Another year of Big Ten basketball is upon us, and the conference again has multiple contenders to hang Final Four and National Championship banners. With the National Runner-Up losing its backcourt nucleus yet retaining two potential lottery picks, Michigan is likely to be in the thick of it come March. Four total teams are in the AP Top 25, with three situated in the top 11 and two other teams receiving substantial votes. Individually, a trio of collegiate from the state of Michigan will have their eye on becoming a lottery pick.
1. Michigan State Spartans
Key Departures: Derrick Nix
Notable Newcomers: Gavin Schilling
Everything is in line for Tom Izzo to make (another) run at a Final Four. Beside a gaping hole in the paint, every important piece from last year’s team is back in place. The Spartans received 22 first-place votes in the AP Top 25; Kentucky received 27 first-place votes. Voters must have confidence in Adreian Payne filling the shoes of the bruising, space-eating tank that was Derrick Nix. The 6’10”, 245-pound Payne is the only true center listed on the Spartans’ roster and must become the go-to post player for Michigan State to remain balanced on offense.
Aside from minor concerns in the interior, the Spartan backcourt is lead by Keith Appling. The senior’s value on this team comes from his vocal leadership on the floor and not how he grades out on a stat sheet– Appling averaged 33.8 minutes/game during the 2012-2013 season, good for Top 15 in the conference. How Izzo utilizes Branden Dawson will not only be a key to the season but a joy to follow. The 6’6”, 225 junior has the ability to guard four positions on defense. But on offense, look for Dawson to play a more inside and mid-range game to help compliment the loss of Nix in the middle. Although the sheer size and weight may not be what it was last season, Dawson gives Michigan States plenty of frontcourt flexibility.
Nobody is denying the talents of sophomore Gary Harris. The 6’4” guard did well to first show his ability from the three-point arc. As conference play rolled along last year, Harris incorporated getting to the basket and attacking off of screens to compliment his outside game. Nobody also has to remind him of how his 2012-2013 campaign ended: 2-11 from the field with no 3-pointers made in 35 minutes of action as Duke beat Michigan State 71-61 in the Sweet Sixteen. Harris has all the tools to be a standout player nationally. If he prioritizes the mental toughness and foresight to understand his prominent role on this team, the Spartans will be in a great position.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Key Departures: DeShaun Thomas
Thad Matta’s Buckeyes have overwhelming length and athleticism. Height will be a cause for some concern during those coveted black-and-blue Big Ten slugfests. But, they are loaded with athletes adequately handle the ball, create their own shot, and distribute when necessary. That athleticism will also turn into an attacking style on defense, leading to run outs and easy buckets for a team who would love to get up and down the floor.
Aaron Craft is the prototypical player that one sees on a preseason scouting report and asks “He’s still on the team?” This anchor tenant in Columbus and arguably the best on-ball defender in the nation ranks Top 50 nationally in assists, steals, and plus/minus. A born leader, it’s hard to doubt Ohio State’s chances with him leading the way. The closest thing to having an actual coach on the floor (with schools salivating to have him as part of their staff in 2013-2014), Craft knows this will be a year he can leave a mark on Ohio State and Big Ten basketball history.
LaQuinton Ross is a do-it-all playmaker. Throw a smaller defender on him, and the 6’8”, 220-pound junior will establish position in the midrange or low post and shoot over you. Trying to contain him with a bigger defender only allows Ross face up and blow by or effectively use ball screens and create space for a jumper. He’ll be a focal point of the Ohio State half court offense this year.
The Buckeyes will try and dictate both tempo and matchups with their seemingly endless batch of guards. The Buckeyes can go uber-athletic with Craft, junior guard Shannon Scott, senior forward Lenzelle Smith Jr. (6’4”), Ross, and junior forward Sam Thompson (6’7”). That lineup poses tons of lengthy, ball-handling playmakers which is atypical of standard Big Ten play. Size and strength for the Buckeyes comes from 6’11”, 250-pound center Amir Williams and 6’8”, 240-pound junior Trey McDonald.
The Buckeyes will hope newcomer Marc Loving can help fill the large scoring void left by departed All-Big Ten player DeShaun Thomas. Sophomore Amedeo Della Valle, a 6’5” guard from Italy, brings even more sound fundamentals to a team that was Top 30 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, and points per possession.
