Big Ten Basketball: Each Team's Most Surprising Player

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2012

Big Ten Basketball: Each Team's Most Surprising Player

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    November's role in the college basketball season season is twofold.

    For the smaller schools, there are long road trips designed to spin money out of games that usually turn into relentless bludgeonings.

    For bigger schools, delivering said bludgeonings serves as research. Coaches set up their rotations and decide which lineups perform best together, seeking the best combinations to win their way to March.

    The Big Ten schools are no different, and each of the conference's 12 members have players delivering unexpected results, both for better and for worse.

    It's still early, but these 12 players aren't starting off the way they were supposed to.

Tracy Abrams, Illinois

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    Last season, the Illinois Fighting Illini started the season 10-0 and ended it in an ugly tailspin.

    Also last season, Tracy Abrams made nine three-pointers in 32 games. This season, it took him only six games to match that total. Still, his long-range shooting has been the least of his contributions to the Illini's 9-0 start.

    Abrams scored 22 points and ripped five steals against Hawaii, then followed that up with 11 points, six rebounds and eight assists against USC in the Maui Invitational's first round. Back on the mainland, he added a nice 17-point performance against Butler which included a perfect 6-6 night from the foul line.

    There are still some kinks for the sophomore to iron out, embodied in his eight turnovers against USC or his combined 4-of-14 shooting against Chaminade and Gardner-Webb. For the season, Abrams has committed 27 turnovers against his 31 assists.

    Those may be typical growing pains for a sophomore point guard getting his first taste of an undisputed leadership role. If that's the case and Abrams can improve his ball security, the fast start of this season's Illini may be much less deceptive than last season's.

Remy Abell, Indiana

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    Sophomore guard Remy Abell was summoned to fill in late last season when point guard Verdell Jones went down with a season-ending injury. He played well, but offered nothing to suggest that he would start this season as well as he has.

    Abell lit up Bryant and North Dakota State for a combined 26 points in 34 minutes, making all seven of his shots. For those skeptical of his level of competition, Abell proceeded to put up eight points and four rebounds in 12 minutes against Georgia and another six points against Georgetown.

    He's always been able to get to the rack, but this season's 83-percent start from long range is a revelation for the top-ranked Hoosiers.

    Hyped freshman Kevin Ferrell has played a strong all-around game, but has struggled to score. Abell has provided the kind of scoring that Ferrell has not. If he continues to do so, Indiana's depth will run opponents into submission all season.

Zach McCabe, Iowa

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    Zach McCabe is a player who's difficult to quantify by looking at the stat sheet. Even in his worst game this season, his defense drove Gardner-Webb's offensive players batty and helped Iowa storm back from a 20-point halftime deficit.

    That night, McCabe shot an unsightly 2-of-10 from the floor, but he added six rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.

    The biggest surprise regarding McCabe has centered around that shooting. A model of rock-solid efficiency last season—near 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from long range—McCabe has struggled since scoring 14 against Texas-Pan American on opening night.

    He's shot 27 percent from the floor since that first game, including 24 percent from deep. His efficiency will need to get back to previous levels once Big Ten play begins if Iowa wants to get back to the NCAA tournament.

Maverick Ahanmisi, Minnesota

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    When Andre Hollins found himself in foul trouble in Minnesota's opening round Battle 4 Atlantis game against Duke, Gopher fans would be forgiven for thinking their team was sunk.

    Junior guard Maverick Ahanmisi entered the game and proceeded to score seven of his 10 points before halftime, including a three-point play that pulled the Gophers within four points before Quinn Cook drained a buzzer-beating three-point shot.

    While Ahanmisi's raw numbers aren't leaping off the page, they're still strong for a guy who scored a total of 11 points in his last 18 games last season. A career 36-percent shooter, Ahanmisi's off to a solid 50-percent start to this season.

    His 72.8 true shooting percentage is a good 21 points higher than his best season mark to date.

    Since the Duke game, Ahanmisi's seen only 9.6 minutes per night. Andre and Austin Hollins will need a rest at some point in the season, and Minnesota will be helped immensely if Ahanmisi can be as productive in his later games as he was against Duke.

