NCAA tournament — week 2

As awesome as March Madness is, it is even more fun when you have a horse in the race.  For all the crap the Big Ten has had to put up with this year, it did pretty well this weekend.  The only major upset was (5)Illinois, and given the history of the 5-12 matchup, that’s almost expected.  (8)Ohio State’s 2OT loss to Siena wasn’t their best effort, but 9 beating 8 is generally not too uncommon.  (I’d like to pause here to point out that even though my blog post from last week picked tOSU, my bracket actually has Sienna making it to the second round.)  Overall, the Big Ten went 3-3 against higher seeded teams and 3-2 against lower-seeded teams.  Let’s put this another way:  10.9% of the field of 64 hailed from the Big 10.  In the second round and Sweet 16, the Big Ten represents 12.5% of the field.  Not exactly dominant, but certainly respectable.  Those who have been drinking the haterade can be silent now.

(2)Michigan State faces (3)Kansas.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this game, since I picked (14)NDSU to get the upset in the first round.  My bracket has (6)West Virginia getting the upset here, but (11)Dayton killed that for me.  (3)Kansas has done much better than expected, considering how much talent they lost last year.  The real question is will they be able to sustain their run?  On the other hand, I’ve never quite bought in to Michigan State.  They’re good, but I don’t think they’re Elite 8 good.  Kansas will carry on, my wayward son.

(5)Purdue has made a habit of getting out to an early lead only to let off the gas (offensively, at least) in the second half.  This game will come down to Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson vs (1)Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet.  Thabeet has a 5-inch advantage on Johnson, and will keep the Boilermakers from getting too many rebounds, but Johnson’s 15-foot jump shot will prove tough to defend (it will also open up Robbie Hummel to get a few offensive boards).  If Purdue can avoid the second-half slumpsies, I say there are even odds.  Past performance dictates there’s a 70% chance UConn will be 1337.

Into the NCAA tournament

Boy, what fun the Big Ten Tournament turned out to be!  Of course, there are several teams who probably wished it had gone differently.  Beating Purdue on Friday night instead of getting pummeled (Hummeled?) might have been enough to get Penn State into the Big Dance.  Winning the tournament might have given Michigan State a #1 seed, since everyone else in the country insisted on losing.  Purdue even perhaps regret that their first tournament championship is rewarded by a trip to Portland, Oregon while the runner-up Buckeyes get to travel all the way to…..Dayton.

I don’t really care to go through the entire bracket and talk about my picks in each place.  Instead, let’s look at the Big Ten teams in the first and second round.

(2) Michigan State heads to Minneapolis to face Robert Morris.  While the second seed has lost the opener in the past, it’s a pretty rare occurence, and the Spartans will survive to face the winner of USC/BC.  I’ve picked both teams in different brackets, but I don’t think either of them will be able to stop Michigan State from making it to the Sweet 16.

(5) Purdue finally seems to have gotten in rhythm, but the question is how consistent will they be?  With Robbie Hummel healthy and back in shape, Northern Iowa will be one-and-done.  On Saturday, the Boilermakers will get the winner of Washington/Mississippi State.  Mississippi State is riding high after their improbable win in the SEC tourney, but Washington is playing much closer to home.  Having not seein either team, I’ll have to say that Washington will be the team that gets to lose to Purdue.

(5) Illinois fans are complaining that they got seeded too low.  What they should be complaining about is the fact that Chester Frazier appears to be out for at least the first round, which could be a problem.  The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have a descent basketball heritage, and I like them to get the upset.  Even if they don’t, President Obama says the Illini don’t survive this weekend.

(8) The Ohio State University won’t even need to bring luggage as they travel the 70 miles to Dayton.  They’ll get to face Siena, at team I like for an upset.  However, when you consider the fact that Evan Turner and BJ Mullens are likely auditioning for the NBA draft, it seems reasonable that tOSU will win.  Even so, they won’t be able to overcome Big East powerhouse Louisville.

(10) Michigan has the potential to upset Clemson, especially if Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are having a good night.  However, after Harris broke Chris Kramer’s nose, I swore myself to not endorse the Wolverines for the rest of the season.  I might end up being wrong, but I’ll knock Michigan out in the first round.

(10) Minnesota should have been left out in favor of Penn State.  I know the Gophers look better from an objective standpoint, but the simple fact is that they’ve looked like crap lately.  That’s why I think they won’t be able to beat the Longhorns.

