Rutgers basketball, still bad folks
Rutgers basketball, still bad folks [Marc-Gregor Campredon]

2018-19 Big Ten Hoops Preview Part 1 Comment Count

Alex Cook October 15th, 2018 at 4:04 PM

It's been about a decade since I started following the Big Ten closely, and I've started to realize some things about my hobby (for lack of a better word). I'm the type of normal, well-adjusted adult that sits down at home after a day of work and decides to spend my finite leisure time watching, like, Illinois vs. Minnesota. I could be doing anything else: watching the best basketball players in the world in some meaningless February NBA game, watching a college basketball game between two good teams in a different conference, or doing something different altogether from watching basketball.

Instead, it's like a compulsion. Get home, relax for a bit, and then when 7:00 rolls around, flip over to BTN, listen to the familiar jingles on the broadcast, and then let Jon Crispin whisk me away to the Bryce Jordan Center or whatever. I could be doing anything else with my free time (short of actually stepping away from one of my screens - let's not get too carried away), but I often choose to watch a crappy Big Ten game. It's not good. It's usually not fun. But I do it anyways.

The league has been in decline for the last few years. Thad Matta's back gave out on him, Bo Ryan retired, Rutgers became our giant anchor dragging across the ocean floor, so on and so forth. Only four teams made the NCAA Tournament last season. Michigan, fortunately, is still good; as long as John Beilein is in town, the Wolverines will play a pleasing style of basketball that stands in contrast with most of the league - really most of the rest of college basketball, period. But, especially now that the Big Ten has moved to a 20-game conference schedule, featuring December matchups against league foes, we have to pay attention to the other thirteen schools.

Well, you don't have to pay attention to them. I can do that for you. If this dour intro hasn't completely soured you from reading the rest of this post - which is to say, reading about the five worst* teams in the league according to my extremely powerful POWER RANKINGS - then your brain might be broken just like mine. If that's the case: enjoy.

*I don't know if this is just the BTN propaganda machine altering my perception of reality or what, but the more that I learn about these teams and write about them, I inevitably find myself feeling optimistic about them (except for Rutgers and Illinois, who will doubtlessly be terrible). So I guess you can consider this a disclaimer that even if these previews have a positive slant, you should realize that most of the teams in the bloated middle will probably be bad.

14. Rutgers

The most trash program in the Big Ten has taken on a horrifying new form. Under former coach Eddie Jordan, they became the worst power conference program in college basketball, but they've improved under Steve Pikiell. That improvement came entirely on the defensive end of the floor. Now the Scarlet Knights have paired a hideous offense - one that seems almost intentionally designed to consistently generate the worst possible shots - with a solid defense. Rutgers is still bad, and now they can drag opponents into the mud as well as anyone. Instead of being a raging landfill inferno, they're now a crowbar-wielding drunk looking to get into any 53-46 bar fight they can find.

Last Season

They finished alone in last place in the conference, just like they have in every season since they arrived. Pikiell padded the win total with a horrible non-conference schedule, but they still finished under .500 on the season.

Key Player

Eugene Omoruyi is a strong wing with size, and his strengths and weaknesses align with the rest of the team in general: he’s a fantastic defender and rebounder without much of an offensive game. With the graduation of Deshawn Freeman, he’ll step into a bigger role and will outplay more than a few forwards in the conference because of his toughness and effort on both ends.

Notable Returnees

Sophomore guard Geo Baker is the top returning scorer, figures to get a lot of shots up, and is one of the few Scarlet Knights who can space the floor effectively. Since lead guard Corey Sanders left the program early to join the D G-League, Baker will have the ball in his hands more this season. Shaq Doorson provides a ton of size inside and anchors the defense. Issa Thiam is 6’10 and takes more threes than twos - hitting 38%.

Newcomers

Pikiell brought in some intriguing players. Peter Kiss scored 13.3 points per game as a freshman (inefficiently, but still) at a mid-major and becomes eligible. Montez Mathis, another swingman, was a Top-150 recruit. Those two should feature heavily with Baker and Rutgers figures to be less reliant on telling its best player to make something out of nothing now that they have three guys with decent size who can create. JUCO transfer Shaq Carter will be in the rotation at the four alongside Omoruyi.

