RTC Summer Updates: Big Ten ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on August 8th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Big Ten correspondent, Will Green.
- Sully’s Back, But With Demands – In the year 2011, in the age of ‘now,’ in a profit-first educate-yourself-later society, amidst a flittering of teenage NBA draft picks, ferocious freshman phenomenon Jared Sullinger decided to stay in school. How quaint. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing quaint about Sullinger, his (rightly) assumed sense of on-court leadership, his brutally physical style of play, or that Ja Rule–esque snarl that makes him look like a squirrel who just ate a questionable nut. But seriously, it’s highly unlikely that anyone other than Jordan Taylor will stand in the way of Sullinger winning the Big Ten Player of the Year Award, and rightfully so. He has spent the better part of the off-season slimming down and getting faster. The best player on the best team in the conference simply can’t suffer a slump; he’s worked too hard and has clearly made a commitment to improving his game before leaving for the pros. The question is less about what Sullinger’s level of performance will be than it is about the effect his performance will have on other members of his team. Last year, his 17 /10 were a reflection of consistent contribution that was also part of a greater team-wide cohesion. Jon Diebler, David Lighty and even Dallas Lauderdale each had pronounced and vital roles on last year’s team. They’re all gone now. While some of the supporting cast and several new stars-in-the-making will join Sullinger, will increased reliance upon him make OSU more of a one-man show? Or will the Buckeyes continue to roll out a team-focused squad with four scorers in double figures and a core group of five guys who notch 30 minutes a game? Whatever happens, Sullinger will be back and he will be better than last year. Consider yourself warned.
- Welcome, Nebraska – On July 1, Nebraska officially joined the B1G, an acronym whose ludicrousness we continue to subconsciously validate by pronouncing it ‘Bih-one-ggg’. If you’re scoring at home, UNL’s entry makes for 12 teams in the Big Ten, a conference that shouldn’t be confused with the Big 12, which only has ten teams now since Nebraska left it. Now that we’ve all scratched our heads for second, we should pause to consider how massive the amount of potential football revenue must have been to persuade the intransigent Big Ten to alter its ranks. The Cornhuskers’ inclusion marks only the second change in league makeup since the 1950s. So how will the other 11 schools adjust to the adjustment? Football-wise, they should all watch their backs. On the basketball court, though, it probably won’t have a big (or should we say, a ‘B1G’) impact. Sadly for Husker fans, their roundball team loses two of their top three scorers and has some major offensive issues to solve in a league whose tempo of play limits even the country’s very best offenses. Head coach Doc Sadler continues to recruit a healthy mix of transfers and high school players, but over his five-year tenure nine of them have left due to reasons other than matriculation or the NBA. Nebraska has had some encouraging moments in recent years, including a five game improvement in Big 12 play from 2009 to 2010 (from 2-14 to 7-9). The team’s defensive efficiency would’ve finished fourth and it’s adjusted tempo would’ve finished fourth slowest in last year’s Big Ten. In some respects, Nebraska feels like a perfect match for the conference. And yet, for many of those same reasons, it might be a little out-matched in its first few years.
- Ed DeChellis Leaves For Navy – Nowadays, stories like these are rarer than that bloody slice of carpaccio you once had at a fancy restaurant: a coach leaving a higher paying, higher-infrastructure, higher strength-of-schedule situation for a middle of the pack team in a unambiguously low-major conference. Make no mistake: Ed DeChellis didn’t become the new head coach at Navy. He stopped being the head coach at Penn State. Unless they’re ousted via scandal or especially egregious results you simply don’t hear about power six coaches voluntarily leaving for a “lesser” job. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Or is it? The answer to that question centers around just how much “less” of a job the Navy coaching position really is, and if anything DeChellis might have done warranted the move. The wink-wink nudge-nudge consensus is that while DeChellis didn’t necessarily knock anyone’s socks off, the school refuses to take basketball seriously. Some have lambasted the athletic department’s commitment to DeChellis and the program overall at a school that’s known best for intense linebackers and an 84 year-old Italian-American man. It will be interesting to observe new head coach Patrick Chambersin his first few seasons and see whether or not he runs into a similar set of struggles as DeChellis did during his tenure. If the holistic drawbacks of coaching in University Park really outweigh the benefits to the extent that someone would walk away from the position, then PSU has bigger problems to fix than figuring out how to win in the Big Ten this season. But if anyone can overcome whatever said “drawbacks” may or may not be, it’s Chambers.
