The Big Ten conference season started out with a bang last night, with Illinois pulling out a road win at Purdue in overtime, 71-67 in a 75 possession game (that's 67 possessions per 40 minutes). The teams were pretty even in terms of shooting (poorly, 43.6 eFG for Illinois, 41.3 eFG for Purdue), and Purdue controlled the glass (limiting the Illini to an 18.6 OReb percentage). Purdue also saw 27 FTAs compared to the Illini's 14, and that's with the Boilers fouling intentionally at the end of the game. The difference, however, was Illinois' ability to handle the Purdue pressure, turning it over a mere 6 times. Against a team that normally forces opponents to turn it over on over a quarter of their possessions, that's a big deal. Those "extra" possessions were the difference in the game. Mike Tisdale led the Illini with 18 points on 16 shots, and 6 rebounds, and Trent Meacham chipped in with 11 points on 7 shots, to go with 6 assists (0 turnovers). Box score.
Bruce Weber said after the game that he doesn't expect many teams to be able to win at Mackey, and I have to concur with that assessment. Despite the loss, Purdue is a very tough team to beat. The Illini were very forunate they caught the Boilers on a bad shooting night. Sure, we can attribute much of that to Illinois' stingy defense (especially the consistently excellent 3 point defense that limited Purdue to 25% shooting from the perimeter). But it wasn't Illinois' defense that forced Purdue to shoot 56% from the line (this team was shooting 71.4% entering the game), and most of those FTs would have won the game for Purdue. Indeed, there were a lot of bounces that could have gone differently, and the result would have been different. Consider Hummel's long jumper that was ruled a 2 pointer (the video replay did not clarify matters), JaJuan Johnson's late "why didn't he just dunk it?" miss, his subsequent FT miss that sent it to overtime, his attempted save which might have gone off an Illini but the official ruled it went off Johnson, and did Johnson travel before he took the jumper on which he was fouled at the end of regulation? Give Illinois credit, they played well enough to win this game. But Purdue did as well. It's just that someone had to lose, and last night, it was the Boilers. Illinois will enjoy this win that few others will enjoy this season.
And henceforth I will no longer be bearish on the Illini's chances simply because of the "POT without the P" style that they employ. It works. The team in orange showed an uncanny ability to make this shot. It's often been said that the mid-range game is a lost art. Well, Bruce Weber has rediscovered that art.
Finally, I have a plea for both Mike Tisdale and JaJuan Johnson. Stay in school. All four years. If both players do, we will see some epic battles over the next two seasons, as these sophomores produce at a high level already and ooze potential. Tisdale displayed a great touch against one of the nation's finest defenses, and Johnson wasn't so bad himself, with 16 points on 11 shots, to go with 15 rebounds and 3 blocks. The Big Ten is a guard's league right now, but that might change in a couple years.
The Big Ten finishes off 2008 with four afternoon games, so you won't have to cancel your champagne plans to catch some hoops. Michigan State visits Minnesota at noon in a game that features two teams that have been head scratchers so far this season. Sure, Minnesota is undefeated and even boasts an impressive win against a great Louisville team on a neutral floor. But this team also nearly lost a road game against a mediocre Colorado State team. The Spartans entered the season with high hopes, but have been very inconsistent thus far in the season. The loss against UNC is forgivable, even if the margin wasn't, but to get killed on a neutral floor against Maryland was a surprise. The Texas win in Houston was a very good one, but MSU has been less than impressive in some of their wins over cupcakes. The biggest problem for the Spartans has been on defense, most notably the 3 point defense. On offense, the Spartans have been solid everywhere, except with respect to turnovers, which has been a story with MSU for the past 3 seasons now. That will be tested against a Minnesota team that thrives on forcing turnovers. Also, the Gophers are an elite shotblocking team, and that's not good news for the interior-oriented Spartans.
Northwestern visits Penn State in a game that will test the accuracy of the Pomeroy Ratings. As it stands now, the Wildcats stand at #26, and Penn State is at #73. If Northwestern pulls out the W on the road, I think everyone can agree that this team is for real. The key battle will be with turnovers. Penn State is one of the best in the country at taking care of the ball, turning it over on just 16.6% of their possessions. Wildcats force turnovers on at a 25.9 rate, so it will be interesting to see who wins that battle. The Nittany Lions are back into their "good offense, bad defense" mode this season, and again, it's a lack of height that limits them. The Wildcats are uncharacteristically tall this year, so Penn State will be challenged to control the paint.
Wisconsin visits Michigan at 2 pm tomorrow, in a matchup that could feature a lot of offense. The Badgers have been uncharacteristically mediocre on defense this year, as the outstanding 2 point defense that was present last season has melted away. John Beilein's team has been great on offense, and in fact, there's even some room to get a little better. Right now, they shoot 78.6% from the FT line, yet their 3P% is just 34.5%. And despite the fact they're an extreme POT, they still have the 16th-most efficient offense in the country. But the defense has been, in a word, lousy. They defend the 3, but allow opponents to grab 36% of the available offensive rebounds. Obviously containing Manny Harris will be a focal point for the Badgers tomorrow, because if he goes off, the Wolverines can play with anyone.
Finally, Iowa's hot shooting might be in for a rude awakening against Ohio State in Columbus. Ohio State, thanks largely to Dallas Lauderdale and B.J. Mullens, owns the paint, not only holding opponents to 42.4% shooting from inside the arc, but also discourage teams from even attempting three pointers. That's fine by the perimeter-focused Hawkeyes, provided they can make their three point attempts. Of course, that's also no walk in the park for Buckeye opponents. Iowa's slow pace might also favor Ohio State, as the Thad Matta will be working with a short bench with Lighty injured and Crater on his way out. Iowa will also need to find someone who can slow down Evan Turner, OSU's best scorer, rebounder, distributor, and on-ball defender. Outside of Manny Harris, no player is more important to his team.
So take the afternoon off, and wave goodbye to 2008 with some Big Ten hoops! (Those game times are ET, I forgot to mention, so don't miss the first half because you're in the midwest!)