There is no doubt that Gopher Basketball fans are very excited about the upcoming Big Ten season. And why shouldn't we be? This current roster has been playing outstanding and currently has a #13 national ranking and a nice 11-1 record, with some quality wins in there.
But there are 11 other teams in the Big Ten, many of them think they are pretty good too and some of them really are. This is a really deep and talented Big Ten. What does the rest of the Big Ten look like and where do the Gophers fit into that pictures? I realize that Gopher fans have high hopes and expectations for this season. Many believe that a top four finish in the Big Ten along with a win or two (or three or four) in the NCAA Tournament are baseline expectations. Simply improving upon last year's 6-12 Big Ten record won't be enough. Some expectations are fair, others might be a bit far-reaching. The problem is that the Big Ten is really good with some NCAA title contenders and Final Four caliber teams that we will have to play a couple time this year.
At the start of the season the USA Today released their preseason coaches poll and there were five teams ranked. All were ahead of the Gophers who managed to receive nine votes putting them about 34th in the country. The AP was kinder to us giving us 40 votes received which was good for about 30th with the same 5 teams ranked ahead of us. The point is that this is no easy Big Ten and there will be a couple very good teams that will finish 5th or 6th in the standings, and it might end up being us.
Where will the Gophers end up? Here is how I view the Big Ten this year.
The Upper Tier - three teams in this group that are legit Final Four contenders.
The team most commonly picked to win the Big Ten and has spent most of the season ranked #1 in the country. I was skeptical that they were "THAT" good but I think I might be wrong. This team can score a number of different ways, they are very good defensively, they are deep and they have a national player of the year candidate. What impressed me most about this team so far was a play in their rout of North Carolina. They were up big, it was later in the 2nd half and Cody Zeller went diving for a basketball to save it from going out off bounds. I also love the leadership and guile of Jordan Hulls. Point guard was this team's biggest weakness a year ago and so far the freshman, Kevin Ferrell has been solid. Five guys are currently averaging 11+ points per game.
Gophers vs. Indiana - Jan 12 @ Indiana, Feb 26 @ home - I think a split would be best case scenario and it isn't out of the question. Indiana will lose at least a few games this year and why not at the Barn? It should also be noted that lately we have played rather well in Bloomington.
Even more than with Indiana I thought Michigan was a bit overrated coming into this year. Yes, they returned their entire roster, but I thought they were playing a little above their heads last season and would come back to the rest of the pack just a little bit in 2012-13. There is no way around it, I was wrong (again). Michigan plays so well together, they have many scoring options and they rebound well and they defend well. Trey Burke continues to get better and gives them a great pick-n-roll option with shooters all over the floor that you have to guard. Adding talent like Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas (who reminds me of Hoffarber a little) have really boosted this team. I fear the Wolverines this year.
Gophers vs. Michigan - Jan 17 @ home - Very nice to be facing Michigan only once and it being at home. This would be a great opportunity to get a resume boosting win and not have to face them again until the Big Ten Tournament! Overall I see them dropping a game or two more than Indiana, particularly when their shooting is a bit off. But this is a really good team that plays well together on both ends of the floor, I have more respect for them now than I did a month ago.
Super talented, relatively short bench. This has been the Thad Matta method of operation the last few years and it has been a rather successful formula in the Big Ten. This year they are 7 deep, which is one more guy who is seeing 20+ minutes than at times in other seasons. This year though they do have 3 guys on the bench who are getting 15 minutes or more per game. Nobody on the bench got that kind of minutes last year so this team will get a few more minutes of rest for it's starters. The team is led by Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft who are both outstanding and give OSU a very nice one-two punch.
Gophers vs. Ohio State - Feb 20th @ Ohio State - Chalk this one up as a loss, but the great news is that we only have to face them once. In fact we have only four total games against the alleged top 3.
Thus ends the small group of teams expected to be the elite of the Big Ten. Not that the teams below are not capable of beating them a few times, but over the course of the 18-game schedule these teams are the cream that will rise to the top.
NCAA Tournament Locks - Next is the group that are virtual locks to make the NCAA Tournament. Crazy things happen but I think you can pencil in the teams below (in this order).
I am maybe overly high on the Gophers due to the fact that I'm a rube. But most of you reading this are well aware of how excited I am by this team and people outside of Gopher Nation are starting to recognize that this is a different Gopher hoops squad. Good enough to occasionally beat the teams listed above but more than likely will finish behind them and I believe they'll finish ahead of the teams yet to be discussed in this conference preview.
The 2012-13 Gophers are a physical bunch who actually have some scoring options while playing great defense and rebounding fairly well. Turnovers and defensive rebounding have been a couple issues that need to improve but the increased tempo, outstanding offensive rebounding, efficient scoring, physical defense and depth are carrying this team. Just imagine what this team would look like if they had a Blake Hoffarber type of shooter!
I realize that I listed Mbakwe as a starter and he is clearly not starting, but at some point in January I think we'll see that switch and you'll see him as a starter for most of the Big Ten season.
