The eyes of the Big Ten world might be on the college bowls right now, as January 1 approaches, but there’s another sport this conference is actually excelling it, where league play is at hand. Big Ten basketball has five ranked teams, three in the Top 10 and begins conference games on New Year’s Eve. TheSportsNotebook seeks to concisely break down the Big Ten basketball landscape…
Michigan and Indiana are both ranked in the top five, with Ohio State at #10. And though the national ranking for Michigan State isn’t high, Tom Izzo has earned the benefit of the doubt for his program, so I’m including them in the group of teams the eventual league champion will come out of.
Michigan: They might be #2 in the nation and undefeated, but I’m not sold on the Wolverines as being quite that good. They’ve got some decent-looking wins—N.C. State, Pitt, Arkansas and West Virginia, but nothing that overwhelms you.
Michigan an excellent backcourt in sophomore Trey Burke and junior Tim Hardaway, who combined for 32 ppg in non-conference games, with Burke being a good playmaker. Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III is off to a nice start, although in spite of his famous name—his father was national Player of the Year for Purdue in 1994 and had a good NBA career—there’s nothing to suggest Robinson is the next freshman version of Anthony Davis. In short, what I see is a good team—one of the best 16 in the country and capable of making an NCAA run if they get the right breaks, but nothing overwhelming.
The flip side of this is that the Wolverines are still better than I thought they were in the preseason. I was concerned about their lack of three-point shooting, and freshman Nick Stauskas has stepped up to give some perimeter help. The size is a concern, but Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGrary are hitting the glass. So while I don’t see this is an elite national team, I’m closer to that view today than I was on Thanksgiving.
Indiana: I never did buy into Indiana as the #1 team in the country, but with their overtime loss to Butler a couple weeks ago, the expectations are at least cooled a bit. When you can step back and take a sane look at IU, you still a good team that’s getting better. The little six-foot point guard Jordan Hulls is having a great year and is hitting 55 percent from three-point range. Victor Oladipo is also shooting well from downtown and he’s effective of the dribble. Tom Crean can slot forwards Christian Watford and Will Sheehy into the lineup and get double-digit production. Then we bring it all around to the big man, sophomore center Cody Zeller, who’s averaging 17 points/8 rebounds.
What I want to see from Indiana is a signature win. They blew out North Carolina, but with the Tar Heels rebuilding, that looked better in the media than it was on the basketball court. I have no doubt Indiana is a quality team, likely to be around a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now that they’re out of the top spot nationally, we can get back to seeing what that view for what it is, which is complimentary. Let’s just not get carried away.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have the best player in the conference in forward DeShaun Thomas. He averages 20 ppg and can do it both on the blocks and behind the arc. Thomas rebounds, to the tune of seven boards per game. If this were the NBA, with its emphasis on having the best player on the floor, Ohio State would be the favorite to win the Big Ten. As it is, they still might if Thad Matta can get the rest of the pieces settled in.
The backcourt is settled with Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, the former being the scrappy playmaker, the other being the scorer with a nice touch from the outside. Matta needs sophomore forward Sam Thompson to give Thomas some more help on the board and for sophomore guard Shannon Scott to improve as both a scoring option and defensively. Ohio State has a narrow loss at Duke, and a loss at Kansas in non-conference play, and within the league I would situate them slightly behind Indiana and narrowly ahead of Michigan.
Michigan State: Izzo has tested his team in non-conference and while he lost games at Miami, and to UConn in the season-opener on the aircraft carrier in Germany, the Spartans have also knocked off Kansas andTexas.
Michigan State is well-balanced, with Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix leading the low-post crew that attacks the boards, and Keith Appling running the show at guard and scoring 15 ppg. Branden Dawson is a decent scorer on the wing and at 6’6” is a tough matchup for smaller backcourts. When it comes to depth and the room for continued improvement, Izzo can turn to sharpshooting freshman Gary Harris and 6’5” frosh Denzell Valentine. I think Harris’ improvement is particularly important, because along with Appling, he’s the one legitimate threat to hit from behind the arc.
All four of these teams looked packed pretty closely together, which makes for an entertaining league race. I’d give Indiana the slight edge to win, with Michigan on the other end in fourth place. Then drop Ohio State and Michigan State, the two consistent contenders in this league in recent years, in between.
