Monday, April 09, 2012

2012-13 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

All season long the Big Ten was the top conference in the nation according to the computers, and I didn't disagree. It's hard to argue when Ohio State spent the season dueling with Kentucky for the #1 spot in the computers while only going 13-5 in conference play, or when a team as good as Purdue only went 10-8. Other than home games against Penn State and Nebraska, there were no easy games for anybody in the conference. Of the six BCS conferences, the Big Ten had the fewest turnovers, the fewest steals, the fewest offensive rebounds, the fewest blocks and the slowest tempo per game in conference play.... in other words, the conference was everything we thought it was. People who complain about Big Ten basketball should spent less time watching basketball and more time watching track & field. I love fundamental play and games where every possession counts. Watching a lot of people who are great runners and jumpers but who don't seem to really understand how to play basketball just isn't as enjoyable to me. But that's just my opinion.

The class of the Big Ten this past season, of course, was Ohio State. Their only loss to graduation is William Buford, though Jared Sullinger will be going pro. But with DeShaun Thomas coming back, Ohio State will again contend for a Big Ten title. Aaron Craft, perhaps the best on-ball defender in the nation, will be back to play the point. Lenzelle Smith, a good scorer and perimeter defender, will be back as well. Thad Matta gave heavy minutes to all five of his starters, though as I explained all season, this is not because he doesn't have talent on his bench. In fact, he had tons of talent on his bench - he just didn't see the need to take out his best players as long as they could handle it physically. Amir Williams is going to be one of the best interior defenders in the nation eventually, while Evan Ravenel and LaQuinton Ross are two other interior prospects. Sam Thompson and JD Williams should get additional playing time on the wing, while Shannon Scott should get more time backing up Craft. They're in the mix for some blue chip 2012 recruits, though Thad Matta hasn't signed one yet. But even if he doesn't, just the players on the roster already are enough to make OSU a Big Ten title contender again.

The team that earned the 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, and a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, was Michigan State. They lose superstar Draymond Green, though, along with Brandon Wood and Austin Thornton. No one player will replace Green's wide array of abilities, but Michigan State will again have a formidable front court, led by Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson. They also add Matt Costello (Scout: 22 C, Rivals: 82) and Kenny Kaminski (Scout: 21 PF, Rivals: 84). On the wing they return Russell Byrd and add Denzel Valentine (Scout: 29 SF, Rivals: 80). On the perimeter, Keith Appling will be the primary playmaker again. There aren't any other proven returners, but Branden Kearney and Travis Trice are both nice prospects, as is Gary Harris (Rivals: 25). Izzo's squad should be better and deeper at every position besides Draymond Green's point forward position. Green can't be replaced, but Michigan State has to be considered a Big Ten contender.

Michigan only tied for third (with Wisconsin) with a +0.07 PPP margin in conference play, but they went 7-1 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime against Big Ten opponents. That luck earned them a share of the Big Ten regular season title and a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The big question mark, though, is the NBA Draft status of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Neither player has made a public decision yet, though my guess is that Burke will go while Hardaway will stay. They also lose Zach Novak and Stu Douglas to graduation, and Evan Smotrycz to transfer. That means that the only player from the six man regular rotation who will certainly be back next season is big man Jordan Morgan. They also return Matt Vogrich, who is a decent shooting guard, along with big man Jon Horford, who missed more than half of last season with a foot injury. But with a thin roster, a lot of pressure will fall on the 2012 recruiting class: Mitch McGary (Rivals: 3), Glen Robinson III (Scout: 7 SF, Rivals: 34) and Nick Skauskus (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 79). Robinson and McGary alongside Morgan should give Michigan a really talented front court, but I have major concerns with that backcourt, even if Hardaway comes back. There is just zero depth. A very underrated loss is Carlton Brundidge, a 2011 shooting guard who played very rarely as a true freshman, but who is also transferring.

Indiana is a team getting a lot of hype for next season. They beat Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State before making a run to the Sweet 16, and none of their top five scorers graduate. Their only graduations are Verdell Jones, Matt Roth and Tom Pritchard. The concern is the NBA Draft, which both Cody Zeller and Christian Watford are considering. At this point, though, it does look like both will be back. Jordan Hulls will handle the point, while both Victor Oladipo and Remy Abell can play shooting guard. There's always a chance that Maurice Creek, who was excellent as a freshman, can finally get healthy. They also add Kevin Ferrell (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 17) and Ron Patterson (Rivals: 131). Assuming Zeller and Watford come back, Indiana will have the deepest front court they've had since the Bob Knight era, with Will Sheehey, Derek Elston and Austin Hetherington back, along with the additions of Hanner Perea (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 16) and Jeremy Hollowell (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 48). If Zeller and Watford do return, Indiana will get hype as a potential #1 team in the nation next season.

