Forget about the postseason. The more immediate goal should be a winning record.
And it is far from a lock for the Illini.
Bob Asmussen's Big Ten report
Forget about the postseason. The more immediate goal should be a winning record. And it is far from a lock for the Illini. After Wednesday’s trip to Nebraska, Illinois has six regular season games remaining. To finish above .500, it will have to win twice. Good luck figuring where those are going to come from. Illinois will be an underdog in at least five of the six, starting with today’s home game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes already own a win against the Illini and need every victory possible to enhance their own postseason status. The trips to Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa are all expected to go to the home team. That leaves a home game against Nebraska and a home game against Michigan as the best bets. Nebraska is playing much better in Tim Miles’ second season. So, no lock there. And Michigan continues to thrive the year after reaching the title game. The Wolverines will be big favorites when they visit State Farm Center on March 4. A stretch of nine losses in 10 games seems to have doomed the Illini to a losing record in Groce’s second year on the job. The young guys are getting experience that will help them later. And a year from now, if they hit a brief skid, they can remember what went wrong and consider possible fixes.
This week’s Topic: My fellow Americans: Presidents Day is Monday. To celebrate, copy editor David Burleson tells us who the Big Ten coaches would be if they were current or former U.S. leaders:
TEAM W-L W-L PRESIDENT — COMMENT
Michigan State 10-2 21-4 Dwight D. Eisenhower — Izzo is second-best general in league history
Michigan 10-2 18-6 Bill Clinton — Beilein likes to flirt with other teams’ commits
Iowa 7-4 18-6 Franklin D. Roosevelt — McCaffery should seek New Deal for more years
Wisconsin 7-5 20-5 Theodore Roosevelt — Ryan always unfazed by critics’ shots
Ohio State 6-6 19-6 Ronald Reagan — Matta is small-town guy who has become a coaching star
Minnesota 5-7 16-9 George W. Bush — Pitino has climbed quickly on pop’s coattails
Nebraska 5-6 13-10 Lyndon B. Johnson — Miles slowly creating Great Basketball Society in Lincoln
Northwestern 5-7 12-13 Abraham Lincoln — Illinois native Collins making a name for himself
Indiana 4-7 14-10 Jimmy Carter — Crean’s hoops IQ is the size of a peanut
Purdue 4-7 14-10 Gerald Ford — Painter keeps tripping
Penn State 4-8 13-12 Richard Nixon — Chambers eventually will be forced to leave office
Illinois 3-9 14-11 Barack Obama — Groce’s approval rating dropping with massive deficits
Want to know which of this week’s games are worth your time? Here’s help from Bob Asmussen, who is having a losing season of his own. A week after barely getting above .500, Asmussen had what boss Jim Rossow called “the worst week of picking ever.” He went 4-7. Do not bet the kids’ college funds on any of these predictions. Please.
Iowa at Penn State, noon, ESPNU
Nittany Lions have escaped the Big Ten basement (thanks, Illini). They rallied for an unlikely win Wednesday against Indiana, a game that left Hoosiers fans booing at the end. Give Patrick Chambers a lot of credit for keeping his team together despite a poor start to the season. A postseason berth in any tournament will be a boost for the Penn State program and it looks like a possibility. Asmussen’s pick: Iowa 87-77.
Indiana at Purdue, 3 p.m., ESPN
Two teams fading late in the season. Not a lot of good basketball being played these days in the Hoosier State. Indiana is a beast on the boards, ranking just outside the nation’s Top 10 in rebounding. But the Hoosiers don’t shoot well and struggle making the right passes. The team should be better a year from now, if all the pieces stay in place. Asmussen’s pick: Purdue 55-54.
Ohio State at Illinois, 7 p.m., BTN
Thad Matta comes back to his home area. There was a time earlier in his career when he could have been the Illinois coach. But how would it have worked out with Matta in charge? Maybe Ohio State never reaches the level it has under Matta, opening the door for Illinois. Maybe John Groce joins the Illinois staff as an assistant and has to move elsewhere to become a head coach. It’s fun to think about. Or it gives you a headache. Asmussen’s pick: Ohio State 68-63.
Wisconsin at Michigan, noon, WCIA (CBS)
The Wolverines seek a season sweep after winning by seven earlier at the Kohl Center. Nik Stauskas scored 23 points, including a critical three in the final minute. The Wolverines won at Madison for the first time since 1999. The Badgers will try to return the favor when they visit Ann Arbor. Asmussen’s pick: Michigan 80-77.
Nebraska at Michigan State, 2 p.m., BTN
The second season in the Big Ten is going much better for Nebraska than the first. So much better that fans are actually talking about an NCAA bid. That’s not realistic, unless the team can score a couple shockers late in the season. Like knocking off Michigan State in East Lansing. Don’t buy NCAA tournament tickets yet, Nebraska fans. Asmussen’s pick: Michigan State 78-58.
Minnesota at Northwestern, 5 p.m., BTN
The Wildcats got our attention when they won at Williams Arena the day before the Super Bowl. They followed that with a victory at Wisconsin. Sweep the Gophers and Chris Collins’ team can keep dreaming about an upper-division finish in the Big Ten. Last week’s home loss to Nebraska hurt the quest. Asmussen’s pick: Northwestern 51-50.
