How has Michigan's injuries affected their team?
Well that is hard. I am sure that he (Michigan coach Tommy Amaker) is still trying to figure that out. We have been there and that is not an easy process to figure out. You are in limbo; do you change everything you believe in and everything that you have practiced for two to three months because of an injury. Or do you stay put and do it with different personnel. It's a figuring out process, but they have had time now to figure out what direction they want to go. The guys that have been hurt have been out several games now, so they have had a chance to figure some things out.
They played extremely well out at UCLA and they have won back to back home games, so they have had three outings in a row without three of their players where they have played very good basketball. So I think they are pretty comfortable now coming into the Big Ten.
Is the Big Ten a race for second behind Illinois?
Well, I think the rest of us hope not. Obviously, they have a very good basketball team. Anyone that can start the year with 14 straight wins and do what they have been doing…they have won 10 straight Big Ten games. This is a team that is very potent; this is a very good defensive team, it's a strong team that can score in a lot of different ways.
But this is a grind; a lot can happen in a 16-game season. It's only early January, it's the first week of Big Ten play. This is not a make or break for anybody, but we all want to get out to good starts.
Do you think Illinois can go undefeated?
I think it's difficult. They have a very good team, but there have not been many teams in this league go 16-0 or 18-0. It's a difficult league to do that in. Home games are as difficult as road games. With the arena sizes we have here and the attendance that we get here, it's different than ACC or Pac (10), because our arenas are so much bigger. I will never say that it can't be done, but you have to do an awful lot of good things, stay healthy and have no distractions over a two-month period, and play really good basketball for that to happen, and that is difficult to do.
Teams have to pick their poison against your team, as everyone can score.
We have had good balance, and we have to continue to get that. It's one of the reasons we are out to a 12-1 start; we have had good balance, our defense has gotten a little bit better, we have taken care of the basketball for the most part and we are shooting a high percentage because we have taken good shots. We have shared the ball…I have not seen the recent NCAA records, but going into the Saint Louis game, where we did not have a good assist game, we were in the Top 10 nationally in assists. We have really been sharing the basketball and have been a fun team to watch that way.
A key is still going to be how much productivity we can get out of our bench. I think that is something we have to keep working on.
Is Ohio State the big surprise in the Big Ten so far? How do you see that?
Oh, I don't know. I don't know how many people thought we would be 12-1, I think we have done some good things and Ohio State has done some good things. Ohio State is at a high level with a year of probation. The pressure of winning is gone, so their kids are relaxed and they are doing good things. I think Minnesota is playing well; Wisconsin and Michigan State are playing at a high level again. I don't know who can be considered a surprise, I just think there are a lot more Big Ten teams playing well and winning more.
You have talked about being happy because you can play better. Jeff is going through a funk right now…
I think Jeff has had two bad games. I thought he played well against Texas Tech. I think the last two games, he has not played with the energy and fire that he normally plays with. I don't think there is a problem with his shooting; he was one for one against Air Force, we went into that game saying that if we could shoot every shot in the paint, that is what we wanted to do. That is how unselfish he is. And here is a guy who is top five in the country in three-point percentage, and he sacrifices that. That is the kind of guy that he is. To think that he will shoot 55 percent from three every game, that is maybe asking a lot. He has looked tired to me, so we have gotten him some rest in practice. I think he understands more than anyone about the grind that is going to take place over the next 16 games in the Big Ten. His minutes are down from a year ago, now it is just getting back to playing with that energy.
I think that sometimes players get into a place where you are 10-1, and here comes Air Force and Saint Louis, teams that don't have that name like Texas and Louisville, and you expect all of the home games will be wins. Then all of the sudden you can have some sub par performances. I hope that is the case, because I think that Michigan comes in here on Wednesday, and our guys will be excited for that.
Are you pretty well convinced that the Big Ten is definitely stronger this year?
I don't think there is any question. We have been second in conference RPI for the last three weeks. At this time last year, I think we were four or five going into the Big Ten season. The upper teams have gotten better and the middle and bottom tier teams from last year have gotten better. I think it will be a great race, and I think this league is getting older and better.
Is Adam Haluska playing the way that you expected?
We are very pleased with what he is doing. He is averaging 13 points for us, he is getting to the free throw line, he is a very physical defender, which that was the ‘X' factor for him. We knew that we would get shooting and scoring from him, but that physical, big-guard defender is something we have not had for a few years and he has been a great addition for us.
