By all accounts, the Big Ten is the best league in basketball this season with six ranked teams and two in the top five. The big question is, of course, whether or not this deep league finally breaks through for the first time in a decade with a national championship after several losses in the Final Four and championship game. There’s a lot to say about each team so let’s give the intro the ole’ heave-ho and get right down to it.
Will Dance (Lock):
Indiana: Um, yeah, with their top five producers all returning and led by out-of-this-world talent Cody Zeller this team isn’t just a lock but a title contender. Provided, of course, they make it through the season with no major injuries. Fun fact, freshman Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, the 24th-best prospect in America and Jeremy Hollowell, the 42nd-ranked prospect, are already contributing and gaining experience. That translates to this Hoosier team most likely dominating the league for years to come. Is “they’rrrrrrreeeeeeeee baaaaaaack” too cliche?
Michigan: When you lose your opening round game as a 4-seed, folks tend to forget about you. When Michigan started the season highly ranked a few fans probably thought — why? Well, the Wolverines won 24 games a year ago, 13 in the stacked Big Ten. They also return a few useful players. Some kid named Trey Burke. He might play in the NBA. Another is some schmo named Tim Hardaway Jr. They only averaged 15 a night last year and Burke added 4.6 assists per. This tandem makes Michigan solid but adding a cherry on top was the program’s recruiting class. Included in it was Nik Stauskas, a top 100 prospect — and he’s Canadian! — Mitch McGary, a top 30 prospect and the crown jewel; Glenn Robinson III. In the past a team like this would have been “too young” to be a serious contender to win it all. Well for better or worse, the college hoops landscape has changed radically and this young, fun, and absurdly talented Michigan club will be a serious contender all year.
Michigan State: An 0-2 start to Duke and Carolina may have lead to some snickers from around the nation, but there was nothing funny about the 15 wins the Spartans ripped off directly afterwards. Twenty-four wins in all (13 in-league) set up a nice run in Indy to win the Big Ten tournament, but the NCAA trip was a lot less sweet. A Sweet 16 loss by 13, in which they only mustered 44 points, ended the season for Sparty. While Draymond Green, who was like a Swiss Army Knife, is gone, there is still plenty of talent. Keith Appling is a star, Branden Dawson had a nice freshman year and is already stepping it up, there are several veterans and then there is Gary Harris. The No. 11 recruit in the nation will be a stud. He was banged up earlier in the year and MSU had some rough outings without him, but when he is in and everyone is healthy, this is a fun club to watch. Health will be an issue though if anyone goes down with substantial injury. In the early going, Izzo’s bench does not look as deep as it normally is.
Ohio State: A two point loss in the Final Four dashed Buckeye dreams of their first national title since the Kennedy administration. Then another punch (though it wasn’t a surprise) came when Jared Sullinger headed off for the NBA. A recruiting season full of swings and misses — like Shabazz Muhammad, who signed on at UCLA — left OSU with just one freshman on the roster. Yet, here they stand, a lock to make the field. Sully and William Buford may be gone but Deshaun Thomas is a legit star. Aaron Craft has always been a good defender and playmaker but now he is adding more scoring to his repertoire. Lanzelle Smith Jr. is responding well to his increased role and Thad Matta is a pretty dang good coach. This team will be fine, better than fine actually. They have the talent to eye another deep run in March. I need to bring it up just since its a fun name to type and say, but that lone freshman is a sharp-shooting Italian named Amedeo Della Valle. I hope he becomes a star so I can hear Dickie V, Bill Rafferty or Verne Lundquist say that name.
Can Dance (Bubble):
Illinois: The dysfunctional Illini started 10-0 last season but won just a single game the final month of the year, and six league games in total, to limp to the end. Bruce Webber, already on the hot seat at the basketball-crazed school was promptly fired and in came Jim Groce, who led the Ohio Bobcats to the Sweet 16. Illinois has raced out of the gates again this year and with veterans (and very talented players) in D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey as well as a nice role player in Joseph Bertrand, the Orange Crush appear to have a very nice supporting cast for one of the legit super stars of the league, Brandon Paul. The hesitation to give this team a lock status is how it all went off the rails a season ago. Also, the schedule thus far has been quite easy to navigate. The squad did beat up on Gonzaga on the 8th, but let’s see it performs at Missouri on the 22nd before sipping the kool-aid too much. As a Big Ten fan, I would love to see Illinois back because the last few years have not been kind to the league’s second most hoops-focused school.
Iowa: The young Hawkeyes came together after an ugly non-conference record to go 8-10 in-league and make the NIT. This year’s team is both more experienced and more talented. Roy Devyn Marble continues to grow his game. Last year’s freshman phenom Aaron White is poised to be the type of player Iowa fans will talk about for years to come. Helping this duo out is a college-ready point guard in Mike Gesell and the top 40 recruit Adam Woodbury in the post. Woodbury has had a slow start but he lit a fire under Melsahn Basabe’s tail. Basabe had a great freshman year and a horrible sophomore year. The competition for playing time has awakened a hunger in him early. I’ll admit, as a Hawkeyes homer, maybe putting the Hawks on the bubble this early is a bit of a reach and with the first three games of the league slate against ranked teams, things won’t be easy, but this team showed a lot of strides last year. It has already won seven games and if they can take care of business against the Penn States and Nebraskas of the world, they’ll have a decent record. An upset here or there will also pad that resume since the Big Ten is so stacked — a lot of teams will be on the bubble purely because of a nice RPI. Iowa might be a year away from dancing, but they keep their nose in the hunt for a seed deep into the season, and that’s the definition of a bubble team,
Minnesota: Hold tight Gopher fans, I know you are steamed to see your team down here; especially with a top 15 ranking. Here are my reservations about the Gophers. They did the same thing last year. Huh? Well, they were on a tear early going 12-1 out of conference before a dismal 6-12 mark sent them to the NIT. Rodney Williams is performing at a high level again this year and Andre and Austin Hollins are also playing well. Off the court headache Trevor Mbakwe also returns. Until what is essentially the same cast as last year shows they can go through the grind of Big Ten play relatively unscathed I will take a wait-and-see approach with the Gophers.
Wisconsin: Each season fans around the Big Ten wonder if this is the year the Badgers finally take a step back. Well it wasn’t 2011. 24-9, 12 league wins and a trip to Sweet 16 before an utterly heartbreaking loss to Syracuse prevented them from making the Elite Eight. Well its another year and fans are wondering if the Badgers will take a step back. It is tempting to say yes. After all, Josh Gasser went down with an ACL in practice. Losing your point guard that close to the season is never easy. Ben Brust is an erratic player that can both delight and confound fans in back-to-back possessions. Then there are the reasons why that slide won’t happen. Jared Berggren might be the best big man Bo Ryan has ever coached, and that’s saying something. Mike Bruesewitz is a great grinder and gives you those effort plays on loose balls and rebounds. Ryan Evans continues to grow his game and finally there is the coach, Bo. His system makes very good players elite college players (i.e. Alando Tucker) and makes the average look good. One player that would be solid regardless of where he went is freshman Sam Dekker, a top 20 recruit. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see his game yet, I strongly suggest you do.
Has Some Moves (NIT/Building)
Northwestern: At 10-2 it seemed like the Wildcats were finally in a position to make the NCAAs for the first time in school history. Unfortunately they went just 8-10 in-league and those 10 non-con wins were rather weak for their computer outlook. My hesitation with NU after its seven-win start so far (though the Maryland and UIC games leave a bit to be desired) is this club graduated John Shurna, one of the best players in the nation a year ago. As good as Drew Crawford is, I’m not sure the supporting cast is there. Reggie Hearn is scoring 14 a night, doubling his figures from a year ago. Can he keep it up? Dave Sobolewski is still very young and let’s not mention the season-long suspension for JerShon Cobb. Lastly, and maybe this is unfair, but you know how certain teams can go 19-11 but they’ll get the benefit of the doubt based on their track record? It feels as if Northwestern works the opposite way. 19-11 might not be good enough for them to make The Dance because there is that assumption. I’ll end with a compliment though. Of the teams in this group (and the next), NU has by far the highest ceiling and could work their way onto the bubble, and maybe to the Tourney, once we hit February and March.
Purdue: The Boilermakers’ 2011 campaign was a bittersweet one. Oft-injured Robbie Hummell played the entire way — and well in fact — but the damage to his knees showed as he wasn’t the same player. Worse, the talented recruiting class he was a part of was gone. They won 21 games and gave Kansas a fantastic show in the Round of 32 but the question of “what might have been” will always be with Big Ten fans. Purdue enters this season with a far less talented roster. So far they have been banking on Terone Johnson to continue his growth and senior D.J. Byrd to also keep improving. Both have so far. They also have an intriguing freshman class, including top 100 prospects Ronnie Johnson and A.J. Hammons. Is this a good team? Maybe. Is this a team that will build for next year? You better believe it. They’ll score enough wins through the year to keep Mackey Arena buzzing, but making the NCAA field might be a bit of a stretch with this team, this year.
Nebraska: The Huskers lost their two best players from a year ago. When a team only wins four league games, that could be a good thing, but I don’t think so in this case. They have a new coach, Tim Miles from Colorado State, who has never had to go through the grind of this type of league. Two seniors and a junior are leading the way so far and with that veteran experience there’s a chance Nebraska could get a look from the NIT or CBI. This could especially hold true the way they are racking up wins against a creampuff non-con schedule, but it’ll be at least a year until they get a whiff of the NCAAs.
Penn State: Pat Chambers came to Penn State full of energy and optimism. It was noble, considering he was taking over the league’s worst team. It may have been a little naive too, since it was just his third season as a head coach — ever. The youthful Lions took their lumps en route to a 12 win (4 in-league) season but Tim Frazier was first team all-Big Ten so the optimism Chambers had a year ago had spread. Unfortunately, Frazier has been hurt and is lost for the season. The team is still extremely youthful with just four upperclassmen. With Frazier, who knows; they might have gotten closer to .500 and maybe even stunned the experts and made the NIT. Now, improving on four league wins and staying out of the basement seems like what Chambers and his staff should be striving for.
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