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

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    Michigan State freshman guard Denzel Valentine can make beautiful plays on the basketball court. He can also make completely boneheaded gaffes his next time out.

    Valentine led the Spartans to an easy win over a decent Oakland squad by racking 10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two steals.

    Two days later against Louisiana-Lafayette, he shot 1-for-6, turned the ball over five times and committed four fouls as Sparty escaped with a mere three-point win over a Sun Belt also-ran.

    Since Louisiana, Valentine has committed only one turnover in 45 minutes of action. Defensively, he's recorded at least one steal in every game save one. 

    Even more impressively, Valentine has kept the starting job he inherited when both classmate Gary Harris and sophomore Travis Trice missed time with injuries. With both players back, head coach Tom Izzo chose to keep Valentine in the first five and end the experiment with Adreian Payne at power forward.

    Valentine and Keith Appling can form a devastating duo at the point as long as Valentine keeps his flashier impulses in check. Continuing his current form of six points, four rebounds and three assists per game will certainly put him in the mix for Big Ten All-Freshman honors.

Nik Stauskas, Michigan

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    It took seven games for Michigan freshman Nik Stauskas to get his first career start. His 22 points against Bradley were a big fat sign to coach John Beilein, reading "What took you so long?"

    Classmates Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary got most of the hype, but Stauskas has been the most consistently productive Wolverine of all, with the possible exception of Trey Burke.

    After Stauskas lit NC State for 20 points in his previous outing, Beilein said, "Everywhere we've ever seen him, if he's open he thinks the ball is going in, and he has as clean a stroke as you can have."

    That stroke has been in clear evidence in the Canadian sniper's first eight games. He's scored in double figures his last seven times out, making a ludicrous 63 percent of his threes on the season.

    His true shooting percentage stands at 78.3, second-highest in America.

    With slashers like Burke, Robinson and Tim Hardaway Jr. on the roster, Michigan was going to need a floor-spreader to reach its potential.

    Convincing wins over worthy foes like Pitt, Kansas State and NC State have shown that the young Wolverines could achieve a special season if current form holds.

    Stauskas finally scored enough to convince Beilein that he could win with firepower on the floor instead of Matt Vogrich's experience at the tip. Now, the Mississauga missile launcher may never open a game on the bench at Crisler Arena again.

Ray Gallegos, Nebraska

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    It's hard to be surprised by much on Nebraska's team this season, since there were so many unknown quantities to start with. The impressive shooting stroke of junior guard Ray Gallegos, however, should certainly make opposing coaches take note.

    In his first two seasons, Gallegos' shooting effort trumped his execution. Coming into this season, he was a 34-percent shooter from the floor, 24 percent from outside the arc.

    This year, Gallegos has hit the ground running. He's made four or more threes in four of the Huskers' first seven games, scoring in double figures in all but one. For the season, Gallegos is shooting 44 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep.

    Both figures are over 50 percent if games against Nebraska-Omaha and Kent State are left out of the equation.

    Gallegos seems to be picking up steam after that one off night, where he shot 1-for-9 against Kent State. He scored 20 points each in wins over Wake Forest and USC, shooting 55 percent from both inside and outside the arc.

    Thus far, Gallegos has been the only real perimeter threat for the Huskers, making 23 of the team's 39 threes this season. He'll need help when Big Ten play starts.

Drew Crawford, Northwestern

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    This was supposed to be the season that Drew Crawford took over the reins of the Northwestern basketball program. With John Shurna departing, Crawford was the primary returning producer, capable of making a run at a Big Ten scoring title.

    After nine games, Crawford is barely the leading scorer at Northwestern, ahead of Reggie Hearn by a mere one point.

    Crawford's efficiency has suffered a bit, as was expected without Shurna alongside to draw the defense. The 6'5" senior swingman has attempted 112 shots, second-most in the Big Ten, but has only hit at a 42-percent clip, which would be the worst of his career.

    Weak shooting from the floor can be forgiven if a player is drawing a lot of contact and getting to the line on his misses, but that hasn't been Crawford's game so far, either.

    He's taken only 23 free throws against those 112 field-goal tries. Last season, Crawford was taking 28.5 free throws for every 100 field goals.

    The low free-throw rate and shaky field-goal shooting resembles Crawford's sophomore season. In that year, Crawford was the third option behind Shurna and Juice Thompson.

