Big Ten Basketball: The Most Glaring Flaw for Every B1G Team
Make no mistake, every team has flaws.
Even the vaunted Hoosiers, the best team in the country, have exploitable weaknesses.
The disparity of talent in the Big Ten is widespread, making it easy to find deep-rooted faults with the conference's inferior teams like Penn State and Nebraska. That was the easy part.
Dissecting the core problems of the Big Ten's elite was much more challenging but rewarding, since the stakes are higher for those teams.
Which B1G team can't afford to play an oversized frontcourt in the tournament? Which team's fate lies at the free-throw line? And most pressing, where can Indiana be beaten?
Let's take a look at where each team is most vulnerable.
Penn State: Scoring
There are a host of reasons the Nittany Lions’ season, now nearing 0-18 in conference play, has been miserable, but none more chief than their lack of offense.
Penn State averages just 57.5 points per game, the 10th fewest in the conference. Coupled with its porous defense (69.1 points per game, last in B1G), the Nittany Lions have the widest scoring margin of the twelve Big Ten teams.
Guards D.J. Newbill (15.8 points) and Jermaine Marshall (15) have had to endure the scoring burden after all-Big Ten G Tim Frazier tore his ACL early this season. Aside from those two, no other Penn State player averages more than seven points. It’s not as if the duo (260-of-670 for 39 percent) has been terribly efficient, either.
Lack of a post presence has limited their offensive capabilities and made their scoring potential extremely unbalanced.
Coach Tim Miles has made some significant strides in his first year in Lincoln, but the Huskers have consistently been outclassed on the glass.
Nebraska averages just 31.5 rebounds per game, the second lowest total in the Big Ten. Conversely, it gives up nearly 39 boards a game to its opponent.
Only 6’10’’ forward Brandon Ubel (6.8 rebounds per game) provides significant size for an extended period of time, and he’s set to leave next year. Miles’ next-best rebounder is 6’6’’ freshman Shavon Shields (5.1 rpg), who is going to be excellent, but he needs another big man to help share the distribution. Shields hauled in a career-high 13 against Michigan State on February 16th.
The only team that’s worse than the Huskers in terms of crashing the glass is the Northwestern Wildcats. Bill Carmody’s squad averages just 27.5 rebounds per game while giving up over 40 per game, both league lows.
Injuries have admittedly taken their toll on Northwestern, but it still lacks the size to compete with the rugged frontcourts littered throughout the conference.
6’8’’ forward Jared Swopshire is an undersized big man (210 pounds) who averages 6.7 rebounds a game, but aside from the former Louisville transfer, it’s up to the guards to battle amongst the trees for rebounds.
6’5’’ guard Drew Crawford, who’s missed the majority of the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the physical toll was a deciding factor in getting the surgery early.
The Boilermakers haven’t been terrible this season (tied for 7th in B1G with 6-8 record) given the amount of turnover their roster has seen.
Losing Robbie Hummel, after what seemed like a decade in West Lafayette, and former starting point guard Lewis Jackson, left Purdue perilously inexperienced.
According to Ken Pomeroy, the Boilermakers have the 314th least-experienced team in the country, which explains why three freshmen—A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson and Rapheal Davis—comprise half of Matt Painter's rotation.
Painter has had to live with Johnson's decision making (2.6 turnovers per game) and his dubious shot-selection (36 percent from the field), but perhaps as early as next season, Purdue will be back to its normal competitive standards.
Iowa: Road Woes
It’s a little scary to think where Iowa would be had it learned to close out games on the road. As it is, the Hawkeyes sit at 17-10 overall and 6-8 in conference play, but imagine if they hadn’t lost four different road games (two in OT) by an average of 3.5 points.
Similar to Purdue, the Hawkeyes are a young team whose nucleus is beginning to gel. They have an excellent frontcourt for at least two more years in forward Aaron White and 7’0’’ center Adam Woodbury, and freshman point guard Mike Gesell already has tremendous vision. These losses will ultimately harden the Hawkeyes.
Iowa has defended its home court (4-2 in B1G play), and its only losses are to Indiana and Michigan State by a total of seven points. If the Hawkeyes can learn to steal a few road victories next year, they’ll undoubtedly make an NCAA tournament run.
Even during Minnesota’s early-season swoon, the Gophers were still turning the ball over at an alarming rate. In the win over Memphis, they had 17 turnovers. In the loss to Duke, it was 15 that did them in. Against Richmond, Minnesota coughed the ball up 19 times.
It’s been the same story in conference play where Minnesota has turned the ball over a league-worst 13.9 times per game, forging a -3.2 margin compared to its opponents.
All five starters average at least 1.4 turnovers per game, but the biggest culprits have been shooting guard Andre Hollins (2.1) and forward Trevor Mbakwe (1.9).
The problem for Tubby Smith is that both play a vital role in his team’s rotation, and he can’t afford to bench them for extended periods of time. However if they play like they did last Wednesday (six combined turnovers) in the embarrassing 71-45 route against OSU, he might have to.