(12) Wisconsin is lucky to be here after the start they had to the conference season.  Florida State is lucky to draw the Badgers, since that gets them into the second round.

So where does that leave us?  Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois are one-and-done.  tOSU is gone after the second round.  Purdue and Michigan we’ll see next week.  That doesn’t do much for a conference trying to silence critics.

Big Ten Tournament predictions

The Big Ten men’s basketball tournament begins in less than 15 hours.  This has been a very unpredictable season, but that’s what makes predicting the tournament so much fun.  Here are my predictions, with less commentary than is necessary.  I’ve tried to be neutral, and I’m probably completely wrong.  But if I’m right, I could win $250 from the local newspaper!

First round

Minnesota vs Northwestern — The last time these two teams faced off, Northwestern got spanked.  So despite the fact that the Wildcats won the first meeting, they’ll be angry when they face the Gophers.  Not to mention the fact that Northwestern has a chance to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.  Winner: Northwestern

Michigan vs Iowa — Despite a surprise defeat of Penn State last weekend, Iowa is still legitimately the 10th best team in the conference.  Michigan has beaten #2 and #3, and they’re in a much happier place.  Winner: Michigan

Penn State vs Indiana — Indiana has shown considerable improvement and I thought they’d win their first round game.  Then the brackets came out.  If Indiana wins, I’ll post a picture of myself wearing an IU sweatshirt.  Right side out, even.  Winner: Penn State

Quarterfinals

Michigan State vs Northwestern — Of all the lower seeds, Northwestern has the best chance of making a deep run.  Wins at Michigan State and at Purdue should give the Spartans a cause for concern too.  But can they handle playing two days in a row?  Michigan State will be rested, and one would expect ready to play. Hopefully a quarterfinal appearance will be enough to get Northwestern into the NCAA tourney.  Winner: Michigan State

Wisconsin vs Ohio State — It took a little while, but Wisconsin finally figured out what winning is.  The only time these teams met, it was a 5-point victory for the Badgers in Madison.  tOSU travels well, so Indianapolis may be like a home game for them.  This will be a close call, but I think Wisconsin will have a slight edge.  Winner: Wisconsin

Illinois vs Michigan — Illinois and Michigan split the series, each team winning at home.  Michigan may have beaten Duke and Purdue, but they’ll not be able to get a second win over Illinois this year.  Winner: Illinois

Purdue vs Penn State — Purdue has been very erratic this year, even with a healthy Robbie Hummel.  They’ll either win the tournament or lose their first game.  Penn State has been hot lately, but Indiana will wear them down more than they expect.  If the Boilers can shut down Taylor Battle again, it will be a relatively easy win.  Winner: Purdue

Semifinals

Michigan State vs Wisconsin — This is where Michigan State gets cocky.  Wisconsin will be tired, but determined.  It’s no fun to have the #1 seed win out, anyway. Winner: Wisconsin

Illinois vs Purdue — It’s hard to beat a team three times in one year.  The way Purdue sees it, they owe Illinois a drubbing.  On a home-ish court, and with all players healthy, the Boilermakers will get their revenge.  Winner: Purdue

Finals

Wisconsin vs Purdue — Remember what I said about it being hard to beat a team three times in a year?  That’s not always true.  This will be Wisconsin’s fourth game in as many days, and they’re simply not as good as Purdue.  If Purdue makes it this far (and that’s a big “if”), they’ll be able to put this one away by halftime.  Winner: Purdue

My own Big Ten basketball awards

Now that the regular season has drawn to a close, it is time to recognize those who have made the season special.  My awards are voted on by me, the blogger, and carry no cash award or amazing prizes.  Maybe if I’m really lucky, I’ll get a mention by Pat Forde in a few years.

