Player of the Week

Caris LeVert, Michigan

I’ve had a couple people comment on this blog from previous weeks about LeVert’s play this year. Overall, it was a disappointing home loss to a good Wisconsin team or Michigan, who could have seized some control in the Big Ten championship race. Individually, LeVert went 7-13 from the field and 5-6 from deep to finish with a career-high 25 points and 6 rebounds. LeVert is shooting 44% from the field and 40% from deep on the year. LeVert has done a great job using the dribble to create space and get an open shot. He’s almost notorious for doing that from deep, and the only guy that does it better in the conference is Yogi Ferrell.

LeVert has become a fantastic option when opponents start to key in on Nik Stauskas. I’m quite surprised that he hasn’t worn down yet – he’s averaging three times as many minutes compared to last year (33.6 to 10.8) while hoisting 7 more shots per game, and all on a pretty slender frame (he officially weighs in at 185 pounds). He’s gone for double digits in 7 of his last 9 games and is shooting 81% from the line. Overall, there’s a big green arrow next to Caris LeVert’s name.

Who’s Hot

Shavon Shields, Nebraska

In the last blog post, we were able to profile Terran Petteway’s fantastic introduction to the big Big Ten stage. With a win against #9 Michigan State in East Lansing, it is only appropriate to recognize Shavon Shields as Big Red keeps rolling. In East Lansing, Shields led the Cornhuskers with 8 rebounds. Nebraska lost the rebounding battle 39-36 to the Spartans. Nonetheless, Shields help set the tone on the glass, and losing the rebounding battle by only three is completely respectable against a team like Michigan State that is hell-bent on getting every board. His direct matchups were Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski, who combined only totaled 13 points and 5 rebounds.

Despite fouling out, Shields rounded out this week with 13 points and 3 rebounds in another Cornhusker win against Penn State Thursday night. It has truly been a roller coaster season for Shavon Shields. During the beginning of the year, he was easily Nebraska’s best offensive option and most important player. With the emergence of Petteway offensively, Shields took somewhat of a backseat, or at least became the secondary option.

Some will definitely ask “How can you pick a guy who went 2-9 from the field in this game?” My answer to that is that I find it remarkable how Shields just keeps grinding even when he’s faced some major adversity. Shields is a glue guy who is able to keep a high motor despite his individual performance. It sounds so easy to do, but it’s just the opposite. Shields seems to understand that the sum is greater than the individual parts. He’s also had some monster games this year like his 33-point outburst against Illinois. From his total body or work, plus Nebraska’s most celebrated Big Ten win in its brief history, it’s time to give Shields some recognition and start thinking about Nebraska making the Big Dance.

Mike Gesell, Iowa

Playing more of a facilitator role compared to last year, Iowa’s point guard truly is the straw mixing the highly potent Hawkeye drink. The sophomore point guard is 8th in the league in assists and 9th in the league in steals.

Gesell excels immediately following an opponent’s made basket. He’s got a knack for leaking towards half court and getting Iowa’s offensive tempo to a fast pace after 2 or 3 dribbles. Nothing about Gesell is stylish – he’s virtually expressionless on the floor, and his hair goes all over the place including an occasional cowlick appearing. He’s another guy that fans take complete advantage of because he doesn’t excel at one particular basketball trait. Overall, he’s a solid dribbler, a solid decision maker, a solid shooter, a solid defender, and a solid leader. Taking a page from Dick Vitale, Gesell would be on my Big Ten All-Quikrete Team. Don’t let his ability to do many things well mean he isn’t good in certain aspects. Gesell does a great job taking care of the basketball and truly understands his role of distributing and dictating tempo. There’s enough offensive firepower on the Hawkeye roster, both in the frontcourt and the backcourt, for Gesell to keep being the great leader he is.