1) Ohio State – Head coach Thad Matta might have more talent this coming season than he knows what to do with, and it’s only partially because Jared Sullinger and second-leading scorer Will Buford are returning to a team that flat-out put up points. Make no mistake – departed senior Jon Diebler was arguably the best overall offensive player in the entire country last year. Dallas “The Fort” Lauderdale would’ve been options A, B and C in the post on many other teams. It is reasonable to think that an exodus that left only two upperclassman on the entire team was a debilitating one. But Matta went out and shopped this past year. Eye-popping recruits Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Amir Williams, Sam Thompson (and this poor guy) will bolster the core of this team along with Sullinger, Buford and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Aaron Craft. Expect Craft to be a lethal – if not anonymous – defensive force who won’t qualify for any more sixth man awards in his collegiate career. Matta has added former Buckeye and erstwhile LeBron mentor Chris Jent to replace departed assistant coach Brandon Miller. Jent has developed his reputation around coaching players how to shoot. It would appear he’s being brought in to help mold the scoring abilities of the five-man freshman class, as the remaining players on this year’s roster were part of a 2010-11 Buckeyes squad that already had the highest three-point percentage and third-highest effective field goal percentage in the country. While the loss of the insanely hot-handed Diebler will no doubt lower these marks to some degree, it will be interesting to watch Jent’s contributions to a team that already boasts numerous offensive weapons. What’s really unfair is that Ohio State’s elite offense is coupled with a defense that, as Luke Winn pointed out last year, rarely fouls and was for a time last year the most dominant in country. Balancing roles between so much talent (especially between Sullinger and the fab four freshmen) is always tricky, but it shouldn’t stop the Buckeyes from winning a Big Ten championship.
2) Wisconsin – Wisconsin put up all kinds of statistical extremes last year that indicated the exact and unique nature of their success. Going into the 2011 NCAA Tournament they had the lowest turnover percentage, the highest free throw shooting percentage, the third highest opponent-free-throw percentage, the slowest adjusted tempo, the second fewest percentage of shots blocked, the second best offensive efficiency, and the fourth lowest takeaway percentage of any team in the country. This is out of 345 teams, folks. All this extremity represents the quintessence of the Big Ten – slow down, make free throws, defend the heck out of everyone, never turn the ball over, and experience success. While second-team All-American Jordan Taylor – despite skipping the World University Games in favor of having minor ankle surgery – will undoubtedly be an anchor at point guard, the central question for the 2011-12 Badgers remains: Will losing Jon Leuer and the criminally underrated Keaton Nankivil inhibit these distinct (and statistically obvious) methods by which they win games? One might be able to answer this with yet another statistical extreme. Those who contributed most to their bizarre statistical success were their starters – including the now departed 2007 recruiting class of Leuer, Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz – and Wisconsin played those starters (a relatively huge) 78% of every game last season. In addition, J.P. Gavinski and walk-ons Brett Valentyn and Wquinton Smith are also gone. But as luck would have it, head coach Bo Ryan has exactly four strong scholarship recruits and two new walk-ons waiting in the wings. Freshmen Frank Kaminsky and Jarrod Uthoff, especially, will provide instant depth in the frontcourt. Minnesota prep standout and graduate of Leuer’s high school, Jordan Smith, will walk on at guard, where he’ll fight for time alongside true freshman Traevon Jackson. Then there’s 6’11” “long-term-investment” redshirt freshman Evan Anderson. The top 2010 Badger recruit is already licking his lips over his fifth year and hasn’t even played in his first. The recent March underachievers might not duplicate KenPom’s number #7 national ranking in 2011, but they have too much talent to not be dominant in the Big Ten.
