John Beilein

Big Ten releases conference schedule: Michigan, Wisconsin meet January 24

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In recent years the Big Ten has been one of the nation’s best conferences, and that’s expected to once again be the case in 2014-15 with Final Four participant Wisconsin seen by many as the early favorite. Thursday evening the conference released its schedule for the upcoming year, with there now being 14 programs to account for with Maryland (ACC) and Rutgers (American Athletic Conference) now members of the Big Ten.

Among the highlights on the schedule is the lone meeting between Wisconsin and reigning regular season champion Michigan, which is scheduled to take place on January 24 in Ann Arbor. The Badgers and Wolverines met twice last season, with the visiting team winning both meetings. And the announcement of their lone meeting led to a humorous tweet from Michigan’s official Twitter account Thursday evening.

In addition to rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan will face Illinois, Northwestern and Rutgers twice in 2014-15. As for Wisconsin, they’ll have home-and-home series with Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State. Michigan State, which won the Big Ten tournament title last season, will welcome the Terrapins to the Big Ten on December 30 in Maryland’s Big Ten debut. The Spartans will play home-and-home series against Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern.

Ohio State and Nebraska, which finished the 2013-14 season tied for fourth place, meet just once in 2014-15 with the Huskers visiting Columbus on February 26. Ohio State won two of the three meetings last year, with the second victory coming in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes will have to get used to life without Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross, but Thad Matta returns some key pieces and will also add a talented recruiting class. As for Nebraska, most of Tim Miles’ rotation from last year’s NCAA tournament team is back with junior forward Terran Petteway leading the way.

While one newcomer (Maryland) will begin its conference season on the road Rutgers was a bit more fortunate, as they’ll host Northwestern on December 30 in its league debut. And with the addition of two teams the Big Ten also announced that the conference tournament will begin on Wednesday, March 11, with the event now spanning five days.

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.