It’s quite easy to see why these two teams are not only in the upper echelon in the Big Ten but also two of the nation’s best. Both are putting up incredible numbers in the “Four Factors” that almost always are key precursors to success. Outside of Minnesota’s somewhat carelessness with the ball, both these teams are putting up not only Final Four but also national championship team-like numbers. (For comparison, last year’s Kentucky squad: eFG% 53.8 (14th), TO% 17.0 (21st), OR% 37.5 (21st), FT Rate 41.7 (47th)).
Now is the time you thank the lord for the 2013 season of Big Ten basketball.
Personally, I’m excited for this game for a few reasons: First, I think both these teams have serious Final Four potential (and one, Minnesota, is likely to finish third in the Big Ten!). Second, it is the first time in years Tubby Smith has a healthy and loaded squad that loves to push the tempo. Add in Indiana’s fast-paced desire and this is a game that should feature 70+ possessions – a rarity in recent Big Ten seasons – and could easily be played in the 80s before potential overtime. Lastly, these teams are much more similar than the national media would like you to believe. Along with the above-listed statistics which show the obvious similarities, both get nearly a quarter of their points from the free throw line, force teams into turning the ball over on nearly 23 percent of possessions and defend the hell out you (Minnesota’s defensive eFG% is 41.1, sixth best in the country, while Indiana’s defensive eFG% is 42.6, good for 18th best in the nation).
There are a dozen things that could be described as the “key to the game” but it really comes down to two things: Turnovers and Minnesota’s interior offense vs. Indiana’s interior defense. With any game, empty possessions – especially ones not even resulting in a shot attempt – are crippling. The worst ones, however, are “turnovers for touchdowns,” a phrase I believe coined by Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo. These turnovers are the ones that lead directly to an oppositional fast break which tend to result in easy baskets. This isn’t to say dead ball turnovers aren’t bad, but a bad pass going out of bounds is basically similar to a long missed shot that bounces over the backboard out of bounds. In that case, the opposition still has to inbound the ball while the other team can set its defense. Neither team does an exceptional job at taking care of the ball and that’s due in large part to the frenzy both teams can (and sometimes love to) play at. But allowing either offense to get “free” points by not having to run an offensive set is asking for a loss.
In terms of the paint battle, it’s been said ad nausea how good Minnesota is at rebounding its own misses. With you shoot nearly 52 percent and rebound almost half your misses (assuming you make about 50 percent of those), that is kind of like shooting 75 percent! Having a healthy Trevor Mbakwe for the first time in seemingly three or four years has been a huge key. He’s accounting for an offensive rebound on 17.9 percent of possessions, which is insanely good and sixth best in the country. Plus, with so many athletic guards and wings it’s easy for Mbakwe to make a quick pass after a board for an easy bucket. This is kind of how Minnesota pulled away from Michigan State at The Barn a few weeks ago. Trailing 59-54 with about 8:30 to play, Minnesota started taking advantage of second chances (and turnovers) to finish the game on a 22-4 run. These back-breaking runs would be a huge bonus on the road for a team like the Gophers and it would be detrimental for the Hoosiers. The good news for Indiana is the Hoosiers allow offensive boards on just 28.2 percent of opponent possessions (43rd in the country). (If Indiana had Minnesota’s post defensive-shot defense this would be a real story as the Gophers allow offensive rebounds on nearly 35 percent of opponent shots). Indiana needs to limit second-shot opportunities because by forcing Minnesota to play most of the game against its half-court defense the likelihood of a turnover increases. It should be noted that Indiana is just as capable of taking over a game on the offensive glass by rebounding 40.1 percent of its own misses. It’s just that Indiana has bigger keys while this could be the biggest for Minnesota.
Both teams play solid enough defense and rotate enough players in and out that foul trouble shouldn’t be a major issue. If basketball diehards get their way this is a game that’ll be determined by all the athleticism on the court and not the officials’ whistles.
