Sunday, April 14, 2013
2013-14 Preview: Big Ten
I've talked before about what makes a "great" conference, and how we judge conferences. The Big Ten was clearly the best conference this past season, of course, but were they an all-time great league? Eh... probably not. The media tends to judge conferences by how good the top three or four teams are, and by that sense the Big Ten was awesome. Five of the top 10 or 12 teams in the nation came from the Big Ten. But there were still three mediocre teams at the bottom. If you want to talk about top-to-bottom depth, I still think that no conference in recent memory can match 2009-10 ACC. That conference was called "down" by the media, but if you go back and read my blog posts from that year I was infuriated by that idea. It was called "down" because North Carolina was down and only one team (Duke) earned greater than a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But not a single team was rated worse than 76th in the Pomeroy ratings. That is incredible. Every game was a battle. Miami was Top 50 in Pomeroy and finished in dead last place in the standings. Imagine that.
Anyway, to get this conversation back to the Big Ten, let's start with Indiana. The Hoosiers had a tremendous season, earning the outright regular season title in the nation's best conference, though it ended on a sour note with their total clunker against Syracuse. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo go off to the NBA. And as I've said before, I do think that Zeller was awfully underrated. The media writes him off as a soft guy who disappears in big games, but when I watched him play big games he either played really well or spent the whole game fighting for position in the post while his teammates refused to give him the ball. Point guard play and offensive distribution was an issue for Indiana this past season, and he will improve with NBA point guards. Either way, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls graduate as well. So the Hoosiers now lose their best interior defender, their best perimeter defender, their only post scorer and three of their four 40%+ three-point shooters. Indiana's gigantic defensive improvement and their outside shooting (4th in the nation with a 40.3 3P%) were why they were so good this past season.
So who returns for Indiana? Yogi Ferrell is the returning starter, and they also have Will Sheehey and Remy Abell (Abell was the fourth 40%+ three-point shooter). Ferrell and Abell will be a strong starting backcourt, though their backcourt bench is going to be relatively thin. They might be leaning heavily on Jonny Marlin, who averaged 4.3 ppg and 3.5 apg for IPFW in 2011-12. Their only quality backcourt recruit is Stanford Robinson (Scout: 14 SG, Rivals: 51). In the front court, things are going to turn over to Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perra, two 2012 recruits who occasionally were able to get on the floor as true freshmen (Peter Jurkin was the third big in that 2012 class, but he never saw the floor outside garbage time as a true freshman, so it's hard to expect a lot from him as a sophomore). Tom Crean's 2013 recruiting class is again heavy on size: Noah Vonleh (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 7), Troy Williams (Scout: 16 SF, Rivals: 38) and Luke Fischer (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 116). So the Hoosiers aren't going away, but it's hard to see how these freshmen can replace Zeller, Oladipo, Watford and Hulls. Not many productive players return, so Indiana should be expected to take a little step back.
 I forgot that Remy Abell is transferring out. That's even more brutal for Indiana. I still think that 5th place is a reasonable projection for them, but they're definitely going to take a big step back.
Of the five teams atop the Big Ten, Michigan looked least likely to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. They faded to fifth in the regular season standings, were easily handled by Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament, and appeared to have peaked earlier in the season. It just goes to show yet again how dumb the concept of "momentum" is. Of the Final Four teams this season, only one (Louisville) was playing anything like its best basketball of the season late in the year. Ironically, the Tournament run could hurt Michigan for next season. The Mitch McGary phenomenon, in particular, baffled me. I spent all season driving the Mitch McGary bandwagon, arguing that he was way underrated and had the potential to be the best big man in the Big Ten in a year or two. Most people disagreed with me, and he didn't even crack the Big Ten's All-Freshman team. Nobody considered the possibility that he'd be a one-and-done player. And then he had a massive second half against Kansas and the game of his life in the Final Four against Syracuse, and suddenly all of the folks in the media who never watched him play all season were hyping him up as a Top 5 draft pick. That is... insane. He's a good prospect, but he's at best a decent NBA rebounder at this point. His offensive game has a long, long way to go. So what about those NBA decisions? Trey Burke has already said he's going pro, but McGary, Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson III are all in limbo. McGary and Robinson are both projected as lottery picks, and history says that guys like that tend to go and get paid. So I think they're gone. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Hardaway returns. Hardaway is a terrific raw talent, but he's not yet playing up to his talent. Another year of seasoning could move him up from being a borderline first round pick to a lottery pick.
