staff, December 30, 2013

We're all set to tip-off conference play on Tuesday, which means it's time to hand out our final grades for the nonconference season. We'll do this in alphabetical order.

Illinois: B
The Illini have probably hit par, by going 11-2 in the non-conference schedule. By doing so, the team really hasn't moved any closer or further away from an at-large berth. Coming into the season, we thought it was more likely than not that Illinois would miss the Tournament. With the Illini hovering at around 50 in the Pomeroy ratings, that still looks right-but there will be plenty of chances for John Groce's team to pick up quality wins in the conference season.

In order for the Illini to do so, however, the team needs to figure out its offense. It's not a great shooting offense, they don't get to the foul line, and after some strong offensive rebounding to start the season, the Illini have faltered there as well. How does this team score? That's the concern, going forward.

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Indiana: C
Indiana is 10-3, but of concern is that the Hoosiers lost to every single respectable opponent it played. The Notre Dame loss was particularly disappointing, as it's a loss to a team that is no shoe-in to make the Dance. Like the Illini, the Hoosiers have struggled on offense. After all those 3s walked out the door in the offseason, Indiana's offense has become one-dimensional, relying on a steady diet of offensive rebounds. But against a team that hits the defensive glass (as Big Ten teams are wont to do), that's a recipe for disaster.

It also doesn't help that Tom Crean can't trust anyone with the basketball outside of Yogi Ferrell. Yogi's having a great season so far, but he's not going to get much rest in the conference season.

Iowa: B
Iowa's done well this season, but our expectations were pretty high for the Hawkeyes. And to be fair, Iowa's only two losses have been away from Carver-Hawkeye against legitimate top-20 teams. But even still, Iowa looks like it's just a hair below the real contenders for the Big Ten title. I expect Iowa to be in the hunt until at least late February, and the bubble won't ever be used to described Fran McCaffery's team, but at this point I'd be a little surprised if Iowa managed to get a share of the Big Ten crown.

Before the season began, McCaffery bragged about how deep his team was. He wasn't kidding-everyone who has played over 10% of the available minutes has an offensive rating over 100. That rotation is going to tighten in conference play, and former top-50 recruit Adam Woodbury might actually be in danger of losing his spot. Iowa has plenty of size, and it's hard to see why McCaffery needs a center that only makes 49 percent of his 2s.

Michigan: C
Yes, Mitch McGary is hurt. And sure, maybe it's not "fair" to grade them this harshly in light of that. Well, I'm a tough grader I guess. But the fact of the matter is that we expected the Wolverines to finish at or near the top of the Big Ten standings. But right now, this looks like the worst team in the group of five that look to be surefire at-large bids. Michigan does have four losses, but it's also played a relatively challenging schedule. There's work to do on the resume, but this team still should make it in-McGary or no McGary.

This year's team is much more classic Beilein than in recent seasons. That is, the offense is built around the three-pointer, and the defense is questionable. The former seems like a great strategy for a team that puts Nik Stauskas at the center of the offense. But the latter is only going to get worse with the unavailability of McGary. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford are solid defenders, but not as good as McGary-and they foul just as much.

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Michigan State: C-
The Spartans were supposed to be a top-3 team nationally. And outside of the first 10 minutes against Kentucky, they haven't looked like that. I wonder how much of that is the result of a roster full of players that does not match a coach's style. Tom Izzo wants a deep rotation, but the Spartans are really only six-deep (though they inevitably reach into the Bag of Assorted Big Men when Adreian Payne needs a breather). Tom Izzo wants an interior-focused team that hits the offensive glass, but these guys are jumpshooters.

Whatever the cause, MSU's offense is well behind its defense. Also, expect to see some of those ham-fisted "MVP versus best player" arguments in March about Payne. I doubt any team needs a player more than MSU needs Payne. That's both a testament to how good he is, as well as a commentary about the state of his backups.

Minnesota: A-
We didn't really expect much from the Gophers this year. Yes, they still have the Hollinses, but the team did lose quite a bit from last year, including the coach. And let's face it-Richard Pitino is 31 years old in his second season as a head coach. And he was barely above .500 at a low major in his first season. It's not unreasonable to think that he would need some time to adjust.

But that hasn't been the case. Minnesota was up-and-down in the Maui Invitational, but picked up a nice win over a tough Florida State team. Maybe more importantly, these guys haven't had to sweat it out very much against any cupcakes.

A huge boost to the offense has been the play of Deandre Mathieu. Count me as someone who didn't think the freshman that struggled at Morehead State would end up being one of the better point guards in the Big Ten. Speaking of point guards, a big reason for Minnesota's early success has been the fact that it really starts three of them.

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Nebraska: B+
Nebraska was picked by almost everyone to finish in the basement of the Big Ten. Right now, I'd say that's unlikely to happen, although that probably has more to do with Northwestern than Nebraska (more on that later). Still, Tim Miles' Ballhog Offense is working much better in his second season at the helm. A big part of that is the fact that the Cornhuskers are starting to get to the free throw line. Terran Petteway has been one of the best newcomers to the conference, while Shavon Shields appears to have taken a sizable sophomore leap.

