Previously: Gardening Lessons (The Story), Preview Podcast, Preseason All-Big Ten Teams, Point Guards, Wings Part 1 (LeVert, Irvin), Wings Part 2 (Chatman, Wilson, Dawkins, MAAR), Bigs (Donnal, Doyle, Bielfeldt), Media Day Player Interviews, Big Ten Newcomers, Big Ten Outlook Part 1
After yesterday's look at the bottom half of the Big Ten, it's time to check out the top seven squads in the conference. There's one certainty heading into the season: Wisconsin is the favorite. After that, question marks abound. Can Ohio State score? Can Michigan hold up inside? Can Izzo work his magic with an underwhelming roster? Is Nebrasketball for real? I don't claim to have answers, so here goes nothing...
1. Wisconsin (Last Year: 30-8, 12-6 B1G, lost in Final Four)
Frank Kaminsky (#44) is the prototype John Beilein big man. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Bo Ryan; 704-224 career, 321-121 at Wisconsin (15th year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 6th (#1 B1G)
Key Returners: G Traevon Jackson, G Josh Gasser, G Bronson Koenig, F Sam Dekker, F Nigel Hayes, C Frank Kaminsky
Key Losses: G Ben Brust
Top Newcomers: F Ethan Happ
When looking at the Big Ten predictions, there are only two squads that are locked into their positions: Rutgers, bringing up the rear, and Wisconsin, the unanimous choice to win the conference.
It's easy to see why the experts love the Badgers. Bo Ryan unleashed an offense that was eminently watchable (gasp!), finishing fourth nationally in adjusted efficiency, which allowed Wisconsin to not just overcome a step back on defense, but ride a stellar last two months of the season into a Final Four berth before falling to Kentucky by a point. (Know that feel, Wisco bros.) Ryan's squad loses just one major contributor, Ben Brust, and have a ready-made replacement in sophomore Bronson Koenig.
Frank Kaminsky is the leading preseason candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year after becoming an inside-outside force at the center position last season; John Beilein may go so far as to hurt a fly if it resulted in a seven-footer with Kaminsky's ability ending up in Ann Arbor. The rest of the frontcourt is excellent, as well; Sam Dekker is arguably the top draft prospect in the Big Ten, an athletic slasher who could be really difficult to stop if he gains consistency with his outside shot, while big-bodied sophomore Nigel Hayes was so effective on the block even the notoriously freshman-averse Ryan had to give him significant minutes.
One infuriatingly good shooting specialist, Ben Brust, is finally gone, but Josh Gasser is still around to break hearts and shatter dreams. (Death to backboards, amen.) Koenig should step into the starting lineup and provide a more diverse offensive skillset than Brust, though his three-point shooting isn't yet on Brust's level.
Arguably the weakest spot on this team is point guard, and that features senior third-year starter Traevon Jackson, a solid all-around player whose main weakness is a propensity for going heroball despite being surrounded by more efficient scorers. It'll be a surprise if Wisconsin doesn't finish atop the conference, and they'll be right in the mix for a #1 seed—perhaps even the #1 overall seed.
[Hit THE JUMP to see how the other contenders stack up.]
2. Ohio State (Last Year: 25-10, 10-8 B1G, lost in 2nd round of NCAA)
We didn't shoot last year's OSU games so here's Charles Woodson photobombing the Big Ten title celebration. You're welcome. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Thad Matta; 377-114 career, 275-83 at OSU (11th year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 14th (#3 B1G)
Key Returners: G Shannon Scott, F Sam Thompson, C Amir Williams
Key Losses: G Aaron Craft, G/F Lenzelle Smith Jr., F LaQuinton Ross
Top Newcomers: G D'Angelo Russell, F Keita Bates-Diop, F Jae'Sean Tate, F Anthony Lee (transfer)
Man, I was so ready to write this team off. Putting the ball in the basket, a rather important aspect of the sport, proved quite difficult for Ohio State last season, and then leading scorer LaQuinton Ross made the surprise decision to enter the NBA draft. (He went undrafted and is slated to play in Italy's top league this season.) With Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft—their #2 and #3 scorers—gone to graduation, it was easy to predict a significant dropoff this season.
But Thad Matta reeled in the best recruiting class in the conference, headlined by swingman D'Angelo Russell, who should immediately add scoring punch to the starting lineup. Fellow freshmen Keita Bates-Diop and Jae'Sean Tate add scoring ability and strong rebounding, respectively, to the frontcourt. Perhaps their biggest addition, however, came in the form of grad-year transfer Anthony Lee, an excellent rebounder in his time at Temple. While he wasn't a particuarly efficient scorer at Temple, his shot chart suggests he could give the Buckeyes some nice post scoring if they give him touches down low:
The newcomers will have to shoulder much of scoring load, however, as the returners are relatively limited offensive players. Shannon Scott is basically Aaron Craft, and while that's great for defense, it also allows opponents to sag off and clog the lane, daring him to take outside shots. Sam Thompson is a spectacular finisher and decent outside shooter, but doesn't create much of his own offense. Amir Williams often has a difficult time just catching the basketball.
