Now that Michigan has passed the four-game gauntlet that felt the equivalent of fasting for 40 days and 40 nights for Wolverine fans the hope for a Big Ten title is still there. The light at the end of the tunnel is dim, no doubt, but it hasn’t vanished.
Sitting two-and-a-half games behind conference leader Indiana (12-2) with a season-ending meeting at Crisler Center means the Wolverines have to take care of business and hope for some help. Taking care of business starts with today’s game against Illinois. Luckily for Michigan, earlier this week it experienced what happens when you relax in Big Ten play and pretty much overlook an opponent so that shouldn’t be an issue today. (If you missed it, Michigan won a nip-and-tuck battle with winless conference doormat Penn State 79-71 despite being 22 1/2-point favorites). The Penn State game was an annoyingly loud wake-up call that will have Michigan on high alert against the Fighting Illini.
Here’s a big breakdown of Sunday’s game in Ann Arbor (h/t to Kenpom):
The last time these teams met Illinois had an early 7-4 lead but never had an advantage after that. It was shortly after that lead Michigan went on an 11-0 run to take control. The Illini got within two on a few occasions late in the half but Michigan never felt threatened and ballooned the lead to 18 at one point before the 74-60 victory at Assembly Hall.
How Michigan on was quite simple: The Wolverines shot 52.5 (59.1 percent from inside the arc). That type of shooting efficiency is almost impossible to overcome. Now, the Illini did their part by shooting 6-of-26 from 3-point range (23.1 percent) and turning the ball over 15 times.
The game could have been worse if Michigan had any sort of a 3-point arsenal that day. The Wolverines were just 5-for-15 from 3-point range and Trey Burke’s 1-for-5 performance left a lot to be desired (he did finish with 19 points but took 19 shots to get there).
The key: 3-point shooting. This may seem recycled but it’s honestly the only key to any Illinois game (except understanding how to guard a late-game inbound pass as to not allow a wide-open, game-winning layup). John Groce has made no secret that he loves an offense centered around the long ball. What he also realized is when the triple isn’t falling his team is in trouble.
There is a reason a team like Illinois, with all the athleticism, is at .500 in Big Ten play: 3-point shooting is always hit or miss and you live (win) by the three or die (lose) by the three. Check Illinois’ 3-point shooting in Big Ten losses starting with the most recent games:
vs. Wisconsin: 2-13 at Michigan State: 9-25 vs. Michigan: 6-26 vs. Northwestern: 3-20 at Wisconsin: 2-14 vs. Minnesota: 3-24 at Purdue: 10-26
There’s a pretty noticeable trend in most games: Illinois stunk from 3-point range. Now, Illinois actually played extremely well at Michigan State and had a double-digit second half lead. It was foul trouble and MSU’s efficient second-half shooting (14-of-16 from the field) that gave Illinois a loss.
The Purdue game is the one exception. At 10-of-26 Illinois shot 38.5 percent from deep. That’s a recipe for success. There is one glaring problem that you don’t see: The Illini shot 11-of-33 (33 percent) from 2-point range in the game and the result was a 68-61 loss. (Funny thought: Illinois would have won the game had it taken all its shots from 3-point range. It would have resulted in 11 more points and a 72-68 win).
The pick: This is a coin flip type of game (ATS) because no one, not even Coach Groce, knows how Illinois will shoot. While Michigan’s 3-point percentage is one of the nation’s best (39.2 percent is 12th in the nation) it is usually pretty close to that number win or lose. Illinois determines its fate by it’s percentage. At 32.8 percent on the season (210th in the nation) Illinois just isn’t successful enough from 3-point range to be consistently great. On the other hand, when a player gets hot (see Paul, Brandon or Richardson, D.J.) the season percentages go out the window. Michigan wins this game, no doubt, but the thought is Illinois, riding a 5-game Big Ten winning streak, gives the Wolverines a scare and keeps the game played within a 9-point margin. Take Illinois +10 with a decent level of confidence.
The conference’s other big Sunday showdown is the Spartans-Buckeyes rematch in Columbus. It was interestingly enough noted that for this seems like an odd MSU-OSU matchup because no Big Ten title is on the line. Remember how last season’s final two meeting decided the Big Ten regular season champions (Ohio State won at Michigan State allowing the Buckeyes and Wolverines to share the title with the Spartans) and the Big Ten Tournament title (Michigan State won, 68-64).
That doesn’t mean nothing is at stake on this Sunday, of course. At 11-3 in Big Ten play the Spartans are just one game back of Indiana in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans’ best chance at claiming a share of the title is to win out (easier said than done with a trip to Michigan and a home game against Wisconsin after this) and have Indiana slip up at least once (Indiana finishes the regular season at Michigan and also travels to Minnesota and has a visit from Ohio State). The Buckeyes are just a half game out of the No. 4 spot in the Big Ten which would guarantee a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. (Yes, the No. 5 seed plays a de facto scrimmage against No. 12 Penn State but it’s still an extra 40 minutes of game time that would force Ohio State to win four games in four days vs. three games in three days to claim the Big Ten Tournament title).
