The Big Ten conference season is upon us once again, and it promises to be just as exciting as the seasons of years past, especially for Hawkeye fans. The conference is once again loaded with elite teams and a handful of other good teams that could ruin somebody's evening on any given night.
And then there's Penn State and Northwestern. God bless ‘em.
Without any further ado, here is a look at the Big Ten's constituents, and how their conference season will shape up.
ILLINOIS (12-2) – The #7 Fighting Illini easily dispatched Minnesota, 76-53, to begin their conference season Thursday. The Illini are led by the backcourt of Frankie Williams and Cory Bradford, who have combined to average about 30 points per game, as well as over 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals. Combined with the terrifically athletic Brian Cook, the team can score points on anybody. The real heart and soul of the team, though, is forward Lucas Johnson, who is currently recovering from knee surgery. Illinois will welcome back his all-out hustle when he returns around the beginning of February. The Illini are heavy favorites to take the Big Ten crown, and it's plain to see they'll be living up to that hype throughout the rest of the season.
INDIANA (7-5) – The Hoosiers are probably the most dangerous team in the nation with 5 losses. Coach Mike Davis is a very good bench coach, and Jared Jeffries is always capable of blowing up against anybody. The losses Indiana has suffered have come at the hands of teams with a combined record of 56-7, and they've also got wins over Ball State (yeah, the same team that went to Maui and took out Kansas and UCLA, then gave Duke a run) and Texas. Obviously, they aren't out of the Big 10 race by a long shot. The Hoosiers will probably surprise people just looking at their record en route to a top-tier finish in the conference and a probable NCAA berth.
IOWA (12-3) – Does anybody still remember that Northern Iowa beat the Hawkeyes? Iowa rang in the New Year by beating Wisconsin 69-57 in a typical Wisconsin game: Lots of defense and missed shots, an irritating amount of turnovers, and a deciding factor on the inside. The Recker and Evans Show ran for 44 of Iowa's 69 points, as well as 23 of their 40 rebounds. Iowa is on a roll after losing to UNI, having won six straight games by an average of 25 points. The Hawkeyes are currently #9 in the nation, and are playing well enough to take on the conference and come out with only four or five losses. While Recker and Evans are the steamroller they've always been, the emergence of Glen Worley and Pierre Pierce as secondary targets has elevated Iowa's play to an elite level. Count on a high seed for the Hawkeyes in March.
MICHIGAN (5-5) – Tommy Amaker's Wolverines could have probably used a better start than this. Yes, one loss came to Duke, but they've also lost to Western Michigan and San Francisco, for whom Bill Russell could still probably start. Michigan is led by the super-athletic Lavell Blanchard, who averages over 14 points and seven boards per game. Another talented wingman is Bernard Robinson Jr., who scores almost 12 points per game and is a good defender. This looks like the same Michigan team from last year: Athletically gifted, definitely dangerous, a midget at point (Avery Queen is generously listed at 5'7"), yet maddeningly unrefined enough to lose to anybody. Still, they beat Penn State to start off their year in the Big Ten. They'll probably help bring up the rear of the Big Ten this year, while showing a flash or two of the greatness that enticed Amaker to coach there.
MICHIGAN STATE (9-4) – Yes, aside from super point guard Marcus Taylor, nobody has heard of any of the Spartans. They've also taken four losses in the non-conference season, but considering their victors – Syracuse, Fresno State, Florida, and Stanford – should any team outside of Duke expect to be much better than 9-4? Tom Izzo has yet another talented squad, led by Taylor and super freshman Kelvin Torbert, who was briefly on Iowa's recruiting radar. The #19 Spartans should contend for Big Ten leadership as well, but they don't seem experienced enough to be on top after 16 games. They'll still go about 22-10 on the year with about a 7 seed, and Izzo's a great tournament coach.
MINNESOTA (7-5) – The Gophers, led by forwards Rick Rickert and Dusty Rychart, are yet another Big Ten team with a deceptive amount of non-conference losses. In the continual jockeying of big-conference teams for good strengths of schedule, Minnesota scheduled Wake Forest, Georgia, and Texas Tech… and lost to them all. Aside from maybe Oregon, Minnesota hasn't beaten anybody they weren't supposed to, and their 23-point loss to Illinois to start the conference campaign doesn't bode well for the rest of the year. The NIT is a possibility, but they'll need to stay close to .500 in the conference to be able to qualify. Dan Monson is a smart coach, though, and the Gophers will certainly be able to contend in just about every game they play.
