For the season preview, we'll have Josh, Joe, Mike, and Bart, the latter of T-Rank fame.
Josh: Well, summer's over and winter is fast-approaching. And, as it happens, conference play—now kicking off on December 1st. It wasn't too long ago that conference games before the new year seemed weird. Not that I'm against it—taking away opportunities for Fran McCaffrey to beat up on the SWAC is fine by me. Of course, this is happening because the conference tournament is being moved up so that Big Ten teams can play in New York City. That doesn't bother me too much, especially if it means earlier meaningful basketball. Bart, I'll throw it to you first, do you see any downsides?
Bart: I fear change. But I agree the changes aren't really too momentous. My main gripe is less about the means (the pocket of early December games, a compressed schedule after the new year, the conference tourney played a week earlier) than the end: all this to play a conference tourney at Madison Square Garden. This does less than nothing for me, so the rejiggering has just seemed to me a pointless pain in the ass. This idea that the Big Ten playing games in New York is a necessary quid pro quo for adding Rutgers is bad enough, but then add in a fairy tale about some supposed mystique of a particular venue, and I feel the urge to reach for various emojis. But I'll resist. In the end, I don't think the early tourney will have any effect on the Big Ten's chances in the NCAA tourney. In fact, John Gasaway's research indicates it might be a positive. What do you think, Joe: any chance Delaney's fixation with MSG actually helps the Big Ten win its first national championship in forever?
Joe: Possible downsides: Midyear transfers miss more conference games? I don't think there are any of note this year in the B1G. Younger teams have less time to gel? Most of the contenders are not particularly young; indeed, MSU, Maryland, Purdue and Minnesota all rank within the top 100 in KenPom's "minutes continuity" metric. Most of the objections are aesthetic. The biggest upside is that teams have an extra week to put in new wrinkles and (most importantly) rest banged up players. This is a pretty significant advantage, it seems to me. The densest week of the schedule for the conference is the conference tournament. For the better teams, I suspect there was some hesitation to go all out in the conference tournament, especially if one's seed is more or less already solidified. There may be a slight disadvantage for teams that make it to the final, though. The scuttlebutt surrounding the selection committee suggested that the two finalists were already seeded, and that the result of the championship game was largely irrelevant. So maybe this (thankfully temporary) change will make for a better conference tournament. I suppose it's also a nice sop for the gobs of B1G alumni who live in the NY metro area. The more relevant consideration is which B1G teams are legitimate contenders for deep runs in the NCAA tournament? I think it's reasonable to say MSU for certain as the addition of Jaren Jackson to an already formidable core leads to an impressive team. Maryland seems to be already reaping the benefits of added experience from the talented youngsters on the roster. Despite the loss of Melo Trimble, the results have been quite good. Purdue has been experiencing a similar phenomenon, though I'm a queasy about subbing in Haas for Swanigan and calling it good. Minnesota maybe? Just about everyone's back in Minneapolis, though I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a team without a dominant player. Is Jordan Murphy possibly staking his claim to that role? Like most things at this time of year, it's probably too early to tell. Josh, are there some things we think we've found out in the first week-and-a-half of the season?
Josh: It's always dangerous to start making claims with about 3-games' worth of data, but the clearest signal we have right now is that Indiana is not very good. I think most expected the Hoosiers to be rebuilding with a new coach, and after losing 3 players early (and the team wasn't great last year...thus the new coach), but this goes beyond that. The defense hasn't looked this bad since Tom Pritchard was starting games, and the offense is one-man dimensional in De'Ron Davis. The freshmen look mostly okay, but I doubt they can be good enough to carry the day once conference play begins. Other than that, everyone seems to be shooting around par, although I don't think we know much about Iowa. That roster did not need a freshman to step up, but through 3 games against laughably bad teams, Luka Garza has been great. But yeah, Fran scheduling.
Bart, I've already gone on record with why I think Wisconsin will miss the Dance and Northwestern might actually challenge for the Big Ten title (in retrospect, it does seem like I'm taking a lot of shots). Which of those is more nuts?
Bart: I would say Northwestern as title contender is slightly more nuts, though that's colored a bit by their somewhat lackluster start to the year. (Note: I wrote this before Northwestern got shellacked by Texas Tech. "Somewhat lackluster" is now an understatement.)
Josh: Yeah, uh, forget everything I've said about Northwestern up until now.
I think MSU and Purdue are a clear cut above, and right now I'd put Northwestern behind both Minnesota, at least, in the "other contenders" category. There may a tendency to romanticize last year's team a bit, given their breakthrough, but they were a very borderline tourney team. They should improve, but in my opinion they're likelier to have some bad breaks and miss the tournament than they are to get lucky and win the conference.
The same is true is for the Badgers, but I wouldn't bet much on them missing the tourney, either. I have shared some of your skepticism abou the team—largely because we can't just assume that Greg Gard has that old Bo Ryan Magic— but I've seen enough of them at this point to feel more confident that it's going to be the same old story. They've filled the holes around with Happ with solid talent, and Happ is a bona fide two-way star. I guess if I am forced to forge any hot Big Ten takes, I'd say (1) Michigan is the middle-of-the-pack team most likely to lay an egg and miss the tournament and (2) Rutgers crawls out of the cellar.
Got any nutty predictions, Joe?
