Mid-Conference Recap: Big Ten
A look at the ins and outs of the Big Ten.
by Dave Spahn / @davespahn
In a year when college basketball as a whole has lacked overall star power, the Big Ten conference improved its overall depth and quality from last season. Indiana shared a spot at the cellar of the conference last season and now sports a top-25 ranking. Iowa, another team that found itself in the bottom of the conference last year, knocked off Wisconsin in Madison for the first time in years. Positive building blocks remain among the question marks, and fans across the country should be excited by where the conference is heading.
Yet as roughly half of the conference games in the Big Ten have been completed, a lot of question marks remain. Will Ohio State or Michigan State run away with the regular-season conference title? Do Michigan or Wisconsin have enough firepower to truly contend for a spot atop the conference standings? How good is Indiana? Is this finally the year the Northwestern Wildcats break through their invisible barrier and make the big dance? Is there a consensus Player of the Year candidate in the Big Ten? Here are some of the answers…
Will Ohio State or Michigan State run away with the Big Ten title?
Ohio State. Come March, I would trust Tom Izzo over almost every other coach in America when it comes to taking a team deep into the NCAA Tournament. He finally has a senior leader in Draymond Green that can be called upon in pressure situations to carry his team, and his supporting cast of Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Brandon Wood, Derrick Nix, and Adrian Payne have the ability to walk into Colombus and knock off the Buckeyes in a few weeks.
But, Ohio State just has too many dangerous pieces and too much offensive firepower to be slowed down. From top to bottom, there may not be a deeper team in America than OSU. A lineup of Aaron Craft, William Buford, Lenzelle Smith, DeShaun Thomas, and Jared Sullinger has a late March/early April tip to New Orleans written all over it. They have a defensive minded, pass first floor general in Craft, a lethal athletic scoring option on the wing in Buford and Smith, a versatile and skilled forward in Thomas, and arguably the nation’s most dominant big man in Sullinger.
Do Michigan and Wisconsin have enough firepower to truly contend for a spot atop the Big Ten standings?
Wisconsin is starting to gel at the right time, and Michigan can score with the likes of college basketball’s best. But, neither team has enough talent to beat out Ohio State in the conference race. After an abysmal start for Wisconsin’s pre-season All American Jordan Taylor, the Badgers and Taylor have both begun to hit their stride. Taylor is averaging just over 16 points per in conference play and has begun to lead his team the way that most people thought he would before November rolled around. Ben Brust has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat in the backcourt and Ryan Evans may be the most underrated athlete in the Big Ten.
As for Michigan, Tim Hardaway Jr and Trey Burke make up one of the best 1-2 punches in the conference right now. Throw in sophomores Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan with seniors Zach Nowak, Stu Douglass and you have a team that can knock off anyone in the league at home. But, the Wolverines need a consistent post scorer and a new dedication to defense before they can play with the top teams in the nation. Jordan Morgan has shown flashes of brilliance but has not been as dominant as he should be throughout the course of the year. If Morgan can turn up the intensity, the Wolverines can make a serious run in the NCAA Tournament.
How good is Indiana?
Third in the league at absolute best; seventh in the league at worst. After “The Shot Heard ‘Round The World,”, Hoosier fans climbed the cars on Kirkwood street and climbed the national polls to heights not seen in Bloomington since a guy named Bob Knight ran the show. A New Year’s Eve upset special over Ohio State legitimized the new rankings and brought 2012 into Indiana very smoothly. Cody Zeller created a lane in the Big Ten Player of the Year race. Christian Watford, as Dave Telep jokingly stated when referring to his game-winning shot against Kentucky, “made sure that neither he nor his family will ever be presented a bill for a meal in the state of Indiana ever again.” Victor Oladipo showed his athletic prowess and became known arguably the league’s best perimeter defender. Will Sheehey, if not for injury, may have been the league’s best sixth man. And the tandem of Jordan Hulls and Matt Roth proved to be one of the most lethal three point shooting duos in America.
Wins over the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in America raised the question across the nation “Is Indiana really a top 10 team?”
