I'm standing on the pedestrian bridge outside Pinnacle Bank Arena in Nebraska last Tuesday. People are looking at me funny because I'm standing in the middle of the bridge over the railroad tracks seemingly talking to myself (or maybe looking like I'm street preaching?). I was doing neither (well, kind of the second one). I was on Twitter Spaces taking questions from fans. And since I was talking through my Air Pods and didn't have a phone up to my ear, Husker fans leaving the Nebraska game were walking past some guy standing in the middle of the bridge seemingly talking to himself.
One of the questions is about Zach Perrin, the French player who joined the Illini during the break. Did I think we might see him on the court soon? Could he help with our frontcourt depth? My answer was simple: if there are big man minutes to be had, I'd prefer to see Brandon Lieb, not Zach Perrin. We can see Perrin in a situation like this next year. This year, I want to see what we have in Lieb.
(I don't think it was a satisfactory answer for the person who asked the question. Everyone always wants to see the newcomers. What kind of a game does he have? What does his shot look like? I get that, but I process all questions as "what's best for this team this season?", and for me, I wanted to see more Lieb.)
Tonight, I got to see more Lieb. Coleman Hawkins gets two fouls in the first six minutes. Dain Dainja gets two fouls after 11 minutes. Who comes in for the final nine minutes of the first half? Brandon Lieb.
I looked it up when I got back here to the hotel. Lieb had played 32 minutes and 26 seconds this season, almost all in garbage time against weaker opponents when we're leading by 20+. If I'm remembering correctly, I believe the only game where he had played in the first half was Bethune-Cookman. I looked up that first half box score and he did play two minutes in that first half. The other eight games where he had played, I'm pretty sure all eight games he didn't get in until the second half.
Tonight? With 8:54 left in the 1st half and Coleman Hawkins on the bench with two fouls, Dain Dainja fouled Pharrel Payne, Dain's second foul of the first half. Brad Underwood turned to Brandon Lieb on the bench and sent him to go replace Dainja. The Illini were leading 21-16 at the time (Payne hit one of two free throws to make it 21-17) but all I was thinking about was the halftime score. Lieb is going to play these final nine minutes, so what will the halftime score be? Minnesota leading by five? Eight?
When Terrence Shannon picked up his second foul with 4:27 left in the half, my worries only increased. We're going to play these final four and a half minutes with a lineup of Epps-RJ-Mayer-Rodgers-Lieb? Have these five players been on the court together... ever?
Halftime score: 35-32 Illinois. Five point lead when Lieb entered the game, three point lead at halftime. Nine minutes from Brandon Lieb and... -2 in the plus/minus column. I immediately tweeted about it at halftime:
Lieb -2. Incredibly huge. With Hawkins, Shannon, and Dainja on the bench, I feared a -13 or something. -2 means he held the game together.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) January 16, 2023
And it wasn't just "Lieb held things together". He contributed. Here's the first half box score:
2-3 from the field (including an and-one where he missed the free throw), 2 rebounds, and 1 block in nine minutes. No Hawkins, no Dainja, no problem.
Look, I know Minnesota isn't very good (although they just won at Ohio State last week). But still, when any Big Ten team sees a guy enter the game who wasn't on the scouting report and they scramble around to try to find information on him, upon seeing that he's only played 32 minutes the entire season, they smell blood in the water. It will be nine minutes of "attack that guy." And they did. And Lieb held his own. And we went into halftime with the lead. And then Hawkins, Dainja, and Shannon returned for the second half and we won going away.
I love stuff like this. The Guy Down The Bench has to play half the first half and more than holds his own. I stood on that bridge in Lincoln and said "I'd like to see more Lieb" and then we see more Lieb and I'm suddenly panicked. But I had nothing to worry about.
He held his own with a -2 performance and we cruised in the second half.
+ I looked up these stats after the Michigan State game and wrote about them Friday night:
Matt Mayer's first 8 games: in double figures one time (11 points vs. UCLA)
Matt Mayer's last 9 games: in double figures eight out of nine games (he only had 7 against Bethune-Cookman).
Make that nine out of ten games. 19 points tonight (and ten boards) on 8-14 shooting. The player we were hoping to see when he announced his transfer to Illinois has shown up in a big way.
And the paint has been the difference. Those first eight games he wasn't nearly as involved in the paint as he has been these past ten games. His rebounds have increased. The number of drives to the basket have increased. The schedule gets a lot tougher soon, so having this Matt Mayer will be very, very helpful.
+ You kinda can't help but feel bad for Minnesota basketball fans. Williams Arena is a fun place (so old, so weird), but the basketball isn't fun at all. Since they made the Tournament as a 10-seed in 2019, here are their seasons:
7-9 (1-5) so far in 2022-23
Which pattern will hold? 15-14-13... 12 wins on the season? Or 8-6-4... 2 Big Ten wins (which would be a final overall record of 8-22)? That's not a question any Minnesota fan wants to consider.
Paid attendance tonight? 9,874 (in an arena that seats 14,600). Actual attendance? Maybe... 6,000? Probably being too generous.
They did sign a 7'-1" kid from California who is #29 in the RSCI, so maybe things will turn around soon. They'd better, because The Barn is, well, uh - someone left the barn door open.
+ Keep shooting, RJ. I believe in that stroke.
+ Tyler has taught me to go through the conference-only numbers on KenPom to see how we're performing during Big Ten play. I did that tonight and the conference looks quite interesting so far. No dominant teams besides Purdue (obviously), so I went looking for balanced teams. Some teams will be near the top of the conference because they have the #1 offense and the #13 defense and some teams will be near the top because they have the #4 offense and the #4 defense. Who are those balanced teams?
Let's look at the conference standings and the KenPom offense/defense rankings (efficiency numbers):
Purdue 6-1 (#1 offense, #6 defense)
Rutgers 5-2 (#10 offense, #1 defense)
Michigan 4-2 (#3 offense, #3 defense)
Illinois 4-3 (#5 offense, #4 defense)
Iowa 4-3 (#2 offense, #11 defense)
Michigan State 4-3 (#9 offense, #2 defense)
Northwestern 3-3 (#8 offense, #9 defense)
Penn State 3-3 (#4 offense, #13 defense)
Wisconsin 3-3 (#12 offense, #5 defense)
Indiana 2-4 (#7 offense, #8 defense)
Maryland 2-4 (#13 offense, #12 defense)
Ohio State 2-4 (#6 offense, #7 defense)
Nebraska 2-5 (#14 offense, #10 defense)
Minnesota 1-5 (#11 offense, #14 defense)
The surprises in there (for me): Michigan being #3 in both categories and Maryland being 13/12. Also, Michigan State's offense is 9th at this point? That really surprises me.
I think this frames the conference race fairly well. Purdue is the heavy favorite. Rutgers has a fantastic defense but probably doesn't have the offensive horses to contend. The balanced teams (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, and Northwestern) should all be able to make a push. And everyone else has a serious flaw on one end of the court (or both).
I'm good with that after seven games. I mean, we started this conference journey 0-3, so to climb to 4-3 with the #5 offense and #4 defense in Big Ten play feels pretty good. Next step: protect our home court against Indiana and Ohio State.
Hopefully with a little Lieb thrown in there.