MBB Conference Tournament, Day 1: Yawn

MBB Conference Tournament, Day 1: Yawn

The men's Big 14 tournament opened Wednesday in Indianapolis, and the two games highlighted a problem the conference currently has, something that's hurting the top teams when it comes to seeding: the bottom is terrible. The first-round games featured a team that had lost 9 of its last 11 and a team that went 1-13 against non-horrible conference teams ... and those were the favorites!

To the relief of everyone except Jim Delany, Nebraska and Illinois made short work of the relegation end of the conference: Illinois routed Minnesota 85-52 and Nebraska outscored Rutgers 89-72. I'd like to thank Delany for putting the Nebraska-Rutgers game on BTN so I couldn't see it - I may have "forgotten" to watch Illinois-Minnesota, and I bet the 100 people who caught it on ESPN2 wished they'd done the same. 

Game Recaps

Two minutes into the opener, Illinois and Minnesota were tied at 4. Before Illinois AD Josh Whitman had a chance to call John MacLeod, the Illini had opened up a 9-point lead. From that point on, Illinois would score 2-3 times for each basket the Gophers got, slowly extending their lead to 16 on a Jaylon Tate three just before halftime. Minnesota would make two more runs, the second a 7-0 burst that pulled them within 12, but Illinois got it back to 15 at the under-12 timeout, and from that point on, it was all Illini: a 12-0 run after that media timeout and an 11-0 run to go up 37 at the four-minute mark, with the usual garbage baskets getting Minnesota to within 30 (lol) before Illinois reserves created the final margin. 

For the game, Illinois shot .538 from three (!) and .552 overall; they outrebounded the Gophers 33-26 (but collected just 3 offensive boards; that'll happen when you're on fire from outside) and were +7 in turnovers. Minnesota finishes their season at 8-23, with a set of off-court problems to deal with in addition to the on-court problems that plagued them prior to suspensions. 

Rutgers entered the tournament on a 1-game winning streak, a 23-point win over Minnesota that tied their biggest margin of victory this season (they beat UMass-Lowell by 23 in December), which includes their season opener against non-DI Rutgers-Newark. Their reward was a team that beat them by 34 in Piscataway and by 24 in Lincoln. Fortunately for BTN, this game didn't play out like either one of those. Rutgers stayed with Nebraska the whole first half, leading as late as the 1:55 mark on a Bishop Daniels layup ... when he missed the and-one, Nebraska took the lead back on an Andrew White III three, and while Rutgers would tie the score two more times (the last time at 16:53 on a Corey Sanders three), they would not lead again. A 10-0 run gave the Huskers a 15-point cushion at the under-12 timeout, and with Rutgers unable to get the deficit under 10, it became a matter of finishing the game so that these poor fans could go home and forget what they'd seen.

Shavon Shields led Nebraska with 20 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals; the Huskers didn't shoot much better than Rutgers (.471 to .429) but took advantage of 14 extra shots (+9 rebounds, +7 turnovers) to get an 18-point edge from the field. (Rutgers actually outscored Nebraska from the line, 17-16, but also shot one more free throw.)

Thursday schedule

Game 3 - #9 Northwestern (20-11) vs #8 Michigan (20-11), noon on BTN
Previous meeting: 2/24 at Michigan (Michigan 72-63)
NCAA status: Northwestern out, Michigan first four out

With the Wolverines' defense eroding as rapidly as their NCAA hopes, Michigan has to be thinking about attacking the paint as they did in their earlier meeting this season. Usually one of the worst teams in the country at drawing fouls, Michigan managed to draw 20, going 20 for 25 from the line and making up for their ice-cold outside shooting (4 for 15; Aubrey Dawkins was 3 for 3, so it's worse than it seems). Even at that, they didn't end up pulling away until late in the second half; after 10 minutes, it was tied at 44, and Northwestern led 54-52 with just over 5 to play when Michigan ran off seven straight points to grab the lead.

The Wildcats have a shiny 20-11 record, but they're still a bit short of their peak under Bill Carmody: Northwestern's win over Bad Wisconsin at home is one of only two top-100 kenpom wins they have (the other is a two-point overtime win at Virginia Tech), so they'd have to run the table to get in. Michigan's resume is better, with wins over Texas, Maryland and Purdue, but they have eight losses to top-25 kenpom teams plus two more to #27 Wisconsin and #36 UConn; their body of work suggests an NIT berth is more appropriate, and even after they survive Northwestern, they're in no shape to slow Indiana. As we know from the women's side last season, take away an experienced PG, and if anything happens to their backup, you're going to struggle no matter who the coach is.

