Conference Catch-up: Big Ten
The Big Ten was the best conference in the nation last season, with games between the top four teams quickly becoming must-watch league showdowns. A year before realignment changes the mix again (with Maryland and Rutgers entering the fray, creating a 14-team league), the conference should again be in the discussion for the nation’s best. While the ACC now has more traditional “big names” with the import of Syracuse (as well as Pitt and Notre Dame) to join Duke and North Carolina, the actual play on the court could still favor the Big Ten this season, as there is at least one legit national title threat, several others who believe they can crash the party in Dallas in April, and good depth in the middle of the league that should lead to a strong number of NCAA bids. The bottom half of the league looks better than what the ACC will serve up, so things could again be tops in the Big Ten.
The return of Michigan's Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III keeps the Wolverines in legit contender mode and adds another layer of quality depth to the top of the conference. It also helps fuel the recent resurgence of the in-state rivalry with Michigan. At the World University Games tryouts this summer, I joked with Adreian Payne that being on a team coached (in part) by John Beilein would soften the rivalry edge a bit. He replied, “I’m not playing him when we’re on the court. I’m playing his players.” OK, then. With Indiana re-established (albeit in a bit of a transition this year) and Ohio State expected to be strong once again, the traditional programs/rivalries look as good as they have been in a long time.
Player to Watch
The league is loaded with good players, a number of whom are “better” than this player, but the one who may be the most crucial to the eventual upside of a contender is Michigan State point guard Keith Appling. Between Gary Harris’ and Travis Trice’s injuries last season and Appling’s inexperience at the 1, the Spartans didn’t get the consistent guard play needed to be a true national title contender. Tom Izzo is raving about Appling’s progress this spring and if his perimeter cohorts stay healthy, the Spartans will have a much more fluid and well-rounded attack. If you need an alternative, a good pick would be Ohio State’s LaQuinton Ross.
The Spartans look to be the choice, although there are several ways you can go here. Retaining Payne for his senior season is a big boost, and the Spartans’ sophomore class looks primed for primetime. And how can you pick against Izzo when it appears he has the best personnel?
Michigan and Ohio State should be very much in the discussion for the regular-season crown. The Wolverines have plenty of talent back from the national finalists, and the Buckeyes have Aaron Craft back to spearhead one final season in Columbus. Even with losing Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes should be able to find enough offense to win a lot with how well they will defend.
Wisconsin, with Sam Dekker leading the way (and hopefully a fully healed Josh Gasser back), should be the handful it normally is. Expect a top-four finish, like always, with the chance for more. Iowa is the sexy choice here, with Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble leading a Hawkeyes team that was a little unlucky to fall short of the NCAAs last season and absolutely should get there this year. And despite losing both Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller to the top five of the NBA draft, Indiana has the pieces to be pretty solid again if things come together.
Three Big Questions
1) Can Indiana maintain its momentum?
The Hoosiers have a big freshman class coming in to help fill the holes left by the departed, with Noah Vonleh’s hype reaching incredible proportions. IU’s nonconference schedule is a better balance this season for this team, including dates at Syracuse, vs. Notre Dame in Indy, vs. Washington at Madison Square Garden and then either UConn or Boston College there, too. We’ll have a pretty solid idea come January of how this team is coming along. Even if there’s a moderate dip in W/L this year, it looks like Tom Crean and his staff have parlayed the Zeller catch and subsequent success into a sustainable longer-term outlook as Indiana regains its rightful place in the conference.
2) Which of the league’s ‘smaller’ stories will matter most?
It might not yield full impact this season, but Northwestern landing Chris Collins as its new head coach should be a longer-term win for the school. Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching tree has a very mixed history, but this local native should be the coach to get the Wildcats (finally) to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. Collins already has lured strong prospect Vic Law to the program, and his ability to get better talent should manifest itself in success sooner rather than later. In terms of this season, it will be interesting to see a) What impact Nebraska’s sold-out new arena has on the Huskers’ fortunes and b) How much scrappier Penn State will be with Tim Frazier back in the lineup.
3) What is the March prospectus?Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are mortal locks for the NCAAs and likely top-four seeds. Wisconsin probably won’t be much below that, if at all. Beyond that, there’s room for teams to make a push. Iowa should get there. Indiana has the potential to do something, too. Illinois still will shoot its way in and out of games, but the talent is there to be an NCAA team. Can a surprise team emerge? Best bet is for six teams to make it, and maybe one more than that.