In an absolutely ugly game, *Penn State *free-throwed their way to victory over an enigmatic *Illinois *squad, 38-33 in a slow 56 possessions. This was the lowest scoring game in all of D1 this season - are you still upset you don't get the Big Ten Network? There were no offensive positives in this game - both teams had a TO Rate north of 23%, neither team hit the offensive glass, and both squads shot a percentage in the low 30s. The only difference was at the foul line - Penn State only got 11 attempts (making 9), but that's a whole lot better than ZERO. That's right, Illinois didn't attempt a single free throw - on their home court no less. That seems a little off, but an astute observer might have seen something like this coming - Illinois came in as the second-worst team in the nation at getting to the line, while Penn State's defense was 9th nationally in _preventing _free throw attempts. Needless to say, this game will push the two teams even further into those extremes. It will be interesting to see what happens when Illinois plays AT Penn State in two weeks - is it possible to have negative free throw attempts?
Talor Battle was the only player in double figures with 11 points (on 11 shots). Penn State's forgotten bench came up big - Chris Babb, Cammeron Woodyard, and Andrew Ott combined for 13 points (9 shots), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and no turnovers. If these guys can start to produce, Penn State gets a lot tougher. For Illinois, the only real highlight was Mike Tisdale's 10 rebounds (including a career-high 8 defensive). A rebounding Tisdale would help the Illini defense immensely down the stretch. Box score.
As far as the ugliness goes, I'm sure Penn State fans care little about aesthetics - this is a huge win in their quest for an at-large bid. The Nittany Lions now sit at 19-8 (8-6), and they've still got a home match-up with Indiana left on the schedule. Just win that one, and Penn State finishes 9-9 in the #2 conference (RPI-wise) in the nation - you've gotta figure that resume (including road wins against Michigan State and Illinois) would get the Nittany Lions some serious consideration on Selection Sunday.
For Illinois, this was another frustrating game in which their normally decent offense just disappeared, except this time it occurred at home. Once again, it felt like Illinois was getting their usual shots, but they just weren't falling. This inconsistency might be a nasty side effect of relying so heavily on mid-range jumpers. The Illini will have to regroup quickly, as they have a tough road match-up with Ohio State this weekend.
I'm beginning to wonder if Illinois and Northwestern somehow entered a strange form of quantum entanglement after their wild finish in Evanston last week (hey, you were warned that we are geeks) - while the Illini's offensive spin was decidedly inept last night, the Wildcats put on an offensive show in defeating Ohio State, 72-69 in just 59 possessions. Both teams were making it rain from deep - Jon Diebler hit 8 of 10 from downtown, while Kevin Coble and Craig Moore combined to go 11 for 18. The biggest three, however, came from Northwestern freshman John Shurna with 3 seconds left to provide the final margin.
Diebler scored 28 points on just 11 shots, and had only 1 turnover in his 40 minutes. Evan Turner chipped in 14 on 9 shots, along with 6 assists and 5 rebounds, but turned it over a costly 8 times. Ohio State could really use a true point guard on this team. For Northwestern, Kevin Coble was uber-efficient, scoring 26 on 15 shots and dishing 3 assists to no turnovers. Craig Moore was just as good - 23 points on 15 shots, 5 assists and 1 turnover. Box score.
The biggest difference in this game was the turnovers - Northwestern was typically careful with the ball, while Ohio State continued the turnover issues that have plagued them all season. The Buckeyes now drop into the 4-team bunching in the middle of the conference, all with six losses. Ohio State still looks like an NCAA Tournament team to me (with no bad losses and wins over Miami, Butler, and Purdue), but the road is certainly not easy. A win on Saturday over Illinois would go a long way towards securing that bid.
Northwestern continues to play pretty well and finally got a close victory after dropping three straight nail-biters. This is a team that's good enough to be in the bubble discussion but has likely been doomed by all the close losses. Even winning out (not an easy task with 4 of 5 on the road, including Minnesota and Purdue) would put the Wildcats at 19-10 (10-8), with a borderline top-50 RPI (according to the excellent RPIforecast.com). There's still a sliver of hope for Northwestern to get their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid, but it's an incredibly tough road. The NIT looks like a more attainable goal, which would certainly be progress for this basketball program.
Tonight, Michigan and Minnesota square off in Ann Arbor in a game with serious implications for both teams. Michigan figures to need at least 3 more conference wins to make the NCAA Tournament (finishing 9-9), and this is their next-to-last home game (the other is a tough one against Purdue). Minnesota has a little more breathing room, but a winnable road game is always important for a team looking to lock up a bid. Tip-off is at 6pm CT on the Big Ten Network.
The other match-up has Wisconsin looking to continue their 4-game winning streak and avoid becoming Indiana's second Big Ten victim. A stumble here could ultimately prove costly to the Badgers (they are, after all, just 7-6), so they'll hope to take care of business in Bloomington. Flip over to ESPN at 8pm to catch this one.