So, I guess at this point we can admit that Michigan isn’t very good this year. And that’s okay! We can’t be super awesome and really good every year, after all.
I figured that my writing’s been too obsessed with numbers and data lately – and to be perfectly honest, it bores me after a while too – and I thought I’d do something different from what I normally do with the conference weekly recaps, because why the hell not?
After a while, I decided to focus on ten of the most intriguing, good, talented, enigmatic, compelling, or otherwise notable players in the Big Ten and write about, well, what I think of them, what I think when I watch them play, and (to a certain extent) what they mean to me and the conference at-large. Basketball can be boiled down to numbers, but it should be an affective experience as well. So here’s that side of things. Don’t read it if you’re blinded by hatred for the enemy; don’t read it if you’re just gonna skim for Michigan players because there aren’t any (though Caris would be on here if he wasn’t hurt and oh, the sadness, it’s back).
Anyways, here we go. In no particular order (five today, five tomorrow):
The discourse surrounding Tom Izzo’s Michigan State is easily definable: national broadcasters and pundits wax poetically about the – for lack of a better term – blue-collar identity of the program; State has fully actualized this aesthetic in a way that plays to the mythology of their nickname’s namesake.
With most narratives, there’s a kernel of truth to this characterization of State basketball – Spartan teams are characteristically strong on the boards, content to try pounding the ball inside with strong big men, and generally physical defensively. Though State has strayed away from this style somewhat this year (with a backcourt of Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes for most of the game, it’s hard for MSU to play their preferred bully-ball), there’s still an artifact of that idealized version of Big Ten basketball: senior forward Branden Dawson, out of Gary, Indiana.*
A former five star, Dawson is probably not destined for the NBA. His game is still often maddeningly simple – he doesn’t have any range on his jumper; he can’t create from the perimeter (and, in general, can’t dribble productively in the half-court much at all). Between those two things and his lack of size at the four spot, he’d have to reinvent himself as a defensive stopper to even have an outside chance at the next level.
But man, Dawson stays in his lane and he does what he does as well as anyone. Even at 6’6, he’s the best rebounder in the conference, capable of cleaning the defensive glass and attacking missed MSU shots with reckless abandon. He can protect the rim from the weak-side; he jumps passing lanes seemingly out of nowhere (to trigger one-man fast-breaks, which he enjoys finishing with thunderous windmill dunks); and, though he lacks the lateral quickness to be a true lockdown perimeter defender, he’s as much of a menace on that end as anyone in the conference. In my opinion, he’s the easy choice for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He has a rudimentary post game – not that college players need much more than that – and often scores at the rim off of basket cuts or offensive boards. Aside from the highlight-reel dunks, he’s as workmanlike as they come.
East Lansing’s Sparta was built on the cornerstones of defense, rebounding, and tough interior play – over the past several years, it has been the most “Big Ten” program in the Big Ten, more or less. Branden Dawson won’t go down as one of the best players to suit up in the green and white during Izzo’s tenure, but there’s perhaps no better archetype for the ethos surrounding Izzo’s program.
*Of course Dawson is from a famously hardscrabble Rust Belt town. It fits his game perfectly.
Mini-Harden, The New Boss
Behold: Maryland’s first Big Ten star, freshman point guard Melo Trimble.
He might not be a star quite yet, but based off of his promising sample of games thus far – plus the expected improvement that he’ll experience over the course of his college career, Melo Trimble will – in all likelihood – be the first face of Maryland Hoops in the new era. Right now, he might not even be the best player on his own team (that could be senior combo guard Dez Wells), but he’s probably been the second-best freshman in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell.
Here’s a brief primer on Melo’s game, from Trimble himself:
“It’s just something I’ve been practicing, knowing how to draw the contact. I’ve just been learning since I’ve been watching NBA players like James Harden. When he gets to the basket, he knows how to draw the foul,” Trimble said. “I watch how he does it, and I put it into my game.”
Trimble’s game is positively Hardenesque, though he’s probably a four-year player and will never draw qualitative comparisons to one of the NBA’s MVP frontrunners. Still, stylistically, there are several points where Trimble’s film study pays dividends: like Harden, he gets to the free throw line at an absurd rate (and converts from the line); he attacks the rim well for a smaller player, though he’s not a great finisher yet; he eschews low-value mid-range shots; he can shoot well from behind the arc, off the dribble or off the catch; and, most of all, he can create for himself and others – a true combo guard, equal parts distributor and scorer.
