Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Big Ten: Weekly Look Ahead

*Every week, I’ll take a look at Big Ten’s current landscape, recap the previous week and analyze how the next seven days will impact the teams' NCAA Tournament hopes.


Last week had some major games with Big Ten Championship implications. The Buckeyes are still the favorite and have sole possession of first with Michigan State a game out and Wisconsin and Michigan both 1 1/2 games back. While the Big Ten could theoretically get nine teams into the field, my guess is they'll get eight tops and more than likely seven. That said, the fringe tournament teams fared very well last week.

MAJOR STUMPER: Illinois. It couldn't have been an uglier week for the Fighting Illini. True, Illinois beat No. 9 Michigan State at home on Tuesday, but the game was so hard to watch it felt like both teams lost. And, truth be told, no team is going to brag about a 42-41 victory, regardless of the opponent. Nevertheless, Illinois won that game despite shooting 32.6 percent. A win is a win, right? Well, what did Illinois do? The Illini followed that up with a 74-70 home loss to Northwestern. Find another team's week that is more confusing than that.

MAJOR SURPRISE: Iowa. Unless Iowa runs some sort of magical gauntlet the Hawkeyes aren't making the NCAA Tournament. Still, a team fighting for its life is making things very difficult for the Big Ten's fringe teams. Already with a wins at Wisconsin and Minnesota and against Michigan earlier in the year, Iowa beat Minnesota to complete the season sweep this past week. Couple that with an expected-but-nonetheless-needed win against Penn State and Iowa is 5-6 in Big Ten play. The Hawkeyes need to win the Big Ten Tournament to secure an NCAA bid because the sad fact is Iowa's best nonconference win is either against Drake or against Brown. That, coupled with a loss to Campbell and it is a miracle Iowa already has five Big Ten victories.

BRACKETOGRAPHY: I'll have a weekly bracket released each Friday. In last week's edition of Bracketography 2012, seven Big Ten teams made the field. Ohio State headlined the group and was the best No. 2 seed. Both Michigan State and Michigan were holding steady on the No. 3 line while Wisconsin (No. 4) was the conference's fourth protected seed. Indiana (No. 5) and Illinois (No. 7) were the other Big Ten teams favored to win at least one tournament game. Purdue was the final Big Ten team in the field as a No. 12 seed, though the Boilermakers will need to do some work to stay there.

The weekend's results shouldn't shake seeding up too much. Wisconsin losing to Ohio State shouldn't knock the Badgers down a line. The same can be said for Michigan losing at Michigan State. Illinois, who had moved up a few lines with an ugly-yet-satisfying win against Michigan State earlier in the week will likely fall with a home loss to Northwestern. Purdue fell at home to Indiana which, despite Indiana's solid footing in the bracket, is just one of many losses piling up for Purdue.

While we can't "lock" any teams into the NCAA Tournament in early February, it seems safe to say Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana will play in March. It will be interesting to see how many of the next group of four (Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern) crack the field. All have solid wins already but the mounting losses only make each team less desirable compared to other bubble teams. My best guess is, based on the Big Ten's strength this year, no fewer than seven Big Ten teams make it, even if the final two are somewhere on the 11-12-13 lines.

Below is a snapshot at where Big Ten teams stack in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.


THE WEEK THAT WAS: The shocking score was "Northwestern 74, Illinois 70." Keep in mind that is the same arena Illinois knocked off Michigan State earlier in the week. Nothing says Jeckyl and Hyde like the 2012 Illini.

Illinois 42, Michigan State 41: In a game highlighted by missed opportunities and brick after brick after brick, Illinois survived a last second runner from MSU's Keith Appling to pick up a much needed victory. Lost in the score was the terrific defense played by both teams. While MSU likely will chalk up it's sub-25 percent FG percentage to a dozen missed layups, Illinois didn't let anything come easy. The same can be said for MSU's defense, which continues to be one of the country's most underrated units.

Michigan 68, Indiana 56: Starting the game down 13-0 is no way to win, especially on the road. That's what Tom Crean's Hoosiers did at Crisler Center. Despite falling behind by as many as 20 in the first half, Indiana twice cut the deficit to two in the second half. Trailing 52-50, Indiana's inability to stop the opposition was highlighted yet again when Michigan hit back-to-back 3-pointers to ice the game.

Ohio State 58, Wisconsin 52: Jot this down: Ohio State can play fast, medium or slow. Also jot this down: Ohio State can win at any pace, too. This was a game that the Buckeyes dominated yet could never build a double-digit lead. That's pretty common against Wisconsin, especially at the Kohl Center. Nevertheless, Ohio State beat a team it should beat on any floor and has the looks of not only a Big Ten Champion but a national champion.

Indiana 78, Purdue 61: The score doesn't indicate how this game was neck and neck for 37 minutes. Indiana scored the game's final 13 points thanks to the Hack-a-Hoosier strategy and Purdue's inability to hit shots. It was a brutal home loss for Purdue which needs to protect its home floor and steal a few road wins to feel safe on Selection Sunday.

Michigan State 64, Michigan 54: In a game that never felt as close as the score, MSU's defense smothered Michigan all game. Draymond Green had as many rebounds (16) as the entire Michigan team. He's only the fourth Big Ten player to accomplish that feat since the 1996-97 season. The Spartans might not win pretty this season, but defensively they'll measure up with any team in the country. Michigan, on the other hand, has a favorable schedule the rest of the way and shouldn't be forgotten. The Wolverines should, at worst, finish the Big Ten season at 11-7 but a 12-6 record is more likely. Both these teams are Top 4 seeds with Michigan State having an outside shot at a No. 2.

THE WEEK AHEAD: Just as I predicted, the Big Ten took form last week. Minnesota and Northwestern are moving closer to No. 1 seeds in the NIT while Purdue seemingly wants to play a "First Four" game in Dayton.

Tuesday, 2/7: Purdue @ Ohio State – If Purdue wants to end any talk of the NIT, this is the game to win. Of course, that's much easier said than done. I would expect Purdue to keep it close for a half, but the Boilermakers' lack of a low-post threat will allow Jared Sullinger to have a 20-and-12 kind of night. Boy, does Purdue miss JaJuan Johnson or what?

Thursday, 2/9: Wisconsin @ Minnesota – The Gophers were swept by Iowa. Getting a win against the Badgers might become a "push" with that late statement. Nevertheless, Minnesota needs some big wins and with Wisconsin coming to "The Barn" along with Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana later in the year, the opportunities are there. It's time to take advantage, Minnesota.

Thursday, 2/9: Illinois @ Indiana – This is the first of two big road games for Illinois this week. The Illini should be looking for a split, which will be tough. Indiana's porous defense and desire to run might play right into Illinois' hands. If Brandon Paul can summon another 43-point game, Illinois should win easily. If he gets at least 20, this game will come down to free throw shooting. I'm foreseeing the latter.

Saturday, 2/11: Michigan State @ Ohio State– Overall, Ohio State has more talent than any other Big Ten team. However, the more one watches Michigan State, the more it seems the Spartans might have what it takes to give the Buckeyes fits. If Ohio State can hit it's outside shots, the Buckeyes should cruise. But if those shots aren't falling, MSU has enough bodies to throw at Sullinger both on offense and defense that this'll be a great game decided in the closing minutes.

Sunday, 2/12: Illinois @ Michigan – This will be another low-scoring Big Ten affair. Illinois could really use a road win against a Michigan team that is a perfect 13-0 at home this season. Either way, I don't see the winning team breaking 60 points. Call it a 57-54 victory for the home team.

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