Eyes on the Prize - Andy Lyons
2012-13 Big Ten Conference Basketball Preview
Basketball season is upon us and once again the Big Ten looks like it may be the strongest conference in the land. Michigan State will have its work cut out for it if it wants to repeat as regular season and tournament champions. What follows is a look at all 12 teams in the conference, how they did last year and what to expect this year. This is by no means a scientific look at how these teams will perform this year. As you can see, I offer only little green arrows to indicate how I think each team will perform relative to what they accomplished last year. For a more systematic look at things I strongly recommend the rankings of Ken Pomeroy and Dan Hanner, from whom most of the statistics in the piece are taken.
Last Year: 17-15 (6-12), lost to Iowa in round one of the B1G Tournament
After beating 5th-ranked Ohio State on January 10th behind a 43-point night from junior Brandon Paul, Illinois' record stood at 15-3 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten, and they were about to break into the national top 25 in both major polls. But in a collapse of epic proportions they only won two games the rest of the season, culminating in the firing of head coach Bruce Weber on March 9th.
Aside from whatever was going on in the locker room, Illinois' problems were clearly on the offensive end, where their in-conference scoring efficiency of 0.97 PPP (points per possession) was ahead of only Nebraska. Center Myers Leonard played a much smaller role than you would expect for a 7-foot-1 likely first-round pick. Meanwhile, Brandon Paul used possessions at the same rate as Jared Sullinger or Draymond Green, without the same success. His 2-point shooting percentage of 43.8 (on 208 shots) was especially glaring.
The offense was most dreadful in conference play, turning the ball over 21% of the time, never getting to the line (a Bruce Weber trademark) and rebounding only 28% of their own misses.
Departures: Myers Leonard, Sam Maniscalco, Bruce Weber (coach)
Key Returning Players: Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, Nnanna Egwu
Newcomers: Sam McLaurin, Devin Langford, John Groce (coach)
Things can hardly help but improve for the Illini, who, after being turned down by VCU's Shaka Smart, brought in well-regarded Ohio University coach John Groce to turn the program around. Groce has a reputation as a skilled recruiter from his days as an Ohio State assistant and, though Illinois has no significant freshmen arriving in 2012, he has already secured some impressive commitments for 2013 and beyond.
He'll need to improve the team's decision-making and shot selection, especially Brandon Paul's. He's apparently looking at using Paul at point guard in an offense that requires multiple ball-handlers, which could help or hurt. Meanwhile, the Illini would also like to see D.J. Richardson, their most reliable offensive player last year and a senior this year, take on a larger role.
It's hard to see the Illini competing for a title this year with the loss of Leonard, no incoming class and a new system. But it's also hard to see them not improving on last year's 6-12 disaster. With seniors Paul and Richardson Groce should have them a lot closer to .500 and an NCAA Tournament bid this season.
Last Year: 27-9 (11-7), lost to Kentucky in round three of the NCAA Tournament
Last year was the long-awaited breakout year for the Hoosier faithful, as they ended a run of three 20-loss seasons with a winning conference record and a winning overall record that featured wins over top-ranked Kentucky and each of the conference co-champions.
After a rocky stretch in early January that saw three straight conference losses, including one to Nebraska, Indiana finished the regular season on a 7-1 tear. They followed this up with a Sweet Sixteen run that saw them bow out in a competitive shootout with eventual national champion Kentucky, a finish that created the highest of expectations for this team.
Departures: Verdell Jones III, Tom Pritchard, Matt Roth
Key Returning Players: Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Maurice Creek, Will Sheehey
Newcomers: Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Parea, Jeremy Hollowell, Peter Jurkin
Cody Zeller's decision to forego likely lottery-pick status and return to Indiana for his sophomore year, combined with a stellar incoming class, have set the bar pretty high in Bloomington for this year. Indiana is the preseason number one team in the land in both major polls and even the numbers guys are bullish on the Hoosiers, with Dan Hanner pegging them number one and Ken Pomeroy slotting them third, behind Kentucky and Ohio State. At the moment they seem to be the class of the conference and it's hard to argue against this.