Even without Craft, though, this should once again be an elite defensive team. They've got great size and versatility up front; Williams posted a top-100 block rate last season—though he's not always disciplined on the boards as a result—while Lee is a plus defender, Thompson swats more than his fair share of shots due to being a human pogo stick, and the two freshmen provide athleticism (Bates-Diop) and rebounding (Tate). Matta has plenty of options when it comes to putting the right lineup on the floor.
We'll see if the Buckeyes can score enough to be a truly elite team, but at they very least their strong defense should keep them in contention for the conference title once again.
3. Michigan (Last Year: 28-9, 15-3 B1G, lost in Elite Eight)
Michigan finished a cut above the rest of the Big Ten last season. [Fuller]
Head Coach: John Beilein; 701-412 career, 150-94 at Michigan (8th year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 14th (#4 B1G)
Key Returners: G Derrick Walton, G Caris LeVert, G/F Zak Irvin
Key Losses: G Nik Stauskas, F Glenn Robinson III, C Mitch McGary, C Jordan Morgan
Top Newcomers: F Kam Chatman, F DJ Wilson, C Ricky Doyle, F/C Mark Donnal (redshirt)
Covered extensively already, of course. I was quite tempted to put Michigan second, but held off over concerns that it could be a rough year defensively with a freshman-laden lineup and no Morgan/Horford/McGary holding it down in the paint. On the other hand, if Mark Donnal is able to pull of a passable impression of Kevin Pittsnogle, all bets are off for how good this team can be on offense.
4. Nebraska (Last Year: 19-13, 11-7 B1G, lost in 2nd round of NCAA)
Terran Pettaway shouldered an enormous share of the Nebraska offense. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Tim Miles; 313-250 career, 34-32 at Nebraska (3rd year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 34th (#8 B1G)
Key Returners: G/F Terran Pettaway, F Shavon Shields, F/C Walter Pitchford
Key Losses: G Ray Gallegos, F/C Leslee Smith (injury)
Top Newcomers: F Jacob Hammond
This pick could look very good or very, very bad by the end of the season. Nebraska was the surprise team of 2013-14, riding a surprisingly strong home court advantage—only Michigan defeated the Huskers in Lincoln—and a breakout year from wing Terran Pettaway to an 11-7 conference record and their first NCAA bid since 1998.
Nebraska returns the core of that squad, with Pettaway flanked by skilled scorers in guard Shavon Shields, whose knack for getting to the line offset some inefficient shooting, and stretch big Walter Pitchford, a 41% three-point shooter who can also finish at the basket. Pettaway did a remarkable job of staying relatively efficient while posting an absurdly high usage rate (31.7%, 25th nationally); for the Huskers to take the next step, getting more help from those secondary options so Pettaway can be a little more effective on a per-possession basis would be huge.
The rest of the lineup is where the question marks pop up, especially with big man Leslee Smith out for the year with a torn ACL. That leaves Pitchford and 6'7" senior David Rivers, who was pretty average in a bit role last season, as the lone proven bigs; help should come in the form of 6'8" freshman Jacob Hammond, but he's a pretty raw prospect.
This squad should go as far as their three core players can carry them; based on last season, that could be surprisingly far, especially if that home-court advantage holds up this year.
5. Michigan State (Last Year: 29-9, 12-6 B1G, lost in Elite Eight)
The Trice/Walton matchup should favor Michigan. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Tom Izzo; 468-187 career, 468-187 at MSU (20th year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 12th (#2 B1G)
Key Returners: G Travis Trice, G/F Denzel Valentine, F Branden Dawson, C Matt Costello
Key Losses: G Keith Appling, G Gary Harris, F Kenny Kaminski, C Adreian Payne
Top Newcomers: G Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn, G Bryn Forbes (transfer)
Take away the uniforms and remove Tom Izzo from the sideline and this is a team people would be expecting to fall hard back to earth this season, but there's that green and white, and there's Izzo, so somehow these Spartans should win double-digit conference games despite losing three excellent players without much in the way of replacements.
Keith Appling is no longer running the point, so in steps Travis Trice, who got close to starter's minutes with Appling banged up for much of last season. (Did you hear about that? You did? Oh, okay.) Trice is a very good three-point shooter, but he lacks Appling's ability to attack the rim and isn't on the same level as a distrubutor; in addition, he's something of a turnstile on defense. Freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn—yes, that's his name, and it's spectacular—should compete for minutes at the point right away, though at 5'10" he has his own set of limitations.
Also gone is leading scorer Gary Harris, removing the team's best shot creator and late-clock option. Sophomore Alvin Ellis showed potential in very limited minutes behind Harris, but even if he takes a big leap forward, it's hard to imagine he'll replace Harris' production. The onus for that falls largely on point forward-type Denzel Valentine, a flashy creator who must reign in his instict to go for the Sportcenter Top Ten play when there's a simpler option available—his ability to do so is the biggest key for MSU this season. Transfer Bryn Forbes adds some shooting on the wing.