3. Michigan Wolverines
Key Departures: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Can Michigan replace 70.1 minutes per game, 33.1 points per game and 9.1 assists per game? The departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA create insecurity for last year’s national runner-up. Michigan’s 2012-2013 squad had an off-the-charts basketball IQ: with such well-defined roles, each player understood the intricacies of John Beilein’s offense as well as sacrificing personal gain to get the ball to the hot hand.
With freshman Derrick Walton Jr. (Chandler Park Academy, MI) stepping into Burke’s role, one large question looms about how the 6’0”, 175-pound point guard will perform during non-conference play. Depending on Walton’s performance, Beilein and his staff will have to create a contingency plan if Walton struggles to easily enter the offense and get the ball into the hands of Robinson III and McGary.
6’6”, 200-pound freshman Zak Irvin will also look to fill the large void left by Tim Hardaway Jr. Although the need to fill in and replace is not as important for Irvin as it is Walton Jr., the freshman from Fishers, Indiana will need to be a diverse scoring option for the Wolverines. This young backcourt must produce enough to create a balanced offensive attack and take pressure of Michigan’s interior offensive players.
Despite the backcourt departures, Michigan will contend for a Big Ten title because of their frontcourt play. Glenn Robinson III is the best all-around player in the conference, impacting games from one or all three of his scoring, rebounding and defensive abilities. Last year’s national breakout star, 6’10”, 255-pound Mitch McGary is considered a top athletic big man. Able to use excellent footwork to establish post position and dictate his positioning, McGary is just as good with his right hand as he is with his dominant left hand. Opponents must play him straight up in the post. Any double team down low leaves sophomore guard Caris LeVert and 3-point extraordinaire Nik Stauskas to convert from deep. The only two upperclassmen on the Wolverines – senior Jordan Morgan and junior Jon Horford – are starters and add even more rebounding potential and paint protection to the best front court in the conference.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
Key Departures: Ryan Evans, Mike Brueswitz, Jared Berggren
6’7”, 220-pound sophomore Sam Dekker headlines your standard Wisconsin basketball rosters – fundamentally sound players who have been groomed to excel in their new role while individually developing to compete yearly in the Big Ten. Dekker has become the hot commodity for NBA executives driven by statistics. The heady forward is one of the most efficient players in the nation and possesses a skill set that translates well at the next level. Predicting Wisconsin to not finish in the top 4 of the conference is like wearing white pants after Labor Day: you just don’t do it.
Traevon Jackson enters the 2013 season with a full season under his belt at the point guard position. Experienced guards like senior Ben Brust and sophomore Goerge Marshall will again help Jackson in not being the sole creator on offense, although Jackson showed his ability to make plays in clutch moments last year.
Junior Frank Kaminsky will have to become the primary shot blocker and rebounder for the Badger frontcourt. Although Wisconsin did lose its top 3 rebounders in Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, and Mike Buesewitz, look for Bo Ryan to emphasize Brust (5.1 rpg) and Dekker (3.4 rpg) increasing their responsibility on the glass.
Replacing Evans and Bruesewitz in their awkward, nagging, and pestering style are junior forward Duje Dukan and junior guard Josh Gasser. Gasser started 64 games for the Badgers before tearing his ACL and missing all of last season. While the freshman class includes five new faces, including top-rated shooting guard Bronson Koenig, depth may be a concern if one of Wisconsin’s prominent players goes down. However, Bo Ryan’s style and track record seems to always put his players and his program in a position to succeed.
5. Indiana Hoosiers
29-7 (14-4, 2013 Big Ten Champions)
Key Departures: Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls
There are many new faces in Bloomington this winter, as four of the top 5 minutes leaders from last year’s team are gone. Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell tries to keep the ship en route for back-to-back Big Ten regular season championships. The 6’0” Indianapolis native will need to be the focal point and vocal presence for a very talented but inexperienced squad.
