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Big Ten Sleepers: Guys Who Could Surprise

At the outset of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few players from the good guys you may not be too familiar with.* A number of Big Ten previews feature something like 'players to watch', 'sleepers', or 'breakout stars'. When you read these features you see names like William Buford, Durrell Summers, Devoe Joseph, Jordan Taylor, and Drew Crawford. My reaction is: Duh! We already know these guys are good, even if they had to make room for other stars last year or haven't yet fully lived up to their scouting reports. I'm not impressed that someone can see NOW that Jordan Taylor's got game: I'd be really impressed if you'd picked him out last year after a freshman campaign where his offensive rating barely cleared 80, his eFG% was short of 30 and his TORate was over 19%. I'm probably not going to catch anybody like that, but I wanted to take a look at some guys who have a decent shot to surprise you. My criteria for who can be considered are fairly strict - less than 30% of team's minutes played last year (controlling for injuries - sorry Maurice Creek) or a non-Top 100 freshman. This pretty much limits me to guys who are pretty obscure, at least outside the fans of their teams. My criteria for selecting from this group are less strict. I looked for a guy from each team with low usage rate (20% or under) but good efficiency numbers, positive scouting reports, and a team that appears to have a place for him. Basically I'm looking for guys who may have an opening and the skill set to take advantage of it. Similar criteria applied last year might have picked out guys like Draymond Green (27.8 %Min, 16.6 %Poss, 111.2 ORtg), Chris Babb (21.0 %Min, 18.2 %Poss, 98.2 ORtg), and Drew Crawford (3-star recruit). You can't catch every Jordan Taylor, but it might be interesting to give it a shot. Player selections after the jump. Stats for non-freshmen are last year's from

*I had actually started this post a couple of weeks ago and then put it on the shelf. But since Josh Reed over at Big Ten Geeks just came out with his "All-Breakout Team" on Thanksgiving, I figured, what the heck?

Illinois - Tyler Griffey (So. F)

GP Min% Poss% ORtg 2Pt% 3Pt% FT%
32 18.5% 18.6% 115.2 58.3% 35.0% 87.5%
Tyler Griffey
AP Photo

Illinois poses a particular challenge for this project as they return everybody from a team that just missed winning the Big Ten Tournament and making the NCAA field. They only went about 6 deep and the number 7 and 8 guys (Dominique Keller and Jeff Jordan) are gone now. And they bring in a high-powered freshman class featuring three top-100 players. Griffey is the most intriguing returnee, however, as he was very efficient in his limited minutes last year. Spartan fans may remember him from his performance against MSU in the Breslin Center where he went for 12 points, including 2-3 from three, and 7 rebounds (3 offensive) in only 15 minutes. It's going to be hard for him to get minutes in a frontcourt that includes Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Bill Cole and heralded freshmen Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard. If he gets a chance, though, he could surprise some people, given his very efficient numbers from last year: ORtg 116.7, EFG% 56.8 (including 7 for 20 from three), and a True Shooting Percentage of 60%. On a percentage basis he was the Illini's best offensive rebounder (9.5 OR%) and free-throw shooter (87.5%) and hit 58% of his twos and 35% of his threes. He could be a dangerous option playing with Tisdale and Davis, since very few small forwards will be able to match his size (6'9" 230#) and his shooting ability will stretch defenses that try to match him up with a power forward. The challenge for Griffey will be staying on the court, as he got called for 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes played last year. With as many bodies as the Illini will able to run out this year, he'll have to cut that down to make the impact he may be capable of. Early returns are not good, as he has not been able to get on the court very much in the Illini's first six games, but it's a long season.

Indiana - Victor Oladipo (Fr. SG)

Rivals: 3-star, #41 SG, #144 overall
Scout: 3-star, NR
ESPN: 92 rating, #54 SG

Victor Oladipo
AP Photo

Oladipo is rapidly becoming a fan favorite in Indiana, thanks to his early impressive effort in staving off potential humiliation against Ferris State in an exhibition game and his halfcourt heave against North Carolina Central. There are now a lot of possessions to be had in Indiana's lineup, as they continue a rebuilding program and recover the ocean of possessions wasted by Devan Dumes last year (24.1 usage rate, 85.3 ORtg and 25.2% TORate), and Oladipo seems ready to take advantage. Oladipo hails from the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland (which produced Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, Sidney Lowe and Danny Ferry) where he was a crucial part of two conference championship teams. He's a winner, which is important to IU coach Tom Crean, and according to Inside the Hall

Oladipo brings a unique mix of talents that were noticeably absent from Crean’s first two Indiana teams. He is, by far, the most explosive finisher to arrive in recent years not named Eric Gordon. But more important than his finishing ability is Oladipo’s ability to defend and rebound from the guard position. It’s no secret that IU’s defense the past two seasons left plenty to be desired. Opponents were stronger, quicker and tougher on the perimeter. Oladipo has the tools to provide an immediate upgrade as a perimeter defender. It’s also no secret that Crean wants his guards to rebound. Oladipo, from all accounts, will help immediately there as well with his length and toughness.