Big Ten All-Goon Squad

  • Devan Dumes – Indiana: I get it.  There has probably never been a more frustrating year to wear the striped pants.  Indiana has been flat awful through much of the season, and being down by 27 with 2:11 left to play doesn’t make it any easier.  That doesn’t make this elbow — or any of the several before it — justified.  Coach Crean was wise to suspend Dumes, and the lesson seems to have been learned.
  • Joe Krabbengoon – Wisconsin: Krabbengoon isn’t out to knock people over whenever he can, yet he’s still such a goon that I can not bring myself to refer to him by his legal name.  Poor little Lewis Jackson never expected to get bowled over by a cheap screen in the backcourt.  Jackson ended up with a concussion that kept him out of the next game.  Krabbengoon?  Not whistled at all.  I’m biased, but that was a horrible no-call.
  • Matt Gatens – Iowa: Much like Dumes, Gatens plays on a frustratingly bad team.  The freshman could end up being one of the star players in the conference, but only if he can avoid giving forearms to people like Marcus Landry.
  • Manny Harris – Michigan: Nobody is saying that Manny Harris broke Chris Kramer’s nose on purpose.  Still, a hit that hard is excessive and I think it was appropriate to eject him.  If nothing else, the referees probably used it as a way to make up for the no-call when Robbie Hummel got tackled at mid-court and the subsequent technical on Matt Painter when he complained.
  • Zack Novak – Michigan: In the game before Harris got ejected, Novack got himself tossed for an elbow to tOSU’s P.J. Hill.  Coach John Beilein suspended Novak for a game, but after two consecutive games with an ejection, maybe Beilein should have suspended himself.

All-Awful Refree Team

This team is not just a hypothetical.  The unholy trinity of “Technical Ted” Valentine, Ed Hightower, and Jim Burr officiated Indiana at Purdue, where they had surprisingly little effect on the game.  It’s not that these guys have it out for “my team,” they’re just awful all around.  Hightower and Valentine especially seem to look for ways to get the camera on them.  In fairness though, watching yesterday’s Purdue at Michigan State game, I was finally able to see Jim Burr make a good call.  There is hope.

Player of the Year

This is a tough category to pick from.  The pre-season pick, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, would likely be the leading contender had it not been for a back injury that plagued him most of the season.  So that leaves the field open for:

  • Taylor Battle – Penn State: Taylor Battle has lead Penn State into a four-way tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.  With a season that includes a win at conference champion Michigan State, and a sweep of second-place Illinois, Penn State looks ready to make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, and possibly into the second round of the NCAA tourney.  None of this would be possible without Battles 37 minutes per game, in which he scores a conference-high 17.3 points.
  • Evan Turner – Ohio State: Turner’s 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game have helped the Buckeyes become the fourth-highest scoring team in the conference.  Throw in 78% free throw shooting and 3.82 assists per game and you’ve got a player that can really make things happen.  1.71 steals per game is just icing on the cake.
  • Kalin Lucas – Michigan State: Kalin Lucas is 6th in the conference in points per game, at 14.6, but the stats don’t necessarily tell the tale.  At 2.44, his assist-to-turnover ratio is second only to teammate Travis Walton.  With Lucas, it isn’t so much about the points he scores, but the way his team plays when he’s on the court.  Michigan State is a different team in those eight minutes a game when Kalin Lucas is on the bench.
  • Chester Frazier – Illinois: The lone senior on my list, Frazier has been absolutely crucial to the success of the Illini this year.  With a conference-leading 5.29 assists per game, it’s no wonder he only averages 4.3 field goal attempts.  His senior leadership shows, though, for an average of 33 minutes.

Some have suggested that a fourth sophomore, Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson, should be on the list as well.  I disagree.  The 6’10” Johnson is being outrebounded by his chronically-crippled teammate Robbie Hummel.    The only statistical category in which Johnson really shines is blocks, where he leads with 2.2.  He’s a good player, but he’s not ready for PoY honors yet.  My pick?  Taylor Battle.

Defensive Player of the Year

  • Chris Kramer – Purdue: Kramer was named DPoY last year, after racking up 2.3 steals per game.  This year, he’s down to a mere 2.11, to lead the conference by .07.  In addition to his 62 steals, he also has 70 defensive rebounds.  This is also the second consecutive season where he’s had more personal fouls than steals, a sign of agressive plays.  With the facemask he had to wear after Manny Harris broke his nose, Kramer has become the most intimidating defender in the conference, perhaps in the country.  Really, there’s no other choice.

Coach of the Year

  • Tom Crean – Indiana: It might be a little hard to accept that a coach with a 1-17 record (6-24) overall could even be considered for Coach of the Year, but I think it makes sense in this case.  A year after the misdeeds of Kelvin Sampson left the Hoosiers with 1.8 total ppg returning, Crean has done more with the little talent available than anyone could have expected.  Indiana can claim several moral victories and could win their first game in the Big Ten Tournament.
  • Ed DeChellis – Penn State: A year ago, Penn State was the laughingstock of the conference.  This year, they’re ready to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, and for the first time in his career, Ed DeChellis is in the upper half of the conference standings.  The team has gotten so good that the sheets used to hide parts of the area have been removed for some games.  The Lions might only get 8200 people in the seats, but it’s a step in the right direction.

