If you believe college basketball’s preseason polls, then the Big Ten is stacked for the coming year. The conference has three teams ranked in the top five and none of them are perennial power Michigan State. While the Spartans are still a Top 16 team and have already split close games with UConn & Kansas, the Big Ten teams getting the love in November are Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan. It’s that group of three that will draw some closer attention from TheSportsNotebook today….
Indiana: They’re the preseason #1, but as I wrote when we briefly summarized the Top 16 last week, I have my doubts. In another era of college basketball, the Hoosiers would fit the proto-type of a #1 team—they’re coming off a strong finish to last year, have been going upward as a program under Tom Crean and have four starters back. But for those of us in early forties, it’s not the same college basketball world we grew up in.
Today’s game is marked by impact freshmen and even if Kentucky’s extreme application of that is an aberration, a program needs to have potential for significant improvement in the regular season. With Indiana, I don’t know that I see that. It isn’t that the Hoosiers aren’t a good—even a very good basketball team. But I suspect that, as the season progresses they will be who we thought they were in November. That’s not national title material anymore in college hoops.
But it’s still pretty good, so let’s look at who the Hoosiers are right now. The pillar of the team is sophomore center Cody Zeller, a pick on almost every preseason All-American ballot and scoring presence in the post. Zeller averaged 16 points/6 rebounds as a freshman. I’d like to see him hit double-digits on the boards this time around.
Power forward Christian Watford is a modern power forward in that stepping up to hit the three is his main strength, though he still did grab seven boards a game last year. Will Sheehy is a capable jump shooter at small forward and a good defender. Sheehy is similar to wingmate Victor Oladipo at two-guard in that both are good defensively. Where Sheehy and Oladipo differ is that the latter is an electric athlete. Jordan Hulls is a steady senior presence at the point and good enough to knock down the jumper when necessary.
While I’ve made clear my skepticism about significant improvement coming from anyone outside this group, I have been known to wrong, so let’s go over some possible impact players that could lift the Hoosiers to a higher level. Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell could enable Hulls to spend more time at two-guard, setting up three-guard sets with Oladipo. Under this scenario, Indiana’s backcourt would be balanced between playmaking, shooting and slashing. Another possibility is redshirt junior Maurice Creek, who plays the point and whose career has been ruined by injuries to date. If he comes back, he could provide the same effect.
Indiana is going to be a much better team than last year—let’s remember, they did finish fifth in the Big Ten and lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, so I’m not sure why this rush to coronate them as #1 is coming down the pike. How about we just see if they can win their first Big Ten title since Bob Knight was working the sidelines and Calbert Cheaney was driving the baseline back in 1993?
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have won three straight Big Ten crowns and are coming off a Final Four run, but are dealing with the loss of forward Jared Sullinger to the NBA. Thad Matta has three new starters in his lineup, but the coach can take comfort in knowing his team has the ability to defend.
Lenzelle Smith is back at the two-guard spot and he already earned his minutes through defense. Sophomore Sam Thompson, a 6’7” presence at small forward has the coaches optimistic about his ability on the defensive side and with that size he can cause a lot of matchup problems for smaller backcourts. If sophomore center Amir Williams develops as he should, the 6’11” post man will be able to block shots and give the wing players the freedom to be aggressive, knowing there’s backup to wipe away mistakes. And at the top, point guard Aaron Craft is a gritty player who has won the respect of the Big Ten in his first two years.
All that is enough to make Ohio State a factor in the conference race. But are they a Final Four-caliber team, as the polls tells us? That depends on what kind of offense they get and we start with power forward DeShaun Thomas. Last year he was in an ideal role, as the foil for Sullinger down low. Thomas could step out and hit a jump shot and prevent defenses from getting too focused on Sullinger. Now Thomas has to show he can be the first option. His jump-shot range needs to extend to the three-point line or he needs to develop a true back-to-the-basket game—or ideally, both. Thomas is a good basketball player, but we have to see if he can handle this type of enhanced role.
Then it’s a question of seeing Smith and Thompson can produce offensively. With now-departed William Buford on hand last year, Smith had the luxury of focusing on defense. Now he’s got to do both. Once again, a player we know is good has to show he can take his game to another level.
I like this Ohio State team, just as I like Indiana. In both cases, I think the national rankings might be getting ahead of themselves.
Michigan: I have no idea why the Wolverines are seen as the #5 team in the country in basketball, any more than I could figure out why their football team was seen as a national title contender in August. There must be something about maize-n-blue that makes voters go crazy.
This team’s strength is its backcourt, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway. Both are good scorers, at 15 ppg, but neither is an outside shooter, and both rely on scoring off penetration. There’s no one on the frontcourt who is an effective three-point shooter. At the risk of oversimplifying, isn’t having at least one guy who can knock down the trey with consistency a prerequisite to being a national power in today’s game?
A pair of freshman forwards offer significant upside. Glenn Robinson III, whose father was conference MVP in 1994 at Purdue and a later star with the Milwaukee Bucks, will start at the 3-spot, with 6’10” Mitch McGrary gets the power forward role. Both are highly regarded recruits and I think they make the Wolverines a Top 16 type of team. I don’t see they become a Final Four threat overnight, unless they’re about to go all Anthony Davis on us.
The Big Ten is my home conference, living in Wisconsin, and I’d love to see it regain the halcyon days of the early 1990s when you had General Knight’s last great teams at Indiana, the Fab Five at Michigan and Robinson’s father at Purdue, among others. The polls tell me those days are back this year. I’m selling on that idea for now.