Big Ten Basketball: Early Season Thoughts and Observations
Conference play is nearly here in what has become the best league in America.
The teams at the top are as good as it gets, followed by a long list of above average squads that form the middle of the pack. So what is the result? An unbelievable amount of parity.
Whoever wins the regular season in this brutal league is going to have at least three conference losses; that's just life in the Big Ten, though.
Now that December is winding to a close, here's some interesting thoughts and observations to ponder about a handful of teams in this league as they near conference play.
You really can't talk about Penn State without mentioning Tim Frazier first. It was absolutely devastating to this team when he went down with an injury and was lost for the season.
Penn State wasn't going to contend for the NCAA Tournament with him, but it did have the potential to beat some of the best teams in the league. Now it's tough to even see that happening.
Without Frazier, this team now belongs to the likes of Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill. Both have stepped up in a big way, as each are averaging 15 points a game and over 4.5 rebounds.
Marshall and Newbill aren't the problems, though; instead, it's most of the supporting cast. Ross Travis has done his part, collecting 7.6 rebounds per game so far, but nobody else has done much.
Nick Colella is one of the key guards on this team yet is only averaging an embarrassing 3.2 points per game; that is absurd.
Some of the key big men down low, Sasa Borovnjak and Jon Graham, aren't doing much of anything either. One of the few bright spots, though, has been the contributions from freshman Brandon Taylor.
As of right now without Frazier, Penn State just might be the worst team in the Big Ten.
What in the world has happened to Purdue basketball? We knew it'd take a step back with the losses of seniors Robbie Hummel, Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson, but I don't think anybody saw this coming.
With an impressive crop of freshman talent coming in, Purdue was supposed to at least contend for the NCAA Tournament. It looks nowhere near that billing right now.
Ronnie Johnson and A.J. Hammons are the only two freshmen to have played big minutes. Rapheal Davis and Jay Simpson do get in every game, but much more was expected of those two.
Regardless, this team is being carried right now by two of its veterans in Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd. Neither of them have been great, though.
Down low, Travis Carroll has almost become an afterthought as Jacob Lawson has taken on a much bigger role.
It is almost shocking how far this team has regressed from last year. So far, this team has already lost to the likes of schools such as Bucknell, Villanova and Eastern Michigan. Any tournament hopes for Purdue are already just about gone.
This is the worst Purdue team we've seen in a while. Honestly, I didn't think we'd ever see a team under Matt Painter look quite this bad. Other than Penn State and Nebraska, this just might be the third worst team in the Big Ten.
I don't think anybody saw Illinois being this good. That's understandable, though, seeing as how it was impossible to tell how the team would respond to John Groce.
The senior leaders have stepped up in a big way, as Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey have all been huge for this team so far this season.
Combine that with two key young players, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, and this team has the perfect blend of veteran leadership and talented youth.
Before the year started, I had Illinois pegged as the ninth-or-tenth-best team in the league; that prediction was obviously way off. You could make the case that the Illini are possibly even the fourth-or-fifth-best team.
Even with impressive wins over Butler and Gonzaga so far, a lot of people around the country still haven't bought in to this team. We'll see how they fare once conference play starts.
The job Groce has done so far, though, has been nothing short of remarkable.
We knew this Minnesota team would be pretty good coming into the year, but like Illinois, it has exceeded expectations as well.
The Gophers currently only have one loss and that is to Duke on a neutral court, which is obviously nothing to be ashamed of. They also have a few solid victories, including wins over Memphis and Stanford, neither of which were at home.
One of the most impressive things about this team is how deep they are. In fact, Minnesota has 11 different players averaging over eight minutes a game. Plus, there's no single star player on this team; it is a collection of talent that plays together as a unit.
Who is the face of this team? Is it Rodney Williams? Trevor Mbakwe? Either of the Hollins brothers? Well, not a single one of those players is even averaging 30 minutes a game!
Again, we knew Tubby Smith had a good team this year, but these men are extremely good. There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling the Gophers the fourth-best team in the Big Ten right now.
Wow, how good has this Michigan team been so far this year? Well, the Wolverines have already beaten the likes of Pittsburgh, Kansas State and NC State, with the Pittsburgh and K-State victories coming away from home. Oh, and by the way, the combined record of those three is 27-5.
The combination of veteran leadership and talented youth Michigan has blended together is magnificent. The way they play unselfishly and as a team is even more impressive.
Nobody cares who scores the ball or who has a big night, as every player plays for each other. Plus, this team is so deep, that on any given night it would not be a surprise to see 11 different players get in the game.
Whether it's Trey Burke's playmaking ability, Stauskas' deadly three-point shooting or the great depth in the frontcourt, this team doesn't seem to have a weakness. Barring injury, the only obvious weakness come tournament time would seem to be the absence of a past deep tournament run.
However, with the veteran leadership of Morgan, Hardaway and Burke, that's really not a big concern.
As of right now, the Big Ten appears to have three legit national title contenders in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Which of those three is the best? That's obviously up for debate.
I'm not ready to take Indiana off of its pedestal just because it lost to Butler, but the Hoosiers are going to lose their share of games in the conference this season. So will Ohio...and Michigan. That will make for an unbelievably exciting Big Ten regular season.