Leading the freshman class is Noah Vonleh, a perennial NBA draft pick after this season. The 6’10, 240-pounder is the third best power forward in the class of 2013, with endless amounts of athleticism and versatility. He is a viable replacement for the departed Cody Zeller. Vonleh runs the floor extremely well and likely could be one of the best rebounders in the conference. Freshman Troy Williams will compliment Vonleh and sophomore Hanner-Mosquera Parea in creating a trio of wingspans that Jay Bilas dreams of. One concern is the lack of meat on the bones of many Hoosiers – Vonleh is the heaviest on the team, weighing in at 240 pounds.
Indiana is another team with very few impactful upperclassmen. Will Sheehey continues his progression from a spark plug off the bench to a lock-down defender and loose ball enthusiast. The 6’7” 200 pound forward will need to carry the offensive weight left by Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo and accumulate substantial minutes by defending 2s, 3s, and 4s. Over the last few years, there has not been a lack of talent at Indiana. How that talent is synthesized and executed by Tom Crean, who has been criticized for his team’s preparation in the past, looms large for the Hoosiers’ Big Ten season.
6. Iowa Hawkeyes
Key Departures: Eric May
Notable Newcomers: Peter Jok
It took Fran McCaffrey three years to make the NCAA Tournament with Siena. Now in his fourth year in Iowa City, Hawkeye fans have reasonable expectations to play an integral part in March Madness. Madness may be an appropriate way to describe how many other Big Ten teams feel about the sheer amount of players back at Iowa for the 2013-2014 campaign.
Senior forward Melsahn Basabe leads a frontcourt that helped Iowa rank 6th nationally in offensive rebounding and 6th nationally in defensive rebounding, and 4th nationally in total rebounds. Iowa prides itself on protecting the paint on defense and getting into the paint on offense – last year’s team also ranked 3rd nationally in free throws attempted, 2nd nationally in free throws made, and 9th nationally in free throw percentage.
Four starters return this year, including leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble (15.0 ppg). The 6’6”, 220-pound senior is the most impactful senior on this team, whether it be from inside the arc, outside the arc, or (not surprisingly) at the line, where he ranked 5th in the conference in free throws attempted. The experience of competing in the NIT Championship game last year can only help the three sophomore who must continue to develop in order for Iowa to be in the big dance this year – guard Mike Gesell, forward Jarrod Uthoff, and center Adam Woodbury. The balanced and disciplined persona that McCaffrey stresses should allow for Iowa to make more noise during conference play.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Key Departures: Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tyler Griffey
Illinois and head coach John Groce look to replace the loss of the team’s top two scorers from last year, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, with two Division I transfers. Rayvonte Rice perfectly fits the mold of a Big Ten guard. The 6’4”, 235-pound guard shed weight and gained muscle to prepare for the physical battle during conference play. Rice’s primary scoring ability is getting to the basket, but defenders still must honor his jump shot. Ekey provides a veteran presence and an above-average shooting threat from deep. The 6’7” forward and Rice will both be starters for the Illini.
The three remaining starters are ones who must produce in each conference game while leading five new freshmen through the difficulties of a Big Ten regular season. Counter-intuitively, junior point guard Tracy Abrams will log heavy minutes and must stay healthy this year. The Illini’s only true backup point guard is freshman Jaylon Tate. Junior Nnanna Egwu illustrates a relentless work ethic more from his actions than his words. The Chicago native runs the floor extremely well for his size and has before very comfortably nailing an 18 foot jump shot.
How the five freshmen mold and grow will be John Groce’s toughest assignment since coming to Champaign. Shooting guard Malcolm Hill has the body type and old school game to come off the bench and end scoring droughts during conference play. Center Maverick Morgan, the only other true big man behind Egwu, must become accustomed quickly to life in the Big Ten trenches.
8. Northwestern Wildcats
Key Departures: Reggie Hearn, Jared Swopshire, Alex Marcotullio
Notable Newcomers: Nate Taphorn
First-year head coach Chris Collins is on the record saying that he will be incorporating some of former head coach Bill Carmody’s Princeton offense this system while slowly mixing in Collins’ philosophies. This bodes well for a team that did see it lose its top two scorers but arguable return the Wildcats’ two most talented players from injuries.
Senior guard Drew Crawford was one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten before needing season-ending shoulder surgery after 10 games last year. The Illinois native and son of referee Danny Crawford will try to place the Northwestern program on the proper path for the future while establishing himself as arguably the greatest player in the program’s history. He has the strength to take the beating that he will incur during the conference year. If the Illinois native stays healthy, look for him to get 15-17 shots a game and be the focal point for the Wildcats on offense.
