The Big Ten basketball conference schedule opens up on December 31, and virtually all of the significant non-league games of November and December are completed. Today we’ll walk through each conference team, outline what they’ve achieved and who their key players are, and get a grasp on how the Big Ten basketball race will play out.
THREE NATIONAL CONTENDERS
Last season, there was talk that the Big Ten would put up to three teams in the Final Four. That didn’t pan out–all it takes is one favorite failing to come through (Indiana in this case) and one dark horse losing a tough game (Michigan State falling to Duke) to silence such hubris. There’s a reason the 1985 Big East is the only league in history to put three teams in the Final Four.
The fact such an achievement was even in the discussion tells you something good about where Big Ten basketball is going, and the same is true again this year. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are all ranked in the top five.
Ohio State (#3): The Buckeyes’ top wins in their 12-0 start are over Marquette, Maryland and Notre Dame. They get quality three-point shooting from Lenzelle Smith and LeQuinton Ross. The post is manned by Amir Williams, while Aaron Craft still runs the show, for what seems like his ninth year on campus.
Wisconsin (#4): Don’t look now, but Wisconsin is playing a little more up-tempo this year. No, they’ll never be confused with the Showtime Lakers and can still play a 45-41 grinder at a moment’s notice, but the Badgers have also won quicker paced games against St. John, Florida and Marquette. The Badgers have also knocked off St. Louis.
Three-point shooting continues to be the cornerstone of this offense, with all five starters hitting at least 39 percent from behind the arc. Frank Kaminsky has given the team a genuine post presence for the first time and sophomore Sam Dekker is one of the better players in the conference.
Michigan State (#5): A loss to North Carolina is the only black mark on Michigan State’s resume, and they’ve beaten Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. Tom Izzo is working with the conference’s best backcourt, a trio of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling. The three guards combined for 51 points per game, with both Payne and Appling being lights-out from behind the arc.
The Spartans don’t have great depth up front, but Izzo’s teams always rebound and Branden Dawson is averaging 10 points/9 rebounds a night.
ON THE NATIONAL RADAR
Three more teams are either ranked in the Top 25 or at least receiving some votes in the current AP poll…
Iowa (#22): At 11-2, the Hawkeyes have lost at Iowa State and in overtime to Villanova. Iowa has beaten Notre Dame and Xavier, and the Hawks have one of the underrated players in this league with Roy Devyn Marble. The son of a Iowa legend from the late 1980s, Marble averages 16 points a game, distributes the ball well and picks up a couple steals per game. The one thing he doesn’t do well is shoot the three-ball and no one is there to pick up the slack. Iowa plays hard, and has some decent rebounders in Aaron White and Jerrod Othoff, each of whom score in double digits. They just need a little help in loosening up defenses.
Illinois (Receiving Votes): Illinois is 10-2, has beaten UNLV and is coming off a one-point win over Missouri this past weekend. Rayvonte Rice averages 17 ppg in the backcourt, and running mate Tracy Abrams is another double-digit scorer. They get steady support from the frontcourt, and center Nnanna Egwu is the team’s best three-point shooter.
Michigan (Receiving Votes): The record is 7-4, but the losses are nothing to be ashamed of. Michigan lost to Duke, took Arizona to the wire and fell to Iowa State and Charlotte. It’s a bigger problem that there’s no quality wins, but if John Beilein’s retooled lineup continues to improve, the wins will come.
Nik Stauskas is averaging 18 ppg and is hitting 46 percent from three-point range. Mitch McGary has gotten on the glass, averaging eight rebounds a game to go with his ten points. Glenn Robinson III and Caris Lovert each average 13 ppg. All of these players are sophomores, and in this day and age, maybe it’s naive, but they could at least have a good two-year run together.
TRYING TO RECAPTURE THE MAGIC
Two more teams made the NCAA Tournament last year, but are thus far nowhere on the national radar…
Indiana: Tom Crean’s troops have lost by one to UConn, decisively to Syracuse and dropped another to Notre Dame, as Indiana tries to replace a pair of top five NBA draft picks in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
The inside-out combo of Noah Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell are the key to this year’s season. Vonleh, a freshman center, is averaging 12 points/10 rebounds. Ferrell, a sophomore guard is knocking down 17 a game and can shoot the trey. Thus far, Ferrell and Vonleh aren’t getting much help, with only Will Sheehy making any kind of contribution.
Minnesota: Rick Pitino’s son Richard is in his first year at Minneapolis, after an NCAA appearance wasn’t enough to save Tubby Smith’s job. The Gophers are 10-2, with wins over no one of consequence and losses to Syracuse and Arkansas by wide margins.
Pitino The Younger does have a balanced lineup with the Hollins duo, Andre & Austin, combining to average 30 points/11 rebounds per game in the backcourt, and Deandre Mathieu and Malik Smith being solid perimeter players. The key to the Minnesota season will be how Elliot Eliason, the lone inside presence, holds up battling for rebounds by himself.
THE REST OF THE BIG TEN
Purdue: I hope Matt Painter can get this program back on track. The Boilermakers are 10-3, but there’s nothing that tells us a lot about what the league schedule might hold. Terrone Johnson is the leading scorer in the backcourt. A.J. Hammons, a seven-foot center, gets seven rebounds a game, but needs to do even more and some consistent post scoring wouldn’t hurt either.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are arguably the conference’s most interesting team. Their best four players run between 6’6″ and 6’10”, so they won’t be outsized by anyone. Terran Gateway is knocking down 17 ppg to lead the way. What they need is a stabilizing presence in the backcourt to help close out tough conference wins.
If nothing else, Nebraska basketball has beaten Georgia, Northern Illinois, Miami and Arizona State–if the football team had done that, Bo Pelini might not have to go on rants against his own fan base.
Penn State: One of the nation’s most underrated backcourts is plugging away in Happy Valley. D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier combine to average 37 points per game and both deserve to be in the discussion for Big Ten Player of The Year. That won’t happen without wins though, and early losses to Bucknell and Princeton are not a good sign for what awaits in the Big Ten.
Northwestern: The Wildcats are 7-5 and there is zero reason to think this will be the first Northwestern team in history to make the NCAA Tournament. At least Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb are an exciting combo on the wings.
Of the three contenders, I see Ohio State as the odd team out and as league games begin, I expect them to slide behind Michigan State and Wisconsin, who look like the teams who will battle out for the conference championship. I’m a partisan Badger fan, but that also means I look for reasons to take the pressure off my own team. Can’t do it here though–Bucky looks like the Big Ten’s best.