My fear is that, like many other players who rely on drawing contact and heading to the free throw line, Trimble will develop a reputation – fair or unfair – for flopping. Harden’s flops are well-chronicled, and I’m hoping that Trimble doesn’t head in that direction – or worse, face criticism for imagined dives. He’ll be around for a while, so the Big Ten will have to get used to it.
The Terrapins are – and will be – the new guys for quite a while (though they do benefit from the conference-wide disdain of fellow newcomer Rutgers) and though they’ve had an illustrious basketball history with successes on par with many of their new conference rivals, they have to forge a new identity in the Big Ten. Melo Trimble will lead the charge, two free throws at a time.
[AFTER THE JUMP: Three more guys]
By now, you probably know that basketball’s traditional player designations – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center – are obsolete to a certain degree: Indiana’s playing Collin Hartman as a nominal center, teams around the Big Ten are trending towards rangy, athletic stretch-fours, and a few – including Michigan – prefer to play two players who fit the point guard construct at the same time (e.g. Spike Albrecht and Derrick Walton). Basketball still needs specific, concrete roles to a degree – goliath soldiers battling for rebounds in the paint, a smaller guy who can fly around setting up teammates with passes, whatever – but the lines are being blurred.
Denzel Valentine is an example for this newer line of thinking. “Poor Man’s Magic” comparisons (in that he’s from Lansing, plays at Michigan State, and is a wing-sized player who can pass and create with rare panache) follow him around and yeah, like Magic Johnson – the original Point-Forward – Valentine twists the conventionality and exists as a Point-Wing, if you will. Bigger guys who have the floor vision and coordination to contort the defense with their wonderful passing ability are endlessly fascinating and Valentine’s no exception.
Michigan State’s current team generally suffers from a vague sort of lacking identity (which is to be expected after a nucleus like Harris / Payne / Appling leave), but Valentine’s versatility has added order to the entire operation. He spaces the floor well enough, though not excellently; he rebounds the ball at a good clip, considering his size at 6’5; he’s State’s tentative go-to guy (if there need be such a thing); but most of all, he’s a distributor with creativity and utility. Turnovers are an inevitability with his audacious style – he dares to make passes that other players simply cannot fathom – and as with all things, the good comes with the bad.
State is still part of that morass of teams behind Wisconsin in the standings, and they still have potential if a fatal flaw – make your damn free throws! – is corrected. To reach that potential, Valentine probably must be a virtuoso: Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes are best as auxiliaries, Branden Dawson does the dirty work, and Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling provide the beef inside. As much as State’s season is becoming increasingly defined by frustration, a resurgence could come in the form of a fully unleashed Valentine at his best. Of course, they might also bow out meekly in the 8 / 9 game of the NCAA Tournament.
In any case, Valentine might be the most creative passer in the league – maybe even ahead of do-everything phenom D’Angelo Russell – and that’s worth the price of admission in and of itself. He’s pretty good outside of that too.
Sisyphus (The Third)
Penn State – the loneliest, most desolate outpost on the Big Ten basketball circuit – has bred a lineage of tragic heroes as of late. Talor Battle, Tim Frazier, and D.J. Newbill were in turn each afflicted by the Sisyphean task of carrying the program on their shoulders. Battle was eventually given a fleeting sort of validation after dragging the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament (and, of course, losing in the first round) as a senior. It should be noted that Battle had a much better supporting cast than either of his successors did. Frazier tore his Achilles in the 2013 season and, due to his own recovery timetable and Newbill’s emergence, ceded his briefly-held role as Penn State’s Sisyphus.
Now it’s Newbill who must undertake the burden every night; he’s fated to push the boulder up the mountain each game, basket-by-basket, only to see it fall back to the base of the hill in the last five minutes – the customary time for things to fall apart. Earlier this season, he scored 35 points in a shootout against Charlotte; Penn State lost that game in overtime. Against Purdue a few weeks ago, he poured in a reasonably efficient 37, only to suffer a torturous home loss in the end. After a non-conference season filled with empty wins over bad teams, Penn State’s now 3-9 in Big Ten play, with virtually no hope of making it into the NCAA Tournament.
