Best Team — Ohio State
I already jinxed my alma mater by explaining why I think they’re the best team in the country this year, so if you want a detailed outline you can just read that. But now that I’ve given it some thought, I take back everything I wrote. Gun to my head, I guess I’d still say Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten (just barely), but I was out of line to say it is one of the best teams in the country. The truth is, the Buckeyes lost way too much experience and leadership from last year’s team, Thad Matta’s notoriously tight rotation isn’t suited for postseason success, and Ohio State really isn’t even that talented anyway. The Buckeyes will probably still have a decent year, but I see them finishing the regular season 22-8 and getting a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they’ll probably only win one game and get upset in the second round. Yep, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. As much as it pains me to say it, I just think this year is going to be a down year for Ohio State basketball and it’s going to be virtually impossible for the Buckeyes to compete for a national championship.
Best Player — Jared Sullinger (Ohio State)
Even though Ohio State is going to struggle as a team this season, Buckeyes fans can at least take solace in knowing that Jared Sullinger is going to be one of the best players in all of college basketball. In his freshman year last season, Sullinger averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds a game and was unquestionably the best player on the best team in America. What’s scary for the rest of the country, and specifically the rest of the Big Ten, is that during the offseason, Sullinger’s rigorous Jazzercise and Shake Weight workouts helped him shed a ton of baby fat, which I anticipate will make him even more effective this year. (By the way, my money is on “leaner and meaner” beating out “svelte,” “slimmed down,” and “more toned” as the most frequently used phrase to describe Sullinger by college basketball writers this year.)
A year ago, Sullinger found success by literally throwing his weight around. As a 6-foot-9, 280-pound B-cup, he was essentially an immovable brick wall in the low post with the added bonus of being surprisingly agile and having the ability to pass out of double teams. If I had to describe his game from last season to somebody who never saw him play, I’d say he was a more skilled DeJuan Blair with a little Tyler Hansbrough thrown in. Like Blair, Sullinger made up for the fact that he more or less played below the rim by being extremely physical, having a nose for the ball on rebounds, and knowing how to use angles to score. And like Hansbrough, he was a master at finishing through contact and somehow making what would’ve been incredibly ill-advised shots for just about any other player. (Am I crazy or did Hansbrough used to shoot hook shots from his hip while double-teamed, and still somehow make them?)
This year, I have a feeling the leaner and meaner Sullinger (hey, that’s one!) will be less Blair/Hansbrough and will be more of a Kevin Love type, which is to say he’ll still be physical and will still have his knack for rebounding, but now he’ll be much more versatile and will regularly take jump shots and utilize more post moves instead of trying to barrel people over for 40 minutes. He has always been a power forward stuck in a center’s body, so now that Sullinger has shed a lot of fat, I expect him to finally show just how complete of a player he really is.
Sleeper Team — Purdue
Purdue is flying under the Big Ten radar heading into the new season (fifth in the preseason poll), thanks largely to the fact that it lost more than half of its scoring a season ago when JaJuan Johnson (20.5 ppg) and E’Twaun Moore (18 ppg) graduated. Those two guys also happened to be Purdue’s two best rebounders and two best defenders, so it can’t be overstated just how big of a void is left. But at the same time, their huge numbers last season shouldn’t be interpreted as though they had a bad supporting cast. More than anything else, the reason Johnson and Moore accounted for so many of Purdue’s points is because the Boilermakers are strict followers of the golden rule of basketball — get the rock to the man with the hot hand. More often than not, Johnson and Moore were the ones with the hot hand and so, instead of practicing equality and spreading the ball around like a peewee rec team, Purdue let them take all the shots and score all the points. Considering they were two of the best players in the Big Ten last year, it’s hard to find too much fault in their logic.
