Sullinger and the Big Ten have reason to smile
The Big Ten is poised to make some noise in March in the NCAA Tournament, with Ohio State ranked No. 2 and four other teams ranked among the top 20 teams in the country.
As the Big Ten schedule is about to begin, now is a good time to take a quick peek at what the future likely holds for the Big Ten Conference when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee hands out invitations to the Big Dance in March.
Matt Gatens is the key to Iowa's success in the Big Ten
Starting Lineup: 6’5'' Eric May, 6’7'' Melsahn Basabe, 6’5'' Matt Gatens, 6’5'' Roy Devyn Marble, 6’7'' Zach McCabe
Key Bench Players: 6’8'' Aaron White, 6’5'' Josh Oglesby, 6’1'' Bryce Cartwright
Best Non-Conference Win: 12/17 Drake 82-68, 12/22 Boise State 81-72
Bad Non-Conference Losses: 11/23 Campbell 77-61, 11/29 Clemson 71-55
Coach Fran McCaffrey got the Hawkeyes off to a fast 3-0 start before running into No. 21-ranked Creighton. The Blue Jays thumped the Hawkeyes 82-59 and sent Iowa into a tailspin, where they lost four of their next six games.
The slow start in pre-Big Ten play might be attributed to growing pains, as Iowa is a young team with only two seniors among the eight players in its rotation.
Senior Matt Gatens continues to be the heart of the squad. Gatens is averaging 14 points a game and has improved his shooting percentage from the floor, free-throw line and beyond the arc from last year.
Roy Devyn Marble also put in hard work over the summer. Marble is connecting on 78 percent of his free throws; last year he made only 53 percent of his free throws.
The schedule for the Hawkeyes is favorable, as Iowa plays No. 24 Illinois, No. 19 Michigan, No. 20 Michigan State and No. 2 Ohio State only once during conference play.
Iowa is too inconsistent to finish with 10 wins during conference play, and without 10 wins, the Hawkeyes resume will be a little too thin for the liking of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Iowa will fall short of the NCAA tournament, but they could become eligible for the NIT tournament with an upset over a ranked opponent during conference play or two wins during the Big Ten tournament.
Tim Frazier will need to keep his eyes on the prize
Starting Lineup: 6’8'' Billy Oliver, 6’8'' Ross Travis, 6’4'' Jermaine Marshall, 6’1'' Tim Frazier, 6’4'' Matt Glover
Key Bench Players: 6’5'' Cammeron Woodyard, 6’1'' Trey Lewis, 6’9'' Sasa Borovnjak, 6’8'' Jonathan Graham
Best Non-Conference Wins: 11/20 South Florida 53-49
Bad Non-Conference Loss: 12/7 Lafayette 61-57
Senior Tim Frazier is picking up where Talor Battle left off, as Frazier leads the team in scoring (17.2 points), rebounding (5.8), assists (7.2) and steals (2.2).
Senior Cammeron Woodyard is a pleasant surprise, providing a scoring punch off the bench. Woodyard is averaging over eight points a game; last year he averaged less than two points a game.
Wins are going to be difficult for Penn State to earn during Big Ten play unless the Nittany Lions drastically improve their shooting. The Nittany Lions are shooting a paltry 39 percent from the floor and are an anemic 64 percent from the free throw line.
The Nittany Lions will struggle to become eligible for the NIT tournament, as Penn State is destined for the bottom half of the Big Ten.
Jorge Diaz, needs to get healthy soon
Starting Lineup: 6’10'' Brandon Ubel, 6’6'' Toney McCray, 6’0'' Brandon Richardson, 6’2'' Bo Spencer and 6’4'' Caleb Walker
Key Bench Players: 6’11'' Jorge Brian Diaz, 6’5'' Dylan Talley
Best Non-Conference Wins: 12/10 TCU 69-57
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None
Welcome to the Big Ten, Cornhuskers! Nebraska gets to immediately see what Big Ten play is all about, as seven of their first eight games are against teams ranked among the top 25 in the country.
Bo Spencer is the key to Nebraska’s offense, but in order for the Cornhuskers to be competitive in the Big Ten, their front line is going to need to play big.