So who will definitely be returning for Michigan? In the backcourt, Spike Albrecht and Chris LeVert return. Despite his crazy shooting in the first half of the title game, I wouldn't expect a whole lot from Albrecht as a sophomore. LeVert is the better talent. He's already proven to be a really strong defender, and has the talent to develop a strong offensive game. Alongside Tim Hardaway, Jr, and with Derrick Walton (Scout: 7 PG, Rivals: 47) off the bench, Michigan should be okay there. Nik Stauskas will patrol the wing again, along with 6'6" Zak Irvin (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 34). In the front court, the loss of Mitch McGary will hurt, because I'm sure that John Beilein was assuming he'd be back. Jordan Morgan will be back for one more season. Morgan is a superb defender, but he's never going to be a big offensive player. Jon Horford is a decent bench player, but it's hard to see him improving enough to be a quality Big Ten starter next season. Mark Donnal (Scout: 13 C, Rivals: 107) might immediately be thrust into the starting lineup. Should McGary and Robinson come back then this Michigan team immediately becomes a possible Top Ten team again. But assuming that they go, Beilein is going to have a difficult time putting together starting lineup.
Michigan State is a very popular top pick for next season. The big question mark, though, is the draft status of Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. Derrick Nix is the only graduating player, so if Payne and Harris both come back then Michigan State will be significantly improved over a squad that was borderline Top Ten this past season. I keep seeing Payne projected as a borderline first round pick, so he really might go. I think Harris will be back, though. Keith Appling will return to handle the point alongside Gary Harris, with Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice returning off the bench. If Payne goes pro then, along with the Derrick Nix graduation, the front court will be a bit more of a question mark. Branden Dawson will be back, of course. Matt Costello should be good also - I like what I saw out of him in limited minutes. After that they're looking at 6'7" Kenny Kaminski (a 2012 recruit who took a redshirt season) and 6'9" 2013 recruit Gavin Schilling. So you can see just why that Adreian Payne draft decision is so huge. If he returns then I like them as a Top 5 team in the nation. Without him, they actually might not be as good as they were in 2012-13.
Ohio State was a young team this past season. Only backup big man Evan Ravenel was a senior. DeShaun Thomas is going pro, though, and that's a significant concern. Outside of Trey Burke, DeShaun Thomas was probably the best pure scorer in NCAA basketball this past season. And even with him, Ohio State's offense got stuck at times. Scoring will be a significant concern heading into next season. Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott will all be back, so Ohio State's backcourt defense should be spectacular. In the front court they will return Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams. Of all of those returners, though, Thompson is the only real "scorer". So 2013-14 Ohio State could look a lot like 2012-13 Wisconsin in terms of a superb defense that disappears at times offensively. Who will be the new additions? Shooting guard Amedeo Della Valle isn't technically an addition, but he only played 108 minutes all season long. Thad Matta's 2013 recruiting class features Marc Loving (Scout: 16 PF, Rivals: 63) and Kameron Williams (Scout: 23 SG, Rivals: 83).
