College Basketball Nation: Illinois Fighting Illini

Some of the best one-on-one matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases shape an entire lineup.

Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.

Here are shooting guard battles to keep an eye on:

Duke: Rasheed Sulaimon versus Grayson Allen

As C.L. noted Monday, Sulaimon won a big share of Quinn Cook's perimeter minutes down the stretch of the 2013-14 season, and there's good reason to be very bullish about Sulaimon's junior season. I'm so bullish Virginia fans thought I included Sulaimon at the expense of Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon last week. Brogdon was a regrettable omission, but I do think Sulaimon is "worth watching" for a whole variety of reasons, and this list is one of them. If Sulaimon has the same kind of early-season struggles as last season, he'll have a very capable five-star shooting guard in Allen just waiting to soak up his minutes at the 2 -- not to mention the chance that Coach K could decide to play Tyus Jones and Cook together. There is competition for minutes all over the Duke backcourt. If Sulaimon plays a lot, that means he'll be playing well.

Kentucky: Aaron Harrison versus Devin Booker

Kentucky's most fascinating positional intrigue will come from the frontcourt, where John Calipari has approximately 754 NBA-prospect forwards to parse into some recognizable rotation. It's harder to imagine him shaking things up in the backcourt after March's runner-up run, especially now that the Harrisons seem to have figured things out. But Booker is absolutely a player to watch, especially if one or both of the Harrisons regress.

Indiana: James Blackmon Jr. versus Stanford Robinson versus Robert Johnson versus …

If trades were allowed in college basketball -- maybe this could be one of the hidden upsides of unionization! -- Indiana would be burning up the phones. The Hoosiers have real holes in their frontcourt after losing freshmen Noah Vonleh (to the lottery) and Luke Fischer (to transfer). But boy, do they have guards: Besides star point guard Yogi Ferrell, there's fan favorite Robinson, 6-foot-7 wing Troy Williams, and now two top-rated incoming freshmen. Five-star prospect Blackmon is too good to sit on the bench, but where does that leave Johnson, the No. 10-ranked shooting guard in the class? There are a lot of bodies here. The best possible outcome is that Tom Crean has a ton of 2005-era Phoenix Suns tape on his shelf, says "hey, why not," puts Williams at the center, and plays 80 possessions a game.

Illinois: Kendrick Nunn versus Ahmad Starks

John Groce has a bunch of starters back and an interesting little backcourt situation on his hands. Nunn looked promising as a freshman, but Starks was a knockdown shooter for Oregon State, and it's not like Rayvonte Rice is going to be giving up any of his minutes.

Virginia Tech

Given how awful Virginia Tech was last year, new coach Buzz Williams will put his best players on the floor regardless. But it is worth noting that his best players -- and the three best players in his four-person recruiting class -- are all designated as shooting guards. Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs are both top-100 guys, and Jalen Hudson should get some run, too.

Florida: Michael Frazier II versus Brandone Francis

Francis won't unseat Frazier -- you don't bench a guy who made 118 of his 264 3s a season ago -- but Francis may work his way into the backcourt as a more versatile change of pace if Frazier doesn't add a skill or two to his offensive set.

North Carolina, sort of

Having lost Leslie McDonald to graduation, J.P. Tokoto may now be the closest thing the Tar Heels will have to a shooting guard in 2014-15. The good news: Tokoto is a tough, physical player who excels in transition, and he's even better on the defensive end. The downside: He can't shoot. The question here is which of the Tar Heels' incoming players can provide perimeter production. Small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson are both top-10 overall players in the incoming class, and point guard Joel Berry may be able to play off the ball a bit as well. There isn't a good way to describe this personnel in the context of just one position. Save Marcus Paige, the shape of UNC's backcourt is very much up for grabs.


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For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.

The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.

The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.

The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.

Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.

As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.

From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:

1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.

2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.

3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.

4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.

5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”

6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.

7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.

8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.

9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.

10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.

11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.

12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.

13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.

14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.

Look back, look ahead: Big Ten

April, 21, 2014
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The Big Ten competed with the Big 12 for the mythical "best conference" title throughout the season. It came close to making a historic statement to settle the matter with three teams positioned to reach the Final Four. That would have placed the league beside the 1985 Big East (St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova) as just the second league to have three of four teams playing on the last weekend. Wisconsin gave the league a Final Four presence for the fifth time in the past six seasons, but Michigan's and Michigan State’s losses in the Elite Eight kept this from being a crowning achievement for the league.