The good news for Nebraska fans is that they have a sizable front line; the bad news for Nebraska fans is that their front line is banged up.
Last year’s center, 6’11'', 330-pound Andre Almeida, is recovering from injury and will not be able to contribute at least for another two weeks.
This year’s center and second leading scorer, 6’11'', 245-pound Jorge Diaz, has missed the last two games with a foot injury. Diaz is likely to consult with the foot specialist at Duke University, who he saw over the summer.
If Nebraska’s front line can get healthy, they could pull off a couple of upsets.
The schedule is not favorable for Nebraska, as they have a home and away series with all of the ranked teams in the conference. The Cornhuskers will likely need a strong performance in the Big Ten Tournament to be able to just qualify for the NIT tournament.
Robbie Hummel appears to be back
Starting Lineup: 6’8'' Robbie Hummel, 5’9'' Lewis Jackson, 6’3'' Ryne Smith, 6’5'' Kelsey Barlow, 6’8'' Jacob Lawson or 6’9'' Sandi Marcius
Key Bench Players: 6’5'' D.J. Byrd, 6’2'' Terone Johnson, 6’3'' Anthony Jackson
Best Non-Conference Win: Temple 85-77, Miami 76-65
Bad Non-Conference Loss: Butler 67-65 (Neutral site)
Robbie Hummel is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and if you are a fan of the game, you have to be rooting for him after coming back from successive knee injuries to make it to the Big Dance.
Unfortunately, Hummel appears not to have enough front line depth.
Purdue doesn’t have a player over 6’9'', and the two big bodies—Lawson and Marcius—that have seen significant playing time on the court with Hummel have struggled.
Between them, Lawson and Marcius have only been able to manage one 10-point performance and two games with more than five rebounds.
If neither Lawson or Marcius emerges as a consistent scorer or rebounding machine to take pressure off of Hummel, the Boilermakers streak of NCAA tournaments will come to an end.
If Hummel can manufacture a signature upset or two at Purdue, the Boilermakers could be one of the last teams to make the NCAA tournament field.
Purdue’s schedule is favorable, as they only play seven ranked opponents during Big Ten conference play, and four of those games are in West Lafayette.
Drew Crawford may be the most underrated player in the Big 10
Starting Lineup: 6’9'' John Shurna, 6’5'' Drew Crawford, 6’11'' Luka Mirkovic, 6’4'' Reggie Hearn, 6’1'' Dave Sobolewski
Key Bench Players: 6’9'' David Curletti, 6’3'' Alex Marcotullio, 6’5'' JerShon Cobb
Best Non-Conference Win: LSU 88-82, Seton Hall 63-58, Georgia Tech 76-60
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None, lost to No. 8 Baylor and No. 21 Creighton
The Wildcats open the season by playing four of their first seven games on the road and three of those four games are against No. 2 Ohio State, No. 16 Michigan and No. 11 Wisconsin. Northwestern also gets to host No. 17 Michigan State between playing the Wolverines and Badgers.
If Northwestern can avoid going into a tailspin at the beginning of Big Ten play, the Wildcats will make it to the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats, with their version of the “big three” in Shurna, Crawford and Mirkovic, should be in every game to the final minute. Shurna and Crawford are each averaging nearly 20 points a game.
Yes, this is the year the Wildcats finally make the NCAA Tournament given their big three and their three “quality” wins over major conference opponents during their non-conference schedule.
Meyers Leonard will need to rise above the crowd for the Illini
Starting Lineup: 6’8'' Tyler Griffey, 7’1'' Meyers Leonard, 6’0'' Sam Maniscalco, 6’3'' D.J. Richardson, 6’4'' Brandon Paul
Key Bench Players: 6’5'' Joseph Bertrand, 6’1'' Tracy Abrams
Best Non-Conference Win: Gonzaga 82-75, Maryland 71-62
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None, lost to No. 20 UNLV and No. 8 Missouri
Illinois will be able to influence the tempo of every game they are in, as they have an imposing center in Leonard and a terrific backcourt in Richardson, Paul and Maniscalco.
