Tate: Illini moving up Big Ten pecking order
We’ve heard enough about the dramatic basketball climbs of Indiana and Michigan.
They’re ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the nation, with Duke in between, and the exploits of Hoosiers center Cody Zeller and Wolverines guard Trey Burke are splashed on ESPN with every triumph.
Not far back is Ohio State at No. 7, lacking some of the up-front power of recent years but hovering in anticipation of a fourth straight Big Ten title, and what would be the sixth in Thad Matta’s term there.
This report will concentrate on the would-be challengers in a power-packed conference featuring six members in the AP’s Top 20 ... Illinois at No. 10, Minnesota at No. 13 and Michigan State at No. 19.
Coach John Groce is emphasizing the mental aspect ahead of tonight’s date with Norfolk State, a 6-5 club still drawing attention from last year’s 86-84 upset of No. 2 seed Missouri in the NCAA tournament.
“We went from our worst performance (in beating Western Carolina 72-64) to our best at Gonzaga (85-74) in just a few days,” Groce said. “That’s two contrasting efforts, so it must be more mental than physical. The biggest barometer Tuesday will be how focused and tough we are. The last time we came off an emotional win (in Maui), we didn’t play well (beat Gardner-Webb 63-62).”
With heavy emphasis on three-point shooting and the Herculean efforts of Brandon Paul (Big Ten Player of the Week), critics continue to watch Illinois with a raised eyebrow. But a Mixmaster defense that created 12 first-half turnovers and slowed Gonzaga shooting in the second half was an overlooked factor in igniting the Illini on Saturday night.
Look out here. Coach Tubby Smith, fresh off win No. 500, hasn’t lost any key players this season, as has happened. And this exact lineup, bolstered by a recovering Trevor Mbakwe (knee) off the bench, has won 16 of 19 games including a current streak of six that includes Memphis, Stanford, Florida State and USC.
Discussing his use of power forwards Mbakwe and Rodney Williams together, Smith said:
“They have good chemistry and are unselfish. We are monitoring Trevor closely, and he is getting his explosiveness back. USC hurt us inside and we may have to get some defensive help in the post (a 71-57 Gopher win Saturday).”
Mbakwe had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the 66-63 defeat of Stanford (Rock Island guard Chasson Randle went 3 for 19), and Andre Hollins racked 41 in the defeat of Memphis. This team has firepower from all angles and an underrated player in Williams.
Smart people don’t pay much attention to Tom Izzo’s team in November. The unexpected 67-59 loss at Miami forced the Big Ten to settle for a 6-6 standoff in the ACC Challenge, and the wins against Boise State (74-70) and Louisiana-Lafayette (63-60) were unimpressive.
But they’re a decent 8-2 with Kansas as a victim, and it looks like Keith Appling is starting to get some help from freshman Gary Harris (four straight double-figure games) and 6-foot-10 leaper Adreian Payne. The rebounding cast is there. But what about perimeter shooting?
With Notre Dame next up Saturday, Matt Painter is frustrated with Purdue’s late-game decision-making.
“We’ve lost five games, and we were either two up, three down or tied in each one in the last three minutes,” Painter said. “This is an even tougher stretch than my first year because we didn’t have enough talent then, and we do now. We are immature when it comes to facing adversity or pressure. That’s our Achilles’ heel.”
Senior D.J. Byrd hit six treys in the ACC Challenge win against Clemson, then went 0 for 9 as the Boilermakers missed all 17 in the 63-57 loss to Xavier. Byrd was 0 for 5 in Saturday’s 18-turnover collapse at Eastern Michigan, a 47-44 setback.
Since Bo Ryan got the job over the late Rick Majerus, the Badgers matched or outperformed expectations every year except one. In Ryan’s 11 seasons, they’ve never finished worse than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten standings.
With point guard Josh Gasser sidelined (torn ACL), might the Badgers stumble in 2013?
“Josh meant a lot to us. He was voted one of the conference’s top five defenders and was taking over this summer and fall. He was a heck of a pick-and-roll guy and was head and shoulders above the others at point. Now we have young guys learning in game situations, and our weaknesses have shown more because of the tough schedule.”
Wisconsin is 6-4 with losses to ranked Florida and Creighton quintets, and to Virgina and Marquette. The Golden Eagles outmuscled the Badgers 60-50 on Saturday.
Queried Monday about the speed of conference teams like Michigan, Illinois and others, Ryan said:
“What you see now doesn’t mean you’ll see it in January and February. Teams always look faster in November and December.”
Minnesota’s Smith chimed in: “In the conference, everybody has the goods on you, and they know what to take away.”
Fran McCaffrey has adjusted his lineup to start three freshmen, including 7-1 center Adam Woodbury and point guard Anthony Clemmons (from Lansing, Mich., of all places). Beaten earlier by Wichita and Virginia Tech, the Hawkeyes reached 8-2 in Friday’s 80-71 home win against Iowa State. Clemmons had 14 points and eight assists, and the Hawkeyes outrebounded one of the nation’s top rebounding teams (32-31).
“I brought Zach McCabe in to talk when I moved Clemmons into the lineup,” McCaffrey said. “He is unaffected. It’s great to have two experienced guys on the bench (McCabe and Melsahn Basabe), and they’re getting starter’s minutes. When you start three freshmen, it can be a disaster if the upperclassmen don’t buy in.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.