There was no denying the Big Ten had its share of great teams, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State all ranking in the top 10 at some point in 2013-14. But the league finished yet another season without having the best team in the nation. The Big Ten’s national championship drought added another year of distance since its last glory year, when the Spartans cut down the nets in 2000.

As an indication of the conference's depth, Minnesota brought home the NIT championship.

What we saw this season:
[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter an impressive run to the Final Four this past season, Frank Kaminsky's Badgers may be the team to beat in the Big Ten in 2014-15.
It was defined more than ever by resiliency.

Michigan seemingly reinvented itself during the course of the season. Mitch McGary was expected to play a big role for the Wolverines, but he was hampered by a back injury that eventually sidelined him for the last half of the season. Nik Stauskas helped shoot them out of disappointment as they captured the league’s regular-season title.

Wisconsin abandoned the methodical style that had come to define it during Bo Ryan’s tenure, and became a team with enough offensive weapons to outscore its opponents. Despite losing five of six during a stretch in conference play, the Badgers bounced back to reach their first Final Four since 2000 and the first under Ryan.

Michigan State was arguably the best team in the nation before injuries sabotaged its national title hopes. The Spartans battled through those injuries and were again a popular pick as a No. 4 seed to win it all when the NCAA tournament began. They were eliminated by eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight. It marked the first time a group of seniors who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo did not appear in a Final Four.

And what team proved to be more resilient than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers, picked to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason media poll, started conference play 1-5. Coach Tim Miles held his team together and guided it to an 11-4 record -- with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State -- to close out the season. The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the league standings and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997-98.

Iowa and Ohio State went from hot to not and fizzled down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had problems stopping opponents, and the Buckeyes had trouble scoring. Ultimately both fizzled out of the NCAA tournament without winning a game.

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins, a pair of first-year coaches, gave a possible glimpse of what is to come. Pitino rejuvenated the Gophers in leading them to the NIT championship. Collins led the Wildcats to a pair of upsets over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.

What we expect to see next season:
The Big Ten title could be Wisconsin’s to claim. The Badgers again have a chance to be a special team, returning all of their key players except guard Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky will be a household name in college basketball circles thanks to his NCAA tournament performance. Rising sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is poised for a breakout season in what should be an expanded role.

Wisconsin will hang with the nation’s elites next season, but not many others in the Big Ten will be considered very highly -- at least, that will be the case early on.

Michigan State and Michigan both took big hits with departing players. The Wolverines lost both Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. McGary still has until April 27 to decide if he’ll join them in turning pro. If he leaves, the Wolverines won’t have any starters from their 2012-2013 team that played in the national title game. They won’t be devoid of talent, with Caris Levert and ever-improving Derrick Walton Jr., returning, but they will be rebuilding.

The Spartans will face a similar retooling after Gary Harris announced he would forgo his final two seasons and enter the draft. Branden Dawson could have made it a devastating loss, but he will be back for his senior season. And Izzo will be welcoming new talent, such as point guard Lourawls Nairn.

Iowa and Minnesota are positioned to make a move into the league’s upper echelon, as both are expected to return key rotation players. Illinois brings back one of the league’s best scorers in Rayvonte Rice. Nebraska will be out to prove this past season was no fluke. The Huskers return Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 18.1 points per game.

Indiana returns arguably the league’s best point guard in Yogi Ferrell and will add a couple of big scorers to its mix, led by James Blackmon Jr.

There will be plenty of new names to usher in next season across the Big Ten. Ohio State welcomes a recruiting class -- led by guard D'Angelo Russell -- ranked fifth by ESPN.com Recruiting Nation that could thrust it back into the Top 25.

It will be a bit of an adjustment seeing Maryland and Rutgers count as Big Ten conference games next season, as both teams will be making their league debut.
The Big Ten’s bubble teams are officially in wait-and-see mode after Friday’s quarterfinals while one Conference USA bubbler moved past another:

Big Ten
Illinois: The Illini needed at the very least a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably a win against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation. The Illini gave it a real run, but Michigan held on down the stretch to win 64-63. And with that, the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.

Nebraska: In the second game of the afternoon session, Nebraska gave one away against Ohio State. The Cornhuskers led by 18 at one point in the second half. They were better than Ohio State for all but the first five and final 10 minutes of the game. Where do the Cornhuskers stand? That answer could be affected slightly by the egg Minnesota laid against Wisconsin on Friday night. Both teams will spend the rest of the weekend uncertain of where -- or whether -- they'll end up in the bracket come Sunday.

