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Big Ten: Conference Play Week 1

BIGNo conference has had a crazier start to the 2014-15 season than the Big Ten. To start the season Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska were all at the top of the poll. Michigan has since lost to NJIT (proven to not be terrible, almost beat Villanova) and Eastern Michigan, Nebraska lost to Incarnate Word and Michigan State has the worst loss of 2014 of any team in DI with their home loss to the 1-8 Texas Southern. The conference has desperately needed teams other than Wisconsin and Ohio State to step up to compete against the powerful Big 12 and ACC and fix the mess that the three schools listed previously have left the conference.

Michigan State, Nebraska, and Michigan were ranked third, fourth, and fifth, respectively in the conference preseason poll. They are currently all sitting in the bottom half of the league and will all need to put on impressive performances in conference play to impress the NCAA committee. So who is picking up their slack for the conference?

Everyone and their mother knows that Wisconsin (13-1, 1-0) is the “Cream of the Crop,” one of the most talented teams in the country. Their only loss was to Duke and they have to be the easy favorites to win the Big Ten at this point. Bo Ryan’s bunch have already beaten Georgetown, Oklahoma, California, and Marquette in their non-conference play and opened up their conference play with a dominating win against Penn State. Frank Kaminsky is doing Frank Kaminsky type things this season averaging better than 16 points and 8 rebounds. The seven footer has been knocking down shots from all over the floor. Shooting 53 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep. He is the toughest person in the country to guard and just when you think you have figured out his moves, he’ll come up with new ones to beat you on the spot (went 2-4 from three against Duke while scoring 17 and grabbing 9 boards). People keep asking who I can compare him too. The answer is nobody; he is an incredibly unique basketball beast.

Wisconsin’s game goes far beyond the play of Frank the Tank. Sam Dekker is probably the second best player in the conference and he isn’t even playing up to his potential. Dekker is scoring 12 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the floor. Nigel Hayes is tearing it up for Badgers with his 12.6 points and Traeveon Jackson is doing a nice job controlling the immense amount of talent for the Badgers. Wisconsin has a few cake walks ahead as they play Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers, and Nebraska before they finally play a quality opponent in Iowa (they play twice in three games). Wisconsin only plays Ohio State and Maryland once, although both are on the road. They have Michigan State, Michigan, and Indiana just once as well. In fact considering they don’t have to play themselves at all, Wisconsin has the easiest conference schedule of any team in the Big Ten. The only teams that should scare the Badgers for the time being are Maryland and Ohio State. Wisconsin should run away with the Big Ten title, barring an injury to one of their stars.

At this point Maryland (14-1, 2-0) is the clear-cut, second best team in the conference. The Terps are off to their best start in a decade and have just beaten Michigan State in East Lansing in double overtime and Minnesota at home to start their conference campaign. They also beat Iowa State and Oklahoma State, two good Big 12 teams. Both of those wins were also away from College Park and the Oklahoma State win was without Dez Wells. Their only loss is to an unbelievably tough Virginia team, again also without Dez Wells. In Wells’ absence, freshman guard Melo Trimble and junior forward Jake Layman have made strong cases to be first-team all conference. Trimble and Layman make up 2/3 of a trio that scoring 15 points or better. Trimble is quiet but deadly shooting 45.6 percent but doing most of his damage at the free throw line, where he leads the conference at 89 percent (97/108). Layman is quite the opposite as he is quite loud. His grunts and yells after dunks are drawing quite the twitter chatter. He is an NBA prospect and was been the emotional leader during the absence of Wells. Then there is Dez, who returned in style, nailing a game-tying three pointer to send their first ever Big Ten conference game into OT. His 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists against Michigan State and just his presence on the floor were too much for Michigan State. Wells is the only senior in the Terps playing rotation and with him back and as good as ever, can beat anyone, maybe, just maybe even Wisconsin. Coming up for Maryland is a couple of road games at Illinois and Purdue.

Ohio State (11-3, 1-1) has lost their three toughest games so far this season to Iowa, Louisville, and North Carolina. Their best win is currently Marquette, who is just meh so far in Big East to this point. That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t talented, they have as good of a starting five as most teams in the country and have a lot of depth. D’Angelo Russell is right up there with Trimble in terms of the best freshman in the conference. Sam Thompson is probably the best dunker in the country and Marc Loving is currently the best three point shooter in the conference at 55 percent. This team may currently be a notch below the Terrapins, but they’ll get their chance to beat them at home later in the season. Ohio State’s offense runs solely through Shannon Scott, the purest point guard in the conference. Scott averages 7.6 assists per game, second most in the NCAA. Aaron Craft was almost irreplaceable, but Scott has more than held his own so far this season. Their most recent dominating win over Illinois is a good sign of a strong bounce back for Thad Motta’s bunch.

