Like we do every year, us Geeks took to an email exchange to get our season previews in order. What you see below is that exchange, followed by our predicted order of finish.
Josh: Mike, it’s great to be back for another season of Big Ten hoops. And this year, we welcome a new member to the conference! Seeing all these Huskers on the Big Ten Network is still weird to me, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a Big East fan these days. Probably a lot like being a NFLX investor.
Anyways, I think it’s great to see some fresh blood in here, but I have a primer for Nebraska fans who might not be sure what to expect:
1. Basketball is a Bigger Deal Here. While hoops will probably always play second fiddle to the Blackshirts, but in general, basketball is a higher priority in the Big Ten than the Big 12. Undoubtedly, a big reason for that is the state of Texas’ dominance over the Big 12, where high school football games look more like college football games. Outside Kansas though, basketball is sort of treated as an “oh yeah, basketball” afterthought. Not here. In the Big Ten, fans are nuts, traditions are long, and the conference slate is a dogfight. It’s hard to ever see the Big Ten being dominated by one team the way Kansas has dominated the Big 12 because those Texas schools are too focused on the gridiron. Even Bobby Knight couldn’t dominate the conference, and the man has over 900 wins.
2. You Will Not Play Fast. Sure, teams try. Two years ago, Iowa was one of the slowest teams in the conference using Todd Lickliter’s plodding system. In comes Fran McCaffrey, who wants to install his uptempo offense. And it works–kind of. Iowa becomes the fastest team in the conference, up from 9th the year before. But even so, Iowa was merely average in terms of tempo on a national scale. The Big Ten simply forces teams to slow down. Many have tried to speed things up (Tom Crean, Tubby Smith, and seemingly every year Tom Izzo takes another stab at it), but this conference has not been fast for a while. And you know what? They’re none the worse for it. While McCaffrey succeeded in getting his team to play faster, Iowa still managed just four conference wins last season.
3. Parity Reigns Supreme. If one were to guess the ACC champ five years from now and were afforded two guesses, everyone knows who those guesses would be spent on. In the Big 12 (assuming it exists in ten years), people think Kansas. The SEC is Kentucky’s conference, with the occasional Florida challenge. In the Pac 12, there’s UCLA, Arizona, and occasionally Washington. There are more contenders in the Big East, but the conference is huge (at least for now).
But the Big Ten? Tons of contenders. Michigan State is probably the team most outsiders look to as the dean of the conference. But the truth is that Wisconsin has been much better over the past decade. Ohio State has been the powerhouse team over the past couple of seasons, and typically brings in the most blue-chip recruits…except that it’s Illinois with the most top-100 players currently on the roster. And as far as futures go, Indiana’s looks plenty bright as well. And let’s not forget Purdue, which has a nice batch of recruits on the horizon as well. Oh, I almost forgot Michigan, which just landed a top-5 player for next season. As a whole, there might not be a conference more well-positioned for the future. And that means that the conference season will be extremely competitive.
But let’s get to this season. Ohio State is the easy pick as conference champ, but frankly everything else after that is up for grabs. One of the most intriguing teams is Purdue. So far, they’ve lacked an inside threat, instead shooting a ton of threes and basically missing two-pointers. Indeed, at the moment this team shoots better from beyond 20 feet than from within 20 feet. That’s unsustainable, as is Ryne Smith shooting 62 percent from behind the arc. When those things stop happening, how will Purdue fare (considering this team is 5 points from being 1-2 right now)? I guess we’ll see tonight, when they face Temple. (Purdue ended up victorious against Temple, but fell short against a very good Alabama team in its next game).
Mike: Purdue’s offense has been interesting so far. Robbie Hummel has assumed a huge shot diet, as we expected, and his accuracy hasn’t suffered one bit. Guys like Ryne Smith and Kelsey Barlow have gotten a lot more aggressive without losing efficiency either. For me, the biggest surprise so far has been Purdue’s ability to avoid turning it over. I figured that having so many guys in higher usage roles than they are accustomed would be a recipe for a high turnover rate, but that hasn’t been the case so far. We’ll see what happens when they face a good defense.
You’re right, the team isn’t going to shoot 46 percent from three for the season, so they’ll have to figure out other ways to score. I really like the boost they are getting from redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson, but otherwise the supporting cast has looked reluctant to get involved. If your top three options are Hummel, Smith, and Barlow, you’re going to get a ton of jump shots. At least they generally have the sense to attempt them from being the arc and not inside it.