Minnesota: On the one hand, losing to Wisconsin on a neutral court is not a bad thing. Wisconsin is really good and the Badgers will likely beat plenty of good teams on neutral courts in the next three weeks. But losing the way Minnesota lost on Friday night, in a game it desperately needed, is hardly the kind of final impression you want to leave with the committee. The Gophers got trucked by 26 in Indianapolis, a loss that made them 20-13 overall. Minnesota finished 8-10 in the Big Ten in the regular season and just 2-7 against the RPI top 50, with those only two wins (Ohio State, Wisconsin) coming on their own floor. The lone redeeming data point here is the Gophers' schedule, which is top-10 overall and includes a top-30 nonconference mark. That has kept Minnesota clinging to the cut line for weeks. The committee typically prefers to reward teams with good schedules, but Friday's letdown might override that preference after all.

Other at-large contenders
Southern Miss: Opinions have differed on Southern Miss-as-at-large for weeks now. Some thought the Golden Eagles were worthy. Some thought they needed the auto bid to have any chance. As debates go, that's a pretty mild one, but it was a matter of some confusion. Consensus should be easier to reach now. The Golden Eagles were thoroughly mediocre in their 88-70 C-USA semifinal loss to Louisiana Tech, giving up 1.30 points per possession and looking athletically outmatched in just about every regard. La. Tech should go ahead and win the C-USA tournament just to be safe. But if the committee does reach for a C-USA at-large, it won't be Southern Miss.

Louisiana Tech: As we wrote said, the chances for La. Tech to earn an at-large bid are probably small. The Bulldogs were small for Southern Miss, too. But if the committee is going to take one or the other, we know who that one will be. Besides, pending the rest of the weekend, perhaps the committee will feel better about taking a team whose best win came at Oklahoma as opposed to North Dakota State. And Southern Miss's top-30-ish RPI is a decent top-50 win addition for the Bulldogs, too. We'll see.

Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.
Here’s what’s bubbling now. First the ACC, where Pitt is now a lock.

At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games. Its losses to good teams have been close, its wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State, respectively) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy.

Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Leading 50-31 with 11:43 to play, Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. Then, of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock the Panthers into a tourney slot. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic 10 …

Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example the weekend had to offer of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3, Saint Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is what it all means.

St. Joseph’s: Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead-heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Would St. Joe's take a hit if it lost? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major regardless.

Dayton: On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, FSU, Southern Miss, and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's, and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal, and St. John's have all lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks likelier than ever.

And let’s not leave out the Big Ten …

Illinois needed, at the very least, a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably another against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.

By our admittedly dim lights, Nebraska entered the day with a little space between itself and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss to Ohio State? It's hard to say. Résumé-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which might count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 over the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the sweep vs. Penn State, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think they'll get in, but we're not positive about it.

Off in the SEC ...

Missouri: The Tigers played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second; that's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the best team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Finally, Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.

Tennessee: No team in the country enjoyed a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about them -- that they were one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what their wins and losses, and their resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but still: Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams in the country with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. But after avoiding a bad loss on Friday to South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.

Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Football is supposed to be the game of inches, where the nose of a football can determine a winner or a loser.

Basketball, it turns out, can be just as exactingly sweet or cruel, depending on your rooting interest.

Jordan Morgan laid in a shot on a feed from Nik Stauskas, the ball hanging on the rim for a split second before falling in.

Tracy Abrams pulled up for a wide-open jumper, the ball kissing the front of the rim and bouncing off.

Michigan 64, its chance at a Big Ten tournament title and maybe a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament still alive.

Illinois 63, its dreams for a Cinderella run here cut short, its hopes now focused on an NIT bid to extend the season.

[+] EnlargeJordan Morgan
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSenior Jordan Morgan's game winner sent Michigan to the Big Ten semifinals.
“We got some good bounces around the rim," John Beilein said, using a throwaway quote straight out of the coaches’ cliché handbook that actually made sense here.

Because this game, as much as it was about finesse, execution and some seriously good coaching from both benches, wound up coming down to luck and guessing, or at least educated guessing.

The Wolverines got luckier and Beilein guessed better.

“There’s a lot of things that you can second-guess after the fact," John Groce said. “You can go back, 'I wish I would have done this' or 'I wish I would have done that.' But decisions that are made throughout the course of the game are discussed and they’re educated decisions. Most of the times those work, and to be honest with you, occasionally they don’t."

Ten days ago, the Illini and Wolverines met in Champaign, Ill. Michigan drained 16 3-pointers and won in a rout. So naturally, Groce decided, as the Wolverines threatened to pull away, to go with a zone.

