Big Ten Hoops Bring Major Intrigue
We have officially completed the merger from football to basketball season. For the fans just shifting over their focus, the Buckeyes’ 11-4 record will seem average. Those who followed the first 13 games realize how much better the program is performing under Chris Holtmann. He is getting the most out of these players, and an early 2-0 Big Ten record should have the fans intrigued for the rest of the season.
The Big Ten is looking like it will endure a down year. At the same time, the competition within the conference will be as intense as ever. League members may not fair well in the NCAA Tournament, but the conference crown will not be easy to obtain (for anyone not named Michigan State). Here is my synopsis of every Big Ten team in the order of my final standings prediction.
1. Michigan State
You would be pretty hard-pressed to name a different front-runner than the Spartans for this conference race. Super sophomores Miles Bridges and Gahanna Lincoln’s Nick Ward pace this program that has moved into the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll. Since their 88-81 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic, the Spartans are riding a 13-game winning streak into the heart of the Big Ten slate. Their 2-0 start to conference play is the least surprising thing you will read here, but only beating Rutgers by 10 on the road should catch some eyes. That speaks more to the Rutgers squad that has surpassed expectations early on in this season. Going forward, the Spartans will travel to Columbus on Sunday to face the Buckeyes in a highly anticipated matchup.
It was not pretty early on, but the Boilermakers have pulled it together to lead the rest of the pack playing catch-up behind the Spartans. The loss to Western Kentucky in the Battle 4 Atlantis is a tough blemish on their record, but bouncing back to beat Arizona and Louisville in back-to-back games gave Matt Painter’s crew a huge source of momentum. There is an extreme offensive balance on this team as four players average more than 13 points per game, and the defense lives up to historical Purdue standards. Their Big Ten slate is very tough, and it includes a three-game stretch of OSU, MSU and Wisconsin towards the end of it. That could make it very hard for them to make a run, but wins over those teams could help them hop spots for quality seeding in the conference tournament. Painter will get the best out of his team and will finish second in the conference.
Richard Pitino has brought life back to The Barn in Minneapolis that has been missing for years. The Golden Gophers started off 1-1 in the conference, but their loss to Nebraska is worrisome. This team is a top-15 squad when it shows up to play, but letdowns can lead to a 10-point loss in Lincoln, Neb. I feel like the Golden Gophers will end up in this spot because their early conference schedule is very favorable. They should set themselves up for a position to challenge the Spartans for the top spot, but their final four games should cause them to drop a few games. MSU, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue in that stretch may be too much for them to pull out the conference crowd. This is where Purdue can make a move to hop them for the second spot in the standings. Junior forward Jordan Murphy paces the team with 19 points per game for an offense that has finally arrived for Pitino. The defense has been below average in Big Ten play, and it will need to improve if they have any hopes of contending for the conference crown.
This will be very unpopular to Buckeye fans, but the Wolverines are a better team than the local squad. Yes, they blew a lead here in Columbus a few weeks ago, but John Beilein has a solid team primed for a good showing in conference play. The losses to LSU and North Carolina were very ugly and sluggish, but the wins over UCLA and Texas show what this team can do on a good night. Even though the Wolverines only see Rutgers and Illinois once each, they benefit from avoiding an infamous stretch run of hostile environments. Most of the big games are spread out, and it should benefit this team. Mo Wagner and Duncan Robinson are the upperclassmen leaders that are so crucial in keeping this young team on the right path, and if they avoid cold stretches, a top-four finish is very attainable.
5. Ohio State
Here you go, Buckeye fans — I am much higher on this team than most “talking heads.” I can see the Holtmann effect in full force in his first year. Keita Bates-Diop is proving to be the heart of the offense, but Jae’Sean Tate may be the heart of the entire team. These two dictate how far the Buckeyes will go this year, but they need some help. Look for freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Musa Jallow to continue in large roles on a team that wants to fight its way into the NCAA tournament. This team plays so much harder than what we have seen in recent years. The best part is that you can see they believe every game is winnable. Their effort against UNC was something we have not seen from a Buckeye team against a top-five team in a long time. That being said, growing pains are part of the process. The hope is that they play tough against MSU on Sunday. If they can keep it within double digits, I believe it goes a long way in the team’s development. If the Buckeyes can get the 5-seed, that implies they end the Big Ten slate with nearly 11 wins. If they can do that, I expect to see a return to the Big Dance.
Here is my widely unaccepted take of the season: Maryland will fall off the tracks during Big Ten play. When the Terrapins are healthy, they can compete against against anyone in the country. The problem for this team is that they will be limping into conference play. Mark Turgeon has to find a way to fight against the glaring lack of depth for his team. They are down to nine scholarship players after losing forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender to season-ending injuries. On top of that, Melo Trimble’s departure has made a heavy impact on the young backcourt. The Terrapins looked underwhelming against Penn State and have to prepare for Michigan State on Thursday night. At this point, I think Terrapin fans will be understanding of a sixth-place finish, because it could be worse. For now, there are just too many question marks for this team.
