That's where Illinois used to have a history of, a good part of history has been that kind of program. We need to not only get to be that kind of program -- [what] is more difficult is to sustain that."

Weber tried not to address the rumors of his job status, but he could not resist the chance to respond.

“An article was written and some things were taken out of context,” Weber said. “We have to win games. It’s plain and simple. We want to get into the NCAA Tournament. We just want to focus on that. That’s the biggest thing.

“Sometimes it’s disappointing when things happen, but people write stories and they can do whatever they want. It was disappointing the story was written, but we can’t do anything but focus on Purdue and see if we can get a win. We need to get our team playing well. That’s the important thing.”

* McCabe Coming On For Hawkeyes – One player who has been making some inroads for Iowa is 6-7, 232-pound forward Zach McCabe. The sophomore McCabe is averaging 8.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

He had 10 points in a recent win over Penn State and 20 in a loss to Nebraska.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery likes McCabe’s versatility as he has played all three frontcourt positions.

“I think the thing that will help him is he has now had the opportunity to play multiple minutes at the three, the four and the five,” McCaffery said. “He knows exactly what he has to do at all of those positions. Now in his junior year, when he is probably going to be at his peak physically he will also be at his peak mentally.

“To have a versatile guy who will be confident will help our team immensely.”

* Zeller Has Lock On Freshman Award – For the sixth time this year, Indiana 6-11 forward Cody Zeller has won the Big Ten’s freshman of the week award. Zeller had 22 points and five rebounds in IU’s win over Illinois.

For the year, he is sixth in the conference in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg).

“We’re proud of Cody,” said IU coach Tom Crean. “He deserves any individual awards he gets because he never puts himself at the center of that. He is a very humble person. He will be the least excited to be the freshman of the week in the program and that’s probably why he gets that award at different times and why he has impacted our team and the game in so many different ways.

“He does what it takes to win. He is improving constantly. He’s getting better as a defender in so many different ways. He is an excellent passer. We’re excited for him and for the way he impacts our team.”

Zeller has been a big reason why IU has gone from 12-20 last year to 19-6 this year. The Hoosiers are a few wins away from not only cinching their first NCAA bid since 2008 but also a protected top-four seed and possibly an opening weekend assignment at either nearby Louisville or Columbus.

“We’re the most improved BCS school right now and that’s a big deal for us with the way these guys continue to improve and the way they get better,” Crean said.

One key piece of the puzzle has been sophomore wing Victor Oladipo. He has upped his scoring from 7.4 points per game to 10.8 this year and his rebounding from 3.7 to 5.3 per game as well.

“Victor has been a tremendous product of his off-season,” Crean said. “He attacked everything put in front of him, whether it was individual workouts or the weight room or conditioning and he hasn’t looked back since. He can guard numerous people.”

* Wild Card Selections Feb. 25-26 – The Big Ten’s TV partners have made their selections for the weekend of Feb. 25-26.

As expected, CBS has stepped up to take the Wisconsin-Ohio State game at OSU for its 4 p.m. window on Sun., Feb. 26. ESPN grabbed the Indiana-Minnesota game for Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. Big Ten Network will televise the Purdue-Michigan game on Sat., Feb. 26, at 6 p.m.

The wild card selections for the weekend of March 4 have not been announced yet. Those games include Illinois-Wisconsin, Michigan-Penn State and Michigan State-Ohio State. Look for that MSU-OSU rematch – possibly for the Big Ten title – to be tapped for the CBS window at 4 p.m.

* The Indianapolis 12 – We are just three weeks away from the biggest ever Big Ten tournament. (Well, in terms of number of games and, yes, maybe in terms of quality, too.)

As Illinois’ Weber pointed out, by adding Nebraska and going to 12 teams only the top four finishers will qualify for an opening round bye.

“Being in that top four is really important because it’s hard to win four games in four days,” Weber said. “We tried it a few years ago and got to the championship and just died in the championship.”

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): Northwestern (8 seed) vs. Illinois (9), 11:30 a.m. (BTN); Indiana (5) vs. Nebraska (12), 1:55 p.m. (BTN); Iowa (7) vs. Minnesota (10), 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2); Purdue (6) vs. Penn State (11), 7:55 p.m. (ESPN2).

Projected Quarterfinals (March 9): Michigan State (1) vs. Northwestern-Illinois winner, noon (ESPN); Wisconsin (4) vs. Indiana-Nebraska winner, 2:25 p.m. (ESPN); Ohio State (2) vs. Iowa-Minnesota winner, 6:30 p.m. (BTN); Michigan (3) vs. Purdue-Penn State 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).

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Ohio State at Minnesota, Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – The Buckeyes will try and bounce back from the Michigan State loss. A home win over OSU would help Minnesota’s NCAA chances. The Gophers check in at No. 61 in RPI. This is the only meeting between the schools.

* Purdue at Illinois, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. (BTN) – Another nut cruncher game. Illinois must stop the bleeding, while Purdue (56 in RPI) could really use a road win to help its resume. Purdue won the first meeting Dec. 31 in West Lafayette (75-60).

* Wisconsin at Michigan State, Thursday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – MSU took a tough 63-60 overtime win over Wisconsin on Jan. 3 in Madison.

* Ohio State at Michigan, Saturday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – Lenzelle Smith Jr. had 17 points and 12 rebounds as OSU turned back UM 64-49 on Jan. 29 in Columbus. But the Crisler Center will be rocking for ESPN’s College Game Day.

* Michigan State at Purdue, Sunday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – MSU blew out Purdue 83-58 in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 21 in East Lansing.

National Games To Watch This Week

I hope it gets better down the stretch because there isn’t a whole lot here this week:

* North Carolina at Miami (Fla.), Wednesday, 8 p.m. (ESPN) – Miami has won five of its last six games (including a win at Duke). But UNC won the first meeting with Miami 73-56 on Jan. 10 at Chapel Hill.

* UNLV at New Mexico, Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – A rare Mountain West game on network TV. UNLV and New Mexico are tied with San Diego State for the conference lead at 6-2.

* Florida at Arkansas, Saturday, 6 p.m. (ESPN2) – Florida had won seven in a row before recent losses at Kentucky and at home to Tennessee.

* Saint Marys at Murray State, Saturday, 6 p.m. (ESPN) – This is the marquee game of the ESPN Bracket Buster series featuring the best mid-majors. The winner can probably make reservations for The Big Dance, while the loser may have to still win its conference tournament. Dick Vitale jumps off the 9 p.m. OSU-Michigan game to preside over this one. (Does he know the way to Murray, Ky.?)

My National Top 16

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

Big Ten Standings, Schedule

TEAM CONF OVERALL
Ohio State 9-3 21-4
Michigan State 9-3 20-5
Michigan 9-4 19-7
Wisconsin 8-4 19-6
Indiana 7-6 19-6
Purdue 6-6 16-9
Minnesota 5-7 17-8
Illinois 5-7 16-9
Northwestern 5-7 15-9
Iowa 5-7 13-12
Nebraska 3-10 11-13
Penn State 3-10 11-15

Tuesday’s Game

Ohio State at Minnesota, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Wednesday’s Games

Northwestern at Indiana, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Purdue at Illinois, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)

Thursday’s Games

Wisconsin at Michigan State, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Iowa at Penn State, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday’s Games

Illinois at Nebraska, 5 p.m. (BTN)
Minnesota at Northwestern, 7 p.m. (BTN)
Ohio State at Michigaan, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday’s Games

Michigan State at Purdue, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Penn State at Wisconsin, 4 p.m. (BTN)
Indiana at Iowa, 6 p.m. (BTN)

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