Say what?

Of course it worked, taking the Wolverines out of their rhythm enough to get the Illini, once down by as many as 13 in the second half, back in the game.

But when the game hit the critical mass point, with the Illini up one and just 19 ticks left, Groce went back to his comfort zone and called man to man.

“Hindsight is always 20-20 on decisions like that," Groce said. “Now that I know that Morgan scored that basket, as it looked like it was going to roll off the rim, I would have liked to have gone zone."

Beilein, MacGyver with a whiteboard, able to X-and-O his way out of any problem, countered with a play that naturally could work against either defense.

He put the ball in Stauskas’ hands, and when the Big Ten Player of the Year rose up just inside the free throw line, he attracted two defenders to him. Instead of shooting, which you might say is Stauskas’ calling card, he dropped it down to Morgan.

“J-Mo rolled down the lane and he was wide open," Stauskas said.

The pass still caught Morgan off guard. He said Stauskas told him coming out of the timeout he was going to shoot it regardless, so when the ball started coming his way, he was a little bit unprepared.

In the moment, at least, he was unprepared. In reality, Morgan was wildly ready. A few years ago, Beilein swiped a drill he saw another NCAA tournament team using. Essentially he has his bigs run to the rim with their heads turned, assistant coaches hitting them with bags as they work.

“It’s a lot of action, a screen-and-roll play, but you don’t know what’s happening," Beilein said. “You’ve got to be able to catch it here, catch it there, catch it with balance and put it in. At least 2,000 times in five years, Jordan Morgan has run that same drill. ... He said he wanted to add a little drama to the game, so he decided to put it up on the rim."

A little drama, and maybe just a kiss of luck, too.


INDIANAPOLIS -- The question wasn’t terribly difficult or even unique. Odds are Tom Crean has heard it a few hundred times in his coaching career.

[+] EnlargeTracy Abrams
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsTracy Abrams was one of three Illinois players in double figures against Indiana.
But when asked, minutes after his Indiana team lost to Illinois 64-54 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, what his message was for his team, Crean paused. He paused for a really long time, started to talk and then stopped himself, looked up to the ceiling as if trying to divine an answer from the tiles and finally answered.

“We have to match the toughness and competitive spirit every time we play,” he said.

Crean went on for a bit longer on that same theme, until finally he came around to the real answer and the reason for that long pause.

“I try to deliver that message differently,” he said, “because I’ve given it a few times.”

Which, of course, is exactly the problem with the Hoosiers. The message isn’t getting through now and hasn’t gotten through all season. The same things that ailed them in November are still points of emphasis now -- smart defense, commitment for an entire game, grit and determination.

It’s all added up to an abysmal 17-15 record that, as pedestrian as that reads, is actually not that good. It includes the helter-skelter results that mirror this helter-skelter season -- wins against Iowa and Ohio State, losses to Penn State and Purdue.

Indiana is young, relying almost exclusively on freshmen and sophomores (Will Sheehey being the exception), but just like folks down the highway in Kentucky are tired of hearing that refrain, the message is falling on deaf ears in Bloomington too.

The Hoosiers are headed to the NIT -- Crean made it perfectly clear after the loss to the Illini that he believes and wants his team in the postseason -- except no one wants to go to the NIT.

In a lot of ways, it’s not entirely this particular team’s fault. The aggravation and impatience that is suddenly voicing its displeasure around the Hoosier State (a Twitter pulse check postgame found serious elevated blood pressure) is almost a lingering hangover from last year’s Sweet 16 exodus.

So much was expected from that team a year ago, promised even. After the long road back from Kelvin Sampson Exile, Indiana was back -- preseason No. 1, Final Four aspirations, a national program enjoying its place in the sun once again -- but it never materialized, ending a weekend before the Final Four in Atlanta.

Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo left, and so some reorganization was to be expected. But with a good freshman class coming in and Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell back, this was supposed to be the time that the Hoosiers do what the Hoosiers always did. They would regroup because the top programs never had to be rebuilt over and over again.

And now this, back to the dregs of the NIT, back to asking fans to be patient through some growing pains after there were so many rebirthing pains before then.

“We have the talent,” Crean said. “We just have to get to growing up and continue to learn.”

Except that’s a tough message for Crean to deliver, almost as difficult as trying to drive the message home to his team.

Tournament preview: Big Ten

March, 11, 2014
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The beautiful chaos in the Big Ten this season didn’t disappoint. Michigan emerged from the rubble despite losing former Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and competing without Mitch McGary for most of the season.

