Colleges: College Basketball
The Illinois-Colorado winner will play the winner of No. 2-seeded Miami and No. 15-seeded Pacific in the third round on Sunday.
“Our main goal throughout the season was just to get better every day, putting 100 percent,” Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul said. “3-19-13 (first day of the NCAA tournament) was on our wrist bands, and when we finally saw our name called it was pretty much a blessing. We were excited about it, and we were excited about the challenge ahead.”
The Illini went 22-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. Their quality wins included at Gonzaga, Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota, who they defeated twice. They are ranked No. 39 in RPI and No. 63 in ESPN’s BPI.
Colorado was 21-11 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes’ quality wins include Arizona, Baylor and Oregon. They are ranked No. 38 in RPI and No. 39 in BPI.
Illinois began the season with 12 consecutive wins and shot up to No. 10 in the AP poll. After a 13-1 non-conference season, the Illini dropped seven of their first nine Big Ten games. They bounced back with a win over No. 1-ranked Indiana on Feb. 7 and closed out the conference season winning six of their final nine games.
“They had that (tournament) goal from the very beginning when I met with (them),” Illinois' first-year coach John Groce said. “They really solidified that as something they wanted to do in the fall when we first got together and talked in particular to our seniors. To see that come to fruition in a way they had to grind it out and be really tough at different parts of the season when maybe others doubted them, but I think it’s a great life lesson for our guys. Certainly not satisfied because we have work to do, but I’m a proud for those guys.”
Groce said after Friday’s loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament he was happy with the way his team was playing headed into the NCAA tournament.
“I would like to play two complete halves defensively and offensively. But I like our mindset,” Groce said. “I like our body language. I like our passion. I thought we really competed in this tournament both days. I thought we really played hard. I thought we played for one another. I think the guys are playing the game right way. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward here in the next few days and figure out how we can put together two halves when we’re defending and playing good offense. I think that’s the next step.”
Illinois did not appear in the NCAA Tournament last season and has been selected twice in the previous five years. The Illini haven’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005.
Illinois fired Bruce Weber after the program failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. Groce was hired after taking Ohio to two NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012 in four seasons.
Loyola will honor players from the 1962-63 team during Saturday’s game against Illinois-Chicago. Former players John Egan, Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Ron Miller, Don Connaughton and Rich Rochelle are expected to be in attendance.
The Ramblers won their first 20 games in the 1962-63 season and went 24-2 in the regular season. They defeated Tennessee Tech by 69 points in the NCAA tournament’s opening round, Mississippi State in the second round, Illinois in the quarterfinals, Duke in the semifinals and came back from 15 points to defeat Cincinnati in overtime of the title game. Vic Rouse scored the game-winning basket when he tipped in a rebound at the buzzer.
“We’re 50 years away and the visions of that year jump through your mind,” the 72-year-old Harkness said by phone on Friday. “To see him tap that back, you don’t know at first. You’re thinking, ‘We still got a few seconds to go. Then all of a sudden, you see people running together. I ran toward the pile, too. That stays with you. It really does.”
ST. LOUIS -- A quick look at No. 12 Missouri’s 82-73 win against No. 10 Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game Saturday at the Scottrade Center.
Overview: Missouri has had Illinois’ numbers in recent years, and the Tigers continued that trend Saturday as they defeated the Illini for the fourth consecutive season in one of their more intense and physical rivalry games.
The Illini had been living by the 3-pointer through their first 12 wins, and they died by it against the Tigers. They connected on only 8 of their 32 3-point attempts. Illinois was shooting .386 from 3-point range heading into the game.
While Illinois struggled from deep, Missouri played to its two strengths -- point guard Phil Pressey and its size. Tigers big men Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi combined for 36 points and 24 rebounds. Pressey had trouble shooting, but he still dictated the pace and had a game-high 11 assists.
Turning point: Missouri wasn’t able to pull away from Illinois until the final minutes. The Tigers closed the game on a 10-3 run. Pressey and Jabari Brown combined for eight points in the run.
Key player: Pressey proved the theory that a player can influence a game without shooting well. He was 3-of-19 from the field and finished with 12 points. But he still was a difference-maker as he pushed the tempo and found open teammates.
Key stat: The Tigers outrebounded Illinois 58-35, including 22-14 on the offensive glass.