Tom Izzo, much like Bo Ryan, is very difficult to place outside of the top four. Michigan State is always very good and they are a treat to watch execute offensively while they do an outstanding job defending and rebounding every single year. They have very good size in their starting lineup and a dangerous freshman scorer coming off the bench in Harris. Much like most of the other Big Ten teams you can start to see statistical trends year after year from certain teams. The Spartans are not immune, they play great defense, rebound as well as anybody in the league and they tend to turn the ball over offensively a lot. When they take care of the ball they are very difficult to beat. This is another talented team. They beat Kansas earlier in the year but then also dropped one at Miami, so they are a bit perplexing.
Gophers vs. Michigan State - Dec 31st @ home, Feb 6th @ East Lansing - Great game to kick off the Big Ten season for the Gophers and a great early test. Another team where I think you expect a split. MSU does get a few extra days of rest and time to prepare for the second meeting, but if Minnesota takes care of business at home on New Year's Eve then I think we can afford a road loss to the Spartans.
I'm not sure many expected Illinois to be this good in the early part of the season. I would argue that all of the teams listed above are defined by playing great defense and then range somewhere between good and great offense. Illinois is a very good offensive team, with a dangerous backcourt, and they are solid defensively. All of the teams above and the one below rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed per possession, the Illini are 48th. Not a bad number, but defense isn't their calling card and with new coach, John Groce I don't know if we know what to expect from Illinois in the Big Ten. They do have a dynamic backcourt with Paul and Richardson each playing their 9th year for Illinois. A good team but I think when they hit the rough and rugged Big Ten they will fall from their lofty ranking and undefeated record.
This qualifies as a really good team that may finish 6th in the Big Ten. I like Illinois but I think they'll hit a few more bumps in the Big Ten than the teams above.
Gophers vs. Illinois - Jan 9th @ Illinois, Feb 10th home - We always struggle in Champagne but I think this is a team we match-up well with. The one area that concerns me is that they have been very good at forcing turnovers and we tend to have a lot o turnovers. On the other hand I do think we defend the perimeter very well this year and should minimize their backcourt. A split isn't unimaginable but I have high hopes for a series sweep this year.
The Badgers took a pretty major blow when Josh Gasser was lost for the season before it even began. The point guard played alongside and deferred to Jordan Taylor last season but was expected to be a major factor in the Badger offense in this season. What was expected to be just one lost senior ended up being a situation where Wisconsin needed to replace their starting backcourt from 2011-12. This team is still solid, particularly in the frontcourt and I should know better than to put a Bo Ryan team outside of the top four in the conference. In the non-conference season they have played a decent schedule but have lost to most of the quality teams they have faced.
Gophers vs. Wisconsin - Jan 26th @ Wis, Feb 14th @ home - These games are always difficult to project, they tend to be close and I think a split is the most likely scenario. With that said, this is the year we can sweep the Badgers. Both times we face them we are the middle game of a tough stretch for the Badgers with them getting to face Ohio State next on both occasions. Our surrounding schedule is much lighter so maybe that becomes an advantage, or maybe that is overthinking it.
The is the "maybe has a shot at NCAA Tournament" group. I had Purdue up as likely in but we'll discuss them later. I originally had Iowa as likely out but they may be the one team that figures out a way to earn a spot onto the bubble and then in. We'll see.
I don't want to put the Hawkeyes up here but this is an improved team from a year ago and they finished as a better Big Ten team than the Gophers. Iowa was 8-10 in Big Ten play last year, sweeping the Gophers, and earned an NIT bid where they went 1-1. They lost Matt Gatens but return Roy Devin Marble and Aaron White who so far this year are combining to score 28 ppg. Those two provide the leadership for the other 3 starters who happen to be all freshmen. So far this year they are pretty good in most areas of the game but not great at any. Decent scoring team, decent rebounding team, good defensive team and an OK shooting team. I really like the experience and talent they have coming off the bench behind what is mostly a young starting 5.
The more I see them the more I think they could give the Big Ten an eighth NCAA Tournament team.
Gophers vs. Iowa - Feb 3rd home, Feb 17th @ Iowa
Pretty good team that might have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament. But I fully expect the Gophers to return the favor this year and sweep the Hawkeyes. This is a team that will knock off a few of the upper-tier teams in the league, but it won't be the Gophers this year. I'm becoming more of a believer that this team might be playing the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Sure they beat Clemson on the road and have beat up a few smaller schools, but then they go out and lose to Eastern Michigan by scoring 44 total points! Really? I cannot consider this team as anything more than an NIT team until they prove otherwise. On paper this team defends well and they rebound really well. But they are really struggling to score. Their 1.017 point per possession ranks 10th in the Big Ten (123rd nationally) and their effective FG% is not in the top 250. Within the Big Ten they are dead last in 3-point FG% making just over 26% of their threes. The offense is the issue for the Boilermakers, did I mention they managed to score just 44 points in a loss to Eastern Michigan?
