Big Ten Basketball Preview Part Two: The Top 4

Earlier in the week I unveiled the teams I picked to finish 5th through 12th in the Big Ten, which leaves just four teams to break down.

Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State are all ranked inside of the Top 15 in both preseason polls, and I fully expect each one to spend their fair share of time in the Top 10 throughout the year.

Thanks to the talent on these four squads, I am looking forward to an intense Big Ten race that may not be decided until the final weekend of the regular season.

The conference might be struggling on the gridiron this fall, but that won’t be the case on the hardwood, where the Big Ten has both quality depth and elite teams at the top.

Here’s how I see the top four spots shaking out, and I’ll close this post by listing my predictions for the All-Conference Team as well as the Player and Freshman of the Year.

4. Ohio State

I went back and forth on teams 2-4 for quite a while, because each brings a unique strength to the table, while each also has its question marks.

For the Buckeyes, the strength is the All-Conference duo of point guard Aaron Craft (8.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.5 spg) and forward Deshaun Thomas (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who is a good bet to lead the league in scoring.

In Craft, Thad Matta has a lockdown on-ball defender as well as an effective facilitator and distributor on the offensive end. With a number of unproven players set to see major minutes for OSU, Craft may be called upon to score more this season.

Thomas has rarely seen a shot he didn’t like and can beat opponents from long range or in the post, making him a tough cover for opposing defenses. He was one of the most efficient players in all of college basketball last season, as he made nearly 60 percent of his two-pointers, continued his impressive work on the offensive glass, and posted an extremely low turnover rate.

While Lenzelle Smith Jr.’s contributions didn’t get much attention last year, the junior (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) was a key part of Ohio State’s success thanks to a knack for doing all the little things and playing hard on both ends of the floor. His play was critical in NCAA wins over Cincinnati and Syracuse, and Smith should step up his scoring and be a consistent option for the Buckeyes this season.

From there, Matta has a boatload of talent but plenty of questions.

Up front, Amir Williams will be the starting center. He isn’t the polished post scorer that predecessor Jared Sullinger was, but Williams is an excellent shot-blocker and should be effective on the glass as well. His offensive game is evolving, but with Thomas in the mix Matta doesn’t need Williams to score more than six or eight points per game.

The small forward spot will be manned by sophomores LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson. Ross was the more heralded recruit of the two, but he missed part of last season due to academic issues and never really got into a rhythm.

I tabbed Thompson as one of my breakout candidates based partially on the extremely positive reports I read about his work and development in the offseason.His outside shot needs improvement, but he has athleticism to spare and gives the team another standout defender.  Both Ross and Thompson played well in OSU’s first exhibition game, which is a great early sign for the Buckeyes.

The other key frontcourt reserve is Evan Ravenel, who played well when Sullinger missed a few games with a back injury last year. Sophomore Shannon Scott returns in the backcourt, where the former McDonald’s All-American will try to become more consistent offensively in what should be an expanded role.

Regardless of the roster changes, you can always expect the Buckeyes to play outstanding defense, which should keep them in every game. With Craft and Thomas back on the roster, the floor for OSU is pretty high, but it’s the play of the supporting cast that will determine whether the Buckeyes can reach their full potential.

If everything comes together, a Final Four run is a definite possibility.

3. Michigan

Depending on which preseason polls or rankings you look at, the Wolverines have a relatively wide range of outcomes.

Many of the projections based on advanced statistics like KenPom.com or the list Dan Hanner released on Basketball Prospectus have them ranked relatively low based on concerns about their defense, while a number of other prognosticators have them in the Top Five.

I probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

The biggest reason to believe in Michigan is the point guard play of sophomore Trey Burke (14.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.6 apg), who was outstanding in his first season in Ann Arbor. Many were surprised to see him bypass the NBA, and his return has helped propel the Wolverines to their lofty preseason ranking.

With the infusion of a number of other talented scorers into the program, Burke’s scoring may drop off slightly, but he’s still an elite point guard who spent much of the offseason focusing on how to improve those around him.

Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) remained an effective scorer as a sophomore, and while his two-point shooting improved, his effectiveness from long range dropped off substantially. He spent time working on his shot this summer, and I expect a bounceback season as a junior.