3) Purdue – If the Boilermakers aren’t already taking on water in the wake of heavy rains and the loss of two of the Big Three, they might be soon. Even hardened Purdue fans are labeling this as a rebuilding year following the losses of E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson to the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Rising junior Patrick Bade is also no more, as he’s taking his talents across campus to the gridiron. Power forwards Donny Hale and Jacob Lawson, and redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson form the team’s new blood, but are more of the four-year player, valuable role-filling ilk than they are the next Jared Sullinger. But above this meandering fray is, of course, Robbie Hummel, who will attempt one final time to dominate the floor instead of break himself. Barring another horrible injury, the super-talented super-senior should make the All Big Ten First Team without a sweat. But who’s supplying the non-Hummel offense? Well, they nabbed Neal Beshears from something called the Maine Central Institute, and senior Ryne Smith and his freaky good offensive efficiency rating and true shooting percentages should finally get the sample size they deserve. But it will be a struggle to replace Moore and Johnson’s output – 53% of your points is a large clip. On the flip side, here’s why we’re convinced Purdue’s going to be OK. Below is Purdue’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating and corresponding national ranking during head coach Matt Painter’s six-year tenure.
|Adj. Def Efficiency||99.6 (133rd)||87.6 (13th)||88.5 (16th)||87.0 (5th)||85.8 (3rd)||89.5 (12th)|
For the past five years, Purdue has been the most consistently elite defensive program in all of basketball. There’s no reason to think this will change. Painter is very talented at extracting exactly what he wants defensively from each new wave of players. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that even if Purdue struggles to score next year, opponents will really struggle to score against them (yes, this line could probably evaluate every team in the Big Ten, but really applies to Purdue). Fans can thank the athletic department for this one. The sizable pre-July 1st raise the school offered Painter neatly sidestepped the fact that the buyout clause in his contract somehow oddly disappeared at the end of last season. Instead of bolting to the Missouri Tigers’ vacancy, he’s instead coaching the 2011 USA Men’s World University Team, and getting some insight into Big Ten foes (and team members) Draymond Green and Trevor Mbakwe while he’s at it. When their team wins the majority of the sub-110 point games they play this year, Purdue fans will be grateful Painter stayed.
4) Michigan – The Wolverines are a deceptively good team. They don’t wow you with quick scoring or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it possessions. Last year’s squad slowed their tempo down virtually as much as compatriot ultra-grinders Wisconsin and Penn State and was the 22nd slowest team in the country. They had a misleading record last year, too. Their 14 losses were partially owed to a strength of schedule that was tougher than what the RPI-deemed 16th harshest in the country. And yeah, they lost in their second game of the NCAA Tournament – but to Duke, by two points, and after they throttled Tennessee by 30. Tim Hardaway Jr. and company will beat a lot of teams this year who will “respect” Michigan without actually respecting them. Key to the under-the-radar awesomeness will not only be the bombing abilities with which Hardaway set his school’s freshman single season three-point record, but both the outside ability and interior physicality of sophomore big man and wicked gagster Evan Smotrycz. Jordan Morgan will anchor the post alongside Smotrycz, an area with a lot of talent but lacking in true height. The Wolverines hope a more physical version of these two will not only experience continued interior shooting success, but catalyze an improvement over last year’s paltry offensive rebounding, shot-blocking, and foul-drawing abilities (UM was third worst in the country in FT attempted per FG attempted). Rumor in Ann Arbor is that true freshman Trey Burke will handle the majority of point guard duties in the wake of Darius Morris’ departure to the NBA. Meanwhile, shooting guard Carlton Brundidge, the Wolverines highest rated recruit, will join the team at arguably their deepest position. Max Bielfeldt, the remaining member of the 2011 class, is yet another talented but undersized power forward, who might struggle to find the right fit within Michigan’s rotation. While the team’s only real weakness on paper is its interior defense, the roster returns every one of last year’s post players. If anything, they should come back stronger and improve on the 2010-11 campaign’s impressive showing by winning a lot of games early – outside of the Maui Invitational, this year’s out of conference schedule is lighter than last year’s. The Wolverines will carry a lot of buzz into the middle part of January, and then lose a little bit of steam once they hit some walls in conference. Fortunately, this is a season with so much else going for them that the Wolverines just about have to be relevant in March. The tough determinant is just how relevant they’ll actually be.