Iowa at Indiana, 8 p.m., ESPN
Why are the Hawkeyes so good at rebounding? It certainly isn’t practicing on their own misses. Iowa ranks in the Top 50 nationally in shooting percentage. None of the Hawkeyes averages more than seven rebounds per game. But seven players average between 3.2 and 6.5 rebounds. It adds up quick. Asmussen’s pick: Iowa 99-98.
Northwestern at Ohio State, 6 p.m., BTN
The Buckeyes are the anti-Iowa when it comes to rebounding. They rank 226th in the nation in rebounds per game. Amir Williams leads the team with 6.2 rebounds per game, followed by LaQuinton Ross at 5.6. They aren’t getting enough help from their teammates, which might explain Ohio State’s inconsistent play during Big Ten games. Rebounding, if you do it well, never leaves. Asmussen’s pick: Ohio State 71-65.
Illinois at Minnesota, 8 p.m., BTN
Later in the season, the Gophers are going to look back at one three-game stretch and wonder what might have been. From Jan. 26 to Feb. 5, Minnesota lost to Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue by four, one and three points. The latter game was in triple overtime. Those kind of runs can put a damper on postseason goals. Asmussen’s pick: Minnesota 65-55.
Michigan State at Purdue, 6 p.m., ESPN
After Thursday’s game against Northwestern, Adreian Payne is averaging 19 points since returning to the court from an injury. Payne scored 12 points against Penn State and followed that with 24 against Wisconsin. The presence of Payne at the offensive end makes all the Spartans better. Opposing defenses have to account for him. Asmussen’s pick: Michigan State 77-67.
Penn State at Nebraska, 6 p.m., ESPNU
Nebraska’s one-loss home season includes victories against recent NCAA tournament teams Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota and Florida Gulf Coast. And the lone loss was a one-pointer against 2013 NCAA runner-up Michigan. The arena is pretty and the crowds are starting to sound like the ones that have filled Memorial Stadium for 50-plus years. Asmussen’s pick: Nebraska 73-63.
Rayvonte Rice 1
Kendrick Nunn 5
Malcolm Hill —
Nnanna Egwu 3
Jon Ekey —
Asmussen’s take: It doesn’t take a genius sports writer (are there any of those?) to realize the move out of the starting lineup has had a negative impact on Joseph Bertrand. Certainly, the change has provided a boost for freshmen Nunn and Hill, which will be a good thing in the long term. In the short term, the Illini need to expect a continued drop in production from seniors Bertrand and Ekey. Some guys simply don’t play as well when they are coming off the bench. They like the security of knowing they have guaranteed playing time. John Groce felt it was a move he had to make and who can argue with him. But for his team to finish strong, the upperclassmen beyond Rice and Egwu need to be a more important part of the process.
BIG TEN MVP
Gary Harris, Michigan State 1
Nik Stauskas, Michigan 2
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana 3
Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa —
Tim Frazier, Penn State —
Asmussen’s take: If the team was picked today, Harris, Stauskas, Ferrell and Marble would be near locks. The fifth spot is a bit trickier, with several players in contention. And what do you do about Payne, who is clearly one of the best players in the league but has missed a lot of time. Put him down for second team. Anyone who watches Michigan State realizes how valuable Harris has been throughout the injury-plagued season. The hope is that he doesn’t break down during the postseason.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Noah Vonleh, Indiana 1
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin 4
Derrick Walton, Michigan 3
Zak Irvin, Michigan 2
Kendall Stephens, Purdue 5
Asmussen’s take: After a three-rebound game in a loss to Nebraska, Vonleh has bounced back with authority. He had 12 rebounds in three consecutive games, including Wednesday’s loss to Penn State. Vonleh has hit double figures in points in two of his last three games. Walton scored 13 points, had 10 rebounds and six assists in the win against Ohio State. A freshman no more. Same for Irvin, who has scored in double figures in three consecutive games.
COACH OF THE YEAR
John Beilein, Michigan 2
Tom Izzo, Michigan State 1
Fran McCaffery, Iowa 5
Bo Ryan, Wisconsin —
Thad Matta, Ohio State 4
Asmussen’s take: First-year coaches Chris Collins and Richard Pitino remain just outside the Top 5. So does second-year Nebraska coach Tim Miles. All three will get votes for the top award, but the winner is going to be Izzo or Beilein. Toward the end of long, successful careers, both Michigan men have shown their abilities to get more out of less. The fact they are both in contention for the Big Ten title is a mini-miracle. They have logged long hours either as assistant coaches or at a lower level. Now, they are getting paid back for all the earlier work. All coaches could learn a thing or a hundred from watching Izzo and Beilein. Not sure anybody should follow their wardrobe choices. There are better coaches for that.
Teams in the NCAA field, or not
Michigan State Lock
Ohio State Lock
Nebraska Next year
Illinois Next year
Northwestern Next year
Penn State Next year
Asmussen’s take: The only one of the first six in any kind of danger is Minnesota. The Gophers could have locked up the bid, but losses to Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue put a hold on the celebration. The biggest movement downward has been by Indiana, which has dropped far off the bubble. Same goes for Purdue. Nebraska has put itself in position for an NIT bid, replacing Illinois, which should start planning for a long spring without basketball. The Big Ten continues to have two contenders for top seeds: Michigan and Michigan State. But Syracuse, Arizona and Wichita State are ahead of both the Big Ten schools. Which means the more likely scenario is a pair of No. 2 seeds for the Big Ten. Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State are both in position to land in the Top 4. They can improve their chances with strong finishes. No need to tell them that. They should know. Basketball hasn’t changed much over the years.