The reality is that this team isn't very far off. Defensively, the Huskers could use better interior play, as Leslee Smith is the only real difference-maker on that front. But offensively, what Nebraska really needs is better production at the point guard position. Frankly, that is a bit of a surprise, considering that freshman Tai Webster had as much hype as any incoming Nebraska recruit has in recent memory. But he's just been awful so far. That's not so unexpected, as freshmen point guards go, and it certainly isn't a harbinger of a terrible career in Lincoln. But for a team with every other position figured out, it's certainly frustrating. For the time being, those duties might be better handled by Ray Gallegos or Deverell Biggs.

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Northwestern: F
This grade isn't to say that Chris Collins has accomplished nothing in his short time in Evanston. Certainly, the defense of the Wildcats is much-improved over anything we saw in the Bill Carmody era. And I keep hearing that he's making some noise on the recruiting trail. And frankly, that latter skill is probably the one that will determine his success as Northwestern's head coach.

But this offense is terrible. The high points have been the play of Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb, and Tre Demps. Everyone else has been bad. It's probably fair to assume that much of the reason is that most of the players on this roster were recruited to Carmody's Princeton-style offense, which requires a unique kind of player. Dave Sobolewski in particular has struggled immensely under Collins, though to be fair he's regressed every season since his promising freshman campaign. So it might not be Collins' system.

Long story short-this is a team with a lot of sophomores that added impact players Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb from last year's team, and it isn't any better for it.

Ohio State: A-
The only thing stopping me from giving the Buckeyes an outright "A" is that the schedule has been a little on the weak side, and although the comeback over Notre Dame was impressive, that they needed such a miraculous rally was less so.

To borrow from Dennis Green, the Buckeyes are who we thought they were-only a little better. We knew that OSU would be a defensive juggernaut but would be uneven on offense. That's been true. But I think we underestimated just how good this defense would be. On a raw basis, the Buckeyes have allowed 3 points per 100 possessions fewer than the nation's next-best team (Clemson). Even last year's leader-Stephen F. Austin, which was beating up on Southland Conference opponents-could manage just a two-point margin. If this number were to hold all season, it would be the biggest gap between #1 and #2 in the tempo free era (which is shorthand for "as far back as Kenpom keeps numbers").

Penn State: B
I probably would have given the Nittany Lions at least an A- had the team not blown a 20-point second-half lead at home against Princeton. Princeton is an upper-level Ivy League team-which means more than it used to-but the way in which it happened leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

As Mike has detailed, D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier are actually in the conversation as the nation's best backcourt. I still have reservations about whether Newbill in particular can keep up his accuracy with his heavy shot diet, but so far he's thriving with Frazier in the backcourt.

Defensively, however, this is still a work-in-progress. With the exception of a couple years at the tail end of the Ed DeChellis era, Penn State has been undersized in the frontcourt. That hasn't stopped the team from rebounding at a high level, but the Nittany Lions don't do much else to stop the opponent from putting the ball in the basket. PSU does have some taller frontcourt players that can block shots, but they all come with a cost of being very foul-prone. The trade-off isn't worth it, so expect opponents to continue to either dominate the paint, or make frequent trips to the foul line.

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Purdue: D
This was all set to be an F up until Purdue managed to beat West Virginia in a true road game. The good news for Boilermaker fans is that it's hard to imagine the season starting off any worse, and yet Matt Painter's team is still 10-3 heading into conference play.

And there's no doubt in my mind that this team is talented enough to be a top-25 team. A.J. Hammons could be the most dominant player in the Big Ten if he didn't turn the ball over over four times for every 40 minutes he's on the court. That's really inexcusable, considering he dribbles about four times over the same span.

Defensively, what's been working against Painter is the fact that he's gone small most of the time, which has led to a lot of offensive rebounds for the opponent. I'm sure Painter has his reasons for deploying an undersized lineup, but it doesn't seem to fit with the offensive approach of taking very few three-pointers.

Wisconsin: A
The Badgers haven't lost against the Big Ten's toughest non-conference schedule, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that it earned the highest grade in the class. What is surprising, however, is the fact that Wisconsin's defense isn't really much worse than last year's excellent defense. Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, and Mike Bruesewitz were three of the best defenders in the Big Ten last year, so it was largely assumed that their absence would leave Wisconsin's defense lacking.

But that hasn't been the case. I know people like to label Bo Ryan as a "system" coach, but I've never agreed with that label, in large part because Ryan's tendencies have shifted quite a bit over the years.

But some things haven't changed, particularly on defense. The Badgers always rebound well, and most years they're able to guard without fouling much. And over the past four seasons, Ryan has mixed in an obsessive denial of opponent three-point attempts. In total, these three components have the effect of making opponents try and score two points at a time, with very few second chances. If there is a system in Madison, it's on defense.

On Tuesday, conference play begins. Ohio State visits Purdue while Indiana goes to Champaign in two rare mid-week afternoon games. BTN will carry Michigan State's matchup with Penn State as well as Iowa taking on Nebraska.