Checking In On… the Big Ten ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 3rd, 2012
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Big Ten Conference. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.
The Week That Was:
- B1G is the Country’s Deepest Conference: With nine teams ranked 52nd or higher in the RPI, the Big Ten is the deepest and best conference – top-to-bottom – in the nation this season. The depth of the conference was never more evident than on Saturday, when Iowa hung 75 in a win at Wisconsin and Nebraska hung close with Michigan State deep into the second half. If you don’t come to play on nightly basis in this conference, even the league’s bottom-feeders can pop you with a loss. Expect the conference’s lofty records (and rankings) to diminish some over the next couple of months as the league beats each other up in Big Ten play.
- Michigan State – So Hot Right Now: Few teams in the country are rolling like Michigan State. The Big Ten leaders sit atop the standings and are currently riding a 13-game winning streak after opening up conference play with an emphatic win over Indiana and a resilient effort at Nebraska. They have their normal interior size and strength with Draymond Green, Derrick Nix, and Adreian Payne, but Keith Appling – a player that Tom Izzo has called “the fastest point guard he’s ever coached” – is really starting to assert himself. The 6’1’’ sophomore had 25 points and seven assists against Indiana then contributed 14 point and six dimes against the Huskers.
- Giant Killers: For the first time in its illustrious program’s history, Indiana has defeated the No. 1- and 2-ranked teams in the country in the same season. Assembly Hall has always been an intimidating place to play for opponents, with its combination of raucous fans and rich tradition. The key for the Hoosiers to make this a special season will be to duplicate that success on the road.
- Ohio State (13-2, 1-1) – It might not have seemed like much at the time, but the dubious call that wiped out Jared Sullinger’s lay-up and sent him to the bench in the first half with his second foul against Indiana proved to be enormous. That early foul trouble limited the OSU center’s playing time (nine minutes) and production (five points, two rebounds) in the first half. William Buford was as absent against the Hoosiers (eight points and four rebounds) as he was dominant against Northwestern (28/9) in the conference opener.
- Michigan State (13-2, 2-0) – How do you respond when you’ve built a 19-point lead at home, only to watch it disappear after a 25-2 run by your opponent? You go on a 20-0 spurt of your own to regain control of the game. Coming off an emotional victory against Indiana in East Lansing on Wednesday, it’s no surprise that Michigan State came out flat against Nebraska and trailed at halftime. They righted the ship in the second half though, and ended up beating the Cornhuskers by 13. When Michigan State is on their game and playing the kind of hard-nosed, physical brand of basketball that Tom Izzo loves, they are as good as anyone in the Big Ten.
- Indiana (13-1, 1-1) – Freshman Cody Zeller looked timid and struggled against Michigan State is Big Ten debut (four points, three rebounds), but he bounced back to have another solid effort in Indiana’s win over Ohio State (14 points, four boards). He doesn’t necessarily have to led Indiana in scoring and rebounding every game, but as the Hoosiers’ only real interior post presence, his consistency is critical moving forward.
- Michigan (12-2, 2-0) – It hasn’t been a cause for concern yet, but Michigan’s rotation is only six to seven guys deep, so their starters log a lot of minutes. Three of their best players (Tim Hardaway, Trey Burke and Zack Novak) average more than 31.0 minutes per game and two more play about 25. Depth could eventually become an issue in a conference where physical play is the norm and fouls can add up quickly.
- Wisconsin (12-3, 1-1) – It’s not often that Wisconsin loses twice in one month at the Kohl Center. But the Badgers let Iowa shoot nearly 50% from the field, while hitting an ugly 3-for-28 (11%) themselves from beyond the arc. A few days after allowing Nebraska just 14 points in the second half (40 for the game), Wisconsin saw Iowa ring up 41 in the second half to pull away for the surprise victory.
- Purdue (12-3, 2-0) – The Boilers exploded in the second half against Illinois, going on a 32-7 run out of the break to stretch a two-point lead to 27. Seven of the nine players who played 18 minutes or more for Matt Painter scored between 7 and 14 points – not including All-America candidate Robbie Hummel, who finished with five points and five rebounds. That kind of depth and balance should serve Purdue well as they try to grind out wins in Big Ten play.
