Big Ten Basketball: 1 Thing to Love About Indiana and Every Other Big Ten Team
The SEC can have their football. The Big Ten is arguably the best basketball conference in the country heading into this season.
Yes, the conference is strong on the top. After all, Indiana may be the prohibitive favorite to take the national title heading into the year, Ohio State looks strong again and Michigan is a dark horse Final Four candidate.
However, another reason the league is so formidable is its competitiveness from top to bottom. It’s not unrealistic to expect the conference to send seven or eight teams to the NCAA tournament come March.
Since there is strength from top to bottom, there is at least one thing to love about every team in the Big Ten.
Even you Nebraska.
Wisconsin: Sam Dekker
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Wisconsin is what it is.
It effectively works the clock, rarely makes fundamental mistakes, is almost impossible to beat at home and frankly, doesn’t exactly turn out dynamic athletes at a Kentucky-like pace.
As they say, if it’s not broken don’t fix it.
However, Bo Ryan has something at his disposal this season that he typically doesn’t—a freshman athlete that has the chance to make an immediate impact.
The Badgers are going to need Sam Dekker to step in right away and help offset the lost production that graduated with Jordan Taylor. The 6’7” forward, who is one of the most hyped recruits Ryan has brought to Wisconsin in years, has the perimeter touch and height to be a matchup nightmare.
In fact, his height and shooting touch should remind some of Deshaun Thomas.
With Ryan Evans, Josh Gasser and company surrounding him, if Dekker can live up to the hype, the Badgers should once again have an effective season and be playing well into March.
Minnesota: Trevor Mbakwe Returns
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This may be the biggest “if” on the entire list.
If Trevor Mbakwe can stay healthy, he has a chance to lead the Big Ten in blocks and perhaps even in rebounds. If Trevor Mbakwe can return to his pre-injury form, he has a chance to be one of the most dynamic athletes in the conference and perhaps the best big man outside of Cody Zeller.
There is plenty of talent surrounding Mbakwe, including Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins, but Mbakwe is the piece that can put the Gophers over the top.
If he can return to his true form, I envision Minnesota surpassing expectations and potentially (potentially) playing in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
That may be a bit of a stretch, but this is the deepest Gopher team Tubby Smith has had at his disposal, and Mbakwe gives them the paint presence they need in the meat grinder that is the Big Ten.
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Trey Burke surprised a lot of people when he decided to come back to Ann Arbor this season.
The sophomore point guard will join forces with a highly-touted recruiting class this year to lead perhaps Michigan’s best team since the days of the Fab Five.
While the freshmen should excel, especially Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, the backcourt combination of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Burke gives the Wolverines a solid chance at winning the Big Ten (although Indiana may have something to say about that).
The Big Ten is known for its prowess down low, but Michigan’s best chance at a conference crown will come from its smallest starters. Expect Hardaway to have plenty of open looks from outside with McGary drawing attention down low and defenses collapsing on Burke when he drives the lane.
Behind the dynamic play of its guards, Michigan should be near the top of the league all season long.
Michigan State: Gary Harris
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Keith Appling is back. Branden Dawson (if he is fully healthy) is back. Adreian Payne is back. Derrick Nix is back.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, Draymond Green, its leader and best player, is not back.
Thus, Tom Izzo is going to need someone to step up and attempt to replace the massive loss of production that departs with Green. The returning players are certainly capable, but they are going to need some help.
That is where 5-star guard Gary Harris steps in. Harris is the crown jewel of the Spartans' impressive recruiting class and will be needed if Michigan State hopes to maintain its spot near the top of the conference.
The dynamic Harris has the chance to be the perfect complement to the returning Appling and should see plenty of three-point opportunities this year.
It’s probably too much to expect Harris to step in and replicate Green’s all-around greatness in his first season, but a solid freshman season should set the stage for better things to come.
Ohio State: Aaron Craft
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Alright, I admit it. I have written more about Aaron Craft than any other college basketball player this season.
Safe to say, I think highly of him.
But I’m not the only one. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis proclaims that:
“Nobody has better overall command of the game on both ends of the floor than Ohio State’s 6-foot-2 sophomore.”
He is arguably the best floor general in all of college basketball, possesses a much better jump shot than he is given credit for and plays suffocating defense against everyone he faces.
In fact, the impact of Craft’s defense cannot be captured merely by his numbers alone, although he did lead the Big Ten and was second in the nation in total steals. That is why SI invented the Aaron Craft Turnometer in an effort to better capture the drawn charges, deflected passes and overall peskiness of the Buckeye point guard.
Perhaps the best thing about Craft is his tendency to play at his best when the spotlight is brightest. Last season, Craft picked apart the Duke Blue Devils, carried his team back from deficits in the NCAA tournament against Gonzaga and Cincinnati and annihilated rival Trey Burke in the Big Ten tournament.
Even though Jared Sullinger has departed for the NBA, Ohio State fans can rest assured that their team’s leader has returned.