Crean has made it clear that he has no interest in making incoming freshmen wait to earn playing time. If Oladipo shows the energy and competitive fire that Crean is looking for, he should have no problem getting on the court. Judging by the way he pulled IU's fat out of the fire in the exhibition game against Ferris State - he hit a three-pointer with an and-one foul shot when they were down 4 with 10.7 seconds left and then had a game-saving block - he has those qualities. Since those early heroics, however, Oladipo has struggled a bit to get minutes. He's shooting well with an eFG% of 56.4 and he's got a high usage rate of 24%, which are often indicators of someone ready to take a larger role in the offense. He's hurt himself, however, with poor free-throw shooting, only 5-12 on the year.

Iowa - Melsahn Basabe (Fr. PF)

Rivals: 3-star, NR
Scout: 3-star, #45 PF
ESPN: 89 rating, #63 PF

Melsahn Besabe leaping
Photo Credit:

OK, I'll admit it, Basabe was the guy who inspired me to write this post. I was reading stuff about impact freshmen in the Big Ten and kept seeing the same names and the same schools and thought to myself that Iowa must have a bunch of new guys coming in but I had no idea who they were. Basabe is an intriguing guy, a 6'7" 220# power forward from Glen Cove, New York who committed to Fran McCaffery at Siena and then decided to follow him to Iowa. On a team that, charitably speaking, did not wow a lot of observers with its speed and athleticism, Basabe could be just the kind of force McCaffery needs. By all accounts his strengths are running the floor and general athletic ability. Though only 6'7" he has a wingspan of 7'2" and can rebound at both ends. When you consider that arguably Iowa's best player (though Matt Gatens might stake a claim) and certainly Iowa's best post player, Aaron Fuller, left to transfer to USC, you have to think that Basabe will have a lot minutes available to show what he can do.

So far Basabe is off to a good start, averaging 20 minutes and starting in each of Iowa's first five games. His shooting has been spotty (48% from the field, 46% from the line) but he leads the team in rebounds and blocks. That's him in the upper portion of the photo.

Michigan - Jordan Morgan (RS Fr. F)

Rivals: 3-star, NR
Scout: 3-star, #32 C
ESPN: 75 rating, #232 PF

Jordan Morgan
Photo Credit:

Morgan spent his first year on medical redshirt after knee and shoulder injuries but now appears to be a starter on the vertically challenged Michigan team. With rebounds likely to be a precious commodity (the Big Ten Geeks tweeted the arrival of their Michigan preview with "No rebounds, no problem") Morgan seems likely to get his minutes, even if he's not a starter the whole season. He's a 6'8" 240# post player and not your classic Beileinian big man who's going to stretch the defense with his perimeter game. His job will be rebounding, and if Michigan's abysmal offensive rebounding percentage (29.4%) moves appreciably closer to its miserable opposition OR% (34.8%) this year, then Morgan will probably be due much of the credit. So far this season he has an 11-point, 7 rebound average in 5 games, which has to be an encouraging sign for Michigan fans. And while he's not amazing anyone with his offensive skills he does have an eFG% of 61.1 and a solid offensive rating of 112.5 on an unexpected usage rate of 23.4% to go along with his boards.

Michigan State - Garrick Sherman (So. C)

GP Min% Poss% ORtg 2Pt% 3Pt% FT%
36 17.4% 14.5% 97.8 59.6% 0.0% 63.6%
Garrick Sherman
AP Photo

