Checking In On… the Big Ten ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on December 23rd, 2011
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.
The Week That Was
- Bo Knows Defense: There are several tenets that a Bo Ryan-led team will always posses: It will slow the tempo down and limit the number of possessions in a game; Wisconsin’s big guys will be able to knock down a three; they’ll limit turnovers and take care of the basketball; and they will guard you from start to finish. You can stay close in a lot of games when you are holding opponents to under 45 points per game. Unlike Missouri, Ryan’s defense isn’t predicated on quickness and forcing a lot of turnovers. Rather, they require you to stay patient on offense and make contested shots. Not a lot of teams can do that consistently in college basketball, which is why the Badgers rank in the top three in the country in scoring defense (first – 44.7 PPG), field goal percentage defense (second – 33.7%) and three point FG percentage defense (third – 23.7 %) – all this despite playing teams like Marquette, North Carolina and UNLV in their non-conference slate.
- He Went to Jared: No matter how many other weapons Ohio State has on the floor, it really needs Jared Sullinger to man the middle. The super sophomore has missed a couple games in December with nagging injuries (back spasms and a sprained tendon in his left foot) and its clear the Buckeyes missed him. You just don’t replace a guy averaging nearly a double-double (16 PPG and 9.2 RPG). His presence on offense alone keeps the defense honest and opens up the floor for Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas and William Buford to get shots. In their only loss, Kansas All-American Thomas Robinson exploited this weakness to post 21 points and seven boards. It’s obvious that any team missing their first-team All-American will be worse, but just how much worse became readily apparent that day in Lawrence.
- Fattening Up On Cupcakes: Super soft non-conference schedules have led to rather gaudy records for Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern. But according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, those squads are ranked 42nd, 55th and 58th in the country right now, respectively. The best of those 34 collective wins was probably Illinois’ 82-75 home defeat of Gonzaga. Minnesota hasn’t played a true road game yet and their best win is by three points over Virginia Tech. Northwestern has decent wins over Georgia Tech, LSU and Seton Hall – but they have lost their two most difficult games to Baylor and Creighton. Each of these schools need strong showings in conference play to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
- Ohio State (12-1) –The Buckeyes’ 85-63 pasting of Duke convinced a lot of people that this is OSU’s conference title to lose and, despite their road loss to Kansas, that is probably still true. All roads lead through Columbus. Sophomore DeShaun Thomas has shown flashes of brilliance this season, pouring in 30 against South Carolina and 23 against USC Upstate. But he only scored nine against Wright State and 11 against Valporaiso. If Thomas can consistently put up 15-17 points to complement the production of Sullinger and Buford, the Buckeyes will that much more dangerous.
- Wisconsin (10-2) – With Jordan Taylor scuffling a bit out of the gate, the question is worth asking: Where would the Badgers be without the emergence of 6’10’’ junior Jared Berggren? A classic Wisconsin big man who can handle the ball and score from the perimeter, Berggren leads the team in scoring (12.3 PPG), is second in rebounding (5.0 RPG) and is shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc this season.
- Michigan State (11-2) – No team played a tougher opening pair of games than the Spartans, who started 0-2 after losing to North Carolina and Duke. Since then, MSU has rattled off 11 straight wins, including a road victory over Gonzaga led by Draymond Green’s monster 34-point effort. As usual, Tom Izzo should have his kids firing on all cylinders when it counts the most.
- Michigan (10-2) – True freshman Trey Burke has emerged as one of the country’s premier newcomers. Playing against a solid non-conference schedule, the Columbus, OH-native is putting up 13 points per game and five assists and has smoothly transitioned over to college ball.
- Indiana (12-0) – It was quite a scene earlier this month at Assembly Hall in Bloomington. Since Tom Crean took over the program, IU would pull an upset or two that resulted in mad court-storms and breathless declarations that maybe, just maybe, Hoosier basketball was “back.” Then on December 10, Christian Watford drained a three from the left wing as time expired to take down No. 1 Kentucky and cap the biggest win in Crean’s tenure at Indiana. To be fair, the Hoosiers’ non-conference schedule hasn’t been as strong as one might think. N.C. State, Notre Dame and Butler are having down years. At 12-0, IU is off to their best start since 1975-76.
- Purdue (10-3) – It’s tough to get a good read on this season’s Purdue team. On the one hand, all three of Purdue’s losses have been to solid teams (Alabama, Xavier and Butler) away from Mackey Arena. On the other hand, however, the Boilers haven’t beaten of significant consequence yet either. Staying healthy is a must for Matt Painter’s crew.
- Northwestern (10-2) – If John Shurna and Drew Crawford aren’t shooting the ball well, the Wildcats are going to have a tough time winning quality games. Such was the case when Baylor blew out NU at home, 69-41. But when the team is shooting poorly, they aren’t getting many second shot opportunities. Their Princeton offense emphasizes motion, not rebounding, which is partly why the ‘Cats rank last in the conference in the significant boarding categories. That’s not a good sign heading into Big Ten play.
- Illinois (11-2) – Don’t let the gaudy record fool you. This is a team that had to mount late comebacks to beat St. Bonaventure and Cornell at home. That said, the Illini fought back to give #8 Missouri a good game in St. Louis Thursday night. They need one (or more) of their active freshmen to step up and help out Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul.
