Monday, April 11, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

We were once again inundated with Big East basketball propaganda. Like SEC football, it never matters how good Big East basketball is - the media will tell us they're the best anyway. I thought all season long that the Big Ten was better, although I didn't think the Big East's poor NCAA Tournament performance changes things much. What made the Big Ten unique in 2010-11 was that there were zero bad teams. The single worst team was in the Top 85 in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. That means that there no easy games in the conference, particularly on the road. There was no DePaul or Texas Tech for everybody to beat up on. We could say the same thing about the ACC in 2009-10, though I don't think that ACC had the same quality at the top that the Big Ten did, with three teams rated in the Top Ten by Pomeroy. The last conference that I think was definitely better than the 2010-11 Big Ten Conference was the 2006-07 ACC conference that had zero bad teams, and six teams that earned a 6 seed or better. Duke actually finished 8-8 that year (that was the year they lost in the first round to VCU on "the Eric Maynor shot").

Any discussion of the Big Ten has to start with Ohio State, a team that had one of the most efficient offenses I've ever seen. To surround a guy like Jared Sullinger with four tremendous three-point shooters is basically the perfect college basketball offense. They lose Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler and David Lighty to graduation. William Buford, Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas could all declare for the NBA Draft, but right now I actually think all three will return. Sullinger is the surprise, because I don't see why his NBA stock is going to get any higher. But assuming Sullinger is back, the loss of Dallas Lauderdale isn't a big deal. Diebler and Lighty are tougher losses. Diebler is one of the greatest outside shooters in recent memory, and Lighty is a good offensive players and also the team's premier defender. In addition to Sullinger and Thomas, Thad Matta will have LaQuinton Ross (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 53), Amir Williams (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 73) and Trey McDonald (Scout: 15 C). In the backcourt, Aaron Craft will be the point guard and will presumably start with William Buford. Jordan Sibert and Lenzelle Smith are returners with potential, and Matta also adds Sam Thompson (Scout: 15 SF, Rivals: 46) and Shannon Scott (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 65). Assuming that Sullinger, Buford and Thomas really do return, Ohio State will be a National Title contender again.

Purdue has to move on without JaJuan Johnson and E'Twuan Moore, and the two main questions going forward will be Robbie Hummel and Kelsey Barlow. Hummel had his 2009-10 season ended early with an ACL injury, and then he had another ACL injury that cost him his entire 2010-11 season. Can he finally get healthy for a season? And as for Barlow, he was booted off the team at the end of the season, and it's unclear if he'll be allowed back. Of the returners that we know about, Purdue should still have a strong backcourt with Lewis Jackson (who's always been good defensively, but really developed offensively this past season), Ryne Smith, Terone Johnson and John Hart. DJ Byrd is more of a small forward, but he's also a returner from the starting rotation. Things are more uncertain in the frontcourt, particularly if Hummel can't stay healthy. They won't return a single player over 6'5" that played more than seven minutes per game in 2010-11. Patrick Bade, Sandy Marcius and Travis Carroll are all prospects, as are 2011 recruits Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson.

Wisconsin was the third team in the trio of elite teams that dominated the Big Ten in 2010-11. They lose Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz to graduation. Leuer and Nankivil were the team's two best bigs, so they'll be very difficult to lose. Jarmusz was the classic underrated Wisconsin player who played solid defense, never turned the ball over, never committed fouls and never made mistakes - but never had a Sportscenter highlight his entire career. The backcourt will return everybody, though, and should be really good. Jordan Taylor was probably the best pure point guard in the nation (an absurd 3.8 A/TO ratio) and Josh Gasser is a good shooting guard. Rob Wilson and Ben Brust are two other returning guards that didn't play much but have potential. They also bring in a couple of quality guards in their 2011 class: Traevon Jackson and George Marshall. In the frontcourt, they lose their three starters to graduation, but Jarred Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz are key returners. Berggren could be a real key because of his ability to score in the paint, something that Wisconsin bigs rarely did in 2010-11. Ryan Evans is another returner that could play big minutes, as is Evan Anderson, who redshirt the 2010-11 season and has four seasons of eligibility left. Bo Ryan's 2011 recruiting class has two more quality bigs in Jarrod Uthoff (Scout: 22 PF, Rivals: 150) and Frank Kaminsky (Scout: 21 C). Bo Ryan is entering his 11th season as head coach at Wisconsin, and in the previous ten they finished no lower than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten and made the Tournament each time. I don't see that changing in 2011-12.

