In about a week the basketball season gets under way in earnest. The Big Ten will have nine teams start their seasons next Friday evening. The conference has three teams in the top five, five in the top 25, and a season where eight teams make the NCAA Tournament is possible under the right circumstances. Our Boilermakers are playing in the toughest conference in the country, which will help Purdue greatly on selection Sunday as a .500 record would likely be enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. Another 10-8 finish would have us as a lock barring a disastrous non-conference season.
Since we're a week away from the season I thought I would go through and try to pick the order of finish in the league with a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and a season prediction for each team. Let's start at the top.
1. Indiana Hoosiers - When I think of IU I try to look past my blind hatred of them. Instead, I only see Kevin Ferrell. I don't think people realize how good he is and how much he will help an already potent offense. Cody Zeller opened things up for Indiana's three-point shooters last season and for guys like Watford, Oladipo, and Sheehey to drive to the basket. They still lacked a true distributing point guard that can also score at the rim. They have that in Ferrell.
I saw this past season's Indiana class 2A state title game, which had the most D-I talent on the floor of any of the four games that day. Ferrell was, by far, the best player on the floor and had a triple double with ease. His Park Tudor team had three players with Division I offers that could stand on the perimeter and wait for open looks. When Ferrell wasn't scoring he was kicking out to Troy Spears, Trevon Bluiett, and Paul Bayt, who can shoot the lights out of the gym. Bluiett could also score inside, but Bayt and Spears were simply Indiana boys that grew up shooting jumpers and that's all they had to do. Ferrell gave them dozens of open looks per game.
Now he gets to play with better shooters and the best post player in the country if not the best player overall. Ferrell averaged 17.8 points and 6.1 assists per game last year, but he won't need to have anywhere near the scoring burden. He needs to only be effective enough to open his distribution game. Christian Watford, Zeller, Jordan Hulls (who should never have to come within 21 feet of the basket), Remy Abell, and Victor Oladipo will only be better with him. that's before you get into the rest of a talent-laden roster.
Indiana averaged a league best 77.3 points per game last season without a true point guard. They shot 43% from three as a team, again, without Ferrell. Ferrell can get his guys more open looks and they are already good shooters.
Simply put, Indiana Ferrell terrifies me. Indiana was one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year giving up 66.4 points per game (better only than Northwestern and Iowa), but it won't matter. They can be worse on defense and if Ferrell improves their scoring to north of 80 points per game they won't have any trouble. They should be, simply, a juggernaut offensively.
It is because of that that Indiana more than deserves its Number 1 ranking. All the pieces are there and will change dramatically if (when?) Zeller goes pro. This is their chance to win Banner No. 6 and anything less than that should be considered an absolute and complete failure barring injury. Ferrell is that much of a difference maker, and college basketball does not realize it yet.
Best case scenario: It's a banner year for reversible jackets as Notre Dame goes 13-0, Indiana goes 39-0 to win two National titles, I light myself on fire.
Worst case scenario: Last season was an aberration as all the shooters regress and Ferrell struggles turning the ball over. Zeller has defenses swamping him as a result, and IU fails to win the Big Ten on its way to a Sweet 16 only appearance.
T-Mill's pick: IU wins the title, because of course my child will enter the world where Notre Dame and IU are the defending champions in college football and basketball. Honestly, the birth of my child might be the only thing that would cheer me in such a world.
2. Michigan Wolverines - Michigan unexpectedly won a share of the Big Ten last season, then flamed out in the postseason by losing to Ohio. Now they are rated as a top five team that is placing an awful lot on a very talented freshman class with one of the best point guards in the country in Trey Burke.
Michigan has the pieces to be damn good this year. Mitch McGary gives them a potentially dominant big man to go against the Zellers of the world. Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are a solid backcourt. Glenn Robinson III is a solid freshman and a game-changer like his dad. Matt Vogrich supplies senior leadership.