- Minnesota (12-1) – Nov. 28, 2011 was not a good day if you’re a Gophers fan. Not only did UM suffer their only loss by getting blown out in the Old Spice Classic by Dayton, but they also lost leading scorer and rebounder Trevor Mbakwe to a torn ACL in his right knee. The preseason All-Big Ten First team selection was off to a nice start to his senior season and was the lynchpin to the Gophers’ plans to compete for a Big Ten championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. A trip to the Dance is certainly still possible, but Minnesota just isn’t the same team without him.
- Penn State (7-5) – Tim Frazier won’t make Nittany Lion fans forget Taylor Battle anytime soon, but the 6’1’’ junior point guard from Houston is third in the Big Ten in scoring (17.2 PPG). He’s carrying a heavy load in a down year for PSU, seeing the court for nearly 36 minutes a game. If non-conference results are any indication, it could be a rough ride for the Nittany Lions once Big Ten play begins. Their embarrassing blowout loss to Kentucky notwithstanding, PSU has already had a bad three-game losing streak that included home defeats to lightweights Ole Miss and Lafayette. Ouch.
- Iowa (8-5) – Second-year head coach Fran McCaffery hasn’t been in Iowa City very long, but even he knows that it isn’t good to get swept by your in-state rivals by double digits. They have some players who can score, but ranking at or near the bottom in every major defensive category is the first problem McCaffery should address.
- Nebraska (8-3) – The move to the Big Ten was obviously for football reasons and the basketball team was going to take its lumps in either conference. So wins were important to come by in the non-conference schedule. Beating Rhode Island and USC is OK, but winning at home by three points or fewer against Florida Gulf Coast and Central Michigan doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence. The Cornhuskers will rely on the scoring of Bo Spencer (16.0 PPG) and the shot-blocking prowess of Brian Jorge-Diaz inside (a conference-best 2.6 BPG) as the battle with Penn St. and Iowa to avoid cellar dwelling-status.
- Wednesday, 12/28: Northwestern @ Ohio State – The Wildcats have had a few decent wins, but shot the ball poorly and were pummeled at home by an athletically-superior Baylor team in their toughest non-conference test of the season. Ohio State is nearly as long and athletic as Baylor is – plus, they are tough to beat at home (ask Florida and Duke). Northwestern ranks at the bottom of the league in rebounding, while the Bucks do it pretty well. Northwestern will need to shoot well from the outside to have any chance at pulling the upset.
- Friday, 12/30: Indiana @ Michigan State – The nation will find out pretty quickly if the Hoosiers are truly Big Ten title contenders this season as they open conference play on the road against the Spartans, then turn around and host Ohio State the next day. Not surprisingly, Michigan State plays stingy defense and hits the backboards hard. If Indiana isn’t getting shots to fall, can they get enough stops on defense to stay unbeaten? Cody Zeller, meet Draymond Green. Welcome to the Big Ten, son.
- Saturday, 12/31: Ohio State @ Indiana – This game has more upset potential since IU will be at home and Assembly Hall should be rocking. Ohio State has more overall athleticism and talent, but the three-pointer has always proven to be the great equalizer in college basketball and Indiana is by far the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten at nearly 46 percent.
POY Stock Watch (in alphabetical order)
- Tim Frazier – Penn State: The most unexpected name on this list, but definitely a deserving one as the 6’1’’ junior from Houston leads the Big Ten in assists (7.3 APG), is third in scoring (17.2 PPG) and third in steals (2.3 SPG). Frazier, who is the only Division I player currently averaging more than 17 PPG and seven APG, was third in the conference in assists last season, but has taken on more of the scoring load now that Battle has left.
- Robbie Hummel – Purdue: Hummel hasn’t seemed to drop off much since his return from two straight torn ACLs. The 6’8’’ senior is second in the conference in scoring (17.5 PPG) and eighth in rebounding (5.9 RPG). Luckily for the Boilers, Hummel hasn’t complained of any discomfort with his knees as a result of those surgeries. With JuJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore playing in the NBA, Purdue needs Hummel’s productivity now more than ever.
- Draymond Green – Michigan State: The embodiment of strong rebounding and tough defense for which the Spartans are known, MSU’s senior captain leads the conference in rebounding (9.8 RPG) and is ninth in scoring (15.4 PPG). A third-team All-Big Ten selection last season, MSU will rely on Green’s leadership to help carry this young team deep in the conference schedule.
- John Shurna – Northwestern: The 6’9’’ senior with the unorthodox shooting motion is a pure scorer and, despite having a couple poor-shooting nights lately, still leads the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 19.5 PPG. He needs to find more ways to contribute, however, if his jumper isn’t falling.
- Jared Sullinger – Ohio State: Many people assumed he was a one-and-done player, so it was a bit of a surprise when Sullinger didn’t enter the NBA Draft. Instead, the super sophomore decided he had “unfinished business” and came back to chase one more ring. Assuming he can stay healthy, the Big Ten POY honor is his to lose.
- Jordan Taylor – Wisconsin: As has been documented previously on RTC, Taylor has struggled with an inconsistent shot and turnovers in his senior season. Yet his steady leadership has the Badgers right about where they should be: highly-ranked at 10-2. Conference play (especially road games) is where he’ll be counted on to hit big shots and help the Badgers win close games.