It’s no secret that I’m a Big Ten guy. Everyone in my immediate family holds a Big Ten degree, I’ve lived in Big Ten country my entire life, and I’ve probably watched more Big Ten games than games of every other conference combined. What’s worse, on multiple occasions I’ve found myself thinking that Wisconsin’s style of play isn’t boring, which is something only a Big Ten basketball junkie could think. Because of my Big Ten ties, I’ve often had to defend a conference that I just assumed was respected as one of the nation’s best. I didn’t have to do this as much last season because the Big Ten was the undisputed cream of the crop. But I have a feeling I’ll be back on the defensive this year, since all that Big Ten firepower a season ago didn’t lead to a national championship.
That’s the big sticking point for the rest of the country: If the Big Ten is so good, why was its last national championship in 2000? On one hand, it’s obvious that the conference has had some bad luck. Five different Big Ten schools have reached the national championship game since Michigan State won in 2000,1 so it’s not like the conference has underperformed in the tournament. It’s just that every time the Big Ten has a great team, some other team from another conference is just a little better. The Big Ten has had plenty of success. If one of those five runners-up had won one more game, would it really have had that big of an impact on the perception of the Big Ten?
Indiana in 2002, Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007, Michigan State in 2009, and Michigan in 2013.
On the other hand … yeah, what the hell? Why hasn’t the Big Ten won a national championship in 13 years? How could 2003 Syracuse, 2006 Florida, and 2011 UConn win national championships as 3-seeds while none of the 17 Big Ten teams seeded third or better since 2001 (seven of which were 1-seeds) managed to break through? A few times could be passed off as a coincidence, but this? This is a pattern. It’s gotten to the point that I was thisclose to turning into an SEC football–type fan and … gulp … cheering for Michigan in last season’s title game just to halt the Big Ten criticism. That elusive championship has become the “yeah, but … ” asterisk for a proud basketball conference.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this year the asterisk will get wiped away. As of now, I’d say Michigan State is the only Big Ten team good enough to win a national championship. The Spartans should be as good as any team in America, but the NCAA tournament is a crapshoot and MSU is just one of eight teams good enough to go all the way. I’m not crazy about those odds. (Although maybe Ryan Riess winning the World Series of Poker is a good omen for Michigan State’s chances.) Don’t get me wrong — I think the Big Ten will be pretty competitive this season, and the conference will enter a good number of teams into the Big Dance. It’s just that Ohio State is good but not great. Michigan might be the most overrated team in America. Wisconsin is Wisconsin. Indiana’s coach is Tom Crean. Iowa is generating so much buzz for being underrated that it might actually be overrated at this point. Illinois and Minnesota will probably be on the bubble. Purdue’s best player is the most frustrating player in the Big Ten. And Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska are … um … yeah.
With that in mind, all that’s left for me to say is … I hate to do this but it has to be done … Go Spar— hang on. Give me a second. This is too much, too fast. I need to psych myself up for this.
(Waiting … )
All right, I’m ready. Just take a deep breath and … Go Spartaaaahhh — I can’t do it. I just can’t.
(Collecting myself … )
Dammit. Fine. Here goes …
I’m gonna go take a shower.
Top Three Teams
1. Michigan State
2. Ohio State
What makes Michigan State such a no-brainer to win the Big Ten is that the Spartans really only lost Derrick Nix and his dick punch controversy from last year’s team that made the Sweet 16 and was a tip-in away from winning a share of the conference title. They have the best senior duo in college basketball with point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne. They have the preseason conference player of the year and a guy who might have been a lottery pick this summer in Gary Harris. And they have Branden Dawson, who’s probably good enough to average a double-double, even though non–Big Ten fans forget about him and/or don’t realize how good he is because he missed the NCAA tournament his freshman year and had a disappointing tournament last year.
But here’s the biggest reason why Michigan State is a lock to make the Final Four: Every single four-year player under Tom Izzo has made at least one Final Four. As it happens, the last time Michigan State made the Final Four was 2010, when Payne and Appling were seniors in high school. What I’m saying here is that betting on the Spartans to make it to Dallas in March isn’t gambling — it’s an investment.
