Ohio St Illinois Basketball

Weekend Preview: Big games in Big 12 and Big Ten, battle atop the MVC

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Game of the Weekend: Sat. 2:15 p.m.: No. 8 Ohio State at No. 11 Illinois (Big Ten)

You know how we all keep saying that the Big Ten is so tough this season? Well, Illinois is a perfect example of why. The Illini lost their conference opener on Wednesday night, as they went into Mackey Arena and lost to Purdue, who had been the most disappointing team in the conference heading into league play. The Illini follow that up by hosting Ohio State on Saturday. On Wednesday of next week, John Groce’s club will host Minnesota and follow that up with a trip to Madison to take on the Badgers.

And that’s not even the most difficult stretch of the conference season for the Illini. They have a five game stretch spanning the end of January and the beginning of February where they play Michigan, at MSU, Wisconsin, Indiana and at Minnesota. If Illinois is going to avoid digging themselves a massive hole to start league play, they are going to have to defend their home court.

That will be easier said than done, however. I don’t think Ohio State is on the same level as Indiana or Michigan (or even Minnesota), but the Buckeyes do have the league’s best scorer in Deshaun Thomas and it’s best perimeter defender in Aaron Craft. Purdue won because they slowed down Brandon Paul with a great game-plan to battle the Illini’s ball-screening. How will Ohio State defend it?

Four more games that you need to watch:

  • Sat. 1:30 p.m.: No. 22 Oklahoma State at No. 25 Kansas State (ESPN3): Here’s the key to this game for the Wildcats: health. Both Angel Rodriguez, Bruce Weber’s starting point guard, and Martavious Irving, Rodriguez’s backup, have missed the last two games with injuries. K-State has struggled offensively without them, and Oklahoma State has just a bit more talent than UMKC. It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats matchup with LeBryan Nash and Marcus Smart. If Rodriguez and Will Spradling are both on the floor at the same time, who can matchup with one of the nation’s best freshman?
  • Sat. 3:05 p.m.: Indiana State at No. 16 Creighton (ESPN3): The Missouri Valley is going to be loaded with quality contests this season, and this may be the best of the year to date. Indiana State is on some kind of run right now. They beat both Ole Miss and Miami in overtime out in Hawaii during the Diamond Head Classic and have kicked off league play with a home win over Illinois State and a road win against Northern Iowa. Not many teams have gone into Omaha and left with a win, but then again, not many teams have a 1-2 punch like Jake Odum and Manny Arop.
  • Sat. 5:00 p.m.: Lehigh at VCU (NBC Sports Net): Some more mid-major goodness. You all should know about Lehigh by now; they are the team that beat Duke in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament and count potential first round pick CJ McCollum amongst their ranks. But VCU might be the nation’s most underrated team. They have a suffocating press and are as good as anyone in the country at forcing turnovers without fouling. Oh, and Troy Daniels is on fire.
  • Sun. 4:30 p.m.: Temple at No. 6 Kansas (CBS): Kansas is beginning to look like one of the nation’s best teams. Ben McLemore is ahead of schedule in terms of being the Jayhawk go-to guy, and Jeff Withey anchors one of the best defenses in the country. That said, we all thought that Syracuse was one of the nation’s best teams when Temple went into Syracuse’s second home court (Madison Square Garden) and knocked off the Orange. Travis Releford going up against Khalif Wyatt will be fun to watch.

And the Mid-Majors?

  • 4:30 p.m.: Loyola Marymount at St. Mary’s
  • 8:00 p.m.: Northern Iowa at Illinois State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.