The Bottoms Line: Big Ten Basketball 2011-12 Season Preview

I first looked at the Big Ten back in May, but with the season now days instead of months away, the time has come to revisit the 12 teams vying for the title.  The top two teams are pretty clear cut, but the middle of the pack could go any number of ways.

big-ten-logo-2011-12-season-preview-basketballBefore I go on record with my predictions, here’s a quick look at how the Big Ten landscape has changed over the past five months:

Big 10 Offseason Updates

Illinois

Sophomore guard Crandall Head was recently suspended four games for a violation of team rules.  Two of the games he’ll miss are exhibitions, and either way, he was not expected to be much of a contributor this season.

Indiana

Hard luck guard Maurice Creek suffered his third major injury in less than two years when he tore his Achilles in October.  He is expected to take a medical redshirt and return to the Hoosiers next season.  Forwards Christian Watford and Tom Pritchard have both been limited with injuries but are not expected to miss any games.

Iowa

Juco transfer Anthony Hubbard had a change of heart and has left the program.  Hubbard spent four years in prison before averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds at junior college last season.

Michigan State

Senior Delvon Roe’s chronic knee issues have forced him to end his basketball career.  Roe suffered a significant knee injury late in his high school career and was never able to fully recover.  The other big story has been the weight loss of center Derrick Nix.  You can be sure to hear more about this anytime MSU is on TV, a la Dexter Pittman a couple years ago.

Ohio State

Freshman LaQuinton Ross was deemed a non-qualifier by the NCAA.  Ross was the highest-rated incoming recruit for the Buckeyes.

Penn State

Sophomore guard Jermaine Marshall has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules, and senior Cammeron Woodyard underwent a minor knee procedure and is due back in mid-November.  Guard Tre Bowman has transferred to junior college after being removed from the team earlier in the summer.

Purdue

After two major knee injuries, Robbie Hummel returned to the court in Purdue’s first exhibition game.  He scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds, but most importantly, he said after the game that his knee was still feeling strong.  Teammate John Hart underwent foot surgery in July and is expected to miss the first part of the season.

Wisconsin

All-American candidate Jordan Taylor underwent minor ankle surgery in July, but he is expected to be at full strength for the season.

Big Ten Predictions: Standings

jared-sullinger-big-10-2011-12-basketball-season-preview1. Ohio State

Jared Sullinger’s decision to return to school cemented OSU’s status as a Top Five team nationally this season.  His advanced stats are simply absurd.  Sullinger ranked in the top 50 for both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, posted a low turnover rate, and drew nearly seven fouls per 40 minutes.  Sullinger parlayed that into 267 free throw attempts and a stellar 65.1 free throw rate.

Fellow returnees William Buford, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas all posted strong efficiency numbers as well.  Buford hit better than 44 percent from deep and averaged 14.4 points, but he didn’t get many headlines with Sullinger in the mix.  When Evan Turner was out a couple years ago, he proved what a star he can be.  Craft had a terrific freshman year at the point, showing adept passing skills and tenacious on-ball defense.  Thomas is primed for a breakout season as his minutes increase so long as he can suppress his inner Iverson.  He finished with a 30.5 shot percentage, but he showed a real knack to snatch offensive rebounds and should be a double-digit scorer this year.

Another talented freshman class will provide depth.  Center Amir Williams gives the team great athleticism inside, and he may well starter alongside Sullinger.  Point guard Shannon Scott will be able to learn from Craft, and Sam Thompson gives OSU another talented player on the wing.  Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel gives Thad Matta an additional big body inside, and sophomore guard Jordan Sibert should see more playing time as well (and may even start) for what looks like Matta’s deepest team in recent memory.

The team will most certainly miss guys like David Lighty and Jon Diebler, but the talent is there for a Final Four run.

2. Wisconsin

The losses of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil will certainly be felt in Madison, but I think by now we have learned not to sleep on the Badgers.  The fact that they still have possibly the nation’s best point guard in Jordan Taylor certainly doesn’t hurt.

