Get To The Point: Big Ten Edition

Posted by zhayes9 on July 11th, 2011

Throughout the summer RTC contributors Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey will discuss the hot topics — or whatever comes to mind — around each major conference in college basketball.  This week, they tackle the Big Ten.  For the entire summer series focusing on each of the six power conferences, click here

Brian: Lots of folks give the Big Ten grief every year for its slower tempo and meat grinder games. I, for one, love the Big Ten. Fundamentally sound basketball, efficient offense and hard-nosed defense has always appealed to me and all three reside in this conference pretty much every year. The Big Ten (or is it 12?) welcomes a new team this year as the Nebraska Cornhuskers joined this venerable league effective last week. Everyone knows Nebraska joined for football but this addition gives the league an even number of 12 teams and a basketball team that, while it may not do so in the short term, has the potential for some long term success. While I wouldn’t go so far to say Nebraska is the proverbial “sleeping giant,” this is a program with a pretty good coach and a new arena opening up in a couple years. The Cornhuskers have never won a game in the NCAA Tournament but they did manage to get there five times in the 1990′s. If Nebraska can establish its identity early on in its tenure with the Big Ten, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the program have some decent success down the road.

As for the coming season, Ohio State has to be the clear favorite. The Buckeyes return Jared Sullinger, who’s been working on expanding his game (a frightening proposition for opponents), along with William Buford, Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas and Jordan Sibert. Thad Matta welcomes yet another strong recruiting class, led by center Amir Williams, forward LaQuinton Ross and guard Shannon Scott, among others, giving the Buckeyes a strong rotation that should result in a solid top ten ranking all year long. Ohio State is in a position where they could run away with the Big Ten regular season title. I could see Michigan and maybe Wisconsin or Purdue making a run at the men from Columbus but I don’t feel there is another team in this league that can hang with Ohio State on a nightly basis.

The big fella is back for the Bucks

Despite losing Darius Morris to the NBA, I still like Michigan to finish near the top of the conference. It’s taken John Beilein some time to build a solid program in Ann Arbor but was there ever any doubt? Not in my mind. The Wolverines have made two of the past three NCAA Tournaments after going 11 years without an invite. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Morgan bring a solid inside-outside threat to the table while the backcourt has depth with Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Matt Vogrich, a player who should move into a larger role for this team in 2011-12. Michigan’s backcourt will be bolstered further by freshmen Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge. The latter can be a big time scorer in Ann Arbor down the road but the biggest question for Michigan is replacing Morris at the point. Beilein has a decision between Burke or a few veterans. This choice could very well go a long way towards determining the Wolverines’ fate this season.

Do you see Ohio State running away with the Big Ten or will another team keep pace with them? I like what Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin have on their rosters this season but I’m not seeing enough talent there to surpass the Buckeyes.

Zach: We’ve long agreed when it comes to the quality of Big Ten basketball. It makes me cringe when critics label this conference as “boring” or “ugly.” Those that view the Big Ten in a negative light, frankly, don’t fully appreciate or acknowledge what constitutes winning basketball. Hard-nosed defense, physicality, rugged play and offensive efficiency are just a handful of the areas in which the Big Ten has an edge on their conference brethren. Walking away with both the regular season and conference titles in this grinder of a league was no small feat for Ohio State last season. Every single intra-conference matchup, from Madison to Happy Valley, is a 40-minute war. I often equate the Big Ten to a tremendous pitchers duel where every hit, run or walk could decide the ballgame. I firmly believe that’s how Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and the other coaches in this conference approach each possession and game.

It’s awfully rare when a projected lottery pick opts to return to school. It’s even more rare when a player promises to return to school after a stunning loss in the NCAA Tournament and actually keeps his word two months later. Jared Sullinger is that rare individual. Fully realizing he needed to refine his face-up game to play a successful power forward at the next level and boosted by the encouragement of a family that breathes scarlet and gray, Sullinger is back as a preseason All-America candidate and the single biggest reason the Buckeyes will be a unanimous choice to repeat as conference champions. I’ve long felt the determining  factor for a “premiere” program in America is sustainability, defined as their ability to annually absolve significant personnel losses and still produce a winning product the next season. Matta’s Ohio State program has nudged their way into that esteemed grouping. Losing the Big Ten all-time leader in three pointers and two of the top defenders in the nation is nothing to sneeze at, and yet due to Matta’s recruiting efforts and the good fortune of Sullinger’s return, the Buckeyes will be back in the top five this October. Along with Sullinger, William Buford should be a scoring force on the wing, Aaron Craft a top defender/distributor and DeShaun Thomas has the ability to be a major breakout player on the national scene.

