Jess Settles, BTN men's basketball analyst, November 13, 2015
The 2015-16 college basketball season is set to get underway Friday night with 11 games featuring Big Ten teams. I offer one burning question for every Big Ten men's hoops team heading into the season. Let's get to all 14.
Illinois: Can Illinois get to the free throw line?
You probably didn?t know that the best free throw shooting team in the country resided in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois shot close to 80 percent from the charity stripe and the majority of their top free throw shooters return. You would assume that the Illini would rank high in field goal percentage as well, but therein lies the problem. Illinois finished ninth in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage (35.5) and an abysmal 300th in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage! The diagnosis for Illinois? low percentages continues to be poor shot selection. Juniors Malcom Hill and Kendrick Nunn can light up the scoreboard but have to attack the rim and take quality shots. If they do, Illinois will parade to the free throw line. They shoot it so well from the line, they can?t afford to cheat themselves on offensive possessions. Point guard Jaylon Tate will get the best opportunity to quarterback the team but must be willing to rebuke teammates for poor shots taken. Transfer center Mike Thorne Jr. could end up being the lifeline the Orange Crush needs. He turned down Kansas and Kentucky to help Illinois avoid missing the NCAA tournament three years in a row for the first time since the 1978-1980 seasons. Did I mention he shot 52 percent from the floor last season at Charlotte?
Indiana: Can Indiana defend?
I?ve spent a lot of time in the film room this offseason, and it?s obvious that Indiana?s defense was completely broken last season. From transition defense to fighting through screens, the Hoosiers are literally in no position to stop anyone. When Louisville hangs 94 points on you, it?s a head-scratcher. When Eastern Washington scores 88, it?s not acceptable. Opponents who wanted to pad their offensive stats were salivating to play Indiana. Did you realize the Big Ten shot a league best 45 percent against Indiana? Ouch. There are many different defensive strategies, but Indiana has to pick simple ones, and everyone has to be held accountable. The idea that sensational freshman center Thomas Bryant is going to step in and cure all of Indiana?s defensive woes is wishful thinking. Tom Crean and his staff must implement iron clad defensive principals and win or lose, hold people accountable in the film room and at practice. Switching from man to man to zone with a few seconds left on the shot clock lets opponents off the hook. The first month of the season is critical to Indiana?s season. Everyone?s starting job should be in jeopardy, including Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr., and human highlight Troy Williams, regardless of how well they are playing offensively. Too many Hoosiers refuse to guard and they are too talented not to be really good defenders. Indiana has a favorable conference schedule, but Hoosier Nation wants to cheer deep into March. If they don?t defend, I don?t care how many points they put up, it will be over after the first weekend.
Iowa: Can Iowa rebound effectively?
Iowa didn?t always shoot the highest percentage from the floor last season (only 33.3 percent from downtown), but the Hawkeyes' relentless glass cleaning earned them their first NCAA tournament win since 2001. The Hawkeyes finished fourth overall in the Big Ten in rebounding margin. The bulk of the damage was caused by first team All-Big Ten forward Aaron White and Sixth Man of the Year Gabe Olaseni. Unfortunately for coach Fran McCaffery, both have graduated. Iowa?s front line appears to be very thin after two exhibitions, including a home loss to DII power Augustana where the Hawkeyes gave up 12 offensive boards. Adam Woodbury is expected to play heavy minutes and rebound well, but foul trouble has plagued the Hawkeye center his entire career. Sophomore Dom Uhl will have to mature quickly if he expects to make an impact. JUCO transfer Dale Jones has shown a knack for rebounding in practice and Ahmad Wagner looks athletic enough to play for Kirk Ferentz? football team. Iowa?s best player, Jarrod Uthoff, will have to flirt with double doubles in scoring and rebounding on a nightly basis if Iowa wants to rebound and run back to the NCAA tournament.
Maryland: Can Mark Turgeon manage the Terp talent?
