(I got a chance to exchange a few emails with Tom Beindit of Big Ten Powerhouse about all things Big Ten. Below is our conversation. My part is in italics)
Any talk of the Big Ten this season has to begin with Wisconsin, a team that brings back pretty much everything amidst a conference that is in a state of roster upheaval. Do you think the Badgers have what it takes to survive the Big Ten season and win a Big Ten championship for the first time since 2008? What do you think could be Wisconsin's undoing if the Badgers falter?
Frankly, Wisconsin is the team to beat this year in the Big Ten. You can debate about how good the Badgers will be this season, but there's no doubt that they are going to be the team with the target on their backs. Just take a look at Big Ten Media Day, where the writers selected the Badgers as the unanimous pick to win the conference.
The thing about Wisconsin is that they actually have the roster to back up this hype. Last year, the Badgers may not have been the best team in the nation or even the conference, but they were very good. To start, they opened up the season at 16-0 with wins over Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Marquette, Virginia, and West Virginia. Remember, the Gators lost to just 2 teams during all of last year. Those teams were UConn (national champions) and Wisconsin.
Wisconsin struggled following that opening stretch, but they were still able to finish at #2 in the Big Ten and were eliminated in the Big Ten Tournament by last year's unanimous Media Day pick to win the conference, Michigan State. Of course, that's when the magic started and the Badgers made their Final Four run with wins over Arizona, Baylor, and Oregon. Wisconsin did fall to Kentucky in the Final Four, but there's no doubt that they had a very good season.
The key part here is that Wisconsin lost very little during the offseason. Wisconsin returns 4 starters with the lone departure being senior Ben Brust. This would normally be a pretty significant concern, but Wisconsin has Nigel Hayes returning, who was the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year last season. Considering that Hayes was just a freshman, he could very well be even better this year and he already was pretty good.
The obvious comparison for this year's Wisconsin team is going to be last year's Michigan State team, who struggled with injuries all year and was unable to live up to the preseason hype. Who knows if MSU would have lived up to the hype without the injuries, but in all honesty, I actually like this Wisconsin team more than that MSU team. Obviously, the Spartans were a talented squad, but I'm not sure they could ever claim 5 starters of this quality and when you add in that this team has already competed at an elite level, there are a lot of reasons to like Wisconsin.
In short, I absolutely think Wisconsin can and should win the Big Ten. This is a very good team and you would be hard pressed to find any in the conference that can compare roster-wise. Still, the best team doesn't always win the title. Just look at last season. You could make a pretty strong argument that Wisconsin was the conference's best team last year, but Michigan was still able to win the conference by 3 games. Winning the Big Ten title is about consistency, playing well on the road, and getting some luck. No matter where Wisconsin plays this year, it's probably going to be a sell-out and a very difficult environment. Obviously, all the top teams will get this treatment, but I find it difficult to believe anybody is going to get tougher road games than Wisconsin this year. Add in that teams like Michigan get more favorable conference slates and it's not that crazy to think Wisconsin stumbles enough to lose the crown. Still, they have to be the favorite.
Outside of scheduling concerns, the red flag for Wisconsin has to be Traveon Jackson, who was probably the team's most inconsistent starter last season. Jackson has the potential to be really good, but he was a big reason why Wisconsin struggled during the middle of last year. In many ways, the team may live and die with Jackson this year. The Badgers were also a much weaker defensive team last year than they have usually been under Bo Ryan, but the offense should once again be top notch and Nigel Hayes could help on the defensive side. To me, I think Jackson is the concerning piece, which also says a lot about how good Wisconsin could be this season since he was actually relatively good last year.
It is funny you mention defense, as that has been such a big part of Wisconsin's success under Bo Ryan that I had all but forgotten about the Badgers' struggles on that end. The 2012-13 team led the nation in adj defensive efficiency and the big regression was only obscured by how much better the offense looked in 2013-14. The defense was certainly a big part of Wisconsin's struggles last year, and all but two of the losses featured opposing offenses putting up offensive efficiency numbers of 110 or better (the other two losses were to slog-it-out Northwestern in a weird game and similarly defensive minded OSU).