Speaking of Wisconsin, I know that I spend a lot of time fighting the common stereotype around teams like the Badgers, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame that play a slow tempo and don't have a ton of NBA lottery pick talent, and so get the descriptions "ugly" and "defense-first" applied by the media. Wisconsin has actually had the strongest offense in the Big Ten in three of the past five seasons, and is typically better on offense than on defense. This past season, though, the stereotype was actually not that far off from reality. Their offense wasn't terrible (their 0.98 PPP were tied for sixth best in the Big Ten, and Pomeroy rated them 64th best in adjusted offensive efficiency), but when their jump shots weren't falling then they could really struggle. Their shooting abandoned them at a historic rate in that shocking loss to Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament (it was their worst eFG% in a game in 7 seasons). Their losses to graduation are their starting front court of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz, and that should fix the balance between offense and defense. Berggren was a strong offensive player, but the other two were not, and the offense should improve from addition by subtraction. At the same time, it's hard to fathom Wisconsin being as dominant defensively without those three. What made those three so good defensively wasn't just that they were strong at defending their position, but that they were flexible. Bo Ryan could have his team switch every screen and be confident that Evans and Bruesewitz could defend both shooting guards and centers. He won't have that type of flexibility next season.
So who returns for Wisconsin? Their backcourt should be excellent, with every regular returning (Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and George Marshall). They also get Josh Gasser back from injury, and I'd actually expect Gasser to start in a three-guard starting lineup. Their strongest 2013 recruit is also a perimeter player - Bronson Koenig (Scout: 27 SG, Rivals: 73). The front court is going to be a bigger concern. Sam Dekker is going to be really good, but he's more of a wing player. Frank Kaminsky is the only proven big man coming back. The most likely new player to step into a key role is 6'7" 2013 recruit Nigel Hayes. 6'7" Vitto Brown is another possibility, as is 6'6" Zach Bohannon, who played around 5 minutes per game for Wisconsin this past season.
Both Minnesota and Iowa were victims of the Big Ten was this past year. Either team would have likely gone 11-7 or 12-6 in a conference like the Big 12 and been in much better shape on Selection Sunday. Instead, Minnesota dropped to an 11 seed and Iowa got dumped to the NIT, where they went all the way to the title game. Iowa entered the NIT sitting near 30th in the both Sagarin and Pomeroy, and they pushed up to near 25th by the end of the tournament. And they should be even better next season, with only one senior in their regular rotation (Eric May). Roy Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell are their two primary playmakers, and Melsahn Basabe is a good big man, but the player I really like is Aaron White. White is 6'8", but has a remarkably smooth ability to get into the paint and both score and get to the line. He's also a strong defensive player. Keep an eye on him as a potential first team All-Big Ten player. Another young player to keep an eye on is 7'1" Adam Woodbury, who hasn't developed an offensive game yet but is a superb defender. Iowa's offense actually didn't improve relative to 2011-12 - they got better because their defense got a lot better, and Woodbury was a significant reason why. They have no new significant prospects, but Iowa doesn't need new players. Natural progression from a year of extra experience should make the Hawkeyes a Top 25 team next season.
Minnesota is a lot less certain. They moved on from Tubby Smith, who (in my opinion) is in the same boat as Ben Howland. Firing either Smith or Howland a year ago might have made sense after several tough seasons, but both UCLA and Minnesota were dramatically improved in 2012-13. The fact that Minnesota was in the Big Ten, and went 3-6 against Big Ten opponents in games decided by seven points or less, meant that they were significantly underrated by the media and fans. But unlike Iowa, there's no reason to expect Minnesota to keep progressing forward next season. Richard Pitino might turn into a good coach, but he's clearly got a rebuilding job on his hands. Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Julian Welch graduate, and Minnesota's entire 2013 recruiting class has decommitted. There is talk of transfers out also, though so far nothing is certain. Who are the top returners for now? Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are a really nice backcourt, along with Joe Coleman as a third guard/swing forward. Maverick Ahanmisi is a decent shooting guard off the bench. The front court is thinner, with Elliott Eliason the only proven returner. It's a safe assumption that Richard Pitino will add some recruits and/or transfers this summer. But his roster is pretty thin until he does.