Nebraska: The Future
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Nebraska struggled last year. Nebraska will struggle this year.
But they may not struggle forever.
The Cornhuskers received commitments from two 3-star prospects within the past two weeks and are looking to finalize a surprisingly solid 2013 recruiting class.
It’s a bit unusual to be talking about Nebraska basketball recruiting in August. Typically any and all Huskers conversations at this point revolve around the gridiron.
But if the Nebraska faithful can be patient for one more lean year in basketball, things may finally start to look up.
If not, there’s always football.
Iowa: Adam Woodbury
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According to ESPN.com, Adam Woodbury was offered a scholarship by teams such as Ohio State, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
But the Iowa native decided to stay close to home and don the black and yellow of the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s not every day that a highly touted recruit gets offered a scholarship by North Carolina and turns it down for Iowa, so, if nothing else, there’s that.
Iowa always seems to sneak up on a team or two every season and defeated both Indiana and Wisconsin last year. In fact, the Hawkeyes knocked off the Badgers twice in 2011-12.
When Iowa does pull the occasional upset, the three-pointer almost always plays a significant factor. However, this year the Hawks will have something they typically don’t in an intimidating presence down low.
Woodbury should help Iowa tremendously in the rebounding and defensive categories, both of which are critical in the Big Ten.
Purdue: The Freshmen
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Now that Robbie Hummel has finally moved on, it’s officially rebuilding time at Purdue for the first time in a while.
In fact, without Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith, it’s hard to imagine the Boilers not taking a step back in 2012-13. Matt Painter may be a talented coach, but that’s a lot to overcome.
But all is not lost.
Purdue signed a number of highly regarded prospects for this season, all of whom could see significant playing time right away. Guards Raphael Davis and Ronnie Johnson, along with center A.J. Hammons, make up a solid core that Boilermaker fans should be excited about for years to come.
Throw in D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson to that mix, and Purdue could find itself somewhere in the middle of the conference standings.
But it’s still more about the future than the now for Purdue in 2012-13.
Illinois: John Groce
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Illinois collapsed last season. There’s no other word to use, and there’s no way around it.
The Illini’s best player from last year, Meyers Leonard, entered the NBA draft and was taken in the first round. Logically, this would imply that Illinois will take a step back this season.
However, 2012-13 marks a fresh beginning in Champaign.
The school hired John Groce away from Ohio University, fresh off the Bobcats’ impressive run to the Sweet 16 (which included a victory over Michigan). Sure, this season may not be much to write home about, but the future is certainly bright.
Even though there aren’t high expectations for this year, there is still some talent left in Illinois’ cupboard, including Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson.
A solid campaign in 2012-13 would be a nice starting point for Groce.
Northwestern: The Law of Averages
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In case you aren’t a college basketball fan or you are one who has lived under a rock the past few years, Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament.
In fact, the Wildcats are the only power conference team that has never played in the sport’s playoff.
Well, the law of averages basically captures the idea that if something is “due” to happen that it will. Unfortunately for Northwestern fans, that is about as solid of a chance as any for the Wildcats to make the tournament this year.
If Northwestern was not able to make the tourney with John Shurna, it’s hard to imagine the program finally cracking the field in its first year without him.
However, all is not lost. Drew Crawford returns, and Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire gives the team a formidable presence down low.
If nothing else, the Wildcats are due.
Penn State: Tim Frazier
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Here’s the thing with basketball at Penn State—it hasn’t really mattered for a long time.
However, there is a chance the football program is going to struggle for the foreseeable future. Perhaps if the basketball team can step up and fill the void, it will be a little easier to swallow.
Tim Frazier is one thing that the Nittany Lion faithful can hang their hat on this year. The senior guard averaged nearly 20 points a game last season and is by far the best basketball player on Penn State’s roster.
Pat Chambers is entering his second season as head coach for a program that is just beginning a daunting rebuilding process. If he can attract more players like Frazier, the Nittany Lions will be competitive again sooner rather than later.
But for the time being, Penn State fans should enjoy Frazier. On any given day he can light it up and may even help the Lions surprise a team or two.
Indiana: The Expectations Are Back
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Indiana is one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball. There is a certain lore that you can sense as soon as you walk into Assembly Hall.
That aura hasn’t been there for the past few years. Kelvin Sampson texted away any national title hopes the Hoosiers had for a long time, but Tom Crean finally has Indiana back where it belongs.
There was not a better scene in all of college basketball last season than the swarm of crimson and white that descended on the floor after Christian Watford knocked off Kentucky with a last second three.
After that moment, it seemed like the momentum heading into this season began to build. The Hoosiers return the vast majority of their key contributors, including Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller, from last year’s Sweet 16 team and will have an edge on possibly everyone they play.
And for the first time in a while, those expectations and the name on the front of the jersey truly mean something again.
The rest of the Big Ten and the entire country are officially on notice.