One number to keep in mind, however, is 64, Indiana's national rank in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rating at the end of last season. Since 2003, the first year for which Pomeroy provides data, the worst defensive ranking of a team that went on to win the title the next year was Connecticut's #33 in 2010. The Hoosiers are going to score, but it remains to be seen if they can make the improvements on the other end of the court that are characteristic of title-winning teams.
Last Year: 18-17 (8-10), lost to Oregon in round two of the NIT Tournament
Last year was a big step forward for the Hawkeyes in Fran McCaffery's second year as head coach. Though they didn't quite have the firepower to compete for a title they got a number of signature wins, including over Michigan and at Wisconsin, and finished with a winning record for the first time since Adam Haluska's senior year in 2007.
With an excellent recruiting class and the emergence of players like Devyn Marble and Aaron White, many are expecting even bigger things this year.
Departures: Matt Gatens, Bryce Cartwright, Andrew Brommer
Key Returning Players: Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Melsahn Basabe, Eric May, Zach McCabe
Newcomers: Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, Pat Ingram, Anthony Clemmons, Kyle Meyer
Iowa is probably not going to compete for a title this year, not with the conference as loaded as it is from top to bottom, but they could be in a position to make a bid for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. They're going to miss Matt Gatens, but with guys like Devyn Marble and Aaron White emerging as stars and their best incoming class in years they should be in a position to pick up the slack. Getting their 8th-in-the-conference defensive efficiency in line with their offense will be Fran McCaffrey's challenge, one he was able to meet when coaching Siena.
Last Year: 24-10 (13-5), lost to Ohio in round one of the NCAA Tournament
Led by the surprising play of freshman point guard Trey Burke, the Wolverines improved their conference record by 4 games and claimed a share of their first regular season conference title since 1986.
Michigan started strong and finished strong in conference play and only a home loss to Purdue prevented them from a 7-0 finish and sole possession of the title. Their season finished on a sour note, however, as they were blasted by Ohio State in round two of the Big Ten tournament and then had the surprising first round loss to a third place team from the MAC.
Departures: Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, Evan Smotrycz, Carlton Brundidge, Colton Christian
Key Returning Players: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan, Matt Vogrich
Newcomers: Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Spike Albrecht, Jon Horford, Caris LaVert, Max Bielfeldt
This was easily the toughest call in the conference and, as you can see, I decided to hedge my bets. The polls are very high on the Wolverines, ranking them number 5 in both. The computers have a more jaundiced eye, with Pomeroy having them 12th and Hanner's system putting them a startling 44th. A lot seems to turn on how to view incoming freshman Mitch McGary, who saw his ranking with the scouting services plunge from the top 5 to its current level in the mid-twenties. When combined with the underrated losses of Douglass and Novak and an historically mediocre defense, there are grounds for some pessimism.
I just can't see putting the Wolverines outside the top 25, though. Even with McGary's fall that still gives them, with Glenn Robinson III, two top-30 recruits to match with one of the best point guards in the country in Trey Burke and a number of other solid starters. They may not challenge Indiana for the title, but they should be in position to duplicate their performance from last year.
Last Year: 29-8 (13-5), lost to Louisville in round three of the NCAA Tournament
A year that started with guarded optimism got off to a slow start with losses to North Carolina and Duke in the first two games. The Spartans then reeled off 15 straight wins on their way to a regular season conference co-championship, a conference tournament title and a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.
MSU's season had two rough patches, a 2-3 stretch at the end of January that included an ugly loss to Illinois, and an 0-2 finish to the conference season, that prevented them from claiming the title alone.
The second of those losses, a stinging home defeat to Ohio State in a game it looked like they had won, included the loss of freshman standout Branden Dawson for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear. The Spartans still got a number one seed in the NCAAs but bowed out to a final-four bound Louisville team in the Sweet Sixteen.
Departures: Draymond Green, Austin Thornton, Brandon Wood
Key Returning Players: Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, Travis Trice, Brandan Kearney, Alex Gauna, Russell Byrd
Newcomers: Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello
The Spartans are in the exact opposite situation from the Wolverines. The polls have them at a relatively cautious 14 ranking, but Pomeroy and Hanner have them in the top 5, in no small part due to their stellar defense last year: .92 points per possession allowed in conference, tops in the league.