He is learning how to play in a motion system. We don't want him standing on wings, and he still has a tendency to do that a lot. When he gets involved in our cutting and on transition, to where he is harder to guard, his skills are used a little better.
Are you confident that your league will get more than three bids in NCAA this year?
I would hope not, but stranger things have happened. If that is the case, I hope we are not the fourth placed team. Last year was one of those rare years where not many of us did a good job in the non-conference. There were very few of us that got quality wins there.
We might have been 0-3 against Big Twelve opponents, and this year we are 3-0. Michigan State lost six non-conference last year, and they are not close to that this year. I think that this will be another five or six bid year without question, and maybe seven if some people play well.
What concerns you about Michigan?
They have beaten us two out of the last three times (last year), they have great size, they are long and athletic and they have big guards. They can do a good job of pressure man to man. The Carolina (point) Zone that they run gives you a long sense of presence there, and I think they are playing better. If you played them two weeks ago, things might be different. But Coach Amaker has them playing at a high level right now, and I think they are excited to come in here. When you have a chance to start the season with a road win, people get excited about that.
Erek Hansen has more blocked shots than rebounds, which is kind of an odd stat.
I think he has more blocks than fouls, you don't see that very often either. All of our guys have areas to work on, and Erek has to work on board play. If he can rebound at a five to six game rebounds per game clip in the Big Ten, that would be great. Our guards can rebound, and I am pretty sure that Bru is going to be there. But if we can get good board play from our bench in Doug, Alex and Seth, and then get five to six rebounds out of Erek, I think that really takes care of some of our board play woes.
What has made this team more successful?
I think a lot of the things they have gone through. I have said it before, and I am not sure as to how many people believe or listen, but I just think the last two years, they have done an outstanding job. It's not like we wish to be in the NIT, but what these guys faced as freshmen, to have a winning season has been a great job, and they know that. They came into this year saying ‘now we have a deep team. Now we have experience. Now we are not freshmen any more. We are upper classmen now.'
It's pretty exciting now to know that outside of Jack Brownlee, this whole team is back. With a Kurt Looby coming in, who is a shot blocker like Erek is, to Tony Freeman, who just won the prestigious Proviso East tournament in Chicago; those are two very good kids who will be joining our basketball team. I am excited to see how the Big Ten goes. We have had a phenomenal non conference season, where we have played quality teams that have been quality wins for us. To have 12 wins going into league play has really set us up for a successful year. Now we have to get out of the gates and play well in the Big Ten season.
What are the goals for the team? A Big Ten title? A two or three seed?
With what they have done in the past, it has been a credit to the guys. We knew that we would have a deep team this year if everything went status quo, and we had ought to keep learning, so we should be able to play with everybody. We know that we are not the team that Illinois is right now, we know that Wisconsin and Michigan State have played at a higher level than we have over the last couple of years. Our goal is to try to win a championship, and until the numbers tell us differently, that is what we are focused on.
You are at 12-1; If you go 9-7, you are likely in (the NCAA tournament).
That is a very good year, but I just think that our guys know how hard it was to get to 12-1, given the quality of the opponent. Their mentality is to not win a certain number of games in the league. They are trying to win a championship, and that will give you a better seeding. I think that this team is trying to get better, so when the tournament gets here, they feel like they are one of the teams that can win the tournament. We are no where near that. I don't know if we are a Top 20 team yet, but we are getting better, and if we keep improving, then we have a chance to be a Top 15 team.
With Abrams and Horton out (more than likely), are Sims and Petway on the interior your biggest concerns?
Yes, they would be, along with Hunter, who has been playing at a high level. He is their second leading scorer and he's shooting the ball well. He's made more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts. I think he's been the surprise right now as far as what they're doing. He's over 12 points a game and presents a lot of problems because he's a 6-foot-11 kid who goes out and shoots the three, as well as playing inside. Sims and Petway are great shot blockers; they protect the hole very well. We learned our lesson against Saint Louis with Bryant and their big man being out; I don't think that we played at the high level of intensity that we've been playing at.
We were minus a bunch of kids last year and yet our guys played at a really high level. That's what Big Ten players do. So regardless of who plays for Michigan, they are going to play at a very high level and it still says Michigan across their chest, so it still brings a very big presence to our building.