(Ed. Note: I realized after we wrote this that no attention was given to Rutgers or Maryland. I completely forgot about these two coming into the conference, and we will address this with a separate post or two in the future to get better acquainted with both squads.)
Zach - All the dust is still settling with regards to the NBA draft and its early entrants, but one thing looked to be pretty clear well before some of these final draft decisions happened: Wisconsin looks to be the early favorite in the Big Ten for next year, and I'm not even sure that it is close. Ben Brust is gone, but just about everyone of consequence returns. You followed Wisconsin pretty closely last year, what do you think about its chances in the Big Ten next year given what we know about the rest of the losses for top teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State)?
Fouad - Without a doubt, Wisconsin is the early favorite. Like you said, Brust is the only loss; while he was a great player for the Badgers, they'll be okay without him, especially with Josh Gasser returning.
However, it all starts with Frank Kaminsky, who will return for another season of superb play on the block. It's really hard to believe that he couldn't play more than he did during his first two years in Madison. I mean, Berggren, Brusewitz and Evans made for a solid front court, but you'd think Kaminsky would have flashed the talent he showed this season to have have earned some more minutes--but, I guess not.
Throw in Nigel Hayes, who was physically ready to play Big Ten basketball, from the very beginning as a freshman--he'll only get better as a sophomore. He is going to be a fearsome guy to deal with for Big Ten front courts; it's a little scary to think that he's only going to get stronger.
Also, everyone knows about Traveon Jackson (whom I've jokingly compared to John Navarre, in that he's a solid college player who gets an inordinate amount of flak for the mistakes he does make), but Bronson Koenig is the guy to watch next season for the Badgers. He really grew quite a bit throughout the season, especially as a shot-maker. He's got handles and quicks and should grow into a more front-and-center role in the Badgers back court.
Given the losses by the other big name teams --speaking of, feels sort of strange that Michigan is back in this category-- UW is the clear favorite, and certainly has the capability to make another run at the Final Four.
Speaking of losses, what are your thoughts on Michigan State? I'm struggling with the concept of a Michigan State team that is not great (or can't even be called good), but looking at the roster for next season it's hard not to predict a down year in East Lansing.
Zach - Michigan State is a tough nut to crack. Remember that the team already played a sizeable portion of this year without Payne and/or Appling, and getting Branden Dawson back is a big boost to a frontcourt that already had depth issues. That is the glass half full argument. The glass half empty argument on Michigan State is simple: who is going to lead the offense?
I like a lot of what Michigan State has on its roster. Denzel Valentine is a really versatile player, almost a smaller, less relied upon version of Draymond Green, someone who can do a lot of different things and hold down different roles. Travis Trice doesn't excite me as the starting point guard, but it is possible to field a competitive team with him in the starting lineup. Matt Costello should benefit from another off season and I think fouls are the only serious issue keeping him from playing a very big role next year. Finally, Branden Dawson brings a lot of rebounding, defense, and interior offense that doesn't need to hog possessions The problem is, not one of these guys is capable of taking over on offense. The Spartans seem to have the Big Ten's best collection of third options going into next year. Add in Kenny Kaminksi, Gavin Schilling and Alvin Ellis, who should all take a solid step forward developmentally, and that is seven guys that are still nothing but role players that have deferred to the same three guys on offense for the last two years. Now that those three guys are gone and someone on Michigan State is going to have to carve out a role as the one everybody else defers to when it is late in the game and Michigan State needs a basket.
Can Michigan State be seriously in the Big Ten title hunt when next March rolls around? Certainly, but two of those above mentioned players need to take a big step forward offensively. Valentine is probably the closest, but that is if he can shake some of the curious decisions he makes. I also think Alvin Ellis is a name to keep an eye on. There is talent there, but after spending the last few years watching Tim Hardaway Jr. and then Glenn Robinson III struggle to consistently show up and control the offense, I'm not going to make the argument that every good college player is wired to be a number one option on offense.
Still, when all is said and done, the worst I expect Michigan State's season to go would be a repeat of the 2011 season that saw the Spartans go 9-9 in the Big Ten and one-and-done in the tournament. I'm just not sure I see where the talent is that will turn things around past next year. Alas, it is still early.
