Conference Reset: The Big Ten could go four different ways at the top
Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and even Iowa could reasonably win this league that has great teams at the top and quality depth.
The Big Ten was tough at the top last season -- proof being that Indiana earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Michigan played for the national title despite finishing fourth in the league with a 12-6 conference record. This season, I'm not sure any team is as good as last season's Hoosiers that were led by Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, but there's still quality at the top considering this is the conference that three of the top five schools in the latest AP poll -- specifically Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- call home.
Big Ten play gets underway on Tuesday.
Here's the Big Ten Reset:
Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota
Teams with work to do: Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, Nebraska
Teams already out, barring a miracle: Northwestern
Most memorable moment to date: Frank Kaminsky averaged 1.8 points as a freshman and 4.2 points as a sophomore, meaning he's just about the last person anybody expected to drop 43 on somebody in November of his junior year. But that's exactly what Kaminsky did. He took 19 shots, made 16 and finished with a career-high 43 in a win over North Dakota that pushed the Badgers to 4-0. They're now 13-0, by the way. And Kaminsky is averaging 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 56.1 percent from the field.
Storyline you were too busy to notice: Minnesota AD Norwood Teague fired a 61-year-old Tubby Smith to hire a 30-year-old Richard Pitino last April in a move designed to inject energy into the program. So far, so good. The Golden Gophers are 11-2 heading into Thursday's Big Ten opener with a win over Florida State and just one loss to an unranked team. The result has Minnesota rated 30th in the RPI, 35th in KenPom and 40th in Sagarin. So the computers seem to suggest this team is better than most anticipated.
Coach feeling the heat: Oddly, there's not a single Big Ten coach under fire because every Big Ten coach is either an established winner with a solid foundation in place, or too early in his tenure to be on the so-called hot seat. Consequently, no matter what happens in this league over the next three months, you can safely expect to see all 12 coaches return next season unless one (or two) of them voluntarily leaves for another job.
Player who needs to step up: Michigan senior Jordan Morgan averaged 9.2 points as a freshman but has watched his scoring average decrease every year since, which is obviously rare. His lack of relevancy is partially tied to the enrollment of Mitch McGary, the All-American center who took a bunch of Morgan's minutes last season and early this season. But now McGary is sidelined with a back injury for what will likely be the rest of the year, meaning Morgan will be asked to start playing 20-plus minutes per game again. What he does with those minutes could determine whether Michigan makes the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season. He and Jon Horford need to perform in McGary's absence.
Team better than its record: Michigan is one of just two Big Ten schools already with four losses, but don't read too much into that because it has more to do with the Wolverines' schedule than ability. Three of those losses are to the schools ranked No. 1 (Arizona), No. 7 (Duke) and No. 13 (Iowa State) in the latest AP poll, and Michigan does own respectable wins over Florida State and Stanford. So is Michigan disappointing relative to preseason expectations? Yes. But the Wolverines are still a borderline Top 25 outfit.
Team not as good as its record: Purdue's 10-3 record looks nice, and it is nice (or at least better than, say, a 9-4 record). But the Boilermakers best win is a win over a West Virginia team that's probably just slightly better than OK, and there's a bad loss to Washington State on the resume. Beyond that, Purdue is rated 86th in KenPom, 81st in Sagarin and 93rd in the RPI. So the computers aren't too impressed.
Three must-see games:
- Ohio State at Michigan State (Jan. 7)
- Ohio State at Wisconsin (Feb. 1)
- Michigan State at Wisconsin (Feb. 9)
Player of the Year favorite: Adreian Payne ranks fifth in scoring, fifth in rebounding and 11th in blocks per game among Big Ten players, and he's doing all of this for a consensus top-10 team. It's been a joy watching the 6-foot-10 forward develop throughout this four-year career. If he keeps it up, Payne will stack hardware in March.