Similarly, junior guard JerShon Cobb was suspended for the entire 2012-2013 season. The 6’5”, 205-pound guard and former Top 100 national high school recruit again creates an instant talent upgrade for Northwestern in the backcourt. He has the ability to create his own shot, which may be heavily relied on when defenses have thoroughly scouted the Princeton offense and knows Northwestern in limited in its offensive abilities. Junior point guard Dave Sobolewski is a dependable ballhandler who knows his own strengths and weaknesses. Sobolewski helps Northwestern get into their offensive flow and sets a defensive tone for sophomore guards Kale Abrahamson and Tre Demps.
Upfront, the Wildcats are lead by 7-foot sophomore Alex Olah. The Romanian center is the big man skilled enough to see time during conference play. Northwestern will go small, with 6’9” senior Nikola Cerina playing the 5, Taphorn or Abrahamson at the 4, Crawford and Cobb at the 3 and 2 respectively, and Sobolewski at the 1. While depth will be a major concern, and the uncertainty of Crawford and Cobb being on the court due to past injuries and unfortunate decision-making, it could be a boom or bust year for Northwestern basketball.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
Key Departures: D.J. Byrd
Losses to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan last year proved to be a year of Purdue basketball that underachieved based on the aggregate talent on the roster. This year, sophomore A.J. Hammons looks to continue his climb in the conference as one the best back-to-the-basket players and the mock draft boards in each NBA front office. The 7’0”, 251-pound center ranked in the Top 60 nationally in blocks and blocks per game. He’s become the one and only rim protector that Purdue has and ultimately needs.
However, Hammons must mature quickly to avoid suspensions like the one he just served for violating team rules. The Boilermakers first depend on Hammons for his ability to convert on high-percentage shots. They also depend on him to establish his territory down low and work the offense from the post to the outside, relieving senior guard Terone Johnson and sophomore guard Ronnie Johnson from continually creating chances near the end of the shot clock.
Ronnie, at 6’0”, 178 pounds, was fifth in the conference with a 70.8% field goal percentage. Terone, at 6’4”, 198 pounds, was more of a volume shooter for Purdue and ranked 12th in the conference at 13.5 ppg. The Boilermakers finished dead last in the conference in 3 point field goals attempted, made, and their percentage make. Freshman guard Kendall Stephens hopes to provide more ability from the arc than previous years, allowing him to spot up on the same side of Hammons to make a double team in the post more difficult. Redshirt freshman forward Jay Simpson (6’10”, 250) and senior forward Errick Peck (6’6”, 223) round out the Boilermakers’ frontcourt. Purdue’s conference expectations hang in the balance depending on Hammons’ attitude adjustment. The Boilermakers become one-dimensional and prone to seeing zone defense due to their abysmal outside shooting. Terone Johnson and Errick Peck, the two impactful seniors on this team, may only convince Hammons to change his ways by illustrating how it damages Hammons’ draft value.
10. Minnesota Gophers
Key Departures: Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman
Notable Newcomers: Joey King (transfer from Drake), Malik Smith (transfer from Florida International), DeAndre Mathieu
Richard Pitino’s inaugural year includes a proficient backcourt combination and an entirely inept frontcourt. Gone are Trevor Mbakwe, the Big Ten’s leader in every rebounding category, and Rodney Williams, the high-flying versatile swingman. Yet the Hollins boys hold down the fort for the guards and may make Pitino’s first year more successful than some hope.
Andre, the 6’2” junior, primarily looks to score from behind the 3-point arc. He also ranked 7th in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at a 2.3:1.0 clip. Austin, the 6’4” senior, finds his points by being an active pest on defense. He ranked 3rd in the conference in steals per game, yet still is able to knock down 3-pointers within the flow of the motion offense. Newcomer Joey King from Drake also finds his scoring primarily from the 3-point line and also increases the talent pool for the Golden Gophers. Senior guard Malik Smith was granted his waiver of eligibility to play this year after following Pitino from his previous coaching position at Florida International.
