Thursday, April 10, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Big Ten

Big Ten Conference

Was the Big Ten the best conference in the nation? I argued all season long that I felt it was, though you could certainly argue for the Big 12. Those two were clearly a step ahead of every other league. The Big Ten came within a single day of matching the all-time record with three teams in the Final Four, but in the end only Wisconsin got there, and the Big Ten's title drought continues. Next year the league is going to be very different, though. My argument for the Big Ten over the Big 12 consisted of, basically, "The Big 12 has TCU and the Big Ten doesn't", which of course led to the point that from TCU's perspective, the Big 12 was probably the nation's toughest conference. Fair enough. But the Big Ten is now getting its own TCU in Rutgers.

Now, let's not forget that Nebraska basketball was basically Rutgers for most of the last 20 years, and Rutgers should get a boost from being in the Big Ten. And that's all true, but there are two big differences that suggest Rutgers fans shouldn't prepare for an at-large bid in two seasons. First, Nebraska has Tim Miles and Rutgers doesn't. Second, Nebraska invested heavily in facilities, which made it easier to upgrade their talent. Maybe the new Big Ten Network money will lead Rutgers to invest more heavily in basketball, but it hasn't happened yet.

Anyway, that's enough talking about Rutgers. Let's talk about the Big Ten's Final Four team: Wisconsin. Both Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are saying that they'll return next season, which immediately puts Wisconsin in the discussion for the best team in the nation. The only player that they lose from their regular rotation is Ben Brust. And people who don't pay attention to college basketball before March might have just discovered Frank Kaminsky in the Elite 8, the reality is that he was great all season long. The Pomeroy ratings had him the Big Ten Player of the Year even before the tourney tipped off. With him back, along with Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Duje Dukan, along with 2013 recruit Vitto Brown and 6'7" Ethan Happ (Rivals: 140), the Wisconsin front court can only be better next season. Losing Brust means that they lose a backcourt starter, but they still return three very strong players (Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig), all of whom can play the point. The fourth guard will either be 2013 recruit Riley Dearring or Zak Showalter, who played off the bench as a freshman in 2012-13 season and took a redshirt this past season. Assuming Dekker and Kaminsky do indeed return, Wisconsin will likely be the preseason Big Ten favorite and a Top 5 team in the nation.

Michigan was the Big Ten's regular season champion, though they were a bit lucky to get there, going 5-0 in Big Ten regular season games decided by six points or less. Their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.10 PPP) was the same was Wisconsin and not much better than Iowa (+0.07 PPP). But they did it without Mitch McGary, which was extremely impressive, getting within a single play of the Final Four in the end. But for next year, they're awfully hard to project. Most people assume Nik Stauskas will go pro, even if it's not official yet. Mitch McGary and Glen Robinson III are on the draft bubble, though, as both are expected to be late first or early second round picks if they choose to come out. What about the rest of the rotation? Jordan Morgan graduates and Jon Horford announced earlier today his intent to transfer, which means that if McGary goes then there won't be a single proven big man returner. They will get back 6'8" 2013 recruit Mark Donnal, who took a redshirt season, and add Kameron Chatman (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 29), 6'8" DJ Wilson (Rivals: 135) and 6'7" Ricky Doyle. They don't have any backcourt players coming in, but will have both Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht, who can both handle the point. Caris LeVert was always a good defender, but improved a ton offensively as a sophomore, and could be the team's top scoring option next season. Zak Irvin will fill a lot of the Stauskas role next season as well. If Michigan can bring back McGary and Robinson, they will have the top-to-bottom talent to challenge Wisconsin. If those two players leave, though, the Wolverines will plummet down the standings.

Michigan State had perhaps a slightly unsatisfying season, as they were beat up with injuries all season long. They got the full roster back for the Big Ten tournament, and looked awfully impressive winning the title, but then had a clunker in the Elite 8 against UConn. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling graduate, while Gary Harris and Branden Dawson are both weighing whether to go pro. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume Harris goes and Dawson stays. The proven returners aside from (potentially) Dawson are Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, who will likely be the starting backcourt next season. In the front court, they'll return Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello off the bench. Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd could also return, but both are graduating with a year of eligibility left, and there are rumors about both players leaving to use their final year of eligibility at a school where they can play more. Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis were the 2013 recruiting class, and neither played much as a true freshman, but Schilling in particular should be due significantly more minutes as a sophomore. Tom Izzo's 2014 recruiting class is led by Lourawls Nairn (Scout: 24 PG, Rivals: 61).