Like Sullinger, Taylor is a statistical marvel, ranking 2nd in turnover rate, posting a 30.4 assist rate, and finishing 21st in overall efficiency.  Oh by the way, he averaged 18.1 points, got to the line 185 times, and hit nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc.

Outside of Taylor, guard Josh Gasser and forward Mike Bruesewitz are the top returnees.  Gasser actually ranked 28th in offensive rating, and he can do a number of things well as evidenced by his triple-double against Northwestern last year.  Bruesewitz had a few big games, but he simply has to be consistent this season as the go-to guy in the frontcourt.

Ryan Evans and Rob Wilson will be asked to play expanded minutes as well after disappointing seasons last year.  Evans earned rave reviews from Bo Ryan for his offseason work, so keep an eye on how he plays early on.  Another player to watch is soph Ben Brust, who might be the team’s best long-range shooter outside of Taylor.

A number of big men will vie for the opportunity to fill the void in the post.  Jared Berrgren is the only one with experience and should start, but don’t count out freshmen Evan Anderson, Jarrod Uthoff, and Frank Kaminsky.  Anderson was highly rated by some services in 2010 and has a year of practicing against the likes of Leuer and Nankivil under his belt.

The Badgers have averaged 26 wins over the past five season, consistently finishing among the nation’s best in offensive and defensive efficiency.  Despite some key losses, it’s hard to bet against a repeat performance.

3. Michigan State

On the surface it seems like the Spartans lost a lot with guys like Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers no longer on the roster, but this has all the makings of an addition by subtraction scenario for a team that seemed to lack chemistry last year.

Sophomore Keith Appling and Valpo transfer Brandon Wood will take over as the starting backcourt.  Appling gained valuable experience on the USA U19 team this summer, and he proved himself as a defensive stopper last season.  He also canned 41.1 percent from deep but will need to cut back on his turnovers as he slides in at the point.  Wood scored nearly 17 points per game last season and gives the team a reliable scorer in the backcourt.

The true leader and do-it-all player on the team is forward Draymond Green who averaged 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists last year.  He has continued to refine his game over the course of his career, but it’s hard to find a guy who is a monster on the glass but also posts better assist rates than most guards.

draymond-green-big-10-2011-12-basketball-season-preview

The aforementioned Derrick Nix will be counted on even more now that Roe has called it a career, and sophomore big man Adreian Payne will see expanded minutes as well.  Both guys posted terrific rebounding percentages last season, but Izzo needs at least one of them to become a reliable low post scorer.

The top newcomer is Branden Dawson, who was a McDonald’s All-American last season.  His mix of scoring and rebounding from the wing should earn him a spot in the starting lineup.  Freshman point guard Travis Trice will be a key reserve in the backcourt, and redshirt freshman Russell Byrd gives the team another guy who can knock down three-pointers if his oft-injured foot holds up.

Expectations aren’t nearly as high for this team, but Izzo seems particularly excited about this group of players.  The early schedule is brutal, but it will pay dividends when conference play begins.

4. Michigan

The Wolverines would be a couple spots higher and likely in the Top 10 nationally if point guard Darius Morris had returned, and the lack of an experienced facilitator is my biggest concern about this team.

Still, Tim Hardaway Jr. gives the team a prolific scorer they can rely on.  He showed significant improvement over the course of his freshman year and finished the season with 16 straight double-digit scoring efforts.  I expect him to be more aggressive off the dribble this season, which should lead to a healthy increase in his free throw attempts.

Zach Novak does a little of everything for Michigan, leading the team in both rebounding and three-point shooting while scoring 8.9 points per game.  Fellow senior Stu Douglass can also knock down threes, but true freshman Trey Burke is probably the team’s best option to replace Morris at the point.  Burke was the Ohio Mr. Basketball last season and brings great quickness and a pass-first attitude to the position.

Up front, Jordan Morgan was a revelation last season, hitting 62.7 percent from the field and frequently benefitting from Morris’ ability as a penetrator.  He’s also a talented rebounder, but foul issues are a concern.  Evan Smotrycz started 24 games as a true freshman and has bulked up in the offseason.  Despite his 6-foot-9 frame, he took better than 60 percent of his shots from beyond the arc where he converted 38.1 percent of his attempts.  Jon Horford, Al’s little brother, has put on weight as well and will be more of a factor inside.  Throw in sharpshooter Matt Vogrich and freshman Carlton Brundidge and John Beilein has a lot of different ways he can go with his lineup.