Four Factors Profile

5 yr Rutgers FF.png

data via kenpom.com, national rankings out of ~350 teams

Pikiell has undoubtedly improved the program, but they’ll still lose a ton of games as long as they continue to take (and miss) such awful shots. They had a decent shot margin last season but just couldn’t string together enough quality looks to score effectively. The defense was quite good last season, and maybe it will be again, despite the loss of some high-minute guys.

Outlook

Until they don’t finish last, nobody should predict them to finish anything other than last.


trent frazier.jpg

13. Illinois

A storied program has fallen on hard times. After losing Bill Self to Kansas, Bruce Weber was able to sustain his success for a while - and once coached the national runner-up - but eventually fell off. Illinois thought they could do better, but after the disastrous John Groce era (and Weber’s modest success at Kansas State), that decision looked much worse in hindsight than it did at the time. Brad Underwood built up Stephen F. Austin into an impressive program for their conference and had a good year in his single season at Oklahoma State, but he has to dig out of a huge hole here.

Last Season

In what was Year Zero for Underwood at Illinois, the Illini finished just a game ahead of Rutgers in the Big Ten standings. After the season, they lost five of the six players who started at least ten games; four of those left the program early. 

Key Player

One of the few bright spots last season for Illinois was freshman point guard Trent Frazier, who took control of the offense partway through the season and put together some impressive performances. He’s undersized, but can get his own shot, score at all three levels, and operate as the focal point of the offense. Frazier was fairly efficient, considering his inexperience and role as the key perimeter playmaker for Illinois, and he will probably be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated players in the conference, especially if he can become a more ambidextrous player.

Notable Returnees

Small-ball four Kipper Nichols is the next-best player back for Illinois - he was effective in a limited role (he played less than 20 minutes per game) and will be relied on more in his junior season. Aaron Jordan, a three-point specialist, his 44% of his attempts last season.

Newcomers

With the chaos this past offseason, Underwood needed reinforcements. Ayo Dosunmu just missed the cutoff for five star status and was the top prospect out of Chicago; he’s an attacking lead guard with size and should fit nicely with Frazier in the backcourt. Tevian Jones is another four star who should soak up minutes on the wing. The only players over 6’7 on the roster will be Adonis De La Rosa, an enormous mid-major grad transfer, and two unheralded freshmen. Altogether, two thirds of the scholarship players on the team will be in their first year with the program - a truly unfathomable number for any coach in his second season.

Four Factors Profile

5 yr Illinois FF.png

data via kenpom.com, national rankings out of ~350 teams

It was an interesting first season for Underwood. He went with an incredibly aggressive defensive scheme: the Illini’s relentless pressure on the perimeter created a lot of turnovers, but they gave up a ton of easy looks at the rim and had an astronomical foul rate. It was a calculated gamble, given Illinois’s terrible interior depth; in the end, it was a bad defense. His players crashed the glass despite their lack of size, but didn’t play at the breakneck pace that Underwood's Oklahoma State team did.

Outlook

Illinois will be bad. Their lack of capable big men will be a huge strain on a bad defense. Underwood’s basically back at Year Zero, but Dosunmu is incredibly promising, at least.


tyler cook.jpg

12. Iowa

Fran McCaffery has been in Iowa City for almost a decade, and a recently-signed extension (in the midst of a rough season) makes it unlikely he’ll be fired any time soon. Still, the Hawkeyes are just 67-75 in Big Ten play during his tenure, and the famously combustible coach has missed the NCAA Tournament more often than not. The University of Iowa pays big money for mediocrity, evidently. I wish Gary Barta was my boss.

Last Season

Iowa played at a high tempo, scored at a very efficient clip, and had an utterly atrocious defense. That added up to a losing record, and the Hawkeyes gave up almost 1.2 points per possession in Big Ten play. A home win over Northwestern in the season finale helped them avoid tying for last place with Rutgers.

Key Player

Iowa’s leading scorer and rebounder, Tyler Cook, is back for his junior season after seriously contemplating going pro, and he’ll be a focal point of Iowa’s post-heavy offense. Cook shares a lot of his touches in the mid- and low-post with other big men, but none of them are able to attack the rim and finish with strength and explosiveness like he can. He has great size at the four and has plenty of potential, but his defense isn’t great and he could stand to expand his shooting range.

