Around the Big Ten: The Gauntlet of Conference Play Begins

Story posted January 7, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Trabold

Coming into the season, many thought that the Big Ten Conference was going to be strong yet again, but maybe not this much so. There is no bigger evidence of this than the fact that the conference had five squads ranked eleventh or better in the AP Top-25 poll released on New Year’s Eve: Michigan (2nd), Indiana (5th), Ohio State (8th), Minnesota (9th) and Illinois (11th). The nation’s top-RPI conference not only shows its clout with its strength at the top, but also with what it brings to the table throughout its twelve teams.

This has been shown in a number of ways so far this season, including Iowa looking like a team that could grab its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006 with a starting lineup infused by three freshmen in Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury. Also, an equally young Purdue Boilermakers squad is starting to turn it around after a rough non-conference schedule with a win this past week over the #11 Illini. What might be most surprising though is Nebraska currently being in the top-50 in the RPI even though most pegged them as the conference’s worst team coming into the season.

While the Big Ten has certainly had its share of moments that make college basketball fans grin, it has also had plenty of moments that have made them wince. These moments have come in the form of season-ending injuries for three of the conference’s best players: Penn State’s Tim Frazier, Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser and Northwestern’s Drew Crawford. With the calendar turning to January bringing about the difficult grind of conference play, there are plenty of question marks for those three teams going forward. Can Patrick Chambers salvage this season for the Nittany Lions with more resume-boosting wins like the one against Bucknell? Can the Badgers make the Kohl Center the home court advantage it has been in handfuls of years past? Can Northwestern make its first NCAA Tournament this year, even without its best player in Crawford? Time – and, of course, great B1G basketball – will tell.

(5) Indiana at Penn State (Jan. 7 at 7:00)

Check out Matt Lawrence’s preview of this matchup.

(8) Ohio State at Purdue (Jan. 8 at 9:00)

If this game was to be decided by how well the teams performed vs. Illinois this past week, the Boilermakers would win handily. The Buckeyes were humiliated 74-55 their last time out vs. the Illini at Assembly Hall, getting outrebounded 39-28 even though rebounding is arguably the biggest weakness of John Groce’s team. On the other hand, the underclassman-heavy Boilermakers grabbed by far their best victory of the season beating Illinois at home behind a combined forty points from the veteran duo of D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. A matchup that could decide this game is the one between the starting centers for each team - each thin on experience, but stout on potential. Buckeye Amir Williams did not see the floor much last season playing behind current Boston Celtic Jared Sullinger, but was expected to flourish once Sullinger left for the professional ranks. Williams has shown some short spurts of living up to his potential, but has underachieved for the most part this season thus far averaging less than five points and rebounds per contest. Purdue freshman A.J. Hammons cut down his 300-plus-pound frame coming into his first college season and is visually improving with every game he plays at this level. Hammons was Matt Painter’s best player in Purdue’s last game vs. Michigan State with twenty points, seven rebounds and three blocks against Spartan senior big man Derrick Nix. In the end, it does not look like Purdue can match up well with one of the nation’s top pure point guards in Aaron Craft and the NCAA’s fifteenth-leading scorer in Deshaun Thomas. Unless the Boilermakers get very productive games out of more than one of its veteran presences, this one looks out of their reach.

Nebraska at (2) Michigan (Jan. 9 at 7:00)

Nebraska has been better this season than most expected after only returning 24% of their scoring from their 12-18 squad a year ago. This won’t mean much against what may be Michigan’s best team since the Fab Five days. Even though the allure of the NBA was great, Wolverine backcourt mates Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke returned to play at least one more season under John Beilein’s tutelage. Those decisions have certainly paid off as the duo is playing their best basketball while donning the Michigan uniform. Burke is even being touted as the country’s best point guard up to this point in the season. Wolverine freshmen Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and even Caris LeVert of late have looked like anything, but collegiate rookies. This one is Michigan’s to lose and it could be ugly.

(9) Minnesota at (11) Illinois (Jan. 9 at 9:00)

Even after their 39 rebounds against Ohio State, Illinois is still 139th in the NCAA in rebounds per game. This could be a detriment against the likes of Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and the Golden Gophers because the Illini will not be able to sneak up on Tubby Smith’s squad to win the battle of the boards like they did against the Buckeyes. The Illini win games behind their backcourt fearsome foursome of Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams, D.J. Richardson and Joe Bertrand. The problem is Minnesota’s guardplay is no slouch as well with Andre and Austin Hollins leading the charge. Unless more than two out of that group of Paul, Abrams, Richardson and Bertrand score in double figures for Illinois, it will be hard for them to pull out a win against Minnesota and their superior frontcourt.

(18) Michigan State at Iowa (Jan. 10 at 7:00)

In a conference known for its veteran talent, five freshmen start between these two teams in Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine for the Spartans, as well as Mike Gesell, Anthony Clemmons and Adam Woodbury for the Hawkeyes. The Spartans still have Tom Izzo calling the shots and its usual veteran leadership, this season in the form of point guard Keith Appling and center Derrick Nix, but Iowa boasts two of the Big Ten Conference’s most underrated talents in guard Roy Devyn Marble and forward Aaron White. Marble is the star of Fran McCaffery’s backcourt after long-time starters Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright graduated. White is the model of versatility despite his slight build and certainly looked like he belonged against the highly-touted Indiana big men on New Year’s Eve – recording fifteen points and six rebounds. Michigan State is a solid ranked team, but their lack of depth compared to recent Izzo-coached Spartan squads might lead to an Iowa upset on their home court.

