Big Ten Writer Roundtable: Four Questions As the Regular Season Winds DownPosted by Ryan Terpstra on March 1st, 2012
Big Ten contributors Joey Nowak (@joeynowak) and Ryan Terpstra (@terphimself) give their thoughts on four conference questions as just a few more games remain in the regular season, and the Big Ten champion has yet to be decided.
1) Will we see an outright Big Ten champion? Or is the conference title possibly going to be shared?
Joey: In other words, will Michigan State beat Ohio State this weekend? I think the answer is yes. It’s hard to watch the Spartans, after how badly they tanked last season, and try to avoid becoming too enamored with them this year. But time and time again they have proven that this really is a special squad that gets it and is tune with so many important factors required to win.
They are one of just 12 teams in Division I that is undefeated at home (three in the power conferences) and there are too many intangibles working in their favor this weekend: playing at home, Senior Day honoring Draymond Green, Austin Thornton and Delvon Roe, and the motivation to win a title outright while denying Michigan and Ohio State, of all teams. Not to mention how entirely out of sorts Ohio State has seemed lately. It will be a dogfight, but I think the Spartans beat the Buckeyes and claim a completely unexpected Big Ten title all for themselves.
Ryan: As much as people in Ann Arbor are hoping to sneak in and grab a share of a conference title (wow, Michigan fans rooting for Ohio State? Can it be true?), I think that Michigan State is going to get to job done because they are so potent at the Breslin Center. The only thing I would worry about for the Spartans is getting TOO hyped up, which can happen when young men are trying so hard to defeat a quality opponent. The Spartans obviously don’t lack for motivation, and the bigger question to me is what’s going on with the Buckeyes? Jared Sullinger had to bail them out against Northwestern; a team that is very tough this season, but on paper can’t handle Ohio State’s frontcourt. With Sullinger admitting that he has been thinking out the referees and how they are officiating his post game, I’m wondering if that will come back into play in what I would expect to be a very physical game in East Lansing. I think Michigan State hangs another Big Ten banner for Tom Izzo.
2.) Can Northwestern still make the NCAA tournament? Or is their bubble burst?
Ryan: They obviously can if they win the Big Ten Tournament, and I don’t think any school is looking forward to the task of slowing down John Shurna right now. Never have the stakes been higher for this program. Shurna is a senior and the best scorer in school history, and the fact that these Wildcats have beaten Michigan State, lost twice in overtime to Michigan, and took Ohio State to the limit last night proves that they can hang with the big boys of college basketball. The one glaring omission on Northwestern’s resume is that they don’t have a win over a ranked team besides Michigan State with losses to Baylor, Creighton, and Indiana. The committee may have a soft spot for Bill Carmody’s crew because of their prolonged struggle to get to the Big Dance, but I think the Wildcats need to win a couple Big Ten Tournament games in addition to beating Iowa to earn their first-ever invitation.
Joey: The Wildcats have a few things working in their favor: one, a strong Big Ten and, two, a weak bubble. The opportunity has been there for a bunch of teams trying to secure a spot in the Big Dance — including Northwestern, specifically at home against Michigan — but few have grabbed the bull by the horns and seized the opportunity. The loss to Ohio State hurts but it was never really a game anyone expected them to win. The Michigan loss hurts more, and leaves them needing a win against Iowa in the season finale and probably at least one victory in the Big Ten Tournament to sleep easy before Selection Sunday.
3.) What Big Ten team do you think is built for the most success in March?
Joey: How can you not say Michigan State? Tom Izzo is the magician of March. No one handles a short weekend turnaround like his staff the evidence is clear: 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, six Final Fours in the last 13 years, nine Sweet 16s in the last 14 years, and on and on. The Spartans play defense, have senior leadership and Izzo always makes sure to schedule teams with a wide variety of styles during the non-conference slate to prepare for everything in the NCAA Tournament.
Beyond Michigan State, it’s got to be Michigan and Wisconsin. The Badgers have another important senior leader in Jordan Taylor and are known for forcing any team to play its style. There aren’t many in the country that are better at imposing their style and succeeding at it than Wisconsin, and it gives unfamiliar teams fits. Michigan is as dangerous as anybody because of its 3-point shooting and its pesky defense. But if they come up against a team with a strong frontcourt, the Wolverines are in trouble.
Ryan: I agree with Joey in that Michigan State has the best tournament pedigree, and while Ohio State may have the most talent out of anybody in the league, I hate the way they are playing right now. I think Indiana, led by Tom Crean’s tournament experience, would give plenty of teams problems with their size and scoring, but the Hoosiers are awful outside of Assembly Hall. How about Purdue as a darkhorse? Robbie Hummel is back to playing like Robbie Hummel, and the Boilermakers have won five or their last six, including road wins at Illinois and Michigan. They have the size and shooting ability to give a higher seed a lot of trouble come March.
4.) What has been the biggest surprise to you this B1G regular season?
Ryan: I think Michigan is one of the biggest surprises this year not only because the Wolverines as a team were supposed to finish about in the middle of the pack, but Trey Burke was not supposed to replace, let alone surpass in many areas, the production of the departed Darius Morris. Michigan wins games despite 6’4″ Zach Novak spending most of his time at the 4 spot in the rugged Big Ten; and lightly-recruited Jordan Morgan has become one of the best big men in the league when it comes to running the floor. John Beilein has done a great job with this group of young talent.
Another surprise to me has been the transformation of Tim Frazier of Penn State. Always known as a quick, athletic point guard, he’s been one of the most prolific scorers in the league despite not being a tremendous jump shooter. The Nittany Lions as a team also struggle from the field, and yet Frazier’s assist totals are UP from last year when he played alongside Talor Battle. It is astounding the season he’s having when you look at the growth of his numbers from last season to this one.
Joey: I hate to keep coming back to Michigan State, but who saw this coming? Going from unranked and an 0-2 start to the opportunity to win the Big Ten title outright and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament? How often does that happen? Depending on how the next few weeks go, this could be Izzo’s best performance yet.
Beyond that, there are plenty of great surprise stories in the conference: Matt Gatens at Iowa, the job Tubby Smith did with Minnesota sans Trevor Mbakwe, Trey Burke’s growth, and Indiana’s sooner-than-anticipated return to relevance.
A few not so great? Jordan Taylor’s drop in play from last season, Ohio State’s puzzling struggles late in the season and the collapse at Illinois under Bruce Weber.