The question in Champaign is whether the Illini are deep enough to finish in the top half of the conference. The Illini, similar to Michigan, have one of the shortest benches in the Big Ten, as only seven players are seeing significant playing time this season.
Leonard and Griffey will have to avoid foul trouble during conference play, as the only other two Illinois players over 6’8'' are freshmen Ibby Djimde and Nnanna Egwu.
Leonard is averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and slightly more than two block shots a night, and if he can continue this production through the Big Ten season, the Illini make it to the Big Dance.
Rodney Williams has emerged in Trevor Mbakwe's absence
Starting Lineup: 6’7'' Rodney Williams, 6’11'' Ralph Sampson III, 6’4'' Austin Hollins, 6’3'' Julian Welch, 6’2'' Maverick Ahanmisi
Key Bench Players: 6’1'' Andre Hollins, 6’4'' Joe Coleman, 6’3'' Chip Armelin, 6’8'' Oto Oseniks, 6’11'' Elliot Eliason
Best Non-Conference Win: Virginia Tech 58-55, Indiana State 76-69
Bad Non-Conference Loss: Dayton 86-70
The Gophers are the most intriguing team in the Big Ten. Minnesota lost their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, to a knee injury during their loss to Dayton.
Most commentators expected the Gophers to crawl into a hole and not be really competitive the rest of the season. Minnesota, however, surprised their critics by winning their next six games, including a victory over Virginia Tech.
The Gophers are doing it with aggressive play and a deep bench, as there are only two players, Williams and Sampson III, who are averaging more than 25 minutes of playing time, and no player is averaging more than 10 points a game.
Minnesota, without a true superstar to rely upon, is the epitome of team play; they will be difficult to beat all season long if they continue to share the ball.
Minnesota’s schedule does not really get tough until February, so if Coach Smith can accumulate six wins by the end of January, the Gophers should be able to win more than 20 games, which should get them into the tournament.
Draymond Green living up to his potential this year
Starting Lineup: 6’7'' Draymond Green, 6’10'' Adreian Payne, 6’2'' Brandon Wood, 6’1'' Keith Appling, 6’6'' Branden Dawson,
Key Bench Players: 6’5'' Austin Thornton, 6’9'' Derrick Nix, 6’0'' Travis Trice
Best Non-Conference Win: No. 22 Gonzaga 74-67
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None, lost to No. 6 North Carolina and No. 5 Duke
The Spartans have all of the right ingredients to make the tournament.
A Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo that will make the right decisions in the heat moment? Check.
Steady veteran leadership in seniors Draymond Green and Brandon Wood that want the ball in crunch time? Check.
Youthful exuberance in freshmen Branden Dawson and Travis Trice to provide energy? Check.
Hard to imagine the Spartans not going .500 during conference play, which would give them 20 wins and an NCAA tournament bid.
Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Michigan haven't missed Darius Morris
Starting Lineup: 6’9'' Evan Smotrycz, 6’8'' Jordan Morgan, 6’4'' Zack Novak, 6’1'' Trey Burke, 6’5'' Tim Hardaway Jr.
Key Bench Players: 6’3'' Stu Douglass, 6’4'' Matt Vogrich
Best Non-Conference Win: Iowa State 76-66
Bad Non-Conference Loss: at Virginia 70-58
The Wolverines are the change of pace team in the Big Ten given their propensity to shoot three point shots.
Last year, 42.5 percent of Michigan’s field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. In comparison, Ohio State last year, with all the Big Ten three-point shooting leaders Jon Diebler, William Buford and David Lighty shot 32.7 percent of their shots from three-point land.
This year, Michigan is even more bullish on the three-point shot, as they are shooting 44.3 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. More importantly, the Wolverines are making more of their three-point shots from last year, as they are connecting on 37.4 percent of their three-point shots.
6’9'' sophomore Jon Horford has been sidelined with a foot injury that dramatically impacts the ability of the Wolverines to match up with the bigger teams in the Big Ten.
Horford’s injury is significant, as Coach Beilein has no player over 6’6'' to back up starting forwards Smotrycz and Morgan, unless he presses Blake McLimans into action, which would cause McLimans to lose his redshirt season.