Miscellaneous: This was the third consecutive season both teams came into the game ranked. They were a combined 63-5 in the past three seasons leading up to the Braggin’ Rights games. ... Illinois junior guard Joseph Bertrand was 9-of-9 from the field in last season’s game and hit his first shot Saturday. He missed his next three. ... Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul scored a team-high 23 points and had five assists.
Up next: Illinois closes out its nonconference schedule by hosting Auburn at the United Center in Chicago on Dec. 29. The Illini have lost their past two games in Chicago, falling to UNLV by 16 points last season and being upset by UIC the season before. ... Missouri has two more nonconference games remaining before beginning SEC play. The Tigers travel to UCLA on Dec. 28 and host Bucknell on Jan. 5.
"There are how many undefeated teams in the country now?" Illinois' head coach asked after his Illini had defeated the Bulldogs. "Somebody's got to notice."
Of course, the coach who made those comments wasn't John Groce. It was Bruce Weber. In 2011.
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As a head coach, you plan for both your opponents' best actions and their best players. Personally, I always felt it was easier to defend against a system than it was to defend against a player who has an elite ability to create plays either for himself or for his teammates. Tricky plays are tough to defend against; tricky players can be impossible to stop.
Good players earn the respect of opposing coaches, but the players your defense must contain for your team to win are the ones who keep head coaches up at night, which is why I call them "matchup nightmares."
Here is my ranking of the 10 toughest players in the nation to defend against, and a game plan for each that opponents should try to enact to slow them down.
1. Russ Smith, G, Louisville Cardinals
Smith might be the best one-on-one player in college basketball. A high-volume shooter who changes speed and direction, Smith can get a shot off any time he wants. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino allows him to probe the defense and gives him the green light to attack the basket and create plays on his own. Smith can play off Peyton Siva's penetration or take the reins as the team's primary ball handler. He explodes off screens and can finish with an array of different layups.
On defense, he is relentless both off the ball and as an aggressive, on-ball defender in the Louisville press. Smith averages three steals per game, which often are live-ball turnovers that lead to transition layups.
Game plan: You need to defend Smith with a bigger defender, if possible. Keep him in front and stay down on his change-of-direction, change-of-pace game. Defenders need to use size to their advantage and close with their hands above the ball. Use help defenders to shrink the court so he doesn't have gaps through which to drive. Defenders must go over all side ball screens, and on flat and shake ball screens, the help defender must stay with the ball and make Smith a passer. With Smith, as is the case with all the players on this list, all five defenders need to be alert when he has the ball. One player may have the primary responsibility, but everyone else has a secondary responsibility. It needs to be five versus one.
2. Trey Burke, G, Michigan WolverinesRead the entire story here.
Late on the evening of March 8, 2012, Ohio took the floor at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to play Toledo. At the time there wasn't an abundance of attention being paid to a MAC quarterfinal between a No. 3 seed and a No. 7 seed that tipped at 9:55 p.m., but it actually marked the beginning of a rather remarkable run.
Starting with the opening tip of that game, teams playing for John Groce -- which is to say Ohio in the 2011-12 postseason, and Illinois so far this season -- have devoted 43 percent of their shot attempts to 3-pointers, and have connected on those attempts 40.5 percent of the time. Groce's record over that stretch stands at 15-1, and he is yet to lose a game in regulation. (Ohio, you may remember, lost in overtime to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.)
Read the entire story.
Paul scored a season-high 35 points on 10-of-16 shooting in the Illini's road win over Gonzaga on Saturday. He sank nine of his 11 shots, made five 3-pointers and was 10 of 11 from the free-throw line. He also had four rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
"I thought it was a spectacular performance," Illinois coach John Groce said of Paul after Saturday's game. "I really believe it. He's one of the best guards in the country, one of the best players in the country, and he played like it (Saturday.)"
Paul also had 14 points in a win over Western Carolina earlier in the week.
Paul has been the Big Ten Player of Week twice in his career. His last award came on Jan. 16 after he scored a career-high 43 points against Ohio State.
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Bates-Diop, a 6-foot-7 forward, chose the Buckeyes over offers from DePaul, Illinois, Marquette, Michigan, Northwestern, Stanford and Wisconsin, among others. He is ranked No. 27 in the Class of 2014 and No. 3 in Illinois by ESPN Recruiting.