Ohio State's season started out really well, but they faded a bit late. Still, they were better than their resume, and were a strong 6 seed that just ran into the buzzsaw of Dayton and lost on the final play of the game in the Round of 64. A tough end to the lightning rod career of Aaron Craft. Lenzelle Smith graduates as well, and LaQuinton Ross is going to the NBA. Amadeo Della Valle is leaving to go pro in Europe. Ohio State's front court should be improved next season, returning Sam Thompson and Amir Williams as likely starters, with the talented Marc Loving returning as well, along with the addition of 6'9" Anthony Lee (13.6 ppg and 8.6 rpg as a junior at Temple this past season), Keita Bates-Diop (Scout: 6 SF, Rivals: 24) and 6'9" David Bell. The backcourt returns a very talented defender in Shannon Scott (honestly, he was arguably better than Craft was), but he's not much of an offensive player. Shooting guard Kam Williams, a 2013 recruit, took a redshirt season and will likely feature prominently next season. They also add D'Angelo Russell (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 21) and Jae'Sean Tate (Scout: 14 SF, Rivals: 75), who was a small forward in high school but at 6'5", 200 pounds will likely be a shooting guard in the Big Ten. This is definitely where the concern is. I'm not sure who Ohio State's offensive creator is, and they might have another year of great defense with mediocre offense.

The final NCAA Tournament team from the Big Ten was Nebraska, with their amazing late season run, taking 10 of their final 12 regular season games to sneak in as an 11 seed. And with only Ray Gallegos graduating from their regular rotation, the question is whether Terran Petteway goes pro. The smart move would be to stay, and if he does then it would be hard for Nebraska not to be improved. Their top returners aside from Petteway are probably 6'7" wing Shavon Shields and 6'10" Walter Pitchford. But before we put Nebraska into Big Ten title contention, or even the Top 25, the concern has to be raised about the level of raw talent at Nebraska. Tim Miles did a fantastic job squeezing what he could out of this roster with a really solid defense (their 0.98 PPP allowed in conference play were second only to Ohio State), but the defense was not explosive (they didn't force a lot of turnovers or block a lot of shots) and their offense was pretty mediocre. They just don't have blue chip talent, and don't have any of it coming in next season either. The best up-and-comer from the 2013 recruits is point guard Tai Webster, and their 2014 recruiting class is headed by 6'8" Jacob Hammond.

Iowa was probably the most underrated team in the nation this past season, due to horrifically bad luck in close games (2-9 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime, including 0-6 against Big Ten opponents). It's fitting that even in an NCAA Tournament play-in game they somehow ended up stuck playing one of the 20 best teams in the country... and then losing in overtime. It basically summed up their entire season. Yet despite having the toughest Big Ten SOS of any team in the top half of the league, their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.07 PPP) wasn't significantly behind regular season champion Michigan (+0.10 PPP). So we can play the guessing game what the narrative will be when next season, like Florida this past season, Iowa's luck in close games regresses to the mean. What about next season's roster? They lose star Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe, along with Zach McCabe off the bench. The front court should be fine, returning Aaron White, Gabriel Olaseni, Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff. On the wing they should look for increased production from Peter Jok, and also return Josh Oglesby. The question is going to be ball handling with the loss of Marble. Mike Gesell is going to have to take the next step as a player, because there aren't other obviously good options. Juco transfer Trey Dickerson might be the next man up.

Maryland has spent the last two seasons finishing up just on the wrong side of the bubble. Now that they're joining the Big Ten, can Mark Turgeon finally get this team Dancing? Well, they didn't have a single senior in their regular rotation, but Mark Turgeon signed a massive 2014 recruiting class, leading them to be way oversigned. The result was that three players are transferring out, and all three were from the regular rotation: Nick Faust, Shaq Cleare and Roddy Peters. Star Dez Wells and wing Evan Smotrycz will both be seniors next season, and the team also returns big man Charles Mitchell. But the front court is a concern with the transfers out, without much in the way of proven returners. 6'9" 2013 recruit Damonte Dodd didn't do much as a true freshman, but could see much more playing time if he can improve over the offseason. The 2014 recruiting class includes a pair of 7-footers: 7'1" Trayvon Reed (Scout: 12 C, Rivals: 96) and 7'0" Michal Cekovsky. The backcourt should be strong, with Seth Allen running the point and Dez Wells alongside. They also add a pair of blue chippers in Romelo Trimble (Scout: 8 PG, Rivals: 36) and Dion Wiley (Scout: 4 SG, Rivals: 49).