5) Michigan State – Earlier this year, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo helped a woman dig her car out of a snow bank. Now, for the first time in his history as a coach, Izzo and the Spartans might need a hand themselves to dig out of the slump the 2010-11 season left them in. There were injuries, suspensions, transfers, and some really uncomfortable sexual assault accusations. The team also posted the worst record of any Izzo-coached squad since his debut season with the Spartans (1995-96), and made the NCAA Tournament by the skin of their teeth. Like several other of the Big Ten’s elite teams, there’s lots of new blood replacing familiar blood. Durrell Summers, Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious are among the most notable Spartans departed. They’re also three of last year’s team’s top four scorers. Injuries to returning players could cause even more vacancies. Senior Delvon Roe has a questionable timetable for a return following a severe ankle sprain last month. Redshirt freshman and former ESPN Top 100 recruit Russell Byrd’s ability to play significant minutes is dependent upon the sustained health of a foot that’s required three surgeries in roughly a year. U-19 team member and ‘Buzzworthy’ nominee Keith Appling should start in some guard capacity, while incoming freshman Travis Trice and former Horizon league leading scorer and Valpo graduate Brandon Wood will battle for minutes at point. Wood and McDonalds All-American wing Branden Dawson have not only the chance, but practically the obligation to contribute right away. All these guys will fall under the tutelage of World University Games participant and unscathed upperclassman Draymond Green. Such a young team will undoubtedly face questions on the offensive end, but their defensive approach isn’t far from elite. Last year’s team had only one debilitating defensive weakness: eliminating opponent’s threes. If Izzo makes this a priority early on the Spartans could put themselves in a position to win a lot of (shockingly!) low-scoring, grind-it-out games. Some pundits think the stakes are lowered for MSU’s 2011-12 campaign. They certainly won’t tumble from a No. 2 pre-season ranking again. But with out of conference games against North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Gonzaga (and that’s just in the first four weeks of the season) the Spartans better be prepared to make a January and February in-conference run or else my prediction will be wrong. And that would be unacceptable.
6) Illinois – Expect a sea change for the Illini. Last year’s high-octane offense is sure to take a hit with the losses of Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, and would-be sophomore Jereme Richmond, who probably wishes he hadn’t left. But Illinois’ mammoth recruiting class might even be better than Ohio State’s, and boasts four Top 100 recruits who are smart enough to understand head coach Bruce Weber’s most pronounced hallmark: obliterating opponent FG%. Illinois has achieved this over the past several years, however, by having the highest effective height in the country, a metric most highly correlated with block %, two-point FG defense and effective FG defense. By gaining four new players over 6’7”, they should continue to enjoy this advantage. Sophomore seven-footer and U-19 National Team star Meyers Leonard as well true freshmen Mike Shaw and Nnanna Egwu of the great Jiffy Lube wisecrack should exhibit a physicality and strength beyond their years to avoid getting exploited in the post. It’s also sounding like late signee Ibby Djimde, previously thought ineligible to play this upcoming season, will now provide another big presence in Weber’s frontcourt. Guard/wing Mycheal Henry might be the bluest chip of the whole set, and should see competitive minutes. On the perimeter, rising juniors D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul will hold down a backcourt without a lot of depth, so look for Mount Carmel-made freshman Tracy Abrams to get significant backup minutes. Last month’s loss of Weber’s hirer, 19-year Athletic Director Ron Guenther, appears to put more pressure than normal on Weber to have a successful season. Guenther’s successor may or may not look to make changes if the Illini underperform in 2011-12. Another challenge for Weber: This year’s league schedule pits them against Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue twice each, a misfortune only one other Big Ten team has. The Fightin’ Illini are definitely poised to have spurts of brilliance this season. They’re also poised to have some growing pains. In a year where grumblings about Weber have risen in volume this is inauspicious, but nonetheless promising.
