First Impressions of 2011-12 Big Ten Basketball

While the Big Ten has been the benefactor of a low number of draft early entrants in recent years, many of the league’s best players graduated following last season.  Seriously, there are real live players graduating (or at least staying in college for four years).  Novel idea for college athletes, don’t you think?

That’s a rant for another day, but a quick look shows that the conference lost three first team All-Conference performers, eight of its top 12 scorers (including the top three), six of its top 10 rebounders, and its top two assist men.

Still, the league will be bolstered by the unexpected return of Jared Sullinger and may well boast the nation’s top point guard in Jordan Taylor.  Throw in do-it-all forward Draymond Green, the return of Robbie Hummel, and three or four Top 25 recruiting classes (depending on which recruiting site you trust), and the Big Ten may not be down quite as much as people think.

Since the conference is my first love despite being the butt of its share of jokes around the style and pace of play, I’m starting in the midwest with an early look at how each team is shaping up.

Keep in mind that there is still time for additional transfers or signings, so this picture is still taking shape.

Illinois

The Illini lost starters Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale to graduation, and with Jereme Richmond’s questionable decision to remain in the NBA Draft, Bruce Weber returns just two players who averaged over three points.

That duo of juniors Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will lead a roster comprised largely of a highly touted class of newcomers.  They’ll be helped in the backcourt by Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco who led the Braves in assists during his first three seasons before an injury limited him to just six games last year.  Freshman Tracy Abrams, who Rivals tabbed as the Big Ten’s best incoming passer and perimeter scorer, should also see time at the point, while fellow frosh Mycheal Henry adds depth on the wing.

The serious question marks are on the interior with sophomore Meyers Leonard the best returning option.  While I expect a jump in production from Leonard due to a steep increase in minutes, freshmen Nnanna Egwu, Mike Shaw, and Ibrahima Djimde will be counted on to contribute immediately.  Chemistry issues led this team to underachieve a year ago, so despite the losses, it could be an addition by subtraction scenario.

Indiana

The good news is that the Hoosiers lost only defensive stopper Jeremiah Rivers and added big man Cody Zeller in Tom Crean’s biggest recruting coup to date.  The bad news is that the returning core of players finished 12-20 last season.

Forward Christian Watford showed significant improvement and was starting to peak when he suffered a broken hand against Michigan State.  Guard Jordan Hulls also asserted himself more offensively and knocked down better than 40 percent of his three-pointers, while Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey exceeded expectations as freshmen.

However, the fact that the Hoosiers return their top seven scorers and top five rebounders from last year won’t matter if they don’t show significant improvement on the defensive end. In addition to surrendering plenty of wide open shots, the team also fouled at a high rate and had trouble taking care of the basketball.

Stability at the point guard position will be important as Verdell Jones III, who led the team in both assists and turnovers, and the aforementioned Hulls shared duties there a year ago.

Aside from a lack of interior depth, the biggest question mark for IU is the health of guard Maurice Creek who suffered his second knee injury in as many seasons.  Hoosier fans are expecting Crean’s team to take the next step this season, and their progress defensively will ultimately determine their fate.

Iowa

By all accounts, the Hawkeyes overachieved in year one of the Fran McCaffery era.  They knocked off Purdue and Michigan State at home, took Wisconsin and Michigan to OT, and tested the second-ranked Buckeyes.  Another year in McCaffery’s system only helps, as does the return of six of their top seven scorers, including the top three.

Bryce Cartwright excelled at the point over the latter half of the season, finished third in the conference with 5.9 assists per game, and relieved some of the pressure on Matt Gatens.  Throw in solid inside play from the undersized Melsahn Basabe, and there is reason for optimism in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes add a couple decent recruits in shooting guard Josh Oglesby and small forward Aaron White.  However, their most intriguing signing was 25-year old forward Anthony Hubbard, who averaged better than 20 points and 10 boards for Frederick C.C. last year.  The intrigue comes from the four years Hubbard spent in prison following a robbery arrest.  He should provide them with another scorer as well as a guy not afraid to mix it up on the glass even at 6-foot-5.

This team won’t make the NCAA Tournament, but if they can get anything inside from guys like Andrew Brommer, Devon Archie, or freshman Gabe Olaseni, they won’t be easy to beat.

Michigan

I argued earlier this week that the departure of Darius Morris could cripple a Michigan team that snuck up on people a season ago.  It’s now unclear who will get into the lane and set up teammates for open looks, despite the fact that everyone else is back in maize and blue.

Sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. came on strong over the second half of the season, scoring in double figures the final 16 games of the year.  He’ll be counted on to shoulder the scoring load with Morris out of the picture. Veterans Stu Douglass and Zack Novak will provide plenty of leadership, and talented freshmen Trey Burke and Carlton Brundidge also enter the backcourt fray.