Freshman of the Year favorite: Indiana's Noah Vonleh was the only top-25 recruit (according to 247Sports) from the Class of 2013 to enroll at a Big Ten school, meaning the 6-10 forward was the preseason favorite to win this honor. His averages of 12.0 points and a Big Ten-best 9.5 rebounds per game also make him the midseason favorite.
Probable all-league team: Aaron Craft (Ohio State), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
Ranking the teams from first to worst:
1. Ohio State: Again, the Big Ten could probably go four different ways at the top, just like last season, but the Buckeyes are getting the nod here because, well, they're undefeated and ranked third in the Top 25 (and one), which is higher than any other Big Ten school. You can expect to see Aaron Craft in his fourth straight Sweet 16, third straight Elite Eight and, perhaps, his second Final Four in the past three seasons.
2. Wisconsin: I love the Wisconsin program for a variety of reasons -- and not just because it's adopted my response to fans who often suggest on Twitter that there's nothing fun about the Badgers. What's that response, you ask? #WinningIsFun. (Because, you know, it just is.) And the Badgers have quite literally done nothing but win this season, which is why you'll see them in the NCAA tournament for the 13th consecutive year under Bo Ryan.
3. Michigan State: The Spartans would still be ranked No. 1 in the nation if not for that questionable home loss to North Carolina. So don't pay too much attention to the No. 3 beside its name here. Again, any of the top four teams could reasonably be projected to win the Big Ten. Throw them in a hat, pull them out. Any order is a sensible order for Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa.
4. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are still lacking a signature win. That's undeniable. But, regardless, the computers love Iowa, and Sunday's game at Wisconsin will present the kind of opportunity that could force the nation to pay attention, especially if Fran McCaffery's team records a victory.
5. Illinois: Yes, I know, the Illini started 12-0 last season, then finished in a three-way tie for seventh in the Big Ten. But I think the Illini will handle their early success a little better this season thanks, in part, to Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake who is averaging 18.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in his first year with the Illini.
6. Michigan: The loss of Mitch McGary to a back injury, presumably for the season, is obviously a tough blow. But there's still enough talent on the roster to make the NCAA tournament, and, I believe, John Beilein will figure out a way to do exactly that.
7. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers should be in all projected Fields of 68 at this moment, but can they sustain the winning in a tough league under a first-year coach? It's fair to be skeptical; I think most Minnesota fans would acknowledge that. But, either way, 11-2 heading into league play is 11-2 heading into league play. And, don't forget, the Golden Gophers have experienced and talented guards, most notably Andre Hollins, and those tend to help in January, February and March.
8. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell, Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey provide Tom Crean with a nice core, and, no question, the Hoosiers could certainly finish higher than eighth. But they haven't really done anything to date except lose to two good teams (Syracuse, Connecticut), one OK team (Notre Dame) and beat a bunch of bad teams -- most notably Washington and, I guess, Stony Brook. No joke, Stony Brook might be IU's best win so far. That's not ideal.
9. Purdue: The Boilermakers have so far been a team that beats bad opponents and loses to the good ones, for the most part. But a pre-Christmas win at West Virginia offered some hope, and a win over Ohio State in the league opener would obviously be terrific.
10. Nebraska: The Huskers have a good coach, accomplished assistants, a new facility and no bad losses heading into the start of conference play. So things are genuinely headed in the right direction. But does Nebraska have enough talent to breakthrough in the Big Ten this season? I'm not sure. But, again, things are turning up in Lincoln.
11. Penn State: Tim Frazier is a terrific college player who gets overshadowed a bit in the Big Ten because he doesn't play at one of the top-tier programs. But, make no mistake, he could play and play well at any of them. The senior guard is averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists, and I hate that he's not on the probable all-league team listed above because he's talented and productive enough to be there. But there's just no room, is there?
12. Northwestern: Chris Collins is going to eventually be good enough at Northwestern to place himself in the conversation to someday replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. I genuinely believe that. But Collins simply does not have the players to compete in a league like this right now. Bottom line, it's going to take some time.
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