2014-15 Season Preview

Josh: Back to our old stomping grounds! With no corporate shackles upon us, we can be so edgy now. I’m going to start doing things like assuming readers know what I mean when I write “eFG,” and I might even just stop spelling out “percentage.” That Shift + 5 command is there for a reason!

**
**

How long can we really expect the Big Ten to remain basketball’s best conference? This would be the 5th year in a row (per kenpom) if it comes to pass, and that’s with the ACC basically gobbling up every recent national champion that does not start with a hard-K sound (it’s the “A-see-see,” not the “A-kay-kay.” That’s why you weren’t invited, Connecticut.).

**
**

Also, let’s jump right to the brass tacks—our predictions seem out of whack with most others when it comes to the subject of three teams:

**
**

  1. Michigan State

  2. Iowa

  3. Illinois

**
**

I’ll let you pick the first one—explain why we’re making a left turn.

**
**

Mike: I was honestly a bit shocked when I saw that KenPom’s preseason rankings still had the Big Ten as the nation’s best conference. Not because I expect the Big Ten to be down per se, but because I figured a conference systematically poaching schools specifically for their basketball programs would eventually take the top spot. The Big Ten enters this season with two additions that, taken together, actually hurt the basketball side of things, yet the ACC is still looking up at our guys.

**
**

It speaks to the job Big Ten ADs have done hiring and retaining basketball coaches over the past decade, as even the lower level programs should be respectable this season. It is this depth that gives the Big Ten the edge over the ACC, as our east coast brethren actually boast more KenPom top 10 and top 25 teams. Of course, the relative quality of the lower half of a conference doesn’t do much to drive media narrative, so I expect we’ll be fighting a losing battle when it comes to discussing the nation’s best conference, a la 2010-11 when the Big Ten was actually better top-to-bottom than the Big East “meatgrinder” that captivated the basketball media.

**
**

As for our predictions, I’ll tackle the easiest one first (you’re welcome). Most people look at Iowa and see the following basic facts:

**
**

  1. They lost a bunch of games down the stretch and barely made the NCAA tournament.

  2. They lose leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble.

  3. They don’t bring in any highly-rated recruits.

**
**

If this were the only data you had, you’d predict Iowa to be worse than last season and once again struggle to make the NCAA tournament. Of course, this isn’t the only data we have, and digging slightly deeper reveals information that points in the other direction.

**
**

Iowa achieved a very nice +0.07 efficiency margin in conference play, and the Hawkeyes return a healthy amount of minutes. I’m expecting Iowa to be about as good as it was last season, but with a more normal distribution of wins and losses. On the surface, this will look like a big improvement, and it will probably get Fran McCaffery some Big Ten COY buzz. With the lack of dominant teams after Wisconsin, Iowa could conceivably finish second or third without needing anything crazy to happen.

**
**

How about Illinois? Why are we higher on this team than most?

**
**

Josh: One word—transfers. The Illini welcome two that could each make an All-Big Ten team. Aaron Cosby put up a 54.0 eFG as a sophomore for Seton Hall with higher than average usage. The net drag on his efficiency was a high turnover rate, which can be explained in part by the fact that he had to handle a lot of point guard duties (the next best option was Tom Maayan, who had 31 more turnovers than field goal attempts). There won’t be such a shortage of ballhandling in Champaign so I expect that to improve.

**
**

As for Ahmad Starks, he’s more of a combo guard who basically just does one thing (shoot 3s), but he does it well (roughly 38 percent over his last two seasons at Oregon State, with a Shot Percentage around 23.5).

**
**

Those are the two pieces unaccounted for by Kenpom, which sees Illinois taking a moderate step up due to the amount of returning minutes and the fact that the team will be giving a fair number of minutes to sophomores.

**
**

This isn’t to say that Illinois doesn’t have weaknesses—Illinois’ defense ranked 3rd in the Big Ten, but there wasn’t much of a difference between 3rd and 6th last season. I could see some steps back there due to 1) Starks and Cosby are not as good defenders as Tracy Abrams and 2) simple regression for a team that was unexpectedly good on that end of the floor last season.