One of the misconceptions about Wisconsin each year is that their offense isn't any good. It's natural when a team plays at a slow pace. But Wisconsin was 43rd in the nation in offensive efficiency, and after you control for strength of schedule they're much higher (Pomeroy rated them the 18th best offense in the nation). The concern is that do-everything star Jordan Taylor graduates. With Rob Wilson graduating also, that leaves a lot of perimeter offense gone. Josh Gasser and Ben Brust are the only tested perimeter players. A lot of next year's success will depend on the development of George Marshall, a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt but who will likely take over the point next season. Traevon Jackson is another potential perimeter contributor. While backcourt depth is an issue, Wisconsin's entire front court will be back. The starters were Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. Frank Kaminsky, Evan Anderson and 2011 recruit Jarrod Uthoff are three other young prospects. Bo Ryan also adds a blue chip recruit: Sam Dekker (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 18). With all of their best defenders back (Jordan Taylor often took it easy on defense to save himself for offense), Wisconsin will be excellent defensively again. They have enough weapons to remain good offensively, and will be awfully deep. More importantly, Bo Ryan has been at Wisconsin for 11 seasons and has never missed the NCAA Tournament and has never finished worse than a tie for fourth in the Big Ten. Don't bet against that streak extending to a 12th season.

Purdue suffers heavy losses: Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith. Terone Johnson will take over the point, though he didn't show improvement over his freshman season. DJ Byrd is a quality scorer, and they have a pair of quality big man prospects: Travis Carroll and Jacob Lawson. But compared to the other top teams in the Big Ten, that's very little experience back. Matt Painter does have a deep 2012 recruiting class to build around for the future, but it's hard to not see the team dropping off a bit next season. Northwestern is another team that suffers heavy losses: John Shurna, Davide Curletti and Luka Mirkovic out of an eight man rotation. They will get back Tre Demps and Mike Turner, though. Demps missed most of last season with an injury while Turner redshirted. Demps, alongside Dave Sobolewski, Alex Marcotullio, JerShon Cobb and Reggie Hearn will form a very deep backcourt. Their concern is on the interior, where they return zero players with experience. Mike Turner will be pressed into immediate service, as will top 2012 recruit Kale Abrahamson (Scout: 30 SF, Rivals: 138).

Minnesota is the dark horse team in the Big Ten for next season. The Gophers were a fairly good team this past season but were undone by a killer schedule to finish the regular season which sent them into a losing streak they couldn't recover from in time. A win over Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament and then a run to the NIT title game was an encouraging finish to the season. In addition, they got a sixth year of eligibility for star big man Trevor Mbakwe, who missed most of last season with an injury. The only graduation is Ralph Sampson, and they also lose Chip Armelin to transfer. Rodney Williams is expected to come back for another season, and they also hope to have Trent Lockett, the transfer from Arizona State, able to play right away. With Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins, Julian Welch and Joe Coleman back, that's a deep set of talent, even before mentioning prospects like Elliot Eliason and Andre Ingram.

Iowa is another team that should be improved next season. They lose star sharpshooter Matt Gatens, along with Bryce Cartwright, but have a whole bunch of good young players. Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron Wright, Josh Oglesby, Zach McCabe and Melsahn Basabe all played well this past season and all have at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Fran McCaffery has a deep recruiting class also, led by Adam Woodbury (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 42) and Mike Gesell (Scout: 17 PG, Rivals: 96). The ability of Gesell to take over the point for the graduating Cartwright is probably the biggest concern for the team, as is a defense that needs to improve in the half court. McCaffery has tried to install a very high tempo team, but if they're not forcing turnovers and can't get stops in the half court, it's always going to limit their ceiling in the Big Ten.

