Five Key Questions as Big Ten Play Begins (In Earnest)

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2018

With the New Year upon us and conference play picking up for good this evening, let’s consider a few of the most burning questions that could dictate how the Big Ten plays out.

  • Will Bryant McIntosh return in time for Northwestern to preserve its season? Northwestern dodged a bullet when it announced on Sunday that Bryant McIntosh, who went down with an injury against Brown over the weekend, suffered no structural damage to his knee. The initial situation looked much worse. Still, the all-league point guard is listed as day-to-day, with the expectation being that he will miss some time. Perhaps no player on the Wildcats’ roster is as important as McIntosh, who serves as the catalyst for Chris Collins’ pick-and-roll offense. Not only does he lead the team in assists (5.5 APG) and rank third in scoring (13.3 PPG), no one else on the roster possesses his ability to create off the dribble and break down defenders. If he’s sidelined for even a few games, it could spell trouble for a team already lacking in quality wins. While backup guards Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash looked solid on Saturday, upcoming contests against Penn State (Friday) and Minnesota (January 10) will present an entirely new challenge.

Will Bryant McIntosh suffer any lasting effects from his knee scare? (FOX Sports)

  • Does Maryland have enough depth to overcome key frontcourt injuries? Maryland suffered an enormous blow last Thursday when it announced that forward Justin Jackson, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, will miss the rest of the season with a torn labrum. “It is tough, because we set up a lot of our offense for Justin. A lot of things were playing through him,” head coach Mark Turgeon told the Baltimore Sun. As if losing its best two-way player weren’t bad enough, the Terrapins took another lump on Friday when junior Ivan Bender — expected to help fill the void left by Jackson — tore his meniscus against UMBC. The good news is that Maryland is especially deep in the frontcourt, with Jared Nickens (5.4 PPG), Joshua Tomaic and Sean Obi (Duke transfer) all capable of stepping in for Jackson and Bender (in addition to centers Michal Cekovsky and Bruno Fernandez (10.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG), one of the league’s best freshmen). The bad news is that Jackson, widely considered a first-round NBA Draft prospect, will be awfully hard to replace. Small forward Kevin Huerter (14.1 PPG) pointed out that Jackson “allowed us to play a lot of different ways. Some of our best lineups were with him at the four [power forward], where he could take advantage of mismatch problems.” The extent to which Nickens and the others can pick up Jackson’s slack will determine whether Maryland can compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.

  • Can Rutgers recover? Fresh off the heels of its biggest win in years, Rutgers took two enormous steps backward over the holiday break. On December 22, it lost at home to Steve Pikiell’s former team, Stony Brook; six days later, the Scarlet Knights lost to Hartford, a team ranked 322nd of 351 teams in KenPom. Though Pikiell seems determined to move past the defeats — “tonight doesn’t define us,” he said after the Hartford game — one has to wonder whether the sting of these upsets will linger with a program that’s finished last in the Big Ten every year since joining the league. Rutgers has struggled mightily on offense this season, ranking 247th nationally in offensive efficiency largely because of horrific shooting numbers (44.1% eFG). If the Scarlet Knights can’t muster even one point per possession against Hartford — among the worst defensive teams in the country — their ability to do so against Big Ten defenses seems dubious. Scorers like Corey Johnson and Geo Baker, who logged a season low two points against the Hawks, simply have to produce more in order for Rutgers to get back on track.
    • Michigan, Ohio State, Minnesota… which team emerges as the Big Ten’s next-best? (Jack Westerheide, The Lantern)

  • Which team(s) emerges from the middle of the pack? Michigan State and Purdue are, according to KenPomtop-three teams nationally, and their status as the Big Ten’s best has become quite evident over the first seven weeks of the season. What has yet to be determined, though, is the pecking order behind the Spartans and Boilermakers. As of Monday, five league hopefuls are ranked between 30th and 50th nationally, with Northwestern (53rd) not far behind. Minnesota, Michigan and (to some extent) Maryland did the best work during non-conference play; Ohio State has looked outstanding in its first two Big Ten contests; Northwestern was picked to finish among the top four in the league. With conference play starting in earnest tonight, we should finally begin to see some separation between these teams. If you had to put money on two of them, look for the Gophers and Wolverines — both healthy and playing well — to separate from the pack, especially considering the recent key injuries to Maryland and Northwestern
  • Will Wisconsin turn it around? By now, the streak has been well-documented: Not since 1999-2000 have the Badgers finished below fourth in the Big Ten standings, an epic 17-year run that’s included three conference championships and a whole bunch of NCAA Tournament wins. But this year feels different. Not only is Wisconsin off to an 8-7 (1-1) start, but its already-young roster has been ravaged by injuries, including one to point guard D’Mitrik Trice. If the season ended today, the Badgers’ adjusted efficiency margin (+9.9) would be its worst in the KenPom era. Still, Greg Gard’s team has been here before; in 2015-16, Wisconsin sat 9-9 overall (1-4 in Big Ten play) on January 12, only to win 13 of its final 15 games, finish tied for fourth, and eventually reach the Sweet Sixteen. And last we checked, Ethan Happ (16.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.5 APG) is still on the roster. Tonight’s home game against Indiana will be a good first indicator as to whether the Badgers have another turnaround in them.
  • Bonus: When will Michigan State lose? Make no mistake, Michigan State is going to lose, and probably more than once; No team has gone undefeated in Big Ten play since 1975-76 Indiana. The only question is when that first defeat occurs. As it stands, KenPom projects the Spartans as favorites in all 16 of their remaining contests, 14 of which they have a win probability of at least 73 percent. Perhaps their first big test will be this Sunday’s road game against Ohio State.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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