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Big Ten Basketball Preview and the Golden Gophers

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference schedule is just about officially behind us and the next 18+ games that lie ahead are going to be a step up in not only talent but you now have to face a quality opponent night after night.  The mental focus and ability to be physically up to the challenge is typically what separates the good teams from the bad.  The conference is growing, making a conference wide preview more challenging, but let's take a look around the Big Ten as we head into the heart of the season.

Before we go team-by-team we should first breath a big sigh of relief that the Gophers so far have not fallen victim to a bad loss like much of the rest of the conference.  The teams at the top, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Maryland managed to only lose to really good teams while Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota only lost to just good teams.  But the rest of the league fell victim to some rather embarrassing losses.

  • Michigan State - home loss to Texas Southern (KenPom rank - 194)
  • Indiana - home loss to Eastern Washington (102)
  • Michigan - home losses to NJIT (265) and Eastern Michigan (112)
  • Penn State - Neurtral court loss to Charlotte (104)
  • Purdue - home losses to North Florida (166) and Gardner Webb (173)
  • Nebraska - home loss to Incarnate Word (176) and road loss to Hawaii (162)
  • Northwestern - home loss to Central Michigan (116)
  • Rutgers - home losses to Saint Peter's (163) and St. Francis PA (144)

It has been a tough November and December for much of the Big Ten, but the Gophers survived with their only losses coming to Louisville (who is pretty good) and St. John's who is 10-1 and looks like a Tourney team.

Overall I like the strength and the depth of the conference, but what I don't see is any team that is ready to make a lot of noise on the national stage.  Wisconsin is very good, maybe Bo Ryan's best team, but I just don't see them at the same level as Duke or Kentucky or Louisville.  Ohio State is talented as well but lost to the two other elite teams they have faced this year.  Come Tourney time, the league will be strong and should represent well...but at this point I just don't see any Big Ten team that will be cutting down Regional Final nets.  Moving on to the teams...

1-WISCONSIN BADGERS

I hate to do this but the Badgers look like the most complete team in the league.  They have an identity, they execute it nearly to perfection and they have some very talented players making this more than just a "system" team.  This team could very easily make a second consecutive trip to the Final Four and I think they will be win the league with a couple game cushion.

Very good on both ends of the floor and efficient.  Some teams do what they can to earn extra possessions and other teams do their best to just not give any away.  The Badgers are 2nd nationally in not turning it over and 1st in not giving up offensive rebounds.  Like I said, they have an identity and a formula, they execute it and good luck stopping it when they have the kind of talent they have right now.

PG - Traevon Jackson
SG - Josh Gasser
SF - Sam Dekker
PF - Nigel Hayes
C - Frank Kaminsky
Bench - Bronson Koenig
Bench - Duje Dukan

2-MARYLAND TERRAPINS

I'm going to give the former ACC team the runner-up prediction this year.  This is a talented team that has faced a pretty decent schedule earning wins over Arizona State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.  Their only loss was to a very good Virginia team where they could not recover from a slow start.

An interesting stat with this team is how well they get to the free throw line while not fouling and allowing other teams to the line.  When the roughness of the Big Ten gets into high gear it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Also worth noting that they are starting three freshmen in their backcourt.

PG - Melo Trimble (FR)
SG - Dion Wiley (FR)
SF - Jared Nickens (FR)
PF - Jake Layman
C - Damonte Dodd
Bench - Richaud Pack
Bench - Michael Cekovsky

3-OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

The Buckeye formula is to be really talented with their starting lineup and ride them for as many minutes as possible.  Depth is not usually a strength of Thad Matta, by choice.  No doubt OSU is very talented again this year and is really getting it done defensively.

Certainly this team is capable of challenging Wisconsin for the regular season or conference tourney title.  They play very good defense and are shooting the ball very well from all points on the floor.

PG - Shannon Scott
SG - D'Angelo Russell (FR)
SF - Sam Thompson
PF - Marc Loving
C - Amir Williams
Bench - Kam Williams (FR)
Bench - Jae'Sean Tate (FR)

4-MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

The Spartans are good, they always are under Tom Izzo but they are not a team to be feared.  Typically you get a couple outstanding guards and then a bruising frontcourt that dominates the glass.  It looks like the Spartans are still trying to figure these pieces out.  Yes, they are still a top 20 defensive rebounding team but the loss of the physical Branden Dawson at PF with a broken wrist is going to mean an adjustment till he can come back.

This team will still win a lot of games and finish near the top because they always execute well on both ends, they typically rebound well and they are a good shooting team.  Turnovers have traditionally been a problem for the Spartans but so far this year it has not been too bad.

PG - Travis Trice
SG - Bryn Forbes
SF - Denzel Valentine
PF - Marvin Clark (FR)
C - Matt Costello
Bench - Gavin Schilling
Bench - Tum Tum Nairn (FR)
INJ - Branden Dawson

5-ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

This is a team that returned quite a bit from last year giving the Illinis some good depth and experience.  Really I think there is a gap between the four teams above and the next few teams that will be listed, who could finish in any order really.  I personally like Illnois more than I like Iowa and I'm trying not to be too bullish on the Gophers.

Just pretty good all around, Illinois managed to beat a good Baylor team on a neutral floor and has then lost to the other good teams they have faced (Miami, Villanova and Oregon).  Rice and Hill are both solid forwards who will be match-up problems for most teams.

PG - Ahmad Starks
SG - Aaron Crosby
SF - Rayvonte Rice
PF - Malcolm Hill
C - Nnanna Egwu
Bench - Kendrick Nunn
Bench - Jaylon Tate

6-MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS

Why not?  Andre Hollins is playing much better this year, Carlos Morris is doing what was expected in filling the shoes of Austin Hollins, Nate Mason is turning out to be a real nice scoring punch off the bench and we have some good size in the front-court.  More than the names though I love how this team is playing defense.  We are forcing turnovers, making life hard on the opposing offenses.

Turnovers will be what holds this team back, but when they are forcing turnovers that lead to offensive points the Gophers can play with anybody in the league.

PG - Deandre Mathieu
SG - Andre Hollins
SF - Carlos Morris
PF - Joey King
C - Maurice Walker
Bench - Nate Mason (FR)
Bench - Elliott Eliason

7-IOWA HAWKEYES

Editor's Note: I'm only half done with this conference?  We have too many teams, #bloggerproblems

So Iowa is a very well-coached team that has a nice and balanced roster.  They have been playing very good defense this year but scoring has kind of been an issue for this team.  They rank 102nd nationally in Offensive Efficiency and 262nd in eFG%.  Those are really not very good numbers when most of your opponents have been of the weaker variety.

Defensively is what is getting the job done for the Hawks this year and if the offense comes around they will not finish this low.

PG - Mike Gessel
SG - Josh Oglesby
SF - Jarrod Uthoff
PF - Aaron White
C - Gabriel Olaseni
Bench - Adam Woodbury
Bench - Anthony Clemmons

8-MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Am I overreacting to Michigan losing to New Jersey Institute of Technology and in their next game losing to Eastern Michigan and then losing to Arizona by 27?  Maybe, maybe not.  John Beilein teams, much like Bo Ryan teams, do what they can to never give away possessions.  They don't turn the ball over and they box out to get defensive rebounds.  They also do not try to force turnovers, thus often creating offense for the opponent; and they don't exactly crash the offensive glass.  Then they will beat you by making more shots than you, usually from behind the arc.

After finishing in the top 25 in eFG% the last three years, this year's Michigan club is currently ranked 134th (again note that this is mostly against weaker, non-conference opponents).  When this team struggles from three they are typically not going to be an elite team.  On top of that this is not a particularly strong defensive Michigan team.  Are they "bad"?  No, just not as good as they have been the last few years both defensively and at shooting.

Certainly they have the talent to turn things around and could easily vault to a top 4 or 5 finish in the conference.  But as of right now I cannot justify having them much higher.

PG - Spike Albrecht
SG - Derrick Walton
SF - Caris LeVert
PF - Kameron Chatman
C - Ricky Doyle
Bench - Zak Irvin
Bench - Mark Donnal

9-NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

One of the leagues best offensive players keeps the Cornhuskers in the mix for an NCAA Tournament berth.  Terran Petteway is pretty lethal and pairs well with Shavon Shields.  But after that scoring becomes an issue.  Overall this team ranks 245th in Offensive Efficiency and they turn the ball over a lot!  I'm probably being generous here putting Nebraska over Indiana and Purdue.

But I am giving them credit for being a good defensive team with a guy or two who can go-off and carry the offensiveload on any given night.

PG - Benny Parker
SG - Terran Petteway
SF - Shavon Shields
PF - David Rivers
C - Walter Pitchford
Bench - Tai Webster
Bench - Tarin Smith (FR)

10-INDIANA HOOSIERS

This team feels like a mess right now.  I have always been a fan of Tom Crean but I'm questioning this admiration lately.

This is a scoring team that has been just OK defensively, or maybe just not all that good defensively.  James Blackmon and Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams are all very good scorers, leading what has been a pretty efficient offensive team.

One bad loss on the season and a couple wins that are OK (SMU and Butler).  Much like my Michigan prediction, this is one team that could easily end up three or four spots higher.  But something doesn't feel right about this team and as we get into the Big Ten season and teams play physical and technically sound defense I wonder if this offensive team will fall back a little.

PG - Kevin Ferrell
SG - Robert Johnson (FR)
SF - James Blakcmon (FR)
PF - Troy Williams
C - Hanner Mosquera-Perea
Bench - Nick Zeisloft
Bench - Collin Hartman

11-PURDUE BOILERMAKERS

Matt Painter teams, and Gene Keady teams for that matter too, always play very physical and difficult defense.  Except this one.  Statistically this is the second worst defense in the Big Ten right now and unless something changes I don't see great things for this young team.

What I do like is their frontcourt.  Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons form a nice post tandem that is formidable.

PG - Jon Octeus
SG - Dakota Mathias (FR)
SF - Rapheal Davis
PF - Vince Edwards (FR)
C - Isaac Haas (FR)
Bench - AJ Hammons
Bench - Kendall Stephens

12-PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

KenPom actually has Penn State ranked a couple spots higher but this team will not finish in the top 10 in the league.  They are sitting at 12-1 right now but they have faced one team ranked in the KenPom top 100.  A very weak schedule has lead to a nice record but nothing jumps out about this team that says they should be one to be fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.

PG - Shep Garner (FR)
SG - D.J. Newbill
SF - Geno Thorpe
PF - Ross Travis
C - Jordan Dickerson
Bench - Brandon Taylor
Bench - John Johnson

13-NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

This team is going to have to get better defensively (12th in B1G) and so far they aren't terribly efficient offensively either (12th in B1G).  The streak should continue for the Wildcats.

PG - Bryant McIntosh (FR)
SG - Tre Demps
SF - Vic Law (FR)
PF - Sanjay Lumpkin
C - ALex Olah
Bench - Nathan Taphorn
Bench - Dave Sobelewski

14-RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHT

A whole lot of #NOPE.  Terrible offensively and not very good defensively.  Somehow they managed to earn a couple wins over other BCS conference foes (Clemson and Vandy) but what sticks out is scoring only 26 points in loss to Virginia, losing to Saint Peter's by 18 at home and losing to St. Francis PA at home.

PG - Myles Mack
SG - Mike Williams
SF - Junior Etou
PF - Greg Lewis
C - Kadeem Jack
Bench - BIshop Daniels
Bench - D.J. Foreman

A month ago I would not have been quite as optimistic about where I see the Gophers finishing in the final standings.  But I do like how this team is coming together after struggling early to really find their identity and come together with the additions of Morris and Mason.

I see the Gophers starting slowly in the conference season with three out of our first four on the road.  But starting with the home Iowa game watch for the Gophers to get hot and win a lot of games in the middle part of their schedule.  I see 11 maybe 12 conference wins in our future and nobody is sweating things out on Selection Sunday.