Big Ten Preview: Part One – The Bottom 8

Last week I looked at potential breakout players in the Big Ten, and now it’s time go on record with some predictions for how the conference will shake out this season.

Once again, the league should be arguably the best in the nation.  If you put stock into preseason polls, that belief is reaffirmed by the the fact that three of the top five teams (Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State) call the Big Ten home.

Throw in a Michigan State squad that is a Top 15 club at worst, a Wisconsin team that you can never count out, and improved play from Minnesota and Iowa, and the league is as deep as ever.

In this post, I’ll break down teams 5-12, and later in the week I’ll tackle the top four and give my All-Conference and award picks.

matt-painter-missouri-nancy-cross-letter

Matt Painter will be relying on a lot of newcomers this year. Can he keep a new set of “Baby Boilers” in the Big Ten’s upper echelon?

12. Nebraska

I really liked the Tim Miles hire after his recent success at Colorado State, but he’s in for a long first season in Lincoln.

The Huskers return just two players who scored over 1.1 points per game last year in Brandon Ubel (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Dylan Talley (8.3 ppg). Ubel has proven to be very effective as an offensive rebounder and showed a few flashes offensively down the stretch last year. Talley was hampered by a thigh bruise last season and seems the most likely candidate to lead Nebraska in scoring.

Miles does get Andre Almeida and Ray Gallegos back after both sat out last season, but neither has ever scored over four points per game.

Three true freshmen should also play right away, including point guard Benny Parker, seven footer Sergej Vucetic, and wing Shavon Shields, who is the son of former Chiefs lineman Will Shields. The Huskers also added juco All-American point guard Deverell Biggs, who is contemplating a potential redshirt this season.

Based on their personnel, it’s hard to expect Nebraska to win more than a couple league games.

11. Penn State

The Nittany Lions boast one of the conference’s top players in Tim Frazier, but the team’s lack of wins has made it tough for him to get the credit he deserves nationally.

Coach Patrick Chambers fielded a scrappy team in his first season in Happy Valley, and I look for improvement this season, particularly because of the addition of guard D.J. Newbill. Newbill sat out last season after transferring from Southern Miss, where he averaged 9.2 points and 6.1 rebounds en route to a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman Team. He gives Penn State another option to complement Frazier, who led the team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals last year.

Frazier played an absurd number of minutes and finished with the second best assist rate in the nation, which is no small feat given how much the Nittany Lions struggled at times on the offensive end. Jermaine Marshall also scored in double figures and gives the team another solid backcourt option.

Questions abound in the frontcourt, where Chambers needs someone to step up and contribute consistently. Sophomores Jon Graham (3.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Ross Travis (4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) both posted strong offensive rebounding percentages and should round out the starting lineup. Sasa Borovnjak and freshmen Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack will get a chance to log minutes up front as well.

I like what Chambers has done and think Newbill will be a huge addition, but there are too many frontcourt question marks to predict a finish much higher than this.

10. Northwestern

Look for plenty of new faces for Northwestern this season, as the Wildcat frontcourt is comprised entirely of newcomers.  However, a pair of them, Nikola Cerina and Jared Swopshire, have significant experience after transferring from TCU and Louisville, respectively.

Perhaps the most exciting addition is that of seven-foot freshman Alex Olah, a skilled big man who should start right away and provide the kind of size and bulk that has been lacking in Evanston for quite some time. A pair of other freshmen, Kale Abrahamson and Sanjay Lumpkin, will provide additonal depth and athleticism on the wing.

With so much turnover up front, a veteran backcourt will be relied upon to stabilize the team.  The centerpiece of that unit is senior Drew Crawford, who averaged 16.1 points and 4.7 rebounds last season. He posted strong shooting percentages both inside and outside of the arc and will be asked to step up his scoring even more with John Shurna gone.

The other key backcourt returnees include Dave Sobolewski, Reggie Hearn, and Alex Marcotullio. All scored at least five points per game last year, and all have shown the ability to knock down three-pointers. Redshirt freshman Tre Demps should also earn backcourt minutes.