I’m befuddled by Purdue’s defensive troubles in the early going. A bad High Point team scored a point per possession at Mackey, then Iona–admittedly a good offense–dropped 1.12 points per trip on the Boilers. It could be that Painter’s overplaying style of defense doesn’t work so well without a shot eraser like JaJuan Johnson on the weakside, but I do think he’ll get it figured out.
Speaking of figuring things out, what do you make of Michigan’s lackluster start? Sure, they’re 3-0, but they haven’t exactly lit the world on fire against three really bad teams. Is it just early season kinks, or is there real reason for concern in Ann Arbor?
Josh: Well, if I had Michigan as a top 20 team in the preseason, sure, I’d be worried. But I’m not convinced the Wolverines are quite so good, largely because I have my doubts that the defense will improve on last season (Beilein’s best-ever defense), or that the offense can go into hyperdrive with questions at point guard. Keep in mind that Michigan shot over 38 percent from three-point range in Big Ten play last season (and in a Beilein offense that attempts so many threes, that’s really good) and featured one of the best point guards in the country, let alone the conference. Still, the Wolverine offense finished a mere 6th in Big Ten play on a point-per-possession basis.
Granted, Big Ten offense was great last year, so that’s not too shabby. But lose the point guard, replace him with a freshman, and it’s hard to see them doing so well on offense that they improve significantly overall despite a defense that regresses to more familiar territory for Beilein.
Of course, through three games against terrible competition, the problem has not been defense at all (thanks to forcing turnovers 37 percent of the time), but rather the offense. Michigan is having trouble from deep, at under 30 percent. Indeed, they failed to score 65 points against Towson–something that happened to Towson opponents all of three times last season. I think Michigan makes the Tournament, and rather comfortably. But I’m hesitant to go any higher until I see some breakout material from the likes of Jon Horford or Matt Vogrich.
Next on our list of Teams In The Middle With Big Question Marks, how about Michigan State? There’s no shame in losing to Duke and UNC, and while the defense looked very good, the offense was awful. Does this have anything to do with the point guard situation? As we’re still waiting on Keith Appling’s first assist on the season, is it fair to assume he’s dropped out of the race?
Mike: I think we agree on this–Draymond Green is Michigan State’s point guard, size and style stereotypes be damned. And a big chunk of their offensive issues stem from Day-Day’s slow start. Green is the team’s leading shot-taker and has posted an effective field goal percentage south of 30 percent. Given his track record, that’s headed way up. More concerning than the shooting, however, is Michigan State’s turnover problems, which always seem to be the monkey on Tom Izzo’s back. We should accept that Izzo is never going to field an offense that takes great care of the ball, but they need to keep that turnover rate closer to “mediocre” instead of “face-melting” to have a good season. So far, those results aren’t encouraging, but we need to see how they do against defenses that aren’t among the nation’s best.
That Michigan State defense is looking just as good as I thought it might, even without Delvon Roe. Branden Dawson has been extremely active, and Adreian Payne is good enough to make people forget the terrible movie associated with his name. If the Spartans can get their offense going, they will be dangerous.
How about another mystery team–should Illinois fans be concerned with that offense?
Josh: In a word, yes. In the three games played so far, the Illini’s defense has clearly lagged the offense. The culprit is an out-of-control turnover rate (a familiar theme early on for Big Ten teams), which, to be fair, is probably also a function of Bruce Weber reaching deep into his bench for these early games. Still, you can’t find six players for the Illini without severe turnover issues, meaning this is a problem that won’t disappear entirely as we move into Big Ten play. Just like Michigan State, it’s not clear who the point guard is right now. Tracy Abrams’ eye-popping turnover rate suggests he’s not the guy, and it might just be a two-horse race between Brandon Paul and transfer Sam Maniscalco. Neither solution is ideal, but it’s at least workable. The biggest question the Illini have is which version of Meyers Leonard they have the season. Is it the guy shooting 66 percent from the floor, rebounding at a high level, and blocking nearly a quarter of the opponents’ two-point attempts? Or is it the guy turning it over on nearly a third of his possessions? One thing I know–it isn’t both. As most figured, the fate of Illinois’ season largely rests on his shoulders.
Let’s continue the theme of flawed offenses (again, a familiar theme. Looks like we won’t see a repeat of last year’s explosive scoring this season), and take a look at Nebraska and Minnesota. Are both these teams destined for a sub-1.0 point-per-possession mark? What would Ryne Smith be worth to Tubby Smith right about now?
