It's part 2 of T-Mill's 5,000+ word Big Ten preview.
If you missed part 1 yesterday it can be found here. In part two I'll take a look at the other half of the conference. It is a group of teams that has some talent and will fight for an NCAA berth, but much of their postseason fate will be decided by whom they beat when and not by a specific win total. I think the conference can get anywhere from 6-8 teams into the NCAAs, but there are nine teams that it would not surprise me one bit if they made it. Only the bottom three would be shocking if they did better than the NIT.
7. Minnesota Golden Gophers - Minnesota got the best news possible when Trevor Mbakwe was granted another year of eligibility after tearing his ACL early last year. He was primed for an all-Big Ten caliber year and the Gophers looked like a top 25 team. They still made it all the way to the finals of the NIT without Mbakwe, but they were only 6-12 in league play.
There were some very bright spots. They were the only team that won at Indiana after IU made Assembly Hall impregnable again. They also had a close call against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament that might have gotten them to the Bubble otherwise. I think there is no doubt they would have been in the NCAAs with a healthy Mbakwe giving them a double-double each night.
Rodney Williams, Julian Welch, and Andre Hollins give them four of their top five scorers back. They lost Ralph Sampson III, but replacing him with a ladder might be just as effective as he was in the post. If Elliott Eliason can develop into an effective post player it will open up things for Mbakwe on the other side.
Minnesota is going to be a pretty good team this year. They came together nicely without Mbakwe and even though the Big Ten season did not go well, They made the most of their postseason by having a solid NIT run. I think that translates into a solid 20-23 win season and an NCAA bid.
Best case scenario: Mbakwe suffers no ill effects and seamlessly becomes the missing piece on a team that came together in the NIT. Minnesota finishes in the top four in the conference and reaches the second weekend of the NCAAs.
Worst case scenario: Mbakwe is nowhere near 100%. The Gophers get overrun in a very deep league and fall back to the NIT.
T-Mill's pick: Minnesota reaches the NCAA Tournament and wins a game, much like Purdue. I think the teams are very close.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes - Speaking of teams that came on late last year, Iowa was 3-6 in conference play on January 29 and recovered nicely to sneak into the NIT, which was a huge improvement over previous seasons. They even won a game before losing at Oregon. The Hawkeyes swept Wisconsin (costing the Badgers a piece of the Big Ten title) and beat both Michigan and Indiana at home. If not for non-conference losses to Creighton, Campbell, Clemson, Northern Iowa, and Iowa State they would have been an NCAA team.
What was interesting is that Melsahn Besabe, who looked really good as a freshman, took a big step back. His scoring was down almost three points per game and his rebounding dropped by two per game. He'll still be one of the top returning players with Roy Devyn Marble, Zach McCabe, and Aaron White.
Ronnie Johnson will see a familiar face when we play the Hawkeyes, as high school teammate Patrick Ingram went to Iowa City as part of a decent recruiting class that included 7-footer Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell. 6'9" power forward Kyle Meyer also gives them some versatility in their lineup.
This is year three for coach Fran McCaffery, and that is usually the year that a team makes a jump under a new coach if it is going to. Iowa has an intriguing mix of experience and talented youth. They are going to be one of those teams that doesn't look that great in the overall standings, but cannot be considered an easy win for anyone. Ever since beating a No. 6 rated Purdue team at home two years ago they have been positively dangerous at home.
Best case scenario: The youth meshes well with the experience and Iowa finishes at 10-8 in the Big Ten, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.
Worst case scenario: Iowa returns to the NIT after dropping close game after close game. The Big Ten is going to be tough night in and night out. One of the top nine is going to be the odd team out.
T-Mill's pick: I am right on the fence about this one. I can see Iowa finishing 9-9 in the Big Ten, winning a game in the Big Ten Tournament, then losing on the second day so they have to sweat out Selection Sunday as a bubble team.
9. Northwestern Wildcats - You could call this the most successful era of Northwestern basketball ever. They have made the NIT for four straight seasons after only reaching it three times total before this run. Two years ago they even reached the NIT quarterfinals before falling in overtime at Washington State.
The NCAA Tournament continues to elude them, however. This is mostly because they have the absolute worst record in close games in Big Ten play. Here are their records in league play in games decided by five points or less or in overtime:
2011-12: 3-7 (0-3 in OT)
2010-11: 2-4 (0-2 in OT)
2009-10: 2-3 (1-2 in OT)
2008-09: 4-6, (0-1 in OT)
That's a combined 11-20 in close games, and a painful 1-8 in overtime. What makes matters even worse is that as little as one of those results reversed likely breaks Northwestern's streak of NCAA-less seasons. In 2008-09 the Wildcats were 8-10 in league play, but lost six close games. Last year was more of the same, as they were 8-10 with a solid non-conference schedule, but seven of the 10 losses were close games, including two in overtime to league champ Michigan.
One could argue that last season was the closest Northwestern has ever come to reaching the NCAA Tournament. They had a nice win over Michigan State and came up short against Ohio State, Michigan (twice), Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota. It is safe to say that had they split with Michigan it was probably enough to send them dancing.
So what is different this year? They have an interesting recruiting class that includes 7'2" center Chier Ajou. Alex Olah, who played nearby to Indy at Trader's Point Chrisitan, played a competitive prep schedule that included multiple games against LaLumiere and our own Jay Simpson and Rapheal Davis. The schedule features games against Maryland, Baylor, Butler, and Stanford at least giving them some "name" games.