**
**

The bigger hole, however, is that on paper this team only has one way to score—threes. There’s a lot of players that can make it rain, but there aren’t a lot of candidates to knock down 2s at a 55 percent clip or better. Can it be top-50 freshman Leron Black? One of the sophomore big men? Hybrid guard/forward Malcolm Hill? Sure, it could be any of those, but the likeliest scenario is that Illinois won’t be able to fully capitalize on stretched defenses. But hey, that worked out OK for UConn (you heard it here first!—Illinois is going to win the national championship!).

**
**

Alright, what about the Spartans? Is it just me, or is there a bit more “give Izzo credit” going around this year than most (and it’s odd that it would be this year, as The Streak was finally broken last season)?

Mike: There’s definitely a lot of “never bet against Izzo” built in to the expectations for Michigan State, but maybe that’s how it should be. After all, Michigan State hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament since 1997, and they’ve garnered a 5-seed or better in all but one of the past seven seasons. Izzo has earned some benefit of the doubt.

**
**

That said, I see some reasons for Michigan State fans to worry. With Harris, Payne, and Appling gone, Izzo is handing the keys to some guys that have done well as role players but will have to change their stripes as upperclassmen. Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, and Travis Trice will have to be the ringleaders of this team, and only Dawson has ever posted a usage rate over 20 percent. Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes will pick up some of the slack, but, as an up-transfer, he’s not likely to be high-usage either. Are these guys ready to gobble up all of the shots that were consumed with such high efficiency by Harris, Payne, and Appling?

**
**

There are also concerns on the interior, where the only scholarship players taller than 6-6 are Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. Costello has some nice defensive potential, but he’s foul-prone and a non-factor on offense. Schilling was generally lost as a freshman, so he’ll need quite the sophomore leap to be a net positive.

**
**

Despite those concerns, I still think Michigan State will be solid, but there’s a clear possibility that this ends up being a bubble team if things don’t break right.

**
**

Speaking of elite programs that lose a bunch of minutes, how do you like Ohio State in year one of the post-Craft era? Doomed by a lack of grittiness and hustle?

**
**

Josh: Not at all—there might not be a team with more future pros on it in the Big Ten than Ohio State. Last year was a really down year for the Buckeyes (and they still had 25 wins!) in large part because the offense just wasn’t clicking. So of course I think they’ll improve after losing their best two offensive players.

**
**

OK, so that requires some explanation. The first is that there’s a lot more sophomore minutes here than first meets the eye. Marc Loving is an easy one, but Kam Williams is also going to be in his second season after redshirting last year, and I’m very high on him. Matta also went out and got Trevor Thompson who, while he isn’t a superstar by any means, will at least keep less desirable options off the floor.

**
**

The other piece to this is that Matta just has an incredible track record of powerful offenses since he arrived in the Big Ten. With 8 top-100 players on the roster, it’s hard to see him failing to put a good offense on the floor again.

**
**

I think we’re largely in line with the rest of the world on the remainder of the Big Ten. So let’s go in a different direction—which Big Ten coach is feeling the most heat this season?

**
**

Mike: Given the recent off-the-court issues, Tom Crean has some pitchforks pointed at him, and another lackluster season on the court could have him packing his bags. Honestly, though, I wonder if Mark Turgeon isn’t in the more tenuous situation. This is his fourth season at Maryland, and I’m wondering if it’s not NCAAs-or-bust with a senior-laden team. The revolving door of transfers certainly doesn’t help Turgeon’s cause.

**
**

It seems silly to Geeks like us, but I also wonder if Fran McCaffery might feel some heat if this season goes poorly. For all the solid tempo-free numbers the Hawkeyes have put up the past two seasons, all they have to show for it is an 11-seed and a loss in a play-in game. McCaffery also has yet to post a winning record in conference play. If year five brings more of the same, might Iowa look to make a change?

**
**

Matt Painter could certainly use a good season in West Lafayette. Since Robbie Hummel left, Purdue has gone 13-23 in conference play. A return to the NCAA tournament would go a long way toward keeping Painter’s seat cool.

**
**

I almost don’t want to mention Pat Chambers here, as I think he’s safe barring a disaster of a season, but most ADs want to see results by year four. Penn State basketball is a different animal, however, and an NIT season might be perfectly acceptable for Chambers. Still, if things go really poorly, Penn State could be looking to make a change.

