Big Ten Season Grades: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and NebraskaPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on April 30th, 2014
To close out the season for good, we’re finishing our official Big Ten grades with the four top tier teams: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Nebraska. Yes, take that in one last time — Nebraska ended the season in the top four of the standings in the best conference in the country. For our previously-published grades on the eight other teams in the Big Ten, here are Part I and Part II.
This season (28-9,15-3): Last year, Michigan broke through to make it all the way to the National Championship game. And while that was an impressive run, the coaching job that John Beilein did this season — leading the Wolverines to their first outright B1G title since 1986, and finishing just one play from another Final Four appearance — may be even more impressive. It’s important to note where this program was two years ago to fully appreciate the leap that Beilein has guided Michigan basketball through. In 2012, the Wolverines hadn’t yet been able to escape the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament under his direction, and Beilein’s squads were thought of as good but not great. This season, he proved that his success was not just the product of a special player like 2013 NPOY, Trey Burke; it is fundamentally anchored in player development and buy-in from his kids. This season was a successful one by any standard and it looks like the head coach in Ann Arbor has gone and rebuilt himself an elite program in Ann Arbor.
Next season: The Wolverines lose a lot of their roster: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, and Mitch McGary. They will bring in heralded recruit Kameron Chatman with returning players like Caris Levert, Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, and Spike Albrecht joining him. In short, Michigan loses all of its frontcourt experience and its two best backcourt players. The Wolverines seemed poised to fall back a notch, but that was also the popular thought when McGary went out for the rest of this season. The bottom line is that Beilein will find a way to get this team competitive and back to the NCAA Tournament — and he has enough returning talent to get there.
This season (30-8, 12-6): If last year was Beilein’s season to break through, this season it was Bo Ryan’s turn. After years of consistent winning but falling short in the postseason, Wisconsin finally made it to the sport’s grandest national stage with its first Final Four appearance in the Ryan era. I wrote a full post summarizing the season for the Badgers, describing how this team was able to get so far. In short, the emergence of Frank Kaminsky and the rest of the talented roster gave Ryan his most potent offense to date. He also had some impressive freshmen, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koening, who were able to play significant minutes off the bench. This combination, along with Wisconsin’s signature effective man-to-man defense, composed one of the most balanced and best teams in the country.
Next Season: The Badgers lose Ben Brust and Zach Bohannon, That’s it. They should start the season ranked in the national top five, be favored to win the Big Ten and make another Final Four run with a shot to win a national championship. Kaminsky should be in the mix for National Player of the Year conversation, and it’s safe to say that this will be the most anticipated team in recent Wisconsin history.
This season (29-9, 12-6): Winning almost 30 games and making a trip to the Elite Eight are worthy accomplishments but they fall well short of what Michigan State hoped for at the start of the season. As preseason front-runners to win the league and contend for a national title, the Spartans were tripped by the injury bug all season. Everyone from Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson fell victim and missed some games at one time or another. Things seemed to be falling into place by the end of the season, though; the full roster had made it back on the court and produced an impressive late-season run to win the Big Ten Tournament title. Yet, Sparty fell shy of a Final Four appearance by suffering a defeat to eventual champion Connecticut.
Next season: The Spartans lose Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. They bring in an unusually weak recruiting class with the biggest name three-star point guard Lourawls Nairn. Tom Izzo will rely on Dawson to lead the a supporting cast of Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello, Alvin Ellis, and Gary Schilling. Michigan State will lose a healthy amount of its star power from this season, but Izzo has enough experience coming back to stay in the upper tier of the league. The big question for next season is who besides Dawson steps up their offensive production to replace the contribution of this season’s Spartan Big Three.
This season (19-13, 11-7): As the surprise Big Ten team of the season, the Cornhuskers shocked everyone by finishing fourth in the league and making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. The wheels were already in motion for Nebraska’s basketball program to make significant waves; they had already hired a respectable coach in Tim Miles and made some necessary investments to their facilities. But success in Lincoln was supposed to be part of a long-term plan; in the preseason, Nebraska was still slotted to finish last in the conference. Things looked to be headed that way as they started the conference season 0-4, but Miles had his team believing, and they finished with an 11-4 mark behind the strength of the B1G’s breakthrough player and leading scorer, Terran Pettaway. Nebraska had one of the most surprising and simultaneously successful seasons in program history.
Next season: The Cornhuskers only lose one player of note from this season: Ray Gallegos. While there is no remarkable recruit entering the program, Nebraska has a solid, core lineup returning in Pettaway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. There’s also hope that next season may be a breakout year for the talented Tai Webster. What Nebraska will lose is this season’s element of surprise, as they’ll be a marked team and expectations will be considerably higher from the start of next season. The question for Nebraska will be whether they can improve enough under another year in Miles’ system to stay competitive? No one knows for sure, but Miles has the fans in Lincoln believing.