Here’s a big breakdown of Sunday’s game in Columbus (h/t to Kenpom):
Some numbers, especially the efficiency numbers, seem to suggest these teams are mirror images of each other. Maybe overall in terms of offensive and defensive success that’s true but I don’t see the Buckeyes when I watch the Spartans nor do I see the Spartans when I watch the Buckeyes.
Sometimes the numbers might lie. I think this is one of those cases. Since the last meeting, a 59-56 MSU win in East Lansing in mid January, the Spartans have improved their offensive efficiency by nearly four points per 100 possessions while clamping down on defense (improved by about a point per 100 possessions). The Buckeyes have been about the same offensively a slightly worse defensively.
But, as I stated above, the numbers might make the teams twins but they are hardly built the same. One Big Ten blogger/analyst said without Deshaun Thomas the Buckeyes would be saddled between Nebraska (11th) and Penn State (12th) in the Big Ten standings. It tells you what Thomas means to this team. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Buckeyes would be that bad (they would have to be better than Northwestern, right?). In fact, I think Ohio State could be, in many ways, better without Thomas. Because he’s the epicenter of the offense he has probably stunted the growth of other players such as Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr.
The Buckeyes are at their best when Thomas is closer to his 20 points than when he’s Kobeing it and pushing 30 (or more). By surrendering the other 10 points to his teammates the Buckeyes become more well rounded and tougher to defend.
The key: Deshaun Thomas. He’s always the key in Buckeye games, but as the Spartans saw in meeting No. 1 there is a reason for that. Thomas scored half (28) of Ohio State’s 56 points in that game. He also took 20 of Ohio State’s 47 shots. No other Buckeye had more than six points.
Thomas was so on fire, especially from 3-point range (6-for-11) that Tom Izzo would have used the “foul-up-3″ strategy – something he has never used – on the final possession if Thomas touched the ball. (Thomas never touched the ball and the Spartans won by playing defense and thanks to Scott’s oddly-attempted running 3-pointer).
The first 5-8 minutes of the game will be crucial. If the Spartans can use Gary Harris or Branden Dawson (or even the 6-10 Adreian Payne on Thomas and keep him out of rhythm early the Spartans can get some early momentum. Thomas will get going, but if it’s in the early minutes it could be a long day for the Spartans. Thomas got some open looks because of miscommunication the last time out. If he’s forced to shoot over the taller and athletic Payne all night it will force Aaron Craft & Co. to manufacture offense.
The pick: I have no clue who wins this game. The Spartans are playing great basketball right now while the Buckeyes seem to be in a little funk and look lost too many times during games. The whole “go with the home team” cliche is the odds-on favorite but no guarantee. Michigan is the Big Ten’s only team with a perfect home record. The Spartans just lost at home to Indiana while the Buckeyes also suffered a home defeat to the Hoosiers. On a neutral site I would take the Spartans. The edge has to go to Ohio State at Value City Arena but like the game in East Lansing this one should be close. That means if you can get Michigan State +3 1/2 you should take it. Even at +3 MSU seems like the wise play.
Northwestern (13-14, 4-10) at Purdue (12-14, 5-8), 6 p.m. Sunday (Big Ten Network) Kenpom: Purdue 62-57 Line: Purdue -6 1/2 Analysis: The last time these two teams played I said how Purdue needed to win at Northwestern to keep its slim NCAA hopes alive. Purdue was 11-10 at the time and 4-4 in the Big Ten. It still had visits from Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota and road games against Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin (read: plenty of opportunities for “show me” victories). Well, Purdue got flogged 75-60 and has won just one game (a 9-point road win at Penn State) since. Of course, Northwestern’s only win since late January is that same game. Both these teams are struggling but Northwestern’s health is on life support. Against mediocre teams at home (Penn State, West Virginia, Iowa) the Boilermakers have found ways to win. I see that happening again today and with Northwestern’s offensive struggles it makes sense to take the Baby Boilers to cover -6 1/2.
Cincinnati (19-8, 7-7 Big East) at Notre Dame (21-6, 9-5)Kenpom: Notre Dame 63-62 Line: Notre Dame -3 1/2 Analysis: I love Notre Dame at home, but Cincinnati battles until the end regardless of the venue. This game should be close enough that it should be required to take the Bearcats and the points. Here’s a phenomenal stat: In all 27 of Cincinnati’s games the Bearcats have been within four points with under six minutes to play. Like I said, this should be close and that is all the reason to take Cincinnati +3 1/2. Depending on the moneyline you could go with the Bearcats if you’re getting 2/1 odds or better as well.
Last week: 8-52013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 51-24-12013 Year-to-Date: 59-27-1