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Preview: Big Ten basketball conference play

The Big Ten is getting an early start on conference play this season, as things get underway tomorrow night when Indiana hosts Penn State. So let's take a look at what each school has done so far and what we can expect the rest of the way. For fun, you can go back to look at my preseason predictions to see just how wrong I was.

1. Ohio St. Buckeyes (pre-season rank: 2)

Record: 12-0

Key wins: at Florida, at Florida State

Key losses: none

The Buckeyes have stormed out of the gates and will enter conference play as the Big Ten's only unbeaten (barring a miraculous upset by Tennessee-Martin tomorrow). Freshman big man Jared Sullinger has lived up to all the ridiculous hype, averaging 17 points and 10 boards on 57% shooting, and with the injury to Duke's Kyrie Irving, he's now the clear favorite for national freshman of the year. Jon Diebler and David Lighty have shot the lights out from 3-point range, Dallas Lauderdale continues to be the Big Ten's best shot-blocker, and freshman point guard Aaron Craft has been a rock-solid floor general, handing out 56 assists against just 23 turnovers.

Ohio State's dominant play combined with the recent struggles of the rest of the league has set up the Buckeyes as a runaway favorite to win the conference; KenPom has them favored in every Big Ten game, and predicts they will finish 16-2, 4 wins clear of the field. As scary as the Buckeyes' offense is, their defense appears to be even better, currently ranking #1 nationally in Pomeroy's ratings. Somehow, Thad Matta has his team #2 in the nation at forcing turnovers yet #1 in the nation at not letting opponents get to the free throw line, a ridiculous combination that almost defies logic. Thank the good Lord that Northwestern does not have to go to Value City Arena this year.

2. Michigan St. Spartans (1)

Record: 8-4

Key wins: vs. Washington

Key losses: at Duke, vs Syracuse, vs. UConn, Texas

I struggled for a while figuring out who to put second, because no one looks like they can challenge Ohio State for the conference crown right now. Eventually I settled on Michigan State; while they are struggling mightily right now, all four of their losses are to excellent teams and I don't think anyone else in the conference  besides Ohio State would be any better than 8-4 vs the Spartans' absurdly challenging schedule. There's also the fact that Tom Izzo is still their head coach, and his track record shows you pick against him at your peril.

Still, there are reasons to be concerned. The Only Colors had a fantastic breakdown of the Spartans' problems on offense here; to summarize, Kalin Lucas still isn't back at full strength following off-season Achilles surgery (an ominous sign for the Persa4Heisman campaign), Draymond Green is a fantastic all-around player but has seen his efficiency decline this year as he takes on a larger role, and no one has stepped up to replace departed starters Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen. Hopes were high for Korie Lucious after his excellent play in the NCAAs last year, but he's looking a lot more like the high turnover/ low field goal percentage guy he was during last year's Big Ten schedule. Either he or freshman Keith Appling need to step up in the backcourt, and Izzo needs to find someone to complement Green on the interior. Knowing Izzo, he will probably figure something out, and he's certainly aided by only having to play Ohio State once, but there are definitely reasons to be concerned.

3. Wisconsin Badgers (4th)

Record: 10-2

Key wins: vs. Boston College, at Marquette

Key losses: at UNLV, vs. Notre Dame

As usual, Bo Ryan has his team exceeding preseason expectations, thanks in large part to the dominant play of senior big man Jon Leuer, who is averaging 20 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks per game while shooting 51% from the field and a ridiculous 50% on 3-pointers (making 30 of 60). That's right, an athletic 6'10" guy has emerged as one of the top outside shooters in the conference, it's almost not fair. And keep in mind that Leuer's per game numbers come in a super slow paced system; were he on a more run and gun team he might be averaging 26 and 12 a night. The Big Ten is loaded with talent, but right now Leuer has to be the pick for player of the year in the conference, he's been simply brilliant.

The biggest question for Wisconsin right now is depth in the backcourt; Jordan Taylor has been outstanding and Bo Ryan seems to really like freshman Josh Gasser, but he's been a bit inconsistent of late after a strong start, and there's very little behind him. Occasional struggles on the perimeter will probably keep the Badgers from contending for the conference title, but they're certainly poised to continue Bo Ryan's remarkable streak of finishing in the Big Ten's top 4. Let's see if they can finally make a deep run in the NCAAs.

4. Purdue Boilermakers (5)

Record: 11-1

Key wins: at Virginia Tech

Key losses: vs. Richmond

Purdue has generally cruised through a weak non-conference schedule, beating up on a bunch of bad teams and splitting vs the only two solid teams they've faced (and no, Oakland is not a solid team, yes they won at Tennessee, but they're 7-8 and have lost to Wright State and Valparaiso, hopefully the Oakland hype train will finally slow down). Purdue has basically been what every rational analyst thought they would be; E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson have been really good, and while the rest of the roster has done very little offensively, they are still beating up on bad teams because they play elite defense.