7) Indiana – The 2011-12 Indiana Hoosiers are like a souped up Cadillac. They’ve got an old-school glamour, retain nearly all of last season’s parts (only Jeremiah Rivers and Bobby Capobianco’s combined 4.8 points per game are gone), and add a few bells and whistles like the much-lauded Cody Zeller and a pair of three star guards. But they’re also an archaic brand that has been unable to recapture the significance they’re so desperate to re-attain. Few people ultimately buy into them when they’re shown alongside BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses. That might start to change this year. Zeller should enjoy major minutes down low with Christian Watford. Junior guard Jordan Hulls has very quietly accumulated the highest true shooting percentage of anyone returning to Big Ten play – head coach Tom Crean would do well to utilize him as a more pronounced scoring option. Beyond personnel, there’s been an attempt at attitudinal renovation. Crean has taken to Twitter of late to talk about defense, leaders of men, and the Glory of God. Legendary Hoosier Calbert Chaney is in as Motivator-In-Chief, and Crean is certainly doing his part to recruit Indiana back to significance. But verbiage and buzz don’t appease a cynical fan base like winning does. To this point, the defense trope that Crean twit-hit on should be more than lip service. Last year’s Hoosiers fielded a strong offense (64th in adjusted efficiency) and didn’t field an elite defense (109th). They also fouled incessantly during shooting situations. Opponents shot one free throw for every two field goals attempted last year, by far the worst clip among BCS teams. If KenPom ranked the Hoosiers as the 75th-best team in college basketball last year despite their finishing eight games under .500, imagine how high he’ll rank them if they shore up their defense. If the program resurrects itself, it will do so not in the early months (IU’s had one of the very weakest non-conference schedules for the past several years) but in January and February against rigorous conference play. With Indiana perpetually unable to bridge the gap between powerful recruiting and effective coaching, we find ourselves asking the question we’ve asked for as long as I can remember: will it, finally?
8) Minnesota – Last year’s underachieving team lacked a consistent offensive threat on the court, and was a circus off of it. Injury, early exits and the most courteous misdemeanor ever produced a 6-12 Big Ten record and unraveled a season that many fans felt should have held promise. The boomerang-style departure-and-returns of Ralph Sampson III (NBA) and head coach Tubby Smith flirting (University of Maryland vacancy) look like early ingredients for a Gophers’ NCAA Tournament run. Add to the mix the return of leading scorer and World University Games participant Trevor Mbakwe and the high-flying, noted character guy Andre Ingram, and the case strengthens for Minnesota being relevant in league. The problem, though, is the Gophers’ tendency to be better on paper than in practice. Ingram will assume Colton Iverson’s scholarship in the wake of Iverson’s departure for Wyoming, a move that prevented the Gophers from owning one of the Big Ten’s most dominant senior-led frontcourts in 2011. With the 6’10″ Iverson gone, expect little-used sophomores Elliot Eliason (6’11″) and Maurice Walker (6’10”) to become relied upon post options. Redshirt Latvian import Oto Osenieks could provide some stability in the middle of the lineup. But the guard situation is where things get tricky. Last year, senior Blake Hoffarber was left to pick up the pieces of a backcourt that was to be fearlessly led by his one-time AAU teammate Al Nolan and Devoe Joseph. Nolan ended his collegiate career with a broken foot roughly two weeks after Joseph promptly became the fourth Gopher player in a year to transfer to another school. A vacuum at the point guard position lingered for the majority of the year, and the same could happen this year. The combined stat line of the three guards Minnesota does return (38.7 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.9 APG last season) isn’t exactly jaw-dropping, but it’s a base from which to start. Three other guards – Smith’s recruiting haul of point guard Julian Welch and shooting guards Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman – can and should also be part of this base. The biggest obstacle to the Gophers’ success, however, will be figuring out who should anchor Minnesota’s backcourt. If they can find a consistent answer to this question, they’ll finish higher than eighth. If they don’t, 2011-12 could be another long, listless season.