The loss of Morris may prevent them from being elite, but it doesn’t prevent them from finishing in the Top 25.

robbie-hummel-big-10-2011-12-basketball-season-preview5. Purdue

While the return of Robbie Hummel is huge for this team, there are plenty of unknowns heading into the season.  Hummel averaged nearly 16 points and eight boards in 2009-10, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t put up similar numbers this year.  In fact, the Boilers might need him to do even more.

Lewis Jackson will provide continuity at the point after leading the team in assists last year.  He has the quickness to blow by opposing defenders, and he posted a strong free throw rate as a result.  Jackson isn’t much of an outside threat, but he plays to his strengths on both ends of the floor.  Sharpshooter Ryne Smith returns in the backcourt after hitting 44 percent from deep last season.  I guess that’s why 127 of his 143 shots came from outside the arc.  D.J. Byrd had a similar shot mix last year, but he should be able to move back to small forward this year after filling in for Hummel at the four last year.

Matt Painter needs either Travis Carroll or Sandi Marcius to step up inside to help fill the void left by the graduation of JaJuan Johnson, particularly on the glass.  If they don’t pan out, Painter could turn to freshmen Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson for extended minutes.

There are plenty of options in the backcourt and on the wing.  Kelsey Barlow is a terrific defender but has shown a limited offensive game and was suspended late last season.  Terone Johnson showed a few flashes as a freshman and could become a double-digit scorer, while redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson has the potential to be a prolific scorer after using last season to add weight to his frame.  John Hart will also be in the mix once he returns from injury.

Matt Painter’s teams are known for their defense and toughness, and those things will have to carry the day until offensive roles are sorted out.

6. Illinois

The Illini lost five key members of last year’s team, but much like Michigan State, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in some cases.

The strength of the team will be an experienced backcourt with Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson back along with Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco.  The addition of Maniscalco at the point will move Paul back to his more natural shooting guard position, which should allow him to lead the team in scoring.  He has shown flashes as a complementary player in his first two seasons, but his time to shine is now.  Richardson hit nearly 39 percent from beyond the arc last season and should be a double-digit scorer this year.  An ankle injury cut short Maniscalco’s last season at Bradley, but he averaged at least 12 points and three assists in the previous two seasons.  His performance at the point will be critical for this team.

Inside, sophomore big man Meyers Leonard is in line for a breakout season after playing well for the Team USA U19 team this summer.  He’s a tremendous athlete with huge upside.  Tyler Griffey may start the season at power forward, but he’ll be pushed for time by freshmen Nnanna Egwu, Mike Shaw, and Ibrahima Djimde, all of whom can bring toughness and rebounding to the frontcourt mix.

Fellow freshmen Myke Henry and Tracy Abrams should be the top reserves on the wing and in the backcourt.  The newcomers aren’t short on talent or accolades, and how quickly they can mesh with the returnees will go a long way toward determining Illinois’ fate.

The summer’s exhibition trip in Italy gave them the opportunity to jumpstart that process and should pay dividends early in the year.

7. Indiana

Hoosier fans are getting restless, and while this will easily be Tom Crean’s best team, that isn’t saying a whole lot.

The addition of Cody Zeller is huge for the program for a myriad of reasons.  At 6-foot-11, he gives the team a bonafide inside player who can run the floor and force defenses to account for him at all times.  He’s added about 20 pounds since arriving on campus and will make an immediate impact.

christian-watford-big-10-2011-12-basketball-season-previewChristian Watford joins Zeller up front.  Watford was playing his best basketball when he broke his hand against Michigan State, but he still led the team in scoring and rebounding while adding a reliable three-point stroke to his arsenal.  Crean would ideally like to play him at small forward, but that is dependent on players other than Zeller stepping up in the frontcourt.  Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston are the options there, but both have struggled with foul issues and consistency.

