Big Ten Basketball Preview: Ohio State top team in AnnArbor.com Big Ten projections
When Big Ten basketball play starts Monday, one thing is certain: Ohio State is the best team in the conference.
The rest of the league is a group of talented teams with some questionable flaws. For some, it is youth. For others, there are chemistry concerns. Yes, there are a bunch of good teams in this league. There might be just one great one, though.
Here's how we see the Big Ten title chase shaking out:
1. Ohio State
Current record: 12-0.
Best players: Jared Sullinger, 6-9, fr., F (17.5 ppg., 10.1 rpg.); David Lighty, 6-5, sr., G/F (13.2 ppg., 3.6 apg.); William Buford, 6-5, jr., G (12.5 ppg., 4.7 rpg.)
What we know: Sullinger is going to be the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year after picking up the Rookie of the Week award in five of the first six weeks. He very well could end up as the Player of the Year in the Big Ten and is in the conversation for the national Player of the Year. Lighty is another prolific scoring option and the Buckeyes have balance and more depth considering the second man off the bench, freshman Deshaun Thomas, is a McDonald’s All American.
Potential concern: As always with Thad Matta’s teams, depth is an issue. With young players like Sullinger, Thomas and reserve point guard Aaron Craft, fitness could be an issue the rest of the year.
Projected Big Ten record: 14-4.
Current record: 11-1.
Best players: Blake Hoffarber, 6-4, sr., G (13.9 ppg., 39.1 3-pt %); Al Nolen, 6-1, sr., G (9.0 ppg., 3.7 apg., 2.7 spg.); Trevor Mbakwe, 6-8, jr., F (13.2 ppg., 9.8 rpg.).
What we know: The Gophers are possibly the most athletic team in the conference with super-quick guard defensive whiz Nolen at the point, rangy Rodney Williams and Mbakwe on the wings and shot-blocking center Ralph Sampson III. Add to that the best shooter in the league in the Hoffarber. They are a team that has balance and makes its name on defense, holding teams to 38.9 percent shooting.
Potential concern: Injuries. Minnesota looked vulnerable and somewhat lost without Nolen, even though it has Devoe Joseph as a good alternative. Free throw shooting has also been a major issue as Minnesota has only made 62.5 percent of its shots. In close Big Ten games, that could be a major problem.
Projected Big Ten record: 12-6.
3. (tie) Purdue
Current record: 11-1.
Best players: JaJuan Johnson, 6-10, sr., F/C (19.8 ppg., 7.9 rpg.); E’Twaun Moore, 6-4, sr., G (19.4 ppg., 5.8 rpg.).
What we know: If Sullinger isn’t the Big Ten Player of the Year, it’ll likely be because Johnson took it from him. The Boilermakers, though, are very much a two-man team — kind of like Michigan a year ago with DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris. The difference is Purdue’s role players are producing at a good level. But this team’s fortunes will be tied to Johnson and Moore.
Potential concern: The lack of a third scorer. As Purdue enters Big Ten play, teams are more familiar with what Johnson and Moore are able to do. There is more of a chance a team will be able to take one of them out of the game and where can Purdue go for offense then? Also, any sort of injury to Johnson or Moore would severely damage their season.
Projected Big Ten record: 11-7.
Current record: 10-2.
Best players:Jon Leuer 6-10, sr., F (19.9 ppg., 7.8 rpg.); Jordan Taylor 6-1, jr., G (15.4 ppg., 41.2 3-point pct.)
What we know: Leuer is one of the best players in the country, averaging 19.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and is shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line. He is the most difficult defensive matchup in the Big Ten and will give the league fits. Taylor has emerged as one of the league’s top point guards and Wisconsin has a good inside-outside combination.
Potential concern: Much like Purdue, Wisconsin isn’t very deep and is extremely reliant on Leuer and Taylor. Teams with good wing players could also cause them concern, but if the key matchups are at the point and in the post, Wisconsin will win most of the time.
Projected Big Ten record: 11-7.
5. (tie) Michigan State
Current record: 8-4.
Best players: Durrell Summers 6-5, sr., G/F (15.2 ppg., 4.8 rpg.); Kalin Lucas, 6-1, sr., PG (14.9 ppg., 3.3 apg.); Draymond Green, 6-6, jr., F (11.8 ppg., 8.9 rpg.).
What we know: The Spartans have issues. Lucas doesn’t look totally healthy. Green has been Michigan State’s only consistent player. Summers is scoring well, but hasn’t been as active as you would think. The freshmen — Keith Appling and Adreian Payne — have not contributed as much as Tom Izzo would like. But, this is still Michigan State. The Spartans have played the toughest schedule in the Big Ten and will enter the conference season tested. True, the tests haven’t gone well, but every year Izzo’s teams rebound to play well in the league.
Potential concern: This year’s Michigan State team seems different than the Izzo teams of years past. Something just seems ... off. The biggest thing is any team that has the talent level to keep up with Michigan State has beaten the Spartans soundly. Syracuse controlled the game the whole way in a 72-58 blowout. Texas did the same at the Breslin Center last week in a 67-55 win. If Izzo can’t figure it out, the top half of the Big Ten is going to be a major issue for Michigan State.
Projected Big Ten record: 10-8.
5. (tie) Illinois
Current record: 10-3.
