Observations: Illini and Zeller struggling, Pack and Canes strong
Illinois is showing its early season greatness was an aberration, Cody Zeller has become a lost man in the Indiana offense, and NC State and Miami have been displaying their strength in the ACC.
What's gone wrong with Illinois?
You may recall that back in December, when Illinois defeated Gonzaga as part of a 12-0 start, I called the Illini the most overrated team in the country. This is not me writing that I was right, with Illinois now 2-5 in Big Ten play (OK, maybe it is a little bit), but more of a "what the heck is going on?" type of note.
One Big Ten coach told me, referencing the Illini's Maui Invitational title, "They were shooting the lights out on those high school rims in Maui; now we see what happens versus real defense [and games played] on real hoops. Seriously, though, people have figured out their small ball, and their shot selection and defense leaves a lot to be desired."
It should be pointed out that while John Groce is well regarded from his time in the Big Ten as an assistant, and as a head coach at Ohio University, his Bobcats teams never finished above third in the MAC's East division. Groce loves his team to play free and pressure, but Illinois has to refocus on defense or it could fall out of the NCAA tournament picture. The Illini (15-6) will try to rebound from Sunday's 14-point home loss to Michigan with an arduous trip to Michigan State (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten). Illinois beat the Spartans last year and might be able to spread out MSU, but winning in Breslin is a tall task.
Is Zeller's silence cause for concern?
Cody Zeller did not play well in Sunday's 75-70 win over Michigan State, or at least the Indiana All-American was far from dominant. Zeller followed up a two-point performance in a rout of Penn State with nine points on 2-of-7 shooting in 33 minutes against the Spartans. On the defensive end, Zeller needed constant help versus MSU center Derrick Nix, who appeared too strong for Zeller to handle on the block. Indiana played a bunch of zone as well, which seemed focused on keeping Zeller out of foul trouble. Instead, it was guard Victor Oladipo who dominated the game for the Hoosiers with his activity, which included transition baskets early and two huge jumpers when Michigan State dared him to shoot late.
The question now becomes, can Indiana win the national championship with Zeller not being a focal point of the offense?
Yes, and no.
On the positive side, Indiana has other options inside. Will Sheehey (eight points, 3-of-4 shooting) played very well at both small forward and power forward. Kevin Ferrell's 11-point performance, timely scoring and IUs transition game hid the fact that Christian Watford was occasionally ineffective and Zeller was mostly a no-show until a big charge call and bucket late. IU got a couple of calls to go their way (MSU's Keith Appling fouled out on a horrid decision with five minutes to go) and the Hoosiers came away with a hard fought win. So IU did show the ability to beat a very tough and talented team minus an effective Zeller. At the same time, the Hoosiers will need more from him when it comes time to win six tough games over three weekends in March and April.
Zeller is not showing his whole game by only playing the center spot, but also missing is that IU doesn't run its motion game as much as last year, when he was getting duck-in post shots several times a game within the offense. IU can get him the ball more, Zeller can demand the ball more, and Indiana can win the whole thing.
How good is Michigan State?
Very, very good. After scoring 49 and winning at Wisconsin, Michigan State showed the ability to go up and down with IU in a completely different tempo. Michigan State had way too many turnovers to beat Indiana, but Adreian Payne's new-found 3-point stroke gives the Spartans a little more balance with Branden Dawson essentially playing a wing big forward. Dawson doesn't really look for deep jumpers, but his athleticism in transition and strength on defense and the boards allow him to play big minutes. So that means MSU has only two ball handlers on the floor at most, and even Appling is a scoring guard more than set-you-up guard. Nix has become a go-to low-post scorer, Payne showed new-found versatility to stretch the defense. The victory over Indiana pointed out some ball-handling woes, but this is a deep and tourney-tested team that has scored versus man and zone. I still believe it could make it to Atlanta.
Wolfpack good, or Tar Heels bad?
This was about NC State. The Pack looked focused in a 91-83 win, taking out all their pent-up frustrations on North Carolina in a game they led by as many as 28. Even after a shaky stretch that saw losses to Maryland and Wake Forest sandwiched around a narrow home win over Clemson, everyone in the ACC knew NC State had a performance like that in them. The ball movement was so much better with Lorenzo Brown (20 points, 11 assists) playing well.
So how did they lose to Wake Forest, which turned around and lost to Georgia Tech by 20 on Saturday?
"Ted Valentine special" was the explanation given to me by one ACC assistant coach, in reference to the controversial official. "Their whole team was in foul trouble, and Valentine seemed to want to control the game."
Now NC State has to take on a quietly upstart Virginia (14-5, 4-2 ACC) team and hope to not let down. The Wolfpack shoots over 50 percent as a team -- in fact they are third in the country in field-goal percentage offense, but they must guard and rebound without fouling, as Virginia will not let them play at their pace. In many ways the Virginia game is more important than the UNC game, as a win would show maturity and consistency for Mark Gottfried's team.
Are we surprised Miami is this good?
Yes. But the Hurricanes (15-3) won't be sneaking up on anyone after throttling Duke and Florida State by a combined 51 points this past week.
If you do not control point guard Shane Larkin on ball screens, he will eat you alive. Big man Kenny Kadji has always had this talent, and so has leading scorer and guard Durand Scott. Add in Jim Larranaga, who is an excellent coach in terms of X and Os, and Miami is a sneaky-good team that could make a deep run in March.
As for Duke, the Miami game was a wakeup call, as evidenced by a much better performance in Saturday's 20-point win over Maryland. Duke needed to get back to running its offense start to finish. Mason Plumlee took the challenge of playing Maryland center Alex Len personally, and played very well. Additionally, Rasheed Sulaimon's six 3s came mostly off penetration that was created within their offense.
Duke is still limited with Ryan Kelly out indefinitely with a foot injury, but no matter when Kelly returns to form, the Devils have gained needed depth heading forward.
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