Let’s hear it for the little people.
Minnesota awaits the Illini on Wednesday, having rounded up behemoths from such foreign lands as Latvia, Ontario and Nebraska (want to argue?). And the Gophers still have the Hollins boys, no relation.
But today’s emphasis is on the undersized. The need for speed. The penchant for penetration.
The reason Minnesota defeated Northwestern on Sunday, and explaining why the Gophers are likely to become the sixth Big Ten team in the NCAA tournament, traces to their shortest member. Deandre Mathieu, at 5-9, is the Big Ten’s new difference-maker.
He reached the Northlands in a roundabout way, matriculating from Morehead State and Central Arizona Community College (another foreign land?) to join Richard Pitino’s first club. He sparked a 66-60 defeat of Indiana on Feb. 8 with 16 points and five assists, and he shattered Northwestern’s proud defense for 18 points in a 54-48 road triumph.
Size doesn’t matter at point guard. Some people think it does, but it doesn’t. And it’s an issue for discussion as John Groce attempts to restock the weakest UI offensive unit in memory. When the 1999 Illini shot 39.4 from the field, it was their only percentage under 40.0 in 45 seasons. This team is hovering at 40.6, with three-point accuracy of 30.8 (second worst in 25 years to 30.4 in 2012).
If Illinois passed on Marian Catholic’s 5-9 Tyler Ulis for fear he’d be posted up defensively, that didn’t concern Kentucky. The slight senior is an extraordinary offensive weapon with a breakdown dribble. And if the Illini are shying away from 5-10 Bogan junior Luwane Pipkins, they may have regrets similar to when Decatur’s 5-9 Lewis Jackson helped Purdue win seven straight in the series.
Pipkins may not be an ideal point guard, but he popped the nets on his December trip to State Farm Center, displaying a knack in short supply here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: When Illinois lost 48-39 to Ohio State on Saturday, it marked the fourth time in 67 years the team didn’t reach 40 points: 2009 losses at Minnesota 59-36 and Penn State 38-33, and a 54-34 loss at Purdue in 1985 (Illinois beat Purdue at home, 86-43 that year). In Harry Combes’ second game Dec. 8, 1947, the UI beat Notre Dame 40-38, and never scored under 40 in his 20 seasons).
All comments on future prospects — including Stevenson’s 6-foot junior Jalen Brunson — are weighed with the understanding that it’s guesswork. It can be very confusing.
For instance, the Sun-Times recently announced its All-City team of 20 players, and Pipkins was lodged with super-studs Cliff Alexander and Jahlil Okafor on the first five.
But Charles Matthews, ranked Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 15 by four national services evaluating the junior class, didn’t make the 20-man Sun-Times team while two of his St. Rita teammates did. And Simeon’s Ed Morrow was on the second S-T unit while teammate D.J. Williams, an Illini commit, didn’t even make honorable mention ... at the same time being ranked among the Top 50 juniors by three major services.
You figure it out. I can’t. But don’t let me be distracted from my original point. Size shouldn’t matter.
Look around the Big Ten. Like former Illini Dee Brown, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson are listed at 6-feet. Standing on their tiptoes. It is universally understood that all of basketball’s 6-footers are being fudged a tad.
Let’s simply agree that, in basketball parlance, Ferrell is on the small side. And yet he’s the key to everything Indiana does. He has scored 19 or more on 10 occasions, popping 27 twice this month. He is a sure-fire all-conference selection, even as the Hoosiers fade from NCAA consideration.
Most Big Ten teams have starters no taller than 6-1 ... Tim Frazier at Penn State, Mike Gesell at Iowa, Keith Appling at Michigan State, etc.
These players are doing it with mobility and ballhandling, not size. It wouldn’t matter if Aaron Craft was 5-10 instead of 6-2. He’d be the same ball-stealing penetrator for Ohio State.
Of course, you don’t have to be short to be an effective playmaker. Nebraska is receiving benefits from employing 6-6 Terran Petteway in the same manner that Thad Matta came to use Evan Turner at Ohio State. Petteway has ice in his veins out front.
Here’s the key: Guards can’t be one-dimensional. If you can shoot but not penetrate, you need to play the wing like Wisconsin’s 6-1 Ben Brust. If you can penetrate but not shoot, it’s a disadvantage because defenders will slide under screens and plug your drives.
If you can shoot and penetrate, you have a place on the team. Regardless of size. You’ll see that Wednesday night with Minnesota’s 5-9 Mathieu.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.