Not a lot of choices here for MSU. With Byrd and Gauna both likely to redshirt that left Derrick Nix, Garrick Sherman, Austin Thornton and Mike Kebler as the only potential picks. Of those guys I think Sherman has the most potential upside. He's the only traditional post player MSU has with a polished scoring game inside. When given the ball in a favorable position, he's very smooth and reliable at getting either a layup or soft hook shot, as evidenced by his 60% shooting from last year and 78% shooting so far this year. His lack of bulk is largely what kept him off the court last year, as bigger post players were able to move him off the block and force their way inside against him. He seems to have added some size this year and, although MSU has not faced a Dexter Pittman-type big man yet this year, Sherman has acquitted himself reasonably well on defense. He still has a couple of issues to overcome before he can be a consistent presence on the court for MSU. He has an odd free-throw motion that resulted in his shooting only 64% from the line last year and 33% (4-12) so far this year. If that doesn't improve it's easy to imagine coaches looking at his post scoring prowess and advocating a hack-a-Sherm strategy when he gets the ball in a position to score. His offensive rating has also been held down by turnovers - he's not a great post passer yet (though he had a couple of nice ones against TTU) and he gets called for shuffling his feet. I'm only half-joking here when I suggest that Izzo get him to change his number from 41 to something more conventional. John Gasaway has noted that Mike Tisdale of Illinois, a player of similar dimensions to Sherman, gets a lot of attention from the referees. In this year's College Basketball Prospectus (buy your copy here, Gasaway suggests that "[Bruce] Weber should consider changing Tisdale’s number. Nothing says "Call a foul on me! Now!" quite like a loping seven-foot ectomorph sporting a 54." I think something similar is in play when it comes to traveling calls on a 6'10" ectomorph wearing number 41.

Minnesota - Rodney Williams (So. SF)

GP Min% Poss% ORtg 2Pt% 3Pt% FT%
32 27.0% 17.1% 111.0 67.7% 28.6% 54.5%
Rodney Williams
AP Photo

I'm kind of cheating here, since Williams is being discussed as an NBA first-rounder, but he did play only 12 minutes a game last year as a freshman and was only the 8th or 9th guy in Tubby Smith's rotation. In his limited minutes Williams hit 68% of his twos and did pretty well at just about everything else (except 3-point shooting and free-throws). He turned the ball over less than any Gopher save Blake Hoffarber (who basically just spotted up outside the arc and waited for the ball) and put up the best offensive rating on the team (111.0) save Hoffarber and Damian Johnson. In many ways he's similar to the now-departed Johnson (similar size, good shot blocker, steals the ball, good from two, lousy from three) and he should be ready to step into (at least some of) that now vacant role. So far this season Williams is rebounding and setting up his teammates at an even better rate than last year, but is hurting his chances (and probably his minutes - 22 per game) with continued poor shooting (42.8 eFG%) and turnovers, having already matched his raw total from all of last year. He's started 5 of Minnesota's 6 games, but he'll need to improve those numbers to continue to get his minutes in Tubby Smith's deep rotations.

Northwestern - Davide Curletti (So. F)

GP Min% Poss% ORtg 2Pt% 3Pt% FT%
24 15.6% 14.2% 110.6 45.5% 50.0% 63.3%
Davide Curletti
AP Photo

Curletti is the occasion for one of my favorite lines from John Gasaway in the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11:

If this team took a cue from NU’s famed drama department and mounted a play, the stage direction for Curletti’s character would be "(Enters fouling)." Carmody’s indicated he’d like to see that change, starting this season.

If Carmody gets his wish, the result could be a pleasant surprise. As the quote suggests, Curletti's biggest problem last year was staying on the court, as he was called for a phenomenal 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes played. When he was out there, Curletti put up a decent offensive rating of 110.6 on 13 of 28 shooting, and the departure of 7-footer Kyle Rowley, who was never a good fit in Northwestern's offense, and the decision not to return by Kevin Coble, should open things up a bit for Curletti. Carmody's offense has always favored a big man who can stretch the defense and work outside (Shurna, Mirkovic, Coble, Scott, Vukusic) and Curletti fits that mold (he's 7-13 on threes in his limited NU career to date). He's shooting the ball very well so far this year (eFG% 60.0) but the foul problem has become sort of crazy, as he's averaging 11(!) fouls per 40 minutes, which will keep anyone off the court, since, you know, you only get 5 per game.


Ohio State - Aaron Craft (Fr. PG)

Rivals 3-star, #28 PG, #111 overall
Scout 4-star, #19 PG
ESPN 5-star, 92 grade, #26 PG, outside top 100