That question was quickly answered against Minnesota on January 12th when the Hoosiers lost a head scratcher to give Tubby Smith’s club its first Big Ten win. It was answered again in Colombus where the Hoosiers got flattened in a revenge game for the Buckeyes. It got answered a third straight time in Omaha where Indiana blew a 13-point second half lead and lost what will always be an unforgivable game to Nebraska, arguably the Big Ten’s worst team.
Although these losses sent sheer panic and hysteria into the minds of all Hoosier fans, the losses make sense. Indiana is a good basketball team. They are not a great team, or a fantastic team, or a top-10 team. A great team runs over Nebraska on the road by 20. A great team dominates Minnesota at home by 20. The wins against Kentucky and Ohio State will stand crucial with the selection committee come March, but Indiana cannot ride on those two wins the entire season. They need another statement win in conference play to solidify their status amongst the upper echelon of college hoops. Right now, they are a good basketball team that is a year away from being a great basketball team. Given the most recent history in Bloomington, however, a good basketball team comes as a breath of fresh air.
Is this finally the year the Northwestern Wildcats break through their invisible barrier and make the big dance?
Unless they rattle off eight wins in their last 10 games, no.
Sadly, the Wildcats look like they will enjoy another year in the NIT. A padded non-conference schedule and a senior John Shurna led many to believe ‘11-12 to be the year the Wildcats make the Tournament for the first time in school history. Losing five of their last six games, however, turned those dreams into nightmares. Drew Crawford shows signs of being an all league player, and freshmen Dave Sobolewski cranked up his play better than anyone could have hoped, but the Wildcats are still a piece or two away from being a Tournament team.
Is there a consensus Player of the Year candidate in the Big Ten?
Draymond Green, Jared Sullinger, John Shurna, and Cody Zeller have all put together impressive campaigns this season. Green boasts the sole double-double averages (15.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg). Shurna leads the league in scoring with 19.0 ppg. Sullinger, however, should run away with the award. The POTY usually comes from the first place team in league play, and his 17.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg should be enough to get the honors. If the Spartans can bounce back from a tough road loss to Illinois and take out the Buckeyes, though, look for Draymond Green to take home POTY honors.
Who should win Freshmen POTY, Cody Zeller or Trey Burke?
Burke and Zeller both deserve the award in their own rights, but not giving the award to Zeller would be a travesty. His lofty stats (14.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) don’t do justice to how much of an impact he really has had on the Hoosiers this year. He helped bring Indiana from last place in the league to a top 25 national ranking in a single season. He draws a double team essentially every possession and gets post touches less than almost any other big in the league, yet he still finds a way to boast big numbers. Burke’s 14.1 ppg and 5.0 apg draw serious attention, but Zeller leads him in every statistical category except assists (Zeller is shooting 64.1 percent from the field, shooting 77.9 percent from the free-throw line, is grabbing 1.5 steals and averages 1.5 blocks. Burke is shooting 43.1 percent from the field, shooting 73.1 percent from the free-throw line, is grabbing 0.8 steals and averages 0.4 blocks).
Who is the Big Ten’s most intriguing team?
The Illini may lack a true PG, leadership, and toughness, but they do not lack overall talent. Meyers Leonard, arguably the league’s best NBA prospect, has started to mature and understand his role as their “go to guy” very well lately, and Brandon Paul’s 43-point outburst against Ohio State turned the nation’s eyes. They took down the best two teams in the league at home, boosting their NCAA Tournament resume higher and higher.
But, the Illini’s inconsistent play may very well lead to a spot on the bubble come March. They score anywhere from 42 points to 90 points on a given day. Their highly touted freshmen class struggles to find time on the floor, a recurring problem in the Bruce Weber era. DJ Richardson’s injured shooting wrist slowed down his production lately and no big man has stepped up to help ease the weight off Meyers Leonard’s shoulders in the frontcourt. Their only league win on the road came at Northwestern (which sports as many Illinois fans as Northwestern fans) by 1. They still need to go at Indiana, at Michigan, at Ohio State, and at Wisconsin. The Dr. Jekyll side of Illinois could pull out a few road wins and go 3-1 at best. The Mr. Hyde side, however, could very well see the Illini fall to every ranked opponent on the road.