Notable Returnees

Jordan Bohannon - the youngest brother of the Badger Bohannons - might be better than Cook. He’s an undersized point guard who shoots and distributes at a high level. The 6’11 Luka Garza showed a ton of offensive potential as a freshman. Fran McCaffery loves to play a deep rotation, so there are a lot of other names: swingmen Isaiah Moss and Maishe Dailey, wing Nicholas Baer, and big men Cordell Pemsl, Jack Nunge, and Ryan Kriener are all back. Connor McCaffery also returns from an injury and may back up Bohannon.

Newcomers

In-state four-star Joe Wieskamp is one of the best incoming freshmen in the conference, and it will be interesting to see how much of an immediate impact he makes. Wieskamp is a long, athletic, floor-spacing wing, and was a prolific scorer in high school. If he reaches lofty expectations, he could carve out a bigger role in the rotation.

Four Factors Profile

5 yr Iowa FF.png

data via kenpom.com, national rankings out of ~350 teams

Iowa made the tournament for three straight seasons from 2014 to 2016, but the defense fell apart after the departure of a veteran core. The offense is still good, but the passivity, lack of effort, and general inability to cover anyone on the other side of the floor negated anything but the Hawkeyes’s best scoring outputs.

Outlook

If you look at Iowa in the right light, it looks like it might be a pretty good team: there's a ton of meaningful experience, a deep rotation, and they'll have a great offense again with all of their scoring options. If their defense regresses to the mean, this should be a fringe tournament team; if they still can’t guard anyone, they’ll finish near the bottom of the conference again. As you can probably infer from this ranking, the guess is that the latter outcome is more likely.


ryan taylor.jpg

11. Northwestern

Never forget that Chris Collins once tried to run a player he recruited out of town by making him be a janitor.

Last Season

The Wildcats brought back mostly everybody from their first-ever NCAA Tournament team… and finished with a losing record after dropping their last seven games. It was a harsh regression to the mean for Collins; the defense in particular fell off a lot from the previous year, and a mid-season panic switch to the zone didn’t help.

Key Player

The most important transfer in the Big Ten is Ryan Taylor, a graduate of Evansville who led the nation in the percentage of shots taken while on the floor last season and averaged 21.3 points per game. Northwestern loses Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, its starting guards who were the leading scorer and assist man, respectively. With a very unsettled point guard position, Taylor may find himself with the ball in his hands a lot again, though wasn’t much of a distributor at Evansville. He’s an excellent outside shooter, is capable of scoring from all over the floor, and should be more efficient with better weapons around him; his numbers against relatively strong teams from last season indicate that the increase in competition will pose a challenge.

Notable Returnees

Northwestern has two seniors who could have breakout seasons: Vic Law and Dererk Pardon. Law is a quality 3-and-D wing and the most highly-regarded recruit the school had ever landed; Pardon’s efficiency, activity on the glass, and ability to block shots make him one of the better centers in the Big Ten - especially because he can stay on the floor longer than most big men. Aaron Falzon is Just A Shooter, though a tall one. Guard Anthony Gaines and center Barret Benson were reserves who didn’t contribute much offensively. Jordan Ash, a third-stringer, is the only point guard left on the roster from last season.

Newcomers

Joining Taylor is another wing, newly-eligible Boston College transfer AJ Turner - a former starter who scored 8.4 points per game as a sophomore. Between those two and Law, Northwestern will have several perimeter players who can guard multiple positions and shoot from outside - and Miller Kopp* is a fringe Top 100 recruit in a similar mold. Pete Nance is the best long-term prospect in the four-man class, but the skilled big man is raw and may not make a huge impact early.

*Killer Mopp

Four Factors Profile

5 yr Northwestern FF.png

data via kenpom.com, national rankings out of ~350 teams

Despite being compensated like one of the nation’s best coaches, Collins has yet to have a truly good team at Northwestern - the 2017 squad was solid at both ends, but not exceptional. Last season, the Wildcats’ already mediocre shooting didn’t improve, they started turning it over more, and their shot defense was much worse, especially inside the arc.

Outlook

This season should help clarify a lot. Was 2018 a down year, an aberration? Was the NCAA Tournament appearance an overachieving blip? Collins has elevated the talent level at NU a ton, and he’s stocked up on quality wings - not a bad place to start building a roster in today’s game. Northwestern is set at center with Pardon, but point guard is just such a huge liability: Point Guard Of The Future commit Jordan Lathon didn’t make it to campus and both returnees who could play there would have to take a big leap to even be an adequate starter. Maybe Collins will play lineups without one. The Wildcats would be a much stronger sleeper candidate if that position was settled. Turner can replace Lindsey; nobody’s there to replace McIntosh.


kaleb wesson.jpg

10. Ohio State

I regret to inform you that the Ohio State basketball program is good again.