Humans, however, are more concerned with replacing the departed Draymond Green, and it's hard to blame them. Unlike Gatens at Iowa, Green dominated this team both on and off the floor, using 28.5% of the available possessions when he was on the floor, which was 83% of every game. On a team that experienced challenges scoring from time to time, it's going to be Green's offense that's difficult to replace, even with the arrival of 5-star recruit Gary Harris from Indiana.
The Spartans aren't going to fall off a cliff, to be sure, but they will be hard pressed to replicate last year's title-winning performance.
Last Year: 23-15 (6-12), lost to Stanford in finals of the NIT Tournament
Last year was a season of swings for Minnesota. A cream puff non-conference schedule got them off to a 12-1 start. Unfortunately the one loss featured the loss of star forward Trevor Mbakwe for the remainder of the season. The Gophers stumbled into conference play with an 0-4 start and were given up for dead by many. After briefly righting the ship they went on another 6-game losing streak that killed their tournament hopes.
After a second-round exit from the conference tournament, Minnesota found their mojo in the NIT, which saw the continued emergence of point guard Andre Hollins, who finished the season with 8 straight double-figure scoring games before he, and the rest of the team, fell flat in a blowout loss to Stanford. Still, it was a positive end to a season that had looked lost when Mbakwe went down in November.
Departures: Ralph Sampson III
Key Returning Players: Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams, Andre Hollins, Joe Coleman, Julian Welch, Austin Hollins
Newcomers: Charles Buggs, Maurice Walker
At 6-12 in conference last year, Minnesota definitely underachieved. They were only outscored by an average of 0.04 points per trip, a rate that would be reflective of a team a couple of wins better than their record. With Mbakwe back, and having recently avoided jail time or suspension, they should be in good position to improve enough to have a shot at returning to the Tournament. They lose only Ralph Sampson III and with the emergence of Hollins and Rodney Williams last year and a deep bench they should be a difficult matchup this year.
Last Year: 12-17 (4-14), lost to Purdue in round one of the Big Ten Conference Tournament
Nebraska's first year in the Big Ten was a tough one, as they finished tied with Penn State for the cellar and had their worst record since 2003. Their 1-9 close to the season, when they were not even competitive in most games, spelled the end for head coach Doc Sadler, who was fired on March 9th, the day after a blowout loss to Purdue in the conference tournament ended their season.
Not a lot was expected of Nebraska last season, but injuries to their two top big men, Andre Almeida of Brazil and Jorge Brian Diaz of Puerto Rico, as well as freshman point guard Corey Hilliard (since dismissed from the team following an arrest on robbery charges) didn't help a team that finished the season with the worst offensive efficiency in the conference by a sizable margin. The Cornhuskers will be looking for a new start under former Colorado State head coach Tim Miles.
Departures: Bo Spencer, Brandon Richardson, Toney McCray, Jorge Brian Diaz, Caleb Walker
Key Returning Players: Dylan Talley, Brandon Ubel, Andre Almeida, David Rivers
Newcomers: Deverell Biggs, Ray Gallegos, Benny Parker, Shavon Shields, Sergej Vucetic
It's hard to say that the worst team in the conference is going to get even worse, but that's the situation Tim Miles has inherited in Lincoln. From a team that scored at a woeful .93 points per trip they lose 5 of their top 6 scorers. To replace them Nebraska has a stable of unranked freshmen, junior college transfers and walk-ons. It's probably going to be a long year in Lincoln and the over/under on Nebraska conference wins could easily be as low as 1.5.
Last Year: 19-14 (8-10), lost to Washington in round two of the NIT Tournament
The Northwestern saga continued in 2011-12 as they failed to ride the heroics of senior John Shurna and junior Drew Crawford to a first-ever NCAA tournament bid. They entered conference play having lost only to tough Baylor and Creighton teams on their way to a 10-2 record. But they simply couldn't get it done against the better teams in the conference, managing a single win over Michigan State against the Big Ten's top half.
After excruciatingly close losses to Michigan and Ohio State near the end of the regular season they entered the conference tournament probably needing at least two wins to get to the big dance. A first round exit at the hands of Minnesota ensured that they would be making their fourth straight trip to the NIT, where a tough draw resulted in a second round exit courtesy of Washington.