Game 4 - #12 Illinois (14-18) vs #5 Iowa (21-9), 2:30 PM on BTN
Previous meeting: 2/7 at Illinois (Iowa 77-65)
NCAA status: Iowa 6-seed

Speaking of Good/Bad teams, which Iowa team's going to take the floor Thursday: the one that swept Michigan State, beating the Spartans by 17 in East Lansing, or the one that lost to Penn State and Ohio State around a home loss to Good Wisconsin? Right now, the latter seems more likely. A team that was playing like an elite team through January has slid back to playing like the top-20 team they appeared to be in December. Their best non-conference win is over a Wichita State team that hasn't been tested much since, and outside of the MSU wins and you-know, they really haven't been impressive in conference play from a W-L perspective: two close losses to Indiana, that loss to Wisconsin, and a six-point loss at Maryland. If they came in 23-7, it's a different story, but they didn't. 

Illinois doesn't match up very well with Iowa, which is lucky for the Hawkeyes, because they are eminently beatable. If Illinois doesn't do the job Thursday - and they shouldn't - then I expect the Good Guys to take care of business Friday.

Game 5 - #10 Penn State (16-15) vs #7 Ohio State (19-12), 6:30 PM on ESPN2
Previous meeting: 1/25 at Ohio State (OSU 66-46)
NCAA status: lol

Don't be surprised if ESPN2 gets two more dogs Friday Thursday. That earlier meeting in Columbus wasn't as close as the score indicates: Penn State shot .160 from three and was just 2 for 5 from the line, getting a whopping 0.69 PPP. OSU wasn't great on offense (0.99 PPP, .485 from two), but they didn't need to be. Yes, Penn State has beaten Indiana and Iowa since then ... at home. Yes, they did knock off Iowa in the Big 14 tournament last year. No, Ohio State isn't that good. But they do play defense better than IU (and even a little better than Iowa). Penn State's offense approaches Minnesota's in terms of badness. The one thing in the Nittany Lions' favor is that it should be a relatively low-scoring game, so their margin of defeat won't be quite as high as if they were playing a higher-tempo team. (Not that one exists in the Big 14. Rutgers has the fastest pace in the conference, which is probably because Eddie Jordan knows their only chance to score is on uncontested layups.)

OSU is NIT-bound; Penn State will probably go to some fourth- or fifth-tier tournament (who knows how many there are now) to get some experience for their returning players - they lose four players to graduation, but underclassmen get plenty of minutes, and as much as I hate the concept of schools paying to play in a postseason thing, they do get extra practice time for it.

Game 6 - #11 Nebraska (15-17) vs #6 Wisconsin (20-11), 9:00 PM on ESPN2
Previous meeting: 2/10 at Wisconsin (Wisconsin 72-61)
NCAA status: Wisconsin 7-seed

There was a point this season, shortly after Vince McMahon resigned as Wisconsin coach, when it looked like the Badgers were circling the drain and would soon be flushed into the second division. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the type of basketball you like to watch. If you like indoor rugby, you must be from Wisconsin.) The Badgers were 1-4 in conference play, with that 1 being Rutgers; they'd lost at home to Milwaukee (who also beat Minnesota) and Marquette after losing their home opener to Western Illinois, and it seemed like Greg Gard was very much an interim coach.

Then they beat Michigan State. And Penn State. And Indiana. And Illinois. An 11-1 run, with their only loss at Michigan State, vaulted them back into the NCAAs and helped erase the sting of McMahon's sudden departure. Not that you'd notice he's gone: the Badgers still play that soul-sucking slow-paced game that makes you look to see if the shot clocks are still working, they still prevent you from getting many good looks at the basket, and they still foul so often that refs essentially give up and let them mug their opponents rather than calling 25 Wisconsin fouls per half. 

They still have guys who will knock down threes if you leave them open. Nebraska doesn't tend to give up a ton of threes, but they do foul a lot ... which is unfortunate, because Wisconsin really doesn't have that inside threat they've had the last couple of years. They're shooting .469 from two, down from .548 last season (9th in DI). That, plus their slow pace and modest accuracy from three, means that if Nebraska can stop fouling for a game, they might actually keep it close late. What's more likely, though, is that the Huskers will commit silly fouls inside and help Wisconsin build a 10-point second-half lead, which is like a 20-point lead for a normal team.

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