After Michigan State, the next two contenders in the conference are also pretty clear, although it’s debatable which team is better. Most experts are picking Michigan ahead of Ohio State, probably because they have man crushes on Mitch McGary. In what will come as no surprise and will probably inspire jerkoff hand gestures from some of you, I think Ohio State will be a little better than Michigan. That’s because the Buckeyes’ only departure was Deshaun Thomas, and as good as he was last season, LaQuinton Ross should be able to pick up much of the offensive load that Thomas carried. Michigan, however, has to replace two first-round picks, one of whom was the national player of the year. In the last 10 years, the only team to not lose its national player of the year to the NBA was North Carolina, when Tyler Hansbrough won in 2008 and then returned to lead the Tar Heels to a national championship in his senior year. Here’s how the other nine teams fared the season after losing their POY:
That list confirms the obvious — most teams aren’t nearly as good when they have to replace the best player in the country. “But,” Michigan fans are saying, “what about 2011 Ohio State, 2008 Texas, and even 2004 Texas? They had pretty good years, so who’s to say Michigan can’t do something similar?”
Well, let’s look more closely at those three outliers. In 2003, Texas was a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament, made the Final Four, and then lost T.J. Ford to the NBA. The next season, the Longhorns brought back basically everyone but Ford, added P.J. Tucker and Baylor transfer Kenny Taylor, earned a 3-seed in the tournament, and made the Sweet 16. Considering Rick Barnes was their coach, I wouldn’t blame you for being amazed at the success of that 2004 Texas team, but would you really say the Longhorns had a great season? A good season, yes. An overachieving season, sure. But not a great season. In other words, if you told Michigan fans that the Wolverines would make the Sweet 16 and finish tied for second in the Big Ten, would they be truly happy or would they say something like, “Given where the program was when John Beilein took over, I’ll take it”?
Texas in 2008 and Ohio State in 2011 are similar cases. As great as Kevin Durant and Evan Turner were, if you watched them play in college it was impossible to not notice that it seemed like they had the ball in their hands more than all their teammates combined. Durant put up unbelievable numbers as a freshman (25.8 ppg, 47% FG, 40% 3FG), but he also averaged 18.5 shots and just 1.3 assists per game. Turner, on the other hand, averaged six assists and only 14.7 shots, which doesn’t seem so bad. But take it from a guy who was on that team — our entire offense the second half of that season consisted of giving the ball to Turner, spreading the floor, and letting him do his thing. The next year, Ohio State brought in a legitimate post presence in Jared Sullinger and a real point guard in Aaron Craft, and as a result Jon Diebler, William Buford, and David Lighty got to run an actual offense instead of just standing at the 3-point line and waiting for Turner to kick it out to them.
Anyway, here’s the point: Trey Burke wasn’t like Durant or Turner. He was a scoring point guard, sure, but Michigan’s offense last season wasn’t “give the ball to Trey and get out of the way” like it was for Texas and Ohio State. And that means the “maybe Michigan might improve now that Burke isn’t dominating the ball” theory doesn’t apply. Plus, the common thread between all the teams who successfully replaced a national player of the year is that the POY was the only important guy they lost.2 Michigan also has to replace Tim Hardaway Jr., and it has to figure out how to do it with the youngest team in the Big Ten. Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary are certainly talented players, but given Robinson’s inconsistency last season and that the McGary hype is based on four games in which he made zero post moves,3 Michigan fans shouldn’t expect much more than a third-place finish in the Big Ten and a Sweet Sixteen exit.
Best College Player — Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
Words can’t express how much I love you if you read that and thought, Didn’t Ohio State have to replace you along with Turner in 2011?
