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No shortage of talent: Big Ten hoops preview

This season the Big Ten isn’t quite the power it has been in previous years. Sure, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was “won” by the Big Ten, but there isn’t really a team that I would call dominant. What there are, however, are teams of dominant individuals.

With Bo Ryan’s stunning departure from Wisconsin (8-5) a few weeks back and Ohio State (8-5) struggling mightily to gel a young squad together, the recent hierarchy among Big Ten teams is upset. Tom Izzo’s team has mostly done what Izzo teams always do, but from there it’s almost an open field. Not having dominant teams, those that beat you up and down the court as a unit, could make Big Ten conference play very intriguing.

Now, I don’t think the standings are ridiculously out-of-whack as they currently are. The best players in the league have helped propel their teams to good records. That said, if a team is overly reliant on a star player, a bad night from that star player could quickly drop his team down the Big Ten ladder.

Here are who I think are the top players in the Big Ten as we head toward conference play, based on stats, importance to the team, and gut feeling.

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Leads the Big Ten assists, second in scoring, third in rebounds: I’d say Valentine has already made a strong case for national player of the year. Injury is going to rob him of the next couple weeks, but hopefully he comes back as exciting as before.

Melo Trimble, Maryland: The ultra-talented guard has a great supporting cast around him, but they haven’t totally meshed yet. Still, he’s got 15 ppg and 5.7 apg and his team is improving.

Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: His transition to a scoring point guard has been incredible. There are questions with the Indiana roster, but no doubt Ferrell is keeping Tom Crean employed for the time being.

AJ Hammons, Purdue: For Purdue to keep it up, I think Hammons has to add a little more scoring. His rebounding and shot blocking are par excellence, however.

Jarrod Utoff, Iowa: Iowa’s depth is a question, but if Uthoff can keep up his scoring (18.7 ppg) they can make hay in the Big Ten.

Caris LeVert, Michigan: It’s about time Michigan start making waves, because LeVert is too good not to lead this team to great things.

Jake Layman, Diamond Stone, and Rasheed Suliamon, Maryland: It’s not fair for Maryland to have this many good players, honestly. They may not have been world-beaters in the nonconference season, but they’ll be near the top come tourney time.

Malcolm Hill, Illinois: Not a homer pick. Look at what he’s done so far and say he doesn’t belong among the top tier of Big Ten ballers.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: The more the freshman big man comes into his own, the scarier Purdue will get.

Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern: Northwestern might just make its first tourney this year by the scoring and assists of these two–as long as they don’t burn out (37 and 34.5 minutes per game on average, respectively), that is. With Alex Olah out, though, that’s a big possibility.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: No one expected this much drop-off from Wisconsin, but Hayes is still doing his thing.

Shavon Shields, Nebraska: His motor is propelling Nebraska, but, strong as it is, it’s struggling to keep up.

Kendrick Nunn, Illinois: He’s ready to cross the threshold to the upper echelon. Without Mike Thorne, Illinois absolutely needs him to make the leap.

Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate, Ohio State: OSU can turn the corner as long as these guys keep scoring and grabbing boards.

Troy Williams, Indiana: He’s come into his own, scoring, rebounding, and even stealing with the best of the league.

Isaac Haas, Purdue: With Hammons, Purdue might have the best center duo in the country.

With that in mind, here’s how things look at this point in the season (in order of how I predict they’ll finish).


1. Maryland (11-1) — Picked as the early favorite, some struggles in nonconference changed the narrative about this team. But I still see unrivaled quality in the Terps and think they are not only Big Ten title contenders, but national title contenders as well. For reference, Diamond Stone is still coming off the bench for Maryland; he’d have been starting for weeks at about almost any other D1 school.

2. Michigan State (13-0) — Losing Valentine for the start of Big Ten already hurt Sparty, as they lost to Iowa in the opener, but their schedule is kind otherwise. The hardest test is Iowa, whom MSU may play again without their star, but then it’s just Minnesota, Illinois, and Penn State, hardly cause for concern. Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris can really show their quality in this testing stretch.

