Big Ten PG: Ending The Drought?

Welcome to Big Ten Point Guard!

UW's Jordan Taylor, OSU's Jared Sullinger and MSU's Draymond Green coming down the stretch.

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

* Can Big Ten End Title Drought? – The Big Ten has not produced a national championship team since 2000, when Michigan State (led by Mateen Cleaves and the Flintstones) defeated Florida to claim the title. That is also the only Big Ten national championship team since Michigan won the title in 1989.

In the 11 tournaments since 2000, the Big Ten is second only to the ACC in national title game appearances. ACC teams have made the final six times and won it five times in that span. Big Ten teams are next with four runner-up finishes.

Big East teams have been to the title game three times and won it all three times. The SEC, Big 12, Horizon League and Pac-12 all have two title game appearances in that span with the SEC winning twice and the Big 12 winning once. Conference USA also has one appearance.

Since that title win by Michigan in 1989, the ACC leads the way with eight titles in 22 years. The SEC is next with five, the Big East has four, the Pac-12 has two and the Big 12, Big Ten and Big West (that’s where UNLV was in 1990) each had one.

Last year, before going on a run and winning five Big East tournament games in five days, Connecticut was only ranked 21st nationally. The Huskies went on and rolled through the NCAA to the national title.

Currently, there are five Big Ten teams ranked in the AP poll. That group is led by Ohio State at No. 3, followed by Michigan State 11th, Wisconsin 21st, Michigan 22nd and Indiana 23rd.

Indiana coach Tom Crean was asked if this is the year the Big Ten’s title drought comes to an end.

“I don’t think there is any question that’s a possibility,” Crean said. “There is no doubt a national champion could come out of this league and I hope it does.

“I think our league has done a great job. Depending on how the next month goes, it would be a complete shock if we didn’t have as many as any other conference in the NCAA Tournament.”

Ohio State’s win at Wisconsin allowed the Buckeyes to move up from seventh to fourth in the latest RPI rankings.

The RPI is just one factor that goes into the NCAA seeding deliberations. Syracuse leads the way in RPI, followed by Baylor, Duke, OSU and Kentucky. Duke has played the top-rated schedule, while MSU is second. Ohio State’s schedule is rated 28th and that should only get better with its last seven games (after Purdue) ranked in the RPI top 50.

Purdue checks in at No. 63 in RPI and would have to be considered an NCAA bubble team after losing four of its last six games, including Saturday’s shiner at home to rival Indiana (78-61).

Other Big Ten teams in the RPI top 50 include Michigan State (sixth), Michigan (15th), Indiana (18th), Wisconsin (30th), Northwestern (37th), Illinois (46th) and Minnesota (49th).

ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi came out with his newest NCAA projections.

He has eight Big Ten teams in the Big Dance. He has Ohio State as a one seed in the Midwest. He then has Michigan State as a two seed; Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin all as four seeds; Illinois as an eight seed; Purdue as a 10; and Minnesota as a 12. He leaves Northwestern out this week, despite the fact the Wildcats just repaid Illinois by winning in Champaign.

* Statement Win For Indiana? – Indiana picked up a critical road win at instate rival Purdue on Saturday. The win allowed IU to move to .500 in Big Ten play at 6-6 headed into home games with Illinois and Northwestern.

It was also IU’s first road win in the Big Ten at a place other than Penn State in Crean’s fourth year as the Hoosiers coach. The magical 20-win plateau looks like a certainty and the Hoosiers seem headed to their first NCAA Tournament since 2008.

“You want that kind of enthusiasm, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how we practice or prepare for games,” Crean said of the support the Hoosiers are getting. “Our fans have been through a lot, just like all of us. The juniors and seniors in this program have also been through a lot. When they come in for games and they see the students lined up and the passion and energy is running through the building, that’s one of the things that makes this program special. They embrace it in a big way.

“Even when we have struggled, we’ve come back in a big way. That helps to build more passion with the fans.”

On the flip side, Purdue has lost three of its last four games and four of its last six headed into tonight’s game at Ohio State. Boilers coach Matt Painter wasn’t happy with the lopsided home loss to Indiana.

“It’s disappointing,” Painter said. “In a game like that, you’d think we would have that type of big time effort. Maybe you don’t have the execution, but we’re not getting that kind of effort across the board. We just have to be more competitive and have more fight to us.”