THE DARK HORSES
Illinois can make a credible case to be one rung higher in the pecking order. Minnesota & Wisconsin are in this group for opposite reasons—the Gophers through strong play in November and December, the Badgers because of the track record Bo Ryan’s developed in previous seasons.
Illinois: With wins over Butler and Gonzaga, the Illini have beaten top mid-major competition and took a competitive loss to Missouri for their only defeat. Illinois is up to #15 in the national polls and led by exquisite guard Brandon Paul, who averages 19 ppg and can knock down the perimeter jumper. He has able complementary pieces around him, in senior D.J. Richardson and a good sophomore three-point shooter in Tracy Abrams.
My concern over Illinois is their post presence. Tyler Griffey is the best frontcourt player, but he’s at his best when he can step out and hit from behind the arc. There’s no one else who can be relied on to hit the glass, meaning Illinois will lose some games they shouldn’t when the shooting touch goes cold. On a game-by-game basis, they belong in the conference elite. Stretched out over an 18-game league run, they’re not quite a championship contender. But they will be in the NCAA Tournament and be seeded in the top six.
Minnesota: Maybe this is what Tubby Smith needed. After a couple rough years, the Gopher coach who’s solid on the sidelines, but less so in recruiting, has a team woefully thin on depth whose best player is coming back from a bad knee injury and playing limited minutes. Naturally then, Smith is turning them into a winner. At 12-1, Minnesota’s already beaten Memphis and Florida State, and the only loss was to Duke.
The Hollins’ boys, Austin and Andre run a balanced backcourt, along with Joe Coleman, and 6’7” senior Rodney Williams is averaging 13 points/6 rebounds up front. Williams is going to need a lot of help and that’s where Trevor Mbakawe comes in. The program’s best player, he missed last year and while he’s only averaging 18 minutes per game so far, he is getting to the glass, at eight rebounds per game. If he can keep it up, Minnesota will get some signature wins at home and fight their way into the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin: This is the team I follow, and at 8-4, Wisconsin’s done nothing to suggest it can even make the NCAA Tournament, much less be a factor in a competitive Big Ten. But there are some component pieces starting to develop—Ben Brust has taken over the playmaking duties from Josh Gasser, who was lost for the year. Brust is also a sharp three-point shooter. Ryan Evans is improving his offensive game on the wing, and senior center Jared Berggren is scoring, rebounding and mixing in some three-point shooting to boot.
Bo Ryan has built a winner around shakier foundations than that, but the Gasser injury impacted depth. Ryan needs George Marshall to come along as a three-point shooting spark and Mike Bruesewitz, slowed by a concussion in December, has to provide some rebounding and some fight.
While Wisconsin hasn’t looked good, the losses are to Florida, Creighton, Virginia and Marquette. The first of those teams is talking national championship, the second might be the country’s best midmajor and the latter two are NCAA Tournament programs. In short, while the Badgers have done nothing to distinguish themselves, nor have they embarrassed themselves.
DAMAGED BY INJURIES
Wisconsin might have gotten touched by the injury bug, but what happened to Northwestern and Penn State was positively devastating. The Wildcats lost Drew Crawford, one of the best players on a team that nearly made the NCAAs a year ago. And Penn State lost Tim Frazier, the best guard in the country, even if you never would hear of him. Both players are gone for the year, and took the NCAA Tournament hopes of their teams with them.
Iowa is out strong to an 11-2 start and I suppose you could see them as intriguing, given the wave of players they run in and out. But none of the wave really stands out. Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White make for an entertaining combo of wing players and I can see Iowa harboring NCAA hopes into late February. But I can’t see them getting over the top. As evidence, I submit their losses to Wichita and Virginia Tech, the only notable games they’ve played thus far.
Nebraska ‘s Brandon Ubel can make second or third-team All-Big Ten from his post position, averaging 13 points/7 rebounds a game. And individually, the backcourt of Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley isn’t bad. But without an outside shooter to loosen up defenses on Ubel, the whole won’t match the same of the parts, and depth is also lacking.
I don’t know what happened to Matt Painter’s program at Purdue. Two years ago, the Boilermakers seemed to be back as a conference contender. Now they’re coming off a down year, have gone 5-6 this year, lost to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan and have no players of consequence.