The pick: This is where the world falls in love with the Gophers, jumping on the bandwagon about two months too late. It would not be shocking at all for Minnesota to come into Assembly Hall and win this game (Minnesota did just whoop Illinois in Champagne by 17). Either way, this game should come down to the wire. Indiana has played a lackluster schedule since the Butler loss while Minnesota has seemingly be tested nightly. Even without knowing that Minnesota is 9-0-1 ATS in its last 10 road games I was leaning toward the Gophers. Knowing that, take Minnesota to cover the 7.5-point spread. I’d still take Indiana to win outright, maybe around 75-72, but nothing stands out about the over/under either way.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND (#2)Michigan (16-0, 3-0 Big Ten) at Ohio State (12-3, 2-1)LINE: Ohio State -2*OVER/UNDER: 140*
*Note: All lines for non-Saturday games are estimations and won’t be officially released until Saturday night.
Ranking: Michigan (6th), Ohio State (10th) Offensive efficiency: Michigan 123.0 (1st), Ohio State 113.7 (18th)Defensive efficiency: Michigan 90.9 (44th), Ohio State 86.5 (13th) eFG%: Michigan 58.2% (2nd), Ohio State 52.3% (43rd) TO%: Michigan 14.5 (2nd), Ohio State 16.2 (13th) OR%: Michigan 35.9 (63rd), Ohio State 35.6 (76th) FT Rate: Michigan 29.0 (303rd), Ohio State 35.4 (180th)
The main reason much of the country is viewing this as the Big Ten’s marquee game this weekend (and not the above-mentioned Minnesota/Indiana game is twofold: First, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry speaks for itself and when both teams are highly ranked any matchup is must-see TV. Second, Michigan is No. 2 in the country and at 16-0 is one of only two unbeatens (Duke) remaining.
So, while this game is majorly important it’s the 1B to Minnesota/Indiana’s 1A. Nevertheless, the second-best Big Ten matchup would likely be the top matchup in any other conference this weekend (yes that means better than the ACC’s Duke at North Carolina State contest).
Michigan has seemingly been on cruise control since the season-opening tip, and that’s said in a very positive way. The Wolverines have made it look easy regardless of the opponent. The “closest call,” one could argue, was Wednesday’s 62-47 win against Nebraska. With 7:30 remaining Michigan held a slim 47-42 game in which both teams looked out of sync. Leave it to Michigan to play exceptional ball the final fifth of the game, however, coasting to the 15-point victory. That’s the kind of year it’s been for Michigan, finding negatives in a 15-point conference victory. Trey Burke has looked like a National Player of the Year candidate as much as the nation’s top point guard and Michigan’s freshmen – Glenn Robinson III (GR3) and Nik Stauskas have played like season veterans. Throw in Tim Hardaway Jr. finally looking like the potential NBAer many expected and the Wolverines are absolutely loaded.
In the past, Michigan Coach John Beilein has really used gimmicky defenses and “junk” offenses that fit his oddly-made up personnel. It’s not that he didn’t have good players, but many of his players were those non-blue chippers that most major schools didn’t want or overlooked. The luxury he has this year is having great players who can create on their own and work well in his system. This isn’t to say Beilein isn’t having to coach as much as he’s had in the past, just that he might not be turning as grey as he was at West Virginia or in his first few years in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State, on the other hand, seemingly has the same roster type it’s had for years. The big difference –n and main reason this Buckeye team isn’t close to the level of the past two or three OSU squads is simple: No dominant low-post player. Looking back on Ohio State’s success it is easy spot the monster big man: Going all the way back to the early 2000s with Terence Dials, who was followed by Dallas Lauderdale, Othello Hunter, Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos and Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes have always had a dominant college center. This year, neither Evan Ravenel nor Amir Williams have given Thad Matta’s crew a big body in the post. It’s turned Ohio State into a driving and jump shooting team. Deshaun Thomas is forced to carry most of the workload while occasionally Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross will have their moments in the spotlight. Aaron Craft does most of his work on the defensive end but can wreck havoc offensively by getting to the rim. Nevertheless, defending this type of team is always easier when you don’t have to worry about a solid post man.
Take the 74-55 loss at Illinois as an example: The Buckeyes took 60 total shots in that game, 31 coming from Thomas and Craft. Those “centers” were nonexistent. Williams (1-for-3) and Ravenel (1-2) did nothing offensively against a team more known for its defensive play on guards. In the Big Ten you can’t take nights off and that is seemingly what happened with OSU’s bigs in this game. Sure, it’s the Michigan game so I’m sure everyone will be on high alert, but the fact this game happened is a major red flag.