My pick?  Ed DeChellis.

That’s all the awards I have to hand out right now.  Later this week, I’ll give a rundown of the Big Ten Tournament and offer my predictions for each game.

Boiler breakdown

Welcome to the inaugural post in the “Sports” category. I forewarn you, I am a complete Purdue homer, but I do generally enjoy watching Big Televen basketball. I’ll try to keep things as unbiased as I can, but my ones of readers will have to forgive if I let my true colors show from time-to-time. Let’s get things started by talking about Purdue’s season so far.

After a few sad years in the middle part of the decade, I was really excited for this year’s Purdue team. Last year, with mostly freshmen and sophomores, the Boilermakers outperformed expectations, including a sweep of eventual conference champions Wisconsin. With all of the key players returning, including Preseaon Player of the Year Robbie Hummel and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer, it was obvious that Matt Painter’s team was the favorite to win the conference title. So what has happened since then? The team is struggling to remain in contention for the title, and may realistically finish somewhere in the middle. Why?

  • Injuries – Robbie Hummel hurt his back early in the season. Last week it was revealed that he has a stress fracture in his L-5 vertebrae. Hummel has shown an amazing ability to play through it, but as the season has gone on it has become more obvious that he’s not playing as well as he could. He’s sat out the last two games, including today’s blowout loss in Champaign. Purdue has a lot of talent, but they’re just not the same team when Hummel is on the bench. In three of the four conference losses, Hummel sat out entirely, and in the opening loss to Illinois, he left the game on crutches. It looks like Hummel may not be back until tournament time, if even then, so this does not bode well for the remainder of the schedule.

    Robbie Hummel isn’t the only player to deal with injuries. Chris Kramer had his nose broken by Michigan’s Manny Harris, although that doesn’t seem to have slowed down his defense. Lewis Jackson suffered a concussion at the hands of Joe Krabbengoon in Wisconsin. Keaton Grant, JaJuan Johnson, and Jackson spent a week battling the flu.

  • Silenced shooters – Junior Keaton Grant and sophomore E’Twaun Moore shot very well last year. This year, they’ve been quiet for the most part. Especially in light of Hummel’s absence, Purdue can ill afford to have either of these guards not making shots. To have both of them silent has been brutal.
  • Running out of gas – With Hummel’s back and the various other injuries and illnesses, the players have been worn out. In the last two games, it was clear that the team was only able to play 30 minutes. This is where I blame Coach Painter, to some extent. Senior Bobby “Buckets” Riddell and freshman Ryne Smith aren’t as good as some of the other players on the team (although I think I’d pick either one of them over Marcus Green) but they could provide a few minutes of valuable rest to the rest of the team. It might not have mattered against Illinois, but it could have ended the game against The Ohio State University in regulation. Which brings me to
  • Overtime – I don’t know why, but Purdue has yet to win in overtime under Matt Painter. Does it have to do with running out of gas? Maybe. It could just be bad luck, but it’s a very disturbing trend. Certainly, this year’s team has to get it done in regulation.

So why might Purdue be okay going down the stretch?

  • Chris Kramer – I will freely admit to having quite a man crush on #3. One of the best defenders in the country, he sparks his teammates just by being on the floor. Although he’s been a weak presence on offense, his defense will be key to keeping Purdue in the game down the stretch.
  • JaJuan Johnson – What a difference a year can make. Johnson has gone from being a weak, scrawny post player to a great, scrawny post player. Johnson has had some big games, and he can battle anyone under the basket. His slight frame hasn’t kept him from getting several double-doubles in conference play. With the threat of JaJuan Johnson underneath, opponents must give a little extra room to the guards.
  • Schedule – Purdue faced a rough first half of the conference schedule, including games at Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota, and Ohio State. The remaining schedule keeps them in Mackey Arena for five of the last seven games, including what should be an absolute drubbing of Indiana. If the Boilers can win the remainder of their home games, then there’s still hope for a decent seed in the tournament.
  • Coaching – I know I gave Matt Painter grief above, but he is truly one of the outstanding young coaches in basketball. He can do a lot with a little (see: 2007 NCAA tournament) and I’m sure he hasn’t given up on hanging a 22nd banner.

The Big Ten conference is one of the toughest in the country this year, and there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. There are still several teams who could get hot and win the conference. We’ll find out in March.