Aaron Craft
AP Photo

Craft is one of the less heralded members of Ohio State's heralded 2010 recruiting class. Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas are expected to produce right off the bat, but Craft has received relatively little buzz. Preseason rankings of Ohio State seem to have a fairly wide variance. Those who have them in the top 5 point to the returning 4 starters from an extremely efficient Big Ten co-champion. Those who have them lower point to the fact that there's no clear successor to Evan Turner at point guard, even if they can replace Turner's scoring. And, in fact, Matta appeared to be considering distributing the 'handler' function among Diebler, Lighty and Buford. This is certainly a plausible scenario: there's no law that says you have to have one guy who brings the ball up the court AND runs the offense. But, it does make it easier to set things up and I doubt that Thad Matta is going to be real comfortable with Jon Diebler bringing the ball up on any regular basis. So a point guard who can be a reliable ball-handler and distributor is likely to get some playing time for Matta and Craft appears to be that guy. He also has a reputation for good defense (Rivals had him rated as the best defender in the incoming Big Ten freshman class), which is also a great way to get playing time from Matta (or most Big Ten coaches for that matter). He's not a starter at this point (1 start in 5 games), but don't be surprised to see him become a significant contributor for the Buckeyes this year. He's already averaging 26 minutes and despite eleven turnovers has managed a 2.4 A/T ratio and an eFG of 59.5%.

Penn State - Taran Buie (Fr. G)

Rivals: 3-star, #35 PG, #145 overall
Scout: 3-star, #33 SG
ESPN: 95 rating, #29 SG, #95 overall

Taran Buie
Photo Credit


OK, ESPN has him barely in their top 100 for the class, but the average of his rankings puts him outside the top 100, so he's eligible for this group. Besides, there's not much else out there for Penn State, since anyone who could play at all was probably already getting minutes in a season where the Nittany Lions finished 11-20. Buie is Talor Battle's half-brother, and for that has been heralded by many Big Ten watchers. When putting this list together I assumed Buie would be overqualified, as most accounts of his decision for Penn State seemed to imply that he was passing up more lucrative offers to play with his brother. He does have offers listed from Maryland and Syracuse, programs a cut above Penn State in reputation, but as you can see from his rankings, he cannot really be considered an elite recruit. Nonetheless, he should have a chance to make an impression for Ed DeChellis' team this year. He's a 2-guard who's projected to take some of the scoring load off of Battle's shoulders, but the results are inconclusive so far. He's not been shy to shoot it, jacking up 41 shots in his 98 minutes of action (30% shot pct.) with mixed results (11-23 from 2, 6-18 from 3). In fact, Jeff Brooks has emerged in his senior year as the primary non-Battle alternative, displaying both shooting and rebounding prowess. Still, there should be enough possessions available for Buie to make his mark, and he is solidly in the rotation.

Purdue - D.J. Byrd (So. G/F)

GP Min% Poss% ORtg 2Pt% 3Pt% FT%
29 19.5% 19.7% 84.4 37.0% 27.1% 59.3%
D.J. Byrd
AP Photo

Purdue presented a completely different challenge for this list than most schools. Robbie Hummel's unfortunate season-ending ACL injury opens up huge opportunities for underused or underperforming bench players to stake their claims for playing time. In picking Byrd here I'm taking a bit of a flyer, since he shot terribly last year, resulting in an offensive rating of 84.4. The loss of Hummel means that shots, assists, rebounds and holding-onto-the-ball will be needed and Byrd is in the best position of the available candidates to help in all these areas. Although his game from inside the arc is still a work in progress, his shooting has improved this year: 60.8 eFG% and 156 ORtg. He's nearly matched last season's raw total in rebounds already with 16 (22 last year) and he's got an assist rate of 26.1. He's even holding on to the ball better, with a TO rate of just 4.5%. Obviously those numbers will level out as we head into conference play, but Purdue fans have to be encouraged at the way he's stepped up.

Wisconsin - Josh Gasser - (Fr. G)

Rivals: 3-star, NR
Scout: 3-star, #44 PG
ESPN: 89 ranking, #49 PG

Josh Gasser
AP Photo

It's one of those cliches that, while not strictly true, does contain a seed of truth, that it doesn't matter who Bo Ryan puts out there. He can still win. Wisconsin has not been without talented players, but it is true that Ryan's system gives players well-defined roles that allow, shall we say, less-spectacularly gifted athletes to flourish. The departures of Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon open up a huge number of minutes and possessions in the Wisconsin backcourt this year, and Josh Gasser stands to be one of the primary beneficiaries. Jordan Taylor was obviously ready to take over the point guard duties - in fact, many would say he already had. But the 2-guard spot was a question going into the season, with several candidates and no clear leader. Then Gasser broke out of the gate with a 21 point 9 rebound performance in the first game against Prairie View A & M, which appears to have earned him a spot in the starting lineup. In order to stick there, he'll have to show Bo Ryan he can play defense as well. The jury's still out on that one, but, with an offensive rating of 129.4 and a turnover percentage of under 11, he's off to a good start.