None of Purdue’s returning players could be classified as big-time scorers and none of them are anywhere close to as good as Johnson and Moore were, but luckily for the Boilermakers, they don’t need them to be. They have a big-time scorer in Robbie Hummel, who is finally healthy and ready to go this season after missing all of last year (more on his injuries later). As a 6-foot-8 small forward with a high basketball IQ and the ability to shoot from anywhere inside of half-court, Hummel brings something completely different from Johnson’s inside game or Moore’s slashing game to the table, but he’s still every bit as good as either one of those guys. Provided his ACL is fully healed and he’s just as mobile and athletic as he was before, Hummel will be a mismatch nightmare for every team in the Big Ten, and, along with Sullinger and Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor, is a virtual lock to be first team all-conference this year.
Seniors Lewis Jackson (the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten, other than Taylor and Aaron Craft) and Ryne Smith (probably the best shooter in the league) lead a supporting cast around Hummel who all know their roles and can play a little bit themselves. The Boilermakers’ biggest concern is probably their lack of experience, depth, and size in the frontcourt (which will especially be a problem against Ohio State and Sullinger). But if they play defense as well as they always have, and if Jackson and Smith can step up on offense and give Purdue a legitimate scoring threat other than Hummel, there’s reason to believe that the Boilermakers could end up being the third-best team in the conference, behind Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Overrated Team / Team You Wouldn’t Realize Was Good If You Haven’t Been Following College Basketball for the Past Few Years — Michigan
I know that a former Ohio State basketball player picking Michigan as the Big Ten’s most overrated team isn’t exactly a shocker, but I swear I set aside my involvement in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry to make this pick. In truth, I think the Wolverines are actually going to be pretty good this year, and the only real reason I gave them the overrated pick is because I don’t think Ohio State or Wisconsin are necessarily overrated. (wait, I forgot — Ohio State is definitely overrated.) Also, Michigan is the only other ranked team in the Big Ten. (I figured a team can’t be overrated if they aren’t even technically rated in the first place.) Another reason why I tagged Michigan as overrated is because screw Michigan.
In all seriousness, as much as I don’t want to admit it, Michigan is very much a program on the rise that will not only be good this season but has also set themselves up for the future, with top recruit Mitch McGary recently committing to play for the Wolverines next season. Following about a decade of mediocrity and irrelevance, John Beilein finally got Michigan back to the NCAA tournament in 2009, where they beat Clemson in the first round and were eventually bounced in the second round by Blake Griffin and Oklahoma. The following year was a huge disappointment, and they certainly underachieved considering the talent they had. (They went just 15-17 in 2010 and their season ended in emphatic fashion when Evan “The Villain” Turner hit a 35-footer at the buzzer in the Big Ten Tournament.) But last season they got back on the right track, returned to the NCAA tournament, beat the mess out of Tennessee in the first round, and lost to top-seeded Duke by just two in the second round.
With the loss of Darius Morris to the NBA, this is a big year for Michigan basketball in the sense that they are at a bit of a fork in the road. Without Morris’ scoring and creating for his teammates, there’s a chance that nobody will step up and fill that role and this Michigan team will underachieve like they did in 2010. But then again, there’s also a chance that Tim Hardaway Jr. will step out of Morris’ shadow and be a stud, seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass will be effective leaders and do what they do best (play scrappy defense, knock down threes, be the glue guys), and Michigan will have a big year that should serve as a foundation for their program moving forward. Although it goes against everything I believe in and I’m probably going to have to take a shower after writing this sentence to wash away the shame, I’m anticipating the latter. I think that Michigan is going to win a lot of games this year and possibly even contend for a Big Ten title.
Team to Cheer for if You Don’t Have a Favorite — Indiana
Full disclosure: I grew up as an Indiana fan and still watch most of the Hoosiers’ games and cheer for them, as long as they’re not playing Ohio State. So I guess you could say there’s a little bias with this pick. At the same time, it’s impossible to deny that college basketball as a whole is more enjoyable when the Hoosiers are good. (Along with IU, this is especially true with UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, and Kansas.) The fact is that Indiana basketball evokes strong emotions from college basketball fans, as most fans either love IU, hate IU, or at least mock IU fans for thinking that winning all five of their national titles 25 years ago somehow keeps their team relevant. Either way, the point is Indiana is one of a handful of blue-blood college basketball programs that make the sport more entertaining when it is at its best. Even if you hate the Hoosiers, you have to agree that it’s more enjoyable to hate them, and it’s more satisfying for your team to beat them, when IU is good than it is when the Hoosiers are as bad as they’ve been in recent years.