Mike: I think Minnesota has some hope for a decent offense. Trevor Mbakwe will be wrecking havoc on the interior all season (not anymore), so they really just need competent play around him. Ralph Sampson can contribute with free-throw line jumpers, and Rodney Williams will make the occasional dunk, so that leaves it on the backcourt. Austin and Andre Hollins have had some turnover issues, as could be expected, but they’ve shot very well. If those two guys can simply be steady shot-makers that don’t turn it over too much, Minnesota will be just fine.
Nebraska, on the other hand, has a bigger hill to climb. Their offense hasn’t been good for a long time, and the early returns aren’t good–the Huskers were held below a point per trip by both South Dakota and USC. I’m not a fan of Bo Spencer’s game, but Dylan Talley could be the guy to get them over the hump. Even if Doc Sadler doesn’t get that offense figured out, nobody will look forward to playing Nebraska’s “no twos” defense. The Huskers are bringing more to the basketball side of the equation than I figured back when their addition was announced, but this could be their best shot at the tourney for awhile (four of their top seven are seniors).
All this talk of defense-heavy teams is dragging me down. We need a refreshing burst of offense. Does Wisconsin have a shot at again having a more efficient offense (in Big Ten play) than Ohio State?
Josh: You’re much more optimistic about Minnesota’s offense (and the Hollins brothers) than I am. Andre is a freshman and Austin shot 26 percent from range last season.
As for Wisconsin, well, I admit, I just go all schoolgirl-giddy when I talk about a Bo Ryan offense. The guy just never fails to put a hyperefficient squad out there. Yes, Ohio State’s weapons are unmatched in the conference, but as long as Wisconsin pushes the limits of careful ballhandling, he’ll always be in the running. Of course, you still have to play defense, and the Buckeyes are almost certainly going to be better on that end.
Speaking of offense, Indiana’s has looked quite potent so far, thanks in large part to Victor Oladipo. Are they this good, or is this a function of running up the score on cupcakes?
Mike: The Hoosiers took what I thought could be a tough game for them (at Evansville) and turned it into a laugher right out of the gates. The pieces do seem to be there for a good offense, but we must remember that this same team (minus Cody Zeller) had the Big Ten’s ninth-best offense a season ago. Guys get older and improve, but I think we’re mostly just seeing a solid team beat up on cupcakes. It’s also notable that IU’s defense, while improved, still doesn’t look all that special. This hot start seems to have convinced a lot of people that Indiana will make a run to the NCAA tournament this year, but I’m sticking with our original forecast of that being another season away. We’ll all have a better idea in a couple weeks, after games against Butler, NC State, Kentucky, and Notre Dame.
Let’s talk about another team whose defense could be their downfall–Northwestern. Do you agree that the Wildcats simply won’t improve enough defensively to get over the hump?
Josh: Every year, we have this question. Might as well rename it The Northwestern Question. But yes, I think the defense holds them back, once again. Juice’s absence should improve the defense, but it’s going to take a lot more than extra servings of Alex Marcotullio and JerShon Cobb to render this defense adequate. And sadly, with this being Shurna’s senior season, we might not see The Northwestern Question for a few years if the Wildcats fail to make the field this year.
OK, let’s move on to the bottom of the conference–what are you looking for out of Iowa and Penn State?
Mike: Iowa has been running wild on their cupcakes, but I still feel they slot right in there below the muddled middle of the Big Ten. It does seem that Fran McCaffery has a lot more trusted depth than last season, so we may see another uptick in tempo from the Hawkeyes (though, as you said, you can only run so much in the Big Ten). Iowa won’t be easy to beat, especially at home, but they still seem to be a notch below most of the conference.
Except for Penn State. The Nittany Lions are getting by just fine in the early going by being the Tim Frazier show, but that’s not going to work against better competition. Penn State won’t embarrass the Big Ten like some cellar dwellers will (*cough* DePaul/LSU/Utah *cough*), but they are clearly the 12th best team in a 12 team conference. The defense was looking good in the first two games, but allowing over a point per trip to Long Island isn’t a good sign.
Let’s move on to individual players. Who do you like as a breakout candidate? Can you come up with something more ridiculous than me comparing Brandon Paul to Kemba Walker?
