ILLINI ARE BACK
No. 22 Illinois perpetually is the Big Ten dark horse because it always has talent. When coaches can put it together, like Bill Self a decade ago, the Fighting Illini are a national player. When they can’t, like Bruce Weber recently, they end up mediocre.
Right now, it looks like the 8-0 Illini are on the upswing, which should scare every team in the Big Ten. First-year coach John Groce seems to have blended to their talent with his coaching philosophy and the results so far are striking — a Maui Tournament title and the first 8-0 start by an Illinois first-year coach in 100 years. Granted, the Illini started 10-0 last year only to finish 17-15 and lose nine of their last 10. But the look and feel of this year’s Illini is clearly different.
Last night Illinois trailed Georgia Tech by four points in the second half when backup guard Joseph Bertrand took over. The junior guard scored 10 straight points and ignited the Illini on a 21-4 run in a 75-62 win. Illinois knocked down 14 3-pointers and has three guards who are tough match-ups for any defenders — Bertrand, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson — along with improving point guard Tracy Abrams. The Illini already have two signature plays this year in home victories — Tyler Griffey’s game-winning 3-pointer against Gardner-Webb and Bertrand’s and-one against Georgia Tech. Watch it here for yourself:
LAND OF LINCOLN
To say Tim Miles took over a rebuilding job at Nebraska entering this season is an understatement. But the success the Cornhuskers have attained so far cannot be overstated.
Nebraska (5-1) wiped out Wake Forest 79-63, the largest road margin of victory for the Cornhuskers since 2003. Miles became the first Nebraska coach to win his road opener since the 1919-20 season. Yes, almost 100 years ago. Nebraska scored 51 points and shot 62 percent in the second half, and Ray Gallegos and Andre Almeida each scored 20 points.
Nobody is suggesting the Cornhuskers are a postseason team, but these are positive steps for the program, which moves into a new arena next year.
Statistics often illuminate performance, but sometimes they’re deceiving. Take Michigan State’s 67-59 loss at Miami last night. The No. 13 Spartans (5-2) out-rebounded Miami by nine, outscored the Hurricanes in the paint 30-14, in second-chance points 19-10 and in bench points 23-5. That almost always reads traditional Michigan State victory. But Michigan State (5-2) sank just 40 percent from the field, and 11-of-30 in the second half for a season-low 59 points. Michigan State also sank 11 fewer free throws.
Wisconsin led Virginia by five points early in the second half but succumbed to a 12-2 run and lost 60-54. The Badgers were out-rebounded 36-25. It was a rare non-conference home defeat for Wisconsin (4-3), falling to 85-7 in that category under Coach Bo Ryan.
“There were so many opportunities where there were loose balls and it seemed like every time we were close to getting a big stop, the ball would bounce around and end up in their hands,” Wisconsin senior Jared Berggren said. “Those were just toughness plays that we didn’t make (Wednesday), and we’ve got to get back and get better at moving forward.”
If Wisconsin doesn’t make its usual toughness plays at home, it could be a tough year in Madison.
YOUNG AND IMPROVING
Purdue forward D.J. Byrd was a role player on Purdue’s highly successful teams in recent years. He’s now becoming a scoring leader for the current group of Boilermakers (3-3). Byrd made four straight 3-pointers during a 21-4 run en route to a 73-61 win at Clemson. Byrd finished with 22 points and paced Purdue with seven rebounds. The Boilermakers outrebounded Clemson 41-27 and it was the first time this year the Tigers (5-1) allowed more than 60 points.
With a young movement in place, this is when Coach Matt Painter earns that big payday he received 18 months ago. A win like this shows he’s capable of elevating the rebuilding Boilermakers one game at a time.
No. 21 Minnesota capped a long week of travel by upending Florida State 77-68 at Tallahassee. The Gophers (7-1) played their fourth game in six days after going 2-1 at the Battle for Atlantis tournament last week. Joe Coleman scored 16 points to lead Minnesota, which never trailed.
Minnesota now has healthy guards and a fortified front line with Rodney Williams, Elliot Eliason, Trevor Mbakwe and a healthy Maurice Walker. With consecutive wins over Memphis, Stanford and now Florida State, Minnesota could have the team it expected two years ago before Devoe Joseph quit and Al Nolen broke his foot.
COULDN’T HOLD ON
No. 4 Ohio State (4-1) built a 10-point, first-half lead at No. 2 Duke but couldn’t hold off Mason Plumlee in a 73-68 loss. Plumlee scored 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to give the Blue Devils their third win over a top-five team this year (Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State). The Buckeyes were down only two points with 28 seconds left, but Duke’s Quinn Cook kept Ohio State out of range by knocking down six free throws in the final 27 seconds.
It was the toughest match-up for the Big Ten in the Challenge. Ohio State buried Duke in last year’s game, and the Blue Devils were out to prove it was a fluke. Plus, it’s never easy for a road team to win in Cameron Indoor.
Everybody knew No. 3 Michigan (6-0) had a top-flight point guard in Trey Burke, who displayed his talents for 18 points and 11 assists in the Wolverines’ 79-72 win against North Carolina State. But freshman guard Nik Stauskas gives Michigan another dimension with his outside shooting. Stauskas hit four 3-pointers and scored 20 points. With Burke, shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., top freshmen forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, coupled with veteran center Jordan Morgan, the Wolverines are at their best since the Fab Five 20 years ago.
POINTS OR NO RETURN
Iowa (5-2) rotates 11 players but there seems to be a separation between some of its the offensive and defensive players in different match-ups. When the Hawkeyes tried to come back at Virginia Tech in a 95-79 loss Tuesday, Iowa inserted its top scorers. When the Hawkeyes tried to stem the Hokies’ second-half run, they moved in defenders, who had trouble making shots.
“That’s the trouble with this team,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “You’ve got to score but you’ve got to have match-ups defensively that makes sense for you.”
SIMPLY THE BEST
Top-ranked Indiana crushed North Carolina 83-59 on Tuesday. The Hoosiers (7-0) played fast on offense, as always, but were even more impressive on defense, holding the Tar Heels to 1-of-20 from the field to open the second half.
“We challenged the team to start with three stops; we didn’t, but we ended up with three stops in a row seven times in the game, and we rarely ever lose if we get three stops in a row seven times in a game,” Indiana Coach Tom Crean.
Center Cody Zeller scored 20 points, while Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo added 19 apiece.
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