Bates-Diop's recruiting especially took off during this past spring and summer after playing with the Illinois Wolves on the club circuit.
"I think he is one of the young players to have a terrific last spring, summer and fall," ESPN recruiting coordinator Reggie Rankin. "His stock skyrocketed with his play. Terrific combination forward, excellent skill, size, good IQ, can score inside and out, can rebound it, can pass it. He has tremendous upside. He really helped himself with his play over the last seven or eight months. He was one of hotter 2014 guys.
"Ohio State plays that spread, ball screen and stretch offensive set. He'll be good in it."
Bates-Diop averaged 15 points and five rebounds as a sophomore at Normal U-High.
Bates-Diop is Ohio State’s first Class of 2014 recruit.
"That would be an improvement for us to get in the middle," the third-year coach Purnell said prior to practice on Wednesday. "The difference is when you're in the Big East along with several other great conferences in the country, then you got a chance to compete for everything. If we can move up to the middle of the Big East and be competitive with everybody, get some more wins along the way and do a good job in non-conference, now we're talking."
The college basketball season tips off on Friday, and here are my 10 predictions for the hoops year in Illinois:
1. This is finally the year for Northwestern to reach the NCAA tournament: The Wildcats don’t exactly have the star power of John Shurna, but they’re deeper than they have ever been. Depth has been one of the main reasons Northwestern has fallen just short of the tournament in the last few years. Senior swingman Drew Crawford will take over Shurna’s role and was among the Big Ten’s top scorers last season. Even without shooting guard JerShon Cobb, who is ineligible this season, Northwestern has a deep backcourt in sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, redshirt freshman point guard Tre Demps, senior shooting guard Alex Marcotullio and senior shooting guard Reggie Hearn. Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, a 6-8 forward, gives Northwestern size and skill in the frontcourt. TCU transfer Nikola Cerina, a 6-9 forward, will help on the boards, another weakness in recent years. Plus, 7-foot, 275-pound center Alex Olah could be a legitimate difference-maker this season. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody could also turn to a few others off the bench.
Moore, a 6-foot-7 forward, chose the Mustangs over Colorado State and Illinois. Moore was the second Chicago-area recruit to commit to SMU in the past week. Proviso East (Maywood, Ill.) senior guard Sterling Brown committed to the Mustangs on Monday.
Southern Methodist coach Larry Brown was the first high-major coach to recruit Moore.
“Coach Brown from the very first time pegged Moore,” Bolingbrook coach Ben Brost said. “The first night I talked to him, (Brown) described what I had been seeing for the last six months. Just the way (Moore) has a feel for the game, the way he can get to where he needs to on the dribble, and he has a nose for the basketball. I’ve seen what he can do, especially in the last six months. It’s been rewarding for him and for me also to see the attention he deserves, and his recruitment to go up as it has.”
Moore’s recruitment has increased since his junior season.
“He’s such a strong ball handler for his size,” Brost said. “He can get to anywhere he wants to go on the floor. And obviously he can score in bunches as well. He’s perceived like an elite player.
“Last year our first game he had a triple-double with 11 blocks, so he played really, really well last year. But people perceived him as a post player, and he’s a wing with the way he can handle the ball. He’s a 3-4 combo type player at this level. Now, people are seeing he can play at this level.”
Moore has improved in some areas, but Brost does expect him to grow in even more areas.
“The things that are going to translate (to college) are he has a nose for the ball, he can finish around the basket, the ball handling really translates, getting where he wants to be on the floor,” Brost said. “Obviously he needs to get stronger, and his jump shot needs to improve, but those are two things that can improve as you get older and you work on them and get more reps.”
SMU assistant coach Jerrance Howard’s connections into the Chicago area helped pay off again for the Mustangs. Howard was hired by SMU after leaving the Illini after last season. Howard has helped with Chicago recruits Brown, Moore and Illinois transfer and former Proviso East High School guard Crandall Head.
Moore is SMU’s second Class of 2013 recruit. He joins Sterling Brown in the recruiting class.
A quick note: You may notice that many of the below schedules come from unsurprising places. When ranking and grading nonconference schedules, we try to take into account the relative strength of a team, if a program is rebuilding, and so forth. But for the purposes of this post, such distinctions were difficult to parse.