With Wisconsin's game looking more offensive these days, where do you think the best defense in the Big Ten resides? Is OSU going to continue to dominate post-Craft, can Nebrasketball continue its stunning defensive play, or will someone else (Illinois? MSU?) step up and be the standard-bearer for Big Ten basketball the way it was meant to be played?
There are a few teams that jump out as the top defensive candidates. You mentioned Illinois, MSU, and OSU. All three look like they should be very tough on that side of the floor. Illinois returns nearly everybody from last season and already were a very good defensive team. For them, I'm interested to see whether some of the younger guys like Kendrick Nunn and now Leron Black can become big time defenders. Still though, I think John Groce is going to get his guys to play tough defense. The Spartans obviously lose a lot from last year in Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne, but I think people are overlooking what they bring back as well. They return 4 of their 5 best rebounders from last year and Matt Costello and Branden Dawson should be a very capable defensive frontcourt. Finally, the team that everybody will likely look to is OSU with Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams returning. Scott should fit nicely into that Aaron Craft defensive role and although I think they'll be very good defensively, this team might drop off a little. Anthony Lee is a newcomer with a lot of experience, but OSU is going to need a lot from true freshmen this year, which is never a good thing to hear when you're talking about defense.
Other notables are Nebraska and Northwestern, who both finished in the Top 25 for KenPom defense last season. It's hard for me not to think both of these teams will be good again on the defensive side of the court, but I'm not sure they're going to be on the same level as those 3 teams listed above, especially considering how slow they both played last year.
Shifting gears a bit, the Big Ten's addition of Rutgers and Maryland will change the basketball landscape of the conference. It looks like Rutgers is pretty terrible and should be even more overmatched in a more competitive basketball environment like the Big Ten. However, Maryland has a lot of history as a top ACC program. What should Michigan fans expect from these two? Will either of these programs surprise in year one of Big Ten play?
The addition of Maryland and Rutgers are sure to shake things up this year for various reasons. Maryland is clearly the newcomer that will receive the most attention. They are generally regarded as having a pretty solid basketball program historically and are now the Big Ten school to win a national championship most recently (2002). However, the Terps have widely underachieved under coach Mark Turgeon. Part of this is due to bad luck with things like injuries and losses in close games, but another part of it has been that the teams simply weren't all that great. Maryland did finish at #40 in KenPom last season so they were far from terrible, but they also had a record of just 17-15 and didn't have much to hang their hat on outside of a home upset over Virginia. Unfortunately for Maryland, they lost a ton of players in the offseason and even with a highly touted recruiting class, there are going to be serious depth concerns. The big player to watch on Maryland is Dez Wells, who should be a fringe All-Big Ten caliber player. Also, former Michigan player Evan Smotrycz now plays for Maryland, which will interest Wolverine fans. This is a team with a good hunk of talent that could finish anywhere from #4 in the Big Ten to possibly even as low as #12. It's just going to depend on how the newcomers perform.
Overall, your characterization of Rutgers is pretty accurate, but I do think it deserves a little background here. If Maryland and Rutgers were in the Big Ten last year, Rutgers would have finished at #14 in KenPom in the conference. They easily were the weakest of any Big Ten team last season. However, part of this is a carryover from the Mike Rice scandal and a roster that was practically gutted. The Scarlet Knights did improve somewhat last season and actually have a few pieces. I still expect them to finish at #14, but statistically, I think their team will be stronger this year. Players to watch are big man Kadeem Jack, who is a potential NBA Draft pick, and Myles Mack, who should put up some nice numbers.
These two certainly don't seem like a threat to add much to the top of the conference race, and while Maryland has talent, it might not have enough to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten.
Of course, the Big Ten looks like it won't be quite as strong this year as it has over the past few seasons when it has generally been considered the strongest basketball conference in the country. We've already touched on Wisconsin - and the Badgers clearly look to be the class of the conference this off season - but the common theme outside of Madison seems to be "how to cope with roster turnover". Michigan lost three NBA players as well as its entire depth chart at the five. Michigan State similarly lost its three best players and recruiting returns have been diminishing under Izzo the last few years with the Spartans repeatedly striking out with blue-chip recruits. Ohio State has to replace the personification of grit as well as its best volume scorer. On top of that, Indiana's backslide looks to be a longer-term issue than just a single year out of the post-season. That is four of the Big Ten's best over the last five years in states of uncertainty.