Illinois: Three-Point Line
Everything around the three-point line has been a mess for John Groce’s team in his first year in Champaign. His team got fat off three-pointers early, began settling for them as the season carried on, meantime they struggled to defend the deep ball as well.
The Fighting Illini have shot just 29 percent from the three-point line in conference play and yielded a 36 percent shooting rate for its opponents. Their inefficiency wouldn't be such a problem if Illinois was a threat in the paint, but they’re not. The Illini are one of only three B1G teams (Northwestern, Wisconsin) to have at least 300 three-point attempts this year. The next highest on the list has just 267.
In its two biggest wins of the season (vs. Indiana, at Minnesota) Illinois shot 20-of-47 from beyond the arc. If Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson can become more selective with their quick triggers, Illinois could be a dangerous matchup come March.
Ohio State: Size
We’ve heard enough about Ohio State lacking a second scorer. We get it. Deshaun Thomas can’t do it alone, even though on Sunday, against the Spartans, the Buckeyes did it without him.
Aaron Craft took over in the second half, finishing with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting while Thomas knocked down just 4-of-16 shots.
The thing is that Ohio State has even more pressing issues than the scoring dynamic. They have a major size deficiency. Michigan State exploited the weakness with a 33-26 rebounding advantage as well as a 34-28 edge in points in the paint.
Center Amir Williams is a fouling machine and not much else. Forward Evan Ravenel is a big body, but at 6’8’’, isn’t tall enough to handle the league’s taller power forwards. The Buckeyes can’t rely on Thomas to play defense in the paint because the risk of losing him to foul trouble is too great.
Any sensible team would pound the ball inside against Ohio State, where lack of depth could ultimately doom them.
Wisconsin: Free Throws
For as sound as Bo Ryan’s team usually is, the Badgers’ free-throw shooting has been appalling this year. Throughout Big Ten play, Wisconsin has dipped below 60 percent from the free throw—the lowest in the B1G.
Somehow, the Badgers are still in the Big Ten title chase at 10-4 and are vying for one of the top-four seeds in the conference tournament, which would grant them a first round bye. Wisconsin has won a number of close games, but in postseason play, who does Ryan want shooting late-game free throws?
It certainly won’t by Ryan Evans, whose 40 percent shooting from the charity stripe is beyond awful. Ben Brust, Mike Bruesewitz, and Sam Dekker are all hovering around 65 percent. Forward Jared Berggren is hitting 72 percent of his free throws, but he’s not a good ball-handler and could easily turn the ball over while trying to advance it up court. That likely leaves point guard Traevon Jackson, who’s shot 75 percent but has only been to the line 49 times on the season.
Michigan: Interior Size
The Wolverines have a lot going for them in Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke, excellent outside range with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas, but their most glaring issue resides in the paint.
6’8’’ forward Jordan Morgan is just getting healthy from an ankle injury, while freshman Mitch McGary has taken over as the starter down low. McGary had an excellent three-game stretch two weeks ago against Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin but has recently hit a wall, beginning with the resounding loss to Michigan State.
McGary is an energizer bunny whose hustle and mid-range game fit best coming off the bench, but coach John Beilein needs him to play significant minutes. Fatigue, size, foul trouble and inexperience are all huge question marks regarding Michigan’s interior presence. Most teams are privy to their weakness.
Michigan State: Consistency
The Spartans aren’t as strong as they appeared two weeks ago after demolishing Michigan. In their two consecutive losses to Indiana and Ohio State, both admittedly among the upper echelon in the Big Ten, point guard Keith Appling has looked shaky at best.
In the losses, Appling shot just 2-of-14 from the field and had seven turnovers compared to just three assists. Coach Tom Izzo was at a loss when trying to explain what was wrong with Appling after each game.
For much of the year, Appling was a fringe conference Player of the Year candidate, averaging 13.4 points a game and nearly four assists per game. But lately he’s looked rattled down the stretch of big-time games. Nowhere was this more evident than when he missed the first attempt of a one-and-one with the Spartans up 67-66 and just 1:09 left against Indiana.
Michigan State has balance, intriguing interior size and excellent outside shooting, but if Appling can’t facilitate, then the Spartans’ offense is bound to sputter.
The No. 1 team in the country doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Indiana’s offense is spectacular, and their defense is almost equally as dominant. They have star power (Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo), veteran leadership (Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford) and a budding star point guard (Yogi Ferrell).
What they don’t have is depth.
Will Sheehey is as good of a sixth man as there is in the country, but after that, the experience level drops off precipitously. Sophomore Remy Abell is a decent backup point guard but hasn’t been able to handle the offense, which splits time between Ferrell and Hulls. 6’8’’ freshman Jeremy Hollowell is the first big man off the bench in case of foul trouble, but he’s a sub-par defender who fouls way too often.
Some would call it nitpicking, but after its six-man rotation, Indiana isn’t strong. Unfortunately for opponents, that’s about the only thing that isn’t convincing about this Hoosiers team.