Key Storylines About the Top Big Ten TeamsPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on January 1st, 2014
Last season was one of the best Big Ten seasons in recent memory. The season had everything: games that went into overtime (Ohio State vs. Michigan), rivalry games (Michigan State vs. Michigan), and buzzer beaters (Tyler Griffey’s layup against Indiana). The cliché about conference season being a different level of competition than the non-conference play holds true in the Big Ten. Offensive powerhouses such as Michigan and Indiana scored with ease until December 31, but the opposing coaches within conference found ways to stifle their offenses. Similar intensity can be expected this season, with three teams ranked in the top ten – Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State – competing for the conference title.
The following are three key storylines about these teams which deserve your attention over the next three months:
- When will Wisconsin lose its first game? The Badgers have a fairly soft schedule by usual Big Ten standards: they don’t play Ohio State or Michigan State on the road, two games that they could have lost. Beating the Buckeyes or Spartans at Kohl Center is very likely, barring any shooting slumps from Bo Ryan’s backcourt. Road games at Indiana and Iowa are the next set of contenders to break their winning streak. Last season, Ryan’s defense stifled the Hoosiers on the road and considering that Tom Crean’s squad isn’t as versatile offensively, it is likely that they could lose that game. However, Iowa poses a tougher threat because their interior depth could give the Badgers some trouble. Melsahn Basabe and Aaron White are quick enough to move around Frank Kaminsky and could force Sam Dekker to buckle down in the paint. If Mitch McGary were healthier, Michigan could have given Ryan’s team a run for their money, but in his absence, Iowa appears to be the only legitimate team that could end Wisconsin’s run. Having said that, anything can happen during conference play, especially if Ben Brust and Dekker can’t hit their shots from beyond the arc.
- Can Michigan State stay focused against mediocre opponents? There are two sides to Tom Izzo’s philosophy of preparing his team for the postseason: the obvious one is that they get better as the season progresses and peak at the right time; but on the flip side, they let certain games slip due to lack of focus, which could cost them a top seed in March. They will be ready to play Ohio State or Michigan at home, but can they put in a full 40 minutes against teams such as Penn State or Purdue on the road? For instance, Ken Pomeroy predicts that there is only a 68% chance that the Spartans beat the Nittany Lions on the road, but from a talent perspective, that statistic should be close to 90%. Lethargic defense for 30 minutes of the game on the road against D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier could be bad news for Izzo’s team. There are trap games laid out over the next few weeks, which will have to avoid if they want to secure a 1 or 2 seed in March.
- Will LaQuinton Ross emerge as a 15 PPG scorer for Ohio State? Not to sound like a broken record and question Ohio State’s offensive versatility despite their unbeaten record, but they will need Ross to become the go-to guy during conference play. Lenzelle Smith Jr’s 13.4 PPG have been helpful, but Ohio State’s non-conference schedule was definitely not as strong, which means that they will run into some roadblocks over the next few weeks. Averaging over 16 PPG over the last four games indicates that Ross is finding his rhythm, but he will have to prove it against superior competition. No offense to Notre Dame’s defense, but Thad Matta’s squad will see tougher defenders who will try to take Ross out of the equation on the perimeter, forcing him to find other ways to score around the basket. Keep an eye out for road games against Purdue and Michigan State during the first week to see how the Buckeyes respond to smarter defenses.