-Matt Cox, Jim Root, and Ky McKeon
Every year in the illustrious four-year existence of this organization, we’ve discussed road trips of all kinds. We look at game dates for pretty much every school within 4-5 hours’ drive of our home base in Chicago, plotting to attend as many games as possible. While we haven’t always executed on these plans (we did at least make it to Ames, Iowa, to see Hilton Magic back in January 2017), January 25-27, 2019, offered such a tantalizing smorgasbord of hoops that we finally became men of action. Thanks to the Big Ten’s newfound love of Friday nights, we were able to hit three schools - Indiana, Notre Dame, and Purdue - in one glorious 55-hour span, all of which were hosting a member of 2019’s top six contenders.
What ensued was a couple methodical blowouts (and nearly a third), a harrowing drive through a semi-surprise blizzard, and some good old-fashioned bonding while packed in Ky’s Honda Accord and a couple small hotel rooms. We ultimately survived - both the elements and one of our worst collective gambling days ever - and strove to recap the weekend’s action below…
Michigan @ Indiana
Just three days removed from watching my Hoosiers stink up the gym against Northwestern in Evanston, perhaps I’ve should’ve seen this coming - shame on me for letting my Crimson-colored glasses cloud my impartial judgment...
The 5-hour drive down to Bloomington on Friday was filled with optimistic anticipation. Sure, IU had dropped 5 in a row, including back-to-back 15-point beatdowns by Nebraska and Purdue. Yes, the roster depth had been ravaged by a slew of injuries, along with an ill-timed suspension to Devonte Green early last week.
But this game was going to played at Assembly Hall. A home court venue with the juice capable of revitalizing any team on the verge of flatlining, especially one with two top-tier talents in Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford.
So, as we walked down the aisle to our seats just minutes before tip-off, I took a moment to soak in the daunting student section on the East side of the stadium, eagerly awaiting that inevitable explosion I had witnessed (and personally contributed to) so many times before.
Spoiler alert: that explosion never came…
For 40 minutes, Michigan’s suffocating defense placed a mega-silencer on the anxious Hoosier crowd, who was left dumbfounded at what it was witnessing. It was like watching a 5th grade team trying to score on a 10-foot hoop for the very first time after playing their entire life on 8-foot rims.
10 minutes had elapsed before Indiana converted its first field goal, when an Al Durham layup provoked a frustrated Indiana crowd to erupt with sarcastic jeers. By that time, Michigan had already built a comfortable 16-point lead - a lead it would never surrender.
When it was all said and done, a once thunderous crowd….
…had morphed into a barren wasteland…
The Wolverines showed why they trail Texas Tech by a mere tenth of a point for the top defensive unit the country, per kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency ratings. The mad genius behind the Maize and Blue fortress is Luke Yaklich, a former high school social studies teacher turned defensive coordinator savant. He’s become a household name amongst college basketball coaching circles, but observing him up close and personal is necessary to appreciate his brilliance.
On nearly every possession when Indiana would walk the ball across the timeline, Yaklich would direct his attention to Archie Miller on the opposing bench, intently listening to his play calls. Yaklich would pick up Archie’s voice, process the play call and almost instantaneously yell out the corresponding defensive instructions to his five defenders.
Why Indiana didn’t try to disguise their offensive sets is a separate topic not worth speculating about, but one thing became abundantly clear as the Hoosiers kept banging their heads against the wall on Saturday – Michigan knew exactly what was coming and was well equipped to shut it down.
Of course, knowing what’s coming is only half the battle. Having the personnel with both the physical tools and mental make-up to execute the defensive blueprint still matters, and the Wolverines emphatically check this box. Charles Matthews bottled up Langford, Jon Teske frustrated Morgan and the rest of the crew stuck to their individual assignments with the precision of preprogrammed robots. The result? Well, a slow, but steady 40-minute deflation of one of the most intimidating environments in all of college basketball.
Under Yaklich, mistakes are rare and tolerance for mishaps are low. On one possession, Eli Brooks was tardy closing out on a shooter and at the next TV timeout, Yaklich swiftly reprimanded Brooks as if he had cost the Wolverines a backbreaking bucket – the lead was 15 at that point.
