Conference Primer: Big Ten

Photo: AP | Andy Manis

What better way to close the door on 2013 and turn forward to 2014 than have three of the nation’s premier college basketball conferences begin league play. Today, the Big Ten, Big East, and American Athletic Conference tip off their conference seasons.

The Big Ten slate begins at 1 p.m. ET with Purdue hosting No. 3 Ohio State on ESPN2, followed by Indiana at Illinois. Then on Big Ten Network, Penn State hosts No. 5 Michigan State and Nebraska goes to No. 22 Iowa to finish off the league’s evening.

Here is a look at how each Big Ten team performed in non-conference play, and how they project to finish in Big Ten play.

Photo: Mike DiNovo | USA Today Sports
Photo: Mike DiNovo | USA Today Sports
Illinois (11-2)

Illinois was a big question mark entering the 2013-14 season with only three players returning from last year’s team, but the Fighting Illini have shown an ability to be a possible Top 25 team thanks to its relentless defense. In 13 non-conference games, Illinois allowed only 0.95 points per possession, ranking No. 25 nationally in defensive efficiency.

The Illini hit a road bump in early December with a loss at Georgia Tech, where they blew a 12-point lead in the final seven minutes. But since then, the Illini have been clicking.

In their last five games, they are 4-1 with the only loss coming on the road to undefeated Oregon. They also upset No. 23 Missouri in that stretch.

Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice has proved that he is a scorer capable of competing at the high-major level. At Drake, Rice averaged 16.8 points on 43.6% shooting , and he has only improved against higher competition. This season, he is averaging 18.2 points on 50% field-goal shooting, and he has also taken great care of the ball. Until teams figure out how to stop him, Illinois is capable of competing with any team in the country.

Another Missouri Valley transfer, Jon Ekey from Illinois State, has been vital for the Illini. Ekey is averaging 8.5 points and a career-high six rebounds while shooting 38.6% from three-point range.

Junior center Nnanna Egwu joins him up front. Egwu has continued to develop this season into one of the Big Ten’s better big men, averaging eight points on 46.2% shooting. Though he does not rebound as well as one hopes a 6’11” center would, he is one of the Big Ten’s best shot blockers.

Projected finish: 8th

 

Indiana (10-3)

Indiana has enough talent to make a third straight NCAA Tournament, but this team may be too young to earn a spot in the top third of the Big Ten.

The Hoosiers’ overall non-conference record is respectable at 10-3, but they lack quality wins — their two best are Stony Brook and Washington. Every time they have faced a NCAA Tournament-caliber team, the Hoosiers have lost. They were blown out by Syracuse in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and they lost close games on neutral sites to Connecticut and Notre Dame.

Indiana has a pretty favorable Big Ten schedule, though, facing Ohio State and Iowa at home without needing to go to Columbus or Iowa City. Getting to host these two teams, which figure to be both finish in the league’s top five, is a crucial opportunity.

The Hoosiers have the talent to finish in the league’s top five.

Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell has emerged as one of the conference’s best at his position, and freshman forward Noah Vonleh has been at or near a double-double in just about every game this season.

If the rest of the young Hoosiers continue to grow as the season progresses, this Indiana team could be dangerous by the time the Big Ten tournament rolls around.

Projected finish: 6th

 

Iowa (11-2)

Iowa has lived up to its preseason expectations through 13 games.

The Hawkeyes only losses came at Iowa State by three points and in overtime to Villanova on a neutral site. While they do not have a win that proves their standing in the AP Top 25, they do have solid wins against Xavier and Notre Dame.

On Kenpom, Iowa ranks No. 13 overall and No. 9 in offensive efficiency, scoring 117.1 points per 100 possessions. With pieces like Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, and Jarrod Uthoff, it’s not surprising the Hawkeyes rank so well.

Marble is a do-it-all, 6’6″ guard. The senior leads Iowa with 15.3 points, 3.5 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, and he ranks in No. 38 nationally in steal rate. White ranks in the top 70 in offensive rating, and his versatility has been key for the Hawkeyes.

At 6’9″, White is Iowa’s second-best scorer and rebounder, and he also averages two assists per game. He has the ability to play down low and also drive from the high post or perimeter, and he is extremely efficient from the floor with a 67.8 field-goal percentage.

Uthoff, a Wisconsin transfer, is Iowa’s leading rebounder with 6.7 rebounds per game in addition to 10.8 points. Although he does not shoot often from the outside, the 6’9″ forward shoots it well at 10-of-19 (52.6%) on the season.