Departures: John Shurna, Luka Mirkovic, Davide Curletti, Nick Fruendt
Key Returning Players: Drew Crawford, Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski, Alex Marcotullio
Newcomers: Alex Olah, Jared Swopshire, Sanjay Lumpkin, Chier Ajou, Nikola Cerina, Mike Turner, Kale Abrahamson, Tre Demps
An air of guarded hopefulness about the Wildcats capacity to survive the departure of all-time leading scorer John Shurna was shattered by the recent season-long suspension of former top-100 recruit JerShon Cobb. In truth Cobb was not a terribly efficient player last season but he had begun to emerge as a capable scorer with 3 straight double-digit games at the end of the year and Northwestern has precious little margin for error.
Even with the continued excellence of Drew Crawford, one of the most underrated players in the conference, they still have to replace their entire front court with intriguing but untested newcomers. Former Louisville Cardinal Jared Swopshire, who graduated and is eligible to play this year, is a great pick-up, but Shurna, Mirkovic and Curletti leave a considerable gap to be filled. All signs point to another year of waiting for that first Tournament bid in Evanston.
Last Year: 31-8 (13-5), lost to Kansas in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament
Jared Sullinger's surprising decision to return to the Buckeyes for his sophomore season meant that expectations were extremely high for the two-time defending regular season and tournament champions. Most preseason polls conceded the Big Ten title to Ohio State and it would be merely a question of how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament.
Thad Matta's team did make it to the Final Four, coming agonizingly close to reaching the finals, but the regular season was not quite the cakewalk it was supposed to be. Surprising losses to Illinois on the road and Wisconsin at home left them needing to gut out a tough win over Michigan State at the Breslin Center to secure a 1/3 share of their third straight conference crown. They then lost to the Spartans in the conference tournament in the rubber match of the series.
They proceeded to put together a strong tournament run, winning four games before an Aaron Craft lane violation on an intentionally missed free-throw in the final seconds against Kansas ended their hopes of a national title.
Departures: Jared Sullinger, William Buford, Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon
Key Returning Players: Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Evan Ravenel, Amir Williams, Shannon Scott
Newcomers: Amedeo Della Valle
The polls and the computers are all high on Ohio State, despite the departures of stars Jared Sullinger and William Buford. High-scoring wing Deshaun Thomas and point guard Aaron Craft both have Big Ten Player of the Year potential but the rest of the roster is highly promising but relatively unproven. Sam Thompson has freakish athleticism and LaQuinton Ross was one of the top high school players in his class but Thad Matta's short bench and strict rotations have given us relatively little of their play to judge from.
To match last year's success the Buckeyes will need to continue to play defense at the same level (.93 points per possession in conference), which is certainly a possibility but hardly a given. Last year's 13-5 mark looks more like a ceiling than a floor to me but Ohio State should certainly be in the mix for the title. Again.
Last Year: 12-20 (4-14), lost to Indiana in round one of the Big Ten Tournament
No one had lost more then Penn State coming into last year, as 4 of their top 5 scorers were gone and even their coach left to take over at one of the weakest programs in Division I. Little was expected of Penn State and, well, they delivered, finishing tied for last in the regular season and getting bounced by Indiana in the first round of the conference tournament.
Tim Frazier, who made the media's All-Big Ten first team as well as the All-Big Ten All-Defensive team, simply didn't have enough help from his teammates as he became only the third Nittany Lion to lead the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
The season began poorly, featuring a 38-point demolition by Kentucky as well as an embarrassing home loss to Lafayette. The high point was a home thumping of Purdue on January 5th, after which they finished 3-13, to close Pat Chambers' first season as coach.
Departures: Cammeron Woodyard, Matt Glover, Billy Oliver, Trey Lewis
Key Returning Players: Tim Frazier, Jermaine Marshall, Jonathan Graham, Ross Travis, Sasa Borovniak, Nick Colella
Newcomers: D.J. Newbill, Akosa Maduegbunam, Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor
Here's another number to think about: 44.6. That was Tim Frazier's effective field goal percentage (eFG%) last year, dead last among conference players who played at least 60% of their team's minutes. Although Frazier finished second in the conference in "scoring" (points per game) he was not an especially effective shooter. As long as he continues to take almost a third of Penn State's shots when he's on the court, which is basically the whole game, they are going to struggle to do any better than 10th in the conference in offensive efficiency.