Wisconsin’s streak of top-four finishes and NCAA tourney appearances under Bo Ryan continues. Nebraska might be dancing, too.

The league’s perennial mantra -- there are no easy wins in the Big Ten -- is more than just talk. Penn State swept Ohio State. Northwestern beat Wisconsin in Madison. Illinois went to East Lansing and upset Michigan State.

"As soon as you act like you've arrived, you're going to fall pretty quickly," Illini coach John Groce told reporters after that March 1 victory.

Every team in this league has experienced that to some degree this season.

The highs and lows to date makes this event in Indianapolis the most intriguing conference tourney in the country.

What’s at stake?

[+] EnlargeMichigan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein's Wolverines, the top seed in Indy, are playing with confidence.
There was a time when Wisconsin was unraveling. And the crux of the crumble centered on defense, a usually dependable strength for the Badgers. But they couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- defend anyone during that nasty 1-5 stretch.

They’re 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency now, per Ken Pomeroy, but they approached triple digits during that rocky stretch. They recovered, however, with an eight-game winning streak that Nebraska snapped on Sunday.

Now Wisconsin could have an outside shot at a top seed. The Badgers boast a 15-5 record against the RPI’s top 100 and a résumé that includes nonconference wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia. Perhaps a Big Ten tournament championship would be a convincing argument for the selection committee.

But the Badgers might have to get through Michigan State in the semifinals to get there. The Spartans are finally (somewhat) healthy, but the complete Michigan State squad has struggled. Tom Izzo’s team has suffered losses in seven of its past 12 games. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State preserving Izzo’s streak of sending every four-year player he’s ever coached in East Lansing to the Final Four, unless it finds some mojo in Indianapolis.

The field, however, is a gauntlet. Top-seed Michigan was a step above the rest of the conference. John Beilein’s team has that same bravado right now that the Wolverines used to fuel last season's Final Four run.

Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin on Sunday might have sealed its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. But Tim Miles isn’t preaching guarantees to the underdogs in Lincoln, Neb. Will this ride continue in the Big Ten tournament? It’s certainly possible.

Iowa might have the most to lose. The Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule (21st) has helped them preserve their dreams of earning their first NCAA berth since 2006. But a Thursday loss to Northwestern would be its sixth defeat in seven games. Iowa entered the season as a team that appeared to be capable of winning a few games in the Big Dance. A stumble this week, however, could put the Hawkeyes in a bad spot in their first-round matchup.

Ohio State, second in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, is still a threat to the field. And Illinois (4-1 in its past five games) is probably the sleeper. And who knows, maybe Yogi Ferrell and a strong showing by Indiana fans will make the festivities interesting for the Hoosiers.

Team with the most to gain

When Richard Pitino took the Minnesota job, folks around the program were talking about its future, not its present.

But the Gophers have the most at stake entering the Big Ten tourney because this could be the difference between an NIT bid and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Their 6-10 record against the RPI’s top 100 could be a problem they could address with a few quality wins in the Big Ten tournament. They’ve been on the bubble for weeks. But a strong outing in Indianapolis could really help a program that’s living off its No. 5 SOS right now.

Video: Ohio State handles Illinois

February, 15, 2014
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Aaron Craft had 14 points to help No. 22 Ohio State beat Illinois, 48-39.

Weekend Homework: The Illini mess

January, 17, 2014
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Perhaps Illinois fooled us.

For a stretch in December, John Groce’s program rattled off a promising winning streak. Victories over Missouri, Illinois-Chicago, Indiana and Penn State suggested that the program had gathered momentum after welcoming a variety of new faces.

But Illinois hasn’t been the same since Wisconsin buried it with a 20-0 run during a 95-70 loss in Madison on Jan. 8. A loss at Northwestern, ranked 170th by Ken Pomeroy, followed. Then, the program stumbled again in a 66-58 home loss to Purdue on Wednesday.

“It’s just unacceptable,” Groce told reporters following the loss. “They [Purdue] were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls. Our guys better figure out very quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard.”

Through Thursday, Illinois is shooting 35.6 percent from the field (last in the Big Ten) and 25.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (12th in the Big Ten) in conference play.

And if that hole isn’t daunting enough, Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State will kick off a brutal five-game stretch that includes road matchups against Ohio State and Indiana, plus a pair of games against contenders Iowa and Wisconsin.

This 2-3 Big Ten start could conceivably morph into a 2-6 or 2-7 stretch.