Big man Jordan Morgan was the beneficiary of many of Morris’ assists, so it will be interesting to see how he performs as a sophomore.  Morgan will need to enhance his arsenal of post moves in order to continue his development into a reliable low post scorer.  Jon Horford’s bloodlines suggest improvement in his second season, which would give Michigan another option down low.

Ultimately Burke will be the X-factor for this team.  If he can slide in and produce at the point, the other pieces are there for John Beilein’s squad to finish in the top third of the Big Ten.

Michigan State

tom-izzoWhile teams like Iowa and Michigan overachieved last season, the Spartans were unable to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.

Gone are Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers along with recent transfers Chris Allen and Korie Lucious, leaving the Spartans pretty thin in the backcourt.  Keith Appling was relegated largely to a defensive stopper as a freshman, but he’ll be asked to do more this season to pick up the slack.  One of the more unheralded transfers will also be key for Sparty, as former Valparaiso guard Brandon Wood joins the team after scoring 16.7 points per game for the Crusaders last year.

There’s more experience up front with versatile forward Draymond Green and senior Delvon Roe.  Green does a little of everything for this team and has consistently improved his all-around game and skill set from year to year, while knee ailments have limited Roe’s development.  Tom Izzo needs more from Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, both of whom were highly rated coming out of high school.  Redshirt freshman Russell Byrd can also provide a lift on the perimeter after missing last season due to injury.

A talented recruiting class will have the chance to step in and play extended minutes early.  Forward Branden Dawson is the most talented of the bunch and can play on the wing as well as pound the glass.  Point guard Travis Trice can knock down open threes and could factor into the backcourt rotation immediately if his body can hold up to the rigors of Big Ten basketball.

Outside of Green, there are no sure things for the Spartans, and expectations are probably as low as they have been in recent years in East Lansing.  Expect them to finish in the top half of the conference, but don’t expect them to challenge for the title.

Minnesota

A promising start to the 2010-11 season came unraveled after the transfer of Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen’s foot injury.  Without Nolen, the offense struggled to consistently produce, and fears of a repeat performance are at the forefront of fans’ minds with limited backcourt experience and depth on this year’s roster.

Returnees Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin both scored fewer than five points per game, and while they had some bright spots, neither one is a good fit at the point.  That puts a lot of pressure on juco transfer and former Big West Freshman of the Year Julian Welch who joins the team this season. Freshmen Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman have a chance to earn early minutes at shooting guard as well.

Minnesota’s strength is on the interior led by double-double machine Trevor Mbakwe.  Ralph Sampson III eventually decided to eschew the NBA draft, and Mo Walker is expected to be at full strength after a knee injury cut short his freshman season, both of which should help ease the blow of Colton Iverson’s transfer.  Throw in athletic wing Rodney Williams, and the Gophers look impressive across the frontline.

Last season’s team is proof positive as to how important a strong floor general is, so the overall success of the season rests largely on how well Welch can acclimate himself to the team.

Nebraska

The Huskers made a late push for the NCAA Tournament last season but faltered in the wake of a wild comeback win over Texas.  Their only notable loss was point guard Lance Jeter, who led the team in scoring and assists.

Nebraska does boast six players who averaged at least five points a year ago, and they expect to add LSU transfer Bo Spencer to the mix.  Spencer put up better than 14 points per game with the Tigers in 2009-10, but he’s apparently got some work to do in order to become academically eligible.  While things are reportedly moving in the right direction for Spencer, it’s no sure thing at this point.

There is no shortage of size up front for the huskers with 6-foot-11 Brian Diaz, 6-foot-10 Brandon Ubel, and 6-foot-11 Andre Almeida, all of whom seem well suited for the Big Ten battles down low.

Like so many other teams in the conference, point guard is the biggest question mark.  Brandon Richardson is the top returning option, but freshman Corey Hilliard also has a shot to earn playing time there.  If Spencer is ineligible, there’s really no go-to scorer on the roster despite a glut of juniors and seniors.

Northwestern

Following the graduation of four-year starter Juice Thompson, the Wildcats are also uncertain at the point.  John Shurna is in line for a bounce-back season after suffering from a variety of injuries and ailments last year.  It sounds odd to call it a bounce-back since despite those issues, he still led the team in scoring for a second straight season and shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Including Shurna, Northwestern returns seven of its top eight scorers, including wing players Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb.  Crawford has shown flashes but also disappears at times, and Cobb displayed solid potential as a freshman last year.  The fact that neither is really cut out to run the show puts a lot of pressure on incoming freshman Tre Demps. Recruiting descriptions of Demps reference a high basketball IQ and a savvy approach to the game, both of which seem reminiscent of what Thompson provided during his underrated career.

Inside, Luka Mirkovic is back, but there isn’t much depth there.

I feel like a broken record, but point guard play is the key for this team as they look to replace Thompson.

Ohio State

jared-sullinger-staying-at-ohio-state-not-going-to-nbaThe return of Sullinger along with William Buford and Aaron Craft give the Buckeyes a strong foundation even after the graduation of David Lighty and Jon Diebler.  With all the attention given to Sullinger last season, Buford’s impressive numbers (14.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg, 44.2 3P%) flew a bit under the radar.

