Making the Grade: Scoring the Big Ten During Exam Week

Posted by jnowak on December 18th, 2012

Exam week at schools around the country mean two things: a lack of good basketball games, and that the conference season will be upon us shortly. We’ve reached that point in the season where games are fewer and further in between and far less intriguing. But fear not. We’ll all get through this together, enjoy the holidays and gear up for Big Ten season at the New Year. But first, the Big Ten Microsite correspondents have put their heads together to issue grades for all 12 conference teams based on their preseason expectations. Take a look:

Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini are at the head of the class in the Big Ten as we wrap up exams this week. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini are at the head of the class in the Big Ten as we wrap up exams this week. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

  • Illinois: Tough to pick against an undefeated team (12-0) and the Maui Invitational champion. Illinois still has to sort out its turnover issues (13 TO per game) as they are learning how to push the tempo under John Groce’s new system. Their reliance on the three-pointer and lack of an inside game is indicative in their close wins at home against mid-majors such as Norfolk State (64-54) and Gardner Webb (63-62). But without nitpicking at certain aspects of their game, the Illini deserve the best grade possible after 12 games and if they beat Missouri over the weekend, they should get extra credit. Grade: A (bump to A+ with a win over Missouri)
  • Michigan: Things have gone just about as well as the Wolverines could have hoped for so far this season. They’re undefeated, ranked #2 in the country and are poised to dispose of Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan before opening Big Ten play with Northwestern. They’ve got arguably the best backcourt in the country in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., with Nik Stauskas coming off the bench. Glenn Robinson III has also been stellar during his freshman campaign, leaving the Wolverines with few holes. This team will compete for not just the Big Ten championship, but also perhaps for the national title. Grade: A

  • Minnesota: While all of the offseason issues involving Trevor Mbakwe and assistant coach Saul Smith ironed out, it appears that all of the Gophers were doing their homework diligently on the court without losing any focus. Tubby Smith has the offense going through his trio of guards — Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman — while slowly increasing Mbakwe’s minutes. Smart scheduling that includes tough but winnable games against Duke, Memphis and Florida State helped the Gophers reach a top 15 ranking and build a strong non-conference resume. The first 12 games might have been Smith’s best stretch during his entire tenure in Minneapolis. Grade: A
  • Indiana: The Hoosiers, a consensus Big Ten favorite entering the season, passed one test (North Carolina) and failed another (Butler). So what do we make of them? We know Indiana can score (they’re first in the nation in that department), and has weapons all over the place. But defense remains a question mark. Believe it or not, it still seems like the Hoosiers — and that includes coach Tom Crean — aren’t exactly sure how to best use Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller, and it showed against the Bulldogs last weekend in Indianapolis. The fact of the matter is that this team is certainly flawed, but not without the right pieces to still make a run at the Big Ten and national title. Grade: B+
  • Ohio State: What more could we want from the Buckeyes? They’ve got one loss — to No. 1 ranked Duke, at Cameron Indoor Stadium — and have handled everybody else in their path. The only issue is that the next-best team to step in their path was a mediocre Washington team, which the Buckeyes beat by 11 on a neutral floor. We’ll know more this weekend when Kansas comes to town. But Ohio State hasn’t really done anything to hurt its lofty perception thus far. Grade: B+
  • Iowa: Before we grade the Hawkeyes’ season so far, let’s not forget that Fran McCaffery starts three freshmen — Anthony Clemmons, Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell. The freshmen have faltered against tougher competition by losing to Wichita State (75-63) and Virginia Tech (95-79), which shouldn’t be all that surprising because of their youth. But as a fan, you expect the freshmen to improve and understand their roles against the next tough game they have since the loss at Virginia Tech. By winning four straight, two of them including over in-state rivals Iowa State (80-71) and Northern Iowa (80-73), the Hawkeyes have shown that they are quick learners and will adjust as needed. Overall, a 9-2 record is not too shabby and McCaffery is making the most out of the non-conference season before the Big Ten starts play. Grade: B+