It?s a problem most coaches would love to tackle: How to win with too much talent and depth. Maryland hasn?t advanced past the Sweet 16 since its title run in 2002, but fans in College Park are once again thinking national championship, and the players are as well. They are also thinking about Player of the Year awards, All-American and All-Conference selections, stats, and the NBA lottery. Duke?s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky?s John Calipari have mastered the art of persuading elite players to sacrifice for the good of team in recent years, and they have the banners to prove it. With a lineup full of future pros like Melo Trimble, Diamond Stone, and Jake Layman, as well as proven transfers Robert Carter Jr. and Rasheed Sulaimon, Turgeon has to be part coach, part shrink, and part chess master. It helps to have a surgeon like Trimble running the show. Trimble can score at will and enjoys setting the table for his teammates. He can also live at the free throw line when things unravel (86 percent).
Michigan: Is Ricky Doyle ready for prime time?
The hardest working members of Team Wolverine last season were the athletic trainers. It felt like every week a different starter ended up on the DL. This may have been a blessing in disguise for Michigan?s young backcourt to develop without Derrick Walton and star Caris LeVert, but no matter who was in the lineup, Michigan?s bigs struggled at both ends of the court. There are some full grown power forwards and centers in the league to battle this season, and perhaps no other Michigan player needs to make a bigger leap forward than Doyle if the maize and blue want to win a title. Yes, Jon Beilein asks his inside players to rebound and defend, but they also play a critical role setting screens and reading defenses in Michigan?s explosive four-out-one-in offense. Mark Donnal and D.J. Wilson will play a key role in the paint as well, but with the work ethic and strength Doyle possesses, expect him to double his six-point, three-rebound freshman numbers. If he does, Michigan is a contender.
Michigan State: Can Eron Harris star in the Big Ten?
When I asked star player Denzel Valentine about West Virginia transfer Eron Harris, his eyes lit up. ?He is not Kobe Bryant, but he is a poor man?s Kobe. He has Kobe?s footwork, knowing how to jab to create space?he is really looking good.? And he can flat out shoot the rock. Harris averaged 17 and lit up the nets with 42 percent shooting from the 3-point line during his sophomore year at West Virginia. With Valentine, an improved Tum Tum Nairn, and a stronger Bryn Forbes, Michigan State will boast the best shooting backcourt in the the Tom Izzo era. If Harris has improved significantly during his year playing scout team point guard and McDonald?s All-American Deyonta Davis can be a force, Sparty is going back to the Final Four. They also need to make a free throw once in awhile (330th in the nation last year in free throw percentage).
Minnesota: Can Nate Mason become a super soph?
Star freshman DeAngelo Russell and James Blackmon Jr. dominated the headlines last year, but Minnesota?s Nate Mason quietly put together an excellent freshman campaign for coach Richard Pitino. Playing alongside veteran guards Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu, Mason learned how to compete at the Big Ten level. As the season went on though, it was Mason who was asked to make the clutch plays down the stretch. He averaged close to 10 points a game, and that has to significantly increase if the Gophers want to finish in the upper half of the conference.
Nebraska: Will the newcomers make an instant impact?
After the debacle of last season, charismatic coach Tim Miles is counting on a new crop of players to turn things around in Lincoln. Kansas transfer Aaron White should bring a much needed shooting touch to the starting lineup. The Huskers finished 337th in the NCAA last year at 28 percent from downtown. We all know Shavon Shields' ability to score, but top 75 recruits Glynn Watson Jr. and Edward Morrow will be counted on heavily to get Nebraska?s scoring up from 61.5 points per game, which was 13th in the Big Ten last year.
Northwestern: Can Northwestern win close games?
We?ve been hearing for years how "this could be the year Northwestern finally makes the tournament." Well, my BTN teammates Joe Crispin and Mike DeCourcy attended practices recently and think it could be possible. They both agree that top to bottom, the roster is finally made up of Big Ten caliber talent. Chris Colllins has done a solid job of recruiting and coaching in Evanston. But coaches coach and players play, and in the last few minutes of tightly contested games, players have not delivered the last few seasons. Through their first 10 conference games last year, Northwestern finished 1-9, including a one-point loss at Maryland, two-point losses to Michigan and Ohio State, and a heartbreaking overtime loss at mighty Michigan State. There is no way a backcourt with super soph Bryant McIntosh and clutch senior Tre Demps shouldn?t deliver in close games this season. The Cats will be in 10 down-to-the-wire conference games this season. If they can win six or seven or those contests and take care of business at home, they will be the talk of college basketball as March approaches. If not, a first round home game in the NIT will be their prize.
