Spartan Basketball is in a familiar place

I usually don’t write about Basketball until at least mid-January because the regular season spans nearly 30 games over 4 month, so until Conference schedules are well underway in mid-January, it means “game by game” analysis and commentary is a bit like “splitting hairs”.

Yet here we are in late January and nearly half of the Big Ten Basketball season is in the record books, teams are finally separating themselves and that means the Spartans find themselves in a familiar spot atop the Big Ten, tied with Illinois for #1 in the Big Ten Standings and clearly in the mix for another Big Ten Championship.

With just one Big Ten game remaining in January, the Spartans have compiled an impressive record of 15-5 overall, including a record of 7-2 in Big Ten competition, and a record of 8-2 in their last 10 games. In fact, yesterday, the Spartans took down Minnesota on the road, soundly beating the Gophers at legendary Williams Arena, 74-58.

It was classic Spartan Basketball inasmuch as the Spartans systematically and methodically dismantled a solid opponent in a hostile environment on the road.

The Spartans Defense smothered Minnesota and limited the Gophers to just 16 Field Goals on 57 attempts for a meager 28% conversion Percentage…and yielded just 5 of 28 attempts beyond the Arc (18%).

Meanwhile, the Spartans Offense executed with efficiency, converting 26 of 55 Field Goal attempts for a robust 47% conversion percentage, including 7 of 17 attempts beyond the Arc (41%) while posting 39 Rebounds, 18 Assists, 6 Steals and 3 Blocks.

Of course, Cassius Winston is the “straw the stirs the drink” and yesterday he predictably added 18 points, 8 Assists and 4 Rebounds for the Spartans, yet Xavier Tillman deserves recognition as a dominating inside force.

Yesterday, Tillman converted 5 of 9 FG attempts (56%), 7 of 9 Free Throw attempts (78%), 10 Rebounds, 5 Assists, and 2 Blocked Shots. But for Tillman, that’s not heroic, it’s just another day at the Office. Tillman plays clean. His feet are deceptively quick for a player listed at 6’8” and 245 lbs. Schematically, Tillman is always in good position and rarely finds himself in foul trouble as he operates with elegance in the high density environment of the low Block.

In Big Ten competition, Tillman ranks #1 in Blocked Shots (nearly 3 Blocks per game)…#3 Rebounds with a tick more than 10 per game…and #8 in FG % (54%) per game.

But the Spartans are more than Winston on the outside and Tillman on the inside, and in classic fashion there was balance in beating Minnesota on the road: 6 players logged 20 minutes or more, 3 players scored in double digits and 4 additional players logged between 5 and 15 minutes.

The Spartans are poised to make another championship run:

As we commence the final week of January, the Spartans have 11 Big Ten games remaining and find themselves in a “head to head” battle with Illinois.

The Illini have also posted a record of 15-5 overall, including 7-2 Big Ten, and 8 wins in their previous 10 games. Of course, that record is identical to the Spartans.

Yet it’s noteworthy the Spartans beat the Illini 76-56 at Breslin Center on January 2, but as the Spartans head into the final stretch, they will travel to Urbana-Champaign to play the Illini on Feb 11. That will be a challenging road game for the Spartans inasmuch as Illinois have posted a remarkable record of 11-1 at home.

History tells us that 5 losses max is the magic number to win a regular season Big Ten Championship and so with 11 games remaining, the Spartans need to win at least 8 of their final 11 games (72%) to stay within the 5 loss threshold and put themselves in a fortuitous position to hang another regular season Championship. Very doable of course! After all, the Spartans currently have a Big Ten record of 7-2 (78%) so winning 8 of their final 11 games is doable, but they must take down Illinois on the road.

But Tom Izzo has been down this road before. Tom Izzo is “Mr. Consistency”: he has posted 5 “30 win seasons”…9 regular season Big Ten Championships…8 Final Four appearances…6 Big Ten Tournament Championships…and a National Title.

On the other hand, Illinois Head Coach, Brad Underwood is trying to find his footing.

Underwood had 3 successful campaigns at Stephen F. Austin (Southland Conference), winning 86% of his games, followed by a single season at Oklahoma State, whereby he won 60% of his games. Underwood’s teams qualified for the NCAA in each of 3 seasons at Stephen F. Austin as well as his single season at Oklahoma State yet winning a Big Ten Championship is a totally different challenge.

Underwood is now in his third season at Illinois, yet in two previous seasons, Underwood posted an unremarkable record of 26-39 overall, and just 11-27 in Big Ten competition: never finishing better than #10 in the Big Ten.

Yet, Underwood has corrected course this season by compiling a record of 15-5 overall, and of course that is why he was hired, but he will be measured by his success in the final Big Ten stretch including another test against Tom Izzo in a little more than 2 weeks.

Of course, Tom Izzo has been down this road many times over the past 20 years, but for Underwood, he will soon discover that the pressure of competing for a Big Ten championship will increase exponentially during the final 11 games.

We’ll see how it plays out, but the Spartans seem to be hitting stride and another Big Ten Championship is in their cross-hairs.

Meanwhile, Michigan is playing their way out of the field of 64:

Not too long ago, Michigan was flying high and ranked #4 in the land, but as I pointed out at the beginning of this Blog, running the table and beating a bounty of lower tier teams in November and December is not the same as running the Big Ten gauntlet from January through the first of March.

To that point, Michigan is trending south. They posted a record of 7-0 in November…fell to 3-3 in December…and stumbled to a record of 1-5 in January. Moreover, Michigan has a dismal record of 3-7 in their last 10 games, including 4 consecutive losses.

While Michigan has posted what appears to be a respectable record of 11-8 overall, yet they have posted an upside down record of 2-6 Big Ten and currently rank #12 in Big Ten Standings and only Nebraska and Northwestern are worse. In that regard, Michigan is virtually out of the running for a Big Ten Championship before the month of February.

Going forward, Michigan has 12 Big Ten games remaining, yet their schedule gets even more challenging: they must play Ohio State home and away…Rutgers home and away (including once in New York City)…@Maryland…@Purdue…and at home vs Michigan State and Wisconsin, so unless Michigan can shift out of reverse and into Drive, they have virtually played their way out of consideration to play in the field of 64, a low bar for certain, and meanwhile an invitation to the NIT is arguably slipping away at 50/50 best odds.

At the bottom line, University of Michigan Athletics hired another “Michigan Man” and yet the University of Michigan and Juwan Howard have discovered that Big Ten competition is not kind to first year Head Coaches, especially Head Coaches with Zero coaching experience, “Michigan Man” or not!