While there was a way back to the rest of the conference in the standings (no team other than Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin finished better than 9-9), there certainly wasn't a big gap in talent back to Illinois, a team that was just painfully inconsistent and terrible in the clutch. From the starting lineup they lose Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis to graduation. Off the bench they lose Bill Cole to graduation and Jereme Richmond to the NBA Draft. So that means that the only regular rotation players to return will be Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson, who are both basically shooting guards. They do return plenty of young players with talent that were simply buried on the bench behind players like McCamey and Tisdale. Crandall Head will likely get a lot of playing time next year at shooting guard, while Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey are going to be key frontcourt returners. The 2011 recruiting class is a deep one, feature Mychael Henry (Scout: 19 SF, Rivals: 36), Tracy Abrams (Scout: 14 PG, Rivals: 50), Mike Shaw (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 58) and Nnanna Egwu (Scout: 9 C, Rivals: 93). Paul and Richardson are the only certain starters for next year. One of either Henry or Abrams will likely start as well. The frontcourt is the bigger question mark, with Meyers Leonard probably the safest bet to start.

Michigan State was a very disappointing team - their defense absolutely fell apart midway through the season and never really recovered. Star Kalin Lucas graduates, as do Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler. The core next year will be the senior frontcourt duo of Draymond Green and Delvon Roe. Adriene Payne, Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix will provide depth, as will Alex Gauna, Austin Thornton and Branden Dawson (Scout: 4 SF, Rivals: 13). They'll be as talented and deep in the frontcourt as any team in the conference. The question mark will be on the perimeter, because Korie Lucious was expected to be the heir to Kalin Lucas, but he left the program. Keith Appling played well as a true freshman, but their top returner otherwise is Russell Byrd, who redshirted 2010-11 and hasn't played a minute for Michigan State yet. Tom Izzo's 2011 class has some depth at the guard position, if no superstars (Dwaun Anderson, Brandon Kearney and Travis Trice). Michigan State will have less total talent than they had in 2010-11, but the 2010-11 team had Final Four talent that just under-performed. It's possible that a new season will bring a new attitude, particularly on defense.

Michigan was the up-and-coming team in the Big Ten in 2010-11. Their seven man rotation had three freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors. Everybody will be back. That said, Darius Morris (their star and best player) did throw his name in the NBA hat. For now I think he'll come back. Another year of seasoning could turn him into a lottery pick. Assuming he's back he'll presumably start in the backcourt with Tim Hardaway, Jr, with Zach Novak on the wing. Stu Douglas, another guard, started in 2010-11, but if I was John Beilein I'd bench him in favor of a forward like Evan Smotrycz. Matt Vogrich is another guard providing depth. In the frontcourt, Jordan Morgan played really well down the stretch and will start. The aforementioned Smotrycz will play a lot at the power forward position, and Jon Horford is another decent prospect. Their top 2011 recruits are Carlton Bundidge (Scout: 23 SG, Rivals: 104) and Trey Burke (Scout: 28 PG, Rivals: 136). Assuming Morris comes back, there's no question they'll be improved. I wouldn't put them in the Top Ten (like I know some will do) simply because of how thin their backcourt is, and because they can become over-dependent on hitting threes, but they'll certainly be a Top 25 team.