In the frontcourt, 6’11”, 240-pound Elliott Eliason will likely be heavily relied on for both offensive and defensive rebounding, with the Hollins brothers also being asked to crash the glass and mitigate additional offensive opportunities for opponents. For a team that was so successful on the glass last year, Golden Gopher fans better hope more 3-pointers are converted to combat the additional offensive rebounds given up by this years’ team.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Key Departures: Dylan Talley, Brandon Ubel
Top Returning Players: Ray Gallegos, Shavon Shields, Benny Parker
For a team that statistically was near the bottom in every offensive and defensive efficiency category, it’s difficult to see how Nebraska continues to build its program in the proper direction. The losses of Dylan Talley and Brandon Ubel, easily the Cornhuskers’ most talented player and best shooter, will involve additional scoring responsibility for Ray Gallegos and one of Shavon Shields or Benny Parker to contribute and contribute immediately. Gallegos already loved shooting from deep, as he was 8th in the nation in 3-point field goal attempts but just a 3-point percentage of 30.6%.
New Zelander Tai Webster likely will be Nebraska’s starting point guard. A member of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying team for New Zealand, Webster could give Gallegos competition as the best player at Nebraska. Webster may also be able to spell Gallegos more, who was 3rd in the nation averaging 37.1 minutes per game.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Key Departures: Jermaine Marshall, Nck Colella, Sasa Borovnjak
Notable Newcomers: Geno Thorpe, Payton Banks
Tim Frazier returns after missing the entire 2012-2013 seasons with a torn ACL. The undisputed best scorer, team leader and heart and soul of Penn State basketball, Frazier looks to improve on his 16.2 ppg from two years ago. He has a knack for creating big-time plays in crunch even when opponents and their scouting report double teams and uses every defensive tactic to get to the ball out of Frazier’s hands.
D.J. Newbill is a solid compliment to Frazier in the backcourt. The 6’4” junior guard had a tough time last year taking care of the ball, ranking 8th in the nation at 3.9 turnovers per game. But, some of that was partly due to the minutes Newbill was logging due to Frazier’s absence.
Junior forward Ross Travis finished 4th in the Big Ten in rebounding last year. Like many other inexperienced, smaller frontcourts, head coach Pat Chambers relies on Frazier and Newbill to carry the load for rebounding as well. Two sophomore forwards, Brandon Taylor (6’7”, 235) and Donovon Jack (6’9”, 210) round out the final two frontcourt positions for the Nittany Lions.
Big Ten Top Prospects
1. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan – Robinson III is the best all-around player in the league. His athleticism allows him to guard four positions on defense if necessary. He has the uncanny ability to pin one on the glass, bring the ball down the floor and either finish with a 15-foot jumper or throw a dart to an open shooter. Don’t ever ignore genetics as well (see: Sonny Parker and Dell Curry). Robinson has the size, awareness, and skill to be a solid NBA small forward for years.
2. Gary Harris, Michigan State – Harris has shown that he can beat you all three ways from the outside: as a spot-up shooter, off the bounce from a crossover or other individual skill, and effectively using ball screens to create his own space. How well Harris grows in his ability to distribute the basketball and see the floor better will make him even tougher to guard.
3. Mitch McGary, Michigan – McGary impressed everyone with his progress during his freshman year. One can only predict that an entire offseason of weight lifting, watching film and expanding his low-post repertoire would make McGary one of the best post players in the nation. He’s almost ambidextrous in the post, making it virtually impossible for post defenders to guess which way he may turn. He has tremendous footwork already, and would be a shock to nobody if he was at the top of this list come March.
4. Noah Vonleh Indiana – He is off the charts when graded on athleticism, ability, and upside. He has the size and strength to pound you down low in the post, but is still quick enough to face up and knock down a midrange jumper. Vonleh may not wow you with a monster put-back, but his extreme athleticism shows up every time he touches the ball on offense.
5. LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State – At 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan, Ross is able to create his own shot just by shooting over smaller defenders. He is the type of player that always seems to find the ball and never has any second guesses about releasing the rock. He’s good enough from the outside to bring bigger defenders out there and create mismatches. Throw him in a pick-and-roll situation and he’ll either dive to the hoop, utilizing his long arms around the rim, or flare out to the arc and bury a long range jumper.