This tone, set by Yaklich and his CEO John Beilein, seems to permeate throughout the entire Michigan team, which manifests in a beautiful blend of calm, collected focus and unwavering passion.
For the host team in white jerseys, none of those descriptors are applicable. Archie Miller used the words “soft” and “scared” to describe what he saw from his young Hoosiers Saturday in the postgame press conference, but a different word kept bouncing around in my head: apathy.
We could point the finger at a number of schematic and personnel issues, one of which is an archaic offense that completely ignores one of the core elements of the modern basketball revolution: the 3-point shot.
The combination of having no feared shooting threats, along with a hesitancy to even attempt 3s in the first place, allows defenses to willingly collapse around Morgan, giving him no wiggle room to operate in the middle.
A scarcity of outside shooting is just one piece to the puzzle, but wherever you choose to point the finger, a season that started with limitless expectations now appears to have a more clearly defined destiny.
In this year’s Big Ten bloodbath, Indiana will have countless opportunities to notch big wins that should (emphasis on should) prevent it from slipping out of at-large consideration – but all hopes of a Big Ten title or a top-4 seed in the NCAA tournament have been squashed, while the restless inner demons of a tired Hoosier fanbase are slowly beginning to resurface less than two years in to the Archie Miller era.
Virginia @ Notre Dame
Saturday morning welcomed us earlier than we would have liked, as we emerged from slumber around 7am local – far too early after an evening exploring Matt’s old haunts in Bloomington. We had to get to South Bend by noon, and unfortunately, the car wasn’t going to drive itself (hey Silicon Valley, let’s hurry up on that, hey?), but we did make it to the Joyce Center with time to spare.
In what felt like a repeat of Friday night’s sear-and-simmer destruction, Virginia jumped out to a 12-0 lead from the opening horn, holding the Irish scoreless for the first six minutes of play. This opening salvo was immense in multiple facets: the eager, kelly green-covered Irish faithful were immediately quieted, and the extremely young Irish players were shell-shocked.
“I thought they played discouraged,” coach Mike Brey said of his team after the game, and it showed. Virginia’s style of play inherently suffocates and demoralizes opponents, but this felt magnified on Saturday as the physicality of UVA’s “men” grinded Notre Dame’s “boys” (Brey’s words) into dust as the afternoon progressed. Although the Irish showed signs of life, cutting the lead to 54-42 early in the second half behind some impressive play from DJ Harvey and John Mooney, the experienced Cavaliers would not allow a comeback to properly materialize. Brey talked about how Virginia’s team has been together – and won together – for a couple years now, a luxury of cohesion that his team simply does not possess at this juncture. Injuries have ravaged the Irish, leaving a skeleton crew behind to battle through perhaps the best league in the country.
Ultimately, the game represented two relatively similar schools (well-funded, well-coached ACC members) in extremely different stages of what I’ll call the “basketball program life cycle.” Notre Dame, although led by two juniors in TJ Gibbs and John Mooney, is very much in the embryonic stage. After a few years of talented, experienced squads (making back-to-back Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016), Brey is heavily reliant on a freshman class that, although it ranked 15th nationally, lacks the kind of star power to feature as ACC rookies.
It’s a class of “program players,” guys that will grow through four years of coaching and player development to eventually become a powerhouse. Unfortunately, the aforementioned injuries (and senior captain Elijah Burns’s surprising transfer) has pressed them all into important roles immediately. The result is a year that will serve as a building block, hopefully for contention as soon as next season. Every rotation player can return, including another senior captain, Rex Pflueger, who will obtain a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL, and that should breed optimism in South Bend as the freshmen play through growing pains. Teams that lack the “one-and-done” type of talent rely far more on internal development, hoping to keep a constant stream of upperclassmen flowing through the program. This allows for more of a “reload” than “rebuild” when a prolific class graduates (like Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, and Martinas Geben); this 2018-19 Notre Dame team largely lacks that experience.
