PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Michigan State
Sparty is loaded from top to bottom with a lottery pick on the wing, one of the country’s most underrated bigs on the block and a top-shelf distributor at the point. Starting with Miles Bridges, Tom Izzo has a go-to scorer who can create his own shot off the dribble while maintaining an outstanding 3-point shot at 42 percent. He’s a ferocious defensive rebounder who can start the break off a miss on his own, and he threw in a top-10 block rate in the Big Ten to boot. He’s the total package and one of the five best players in the country. His game is aided by Cassius Winston and TumTum Nairn at the point. Winston was a bench player in name only, as he’s one of the best true point guards in the nation. Per HoopLens.com, Sparty posted 1.10 points per possession with Winston on the floor and just 1.02 when Nairn ran the point. Winston tallied the nation’s second-highest assist rate at an absurd 46.7 percent. Off the ball, Josh Langford shot 42 percent from 3 as a freshman wing, and he should make a leap in other facets of his game as a sophomore, while Matt McQuaid needs to be a little more consistent with his jump shot in his role as spot-up shooter. Meanwhile, in the frontcourt, Nick Ward morphed into one of the league’s best block scorers when he could stay out of foul trouble. When Bridges, Ward and Winston were on the floor together, MSU scored at an eye-popping 1.21 points per possession. Ward’s per 40 rebounding, block and contact rates are off the charts, but with the return of Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter to the frontcourt, Ward’s foul situation is mitigated a bit. Carter, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back major knee injuries, so any depth he provides will be icing on the cake. Kenny Goins can guard any 3/4 in the league and is an invaluable defender off the bench for Izzo. Izzo added five-star Jaren Jackson, who can play the 4 next to Ward in what should be the league’s best frontcourt. Jackson’s athleticism at the position is almost unparalleled in the league, and a Winston, Langford, Bridges, Jackson, Ward lineup is pretty much unfair. Xavier Tillman is a four-star addition to the frontline who might redshirt with Izzo’s newfound frontcourt depth. If he doesn’t, he’s got an NBA-ready body and can bang immediately in this league.
WEAKNESSES: As the above paragraph makes clear, Sparty doesn’t have much, if any weakness. Turnovers were an issue for both Winston and Nairn, but Winston’s rate likely decreases as a sophomore with more quality depth around him. Defensively, MSU had some issues in ball screen defense, particularly Ward and Winston. Per HoopLens, Sparty allowed 1.02 points per possession with Winston on the floor, compared to .98 with Nairn at the point. Similarly, Schilling is a better, more mobile defender in ball screens than Ward, but you sacrifice offense and rim protection in that scenario. It’s a minor issue in the grand scheme, but Izzo’s offense for defense lineup juggling is worth monitoring.
SCHEME: Offensively, Izzo has a reputation as an “overcoacher” of his elite talent, but he loves to run sets like the nefarious double backdoor and a lot of screening both on the ball and off (with a lot of Hawk action) because it allows his players to know where they’re going to be on any given shot, and that in turn helps them rebound offensively, which is a staple of any Izzo team. Defensively, Izzo uses his guards in a mostly pack line scheme that denies dribble drive penetration and jumping to the ball on perimeter reversals. Basically, Izzo loves to clog driving lanes to force jump shots and snag the board rather than force turnovers.
OUTLOOK: Assuming they avoid a rash of injuries like last year (and even this year they could actually withstand it), Sparty is a title contender and a likely No. 1 seed in March.
STRENGTHS: Defense and experience.
After Richard Pitino pulled off the biggest turnaround in the country last year, the Gophers return nearly everyone and should contend for a Big Ten title. Nate Mason returns at the point after making a big leap last year as a penetrating point, and he vastly improved his jump shot. Dupree McBrayer returns as a shooter/slasher off the ball, while a 3/4/5 lineup of Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch in the frontcourt makes the Gopher starting five one of the best in the league. That frontcourt lineup held offenses to 0.94 points per possession per HoopLens, and the Gopher defense could be the best in the league this year. Lynch anchors as one of the best shot blockers in the country (14.5 percent block rate) and racked up an absurd 11 swats against Penn State last year. Murphy is an impossible matchup, as he’s too athletic for a 4 and too powerful for a 3. He’s reportedly added a jump shot to his game, and he was already drawing fouls at the highest rate in the league. Coffey could be due for a major breakout as a sophomore. He’s a long-armed athlete who can play 1-3 and is a vastly underrated defender. His jump shot was questioned coming into the season, but he improved to 42 percent in league play from outside. Pitino added some much needed depth in four-star Harlem PG Isaiah Washington of Jelly Fam fame, and Washington could serve in a dual PG look with Mason at times. Bakary Konate provides a secondary rim protector behind Lynch if/when he gets in foul trouble. Frosh Jamir Harris provides shooting on the wing, while oft-injured Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald is a long, freakish athlete at 6-foot-8 when healthy.
WEAKNESSES: Perimeter shooting.
