The Big Ten Middle: Michigan, Wisconsin & Indiana

In the Big Ten’s race for the NCAA Tournament, three times fall in the Forgotten Middle Class. At the top you have likely conference champ Michigan State and Ohio State, still with an outside shot at a co-championship. On the bubble, you have Purdue and Northwestern, and if you’re feeling generous, Illinois and Minnesota. But situated in the middle are solid basketball teams in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana, all currently projected as top 16 teams nationally by bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Just as TheSportsNotebook looked at the Big East’s forgotten middle yesterday, we continue our election-year pitch to the middle class by examining the Big Ten’s Middle Three.

Michigan (21-8, 11-5, projected #3 seed): The Wolverines suffered a disappointing home loss to Purdue over the weekend that ended their dark horse bid for the Big Ten title, but that’s the only loss they’ve taken since February 5 when they fell at Michigan State. John Beilein’s team has been ruthless on its home floor, beating all the contenders—Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana—in the friendly confines of Ann Arbor. UM has a non-conference win over Memphis, and it’s only losses outside the conference are to Duke and Virginia.

Michigan does it with a lot of finesse, as no player in its top six goes over 6’9” and none average more than six rebounds a game. But the backcourt trio of Trey Burke, Zack Novak and Tim Hardaway Jr. combines for 38 ppg. Novak can hit the three-ball, as can sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz. In the games ahead in the conference tournament at Indianapolis and then in the NCAA Tournament, shot selection will be at a premium. Hardaway is not a good three-point shooter (though he is effective inside the arc) and Burke is mediocre. The Wolverines cannot have shooters other than Novak and Smotrycz getting carried away from long range, particularly given they’re not likely to be rebounding the misses. Given the importance of Novak’s playmaking to the offense, it’s also going to be important for other scorers to step up—Hardaway off the dribble and Smotrycz stepping out are the best guesses.

Beilein deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done with this group. It’s got the talent to be a decent team, but not one that would be a legitimate contender in a league that grades out as America’s best in the RPI. When TheSportsNotebook hands out conference Player and Coach of the Year honors next week, Beilein will certainly be a part of that discussion.

Wisconsin (21-8, 10-6, projected #4 seed): Bo Ryan is always part of the discussion when it comes to Big Ten Coach Of The Year, or at least he should be. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, the Badgers got big non-conference wins over UNLV & BYU, both of whom look NCAA bound. The only December losses were to Marquette, and a competitive one at North Carolina that was probably more impressive than any of the wins. Big Ten play started slowly at 1-3, but Wisconsin has won nine of its last twelve, including road wins at Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and most recently at Ohio State on Sunday.

Jordan Taylor is easily this team’s best player, although his 14 points/4 rebounds/4 assists stat line does have to be considered somewhat of a disappointment, as does his mediocre 34 percent shooting from behind the arc. The positive is that Wisconsin fans—a group that includes this writer—can hope that means Taylor can lift his game in the big moments ahead. Ryan Evans is averaging 11 ppg at small forward, although no player in American has a greater capacity to first make a brilliant drive to the hoop and then slam the shot off the backboard with velocity this state normally only sees from Aaron Rodgers or Yovani Gallardo. The top post player is Jared Berggen, only the 6’10” junior is at his best when he circles out to shoot the three-ball. Josh Gasser’s point totals don’t blow you away, but he is the best Ryan has from behind the arc.

As is the case with Ryan’s teams, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and defense is a core part of Wisconsin’s success. The conference tournament has been a disappointment for UW since they won it in 2008 and the head coach is hungry to make his first Final Four. If a run in Indy or in the NCAAs is going to happen, Taylor needs to have a couple “hop on my back and I’ll carry you” kind of games.

Indiana (22-7, 9-7, projected #4 seed): IU is the one team of this group that might have already peaked. They went 12-0 in December, including being the only team to beat Kentucky, plus knocking off Notre Dame, N.C. State and Butler. Since a 3-1 start to Big Ten play, they’ve split their last twelve, including losses at Nebraska and Iowa. A home win at Illinois came after the Illini meltdown of February, but they do have solid road wins at Purdue and a big 69-50 win at Minnesota this past weekend was one of the best showings Tom Crean has seen from his team lately.

If Indiana rediscovers its mojo, they have the most balanced lineup of the three teams under review here today. Cody Zeller, the 6’11” freshman is perhaps the third-best pure post player in the entire conference, trailing only Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Michigan State’s Draymond Green. Jordan Hulls, the little 6’0” guard scores 11 ppg and hits 48 percent from behind the arc. Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo provide reliable scoring at the forward spots and Watford can hit the three-ball—the buzzer-beater he hit to nail Kentucky was no fluke, but a regular part of his offensive repertoire. Off the bench Will Sheehy can drain the trey.

Therefore Crean has a nice combination of an inside post presence coupled with good three-point shooting that can keep you competitive with anyone, with the Kentucky game—along with a win over Ohio State—to back it up. What the coach needs to do is ban Oladipo or guard Verdell Jones from even considering shooting the trey. Both are under 30 percent and both attempt too many. If Indiana plays to its significant strengths they can close the season strong, starting with a home game against Michigan State tonight (7 PM ET, ESPN), continuing with a home game against Purdue and onto postseason play.

For all three of these teams, winning the conference tournament next week should be seen as an important goal. None are going to win the Big Ten title. While all three are decent darkhorses to make the Final Four, it would undeniably take a few doses of luck for that to happen. The best chance for Michigan, Wisconsin or Indiana to punctuate solid seasons with some real championship hardware is next week at Indianapolis’ Conseco Field House.