Big Ten Basketball: The Biggest Question for Each Team Early in the Season

Ryan Curi@rcuri1Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2012

Big Ten Basketball: The Biggest Question for Each Team Early in the Season

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    Through college basketball's first 10 days of the season, the mighty Big Ten Conference boasts a cumulative record of 37-7, including eight unbeaten teams. As many know, the Big Ten leads all conferences with ranked teams, which currently stands at five.

    All teams have their strengths and a star player that can take over games no matter the opponent. All teams also have their weaknesses and question marks, although some greater than others. By addressing these questions, we can get a better look at how each team stacks up and how much potential they contain.

Can Nebraska Become More of a Team?

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    Through the Cornhuskers' first three games, Nebraska as a team only has 32 assists (an average of 10.7 per game). While Tim Miles' squad is unbeaten at 3-0, their three wins have been unimpressive to say the least.

    Nebraska has beaten Southern, Valparaiso and Nebraska Omaha by an average of 8.7 points, all of which were home games. The 10.7 assist figure ranks Nebraska 277th in that category. Dylan Talley, a wing player, is the team's leader by averaging 3.0 per game, but he also turns the ball over 2.3 times per contest.

    While it's hard to knock a team that has yet to lose and had incredibly low preseason expectations like Nebraska did, it's hard to give them much credit either until they win a meaningful contest. Until Nebraska averages more assists than turnovers though, I don't see a successful season in their future. 

How Will Penn State Respond to Tim Frazier's Injury?

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    On Sunday afternoon, Tim Frazier went down with a season-ending achilles injury during the team's loss to Akron. The Nittany Lions (2-2) led by four points at halftime, but were outscored 53-24 during the second half.

    DJ Newbill was a bright spot for Patrick Chambers' team, as he scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished five assists in a Frazier-like stat line. Although I believe Penn State sometimes relied too heavily on Frazier, this loss is indescribable.

    With Frazier potentially back next year, Penn State has an underrated backcourt in the form of Newbill, Jermaine Marshall and Frazier, all of whom can score, rebound and pass for their positions. You can't help but feel sorry for both Frazier and the Penn State basketball program in this instance.

Will Illinois' Comeback Win at Hawaii Spark Them?

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    For the first 20 minutes of a contest late Friday night/early Saturday morning, John Groce's Fighting Illini looked like the same Illini squad that faded down the stretch a year ago, leading to the firing of Bruce Weber at season's end.

    Instead of folding and giving up, though, the backcourt trio of Tracy Abrams, Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson took matters into their own hands, by forcing the game into overtime. From there, Abrams assisted on a Richardson three-point field goal at the buzzer, silencing the Rainbow crowd.

    Illinois now takes part in the Maui Invitational, which features the likes of Mississippi State, Texas and Marquette. The Illini beat USC by 30 points in their opening round matchup before facing off with Chaminade on Tuesday and either North Carolina or Butler on Wednesday.

Can Drew Crawford Adjust to the Role of Go-to-Guy?

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    Last Tuesday night, Drew Crawford started his season off right by scoring 20 points during the first half of a blowout win over Texas Southern. Over the course of the last five halves since then though, Crawford has only scored a combined 12 points.

    While some of that can be attributed to his lack of playing time because of blowout wins in favor of the Wildcats, there may be an adjustment period for Crawford, who was overshadowed by John Shurna and Michael Thompson during his first three years in Evanston.

    Crawford is the best athlete of those three and appears to be on a mission to get Bill Carmody's squad into their first ever NCAA Tournament. Once Crawford gets going on, don't be surprised to see him at or near the top of the Big Ten's scoring leaders.

Will Purdue Get Offensive Production from Their Post Players?

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    Purdue is the only Big Ten team to have a losing record early on in the season, currently at 1-3 after back-to-back losses to Villanova and Oregon State. Through these four games, only DJ Byrd averages in double figure scoring at 11.0 points.

    Byrd and the three Johnson's (Terone, Ronnie and Anthony) have rotated among the three guard positions and seen the floor between 27 and 30 minutes on average. The frontcourt isn't as steady, though, at least on the offensive end of the court.

    Donnie Hale and AJ Hammons are each averaging 8.8 points, which isn't bad considering they each play less than half the game. In the rugged Big Ten, both of these players will need to remain consistent offensive forces and take the pressure off Matt Painter's guards.

Which of Iowa's Frontcourt Players Will Emerge?

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    Fran McCaffery has the Iowa basketball program headed in the right direction, thanks in large part to his ability to recruit. This year was nothing different as McCaffery brought in five freshmen, two of which start for the Hawkeyes.

    By throwing Adam Woodbury into the starting lineup immediately, alongside Zach McCabe and Aaron White, this allows McCaffery to bring both Melsahn Basabe and Gabriel Olaseni off the bench as sparkplugs. 

