Big Ten Basketball Non-Conference Recap and Conference Preview

Andy Lyons

A look at how the nation's best conference stacks up this season headed into Big Ten play.

Basketball coverage has been pretty much non-existent here over the last week or so, but conference play starts this afternoon so let's take a quick look at the rest of the conference.

Down With Goldy already did something similar and he's compiled the KenPom and RPI rankings for all the teams, so go there if you're interested in those numbers. I'm going to rank the teams based on my off-the-cuff predictions, want to fight about it?

1. Indiana Hoosiers

Despite the hiccup against Butler it's hard to pick against Indiana for the league title: these guys are really good. Jordan Hulls is the best shooter in the conference, leading the nation with a 75% eFG% (that means he averages 1.5 points per shot, which is kinda good). And Victor Oladipo, a guy mostly known for his defense, is second in the nation in eFG% on the strength of 74% shooting on 2-pointers, which is otherworldly for a 6'5" guard. And I haven't even mentioned Cody Zeller, who has apparently fallen out of the national player of the year race (I guess because he struggled vs Butler?) despite averaging 16 and 8 on 63% shooting, or Christian Watford, their two top scorers last season.

I guess if there's a red flag here, it's that Indiana has yet to play a true road game and hasn't been great on neutral courts, losing to Butler, needing OT to beat Georgetown, and struggling a bit vs a terrible Georgia team. This afternoon they go to Iowa for their first road test of the season.

2. Michigan Wolverines

Michigan has certainly been the Big Ten's most impressive team thus far, as they've gone undefeated and only been challenged by Pittsburgh and NC State, both very good teams. Trey Burke has probably been the nation's best point guard so far, Tim Hardaway Jr. has reigned in his chucking ways, and so far they have the Big Ten's best freshman class, with gunner Nick Stauskas (think John Shurna with a normal-looking jumper), Glenn Robinson III (a solid all-around wing) and Mitch McGary (who has rebounded the crap out of the ball).

The only real issue you can point to here is depth, but I think this is a situation a la Ohio State the past couple years; there are plenty of decent players in the second unit, it's just that the first unit is so good John Beilein can't justify putting his starters on the bench for long. They visit Evanston on Thursday. It probably won't go well.

3. Minnesota Golden Gophers

This might be a bit high but Minnesota has built on last year's strong NIT performance and been excellent in non-conference play. Their only loss was to #1 Duke and they already have 5 wins over the KenPom top 100 including away from home over Memphis, Stanford and Florida State. They've been easing Trevor Mbakwe back into the lineup slowly as he recovers from knee surgery, and in limited minutes he's been his usual monster self inside. I'd expect his minutes to increase during conference play. Combine him with the best athlete in the conference in Rodney Williams, who has finally put it together after a couple rough years, and it's a fearsome front line. Minnesota currently leads the nation in offensive rebounding (grabbing an obscene 48.9% of their misses), and they're 7th in blocked shots and 5th in steals. Yikes. They also have Andre Hollins at point guard (he of the 41 point game earlier this year vs Memphis).

Minnesota hosts Michigan State tonight in a game the Gopher fans I follow on Twitter have been hyping for what seems like a month. We'll see how that goes.

4. Ohio St. Buckeyes

It's difficult to judge this team because they've played two elite teams (Duke and Kansas, both losses), and then a host of scrubs (all wins). The only win over a name team was Washington and Washington is way down this year with ugly home losses to Nevada and Albany. So who knows how they'll do in Big Ten play. DeShaun Thomas is going to chuck up a zillion shots as usual, and he'll probably need to lead the Big Ten in scoring for Ohio State to contend for the conference title. The good news is Thomas is more than capable of putting up 30+ against anyone, the bad news is he's also capable of putting up 5 for 24 type lines and gunning the Buckeyes out of games.

OSU is very strong defensively, especially on the perimeter with Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, Jr., but we'll see if they have enough offensive pieces to help out Thomas.

5. Michigan St. Spartans

Unsurprisingly, Michigan St. has taken a step back following the departure of do-everything forward Draymond Green. Last year, when people criticized MSU for not having a point guard, the response was that Green was effectively the point guard. That was true, but now that Green is gone they really don't have a point guard and it shows with their horrendous turnover rate that ranks 283rd in the nation. Despite that, the Spartans offense is solid, thanks lightning quick Keith Appling, talented freshman guard Gary Harris, and Derrick Nix down low. They're also a classic Tom Izzo team that defends well and rebounds well. But unless they find a way to control the turnovers, this isn't a Big Ten title contender.

6. Illinois Fighting Illini

John Groce has done an excellent job so far in his first season at Illinois, largely by doing what Illini fans were begging Bruce Weber to do for years: playing a more up-tempo style. And he's got Illinois at 12-1 and ranked 12th in the AP poll. Despite that gaudy record though, KenPom's rankings aren't impressed, as they actually project Illinois to have a losing record during conference play. And it's easy to see why when you look at their schedule: Illlinois has really struggled to put away bad teams: they've got a a 1 point win over Hawaii, a 1 point win over Gardner-Webb, a 2 point win over Auburn, an 8 point win over Western Carolina, and a 10 point over Norfolk State. Of course they do have wins over Butler and Gonzaga, so it's not like they aren't capable of playing very well.