Jordan Hulls has assumed the role of team leader after becoming a consistent offensive threat last season.  He posted a terrific effective field goal percentage, and the team seemed to run better with him at the point.  The key for Crean is figuring out how best to use Verdell Jones.  His assist rate is solid, but he struggles with turnovers and shot selection at times.  It will be critical for him to play to his strengths as a senior.

On the wing, sophs Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey have provided some much-needed swagger and athleticism.  Offseason reviews have been positive for both of them, with Sheehey earning high praise from CBS writer Jeff Goodman.  The only positive from the Creek injury is that both guys will see more playing time.  Freshmen Austin Etherington and Remy Abell will also be in the mix along with three-point specialist Matt Roth.

On the surface, a long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament still seems a year away, but the pieces are there to make a run if the team can make huge strides on the defensive end.

8. Northwestern

The potential to finish higher than eighth is definitely there, but it’s hard to understate the challenge of replacing Juice Thompson at the point.

They do have forward John Shurna, who battled various injuries last season but still led the team in scoring.  He knocked down 43.4 percent from three-point range and finished with stellar effective field goal and true shooting percentages.  Despite his slight frame, he does a decent job on the defensive glass and will finish as one of the most efficient players in the conference.

Drew Crawford has shown flashes and averaged just over 12 points last year, but he was an inconsistent scorer, never stringing together more than three double-digit games in a row.  Like Crawford, Jershon Cobb was more effective from two-point range, and he displayed solid potential as a freshman before a hip injury derailed him late in the season.

Luka Mirkovic is the team’s best option inside after posting 7.4 points and 5.2 rebounds.  He needs to be a more reliable scorer, with a number of his 11 double-digit scoring efforts sandwiched between sub-five point performances.  Davide Curletti will provide depth inside, as will freshman Mike Turner.

Freshmen Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski will battle Alex Marcotullio for the opportunity to replace Thompson at the point.  Marcotullio has shown the ability to knock down three-pointers and finished strong last year with 78 points in the final six games.  Demps has been praised for his toughness and driving ability, while Soboloewski led his high school team to an undefeated season as a senior.

If someone can stabilize the team at the point, the Wildcats have an outside shot at breaking their long-suffering tournament drought.

9. Minnesota

The frontcourt duo of Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III form the strength of Tubby Smith’s squad.

Mbakwe is a relentless rebounder on both ends of the floor and led Team USA in rebounding at the World University Games this summer.  In all, he posted 19 double-doubles last season, drew 6.2 fouls per 40 minutes, and patrolled the lane as a shot-blocker.

Sampson has been anything but consistent over his career and nearly turned pro after last season.  Like Mbakwe, Sampson gives the team a shot-blocking presence inside and averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 boards last year.

Athletic wing Rodney Williams rounds out the frontcourt, but he’s known mostly for his defense at this point.  As for the reserves up front, sophomore big man Mo Walker is back from a knee injury suffered last season, and freshman Elliot Eliason was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska.

Given how poorly this team played once point guard Al Nolen went down, consistent backcourt play will be critical for the Gophers.  Juco transfer Julian Welch will get a crack at the starting point guard job, as will sophomore Maverick Ahanmisi and true freshman Andre Hollins.  Things aren’t any more stable at the two, with Chip Armelin, Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman all in the mix.  No returning player shot over 30 percent from beyond the arc, which puts even more emphasis on an unproven set of backcourt players.

Tubby Smith has talked about employing a more uptempo attack, but that approach could prove questionable unless some stability develops among the guards.  Someone has to be able to get Mbakwe and Sampson the ball in order to maximize the team’s best assets.

10. Iowa

With six of the team’s top seven scorers back from a team that played better than their 4-14 conference mark would indicate, there is reason for optimism in Iowa City.

The backcourt duo of Bryce Cartwright and Matt Gatens gives Coach Fran McCaffery a solid foundation.  Cartwright averaged nearly six assists per game and ranked in the Top 10 nationally in assist rate.  He needs to improve his shooting but gives the team a solid floor leader.  Gatens has done a little of everything at Iowa over his career, and if he can recapture the shooting touch he showed from long-range as a freshman, he should best his 12.6 points per game from last year. Eric May and Devyn Marble will be the key backcourt reserves, and even though May was the team’s best three-point shooter last year, both posted some pretty ugly efficiency numbers.