After the Buckeyes, the pecking order gets a bit hazy. If Darius Morris had opted to improve his jump shot as a junior at Michigan rather than leave for the NBA Draft, the Wolverines would have been my choice for runner-up. But his early departure is a major blow at such a vital position. Morris was an assist machine blessed with an innate ability to find open shooters in John Beilein’s system that’s often predicated on drive-and-kick action. As you mentioned, Trey Burke is an outstanding talent that will be a fine point guard in this league, but will he instantly figure out the position at the collegiate level like an Aaron Craft? Or will it take a full year of refining? Would Tim Hardaway accept a temporary move to an unnatural position due to the glut of 2-guards on the roster? Overall, I do like the makeup of the Wolverines roster: a scorer in Hardaway, the versatile Smotrycz, a young big that shot 62% as a freshman in Jordan Morgan and shooters lining the wings in Novak and Douglass. If Burke is the real deal, Michigan has definite reason for optimism even sans Morris.

My dilemma: I fear pegging Michigan to finish second over sure things like Purdue and Wisconsin. Everyone and their sister knows Matt Painter and Bo Ryan will have their teams playing their usual brand of efficient, hard-nosed, defensive-minded basketball that seems to result in winning teams year after year. Plus, Robbie Hummel and Jordan Taylor are two outstanding players to have on your side. What say you?

Brian: The baseball analogy is spot on. I guess it’s no coincidence that I prefer a 2-1 pitchers duel over a 13-10 slug fest. Big Ten teams grind it out all year long and I believe that’s why this conference often enjoys success in the month of March.

When you talk about sustainability, Ohio State under Matta certainly comes to mind. I prefer to focus on the program about 500 miles to the northwest in Madison. Bo Ryan has been with the Badgers for ten seasons now and not once have they missed the NCAA Tournament. Ryan has taken what Dick Bennett started in the late 90′s and turned Wisconsin into a nationally respected program. Keep in mind Wisconsin made a grand total of three NCAA appearances before Bennett came to Madison in 1995.  Bo Ryan is a model of consistency, averaging an astounding 24 wins per season over his Wisconsin tenure. The worst Wisconsin has done under Ryan was a 19-13 mark in 2001-02, his first year as head coach. Just think of how many programs that would love to have that record year in and year out.

As for this year’s Badgers, they are (along with Purdue) the safe choice to finish next in line behind Ohio State. Wisconsin will make the NCAA’s yet again with Jordan Taylor captaining the ship. Taylor is a special player and automatically puts the Badgers near the top of the conference by himself. With a strong supporting cast of Josh Gasser, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans, Wisconsin will win double-digit games in league play and dominate the Kohl Center as they’ve done so often in the past. I’m looking at Evans in particular to make a big improvement this season. The Phoenix native showed flashes of terrific athleticism and playmaking at times last year and another season of tutelage under Ryan could turn him into one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. Bo Ryan could turn you, me and a collection of other random folks into a tournament team without skipping a beat. Okay, maybe not when you consider my laser beam of a jump shot, but you get my point. That’s how highly I think of him and I feel confident saying he’s one of the top five basketball minds in the college game today.

Purdue may actually be a better pick than both Michigan and Wisconsin for the second spot. It’s not often you can say that about a team losing players the caliber of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, but with Robbie Hummel returning, the Boilermakers have a balanced roster full of smart, experienced and talented players. Ryne Smith can be a lethal sniper from the perimeter and I feel he’s due for a tremendous senior season. Lewis Jackson provides continuity, stability and experience as a senior point guard and will do a nice job running Painter’s offense. I’m big on experience and it’s always a bonus when experienced players have talent. That’s the case at Purdue this year. The return of Hummel is a big deal not just because of his skill but the balance he creates in his team’s half court offense. Purdue has little up front outside of Hummel but he’ll be able to free up the guards on the perimeter and even knock down some long jumpers himself. If Travis Carroll steps up and takes on a larger role, that’s just gravy.

