It’s fall already? In comparison to past offseasons, this one offered little intrigue for the Big Ten. While college basketball was preoccupied learning about the ragers thrown at Louisville, and chuckling at Larry Brown’s inability to keep a school out of trouble, the Big Ten was collectively surveying their expanding riches.
*Maryland *is the popular choice to sit atop the standings come March, and for good reason. The Terps were a 3-seed last year, and lost very little from that team. Oh, and quite a bit of that talent returns this year in the form of sophomores, which is the single best way any team can improve, outside of landing top-10 recruits. But Maryland also did that. Oh, and they landed impact transfers (Robert Carter from Georgia Tech, Rasheed Sulaimon from Duke) as well. All of this is to say that the Terps will almost surely be very good this season, and expectations for Mark Turgeon could not be higher. If he’s going to bring a Final Four banner to College Park, you have to figure this will be the season.
But should Maryland really be the top pick? After all, the Terps were insanely fortunate last season in close games. On a per possession basis, UMD was closer to a 10-win team than the 14-wins that they actually garnered in conference play. While noting that 10 wins is still quite the lofty perch from which to launch with Turgeon’s shiny new toys, I submit that we should not be so quick to discount others in this race. My primary contender would be Michigan State. After all, Tom Izzo’s team was clearly superior on a per possession basis than the Terps last season, and MSU boasts its own incoming 5-star talent as well. And as far as transfer talent goes, the Spartans welcome the best addition to the conference in Eron Harris, who was last season at West Virginia a couple seasons ago as a highly accurate, high-volume sharpshooter. And lest you forget, this is a Final Four team that is returning over two-thirds of last year’s minutes. Sure, the pieces that did leave (notably Travis Trice and Branden Dawson) were critical to that team’s success, but it’s not hard to imagine that a Denzel Valentine/Harris/Bryn Forbes backcourt could well end up as the best in the conference.
I know *Indiana *is a popular pick for one of the top spots, but I’m unconvinced. The argument goes something like this: (1) Indiana had a great offense last year, even while playing a lot of freshmen; (2) those freshmen are back; and (3) the defense just has to get to “respectable” to make this team extremely good. I don’t disagree with any of those things, but I think (3) ranks as more elusive than people are willing to credit. Consider the Big Ten defensive efficiency rankings for Indiana under Tom Crean:
“Respectable” has been the high end of things for Crean, and those years coincided with the presence of stout defenders Victor Oladipo or Noah Vonleh. I certainly didn’t see a budding Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on last year’s roster, and given the fact that incoming freshman Thomas Bryant was merely the third-best shotblocker on his AAU team (to be fair, this guy was on that team), I suspect he isn’t ready to be one, either. So I don’t think Indiana’s defense will be much to write home about.
What’s strange to me is that others don’t disagree with that assessment of the defense, yet still manage to squeeze the Hoosiers near the top of the standings. Dan Hanner’s model says IU’s defense will finish 12th in the conference, yet that translates to a 2nd place finish? They were 13th last season, and that netted a 9-9 finish. Sure the offense should be better. But how much better? This was the 9th-best offense in the country last year, and the team finished in a virtual tie for 2nd in the Big Ten to Wisconsin’s scorched-earth attack. Are the Hoosiers going to Wisconsin everyone this season? Because in this year’s Big Ten, that’s the only way that a 12th-ranked defense finishes that high. Put me down as a skeptic.
One team that does look a touch underrated, however, is Michigan.
Michigan’s presence on the far-right of the graph indicates just how many of last year’s minutes are coming back. The larger size of the blob indicates that a large percentage of those minutes were freshmen last year, and thus statistically more likely to improve by larger amounts. And it’s worth noting that the Wolverines weren’t exactly a bad team last year, though they were clearly not Tournament-caliber.
But sometimes number-crunching isn’t the most convincing argument. I think that’s true here. To settle the “Indiana vs. Michigan” argument, let’s examine the case of Max Bielfeldt. The 6-7 center played a capable 15 minutes per game in Michigan’s rotation last year, highlighted by some solid performances in the second half of the season, albeit mostly against the bottom half of the conference. Still, it wasn’t enough for him to secure a spot at Michigan. Effectively, John Beilein was going to use Bielfeldt’s scholarship on another player after the Peoria native had stayed his four years. It’s not a leap to conclude that Bielfeldt did not figure very much into the Wolverines’ rotation for the upcoming season.
But Max will be playing in the Big Ten this year, but at Indiana, a team with a frontcourt that has taken a lot of hits in the offseason. I bring this up because it’s not hard to make the case that both teams have very good backcourts (reasonable minds can disagree on which is better, but the point is that neither team has an overwhelming edge). But a player that was in Michigan’s frontcourt rotation last year had very little chance of doing so again this season has found another team in the Big Ten welcome him with open arms. Again, it’s easy to conclude that he stands a reasonable shot at getting rotation minutes at IU.
So it nets out to even backcourts, and a sizable edge to Michigan in the frontcourt. Advantage, Wolverines.