The computers really like Purdue (both KenPom and Sagarin have them as the 2nd best team in the conference), but I think those ratings are a bit inflated due to the Boilers' bludgeoning of weak teams. Minnesota was a lot like this last year, they crushed a mostly weak non-conference schedule with superior athleticism and defense and computers loved them going into Big Ten play, but their weaknesses were exposed against good competition. I still maintain that Purdue's lack of a third scorer and total lack of competent forwards behind Johnson will eventually catch up to them, but we shall see. Winning with a 4 guard lineup in a major conference is far from unprecedented (the excellent Villanova teams with Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Kyle Lowery and Mike Nardi come to mind), but D.J. Byrd, Lewis Jackson, Terone Johnson et al aren't in the same ballpark as any of those guys quite yet. Still, Moore, Johnson, and Matt Painter's coaching should be enough for 11 to 12 Big Ten wins and a solid NCAA seed.

5. Illinois Fighting Illini (3)

Record: 10-3

Key wins: vs. Maryland, North Carolina, at Gonzaga

Key losses: vs. Missouri, vs. Texas, vs. Illinois-Chicago

Coming into the season, most thought Illinois would make the leap to conference elite, as they returned all 5 starters and brought in an excellent freshman class. And after a 10-1 start (with the only loss in overtime against a strong Texas team), it appeared they were elite. But then, they suffered the worst loss by any Big Ten team all year, losing at the United Center to lowly Illinois-Chicago. It's dangerous to take too much from one game, but going down to UIC on a neutral court is an absolutely inexplicable loss for a team that's supposedly a Final Four contender. The Flames entered the game 4-7 and had lost their previous 4 games to Akron, Valparaiso, Illinois St. and Northern Illinois respectively, and they followed up the Illinois upset with a 20 point loss to Craig Robinson's terrible Oregon State squad. Their go-to guy is Paul Carter; that's the same Paul Carter who was about the 9th best player on Minnesota last year.

I think that loss makes it pretty clear that the Illini aren't a Big Ten title contender. Demitri McCamey is still an excellent point guard, and there's a lot of talent around him, but the front line of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis still disappears for long stretches too often and as this fantastic article by Eamonn Brennan explains, the Illini still insist on taking the most inefficient shot in basketball; the long two point jumper. This is almost certainly an NCAA tournament team, but I don't see them doing much beyond just getting into the field.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers (6)

Record: 11-1

Key wins: vs. North Carolina, vs. West Virginia

Key losses: Virginia

In terms of simply looking at their resume, the Gophers would probably rank second or third in the conference, but they have cooled off lately after a hot start. Allowing an average Virginia team to dominate them in the 2nd half at the Barn was a red flag, and while they've won 5 in a row since then, all 5 games were closer than expected wins over mediocre mid-majors. I know Al Nolen was injured for most of those games, but even without him, Minnesota shouldn't be struggling with the Cornells and Akrons of the world. The biggest problem for them right now is perimeter defense, as opponents are shooting nearly 37% from behind the arc (256th nationally) and getting a ton of open looks (39% of opponents field goals are threes, 310th nationally).

There have certainly been some bright spots; Blake Hoffarber has shown he's not just a 3-point specialist (his assists and rebounds are both way up) and Trevor Mbakwe is an absolute animal in the low post (although he needs to improve his 56% foul shooting). Still, their offense often bogs down in half-court sets, and the lack of perimeter defense could be a killer. This looks like a .500 team in Big Ten play, which should be good enough to get them dancing.

7. Northwestern Wildcats (7)

Record: 9-1

Key wins: None

Key losses: at St. John's

Northwestern has been what everyone expected; excellent half-court offense, suspect defense, and inconsistent inside play. John Shurna has stepped up his game this season, averaging 23 points a game on ridiculous 61% field goal shooting and other-worldly 3-point shooting (33 for 53, or 62%). In fact, Shurna has been more efficient shooting threes than dunking the ball (he averages 1.87 points per 3 point attempt, and given he's missed at least two dunks that I can recall, he's gotta be below 1.87 points per dunk). So next time he has a breakaway, here's to hoping he pulls up for three.

As great a shooter as Shurna is though, his percentages are  almost a lock to go down, as he will be facing both tougher competition and smarter coaches who will design their defense to shut him down. So either other guys need step up offensively, or the defense needs to improve a lot. I'm not really confident in either of those things, and I expect the 'Cats to finish with 7 to 9 conference wins. I've seen a few people pick Northwestern to both finish 7th in the league and make the NCAAs, which doesn't really compute. Given the total lack of good wins in non-conference play (Creighton hasn't beaten anyone and while Georgia Tech did beat Richmond, they've also lost to Kennesaw State and Siena), you'd have to think they need 10 wins minimum to go dancing, and 7th place in an 11 team league means a likely losing Big Ten record, barring some weird occurrences. If everything goes right, Northwestern could move up a couple spots, but it won't be easy.

