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December 22, 2008
An Early Christmas
The Big Ten Has a Big Day

by John Gasaway


I realize it may seem academic to gauge the merit of the Big Ten when North Carolina appears so clearly to be the best team in the country and the Big East appears so clearly to be the best conference. Be that is it may, the misnamed 11-team league had a very nice Saturday, as its teams took down three ranked opponents on neutral courts of varying neutrality.

If Michigan State is "inconsistent," by definition they must be really good on occasion

The conference's gratifying day started with Michigan State edging fifth-ranked Texas 67-63 at the Toyota Center in Houston. This was a 67-possession defensive struggle in which the Longhorns, thanks to Damion James and Dexter Pittman, held the advantage on the boards on both ends of the floor. That wasn't enough, however, as Rick Barnes' team proved unable to make a shot. Indeed, if not for the Spartans' own execrable free throw shooting (Delvon Roe was 0-of-6) this game wouldn't have been as close as it was. It was a big win at an opportune moment for a Spartan team still sorting out its moving parts.

Granted, it's been difficult to keep an MSU hype bandwagon going the past few seasons, given this team's uncanny ability to follow triumph with travesty. In fact, the Michigan State offense has been consistently inconsistent the past two seasons. Here's an excerpt from the book in which I wielded a measure of inconsistency that I'd previously christened "the Winehouse Factor," in honor of the somewhat erratic British pop diva:

Historic inconsistency: highest Winehouse Factors, 2006-2008

Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 & SEC
Winehouse Factor: standard deviation, points per possession or opp. PPP

1.	Texas A&M offense 2008       0.24
2.	Michigan St. offense 2007    0.23
3.	Michigan St. offense 2008    0.22

What may be especially encouraging for Spartan fans about this particular win, then, is that it didn't require a once-in-a-season offensive spasm. One hero here was clearly Goran Suton, who was playing just his second game since returning from a knee injury. Suton channeled his inner Josh Heytvelt, leaving the rebounding to his teammates on this day but going 7-of-8 from the field and scoring a team-high 18 points in just 26 minutes.

At the other end of the floor A.J. Abrams was shadowed the entire game by Travis Walton, who limited the Longhorn star to a 3-of-10 effort from the floor. Rarely has there been a game where it was more apparent that the real action was taking place off the ball. You could almost feel the weight of the crowd's collective gaze on Abrams, as he ran through screen after screen in a futile attempt to shake Walton. In fact, Abrams' best looks came when he created for himself off the dribble.

It wouldn't be the last time on this Saturday that a Big Ten team last seen underperforming in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge harassed a nationally prominent scorer into miserable shooting.

The Wooden Tradition smiled on the Coach's alma mater

Purdue's ability to beat Davidson in front of a supportive Indianapolis crowd isn't necessarily newsworthy, of course. What was surprising in this instance, however, was that Matt Painter's team was able to suffocate the Wildcats literally from the opening tip, as the Boilermakers sprinted out to a 21-0 lead on their way to a 76-58 win in the Wooden Tradition at Conseco Fieldhouse.

While Chris Kramer received a good deal of praise for having hounded Stephen Curry into 5-of-26 shooting, the really interesting thing about Curry's afternoon was that it started with him being guarded by freshman Lewis Jackson, of all people. No doubt startled to find he wasn't going up against Kramer, Curry's eyes fairly bugged out of his head and the junior immediately started firing away. (OK, he would have done that anyway.) Alas, the shots didn't fall for Curry, who didn't score his first point until he hit a three with 9:52 left in the first half.

Coming into this game the Boilers had dropped a notch in perception nationally, thanks to their 16-point loss at home to Duke on December 2. Still, Robbie Hummel's certainly done everything expected of a preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, hitting shots from both sides of the three-point line while not incidentally functioning as his team's best defensive rebounder. Now Purdue needs to get much more help for Hummel from Keaton Grant and E'Twaun Moore. Last year those two starters combined to make 42 percent of their threes. This year they've made just 32 percent.

Fatigue, schmatigue: Minnesota beat Louisville

There will be a mental asterisk put next to this game, as the Cardinals were playing the second of two contests that rather visibly turned out to be separated by too many time zones (two) and too few hours (41). Sating the insatiable hunger of viewers like us, the 'Ville graciously defeated Ole Miss in Cincinnati late Thursday night as part of the fledgling SEC-Big East Invitational, then boarded a plane to make it to Glendale, Arizona, in time for their "2008 Stadium Shootout" game against the Gophers at noon local time on Saturday. As it happens, it was a shootout the weary Cardinals lost 70-64.

Indeed the fact that Minnesota can beat even a fatigued and wobbly version of Louisville is itself noteworthy. For his part Tubby Smith clearly signaled his own expectations for this team when he put together a non-conference schedule that included every obligingly supine opponent except the Washington Generals and the Academy of Art.

Smith's overprotective scheduling was proven unnecessary on this day by an unlikely figure. With featured scorer Lawrence Westbrook sidelined by foul trouble, Al Nolen did his best James Harden imitation, pressuring the Cardinal perimeter defense repeatedly with dribble penetration. It worked: Nolen went to the line 17 times and scored 18 points.

The six-point margin of victory suggested a tension that in fact was largely absent in a game where the Gophers took the lead for good at 14-11. Louisville's highly touted freshman Samardo Samuels followed the unfortunate precedents set on this day by A.J. Abrams and Stephen Curry, attempting just four shots before fouling out.

Minnesota still has room for improvement. The Gophers were achingly weak last year on the defensive glass, for example, and thus far this season they've been even weaker. That being said, Smith has to be satisfied that in the December of his second season in Minneapolis, he already has his program knocking off top-10 opponents. Even fatigued ones.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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The Battle in Seattle (12/21)
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Transition Game (12/22)

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