I’ve heard more than one commentator refer to this game as college basketball’s “Super Bowl.” My guess is that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if it were any other non-Super Bowl weekend, but the hype and title has been rightfully earned.
It was said before the season, continually during the nonconference and even early in conference play when teams like Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Michigan State took turns near or at the top of the Big Ten standings: The 2013 Big Ten title runs through Ann Arbor and Bloomington. Simply put, these are not only the two best teams in the Big Ten but they might be the two best teams in the country.
Without further ado, here’s a big breakdown of tonight’s showdown in Bloomington (h/t to Kenpom):
Any high school coaches (heck, other college coaches) should watch this game to help with near-flawless offensive basketball. Both teams run crisp sets that usually result in good looks. The fact both teams have what seems like an army of 3-point shooters also helps.
There are three big factors that are likely to decide the game tonight: Michigan’s ability to take care of the basketball, the ability to get to the free throw line for both teams and, arguably the biggest factor, the paint.
First, Michigan is so fluid offensively that the occasional giveaway makes the viewer do a double take. Michigan turns the ball over just more than once every seven possessions. For a team that plays a slower game that means just 9-10 cough-ups a game. A team like Indiana is closer to one turnover every five possessions. That means Indiana gives up the chance for a possible 4-6 more points by turning the ball over. However, the Wolverines haven’t been ambushed by a hawk-like defender quite like Victor Oladipo yet. He had seven steals by himself against Michigan State last weekend. He can wreck havoc on an offense. If Michigan keeps Oladipo shackled on the defensive end the Wolverines’ chances of covering (and winning) go way up.
Second, it’s been well documented that Indiana has a major home-court advantage, especially when it comes to getting to the foul line. Many observers outside of East Lansing still feel Michigan State got a raw deal from officials last week, though, that can be said about nearly every team that plays at Assembly Hall. Michigan doesn’t foul and Indiana is great at drawing fouls (earned or not). Something is going to have to give. It would seem that a team like Indiana, which loves to push the pace, will swing the foul balance in its favor but who knows. If Michigan can play solid defense throughout the game and minimize fouls, especially those resulting in And-1s, Michigan could win its first road game against a Top-5 team since 1964.
Finally, the Cody Zeller factor. Flash back to last Sunday’s game against Michigan State. While MSU isn’t quite the team Michigan is, the Spartans have two bigs – Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne – who can match and wear Zeller down on both ends of the floor. Who does Michigan have? This is going to have to be a step-up game for Mitch McGary, whose 6-foot-10 thick frame is the best defensive weapon against the 7-foot Zeller. McGary has played his best ball as of late, mostly because he’s getting more minutes with Jordan Morgan’s injury but also because he’s halfway through his freshman season and things are clicking.
Another thing to watch is whether Oladipo is on Michigan’s Trey Burke. It would make sense for Tom Crean to use his best on-ball defender on Michigan’s do-it-all facilitator. However, that means the 6-foot Jordan Hulls will be forced to guard the 6-6 Tim Hardaway or 6-6 Nik Stauskas. Is that a gamble Crean and the Hoosiers are willing to take? That’s the question I’m looking to answer in the first two minutes after the tip.
The Pick: The more I watch Indiana the more I come away impressed. It’s not that I can’t say the same thing about Michigan, but at this point in the season the Hoosiers have, by far, played a tough schedule (Michigan beat both Pitt and Kansas State in the Preseason NIT but have split their only tough Big Ten games – both road contests – against Ohio State and Minnesota while Indiana split nonconference games against Georgetown and Butler but has already three tough Big Ten games against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State). If this game was in Ann Arbor it would be an easy choice as Indiana’s challenges have all taken play at Assembly Hall. But the Wolverines are heading to arguably the most hostile venue not named Cameron Indoor Stadium. Using my MSU game as an example, I think MSU matchups up better and, despite having some problems with officials, still lost by five. Using the fact that MSU matchups up better this feels like stealing money with Indiana only giving 4 1/2. This just has the feeling of a game that’ll be close but could end in a 10-point margin that doesn’t indicate how close the game was played. Take Indiana -4 1/2 and be prepared to send the officials a cut of your winnings.
Other Big Ten Games:
Purdue at Northwestern (-1 1/2), noon, Saturday: You’re basically looking at a pick’em game here and rightfully so. Purdue is a solid team at home but resembles Jekyll and Hyde on the road. Northwestern and it’s Purple People Eater court gives the Wildcats a nice home court advantage which means everything is slanting toward Northwestern. My take on this game is simple: Many, myself included, believe Purdue has an outside chance at a NCAA Tournament berth. That would require a 10-8 Big Ten record with Purdue’s current 11-10 mark. Even that is very dicey, leaving Purdue at 17-14 heading into the Big Ten Tournament. The point is, with 10 Big Ten games left, a pair against Northwestern are must wins if the Big Dance is even a possibility. We’ll know by around 2 p.m. today if Purdue will still be included in the NCAA Tournament discussion or if the NIT is a best-case scenario. I think the dream lives and that’s why I’m taking Purdue +1 1/2.
Ohio State (-12) at Nebraska, 8 p.m., Saturday: I usually lean toward Nebraska at home when the ‘Huskers are getting double-digit points. But again, this comes down to matchups. Nebraska has trouble staying close without getting to the foul line. Ohio State’s biggest M.O. under Thad Matta has been playing great defense without fouling. Nebraska will make a little run here and there but the Buckeyes easily could provide us with a carbon copy of the 70-44 beatdown in the season opener for both teams. Take Ohio State -12 very comfortably.
Iowa at Minnesota, 1 p.m., Sunday: The Gophers stopped their 4-game Big Ten slide by winning big against Nebraska. Iowa is a tough matchup for many teams, especially those that like playing slow (read: Wisconsin) because Iowa isn’t afraid to play at North Carolina-type speed even if it means a bunch of turnovers; the risk-reward is too great to pass up. Minnesota can play at both speeds which is why the Gophers are such big favorites. Iowa is good enough to win in any Big Ten arena, so it’s well worth it to take Iowa with such a big number. Take Iowa +10.5 knowing the Hawkeyes could very easily win straight up.
Wisconsin at Illinois, 3:30 p.m., Sunday: Remember when Illinois throttled Ohio State in early January? Yeah, neither does anyone else. This is an Illinois team that has the talent to win games but lacks any sort of a “closer” to get the job done (see a 10-point halftime lead against Michigan State only to surrender 53 second-half points in an 80-75 loss). I haven’t found a line for this game yet, but I can see it being very close to a pick’em. Usually I would take Illinois in this spot but John Groce’s team can’t hold on to a big lead let alone a small one. To beat Wisconsin, even at home, a team needs discipline. At this point, Illinois doesn’t have much. Go with Wisconsin in any type of a pick’em game or if Illinois is favored. If the Badgers are giving points come back to see what the number has done to my thinking.
UPDATE: The Badgers are small favorites (-1 1/2) which is close enough to a pick’em. Ride the Badgers.
Last week: 8-4 (NCAA hoops)2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 25-92013 Year-to-Date: 32-12