The Gophers shot just 34 percent from 3 in league play while attempting them at the third lowest rate. Pitino preferred to utilize his wing athleticism to get the ball to the rim/draw contact at a high rate. The lack of perimeter threats (and with Akeem Springs gone, it’s a little more dire this year) caused for some poor spacing and resulted in just the league’s 10th-most efficient offense. Murphy developing into a stretchier 4 would be a huge development for Pitino’s offense this year.
SCHEME: Offensively the Gophers are looking to attack the rim from the 1-4 positions at all times in dribble drive/dribble handoff, and they utilize a lot of flex motion around the paint. Defensively, Pitino has largely abandoned his dad’s zone pressure schemes, but the Gophers still use their superior wing athleticism at the 3/4 to force shooters into contested shots that are more often than not swatted by Lynch. Only Michigan allowed a lower 3-point attempt rate in Big Ten play.
OUTLOOK: A top four seed come March is well within reason, especially if Coffey and Murphy develop into more consistent perimeter threats offensively.
STRENGTHS: Experience and balance.
The Boilers lose Caleb Swanigan, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel on Matt Painter’s squad, as they return four starters and a couple of key freshmen. P.J. Thompson leads the way in the backcourt as a steady on-ball presence and an underrated defender. Thompson isn’t flashy, but he hits jump shots and doesn’t turn the ball over. I’m not asking for more if I’m a Purdue fan. His running mate is Carsen Edwards, who has an overlooked handle on the perimeter off the ball, but his scoring mentality as a freshman wasn’t backed up with any sort of efficiency. Dakota Mathis, meanwhile, is the opposite of Edwards as a legit “3 and D” wing who shot 46 percent from deep in league games. Vince Edwards at the 4 is Painter’s best player. Edwards can literally do everything on the floor as a 6-foot-8 hybrid forward and was an efficiency monster offensively. He’s one of the best, and more underrated, seniors in the country. Massive Isaac Haas returns to the middle as the lone tower with Swanigan gone (although Painter added 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms). With Biggie in the NBA, Haas has to be able to play 25-30 minutes nightly, as he’s one of the most efficient rim finishers in the country. Sharpshooter Ryan Cline returns to his role as a floor stretcher and instant offense off the bench, while freshman Nojel Eastern provides a major athleticism boost on the wing. Eastern can fill in at 1-4. Grady Eifert provides reliable depth in the frontcourt, and the former walk-on could actually see an expanded role as the first big off the bench given his role in the WUG games, but newcomers Eden Ewing from the JUCO ranks and frosh Aaron Wheeler offer significantly more upside.
WEAKNESSES: There’s no getting around it. Purdue’s offensive efficiency will take a hit without Swanigan. The Boilers fired at 1.15 points per possession when he was on the floor and 1.02 when he was on the bench. Defensively, his absence won’t make much of a difference, as he wasn’t a particularly strong defender in ball screens.
SCHEME: Without A.J. Hammons last year, Painter revamped the defense to a gamble-free man-to-man that focused solely on gap denial and closing out hard on the perimeter, a necessity because the new philosophy is designed to induce jump shots. Per Hoop-math.com, only 24 teams in the country allowed a lower FG attempt rate the rim than the Boilermaker defense. As I mentioned, Swanigan made them a slightly worse defensive team inside, and Purdue’s block rate plummeted all the way to 312th nationally. I would expect more of the same general “keep the ball in front of you” defense to keep Haas out of foul trouble. Offensively, Painter will be working more with four-out motion than he did last year, and this offense can fill it up from outside.
OUTLOOK: Purdue will be fine, and a No. 5 seed is likely the ceiling. The offensive will be a little less efficient, but the defense will still be very stout in the halfcourt and dominant denying transition.
STRENGTHS: Lineup versatility and depth. Athleticism. Improving defense.
Life post-Melo Trimble won’t be easy. His influence on the Maryland offense was incalculable. Actually, using HoopLens, I did calculate it. With Trimble on the floor, the Terp offense worked at 1.10 points per possession. In roughly 500 possessions with him off the floor last year, they scored at just 0.97 ppp. That said, Mark Turgeon of course knew this day was coming, and his lineup might actually have a little more versatility and freedom rather than depending solely on Trimble’s penetration. Lightning quick PG Anthony Cowan and 6-foot-5 freshman Darryl Morsell will form what should be one of the league’s better, and more overlooked, backcourts (despite the fact both have four-star recruiting pedigrees). Morsell can actually run the offense and move Cowan into more of a scoring role in a dual PG lineup, as I think Morsell’s ability to handle the ball is severely undervalued. He’s like Dez Well but with a handle and better passing ability. Additionally, the defense improves with Cowan and Morsell, as Trimble was a subpar defender in pick-and-roll defense. The wing corps is a major strength for Turgeon this year, and Justin Jackson is going to have a monster season. He’s a lethal shooter who shot 44 percent from 3 last year, can finish at the rim and can guard 2-4 with effectiveness. He’ll pair with Kevin Huerter, a 6-foot-7 3 and D player. In roughly 1.000 possessions when Cowan/Jackson/Huerter were on the floor together, they allowed opponents to score at just 0.97 points per possession, per HoopLens. Turgeon might actually have some bangers in the frontcourt this year as well. Ivan Bender is reportedly in the best shape of his life, and he’s a useful high post threat as an excellent passing big. A healthy Ceko Cekovsky would go a long way in shoring up the rebounding issues, while Jared Nickens returns as a spot shooter with length on the defensive end (although Maryland allowed a robust 1.08 points per possession when he was on the floor). Bruno Fernando has been sitting with a high ankle sprain, but he’s a four-star big with plus athleticism, and Turgeon added Sean Obi as a grad transfer, who was the top rebounder in CUSA as a frosh, but that was way back in 2013. Josh Tomaic is redshirt freshman who gives Turgeon even more depth in the paint this year.
