In the Nick of Time
Player of the Week
Nick Ward, Michigan State
As Tom Izzo teams often do, this Michigan State Spartans squad is winning games when it counts, clawing their way out of their bubble position to solidify their spot in the tournament with a pair of wins this week, including a big one over Wisconsin. Stepping up this week was, as he’s done often this season, big man Nick Ward, with 20+ points and 9 rebounds in each game, connecting on 17/25 (68%) from the field this week. He stole the spotlight from fellow freshman Miles Bridges, who also had a good week. Most impressively, Ward got the better of his matchup with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, who only managed 8 points against MSU. Ward continues to develop rapidly and is one of the best big men in the conference, despite only standing at 6’8”.
Malcolm Hill, Illinois
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned this name on this page, but then again, it’s been a while since Illinois basketball gave me anything to praise them about. Hill put up 18 on Northwestern and 19 on Nebraska, shooting 50% from the floor and getting two big wins to maybe just pull the Illini back into the NCAA Tournament conversation, with how poor the bubble team resumes will be this season. The Illini have been borderline BAD this year, but they seem to be starting to figure things out, and their star senior is averaging 17 PPG. It’s not likely he’s going to lead this team to a miracle Big Ten Tournament championship, but with a few more wins, this Illini team may save their coach’s job with a surprise tournament berth.
Tyler Cook, Iowa
It’s been a rough season for Iowa at times, as they stand at 16-13 with no foreseeable path to an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Peter Jok has been his spectacular self, leading the conference in scoring by a mile, and then the rest of a freshman-heavy nucleus has simply been inconsistent. But for one week, at least, all seemed well for the Hawkeyes as they got a pair of victories over Indiana in overtime and, more impressively, a 14-point victory on the road over a ranked Maryland team. And one of those inconsistent freshmen has stepped up as Iowa’s #2 guy this season, and that would be big man Tyler Cook. His 21 to lead the Hawkeyes against Maryland was his Big Ten career high, and with 10 rebounds chipped in, he recorded his first collegiate double-double as well, which is promising considering his rebound rate, as a 6’9”, 253 lb. big guy has not been particularly impressive. But he’s now on a recent stretch of 15.5 PPG and 5.3 RPG in his last four games, along with 21/40 (58%) shooting. The Hawkeyes are a dangerous team with the emergence of Cook and Jordan Bohannon alongside Jok, and thought they likely won’t sneak into the tournament through either an at-large big or the Big Ten conference title, they will certainly be a tough out in the Big Ten Tournament that may be peaking at the right time.
It’s really hard to single out any one guy that’s been great in Minnesota’s recent run. They have won 7 straight now, and one could argue that, with the inconsistencies of Purdue, Wisconsin, and Maryland, they are the most complete team in the conference. Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, and Akeem Springs all scored in double figures in both games this week, a feat that Mason and Murphy have pulled off in 6 consecutive games. They’re playing excellent D and scoring in bunches and are really rolling, although the competition in their winning streak has included several of the Big Ten’s lower-end teams. A trip to Wisconsin to end the season will certainly test their mettle, but if they win, they will likely have cobbled together a 10-game winning streak by Saturday of the Big Ten Tournament.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
So much for Ethan Happ spoiling Caleb Swanigan’s run for conference Player of the Year. As his team continued to backslide with two losses this week, Happ scored only 12 TOTAL points in two games on 6/15 (40%) shooting fouling out in one game and picking up 4 in the other. While his teammates are certainly struggling to do their part, Happ just did not play at an elite level this week, which is especially concerning for the Badgers when he was often the only player who looked good in their struggles earlier in conference play. The turnaround in time for the tournament will start with him.
Vic Law, Northwestern
Law struggled tremendously this week, really epitomizing the late Northwestern push to MISS the tournament once again. Northwestern should still be fine, and Vic Law is still a good basketball player, but 7 points in 60 minutes of basketball this week says it all. He shot 1/11 (9%) total and fouled out in 22 minutes in a double-digit loss to an underwhelming Illinois team. While the struggles are not entirely on his shoulders, his scoring from the wing is vital to opening things up for Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. He will rebound, but he needs to do it soon if the Wildcats want to go ahead and lock up that tournament berth. Michigan and Purdue loom this week.
Big Ten Projected Bracketology:
Purdue: 4 seed
Wisconsin: 6 seed
Minnesota: 6 seed
Maryland: 7 seed
Michigan: 8 seed
Northwestern: 9 seed
Michigan State: 10 seed
Ohio State: NIT
Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers: Outside looking in.