* Big Man Battle – Thursday’s game with Illinois visiting Indiana will be the only meeting between those border rivals. It will also represent a battle between Indiana’s 6-11 Cody Zeller and Illinois’ 7-1 Meyers Leonard in the paint.

Zeller has had a huge freshman year. He is eighth in the Big Ten in scoring (15.1 ppg), fifth in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and first in field goal percentage (64.9 percent). Leonard was a sub last year as a freshman, but he has moved to the forefront this year. He is 13th in the Big Ten in scoring (13.3 ppg), third in rebounding (8.0 rpg) and third in field goal percentage (58.2 percent).

IU’s Crean was asked to contrast the two big men.

“I don’t look at them in the same light because I coach one of them every day,” Crean said. “I don’t know Meyers like that, but we have a lot of respect for how he plays. The game comes down to how Indiana plays versus Illinois. If there is one common theme, I’d say they’re both very skilled for guys their size.”

Illinois coach Bruce Weber added, “Both of them have good mobility for big men. They can run the floor. They’re not plodders. They can go inside and outside with good efficiency. They also have good skills and good hands. It should be a good match-up on Thursday night.

“The thing we’ve found with Zeller is when they let him go one-on-one he’s pretty successful.”

* The Struggling Illini – It’s like Illinois takes two steps forward (like with last Tuesday’s 42-41 home win over Michigan State) only to then take three steps back (Sunday’s 74-70 home loss to Northwestern).

That capped a stretch where Illinois has gone just 1-4 since its supposed breakthrough win over then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10.

“Northwestern just had one of those special games with some players making a lot of shots,” Weber said. “We just had no answers against them. We could not stop them, especially early and late. It was a tough loss at home.”

It gets no easier with four of Illinois’ next five games away from home. Three of those road games will be at ranked opponents in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State.

“Now we face a tough stretch with four of the next five games away from home,” Weber said. “We have to show some real character here in the next two weeks.”

* White Making Strides – Iowa freshman Aaron White continued to impress last week. He averaged 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in Iowa’s wins over Minnesota and Penn State.

He recorded 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals in the Hawkeyes’ 77-64 victory against the Nittany Lions. He also notched nine points and seven rebounds in Iowa’s 63-59 win over the Golden Gophers.

White, a 6-8 forward from Strongsville, Ohio, has upped his season averages to 10 points and five rebounds per game.

“He had 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “He’s a guy that impacts the game so many ways with his length and with his feel for how to play. He’s shooting the ball well from the perimeter right now. When you have a 6-9 guy who can shoot threes and also put it on the deck and go dunk it, that’s a guy other teams will have to game plan against. It’s great to have that, especially with a freshman.”

McCaffery talked about White’s ability to run the floor and make plays in transition.

“The impressive thing is how he has developed his stamina to continue to do that,” McCaffery said. “You have to run all the time. When I was at Notre Dame, we had Pat Garrity who did that. He just ran hard all the time. Aaron has the same kind of speed and length. He’s much stronger than he looks and he takes advantage of that.”

White shared the Big Ten freshman of the week honor with Northwestern guard Drew Sobolewski. He posted 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in Northwestern’s wins against Nebraska and Illinois.

* Appling Coming Along – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had high hopes for sophomore Keith Appling as he moved him to the point. Appling played heralded freshman Trey Burke of Michigan to a virtual draw in Sunday’s game as MSU avenged an earlier loss with a 64-54 win over the Wolverines.

“I think number one, I thought he made a lot of improvement the other night,” Izzo said of Appling. “I don’t think he was back to where he was. I mean, he was playing a lot more confidently and we all get our confidence rocked once in a while.”

Izzo said Appling is working to take on more of a leadership role.

“It’s just not a natural thing. It’s natural to work on his shooting. If you’re not a great shooter you can get better but it’s not natural,” Izzo said. “I think he understands. I spent some time with him Friday night, a lot of time on Friday night, and we were talking about all those things and how it’s gonna help him in life and what he’s gonna do at a job. If he was a reporter he wouldn’t ask questions if he’s afraid to hear his own voice, so it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s essential.”

Izzo said Travis Trice is continuing to improve health-wise as he recovers from a groin injury. Trice had three points and played solid defense in Sunday’s victory.