8. Michigan Wolverines (11)

Record: 10-2

Key wins: at Clemson

Key losses: vs.Syracuse, vs UTEP

Of all my preseason predictions, by far the worst was picking Michigan to finish last in the conference. The key to their team thus far has been sophomore Darius Morris, who is the runaway favorite for most improved player in the Big Ten. He's been outstanding, averaging 16 points a game on 53% shooting and handing out 7.5 assists per game to lead the conference. Freshmen Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan have all been solid contributors, and while Zack Novak has struggled with his outside shot, he's been doing an excellent job on the defensive glass and been making all the hustle plays. Meanwhile, Stu Douglass has finally lived up to his reputation as a dangerous outside shooter, hitting on 43% from three.

John Beilein has done a fantastic job with such a young team, and while they'll likely take their lumps in conference play at times, particularly on the road, the NIT is a very realistic goal, something I thought would be nearly impossible going into the year. With a strong recruiting class coming in next year and the entire roster returning, Michigan will be very dangerous in 2011-12.

9. Indiana Hoosiers (8)

Record: 9-4

Key wins: None

Key losses: vs. Northern Iowa, vs. Colorado

Indiana, not Michigan, was supposed to be the young team that took a big step forward this year, but so far it hasn't worked out for Tom Crean. The Hoosiers headed out to Las Vegas for a 4 team tournament last week, and struggled on their way to losses to mediocre UNI and Colorado. Christian Watford has established himself as one of the better scoring wings in the Big Ten, and Jordan Hulls is a lights-out 3 point shooter, but there are some big question marks here. First off, Indiana doesn't have an effective ball-handler on the roster, and thus they've struggled a lot with turnovers. Also, they've had a lot of trouble defensively against the 4 good teams they've faced, as they don't really have a shot blocker inside and have had trouble containing opposing guards off the dribble. Maurice Creek in particular still hasn't recovered from last season's knee injury and is getting abused defensively. It's worth noting that none of their 4 losses have come at home, where Indiana figures to feed off the home crowd and pull a couple upsets in conference play, but it's going to be tough to get this squad over .500 and into the postseason.

10. Iowa Hawkeyes (10)

Record: 7-5

Key wins: None really, Alabama on a neutral court is probably their best win.

Key losses: South Dakota State, Long Beach State, at Wake Forest

Fran McCaffery has done a solid job in year one, as he's already won more games than a lot of experts thought he'd win the entire season. Iowa has struggled offensively (143rd nationally and by far the worst in the Big Ten), but they are doing an excellent job on defense, as Fran's hectic pace has them forcing turnovers at a high rate (53rd nationally). They've also been fantastic on the glass, rebounding 37% of their misses while only allowing opponents to grab 28% of their misses. Things could get ugly on the road against Big Ten foes, but I think this team will be tough at home and make Carver-Hawkeye a tough place to play again (I already forsee an upset of Northwestern on January 12th).

11. Penn St. Nittany Lions (9)

Record: 7-4

Key wins: Duquesne

Key losses: Maine

Things haven't been pretty for Penn State this season. The Duquense win is a decent one, but other than that they've lost by double digits against the 3 BCS conference opponents they've faced, and on Tuesday they went down at home to the mighty Maine Black Bears. That would be an acceptable loss next year for the inaugural season of Penn St. ice hockey, as the Black Bears are always relevant in Hockey East (shout-out to Paul Kariya, maybe the best freshman in NCAA history in any sport), but in basketball, that's an embarrassing loss. Talor Battle is still putting up big numbers, but his teams keep on losing.

If it wasn't obvious already, the Maine loss made it crystal clear that Ed DeChellis needs to be fired. I don't wish unemployment on any basketball coach (except Kevin O'Neill), but he's now in his 8th season and has a 34-93 record in conference play, and that's unlikely to improve this season. Not only that, but his 4 best players are all graduating after this season, meaning next year the Nits will have to completely start over. Unless DeChellis petitions the NCAA to allow him to face Bill Carmody in every conference game, things are just going to get worse. So it's definitely time to move on, and if the players realize DeChellis is a lame duck, they may quit on him at the end of this year and finish in last place again. Just hope they quit before NU plays them on February 13th.


Ok, that came out way longer than expected, congrats if you made it his far. If you have any comments, post them here or hit me up on Twitter (I'm @Loretta8_SoP).