Dancing with the Conferences: Big Ten Edition

by: ANDREW HORN

It is finally here. Over the past week, we’ve seen five great articles, each one breaking down one of the major six conferences. If you have been paying attention, then you will notice the only conference left is the Big Ten. For all the Maryland fans, there will be a reason to celebrate as the Terrapins will be in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. There will be more about the Terrapins later in this article. Don’t forget about the other 13 teams in the Big Ten conference.

At the top of the conference, Wisconsin and Michigan State finished first and third respectively in the conference. Both teams were expected to be near the top, with Michigan State winning six of its last eight games. Iowa and Ohio State are also sitting comfortably as of now. Three teams are sitting on the bubble, hoping to use the conference tournament will propel them into the safety zone. Unfortunately, Northwestern will need to win the entire conference tournament in order to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. The conference is vying for the recognition as the best conference in college basketball, a distinction that will not come easy. These teams will have the most influence on how the puzzle of the bracket will be put together.

#6 Wisconsin:

  • Record: 28-3
  • RPI: 6
  • BPI: 3
  • Strength of Schedule: 15
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 2-seed, Lost in the Final Four to 8-seed Kentucky
  • Projection: Elite Eight
Courtesy of MIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES
Courtesy of MIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES

Well it’s just another year of typical Bo Ryan success. Wisconsin will be appearing in the NCAA tournament for the 14th year in a row, every year Bo Ryan has been the coach. The big men play a larger than life role for the Badgers offense. Forwards Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes all have a vital role in Wisconsin’s success as a team. Kaminsky leads the Badgers in points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. Kaminsky anchors the team on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

What makes Wisconsin dangerous is that even if a team shuts down Kaminsky, it is nearly impossible to keep Dekker and Hayes off the score sheet as well. All three players shoot over 50 percent from the field.  Sam Dekker, who is 6’9”, plays outside against other guards and smaller forwards. His athleticism and size allows Dekker to cover and position on defense. Wisconsin has next level talent all over the roster, but they can’t badger opponents without its floor general.

The one area of weakness for Wisconsin is the lack of Traevon Jackson running the offense. The senior point guard broke his foot in the January 11 loss to Rutgers. Since then, Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser have filled in admirably, but Jackson has a special talent that no other guard on Wisconsin possesses. Jackson has the uncanny ability to make the right play when the situation arises. Jackson leads the Badgers in assists per game, but also leads them on the court. If Wisconsin wants to repeat last year’s Final Four appearance, Jackson must be on the court, something that should happen around the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Michigan State:

  • Record: 21-10
  • RPI: 27
  • BPI: 19
  • Strength of Schedule: 19
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 4-seed, Lost in the Elite Eight to eventual champion UConn
  • Projection: Second Round

 

Courtesy of Charlie Neibergall/AP
Courtesy of Charlie Neibergall/AP

There is no coach in the nation that could do what Tom Izzo has done with his team this year. After losing Adreian Payne, Draymond Green, Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix since 2011, Izzo has continued to bring wins to East Lansing. Now with a roster of veteran guards and younger interior players, Izzo is looking to get this senior class to a Final Four, something Izzo has done six times since he took over in 1995.

The Spartans are led by two senior standouts. Guard Travis Trice scores 14.8 points per game with five assists. Trice’s command of the offense allows for Branden Dawson, a guard/forward, to roam and contribute in different ways. Dawson averages 11.6 points per game, but his most impactful contributions come on the boards, averaging more than nine rebounds per game. Dawson is only 6’6” and is first in the conference in rebounding, averaging one rebound more per game than Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky. Michigan State can play with any team for 40 minutes; it’s when the game goes beyond 40 that the problems arise.

Michigan State has played in a conference-leading six games that went to overtime. Yet with all the experience in extra basketball, Michigan State is only 2-4. Tom Izzo is capable of coaching a team of any talent level to a national title. This team is no different, assuming the games are ended after 40 minutes.