WEAKNESSES: Rebounding. Scoring void without Trimble.
Despite the additions of Obi and Fernando and the return of Cekovsky, the Terps’ issues on the glass should still be a recurring theme this year, and while Cowan, Morsell and Jackson have the ability and talent, and it’s going to take some time to fully adjust to life without the dynamic penetrator Trimble.
SCHEME: Offensively, the Terps run mostly in pick-and-roll, and last year were reliant on a lot of spot=up jump shooting (a byproduct of Trimble’s dominance on the ball). The Terps were a horrific zone offense last year, and teams simply figured out you can pack it in against Trimble. There should be more movement off the ball this year. Or at least I would hope so. Defensively Turgeon is almost strictly gap principled man-to-man. Cowan and Morsell should allow for a marked improvement in pick-and-roll defense this year.
OUTLOOK: 7-10 seed in March, with a reasonably high ceiling should the Cowan/Morsell/Jackson trio click offensively.
STRENGTHS: The backcourt. Defense. Less pressure of carrying the burden of being the first NCAA Tournament team in Northwestern history.
The Wildcats finally did it! And they return four starters, including point guard Bryant McIntosh, in their encore effort. A strong case can be made for McIntosh being the most important player to his team in the Big Ten. McIntosh posted the league’s third-highest assist rate, and his decision making in Chris Collins’ pick-and-roll heavy offense is crucial. McIntosh’s most consistent weapons offensively are his 2 and 3, Scottie Lindsay and Vic Law, respectively. McIntosh/Lindsay/Law on the floor together produced 1.13 points per possession per Hooplens, while Northwestern averaged just 1.01 when they weren’t together. Defensively, the splits were nearly as dramatic: 0.95 ppp together, 1.01 not. Isiah Brown is a gunner who doesn’t need to be a gunner in this offense, while four-star frosh Anthony Gaines adds instant athleticism and shutdown defense potential to the wing. While the backcourt is the clear strength of the team, the frontcourt is formidable. Aaron Falzon returns after having knee surgery in December and gives Collins a much-needed floor-stretcher, which in turns clears space for Dererk Pardon in the post. Falzon can’t replace the undervalued defense of Sanjay Lumpkin, but Gavin Skelly can. Skelly was instant energy off the bench, and NU’s offensive and defensive efficiency splits were markedly better with him on the floor. Pardon and Skelly together was actually Collins’ best defensive frontcourt, but their duplicate offensive roles keeps that lineup from being a frequent option.
WEAKNESSES: Offensively NU lacks playmakers outside of McIntosh creating off pick-and-roll. The sets are crisp and well run, but the Wildcats were just ninth in offensive efficiency rating in the Big Ten. They also have to play their home games at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, a trek casual NU fans won’t be willing to make, and it’s haunted by DePaul basketball.
SCHEME: Defensively is where NU makes their hay, and they don’t do anything glaringly crazy on that end. They just guard really well 1-5. The athleticism/length of Law on the perimeter is the key, but Lumpkin will really be missed on that end. Offensively, everything runs through McIntosh in pick-and-roll and dribble handoffs. They don’t turn the ball over and they run their stuff well, but they don’t create a lot of contact in the offense, and they shot extremely poorly from 3 in Big Ten play.
OUTLOOK: Similar to last year. NU is a solid offensive and a very good defensive team, and they don’t have the pressure of finally earning a tourney bid.
STRENGTHS: Ethan Happ. Scheme continuity.
Happ is the only returning starter for the Badgers, but he’s such a dominant force and the Wisconsin system is so well established, I have a hard time bumping the Badgers down the Big Ten pecking order. Happ’s per 40 rates were insane last year in league play: seventh in both rebounding rates, eighth in block rate, first in steal rate (!) and fifth in free throw rate. The bad news for Happ is that he has an unproven supporting cast around him. The good news is that Greg Gard has continued to run the swing offense, which means teams would be ill advised to simply key in on Happ despite the lack of proven options. The key to defending against the swing is to know your role in the defense and stay true to it. Over-helping, over-gambling, etc. is a sure way to leave wide-open shooters. The two definites around Happ will be D’Mitrik Trice at the point and Khalil Iverson at the 3. Trice should see the usually reliable sophomore bump, but he’ll have to adapt to a new role. Iverson plays above the rim and has the skill set to be a versatile defender, but the Badgers were actually much better defensively with him off the floor (0.92 points per possession vs. 1.02 with him on, per Hooplens). Iverson also doesn’t have a jump shot in his repertoire, but he and Happ (who has attempted two in his career) have both reportedly developed a perimeter game this offseason. (They were a combined 3-4 from 3 in an exhibition game against UNI). Four-star off guard Brevin Pritzl should slot into a starting role next to Trice. Pritzl came to Madison with a reputation as a lethal sharpshooter, but he struggled from outside in his freshman season. Obviously, he’s a player Gard will be relying on heavily. Josh Gasser, Ben Brust, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter – those are all names I’ve heard 6-foot-3 frosh Brad Davison compared to. He and 6-foot-4 Kobe King should have immediate roles for a team that is atypically short on shooters.
