Jess Settles, BTN men's basketball analyst, November 9, 2016
The 2016-17 season opens Friday night. Before the ball goes up in the air, though, I wanted to take a look at one question facing each Big Ten team.
Can Illinois stay healthy? On paper, Illinois looks like a team that should compete for a Big Ten Title. They are talented, deep, and have the oldest squad in the league. Malcolm Hill is one of the Big Ten's best and most versatile players. But injuries have derailed any momentum the Illini have put together the last three seasons. Two sixth-year players, Tracy Abrams and Mike Thorne Jr., have to stay on the court if Illinois wants to break its tournament drought.
Can Josh Newkirk handle the pressure? Yogi Ferrell is irreplaceable, but Tom Crean is hoping Newkirk can play well enough at point to lead IU to back-to-back Big Ten titles. With star guard James Blackmon Jr. returning from injury, Thomas Bryant dominating in the paint, and OG Anunoby ready to soar, Newkirk will have plenty of weapons around him. But wearing the Indiana jersey brings added pressure, and Hoosier nation has high expectations for this year's squad. If he can't deliver, veteran Robert Johnson should be able to relieve some of the pressure.
Can Christian Williams excel at point guard? Sophomore Christian Williams is an athletic playmaker with the skills to break down defenders. But replacing veteran guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons will be a tall task. If Williams can score with consistency and keep turnovers to a minimum, the young Hawkeyes will be an exciting team to watch.
Will Melo Trimble be elite again? There were times last season when Melo Trimble played with little confidence. The talented point guard struggled to get to the free-throw line, was inconsistent with his outside shot (31 percent from 3) and turned the ball over too many times. He thought he was a first-round pick, but NBA general managers thought differently. Now, with a revamped roster, Trimble, who helped resurrectMaryland basketball, is back to prove he is the top player in the league.
Can the Wolverines defend? Michigan returns all five starters and a sweet shooting lineup featuring Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson. There are nights when Michigan is unstoppable offensively, but it loses as a result of conceding too many easy baskets. Opponents shot close to 45 percent from the floor last season. Regardless of Michigan's experience, if it doesn't make stops, it can't win a Big Ten title.
Can Eron Harris lead the young Spartans? The Miles Bridges Show has arrived in East Lansing to rave reviews, but freshman can only take a team so far. Tom Izzo is hoping senior Eron Harris raises his game on the court and in the locker room. Harris averaged a respectable 9.3 ppg and 2.6 rpg last year. With Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes in the NBA, and a cruel schedule ahead, Harris needs to double his production. Three seasons ago at West Virginia, Harris averaged 17 ppg, so he knows how to get buckets.
Can Jordan Murphy turn around the Gophers? In a league full of super sophs, Jordan Murphy sometimes gets overlooked. From day one, he has been one of the Big Ten's best rebounders (8 rpg). Now, its time to see if he put in major work this summer. If Murphy has improved defensively and added range to his offensive game, the new-look Gophers will upset a few teams.
Have the Husker sophomores matured? When injuries plague a team, rookies have to play heavy minutes and learn how to compete before they are usually ready. Tim Miles is hoping the experience his sophomore class received last year is enough to catapult Nebraska past the doubters. Glynn Watson Jr., Jack McVeigh, Michael Jacobson, and Ed Morrow Jr. are more battle tested than they probably expected this early in their careers. It's up to them to produce.
Has Bryant McInthosh taken another step? Bryant McIntosh was left off of the Big Ten's Best Player List at Media Day, and that shouldn't sit well with him. The hard working junior point guard has to prove that he has raised his game to an All-Conference level if Northwestern is going to dance for the first time ever. Northwestern needs McIntosh to increase his scoring from last year's 13.8 points per game. He scored 28 against Wisconsin, so he is fully capable.
Can the Buckeyes shoot the 3? The good news is that Ohio State returns their top six scorers, including double-digit scorers Marc Loving, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate and JaQuan Lyle. The bad news is that those four weapons combined to shoot 31 percent from beyond the arc last season. They have to start knocking down open shots, or else pass the ball to Kam Williams, who makes over half of his triples.
Have the freshman arrived? Freshman Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens won a state championship together in Philly, and arrive in State College with a winning resume and high expectations. The question is, can they shine from the opening tip? If they can, Penn State will be a tough team to beat, especially at Bryce Jordan Center.
Is Isaac Haas ready to dominate? Haas has amazing footwork for a 7-2 center, he has a soft touch around the rim, and he's a physical defender. In only 14 minutes per game last season, the big man averaged 9.8 points and 3.7 rebounds. But with A.J. Hammons in the NBA, the junior has to play more minutes and stay out of foul trouble. Is he ready to be a 25-minute, double-double guy? Big Ten opponents are hoping not.
Can Rutgers compete on the glass? It is impossible to win Big Ten games getting crushed on the glass every night. This is the first of many problems coach Steve Pikiell has to solve. The Scarlet Knights must learn how to rebound in order to be competitive. With Corey Sanders and Mike Williams pouring in points, expect Rutgers to win a few Big Ten games this year, assuming it can solve this serious deficiency. The rebounding can only improve, as Rutgers finished last in the nation in rebound margin.
How much has Ethan Happ improved? Happ's improvement and an energized bench helped Wisconsin turn it around last year after Bo Ryan's sudden retirement. Happ was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but his upside is limitless. If the sophomore is stronger and has added a 15-foot jumper to his arsenal, send the title to Madison.