Iowa

  • Record: 21-10
  • RPI: 36
  • BPI: 32
  • Strength of Schedule: 27
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 11-seed, Lost the play-in game against 11-seed Tennessee
  • Projection: First Round
Iowa
AP Photo/Cedar Rapids Gazette, Brian Ray

 

Iowa continues to be one of the most overlooked teams in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. The statistics do not jump off the page. Only two players average more than 10 points per game. The Hawkeyes only shoot 33 percent from behind the arc. Overall, Iowa barely cracks the top-200 in shooting percentage at 43.2 percent. The Iowa offensive statistics are nothing but offensive. Yet despite the less than spectacular offense, Iowa still managed to amass 12 wins in conference. How does something like that happen? Defense.

Iowa is one of the top defensive teams in the Big Ten. When the NCAA tournament comes around, there are a few things any team can do to immediately increase its chances to advance; defense is one of those things. Iowa allows less than 62 points per game. The Hawkeyes are also one of the top rebounding teams in the Big Ten. Coach Fran McCaffery has led Iowa into the postseason, whether it is the NIT or the NCAA tournament. As of now, Iowa is projected to earn a 7-seed, which is fairly respectable for the resume the built. The only problem is if Joe Lunardi is correct, Iowa will play VCU and the “Havoc” defense.

Purdue:

  • Record: 20-11
  • RPI: 58
  • BPI: 40
  • Strength of Schedule: 74
  • Last Appearance: 2012, 10-seed, Second Round loss to 2-seed Kansas
  • Projection: Second Round
Courtesy of PurdueExponent.org
Courtesy of PurdueExponent.org

Like Iowa, Purdue had some losses during the non-conference slate, most notably to North Florida and Gardner-Webb at home. The losses were huge negatives on the Boilermakers’ resume for March. Purdue looked to be down and out until winning eight of nine games from the end of January in February saved the season. Purdue only has six upperclassmen on the roster, meaning the Boilermakers could be rebuilding a team to resemble that of the late 2000’s teams with Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Purdue has two 7-footers that are interchangeable in case one gets into foul trouble. Purdue also has three guards, including Jon “Octeus Prime,” that can run the offense. Purdue boasts the Big Ten conference Defensive Player of the Year in Rapheal Davis. The Boilermakers are built for the last two minutes of the game, assuming the game isn’t close enough to be decided by free throws.

That will be Purdue’s ultimate downfall is the free throw shooting. Purdue as a team only shoots 68 percent from the line. The two 7-footers, Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons, each shoot less than 65 percent. This team is still two or three years from being contenders again; however the appearance this season will certainly help the maturation of the younger players.

Ohio State:

  • Record: 22-9
  • RPI: 40
  • BPI: 16
  • Strength of Schedule: 79
  • Last Appearance: 2014, 6-seed, First Round loss to 11-seed Dayton
  • Projection: Sweet Sixteen
Courtesy of Getty Images
Courtesy of Getty Images

Ohio State is the second most dangerous offense going into the tournament. Freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell is the Buckeyes’ leader in points and rebounds per game, while he is second on the team with 5 assists per game. With as many talented freshmen as the Big Ten can showcase, Russell was a unanimous First Team all-Big Ten selection and won the conference Freshman of the Year award. Russell is the most dangerous all-around scorer the Buckeyes have, but the Buckeyes also have specialized scoring threats. Sophmore Marc Loving led the conference in 3-point shooting. Senior forward Sam Thompson is coveted by NBA scouts for his tremendous ability to play above the rim. The Buckeyes can also play a little defense. The Buckeyes allow only 61 points per game and are top-30 in the nation in blocks and steals per game. The stats show a top-25 team. The eye test shows something a little bit different.

Talented players can only get a team so far. Eight of Ohio State’s nine losses on the season came when the Buckeyes were ranked in the top-25, including six of the seven conference losses. The Buckeyes only had five wins in conference when ranked in the top-25; none were against teams that are in contention for an at-large berth in the tournament. Ohio State won conference games against ranked opponents, but struggled to win when they found themselves in the rankings. Maybe the Buckeyes can put that skeleton back in the closet; maybe it will haunt the team and cost them the chance at advancing. Nobody will know until the Buckeyes step on the court.