- Illinois (12-3, 1-1) – Bruce Weber switched it up and went smaller against Purdue, sitting 6’8’’ Tyler Griffey and starting 6’5’’ Joe Bertrand to make a four-guard lineup. If giant center Meyers Leonard doesn’t contribute more than seven points and six boards, it doesn’t matter how many guards the Illini start.
- Northwestern (11-3, 1-1) – Like their previous non-conference game against Baylor, the opener at Ohio State was ugly and out-of-reach by midway through the first half. A team that is as poor on the glass (outrebounded 49-30 by the Buckeyes) as the Wildcats needs to have its primary offensive weapons (John Shurna and Drew Crawford) to shoot better than 9-30 from the field.
- Minnesota (12-3, 0-2) – The cruel fates of conference scheduling were not kind to the Golden Gophers early. They battled hard at Illinois and Michigan this week, but two close losses still find Minnesota at the bottom of the Big Ten. Ralph Sampson III needs to step up his post play in the absence of Trevor Mbakwe.
- Iowa (9-6, 1-1) – No result was more surprising from the first week of conference play than Iowa’s road upset against Wisconsin. Few teams beat the Badgers in the Kohl Center – and score 75 points in the process! Fran McCaffrey has his team shooting the ball well and playing with confidence right now.
- Penn State (8-7, 0-2) – It is hard to allow 71% second half shooting on the road in conference play – as PSU did against Northwestern – and expect to win many games. The Nittany Lions need to buckle down the defense and have another player help compliment the scoring of guard Tim Frazier.
- Nebraska (8-5, 0-2) – The Huskers were given a rude little conference welcome with consecutive home dates against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Yeesh! Give them credit for fighting back in the second half against the Spartans. The veteran leadership of seniors Bo Spencer and Toney McCray should result in an upset or two later on.
- Tuesday, 1/3: Michigan State at Wisconsin – The Badgers get an early opportunity to erase the memory of Saturday’s home loss to Iowa (just the seventh conference defeat in 11 years at the Kohl Center) when they welcome the Spartans to town. It’s hard to imagine they will shoot as poorly as they did against the Hawkeyes. Expect the usual 55-51 dogfight between these two perennial powers.
- Wednesday, 1/4: Illinois @ Northwestern – Northwestern got pounded by Ohio State on the road, then eased by Penn State at home. But winning these games – against the likes of Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Iowa – will determine whether or not the Wildcats finally make their first NCAA Tournament.
- Saturday, 1/8: Wisconsin @ Michigan - An intriguing match-up highlights Saturday’s contest, when the most accomplished veteran point guard in the Big Ten, Jordan Taylor, squares off against a rising point guard star in Michigan’s stud freshman, Trey Burke. Logic would dictate that experience would win out, but then again, logic never had to play on the road in the Big Ten.
Spotlight On Freshman Of The Year Candidates
- Cody Zeller – Indiana: Right now, the award is Zeller’s to lose. Though the big Hoosier has struggled a bit in his first few conference games, Zeller has played big minutes (27 MPG) and posted impressive averages of 14.2 PPG and 6.7 RPG this season. Most impressively, he’s done all this while leading his team to a 13-1 start and embracing the sky-high expectations of a fan base desperate for a return to national relevancy.
- Trey Burke – Michigan: It took him a few games, but Burke has not only taken control of the point guard position for John Beilein, he’s also starting to score in bunches. He went off for a career-high 27 points on Sunday against Minnesota, and is averaging 20 PPG, 5 APG, and 4 RPG through two conference games.
- Branden Dawson – Michigan State: The highly-touted recruit from Gary, IN, has started and contributed from Day One in East Lansing, averaging a solid 8.4 PPG and 4.5 RPG. The 6’6’’ Dawson gives MSU valuable athleticism and skill on the wing.
- David Sobolewski – Northwestern: The 6’1’’ point guard had the unenviable task of replacing Northwestern’s all-time leader in assists, Michael Thompson, at the point this season, but he has fit right in. He doesn’t score quite like Thompson did (8.8 PPG), but he’s good for a couple threes every game and, quite frankly, they don’t need him to. They just need him to help Crawford and Shurna put the ball in the basket. To be leading the conference with an astounding 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio is virtually unheard of for a true freshman.