Still it's hard to see their top 15 ranking lasting very long, because Illinois is not only heavily dependent on the three point shot, they're heavily dependent on the off-the-dribble three point shot, which is not a high percentage shot if the history of basketball is any indication. 42.3% of Illinois' field goal attempts are from three, 16th in the nation and even higher than three-point dependent Northwestern, yet just 44.9% of their made field goals are assisted, which is 320th in the nation. Illinois is currently a solid 36.7% on threes, but that figures to go down significantly in Big Ten play. KenPom's 8-10 projection seems a bit too pessimistic, but not way off.

7. Wisconsin Badgers

Even after a less than stellar non-conference season (9-4 overall), I just assumed Wisconsin would have no trouble making the tournament, because it's Wisconsin and they always make the tournament and finish in the top 4 of the Big Ten. In fact, since Bo Ryan took over as Wisconsin head coach in 2001, he has finished 4th or better in the Big Ten every single year, a truly remarkable streak.

But this year, in part due to the season-ending injury to Josh Gasser, and in part due to the strength of the league, the top 4 streak appears in jeopardy. And the NCAA tournament also looks like it will be tough, because the RPI really hates Wisconsin's non-conference schedule; their RPI is currently 146. Now obviously it's early in the season, and obviously the RPI isn't everything, but it often gets pretty dicey for teams that finish the season outside the top 60 at the end of the season. And according to the excellent RPIforecast.com, Wisconsin would need to finish 11-7 in the Big Ten to make the RPI top 60. So this could be interesting.

8. Iowa Hawkeyes

Back in the olden days when college conferences had a sane number of teams in them, you could simply look at the conference standings at the end of the season and see who played the best during conference play. Unfortunately, as conferences continue to expand, it becomes impossible for schools to play their conference foes an equal amount of times, so you end up with hugely unbalanced conference schedules. And this season's Iowa team is a prime example of that, as the Hawkeyes get two games each against what are clearly the four worst teams in the conference, while only having to play Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois and Ohio State once. In fact Iowa has the easiest Big Ten schedule per KenPom, which is quite unusual for a team projected to go .500 in the conference; usually one of the best teams in a conference has the easiest conference schedule by virtue of not having to play themselves.

If Iowa were a contender for the Big Ten title, this would be a good thing. But Iowa instead figures to be an NCAA bubble team, so this is most definitely not a good thing, as it gives them fewer chances to pick up good wins and more opportunities to pick up resume-damaging bad losses. A 9-9 conference record would leave them at 20-11 going into the Big Ten tournament, which looks really good on paper, but much like Northwestern in 2009-10, such a resume wouldn't look great to the NCAA selection committee (at least, had Northwesten not collapsed against the bottom of the league that year). Iowa's non-conference schedule featured lots of terrible teams at home, and only three games outside the state of Iowa, two of which were losses, and the loss at reeling Virginia Tech looks like it will be of the bad loss variety come March. Using our friends at RPIforecast.com again, 20-11 would leave their RPI in the low 60s, which would be pretty dicey come Selection Sunday.

9. Purdue Boilermakers

It's easy to see why Purdue has fallen off so much. Last season, they shot 37.7% from three, 41st in the nation, and were best in the nation in not turning the ball over. As such, their offense was 8th best in the country per KenPom. This year, they're at 27.1% from three, 320th in the nation, and are just 118th in not turning the ball over, so their offense has fallen all the way to 149th. That's what happens when you lose Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith.

Still, this Purdue team is better than their 6-6 record, as they're just 1-5 in games decided by less than 10 points, and they've had several blowout wins and haven't been blown out in their losses. There's some decent young talent here and like all Matt Painter teams they are solid defensively. They're in for some ugly nights offensively, but they should be able to surprise some people at home.

10. Northwestern Wildcats.

Don't think I need to say much here, this team was going to have trouble in the Big Ten with Drew Crawford, and without him it could get ugly. Now it appears Sanjay Lumpkin will get a medical redshirt after hurting his wrist in practice. It's not like Lumpkin was great or anything, but having one less healthy body available off the bench is going to make things even tougher. It's a bad sign when the potential return of Nikola Cerina, who did nothing in two years at TCU, is actually going to dramatically improve the team, as it will hopefully relegate the offensively atrocious MIke Turner to the bench. Hopefully Reggie Hearn is fully recovered from that ankle injury, but the way this season is going, who knows.

Also, that Illinois-Chicago loss looked like it might not be so bad for a while, but UIC has now lost three in a row by double digits to Western Illinois, Miami Ohio, and Toledo, so, yeah, they are who we thought they were.

11. Penn St. Nittany Lions

Once Tim Frazier was lost for the season it was clear this team wasn't going anywhere. They have won four in a row at home, but all against bad teams and they needed overtime to beat awful Delaware State. Another long year in Happy Valley.

12. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Looking at this roster before the season I thought they had the potential to be as bad as 1999-00 Northwestern (the fateful 0-16 in the Big Ten Kevin O'Neill team for which I will never forgive KO), but this team clearly isn't that bad. Tim Miles seems like he'll eventually have Nebraska headed back to respectability, and he's avoided any humiliating home losses (although he's come close a couple times), but it's going to take quite a while. Their first four Big Ten games are at Ohio State, home vs Wisconsin, at Michigan and at Michigan State. Yeah...

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