Breaking Down The Big Ten
With the Big Ten wrapping up the non-conference portion of its schedule this weekend, this is a good time to take a look at each of the 14 teams as conference play resumes next week. Given the scheduling change, could this be a season in which a team that either struggled or was mediocre during the early December conference games turns out to be an entirely different group come January? Sure; there will have been about a month between conference games for each of the teams so that’s definitely possible.
But even with that being the case, it appears as if Michigan State and Purdue have cemented their respective statuses as the best the Big Ten has to offer. Here are some thoughts on each of the teams through this point in the season, working in order of conference (and then overall) records.
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Michigan State (12-1, 2-0): For the most part the Spartans have lived up to the preseason hype, with their lone defeat coming against another highly regarded team in Duke at the Champions Classic. While Miles Bridges may not be the pick for Big Ten Player of the Year right now (a bit more on that person below), he’s been productive as have fellow sophomores Joshua Langford, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. In total Michigan State has five double-digit scorers, and they’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the country as well. If there’s a concern for the Spartans as they re-enter conference play it would have to be turnovers, as Michigan State coughs it up on 20.3 percent of its possessions. For a team that doesn’t do a particularly great job of forcing turnovers on the other end, that could be an issue deeper into the season if not addressed. With that in mind, Winston (24.9 turnover rate) and Jackson (23.9) are the two with the biggest strides to make. But given Tom Izzo’s credentials and the talent on this team, I’d bet on Michigan State getting their turnovers down to a more manageable level.
Purdue (12-2, 2-0): Outside of a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in which the Boilermakers lost twice (and blew out Arizona), Matt Painter’s team has looked the part of a Big Ten title contender. Sophomore Carsen Edwards has been one of the nation’s most improved players thus far, averaging 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, leading four double-digit scorers. Isaac Haas has raised his scoring average nearly two points (now 14.5 ppg) from last season’s number, Dakota Mathias is a double-digit scorer while also leading the team in assists and being one of the Big Ten’s top perimeter defenders, and the versatile Vince Edwards can’t be overlooked either. But for all the preseason talk about Nojel Eastern’s potential impact, 7-foot-2 center Matt Haarms has been Purdue’s best freshman thus far. With the combination of talent, depth and experience, the Boilermakers will go back into conference play as the biggest threat to Michigan State in the race for the Big Ten title.
Ohio State (10-4, 2-0): In the first season of Chris Holtmann’s tenure as head coach the Buckeyes have been a positive surprise, outside of a stretch in November in which it lost three of four games. Included in the ten wins are triumphs over Michigan and Wisconsin, results that have the Buckeyes tied atop the Big Ten standings. After playing in just nine games last season due to injury, Keita Bates-Diop (18.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has been outstanding as he leads the Buckeyes in both scoring and rebounding. Jae’Sean Tate has continued to produce, and C.J. Jackson has taken a leap forward after serving as a reserve for most of last season. Jackson’s averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game, giving Ohio State valuable production on the perimeter. Freshman forward Kaleb Wesson’s averaging 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, helping the Buckeyes solid offensively. The difference from last season to this: Ohio State has been better defensively, as its forcing more turnovers (percentage-wise) and also doing a better job on the defensive glass. But for all the positives in Columbus, this is a team that will likely fall into the “NCAA tournament” conversation as opposed to “can they win the Big Ten.”
Maryland (11-3, 1-1): Maryland’s OOC resume has the Terps in a tough spot; as MD missed out on their best chances for marquee non-conference wins, and outside of Michigan State and Purdue there won’t be many chances for high-level wins within the Big Ten either. Maryland’s already fallen short against Purdue at home, but the good news is that they’ve still got three combined games remaining against the Boilermakers and Spartans. Not only can that help Maryland insert itself into the Big Ten title conversation, but it would also strengthen an NCAA tournament profile that could prove costly from a seeding standpoint. As for what Maryland needs to do in order to ensure itself of a seat at the NCAA tournament table the answer remains the same: clean up the turnovers. Mark Turgeon’s team has been better of late in this regard, but the likes of Catholic and Fairleigh Dickinson do not compare to the challenges they’ll face in the Big Ten. That responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Anthony Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Darryl Morsell. Morsell and Bruno Fernando have both had the impact envisioned for them before the start of the season, but there are still strides that can be made. Lastly, Maryland need Justin Jackson to get back to full strength, as he’s missed the team’s last three games. Wouldn’t put the Terps in the Big Ten title contender class right now, but there’s no reason why they can’t at minimum separate themselves in that second tier.