9) Northwestern – There’s only one story that has any business prefacing any Wildcat season for the rest of time – unless, of course, that story no longer becomes a story. The most extreme example of monkey-clinging-to-back among power six teams belongs to Northwestern, a school that has unbelievably never been to an NCAA Tournament. According to returning star John Shurna, if the team doesn’t make the tournament, his collegiate career will be a failure. It is Shurna’s team to say this about if he chooses, but this is the level of extreme that this drought has gotten to. Luckily, we’re here to predict the Big Ten order of finish, not NCAA Tournament placement. While the Purple and White’s chance of crashing the dance is questionable, it may well be because they’re the last team out of the field. Last year’s team went 20-14, took Ohio State to overtime in the second round of Big Ten tournament, and was a fetid overtime period away from the NIT Final Four. The Wildcats’ season was defined by two points of consistency that should not change this year: they almost never turned the ball over, and their 14 losses were all respectable ones – to teams that Mr. Pomeroy rated 62nd or above. One big knock, as narrated in the words of Stewie Griffin: “I’m outta Juice over here…bone dry.” Juice Thompson’s shoes might be the biggest to fill of any Northwestern player that’s left in the Bill Carmody era. The head Wildcat has at least made a dent at this by attracting serviceable guards David Sobolewski and Tre Demps, who might see significant time behind sophomore JerShon Cobb. Expect rising junior Drew Crawford to see even more minutes this year and rely on the three for his offensive output. While Shurna and 6’11″ Luka Mirkovic will no doubt provide an offensive spark down low, they need to find a way to not allow a truly awful 52.6 clip of opponents’ two-point shots. Grabbing some offensive rebounds and getting to the line a bit more wouldn’t hurt, either. With Shurna and Mirkovic both leaving after this year keep an eye for Carmody to split regardless of whether they make the tournament or not. Assistant Tavaras Hardy has been promoted to “associate head coach,” a move that signifies a set lineage, and even former Rutgers head fulminator Fred Hill is now on the 2011-12 staff. They say this every year, but if Northwestern ever had a year to go dancing this is it. After all, how could you live with having your entire college career be a waste?
10) Iowa – Head coach Fran McCaffery might be wishing he was still back at Siena. No one thought the Todd Lickliter debacle, nor a conference record that’s held or gotten worse every season since 2005-06, would be mended overnight. Then again, no one thought that Iowa would still be losing underclassmen to low Division-I programs 16 months into what is supposed to be the great inexorable turnaround. If there is positive momentum it is youth-fueled. McCaffery has really cornered the market on three-star players, bringing in eight over the last two seasons. The four that comprised 2010’s recruiting class, including JUCO transfer Bryce Cartwright, played the second, fourth, sixth and seventh highest percentage of minutes on the team last year. With no minute-hoggers outside of Jordan Payne (and Anthony Hubbard, who barely even unpacked his bags) leaving, the 2011 batch might not see quite the same clip off the bench, although 6’8″ Kentucky-Ohio all-star game MVP Aaron White will be the best Big Ten freshman that no one ever hears about. Key to a Hawkeye turnaround is not only the effective allocation of minutes across a broad range of young, talented-but-not-jaw-dropping players, but making some freaking shots. Incoming freshman Josh Oglesby would do well to help reverse the long range fortunes of the Big Ten’s worst three point shooting team, and it will be interesting to watch how 6’10″ Gabe Olaseni contributes in the paint if he doesn’t decide to redshit. Leading scorer Matt Gatens returns for his senior season, and is slightly more optimistic than us about his team’s chances this season. The other piece of good news for Iowa concerns their defensive improvement. In Lickliter’s last year, their defensive efficiency rating was 181st. Last year under McCaffery, it was 53rd. It might be easy to treat defense as an assumed asset in the Big Ten, but it would be tragic for the Hawkeyes to finally make strides on offense and fall out of contention because they lost the effective style they just started implementing on the other end. Above all, there are two things the Hawkeyes have to achieve this season: improve on last year’s 4-14 in-league showing, and finally land that blue chip recruit that McCaffery can start to build the rebuilding around.