Coming for the throne

3. Purdue (12-1) — Matt Painter got his “Purdue guys” to come play and the result is the best defensive team (according to KenPom) in the country. And offensively, Purdue is doing just fine, notching 81 points per game so far. The offense could still stand to improve a bit, however, to catch the top dogs in the Big Ten.

4. Iowa (9-3) — This Hawkeyes team seems underrated to me. Their defense is well above average and their offense is one of the best in the nation. The start of conference play is tough for Iowa, but after beating MSU playing them a second time and getting Purdue in the first four conference games may not be so bad. After that their schedule is much lighter and the Hawkeyes could make a run at the championship.

Middle of the pack

5. Indiana (10-3) — The talent is definitely there, especially for Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams, but the consistency is not. I don’t have faith in the Hoosiers to really make a go at it, especially with Tom Crean coaching.

6. Michigan (10-3) — The Wolverines should be better than this because Caris LeVert is the definition of match-up nightmare, Duncan Robinson barely misses, and Derrick Walton is maybe the best point guard in the conference. But their lack of post power has left them a bit exposed, much like Illinois. Michigan is certainly good enough to win some big games and get a Tourney berth, however.

7. Ohio State (8-5) — I like Thad Matta and his freshman class too much to think that they don’t make a respectable show of this season. Losses to UT-Arlington, Memphis, and Louisiana Tech (and consecutively, no less) were embarrassing, but beating Kentucky makes me think the pieces are there to find a way this year.

8. Wisconsin (8-5) — Like OSU, Wisconsin just has too much talent, albeit young, not to fit at least in the middle of the Big Ten pack this year. Coach Greg Gard is Bo Ryan’s appointed guy, which doesn’t mean he is as good, but certainly the drop-off shouldn’t be too dramatic. Perhaps too much was expected of the Badgers after a Final Four run, though.

Needs improvement

9. Northwestern (12-1) — You have to feel bad for the Wildcats, just when it seems like maybe they could turn the corner, they’re dealt a hand not unlike Illinois: Vic Law was lost for the season to a labrum injury early on, then they lose Alex Olah for the season to a foot injury. Their nonconference strength of schedule (313/351) is probably too low now, because 8 wins in Big Ten play might be a best case scenario for the Cats.

10. Illinois (8-5) — Injuries have brutalized Illinois, so finishing 10th in the Big Ten (just one spot lower than last year) seems like it may be a net positive. But it’s not, and no one in the fanbase is really going to want to accept it. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn are one of the best scoring duos in the country, but without a point guard who can score or a post player with any strength, Illinois will look sheepish in the Big Ten. John Groce has to pray for a merciful new athletic director.

11. Nebraska (8-5) — Tim Miles brought in a good recruiting class with Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow, but it hasn’t paid off yet. The Huskers struggled against quality opponents and even lost to Samford last week. Shavon Shields is a great player, but he can’t save this team.

The Basement

12. Minnesota (6-6) — This team has gone younger than anyone else in the conference, and it has shown. Their defense has been the main cause for concern; KenPom has them at 214th (Illinois is 171, for reference). Their offense? Not so good either.

13. Penn State (9-4) — The Nittany Lions lost to George Washington and Colorado, the only top 100 teams on its nonconference schedule. The less said about that, the better.

14. Rutgers (6-7) — At least they’re getting money from the Big Ten’s television contracts now.

If previous seasons have taught us anything, though, it’s that all it takes is one moment for the order of the conference to get upended. Who would have picked Illinois beating #11 Maryland or Michigan State at home last year? And that’s why we watch: for the spectacular to happen at any given moment.

Conference season kicks off for Illinois at 2 p.m. today when the Michigan Wolverines visit State Farm Center. The game will be aired on ESPN2 and streamed on WatchESPN.

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