There is also experience returning with Drew Crawford, Alex Marcotullio, Reggie Hearn, and Dave Sobolewski. JerShon Cobb is suspended for the entire season, which is a big blow. They lost John Shurna, who won the Big Ten scoring title as well.
The loss of Shurna might be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT. Northwestern will be dangerous, but they won't make the NCAAs until they can win the close games.
Best case scenario: The new guys help replace Shurna, Northwestern wins multiple close games at home over big names and finally makes the NCAA Tournament.
Worst case scenario: Northwestern loses seven games by five points or less with three being at the buzzer, finishes 7-11 in conference play, and goes back to the NIT.
T-Mill's pick: Sorry Northwestern, you're the odd team out. Welcome back to the NIT for the fifth straight year.
10. Illinois Fighting Illini - Here is another significant gap, as I feel the bottom three in the conference are teams that the top nine must avoid losing to if they are going to compete for the league title or reach the NCAAs. A loss to one of these three would be devastating.
Consequently, this is pretty much the new coaches section of the conference. John Groce now takes over an Illinois team that pretty much fell apart last season. On December 31 the Illini were 12-2 with good losses to UNLV and a close one to Missouri. They lost at Purdue, but made it to 15-3 and 4-1in the conference after beating Ohio State at home.
They followed it with a 1-9 stretch where the only win was a 42-41 win over Michigan State that set the game of basketball back about 50 years. All told, the Illini went a dismal 2-12 the rest of the year after that 15-3 start. They didn't even get invited to any postseason tournament and fired their coach.
This was a team with a first round pick in Meyers Leonard (possibly the most overrated first round pick in NBA history) and plenty of other talent. Leading scorer Brandon Paul returns with D.J. Richardson. Joseph Bertrand, Tyler Griffey, and Tracy Abrams give them experience, but it is the same experience that utterly collapsed last season.
It is because of that experience that Illinois has the best chance of making some noise out of the bottom three. These guys have all been there and played through the Big Ten battles. Paul is capable of single-handedly taking over a game while recruits Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill give them two good shooting guard prospects. Jaylon Tate could be an answer at point guard, too. (Ed Note: All three of these guys are 2013 recruits. My mistake. So it is the returning guys or bust for Illinois this year.)
Groce is the real wild card. No one knows what to expect from the guy that cashed in a surprise Sweet 16 run by Ohio into a bigger job. Is he as good as the great coaches in this league like Ryan, Izzo, Matta, Belein, and Painter?
Best case scenario: The experience plays together as a unit instead of as a disjointed group like last year. Paul turns in an all-Big Ten season and Illinois makes a surprising run to the NCAAs
Worst case scenario: The same group that collapsed last year doesn't come back together. Groce starts cleaning house and playing his guys to build for the future.
T-Mill's pick: Illinois is still a dangerous team, but I can't trust the same guys that fell apart last year. I think they are NIT-bound at best.
11. Penn State Nittany Lions - Tim Frazier has taken Talor Battle's role as "great player on a really bad team that you feel sorry for." The poor guy did everything last year, averaging a near 19-5-6, but when your leading rebounder is your point guard at 6'1" you're not going to win many games.
Penn State still surprised some teams though. Illinois was ranked 25th when the Nittany Lions got them in State College. Purdue got embarrassed by 20 points in probably the worst game we have played under Matt Painter (yes, including his first season). For the most part this was a team that did not have the talent to compete with anyone else in the league. They were also 0-9 on the road in the conference and 1-11 on the road overall.
Jermaine Marshall should help Frazier after averaging 10.8 points per game, but these are the only two players coming back that averaged better than five points per contest. The recruiting class does not have an instant impact player at all.
Best case scenario: Frazier manages to go crazy throughout the season, earning a First Team all-Big Ten selection and personally willing the Nittany Lions to a winning record overall and 6-12 in the conference with an upset or two as they reach the NIT.
Worst case scenario: The Nittany Lions go winless in the Big Ten. Yes, it could be that bad.
T-Mill's pick: I am keeping the Lions out of last place mostly because of Frazier. He is too good for them to go 0-18 in league play and is worth 3-4 wins by himself.
12. Nebraska Cornhuskers - Nebraska was won of the worst offensive teams in the country last year, rating 308th in points per game and a dismal 324th in rebounding. As of this season there are only 347 teams in Division I, so those numbers are woeful even if you don't consider the Big Ten one of the best conferences in the country.
As expected, their first go-round in the league was very rough. They finished in last place at 4-14 and were dispatched by Purdue in the Big Ten Tourney by 18 points. The wins came over fellow non-tournament teams Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, and a shocking 70-69 win over Indiana in Lincoln. Unlike Penn State, they won a road game, at Iowa.
The Cornhuskers don't have anyone like a Tim Frazier though. Tim Miles is a first year coach for them like Groce at Illinois, but he has far less talent at his disposal. Bo Spencer was the only double-figures scorer and he is gone. Dylan Talley at 8.9 points per game is the only member of the top six in scoring back.
That means the Cornhuskers are going to be a very young team with Deverell Biggs, Benny Parker, and Shavon Shields likely playing big roles as freshmen. All three were three-star recruits, but considering the riches that much of the rest of the league gets it does not paint a pretty picture.
Brandon Ubel needs to have a big year as a 6'10" post player for Nebraska to even be able to compete. He did lead the team in rebounding, but only scored 6.7 points per game.
Best case scenario: The Cornhuskers shock a highly ranked team at home behind Ubel and avoid the Big Ten basement.
Worst case scenario: Like Penn State, 0-18 is in play, only more so because at least Penn State has Frazier.
T-Mill's pick: Anything better than 2-16 in an absolutely brutal league above them would shock me.