This is my big hang-up with McGary and why I need to see a lot more from him before I jump on the bandwagon. At times he was the fifth scoring threat on the court for Michigan last season. It’s a lot easier to be productive when defenses aren’t keying in on you. This season, McGary isn’t sneaking up on anybody. Can he be a go-to guy? So many of his points a year ago came from putbacks and drop-off passes from Michigan’s guards. Can he create his own offense? Can he make plays that aren’t considered “hustle plays”?
When I saw that Mitch McGary was a first-team preseason AP All-American, I spit out my coffee, wiped off my computer screen with a rag, wrung the coffee back into my cup, took another gulp, and spit that out too. I touched on my concerns about McGary in a footnote, so I won’t rehash them all here. Instead, I’ll focus on another reason I was shocked to see McGary named a first-team preseason All-American — he’s not even the best big man in the Big Ten.
In fairness, Payne wasn’t much more consistent than McGary last season. In fact, Payne’s play remained somewhere between underwhelming and mediocre well into January. He had some decent games here and there, but against the Spartans’ best opponents — UConn, Kansas, Boise State, Miami, and Minnesota — his impact was limited. That changed January 27, when Michigan State played at Indiana. Before then, Payne’s only double-doubles on the season were against Nicholls State, Loyola-Chicago, and Tuskegee. He had yet to shoot multiple 3-pointers or register double-digit shot attempts in a single game. Basically, he was a glorified version of Idong Ibok or Delco Rowley — his job was to rebound, foul, and set illegal screens that don’t get called. Unlike Ibok or Rowley, however, he could shoot without hearing a collective groan from the Breslin Center crowd.
But then the coming-out party at Indiana happened, and Payne has never been the same. On the road against one of the best teams in the country, he finished with 18 points and nine rebounds on 7-of-10 shooting, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc. Four of those 18 points came on a tip dunk and a no-look over-the-head alley-oop. His confidence skyrocketed to the point that you could almost see him thinking, Holy shit, I’m actually really good! From then on, he became a double-double machine for the Spartans. Just look at his numbers during Michigan State’s brutal four-game stretch last year vs. no. 1 Indiana, at no. 18 Ohio State, at no. 4 Michigan, and vs. no. 22 Wisconsin:
13.8 points per game
11.3 rebounds per game
51.2% field goals
100% (8-for-8) free throws
If you would’ve told Tom Izzo last November that Payne would do that against four of the best teams in America’s best conference, he’d probably still be laughing. A year later, if you told Izzo that Payne would put up those numbers, he might think Payne was in a slump. That’s what happens to expectations when you turn into a rebounding force who can score from anywhere on the court and you also happen to be an excellent defender.
Best Pro Prospect — Glenn Robinson III (Michigan)
With McGary being the flavor of the month, it’s conceivable that he could be the first Big Ten name called on draft night, but I think his teammate is the best NBA prospect in the conference. McGary is probably the better player right now, and it’s no secret how much NBA execs love big guys who can run the floor. Robinson gets the edge, however, because his ceiling is much higher than McGary’s, as evidenced by scouts using words like “athleticism,” “length,” and “explosiveness” to describe Robinson while with McGary it’s “motor,” “motor,” and “motor.”
What makes Robinson an attractive pro prospect is that he’s got all the NBA swingman tools that can’t be taught. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound sophomore can guard four positions; he can attack the rim and finish with power (dunk on people) or finesse (hang in the air, fight off contact, and hit an off-balance layup); he’s a good rebounder; and he’s great in transition. My bones to pick with Robinson are that he’s not a great shooter or ball handler, and even though he has the ability to be a great defender, he’s not consistently engaged on that end of the floor. I often fall into the trap of thinking that all it takes to turn a bad shooter into Larry Bird is a solid summer of workouts. While it’s not exactly that easy, I do think that Robinson might just need some quality practice time before he develops into a capable shooter. His mechanics are decent, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that someday he’ll be able to shoot 40 percent from behind the arc.