The only thing holding me back on Michigan is the relative inexperience. They have six freshmen on the roster. Yes, they are very good freshmen, including guard Nick Stauskas, but they are still freshmen. They don't have Indiana's experience, especially in the postseason.
I also don't like that the Wolverines finished last season on a really down note. Their home loss to Purdue was a little odd because it was on Senior Day, but they were very flat. They also lost to a MAC team in the NCAA Tournament and didn't look good in Indianapolis in the Big Ten tourney.
Best case scenario: Michigan's talented freshmen take them to the Final Four and the Wolverines tie IU for the Big Ten title.
Worst case scenario: Michigan's scoring woes (8th in the B1G last year) continue in a conference still dominated by defense first. The Wolverines become an early-rund NCAA upset victim again.
T-Mill's Pick: I think this team has Sweet 16 or even Elite 8 potential, but I can't put them in Atlanta just yet.
3. Michigan State Spartans - I am diverging from the pollsters here, mostly because Izzo always seems to do his best work with teams that aren't as highly rated in the preseason. There is no Draymond Green or a Brandon Wood one-year transfer, but the return of Brendan Dawson will help them a lot. If he embraces the little things that he'll need to do before the knee is 100% he can become a more complete player, benefiting him in the long run.
Michigan State also still plays some nasty defense, holding teams under 60 points. That allows a team with less talent to drag better teams down into a war with them. Their defense was No. 2 in the league last season behind only Wisconsin, who also is famous for pulling teams down into a slugfest with them.
That ability is what will have Izzo and Co. battling for another conference title and a deep run in March. He may have to ugly it up a little more than in the past, but Izzo is okay with that. The objective is to win the game, whether you win 41-40 or 121-120 it all counts the same.
Best case scenario: The Spartans make a surprise run to another conference title and Final Four, playing Izzo-ball to perfection.
Worst case scenario: Dawson is limited in what he can do and Keith Appling doesn't have much help as Sparty makes the tournament, but finishes well behind the top three in the league.
T-Mill's Pick: Top three finish and Sweet 16. I'll take this as a "down year" any time.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes - Ohio State is going to be good, mostly because there is a lot of talent on the roster, but they are going to miss baby Sully more than they think. Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas are two of the best players returning in the conference and solid guys to build around, but I don't see them as quite a top 5 team nationally. Top 15? Absolutely! Top 5? Not quite.
This is basically the exact same team that made the Final Four last season, but now does not have two of its best players. Jared Sullinger and William Buford took with them 32 points and over 14 rebounds per game in addition to four assists. That is a lot. Ohio State added just one recruit, so guys like Amir Williams and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will have to play much larger roles.
LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott, and Sam Thompson were highly recruited, but found themslves on the bench in Thad Matta's shortened rotation as the season went on. Yes, they were all four-star guys with Williams, but can they collectively do what Sullinger and Buford did while taking some heat off of Thomas?
Thomas was the No. 2 scorer in Indiana history, so he'll need to show some of that touch as an experienced junior. Craft needs to keep being Craft: namely pissing people off with his play while opposing fans secretly wish they had him. I know I wish he was at Purdue.
Best case scenario: The sophomore class is stellar and Ohio State wins the Big Ten on its way back to the Final Four
Worst case scenario: Matta's strategy backfires and it becomes all Craft and Thomas, which is good, but not enough to win the Big Ten. they make the NCAAs and lose their second game.
T-Mill's Pick: I am not totally sold on OSU. That's why I have them fourth in the conference and making the NCAA's with a loss in the Sweet 16.
5. Purdue Boilermakers - This feels a little high, but I think there is a clear separation between the top four teams in the conference right now and the middle four. The top four are all legitimate threats to reach the Final Four. The next group are solid-to-good teams that should at least make the tournament. With the right path they can make a little noise too.
