Category Archives: Analysis

Deeper dives into recent happenings.

Rond’oh!

In a strange way, it’s been nice to see a flurry of activity from the Bulls front office in the point guard market. I was not alone in my frustration a season ago when the Bulls trotted out  the oft injured Derrick Rose, diminutive Aaron Brooks, and local real estate owner Kirk Hinrich to hold down the fort for a second consecutive season.

The swap of Cameron Bairstow for Spencer Dinwiddie was a low-risk move with the tiny potential for a nice payout. The big trade that sent Rose to the Knicks was judged to be a positive one by this writer, mostly because of the addition of the (suddenly) cheap Robin Lopez, but also because of the potential upside Jerian Grant brings to the table. And while Jose Calderon is nothing more than a shooter at this point in his career, I could envision him carving out a successful role next to Butler as a floor spacer.

All of these small moves were nice, but the Bulls were still clearly lacking someone they felt confident could soak up the majority of minutes at the one, a feeling that motivated the team to award Rajon Rando a two year, $28 million contract that reportedly has a partially guaranteed second year.

The Rondo signing appears to make sense on the surface. With a roster lacking any proven point guard talent, why not take a one year flier on the guy who lead the league in assists a season ago, averaged two steals a game and hit a career best 36% of his threes?

As anyone who watched Pau Gasol loaf through the past two seasons in Chicago knows, the box score does not tell the whole story. A closer examination combined with a careful eye can sometimes paint a different picture than some counting stats in the newspaper.

Rondo spent the past season on a typically dysfunctional Kings team that failed to crack .500 for the 37th consecutive season. The Kings scored a lot of points in George Karl‘s high paced system but surrendered even more on defense, posting a net -3 for the season. Rondo’s presence on the floor did nothing to help matters, as the team was more than a point better per 100 possessions when Rondo was on the bench.

Plus/minus can be a misleading stat at times. Starting players on talent-deficient teams can have artificially low net ratings compared to their teammates who are able to feast on opposing bench units. But when you consider that Rondo played 70% of his minutes alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who was exactly even in net rating, Rondo’s statistics begin to look more damning.

Despite his gaudy assist totals, Rondo does very little to improve his team’s offense. Rondo is a terrible shooter who is reluctant to even attempt long jump shots. A career 29% three point shooter, Rajon’s poor stroke is made even worse by the fact that defenses completely ignore him on the perimeter. Rondo absolutely needs to have the ball in his hands on offense to be remotely effective. When he doesn’t space becomes tight for all of his teammates. Look at what happened on this play against the well-coached Charlotte Hornets:

Hornets ignore Rondo pt 1

As DeMarcus Cousins runs to set a pick for Rudy Gay, Kemba Walker, Rondo’s defender, turns his head completely away from Rondo and begins to focus his attention on stopping the pick and roll.

Hornets ignore Rondo pt2

As soon as Cousins receives the pass from Gay, Walker has completely committed to clogging the lane for any potential drive from the big man. Rondo is left totally alone, a complete afterthought for the defense. Rondo ended up making the wide open three after the ensuing pass from Cousins, but he has been unable to connect on those shots at a high enough rate to force defenses to re-calibrate their strategy.

This is the biggest reason I hate the Rondo signing. After struggling through last season with a starting back court that couldn’t make a three, the Bulls are doubling down by signing the worst shooting point guard in basketball.

For all of the dynamic things Butler can do on a court, attracting attention off the ball is not something he does. As we saw quite a bit last season, Butler felt most comfortable with the ball in his hands running the offense. To compliment that, the Bulls need to pair him with a point guard who is going to keep help defenders occupied far away from the paint. Rajon Rondo could not be further from fitting that description.

I just cannot comprehend what Gar Forman and John Paxson were thinking  when they signed Rondo. Do they expect him and Butler to play well off each other? Unless Butler is spending his summer turning himself into a 40% three point shooter, I struggle to imagine a scenario where these two are able to power the Bulls to a half decent offense.

If Rondo’s outside shooting was his only issue, it would be bad enough. But there are several other aspects of offense the newest Bull struggles at. Rondo was arguably the single worst transition player in the NBA last season. According to NBA.com, of players to handle the ball on at least 200 transition possessions, nobody scored less frequently, and turned the ball over more frequently than Rajon Rondo. Only Jordan Clarkson and Klay Thompson (who took a lot of transition threes) shot free throws less often in transition than Rondo.