The return of junior guard Josh Oglesby, who missed the first 12 games with a foot injury, will also give the Iowa’s backcourt an added boost. Oglesby struggled last season, but as a freshman he averaged 6.4 points and shot 37.2% from beyond the arc. In his season debut against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, he scored 13 points and shot 4-of-5 from three-point range.

Projected finish: 5th

 

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America
Michigan (8-4)

The non-conference portion of Michigan’s schedule had its ups and downs, but the Wolverines ultimately finished on a high note. After nearly defeating No. 1 Arizona, the Wolverines took down Stanford at Barclays Center and then had no trouble with Holy Cross on Saturday.

Sophomores Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Caris LeVert have been phenomenal, but Michigan has had inconsistent point guard play and a lack of frontcourt production.

Sophomore forward Mitch McGary, a preseason All-American, was hurt for a large part of non-conference play, but he was still Michigan’s best big man with 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. However, McGary is out indefinitely after having back surgery.

The key to Michigan’s success in the Big Ten is the development of freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. The conference is relatively open after Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State at the top, and if Walton improves as a floor general the Wolverines could definitely finish in fourth.

Surrounding Walton, Michigan has plenty of talent.

Stauskas was regarded as simply a shooter last season, and though he is still a lights-out shooter at 47.5% from deep, he has become a better all-around player with 18.2 points and 3.3 assists per game.

Robinson has not become the dominant, go-to scorer that many expected him to be, but he is by no means having a poor season with 14 points per game on 50.4% shooting.

LeVert, the most improved player on the team, gives Michigan great size in the backcourt at 6’6″. He averages 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.6.

Projected finish: 4th

 

Michigan State (11-1)

Michigan State spent a good chunk of time atop the Top 25 polls until it lost to North Carolina in early December. The Spartans still rank in the top five, and they have quality wins against Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Since the North Carolina loss, they have won four games in a row, but they will be tested at the start of conference play with road games against Penn State and Indiana.

With a veteran roster that is also extremely talented, Tom Izzo‘s club has as good a chance as anyone of winning the Big Ten title. Adreian Payne is the Big Ten’s premier big man, Keith Appling is arguably the conference’s best point guard, and Gary Harris could be the best off-ball guard if he can stay healthy.

Harris has missed three of the Spartans’ 12 games, but when he is on the floor he averages 17.9 points on 40.9% shooting.

Payne has been climbing draft boards and is now projected as a first round pick thanks to his 18.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He is also shooting 16-of-35 (45.7%) from beyond the arc.

Appling has transformed his game into that of a pass-first point guard, and that has helped Michigan State’s offense tremendously. Appling is averaging a career-high five assists per game with nearly a 3:1 assist-turnover ratio. Still, he has kept his natural scoring ability, scoring 15.9 points per game on 50.8% field-goal and 47.7% three-point shooting.

Although they do not get the same amount of attention, Michigan State also gets consistent and quality contributions from Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine, and Travis Trice. The athletic Dawson is nearly averaging a double-double this season with 10.3 points and 9.3 boards per game while Valentine and Trice both add valuable depth to the backcourt.

Projected finish: 2nd

 

Minnesota (11-2)

Minnesota has one of the most underrated backcourts in college basketball.

Andre Hollins could become Minnesota’s all-time leading scorer by the end of next season, and his backcourt partner Austin Hollins can also pack a scorecard. The two guards combine for 29.7 points per game, and Austin is also the Golden Gophers’ second-best rebounder with 7.2 boards per game.

At point guard, junior college transfer Deandre Mathieu has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best distributors. In non-conference play, the 5’9″ junior averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.1 steals while leading the team in effective field-goal percentage.

While Minnesota’ frontcourt has no individual that particularly stands out, as a collective the big men have been effective. 6’11” junior Elliott Eliason leads the team with 8.2 rebounds per game while Joey King and Oto Osenieks have been the Gophers’ two best frontcourt scorers, each with more than seven points per contest.

Minnesota did not make much noise during the non-conference portion with its only quality win coming in an ugly game against Florida State. But, the Gophers did not show much cause for concern either with their two losses coming to Syracuse and Arkansas.

Right now, the Gophers look like what was expected of them in the preseason: a bubble team with a better chance of making the Field of 64 than missing it. We’ll get a better sense of how good Minnesota is when it faces a brutal stretch in mid-January. From Jan. 11 to Jan. 22, the Gophers’ four games are at No. 5 Michigan State, vs. No. 3 Ohio State, at No. 22 Iowa, and vs. No. 5 Wisconsin.

