Player of the Week
Keith Appling, Michigan State
Appling, the Spartans’ 6-foot-1 point guard, was told by coach Tom Izzo to be more assertive offensively before Wednesday’s game against Indiana. It paid off in a big way as Appling took over in the second half during a 20-0 Michigan State run that gave the Hoosiers their first loss, 80-65. Of Appling’s career-high 25 points, 19 came in the second half.
Appling has always been given high marks for his defense, and he brought that side of his game Wednesday as well, making a highlight-reel block on Victor Oladipo’s fast-break layup with 1:56 remaining that kept the Hoosiers from coming within seven. (Watch the block here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYlY4CN6Uok)
The Detroit native out of Pershing High School has started to understand what Izzo demands from his point guards. He’s nearly tripled his assists, (3.6 to 1.3 last year), doubled his point output (12.1 to 6.4 last year) and is his shot attempts per game have nearly doubled. He’s already surpassed his assist total from last year despite averaging just five more minutes per game this season.
One of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten is suddenly a legitimate threat to run you out of the gym. He’s not afraid to drive to the basket and gets to the free-throw line nearly five times per game. He’s 21-of-22 in the past two games and 29-of-33 (87.8 percent) in the past five.
Meyers Leonard, Illinois
The 7-foot-1 sophomore center has posted double-doubles in the past three games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound performance Tuesday in the Illini’s 81-72 win in double overtime against Minnesota. He now has five double-doubles this season after not having one in his first 36 college games. He’s looked impressive going to the hoop on the dribble and being available for ridiculous alley-oops near the basket. He still needs to cut down on the turnovers, though, as he’s given the ball away more than three times per game in the past four, including five against the Gophers.
Sullinger had 17 points and 14 rebounds as the Buckeyes might have seriously damaged Northwestern’s psyche with a 87-54 blowout on Wednesday. Sullinger went 7-of-11 from field and hit his third 3-pointer of the season. He only played 22 minutes because of foul trouble. Him and Deshaun Thomas each had four offensive rebounds as Ohio State posted a 48-28 rebounding edge.
Buford went off for 28 points and nine rebounds against Northwestern, hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers and 5-of-5 on free throws. The ultimate lead-by-example senior hasn’t missed a free throw since Nov. 25, making his last 21. He’s the conference’s fifth-leading scorer at 16.6 points per game, has scored in double figures in 12 of 14 games and is third at 86.3 percent from the free-throw line. His 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio can’t be overlooked, either.
In Michigan’s 71-53 win against Penn State on Thursday, Hardaway made 10 of his 11 shots inside the 3-point line despite shooting just 1-of-7 from 3. He finished with 26 points, a good sign that the sophomore is learning how to attack the basket instead of settling for jumpers. He’s pretty good at those, too, but when you get 2-foot layups, it’s hard to miss. Penn State’s zone just wasn’t a good idea against the Wolverines, who exposed it with lots of threes, timely passing and back-door cuts.
Most of that can be credited to “I don’t play anything like a freshman” Trey Burke, who is averaging seven assists to just 2.6 turnovers in the past five games. Burke also had 13 points, five rebounds, two steals and no turnovers as the Wolverines won their Big Ten opener for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Burke also got to the free-throw line seven times and made them all despite shooting just 3-of-10 from field. The only question is if the freshman can continue to coordinate Michigan’s offense with little help from the bench. He leads the team and is fifth in the conference at 33.3 minutes per game.
Christian Watford, Indiana
Watford was a key cog in the Hoosiers hanging around Wednesday at Michigan State, but the energy he and his teammates expended coming back from an 18-point deficit proved too much. Watford had 26 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He hit 4-of-6 from 3-point range and was an emotional leader along with Victor Oladipo.
Jordan Hulls, Indiana
Hulls shot just 2-of-10 from the field Wednesday in the Hoosiers’ loss at Michigan State, including 0-for-4 form 3-point range — only the fourth time this season he didn’t nail one from long range. He came in averaging more than two treys per game.
Now, the Breslin Center is a tough place to play, but when you’re a key upperclassmen like Hulls, you can’t have a game like that and expect your team to have success. He turned the ball over four times to five assists, and the Hoosiers had to rely on bench player Matt Roth for a long-range spark to erase an 18-point, first-half deficit.
Bo Spencer, Nebraska
The 6-2 senior shot just 2-of-12 Tuesday against Wisconsin’s hounding defense. He largely settled for low-percentage attempts outside and also had four turnovers to five assists. Spencer finished with five points, more than 10 less than his average coming in.
Top 5 Sophomores
No doubt the deepest class in the Big Ten, these guys have a good shot to make it on the next level:
1. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
No surprise here. Despite back spasms and a bruised foot that kept him out of two full games and the majority of another in December, Sullinger continues to show why he’ll be a top-five pick in the 2012 NBA draft. He’s a double-double machine, posting seven of them in the 12 games in which he’s played more than six minutes. He’s also improved his defensive game, averaging nearly twice as many blocks (0.9 to 0.5) than he did last season. The 6-9 Columbus, Ohio, native is very physical down low and his 6-11 wingspan doesn’t hurt when battling for baskets. He’s lost at least 10 pounds from last season, when he was at 280, and has improved his jumper. His field goal percentage is at 59.1 percent, five points higher than last season.
2. Meyers Leonard, Illinois
The 7-1 center from Robinson, Ill., has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Big Ten this year. Everyone knew Leonard could get it going after a learning-curve freshman year when he averaged just 2.8 points and 14 of his 28 field goals were dunks. He’s been given quite the opportunity by coach Bruce Weber, who is playing Leonard 21.4 minutes more than last season thus far. His high point total last season was 11, and he’s already surpassed that eight times this year, along with five double-doubles. He’s always a threat to shoot from the outside, but his real value comes off the dribble or posting up down low.
3. Tim Hardaway Jr, Michigan
Hardaway’s pedigree is undeniable (his father is former NBA great Tim Hardaway). What makes the 6-foot-6 Hardaway Jr. special, however, is his versatility. He can shoot it or dribble-drive for a jam. He’s even more dangerous without the ball, a superb slasher and high-riser who can snatch momentum at any given moment. He’s struggled a bit from 3-point range this season (23-of-74, 31.1 percent), but is shooting 62.3 inside the arc. He needs to learn when to take the 3-pointer and when to defer. He’s learning, though, as just as sophomore. Last year, 54.6 percent of his shots came from long range, compared to 46.5 this year.
4. Keith Appling, Michigan State
Continues to develop in year two under Izzo and is starting to gain more of a scorer’s mentality.
5. DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State
The 6-7 forward from Fort Wayne, Ind., has averaged 15.9 points per game — eighth in the Big Ten — after just 7.5 last season. He’s still a work in progress, though — he’s never met a shot he doesn’t like and is averaging less than an assist per game. He’s a solid shooter, but can be even more of an asset if he gets his teammates more involved.
Michigan sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz posted his third straight double-double Thursday against Penn State after not having one in his previous 45 college games. Has now hit 17 of his last 23 3-pointers and ranks second Big Ten at 57.1 percent from three. … Wisconsin’s Ryan Evans surprised everybody but himself by posting a career-high 22 points in Tuesday’s 64-40 dismantling of Nebraska. “I’m sure they overlooked me,” he told reporters after the game. He also hit 2-of-3 from long range after coming in just 2-of-7 on the season. He’s averaging 10.8 points and 27.8 minutes this season after just 2.8 and 11.6 last season. … It was the Badgers’ ninth straight win in their conference opener.