WEAKNESSES: All the unknowns personnel wise.
Can Davison, King and Pritzl become the shooters the offense craves? Can Aleem Ford settle into some sort of Nigel Hayes-esque role? He’s one of the options at the 4 next to Happ, along with Andy Van Vliet, who played well on Wisconsin’s summer trip, and highly-touted freshman Nate Reuvers. Reuvers has the most swing offense ready game, but he’s also a freshman. Can Happ improve his woeful free throw shooting? With the amount of contact he generates, shooting 50 percent from the line again could cost the Badgers several games given that streams of consistent offense have yet to be uncovered.
SCHEME: Swing offense, baby! Four-out around Happ, with a dizzying array of screens and cuts, which often inverts the offense; guards post up while bigs have wide-open perimeter shots, usually from the top of the key. Defensively, the Badgers have been on the forefront of analytical defense before analytics. They don’t allow 3-pointers and they don’t foul, and they force you to beat them with isolation plays instead of letting you run offense (check out opposing assist rates through the Bo Ryan years).
OUTLOOK: Certainly the lack of proven options around Happ is a major concern. But I trust the scheme. I’m nervously penciling Wisconsin in on the 7-10 line.
STRENGTHS: John Beilein. Offense. Backcourt/wing depth.
Michigan should be a team rounding into form come late February, similar to last season. Beilein’s primary concern is finding a way to replace Derrick Walton, and he might go with some sort of composite PG made up of Jaaron Simmons (Ohio transfer), Xavier Simpson and Eli Brooks. Simmons is the most logical choice, and Ohio ran a lot of the 1-5 ball screen action that Beilein relied on so heavily during Michigan’s “miracle run” last year. That said, Simmons’ strength as a point is his probing in transition (interestingly, while UM doesn’t run often, they were the 11th-most efficient transition offense last year, but basically all facets of offensive basketball are efficient under Beilein). Plus, he might not be the best “fit” early in Beilein’s offense, which means the sophomore Simpson could be running much of the offense early, while Brooks might be Beilein’s best defensive option on the ball. The addition of Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews to the wing gives Beilein’s offense a wrinkle they lacked last year – an athletic slasher with the ability to get to the rim with sheer athleticism. Matthews is the frontrunner to lead the Wolverines in scoring. Matthews paired with experienced Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and sharpshooting 4 Duncan Robinson should be a lethal offensive group on the wing. 6-foot-4 Jordan Poole is a sharpshooting freshman perfect for Beilein’s offense, while Isaiah Livers is the first in-state Mr. Basketball at UM since Manny Harris. He projects as a more athletic version of Robinson. Mo Wagner returns to anchor the frontcourt in Beilein’s high ball screen offense. Beilein really needs Wagner to improve his rebounding and box out technique and develop his passing game as he commands more defensive attention this year.
WEAKNESSES: Murky point guard situation. Defense. Rebounding. Frontcourt depth.
The point guard situation, while up in the air, is more of a relative “weakness” to start the season. I’m sure Simmons will settle in once he gets the grasp of Beilein’s offense. Defensively, however, the Wolverines have issues. Robinson has major trouble defending in ball screens, and per Hooplens, the Wolverines allowed 1.05 points per possession when he was on the floor compared to 0.99 when he wasn’t. He might see his role continue to shrink. Offensive rebounding isn’t part of the Beilein gameplan, as he prefers to limit transition opportunities instead, but the defensive rebounding was poor last year. A lot of that can be chalked up to Beilein’s preferred offensive personnel, but Wagner and MAAR have to rebound their positions better. Behind Wagner, there isn’t much depth in the paint other than sophomore Jon Teske, a skilled 7-footer who can pass and protect the rim defensively. He’ll have a role on this year’s Wolverines.
SCHEME: John Beilein’s two guard offense has always been a thing of beauty. He relied on a lot of 1-5 ball screens last year during Michigan’s blazing offensive run to close the season, but the gadgets in his Chin and Shuffle sets (particularly for his stretch 4s) are what make Beilein arguably the best offensive mind in college basketball. Defensively, Beilein has largely shied away from the 1-3-1 that was synonymous with him when he first came over from West Virginia, and he basically abandoned any zone defense midway through last year.
OUTLOOK: Once Simmons and Matthews are fully ensconced in the offense, this isn’t a team I want to be playing in late February. Depending on how well they stay afloat while they work out some kinks early, Michigan probably projects as a 7-10
STRENGTHS: Sophomore class. Lineup versatility and depth. Transition offense and ball movement.
The Hawkeyes should return to the NCAA Tournament after missing a bid for the first time in three years. Overcoming the loss of go-to scorer Peter Jok is the first order of business for Fran McCaffery, but with a talented sophomore class and a four-star freshman center, there are plenty of scoring options. McCaffery’s backcourt will be led by Jordan Bohannon. Bohannon was playing some of the best offensive basketball in the entire country from late February on. He’s a plus distributor and outstanding shooter in McCaffery’s transition-reliant offense (15th nationally in FGA rate in transition). Bohannon is due for a massive sophomore season. Isaiah Moss, if healthy, will be his running mate off the ball. Moss is the most likely candidate to fill Jok’s shot void, but he needs to improve defensively as well (although Jok wasn’t exactly a stalwart on that end, either). At the 3, Ahmad Wagner is a starter nominally, but his defense on the perimeter is a welcome addition anytime he’s on the floor. Nicholas Baer comes off the bench but receives the bulk of the minutes on the wing. Baer is the reigning 6th Man of the Year in the Big Ten, and he should be due for a scoring bump along with Moss in Jok’s wake. Baer can shoot from behind the arc at near 40 percent, and his versatility defensively allowed him to grade out as Iowa’s best overall defender. Per Hooplens, Iowa’s defense improved to 1.00 points per possession with him on the floor as opposed to 1.09 with him off. Backcourt/wing depth is provided by Connor McCaffery, who will no longer redshirt after the late offseason transfer of Christian Williams. McCaffery is a more than capable backup for Bohannon and could even allow him to slide off the ball at times. Brady Ellingson is one of the team’s best shooters as a combo guard. McCaffery has a deep and talented frontcourt with addition of Luke Garza at the 5 next to Tyler Cook. Garza will start immediately; he can run the floor in McCaffery’s offense and stretch out in pick-and-pop situations. His presence will open things up for Cook, who has the skill set and body to be a monster on the block this year. Cook is lethal running the floor in transition and plays above the rim. The Cook/Garza combo inside should have Iowa fans salivating. Cordell Pemsl adds depth and efficient offense at the 4 and 5. Ryan Kriener, meanwhile, has been working on adding a stretch 4 aspect to his game. Senior Dom Uhl has likely played himself out of the rotation unless called upon due to injuries or serious foul trouble.
WEAKNESSES: Defense. Defense. Defense. Defensive rebounding.
Iowa was bad defensively. A transition-heavy offense will usually beget a lot of transition attempts the other way, but the halfcourt defense was poor as well. The guards couldn’t contain dribble penetration, and there were way too many easy looks at the rim (20th-worst FG percentage allowed at the rim per Hoopmath). While Jok was a major factor offensively (-.08 differential in ppp with him off the floor per Hooplens), he nearly negated that with his defense (+.06 differential with him off the floor), so there’s at least some hope for improvement. The Hawkeyes also allowed the most second chance opportunities in the league, and the idea is that Garza will improve that.
SCHEME: McCaffery loves to push in transition when his team can actually grab a defensive rebound, but short of that, he’ll push even against set defenses after a score. I don’t expect that to change with his depth at nearly every position. Defensively, McCaffery tries to create transition opportunities and keep teams off balance with a 1-2-2 trapping zone.
OUTLOOK: Iowa should be one of the many Big Ten teams on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday in the 8-10 seed range, but with a high ceiling assuming the defense shows some improvement.
STRENGTHS: Coaching. Young talent.
New Illinois AD Josh Whitman basically hit a grand slam with his ability to lure Brad Underwood to Champaign (assuming nothing becomes of his alleged link to the Adidas scandal). Underwood singlehandedly makes a young Illinois team with a lot of roster turnover a competitive team in the Big Ten – and even an NCAA Tournament bid contender. Underwood’s first Illini team is young, but there’s talent to work with. Underwood built Oklahoma State into the nation’s most efficient offense in just one season thanks to electric Jawun Evans. Does he have an Evans in the rough at Illinois? Not really, but Wright State transfer Mark Alstork will try to provide a reasonable facsimile. Alstork’s usage rates were insane last year in Dayton, as the ball never left the 6-foot-5 combo guard’s hands. He can play more off the ball under Underwood this season, especially if sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas continues to develop. Should Lucas struggle in the role, Underwood has a trio of four-star ball handlers ready to take over. Underwood landed Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith almost immediately, and he’s the first Mr. Basketball to go to Illinois since Jereme Richmond in 2010. (Hopefully Smith’s Illini career has a much better result on and off the court.) Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams are the other two stellar combo guards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams or Smith starts right away; they’re both outstanding transition guards with size that can play 1-3, and Underwood has always been on the forefront of positionless basketball dating back to his SFA days. Underwood inherited typical bigs for his system in Leron Black and Mike Finke, as both can play on the perimeter and space the floor. Kipper Nichols is another sharpshooter in the frontcourt that can space the floor, but Illinois surrendered 1.08 points per possession when he was on the court. Nigerian freshman Grego Eboigbodin gives Underwood instant athleticism and rebounding off the bench, but he’s incredibly raw offensively.
WEAKNESSES: Youth. Adjusting to intense new scheme.