All of which brings me to my final complaint about Rondo’s offensive game: his utter fear of the charity stripe. Rondo has failed to crack 60% from the line in four of the last six seasons. And as his percentages have dropped, so have the attempts. Rondo got to the line just twice a game last season, a shockingly low number for the player who finished tenth in the league in drives to the basket. People complain about Rondo hunting for assists to boost his stats, but I think a lot of his hunted dimes are the result of his unwillingness to draw contact in the paint for fear of embarrassing himself shooting free throws.

This was a particularly poor market for free agent point guards, but the Bulls somehow managed to overpay for a low upside rental who makes no sense from a roster construction standpoint. Michael Wonsover looked at some of the other point guards the Bulls could have potentially signed for less money who may have also fit better alongside Butler. Allow me to add rookie Wade Baldwin to the list. The Bulls passed on Baldwin to take Denzel Valentine, another old college player with legitimate red flags. Baldwin projects to be a capable defender and a good shooter who does not need the ball in his hands to make an impact. Sort of like an ideal partner for Jimmy. Sort of like the opposite of Rondo.

The frustrating thing about the GarPax regime is they have the ability to make smart moves along the margins, but completely botch their bigger decisions. Grabbing Dinwiddie for free? Smart. Getting Justin Holiday back for washed up Hinrich? Savvy! Signing Felicio out of training camp for less than $1 million? Potentially franchise-altering!

But between the Gasol signing, the all-in Doug McDermott trade, the Thibs firing/Hoiberg hiring, and now the signing of Rajon Rondo, this front office has proven that they are incapable of making the decisions that count.

 

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The Bulls draft night was a success because they didn’t trade Jimmy Butler

After that bombshell of a trade dropped on Wednesday, many fans and followers around the league wondered what the Bulls organization would do as an encore performance in the NBA Draft on Thursday night.

And if you followed along on Twitter throughout the night, it seemed to get very close to a 1-2 punch of losing Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler on consecutive days to officially start the tear down. Depending on who you listen to, it was either GarPax listening to offers but taking none too seriously, or Tom Thibodeau getting revenge on his former employers by making it seem like they were shopping their now franchise player.

Alas, none of this came to pass, as all that was left was two reasonable picks made by the front office. We’re breaking them down for you here.

Denzel Valentine

The Bulls drafted Denzel Valentine out of Michigan St. with the 14th overall selection in the first round on Thursday night. Valentine stands at 6’5” and 220 lbs, with a large 6’10” wingspan. He is a 22-year-old out of Lansing, Michigan and progressed tremendously each year in college under the tutelage of the legendary Tom Izzo.

For those Big Ten fans out there, they remember Valentine as the do-it-all senior leader who drove the Spartans to a 29-6 record and a #2 seed in the tournament, even after missing a couple weeks in the middle of the season.

In his Senior campaign, his best by far in East Lansing, Valentine averaged 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, shooting a staggering 44.4% from deep on 7.5 attempts per game. These numbers are indicative of what Valentine can do on the court, namely, everything. This will be a nice change of pace from a front office who have drafted some one-dimensional players in the first round over the past few years, like Doug McDermott.

What makes Valentine tick is his court vision, passing ability, and general high basketball IQ. These are all attributes that successful NBA wings tend to have. On top of that, as illustrated by his 44% from deep, Valentine is a plus-shooter from the outside. However, with Nikola Mirotic and McDermott already in the fold, his court vision and passing ability will probably be called upon more.

Valentine also possesses quality ball-handling abilities as he was the de facto point guard for the Spartans last year. This will help replace Rose in that facet of the game and his overall versatility on offense will be a sight for sore eyes for many Bulls fans who have seen too many one tool players recently.

However, as with every prospect, there are certainly some weaknesses in the Bulls shiny new first round toy. For starters, let’s point out what Gar Forman said after trading Derrick Rose. Forman exclaimed that the Bulls were looking to get younger and more athletic following along with the recent trend in the league. His first chance to do that didn’t exactly follow along those guidelines.

