Player of the Week
Brandon Paul, Illinois
The Illini looked like a team on a mission to prove something this past week at the Maui Invitational, led by their 6-4 senior that might have solidified his place in the NBA conversation. Paul averaged 19.6 points, four rebounds and three assists in the trio of wins, shooting 51.3 percent from the field. He also hit all 11 free-throw attempts on his way to earning tournament MVP honors.
Paul has always shown the athleticism and potential to get there, but his decision-making and shooting ability have been questioned. We all remember his 43-point game against Ohio State last season, but also inconsistent, high-turnover games that saw him shoot poorly down the stretch and contribute to Illinois losing 12 of its last 14 games.
But this season, under new coach John Groce, Paul has shown he could be well on his way to putting that behind him. Paul’s 3.4 turnovers per game last season ranked second in the Big Ten, but so far sits 16th at 2.2. His shooting is up dramatically, though in a small sample size (.392 in 2011-12 to .494) — but consider this: It took Paul 14 games to reach 20 points last year, and he didn’t shoot over 50 percent until his 43-point game against Ohio State on Jan. 10 (game 18). This month, he’s hit 20 four times in six games and already been over 50 percent once. In the team’s first six games last season, Paul shot just 31.9 percent and 3-for-18 from 3-point range. This year, it’s 49.4 and 18 of 41 from long range, which leads the conference.
The Illini have started 6-0 (for the record, they did last season, too) and although they didn’t have to face North Carolina or Marquette to claim the Maui title, the dominating wins over USC and Butler were impressive. Their size is still concerning when it comes to competing in the Big Ten, but likely will exceed most people’s expectations (including mine).
Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
Thomas is well on his way to leading the Big Ten in scoring. The 6-7 junior went off for 56 points in two games last weekend in the Hall of Fame Tip Off tournament, shooting 21-of-38 (55.2 percent). Thomas and the Buckeyes played only three games through Thursday, but he was averaging 25.0 points — 5.3 ahead of Big Ten second-place Brandon Paul. He matched his career high in a 77-66 win against Washington on Sunday, and collected his first double-double of the season with 25 points and 10 rebounds in a 69-58 win against Rhode Island on Saturday.
Thomas again is getting on the offensive glass. Thomas ranked second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds per game last season (2.6) behind teammate Jared Sullinger and already has eight in three games (2.7). His versatility has been on display as well. He can hit from most anywhere — he’s drained at least three 3-pointers in each of the Buckeyes’ games this season and still can battle down low for a layup or hit a mid-range jumper.
Ben Brust, Wisconsin
Six-foot-1 Ben Brust is leading the Big Ten in rebounding. Yeah, it’s early and yeah, it won’t continue, but it just felt fun to point out. Brust’s 9.3 rebounds per game is largely the result of playing subpar teams (he had just two against No. 10 Florida last week). But back-to-back double-doubles are still impressive. He went for 18-12 in a 73-40 win against Cornell last Sunday and 20-12 in an 88-43 rout of Presbyterian on Tuesday. Brust has big shoes to fill in the absence of Josh Gasser and has performed well. He’s a great shooter who is 8-for-13 from 3-point range the past two games.
Ronnie Johnson, Purdue
The freshman Johnson scored just two combined points in two games this past week, after losing his starting spot to Anthony Johnson (sidenote: How many Johnsons does Matt Painter really need?). Ronnie went just 1-for-10 from the field and keeps shooting despite an anemic .308 field goal percentage and a 1-for-16 clip from long range. Purdue went 1-1 in those games, losing 66-58 against Oregon State last Friday and beating UNC-Wilmington 66-40 on Wednesday. He’s also averaging three turnovers per game as Painter tries to find the guys to make his team go. One has to wonder, though, whether this will shake Ronnie’s confidence as the season progresses.
Top five Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchups
North Carolina at Indiana, 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN
No. 1 Indiana survived its first two tests in Brooklyn (Georgia and Georgetown in OT) while North Carolina looks to bounce back from a sloppy performance against Butler in Maui. Cody Zeller vs. Joel James. Christian Watford vs. James McAdoo. Victor Oladipo vs. P.J. Hairston. Have I said enough?
North Carolina State at Michigan, 7:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, ESPN
This one will be fun to watch. C.J. Leslie goes against Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson III. These two are popular picks to win their conferences. How will Leslie respond from an awful two-point, foul-out performance against Oklahoma State last week? Will Lorenzo Brown know what color jerseys his team is wearing? (He had seven turnovers vs. OSU). The intriguing questions are endless.
Ohio State at Duke, 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN
Deshaun Thomas and the Buckeyes get their first real test. Can he and Evan Ravenel handle monster Mason Plumlee in the post? Depth could be an issue for Ohio State, especially if Ravenel and Thomas get in foul trouble.
Minnesota at Florida State, 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN2
This is a big litmus test for both teams. The defending conference champion Seminoles want to prove their opening loss against South Alabama was a fluke, while Minnesota looks to shake off being routed against ACC foe Duke in the Bahamas. The Gophers need center Elliott Eliason to provide more offensively.
Michigan State at Miami, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN
Durand Scott will be back for the Hurricanes after sitting out the first three games of the season. The Hurricanes need him — they lost to Saint Leo in an exhibition and Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 13. Scott led Miami with 12.9 points and 3.1 assists per game last season. The Spartans are without Gary Harris. Who will step up in the backcourt?
-- Penn State guard Tim Frazier will miss the rest of the season after he ruptured his left Achilles tendon in a loss against Akron last Sunday in Puerto Rico. Frazier was averaging 21.7 points and 5.0 assists in three games and was expected to be one, if not the top scorer in the conference. Frazier, a senior, is expected to apply for a medical redshirt for a fifth season.
-- Michigan State freshman guard Gary Harris will miss at least two weeks with a sprained shoulder he suffered Tuesday night against Boise State. Harris had started each of the Spartans’ first four games and his 16 points per game in the first three led the team. His injury opens a spot for more playing time for freshman Denzel Valentine along with Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd.
-- Big Ten teams were 45-9 (.833) through Thursday, with six teams still undefeated. Indiana (1), Ohio State (3), Michigan (4), Michigan State (15) were ranked in the AP top 25.
at the bottom talking about gary harris's injury, Denzel VALENTINE is starting. you guys put Denzel Washington.
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