There were certainly concerns about Illinois entering the season. Transfers Rayvonte Rice and Jon Ekey, a batch of talented freshmen and veterans Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand were charged with coming together and building a bond on the floor in time to compete in the toughest league in America.

The win over Indiana on New Year’s Eve suggested that they were ready for that. This streak, however, has sent the team in the other direction.

Illinois has to get back on a positive path, or this season could be a disaster.

There’s certainly a correlation between the team’s struggles and Rice’s struggles. He’s 12-for-41 in this three-game losing streak. Abrams has gone 14-for-39.

Illinois won’t recover unless its top two players are effective. But it’s bigger than that.

Something definitely has to change soon.

Video: Illinois 65, Missouri 64

December, 21, 2013
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Illinois dealt No. 23 Missouri its first loss of the season with a 65-64 victory.

The Big Ten should thank Iowa. Minnesota, too. And home court advantage. Actually, play it safe, Big Ten: Point your gratitude at all of the above.

On the first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge -- the 15th meeting between these two conferences, and the first in the ACC's new 15-team configuration -- the best the B1G could do was hold serve.

[+] EnlargeAaron White
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsIn one of the few bright spots for the Big Ten on Tuesday, Aaron White scored 20 points to lead Iowa over Notre Dame.
Iowa and Minnesota, the only two Big Ten teams playing at home Tuesday night, were also the league's only two wins. The rest of the ACC's impressive Tuesday ranged from businesslike wins to outright dominance. Suddenly, for the first time in at least three years, the conference that once swaggered supremely over this inter-conference competition -- that went 10-0 in the first 11 Challenges -- was in command once more.

Really, even the expected wins were hard-fought. Fran McCaffery's 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes were splendid on the break in their 98-93 Carver-Hawkeye Arena win over new ACC member Notre Dame. Five players scored in double figures, and forward Aaron White led the way with 20 points and seven rebounds, as Iowa outpaced Notre Dame to the tune of 1.40 points per possession. The win was not a surprise, but the conditions of it were: Iowa, a top-20 defense a season ago and one of the best per-possession units in the country to date, yielded nearly 1.3 points per trip to the Irish, including a 29-point, nine-rebound game from forward Garrick Sherman.

Not that the Big Ten was looking for style points by then. Minnesota, also playing at home, managed to hold off a Florida State team that dropped VCU and took Michigan to overtime in Puerto Rico (and lost by one point to Florida this week), a solid result for a team disappointed by a just-OK showing in Maui last week. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins combined for 37 points, six assists and eight rebounds. They, more than anyone else, were the key difference, the catalysts that allowed the Gophers to a) score well above a point per trip and b) close the game out in the final minutes.

So, yeah. Solid win for Minnesota. Good stuff. Positive vibes. The rest was all ACC.

There were two types of Atlantic Coast Conference wins Tuesday night. The first kind came in Duke's workmanlike win over Michigan at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or in Pittsburgh's almost indifferent victory over Penn State. These were not spectacular victories; they came with plenty of nits to be picked. But they were wins all the same.

The second type was more devastating, if for different reasons. Syracuse essentially manhandled Indiana in the Carrier Dome Tuesday, holding the Hoosiers to just 23 second-half points in a 69-52 win. IU kept the game close for the first 20, and even led, 27-26, with 3:30 left in the first half. But the lead was short-lived, and once C.J. Fair and company got into a rhythm in the second half, Indiana's poor perimeter shooting -- by far the biggest difference between this young team and the one that earned a No. 1 seed before falling to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 last season -- left IU coach Tom Crean searching for answers on both ends of the floor. (He even tried a 1-3-1 zone for a while. It didn't help.)

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Tech
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia Tech's surprising comeback win over Illinois helped the ACC notch a 4-2 record on Day 1 of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Even worse -- both for the respective team itself and for the Big Ten's chances of toppling a suddenly potent ACC in this Challenge -- was Illinois' loss at Georgia Tech. The Illini owned most of the game. Joseph Bertrand was particularly impressive, all tight dribble moves and creative, challenged finishes. With 9:15 to play, Illinois led 60-48 -- and then it promptly let the game slip from its grasp. The Nnanna Egwu dunk that gave Illinois that lead was John Groce's team's last bucket for nearly eight minutes. In the meantime, Georgia Tech chipped away at the lead. By the final buzzer, the Yellow Jackets had finished on a 19-4 run, and what would have been a crucial break for the Big Ten on the road -- and an eminently winnable one, at that -- turned into a brutal road loss.