Virginia, on the other hand, is in the mature stage of that life cycle. Tony Bennett has recruited consistently over the past few years, ensuring that he has the required steady supply of upperclassmen. Compare the above ND class to Virginia’s 2016 recruiting class, which has carried Virginia to the highest AdjEM in the history of KenPom.com:
It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the point remains that Bennett had the benefit of allowing those guys to grow before throwing them into the fire. Both highly-decorated recruits, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had stretches of ACC play during their rookie years where they found themselves buried behind London Perrantes, Devon Hall, Darius Thompson, and Marial Shayok. Hell, Bennett was even able to redshirt DeAndre Hunter (now a likely lottery pick) and Jay Huff (a top-60 recruit) because he had such a multitude of veterans. They both are now key pieces on what may be Bennett’s best-ever team in Charlottesville, largely due to its immense versatility on both ends of the court.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Irish. Duke brings its own unique brand of juggernaut to South Bend on Monday night, and Brey’s concern over how his youngsters would fare against the NBA-level talent was evident, despite his positive words. Expect to see plenty of 2-3 zone from the Irish, forcing the bricky Blue Devils to hit some outside shots (and avoiding the myriad of mismatches that man-to-man will present), and Brey will hope to limit possessions as best he can.
Virginia, fully formed and eager to erase the painful memories of its overly-chronicled NCAA Tournament upset from last year, looks like every bit of a national contender. The Cavaliers never came close to trailing in this game, but the offensive prowess on this roster gives the sense that this isn’t the standard Bennett-led UVA team. With Jerome and Guy’s shooting, Hunter’s status as a mega-mismatch, Kihei Clark’s quickness, and Mamadi Diakite’s emerging inside-out game, this version is plenty capable of putting together offensive outbursts. Perhaps that means finally having the firepower to either mount a needed comeback or, like it did on Saturday, put a game on ice.
Michigan State @ Purdue
The Weave headed to West Lafayette, Indiana, and Mackey Arena for our third and final game of our weekend road trip. After sitting through two straight blowouts in favor of the visiting squad, we were eager to see a competitive bout between two of the best teams in the country. Heading to the arena on foot from our nearby hotel, three thoughts came to mind: 1) we were hungry and needed breakfast, 2) it was f**king freezing outside, and 3) does this game actually start at noon instead of 1:00? Our first thought was taken care of thanks to the friendly neighborhood McDonald’s, the second persisted unrelentingly throughout the day, and the third came from seeing the masses of black and gold clad fans filing into the arena at 11:45am. Very rarely have I seen so many fans – students and non-students alike – show up in such numbers so far ahead of tip time; it foreshadowed the riotous atmosphere we were about to experience.
Mackey Arena was a truly incredible place to see a basketball game. The 14,000+ seat venue was packed to the gills and the school gave fans free shirts – some gold, some black – in an alternating pattern that formed giant gold and black stripes circling the circular arena.
I could write an entire article on the atmosphere of Mackey, but I’m guessing you want to hear about the actual game…
It was clear from the start that Matt Painter and the Boilers were laser focused on limiting Nick Ward, Sparty’s superlative frontcourt force down low. Tom Izzo has been notorious this season at getting Ward touches early and often, allowing the big man to dominate on the low block or kick the rock to shooters out of double-teams. The Spartans threw the ball to Ward on the first possession, but he didn’t touch it again until about the 14:30 mark, a tribute to the Purdue defense. Perimeter defenders sagged off and clogged passing lanes towards Ward, freshman center Trevion Williams did an excellent job using his girth to deny Ward position, and when Ward did finally catch in the paint, Purdue sent a double to discourage any useful offensive action. After countless possessions without a touch, it was clear that Ward was becoming frustrated and his fellow Spartans looked stagnant on the offensive end, unable to probe through the staunch Purdue shell. Eventually around the 1:00 minute mark of the first half, Ward just said screw it and hoisted a triple from the wing, one of only three Sparty deep-ball makes in the first half.
The Boiler frontcourt dominance didn’t stop at slowing down Ward. Izzo said after the game that his big guys got their asses kicked. Purdue grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, a stat that Izzo called “a joke” in the post-game presser. “We’re the best rebounding team in the league, one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and I was disapponted in our performance in our performance inside.”