Ohio State: Can Jae?Sean Tate will Ohio State to a Big Ten championship?
With all of the hype surrounding All-American D'Angelo Russell last season and his elite freshman replacement, JaQuan Lyle, it?s easy to forget the inspiring season Tate put together for the Buckeyes. He willed his way to nine points and five rebounds per game, and those numbers should go up with increased playing time. The undersized 6-4 sophomore led the league in field goal percentage and was constantly attacking older, stronger rim protectors. Marc Loving is due for a breakout season, and the freshman class is once again loaded, but Tate is one of the grittiest players in the league. ?He made tremendous gains this summer and is a fierce competitor who is accustomed to winning at everything he does,? head coach Thad Matta said. Tate?s gains, including whether his outside shooting has improved, will go a long way in determining the young Buckeyes? success.
Penn State: Can Shep Garner carry the load?
Jordan Dickerson, Brandon Taylor, and Donovan Jack give coach Pat Chambers an experienced and quality front line, and elite freshman Josh Reaves continues Penn State's recruiting surge, but if Penn State is going to stay out of the bottom third of the Big Ten, Shep Garner is going to have to ball this season. No one expects Garner to replace the high scoring D.J. Newbill, but 9.2 ppg from Garner won?t be good enough for the sophomore this season. Last season, Garner stepped in and started every game. Garner's maturity allowed Newbill to thrive in his natural shooting guard position. I told Garner he is going to have to be a scoring point guard this season, and he told me "whatever it takes to win.?
Purdue: Are Purdue point guards good enough to win a Big Ten title?
?Everyone thinks we have the best big men in the country and the worst point guards in the the country.? Leave it to the Big Ten?s best leader, Rapheal Davis, to say what the rest of us are thinking. A season ago, veteran point guard Jon Octeus fell into the Boilers lap a month before tipoff. Octeus was athletic, experienced, and confident. Now senior transfer Johnny Hill and returning sophomore P.J. Thompson get the keys to the Escalade. Purdue has a powerful, athletic, and veteran team that should be much improved at every position. A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, Kendall Stephens, and one of my favorite players, Vince Edwards, all have all-conference potential. Hill and Thompson should easily average 10 assists between them from the get go.
Rutgers: Where will Rutgers find its scoring?
Remember the 67-62 upset Rutgers pulled off over national runner-up Wisconsin? That?s the last time the Scarlet Knights won a game! Even though the Scarlet Knights possessed two senior scorers in Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, only 21 teams in America averaged fewer points than Rutgers last season (59.3). Athletic guard Bishop Daniels will be expected to add to his eight points a game, but it could be two newcomers, freshman four-star guard Corey Sanders and JUCO power forward Deshawn Freeman, who lead the team in scoring from the opening game. Coach Eddie Jordan is excited about Sanders. ?He?s athletic, enthusiastic, and knows how to play,? Jordan told me.
Wisconsin: Who will step up for the Badgers?
If Bo Ryan finishes fourth-or-better with this lineup, they better build a statue of him outside of the Kohl Center. They better do that anyway. Do you realize that the Badgers played in only seven NCAA tournaments before Ryan arrived? Bo has now taken them to 14 in a row! We know Nigel Hayes is going to be a Player of the Year candidate, and we are pretty confident Bronson Koenig will be an All-Big Ten level player. After that, it?s anybody?s guess. Redshirt Ethan Happ averaged 33 points in high school and has scored well in practice. Zak Showalter was huge against North Carolina in last year?s Sweet 16 and could rise to the occasion with his desire to make plays. Here?s what assistant coach Gary Close told me — ?We have two great players and a bunch of guys who want to someday become great players.?