Valentine is 22 years old, or to put it another way, four years older than #2 overall pick Brandon Ingram. While Valentine is obviously still younger than almost every Bull, GarPax have recently selected some of the oldest players possible in McDermott and Valentine.

As for the athletic portion of Forman’s proclamation, Valentine doesn’t exactly check off that box either. He ran an underwhelming 3.46 3/4 court sprint at the draft combine. To give you an idea of that statistic, it is equivalent to what the 7’1” center Zhou Qi out of China ran in his combine effort. That’s not who you want to be compared to in terms of speed if you are hoping to be a successful wing in the Association.

Another issue with Valentine is his below-average defensive abilities. While he does posses a strong ability on the boards, especially as a wing, the rest of his defensive game is not up to the same standards. Given Valentine’s relative lack of quickness, he often struggles to stay in front of quicker guards, meaning it will be tough for him to stick at the 2 position on the court. This also means it will be tough to keep both him and McDermott on the court at the same time as there may be too little quickness and defensive ability to compensate for.

One final small issue is one that Bulls fans do not want to hear. Potentially troublesome knees. Valentine has never had a serious knee injury but did miss a couple weeks last season after needing arthroscopic surgery in one of his knees. Bulls medical staff don’t see it as a pressing issue but it will definitely be something to keep an eye on.

Overall, this was a solid selection from the duo of Forman and Paxson. A relatively low-risk pick with a well-known prospect. Valentine will help spread the floor and become a solid playmaker that can play just as well off the ball as on, which may be his most important attribute given he will be sharing a court with Butler.

Paul Zipser

With the 48th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft the Bulls selected 6’8” Paul Zipser. I know that anytime someone hears a tall, lanky, German guy was selected, they immediately want to compare him to Dirk–but that’s not the case here. However, Zipser is a very nice compliment to the Bulls first round selection, Valentine.

The German native is considered one of the most NBA-ready foreign prospects given his age (22) and experience with the German national team and Euroleague. Zipser is expected to join the Bulls this season. Many of his strengths align with needs of most NBA teams: most notably, shooting and defense.

Zipser is regarded as a small forward with the possibility of playing power forward in a small ball lineup. Zipser has a nice shot, shooting 49.5% from the field this past year in what is regarded as the second best league in the world in Germany. He also contains a surprising quickness for a forward. Combined with his length, these assets make him an above-average defender for multiple positions.

Overall, I like this pick. Going with an experienced overseas prospect who can shoot and play well off of the ball as well as defend is what you are looking for in a role player. And any serviceable rotation player you can pick up in the second round is a added bonus to a solid draft night for this front office.

Bulls make out well in shocking, emotional Derrick Rose trade

In a move that caught just about everyone by surprise, the Bulls traded Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks Wednesday afternoon. The move signifies the end of an era that will be remembered by all with mixed emotions ranging from the highest of highs to the lowest depths that exist in basketball fandom. Derrick Rose was never just a basketball player here in his home town. Rose’s first few years were the first time this city dumped it’s hopes and dreams into a Bull since the departure of Michael Jordan. And how could you not when he was doing this and this.  Rose captured our hearts with his humble demeanor and our excitement with his physics-defying drives to the hoop.

Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the playoffs in 2012 while leading the deepest team he would ever play for in Chicago and was simply never the same. Two additional knee injuries robbed Rose of nearly three entire years in his prime. Rose’s 66 games played this year were an incredible accomplishment to those of us who wondered if he would ever string together a few healthy months again. While it was encouraging to finally see his ability to withstand the rigors of the NBA, it was clear that the Rose who treated gravity like an optional feature would never return. And so, with one year and $21 million left on his contract, the Chicago Bulls have decided to turn the page.

While the idea of Derrick in Knickerbocker garb is sickening to many Bulls fans, the front office should be commended for haul they brought back in return for the former MVP. Here’s the full trade:

New York Receives;

Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday and a 2017 second round pick

Chicago Receives:

Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant

The big prize for Chicago is veteran center Robin Lopez, who will be entering year two of a four year, $54 million contract next season. Lopez’s brother Brook garners more attention around the league than Robin because of his smooth post moves and reliable mid range jump shot. But where Robin is lacking on offense compared to his brother, he more than makes up for on the other end.

