Six Big Ten X-Factors Heading Into Conference Play

Posted by Brendan Brody on December 26th, 2016

Conference play is almost here, and after a 138-42 (.767) combined non-conference start, Big Ten teams will begin squaring off against each other tomorrow afternoon. As of right now, it looks like three front-runners (Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana) have emerged, followed by a group of good-not-great teams competing for the top of the next tier — a glance at the most recent KenPom ratings reveals eight teams ranked within the NCAA Tournament at-large sweet spot of #29-#68. With things so relatively even, a number of x-factors around the league could very well swing the race with improved performances. Here are six players who could heavily influence how the Big Ten standings ultimately end up.

Carsen Edwards (USA Today Images)

Carsen Edwards is a Possible X-Factor For Purdue (USA Today Images)

  • Carsen Edwards, Purdue: One of the reasons why Purdue is a perceived title threat is because the majority of their players are reasonably consistent. Edwards, however, is the biggest wild card in the rotation, and his continuing development could be the key for the Boilermakers in March. Since the freshman moved into the starting lineup on December 3, he has averaged 9.3 PPG and a couple assists per outing. His shooting can stand to improve, but he’s a blur in the open court and causes havoc defensively on the perimeter. If Edwards can become a more efficient scorer during Big Ten play (95.0 Offensive Rating on 24.9 percent usage), Purdue’s offense (as well as the team) could move into the top 10 nationally.
  • D’Mitrik Trice, Wisconsin: With five returning starters this season, little was expected from Wisconsin’s lone true freshman. And yet Trice has been an efficient and capable third guard off the bench, including some outstanding shooting from deep so far (18-of-30 3FG). He has basically stolen the minutes that were going to Jordan Hill last season, and if he continues to give the Badgers another backcourt option beyond Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter, Wisconsin could make another run at the Final Four.

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Big Ten Weekend Look Ahead: 12.16.16 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 16th, 2016

We might as well call tomorrow Super Saturday because five of the games involving Big Ten teams are as intriguing of a slate as in recent memory. In addition to the always-enjoyable Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis involving Purdue and Indiana, three other league schools will face off against potential NCAA Tournament teams. This provides each team with a golden non-conference opportunity to a land a resume-enhancing win and build some momentum heading into league play the week after Christmas. Here’s the Weekend Look Ahead:

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the paint in the Crosstown Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP).

Caleb Swanigan has a chance to wreak havoc in the Crossroads Classic against a smaller Notre Dame team. (AP)

  • #21 Notre Dame vs. #15 Purdue (Saturday 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2). With all four teams ranked, the Crossroads Classic couldn’t ask for a better slate. The annual event tips off with Notre Dame’s high-powered offense facing off against Purdue. While the Boilermakers have been impressive all season, they’ve fallen just short in their two chances against elite competition – losing close games to #1 Villanova and #11 Louisville. If Matt Painter‘s group can establish its inside-out game between Caleb Swanigan and outside threats Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline, in addition to submitting a respectable defensive performance, the Boilermakers will walk out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with their best win of the season.

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In Hoops We Trust: Blue-Blooded Season

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on December 15th, 2016

One of the biggest changes in college hoops over the last 10 years has been the rise of several consistently strong mid-major programs to the status of legitimate national title contenders. George Mason first crashed the Final Four party in 2006 with a gutsy, emotional Elite Eight win over #1 seed Connecticut. That paved the way for the rise of Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011), and Wichita State (2013), each of which were led by dynamic young coaches building winning programs. Throw in the likes of Gonzaga, San Diego State and Xavier, and the growing parity brought with it added competitiveness and a widening of the NCAA hoops pie. But this year is all about the blue-bloods. Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA are all in the AP top 10 for the first time since 1994. While some of those schools have maintained relevance over the intervening seasons, the simultaneous rise of the Hoosiers and Bruins augurs a shift back to the traditional power programs.

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

College Basketball Benefits When the Elite Programs Are Elite (USA Today Images)

The “why” for this trend could very well be recruiting. Kentucky’s John Calipari was the first coach to truly embrace the one-and-done model of recruiting. The theory is basically that if you can gather the most talented players in the country — regardless whether all of them will be headed to the NBA after just one season — you should. Yes, there are challenges with youth, inexperience and with program continuity, but he proved with the 2012 National Championship and four Final Fours in five years that if you recruit the best players, challenge them in practice, and preach selflessness and defense, you can win. Mike Krzyzewski noticed and Duke jumped on board. Roy Williams also has a slew of McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bill Self has never shied away from recruiting one-year talents regardless of whether he plays them. UCLA this season joined the party with a pair of freshman All-Americans in Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. So far, Steve Alford‘s accumulation of talent has helped transform a formerly teetering program into the current #2 team in the country.