With all of that said, do you feel like the Big Ten can once again stake a claim to being the best conference in the country? Is Nebrasketball and a solid middle class of teams enough to paper over the lack of heavy hitters at the top of the standings outside of Wisconsin? Do you feel like this can be more of a reloading year for the Big Ten as a whole rather than a rebuilding year?
In one word, yes. As much as the Big Ten is losing this year, I absolutely think that it can - and will - remain as the nation's best basketball conference. The biggest thing for the conference this year is depth. Last season, every team in the conference won at least 5 conference games and the lowest team on KenPom was Northwestern at #131. My point here is that the conference was competitive from top to bottom. When your statistically weakest team goes on the road and beats a Final Four team (Wisconsin), you get a sense of just how good the Big Ten was last season.
Now, the middle and bottom teams don't get focused on, but that's what can truly separate a conference. This year, I think the middle of the Big Ten is going to be very good. This is because every team has depth, experience, and talent in that group. You touched on some of the most successful teams as of late (IU, Michigan, MSU, OSU) but it's also worth noting that Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska could easily fill that gap. All 4 of these teams have proven guys coming back and all could be in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament this year. The bottom isn't necessarily that bad either. Teams like Maryland, Northwestern, and Purdue all have talent too. They're not great, but I think you'll see them close to #100 in KenPom, or maybe even above. The lone exception is Rutgers, who the Big Ten really needs to step up to legitimize the "middle and bottom argument."
Overall though, I think a lot rides with Wisconsin. The Big Ten needs a national champion and I think you can make an argument that the Badgers are better situated than any other Big Ten team in recent years to win it all. Other teams may be able to do this too, but a lot rides with Wisconsin in terms of perception.
The way the Big Ten has continued to keep its reputation up despite not winning (or even competing for) a national championship has been impressive, and I think you're right on with Wisconsin: there isn't really any identifiable weak spot on that team that you can spot at this time. Maybe the season will prove to be a surprise, but this looks like the most complete Big Ten team in the last few years, and that's saying something.
While Michigan doesn't have that expectation of Final Four or bust like it did two years ago, what are the odds that this doesn't matter in the end? I mean, John Beilein is fresh off a season in which he lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., only to be then robbed of Mitch McGary two months into the season. He still led this team to a Big Ten title (by a three win margin) and nearly to a second straight Final Four. Michigan has a lot of questions, especially up front, but this roster is oozing with potential. What are your expectations for Michigan this year? Do you think this team once again develops into a legit Final Four challenger? How does Michigan finish in the Big Ten race?
Michigan is going to be an exciting team for a few reasons this year. First, the Wolverines are an offensive powerhouse. If there's a version of college football's Oregon Ducks on the hardwood, it's Michigan. The team is a blast to watch and when you put together back-to-back seasons as the #1 offense according to KenPom, your system is working well. I don't really expect the offense to drop off all that much this season and that's due to players like Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and Kameron Chatman. Defensively, the team could have issues, especially inside, but I still think people are going to enjoy watching Michigan and those players alone make me think they're going to be very competitive.
Right now, I have Michigan as the #2 team in the Big Ten in my preseason predictions. To me, a ton is going to depend on that frontcourt. With Chatman, Irvin, LeVert, and Walton, I think you have the 1 through 4 positions on the court locked down. The remaining questions are depth and that center spot. I think Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle, and DJ Wilson will be good enough to hold their own and push Michigan above teams like Illinois, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State. In fact, if Michigan can just get decently play upfront, I don't see why this team can't be elite. Michigan should have the best backcourt in the Big Ten and if the other spots in the lineup can hold their own, they should win a lot of games.
Getting back to the Final Four this year might be a bit much since most of the teams that make it have at least one really good big man, but crazier things have happened and if I have them projected as #2 in the best conference in the country, then I guess I have to think they're going to be in the mix for a #2 or #3 seed and therefore in the Final Four discussion.
Thanks, Tom, for joining me today and talking Big Ten hoops. Be sure to check out Tom and the rest of the gang over at Big Ten Powerhouse.