Robin is one of the more underrated defenders in the NBA. He’s not going to erase your shot like DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside. He’s not going to blitz and trap the pick and roll like Serge Ibaka or Draymond Green. What he will do is put himself in the best position to wall off the basket and help his team win every possession. According to NBA.com, Robin defended the eighth-most shots at the rim of any NBA player. Racking up contests at the rim is often more an indicator of scheme than skill, especially when you consider that Brook Lopez and Pau Gasol rank in the top four in this category. While Robin’s limited athleticism force him to play exclusively in the conservative, drop back style, he was one of the absolute best at it.  Of the ten players who defended over 600 field goal attempts at the rim, nobody forced shooters into a lower field goal percentage than Robin Lopez.

What Lopez lacks in athleticism he makes up for with positioning and intelligence. Lopez is someone who can always be counted on to be in the right places and help cover for his teammates. The Bulls perimeter is not going to be much better next season if Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic play big minutes. But with a steady presence in the paint, their mistakes will be far less glaring.

Judging just by a box score, Lopez appears to be a very poor rebounder for a center, averaging just 7.3 per game. Piling up high rebound totals is often an indication of excellent leaping ability, a trait Lopez has never possessed. While Lopez is never going to lead the league in raw rebounds collected, he is still able to make important impacts on the glass. Lopez is an expert at boxing out and creating opportunities for his teammates to grab loose balls. The Knicks were an overall average rebounding team in 2015. But when Lopez, who averaged 27 minutes a game, was on the court, the Knicks rebounded at a top five rate in the league.

Lopez is not and has never been interested in being the focal point of an offense. In his eight years in the league, Robin has only finished one season with a usage rate around 20%. Instead, Robin scores many of his baskets by creating space with his body and tipping misses into the hoop. Lopez rebounded 13% of his teams own misses this past season, the 13th highest rate in the NBA. Lopez is a below average finisher at the rim, shooting 61% between zero and three feet, but he at least consistently puts himself in the position to attempt those makeable shots.

Acquiring Robin Lopez heading into this bonkers free agency period when there are no other starting caliber centers on the roster (sorry Cristiano Felicio) is a huge weight off the Bulls’ shoulders. Lopez is going to make $13.5 million per year over the next three years, which sounds like a steep price for a guy who has never averaged more than 11 points a game. But when you compare his contract to the ones likely to be given to Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahimi and Festus Ezili, Lopez, who is just 28, will become an overnight bargain. While the trade did not create any cap space for the Bulls in 2016, they essentially filled their greatest hole without having to dip into their roughly $25 million of space.

Jerian Grant had a rough rookie season, but there is reason to hope he can develop into a solid NBA point guard. After four years of running spread pick and roll at Notre Dame, Grant went missing in the Philmuda Triangle. Grant never grasped the offense in New York and was never given a great opportunity to learn on the job, averaging 16.6 minutes per game behind long time veteran Jose Calderon.

That Jerian was never able to earn more minutes was a moderate indictment on Grant’s ability to do anything on offense. Grant shot a miserable 22% from three and a discouraging 52% within three feet. Some of that struggle could be attributed to him getting the ball in unfamiliar spots and being asked to do unfamiliar things. Still, a lack of true NBA athleticism may prevent Grant from becoming a quality guard. Grant will find himself in a familiar system under Fred Hoiberg, and if he has any chance to succeed the Bulls will have three cost-controlled years to find out.

Jose Calderon is a great shooter, averaging over 40% from three in each of the last four seasons. Unfortunately, shooting is pretty much all the 34-year-old point guard can do at an NBA level anymore. Calderon has seen his assist rate plummet since his peak days in Toronto as his athleticism has declined. Calderon was never a great athlete, but his threat of shooting used to be enough for him to create penetration and set up his teammates. Time has robbed Calderon of what little speed he ever had, limiting his ability to facilitate an offense. Calderon is also a turnstile on defense. The Knicks held opponents to three fewer points per 100 possessions when Jose was on the court versus when he was off.

The trade also allows the Bulls to sharpen their focus as the draft and free agency approach.  With the center position firmly covered between Lopez and Felicio, the Bulls can focus their attention on adding a point guard and deepening the wing rotation. This is not a draft or free agency class deep at either of those positions, but if the Bulls can snag Wade Baldin at 14 and throw a big contract at Kent Bazemore or someone in his ilk, they will be right back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference.