Projected finish: 7th

 

Nebraska (8-4)

Nebraska was a pleasant surprise for the Big Ten in non-conference play. Though the Cornhuskers do not have any marquee wins and are expected to miss the NCAA Tournament for the 16th straight season, they have a respectable 8-4 record.

Nebraska was initially considered the least talented Big Ten team during the preseason, but it has the pieces to possibly pull of a few upsets. On Saturday, the Cornhuskers nearly defeated a superiorly talented Cincinnati team on the road.

Sophomore forward Terran Petteway is one of the Big Ten’s top scorers with 17.3 points per game, and sophomore Shavon Shields‘ scoring average has jumped up to 12.7 points per game.

Junior forward Leslee Smith will not “wow” you too often, but he gets the job done with 8.3 points on 60.3% shooting and 6.6 rebounds per game. The 6’8″ big man ranks No. 58 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

Sophomore Walter Pitchford and senior Ray Gallegos both play prominent roles, but what is most impressive about them is their ability to take care of the ball — Pitchford leads the country in turnover rate, and Gallegos also ranks in the top 10. In 266 minutes of playing time this season, Pitchford has not coughed the ball up once while Gallegos has turned it over three times in 268 minutes.

The last bit of positive news for the Cornhuskers is that head coach Tim Miles‘ teams have always improved each season. Not once has one of his team’s win totals decreased from one season to the next.

Projected finish: 11th

 

Photo: Northwestern Athletics
Photo: Northwestern Athletics
Northwestern (7-6)

Northwestern’s first year under Chris Collins has been a struggle.

JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford would have the ability to lead Northwestern to a couple of good wins in the Big Ten if they had any support, but they do not have that luxury.

The Wildcats’ best hope for a respectable third option is Tre Demps, a redshirt sophomore guard. Demps has been inconsistent and erratic at times, but he is third on the team in scoring with 11 points per game and their best three-point shooter. In his last three games, he has recorded 16 points per contest.

Where Northwestern will really struggle in conference play is at the point guard position and in the frontcourt.

Point guard Dave Sobolewski, who was one of the Wildcats’ better players last year as a sophomore, has been doing more harm than good. Though he leads the team with 3.4 assists per game, he also turns the ball over 2.6 times. He has been the team’s most inefficient scorer as well with a 26.8% field-goal percentage.

Northwestern’s main threat in the frontcourt is 7-foot sophomore Alex Olah. Though Olah has the potential to eventually become an average Big Ten big man, he has struggled defensively against mid-major programs with smaller forwards in non-conference play.

Projected finish: 12th

 

Ohio State (13-0)

Ohio State lost two, key starters, but head coach Thad Matta once again has the Buckeyes in possible contention for a No. 1 seed come March. The Buckeyes are unbeaten, ranked No. 3 in the country, and have wins against Marquette, Notre Dame, and North Dakota State.

Ohio State also has depth that we have not seen from a Matta team since his Buckeyes finished as the national runner-up in the 2006-07 season. Nine players are averaging double digit minutes.

The Buckeyes are an extremely balanced group with eight players averaging more than five points per contest. Senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. and junior LaQuinton Ross lead the way with 13.4 points and 12.9 points per game, respectively.

Smith has been the team’s most efficient scorer, ranking in the nation’s top 25 in effective field-goal percentage, and recently Ross has been playing like the scorer many experts expected him to be this season.

In his last four games, Ross has posted 17 points per game. If he can continue to produce at this level against Big Ten teams, Ohio State will have the best frontcourt in the Big Ten.

Ross is joined on the front line by juniors Amir Williams and Sam Thompson and freshman Marc Loving. With an eight minute per game increase, Williams has emerged as a quality big man. In non-conference play, he averaged 9.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks while shooting 63.6% from the field.

Thompson, an unbelievable athlete, is averaging 7.5 points though his shooting percentages have dipped, and Loving has been a key addition for the Buckeyes with 6.2 points per game.

And then of course, senior point guard Aaron Craft is the team’s driving force. He leads the Buckeyes with 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals per contest, and he also averages 9.5 points. He is the perfect icon for Ohio State’s tenacious defense, which ranks No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

Junior Shannon Scott has become the ultimate wingman for Craft, recording 7.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. Though Ohio State does not yet have an eye-opening win, it is a team that deserves to be in the national contender conversation.