It is kind of silly to get too worked up over the actual tally of this competition. (Big Ten fans would argue this is especially true now that the ACC can leave three of its weaker programs -- Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech -- on the sidelines.) The real intrigue here is, or at least should be, focused on the teams themselves, on all of the little details therein.

But there's no way of getting around: The Big Ten-ACC Challenge is a macro competition, too. Right now, after one night, the Big Ten trails 4-2, and its Wednesday schedule offers little in the way of obvious advantages. No. 1 Michigan State gets North Carolina at home, sure, and Ohio State's insanely tough defense should make quick work of Maryland in Value City Arena. But other than that? Wisconsin is hardly a guarantee to knock off stylistic comrades Virginia in Charlottesville. Northwestern won't be a favorite at NC State. Purdue-Boston College and Miami-Nebraska are, well, your guess is as good as mine. Which means for the first time in three years, the ACC should -- repeat: should -- take back the Challenge it so ruthlessly dominated for the competition's first decade.

At the very least, something funky has to happen. Iowa and Minnesota were the Big Ten's lone bright spots Tuesday night, and the road back on Wednesday looks difficult indeed.


Big Ten team previews

October, 22, 2013
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider’s hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the Big Ten:

Illinois Fighting Illini Insider
Indiana Hoosiers Insider
Iowa Hawkeyes Insider
Michigan Wolverines Insider
Michigan State Spartans Insider
Minnesota Golden Gophers Insider
Nebraska Cornhuskers Insider
Northwestern Wildcats Insider
Ohio State Buckeyes Insider
Penn State Nittany Lions Insider
Purdue Boilermakers (free)
Wisconsin Badgers Insider

You Gotta See This: Big Ten

October, 22, 2013
10/22/13
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Yogi FerrellBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell will take on a much bigger role for the Hoosiers this season.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Promise and uncertainty in the Big Ten.

You have to feel for the Big Ten. After decades of punchlines -- 10 losses in its first 10 ACC-Big Ten Challenges, groaningly slow basketball, and a dearth of NCAA tournament success -- last season the Big Ten finally ascended to the conference-hierarchy throne.

Its reign lasted about as long as Robb Stark's.*

When the ACC officially added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame this summer, it became the de facto top league by sheer force of acquisition. But even in a status-quo alternate universe, the Big Ten wasn't a guarantee to maintain its exalted position in 2013-14. This is less an argument about conference strength than a way into a summary of the league's individual parts: This season, uncertainty is the one true king.

Nowhere is this crystallized more clearly than in Bloomington, Ind. The Hoosiers, now fully rebuilt by coach Tom Crean, waved farewell to two top-five picks (Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller) and two dependable four-year seniors (Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford) this spring. What remains might be as talented as any group in the Big Ten this season: Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell, sophomore wingman Jeremy Hollowell, highly recruited freshman forwards Noah Vonleh and Luke Fischer, top-100 small forwards Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson. But save senior guard Will Sheehey, the Hoosiers will look totally different when you see them in November. With all that talent and capable guard play, they might be very good. But no one can know for certain.

You don't have to squint too hard to see this trend elsewhere in the league. Iowa is looking to make a leap from sneaky-good to just plain good. Purdue has a potential lottery-pick center in A.J. Hammons, but what else? Northwestern will be playing modern basketball for the first time in 13 years. With Tim Frazier back, Penn State has a chance to be legitimately good not terrible. Nebraska will introduce a player who could be one of the best recruits in school history (New Zealand native Tai Webster). Illinois turned over whole swaths of production, but everyone expects John Groce to come up with an answer. New Minnesota coach Richard Pitino wants the Gophers to run, run, run. Even Michigan will be figuring out how to make its high-powered attack run without the national player of the year. And Ohio State has to score without Deshaun Thomas.

Perhaps the only sure things are that a) Michigan State will compete for the national title, and b) Wisconsin will finish no lower than fourth.

That seems like a lot of things to know about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It's really only one thing: We don't know that much about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It could be great. It could be meh. There's only one way to find out.

* The North remembers.
Let’s try this again.

The last time I offered a bunch of bold predictions, this happened.

I tried to explain my reasoning in this follow-up. Maybe it helped. Maybe it just made things worse.