Speaking of teams that were underrated because they were in the Big Ten: Purdue. The Boilermakers didn't even make the NIT, yet they finished in the Top 70 in both Pomeroy and the Sagarin PREDICTOR, which put them on par with the last couple of at-large teams in the NCAA Tournament field. And this was an awfully young team. Six of their top eight minute earners were freshmen or sophomores, and they lose only one senior from their regular rotation (DJ Byrd). Byrd's loss takes away their only quality outside shooter, but there is a lot of young talent on that roster. Ronnie and Terone Johnson both show flashes of brilliance, though it's inconsistent. Raphael Davis is another backcourt option, and their top 2013 recruit is Kendall Stephens (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 59). In the front court, Purdue will be building around 7-footer AJ Hammons, who is going to be really good. Travis Carroll, Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson will fill up most of the other front court playing time.
Northwestern is an intriguing team for next season. We don't yet know what type of head coach Chris Collins will be, but he should get back some of the significant losses that Northwestern suffered during the last year. Before the season, Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb looked like the most likely players to lead the team in scoring. Cobb missed the entire season with an academic suspension, while Crawford was lost for the season to injury after only 10 games (and with the coaching transition, I know that there's concern in Evanston that Crawford will transfer out should he get that medical redshirt). Jared Swopshire was also lost for the season to injury in early February. With Tre Demps playing really well in the extra playing time he got, Northwestern is going to have a lot of strong perimeter playmakers next season. They also will return Dave Sobolewski, though Alex Marcotullio graduates. In the front court, Alex Olah was the star of their 2012 recruiting class, and 6'7" Kale Abrahamson looks good, too. In short, this team should score plenty next season. The concern for Collins is going to be solving the problem that Bill Carmody couldn't solve: defense. They need to figure out how to get stops.
In the end, here's how I see the Big Ten playing out:
1. Michigan State - If Adreian Payne goes pro then Michigan State's front court gets very thin and I might drop them a spot or two, but if he comes back then I would expect the Spartans to be the overwhelming preseason favorite in the Big Ten.
2. Ohio State - Offense is a serious concern with DeShaun Thomas going pro, but this team is going to be awfully talented and awfully good defensively, and their offense really won't need to be that good for them to challenge for a Big Ten title.
3. Wisconsin - The next few spots are going to be really close in the Big Ten, but I'm giving the edge to Wisconsin here. Their defensive losses are significant, but it's important to remember that Josh Gasser was probably their best defender prior to his injury. Bo Ryan is going to need at least one of those 2013 front court recruits to come through as a true freshman, though.
4. Iowa - I'm pretty confident in picking Iowa as a Top 25 team here. They were a borderline Top 25 team in the computers this past season, and return basically everybody.
5. Indiana - The Hoosiers should still be safely in the NCAA Tournament and a borderline Top 25 team, but their losses are absolutely massive. Tom Crean has a ton of talent in those 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes, but the amount of proven returning talent isn't anywhere near what the top four teams in the league will have.
6. Michigan - I'm assuming here that Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III will go pro but Tim Hardaway, Jr will stay. If they get more returners then I'll move them up, but if Hardaway goes I might drop them another spot.
7. Purdue - I think the Boilermakers have an excellent chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament. They are going to need more consistent playmaking from their backcourt, though. If Terone or Ronnie Johnson ever put it all together, Purdue could be really good next season.
8. Minnesota - I'm going out on a limb here and assuming that Richard Pitino is going to land some talent this summer to fill in his roster. He's going to need to if they're going to have a realistic chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Illinois - The Illini lose four of their top seven minutes earners, but they're also losing a couple of overrated players who played way too much one-on-one basketball (Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson). I really like Joseph Bertrand getting more of the ball next season. A bigger concern is filling in a decimated front court.
10. Northwestern - I'm assuming here that the Wildcats get one more season of Drew Crawford. If they do, they should at least be able to score the ball efficiently. They need to defend and need to figure out how to rebound.
11. Penn State - Getting Tim Frazier back is very nice, but overall there just isn't a lot of Big Ten talent on this roster. I like the energy that Pat Chambers brings, and his team always plays really hard (particularly at home), but they play more like a feisty mid-major than a serious Big Ten contender.
12. Nebraska - I love Tim Miles, but he has a lot of developing to do with his young roster. There are no blue chippers that I can see, and so in the battle for last place I give the edge to Tim Frazier and Penn State.