Big Ten basketball opens conference play on Monday, and there isn’t a league in the country with more talent at the top. As No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 Indiana and No. 10 Ohio State get set to slug it out, there are plenty of other high-powered teams waiting in the wings for one of the leaders to falter.
One of the most intriguing of that group is 11th-ranked Minnesota, which has lost only to unbeaten Duke in the year. With a preseason Wooden Award contender in PF Trevor Mbakwe surrounded by Rodney Williams Jr. and an improved perimeter corps, the Golden Gophers will be a serious factor in the conference race.
Herein, a closer look at Tubby Smith’s squad and the rest of the dozen teams in the Big Ten, presented in order of their predicted finish.
Of course, the regular season title isn’t the only prize up for grabs, so predictions will also be provided for the conference’s Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and tournament champions.
Quality Wins: At Clemson
Worst Losses: Vs. Villanova (neutral site), at Eastern Michigan
Key Players to Watch: SG/PG Terone Johnson, C A.J. Hammons
Freshman Hammons has been almost as good as advertised on the defensive end, but junior Johnson is the only Boilermaker scoring in double figures at a forgettable 12.2 points per game. Without a more reliable offense, Purdue has no hope against the stronger defenses the Big Ten will throw at it.
Quality Wins: Vs. Providence (neutral site), Vs. Bucknell
Worst Losses: Vs. Boston College, Vs. Akron (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: SG Jermaine Marshall, SG/PG D.J. Newbill
Amazingly, the ruptured Achilles that ended Tim Frazier’s season hasn’t completely doomed his Nittany Lions. Marshall and Newbill are combining for 30.2 points per game—with the former adding 2.3 steals a night—even if the frontcourt is an undersized, over-matched mess.
Quality Wins: At Baylor, Vs. Illinois State (neutral site)
Worst Losses: Vs. Illinois-Chicago
Key Players to Watch: SG Reggie Hearn, PG Dave Sobolewski
Despite a season-ending shoulder surgery for Drew Crawford, the Wildcats still have some legitimate scoring weapons, as Hearn and Sobolewski shoot an aggregate .459 from beyond the arc. Still, until 7’0” freshman Alex Olah starts making an impact inside, they’ll get pushed around by bigger conference foes.
Quality Wins: At Wake Forest, Vs. Valparaiso
Worst Losses: Vs. Kent State (neutral site), At UTEP
Key Players to Watch: PF Brandon Ubel, SG Dylan Talley
Nebraska’s defense has played awfully well, but trying to beat the likes of Michigan State and Wisconsin in a defensive battle is rarely a winning proposition. With no viable point guard and minimal three-point shooting, points will be hard to come by for this lineup.
Quality Wins: Vs. Iowa State
Worst Losses: At Virginia Tech
Key Players to Watch: SG Roy Devyn Marble, PF Aaron White
Marble, who shoots .392 from deep, and the hard-nosed White provide admirable scoring punch. With an unremarkable defense and iffy point-guard play though, the Hawkeyes aren’t quite ready to fly into the top half of this league.
Quality Wins: Vs. California
Worst Losses: Vs. Virginia
Key Players to Watch: PG Ben Brust, SF Ryan Evans
Evans and freshman Sam Dekker give the Badgers more worthwhile scorers than usual, but this is still a severely erratic offense. They’ll pull an upset or two against ranked teams because of great defense, but on most nights, they won’t have enough points themselves to best a stronger foe.
Quality Wins: At Florida State, Vs. Memphis (neutral site)
Worst Losses: Vs. Duke (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: SF Rodney Williams Jr., PF Trevor Mbakwe
Although Andre Hollins has emerged as a scoring threat, the athletic frontcourt still drives this team. Mbakwe needs to become more of an offensive force, but his presence as a rebounder is vital in this physical conference.
Quality Wins: Vs. Kansas (neutral site)
Worst Losses: At Miami
Key Players to Watch: PG Keith Appling, SG Gary Harris
Appling and Harris are streaky shooters, but both are capable of racking up 25 points on a given night. They’re not getting much offensive help from the big men, but the Spartans’ defense has been so strong that it has rarely mattered.
Quality Wins: At Gonzaga, Vs. Butler (neutral site)
Worst Losses: Vs. Missouri (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: SG/PG Brandon Paul, SG D.J. Richardson
With speed and three-point shooters to burn, John Groce’s team looks like this year’s answer to 2011-12’s Missouri squad. Still, physical Big Ten frontcourts will pose serious matchup problems (as this year’s Tigers did in handing the Illini their first loss).
Quality Wins: None
Worst Losses: Vs. Kansas
Key Players to Watch: SF Deshaun Thomas, PG Aaron Craft
Another terrific defense which has been limited by offense, Ohio State has the benefit of the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Thomas. If Craft—whose numbers are almost identical to his freshman season of two years ago—raises his level of play, this will really become a scary team.
Quality Wins: Vs. N.C. State, Vs. Kansas State (neutral site), vs. Pitt (neutral site)
Worst Losses: None
Key Players to Watch: PG Trey Burke, SG Tim Hardaway Jr.
A celebrated recruiting class has put up some solid numbers, but veterans Burke and Hardaway have stolen the show. Burke, the conference leader with 7.1 assists a night, oversees an offense whose depth and firepower would top almost any conference…except the Big Ten.
Quality Wins: Vs. North Carolina, Vs. Georgetown (neutral site)
Worst Losses: Vs. Butler (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: C Cody Zeller, SG Victor Oladipo
Tops in the nation in scoring, third in field-goal percentage and 11th in assists, the Hoosiers have the best offense in college hoops. Though they’ll lose a couple of defensive slugfests in this competition, Zeller and his mates can beat Michigan at its own game, giving them a vital edge in the Big Ten race.
In a tight race with Indiana point guard Kevin Ferrell and Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Glenn Robinson III gets the edge for his all-around game. Ferrell doesn’t score, and Harris does little else (though he is a solid defender).
Robinson, in contrast, leads the Wolverines in rebounding with 6.2 boards a night while still producing nearly as many points (11.4 per game) as Harris does. Robinson is also the best three-point shooter of the trio, hitting at a .375 clip.
Trey Burke and Indiana’s Cody Zeller will be neck-and-neck all season for this award, with Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas trailing by a nose. Thomas leads the conference in scoring, Zeller in rebounding and Burke in assists.
Burke’s crucial edge, though, is that he’s making his teammates better in a way the other two can’t. All three are commanding defensive attention with their scoring, but only Burke is also creating easy shots for others with his driving and dishing.
Would Wolverine freshman Nik Stauskas really be shooting .557 from deep if he didn’t have Burke setting the table for him? Not likely.
As Vanderbilt and Louisville showed a season ago, winning a conference tournament can be as simple as getting hot at the right time. Illinois will have some help in that department, playing in front of a de facto home crowd.
In principle, Chicago’s United Center is a neutral site for Big Ten Tournament action, but the Illini are sure to have some extra emotion behind them. For a team who lives and dies by the three-point shot, that’s the ideal environment to spring a couple of upsets.
It doesn’t hurt that most of the conference’s top defenses are stronger on the inside than on the perimeter, where Illinois will be attacking them.