The Illini are very young, and Underwood’s scheme on both ends is tough to pick up. There will certainly be some growing pains, and they already started with an exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois.
SCHEME: Underwood has been an early proponent of positionless basketball, and his spread motion offense emphasizes constant off-ball movement and inverting bigs. Defensively, this quote from Mike Finke in a story by Chad Dare at the Commericial-News in Danville, IL says it all:
“If your man catches the ball, the coaches send you to the treadmill,’’ said Finke, noting that the offending player has to spend 30-60 seconds running on the treadmill with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. “They really don’t want the other man to catch the ball. They always say, how can your man score if he can’t catch the ball.”
Underwood’s defense is full deny, all the time. However, he did switch to a pack line in Stillwater when his new team couldn’t pick up the scheme to start the season. That’s a scheme Illinois is familiar with under Groce, and it would be interesting if Underwood reverts to that at some point early in the year.
OUTLOOK: A new coach, a new scheme and a lot of new players makes it hard to say exactly how Illinois’ season will go, but the talent on the court and the sideline provides a high ceiling.
10. Penn State
STRENGTHS: Experienced starters. Solid frontcourt. Defense.
There might be a light at the end of the tunnel for Pat Chambers. Last year’s team was one of the youngest in the country, but they were competitive, with eight of their 12 leagues losses coming by 10 or fewer points. Chambers returns all five starters from that team, and the Nittany Lions should be competing for an at-large spot this year. Chambers’ squad is built around his solid sophomore class, led by Jordan Watkins (currently suspended), Tone Carr and Lamar Stevens. If PSU is going to make a jump up the standings, it will have to come through the uber talented Carr improving his shot selection. Carr posted the league’s fourth-highest assist rate as a high scoring combo guard, but per HoopLens, the offense was -.08 points per possession with him on the floor (0.97 to 1.05 without). The offense flows through Carr, so as he goes, so does PSU’s efficiency. 6-foot-7 Stevens is something of matchup nightmare as an athletic slashing wing who can score in the post against smaller 3s, but he, too, suffered from inefficient shot selection. Assuming Watkins gets back in Chambers’ good graces, he’s the linchpin of the PSU defense as one of the league’s premier shot blockers, and he’s a hyper efficient scorer at the rim. Watkins posted the league’s second-highest block and defensive rebounding rates, and the offense improved to 1.02 points per possession with him on the floor, while the defense held opponents to 0.98 ppp when he was protecting the rim. Watkins is unquestionably one of the most vital players to his team in the league. Senior Shep Garner returns as Carr’s running mate, and while he’s Chambers’ more reliable perimeter defender, he’s another source of offensive inefficiency. Josh Reaves is the final starter returning, and he’s vital as a defensive stopper on the wing, posting the nation’s 11th-highest steal rate. The combo of Reaves on the perimeter and Watkins in rim protection gave Chambers one of the league’s better defensive units. Satchel Pierce is a Virginia Tech transfer who provides depth/jumbo lineup options as a 7-footer. Jamari Wheeler is Chambers’ top incoming freshman and will play behind Carr and Garner for backcourt depth.
WEAKNESSES: Offensive efficiency. Rebounding.
I mentioned this when discussing Carr and Stevens, but they have to improve their shot selection this year if PSU is going to seriously make improvements in league play. Better team rebounding outside of Watkins is a necessity as well.
SCHEME: Offensively, it’s mostly pick-and-roll and ball screen action designed for Carr. Defensively, Chambers has been extending his guards more on the ball, gambling for turnovers with the swatter Watkins lurking below. With Watkins at the rim last year, PSU posted highs in turnover rate, steal rate and block rate while allowing their lowest 3PT attempt rate of the Chambers era. That suggests the game plan is indeed to funnel dribble drives into Watkins and chase shooters off the 3-point line.
OUTLOOK: PSU’s nonconference schedule is laughably weak, and with no easy outs in the Big Ten, they have zero margin for error if they want to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2010-11 season. That makes an NIT appearance likely.
STRENGTHS: Athleticism. Versatility. Rim protection.
Nebraska returns a decent amount of their regular rotation from last year, and Tim Miles added two impact transfers and a stud freshman. The Huskers played like a borderline NCAA Tournament last year, and this year should be much of the same. Glynn Watson will take over full time at the point. Watson shot 43 percent from 3 last year and posted the league’s seventh-highest steal rate. He’ll likely have one of the highest usage rates in the league this year. 6-foot-5 senior Evan Taylor returns off the ball, but he’ll be pushed for minutes immediately by four-star freshman combo guard Thomas Allen, who could allow Miles to slide Watson off the ball to retain some of his effectiveness as a lethal shooter. Miles’ wing corps offers depth and versatility, as Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland will be a go-to scorer immediately. James Palmer comes in from Miami and can play 2-4, while Jack McVeigh returns as a 3 and D type on the wing. McVeigh and Copeland can slide down to the 4 to give Miles more flexibility, and all can play the 3 when Miles needs to go big, with Palmer also capable of playing any position in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, he has a three-headed shot blocking monster in Winthrop transfer Duby Okeke, Jordy Tshimanga and Isaiah Roby. Unfortunately, there’s almost no offensive upside in that group, oustide of “Okeke Smash” putbacks (a term coined from his days in Rock Hill for his vicious putback dunks).
WEAKNESSES: Offensive efficiency. Perimeter defense.
Outside of Watson and McVeigh, there wasn’t much shooting on the Husker roster, and they hit at just 33.8 percent in league play. That was compounded by the fact that a combination of terrible luck and poor defensive perimeter play led to teams shooting an outrageous 43 percent from 3 against them in Big Ten play. That almost singlehandedly turned Nebraska’s 3-0 league start into a 6-12 finish.
SCHEME: Offensively, Nebraska is almost exclusively a pick-and-roll halfcourt offense, so get used to a lot of that from Watson and Copeland. Defensively, Miles has often used a pack line principled defense, but after last year’s horrendous 3-point results, he’s likely to go back to some zone traps and extend pressure past the arc with his versatile and athletic roster.
OUTLOOK: Much the same as last year. Nebraska will be a nightly tough out, but they have to hit more shots and make teams miss more shots to turn the results around. This looks like an NIT team.
STRENGTHS: Rapidly improved defensive effort. An underrated frontcourt tandem.
Archie Miller replaces Tom Crean in Bloomington, a hire that I’m fairly ambivalent about. There’s no doubt Miller is a better defensive coach than the unfairly criticized Crean, and there’s also no doubt he did an excellent job at Dayton. He consistently exceeded expectations with his talent level, and he did take the Flyers deeper into the tournament than Crean did with his Hoosiers, even when Crean had the best team in the country. That said, Miller isn’t quick to make coaching adjustments, and his teams can be easy to game plan against. It’s a really a minor complaint, as the way he prepares his teams often makes adjustments unnecessary anyway. Miller’s frontcourt tandem of Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis is going to be the strength of the Hoosiers. Morgan represents a more versatile frontcourt option, similar to the hybrid forwards Miller always utilized so well at Dayton. Davis, meanwhile, is a bully in the paint, capable of lowering a shoulder and backing his man down with ease. Both are plus defenders in the paint, and both are excellent rebounders, particularly offensively. Collin Hartman returns to the frontcourt after some devastating injuries and gives Miller a floor-stretching option. Clifton Moore is a four-star power forward that can play on the perimeter, but he needs to bulk up to bang inside at this level. That said, the talent level and lack of depth will have him on the floor for meaningful minutes. Miller will be forced to play small, which is unfortunate because the backcourt simply isn’t very good. Devonte Green will run the point and was the only Hoosier who played defense on the perimeter last year. Green’s offensive/defensive efficiency splits are telling. IU ran at 1.08 points per possession with him on the floor last year, and 1.14 off. Defensively, however, IU held opponents to 0.97 ppp when he was on the court, as opposed to 1.06 (all stats per HoopLens). That defense is likely why Miller will gamble with him on the ball. Robert Johnson is a veteran presence on the wing and the team’s best offensive threat. Johnson can shoot, even with his funky release, and IU scored at a whopping 1.14 points per possession when he was on the court. He has to be IU’s go-to scorer this year. Josh Newkirk can’t be relied upon as a ball handler, but he can shoot and defend. Cujo Jones can be an effective slasher with his size at 6-foot-4, but IU’s defense was significantly worse (-.04 net) when he was on the court, which likely limits his potential with Miller. Talented freshmen Al Durham can shoot the ball when he’s healthy, and Justin Smith is a versatile wing who can defend 1-4. Both will see immediate minutes along with the other highly-touted frosh, Moore.
WEAKNESSES: Shooting. Perimeter defense. Point guard play.
As I mentioned when breaking down the backcourt, point guard play will be an issue all year long, and the Hoosiers’ league-high offensive turnover rate from last year isn’t likely to improve in Miller’s first year. Defensively, the newcomers might be Miller’s best perimeter defenders outside of Green, and that’s not a good sign. Outside of RoJo, I’m not sure who hits shots consistently for the Hoosiers.
SCHEME: Miller used a ball screen heavy motion offense that was maximized by a heady point guard and versatile 3/4s. He doesn’t really have those options in place in Bloomington yet. Defensively, Miller always used a hard-nosed, lane-clogging man-to-man defense that made looks at the rim nearly impossible. Last year’s Dayton team was 31st nationally in FG attempt rate at the rim, per HoopMath.
OUTLOOK: IU looks like an NIT team at best in Miller’s first season, but there should be immediate strides on the defensive end.
13. Ohio State
STRENGTHS: Wing versatility and athleticism.
Thad Matta was a great basketball coach and seemed like a good person. I also think he was tired, both physically and mentally, and maybe his departure will work out for everyone. OSU was able to land Chris Holtmann, which is as good of a hire as they could have expected given the timing of Matta’s dismissal. Holtmann doesn’t really have his style of roster in place, but he does have a lot of talent. Holtmann’s Butler teams relied on spacing offensively and constant ball movement. That’s not how OSU is built, so there will be some moments of extreme wonkiness on that end. Holtmann will return C.J. Jackson on the ball and ruthless penetrator Jae’Sean Tate off it. Neither has a jump shot, an essential from a Holtmann backcourt, and the wing doesn’t offer much help in that regard, either. Keita Bates-Diop is healthy, and he will be Holtmann’s best defensive player on the perimeter. His offensive game leaves something to be desired, however. Mussa Jallow should have an immediate impact off the ball. He’s a player I saw a lot of at Bloomington North. He’s got plus athleticism and profiles as an elite defensive player on the perimeter, but lacks a jump shot; that’s a common theme for this OSU bunch, as Kam Williams is the only consistent perimeter shooter, but he was a liability defensively, as OSU’s defensive efficiency went from a very stout 0.92 points per possession to 1.03 with him on the floor, per HoopLens. Jallow and Williams probably have to work in tandem as offensive/defensive substitutions, as I think Jallow’s offensive game is ways off from developing into something Holtmann can use consistently. The frontcourt is extremely young, but talented. Freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young figure to get the bulk of the minutes, with Wesson a block scorer and Young a much-needed stretch option. Sophomore Micah Potter will also be in the mix, as he’ll be a useful pick-and-pop and roller to the rim option.
WEAKNESSES: Perimeter shooting. Rim protection. Point guard depth.
Holtmann’s schemes will be a 180 from Matta’s on both ends, and the roster isn’t quite equipped for that yet. The young bigs will be exposed to more penetration than last year’s packed in defense, and the dearth of shooters will be an issue offensively all season long. Plus, if Jackson struggles, there isn’t really a secondary ball handler.
SCHEME: Offensively Holtmann likes to spread the floor with shooters and a plethora of ball screen action. Defensively he uses a pretty fundamental gap denial man-to-man.
OUTLOOK: Ohio State will certainly be competitive, but this roster needs an overhaul to play Holtmann’s brand of basketball. The Buckeyes look NIT bound unless a huge offensive leap from Bates-Diop occurs and the freshmen like Wesson and Young develop rapidly in the frontcourt.
STRENGTHS: Athleticism and a solid backcourt. Offensive rebounding.
Steve Pikiell has things moving in the right direction for the Scarlet Knights, but it’s still going to be a long, slow climb to Big Ten respectability. Corey Sanders is the alpha scorer for Rutgers, and he can maybe slide off the ball a bit this year with the addition of Souf Mensah, a JUCO penetrating pass-first PG built like a bowling ball. Sanders has Mike Williams next to him in the backcourt, whose best asset is his rebounding ability out of the 2 guard position. Three-star combo guard Geo Baker could also potentially run the point next to Sanders or as a secondary ball handler in a four-guard set when Pikiell wants to go small (and he has stated that he wants to run more often this year with more backcourt depth). The wing corps is athletic, but underdeveloped. Issa Thiam is 6-foot-9, but raw, and he was essentially relegated to spot shooting last year. 6-foot-6 Eugene Omoruyi could be a diamond in the rough for Pikiell as a solid defender at the 3/4, but his height and lack of shooting limits his overall effectiveness. Senior Deshawn Freeman is Pikiell’s best rim protector and rebounder in the frontcourt, and veterans Candido Sa and oft injured Shaq Doorson are also typical Pikiell players who are sound defensively and on the glass. Myles Johnson is a three-star recruit in the paint with a well-rounded offensive game below the rim. Mamadou Doucoure is the crown jewel of Pikiell’s recruiting class and was just recently cleared by the NCAA. Doucoure has an NBA-ready body and will immediately bolster Pikiell’s target areas – rebounding and rim defense.
WEAKNESSES: Offensive efficiency.
Rutgers posted 0.893 points per possession in B1G games, which was easily the lowest mark in major conference basketball. The offense essentially boiled down to a ball screen for Sanders and letting him go to work. Maybe Mensah can step in and allow Sanders to roam off the ball, and Baker and Johnson could be talented offensive facilitators from the wing and high post.
SCHEME: Offensively, Rutgers was essentially just a pick-and-roll offense geared toward Sanders’ creation off the dribble. Obviously, that isn’t working. Pikiell’s best SBU teams were geared solely around a dominant paint force, which he doesn’t have with this team. Pikiell has repeatedly stated he wants to push in transition this year with better backcourt depth, but “pace and space” hasn’t really been in his coaching DNA. Offensive rebounding has always been a staple for Pikiell’s teams going back to Stony Brook, but extra opportunities are a necessity for a team as inefficient as the Knights. Defensively, Pikiell has always been a pack line principled man-to-man coach, but he mixed in some zone last year. Regardless, the philosophy has remained to induce jump shots and crash the glass with all five on both ends.
OUTLOOK: Slow but steady improvement is the name of the game for Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights. Simply increasing league wins to 5 is a reasonable goal.
BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Miles Bridges, Michigan State
ALL B1G FIRST TEAM:
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Nick Ward, Michigan State
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern
Vince Edwards, Purdue
ALL B1G SECOND TEAM:
Mo Wagner, Michigan
Justin Jackson, Maryland
Anthony Cowan, Maryland
Nate Mason, Minnesota
Tone Carr, Penn State