Robbie Hummel wants to finish his Purdue career on a high note

It seems I’m talking myself into taking Purdue over Michigan for the second spot. The Boilermakers don’t have the point guard concerns Michigan does, plus they’re heavy on experience. Considering these facts, I’m going to with Purdue as my second place team in the Big Ten this season. Michigan could certainly get there because the conference is up for grabs outside of the top spot, but the experience of Purdue’s roster does the trick for me. Who else can crack the top three or four in this league? Illinois has some talent back but they’re going to need immediate contributions from a six-man freshmen class in order to give the top teams a run. Let’s not forget about Michigan State, either. There are so many terrific coaches in this conference and it wouldn’t shock me to see Tom Izzo pull his team together and make a charge towards the top four. The Big Ten is shaping up to be ultra-competitive amongst the top six or seven teams.

Zach: You eloquently described Bo Ryan’s sustained success since he took the helm in Madison, so I’m likely making a grave mistake doubting his team, but I just don’t see any way that roster finishes in second place unless it ends up at 10-6 or 9-7 with a cluster of teams. Way too often last season the Badgers were bailed out of offensive possessions by Jordan Taylor late in the shot clock, and that was with Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil on the roster. The defense will once again prove stellar, but I’m envisioning Bo Ryan’s patented swing offense relying  too heavily on Taylor to provide an unreasonable percentage of their offense. When he faces constant doubles and even triple teams, it’s going to be immensely difficult for Wisconsin to score consistently. Mike Bruesewitz, whom everyone seems to be assuming will quickly become Leuer’s successor, has a ceiling of a 3rd or 4th option. I just don’t see enough skill there. I watched the Badgers with more frequency than just about any other Big Ten team last season and Ryan Evans is absolutely atrocious scoring the basketball. He’s athletic and defends, but Evans could not look more uncomfortable with the basic fundamentals offensively. One player who I do feel could mature into a major weapon is big man Jared Berggren and watch out for former Iowa commit Ben Brust to provide some thunder off the bench. For me, it comes down to Purdue or Michigan for second in this conference, with Wisconsin and Michigan State battling for fourth.

For as much as we may differ on Wisconsin, we’re on the same page when it comes to Purdue. The primary reason I anticipate a second place finish despite losing E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson: Purdue hasn’t ranked lower than 16th in defensive efficiency since 2007. That type of continuity on the defensive end helps breed that sustainability we talked about. Robbie Hummel’s long-anticipated return is certainly a shot in the arm. I see no reason why his versatility, toughness and leadership (not to mention a heavy dose of motivation) won’t immediately translate into an all-conference type senior campaign. As you mentioned, the point guard spot is in the steady hands of Lewis Jackson and his 2.14 A/T ratio, but both Jackson and Ryne Smith will be entrusted with more of a scoring load this season. Whether Smith shoots 44% from three without Moore and Johnson providing him ample open looks will pose another challenge. Since I trust Matt Painter, their philosophy on defense, Hummel to play as if he missed no time and Jackson at the point, Purdue is my choice for second as well.

I’ve got Michigan State pegged for fourth. There’s a silver lining to both Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers’ careers coming to a close in East Lansing. We all know Summers is a massive headcase and enigma, but it also had to be frustrating for Lucas to peak as a sophomore, remain in school, suffer devastating injuries and fail to recreate that early magic to the point of going undrafted. As much as those two did contribute from a talent and production standpoint, Michigan State’s disappointing season was directly correlated with those two seniors falling short of expectations. It was a team that provided Tom Izzo more than one sleepless night last winter. Thankfully, team guys like Draymond Green and Delvon Roe return, along with potential breakout star Keith Appling (90% FT, 41% 3pt) and an instant freshman contributor in Brendan Dawson. It won’t be the deepest team Tom Izzo had featured during his fine tenure as head coach, but ask Thad Matta how a trimmed lineup has worked out for him in Columbus. A set rotation where each player knows their role and their minutes could be a major bonus for this Michigan State team. If Green acts as a father figure to this primarily young Spartans unit, this year’s team might be just as much of a positive story as last season was a major dud.

Illinois is another team that lost key players, but those players didn’t necessarily always play up to par. Do you envision a similar situation in Champaign?