But I’m back again for another round of bold predictions for the Sweet 16. Let’s see what happens:

  1. Florida Gulf Coast over Florida -- Given the Cinderella story that Andy Enfield’s program has penned thus far, this is not that bold. The Eagles have shattered every bracket in America. Dunk City is real. First, the Eagles defeated Georgetown, then they advanced to the Sweet 16 with a victory over San Diego State. But Florida is a different beast. Every win this season (28) was by double digits. The Gators are in the top three in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But they’ve been vulnerable in close games. And the Eagles can keep things tight against the Gators. San Diego State was the first team to shoot better than 42 percent against the Eagles since Feb. 28. If FGCU maintains this defensive prowess, it will have a legit chance against the Gators. And let’s be honest: Destiny seems to be on the Eagles’ side. Enjoy the Elite Eight, fellas.
  2. Oregon-Louisville won’t be decided until the final minute -- The formula is simple on paper. The Ducks turn the ball over a lot. They led the Pac-12 in turnovers this season. In its third-round victory against Saint Louis, Oregon committed 18 turnovers. Louisville forces turnovers on 28 percent of its opponents’ possessions, second in the country, per Ken Pomeroy. An Oregon team that plays fast and reckless against a Louisville squad that feasts on similar foes? Clearly, the Cardinals have the edge. And that's a gigantic advantage. There’s really no debate for that. The amazing thing is that Oregon committed 36 turnovers and still defeated both Oklahoma State and Saint Louis by double digits. Numbers alone don’t tell the true story of Oregon basketball right now. The Ducks are dangerous. They’re a high-flying attack that makes mistakes but scores a bunch of points in the process. So even though Louisville is still my pick to win the national title, the Cardinals are going to play a nail-biter against the Ducks. And they won’t secure the win until the final seconds. Tough game for Rick Pitino’s team.
  3. [+] EnlargeBeilein
    Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJohn Beilein has his team in top shape heading into the Sweet 16.
    Michigan to the Final Four -- I’ve learned my lesson about the Wolverines. My original predictions stated that John Beilein’s program would miss the Sweet 16. And then, the Wolverines were the most impressive team -- other than Louisville -- in the field in the first two rounds of the Big Dance. Plus, freshman Mitch McGary impressed and seemingly expanded the dimensions of Michigan’s potential. This is a Michigan team that has to be disrupted on some level to be defeated. And that’s not an easy task for a team that possesses the lowest turnover rate in the country. Just ask VCU. Kansas forced few turnovers against Western Kentucky and North Carolina. And it played three lukewarm halves in its two wins. The Jayhawks who advanced to the Sweet 16 resemble the same squad that lost to TCU and got crushed by Baylor. This is still a very talented squad. And that 19-5 run against the Tar Heels proved as much. But the Jayhawks have played too much average basketball in the tournament. That inconsistency will cost the Jayhawks against a Wolverines team that will beat KU, then knock off Florida Gulf Coast in the Elite Eight.
  4. Miami, too -- Entering the NCAA tournament, the knock against the Hurricanes was their lack of NCAA tournament experience. I think their game experience, however, was overlooked. This is a team with nine upperclassmen. It also helps that Jim Larranaga is a true coaching veteran. There was certainly controversy in the final minutes of the Canes' win over Illinois on Sunday. But Miami neutralized the Illini’s greatest weapon (Illinois went 7-for-27 from the 3-point line). I believe the Hurricanes will beat Marquette and Indiana will knock off Syracuse. That will set up a meeting with a Miami squad that hasn’t lost since early March. There will be so much pressure on the Hoosiers in that game. Tom Crean has been credited with the program’s revival. He has earned it. But now, Indiana enters the second weekend of the tournament and it's supposed to win two games. That’s the bar now. The Hoosiers have never faced those circumstances under Crean. The Hurricanes are not playing with that pressure. They have the length and talent (see Shane Larkin) to match Indiana. And I just think they’ll be the more relaxed squad, too. That will help in a game they'll win. Next stop: Atlanta.
  5. Ohio State will win both games in L.A. by 10 points or more -- The Los Angeles Regional is not exactly the field most anticipated once the pairings were announced on Selection Sunday. La Salle versus Wichita State and Ohio State versus Arizona can’t be what that city anticipated a few weeks ago. There’s certainly a sense of intrigue, however, with the fact the Explorers or Shockers will earn a shot at the Final Four. But I just think the Buckeyes are two steps above the remaining teams in the West Region. Check the stats. Ohio State has been the Big Ten’s best team overall for more than a month. It has the leadership of Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeyes aren't a two-man show, though. LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and others have been crucial contributors, too. The Buckeyes are playing solid defense. And they’ve been one of America’s toughest teams for a lengthy stretch. Ohio State won’t have many struggles at Staples Center. It'll beat Arizona and the winner of La Salle-Wichita State by 10 or more points.

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