In that way, the Sisyphus metaphor works in an even broader sense. Over their respective careers, Battle, Frazier, and Newbill were more or less outstanding (especially for Penn State), but ultimately the rock fell backwards as the program itself was unable to sustain any momentum whatsoever. Over the eight years with one or more of the three on campus, only Battle – flanked by Frazier, in a sidekick role – was able to achieve a semblance of significant team success as the leader; their coach promptly fled to coach Navy after the Tournament. Sisyphus’s boulder crashed down, as hard as ever.
It’s a shame that Newbill must toil in relative obscurity and it’s a shame that his ability will never be validated by a berth in the NCAA Tournament. He’s one of the best two or three wings in the Big Ten, despite having the defense’s undivided attention on every single night. He’s a true Philly guard – a concept a little alien to the Big Ten’s brand of Midwestern hoops – with his scoring ability, relentless driving and attacking the basket, and whatever platitudes relating to toughness that you want to throw in there. Newbill only has a little more than a half-dozen games left in a Penn State uniform – he deserves some appreciation (for his ability) and some empathy (for his situation) on the way out.
Frank Kaminsky Have It All
The dirty secret is that Wisconsin basketball is now sort of… fun? Just two years ago, Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, and Ryan Evans anchored a characteristically nasty pack-line defense – the best in the country that year. Now, Wisconsin has the best offense in the country, with firepower and efficiency at all five positions. In quintessential Badger fashion, they avoid turnovers better than anyone and are content to let the defense eventually make a mistake in the 35 seconds allotted to the surgical Wisconsin offense.
Traevon Jackson was having a career year and he was replaced by Bronson Koenig, who might be even better. Josh Gasser might be 38 years old, but he’s locking up perimeter scorers and hitting open jumpers like he did in his heyday back in the nineties. Sam Dekker is rightfully considered an NBA prospect, and he plays an efficient, appealing brand of basketball for the scouts at the next level. Nigel Hayes, who was very good as a freshman, is one of the most improved players in the league – he’s a scorer and he’s versatile. Wisconsin’s endless army of generic white guys (and Vitto Brown!) off the bench is as unremarkable as always; “not messing up” is the chief objective of college bench mobs. And then there’s Frank Kaminsky!
Former Wisconsinite and Milwaukee Buck Monta Ellis (who’s notable for being extremely confident in his abilities – even if it flies in the face of all reason) offered this legendary sound-bite a few years ago…
…and after searching in vain for a theme to shoehorn Kaminsky into, I threw up my hands and admitted that, well, shit, Frank Kaminsky have it all.*
He’s a singular talent, a probable First-Team All-American and a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate. How many seven-footers at the college level can shoot three-pointers? Alright, how many of those can catch defenders with pump-fakes on the closeout, drive and kick to an open wing on the weak side? Not many. Throw in the ability to face-up and drive on smaller defenders on the block; throw in a back-to-the-basket game that’s as fluid and wily as they come. Now add in a little defense, because even though he’s not that great on that end of the floor, he’s improved a lot and he’s trying, dammit. He doesn’t have the leaping ability to be a fearsome rim protector but he does well enough in Wisconsin’s scheme so as not to be a minus.
Kaminsky won’t be an NBA star because his lack of upside: Frank Kaminsky right now is the Frank Kaminsky you’ll get three, five, or even ten years from now. He’ll be a first-round draft choice, make some team very happy with that investment, and then we’ll see him doing something hilarious (but probably effective) during the NBA Playoffs and ask everyone else if they remember that guy too. Funny enough, Kaminsky chose not to enter the NBA Draft basically because he loved college.
And he have it all because Wisconsin’s as good as he predicted in the blog post linked above, he’s the big man on campus, so to speak, and he has a chance at all of the individual and team accolades a college player could ever want. Wisconsin’s an under-the-radar national title contender (because the Big Ten offers up no worthy foes) and they’re already running away with the conference crown. Whatever individual awards he gets would just be icing on the cake.
The Big Ten might be down this year but Kaminsky (and D’Angelo Russell) have assured us that the star power is still there.
*Shouts to Monta for leading my team to a fantasy basketball crown last year, by the way.