Michigan (11-3, 1-1): John Beilein’s squad split its first two Big Ten games, beating Indiana before losing at Ohio State. Since then they’ve won four straight, with two of those wins coming against UCLA and Texas with the latter being on the road. Those results will help Michigan’s profile moving forward, provided the Bruins contend in the Pac-12 and the Longhorns take a step forward in the Big 12. This isn’t a team that gets to the foul line all that often, and they don’t hit the offensive glass particularly hard either, but Michigan does a good job of valuing the basketball. And given the pace that Michigan plays at, with the Wolverines ranked 342nd in adjusted tempo per kenpom.com, those possessions become of even greater importance. Charles Matthews and Mortiz Wagner have led the way offensively for a team with four double-digits scorers, all of whom are upperclassmen. If they’re been a surprising aspect of this team it’s been the ability to force turnovers, with Michigan’s opponents turning the ball over on 22.5 percent of its possessions. Given its overall profile Michigan can be an NCAA tournament team, and if the turnover discrepancy continues that’s something that could win the Wolverines some close games in league play.
Minnesota (11-3, 1-1): After starting the season 7-0 the Golden Gophers went through a 1-3 stretch. While losing to Miami and Arkansas is understandable given the talent on those teams, the “how” in the case of the losses to Arkansas — and Nebraska — is a concern. Minnesota did not defend particularly well in either game, with both Nebraska and Arkansas finding numerous scoring opportunities around the basket. That’s a surprise given the presence of Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy in the paint, but that can happen when the perimeter defense isn’t up to par either. Despite that run of play it can be argued that Murphy has been the best player in the Big Ten during the non-conference portion of the schedule, and he’s averaging 19.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per game on the season as a whole. Getting Nate Mason back healthy will be key for Richard Pitino’s group, which while better offensively has not always played with the same tenacity that last year’s surprise squad did.
Penn State (10-4, 1-1): The key for the Nittany Lions, for all of the young team’s offensive talent, has been its defense. Patrick Chambers’ team has done a good job of forcing turnovers, and Penn State is also a good defensive team inside of the arc with Mike Watkins leading the way. Watkins is blocking 3.5 shots per game, and with his ability to protect the rim that allows the perimeter defenders to be more aggressive. Watkins is one of five double-digits scorers for Penn State, with Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens leading the way and upperclassmen Shep Garner and Josh Reeves being quality supplementary options. That 2016 recruiting class that arrived in Happy Valley with hopes of turning things around as matured, with Carr, Stevens and Watkins part fo that group. That being said, outside of the win over Iowa there really isn’t a result that truly stands out. And if the games against Iowa and Wisconsin in early December are a harbinger of things to come in January and February, Penn State is going to be involved in a lot of close games once league play resumes. In order to come out on top more often than not and as a result insert themselves in the NCAA tournament conversation, the Nittany Lions will need to take a step forward offensively.
Northwestern (9-5, 1-1): There’s a big difference between being the “hunter” and the “hunted,” and that adjustment has proven difficult at times for the Wildcats. Add in the fact that they’re playing all home games at Allstate Arena with Welsh-Ryan undergoing major renovations, and the home-court advantage that could have come as a result of many players from last season’s historic NCAA tournament team returning has been lost. But, one could also argue that with the experience and talent on the roster, this group of Wildcats was the right “choice” to have spend a year playing off campus. But things have not worked out that way, as Chris Collins’ team split its two Big Ten tilts in early December and has been on the receiving end of serious beatings from Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Bryant McIntosh is capable of playing better than he has for a good portion of non-conference play, and as a team Northwestern has some work to do with regards to its shooting both inside of and beyond the three-point line. With Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon this is a team that does not lack for talent. But it’s fair to wonder if dealing with being a target after making the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance — not to mention being considered by more than a few to be a Big Ten contender before the season began — has weighed this group down some.
Nebraska (9-5, 1-1): There’s no sugarcoating this: this is a big season for Tim Miles. The Cornhuskers have missed out on the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons after going in 2014, and with a new athletic director (Bill Moos) who knows what could happen with another mediocre (or worse) campaign. The additions of transfers James Palmer and Isaac Copeland have been key for Nebraska, Glynn Watson remains solid at the point and Anton Gill has managed to remain healthy after suffering a ruptured patella tendon last December. In total Nebraska has four-double-digit scorers, but there are still strides to be made on both ends of the floor. While a good jump-shooting team Nebraska does not shoot particularly well from two, making just 46.9 percent of its attempts with finishing around the basket being a concern. Defensively this group has been poor on the boards, with Copeland and sophomore Isaiah Roby being the top rebounders on a team that has a defensive rebounding percentage of just 65.5 percent. One positive for Nebraska moving forward is their willingness to compete, as a blowout loss at Michigan State was followed by the win over Minnesota and they lost to Kansas by just one point in mid-December. But the rebounding issues could prove costly in tight games, which Nebraska may have a lot of when conference play resumes.