Branden Dawson is back to provide his usual superlative rebounding and defense; he'll be called upon to provide a bit more scoring after spending much of the last few years getting his offense off putback opportunities. He'll be paired in the frontcourt with Matt Costello, a solid post scorer and defender, but the depth there is lacking after the early departures of Kenny Kaminski and Alex Gauna—Gavin Schilling must cut way down on turnovers to be an effective backup in the post. Oh, and there's no more Adreian Payne around to terrorize the townsfolk, which is welcome news for Michigan fans.
Izzo could work his magic and get this team contending for the conference title. With all that talent gone and a few years of substandard recruiting classes catching up to him, perhaps this is the year Izzo's program finally begins its decline phase. Your guess is as good as mine.
6. Iowa (Last Year: 20-13, 9-9 B1G, lost in NCAA play-in game)
The ever-photogenic Fran McCaffery watched his talented Hawkeyes squad lose seven of their last eight games in '13-14. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Fran McCaffery; 325-240 career, 74-63 at Iowa (5th year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 32nd (#6 B1G)
Key Returners: G Mike Gesell, F Aaron White, F Jarrod Uthoff, C Adam Woodbury, C Gabriel Olaseni
Key Losses: G Roy Devyn Marble, F Zach McCabe, F Melsahn Basabe
Top Newcomers: G Trey Dickerson (JuCo)
When Iowa blew the doors off Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last winter, they appeared poised for a deep run into the postseason. Instead, they nearly missed the NCAAs altogether, dropping six of their last seven conference games—including an upset loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament—before bowing out to Tennessee in the play-in game for an 11-seed.
While much of that squad returns, Fran McCaffery must figure out how to replace the engine of his offense, combo guard Roy Devyn Marble, whose strong passing and all-around scoring ability—especially on the fast break—drove Iowa to post the #5 offense nationally. Point guard Mike Gesell can pick up a fair amount of the slack running the offense, but he just isn't close to the dynamic scoring threat Marble provided.
Instead, forward Aaron White will be taked with more of the scoring load this winter, and his supremely efficient shooting inside the arc (63% in '13-14) could take a hit as a result. Stretch four Jarred Uthoff, a 43% three-point shooter, will also be a bigger part of the offense. 6'6" sophomore Peter Jok should step into Marble's spot in the lineup, and while he fits Marble's profile quite well, it's asking a lot to expect close to the same level of production.
Even without rebounding savant Melsahn Basabe, Iowa is very strong up front, boasting perhaps the best center tandem in the conference with seven-footer Adam Woodbury and the emerging Gabrial Olaseni, who posted the #6 offensive rebounding rate in the country as a reserve last season in addition to a top-75 block rate. Both of those factors will be critical to Iowa's success; without Marble's ability to create, Iowa's path to success likely runs through the interior on both ends of the floor.
If the Hawkeyes can become a dominant squad in the post, they could succeed where last year's squad faltered. If this is just last year's team minus their best player, they could take an unfortunate tumble down the conference standings.
7. Minnesota (Last Year: 25-13, 8-10 B1G, won NIT)
DeAndre Mathieu proved an excellent scorer for a 5'9" guard, though his size can be an issue on defense. [Fuller]
Head Coach: Richard Pitino; 43-27 career, 25-13 at Minnesota (2nd year)
Preseason KenPom Ranking: 37th (#9 B1G)
Key Returners: G DeAndre Mathieu, G Andre Hollins, F Joey King, C Maurice Walker, C Elliott Eliason
Key Losses: G Austin Hollins
Top Newcomers: G Nate Mason, G Carlos Morris (JuCo)
Outside of holding serve at home against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Minnesota mostly did the expected in Big Ten play last season, feasting on the conference dregs while losing the vast majority of their battles with the top half of the Big Ten. Richard Pitino's first Gopher squad struggled mightily on defense, posting the worst efficiency mark in the Big Ten, while a propensity for turnovers prevented the offense from firing on all cylinders.
Embodying this is the team's starting point guard, DeAndre Mathieu, who posted great scoring and assist numbers but coughed up the ball far more than is ideal while struggling to guard bigger opposing point guards—and at 5'9", Mathieu was at a size disadvantage against pretty much everyone. The more effiecient of the two Hollinses, Austin, has graduated, leaving Andre—the better outside shooter but a much worse finisher inside the arc—to man the two-spot.
There are some solid pieces up front in centers Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason; Walker is the more adept post scorer, while Eliason is one of the better rebounders and shot-blockers in the confence, giving the Gophers a strong one-two tandem at the five. Joey King provides solid shooting and little else at the four. The fifth starter will either be a little-used returner—like sophomore Daquein McNeil—or a new face, likely JuCo transfer Carlos Morris.
The key to Minnesota's success is simple: stay the course on offense while cutting down on turnovers and find a way to improve their woeful perimeter defense. With the loss of Austin Hollins, that may be too much to ask.