1. Indiana - I will obviously drop Indiana if they lose Zeller and/or Watford go pro, but if both of them come back then Indiana will have a good chance to be the #1 team in the nation next season. Tom Crean will have tons of talent to work with. My one concern is whether they'll be able to play better when the pressure is on them. Last season they were at their best at home and when they had no pressure on them. They struggled when they were "supposed" to win games, particularly on the road. That will have to improve to win the Big Ten.
2. Ohio State - If either Cody Zeller or Christian Watford go pro, I'll move Ohio State up to the #1 spot. Jared Sullinger was the key to the offense this past season and he leaves, but DeShaun Thomas has monster talent. If Amir Williams starts then he will, along with Aaron Craft, anchor a defense that could be the best in the nation.
3. Wisconsin - The Badgers will be a lot deeper and could be even better defensively than last season. The concern is replacing the creative abilities of Jordan Taylor on offense, but it seems like almost every year we wonder that about Wisconsin, and Bo Ryan always delivers. If star recruit Sam Dekker can be a big weapon as a true freshman then Wisconsin could contend for a Big Ten title.
4. Michigan State - Tom Izzo will have a lot of depth, and again will have a physical and formidable front line, but Keith Appling was very inconsistent last season. Without Draymond Green, the Spartans do not have a lot of reliable, experienced scoring back. With all of the premier defenses in the Big Ten, Michigan State is going to have to be strong offensively to have a chance to win the conference.
5. Minnesota - Tubby Smith will have more talent than he's ever had at Minnesota, though the reality is that Minnesota has had a lot of raw talent each of the past few seasons. They keep under-performing because of off-court issues and on-court injuries. And you wonder how the team is going to respond to yet another player being run off to replace an incomer (does anybody really believe that Chip Armelin's transfer was voluntary?). I just get bad vibes from this program, which is the only reason I don't have them a spot or two higher.
6. Michigan - The Wolverines are the hardest team in the conference to predict because of the NBA uncertainty. If Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr come back for another season then I could see myself moving them as high as third or fourth, but if both go then the Wolverines are going to be a bubble team at best. They'll be strong on the interior but will have almost no backcourt. The transfers of Evan Smotrycz and Carlton Brundidge are the two most underrated losses in the entire conference.
7. Iowa - I though Iowa was going to be better this past season. They showed flashes of brilliance, but also inconsistency. Fran McCaffery has drastically improved the talent level at Iowa since taking over for Todd Lickliter, but he's not going to win consistently in the Big Ten by trying to out-athlete his opponents. They will have to get more consistent offensively and their defensive efficiency will have to improve.
8. Purdue - Matt Painter is one of the best coaches in the nation and he has a lot of talent to work with, but it's awfully young. Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson were the two indispensable players this past season, and both are gone. It's going to be a rebuilding season for Purdue.
9. Northwestern - You can argue that John Shurna is the most Northwestern-y player ever. In a line of goofy white guys who score a lot of points, Shurna might be the goofiest of them all and he's also the all-time leading scorer at Northwestern. Northwestern's front court will be almost completely bereft of talent next season. I do really like their backcourt, particularly Dave Sobolewski, and if you could combine the Northwestern backcourt with the Michigan front court than you'd have a heck of a team... but without any defensive stoppers or rebounders I just struggle to see where Northwestern will find enough offense.
10. Illinois - If John Groce can hang onto his entire roster then Illinois can contend to get back to the NCAA Tournament, with only Sam Maniscalco graduating. But Meyers Leonard is probably going pro, and there's a risk of multiple players leaving via transfer. There was a horrible chemistry with this team this past season, and I don't expect Groce to be able to clean it up immediately, particularly without any big 2012 recruits yet signed.
11. Penn State - Only Cammeron Woodyard graduates from a team that was frisky this past season. Pat Chambers did a really nice job getting his kids to give maximum effort, and he just lacked the talent to execute it. Tim Frazier got a lot credit from the media, but the reality is that he's overrated - he put up a lot of stats just because he was the playmaker on almost every offensive possession all season. They should be better next season, but still lack the top of the rotation talent to hang at the top half of the league.
12. Nebraska - I really like the hire of Tim Miles, but he's taking over a roster that loses four key players to graduation, and a fifth (Jorge Brian Diaz) to professional basketball overseas. Brandon Ubel is the only player Nebraska has coming back who is a proven Big Ten quality talent. Unless Tim Miles pulls some nice prospects or Juco transfers out of a hat this summer, Nebraska is going to struggle to win more than one or two Big Ten games next season.

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