You have more questions, and I have more answers in this week’s mailbag. With the basketball season heating up, readers wonder who the best team is in the Big Ten, what’s wrong with Wisconsin, and who have been the top freshmen. But also: Did Montee Ball make the correct decision to come back for his senior year? I’ll tell you what I think but then you can tell me what you think about that question and others in the comments box at the end of my post.
Who have been some of the top freshmen this season? – Joe, Racine, Wis.
There are some good ones.
Indiana big man Cody Zeller has been the best of the bunch, already winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors five times and averages 14.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
And how about Michigan point man Trey Burke? The guy has been a phenom and catalyst for the Wolverines, averaging 13.8 points, 5.0 assists with a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. How did Ohio State let him get out of Columbus?
Northwestern’s Dave Sobolewski paces the Big Ten and ranks third in the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio (4.07) and averages 3.8 assists. Strong.
And Iowa’s Aaron White is catching everyone’s eye.
What team has been the biggest surprise so far? – Pete, Logansport, Ind.
I would say Indiana. Yes, most people felt the Hoosiers would be better in their fourth season under Tom Crean, who entered the year with a 28-66 mark. But few could have envisioned how dominating Indiana has been. The wins over the nation’s No. 1 (Kentucky) and No. 2 (Ohio State) teams grabbed everyone’s attention and showed how good this team can be behind the play of freshman sensation Cody Zeller and veterans like Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Verdell Jones—among others.
Were you surprised that Montee Ball opted to return for his senior season at Wisconsin? – Joe, Sandusky, Ohio
Yes, I was. Running backs only have so much “tread on their tires.” And Ball already has used a lot of it at Wisconsin with 568 career carries for 3,310 yards. I just don’t know how much more he really can improve himself coming off a season that saw him run for a national best 1,923 yards and tie the NCAA single-season touchdown mark with 39. Yes, Ball only got a third-round grade from the NFL, but there are a lot of good NFL backs picked in the third round or later. In fact, some of the top backs weren’t even picked, guys like Houston’s Arian Foster and Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount. Remember Priest Holmes? He was unpicked.
And Ball’s situation in Wisconsin will change, as he will work with an overhauled offensive coaching staff—and quarterback Russell Wilson and receiver Nick Toon are gone, while star C Peter Konz has turned pro.
Bottom line: I will be shocked if Ball is picked in the first round in 2013. The NFL knows it can get good backs late in the draft—or undrafted. You have to be a VERY special running back to go in the first round. Know how many backs went in the first round in 2011? One—Alabama’s Mark Ingram.
What team did better than you expected in the bowls? – Alex, Pekin, Ill.
Michigan State. I really didn’t know what to expect from the Spartans. The team seemed pretty disappointed in losing the Big Ten championship game, thus missing out on the Rose Bowl after expending so much focus and energy on that goal. And then to see Michigan get a BCS bowl had to be another kick in the gut to Michigan State, which never has been to the BCS and last was in the Rose Bowl after the 1987 season.
Would the Spartans be dialed in vs. a very good Georgia team in the Outback Bowl? I wasn’t too sure, especially after MSU got clobbered by Alabama in similar circumstances in the Capital One Bowl after the 2010 season. But the Spartans showed guts and heart, rallying from a 16-0 hole to take a 33-30 triple overtime victory over Georgia. Impressive.
What do you think of Penn State hiring Bill O’Brien to coach the football program? – Sam, Pottstown, Pa.
I think it’s a solid hire. Yes, O’Brien has no head coaching experience. But he has an impressive background coming from his job as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. O’Brien also has been an assistant in the collegiate ranks, working at Maryland, Georgia Tech and Duke. He was offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Duke.
And I like what he is doing with his staff, retaining Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden from the old regime and bringing in Ted Roof to run the defense and veteran offensive line coach Mac McWhorter. O’Brien also has hired John Strollo (TEs); Stan Hixon (WRs), John Butler (special teams) and Charles London (RBs). Penn State still needs an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, but O’Brien is expected to call plays.
Who has the best hoops team? – Phillip, Decatur, Ill.
Great question. I think the argument is between three teams: Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State. Perhaps Michigan and Illinois also belong in the conversation. The Spartans are the hottest team, not losing since opening the year 0-2. The Hoosiers have momentum and mojo behind a deep and talented roster. The Buckeyes may have the most talent but already have two league losses and need to tighten their defense and find more leadership. No doubt, Ohio State misses seniors like David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. The Buckeyes really face a must-win when Indiana visits on Sunday for a huge game.
So, who is the best right now? I would say it’s Michigan State. This is a motivated and hungry team that is looking to make amends for last year’s disappointing season.
What is wrong with Wisconsin? – Dawn, LaCrosse, Wis.
The Badgers have really missed their inside players who have departed from last year’s team. Players like Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz. And that has helped make this an offensively-challenged team, causing point guard Jordan Taylor to press and at times force the action and try to do too much. The team may have hit bottom in an ugly 59-41 loss at Michigan on Sunday. It was the fewest points scored in a regular-season game in the Bo Ryan era. Wisconsin is shooting poorly and not getting to the free-throw line. Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren need to pick up the production inside so the Badgers don’t have to rely so much on their wayward shooting.
Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.