Conventional wisdom once held that experience trumps talent in the NCAA Tournament. This was the rationale for the VCUs, Butlers and Wichita States of the game. But as major programs blend experienced returnees with those talented NBA prospects, they often overwhelm their less athletic, overachieving rivals. So, does this early trend hold? That remains to be seen. Perhaps those talented freshmen will revert to traditional norms or hit the rookie wall as the long season works its way into spring. Or perhaps injuries will take a toll. Or maybe some of those power programs in smaller conferences will again crash the party. It wouldn’t be a shock. But so far this season, it’s been a feast for the rich. How fat they get we shall know in good time.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Three

Posted by Walker Carey on December 5th, 2016

Another week of college hoops is in the books, and a few teams last week demonstrated they will be reckoned with during the rest of the season. #4 UCLA, behind a terrific offensive attack, earned the most impressive victory of the young season when it left Rupp Arena on Saturday with a 97-92 victory over #8 Kentucky. That defeat at the hands of the Bruins marked the first time the Wildcats have lost in Lexington since the 2013-14 season. #5 Baylor likewise continued its dream start to the season with a dominant 76-61 win over #12 Xavier. In only the first week of December, the Bears already have an excellent profile with victories over #10 Louisville, #20 Oregon and the formerly top-10 Musketeers. #7 Gonzaga also bolstered its flawless record last week, earning a 69-62 neutral site win over #23 Arizona. The Bulldogs are benefiting from the return of big man Przemek Karnowski, who missed all but five games last season with a back injury. The college basketball season is definitely a marathon where things can change on a nightly basis, but it sure seems like the Bruins, Bears and Bulldogs are in great position to succeed all season. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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In Hoops We Trust: On Early Returns…

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on November 30th, 2016

So, we’re three weeks in now, and while a majority of games have pitted teams expecting to win against teams expecting a paycheck, the holidays brought us some great major-on-major (and strong mid-major) action courtesy of a number of neutral site “tournaments.” North Carolina won Maui; Baylor won Atlantis; Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational (okay); and Valparaiso won whatever the hell the “Men Who Speak Up Heavyweight Bracket” is. Geez, these things are getting worse than FBS Bowl Games (See also: the Poulan Weedeater Bowl). There have been a few surprises along the way. Butler, Baylor, and South Carolina are all undefeated with some good resume wins. Xavier and Creighton are lingering around and have the talent to stay there. Michigan State looks way down early after losing most of its experienced players to graduation. Indiana laid an absolute stinker on Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (say that five times real fast)’s home court.

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Another year, another season where Butler fans have a lot to cheer about. (Credit: Kyle LaFerriere)

Meanwhile, some of the usual suspects sit atop the rankings. Kentucky is demoralizing lesser opponents, relying on arguably the best three-guard backcourt in the country. Defending champ Villanova is rolling thanks to an All-American start from Josh Hart. North Carolina has a lot of offensive weapons with five players averaging double figures. Duke is banged up but clearly has the goods. Kansas is relying heavily on its experienced backcourt and will need its other players to step up as the season moves along. No one can score against Virginia. And Gonzaga and St. Mary’s—both undefeated to date—look to be on a collision course (again) in the WCC. All in all, it’s been a great start to the 2016-17 season. There are lots of questions as yet unanswered — Who will slow down Kentucky and North Carolina? When will Duke get its hot shot freshmen into the lineup? Can Xavier or Creighton keep their undefeated runs into the Big East season and beyond? — that will keep us watching through the holiday season.

Some meaty made-for-TV games will help answer some of those questions. Get ready for North Carolina-Indiana (tonight), Kentucky-UCLA (Saturday), Gonzaga-Arizona (Saturday), and Kentucky-North Carolina (December 17), to name but a few. These and other well-matched tilts should give us a clearer picture of who the contenders really are as the new year turns. Read the rest of this entry »

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Race for a Top NCAA Seed Begins Early in the Big Ten

Posted by Shane McNichol on November 29th, 2016

At least one team has represented the Big Ten at the Final Four in six of the last nine NCAA Tournaments and seeding is a big part of that. Big Ten teams have been awarded a #1 seed in four of those nine tourneys with seven more conference teams receiving #2 seeds over that period. Being projected among the mix to win the conference title usually means that the jockeying for March begins right away. In the season’s first two weeks, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana all had great chances to put themselves in the Big Ten pole position before conference play even begins. Yes, the NCAA Tournament is still three and a half months away, but the Selection Committee weights all games the same regardless of when they are played. Parsing through the first handful of games among this trio allows us a chance to see which, if any, teams took an early head start in the race for a top-two NCAA Tournament seed.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament.