I understand many of these schedules are constructed in order to help teams along in their development, and also -- let's just be honest about it -- inflate win totals. Even so, these are all high-major teams. They could all do better. In the end, I tried to find the 10 worst high-major schedules, with only minimal (but not zero!) consideration for program context. OK, let's begin (in alphabetical order):
Toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 20-21)
Next-toughest: at Arizona State (Dec. 12)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 9), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 15), Austin Peay (Nov. 17), Fairfield (Nov. 27), at Auburn (Nov. 30), at Chicago State (Dec. 5), Milwaukee (Dec. 9), Northern Illinois (Dec. 16), UMBC (Dec. 22), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 29)
DePaul is getting better under third-year coach Oliver Purnell, especially compared to where the Blue Demons were (hint: in the absolute talent cellar) when he took over. Unfortunately, the schedule is not following suit. The Cancun Challenge is the only thing worth noting here, and it features Wichita State (which is also a rebuilding program) and either Iowa or Western Kentucky. If that's Iowa, great -- the Hawkeyes are a trendy Big Ten sleeper pick. That said, when Iowa is your best possible opponent, sorry, your schedule is bad.
Toughest: South Florida (Dec. 5), Gonzaga (Dec. 31)
Next-toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18), at Virginia Tech (Dec. 1)
The rest: UC Davis (Nov. 9), Portland State (Nov. 25), Missouri State (Dec. 8), Central Arkansas (Dec. 16), UT-Arlington (Dec. 19), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 22)
This schedule is not as bad as some of the others you'll see on this list. However, it is the worst of any team you'll see that also has two McDonald's All-Americans on its roster. There are no true road challenges, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off field is good but not great, and Gonzaga is the only top-25 team anywhere near the slate if the Pokes fall flat in San Juan. This isn't a great nonconference schedule by any metric, but when you take into account Oklahoma State's talent level -- and their chances of playing spoiler in the Big 12 this season -- it is rather blasÚ.
Toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
Next-toughest: at Middle Tennessee (Dec. 8), at Loyola Marymount (Dec. 19)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 9), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 13), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), McNeese State (Nov. 20), Lipscomb (Nov. 23), Rutgers (Dec. 1), ETSU (Dec. 14), Fordham (Jan. 4)
There are some who believe Ole Miss will be an NCAA tournament team in 2012-13. Others claim the Rebels can hang near the top -- or at least in the middle of the pack -- in the SEC this season. That may or may not be true, but we won't really find out until SEC play begins. Other than a possible matchup with San Diego State on a neutral court, and a road game at Middle Tennessee -- points for that, but not too many -- Ole Miss has absolutely nothing on its schedule. With a few exceptions, most of the teams on this list are rebuilding, and their schedules say so. Andy Kennedy's team is supposed to be rounding into form, but you wouldn't know it from the above schedule.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23)
Next-toughest: Detroit (Dec. 1)
The rest: Mount St. Mary’s (Nov. 9), Fordham (Nov. 12), Oakland (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 27), vs. Duquesne (Dec. 5 at Consol Energy Center), North Florida (Dec. 8), Bethune Cookman (Dec. 15), Delaware State (Dec. 19), Kennesaw State (Dec. 23)
It's hard to fault Jamie Dixon for his scheduling philosophy. As SI.com's Luke Winn wrote last month, Dixon is the nation's best RPI exploiter; he slips in every crevice of the NCAA's crude metric, all while rarely putting his team at risk. And with due praise out of the way, sorry, but this schedule is really ugly. Pitt is likely to play Michigan and either Virginia or Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off, but even if those games were guaranteed they're not enough to keep the Panthers off this list. Besides, sure, Pitt was bad last year, but let's not forget that this is still Pitt, one of the most comprehensively consistent programs of the past decade. Their scheduling sights should be set much higher.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: Mississippi State (Dec. 1), at Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: NJIT (Nov. 10), Bryant (Nov. 12), Fairfield (Nov. 23), Holy Cross (Nov. 27), Rhode Island (Dec. 6), Colgate (Dec. 18), at Brown (Dec. 28)
The differences between what this schedule could be, and what it is, are stark. For example, had the Friars got Mississippi State in any of the past five years -- rather than this one -- that would be a quality opponent. And if Boston College wasn't undergoing its own rebuilding project, and if PC were to topple UMass in the first round in Puerto Rico (opening up possible games against NC State and Tennessee), then we may be talking. Alas, the schedule as it is is downright brutal, with Mississippi State and BC and then a bunch of really cupcake-y low majors (NJIT, Bryant) rounding out the badness.
Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: at Princeton (Nov. 16), vs. Iona (Dec. 8 in NYC)
The rest: St. Peter’s (Nov. 9), Sacred Heart (Nov. 12), Boston U (Nov. 20), UNC Greensboro (Nov. 25), George Washington (Dec. 11), UAB (Dec. 16), Rider (Dec. 28)
As medium-to-low mid-majors go, Princeton and Iona are pretty solid. As the lynchpins of the schedule you create -- that game at Ole Miss is part of the Big East/SEC Challenge, so minimal points are awarded -- they are not exactly beasts. And ... that's pretty much it! Most of the schedules on this list at least have a token mediocre early-season tournament to their credit. Rutgers doesn't even have that. Gross.
Toughest: at St. John’s (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: Hoops for Hope Classic (Nov. 24-25 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico), Clemson (Dec. 2)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 11), Morgan State (Nov. 16), Rider (Nov. 19), Elon (Nov. 21), Jacksonville (Dec. 7), Appalachian State (Dec. 19), vs. Manhattan (Dec. 22 in Brooklyn), Presbyterian (Dec. 29), South Carolina State (Jan. 5)
You'll have to forgive South Carolina: It's going to take some time to get used to this whole "basketball being important" thing. That's the promise of coach Frank Martin's hire, and there's every reason to believe Martin will get the Gamecocks and their fans there eventually (by dragging them kicking and screaming, if needed). But this schedule still reflects the old South Carolina, where the Gamecocks would routinely (attempt) to feast on early-season cupcakes in the hopes of inflating their win totals and getting to the NCAA tournament. It never really worked. The game at St. John's is a must, thanks to the Big East/SEC Challenge. Other than that, yikes.
Toughest: South Padre Island Invitational (Nov. 23-24)
Next-toughest: Houston (Dec. 4), at Tulsa (Dec. 9)
The rest: Cal Poly (Nov. 9), Centenary (Nov. 12), SMU (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 18), Navy (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Nov. 29), Southern (Dec. 18), at Rice (Dec. 22), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 30)
Look, it's hard to fault TCU -- and especially first-year coach Trent Johnson -- for having one of the worst schedules in the country. Of course the Horned Frogs are scheduling soft. They've been rebuilding for ... forever, basically. But still, we're in high-major territory now. Let this be a friendly reminder that it's time to start scheduling like it.
Toughest: Arizona (Dec. 1), Alabama (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Arizona State (Dec. 22)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 9), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 14), Grambling State (Nov. 20), Jackson State (Nov. 26), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 16), North Carolina A&T (Dec. 28), Florida A&M (Dec. 31)
Perhaps this is now-deposed Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie's final legacy at the school: The strategy of somehow getting away with not scheduling any road games whatsoever. Arizona is a quality opponent (if young), and Alabama is fundamentally solid (if somewhat retooling), but other than those two "highlights," most of this schedule comprises low-major guarantee games and few real challenges. Oh, and Arizona State. You get the point.
Toughest: at BYU (Dec. 8 )
Next-toughest: at SMU (Nov. 28), Boise State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Williamette (Nov. 9), Sacramento State (Nov. 16), Idaho State (Nov. 21), Central Michigan (Nov. 23), Wright State (Nov. 24), at Texas State (Nov. 30), SMU (Dec. 18), Cal State Northridge (Dec. 21), College of Idaho (Dec. 28)
The Utes went 6-25 last season. They were historically bad in the nonconference and nearly as bad during conference play. (Though somehow not as bad as USC. That still boggles the mind. How do you perform worse than Utah in last year's Pac-12?! How is that possible?) The point being, no one would expect Utah to be loading up on a Texas-esque nonconference slate. Unless you're actively trying to set new school win total lows, there doesn't seem to be much point. And having said all that ... with the exception of the long-standing rivalry game at BYU, this schedule is atrocious.