    If Iowa's three freshmen continue to mature, Fran McCafferey's crew might be in the thick of the Big Ten race (AP)

    If Iowa’s three freshmen continue to mature, Fran McCaffery’s crew might be in the thick of the Big Ten race (AP)

  • Michigan State: It was easy to see that the Spartans would miss Draymond Green this season, and that’s definitely been the case. It’s been unclear at times through whom the offense will run, but when Keith Appling is in control of the game, this team is at its best. Still, the club needs more upperclassman leadership from Derrick Nix, who could find himself losing minutes if Adreian Payne continues to perform at a high level. Once Tom Izzo finds a more settled rotation — likely meaning fewer minutes for Russell Byrd and limited time for Brandan Kearney and Matt Costello — with Gary Harris and Travis Trice fully healed, we’ll get a better idea of this team’s potential. All said, it’s right about where we’d expect them. And certainly don’t count this group out come March. Grade: B
  • Wisconsin: Grading the Badgers is tough because they lost Josh Gasser for the whole season just one week before the season started. The freshmen guards,  George Marshall (5.6 PPG) and Traevon Jackson (4.4 PPG), have neither disappointed nor impressed, but have done the best they could to avoid getting exposed. Freshman Sam Dekker is still learning Bo Ryan’s schemes but has done a good job of scoring 10 PPG in just 22.9 MPG. The Badgers are keeping themselves afloat with a 7-4 record and have competed in every game except for getting blown out against Florida (74-56). They need to pull off a couple of wins at the Kohl Center against higher ranked teams like Michigan, Ohio State or Indiana during conference play if they want to pad their resume and make a run at the NCAA Tournament again. Grade: B
  • Northwestern: The goods have been good, but the bads have been bad for Northwestern this season, leaving them somewhere in the middle of the pack. And that just won’t cut it in this year’s Big Ten as the Wildcats fight for their first NCAA Tournament berth. A blowout home loss to Maryland and puzzling loss to Illinois-Chicago were disconcerting, but a win at Baylor seemed to get things back on track. That was before a loss to surging Butler, leaving the Wildcats needing to run the non-conference table (against Stanford and Brown) to likely have a reasonable shot at the Big Dance. It won’t be easy without Drew Crawford in the lineup, but Reggie Hearn has emerged as one of the nicest surprises of the conference during the early season. Grade: B-
  • Nebraska: The Cornhuskers are going to have to do something unexpectedly well for any of us to be stupid enough to expect much out of Lincoln. Nebraska entered Big Ten play last season with an 8-3 mark and currently has three losses (against Kent State and Creighton, and at Oregon) and a couple good victories at Wake Forest and against USC. They could very well finish non-conference play at 9-3 but in an even tougher Big Ten this time around, expect another losing season. It’s been some more of the same under Tim Miles, but honestly — isn’t that what we expected? If they’re going to become a Big Ten-caliber program, it’s going to take some time. Grade: C
  • Penn State: If we’re grading the Nittany Lions on a Tim Frazier Curve, this is a hard F. But given they lost their star in late November, we’ll cut them some slack. Still, they’re easily the worst team in the conference and having trouble with every single team on their schedule. D.J. Newbill has emerged as good player, but he simply cannot do enough to carry this team in Big Ten play. They may not win a conference game. Lots of teachable moments for coach Patrick Chambers this season. Grade: D
  • Purdue: All things considered, it cannot be more painful to be a fan of any Big Ten team this year than the Boilermakers. Taking into account what was expected and what has come to be, they’ve been the conference’s most disappointing group by a long shot. This has been a rebuilding season to the fullest degree, with life after Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, Kelsey Barlow and Ryne Smith proving to be more difficult than perhaps originally expected. The bright spot: They rebound well. The problem: That’s the only real bright spot. Grade: D-
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