11) Nebraska – OK, so clearly this was a football addition. But what will the Cornhuskers bring to the hardwood show? Other than a very experienced team, not much. Five players are gone from last year’s impressively long roster, which populated a team perhaps best remembered for suffering a 27-point blowout at the hands of Wichita State in the early days of the NIT. Just a month before that, however, Nebraska was handing losses to Texas and Missouri and positioning themselves to finish over .500 in Big 12 play, illustrating the team’s high but rarely broached ceiling. The most notable personnel losses are minutes and points leader Lance Jeter and injury-plagued guard Eshaunte Jones, who decided playing for a D-II school was a better option than being a supporting member of a Big Ten team. Jones marks head coach Doc Sadler’s ninth recruit to leave in the last five years, and is seen my many as the most recent emblem of a program that’s perpetually stuck in mediocrity. Second leading scorer Jorge Brian Diaz, who spent the summer in his native Puerto Rico rather than with the team, is a talented 6’11″ center, if not team centerpiece, who continues to battle health problems (quoth a bewildered Sadler: “His feet are so messed up”). Expect senior center Andre Almeida to see increased minutes if Diaz’s injuries become a liability. To this end, expect Nebraska to at least boast a strong veteran presence. Seniors Tony McCray, Brandon Richardson, Caleb Walker and possibly even (incoming Louisiana State University transfer) Bo Spencer will round out a somewhat short starting lineup consisting of at least four upperclassmen. Filling Jeter’s role could fall into the hands of true freshman Corey Hillard, who is joined by trio of 6’5″ recruits in Josiah Moore, David Rivers and Dylan Talley. Believe it or not, Nebraska has the defensive chops to ball in the Big Ten. Last year they would have tied for fourth in the league in defensive efficiency. Problem is, they would’ve joined Iowa in dead last in offensive efficiency, and now their three leading scorers from last season are either graduated, unexpectedly gone, or battling long-standing injuries. Everyone struggles to score in the Big Ten, but unless a few guys have uncharacteristically strong years, this team could struggle the most. Nebraska will realize this season that in their new home the difference between low offensive output and really low offensive output is everything.
12) Penn State – Improbably making it to the Big Ten championship game and then losing your head coach to a bad Patriot League team is just weird. But that’s exactly what happened to the Nittany Lions this past season. They also lost a lot of personnel, most notably the inimitable Talor Battle, who played a higher percentage of his team’s minutes last year than all but one player in the country and is one of only three players to ever post 2,000/500/600 in a career. Battle’s classmates Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones – all 6’7″ or taller – have matriculated as well, leaving a huge hole in the post. Then comes this month’s sophomore guard fire sale: Tre Bowman was suspended from the team indefinitely for the nominal sin of poor academic performance, and Taran Buie is either going to Hofstra or jail. Aside from a ton of people leaving, the Nittany Lions don’t have much in the reserves. This isn’t a surprise to the fans and local media who lament the program’s lack of recruiting presence in the nearest elite talent markets. Enter new head coach Patrick Chambers, formerly of the Boston Terriers and the Jay Wright-launch-your-coaching-career academy (look for Villanova on PSU schedules in years to come). Some Nittany Lions’ fans speculate that unlike previous coaches, Chambers accepts that he’s at a football school and just needs to be left alone to work his connections to the Philadelphia area, the same region which populated the catalysts of Chambers’ Terriers’ recent NCAA Tournament appearance. With the pipelines back open for business and a wholesale attitudinal change attempting to foment in the Bryce Jordan Center,Penn State basketball could actually find itself in a positive if not uncharted place supposing Chambers stays at the helm through 2014-15. But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Tim Hardaway Jr. – Michigan. To Wolverine fans, Hardaway isn’t about to break out. He already has. He’s not quite a household name to the rest of the nation whose U-19 team he propelled to a fifth-place finish in Latvia. That will change this year when the rising sophomore is asked to lead a team without Darius Morris but with a ton of expectations. Alongside ‘Buzzworthy’ nominee Evan Smotrycz, Hardaway will continue to not only to bomb away from behind the arc, and take even more than 26.3% of his team’s shots while he’s on the court, but increase his shooting percentage as well. His 2009 scouting report from ESPN mentions Hardaway’s need to work hard at improving his ballhandling skills. The fact that he was among the Top 50 players in turnover percentage last season indicates that he must have worked hard, indeed. He might only have one year left at Michigan before he tries to follow Dad’s route to the professional ranks. Since that year just happens to also be the biggest year for Michigan basketball in recent memory, look for a perfect storm to brew in Ann Arbor come tournament time. Instead of needing ankle braces himself, Hardaway should start breaking other people’s in 2011-12.