One guy who won’t be back is JerShon Cobb. The junior showed flashes late in the season but will sit out this year while getting his academics in order.

Shurna’s production will be tough to replace, but if the frontcourt comes together, the Wildcats could definitely exceed expectations.

9. Illinois

John Groce is the new head man after leading Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season, and he inherited an experienced group with the Illini.

The backcourt will undoubtedly be the strength of the team thanks to the senior duo of Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) and D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg). If you watched the Ohio State game last year where he scored 43 points, you know just how explosive Paul can be, but his overall efficiency numbers are pretty ugly. That said, don’t be shocked to see him flourish in Groce’s system.

Richardson is the team’s top outside shooter, and junior Joe Bertrand showed some flashes last season and will give the team some scoring punch off the bench. There isn’t much depth at the point, so Groce needs sophomore Tracy Abrams to cut down on his high turnover rate and step up this season.

In the frontcourt, there are big shoes to fill following the departure of Meyers Leonard. Senior Tyler Griffey (4.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg) started 20 games last season and will be in the mix to start at one forward spot. The other will likely be manned by sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who earned high praise for his work this offseason. Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin averaged 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks while shooting 65.2 percent from the field against Big South competition.

So the good news for Groce is that he walks into a situation with a number of experienced players. The bad news is that some of those players essentially quit on Bruce Weber last season, so it’s likely no surprise that Groce has preached the importance of effort leading up to the season.

If the Illini embrace his system and Egwu translates his offseason work into the regular season, they could certainly surprise people this year.

8. Purdue

It would be easy to call this a rebuilding year for the Boilers, and to some extent that’s true. However, with a number of talented incoming players, Matt Painter’s team won’t fall too far.

Just three players return who scored over five points per game last year, led by junior Terone Johnson (9.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and senior D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg). I tabbed Johnson as one of my breakout players in the league this season, and he looks like a good bet to pace the team offensively. Byrd actually shot better from three-point range than two-point range and battled down low as an undersized power forward last year.

Painter has already committed to playing most of his freshmen right away, and the team got some valuable experience during an offseason trip to Italy.

The Boilers posted the lowest turnover rate in the country last year, but the team will be replacing veteran Lewis Jackson with freshman Ronnie Johnson at the point, who is Terone’s younger brother. He posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3:1 on the tour of Italy, which should give him some confidence early on. Fellow freshman Rapheal Davis led the team in scoring in Italy and projects as a tough defender as well, which should earn him major minutes right away.

Up front, Travis Carroll, Jacob Lawson, and Sandi Marcius all have experience and should see playing time once again.  However, the freshman trio of A.J. Hammons, Jay Simpson, and Donnie Hale (who redshirted last year) will push for minutes as well. Hammons and Hale were both productive in Italy, and I would expect both to play major roles for Purdue this year.

As a whole, Purdue is significantly deeper up front than in recent memory, which will give Painter a number of pieces to mix and match. While I don’t expect the same level of success that Painter’s teams have shown over the last few seasons, they won’t fall off the map either.

If things come together quickly, I could even see them making a run at a tournament bid in March.

7. Iowa

I’ve already gone on record as putting the Hawkeyes in the NCAA Tournament field, so needless to say I am high on Iowa heading into this season. Coach Fran McCaffery’s club showed drastic improvement from year one to year two, and I think they continue that progress this season as well.

Unlike prior years, the strength of this team should be its frontcourt. Sophomore Aaron White is another of my breakout players after posting 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. He was an efficient rebounder on both ends of the floor and proved adept at getting to the free throw line.

Junior Melsahn Basabe (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) saw a dropoff in his production last year, but his rebounding and shot-blocking percentages remained strong. Fellow junior Zach McCabe (7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) showed solid growth last season as well as the ability to step out and knock down open threes.

The key addition to the front line is 7-1 center Adam Woodbury, a highly-rated recruit who will provide the kind of rebounding and defensive presence that Iowa hasn’t had in years.

