Big Ten Basketball: Ranking the 10 Biggest Surprises in the B1G This Season
The Big Ten entered the season as the unquestioned power conference in the country. All the coaches spoke about the league’s depth at Big Ten media day and collectively wondered whether there would be any guaranteed victories throughout conference play.
But could anyone have predicted the amount of parity in this league with five teams ranked in the Top 25? Four within the top-12? Two different No. 1 teams, one of which has lost to two unranked opponents? Not a chance.
“After debating this for a while,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said to ESPN, “I don’t think there’s any question that the league is better than it’s ever been, top to bottom.”
While the conference’s dominance has been noteworthy, can it crack the list of the league's 10 biggest surprises this season?
10. Could Penn State Be All-Time Awful?
That Penn State is bad is not all that surprising, but the Nittany Lions are approaching one of the worst seasons in conference history. No Big Ten team has ever gone 0-18 in conference play, but Penn State could set the record for futility this season.
The last team to go winless in conference play was the 2000 Northwestern Wildcats (0-16), according to the Crimson Quarry. A peek ahead at Penn State’s schedule reveals only a few potentially winnable games (vs. Iowa on Feb. 14 and at Northwestern on March 7).
The Nittany Lions’ chances at a successful season were effectively shot just four games in when returning first-team All-Big Ten G Tim Frazier tore his ACL. He averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game last season. Penn State has tried to replace him with combo-guards D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall at the point guard position, but the two are averaging nearly seven turnovers a game.
The Lions have searched for offensive answers but continue to shoot just 38.5 percent from the field, the 333rd worst mark in the country, via KenPom.com. When considering the strength of the conference and Penn State’s unfortunate circumstances, it’s not inconceivable that such a disaster season could happen.
9. Gophers Not Just a One-Man Show
It’s been a roller-coaster type season for Minnesota, which seems bound for the NCAA tournament after missing out the past two years. The No. 18 Gophers won 15 of their first 16 games but have subsequently gone cold throughout the meat of their Big Ten schedule.
Aside from their streaky play, the most surprising aspect to this year’s Gophers is how all of their starters have emerged, and Minnesota has become a much more balanced team than in years past. Trevor Mbakwe, the league leader with 8.7 rebounds per game, hasn’t had to score as much because of their impressive depth.
Sophomore guard Andre Hollins, most known for his 41-point outburst against Memphis earlier this year, has carried the scoring burden while Mbakwe and forward Rodney Williams have owned the offensive glass. Minnesota ranks first in the country with a 46.3 offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.com.
Last year the Gophers didn’t have a proven scorer and were left reeling for frontcourt depth when Mbakwe was lost with a torn ACL. Minnesota’s collective talent has blossomed this season, yielding a number of quality wins, including victories over Memphis and Michigan State. Don’t be surprised if the Gophers sneak into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
8. Northwestern's Resolve
Give credit to the B1GCats and coach Bill Carmody. After losing former third-team All-Big Ten G Drew Crawford (13.5 points, 4.6 rebounds) earlier this season with a torn labrum, the Wildcats haven’t quit, and they’ve even quietly racked up a few impressive victories.
The Wildcats stunned then-No. 23 Illinois with a 68-54 victory in the battle of Chicago and then held serve at home against No. 12 Minnesota on Jan. 23. In between the victories, the Wildcats even played Indiana tough, losing by just eight.
Senior guard Reggie Hearn picked up his scoring (14.2 points) and Louisville-transfer Jared Swopshire has emerged as a valuable low-post player for Northwestern. Swopshire was buried on the Cardinals’ depth chart last season and averaged just 13.1 minutes per game. Under Carmody, that’s up to 32.5, and he’s hauling in 6.7 rebounds as well.
Northwestern won’t be making its first-ever NCAA tournament, but a possible eight conference wins should earn a fifth-straight trip to the NIT.
7. Buckeyes Winning Behind Single Scorer Thomas
Sunday's loss to Indiana was a microcosm of Ohio State's season. Deshaun Thomas poured in 26 points, but he took more than a third of the Buckeyes' shots.
Still, even with Ohio State's over-reliance on their 6'7'' lefty, the Buckeyes sit at 7-4 in conference play and within striking distance of the league leaders.
It's somewhat amazing that with the departure of Jared Sullinger, Thomas' scoring numbers have actually increased this year from 15.9 a season ago to a league-leading 19.9 points per game. He's knocking down 2.4 three-pointers a game and his free throw percentage has improved substantially. Scoring is one thing but competing for a conference title without a complementary scorer is ludicrous.
The fact that no other Buckeye has emerged as a consistent scoring threat is startling, especially since opponents have been targeting Thomas on defense to try and get him into foul trouble. Aaron Craft has the driving capability, and wings Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross can occasionally provide some relief, but the real question is whether the Buckeyes can survive an off night from Thomas come March.
6. B1G Teams Benefiting from Homecourt Advantage
The conference title will likely come down to which team can steal a road victory in the rugged Big Ten. The logjam atop the conference is due to how proficient teams have been at home.
Indiana (4-1), Michigan (5-0), Michigan State (5-0) and Wisconsin (5-1) have all protected their home venues and are consequently within a game of each other.
That speaks to the overall depth of the conference and the urgency with which coaches feel they need to defend their home turf. Big Ten fans have as much to do with this as anything, and they are well aware of the stakes. Indiana’s home crowd against Michigan on Feb. 2 set the standard, and I fully expect Wolverines fans to return the favor with the rowdiest of environments in the rematch on March 10.