These teams played three times last year with the Buckeyes winning two of the three (64-49 in Columbus, 77-55 in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis) the only loss coming at Michigan (56-51). These teams are completely different and, in many ways, have flipped roles. This Michigan team looks better than last year’s Ohio State team and last year’s Michigan team looks about the same as this year’s Ohio State squad. What does it means? It means, regardless of venue, Michigan is the better team from top to bottom and has a great chance to sweep the season series for the first time since 2003. (Note: Michigan did win the only meeting in 2004, but I’ve always defined a season sweep having won at least two games).
The pick: While the official line isn’t out yet, Vegas projects the Wolverines to be 2-point dogs. I would jump all over that. It’s true this is a rivalry game but after the first 4-5 minutes it becomes like any other game. Sure the arena will get noisy but Michigan isn’t likely to find itself trailing 13-2 at the first TV timeout. The game should be close throughout (unless Michigan puts it away early). I’m a big believer in this Michigan team this season and I’ll be the first one to call the Buckeyes frauds (frauds in the respect the Buckeyes are a borderline Top 25 team, not a potential Top 10 squad). Go with Michigan +2 and expect the Wolverines to win outright. This sets up another huge battle next Thursday when Michigan travels to Minnesota.
Illinois @ Wisconsin (-5 ½): It’s still tough to get a read on Wisconsin this season. While the Badgers are an uninspiring 11-4 three of the four losses have come to pretty solid squads (Florida and Marquette on the road and Creighton at a neutral site). The puzzler was the home loss to Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (the same Virginia team that had previously lost at home to Delaware and has since lost to Old Dominion and Wake Forest).
What this game should show the world is if Illinois can play at their preference of pace (fast) and hit threes on the road . I’m a big believer in John Groce based on not just results but how this Illinois team looks even in losses. This is a solid (not great) team, but I firmly believe this team is better than Wisconsin. If the Badgers win I expect it to be close. Take Illinois + 5 ½.
Nebraska (+15.5) at Michigan State: The Spartans are coming off a more-important-than-advertised road win at Iowa, a victory Tom Izzo said should be worth 1.5 victories. The world is still waiting for this Michigan State team to jell as it seems when a player finally gets going another disappears. Nebraska, on the other hand, is a decent team that relies on the three more than most. (Heck, Ray Gallegos took 16 (16!!!) 3-pointers himself against Michigan). Without a true low-post scorer the ‘Huskers don’t have the weapon that can force Michigan State to sag off shooters. While Nebraska will hit some threes it won’t be enough to win. That said, Michigan State rarely covers huge spreads.Take Nebraska +15.5 unless there is some Nebraska injury-related news that comes before tip. This is a double-digit win for the Spartans, but probably in the 10-12 range.
Penn St @ Purdue (-9.5): There are few teams as young and inexperienced as the Boilermakers who play as hard for 40 minutes as the Boilermakers. If you’re a fan of basketball effort this Purdue team is a must watch. The only problem: You’ll be forced to endure Penn State basketball if you watch this game. The Nittany Lions can’t score and can’t defend and, in all honestly, will be lucky to win more than two Big Ten games. Purdue is better than most think (the opening Big Ten slate featured Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State, teams a combined 39-3). Look for Purdue to win by double figures, easily covering the 9.5-point spread.
Iowa @ Northwestern (+1.5): Just as I get done talking about Purdue’s brutal Big Ten slate, we get to Iowa’s even tough slate. The first three games – vs. Indiana, at Michigan, vs. Michigan State – were against teams a combined 43-4. Iowa could have beaten Indiana and should have beaten Michigan State. Beating Northwestern should be easy, right? Interestingly enough, Iowa hasn’t won in Evanston since 2008 – Todd Lickliter’s first season. Heck, Iowa lost at Northwestern by 19 points last year. All that said, this is the worst Northwestern team in a while and a pretty standard Iowa squad.Take Iowa -1.5 and expect Iowa to take out that past three games of frustration on a seemingly helpless Northwestern team.
Other freebies: UConn +8 1/2 at Notre Dame, N.C. State + 5 1/2 vs. Duke; Marquette +7 1/2 at Pittsburgh.