The cornerstone inside is Melsahn Basabe who averaged 11.0 points and 6.8 rebounds as a true freshman.  He’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-7, but he posted strong rebounding and block percentages, hit over 57 percent from the field, and did a nice job of getting to the free throw line. The best is yet to come from him.  Devon Archie will likely get the first crack at the final starting spot, but Zach McCabe and Andrew Brommer will be in the mix for a team that McCaffery says will go 11 deep.

The top freshmen will be sharpshooter Josh Ogelsby and versatile wing Aaron White.

11. Nebraska

The team lost leading scorer and assist man Lance Jeter from a team that barely missed the tournament last year, but the other four starters return.

The Huskers do have a solid big man in center Jorge Brian Diaz, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 boards last season  Diaz actually shot better from the field than he did from the free throw line, but Doc Sadler is expecting a big season from him as a junior.  Fellow big man Brandon Ubel posted the highest efficiency rating on the team and played his best basketball late in the season, and Andre Almeida gives Sadler another big body inside.

In the backcourt, LSU transfer Bo Spencer should slide into Jeter’s spot in the starting lineup.  He averaged 14.5 points and 2.7 assists with the Tigers in 2009-10 and will likely lead the Huskers in scoring this year.  Toney McCray and Brandon Richardson also return as starters.  McCray was the team’s top outside shooter last season and was a solid rebounder as well, particularly on the defensive glass.  Richardson is a terrific defender but isn’t a huge offensive threat.

Caleb Walker and Ray Gallegos also return in the backcourt, but the newcomer to watch is Dylan Talley.  He started his career at Binghamton and averaged nearly 24 points at junior college last season.

12. Penn State

With only one player back who averaged over three points per game, it’s going to be a long season for first-year head man Patrick Chambers.

Tim Frazier is the team’s top returnee after posting a Top 50 assist rate last season.  He’s also solid on defense, but it’s hard to figure out who will be on the other end of his passes.  The aforementioned Cammeron Woodyard and Jermaine Marshall played sparingly last season but are expected to see expanded minutes when/if they return from injury and suspension.  Billy Oliver returns inside, and forwards Sasa Borovnjak and Jon Graham are both back after redshirting last season.

Five newcomers also join the team and will have a chance to earn minutes given the lack of returning players.  Forward Ross Travis and guard Trey Lewis are the two most likely to contribute as true freshmen.

Chambers is an up-and-comer in the coaching community, but this is a full-scale rebuilding effort.

Big Ten Predictions: POY and All-Conference Team

All-Conference

  • Draymond Green, F, Michigan State
  • Tim Hardaway Jr., G, Michigan
  • Trevor Mbakwe, F, Minnesota
  • Jared Sullinger, C, Ohio State
  • Jordan Taylor, G, Wisconsin

Player of the Year: Jared Sullinger, C, Ohio State

It was tough not to pick Jordan Taylor here, but the Buckeyes are a clear favorite in the league due in large part to Sullinger.  He’s an absolute beast inside, particularly on the glass, and few players in the league can keep him away from the basket.

Sullinger focused on slimming down and getting even stronger over the summer, so he clearly wasn’t satisfied with a freshman year that saw him score 17.2 points per game and grab 10.2 rebounds.  As I mentioned above, his advanced metrics are off the charts, and quite simply he’s the best big man in the country.

Freshman of the Year: Cody Zeller, F, Indiana

While normally a pick like this might get me labeled as a homer, you’d be hard-pressed to find a freshman in the conference who will make a bigger impact on his team.  Zeller gives the team a viable inside option who can run the floor and control the defensive glass.  He’s also been lauded for his passing and can step back and make mid-range jumpers.

From a playing time standpoint, the Hoosiers have limited options inside, which will ensure that Zeller sees major minutes right away.  I’m still not sold on IU as a tournament team, but if they’re even in the discussion, Zeller is sure to be a major reason why.

Image source: ITH

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Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.



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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