While Big Ten fans don’t enjoy seeing their teams on the road, they should grudgingly accept the fact that these environments are good conditioning for a deep NCAA run.
5. Illinois as Streaky as It Comes
Much like Minnesota, the Illini began the season as hot as any team in the country but quickly faded, losing eight of their next 11 games.
Illinois’ recent upset over No. 1 Indiana has resurrected its tournament hopes, but it’s still baffling how a team could beat Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State and lose to Purdue and Northwestern.
It’s the reality of a team that lives and dies beyond the arc. Throughout the 12-0 start, the Illini shot 38.5 percent from the three-point line (120-of-311), but since then, Illinois has made just 28 percent of its threes (82-of-291).
The best part for the Illini faithful is that the schedule gets easier with potential payback games against Purdue and Northwestern as well as matchups against Penn State and Nebraska. The tournament committee could have an interesting dilemma should the Illini finish with a sub-.500 conference record albeit with a number of quality victories.
4. B1G Freshmen Not Scared of the Spotlight
Collectively, the conference’s freshmen came into the league as part of one of the most decorated recruiting classes in recent memory. Eighteen newcomers were included in ESPN’s top 150 recruits entering this season.
Former McDonald’s All Americans Yogi Ferrell of Indiana and Gary Harris of Michigan State have been phenomenal. Ferrell supplanted Jordan Hulls as the Hoosiers’ starting PG and has seamlessly conducted Indiana’s offense to 83.3 points per game. His speed, ball-handling and vision are already elite within the Big Ten.
Harris, the Spartans’ second-leading scorer with 12.9 points per game, has the sixth-best three-point shooting percentage in the league and has already knocked down 41 this season. Other heralded freshmen such as Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas litter the top-10 in three-point percentage as well.
Give credit to their respective coaches for letting them learn on the fly. These freshmen will play no small role in determining the Big Ten champion.
Victor Oladipo came into the season nothing more than a good rebounder and a supremely athletic defender who was expected to play a complementary role to backcourt-mates Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell.
With just seven games remaining in the regular season, Oladipo has become the conference’s most electrifying player and is not-so-quietly generating some Player of the Year buzz to compete with his more highly publicized teammate, Cody Zeller.
Oladipo’s numbers are up across the board, but it’s his shooting percentage that is the most astonishing. After hitting 47 percent of his shots last season, Oladipo is knocking down 63.6 percent of his attempts, which leads the Big Ten.
The 6’5’’ combo-guard wasn’t even named to the Wooden Preseason top-50 list. Oladipo is a jack-of-all-trades, but his unbelievable athleticism is his most distinguishing feature. In the Hoosiers’ signature victory over Michigan last Saturday, he nearly finished what would’ve been the dunk of the season—a one-handed, cocked-back alley-oop—whose ricochet off the rim was enough to send Twitter abuzz. You know the one I'm talking about.
2. Badgers Winning Despite Horrendous Free Throw Percentage
How can a team that shoots 61.9 percent from the free throw line take down the two best teams in the Big Ten? What’s more, how can the Badgers be 8-3 in conference play and in the thick of the Big Ten title race with such an unreliable mark from the charity stripe?
It’s not as if the Badgers are used to blowing teams out, either. In Saturday's upset win over Michigan, the Badgers shot just 5-of-10 from the line.
Wisconsin’s success is a tribute to coach Bo Ryan, who graduated former All-American Jordan Taylor last season, lost backup G Josh Gasser to a torn ACL in the preseason and is winning with a backcourt by committee.
The Badgers’ atrocious free throw percentage ranks 332nd out of 347 teams, according to Ken Pomeroy. Last year, when Wisconsin lost in the Sweet 16, it shot 74 percent on the season.
Even quirkier for the typically sound basketball team is that in the loss to Ohio State on Jan. 29, the Badgers managed to not garner a single free throw attempt—the first time that’s happened in Bo Ryan’s 12 years as coach, via ESPN. One game later, the Badgers shot 42 attempts against Illinois, the second-highest total of any Big Ten team this season, according to BigTen.org.
The biggest culprit has been F Ryan Evans (46-of-111), who has taken by far the most attempts. As active as Evans is on the glass, Ryan has yanked him late in the second half of games due to his shooting woes. Rarely, if ever, does Wisconsin win by a comfortable margin, meaning free throws could ultimately decide this team’s fate.
1. Trey Burke Has Become National Player of the Year Front-Runner
Let’s just say Trey Burke made the right call in returning to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season.
Burke flirted with the NBA draft last year where he was projected as either a late first-round or early second-round selection. Since deciding to stay at Michigan, Burke has skyrocketed up NBA draft boards while running the show for the No. 3 Wolverines.
Make no mistake: Burke had a stellar freshman campaign, averaging 14.8 points and 4.6 assists. But he wasn’t nearly as good at penetrating as he is this year, and his distributing has become among the best in the country. He’s physically stronger as well and has developed a knack for knocking down huge shots in crunch time.
The National Player of the Year front-runner has averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), while his 7.1 assists per game lead the conference. According to Mlive.com, should Burke finish with those averages, he’d become the first Big Ten player since Magic Johnson in 1979 to average at least 17 points per game and seven assists.