    If Northwestern's going to end that eternal NCAA tournament drought this season, Crawford has to be more aggressive and play like a first option, not like a third.

Amir Williams, Ohio State

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    Ohio State fans wanted to see talented sophomore big man Amir Williams break out this season.

    A month into the season, they'd settle for seeing him break into the starting lineup.

    Williams did have a strong outing against Duke last week, playing 27 minutes and ripping a career-high 10 rebounds, six of those offensive. That's his only game this season of more than 16 minutes or three boards.

    Senior starter Evan Ravenel has demonstrated his superior experience and grit thus far, keeping Williams chained to the bench. Still, Ravenel's not been dominant himself, averaging around six points and four rebounds per night.

    The Buckeyes have thus far utilized their bigs as screeners, setting picks to get Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft open for their own looks. There will come a time, however, when the center position will need to be counted on for a little bit of offense.

    Williams is a strong offensive rebounder and shot-blocker, but he'll need sustained minutes to show it. To get minutes for Thad Matta, though, one has to earn them.

D.J. Newbill, Penn State

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    When Penn State's All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier went down with a knee injury, the Nittany Lions' season may have gone with it. PSU will certainly struggle without Frazier's talent and experience once Big Ten play arrives.

    For now, though, Southern Miss transfer D.J. Newbill is a more-than-capable fill-in.

    Newbill was already a decent scoring option with Frazier in the lineup. Since assuming the point guard mantle, Newbill has become a must-watch player in his own right.

    His debut as the floor general resulted in a 60-57 win over a Bucknell team that already had a Big Ten scalp on its wall from an opening-night win over Purdue. Newbill notched 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, helping to offset his ugly 5-of-18 shooting.

    His overaggressive play cost the Lions against Boston College, as Newbill committed six turnovers and fouled out, but not before scoring 22 points.

    Newbill is not a natural point guard, and the position will continue to carry its share of growing pains for him and the Lions. He has proven, however, that he can stuff a stat sheet just like Frazier. If that leads to a few more wins, Penn State fans will take that, too.

Ronnie Johnson, Purdue

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    Whether freshman point guard Ronnie Johnson is a pleasant or unpleasant surprise for Purdue fans depends on what those fans find surprising.

    Johnson has scored at least nine points in five of his first eight games. In the process, however, he's shooting less than 32 percent from the floor and has missed 21 of 23 three-point attempts.

    He had a combined two points, four turnovers and zero assists against Oregon State and UNC Wilmington. In the next game, though, Johnson bounced back with 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists and only one turnover against Clemson's tenacious defensive pressure.

    Those rebounds bolstered what may be the most surprising part of Johnson's early play. Despite standing a generously listed 6'0", Johnson is third on the team at 4.2 rebounds per game. He's pulled at least three boards in every game but one, while the Boilers have three 6'9" bodies who don't even average three rebounds per game.

    While coach Matt Painter continues to tinker with his largely inexperienced parts to find a cohesive rotation, Johnson's minutes may keep fluctuating. Painter has noted Johnson's tendency to let shooting struggles overcome other phases of his game.

    If Johnson can keep his head up through the inevitable shooting woes, he should take full control of Purdue's offense sooner rather than later.

Ben Brust, Wisconsin

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    As a sophomore, Ben Brust was a bit of a one-trick pony, good for some timely three-pointers and not a whole lot else.

    As a junior, the 6'1" sniper has taken on a little bit of everyone's responsibility.

    Brust is leading the Badgers in steals while also sitting second in assists and scoring. The kicker is that he's also leading the Big Ten at 7.8 rebounds per game.

    He's already carded four double-doubles and is only nine rebounds short of his total from all of last season. This season's only nine games old.

    Until last week, most of his biggest games were against overmatched competition. Brust did, however, record a combined 37 points and nine boards against Virginia and Cal.

    If those results continue in Big Ten play, look for Wisconsin to once again sneak into a top-four league position, something they've done every single year of coach Bo Ryan's tenure.


    For more from Scott on college basketball nationwide, check out The Back Iron (now on CollegeBasketballTalk's #NBCMustFollow College Hoop Directory).