Who’s Not

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

I’ll be honest: this is a bit of nit-picking. When I look at Michigan State, I believe that having Appling, Harris, Payne and Dawsen fully healthy gives the Spartans a legitimate chance to make another Final Four. However, even when completely healthy, Valentine will need to become more consistent game to game. He’s been consistently inconsistent – his point total in the last four games is 16, 4, 16, and 4. Valentine will also occasionally look for the home run pass or the sexy play. It’s started to happen less often as the year has progressed, but it’s one those cardinal sins that drives Tom Izzo crazy. If Valentine just stays within himself and doesn’t try to do too much, his scoring will come. He’s way too athletic and plays around too many smart basketball players not to be getting his PPG average closer to 10 as the conference season concludes. He excels putting the ball on the floor and going to his right towards the basket. I’m just waiting to see his full game come to fruition.

Shooting Jumpers in the State of Illinois

After doing some advanced statistic research, I came across this stat for Field Goal Percentages: out of 345 Division I college basketball teams, Northwestern ranks 333rd and Illinois ranks 322nd. It’s remarkable to have two schools from the same state and same conference be so terrible at putting the ball in the basket.

But, it gets really weird when you extend outside the Big Ten. Northern Illinois ranks 335th and Illinois St. ranks 316th.  That means 4 of the top 30 Division I teams in the nation are within a 200 mile radius. So what is the cause of the Prairie State laying bricks? Who knows, but it somewhat speaks to the depleted state of basketball in a usual basketball powerhouse.

Top 5 Big Ten Home Court Advantages

Noter: this is NOT a ranking for this specific year, but a general consensus. Sadly, I haven’t visited all of these stadiums. But from speaking to friends and acquaintance in the industry, these are the 5 places where it is most difficult to get a road win:

1. Breslin Center – East Lansing, Michigan

Basketball whiteouts. The Izzone  The Noise. Maybe it’s because MSU is so smart and strategically puts its student section all over your television screen when watching a game, but that arena looks like absolutely no fun to try and play a game. Not only is the student section also very large, but they seem right on top of the court as well. Sure, the advantage does have something to do with how good of a basketball coach Tom Izzo is. On the aggregate, the Breslin Center is the toughest.

2. Kohl Center – Madison, Wisconsin

Bo Ryan’s record speaks volumes about the difficulty of winning on the road in Madison. The ambiance seems quelling because it seems like the lights in the stadium near the people are pretty dim. It’s the third largest stadium in the Big Ten with a 17,230 capacity. There are plenty of loyal, hearty, good Midwesterners in Madison who fully support their Badger basketball program.

3. Assembly Hall – Bloomington, Indiana

This Top 5 actually did come to mind after a beam falling from Assembly Hall this week (thankfully) before a matchup between Iowa and Indiana. I have had the privilege of seeing two games in Assembly Hall. In both instances, I cheered for the visiting team. From a visitor standpoint, the stadium is truly intimidating. The student section rocks at the end of the fight song with belting out “I-U!”. It might be one of the most intricate ceilings in the Northern Hemisphere, turning a stadium full of 17,472 fanatics into a full-blown bandbox. There were moments when it was hard to concentrate, and I was in the upper deck just watching a basketball game. Think of trying to play one. Oy.
4. Mackey Arena – West Lafayette, Indiana

I’m a big fan of where Purdue placed their student section – they’re a bit raised off the floor, able to get more into the sightline of opposing players and wreak havoc behind the glass. This is another arena where the structure of the building seems to really bring a lot of the noise back towards center court. It’s the third smallest stadium in the Big Ten, and I think Boilermaker fans know that, so they give it their all vocally.

5. Pinnacle Bank Arena – Lincoln, Nebraska

Never underestimate Nebraska athletics: in a state with no professional sports teams, Cornhusker athletics it the one and only passion for many. Those people love Big Red. The new $180 million home of Cornhusker basketball seems to have also not allowed teams to chalk up a trip to Lincoln as an automatic victory. Albeit having no bearing on creating a home court advantage, the facility looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s got to help the morale of coaches, players, and fans to play in such an aesthetically pleasing environment. Athletics truly are a celebration of competition. Any person can get fired up for competing in a new, kick-ass stadium.