Best players: Demetri McCamey, 6-3, sr., G (15.7 ppg., 7.1 apg.); Mike Davis 6-9, sr., F/C (10.8 ppg., 6.7 rpg.); D.J. Richardson 6-3, so., G (11.6 ppg., 43.5 3-point pct.).
What we know: McCamey is one of the best point guards in the country and has a 60.7 efficiency field goal rate. He also has one of the best assist rates in the nation at 41.2. The Illini are one of the most confounding teams in the league as they’ve handled some really good teams well and then looked bad against Illinois-Chicago and Missouri. Depth isn’t an issue for Illinois, as it is for some of the other teams in the league.
Potential concern: Free throws have been an issue, especially for Davis and Richardson, who both are shooting less than 65 percent from the line. The opposition rebound rate of 33.5 is something that should be watched, as well, since the Big Ten has some good front courts.
Projected Big Ten record: 10-8.
AnnArbor.com file photo
Current record: 10-2.
Best players: Darius Morris, 6-4, so., PG (15.8 ppg., 7.5 apg.); Tim Hardaway Jr., 6-5, fr., F (11.8 ppg., 3.7 rpg.); Zack Novak, 6-4, jr., G (7.9 ppg., 7.5 rpg.).
What we know: Morris is one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten and in the country. After a sub-par freshman year, he’s become Michigan’s best player. The Wolverines have regained their shooting (33.1 3-point percentage) and are playing some of the best defense in the Big Ten, holding teams to 56.6 points a game. The Wolverines are young but have looked good.
Potential concern: Starting three freshmen or redshirt freshmen leads to the potential of running into a wall in February. The early conference schedule is brutal (a visit from Kansas is between Big Ten games at Wisconsin and vs. Ohio State) and, for a young team, that could pose a problem. How Michigan’s interior handles rougher Big Ten players is also a worry. There's a potential for a team that takes a lot of 3-pointers to lose legs as the season wears on.
Projected Big Ten record: 8-10
Current record: 9-1.
Best players: John Shurna 6-8, jr., F (23.3 ppg., 62.3 3-point pct.; Drew Crawford 6-5, so., G/F (15.5 ppg., 4.6 rpg.); Michael Thompson, 5-10, sr., PG (14.8 ppg., 4.8 apg.).
What we know: Shurna, with his sometimes odd-looking shot, is one of the best scorers and most versatile players in the Big Ten. He can drive to the hoop and also is making an obscene 62.3 percent of his 3-pointers. The Wildcats have played an incredibly weak schedule, currently ranked No. 263 in strength of schedule by statsheet.com, and were beaten handily by the one good team (St. John's) they’ve played.
Potential concern: Have to wonder how good or bad this team is, because they haven’t been tested. Big Ten teams know how to play Shurna, and if his statistically-brilliant season drops at all, Northwestern could be in trouble. The Wildcats play seven guys consistently but are very reliant on Shurna, Crawford and Thompson.
Projected Big Ten record: 7-11.
9. (tie) Indiana
Current record: 9-4.
Best players: Christian Watford, 6-9, so., F (18.3 ppg., 5.8 rpg.); Verdell Jones III, 6-5, jr., G (12.3 ppg., 47.8 pct. shooting).
What we know: Indiana has a gaudy record, based mostly on playing a bunch of bad teams. Whenever the Hoosiers have faced a good opponent — Boston College and Kentucky, for example — or even a mediocre one from a big conference, Indiana has folded. The Hoosiers have a lot of depth and play a lot of guys, but they have been extremely inconsistent.
Potential concern: Indiana’s youth continues to struggle. Sophomore Maurice Creek is averaging 9.2 points, and that will need to pick up in Big Ten play for the Hoosiers to be competitive. How this team will react to tough games back-to-back is also an issue.
Projected Big Ten record: 6-12
9. (tie) Penn State
Current record: 7-4.
Best players: Talor Battle 6-0, sr., G (20.6 ppg., 5.4 rpg.); Jeff Brooks 6-8, sr., F (12.3 ppg., 7.8 rpg.).
What we know: It’s a lot like last year for Penn State: the Nittany Lions will go as Battle goes. He has a little bit around him in Brooks and DJ Jackson, but this is Battle’s team. He’s led PSU in all but one game this season. Having lost three of their last five games is a concern. Plus, the Big Ten already knows Battle well.
Potential concern: If the same thing that happened last year happens this year. Being Battle-reliant is dangerous as one-man teams don’t fare well in conference play. This team is also not shooting 3-pointers well, making 67 of 211 so far this season. For Penn State to be competitive, that can’t continue.
Projected Big Ten record: 6-12.
Current record: 7-5.
Best players: Matt Gatens 6-5, jr., G (11.7 ppg.); Eric May 6-5, so., G (11.2 ppg., 45.5 3-point pct.).
What we know: Iowa is still figuring things out under first-year coach Fran McCaffery. The Hawkeyes don’t have much in terms of impressive wins, but have some worrisome losses against a bad Wake Forest team (76-73), South Dakota State (79-69) and Long Beach State (78-72). Plus, they just don’t have the experienced talent necessary to be competitive.
Potential concern: A lot. The scoring hasn’t been there. The 3-point shooting is bad at 32.7 percent. As a team, the Hawkeyes have more turnovers than assists — a trend that will only get worse in the Big Ten.
Projected Big Ten record: 4-14.