We should find out early in the season how much he has improved as a ball handler. He probably handled the rock more than usual in open gyms this summer, and I expect to see him come off ball screens more often and more effectively this season. Meanwhile, Robinson’s lack of defensive intensity last year is something that pretty much every freshman struggles with. I have a feeling that at some point this season Robinson will figure out that a defensive possession with seven minutes left in the first half is just as important as a possession with five minutes left in the game. If he starts imposing his will on both ends of the court, there’s no telling how good he can be.
Most Underrated Player — Sam Dekker (Wisconsin)
Even though he has a decent shot at being a first-round pick in 2014, there’s a good chance you don’t know much about Dekker. After all, a guy who jumped when he shot free throws and shot 8 percent from behind the arc started over him at small forward last season.4 Now that Ryan Evans has graduated and Bo Ryan doesn’t have to worry about what might happen to the Buzzcuts’ chemistry if he starts a freshman over a senior, expect Dekker to have a big year. I’ve been a fan ever since he won a state championship in high school by going 1-on-2 and shooting a last-second fadeaway 3 even though his team was down only two, and after he drilled the shot he acted like he’d done it 100 times before. But there’s more to like about him than just that. He’s a pretty good shooter who can put the ball on the deck, he’s great in midrange spots, he’s even better in transition, and he has a great feel for the game (moving without the ball, defensive concepts, etc.). Basically, if you could morph him and Glenn Robinson III together into one athlete, you’d have one of the greatest basketball players to ever live.
Make this your go-to complaint about Bo Ryan basketball this year. Instead of complaining about how slow the Buzzcuts play or how ugly their games are, when someone asks why you don’t like Bo Ryan basketball, just say, “His starting small forward shot 8 percent from the 3-point line last season.”
Speaking of which: Circle January 18 and February 16 on your calendars right now. Those are the dates of the Buzzcuts’ two games against Michigan. You won’t find a one-on-one matchup in the Big Ten with more talent than Dekker vs. Robinson.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
Craft is like the Chotchkie’s waiter from Office Space who sets the flair standard for all other workers. What I mean here is that because Craft gets so much praise for “giving 110 percent,” suddenly giving 100 percent isn’t enough anymore. I can just picture Thad Matta saying to the rest of the team: “100 percent effort is the minimum, OK? Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to do just the bare minimum. Or … well, like Aaron, for example, gives 110 percent effort. Now, if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then OK. But some people choose to give more effort and we encourage that, OK?” Meanwhile, the team just stares at him dumbfounded, wondering how it’s mathematically possible to give more than 100 percent.
I joke, but Craft’s worth ethic and pride on defense is contagious and it’s a big reason why Ohio State has the best defensive backcourt in college basketball. I know, I know. You hate Craft because he’s overrated as a defender and the new rules that prevent hand-checking and flopping will expose him as a fraud.5 I get it. Here’s the thing, though: It’s not just his hard work that makes him special. His lateral quickness and instincts are unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a college player. That’s not hyperbole. I’ve never seen anything like it. He rarely gets beat off the dribble, and the few times that he does, he almost always finds a way to recover and strip the ball as the offensive player goes for a layup. Hate the commentators for talking about how good his grades are or how great of a guy he is since neither of those is relevant to the game, but don’t hate them for praising his defense. He has earned that praise over three years of giving the best players in the Big Ten fits.
Cue Iowa State fans: “Screw that. I hate him because his foot was — HIS FOOT WAS INSIDE THE CIRCLE! HIS F’ING FOOT WAS INSIDE THE F’ING CIRCLE! ELIJAH JOHNSON! TEXAS FUMBLED! AHHHHHH!!!!!”
Even though he’s the best perimeter defender in college basketball and has been for a couple of years, I still think Craft’s NBA career will be an uphill slog. That’s because as great as Craft’s defense is, his offensive abilities are … um … lacking. Sure, he’s decent enough for the college game. He’s poised with the ball, he can get his teammates where they need to be to run the offense (which is more than I can say for a lot of college point guards), and he has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio. But there’s a reason Ohio State fans yelled “NOOOOO … OOOOHHHH MY GOD, YES!!!” at their TVs when Craft took that game-winning shot against Iowa State in last year’s NCAA tournament. He’s not a very good shooter, and maybe that wouldn’t be a huge problem if he were a better finisher at the rim. He lacks the athleticism to dunk on defenders and he lacks the touch to drop floaters over them. Add it up and you have a guy who will be a liability on offense in the NBA unless he makes major improvements.