Any one particular sport aside, the Big Ten is in a great position. Nebraska’s addition allows for substantially higher amounts of (football) revenue pouring into both league and individual school coffers, which theoretically means more money for all sports. Basketball’s victory is less pecuniary and more prideful. Whether you enjoy it or not, there’s simply a ton of really good teams in the Big Ten. The major hit against them, of course, is that despite numerous Final Four appearances they’ve produced only one national title among themselves in the past 22 years. For all the talk of elite defense – which the conference undoubtedly has – last year’s 11 teams averaged a higher adjusted offensive efficiency than adjusted defensive efficiency. From an over-arching standpoint, the Big Ten was even more efficient at offense than it was at defense. While that’s truly remarkable, it’s also not necessarily sustainable. In the case of the Big Ten’s conference-wide ranking, there’s nowhere to go but down. If you trust in KenPom, for example, you’ll believe that the conference was the best in the country last year. Only one conference has had multiple number one rankings under Pomeroy’s ranking system in the past six years (ACC). If you prefer RPI, the Big Ten was the second best league behind the Big East in 2010-11. Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan should not only debut in the pre-season Top 25, but they’re all young enough that their supposed success this year should be sustained for the foreseeable future. The same goes for Illinois and Purdue if enough of their players stick around. The Big Ten might not be the top conference in the country next year, but they’ll be damn close. Ending the 1 for 22 championship drought will be tough, but regardless of whether or when it is ended the league will obviously continue to be hugely relevant among the national basketball landscape. The Big Ten’s future success is about as sexy as a twenty-year-bond: It might not be flashy, but you can take it to the bank.
Mark Your Calendar
- 11/11 – North Carolina vs. Michigan State (Carrier Classic) – They’re on a boat! Literally! A nervous Michigan State should be hoping for merely a strong showing on the USS Blueblood. Look for Roy Williams to monitor severe flight-deck cross-breezes with an argyle windsock during the game.
- 11/21 – Michigan vs. Memphis (Maui) – 2011-12 is one big, awesome shot for the Wolverines, and it starts in Maui. Any win in any capacity would be satisfying against this particularly elite field. Just imagine the tone it would set if Michigan won the whole thing, which would also likely involve a measure of revenge against Duke.
- 11/29 – Duke @ Ohio State – Marquee matchup #1 of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge pits Jared Sullinger against a trio of Plumlees. It also showcases two of the top ten recruiting classes in the country. To watch: Quinn Cook vs. Shannon Scott in a battle of freshman guards.
- 11/30 – Wisconsin @ North Carolina – Marquee matchup #2 of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is a Venus-and-Mars thing. Wisconsin had the second slowest tempo of any power six school last year. UNC had the third fastest. The Tar Heels might start yawning, but that’s right around the time they’ll start losing.
- 12/3 – Purdue @ Xavier – Yeah, it’s a rebuilding year for the Musketeers, but this could go wrong for Purdue in so many ways. A road game at a (great) mid-major school is never easy to adapt to. Both teams should struggle to score the ball. The Boilers could have their hands full in the paint.
- 12/4 – Baylor @ Northwestern – Despite a down year last year, Baylor’s talent makes the Bears worth taking seriously, which is all the more reason why Northwestern, not one to usually attract elite opponents to Welsh-Ryan, should seize the opportunity to grab both a marquee win and some early season confidence.
- 12/10 – Kentucky @ Indiana – This game might compel Tom Crean to tweet profound declarations. It also might be the best indicator all year of what his team is actually worth. Indiana will play for respect in this game, and with Zeller, Hulls andWatford they have a good shot at earning it.
- 12/10 – Michigan State @ Gonzaga – It’s not even a rebuilding year for these Bulldogs, and so with a spark of originality I say this road game at a (great) mid-major school could go wrong for Michigan State in so many ways. These two teams have a short but exciting history of close games. This one should be no different.
- 12/17 – Purdue vs. Butler (Crossroads Classic) – Yeah, it’s a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs too, but
Hinkle Fieldhousea Brad Stevens-coached team is never fun. A quasi-road game at a (great) mid-major school is never easy to adapt to. Both teams should struggle to sco – wait, I just wrote this a few seconds ago.