Indiana:

  • Record: 19-12
  • RPI: 57
  • BPI: 49
  • Strength of Schedule: 25
  • Last Appearance: 2013, 1-seed, Lost to 4-seed Syracuse in Sweet Sixteen
  • Projection: Elite Eight
Courtesy of Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
Courtesy of Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

In order for Indiana to make the Elite Eight, the Hoosiers need to make the NCAA tournament. Indiana did quite a number on its resume the last two weeks, losing three straight and falling to .500 in the conference. Before that, the Hoosiers were in a great position to solidify its position in the tourney. Now Indiana needs to win at least one and possibly more games in the Big Ten conference tournament in order to make the tournament.

Now, to the reasons Indiana is good enough to make it to the Elite Eight. Indiana scores 78 points per game, good for 19th in the nation. Indiana shoots 47 percent from the floor, good for third in the conference. More importantly, Indiana knows how to spread teams out on the floor. Spreading a team out means if the player with the ball gets by his defender, there is a small chance another defender can help in time. If a defender does slide over to help, an Indiana player would have an open shot. The way Indiana spreads teams out, that open shot is usually a three-pointer, a shot the Hoosiers make 41 percent of the time. Indiana seems to be allergic to defense, but BYU is as well, a team that Indiana may have to play for one of the final four spots in the tournament.

#8 Maryland:

  • Record: 26-5
  • RPI: 9
  • BPI: 27
  • Strength of Schedule: 54
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2010, 4-seed, Second Round loss to 5-seed Michigan State
  • Projection: Elite Eight
Courtesy of Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Courtesy of Rich Schultz/Getty Images

First, I would like to thank you for reading the article in order to get to Maryland. As prefaced in the beginning, the Terrapins will be making the first NCAA since 2010. It has been a long an often frustrating rebuilding for Terrapin fans. After a successful run in the 2013 NIT, fans were excited about the prospects of the 2013-2014 season. What happened instead was a substantial regression of multiple players. The rough season ended with a court storming in Maryland’s final ACC home game against archrival Virginia. Then five players transferred out of the program, leaving the Terrapin program with more questions than answers regarding the team and its coach. With the expectations going into the inaugural Big Ten season still high; Coach Turgeon did something amazing with the team: He let them play and allowed his system to work out its own kinks.

Despite a number of close finishes, the result was a Maryland team that has reached its highest ranking since 2003. Maryland has now established itself as a force in the Big Ten. Forward Dez Wells is averaging more than 18 points per game over the last seven games-all Terrapin wins. Freshman point guard Melo Trimble leads the team in scoring with 16 points per game. The Terps, with five brand new players to the program, instantly had chemistry and a common goal: Winning.

Now the question is how far will Maryland go in the tournament? In order to answer that question, a different one needs to be posed to the team- Are you ready to confront your true potential?

This team is the most talented team since the 2010 team that suffered a heartbreaking loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The maturation of this team’s freshmen has exceeded all expectations. Dion Wiley, Jared Nickens and Michael Cekovsky have grown along with Trimble to create a dynamic class of talent. But Maryland’s version of the “Fab Five” will not be the deciding factor of the success. The deciding factor will be the heart and soul of this team: Dez Wells.

Maryland is a legitimate threat to be a Final Four team. As long as Dez Wells plays with the leadership and heart that he has played with over the last seven games. Once the heart and soul fails, so does the team.

Courtesy of Michael Williamson/Washington Post
Courtesy of Michael Williamson/Washington Post

The Terrapins will continue to need contributions from all of the players. Inside players like Jonathan Graham Damonte Dodd must be ready to step up when the tournament starts. Regardless of the draw, college basketball will see a Terrapin team that is to be feared; something the Terps haven’t had since 2002.

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