So, I've got a simple question for you: is it finally Iowa's year?
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Fouad - Boy, it seems like that has been the question for the past few years, eh? To be honest, I thought this was the year. Even once it became clear that Michigan was going to win the Big Ten going away, I thought Iowa would be one of those teams you just don't want to see come tournament time. Through a combination of rebounding, pace and balanced scoring, the Hawkeyes looked like a team that could make some noise.
That is, until the final stretch, when the defense absolutely collapsed. Michigan's defense, minus Jordan Morgan's heroics, was nothing to write home about, but Iowa couldn't stop anyone. They lost five of their last six regular season games, giving up 95 to Minnesota, 93 to Indiana, 86 to Michigan State and 76 to Purdue (in a win). They then allowed Northwestern to score 67 on them in the first round of the Big Ten tourney; for anyone who watched the Wildcats this season, them scoring 67 is pretty much like an average offensive team scoring 842.
To be honest, I'm not sure I have an answer for that slide. Even Iowa's high-powered offense couldn't overcome that sort of defense. So, for your question, I just don't see how it can be their year unless the defense steps it up. Even without Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe, they'll still be able to score. I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for the Hawkeyes, and I guess you could say I'm a Fran-atic. I hope they can take the next step in 2014-15; if they don't, things might start getting shaky for Fran in Iowa City.
In any case, with Indiana and Purdue down, Illinois missing the tournament, Michigan State potentially in for a down season, is the Big Ten's time as the top conference (in Big Ten fans' minds, at least) over for now? I suppose it's sort of hard to tell without taking a look at how teams in other conferences are shaking up, but it seems like the Big Ten as a whole is in for a little regression.
Zach - I think that you could make that argument without really looking at other conferences, just on the simple case that both Michigan teams have suffered significant losses at the top of the lineup and, more importantly, Indiana basketball is in a very weird place right now.
After looking like the Hoosiers had staked another claim to being a power program in the Big Ten a couple years back, Indiana has had some serious issues over the last year or so. First, the de-pantsing against Syracuse in the 2013 NCAA tournament was a bad omen. How Tom Crean is that unprepared to face the biggest facet of Syracuse's identity for the last 25 years boggles the mind, and then without his best offensive scoring weapons, Crean couldn't sustain any success into 2014.
Yogi Ferrell is the real deal. Michigan fans know this already, but he is whatever the basketball equivalent of a five-tool player is. He can do just about everything you need from a point guard. Were he a few inches taller there is no doubt he would already be in the NBA. Outside of him, what does Indiana have that is proven? Noah Vonleh is gone from his one-year NBA internship program, Will Sheehy will have to be wildly inconsistent somewhere else because he ran out of eligibility. On top of the NBA and graduation departures, Indiana is losing Jeremy Hollowell, Austin Etherington, and Luke Fisher, the former two having played solid roles on last year's team.
Stanford Robinson returns in the backcourt after being a rotation player as a sophomore, but he and Ferrell also recently got popped for drinking under age. Troy Williams is also back, and he will be the tallest returning rotation player at just 6'7.
Can Indiana reload? James Blackmon should provide a boost in the backcourt, but the recruiting class this year doesn't have much up front either, meaning that the Hoosiers might be even smaller than Michigan this year.
Indiana is the ultimate wildcard when considering the Big Ten's fortunes nationally. Indiana basketball, like Michigan or Ohio State football, carries cache even after down years, and adding a strong Indiana team to an already solid perennial top three of Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in the Big Ten pushes the conference over the top. Michigan's emergence as a big deal should help keep the Big Ten at or near the top of the conference standings, but until Indiana gets its crap together the Big Ten isn't going to be as strong as it can.
Speaking of once proud teams, which of these three once proud Big Ten programs do you see making the NCAA tournament first: Illinois, Minnesota, or Purdue? Any chance that one of these teams could work its way into the Big Ten race next season?