Brian: I’m not sure Illinois can compete for a top three spot. I do think they’ll surprise some folks, though. I don’t know what happened with Demetri McCamey last season but it was strange to say the least. Jereme Richmond and some others caused a lot more chemistry problems than we may have thought. The Illini lose four seniors who played important roles on the team over their years in Champaign in addition to Richmond. With that much turnover, it’s hard to expect big things out of a young team. However, great loss brings great opportunity. A player I expect to fill the vacuum is Meyers Leonard. This seven-footer is just oozing with potential and his sophomore year could bring a breakout performance. Leonard is playing for the US FIBA U19 team this summer and in 15 MPG, he’s averaging 6.5 points on over 60% shooting. Project that out over 30 minutes and you have a solid 13 PPG scorer. On this Illinois team, he may even see more than 30 MPG this season. Leonard will have to round all of that raw talent into shape but I think he’ll be a major contributor for Illinois.

Guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson lead the returnees and I’m curious to see who Bruce Weber turns to at the point to replace McCamey, an assist machine. If Weber feels more comfortable with Paul and Richardson off the ball (both can shoot the rock), freshman Tracy Abrams may get the nod. Abrams is part of a strong recruiting class that also includes impact front court players Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw. These freshmen will need to contribute immediately off the bench by adding depth. Illinois doesn’t have much returning and the starters are going to need a blow over the course of the game. Illinois can’t make a move up the ladder without the rookies performing. This is definitely a team with a lot of potential and I do believe they can be a solid fourth or fifth team in this league with some luck. The Illini will probably be close to the bubble all year long and Weber just might get them into the NCAA’s.

Looking one state to the east, I think this is the year Tom Crean and Indiana start climbing back to respectability. The Hoosiers are three years removed from the Kelvin Sampson disaster and Crean now has a lot more talent at his disposal. Under Crean, IU has taken baby steps forward going from six to ten to 12 wins in his first three seasons. I think 2011-12 is the year they take a big step and win 16-19 games. Indiana has a solid number of returnees but Crean nabbed the crown jewel of Indiana high school basketball on the recruiting trail. Cody Zeller joins the program this season and will be an instant impact type of player. He is a multi-faceted player who can score on the low block, run the floor and knock down a mid-range jumper. Some say Cody Zeller is the best player in his family, one that includes former Notre Dame Golden Domer Luke and current UNC star Tyler. If true, the Indiana faithful will be thrilled with Zeller for years to come. He’s a great kid who leads by example and that will serve this still rebuilding program well over the next four years. The Hoosiers return three double-digit scorers in Christian Watford, Verdell Jones III and Jordan Hulls. If Maurice Creek is finally healthy, this team might even be able to compete for the NCAA Tournament. The biggest challenge for Indiana will be learning how to win. This is obviously not a program accustomed to winning lately and I’m hesitant for that reason. Learning and knowing how to win is a very underrated attribute of successful programs. One should not assume this team will turn the corner but the potential is there.

Elsewhere in the conference, Minnesota and Northwestern figure to be next in line. The Golden Gophers return some talent, including Trevor Mbakwe, but last season’s epic collapse leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Can Minnesota make a run at the top third of the conference?

Zach: I expect Year 4 of the Crean era to field a more competitive and hungry team than Year 3, just as Year 3 was an upgrade over Year 2. You bring up an astute point about knowing how to win, though. The 2011-12 Hoosiers won’t only be young, but also completely green when it comes to protecting leads down the stretch in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The talent is starting to assemble; in fact, Watford, Jones, Hulls, Oladipo, Creek (if healthy) and Zeller is a very intriguing core of players. But Indiana needs to improve on three different levels if they want to snag an NCAA bid: 1) improving defensively, 2) avoiding a late-season collapse (Indiana has won two games combined in the last two seasons in February and March) and 3) closing out games. Expect Indiana to be ultra-competitive, even hanging with the big boys like Ohio State and Michigan State late in second halves. The problem is that this predominantly young team is woefully inexperienced when it comes to executing and getting stops down the stretch. That will undoubtedly be the ongoing challenge from the start of Big Ten play. I realize this is down the road, but if Crean’s team shows steady progress, 2013-14 could be the year they’re a legitimate top ten team in America with Watford, Creek and Hulls as seniors, Oladipo a junior and their star-studded 2012 class as sophomores with Gary Harris possibly joining the fun. Indiana fans know this all too well already, but patience is a virtue.