If Horford recovers, Michigan is likely playing for a relatively significant seed. Without Horford, the Wolverines will make the NCAA tournament, but they will have to scrap to get there.
Christian Watford is an underrated big man in the Big Ten
Starting Lineup: 6’9'' Christian Watford, 6’11'' Cody Zeller, 6’5'' Verdell Jones, III, 6’0'' Jordan Hulls, 6’5'' Victor Oladipo
Key Bench Players: 6’9'' Tom Pritchard, 6’6'' Will Sheehey, 6’9'' Derek Elston
Best Non-Conference Win: No. 3 Kentucky 73-72, North Carolina State 86-75
Bad Non-Conference Loss: Hoosiers are undefeated
Kudos to coach Tom Crean, the Hoosiers have finally solidly returned to the national college basketball stage.
Between Watford and Zeller in the starting lineup, coupled with Pritchard and Elston off the bench, the Hoosiers have more size on the front line than any other team in the conference.
Hard to imagine any team, including Ohio State, being able to blow out Indiana; accordingly, the Hoosiers will win several games during conference play, and on their off nights, they will still be able to compete until the final possession.
Moreover, Indiana is back to playing fundamentally sound ball in which they do not hurt themselves with silly turnovers and poor execution.
Indiana can pack their bags, as they are going to the NCAA tournament. How good with this team be with a healthy Maurice Creek?
Jordan Taylor is not afraid to pull up from anywhere on the court
Starting Lineup: 6’1'' Jordan Taylor, 6’6'' Ryan Evans, 6’6'' Mike Bruesewitz, 6’10'' Jared Berggren, 6’3'' Josh Gasser
Key Bench Players: 6’1'' Ben Brust, 6’2'' Traevon Jackson, 6’11'' Frank Kaminsky
Best Non-Conference Win: UNLV 62-51, BYU 73-56
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None lost to No. 6 North Carolina and No. 13 Marquette
Coach Bo Ryan has never finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten, nor has he ever failed to lead his Wisconsin squad to the NCAA tournament. There is no reason to believe that the streak will end this year.
The name of the game in Madison is defense. The Badgers are one of the most difficult teams in all of college basketball to score against.
Wisconsin surrendered 60 points to North Carolina and 61 points to Marquette; no other team has scored more than 56 points against the Badgers.
Point guard Jordan Taylor may take home the hardware of Big Ten Player of the Year if Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger gets off to a slow start to the Big Ten season due to back spasms.
Wisconsin should be in the hunt for a NCAA Tournament No. 2 or No. 3 seed throughout the season.
Life is good for Deshaun Thomas and the Buckeyes
Starting Lineup: 6’9'' Jared Sullinger, 6’7'' Deshaun Thomas, 6’6'' William Buford, 6’2'' Aaron Craft, 6’4'' Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
Key Bench Players: 6’8'' Evan Ravenel, 6’4'' Jordan Sibert, 6’1'' Shannon Scott, 6’7'' Sam Thompson
Best Non-Conference Win: No. 5 Duke 85-63, No. 10 Florida 81-74
Bad Non-Conference Loss: None, the loss at N. 18 Kansas 78-67 was without Sullinger
The Buckeyes are loaded with talent, and they are a legitimate threat to win the NCAA Championship.
Jared Sullinger may be the best player in the nation, and he will present match-up problems throughout the season.
William Buford is the best pure shooter in the Big Ten conference who can score quickly and in a variety of different ways.
Deshaun Thomas is a versatile scorer who is capable of carrying the scoring load if for some reason the ball is not falling for Buford and Sullinger.
Finally, Aaron Craft is a fantastic point guard and would receive more recognition if he was not playing in the same conference as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jordan Taylor.
The only question is whether Ohio State should be a NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed.
Many reasons to smile in the Big Ten
Who is in? Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State. (The only way these teams don't make it is if they suffer a catastrophic injury to a key player.)
Who is on the bubble? Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota. (Two of these four teams are in, three teams are likely in, and it is not inconceivable that all four could make it given what occurred in the Big East last year.)
Who is out? Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State. (Cinderella has already left the party; these teams will only be playing for the NIT tournament.)
Enjoy the season, as this will be one of the best Big Ten basketball seasons in several years.