Projected finish: 3rd

 

Penn State (9-4)

Penn State’s backcourt will give it a fighting chance in every Big Ten game this year, but it will be difficult for the Nittany Lions to work their way out of the bottom third of the league.

The Nittany Lions have one of the nation’s best point guards in redshirt senior Tim Frazier, and D.J. Newbill and John Johnson are fantastic supplements. Frazier leads the Big Ten with 7.5 assists per game, and he is also No. 4 in the conference with 18.2 points per game.

Newbill has developed into a dominant scorer, and he leads the Big Ten with 18.9 points per contest. The 6’4″ guard is shooting 51.2% from the field and 42.6% on three-pointers.

Though Johnson, a Pitt transfer, has played only one game after becoming eligible for the second semester, he started his Penn State career with a bang. Against Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 22, he scored 20 points on 8-of-11 field-goal shooting.

Penn State’s weak spot is its frontcourt. 6’6″ junior forward Ross Travis has done well against smaller teams, but he simply doesn’t have the size to contend with just about every Big Ten team. Sophomore Brandon Taylor‘s size is not much better at 6’7″.

Projected finish: 10th

 

Purdue (10-3)

Despite having a young team, Purdue was expected to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid or at least be a NIT team. With the way the Boilermakers performed in non-conference play, the latter is a much more likely possibility. The Boilermakers overall record stands strong at 10-3, but a bunch of those wins were in close games at home to mediocre programs.

They beat Northern Kentucky by one points, Rider by four, Siena by eight, and then Siena by five on a neutral site in Florida. Though they competed well with No. 5 Oklahoma State at the Old Spice Classic, they still lost by 10 and then lost by 15 points to Washington State the next day. At the Crossroads Classic, they lost to Butler.

With that said, Matt Painter‘s team made some progress in December. Purdue enters its New Year’s Eve matchup with Ohio State holding a 5-1 record this month, and it has a respectable win at West Virginia.

Though Purdue has the talent to maybe beat a few of the better teams in the Big Ten, its inconsistency also suggests that it could lose games to teams at its level or worse.

Three guys to watch on the Boilermakers are Terone Johnson, Ronnie Johnson, and A.J. Hammons.

Terone, a senior guard, leads the team in scoring with 14 points per game while Ronnie, a sophomore guard, averages 10.8 points and a team-best 3.8 assists.

Hammons, a sophomore forward, gives the Boilermakers great size at 7-feet, and he is averaging 8.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks.

Projected finish: 9th

 

Photo: AP | Andy Manis
Photo: AP | Andy Manis
Wisconsin (13-0)

Wisconsin has been nothing short of phenomenal in non-conference play.

In terms of a resume, the Badgers have the best body of work in the nation with victories against Florida, Saint Louis, St. John’s, Virginia, Marquette, West Virginia, and Green Bay. And the Badgers have been passing the eye test as well. Bo Ryan‘s team does not have much depth, but their five starters make them a national title contender.

As always, Wisconsin has mastered playing great defense without fouling. The Badgers are a top-10 team in defensive efficiency, and none of their starters commit more than 3.1 fouls per 40 minutes.

Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust, and Josh Gasser form a balanced trio in the backcourt. All three veterans are capable of facilitating the offense, though mainly Jackson handles the point.

Jackson leads the team and is No. 5 in the Big Ten in assists with 4.5 dimes per game, and he is also averaging 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Brust has excelled as an outside shooter this season. He was already an above-average three-point shooter at 38.9% in both his sophomore and junior seasons, but through 13 games as a senior he is 37-of-84 (44%).

The Badgers have a versatile forward in sophomore Sam Dekker and size in 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky.

Dekker, a highly-touted recruit out of high school, was one of the Big Ten’s freshman last season, and he has only improved in his second season. Entering conference play, he is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 51.9% from the field and 37.2% from beyond the arc.

Kaminsky, who notched a Wisconsin-record 43 points against North Dakota in November, is one of the Big Ten’s leaders in offensive rating, and he is No. 7 in the league with 1.7 blocks per game.

When it comes to conference play, the Badgers have as favorable a Big Ten schedule as possible. They get to host Ohio State and Michigan State without needing to go to Columbus or East Lansing. Their two road-only games are at Penn State and at Nebraska, two teams expected to finish in the bottom three of the Big Ten.

Projected finish: 1st

 

All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.

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