This is not your typical Badgers basketball team. Juniors Ethan Happ and Khalil Iverson lead the Badgers, who have struggled mightily this season. Early losses to Xavier, Virginia and Ohio State looked like Greg Gard lost the program, but they are slowly working their way back into conference relevance. A big home win over Indiana could be the thing needed to turn the tide, but it may be too early to tell how this young team handles the grind of conference play. I mulled over the positioning of the Badgers because I just do not know how good this team will be on any given night. They will work their way back up the ladder, but they will stay in the bottom half of the conference.
8. Penn State
I really love this Nittany Lion team, but their ceiling is not very high due to the vigorous nature of the conference. This team has a lot of upperclassmen leadership, but the talent just is not where it needs to be to break into the top tier this year. Pat Chambers has done a great job of acquiring talent in recruiting, but his in-game coaching remains questionable. After their 5-0 start, they have gone 6-4 and are not firing on all cylinders heading into the eight-week league season. This is a year where their elevated talent needs to take advantage of the teams who are suffering from injuries, but they could not do that on Tuesday at Maryland. If they hope to make a statement, they need to pull out road games like that, or else they will continue to remain in the bottom half of the conference.
This is really risky, but I believe in the talent of the Hoosiers. That does not imply that they will be in the top half, but I cannot see them hanging below the 10th spot in the conference. Archie Miller needs to find some rhythm before this season becomes a compete waste of time. The 10-point loss to Wisconsin actually encourages me because they played well enough to win the game, but winning at the Kohl Center is challenging. Losing to Fort Wayne (back-to-back years) and Indiana State looks awful, but luckily they can look forward to a solid 2018 recruiting class that features Pickerington North’s Jerome Hunter.
Nebrasketball seems to be very consistent at being inconsistent year to year. Tim Miles’ crew has some nice performances against Northwestern, Boston College and Minnesota, but getting demolished in East Lansing is a trend we could continue to see when Nebraska faces the top half of this conference on the road. As the home team, the Cornhuskers will make life miserable for any opponent. Look no further than their matchup with Kansas. Nebraska led for a large portion of that game before losing by one point to Bill Self’s squad. The skill is rather average, but Pinnacle Bank Arena will continue to terrorize Big Ten opponents this season.
Can you say NCAA Tournament hangover? Yes, congratulations on reaching your first-ever Big Dance last year, but the Wildcats have not showed up in their big games this season. Hopefully you did not watch their game at Oklahoma, because Trae Young and the Sooners embarrassed them. Outside of that game, the nonconference schedule was soft and did not prepare them for conference play. The proof lies within their recent 15-point loss at home to Nebraska. Team leaders Bryant MacIntosh and Vic Law have underperformed and continue to not show up in big games. If this continues, you could see the Wildcats finishing in the Big Ten basement.
Brad Underwood may not be experiencing the same success at Illinois as he had at Stephen F. Austin, but he has the Illini off to a very respectable start this season. Close overtime losses to Northwestern and Maryland have to hurt, but they have that ability to pull a few upsets in conference play. This team is very low scoring as junior forward Leron Black leads the team at 14.8 points per game. Illinois needs to be patient with Underwood, because the talent just is not there yet. If he can pull together a couple solid recruiting classes, Illinois can return to the top of this conference.
Fran McCaffery has one of his biggest challenges yet with this Hawkeye team. A four-game losing streak in the middle of the early slate defines how the start has been for this team. There really is not a standout leader for the Hawkeyes, but it seems like any of them can carry a team on any given night. The problem is that consistency is lacking, and they cannot put together a complete game. Tuesday night’s 17-point loss to Michigan explains it all. Sophomore Tyler Cook exploded for 28 points, but only one other Hawkeye eclipsed double digits. This is the type of inconsistency that relegates a team to the bottom of the conference, and Iowa is currently on that path.
It is pretty customary to put Rutgers at the bottom every year, but the Scarlet Knights are making big strides this season. They already have 10 wins on the season, and Steve Pikiell deserves major credit for it. The second-year coach has this team playing above their abilities and defending their home court with high efficiency. They are still behind every team in terms of total talent, but this may be the last year we see them in the 14 spot for a while.
The Big Ten is so great to follow because it is almost impossible to predict every year. It may be easy to see Michigan State running away with the title, but the rest of the conference standings will be fluid throughout the season. As Buckeye fans, it would be encouraging to see the team stay within the top seven by the end of the season. It would create an important building block heading into year two of the Holtmann era.