A lot of people are pretty high on Penn State (12-3, 0-2) and with a record like theirs its hard not to be. But like Ohio State, the Nittany Lions have yet to face any real tough competition with the exception of Wisconsin. Now with a loss to Rutgers on the resume, Penn State could be in trouble. Their only other loss was to Charlotte, albeit it was in double-overtime. But Charlotte is a team that an upper echelon team should handle nicely. Penn State does have some nice wins against George Washington, USC, and Virginia Tech. But there is a lot of work to be done before they can be considered a real contender in the conference. There is a six game stretch late in the season where they play Illinois, Maryland twice, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin for their second time, just brutal. If they are still contenders at that point and survive that stretch, it’ll open the eyes of the committee. They can possibly contend if senior guard DJ Newbill can continue to play at this high of a level (21.9 points per game, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists), Penn State has a solid chance of dancing. Although i would bet that a majority of teams use trap defenses and double teams against him. I see Penn State finishing middle of the pack in the conference.

Minnesota (11-4, 0-2) under Rich Pitino (son of Rick) was off to a blazing hot start until losing their conference opener to Purdue and then at Maryland. Their only non-conferences losses were to Louisville and St. John’s, two very good teams. The Gophers have a very balanced scoring attack led by senior Andre Hollins who has made strong improvements in his shooting from a year ago (46 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three this season, 38 and 35 last season). Minnesota has six players averaging at least nine points and are 2nd in the NCAA with 20 assists per game. DeAndre Mathieu has 6.3 assists per game to go along with his 9.8 points. This is a very good basketball team with a good coach. The conference schedulers weren’t very kind to Minnesota, who plays at Maryland and against Ohio State in their second and third conference games. And even worse, they play two of their final four games against Wisconsin. Minnesota will most likely finish in the top third of the conference.

Indiana (11-3, 1-0) lost early in the season to Eastern Washington, who is not bad, but not a game Indiana should lose at home. Their other two losses both game in New York to Louisville and Georgetown. They won their conference opener at a struggling Nebraska and have good wins against Butler (again on neutral site), Pitt and SMU. James Blackmon Jr. is one of my favorite freshman in the country and he is getting better each game (22 points on 6-12 from three and seven rebounds against Georgetown last week). He certainly helps take pressure off of Yogi Ferrell, who like Blackmon averages 17 points per game. Ferrell has greatly improved his shooting and is a solid threat from any where on the floor. Indiana’s biggest problem is their defense. They score the 4th most points per game at 86.3 per game (they shoot 42 percent from deep as a team), but allow 71.8 (298th in NCAA). They’ll travel to Michigan State before hosting Ohio State for a two games to continue early conference play. Like Minnesota, I expect the Hoosiers to finish near the top and probably see them dancing.

Iowa (10-4, 1-0) has four tough losses to Texas, Syracuse, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa and a good win over UNC. But their biggest in so far was their conference opening win at Ohio State. Against the Buckeyes, Jarrod Uthoff and Aaron White put on a show, both scoring 18 in that tough environment. They were ranked highly to start the season and ran into a very tough non-conference schedule, but the Hawkeyes are for real. Aaron White is fantastic and he has helped the team overcome the loss of their leader last season in Devyn Marble. Iowa has a few home games this week against Michigan State and Nebraska so they have a solid chance of starting conference play off 3-0.

Illinois (10-5, 0-2) is another team who has been inconsistent so far this season. They opened up conference play with an overtime loss at Michigan, who for as much as people have bashed them, have a lot of talent and then never looked great against Ohio State. There other three losses came to Nova, Oregon, and Miami, so nothing bad there. They have beaten two quality opponents in Missouri and Baylor, but other than that have played against garbage. Rayvonte Rice is a beast and one of the clutchest shooters in the country (see his game-winner against Mizzou). Rice has scored in double-figures in every game this season and is a nightmare to defend. He has a nice supporting cast of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn who consistently score 10 points per game. Then there are the inconsistent three of Nnanna Egwu, Aaron Cosby, and Ahmad Starks, who all average 7.8 points per game and are the streakiest group of three in college basketball. If the three of them play up to their potential in the same game, look out the Illini are dangerous. But until then its Rice’s team.

 

Then there are the disappointments Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska. They each have bad losses and really no quality wins, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if one of these teams knocks off Wisconsin somewhere along the line because that is how this incredible sport works. Because why wouldn’t the team that lost to Texas Southern, NJIT, or Incarnate Word respectively, beat the Badgers? Makes sense right? Michigan State took Maryland into double OT, Michigan beat Illinois and Nebraska played tough against Indiana, so we’ll revisit that prediction in March.

As for the remaining three teams Northwestern, Purdue, and Rutgers, there is a lot of talent in the league. Northwestern lost their tough non-conference games but is 1-0 in conference play after beating Rutgers. Purdue is 2-0 in conference after upsetting Minnesota and Michigan, but lost non-conference games to North Florida and Garner Webb. They have a lot of work to do if they want to be a contender and who knows, if they get on a roll maybe those bad losses won’t come back to hurt them. Rutgers will most likely finish last in their first season in the conference and has lost to St. Peters and St. Francis (PA).

Scott Zolotorow