Luckily, while his stats don’t necessarily show it, Craft has definitely made offensive improvements every year at Ohio State, so hopefully another offseason in the gym has helped him get closer to becoming a consistent shooting threat. Because of the hitch in his shot, however, he’ll likely never be a great shooter, or even a good one for that matter. But it’s not out of the question for him to be an average shooter, which, given his defensive acumen, is all he really needs. After all, guys like John Wall and Rajon Rondo are terrible from deep, yet both are franchise point guards. So if Craft can improve his shooting just a little bit, he might have a chance to become a valuable backup in the league.6
Player Who Best Fits the Label “Loose Cannon” — Will Sheehey (Indiana)
To play in the league, you have to be able to do something on offense to be a scoring threat, and right now Craft just doesn’t have that. The reason I’m stressing shooting for him instead of finishing at the rim is that I think it’s more likely that he improves his outside shot than his finishing. It’s just easier to get reps shooting than it is to get reps finishing over NBA big men. Craft’s focus should be to develop into a knock-down wide-open 3-point shooter instead of worrying about how he’s going to shake his man and score over Larry Sanders. (Apologies to Zach Lowe for not calling him “LARRY SANDERS!”)
If I told you that you could punch three college basketball players in the face and suffer no consequences, and then I explained that you can’t use all three punches on Marshall Henderson, my guess is that many of you would choose Will Sheehey, and with good reason. As much as I love the enthusiasm that Sheehey brings to the game, there’s no denying he’s gone from “energetic spark off the bench who dunks on people and pumps up the crowd” to “shit-talking, cocky SOB who celebrates routine plays and ohbytheway has an enormous chest tattoo that only adds to the punchability of his face.”
Just so we’re clear, I’m not criticizing Sheehey. He’s been perfect in his role as Indiana’s hype man the last three seasons. Other teams’ fans have surely grown to hate him, but screw it — part of being a great sixth man is coming into the game guns blazing like you’re entering the Royal Rumble. Sheehey shouldn’t apologize for the energy he provides just because it’s not as likable as it used to be. Every team would love to have a guy like him who isn’t afraid to stir things up.
Having said that, Sheehey isn’t the sixth man for the Hoosiers anymore. In fact, along with Yogi Ferrell, he’s actually the man. Making some hustle plays, throwing down a dunk or two, tossing up the loose butthole monocle after hitting a 3, and beating his chest won’t constitute a good game for Sheehey this season. For Indiana to be a threat in the Big Ten, Sheehey needs to average something like 15 points, six boards, and three assists. And given Tom Crean’s substitution patterns, he might have to do it in 25 minutes per game. It’s going to be interesting to see how Sheehey handles this role change. Will he still play at 100 miles an hour? Will he stop trying to make big plays so often and instead just make simple plays? We’ll have to wait and see whether Sheehey can rise to the challenge. In the meantime, he gets the loose cannon label because if you told me that a fight broke out in a Big Ten game because Player A dunked on Player B and then stood over Player B and threw his arms back and forth like the Rock about to give the People’s Elbow, I’d have no doubt that Player A was Sheehey.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Chris Collins (Northwestern)
Richard Pitino taking over at Minnesota has my attention, but a Coach K disciple getting a head coaching job will always steal the spotlight. That’s because even though Coach K is the greatest college basketball coach of all time, his coaching tree is surprisingly mediocre. His five most successful former assistants — Mike Brey, Tommy Amaker, Quin Snyder, Jeff Capel, and Bob Bender — have all coached at BCS programs and have combined to be Division I head coaches for 63 seasons. But in those 63 seasons, they’ve combined for only 24 NCAA tournament appearances, five Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, and zero Final Fours. I don’t think even the great Jon Taffer could rescue Northwestern’s program at this point,7 so I don’t expect Collins to step in and immediately improve Coach K’s coaching tree résumé. But I’m curious to see if he can maybe put together a string of 20-win seasons in a few years’ time, then get a job at a better school and make the kind of tournament run that seems to keep eluding Coach K disciples.