The other returning player to watch is DeShaun Thomas, who averaged 7.5 points despite logging just 14 minutes per game.  His propensity to shoot helped him make up for lost time, but he’ll need to be more selective in an expanded role this year.

Once again, the Buckeyes boast the top recruiting class in the conference led by McDonald’s All-Americans Shannon Scott and Amir Williams.  Scott fits the mold of the talented wing players Thad Matta has had so much success with in recent years, while Williams will provide length and athleticism alongside Sullinger inside.  Throw in a few more talented freshmen like Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross, and Ohio State is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the conference.

One of the knocks on Matta’s teams in recent years has been a lack of depth, but that doesn’t appear to be an issue with this year’s squad, which is ranked in the Top Five of most preseason rankings I’ve seen.

Penn State

No team was ravaged more by the departures of seniors than the Nittany Lions, who lost All-Conference guard Talor Battle along with Jeff Brooks, David Jackson, and Andrew Jones.  That leaves point guard Tim Frazier as the leading returning scorer at 6.3 points per game.

No one else on the roster averaged more than three points, and only five players played at all.  So unlike most Big Ten teams, there is stability at the point, but who Frazier will be passing the ball to remains to be seen. Jermaine Marshall should slide into a starting role in the backcourt and had some moments coming off the bench last year.

Up front, redshirt freshman Jon Graham should see time along with sophomore Sasa Borovnjak, who missed last season after tearing his ACL.  Penn State does have a couple big guys among their incoming recruits, but it seems unlikely that either one could step in and play major minutes.  Their top newcomer is small forward Ross Travis, whose versatility will likely land him a spot in the starting lineup.

With so many questions and unknowns, it’s tough to envision the Nittany Lions finishing anywhere but in the cellar.

Purdue

robbie-hummel-injury-update - torn acl possibleWhat Penn State lost in quantity, Purdue lost in quality due to the departure of four-year starters JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore.  If you’re looking for a silver lining as a Boiler fan, you do have Robbie Hummel back to serve as the team leader, and you have everyone else back in the fold.

Lewis Jackson played well over the latter half of the season and provides continuity in the backcourt along with sharp shooter Ryne Smith.  D.J. Byrd is an undersized and gritty player up front, but the real void for this team will be down low.

The trio of Patrick Bade, Travis Carroll, and Sandi Marcius hasn’t shown much thus far in their careers, although with Johnson around not much was expected of them.  Freshmen Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson are a bit undersized but will be asked to contribute at least a little bit inside, particularly on the glass.

After being suspended for the tournament last season, Kelsey Barlow is also expected to return and provides Matt Painter with a lockdown defender.  John Hart is also healthy again, but the guy I am anxious to see is Terone Johnson.  With Moore in the backcourt, Johnson was limited to around 19 minutes per game and wasn’t counted on for scoring.  You know the Boilers will be sound defensively, so if Johnson becomes a double-digit scorer in his second season and someone steps up inside, Purdue could surprise people.

Wisconsin

If history has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot write off Bo Ryan’s Badgers under any circumstances.  So even though they lost two of their top three scorers, including big man Jon Leuer, don’t expect a huge dropoff in Madison.

The biggest reason for optimism is the return of Jordan Taylor, who averaged 18.1 points to go with a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4:1.  He makes everyone around him better and enters the season as the early favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Forward Mike Bruesewitz came up big on a few occasions last year and will be asked to play a much larger role as a junior.

Keep an eye on sophomore-to-be Josh Gasser in the backcourt.  He did a little bit of everything for the team as a freshman, and he even messed around and got a triple-double against Northwestern.  Forward Ryan Evans took a step back as a sophomore but should be in line for increased minutes.

The big hole for this team is in the post, but they have a few options to fill the void left by Leuer and Keaton Nankivil.  Junior Jared Berggren has the most experience, but redshirt freshman Evan Anderson, a highly regarded recruit in the 2010 class, will be in the mix as well.  A pair of freshmen, Jarrod Uthoff and Frank Kaminsky, will also factor into the frontcourt equation.  Uthoff has more upside of the two but may need a year to bulk up.

Regardless, the Badgers have made a living in recent years on the “next man up” philosophy, so you’d be hard pressed to bet against Wisconsin finishing in the top three of the league.

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About Andy Bottoms

While Andy was born and raised in Indiana, he would like to point out that he grew up shooting hoops in his driveway and not against the side of a barn like you see in all the March Madness promos or in the middle of a field like Jimmy Chitwood. Andy ranks among the top bracketologists according to the Bracket Matrix and has provided his projections to Fox Sports for the past three seasons. When not compiling excuses for missing work during the NCAA Tournament, Andy enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He is a proud IU graduate and co-hosts The Assembly Call postgame show following every IU game. Twitter: @AndyBottoms

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