After enduring Mike Davis’ incompetence and the aftermath of Kelvin Sampson basically taking a two-year poop on the basketball program, Hoosiers fans are desperate to see their team return to college basketball prominence. It’s unlikely that this will be the year that they get back on top. But all signs indicate that they’ll be able to finish the season with a winning record and compete against night in and night out in the Big Ten. And for a lot of Hoosier fans, that’s really all they need right now — reassurance that their program is heading in the right direction and better days are ahead. But at the same time, Indiana fans are also itching to get back to the NCAA tournament. The addition of top recruit Cody Zeller to go along with an experienced team could possibly be enough for this to happen, but it’s not exactly going to be easy. The Hoosiers need to be considerably better than they were a year ago, which seems doubtful but isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. Even then, it’s no guarantee that they’ll go dancing in March.
So if you like stories of triumph and redemption after hitting rock bottom, cheer on the Hoosiers this year, and cross your fingers along with the rest of the Indiana faithful that IU can get back to the NCAA tournament. Sure it might be improbable, but thanks to Bobby Plump and Gene Hackman, the word “Hoosiers” is kinda synonymous with achieving near-impossible things on a basketball court.
Player to Cheer for if You Don’t Have a Favorite — Robbie Hummel (Purdue)
At the end of February during Hummel’s junior season two years ago, Purdue was 23-3, ranked third in the country, stood alone atop the Big Ten standings, and appeared to be a lock for a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But then Hummel, who was undoubtedly Purdue’s most important player, tore his ACL toward the end of a one-point win at Minnesota and had to sit out the remainder of the year, which all but erased any hope Purdue had at a national championship.
In their first game after the injury, Purdue lost at home by nine to the same Michigan State team they had beaten by 12 less than three weeks earlier, and in doing so, shared their Big Ten title with the Spartans and an Ohio State team that I happened to be a senior on, instead of winning the thing outright like they probably deserved to. They followed that loss up with a few cupcake wins, but lost by 27 to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals (if you’re keep score at home, Hummel’s injury was apparently worth 21 points against Michigan State and 28 points against Minnesota). And while the Boilermakers somehow managed to salvage the season and make a surprising run to the Sweet 16, it was impossible to not think about what might have been had Hummel stayed healthy.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “So what? The guy only tore his ACL. That sort of thing happens all the time. Hell, back in ’94, I was All-District and would’ve led the Tigers to state if it weren’t for that sumbitch linebacker from Williamsburg who took a cheap shot after the whistle and tore my ACL right in two. I lost out on state and my chance to play at Notre Dame, but you don’t see me pouting about it.” My response to this is threefold. First of all, you kinda do seem to be pouting about it a little bit. Secondly, Notre Dame didn’t want you because you weren’t that good, so you should probably stop living in the past so much and quit acting like Friday Night Lights was based on your life. And third, Hummel’s story is far from over.
After Purdue’s loss in the Sweet 16, Hummel’s teammates Johnson and Moore both decided to return for their senior year instead of going to the NBA, because they felt they had unfinished business. The three of them had come to Purdue together, and had made it their goal to leave Purdue together with a national championship, so they all decided to stay for one more year to accomplish their goal. With the best trio in college basketball returning, Purdue was billed as one of the favorites to win it all at the start of last season. But then Hummel — I shit you not — tore the exact same ACL again on just the second day of official practice, missed the entire season, and Purdue was upset in the second round of the NCAA tourney by VCU.
If that sob story isn’t enough to make you root for the guy, consider this: He is probably the genuinely nicest guy in college basketball. Well, off the court at least. On the court, he’ll rip your heart out with his teeth and pee on your Sega Dreamcast.
Previously By Mark Titus:
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased ACC College Basketball Spectacular
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular Part II
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular
Why Ohio State Will Win the National Championship
Let the (Midnight) Madness Begin
In Defense of Wussing Out in the NFL
OK, Ohio State Fans. Maybe We Don’t Have This
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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