A night after presenting the nation one of the ugliest games imaginable, the Big Ten provided a much more palatable experience as Michigan shot their way over Minnesota, 74-62. This was Beilein Ball at its finest, as the Wolverines turned it over just 8 times and shot 46% from downtown while taking nearly half of their shots from distance. Minnesota must have been caught up in the excitement, as they chucked up more threes than usual. This was an awful strategy - the Gophers shot just 24% from downtown, all while their considerable height advantage was allowing them to shoot 58% inside. A few more shots - and minutes - for Minnesota's big men might have helped; Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson, and Damian Johnson combined to shoot 8 for 10, scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and blocking 6 shots.
Manny Harris had an off night, scoring just 8 points on 8 shots and turning it over 5 times, but his less-heralded teammates picked him up. Zack Novak hit 6 threes for his 18 points, and Kelvin Grady came off the bench to score 12 on perfect 4-for-4 shooting (including 3 shots from downtown). Box score.
This was a must-win for Michigan, as they now face 3 of 4 on the road to close the regular season (including a trip to Minnesota), and the one home game is against Purdue. As I've said before, a 9-9 conference record likely gets the Wolverines a bid (thanks to their big nonconference wins), but that's not going to be easy by any means.
For Minnesota, it's disappointing to fall back to .500 in-conference, but their remaining slate is much more forgiving. Three of their four games are at home, so it's certainly still possible for the Gophers to attain 10-8 and save themselves some stress on Selection Sunday.
In the other match-up of the night, Indiana gave Wisconsin a first-half scare, and even jumped into the lead at the start of the second half - might the Hoosiers pull this off, we started to wonder? The Badgers promptly went on an 18-2 run to answer our question with a firm 'no' and cruise to a 68-51 victory.
The high-powered Wisconsin offense just did what it does - limit turnovers (just 7 in 57 possessions), make a good percentage on threes (7 for 14 on this night), and shoot a decent percentage on twos (48.6%), all at a slow tempo that makes national observers think they're a defensive juggernaut. Trevon Hughes led the way with 21 points on 14 shots, along with 5 rebounds and 4 assists (2 turnovers). Joe Krabbenhoft was unusually offensive-minded, scoring a career-high 18 points on 11 shots.
Indiana seems to have abandoned that temporary flirtation with being a perimeter-oriented team - despite the return of Devan Dumes and a large second-half deficit, the Hoosiers attempted threes on just 26% of their shots. As you'd expect, they didn't get the main benefit of the POT - their turnovers were out of control once again. Now, I can understand not forcing bad shots, but I've got to believe that a shooter like Matt Roth could help his team by taking more than 2 shots in his 28 minutes, especially while you've got a guy like Malik Story taking 4 treys in 18 minutes (now shooting 29% from three on the season). As best I can tell Tom Crean never had a true POT at Marquette, so it's probably silly for us to expect one at IU, but it seems like it might be a decent strategy to alleviate this huge turnover problem. Just to make me look bad, Verdell Jones had a solid game without the benefit of three-pointers, scoring 16 points on 14 shots and dishing 3 assists to 2 turnovers. Box score.
Wisconsin has now won 5 straight, and their painful 6-game losing streak seems a distant memory. With 8 conference victories, the Badgers are probably 2 wins away from truly locking up a tournament bid. With home games against Michigan and Indiana still on the slate, the Badgers are in pretty good shape.
The Big Ten gets rolling again on Saturday with the only regular season match-up between rivals Purdue and Indiana (1pm CT, Big Ten Network).
Sunday will be the busy day, with 4 meaningful match-ups:
- Illinois looks to get their offense back on track (a serious understatement) against the bubbly Buckeyes. If Ohio State can just defend home court the rest of the way, they likely secure an NCAA Tournament bid (12pm CT, CBS).
- Wisconsin travels to Michigan State in a game that would be a big bonus for the Badgers. Ending their winning streak in East Lansing would not hurt their resume much, but a win would be absolutely huge. The Spartans need to keep winning to hold off Purdue (2pm CT, ESPN).
- Michigan visits Iowa in desperate need of wins during a tough homestretch. The Hawkeyes gave Purdue a scare in their last home game, so the Wolverines have their work cut out for them (4pm CT, Big Ten Network).
- Northwestern hopes to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes on life support with a win at Minnesota. The Gophers will be looking to avenge their earlier loss in Evanston and need wins themselves to lock up their NCAA bid (6pm CT, Big Ten Network).
Should make for a great weekend of hoops!