This is a young team with two freshmen starting and another getting a lot of minutes off the bench. This may be a temporary down year before Purdue gets back to the top half of the conference.
Gophers vs. Purdue - Mar 9th @ Purdue - Just one meeting this year and it is on the road. I don't like that it is the last game of the year as Purdue might be hitting their stride by then, but as of today I would chalk this one up as a W.
The Bottom Group who will not make the NCAA Tournament unless something weird happens. You might want to reclassify this group as the significantly injured group of teams (not counting Nebraska).
The Cornhuskers were welcomed into the Big Ten and their new friendly neighbors greeted them with a last place finish. Their four-win debut resulted in the firing of coach, Doc Saddler and the opportunity for Tim Miles to step into the rebuilding program. Gone for Miles are his top two leading scorers but that might actually be a good thing for a program that needs to change its direction. Miles has plenty of midwest roots and might be an ideal fit for Nebraska, success might be in his future but it won't be this year. Before this exercise of digging into each Big Ten team for a million dollars I would not have been able to name one player on the Cornhusker's roster.
This current version of Cornhusker basketball really (I mean REALLY) struggles offensively. They don't shoot very well, they don't get any offensive rebounds and they are highly inefficient scoring. On top of that they do not appear to be very consistent. After a couple of decent wins at Wake Forest and over USC at home, Nebraska has lost to Creighton and Oregon scoring an average of 40 points in those two games. This is going to be another difficult Big Ten season. Next fall may not be much better on the court but at least they'll be playing in a brand new facility.
The injuries and suspensions to key players for Northwestern and Penn State should allow Nebraska to move up the standings a bit but I'd be shocked to see a single-digit seed in the Big Ten Tourney.
Gophers vs. Nebraska - Jan 29th home, Mar 6th @ Nebraska - I am expecting (and hoping) that we crush the Skurs. Tim Miles has his Minnesota recruiting connections and he beat out the Gophers for a 2013 commitment from Wisconsin. Head-to-head defeats are not a huge factor in the recruiting game but a couple of 20-point wins might discourage kids the next time they are picking between Minnesota and Nebraska, even with their shiny new facility. In all seriousness, two things are capable of beating the Gophers in these two games. The Gophers and complacency (that is me being cocky).
Academic issues and an eventual suspension from the team derailed what may have been a relatively promising season for the Wildcats. This is what ruled out the season for JerShon Cobb. Add to that the recent loss of Drew Crawford for the season and the notorious streak of never participating in the NCAA Tournament will continue for the Wildcats. Maybe there is hope for the future with several freshmen getting significant playing time this year. And Crawford's injury will give more PT to yet another freshman.
These guys will catch a couple good teams off guard at home and lose a lot of games on the road. Examples last year of losing at Minnesota by 23 and at Ohio State by 33 but then beating the Gophers at home and losing to Ohio State at home by just 2. This year has been a bit odd with the Wildcats beating Baylor on the road but lost to Illinois-Chicago at home and were 20-point losers to Maryland at home. They have some experience to rely upon, but Northwestern will finish well outside of the NCAA Bubble this year.
Gophers vs. Northwestern - Jan 6th home, Jan 23rd @ Northwestern - The first game is at home and the Gophers have about a week to prepare. Both of those are important factors when facing the Wildcat's unique offense and the 1-3-1 defense. And we luck out with the return trip to Evanston getting six days to prepare for the 2nd meeting. Time to prepare is a big deal and the Gophers will sweep Northwestern this year.
This is unfortunate that the Nittany Lions had their basketball season end almost before it even got started (kind of like their football team). Losing Tim Frazier was a blow to this team that was already lacking talent to compete in the upper-half of the Big Ten. Only one senior on the roster so this young team might have an opportunity to be more of a factor in a year or two, but this year should be a long one in the deep and talented Big Ten.
Bench - Nick Colella (JR forward)
Bench - Jon Graham (SO guard)
Bench - Donovan Jack (FR forward)
Gophers vs. Penn State- Mar 2nd home - One game, should easily be one win.
So where do I see the Gophers finishing in the Big Ten? I think a slightly pessimistic view sees a final Big Ten record of 11-7. Against that top group we luck out having to face Michigan and Ohio State only once each. But 1-3 in those four games is a pretty safe bet with the most likley win at home against Michigan. The next group of NCAA Tournament teams I think we can safely assume splitting with all of them. Maybe we sweep one or get swept by another but 3-3 is a fair estimate. Against Iowa and Purdue I think we go 2-1, maybe 3-0. And we better not lose any of the five games to the teams well below the bubble line. If you add up those conservative estimates you come to 1-3 plus 3-3 plus 2-1 plus 5-0 gets me to 11 wins. 12-6 is very realistic and 13-5 is probably best case.
After throwing out a bunch of numbers and records I think I have adequately predicted nothing. If I have to pick I will say the Gophers finish 12-6 in the Big Ten.
What say you?