Joe: Oh, I've got some crazy predictions alright. How 'bout Penn State finishing top 5 in the conference? I know both T-rank and KenPom like them considerably more than the media (who had them placing 10th), but there is a lot to like on that squad. Mike Watkins, Tony Carr and Shep Garner are a great trio to build around, though Watkins needs to find a way to stay on the floor. 20ish minutes per game for one of the best shotblockers and rebounders in the league is nowhere near enough. Carr has a gimpy ankle, but the Nittany Lions managed to coast to an easy win over Columbia without him.
Here's another: Jaren Jackson will not win freshman of the year. He fouls. A lot. And Michigan State can afford to bring him along a little more slowly than some of the other teams with contenders for the award could. The Spartans have ample depth down low with Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling and fellow freshman Xavier Tillman. There's also a few of freshmen being pressed into service who are more central to their teams' success. Here's looking at you, Mark Smith and Musa Jallow! Jallow in particular willed Ohio State to a win over a feisty Texas Southern team. Looking at the final score doesn't do the game justice; it was still a two point game with 7 minutes to go. Granted, Jallow did not have a good performance his next time out, but he looks good out there and should continue to earn his team and coach's trust.
Josh, who do you have as the winners of the major awards in the B1G?
(POY, COY, FOY, and let's make up Most Improved)
Josh: Joe, can you show me where on the Spartan doll Tom Izzo hurt you? There's a lot of anti-Michigan State shade to unpack there, although I very much see your point about Jackson. MSU has depth, and he fouls, and Izzo seemingly puts a ceiling on the minutes played by a young center in any event (#FreeWard). I could see Jackson being somewhat similar to Deyonta Davis—a very capable player when on the floor, but not on the floor as much as his talent would dictate. Also, he might not be long for the college game.
But I cannot let stand the blowby of Miles Bridges without some explanation, particularly where Cowan is the pick instead. I like Cowan, I think he'll do a fine job replacing Melo. But his stock screams SELL at the moment. Which number is the most unsustainable? His defensive rebounding rate, which is higher than anyone's on Purdue? The 75% shooting on two-pointers, for a 6-0 player? Or that he's shot 42 free throws against just 16 two-point attempts? Cowan's a nice player, but the usage is a little lighter than I'd like for my POY, and his three-point accuracy has not settled at a comfortable point for a 6-0 player.
No, I'm going to default to talent and give it to Bridges. Say what you will about his self-inflicted turnovers and inability to get to the line, but volume shooters that put up 60/40 splits over their 2s and 3s get the job done. To that end, keep an eye on Mo Wagner. COY I will co-sign your Chambers pick, as everything is lined up for him to make the Tournament against low expectations. FOY I'll stay with Smith, though I reserve the right to change that to Garza once Iowa plays a couple of games against halfway decent competition. Murphy is a strong pick for MIP, but I'll go with the sophomore leaping Carsen Edwards of Purdue.
Oh, hey, Mike's out of retirement! Mike, is there any reason to think that the Big Ten's title drought will come to an end this season? I was a little disappointed to see the Spartans come up short against Duke, but then again, I can always blame that on Izzo's bizarre combination of a complicated, set play offense with lots of young players with little practice before a game against a top-5 team. Is that wishcasting? And how good is Purdue?
Mike: It's early, but it feels like there aren't any particularly intimidating teams in the national title chase. Kansas knocked off Kentucky, but that game was U-G-L-Y and didn't speak well of either team. Duke beat Michigan State in an even matchup that was tilted by Grayson "Punchable Face" Allen knocking down some really tough threes. If I'm asked to take the Big Ten or the field, I'll take the field, but I'm not ready to rule out a national title run for Michigan State or Purdue.
And yeah, I just mentioned Purdue as a national title contender. These Boilers might go down as the best offensive squad Matt Painter has ever put on the floor. Massive centers Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms are surrounded at all times by plus shooters. And when somebody needs to make a play, Carsen Edwards and Vince Edwards are up to the task. The pieces are all in place. And on the other end, Purdue's conversion into a no-foul defense - Painter's response to "freedom of movement" rule changes - suits this roster well, even if it's a far cry from the relentless pressure of the Chris Kramer years.
Josh: What, no Ohio State? Sorry, couldn't resist, love you Dan!
Anyways, I'll kick this over to Bart for the last word before rolling out the predictions. Bart, how many teams will be dancing, and will Tim Miles earn a stay of execution?
Bart: Over the several days that we've been writing this, the tourney outlook for the Big Ten has steadily worsened. Any thoughts of Indiana's talent coalescing into a tourney team have vanished. Iowa lost to Louisiana Lafayette, and is struggling right now against South Dakota State. Michigan lost to LSU. Wisconsin has so far failed to pick up any good wins. Northwestern got blown out by Texas Tech. My "TourneyCast" is now projecting just 5.3 bids (compared to 6.5 at the start of the season). I'll say 6 bids, but the Big Ten as a 5-bid league is in play if things don't improve in the non-conference.
Finally, my guess is that Tim Miles will do enough to stay on the job. Nebraska has enough turmoil in football, which is the sport they really care about, and I think maybe that will give Miles a chance to fly under the radar for a while. But with a new AD coming in, a shakeup is obviously a real possibility barring an unlikely turnaround season.
PROJECTED STANDINGS (Consensus)
- MSU (15-3)
- Purdue (14-4)
- Minnesota (12-6)
- Maryland (11-7)
- Northwestern (10-8)
- Wisconsin (10-8)
- Penn State (9-9)
- Iowa (9-9)
- Michigan (8-10)
- Illinois (8-10)
- Ohio State (7-11)
- Indiana (5-13)
- Nebraska (4-14)
- Rutgers (4-14)