“He’s a lot better. He’s not 100 percent but a lot better,” Izzo said. “The only problem he’s having now is lateral movement and it’s so much better than it was.”

* Beilein Couldn’t Watch It – Michigan coach John Beilein had something to take his mind off his team’s loss at Michigan State on Sunday afternoon. It was called the Super Bowl.

“I watched the entire (Super Bowl) game,” Beilein said Monday night on his radio show. “I watched the video of our Michigan State game in the hour back on our bus. There was one point I shut the computer down and said, ‘I can’t watch anymore.’ We just didn’t play well. So when I got home, I said I won’t do any more of that and reserve that for 7 a.m. (Monday) with a good cup of coffee that’s when I could pour into that game.”

Michigan has alternated wins and losses over its last eight games. Beilein said he found some common themes once he studied that loss.

“Our execution was not good (against MSU) and our focus moving on to the next play,” he said. “Those are probably the two biggest things. Part of execution is communication. And we have to be able to move forward to the next play.”

* Wisconsin-Minnesota Rivalry – Minnesota and Wisconsin will renew their rivalry Thursday in Minneapolis. The Badgers will come to town led by three homegrown players from Minnesota in Jordan Taylor, Mike Brusewitz and Jared Berggren.

“Basketball is a game without borders,” said UW coach Bo Ryan. “Just because the Mississippi River is there between the two states … the Big Ten encompasses a lot of areas. These guys were all looking for a fit when they were looking for their college. That’s not something that is a concern. There’s not a difference that I see.”

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said Taylor was already a UW verbal when he arrived as the Gophers coach.

Jordan Taylor had already committed when I got here,” Smith said. “It’s very competitive in terms of recruiting here. It is that way here because we play pretty high school basketball here in Minnesota and in the Minneapolis area. It is a convenient area to recruit from. We have excellent high school teams and AAU programs.

“Wisconsin is in a good spot to recruit Chicago and here – the two major metropolitan areas in our region. That helps them, but it also helps us as well.”

* Buckeyes Alone In First – Ohio State has won two straight Big Ten titles and, going into the week with a one-game lead over Michigan State, the Buckeyes have the inside track to a third straight title.

OSU comes off a breakthrough win at Wisconsin (58-52), which was the Buckeyes first win at the Kohl Center since 2000. The Buckeyes are 16-0 at home this season, but will be tested this week with Purdue visiting tonight and MSU coming to Value City Arena on Saturday.

“Coming off a bye week, we had a big win at Wisconsin,” said OSU coach Thad Matta. “It was a hard fought game. Wisconsin is a great team and they have a great program. Going in there and getting a win was big for us. We have another tough week ahead with Purdue and Michigan State.

“It’s just another week in the Big Ten.”

* Huskers Hurting Again – Nebraska has to play without 6-11 center Jorge Brian Diaz once again as he nurses a foot injury. This comes at a bad time as the Huskers have dropped two in a row and are sitting 11th in the Big Ten at 3-8.

“I still believe in this basketball team,” said NU coach Doc Sadler. “We had another setback with Brian Diaz, but we have to move on. I think we will do that. How many games we’re going to win? I don’t know. But we are going to continue to compete.

“I’m moving on with the idea he is not going to play any more this season. There would have to be something drastically change for that to take place. We’ll get him the best medical attention we can get.”

On this week’s Big Ten teleconference, Sadler was asked if he had any concerns about his job status.

“I’ve not heard any grumblings,” he said. “I have not heard anything and I don’t pay attention to it. My concern, believe it or not, are big enough to get this basketball team playing good. Anything else, I can’t control.

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s important to have more wins than losses and we need to win some basketball games.”

* Players Of The Week – Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Northwestern’s John Shurna shared the Big Ten player of the week honor this week.

Shurna veraged 26.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in Northwestern’s wins over Nebraska and Illinois. He scored 28 points and added five rebounds, two blocks and two steals in the Wildcats’ 84-74 win against the Huskers. He then posted 24 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in Northwestern’s 74-70 road win over Illinois. He shot a combined 71.4 percent (20-28) from the floor in the pair of games.

Shurna collected his fifth career weekly honor and his first this season.

Sullinger scored 24 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and notched three steals in Ohio State’s 58-52 win at Wisconsin. He recorded his 10th double-double this season and the 28th of his career. He earned his sixth career Player of the Week award and second this season.

