Chicago Colleges: Mitch McGary

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan State a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.

Big Ten roundtable: Four big questions

January, 23, 2013
The Big Ten is the subject of today's King Court and the CBB Live Extra video, so we decided to have our writers answer a few questions on the nation's top conference.

Among the Big Ten’s title contenders, which one is best built for a deep March run?

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Trey Burke
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsWill point guard Trey Burke be the difference for Michigan when the tournaments begin?
Eamonn Brennan: You're really going to make me answer this, huh? Fine: Michigan. Er, Indiana. No, Michigan. No, Indiana. Why are you doing this to me? Here's the thing: Right now, the Wolverines look like the better team. Quite possibly, they are. They are athletic and versatile and incredibly good on the offensive end, and they're led by the best point guard in the country in Trey Burke, who reminds of the cool confidence of Chris Paul more and more every time I watch him play. But Michigan is still just the 39th-best defense in the country, per, and traditionally that kind of D makes it hard to make a deep tournament run. Meanwhile, IU is not only playing top-five offense, but top-15 defense, too. But the Hoosiers have recently allowed a score of opponents to crawl back into games, and have shown themselves not only vulnerable, but even rattled, down the stretch at home and on the road. My head tells me the answer to this question is Indiana. My gut tells me Michigan. Does one of them have to be wrong?

How many losses will the Big Ten champion have -- and who will be that champion?

Myron Medcalf: The Big Ten is the most competitive conference in America. Just check out the past week’s sequence of events. Wisconsin won at Indiana and then lost at Iowa. The Hawkeyes followed that victory with a 72-63 loss at Ohio State. At one point, Iowa was down by 23 points in that game. There’s so much quality and parity in this league that I can’t see the eventual champ earning the Big Ten title without four losses. I think 14-4 will win the conference. With everything that’s transpired, it’s difficult to envision the schools with one loss (Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) escaping with fewer than three more losses in conference play, because the next tier (Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin) has already knocked off every team in that group.

As for the second question, I believe Michigan will ultimately win the championship for reasons that aren’t all quantifiable. Yes, the Wolverines are first in adjusted offensive efficiency and 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. But they also have the best player in the country, Trey Burke, running the show. He’s going to lead them to the title by elevating his play in UM’s toughest games. But I’d like 24 hours to reconsider this choice.

What have you been most surprised by in the Big Ten this season?

Andy Katz: I knew Michigan had the potential to be an elite team, but had no idea the Wolverines had the makeup to win the national title. The backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. is truly exceptional. This duo can definitely lead the Wolverines to the title if they get the right amount of help from the post. Freshman Mitch McGary is getting to be more effective with each passing game. Michigan has also fully bought into John Beilein's system. He truly is enjoying this team, maybe as much as if not more than any other he has coached. You can tell how much he can't wait to teach them the nuances of his system, enhance their fundamentals and tinker during the game to ensure a victory.

Will Illinois turn it back around, or was the first month a bit fluky?

Scott Powers: Illinois has been like a knuckleball this season. At times, the Illini have been untouchable -- in blowouts against Butler and Ohio State and a rare win at Gonzaga. Other times, the Illini have been knocked around no matter the opponent. I believe somewhere in the middle the true Illinois team lies. The Illini are tough when they shoot well outside, and they possess some individual talent, but their rebounding is shaky and their depth is minimal at some positions. They’re not a top-tier Big Ten team, but they also aren’t a bottom-tier one. They’ve undoubtedly dug themselves a hole with a 2-4 start in conference play, and it doesn’t help that their next two games are hosting Michigan and at Michigan State. Yet in the end, I predict Illinois will turn itself around just enough to finish .500 in the conference and put itself in the NCAA tournament discussion.