Following the graduation of Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright, there are question marks in the backcourt outside of Roy Devyn Marble. He was second on the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game last season to go with 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and improved shooting from long range. He is a solid defender as well, and given the lack of backcourt depth, Marble really can’t afford to have many off nights.

Look for freshman Mike Gesell to start at the point. He was another coveted recruit, and while he may have some growing pains, Gesell will have the Iowa offense in good hands for the next few seasons. Senior Eric May gives the team additional depth on the wing, while sophomore Josh Oglesby has a knack for draining three-pointers.

McCaffery’s club boasted an explosive and efficient offense last season but struggled mightily on the defensive end. I am expecting improvement there in what should be an exciting year in Iowa City.

6. Wisconsin

I had the Badgers a spot higher before news surfaced about point guard Josh Gasser tearing his ACL. It’s not as if Jordan Taylor was going to be easy to replace either way, but at least Gasser had experience in big games and had already shown himself to be a strong defender and capable outside shooter.

Point guard duties will now fall to redshirt freshman George Marshall or sophomore Traevon Jackson. Marshall battled Taylor in practice last season, and his quickness and defensive ability will probably earn him the first crack at the job. Sharpshooter Ben Brust (7.3 ppg) should see an expanded role as well as a junior.

Up front, the Badgers were already dealing with an injury situation after a gruesome leg injury to senior Mike Bruesewitz (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg). He’s expected to make a full recovery and shouldn’t miss many games, as he looks to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing junior year. Bruesewitz will be joined up front by fellow veterans Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans.

Berggren (10.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.7 bpg) is one of the league’s top big men and has shown a nice ability to score both inside the paint and from beyond the arc. Evans (11.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is the conference’s top returning rebounder and has worked hard to improve his long range shooting.  ophomore Frank Kaminsky has also earned positive reviews for his improvement in the offseason and should see expanded minutes.

As if that wasn’t enough frontcourt depth, the team’s biggest offseason addition was 6-8 freshman Sam Dekker. He has a varied skillset and averaged better than 35 points as a high school senior. Dekker’s versatility makes him the perfect fit for Ryan’s swing offense, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him lead the team in scoring this season.

The loss of Gasser is a big one, but history has taught us not to count out a Bo Ryan team. Ryan needs Marshall or Jackson to provide stability at the point, but a perennially stout defense and outstanding frontcourt depth will keep the Badgers in virtually every game.

5. Minnesota

The Gophers return just about everyone from a team that lost in the NIT Championship last season, as well as forward Trevor Mbakwe who missed most of last season due to a knee injury.

Mbakwe is a relentless rebounder and insider scorer who dodged some legal issues in the offseason and has been cleared for the start of the year. His return will likely shift Rodney Williams back to small forward following the best season of his career, where he averaged 12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, and 1.3 steals. He played his best basketball when he was moved to power forward following Mbakwe’s injury, so it will be interesting to see what impact Mbakwe’s return has on him.

Elliott Eliason and Oto Osenieks both averaged double-digit minutes last season, and big man Mo Walker is also back after sitting out last season with a knee injury.

In the backcourt, breakout candidate Andre Hollins (8.7 ppg) is back following a strong finish to his freshman season.  Look for continued development from Hollins at the point, while Austin Hollins (9.2 ppg) and Julian Welch (9.5 ppg, 2.9 apg) will provide veteran play off the ball. Both showed the ability to knock down three-pointers last season, while sophomore Joe Coleman proved to be more of a slasher.

Obviously the return of Mbakwe is a huge boon for the Gophers, but it could also upset the roles and chemistry that this team seemed to develop down the stretch last season. Still, barring another series of injuries, I like Minnesota’s chances to make the Big Dance and lead this tier of teams in the conference pecking order, particularly if Andre Hollins continues to excel at the point.

**********

Check back later this week for breakdowns of the top four teams in the league as well as my picks for the All-Conference team, Player of the Year, and Freshman of the Year.

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops.



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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