Friday, July 20, 2012
Best-case/Worst-case: Big Ten
By Eamonn Brennan
As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten:
Best-case: No one's expecting much from Illinois in 2012-13, and the reasons are obvious: With zero in the way of fresh blood entering the program this season, this is essentially the same team that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season (necessitating the firing of coach Bruce Weber) only without its best player, center Meyers Leonard. I get it. But there hasn't been a mass exodus at the program. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will be senior guards capable of blowing up at any time (Paul especially). The supporting cast has its holes, but harnessed correctly that's a backcourt that could give plenty of Big Ten teams trouble -- at the very least.
Worst-case: What happens when you add a dearth of young talent, experienced players who pretty much gave up on their last leader and a new coach asked to bring it all together? There is no one answer. Frankly, anything is possible, and while that includes the aforementioned revival from Paul and Richardson, it could just as easily lead to Paul looking around, deciding he's the best player on his team by a lot (not that he would be wrong) and posting yet another incredibly inefficient, borderline-greedy offensive season. I don't think Illinois will totally bottom out this season, but that's only if coach John Groce can convince everyone, Paul included, that's no way to spend a year on the hardwood. If he doesn't, this could get ugly in a hurry.
Best-case: Don't look now, Indiana fans, but I'm going to do it: IU's best-case scenario is the NCAA collegiate men's basketball national championship. I know. Crazy, right? What's even crazier is that it doesn't require a huge stretch of the imagination. After all, Indiana will feature the best returning player in college basketball in Cody Zeller, who was dominant as a freshman and (according to every dispatch out of Bloomington this summer) is only beginning to showcase his newfound core strength, defense and versatility. The Hoosiers have a coterie of scorers around Zeller: stretchy wing Christian Watford, rim-attacking guard Victor Oladipo, sharpshooting floor general Jordan Hulls and do-everything Will Sheehey, not to mention a recruiting class that features at least one sure-fire immediate rotation player in point guard Yogi Ferrell. This team is deep and well-rounded and scores like crazy, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see where Zeller & Co. can go.
Worst-case: To go where they really want to be, the Hoosiers are going to have to play better defense. It's just that simple. Indiana improved some last season, but where it really excelled was offense: Tom Crean's team ranked fourth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but just 64th on the defensive end (IU's 102-90 tournament loss to Kentucky was thrilling evidence of this disparity). Hulls' size disadvantage makes him unreliable at the point of attack; Zeller and Watford must become better rim protectors; and in general Indiana must find some trait to sustain itself on that end of the floor. At some point in the tournament, everybody goes cold. Eventually, your D has to carry you through.
Best-case: It's Year 3 of coach Fran McCaffery's rebuilding cycle, and everything seems to be going according to plan. Iowa has made strides in each of his first two seasons. Now with two talented freshmen from the Iowa-Nebraska border (center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell), this could be the year the Hawkeyes officially emerge from their post-Todd Lickliter morass. Other than the freshmen, the keys are rising sophomores Aaron White and Josh Oglesby and junior Melsahn Basabe, who took the Big Ten by storm as a freshmen but fell off a bit last season. If there is a collective step forward and the freshmen prove productive in a hurry, this is an NCAA tournament team waiting to happen. Right on schedule.
Worst-case: Let's not forget, of course, that senior guard Matt Gatens was by far this team's most efficient scorer, not to mention its senior leader -- the guy who almost single-handedly shot Iowa into the tournament last season. His loss is a crucial one. Just as crucial is defensive improvement. In 2011-12, the Hawkeyes were a top-35 offensive team but ranked No. 180 in defensive efficiency and No. 278 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). There is plenty of reason for optimism here, but if Iowa doesn't guard someone, it won't be dancing yet.
Best-case: Just last week, Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year Trey Burke told the media he saw his team as a national title contender. That's a very optimistic best-case scenario, sure, but in such a wide-open hoops landscape, I'm inclined to agree. Burke is one of the nation's best lead guards, and he's complemented well by Tim Hardaway Jr.'s outside-in game. The Wolverines also have a pair of top 25-ranked freshman to fawn over. Like Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III comes equipped with NBA genes, while just last summer forward Mitch McGary was once considered one of the best five prospects in the class of 2012. This is unquestionably the most talented Michigan team in a decade, and if the freshmen excel early, Burke's opinion won't seem farfetched.
Worst-case: It's hard to see this team, which is indisputably more talented and almost certain to be more dynamic, somehow not being in Big Ten title contention by the end of next February. But if somehow the Wolverines are merely above average in 2012-13, it could be because they carry over last season's just-OK defensive effort (No. 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency). Or because they lack the breadth of reliable 3-point shooters (Evan Smotrycz transferred, while Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated) who have come to define coach John Beilein's two-guard front offense, which relies on 3-point shooting to stretch the floor. I think Beilein will make it work, and I think Michigan will be very tough to beat. But increased success is far from guaranteed.
Best-case: As good as Michigan's backcourt is, could Michigan State's actually be better? If Gary Harris, the No. 2-ranked shooting guard (and No. 11-ranked player overall) in the Class of 2012 lives up to his considerable hype, it's a distinct possibility. But for seniors Draymond Green and Austin Thornton (and one-year graduate rental Brandon Wood), the Spartans return everybody from last year's 29-8 redeem team, including big-bodied forward Derrick Nix, still-blossoming athletic freak Adreian Payne and impressive freshman Branden Dawson, who should recovery from an ACL tear in time to join the team for the Big Ten season. But the key to it all is point guard Keith Appling. If Appling is a star -- and I would bet he will be -- the Spartans will be right back near the top of the Big Ten, same as usual.
Worst-case: I brushed over Green's departure casually in the above paragraph, but there's really no way to overstate just how important Green was to Michigan State in 2011-12. Not only was he the team's tireless vocal leader, he was its best scorer, rebounder and passer. Without Green to solidify everything the team did, it's not unfathomable to see Michigan State take a step back into respectable but not great territory.
Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten, click here.