Last Season

After two lackluster seasons and a lull on the recruiting trail, Ohio State fired Thad Matta - far after the coaching carousel had stopped spinning. They brought in Chris Holtmann from Butler, who immediately turned the program around: the Buckeyes finished tied for second in the Big Ten and made the NCAA Tournament as a five-seed. Keita Bates-Diop thrived under his new coach, and the senior was the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year. A decent amount of the Big Ten’s recent decline as a whole could be tied to the program atrophying under Matta, but his replacement turned things around immediately.

Key Player

Much of the nucleus from that upstart team is gone, so Kaleb Wesson may emerge as the focal point of the offense - at least when he’s on the floor. He’s a big body inside, so naturally foul trouble and conditioning are concerns, but he showed a lot of polish in the low post, as well as a little bit of passing ability, during his freshman season. Ohio State was better with lineups featuring KBD at the five, and Wesson’s inability to contain perimeter players in ball-screen coverage was a liability; ultimately he has quite a bit of upside if he shores up his weaknesses, and especially if he’s able to shoot from outside.

Notable Returnees

CJ Jackson didn’t always have the ball in his hands as the nominal starting point guard last season, but he was a capable outside shooter and a solid rotation piece. Jackson will probably take on a much bigger role after the attrition this past offseason. Micah Potter and Kyle Young provide frontcourt depth. Wings Musa Jallow and Andre Wesson were offensive nonentities, despite regular playing time.

Newcomers

Holtmann saw the lack of backcourt depth last summer and brought in Andrew Dakich as a grad transfer; he had the same issue again and recruited Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods, who will probably start (and will almost definitely be better than Dakich). Woods was a sixth man who averaged 11.9 points per game for the Demon Deacons last season. Ohio State has a four incoming freshmen: four-stars Luther Muhammad (reputed to be an excellent defender) and Jaedon LaDee (who has some positional versatility at 6’9) should figure into the rotation.

Four Factors Profile

5 yr Ohio State FF.png

data via kenpom.com, national rankings out of ~350 teams

A truly disastrous 2015 recruiting class - one that was highly touted, but flamed out spectacularly - helped spell the end for Matta, but some veteran holdovers lifted Ohio State back to respectability. Holtmann’s first team was strong on both ends of the floor (a sign that bodes well for his future).

Outlook

The losses of seniors KBD, Jae’Sean Tate, and Kam Williams are quite significant, and Holtmann had to retool his roster without them. The offensive system revolved around the All-American KBD, and it will be interesting to see what kind of style emerges in his absence. Woods is a nice addition (though he’s a decent role player and not a star), and Wesson and Jackson should take steps forward in bigger roles, but there are still a ton of questions across the board. Holtmann vastly exceeded expectations last season, and if he does it again with a less talented and experienced roster overall, he’ll start to solidify his reputation as one of the Big Ten’s top coaches.

Comments

MaizeAndBlueWahoo

October 15th, 2018 at 4:18 PM ^

I know Ohio State was really good for the last decade-ish-plus, and it was fun to see Northwestern make the tourney.  But Ohio State was mainly bad when I was growing up, with a few good years sprinkled in here and there before the Matta era, and I still have this feeling that the natural order of the universe requires they be bad.

Illinois, on the other hand, has no business being at the bottom.

pz

October 15th, 2018 at 5:10 PM ^

This was a great read - thanks much for pulling it together! 

Even if these teams aren't likely to make much noise this year, it is good to have a solid take on what is going on, state of the respective programs, etc. heading into the year.

Hard to believe that bball season is just around the corner, but I suppose both hockey and bball sneak up on me every year due to the amount of attention on football in the fall.

Jota09

October 15th, 2018 at 6:45 PM ^

hmm, I actually think Iowa is better than your prognostication.  They need defensive improvement, but mediocre defense would suffice with the offense they bring.  They bring back everyone and add talent.  Out of all these teams, they seem most likely to prove you wrong.  Just my opinion.  

UgLi Eric

October 16th, 2018 at 8:07 AM ^

I was just getting into this piece just as OSU came up and then, done. Part 2 will be exciting. Part 1 is the necessary backstory that never quite keeps the pace, but sets-up the trilogy perfectly. To be clear, I expect 3 pieces now :)