Sullinger, by the way, also became the 48th OSU player to reach 1,000 points. He ended the game with 1,003 points. He reached 1,000 points in 58 games, becoming the fifth-fastest Buckeye to reach that mark.

* Robertson Award Finalists – Three Big Ten players made the cut for the 20 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Award for the national player of the year, as presented by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

Still in the running from the Big Ten are IU’s Zeller, OSU’s Sullinger and MSU’s Draymond Green.

The ACC led the way with four candidates, followed by three each from the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten.

* Looking Forward To Indy – OK, we just passed the halfway point in the conference race. I thought it would be worthwhile to project the seedings for the Big Ten tournament. It is set for March 8-11 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (formerly Conseco Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis.

Because Nebraska makes 12 Big Ten teams, there will be four opening round games on March 8. As of now, those would be:

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

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

Big Ten Notable Games This Week

* Purdue at Ohio State, Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – This is the teams’ only scheduled meeting. Ohio State has won five straight since its loss at Illinois, while Purdue needs a signature win to turn its season around.

* Michigan at Nebraska, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. (BTN) – The Wolverines will want to bounce back from their loss at Michigan State.

* Wisconsin at Minnesota, Thursday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – A win would help the Gophers’ NCAA hopes.

* Illinois at Indiana, Thursday, 8 p.m. (BTN) – The Fighting Illini desperately need a win to get their season going again. But IU has been tough at its Assembly Hall (13-1 with the lone loss to Minnesota).

* Michigan State at Ohio State, Saturday, 6 p.m. (ESPN) – The Big Ten’s top two teams do battle in Columbus. Great match-up between Sullinger and Green, the two leading player of the year candidates. An OSU win could give the Buckeyes a two-game lead with six games to play.

* Illinois at Michigan, Sunday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – Another critical game for both teams. UM is trying to get a top-four seed in the NCAA, while Illinois still has some resume building to do.

National Games To Watch This Week

* Florida at Kentucky, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Can the Gators stun the high-flying Wildcats and add some suspense to the SEC race?

* Georgetown at Syracuse, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Longtime Big East rivals do battle at the Carrier Dome.

* Kansas at Baylor, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (ESPN2) – Another top-10 battle in what’s been a great year in the Big 12.

* Duke at North Carolina, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – This great rivalry takes center stage at the Smith Center. In the past 75 Duke-UNC games, Duke has won 38 and UNC 37, with the Blue Devils scoring one more point (5,858 to 5,857) than the Tar Heels.

* Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga, Thursday, 11 p.m. (ESPN2) – Can St. Mary’s stay unbeaten in the West Coast Conference.

* Connecticut at Syracuse, Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS) – The defending champs are reeling and their coach is ailing. Can they summon some magic at Syracuse?

* Baylor at Missouri, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com, Big 12 Network) – Another top-10 game in the Big 12, but precious few will see it.

* San Diego State at UNLV, Saturday, 4 p.m. (NBC Sports Network) – A match-up of top-25 teams in the Mountain West, but you’ll have to hunt to find it.

* Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday, 9 p.m. (ESPN) – Vandy would love nothing more than to hand UK a loss in the SEC.

* Syracuse at Louisville, Monday, 7 p.m. (ESPN) – Louisville starting to come on as the season winds down. The Yum Center will be rocking.

My National Top 16

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

Big Ten Standings, Schedule

TEAM CONF OVERALL
Ohio State 8-2 20-3
Michigan State 7-3 18-5
Wisconsin 7-4 18-6
Michigan 7-4 17-7
Indiana 6-6 18-6
Illinois 5-5 16-7
Purdue 5-5 15-8
Minnesota 5-6 17-7
Iowa 5-6 13-11
Northwestern 4-6 14-8
Nebraska 3-8 11-11
Penn State 2-9 10-14

Tuesday’s Game

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

Wednesday’s Games

Penn State at Michigan State, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Michigan at Nebraska, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)

Thursday’s Games

Wisconsin at Minnesota, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Illinois at Indiana, 8 p.m. (BTN)
Iowa at Northwestern, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)

Saturday’s Games

Nebraska at Penn State, 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
Michigan State at Ohio State, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday’s Games

Illinois at Michigan, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Northwestern at Purdue, 6 p.m. (BTN)

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