**
**

Realistically, that’s it. The rest of the conference either has a head coach with three or fewer years at the helm, or a head coach so successful that their seat is at zero degrees Kelvin.

**
**

Enough about these old guys. How about the kids? Which freshmen do you expect to make the biggest impact this season?

**
**

Josh: Well, I’m on record as seeing James Blackmon as the conference’s top freshman, and I’m not backing off that now. D’Angelo Russell on Ohio State is another popular pick, but to me he looks more like a big upside player than an immediate impact guy. I think the more intriguing newcomer on OSU is redshirt freshman Kam Williams.

**
**

Blackmon just provides too many reasons to back him. He was a McDonald’s All-American that was highly-efficient and productive in his last AAU season, and he’s coming into a situation where he’s got a ton of available playing time. Ohio State has the luxury of options with its talented roster, so there’s going to be less opportunity for Russell and/or Williams.

**
**

Melo Trimble on Maryland is also going to have a lot of opportunity, and you shouldn’t sleep on Illinois’ Leron Black, either. The Illini don’t have many proven rebounders on the low block, and could really use a player that can make 2s at a high rate. Michigan’s Kameron Chatman will also have a lot of opportunity (he’s slotted to consume a lot of GRIII’s minutes), but the reports from the team’s Italy trip indicate that he’s not quite there yet.

**
**

Of course having said all that, it’s probably going to be some under-the-radar guy like P.J. Thompson.

**
**

OK, tell me who is going to breakout this season as a sophomore? And for the record, a breakout is not just the same level of performance with a lot more minutes. So don’t pick Zak Irvin.

**
**

Mike: I really like Nigel Hayes to take his game to another level, but he was so good as a freshman that maybe it won’t count as a breakout. So I’ll go with Marc Loving. As a lightly-used freshman, Loving wasn’t afraid to chuck, and his efficiency was solid despite unsustainably low shooting percentages at the rim (45%) and from three (26%). I’m confident those numbers will jump up significantly, and the Buckeyes need a new chucker with LaQuinton Ross gone. Loving could end up the leading scorer on one of the Big Ten’s better teams.

**
**

Speaking of better teams, is anyone going to seriously challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, or will the Badgers finish two games clear of the field like KenPom projects?

**
**

Josh: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a Deion Sanders high step to the title for Wisconsin. On paper, no one looks close, and I think the coach is pretty good, too. And really, Sam Dekker is taller now? Nigel Hayes is shooting 3s? That frontline is scary.

**
**

OK, onto the POY prediction before we throw up some standings: are you crazy enough to pick anyone other than Frank the Tank?

**
**

Mike: Wisconsin’s run in the tournament and the recent preseason chatter has been quite vindicating for us. We picked Kaminsky as the Big Ten POY last season, while everybody else was gaga for Nik Stauskas. When BTN.com’s picks were compiled, Kaminsky wasn’t even a unanimous first team selection. Then he played great in the NCAA tournament, and now everybody is on board the Kaminsky train.

**
**

All that aside, I do believe Kaminsky will be the Big Ten’s best player this season, but I could see scenarios where somebody else takes home the award. Terran Petteway figures to again pile up the counting stats, though I think Nebraska will disappoint with so many people hoping for a big jump from last season. Yogi Ferrell could get some hype if Indiana surprises. Likewise for Andre Hollins and Minnesota. Sam Dekker has the talent to give Wisconsin two POY candidates.

**
**

Still, Kaminsky is the overwhelming favorite, and he’s my pick for Big Ten POY.

**
**

This should be an interesting season. The top of the Big Ten isn’t as strong as in years past, but the middle is unusually tough. KenPom’s preseason projections have 11 Big Ten teams in the top 40, so it will be a dogfight just to get to 9 or 10 conference wins. The margin for error between a surefire NCAA bid and a disappointing NIT bid figures to be vanishingly small this season. Bring it on.

**
**

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Wisconsin 15-3
  2. OSU 12-6
  3. Iowa 12-6
  4. Michigan 11-7
  5. Illinois 11-7
  6. Nebraska 10-8
  7. MSU 9-9
  8. Maryland 9-9
  9. Indiana 8-10
  10. Minnesota 8-10
  11. Purdue 7-11
  12. Penn State 6-12
  13. Northwestern 5-13
  14. Rutgers 3-15