Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Midseason Report: Big Ten

The Big Ten is being called by some as the best conference in college basketball this season. There are a few teams ranked highly, but the depth is what really makes the conference special. With so many quality teams that can beat anyone on any given night, it’s starting to resemble the Big East. We’ll go over the standings as they are now, and try to sort out what is sure to be a wild second half of the season.

Ohio St. Buckeyes: The return of Jared Sullinger after he declined to go to the NBA draft has made a huge impact on Ohio St. The big man is averaging 17.1 points and 9.1 rebounds for a Buckeye team that has lost only twice when Sullinger is on the floor, both to tough conference opponents on the road. It’s still a bit troubling because they have yet to win a road game against a good team, but they are having a spectacular season nonetheless. As expected, William Buford and Aaron Craft have stepped up their game with the losses of Jon Diebler and David Lighty. However, Deshaun Thomas has made the biggest impact. In order for the Buckeyes to have the same success they did last year, someone would have to emerge, and it’s been Thomas. He has averaged 15 points a game and has really been a threat from deep. They’ve drubbed Duke and Indiana so far, so it’s no surprise as to why they’re a top five team in the country. A lot can happen in the next couple of months, and there are several elite teams in the country, but Ohio St. has a good shot at getting a one seed in the NCAA tournament.

Michigan St. Spartans: After dropping their first two games to Duke and North Carolina, the Spartans have exploded and shown that they are a real contender. Although they just lost back-to-back games against Northwestern and Michigan, they are still in position to grab a high seed in the tournament. Draymond Green is having a season worth noting, averaging 15 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.2 blocks. Green is an incredibly versatile big man and has been a senior leader for these Spartans who are trying to make everyone forget about last season. Keith Appling has increased his production in a big way and transfer Brandon Wood has supplied the team with another scorer and three-point shooter. Wins over Gonzaga, Indiana, and Wisconsin are nice, and the Spartans have a chance to have a very special season. Michigan St. is one of the only teams that I see as true contenders to go against Ohio St. in the Big Ten.

Michigan Wolverines: Michigan is a confusing team. I feel like they’ve lost more than they should have, although four of those losses have been to Duke, Virginia, Indiana, and Arkansas. Tim Hardaway Jr. leads this team with 15.1 points and is the player that gets the Michigan offense going. Hardaway, along with Trey Burke, Zack Novak, Even Smotrycz, and Stu Douglass have all nailed at least 27 three pointers this season. Having that many shooters is dangerous and a matchup problem for nearly anyone. The Wolverines don’t strike me as an elite team just yet, but with their long-range ability, they have the firepower to match the top teams. A road game against Purdue tonight will be a good test for Michigan.

Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers were ranked in the preseason, but have since fallen off the map. Even though all but one of their losses have come against ranked teams, they still only have one quality win, proving that preseason notion to be wrong. Wisconsin has been very good on the defensive end, as usual, but they have upped their scoring this year. Jordan Taylor hasn’t been as good as advertised, but is still a solid point guard nonetheless. Wisconsin has some big tests ahead of them to see if they are tournament worthy or not. They still play Indiana, Illinois, Michigan St., and Ohio St. twice. If they win three out of those five, you will see the Badgers in March.

Illinois Fighting Illini: After an almost flawless run through the nonconference schedule, a loss to Penn St. has shown that Illinois is vulnerable. Back-to-back losses have dropped the Illini from the top 25. Despite the recent mini slump, Illinois is still a very strong team. The trio of Brandon Paul (14 points, 4.8 rebounds), Meyers Leonard (13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds), and D. J. Richardson (12.7 points and 3 rebounds) are trying to help everyone not miss the McCamey-Davis-Tisdale trio too much, and so far, it seems to be working. A win over Ohio St. will go a long way in impressing the tournament committee. Illinois must continue to build off of its success this season; this overachieving squad can’t afford to slow down now.

Purdue Boilermakers: As we are at about the halfway point of the conference, we still find a very competitive team in Purdue, showing the depth of the Big Ten. The losses of E’Twuan Moore and JaJuan Johnson hurt, but having a healthy Robbie Hummel is a beautiful sight for Purdue fans. Hummel, averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, is being the leader that he has always been. Lewis Jackson and Kelsey Barlow have also been top contributors for a team that desperately hopes to make some noise this season. They will need some more big wins, but Hummel deserves one last hurrah after an incredibly injury plagued college career. They resume their quest for March Madness tonight against the Wolverines.