Frazier's real strength is distributing, and he had an outlandish 45.3 assist rate last year. But he needs somebody to pass it to. Southern Mississipi transfer and Philadelphia native D.J. Newbill provides a promising new option but at the moment it's hard to see how Penn State is going to make any major improvements over their unimpressive showing last year.
Last Year: 22-13 (10-8), lost to Kansas in round two of the NCAA Tournament
Robbie Hummel's last season as a Boilermaker had some ups and downs, but by and large can be considered a success, as he guided Purdue to a winning conference record and a 6th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Purdue's only 'bad' losses were to Butler and Penn State and, while they had some nice wins, they never put together a run that might have pushed them closer to the leaders in the conference. In fact, their one hot stretch was a 5-1 burst at the end of February that ensured the winning conference record.
The Hummel era came to a fitting close in the NCAA Tournament when Purdue gave eventual national runner-up Kansas absolutely all they could handle before a final Ryne Smith 3-pointer failed to find the mark and the college careers of Smith, Hummel and Lewis Jackson came to an end.
Departures: Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith, Kelsey Barlow, John Hart
Key Returning Players: Terone Johnson, D.J.Byrd, Travis Carroll, Anthony Johnson, Jacob Lawson, Sandi Marcius
Newcomers: Ronnie Johnson, Jay Simpson, Rapheal Davis, A.J. Hammons, Donnie Hale
The extra redshirt season for Robbie Hummel helped soften the impact of the departure to the NBA of the rest of the "Baby Boilers", JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, but tough times could be ahead for Purdue. They lose not only Hummel but senior point guard Lewis Jackson and three-point specialist Ryne Smith.
The source of Purdue's strength last year was, despite their reputation, the offense. They were second only to Ohio State in in-conference efficiency but were a decidedly mediocre 9th in defense. From that offense they are losing their most prolific scorer, their most efficient shooter and their best assist man. D.J. Byrd was terrific and Terone Johnson began to make an impact but a lot is going to depend on the performance of a strong but not especially highly ranked incoming class.
Last Year: 26-10 (12-6), lost to Syracuse in round three of the NCAA Tournament
Another solid season for Bo Ryan's Badgers, who finished one game back of first place in the conference and secured their 14th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, 4th best active streak in the nation.
Jordan Taylor's senior year was not quite as spectacular as his junior season - how could it be, really? - but the emergence of Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren and Josh Gasser helped make up the difference.
After destroying Nebraska to start conference play the Badgers dropped three straight and never quite recovered to join the leaders. Particularly damaging in an otherwise excellent season were two losses to Iowa that probably kept them from a share of the title. Their season ended when Gasser's desperation follow of a missed Taylor three failed to fall and Syracuse prevailed in a 64-63 nailbiter in the round of 16.
Departures: Jordan Taylor, Rob Wilson, Jarrod Uthoff
Key Returning Players: Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Ben Brust, Frank Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson
Newcomers: Sam Dekker, George Marshall, Zak Showalter, Zach Bohannon
As usual, Bo Ryan is going to have his work cut out for him to match last year's success with the current group of players. This was true even before an unfortunate knee injury ended the season of starting point guard Josh Gasser before it even started.
Ryan coped with the loss of John Leuer and Keaton Nankivil last year by turning the most efficient offense in the conference into one of the best defenses. This year's challenge may be even steeper, as he will have to replace not only all-everything point guard Jordan Taylor but his replacement as well. Redshirt freshman George Marshall seems the likely choice here, though Traevon Jackson is another possibility.
The Badgers do feature one of the top recruits in the conference in small forward Sam Dekker, and jump-shooting big man Jared Berggren anchors what should be a solid frontcourt with Ryan Evans and glue guy Mike Bruesewitz. Wisconsin should still be in it as always, it just won't be easy this year.