Hulls is Indiana's lethal outside shooting threat

As much as McCamey, Davis and Tisdale were frustrating and inconsistent during their time in Champaign, the Orange Krush will be wishing that trio had a fifth year of eligibility about midway through the upcoming season. It’s not that Illinois will be woeful next year, but I fully expect a rebuilding season with an NIT berth the likely outcome. Bruce Weber saved his job in two ways last season. First and most importantly, his Illini made the NCAA Tournament, destroyed UNLV and even showed fight against top-seed Kansas. Secondly, he recruited effectively in his home state, and more specifically, in the hotbed of Chicago. His four top recruits for this season all reside in Illinois. Now if only he could mold either Brandon Paul or D.J. Richardson into a point guard. Both are capable shooters and decent athletes, but they’re a bit redundant on the wing. I agree that this season is going to hinge on the progress of Meyers Leonard in the post. If he can add some muscle to that seven-foot frame, Weber may have a star on his hands by his junior or senior year. For 2011-12, it’s going to be plenty of mixing and matching, figuring out rotations and trying to develop chemistry after losing three cogs that were the centerpiece of everything Illinois did during the last few seasons.

The question will be broached in November just as it is every preseason: is this the year Northwestern finally punches their ticket? While last year I voted in the affirmative, the loss of Juice Thompson might be the most significant departure of any player in this conference. He was their floor general, their leader, their point guard that played 40 minutes every night and poured his heart and soul into the program. You don’t replace players like Juice Thompson, you just hope someone can fill in admirably. There is reason for hope in Evanston, though. John Shurna, who was never quite the same after an ankle injury in December, returns as an all-conference candidate. Jer’Shon Cobb went through a freshman funk near the end of last season, but he showed glimpses of stardom earlier in his debut campaign and could be a valuable contributor. Drew Crawford is also back as a reliable defender and second or third scoring option on the wing. Even Luka Mirkovic returns to provide height, rebounding and the occasional mid-range jumper. It wouldn’t shock me if Northwestern competed at least part of the season for a tournament bid, lingering around the end of the bubble picture. In fact, I expect them to finish above Minnesota. But Thompson was the glue that held this fort together. If they couldn’t get it done with him, I can’t project them to rip that 72-year monkey off their back without him.

Brian: I don’t see Northwestern being able to navigate this conference and win the ten games likely needed for consideration. Shurna and Cobb are great talents but this is not a deep basketball team at all. Bill Carmody is a very smart man, I just don’t see how he’ll be able to get this program to a level it has never been before. To even get into the conversation, the Wildcats need to vastly improve defensively. This team’s defense was atrocious last year and you just don’t win games without defending in a conference like this unless you have an incredible level of talent. Northwestern does not.

Further on down the conference, it looks like Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State will bring up the rear in some order. I think the Hawkeyes are in the best position to break out of the basement. Fran McCaffery has two quality guards in Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright as well as Melsahn Basabe at forward. Iowa has a number of players on the roster who can contribute and that depth can help them make a significant improvement this year. Carver-Hawkeye Arena has been a depressing place in recent years but McCaffery could be on his way towards changing that.

Nebraska is in a similar position, although the loss of Lance Jeter will be too tough to overcome. Jorge Brian Diaz can score in the post and both Toney McCray and Brandon Richardson must take on leadership roles in the back court as the Cornhuskers make the transition to the Big Ten. Doc Sadler can coach and will have this team competing hard on the defensive end but there isn’t enough on the roster to break into the middle of the pack. As for Penn State, I think they’re really in trouble. They lost a ton of key players and their recruiting class isn’t up to par. Patrick Chambers has his work cut out for him and Tim Frazier will now be the go-to guy in State College. Long term, Chambers is a very good hire for the Nittany Lions. He brings much needed passion and energy to a dull program living in the shadow of Joe Paterno. Chambers was a key assistant at Villanova and brings the recruiting credentials needed to succeed at Penn State.

Zach: Everything you laid out sounds accurate to me. Out of the bottom part of the conference, Iowa will win the most games, Nebraska will be the most competitive every 40 minutes because of the way they defend and Penn State has a massive rebuilding project in front of them with a new coach and largely a new roster. Overall, it’s shaping up to be another solid season in the Big Ten. Ohio State has a legitimate shot at a #1 seed. There should be a fierce battle for second with Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin all primed for successful years despite important personnel losses. Michigan State is set up to rebound, while Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota and even Indiana can set expectations in the preseason at playing important games in March. This conference may not feature the star power of the Big East, but night in and night out the competition in the Big Ten is unmatched in the entire country.

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