NORTHWESTERN (8-4) – Don't let the fourth-best non-conference record in the Big Ten fool you… the Wildcats are not very good. The best team they've beaten is probably Virginia Commonwealth, who are a stunning #72 on the RPI. With losses coming to schools like Fordham and East Carolina, as well as a 1-point squeaker over Louisiana-Lafayette and a 3-point win over Florida A&M (no, seriously), the ‘Cats will show their true colors in the conference. It's hard to blame Coach Bill Carmody, formerly of Princeton, though; Northwestern recruited a negative amount of players in the off-season. Carmody was unable to sign a single high school athlete, and their best player from last year, Ben Johnson, transferred to Minnesota. Despite the overwhelming urge to join the MEAC or some other small conference, Northwestern picked up three big Europeans who average over 6'8" to fill up the roster. Indiana beat the ‘Cats 59-44 to start the conference, and expect the losses to keep coming for the woeful Wildcats.
OHIO STATE (9-2) – Who would have thought that the Buckeyes could lose Scoonie Penn, Michael Redd, and Ken Johnson and then come out blazing like they have? Granted, their schedule's questionable, as Winthrop, Albany, UNC-Greensboro, and IUPUI are not exactly perennial powerhouses, but they're still a very well-coached team. Brian Brown is a streaky shooter and is second on the team in rebounds and assists. Boban Savovic is a smart player who is deadly from beyond the arc, gets an incredible 1.6 points per shot, and also averages 1.5 steals per game. The whole team is shooting over 51% from the field for the season, and if they can stay close to that, they'll stay in the upper echelon of the conference. Jim O'Brien is a fine coach and he's once again got the talent to take the Buckeyes to the Big Dance. They are definitely a good dark-horse pick for the Big Ten.
PENN STATE (4-8) – Were Joe and Jon Crispin really that good? After shocking Michigan State in the Big 10 tournament last year behind the play of the Crispins and Gyasi Cline-Heard, the Nittany Lions have lost all those weapons, and replaced them with nobody of merit. As a result, the hapless Lions have beaten Lafayette, Lehigh, Bucknell, and Coppin State. That's it. They scheduled Yale, Clemson, and James Madison too, but couldn't beat them. After a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule (one that they cruised to a 4-7 record off of), they're averaging over 20 turnovers a game, and are shooting just over 40%. Don't expect either of those numbers to improve over the rest of the season, as the cupcakes they've struggled against (Yale won by 13) are being replaced by Illinois and Iowa, among other real teams. Guard Sharif Chambliss is talented, but he won't win many games for the Lions, as evidenced by their defeat at Michigan's hands Thursday.
PURDUE (8-7) – Yes, any non-conference schedule that includes Arizona, Cincinnati, Stanford, and Butler (no, really… Butler would probably go 9-7 in the Big Ten) is rough. But when a team like Purdue can't get any quality wins at all, it's time to worry. Their largest margin of victory has been 18 points against Oakland. Their defense has been lacking, and combo guard Willie Deane is what would happen if Allen Iverson made lots of poor decisions, with more turnovers than assists. He is incredibly athletic and can score at will, with almost 18 points per game to his name, but he is not a team player. Keady must get big man John Allison involved more, as a player of his caliber must be able to contribute more than 10 points and 6 boards per rebound. If the Boilermakers can improve their play, they are talented enough to possibly go .500 in the conference and make the NIT… but don't bet on it.
WISCONSIN (6-7) – Badger Fever… catch it! The least exciting team in recent Big Ten history continues to plug along with more 3-point attempts than free-throw attempts. Coach Bo Ryan, like predecessor Dick Bennett, is good at concealing the Badgers' athletic deficiencies, but Wisconsin is simply not talented enough to hang in the Big Ten right now. To their credit, they haven't been blown out yet, as the largest margin of loss was the 12-point spread Iowa just hung on them Wednesday night. However, aside from a surprising 86-73 win over Marquette, the Badgers haven't done much, and probably won't do much the rest of the way. Kirk Penney is the consummate Badger player, with over 15 points per game, good defense, a smart eye from the outside, and a surprising 5.4 rebounds per game. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, he has also been far too sloppy with the ball this year. No guard should ever have over two times more turnovers than assists—EVER. Travon Davis has been an effective point guard, but he isn't good enough to make the team good. Watch for Wisconsin to post about six wins in the conference, usually giving every team they play a serious run before coming up short.
HTO.com Staff Prediction
1 (tie). Illinois
1 (tie). Iowa
3. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
11. Penn State