    White has moved to the small forward this season and averages 14.8 point through four games. Woodbury, McCabe and Basabe average 7.0, 6.8, and 6.8 points respectively, but will need one of the following to become a double-digit scorer to reach this year's March Madness. Although he comes off the bench, look for Basabe to be that guy. The enigmatic Basabe shows flashes of brilliance, but at other times leaves fans shaking their heads in disgust. 

What Will Trevor Mbakwe's Impact Be?

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    Through four games, Trevor Mbakwe's impact on the Golden Gophers hot 4-0 start has been marginal to say the least. The sixth-year senior is currently averaging 6.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in only 16.3 minutes off the Minnesota bench.

    While it's unknown whether Mbakwe has been limited because of punishment for his offseason DUI, to ensure he doesn't re-injure himself or simply because Minnesota has won big, Mbakwe will need to have a bigger impact over the course of the season, especially during league play.

    Expect Tubby Smith to play Mbakwe at center primarily, giving the Gophers one of the nation's most explosive frontcourts accompanied with Rodney Williams. In order to get to the upper echelon of the deep Big Ten, Mbakwe will need more chances to once again shine.

Can George Marshall Replace Jordan Taylor/Josh Gasser?

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    Jordan Taylor was the Badger's only key loss from a year ago, so expectations were high as always in Madison prior to the beginning of the season. But after both Mike Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser went down with injuries, that promise didn't look as bright.

    Bruesewitz is back, but Gasser is lost for the season, leaving redshirt freshman George Marshall as Bo Ryan's best option to run the Swing Offense. Marshall is averaging 5.3, 1.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 27.3 minutes through the Badger's first three contests.

    While there is without a doubt and adjustment period for Marshall, who guarded Taylor a year ago in practices, he will need to improve upon these numbers to keep Bo Ryan's remarkable streak of top four Big Ten finishes intact.

Can Branden Dawson Keep It Up and Stay Healthy?

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    After tearing his ACL last March in a late season matchup with Ohio State, it looked like Branden Dawson would be lost for quite some time. While he obviously missed the remainder of last year, I for one was shocked to see him out there and ready to start this season.

    Dawson's early stat line reads as 13.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 4.3 steals in 29.7 minutes. Of those numbers, the 4.3 steal average, which equates to 13 steals through three games, is what's most remarkable. 

    Dawson is able to play both the small forward and power forward positions, depending on whether Izzo plays Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix together. While Dawson may not score as much as Keith Appling or Gary Harris on a given night, I think he's the team's most important and best all-around player.

What Will Amir Williams' Role Be?

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    After a freshman season in which Amir Williams played backup to Jared Sullinger, it appeared as though Williams would replace Sullinger in this year's starting lineup when Sullinger opted to leave Columbus for the NBA.

    Through three games, that has not been the case. Evan Ravenel won the team's starting center job and has outplayed Williams thus far. Williams currently averages 2.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in only 13.3 minutes.

    Maybe it was my own blind optimism for a player that appeared to be full of potential during last year's NCAA Tournament, but Williams' production thus far has been disappointing. Thad Matta has never been one to play a deep bench, so unless Williams beats out Ravenel, this lack of productivity could continue for a player that I believe could still be vital to Ohio State's chances of reaching back-to-back Final Fours.

Will Mitch McGary Take on a Bigger Role?

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    For a player that was once touted as one of the elite players in the 2012 high school recruiting class, Mitch McGary hasn't lived up to the hype in his first three games in Ann Arbor. Like Amir Williams, it was a surprise to me when McGary didn't crack the Wolverines starting lineup.

    McGary currently averages 5.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, which are actually remarkable numbers for only playing 13.3 minutes per contest. McGary is seventh on the Michigan team in minutes played, although I expect that to change the closer we get to the start of Big Ten play.

    With McGary at power forward, Michigan is able to field a more conventional lineup, rather than the small three-point shooting lineups that John Beilein-coached teams often use. McGary gives Michigan a post presence that can both score and rebound, something that Jordan Morgan has been inconsistent in doing the last two seasons.

Will the Hoosiers' Defense Improve Enough for Them to Become Elite?

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    Last but certainly not least are the top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. IU has given up 54, 61, 45 and 53 points in their first four games, respectively. It should be noted however that all but their most recent win over Georgia came against non-BCS schools.

    The Hoosiers certainly have the firepower to run and score with any team in the nation, with weapons such as Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. Both Watford and Hulls can be liabilities on the defensive end of the court, however.

    Tom Crean emphasized defense in the offseason, leading me to believe the Hoosiers will be improved in that area in 2012-13.

    As the old adage says, defense wins championships. The Hoosiers will need to be better in that area than they were a year ago to retain their No. 1 ranking.