Most Purdue fans are in agreement that this will be a fun, but sometimes frustrating team to watch. It still brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country with four top 100 guys (by at least one service) and a nice mix of returning veterans. Everyone is going to compare this group to the 2007-08 Baby boilers, but they actually have more around them.
The 2007-08 team basically had Chris Kramer, Keaton Grant, and a bunch of unproven guys. Even Nemanja Calasan was a critical JuCo transfer that played a big role while JaJuan Johnson got acclimated to college basketball. This year's team has D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson as the experienced guys with others (Travis Carroll, Jacob Lawson, Anthony Johnson, and Sandi Marcius) that played big minutes last season.
My biggest concern is shooting the basketball. Byrd is our lone consistent three-point shooter, so he is going to pickup a ton of coverage on the perimeter. This is a team that lost four of its top four scorers with three graduations and Barlow's booting. Two of those guys were excellent three-point shooters. Free throws could also be a major issue, and I can see them costing Purdue a game our two, if not more.
This Purdue team may have to dirty it up by protecting the rim and working the low post out of necessity. A.J. Hammons, Marcius, and Jay Simpson are already good shot blockers, so I would be satisfied if they stayed out of foul trouble and basically turned the basket into a fortress where it is difficult to get anything easy within five feet of it. I also want our rebounding to improve, especially on the offensive end, where we can steal a few possessions and 12-14 points per game with offensive rebounds and putbacks.
After averaging only nine turnovers per game last season we're going to have to learn to live with them again. Ronnie Johnson as a freshman point guard is going to be good, but he'll have freshman moments we must live with. Some thought he might be on par with Ferrell, but Ferrell was better than him last year. If Ronnie somehow gets to Ferrell's level I think we'll all be pleasantly surprised.
Best case scenario: The freshmen click, free throws and threes start to fall, and Purdue surprises like it is 2007-08 as they finish in the top four of the Big Ten with some upsets, including a huge one over No. 1 Indiana at home, then make a run to the NCAA's second weekend.
Worst case scenario: Free throws clank enough to build a new orphanage with allt he bricks. Byrd is smothered on the perimeter. The freshmen have turnover and foul troubles as Purdue barely makes the NCAAs.
T-Mill's pick: I've said all along this season will be a success if Purdue competes in a tough Big Ten, makes the NCAAs, and keeps its streak of winning a game in the Dance alive. That's my pick for the year. 20-25 wins and an NCAA victory.
6. Wisconsin Badgers - Until the loss of Josh Gasser to an ACL tear I thought Wisconsin was what Bo Ryan always seems to get: a top 4 team in the Big Ten and a Sweet 16 threat. Now, without Gasser and Jordan Taylor gone the backcourt is very thin.
Wisconsin is still going to play defense like mad bastards and generally beat you into submission, but they really needed Gasser as the calming backcourt presence guiding things on both ends of the floor. In losing him they lost 7.6 points, 1.9 assists, and over 45% on three-point shooting. The addition of five-star recruit Sam Dekker will offset that some, but this is a team with probably less backcourt help than Purdue right now.
Dekker, Mike Bruesewitz, Zach Bohannon, and Ryan Evans give them a spectacular front court. This team is going to rebound hard, defend hard, and try to keep up with last year's 55 points per game allowed clip. That's just what Wisconsin does regardless of talent. They always get some white Polish guy with a severe lack of vowels in his name and a mean streak and have him beat people up.
With Gasser this was a potential Sweet 16 team. Without him it will take all the dazzle Bo Ryan has to keep the Badgers in the top four in the league.
Best case scenario: Someone steps up in the backcourt and Bo Ryan works his magic as Madison once again become a fortress on Wisconsin's way to a top four finish and Sweet 16 berth.
Worst case scenario: The Badgers battle to stay in the middle of the conference and hang on to one of the coveted NCAA bids.
T-Mill's pick: Never count out Bo. Wisconsin solidly makes the tournament and knocks off at least one of the top three in Madison.
Part 2 Coming Tomorrow or Monday