Big Ten Basketball Race: Showdowns Ahead This Week
We’re about one-third of the way through the conference schedules in the college basketball season and the Big Ten has a big week ahead. Four teams have just one loss in league play and they all go head-to-head this week. It starts tonight with Iowa-Wisconsin (9 PM ET, ESPN) and continues on Thursday night with Maryland-Indiana (9, ESPNU). Let’s take this opportunity for a quick primer on the key players in the Big Ten basketball race.
Let me begin by saying that by no means am I dismissing Michigan State, which has two losses. Nor Michigan, who won last year’s Big Ten title in a runaway. But there will be other opportunities to discuss those teams. For now, we know that two teams will be tied for first by the weekend and those two will be the winners of the games above. Here’s a summation of Wisconsin, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa.
Wisconsin (16-2 overall, 4-1 league, ranked #6): The top-heavy favorite when the season opened, the Badgers have mostly lived up to their press clippings. Their home loss to Duke was a great game against an extremely good opponent. Then UW dumped a game to Rutgers and lost point guard Traevon Jackson to a foot injury until the latter part of February.
Wisconsin still has a physical front line, with national Player Of The Year candidate Frank Kaminsky averaging 17 points/8 rebounds. Nigel Hayes, an immensely talented sophomore is coming into his own with a 12/7 average, and versatile Sam Dekker is at 12/5. Josh Gasser is a lights-out three-point shooter that loosens up defenses for the inside players.
This is clearly the most talented team in the Big Ten, but there are two concerns. First, we don’t know how the offense is going to function without Jackson running the show. Second, Wisconsin really hasn’t beaten anyone. Oklahoma is the most impressive win.
This isn’t incredibly alarming because the Badgers haven’t played the best teams in the Big Ten so saying they haven’t beaten anyone is really just a way of saying they lost to Duke. So the Badgers are still the team to beat, but if they don’t play well against the top contenders, something that starts tonight, keep this in mind.
Maryland (17-2 overall, 5-1 league, ranked #13): Maryland has the most impressive resume of any Big Ten team right now. The Terps have swept Michigan State and beaten a good Iowa State team. One of their losses was on the road at undefeated Virginia.
Maryland has gotten a big spark from freshman Melo Trimble. The 6’2” guard is averaging 16 ppg, and he joins talented senior guard Dez Wells, who knocks down 14 ppg. Jake Layman, a 6’8” junior, bangs around underneath to the tune of 15 points/7 rebounds per game.
The lack of depth inside is a concern, but Michigan State is the most likely team to have exploited that, and the Terps met the challenge not once, but twice. The bigger challenge will be on February 24 when they have their lone meeting with Wisconsin.
Indiana (14-4 overall, 4-1 league, ranked #23): Tom Crean’s Hoosiers love to shoot the three-ball. A guard-heavy lineup spreads the floor and lets it fly from behind the arc. No one shoots from downtown better than James Blackmon Jr, averaging 17 ppg. And point guard Yogi Ferrell is as good a guard as there is in this league, averaging 15 points/4 rebounds/5 assists, as he does it all each time out.
IU is a small team though, with only 6’7” sophomore Troy Williams (13/6) to play underneath. They’ve looked woefully overmatched by Louisville, and lost an overtime game to Georgetown because they couldn’t match up with the Hoyas inside game. There have been some nice wins—SMU and Pitt—but while the Hoosiers’ aggressive three-point shooting can make them a nightmare for a favorite to play, it also makes them likely to dump a few games when the shots don’t fall.
Iowa (13-5 overall, 4-1 league, ranked #25): Iowa is the reverse of Indiana—the Hawkeyes find their strength underneath with Aaron White and Jarrod Utoff, while struggling in the backcourt. White and Utoff combine to average 29/14 each night, and they’ve been able to beat North Carolina and sweep Ohio State. Losses to Texas, Syracuse and Iowa State aren’t bad. But they’ve also lost to Northern Iowa.
Iowa plays exceptionally hard and they’ve been able to give Wisconsin a hard time in Madison, something not a lot of teams can say. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on tonight, but over the long season the lack of consistent guard play will likely doom any conference championship hopes.
If you could combine Indiana’s guards with Iowa’s frontcourt, you’d have a championship contender. Right now, both teams look more like spoilers. Wisconsin looks a lot more complete than Maryland, but the Terps have demonstrated more on the floor to this point in the season. I’m a partisan Wisconsin fan and am still picking the Badgers to win the Big Ten basketball race, but they face tough challenges ahead.