Another team getting some talk as a potential contender is Purdue. The Boilermakers recovered quite nicely last year, but that success seemed like it was on a razor’s edge. This was a Big Man Team last year with A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas patrolling the paint, and while that approach has obvious upsides (best 2-point defense in the Big Ten, 2nd-best 2-point offense), there are downsides to lacking ball skills. No Big Ten team turned the ball over more than Purdue, and that was with the Herculean, rarely-spotten, senior leap from an up-transfer that did not have much in terms of excess usage to trade. Now, maybe it’s the case that Johnny Hill can pull a Jon Octeus and do the same thing. But Hill was pretty bad at UT-Arlington (albeit in a large role), and his skillset might not translate to a power conference:
Type of Shot
% of Shots Taken
At the rim
Hill’s game is predicated on his ability to finish at the rim, which is a tough way to make a living as a 6-3 guard in the Big Ten. And while he’s played point guard before, he’s always been turnover-prone in that role. Purdue does have a lot of talent, but perhaps the most talented three-players on team play the same position (even if we wanted to pretend that 5-star center Caleb Swanigan is really a power forward—and further, pretend that designation means anything—is a team struggling to find a primary ballhandler really the place to deploy two space-eaters that shouldn’t take more than three consecutive dribbles?).
Purdue’s success will really come down to whether Kendall Stephens, Vince Edwards, Rapheal Davis, Dakota Mathias, and Johnny Hill can provide enough ballhandling to enable possessions to go long enough to get Hammons et al. the ball on the block. Of those, Edwards’ potential for a sophomore leap is the most intriguing to this observer.
Is this the year that Bo Ryan learns how the other half lives? After years of developing an enviable pipeline of players ready to step up and lead just as the last batch of stars completed their eligibility, *Wisconsin *suddenly finds itself with a “two guys and who else?” situation after losing two players to the NBA Draft lottery. Everyone knows that Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig will be good, but the question is whether that’s enough. Well, once upon a time it was Alando Tucker and Mike Wilkinson and Who Else?, and Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes and Who Else?, and then later it was Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor and Who Else?, and more recently Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans and Who Else?.
Eventually, we need to stop treating this as some happy accident. Since 1987, Bo Ryan has finished lower than 4th in his conference only once, and never since taking over in Madison. He may stop squatting in front of Wisconsin’s bench one of these days, or he may still be coaching long after we’re all cold in the ground. I don’t know; I’m not a scientist. All I do know is that picking Wisconsin to finish 4th or higher in the Big Ten has been a winning strategy, and I like winning.
Next up on the tour is Iowa, and I think the Hawkeyes will look pretty much like last year’s team if you subtract Aaron White, Gabe Olaseni, and Josh Oglesby. The Hawkeyes have a large incoming freshmen class, but none project as instant impact players. The only returning sophomore that played any meaningful minutes is Dom Uhl, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season. I’m firmly in the camp that White was an extremely underrated offensive player, and ditto that for Olaseni on defense. It’s enough that Iowa may end up on the wrong side of the bubble. The good news is that, for the second year in a row, Fran McCaffrey has eschewed the non-conference cupcake buffet that his earlier Iowa teams so frequently visited. That can only help.
And now, a few words about Ohio State. It’s only a few because no team returns fewer minutes from last season than the Buckeyes. I could talk about Jae’sean Tate’s glorious shot selection despite his diminutive height:
But that speaks for itself. Rather, I’ll just say that the Buckeyes are a touch underrated this year. Despite losing a lot of rotation players, including D’Angelo Russell, this team could improve. Thad Matta’s group is absolutely loaded with sophomore talent that, for the most part, were highly ranked recruits. Consider that last year Matta could not find many minutes for Keita Bates-Diop, a 6-7 freshman with some ballhandling ability, could block shots, and made 46 percent of his 3s. That will change this year, and with Tate, KBD, Marc Loving, and Kam Williams leading the charge, the Buckeyes should very good offensively. The defense does not need to be great for this team to continue its dancing ways—adequate should be just fine. Anything better than that, and Ohio State will be a title contender.
Then there’s Illinois, which has been besieged by injury and off court issues this offseason. Darius Paul is off the team for good, while Tracy Abrams is missing his second consecutive year to injury. Touted freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn’t been able to play all summer, former top-50 recruit and prime sophomore leap candidate Leron Black tore a meniscus, and Kendrick Nunn is now out for a few weeks. The good news is that those three should be back for a substantial portion of the season. The bad news is that Illinois didn’t exactly look like a championship contender at full strength, and the margin for making the Tournament will likely come down to a couple of games. Oh, and did I mention the Illini are playing a good chunk of their non-conference home games in Springfield, Illinois, as the State Farm Center is being renovated?
Sure, it’s possible that with a true big man in Mike Thorne, the Illini will find those shots around the rim that eluded the team last year. And Illinois’ incoming class is quite good, and even perhaps a touch underrated. But signing up a 5th-year point guard that struggled with turnovers and putting the ball in the basket against mid-major competition is not typically the behavior of a coach confident that his team is going places. It’s likely that for the third season in a row, the Illini will head to the NIT ("9-9" is not as impressive when it comes with a "played Rutgers twice" asterisk). The more interesting question is whether Illinois’ tough luck earns Groce another season to try and right the ship.