Fouad - Into the Big Ten race? I don't really think so. With that said, I definitely think a tournament bid is likely for either the Gophers or Illini (if not both). Pitino's squad loses Austin Hollins, who just about did it all for Minnesota--he scored, he rebounded and he was a solid three-point shooter over the years. It's always tough playing a guy who has been a central part of your offense for so long.
With that said, Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu return, giving them a solid back court with some offensive punch. Down low, Elliott Eliason is a defensive force, and could easily be in line for some sort of post-season defensive accolades next year, what with Aaron Craft's graduation. He isn't really a polished offensive player, but he can do quite a bit of damage on garbage points alone.
It's always hard to tell with recruiting, but the Gophers have a big class coming in, albeit with no four-stars. They do have a big man from Spain coming in, the 6-foot-9 Gaston Diedhiou, which will provide ample opportunity for creative Disney nerds (guilty) to make Beauty and the Beast references. With the conference looking to take a step back next season, I think the Gophers make the tournament field.
Likewise, I think Illinois should be in, too. Their start to the Big Ten portion was just plain awful, but they showed some life down the stretch, albeit too late. As Michigan fans know, they even almost knocked the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinal round. Gone are three-point gunner Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, but Kendrick Nunn will only get better and Rayvonte Rice, while mercurial at times, can fill it up. Most importantly, they played some really stout defense down the stretch this season (minus the parade of threes Michigan rained down on them in Champaign); if they can continue that into next season, they should be in for better times in Groce's third season.
As for Purdue...boy oh boy. Things do not look good in West Lafayette. The talent just isn't there right now, and it doesn't seem like next season will be any better. A.J. Hammons returning for his junior year is obviously a plus, but with Terone Johnson's graduation and Ronnie Johnson's transfer, I just don't know where the offense will come for this team. Even Purdue's once stalwart defense has kind of disappeared--it seems likely that this will be Painter's last year in WL, barring a surprise turnaround.
How about a team we haven't discussed, which arguably was the most interesting story of the season--yes, I am talking about Nebrasketball. Sure, they got bounced in the first round, but nobody saw a top four finish for them this season. Do you think they're just a flash in the pan or will Tim Miles keep it going in Lincoln?
Zach - I was hoping this would come back around to Nebrasketball, everyone's favorite Big Ten upstart last season. Just about no one saw this coming as the convergence of a new arena and year two of Tim Miles led to the Huskers to a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament and a NCAA tournament birth for the first time in 16 years. Nebraska did this by being (almost) impossible to beat at home. The Cornhuskers were 15-1 at home, with the lone loss coming to Michigan in a game where Nebraska had three shots on the final possession to win.
Nebraska looked like a totally different team midway through the Big Ten season after going 8-4 in the non conference with not terribly competitive losses to Creighton, UAB, and Cincinnati and starting out the B1G season 0-4. But it wasn't just the impressive list of home wins (OSU, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota), the Huskers stole a couple big games on the road, one against Michigan State and another against Indiana in the second to last game of the season. There were times during the season where Nebraska looked like one of the best two teams in the league.
The good news for Nebraska fans is that things don't look to be slowing down any time soon. The Huskers lose just Ray Gallegos, a senior guard that was very much Just A Shooter last year (54/161 from three, 12 FTA). This should be offset by the fact that Terran Petteway is back, and he was a huge part of the offense. Also back are six other guys that got 35% or more of Nebraska's minutes. Essentially, Nebraska has its entire rotation back. Nobody outside of Madison is that fortunate.
Given all of this is is to unreasonable to think that Nebraska is on the short list of favored Big Ten title contenders next year? Not at all. Nebraska has fewer questions that Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, and Indiana. Like I said above, only Wisconsin is as assured of what it is getting next season as Nebraska, and both teams look to be very well off.
Also, lest we leave anyone out here, Ohio State is somewhat of a wildcard. The Buckeyes lose Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith, but return a senior heavy rotation of Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams. The Buckeyes will also get the help of a very strong recruiting class that includes three top-100 wings.
If these young players can help pick up some of the scoring load that left (or, god forbid, improve what was a pretty ugly offense for stretches last year) then Ohio State should be in that top three with Wisconsin and Nebraska. If the young guys aren't ready, Ohio State could be in for a transition year the same as its two northern neighbors.