Indiana continues to have massive roster turnover every year under Tom Crean. Yogi Ferrell improved significantly from his freshman season, and he will anchor next season's team, but after him there are going to be a lot of changes. Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon graduate, Noah Vonleh is off to the NBA, and Jeremy Hollowell and Austin Etherington are leaving via transfer (not to mention Luke Fischer who left via transfer midseason). This means that the only really proven players returning alongside Ferrell are Stanford Robinson, who struggled mightily as a true freshman, and wing Troy Williams. Bigs Devin Davis and Hanner Mosquera-Perea played sparingly this past season, but could see more time simply because somebody has to be on the floor. Tom Crean has a pair of blue chippers coming in: James Blackmon (Scout: 6 SG, Rivals: 23) and Robert Johnson (Scout: 9 SG, Rivals: 42).

Minnesota had a solid first season under Richard Pitino, winning the NIT. Austin Hollins graduates, but the Gophers should be fine in the backcourt, returning Andre Hollins and point guard Deandre Mathieu, while adding Juco transfer Carlos Morris, but they might need a little more depth. Minnesota will probably have a bigger lineup next season, returning 6'11" Elliott Eliason while having more minutes available for 6'10" Maurice Walker, 6'9" Joey King and 6'8" Oto Osenieks.

It feels like a million years ago, but Illinois was ranked in the Top 25 when Big Ten play tipped off this season. They didn't deserve to be ranked, sitting in the mid-40s in the computers, but if not for a brutal 8 game losing streak from January into early February, they actually would have had a pretty successful season. They still managed to get to 7-11 in Big Ten play, and were starting to get into the bubble discussion before falling short against Michigan by 1 point in the Big Ten tournament. They should be significantly stronger next season, losing only Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey and adding three transfers: Aaron Cosby (12.6 ppg and 3.0 apg as a sophomore at Seton Hall), Ahmad Starks (10.4 ppg and 2.3 apg as a junior at Oregon State) and Darius Paul (10.4 ppg and 5.7 rpg as a freshman at Western Michigan). With Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and NNanna Egwu all seniors next season, Illinois has a nice mix of experienced quality players and up-and-coming raw talent. Look for more production out of shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and wing Malcolm Hill, both of whom are wing players. John Groce has a 2014 recruiting class highlighted by Leron Black (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 41).

In the end, here's how I see the Big Ten playing out:

1. Wisconsin - It's going to be hard to find a weakness for this Wisconsin team. They needed more size and rebounding this past season, but Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ should help. Also, considering the natural progression of big men at Wisconsin, Nigel Hayes could be scary good next season.
2. Michigan - This is the one Big Ten team that you can argue as a Big Ten favorite over Wisconsin, assuming they get back Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III. But you can make a good case that there isn't a single NBA Draft "bubble" candidate who will mean more to his team by coming back than McGary. There simply isn't another proven big man on the roster.
3. Ohio State - A lot of people are down on Ohio State next season, but they actually should be a similar team. They're still going to be viciously good defensively. The question is offense, but it's not like their offense was good this past season either.
4. Iowa - The Hawkeyes might take a little step back next season, but they should still be a borderline Top 25 team at worst. Backcourt depth is their biggest concern.
5. Illinois - This is going to be the most talented Illinois team in years, but to be a real contender for second or third place in the Big Ten they're going to need a second scorer beyond Rayvonte Rice. That scorer might have to be one of the transfers.
6. Maryland - The Terps definitely seemed on pace to be a Top 25 team next season, but the three players who chose to clear up scholarships are a bad sign. Nick Faust, in particular, is a tough loss.
7. Nebraska - The Huskers should get back to the NCAA Tournament if Terran Petteway is back, but the offense is going to need to get a lot better for them to reach the Top 25.
8. Michigan State - Even assuming Branden Dawson is back, I still need to drop the Spartans here. Their offense is going to struggle in a big way without Appling, Harris or Payne.
9. Minnesota - The Gophers have a good chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but backcourt depth is a problem if Carlos Morris doesn't live up the hopes that Minnesota fans have for him.
10. Purdue - The Boilermakers need AJ Hammons to skip the NBA Draft to have a real chance at an at-large bid, but they still have some young talent to build around. Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman both had very strong freshman seasons, and their 2014 recruiting class is led by 7'1" Isaac Haas.
11. Indiana - Unless Tom Crean finds some quality additions before next season tips off, his seat might actually start getting a bit warm.
12. Northwestern - With Drew Crawford leaving, Northwestern could take a small step back next season, but it seems like Chris Collins is upgrading the level of talent in Evanston with a really nice recruiting class (by Northwestern standards), led by Vic Law (Scout: 17 SF, Rivals: 86).
13. Penn State - Tim Frazier graduates, which means that the team turns over to DJ Newbill. But who else do they have who can create their own shot?
14. Rutgers - I wasn't a big fan of the Eddie Jordan hire, and there's no sign right now that he's putting together a program that can compete seriously in the Big Ten. It could be a very long season in Piscataway.

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