Northwestern at Penn State (Jan. 10 at 8:00)

Check out ComRadio’s preview of this matchup.

(5) Indiana at (9) Minnesota (Jan. 12 at noon)

Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are very good big men in the college ranks, but they’re not Cody Zeller. As expected, the Hoosier forward is one of the leading candidates for All-American status. Indiana is far from a one-man band though with many thinking Tom Crean’s side is the deepest the Big Ten has to offer as nine players average at least 11.3 minutes per game. On January 12, the Golden Gophers will be going against the highest-scoring team in the NCAA so far, putting up an impressive 87.9 points per contest with five players averaging double figures in scoring. Indiana was outscored in the second half by Iowa their last time out when they got in foul trouble and lost the free throw battle with the Hawkeyes. If the Hoosiers get in this rut again, Minnesota has a chance because the Golden Gophers are thirteenth in the nation in free throws attempted and shoot them at a solid 70.4% clip. Even though both teams are in the top-10, it would not be a surprise if Indiana won in impressive fashion due to their depth, offensive efficiency and dominance on the boards.

(11) Illinois at Wisconsin (Jan. 12 at 2:15)

Most seasons during Bo Ryan’s tenure, Wisconsin does not lose when they play at home – making the Kohl Center one of the best home court advantages in NCAA history. This season though, the Badgers lost to Virginia 60-54 in that usual haven in Madison, Wisconsin. Making matters worse, Wisconsin barely squeaked out a win on January 3 at the Kohl Center against far from highly-regarded Penn State. Bo Ryan lost an integral piece to his squad when veteran guard Josh Gasser was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Gasser’s injury, though, paved the way for Ben Brust to become one of the most pleasant Big Ten surprises this season. Usually only known for his perimeter shooting in seasons past, the 6-1 Brust has turned heads tripling his rebounding numbers and being the second best Badger on the boards thus far. Wisconsin has been winning ugly of late against seemingly inferior conference opponents in Penn State and Nebraska, but at least they’re winning. Bo Ryan has taught this team to win no matter what, so the mix of that and the fact Illinois has no big man the caliber of Jared Berggren might give the Badgers the upset at the Kohl Center.

Penn State at Purdue (Jan. 13 at noon)

Check out ComRadio’s preview of this matchup (Coming Soon).

(2) Michigan at (8) Ohio State (Jan. 13 at 1:30)

The Buckeyes have a star in forward Deshaun Thomas, who has shown he can score in just about every conceivable way and is top-15 in the nation in scoring with over twenty points per game. The most pleasant surprise for Thad Matta’s side is junior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., who has grown from a role player to the only other double-digit scorer for Ohio State besides Thomas. The problem for the Buckeyes is finding a scoring threat beyond Thomas and Smith, Jr. Point guard Aaron Craft is still distributing the ball well, but has fell on hard times shooting it – mustering the worst field goal percentage of his Ohio State career at 36.8%. Sophomore forwards LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson have shown promise at times this season scoring the basketball, but are far from consistent on the offensive end. On the other hand, Michigan certainly does not have any difficulty scoring the basketball with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III all scoring in double figures. Ohio State obviously can’t be too bad being ranked in the top-10, but this Sunday showdown will show what a difference there is between #2 and #8 in the poll.

Iowa at Northwestern (Jan. 13 at 5:30)

The biggest aspect missing in the good, but not great Northwestern teams in recent years that narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament is lack of a productive frontcourt. That is not the case this season with Bill Carmody having his best set of big men since Kevin Coble wore a Wildcat uniform. Romanian seven-foot center Alex Olah is the combination of elite size and offensive skill Northwestern has not had in a long time. Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire is showing the expansive offensive repertoire and scrappiness that made him a rotation player when healthy for Rick Pitino. 6-8 Mike Turner added plenty of much-needed bulk during his redshirt season to make him a presence in the post. Much has been made about the fact the Wildcats have dropped five games on their home floor, but those losses have not been to bad teams by any means. Their five home defeats – Maryland, Illinois-Chicago, Butler, Stanford, Michigan – have been to teams in the top-100 in the RPI. Aaron White is quite the talent, but Iowa does not have a lot behind him up front to compete with Northwestern’s new-look crop of bigs. Also, the return of former walk-on guard Reggie Hearn from injury is a big help for Bill Carmody’s club.

Nebraska at (18) Michigan State (Jan. 13 at 6:00)

The Cornhuskers match up with Michigan State better than most people might think. To combat the talented, but young freshman guards Tom Izzo starts alongside Keith Appling in Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine, Nebraska has productive veteran backcourt players junior Ray Gallegos and senior Dylan Talley. Also, 6-11, 310-pound Cornhusker center Andre Almeida – coming off a redshirt season just like Gallegos – has the size to body up the much-improved and equally-beefy Derrick Nix. If first-year head coach Tim Miles can get offense beyond Talley, Gallegos and crimson-haired forward Brandon Ubel, Nebraska may be able to steal this one. Most signs though point to the higher-scoring and nationally-ranked Spartans to come away from this one with a victory.
 

Matt Trabold is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, e-mail matthewtrabold36@gmail.com.