Tom Izzo needs to make sure his team gains confidence before the NCAA tournament. (AP)

The Spartans’ early struggles have been well-documented so there’s no reason to re-hash them here. With three losses already on the books and a very difficult game at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight, dreams of a #1 seed have been all but dashed in East Lansing. In the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, only one school has been awarded a top seed with seven or more regular season losses — Michigan State in 2012. With games at Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland still to come (not to mention several other potentially tricky road tilts as well as home games against Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin), the Spartans are very likely to surpass that loss figure. The loss of Denzel Valentine and his 28.9 percent usage rate has proven difficult to replace, as the capable role players around him last season have so far failed to step up. Instead, it has been freshmen like Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston who have sparked the Spartans during their better moments. Tom Izzo hasn’t yet found the right combinations but history suggests that he will do so. Whether he can manage to turn things around quickly enough to push Michigan State into the discussion for a #2 seed is an open question.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Two

Posted by Walker Carey on November 29th, 2016

Feast Week always results in a couple teams really establishing themselves as legitimate teams to watch the rest of the season. This year the three teams that took the Feast Week Leap are #7 Baylor, #11 UCLA and #16 Butler. In a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, Baylor emerged victorious by scoring wins over VCU, Michigan State and #10 Louisville. UCLA, behind its star backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Isaac Hamilton, took home the Wooden Legacy crown with wins over Portland, Nebraska and Texas A&M. Butler won the Las Vegas Invitational by topping Vanderbilt and earning a hard fought upset victory over #17 Arizona. In other Feast Week action, #3 North Carolina showed why it is one of the best teams in the country with a dominant performance at the Maui Invitational. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week One

Posted by Walker Carey on November 21st, 2016

The college basketball season began in earnest over the last 10 days with several upsets taking place and a few teams providing a solid glimpse of what should be expected this season. #3 Duke and #4 Kansas are a pair of teams that experienced some high points as well as the upset bug. The formerly top-ranked Blue Devils are a respectable 4-1 on the young season, but they experienced their hiccup against the Jayhawks in the Champions Classic. It is important to note that Duke is still experiencing significant health issues, as Grayson Allen, Chase Jeter, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles have all battled injuries to varying extents. Even with the corresponding depth concerns, Duke has already showcased that it is an extremely talented unit that will likely remain near the top of the polls throughout the season. Kansas’ season started on a sour note by getting surprised by #6 Indiana in an overtime thriller. The Jayhawks rebounded nicely in their victory over Duke and it appears that Bill Self’s veteran backcourt of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham will mask some of the growing pains the team will likely experience elsewhere. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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Big Ten’s Opening Night Debut a Win For All

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 15th, 2016

It’s been a few days since the sensational opening-night doubleheader that featured both Michigan State and Indiana, but the attention the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu brought to the Big Ten deserves further discussion. Unlike most other sports, college basketball rarely opens its season with a number of truly marquee match-ups. Coaches instead typically opt for easy wins against low-majors out of fear of being exposed. This strategy may make sense for individual programs, but it hardly does the sport any favors. This year, however, we were treated to two compelling bouts featuring a quartet of top 15 teams. Each game was action-packed and came down to the wire, as the Spartans lost to Arizona on a last-second layup and the Hoosiers eked out a 103-99 overtime win over Kansas. Kudos should be given to Tom Izzo and Tom Crean for ignoring the “risk” of being exposed early. These coaches instead saw the event as an opportunity to showcase their programs to a captive Friday night national audience, in addition to supporting the brave men and women of the armed forces on Veterans Day.

Miles Bridges' team may have lost the game, but he was the star of opening night (Fansided photo).

Miles Bridges (#22) may not have been on a winning team, but he was the star of opening night (Fansided photo).

In the first game, Michigan State charged to a big early lead before eventually giving up a coast-to-coast layup to lose at the buzzer. While the Spartans missed an opportunity for a nice early resume win, they did get to showcase their celebrated freshmen class. Miles Bridges was especially spectacular, contributing 21 points, seven rebounds and an early candidate for the dunk of the year. In the second game, Indiana outlasted Kansas in a back-and-forth contest that went to overtime. The impressive win against the perennial Big 12 favorite was propelled by a 26-point performance from James Blackmon, Jr., who looked completely healthy after last year’s season-ending surgery.

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Big Ten Preseason Superlatives: POY, COY, FrOY

Posted by Alex Moscoso on November 11th, 2016

The season-opening tip-offs are set for tonight and the RTC Big Ten microsite has arrived at our predictions for the coming year. We’ve huddled our clairvoyant minds together and selected our conference preseason Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, and Coach of the Year. Some of these predictions are likely to miss, but the three individual profiled below are definitely worth keeping a close eye on during the regular season.

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Thomas Bryant is the RTC Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (USA Today Images).

Player of the Year: Thomas Bryant, Indiana. This was by no means a unanimous choice among our group. While we believe our other two Badger candidates — Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ — will each also have a terrific season, we settled on Bryant for a couple of reasons. First, he is one of the nation’s most talented big men in an offense full of second options — expect him to significantly improve on his 11.9 PPG and 5.8 RPG freshman tallies with an added a year of experience. Second, he is the anchor of a reigning Big Ten champion that is expected to contend for a second consecutive title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Given the talent and opportunity here, we believe that Bryant is ready for a monster year.

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