Indeed, Purdue clearly remembered the outcome of East Lansing matchup, a game in which the Spartans “out-physicaled” the Boilers. Painter said in the post-game that to beat Sparty, you have to “beat them at their own game”, and that’s exactly what Purdue did – they rebounded, they hustled for loose balls (shout out to a couple outstanding Grady Eifert efforts), and they defended their tails off.
On the other end of the floor, Purdue’s offense was flowing in the first half. Ryan Cline found a couple triples off screens early on and Williams was eating the offensive glass like it was his last meal on Earth. The spark plug, though, came from the Boiler bench. 7’3” energy ball Matt Haarms, freshman forward Aaron Wheeler, and freshman guard Eric Hunter combined to shoot 9/10 from the floor in the opening stanza. Wheeler in particular impressed me – his outside stroke was pure (knocked down a trio of three-pointers), and he looks to have a very bright future alongside fellow frosh Williams. Purdue’s motion was gorgeous throughout the game, and Izzo said later that the Boilers are “the best cutting and screening team in college basketball.” Painter added to the sentiment by saying “people don’t realize how quick Carsen is coming off a screen and how hard it is to contain him.”
Edwards was notably limited throughout the game, scoring only 14 points on 4/19 shooting, but his teammates made up for the All-American’s struggles. Much credit is due to Spartan guard Matt McQuaid, who was terrific defending Edwards, sliding his feet and keeping the lightning quick PG at bay. Izzo said after the game that he was “shocked” that McQuaid wasn’t being talked about as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. Despite McQuaid’s efforts and Edwards’s shooting struggles, however, Sparty found itself down 37-19 at half.
The second half looked like a re-run of the first up until about the 12:00 minute mark. Purdue continued its hot shooting from the first half and extended its lead up to 23 points as the ruckus Mackey crowd began the “OVERRATED” chant. The game seemed truly over at the 13:20 mark when Edwards swatted Nick Ward and Wheeler tip -slammed home a deuce on the ensuing runout:
Michigan State didn’t lie down and die, though, as Winston cashed four-point play heading into the under-12:00 timeout that led to a wild 24-5 run over the next seven minutes. He was a man possessed during this stretch, carrying his team on his back and seemingly finding more gas in his tank, all despite playing nearly every minute, along with the Spartans’ two previous games in a six day period. Izzo said that’s what he loves about this year’s version of Winston, “he actually got stronger as the game went on.” Painter admitted to being a bit nervous when Sparty started its mega run, having seen Izzo’s squad do the same thing against other Big Ten squads both this season and last. As for Winston, Painter thought his guys did a great job defending the junior guard despite him pouring in 23 points and dishing out 8 assists; “…that shows you how good Winston is.”
An ill-advised Aaron Henry wing drive and turnover and a Nick Ward charge ended the Spartan run, but it was Purdue sophomore Nojel Eastern that put the nail in the coffin. Izzo took a page from Rick Byrd’s playbook at Belmont and started to intentionally foul Eastern in order to send the 50% FT shooter to the line. Izzo called for this strategy three times, and Eastern coolly connected on ALL SIX of his free throw attempts. Eastern went 8/10 from the line during the game while Winston, an 81% FT shooter coming in, hit just 5/9. Ultimately, the short-handed Spartan squad ran out of gas and Purdue deserved every bit of its hard-earned victory.
Post-game, Izzo began his presser by saying his “freshmen needed diapers this game,” pointing out how the young guys were intimidated by the big stage. He also alluded to the fact that Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens’ absences were felt in this one, particularly off a long road trip. While impressed with his two stalwart guards, Winston and McQuaid, he had nothing positive to say about his big men, “I might rest Cassius and McQuaid this week, but not the bigs – they’re in for a hell of a week.”
Despite the lack of competition in the first two clashes, the trip was an absolute blast. Sitting in on press conferences, observing the game plans in action of some of the country’s very best coaches, seeing individual and team brilliance on display all weekend - that’s the dream for the Weave. This certainly won’t be the last such trip for us, but perhaps we won’t plan the next one in the middle of a polar vortex. Here’s to the Pac-12 having a resurgent year in 2019-20 and the Weave taking a tour of California/Arizona…