Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The Morning After: Big Ten in flux
By Eamonn Brennan
The Morning After is our semi-daily recap post. Try not make it awkward.
Purdue's E'Twaun Moore scored 25 points against Michigan State.
No. 6 Purdue 76, No. 10 Michigan State 64: Well, now we've got a Big Ten race. As recently as eight days ago, it seemed an undefeated Michigan State team was primed to run away with the Big Ten. No more. Kalin Lucas sprained his ankle. The Spartans were blown out in Madison and then edged at Illinois. And Tuesday night, with a clearly laboring Lucas in the lineup, the Spartans couldn't stop a balanced, thorough, complete Purdue team. That leaves us with a logjam at the top of the Big Ten, one that should provide plenty of entertainment as the season winds down, and one that ought to leave Tom Izzo and company less than thrilled.
Then again, it was probably only a matter of time before Michigan State came down to Earth a bit, right? That's not even the best way to phrase it, I guess, because a loss to Purdue doesn't constitute some sort of statistical correction. The Boilermakers are just good. Robbie Hummel can score and direct from distance. E'Twaun Moore has what Steve Lavin might call a "complete toolbox, the hammer, the screwdriver, the bandsaw." (I just made that phrase up, but it sounds like something Lavin would say, only less awesome.) Chris Kramer is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. And, perhaps most importantly, JaJuan Johnson is becoming a dominant force in the paint.
Johnson has been good in the past, but he hasn't always gotten the touches his high level of efficiency should demand. He hasn't needed to; Hummel and Moore and even Kramer can handle the scoring load just fine, thanks. But Johnson is a uniquely effective weapon for the Boilers. He can score in the paint, stretch defenses with outside jumpers and, on the defensive end, disrupt any interior shots with his freakishly long arms. (I hope that's not mean to say. Those arms are freakish.) Purdue has its own flaws. It's not a perfect team. But the Boilermakers are solidly balanced enough to play with anyone anywhere.
Oh, and Michigan State fans? Don't freak out. Your team is banged up and in the middle of the toughest part of their Big Ten season. There are worse places to be than 9-3. You'll be all right. Probably.
Illinois 63, No. 13 Wisconsin 56: Don't look now, but Illinois is 9-3 in the Big Ten. And don't look now, but the way Illinois has put themselves in the thick of the Big Ten race after a shaky start is worthy of serious respect. Beating a Kalin Lucas-less Michigan State team at home is one thing. Going to Wisconsin and handing the Badgers their sixth loss (and their first-ever to an unranked team) at the Kohl Center under Bo Ryan is entirely another. Demetri McCamey deserves much of the credit -- McCamey scored 27 points on an efficient 11-for-17 shooting Tuesday night, adding seven assists (though he did have five turnovers, which I suppose we can let slide). Forward Mike Tisdale was likewise efficient, scoring 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting. The Illini have plenty of flaws, and there's no question they caught Wisconsin on a particularly bad shooting night -- the Illini aren't a great defensive team this year, at least not yet -- but when Illinois is shooting this well, it's hard to blame their opponents for their success. They deserve the credit, and with the aforementioned Michigan State loss, they deserve to be in the thick of the Big Ten race. Now all Bruce Weber's team has to do is play this well the rest of the season. Easy, right?
No. 24 Vanderbilt 90, No. 12 Tennessee 71: 43. 43! That's the number of free throws the Vanderbilt Commodores shot in their 90-71 win over Tennessee in Nashville last night. There's a reason the Dores scored 90 points -- the Volunteers fouled 29 times in 40 minutes. Vanderbilt's free throw rate -- a ratio of free throws to field goal attempts -- was a mind-boggling 84.3 percent. Of course, Vanderbilt actually had to make these free throws. They did, hitting 37 of those 43. (Exclamation points are also applicable here. Thirty-seven made free throws!) And that's almost all you need to know: Vanderbilt built a big lead early, protected the ball, got good looks, and got to the line so often my head is literally spinning even as I type this.
In any case, it's a great win for Vanderbilt -- both for the team's tournament chances and for its in-state bragging rights. Bruce Pearl has done an admirable job keeping Tennessee tourney-bound in the wake of the Tyler Smith New Year's Day fiasco. Tuesday night -- a chippy, ugly affair, punctuated by the constant clang of Tennessee's misses -- was not in that vein.