Penn State had a tremendous season that ended up with their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001. But this was a one year experience that won't be repeated. Talor Battle was one of the most valuable players in the nation and he'll graduate. They also lose three additional starters to graduation (Jeff Brooks, Andrew Jones and David Jackson). Tim Frazier, their starting point guard, returns. But after him they return only forward Billy Oliver from players that earned more than ten minutes per game. Taran Buie was a highly touted 2010 recruit, but he was suspended and missed almost the entire season, and it's now very unclear if he'll ever play for Penn State again. Northwestern was another team that had a disappointing season - again coming up short of their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Although they did reach an NIT for the third straight year - the first time they've ever achieved that feat in school history. Michael Thompson is a killer graduation loss because he was the heart and soul of the team, and their leader on the floor. But they do return every other key player, including shooting guard Drew Crawford and forward John Shurna, who is the goofiest looking player in the history of mankind that plays basketball as well as he does. A big key for the team will be the development of JerShon Cobb, and whether he'll be able to step in and be the poor man's Michael Thompson. In the frontcourt they return Luka Mirkovic, Alex Marcotullio and Davide Curletti. Their best and most important prospect is Tre Demps, who might be able to play the point if Cobb can't.

Here's how I see the Big Ten ending up:

1. Ohio State - It now looks like they won't have any NBA defections. Assuming that's the case, Ohio State will be in the discussion to be #1 in the country. They'll certainly be everybody's pick to win the Big Ten.
2. Wisconsin - After Ohio State, there are several teams that could be picked to finish second. I'm going with Wisconsin because they're the safest pick - you know they'll never lose at home, you know they'll be in contention at the top of the conference, etc. Having a starting center that actually has a post game (Jared Berggren) could really be beneficial for their offense, too.
3. Michigan - The Wolverines will drop a few spots if Darius Morris goes pro, but I don't think he will. Returning everybody from a team that looked like one of the 30 best teams in the nation down the stretch means that they'll be in everybody's Top 25, and could get some Top Ten buzz.
4. Purdue - If Robbie Hummel comes back and plays every game with the same ability he showed during the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons then Purdue could finish in second place again. But are you really willing to bet on that? Their frontcourt gets very thin and inexperienced if he can't go.
5. Michigan State - I know that some people won't even pick Michigan State to make the NCAA Tournament, but I actually think they'll be better than they were in 2010-11. There was something in their team chemistry that wasn't right in 2010-11, but they've got oodles of talent and still have Tom Izzo.
6. Illinois - Like Michigan State this team underperformed the talent they had in 2010-11. I think it will be healthy for the team to have Demetri McCamey out of the locker room. They've got a lot of young talent, even with Jereme Richmond leaving for the NBA.
7. Indiana - The Hoosiers return everybody from last year's team other than Jeremiah Rivers, and Tom Crean finally has brought a big time recruit to Indiana in Cody Zeller (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 20). They'll definitely be better, but they're at best going to be a bubble team.
8. Northwestern - They'll still be able to shoot and return their entire frontcourt. If they can find a player to provide 75% of what Juice Thompson gave them (be it JerShon Cobb or Tre Demps) they'll be on the NCAA Tournament bubble again.
9. Iowa - Fran McCaffery did a really good job in his first year with this team, bringing in an uptempo, aggressive style that has the fans back and the team competitive for the first time in several years. They only lose one player to graduation, but it's star Jarryd Cole. Melsahn Besabe did have a great freshman year, and McCaffery is bringing in young players to build around, but they're at least a year away from actually making it back to the NCAA Tournament.
10. Nebraska - Nebraska has made a financial commitment to basketball to allow themselves to compete in the Big Ten, highlighted by a brand new arena that is set to open in 2013. They lose star Lance Jeter to graduation, but return the rest of their starting lineup. I don't see any way they finish in the top half of the conference, but they'll at least be competitive. It will be interesting to see how this program develops in the Big Ten.
11. Minnesota - Tubby Smith has brought in a lot of quality recruits to Minnesota, but his tenure has been a mess off the court. Blake Hoffarber and Al Nolen graduate, but in addition they had Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson leave the team just in the past few months. Trevor Mbakwe was arrested for approximately the 835th time recently, and he may or may not be back. Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are both considering the NBA Draft, even though I doubt either would be drafted. And this is basically how every season at Minnesota under Tubby has been - suspensions, arrests, transfers, etc. Tubby needs to stop trying to win next year's Big Ten title, and needs to settle his program down to build more steadily with higher quality characters.
12. Penn State - They'll be by far the least talented team in the Big Ten. Their only chance of escaping the Big Ten cellar will be a return of Taran Buie, and even then I'll still pick them preseason to finish last.

No comments: