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A Look Around Big Ten Basketball As We Near Conference Play

The non-conference schedules are still ongoing but the conference season is going to be here very soon. I believe now is a perfect time to take a quick tour of the Big Ten and get an update on how the rest of the league is faring. How will the Mbakwe-less Gophers stack up?

Here is how the Big Ten stacks up based on their KenPom ranking as of 12/12/11. The more games that are played the more meaningful the efficiency numbers become. Wisconsin ranks awfully high largely because they have been dominant defensively, but we'll get to individual teams in a moment.

Team Overall Record Pomeroy National Rank Off Pnt / Pos Def Pnt / Pos
#14 - Wisconsin 8-2 1 1.141 0.810
#2 - Ohio St. 8-1 3 1.163 0.835
#21- Michigan St. 8-2 12 1.088 0.863
#18 - Indiana 9-0 13 1.143 0.922
Purdue 9-2 14 1.093 0.884
#20 - Michigan 7-2 39 1.110 0.950
#19 - Illinois 10-0 41 1.060 0.909
Minnesota 10-1 45 1.092 0.946
Northwestern 7-1 52 1.119 0.981
Nebraska 6-3 76 1.019 0.927
Iowa 5-5 141 1.016 0.990
Penn St. 6-5 158 0.972 0.963

The Bottom Quarter - there appears to be a pretty big gap between the top 9 teams in the 10-12 teams in the Big Ten. Iowa, Penn State and Nebraska are pretty clearly the bottom quarter of the league. Minnesota may be the team that bridges that gap but I remain confident that we will still finish no worse than 9th in the conference.

  • Nebraska - Senior guard, Bo Spencer is leading the Huskers to their 6-3 start. Their best wins are probably a road win over TCU and at home over South Dakota State. Their three losses have all been pretty close with their only 10-pnt loss coming at the hands of #22-Creighton, and even that was tied with about 10 minutes remaining. On the road they beat USC by three in overtime, Minnesota beat USC at home by 15 (post-Mbakwe injury). We get Nebraska twice, I'm still counting them both as wins.
  • Iowa - The Hawkeyes may be better than last year but they still are not going to be a factor in the Big Ten. Clemson dominated Iowa in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and Clemson was picked as a middle-of-the-pack ACC team (just behind Virginia Tech). The Hawkeyes might be the worst D1 basketball team in the state of Iowa having lost to Northern Iowa, Creighton and Iowa State by 20, 23 and 10 respectively. They still have a chance to salvage their local rep when they face Drake. We get Iowa twice and once again I'm still counting on two wins for the Gophers.
  • Penn State - The Nittany Lions remain a one-man team but it is not Talor Battle anymore. Junior guard (6-1), Tim Frazier is leading the team in points (17.4), rebounds (5.6) and assists (7.2). But their 5-5 record is by far the worst in the conference and they haven't exactly played a grueling schedule. The Gophers get PSU only once and it is on the road, but this should also still be a win.

The NIT Bound - this is a small group of two teams both hoping to make a run to the NCAA Tournament but both likely to be NIT bound this year. Both of these teams should rise above the bottom drudges of the conference but getting enough wins against the teams above them will be too few.

  • Northwestern - A nice 7-game win streak to star the season before getting pummeled by #9 Baylor. The Wildcat's marquee win so far is a neutral court, seven point win over Seton Hall. John Shurna and Drew Crawford are a nice tandem who are combining to average 36.2 ppg. As we have been accustomed to seeing this team does not turn the ball over and they shoot the ball well. They'll win a few games over teams ahead of them and most of the ones against those below, but I see NIT in their future once again.
  • Minnesota - The loss of Mbakwe was devastating but life has to go on. The team's identity of dominating the interior while the perimeter players figured things out is out the window and a new identity needs to be formed. So far Rodney Williams is filling that void well and Julian Welch is taking steps to being a reliable performer. The outlook for the season isn't what it was when we had the best PF in the Big Ten, but this team has come together well since the injury. They need to get better, guys need to mature fast but they can still win some conference games.

The real Tournament Teams -The next four teams are all ones that will either be safely in the NCAA Tournament or on the bubble, likely to make it.

  • Indiana -The Hoosiers were expected to be better this year but their win over Kentucky on Saturday, along with their undefeated record has then already exceeding expectations and put them back on the basket map. They have a number of scorers on this roster which is why they are the 2nd most efficient offense in the Big Ten. Super freshman, Cody Zeller has been a huge shot in the arm to go along with the experience of Verdell Jones III, Christian Watford and others. They shoot VERY well and they force a lot of turnovers. I don't know that they are "back" yet but they are much improved and should be a Tournament team.
  • Michigan - Way back at the very end of the season last year I declared Michigan a favorite to win the Big Ten this year. At the time I assumed Darius Morris would be back and I assumed Ohio State would lose Sullinger, so I will be wrong. But Michigan has been bolstered by freshman, Trey Burke and they are playing good basketball. They too are shooting the ball very well. Some cold shooting nights away from home may give them a couple losses to lesser talented teams, but this is also a Tourney team. Minnesota avoids Michigan at home, but I'm going to assume their trip to Chrysler Arena will be a loss for the Gophers.
  • Purdue - Robbie Hummel is back and this Purdue teams does just about everything well. They have 9 wins against nobody special and their 2 losses have both come to ranked teams. That is good and bad, they haven't lost to anybody they really shouldn't have but they also haven't beat anybody noteworthy. Their two biggest wins to date are probably Miami and Iona. Hummel is leading the team in scoring and rebounding. Minnesota hosts Purdue in the only matchup between these two teams. That could be a sneaky road game for Purdue who then goes home to host Wisconsin. Do I smell a trap game?
  • Illinois -10-0 with a win over Gonzaga and a quasi-home game against UNLV coming up. Illinois is playing well this year on both ends of the floor. Sophomore Meyers Leonard has made the jump from 8 minutes, just 2 points and 1.2 rebounds per game last year to 26 minutes, 13.4 points (2nd on the team) and 7.2 rebounds per game this year. The 7-1 center has taken full advantage of his increased playing time and has certainly helped the Illini. They will open their Big Ten season hosting the Gophers before heading to Purdue for New Year's Eve game.

The True Contenders - These teams are the ones who are most likely going to be contending for a conference title and potentially earning a Final Four berth. Ohio State is clearly most ready to compete on the national state but you should never (ever) count out Bo Ryan or Tom Izzo come tournament time. All three of these schools could emerge as the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

  • Michigan State - After starting out 0-2 losing to North Carolina and Duke the Spartans have won eight straight including a win over #22 Gonzaga. Of the three in this group they are the most vulnerable to finishing third, or even worse. But given several games to work out their kinks, they will be ready for the Big Ten season. This program has lost some very talented guards in the last couple years but they still have Draymond Green on the inside and they still play to their strengths. Over the last few years MSU has rebounded as well or better than anyone in the conference, they execute their offense with precision and they struggle with turnovers. This year is no different.
  • Wisconsin - The Badgers are currently the #1 team in the country according to KenPom's ranking. They have a couple losses to good teams and have beat a couple good mid-majors in BYU and UNLV. Much like the rest of the Big Ten, Wisconsin does certain things very well. This team defends, statistically better than anyone in the country, holding teams to just 0.81 points per possession. Offensively they don't turn the ball over and they shoot well from behind the arc. Add to that a dynamic, play-making, All-American caliber point guard who is third on the team in scoring and you have a team that can beat anybody.
  • Ohio State - It isn't very often that "one-and-done" freshman decides to come back for his sophomore season. But Jared Sullinger did just that and his Buckeyes have been decimating teams including a 22 point home win over Duke and a win over then #8 Florida. The Buckeyes did just lose their first game of the year at Kansas but they are clearly the Big Ten frontrunner and a Final Four favorite. This team scores a ton, averaging over 80 points per game. William Buford is shooting over 40% from three and the cat-quick Aaron Craft is leading the Big Ten in steals, third in assists. I am thankful the Gophers only play them once and it is at home.

What does this all mean for the Gophers? Well they should enter conference play with 12 wins. Getting 9 or 10 more in the conference season + conference tournament seems like a tall order. The problem is going to be getting wins over teams ahead of them in the standings. This not a very efficient scoring team without Mbakwe, we do not shoot well from three and we are not a particularly good defensive team. We can get by and we can beat some good teams if we catch them on an off-shooting night. We will win by rebounding well, dominating the paint and forcing turnovers.

I see us as being good enough to get 5 wins over the bottom trio of teams. Maybe we go 4-1, but that stuff happens in conference play. I do not think we matchup well with Northwestern at all and the five games against the top 3 programs are not likely to go our way. That is probably 0-7, maybe 1-6, in those games. Then we have 6 games against the other middle teams. I think we matchup OK with Purdue (1) and Illinois (2) but they have had our number lately. Michigan (1) is a very good shooting team and Indiana (2) might have too much perimeter scoring for us to handle. Seven wins seems doable and I think that would be respectable considering the loss of Mbakwe but it won't be enough to get us into the NCAA Tournament. Our key stretch will be at the end of Jan/early Feb. We host Illinois and then travel to Iowa and Nebraska. If we can go 3-0 in those games, before we host Ohio State and Wisconsin, we can maybe build some confidence in the final month of play.

The seven-win total goes up if we start to play better perimeter defense and if we find a reliable shooter or two. I really like how Rodney Williams has stepped up his game in the absence of Mbakwe and Julian Welch is taking on more responsibility offensively. But we need more from Ralph and I believe Andre Hollins. Those guys need to bring more on both ends of the floor for this team to accomplish more than an NIT bid.

The Big Ten season is always very interesting with twists and turns we don't yet see coming. This will have to be Tubby's best coaching job of his Minnesota career. This team has some talent but they need to continue to come together and scrap their way to some Big Ten wins.