Indiana Hoosiers: A magical and Hoosier-like season has taken a turn for the worse as Indiana has dropped three of four. Still, they have had an impressive year with wins over Kentucky, Ohio St., and Michigan. Indiana has been led by freshman Cody Zeller, who has been a perfect fit in Tom Crean’s system. Zeller averages 15.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3 steals and blocks combined. Another key player is Christian Watford, the man who hit the three-point dagger against Kentucky. Watford is a versatile forward that can stretch the floor with his range. Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, and Will Sheeley all average in double figures. The Hoosiers are 16th in the nation in scoring and an impressive sixth in field goal percentage, shooting at a clip of .500. Indiana is clearly a contender, as they have proven that they can beat top teams, it just remains to see how far they can go.

Minnesota Golden Gophers: The season has been a roller coaster for Minnesota. First, they win all but one of their nonconference games. Then, they drop their first three conference games, having people questions whether or not they can compete in the Big Ten. After that, they won three in a row, including beating Indiana on the road, a huge win. These Gophers are talented; that we knew last year when it took a complete meltdown to keep them out of the tournament. Now they are back, and Trevor Mbakwe is doing everything possible to get this team wins. Averaging 14 points 9.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks, Mbakwe is making his senior season count. Rodney Williams, the junior forward, is right behind him with 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 1.6 blocks. The win against Indiana certainly boosts Minnesota’s resume, but they are in a competitive league that will only get a certain amount of tournament bids, so they need to keep their winning streak alive.

Iowa Hawkeyes: What can we make of the Hawkeyes? After an average nonconference record, they lost to Purdue, then beat Wisconsin and Minnesota, then lost to Ohio St. and Michigan St., then beat Michigan, and then lost to Purdue again. Simply put, this team is too inconsistent. You’re not going to make any postseason tournament if you drop half of your games, no matter who you defeat, and Iowa is teetering around the .500 mark. Senior Matt Gatens leads the squad with 13.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Gatens is a deep threat and, for the most part, the barometer of the team. When he plays well, they usually win. When’s he’s off, they’re not able to get victories. Relying on one player like that is dangerous, which is why I think the Hawkeyes are in trouble. Expect a bumpy road the rest of the way.

Northwestern Wildcats: The Wildcats haven’t exactly had the breakout season that was expected of them. Their best wins have come against Seton Hall and Michigan St., and those are nice, but they are currently only 2-5 in the conference. John Shurna is doing his part, averaging 19.2 points and 5.8 rebounds. The versatile senior big man is clearly a nuisance to cover because of his shooting from behind the arc. Drew Crawford has also been a star, averaging 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds. With players like this, as well as having the 26th most assists in the nation, Northwestern is better than their record. A huge four game stretch is coming up with all winnable games (Purdue, Nebraska, @ Illinois, Iowa). If the Wildcats can sweep those games, they’ll be right back on track.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: The Huskers’ debut in the Big Ten is not going very well. Senior Bo Spencer has been the lone bright spot with 14.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. Aside from a shocking win over Indiana, Nebraska has been blown out by nearly every Big Ten opponent it has faced. With the conference clearly having a strong year, the Huskers are lagging behind. They have yet to win a conference road game, and have two coming up against Iowa and Northwestern. Dropping both of those will make it all but over for Nebraska, and the fat lady can start singing.

Penn St. Nittany Lions: After a slow start to the season, the Nittany Lions are starting to put it together. A win over Illinois and playing Indiana close for most of the game are certainly positive signs for this bunch that clearly misses Talor Battle. Battle was their star, but perhaps, they’ve found a new one. Junior guard Tim Frazier has played with a tenacity similar to that of Battle. Frazier averages 18 points and 6.4 assists per game, as well as 5 rebounds, a good stat for a smaller player. Unfortunately for Penn St., the production drops off quite a bit after Frazier; no one else scores in double figures. However, it has been shown that a star player can lead teams to victories, so there is hope for the Nittany Lions. Frazier probably won’t get too much consideration for Big Ten player of the year unless Penn St. wins more games, so expect them to make a push. While their ceiling may be limited, they could make the second half of the season interesting.

Here are my projections for the final Big Ten standings:

  1. Ohio St.
  2. Michigan St.
  3. Indiana
  4. Michigan
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Illinois
  7. Northwestern
  8. Purdue
  9. Minnesota
  10. Penn St.
  11. Iowa
  12. Nebraska

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