Josh: I’m not sure I can top that, frankly, but there are a few players in mind that I expect to have big seasons. Now, certainly, I expect guys like Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Melsahn Basabe to improve and become A-listers, but these guys were really good last year. Instead, I’d like to focus on players that were largely afterthoughts last season.
And what better place to start than with Victor Oladipo? My mancrush on the IU wing is well documented, and this year I think he becomes the player we think of when we think of the Hoosiers–moreso than Christian Watford or Cody Zeller. There’s also DeShaun Thomas, but everybody has picked that guy (although I suppose it’s not my directive to be cunning). Someone is going to have to step up and be Robbie Hummel’s sidekick, and that’s a difficult forecast, given that just about everyone not named E’Twaun or JaJuan was a role player last season. I’ll go with Lewis Jackson, who consumed a decent amount of possessions at a high efficiency last season. I also really like Jared Berggren at Wisconsin to become a deadly force inside the paint, Jon Horford’s rebounding intrigues me, and Meyers Leonard certainly has all the talent in the world to dominate. Evan Smotrycz is also a guy who consumed a decent number of possessions last year and held his own as a freshman. And even though he had no statline to analyze last year, Ben Brust’s strong start certainly has my attention.
What do you think, did I leave anyone out? What about freshmen, who do you see leading the pack? Is it Zeller’s to lose?
Mike: Wow, I think you’ve got all the breakout candidates covered – some good choices in there. As for the freshmen, I do think Zeller has the inside track–his defense and rebounding have been fantastic, and he’s shooting 83 percent from the field–but there’s a lot of positive contributors so far. Andre Hollins is helping Minnesota with his ability to get to the foul line. Trey Burke is off to a solid start in the Michigan backcourt. Branden Dawson has played well except for some turnover issues. Anthony Johnson looks like a willing and able scorer for the Boilermakers. Iowa’s Aaron White has even shown me flashes of Jon Leuer (maybe it’s just the body frame and the #30 jersey). It’s very early, so some of this may be a smokescreen, but we’re seeing freshmen chip in all over the conference.
When it comes to B1G Player of the Year, the obvious race is between Jared Sullinger and Jordan Taylor. Let’s hear your bold prediction for the winner. Do you see anybody else having a shot at it?
Josh: I agree it will probably be between those two guys, but let’s not forget about Robbie Hummel. The caveat with the forward is always “if healthy…,” but when he’s met that condition we’re talking about a player that scores, creates, rebounds, defends, and protects the heck out of the basketball. If he’s still standing at the end of the conference season, I expect him to be in the thick of it. Also, I think Trevor Mbakwe deserves more mention especially because of his contributions on defense. (not so much now)
But my choice is Jordan Taylor. More than any other player in the conference, his team routinely turns to him and says “uh, you figure it out,” and the guy not only produces, but at such high efficiency levels you’d think he was only attempting wide-open jumpshots. No, the guy isn’t the best defender (though there’s certainly some evidence to the theory that this is by design, so as to maximize his minutes), but there’s just no overcoming Taylor’s offense. By at least one measure, he was absolutely robbed of the Naismith last year. Here’s hoping he gets his due this season.
OK, give me your pick and take us home with your thoughts on next week’s Challenge.
Mike: I hate to be boring, but I have to agree on Taylor for B1G POY. I’m not sure enough people realize how special of a player he is in the college game. I’m sure the uncertainty of what he’ll do at the next level has something to do with it, as well as Wisconsin’s slow pace and the fact that what he does so well (avoid turnovers) isn’t something you can show on SportsCenter.
As for the annual ACC challenge, the kenpom numbers say that the Big Ten should win it 7-5, but I actually think it will be 8-4 good guys. I see the Big Ten winning four or five on Tuesday, allowing them to coast to victory on Wednesday. Am I just being a B1G homer? Also, how do you see the two biggies playing out (Duke at Ohio State, Wisconsin at UNC)?
Josh: I’m going to be cautious here and predict 7-5 Big Ten, though not necessarily how Pomeroy sees it. In my mind, the most interesting games are Indiana versus North Carolina State and Michigan State against Florida State. Pomeroy’s computer likes IU and MSU a bit more than I do right now, and these games will provide for an excellent barometer.
As for the marquee matchups, I think the Big Ten sweeps, and Bo Ryan becomes a media darling for a week, until the rest of America tunes in for a 55 possession special and decides against doing so again (it’s OK Bo, I’ll always love your basketball).
I’ll check in again at midseason, Mike. Till then, go B1G!