Player of the Week
Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Illinois
He’s not exactly a household name, but the 6’9” freshman from the nation of Georgia, the third-leading scorer for a 9-15 team, made his presence known this season. He had a nice game in the monumental upset of #9 Michigan State, scoring 16, but that was nothing compared to an out-of-nowhere 35 in an overtime win against Rutgers. In their current three-game winning streak, Bezhanishvili is averaging 19.7 PPG and 5.3 RPG on 65% shooting. The former three-star recruit didn’t even start in high school and here he is, scoring nearly three dozen on a Big Ten stage. The record may indicate a lost season for the Illini, but thanks to Bezhanishvili and fellow freshman Ayo Dosunmu, they are starting to pick it up and become a world beater, creating havoc by upsetting conference title contenders MSU and Maryland in recent weeks.
Jordan Bohannon, Iowa
Bohannon was having a great week BEFORE he hit the game-winner to complete the comeback against Northwestern. He scored 25 against Indiana, had dropped 12 of his 15 total against Northwestern, totaled 9 assists over the course of the week, and dropped a total of 7 three’s (he was 8-12 for the week). After a slight skid, the Hawkeyes are back in the saddle, something you don’t always hear about a Fran McCaffery team in February. Bohannon’s nnumbers have dipped a bit since his sophomore season but the junior is one of the leaders of this Iowa team that has climbed to a #21 ranking.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
In what has been a nice bounceback season for the Wisconsin program and their star big man as well, Happ has further cemented his status as one of the best in the Big Ten. The double-double machine produced two more this week, one in a win on the road against Minnesota, and another in a valiant effort in the sweep attempt at Michigan. On the week, Happ averaged 16.5 PPG, 12 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.5 BPG, and 47% shooting. If any non-point guard has a shot at conference Player of the Year, it’s Happ.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State
It was the second half of Michigan State’s ill-fated trip to Champaign and ESPN commentator Dan Dakich said something along the lines of, “this i the most rattled I have ever seen Cassius Winston look.” The Spartans went on a run shortly after but ultimately, the lowly 7-15 Illinois Fighting Illini put away the 9th ranked Spartans and pressured their All-American candidate point guard into an abysmal nine turnovers. Winston cut out the turnovers with a clean sheet against Minnesota, but in that one, he ended the contest with only 11 points on 5-12 (42%) shooting. It was also the first game he had failed to get to the free throw line since Nov. 11th of 2018. The Spartans at least managed to win that one handily, but ultimately, not the best week for their leader at point guard.
We touched on the woes of Nebraska last week, but this week, those woes grew ever more woeful. In another pair of losses to Purdue and Maryland, the three guys on the roster averaging double figures in scoring, James Palmer Jr., Isaiah Roby, and Glynn Watson Jr., shot a combined 19/78. That’s three solid Big Ten players over the course of two entire games combining to shoot 24%. Rough times in Lincoln.
Top 5 Surprises
1) Purdue’s Surge
The Boilermakers lost 4 of their 5 starters last year, a group of seniors that had won well over 100 games as Boilermakers. Though they returned dynamic scorer Carsen Edwards, expectations were tempered. Though they began the season in the top 25, a rash of losses to good teams culminating with a loss to so-so Notre Dame had their tournament hopes in doubt. But since then, they have won 11 of 12, including their current eight-game winning streak. Matt Painter has this team rolling as the young guys get better and better, and they now sit firmly in the midst of the Big Ten title race among conference titans Michigan State and Michigan.
2) Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan
Though the forward out of Canada was a top 50 recruit, no one expected he would have this impact this early. The talented forward leads the Wolverines (the Big Ten’s highest-ranked team) in scoring with 15 and has excelled on both ends of the court. He has scored 20 points or more seven times this season, and Michigan fans await how he will lead this team in the postseason.
3) The struggles of Indiana and Nebraska
Prior to the season, both these teams flirted with the top 25, garnering the 28th and 30th most votes in the AP preseason poll, respectively. Things were looking okay through the non-conference slate; Indiana knocked off Marquette, Louisville, and Butler. Nebraska beat Seton Hall, Clemson, Creighton, and Oklahoma State. But then the wheels fell off. Nebraska now sits at 13-11, 13th in the conference, and in the midst of an eight-game losing streak which was only made worse when senior Isaac Copeland went down for the year. Indiana did not have such a major injury but freshman phenom Romeo Langford, the Big Ten’s highest-rated 2018 recruit, has been mildly underwhelming amidst the pressure as the team as a whole looks rattled under the guidance of second-year coach Archie Miller. The Hoosiers have lost ten of eleven, the lone exception being a head-scratching win at Michigan State, and now sit at 10th in the conference. Both teams appear to be on the outside looking in in the NCAA Tournament picture and reinforcements are not on the way.
4) Illinois’s Surge
Perhaps people did not expect things to get as bad as they did. The Illini were in their second year under a proven head coach in Brad Underwood and brought in highly-touted recruit Ayo Dosunmu. Even so, the Illini began the year 5-14 and lost to teams such as Xavier and Florida Atlantic. But on the whole, they played a horrifically difficult schedule and employed an extremely young roster. In spite of this, few probably expected their recent run of success after such a start. So when they came out and beat Maryland (on a neutral floor), Nebraska, Rutgers, and Michigan State over the course of five games, they got our attention. Dosunmu, along with fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili and veteran guard Trent Frazier, has led this team into something resembling hope for the future. But Dosunmu’s future as a potential pro could also draw him away from the program after this season. That’s now good he has been of late.
5) The Conference’s Depth
After a true “down year” for the conference where opportunities for signature wins were hard to come by and only four schools made the Big Dance, we see six teams in the top 25 alone and eight with a good shot at a tournament bid (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State, Minnesota), along with two others whose hopes are hanging by a thread as they trend in the wrong direction and hover just about .500 (Nebraska, Indiana). The case could be made for the Big Ten as the nation’s deepest conference, if not its strongest.
3) Michigan State
7) Ohio State
14) Penn State