When two nationally ranked Big Ten teams lose to two teams who are not, it is said the ranked teams suffered bad losses. Then again I’m more of a glass-half-full guy. I say the unranked teams scored remarkable triumphs last night. A salute to Michigan, who won at Michigan State 61-57, and to Indiana, who won at home against Illinois 52-49.
In Big Ten play the Wolverines have been your proverbial hot-or-cold outfit. Either their shooting’s been really good (vs. Penn State, vs. Ohio State) or it’s been sub-par (every other game). Last night it was really good, as John Beilein’s group hit over half their twos and 48 percent of their threes against the Spartans. And as for the Hoosiers, apparently when they’re not sending the opponent to the line 30-plus times their D is every bit as un-overmatched as I thought it might be. The Illini failed to reach 50 points in a 60-possession contest. Yes, truly Michigan and Indiana are on a rampage.
I’ve been at pains over the past few seasons to emphasize that wacky losses happen even to the best teams, and we shouldn’t necessarily run around screaming with our hands above our heads when they do. That being said, to me what’s notable is not that Michigan State and Illinois lost last night but that their losses felt so very much in character. These weren’t bad losses, they were emblematic performances. They felt just.
Look at it this way. Seen from sufficient elevation, the Spartans, even now, should be just fine. They’re .500 in the Big Ten with 10 games yet to be played and they have the talented and Final-Four-tested trio of Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, and Durrell Summers. I fully expect MSU to put a couple wins together at some point and trigger lots of “They’re back!” talk.
But I want to be rightly understood at the outset as not buying into that talk when it occurs. This offense is too weak and it has been consistently weak. Relative to their conference peers the Michigan State offense is the functional equivalent of Oklahoma State’s or Arizona State’s in league play, and no one’s perched attentively atop lookout towers in Stillwater or Tempe waiting for those moribund outfits to catch fire. It’s beginning to appear that expectations for scoring should be similarly modest in East Lansing. Tom Izzo’s misfortune is that he’s now lost enough players from last year’s team so that figuring out which absence is the crucial one has become a parlor game. Is it Raymar Morgan? Maybe Chris Allen? Korie Lucious? Who had the secret sauce? Apparently someone did.
As for the Illini, I’m just glad my fellow Illinois alum and downstater Will Leitch was snowed in and thus saved from having to witness this 49-point whimper in person. Speaking of in-person appearances, six days ago I sat 15 feet away from Bruce Weber during the Illini’s 73-68 loss at home to Ohio State. My own preference, admittedly subjective and incorrigibly biased, would be that a coach in the January of his eighth season who’s been given a team that returns all five starters from the previous year wouldn’t feel the need to scream second-by-second instructions to his players for 40 minutes. They should probably know what to do by now.
My working assumption going forward will be that there are three and only three Big Ten teams good enough to merit our serious attention.
What a shock, Wisconsin looks freakishly good on paper
Through games of January 27, conference games only
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
If Wisconsin is serious about living up to this incredible look they will win tomorrow at Penn State. So far Ohio State’s been the only team in the conference that can be counted upon to reliably export its swagger outside the cozy confines of their home arena.