A quality center on a value contract, a mildly intriguing prospect and a veteran shooter are a pretty good haul in return for an injury-riddled Rose who could leave in free agency in July 2017. Jake Weiner and I had been discussing whether the Bulls should trade Rose or Butler this offseason and I had been mostly against trading Rose, simply because I thought we could get nothing back for him better than cap space. By those low expectations, the Bulls made out like bandits in this trade.

 

Not so great expectations: A guide for Bulls fans in the second half

Spirits were high back in October, remember? The Bulls brought back nearly the entire roster from a year ago, a group that came within a scrapped David Blatt play of being up three games to one against Cleveland. The flaws from a season ago had been remedied with a change on the bench. The stern, unimaginative Tom Thibodeau was out and offensive genius Fred Hoiberg was here to turn this talented team into the Midwest Warriors.

Things have not gone according to plan. With the All-Star break coming to a close, the Bulls are just 27-25, seventh in the East and just a game ahead of the ninth-place Pistons. They’ve gone from 21st in pace up to 11th, but their offensive efficiency ranks 26th this year compared to 10th a season ago.  Simply put, the Bulls are taking more shots, and fewer are going in.

The injury bug that has plagued this franchise since Derrick Rose‘s initial ACL tear is once again playing a prominent role this season. Joakim Noah is done for the season. Jimmy Butler will miss a month with a knee injury. Nikola Mirotic isn’t sure when he’ll return from appendectomy complications (WHAT!?!!?!), and Mike Dunleavy is working his way into rhythm after off-season back surgery.

The delusional front office believed they had championship talent last season and somehow convinced the fans they were right. Now we know: Thibs was not the only problem with the Bulls, and this roster isn’t good enough to win a championship.

The vibe among Bulls fans has been hopelessness and despair. It wasn’t too long ago the Bulls looked like a young, upstart core that would enjoy a decade-long window of contention. Today, we watch each frustrating game, endlessly waiting for a switch to flip. For many, watching Bulls games has become a joyless activity. But it doesn’t have to be.

The Bulls are not contenders. They never really were this season. Accept this into your heart.

Fanbases that enter a season with no expectations open themselves up to the possibility of pleasant surprise. I hear no complaints from Portland fans cheering on a team a game worse than the Bulls. Nuggets fans don’t seem to mind how the season is shaking out. These fans are enjoying their teams because they’re able to focus on small-scale victories without worrying about the ultimate prize this season. If Nikola Jokic has a double-double, the final score is irrelevant.

It’s time for Bulls fans to adopt a similar approach. With 30 games to go, the banged up Bulls are not going to right the ship. So instead of getting angry with every blown defensive assignment and bricked jump shot, we need to focus on the future and take joy in whatever potential this team has for the future.

Tyler Pleiss wrote a great review on what we’ve seen from rookie Bobby Portis so far. Portis plays with great energy and effort on both sides of the ball. He has a lot to learn about playing NBA defense, but almost all rookie big men do. His shot selection has been aggressive at times, but his jump shot looks encouraging while his pick and pop game could develop into a real weapon. My biggest hope for the second half is that Portis sees a sizable jump in playing time. While Portis’ presence has been a net negative for the team, the former Razorback is not going to learn to communicate on defense when he’s parked on the bench.

The other player who I hope sees a big minutes bump down the stretch is last year’s first round pick, Doug McDermott. Doug has proven to be a reliable three point shooter, making over 42% of his attempts this season. McDermott has been a disaster defensively both on and off the ball, and he lacks enough weapons on offense to make up for his defensive mistakes. But just like Portis, Doug isn’t going to figure out team defense from the sideline. Let the young guys make mistakes over this basically meaningless stretch run of the season.

Portis and McDermott have dispayed some nice chemistry on offense already. Portis has been a frequent off-ball screener for McDermott as he cuts around the perimeter hunting for threes. The Bulls have a  -16.4 net rating in the 344 minutes Doug and Bobby have played together, but who cares. Let them continue to develop together and build chemistry that will hopefully help the Bulls win games in years to come.