The only other player who averaged over 11 minutes is forward Jordan Morgan (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg). Foul trouble plagued him at times last season, but he made a high percentage from the field and has established himself as a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor.

The other returnee of note is Jon Horford, who wound up taking a medical redshirt last year due to a stress fracture in his foot. Assuming he’s healthy, Horford would give Jon Beilein another big body who can rebound and provide a strong defensive presence inside.

A number of talented freshmen will enter the fray for the Wolverines, and virtually all of them will be expected to contribute immediately.

Glenn Robinson III is an athletic wing player who has the versatility and athleticism to play the four if Beilein wants to go small. He’s dynamic in transition and should be a factor on the glass as well.

Forward Mitch McGary gives the Wolverines even more size up front and has earned high praise for his hustle and aggressiveness. On the surface, his skillset seems to be a great fit for Beilein’s system, and he should see major minutes so long as he can recover from a foot/ankle injury that has limited him of late.

Less heralded freshman Nik Stauskas will play a key role as a sharpshooter off the bench since none of the key returnees shot over 35 percent from beyond the arc.

While the contributions of guys like Stu Douglass, Zack Novak, and Evan Smotrycz didn’t necessarily jump off the page from a statistical perspective, all three will be tough to replace. For me, that’s the biggest question mark for this team.

Even so, Burke’s play at the point should keep the team on track offensively, and there are far more options on the interior presuming these early injuries for Horford and McGary don’t linger throughout the season.

If Hardaway can regain his stroke from the outside and Robinson is as advertised, Michigan gives the Big Ten yet another Final Four contender.

2. Michigan State

Do-everything forward Draymond Green may be gone, but there’s still something I really like about this Michigan State team.

Even without Green, there’s plenty of experienced frontcourt options in East Lansing. Big men Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne both fit the traditional Tom Izzo mold of rugged inside players who can pound the offensive glass.

Payne is an outstanding shot-blocker and another of my breakout picks after averaging 7.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in under 18 minutes per game. Nix (8.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) has continued to lose weight and improve his conditioning, which should have him in position for a strong senior season. Both guys made over 55 percent of their shots from the floor last year as well.

In a surprising and impressive turn of events, sophomore Branden Dawson (8.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is already back from a torn ACL suffered in the final regular season game of last season. He played extremely well in MSU’s first exhibition game and seems poised for a breakout season.

Last year Dawson did most of his damage defensively as well as on the glass, but his offensive game was starting to come around just prior to his injury. His presence in the lineup gives the Spartans another dimension on both ends of the floor.

The backcourt should be solid as well with junior Keith Appling (11.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) back at the point and highly touted freshman Gary Harris at the two.

Appling saw his outside shooting drop off dramatically, but he posted a strong assist rate and proved adept at drawing fouls. An offseason spent working on his jumper and another year of experience at the point should lead to fewer turnovers and a strong junior year for Izzo’s floor leader.

Harris was named a McDonald’s All-American and can do it all. He has deep range but also excels in transition where he can get to the rim and finish. Harris’ body is ready for the college game, and he should be a significant upgrade from what Brandon Wood provided last year, as Inside the Hall’s Alex Bozich noted during a recent podcast.

There are a number of potential bench options at Tom Izzo’s disposal, but none of them have been significant contributors to this point in their careers:

  • Travis Trice (4.5 ppg) logged just over 17 minutes per game last season and will be the key backup to both Appling and Harris.
  • Brandan Kearney added bulk in the offseason and should be in line for an expanded role.
  • Russell Byrd will be trying to finally make it through a season injury-free.
  • Izzo has also had high praise for freshman Denzel Valentine, whose size and versatility are sure to earn him double-digit minutes off the bench.
  • Up front, Alex Gauna and Matt Costello will have a chance to play, but if neither one steps up, Izzo may opt to go small for longer stretches and play Dawson at the four.

Defense and rebounding have been constants ever since Izzo set foot in East Lansing, and that won’t change this season.  Michigan State’s starting five has plenty of firepower, and Harris is a game changer.

I might be relying too much on Izzo’s track record by putting the Spartans this high, but I’ll take my chances, particularly in light of Dawson’s progress.

“Hey Tommy, looks like Andy Bottoms has us ranked #1.” “Shut up Tommy and wipe that silly grin off your face first until you win something.”