Indiana (7-6, 1-1): It appeared that Archie Miller’s team had its much-desired breakthrough moment earlier this month when it came back to beat Notre Dame in overtime. Those hoping the big win would spark a run received a reminder of just how much work there is to be done in Bloomington two nights later, as Fort Wayne controlled things from the start and whipped Indiana by 20. That’s been the season for Indiana in a nutshell, with a step forward being followed by a step in the opposite direction. This is a rebuild that will take a little time, but the good news for the Hoosiers is that Juwan Morgan’s taken a major step forward. After averaging 7.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Morgan’s up to 15.2 and 7.3 while also blocking 1.5 shots per contest as a junior. What Indiana needs from its other key contributors, most notably Robert Johnson and De’Ron Davis, is greater consistency on both ends of the floor. There’s certainly talent on this roster, but they don’t always compete at the level one has grown to expect from an Archie Miller-coached team. Some patience will be needed here, but do not be surprised if Indiana produces a surprise or two while fighting it out in the middle of the Big Ten standings.
Wisconsin (7-7, 1-1): Over the years the general consensus has been to never bet against Wisconsin; be it Bo Ryan or Greg Gard, one just implicitly trusted the Badgers to figure things out and at the very least finish top four in the Big Ten. Thanks to injuries this season may be a bit different for the Badgers, as Kobe King will miss the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery and D’Mitrik Trice is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his right foot. Losing two expected contributors does noticeable damage to Wisconsin’s perimeter depth, with Brad Davison and Brevin Pritzl being asked to do even more. The good news for Wisconsin is that they’ve still got a high-level big in Ethan Happ, and Khalil Iverson’s a solid player as well. But given the personnel losses, this feels like a group whose ceiling may be the NCAA tournament bubble, possibly sneaking in. Which would be quite the departure from what we’ve seen from this program over the last decade or so.
Rutgers (10-4, 0-2): The Scarlet Knights lost both of their December conference tilts, but it should be noted that Steve Pikiell’s team drew Minnesota and Michigan State in that first rotation. Same old Rutgers? Well, that’s a tough question to answer at this point in time. For as big as the win over Seton Hall was for a program looking to establish itself not only in the Big Ten but within the borders of its own state, Rutgers lost a little bit of that momentum by blowing a late lead in its overtime loss to Stony Brook six days later. This team will fight, and as Corey Sanders continues to understand (and embrace) what his head coach wants the Scarlet Knights have the potential to be a nuisance in Big Ten play. While the Stony Brook loss isn’t great, it isn’t as if this is a result on par with say, Georgia Tech’s home loss to Grambling. Rebuilt by Pikiell before he took the Rutgers job, Stony Brook has continued on that path with Jeff Boals at the helm. And in Florida State, Minnesota and Michigan State, Rutgers’ other three losses all came to likely NCAA tournament teams. There’s still a lot of building to do in Piscataway, but Rutgers has taken some baby steps in the right direction.
Illinois (9-5, 0-2): After winning six straight to start the season, the Fighting Illini lost three in a row with two being overtime losses to Northwestern and Maryland. Since then Brad Underwood’s team has lost to UNLV and New Mexico State, but the program took a step forward with its win over Missouri on Saturday. In the mold of prior Underwood-coached teams at Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin, there’s a high demand on this group to get after opponents both defensively and on the offensive glass. Illinois is ranked eighth in the country in both offensive rebounding percentage and turnover (forced) percentage, which has to a certain extent helped account for an offense that has been downright pedestrian at times. After playing sparingly in his first two seasons on campus Aaron Jordan has been a bit of a revelation, averaging 11.3 points per game and shooting 56.5 percent from the field and 60.0 percent from three. Forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke have led the way offensive and on the boards for Illinois, which has six players averaging between 8.8 and 14.4 points per game. Bringing the intensity on both ends of the floor is how this team will have to win games, and it’s likely that they’ll be involved in a lot of tight affairs when league play resumes.
Iowa (8-6, 0-2): Iowa’s won four straight since going though a stretch in which it lost four straight and six of seven games. Accounting for the loss of an offensive player the caliber of Peter Jok is not easy for any team, and for the Hawkeyes that has required the team to do so with a balanced effort. Sophomores Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss are leading the way in that regard, and when adding in classmates Cordell Pemsl and Maishe Dailey and freshmen Luka Garza and Jack Nunge Iowa’s top seven scorers are underclassmen. Juniors Nicholas Baer and Brady Ellingson are the team’s most productive upperclassmen, but they’re averaging 5.2 and 4.0 points per game, respectively. Given the amount of young talent on this roster brighter days are ahead for Fran McCaffery’s group, but that could lead to them taking their lumps in conference play this season.