Other than the growth of the young players on the team, the biggest thing to monitor the rest of the season is the slow integration of HoiBall. With Noah out and Pau Gasol possibly on his way to another team, the Bulls will be able to use lineups that are more conducive to the fast, spread out system Hoiberg was brought here to install. Lineups with Portis and Mirotic as the big men will get killed on defense, but the beauty of five-out basketball makes the uncontested layups allowed worth it. Portis and Mirotic will hopefully grow into capable defenders, but for now it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Bulls get reps in playing the wide open system that they will become more committed to as time goes on.

Bulls fans, this can still be fun. Forget whatever championship aspirations you began the season with. Holding on to them will only continue to bum you out. Instead, embrace the growth margins. Monitor the youth and applaud any progress. This was never a contender, and it’s time to start acting like it.

B1G Ten Midseason Breakdown

Well we have officially reached the halfway point in the Big Ten (B1G) conference season and there is a lot to discuss. The conference crown is still very up for grabs and there’s also a clear divide between the top and bottom half of the conference. So without further ado, let’s take stock of where each team is at in the B1G power rankings after nine conference games. We’ll also dive into what teams have to look forward to the rest of the season.

  1. Iowa: The clear winner of the first 50% of the conference slate is one of the surprise teams in the nation (feels very familiar to football season doesn’t it, Hawkeye fans?). Iowa is tied at the top of the conference with an 8-1 conference record (17-4 overall) and has their hardest part of the schedule behind them. With two wins apiece over Purdue and Michigan State, their toughest test left on the schedule a visit to Bloomington to face the Hoosiers. These Hawkeyes have to be the favorites to win the league. Iowa is a lock for the tourney and could set up as a possible one-seed, sitting at #5 in the country currently.
  2. Maryland: Just a half-game behind the Hawkeyes, the Terps are sitting at 8-2 in conference play (19-3 overall). Melo Trimble has found a solid front court duo in Robert Carter and Diamond Stone who combine for 26 points and 12 rebounds a game. The Terps still have to face Purdue twice and travel to Bloomington, so they have their work cut out for them if they want to chase down Iowa for the B1G crown. Beyond that, Maryland should be another lock for the B1G to make it to March Madness, with their seed the only thing left up in the air.
  3. Purdue: The Boilers are a solid 7-3 in the B1G so far, and outside of a baffling loss at Illinois have looked very solid throughout. They still need more out of their backcourt with a forward (Vince Edwards) leading the team in assists at a paltry 2.9 average. The Boilers have a solid resume and should be a lock if they can avoid a catastrophic collapse, but a B1G title will be tough to attain given a more difficult second half of conference play, including two against Maryland.
  4. Indiana: No one knows what to make of this team quite yet. That’s because they easily had the softest schedule to start the year which could be why they are tied for first at 9-1 in conference (19-4 overall). Their best win came last night in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines and they have a brutal stretch run featuring games against Iowa (twice), Maryland, Purdue, and Michigan State. The Hoosiers are averaging a robust 85 points per game (tops in the B1G), but their remaining schedule should spell doom for a team competing for the crown. The Hoosiers should make the tourney, but a poor Strength of Schedule and a mediocre RPI (50) means this Hoosier team needs quality wins to beef up their resume for March.
  5. Michigan State: The Spartans got off to a disappointing start in B1G play at 3-4 but have recovered to win their last three (19-4 overall), including a win over Maryland. Tom Izzo’s squad posts the best defense in the B1G, holding opponents to 62.4 points per game. Meanwhile Denzel Valentine picked up where he left off before his injury, averaging 19 PPG, 8 RPG, and 7 APG. The Spartans will make the tourney in all likelihood, but their poor start ends their B1G title hopes, being down three games to Iowa and losing the tiebreaker to the Hawkeyes.
  6. Michigan: John Beilein’s team is the dividing line in the B1G between the top and bottom half of the conference. Michigan sits at 7-3 in conference play (17-6 overall) losing their only tough games of the first half against Iowa, Indiana and Purdue. The Wolverine’s boast a very balanced squad with four players averaging in double figures. They have work left to do to make it to March due to their lack of quality wins. Getting leading scorer Caris Levert back from injury should be a big boost for Michigan as their schedule intensifies in the second half of B1G play.
  7. Wisconsin: After a brutal start to the B1G season at 1-4, the Badgers have done a complete 180 in winning their last four (13-9 overall), including huge wins over Michigan State and Indiana. Wisconsin isn’t blowing anyone away, with their average margin of victory at 4.5 points per game in those wins, and they’ll need to pick up their offense if they want to continue their hot run. The Badgers are one of only four B1G teams averaging less than 70 points per game (69.2) with the other three making up the bottom of the B1G. Wisconsin has some good wins, but their record needs some work in order to make a real case for getting in to the tourney.
  8. Ohio State: At 6-4 in the B1G (14-9 overall), Ohio St. finds themselves squarely on the bubble for March Madness, and probably on the outside looking in at this point. The Buckeye’s best B1G game came this past weekend in a loss to Maryland 66-61. With their best win against an underachieving Kentucky squad, Thad Matta and his group will have to take advantage of concluding three games in the B1G that read: vs. Michigan State, vs. Iowa, and finally @ Michigan State. Marc Loving will have to pick it up to score a couple victories in that stretch as he’s shooting just over 40% on the season.
  9. Northwestern: Getting off to a 3-2 start in conference play had the students in Evanston dreaming of their first NCAA tourney. But losing five straight against tough competition has dropped NU to the bottom half of the B1G. Bryant McIntosh continues to impress with 15 points and seven assists per game but needs more support from the rest of the team. The Wildcats are squarely out of the tourney at this point, but a favorable remaining schedule gives them a slight glimmer of hope the rest of the way.
  10. Nebraska: Tim Miles can’t quite put a finger on the quality of his Cornhusker (12-10, 4-5 Big Ten) squad. Nebraska started off the B1G campaign by promptly losing their first three games. They followed that up with a winning streak of four games, before dropping their past two contests. Kansas transfer Andrew White is having a breakout year with the Huskers averaging 17 points and six boards per game. Unfortunately, unless Nebraska goes on a major run, they’ll need to win the B1G tourney to sniff March Madness.
  11. Illinois: The injury bug continues to bite the Illini. Already missing projected starters Tracy Abrams, Leron Black, and Michael Thorne, John Groce could add Michael Finke and Kendrick Nuun to that list after both got banged up against Wisconsin. Illinois is a disastrous 2-7 in the B1G (10-12 overall) after having expectations of at least being on the bubble before the season started. With the scoring duo of Malcolm Hill and Nunn combining for 36 points per game, this Illini team really ought to have more than two conference wins at this point. The lack of production around those two tells the story, with the point guard duo of Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate averaging a minuscule five points per game combined. Illinois’ tourney dreams are non-existent with their NIT hopes going down the drain with games still left against Iowa and Maryland.
  12. Penn State: Another 2-7 squad in the B1G (11-11 overall), the Nittany Lions have showed a lot of heart, losing nail-biters to Maryland, Michigan and Wisconsin. Brandon Taylor is having a memorable season for coach Pat Chambers, averaging 16 points and six boards a game. Penn St. won’t make the tourney, but look for this squad to play spoilers for a few of the bubble teams in the conference.
  13. Minnesota: We now get to the cellar-dwellers of the league. The Golden Gophers are winless in 10 attempts but they are getting as close as a team can get without scratching out a W. They’ve lost their last five games by seven points or less, meaning a win should be on the horizon. Upcoming games against Northwestern and Rutgers provide their best chances for the foreseeable future.
  14. Rutgers: The other winless team in the B1G is the not-so-mighty Scarlet Knights from New Brunswick, NJ. Rutgers is 0-9 in the B1G (6-16 overall) with every loss coming by at least seven points. In fact, the Scarlet Knights haven’t played a single-digit game since their B1G opener against Indiana, a game they lost by seven. Rutgers has winnable games against Illinois (twice), Penn St., and Minnesota coming up so the opportunities are there. For our sake, I’d like to see both Minnesota and Rutgers go in winless to their game in what might have the most intensity of any game left on the B1G schedule since both will be looking for their first W’s in conference play.

So there you go, we’re now 50% done with 50% ahead of us in a scintillating B1G Ten race with plenty of twists and turns still left to go. Be on the lookout for a B1G Ten Bubble Watch as March Madness creeps up around the corner.