Player of the Week:
Jalen Pickett, Penn State
Jalen Pickett is Penn State basketball, even his name is a combination of the names of the two Pennsylvania NFL quarterbacks. Pickett had a clean sweep of national weekly awards this past week, and with good reason. The Nittany Lion is finally receiving the national media attention we expected a player with his statistics to receive way earlier in the season. The point guard averaged 27.5 points, 7.5 assists and 6 boards over two wins against Minnesota and Ohio State this past week. Pickett also scored the last 14 of Penn State’s points in a tightly contested win over the sliding Buckeyes to boot. By far the most valuable player on this roster, Pickett has leveled up into a legitimate national player of the year contender and could be selected to an All-American roster at this point. He’s 6’3 but plays more like he’s 6’6, gobbling up rebounds and posting up frequently. Pickett gets to his spots with ease too, he knocks down open jumpers, finishes well around the rim, and makes up for his lack of explosive athleticism with super angular and physical moves around the rim. Pickett and his squad must win out to have any chance to make the tournament, luckily, they play Northwestern in one of their final 2 games; if these games were wins they’d would boost their resume greatly and likely throw them into position to seize a low seed come selection day.
Dickinson and company can squeeze out three more wins they genuinely have the opportunity to make noise next month.
Matthew Mayer, Illinois
In a crucial 2-1 stretch for the Fighting Illini this past week, Mayer did a lot of different things to contribute this past week. In a loss to Indiana, he posted 24 points and 5 blocks, leading his team. The game after he poured in 22 to lead Illinois over Minnesota. In their third game, he led the team in assists and steals with 8 and 2 respectively to power his squad to a huge win over Northwestern despite a poor shooting night. Mayer was one of the biggest stories of the off-season within the transfer portal, Illinois adding a super switchable wing defender with excellent scoring instincts was seen as a perfect pairing to put next to Terrence Shannon Jr. It’s worked so far and at the moment, Illinois is predicted to be a 6-7 seed in March. They have three more games on their schedule, the season finale being a showdown with number 5 Purdue. Is this an early March Madness preview? We’ll have to see.
The Wolverines are back on bubble watch as they have won two straight and bolstered their overall record to 16-12 and their conference record to 10-7, tied for third in the B10. They won a huge game against Rutgers on Thursday night, holding the Scarlet Knights to 45 points. This defensive masterpiece came just a few games after an emotional win over the Michigan State Spartans, an impressive win considering the Sparts were playing with all heart after a tragic shooting in East Lansing. Like Penn State, the Wolverines have three good teams looming in their next three games, three wins in these games and they pretty much secure a spot in the Big Dance. These teams are Wisconsin, Illinois, and number 17 Indiana. Big questions remain however. Jett Howard’s health is a concer, as well as guard scoring in general. A big hole was left with the departure of senior guards last season, and Michigan’s backcourt has been good but inconsistent at times. If
Ohio State Buckeyes & Minnesota Golden Gophers
Since this is the second to last week of the regular season weekly blogs, I want to shine a light on the two worst teams in the B10 conference this season one last time. Both of these teams have very different stories and cultures surrounding their programs, and it’s very odd to see them both here. For the Gophers, losers of 11 straight games and winners of only ONE in conference game this season, they were supposed to be bad. Most analysts and major publications had them somewhere at the bottom of their preseason rankings and for good reason. They haven’t been elite in the conference for a while, they didn’t return any excellent players, and their recruiting classes have been thin for a while. It’s not easy to convince recruits to come to freezing cold Minnesota to play for a team that hasn’t won anything significant in some time. For the Buckeyes, their script is essentially almost the opposite. The Buckeyes returned a lot of key contributors like Justice Sueing and Zed Key, while bringing in new talent like Brice Sensabaugh. For reference, I looked at 5 different publications’ preseason power rankings and in each one the Buckeyes were listed at about the fifth or sixth best team in the conference, way ahead of actually great teams like Northwestern or Rutgers. Where Minnesota is an expected loser of the season, the Buckeyes have been building off of great seasons and are a few years removed from a 2 seed in March. So what happened? The blame has fallen solely on Chris Holtmann this year, and his job security is just as solid as his teams paint defense. It’s shocking how bad they’ve been, and with aforementioned talents likely leaving for the draft, it might be another similar season next year for the Buckeyes. The season is over for both teams, and it’s unfortunate they have to each play 3 more games, as fans of both teams are looking forward to ending these two opposite but identical horrible seasons.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini are 3-5 on the road this year (yes, road records are the theme of today’s blog), which is actually pretty good compared to anyone now named Purdue or Northwestern. They also have a talented backcourt that’s chosen the right time to play elite basketball.
4. Indiana Hoosiers
TJD and company cannot win on the road. This wouldn’t be a problem if March Madness was played in Assembly Hall, unfortunately it’s not. Like Maryland, there’s a stark contrast between the home Hoosiers and the away Hoosiers. Yet TJD and star freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino have these boys primed for a run. We’ll see how their away record affects them in March soon.
3. Maryland Terrapins
It’s a little odd to beat Purdue and then come right back and lose a tight game to a pretty bad Nebraska team (who is having a much better season than expected and should get some NIT love, but I digress), but the Terps just can’t figure it out on the road. Maryland versus Northwestern on Sunday should be fun.
2. Purdue Boilermakers
Back in the win column after demolishing the already crippling building that is the Ohio State men’s basketball team, Edey and company are trying to avoid their annual February meltdown to March Madness exit trend. The Boilermakers will be a one seed, but need to get back to that dominance of early January.
1. Northwestern Wildcats
Despite this week’s meltdown loss, the Wildcats remain solid as ever and have the best record against AP ranked teams in the entire conference. While I was looking into some other preseason rankings, these Cats were at the bottom of most of them! It’s remarkable how much of a surprise this team is and they’re poised to make a real run in a few weeks.