You are now picturing Taffer walking into Welsh-Ryan Arena and saying: “What kind of facility is this? Where are the banners? Where are the state-of-the-art locker rooms? You call yourself a BASKETBALL program but share your arena with the VOLLEYBALL team? I’ve been in this business 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like this! SHUT IT DOWN!!!“
Coach on the Hot Seat — Tom Crean (Indiana)
There are two trains of thought among Indiana fans when it comes to college basketball’s creepy uncle. The first group suffers from Scott Drew syndrome. They’re willing to give Crean a pass on all sorts of bad decisions, including the Syracuse zone debacle and keeping two top-five lottery picks on the bench at the same time during big games, because he took over a proud program and turned it into a preseason no. 1 team in just a handful of years. They’re convinced that no other coach could’ve pulled that off, as if getting Cody Zeller to commit to one of the top five all-time programs that’s also close to home was some miracle. These fans are typically either young and therefore don’t fully understand the power of Indiana’s history, or they’re just so starved for success that back-to-back Sweet 16s are enough to make them giddy.
More sensible fans, however, realize that Indiana will almost certainly never return to its former glory as long as Crean is at the helm. Scott Drew is great for Baylor. He has done wonders to turn that program around after the Patrick Dennehy murder and ensuing scandal. Baylor was never really that great to begin with, so Drew taking over that mess AND leading the Bears to heights they haven’t seen in 60 years should be enough to buy him job security for life in Waco. But Indiana isn’t Baylor. Putting the car in the right direction isn’t good enough at IU. You have to lock your eyes on the finish line, put the pedal to the metal, and run over anybody who gets in the way. For a fan base that likes to taunt Purdue fans about “banners” so much, it’s bizarre that some Indiana fans have been willing to accept the best Hoosiers team in 20 years coming four wins short of hanging a sixth banner in Assembly Hall. If nothing else, the contentedness of Marquette fans after Crean left should tell you something. Crean becoming a national punch line among college basketball fans should tell you something. That Crean was not with Zeller and Victor Oladipo on draft night should tell you something. And Tom Izzo being the only guy in college basketball who seems to have good things to say about Crean should tell you something.
Most Compelling Story Line — What’s Next for Spike Albrecht?
You remember Albrecht, right? How could you forget? He was the MVP of the first half of the national championship game last season before he ran out of adrenaline and Luke Hancock started making it rain. He entered the game with a career high of seven points, and then he scored 17 points in the first half. For a while, it felt like Albrecht might become the most unlikely Final Four Most Outstanding Player ever. He ultimately slowed down and went scoreless in the second half, but few people will ever forget the show he put on or the tweet he sent to Kate Upton the next day.
Now what? Trey Burke left for the NBA, leaving enormous shoes for Michigan’s starting point guard to fill. Not even the most delusional Michigan fan thinks Albrecht will be able to outdo Burke, but he won’t have to since top recruit Derrick Walton will likely begin the season as the starter. What does that mean for Albrecht? He’s a fan favorite in Ann Arbor and certainly the most hyped 2.2-points-per-game scorer in college basketball history, but he’s also somewhere between the seventh and 10th best player for the Wolverines. That creates this dilemma for John Beilein: Does he leave a guy who torched the national champions on the bench for the majority of each game, or does he bend over backward to please a guy who averaged 2.2 points per game last season? It’ll be interesting to see how Beilein handles the situation and, more importantly, how Albrecht performs when he does see the court.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make It Sound Like You Really Know What You’re Talking About
“Did you know that Nebraska is the only school in the Big Ten that’s located in an area code where Ludacris has hoes?”