1. Indiana

It wasn’t that long ago that the Hoosiers won all of six games, but after a surprising 2011-12 season, Tom Crean has his team perched atop both the preseason polls.

One of the biggest factors in Indiana’s resurgence last season, Cody Zeller, has garnered plenty of publicity and attention as the preseason Player of the Year and a near consensus All-American pick.

As a freshman, Zeller averaged 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks while shooting over 62 percent from the field and posting an absurdly high efficiency rating. He spent the offseason adding bulk to his frame and is expected to add a bit more perimeter shooting to his arsenal during what most expect to be his final season in Bloomington.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see a slight regression in his scoring, but Zeller will continue to impact the game on both ends of the floor while excelling in transition and improving his work on the glass.

Virtually all of Zeller’s supporting cast returns as well.

Forward Christian Watford (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) contemplated a jump to the NBA but opted to return. He played some of his best basketball late in the season, and when Watford is locked in, he is among the league’s top players.

While the signings of Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey were far less publicized than that of Zeller, their contributions to the rebuilding effort cannot be overlooked.

Oladipo (10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) showed huge improvement as a sophomore, as he evolved into a lockdown defender and played extremely well at the point while Verdell Jones was injured. His ability to get to the rim is impressive, and he’s spent the offseason trying to enhance his perimeter shooting.

indiana-kentucky-victor-oladipo

Sheehey (8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg) was hampered at times by an ankle injury last year, but the junior plays with a chip on his shoulder and had a productive offseason. He has played well in a sixth man role in the past and seems likely to assume that spot once again.

In the backcourt, senior sharpshooter Jordan Hulls (11.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) returns after hitting just under 50 percent from long range. He’s as steady as they come and has worked to improve as a defender, but one of the big questions surrounding the team is how Hulls will coexist with freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell.

The McDonald’s All-American gives the Hoosiers an added dimension thanks to his ability to push the ball and his pass-first attitude. Offensively, there’s no reason the two can’t play together, and Ferrell’s ability to penetrate has the chance to open up opportunities for Hulls from the perimeter.

However, since both players are just six feet tall, there are questions about their ability to defend bigger backcourts. Look for Crean to mix and match different combinations during the non-conference slate to get a feel for how the minutes might be distributed.

The key reserves in the backcourt will be Remy Abell and Maurice Creek. Abell showed flashes as a freshman and has played well in both of the team’s public scrimmages so far this year. His defensive ability will allow him to be one of the first players off the bench, and his offensive game is coming around as well.

Creek’s unfortunate injury history has been well publicized, and his return to the court is a feel good story even if he doesn’t score a point. Assuming he still has his three-point stroke, he could be a key reserve a la Matt Roth last season.

Up front, early injuries have impacted Indiana’s depth.

Derek Elston underwent knee surgery but is expected to return by the time the conference season rolls around, while highly touted freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea has been battling a foot injury. Perea is an electrifying athlete that will contribute with defense, rebounding, and highlight reel dunks once he gets on the floor. Fellow freshman Peter Jurkin is raw but can spell Zeller for brief stretches.

The final member of the freshman class, Jeremy Hollowell, has a strong inside-outside game and should be the heir apparent to Watford in the IU frontcourt.

Outside of the injuries up front, the biggest question mark for the Hoosiers is defense. The team struggled mightily on that end of the floor last year, ranking outside of the Top 60 in defensive efficiency. Not surprisingly, defense has been a focus leading up to the season.

While IU probably won’t ascend to be one of the nation’s elite defenses, there should be marked improvement.  Coupled with what projects to be one of the most efficient offenses in the country, that should be enough to propel the Hoosiers to the top of the Big Ten standings.

Now that you’ve seen my projected standings for the conference, here are my picks for the All-Conference Team as well as the Player and Freshman of the Year.

All-Conference Team:

Trey Burke, G, Michigan

Aaron Craft, G, Ohio State

Tim Frazier, G, Penn State

Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State

Cody Zeller, F/C, Indiana

 

Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, F/C, Indiana

 

Freshman of the Year: Gary Harris, G, Michigan State

 

**********

I’ll be back next week with another podcast as well as my preseason Top 25.  In the meantime, 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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