Speaking of waiting until next season, I wouldn’t blame Penn State fans for reflexively hitting the fast forward button while watching the team this year. (For those that don’t know, Pat Chambers is killing it on the recruiting trail.) With D.J. Newbill (graduation) and Geno Thorpe (transfer because reasons) gone, the team’s only hope this season is a return to form from Brandon Taylor. Taylor’s efficiency fell off a cliff last year, so it wasn’t just one thing, but surely his new shot selection didn’t help:
% Shots at rim
% Shots 2P jumper
% Shots 3P
While he will never be confused with a dunkasaurus, Taylor all but ignored the painted area last year. Not helping matters any was the fact that he made roughly 52% of his attempts around the hoop, down from 65% the year prior. So he took fewer shots at the hoop, and they were likely lower quality looks. And you can’t blame this on lacking Tim Frazier’s passing, as the share of shots at the rim that were assisted went up last season.
This lack of assertiveness around the hoop didn’t just impact Taylor’s two point percentage, Combined with a sudden disappearance in free throw accuracy, it resulted in just 8 free throw conversions last year, compared to 29 in 2014.
Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if Shep Garner took a leap forward as well.
*Minnesota’s *fortunes likely depend on whether Nate Mason takes a big leap this season. He had a very promising freshman campaign, albeit one in which he did not play like a freshman. That’s a compliment, but I don’t mean it like one in this instance. Mason was exceptional in areas where freshmen typically struggle—turnovers, fouling, defense—but there aren’t a lot of clear areas for improvement. His three-point accuracy (37%) was well ahead of his touch at the free throw line (61%). As a 6-1 guard that shot a fair number of jumpers, I can’t say his 43% two-point percentage was all that low. Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t just get better with some of these things—a narrative is not a prerequisite for improvement—I just can’t take it as a given that he’s going to make a substantial leap.
Joey King is _still _in school?
*Nebraska *was bad last year and lost basically everyone outside of Shavon Shields. Tim Miles welcomes a good recruiting class, but it’s not that good. And yes, there’s incoming Kansas transfer Andrew White. But White was pretty much glued to the bench in Lawrence. The “Kansas is Loaded!” argument doesn’t do much for me in that regard, either. Sure, there’s no shame in playing behind Andrew Wiggins. But Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene got more playing time. I don’t think we have quite an Alex Legion situation here, but I’ll be surprised if White ends up being a top Big Ten performer, rather than just an adequate starter. The Huskers are at least a year away from sniffing the bubble.
Speaking of the bubble, there’s an optimistic argument that *Northwestern *at least stands a reasonable chance of getting there this season. A lot of minutes are back, many of those in sophomore form, and the team welcomes yet another very good class under Chris Collins. Of course, the problem is that a lot of improvement will be needed from last year’s team. After putting together a top-15 defense in 2014, the Wildcats regressed to last in the conference. That this was accomplished with largely the same personnel indicates that either Drew Crawford was a better defender than anyone—including Drew Crawford—gave him credit for, or that 2014 team was a bit fortunate. Indeed, 2014 opponents were equally lousy at hitting three-pointers and two-point jumpers (31.4 and 31.5 respectively), and topped it off by hitting only 66 percent of their free throw attempts. Nothing makes for a good defense like poor shooting, and the reverse is true as well. So when Big Ten teams are making about 40 percent of their 3s, which make up for about 40 percent of opponent field goal attempts, as they did in 2015, the result isn’t pretty.
Ideally for NU fans, bad luck has had its fill with the Wildcats and opponent jumpshooting accuracy can settle into a more reasonable equilibrium. But even if that’s the case, no one will confuse this squad with the Kentuckys or Kansases of the world, meaning the offense needs to get better. And it can. Sophomores turn the ball over less than freshmen, and that was a notable weakness of last year’s team. But for the last two seasons, Collins’ offenses have eschewed offensive rebounds and free throw attempts at alarming rates. Collins has basically thumbed his nose as two of the Four Factors, which doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for shooting and turnovers. True, you can have a good offense that’s bad at getting second chances and earning trips to the line (e.g., Wisconsin, 2010), but it’s hard to be awful at those things and still put a quality offense on the floor. So until and unless a rebounding foul-drawer shows up in Evanston, or Collins turns over a new leaf and decides these are not such bad things, I think the drought continues.
Bringing up the year is Rutgers. No, that’s not a misprint below, I’m actually predicting zero wins this year. They won two Big Ten games last year (scientists may never discover how they managed to topple Wisconsin), and were in the conversation as the worst-ever Big Ten team in the tempo free era. This offseason, the conference got much better while Rutgers got worse, losing its two best players. Viewer discretion advised.
- Maryland 14-4
- Michigan State 13-5
- Wisconsin 12-6
- Michigan 12-6
- Ohio State 11-7
- Purdue 11-7
- Indiana 10-8
- Iowa 9-9
- Illinois 9-9
- Minnesota 8-10
- Northwestern 7-11
- Penn State 6-12
- Nebraska 4-14
- Rutgers 0-18