Big Ten Flexing its Muscle Early On; Where do the Terps sit in the league pecking order?
Just over a month into the college basketball season, the Big Ten has proven to be better than many anticipated. While Michigan State was viewed by many as the clear favorite to win the conference, the Spartans’ in-state rivals have stepped forward as a team not only capable of winning the Big Ten but cutting down the nets in Minneapolis as well. Michigan, which lost three of its top four scorers from last year’s national runner-up squad, has been downright stingy on the defensive end.
That being said, the conversation regarding the Big Ten involves far more than just two teams. Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana are all currently ranked, with Nebraska, Maryland, Purdue and Minnesota having all received votes in the AP poll. Penn State and Northwestern have the talent and experience needed to be handfuls for opponents, and even Rutgers managed to pick up a road win at Miami (although that result’s taken a hit given the Hurricanes’ struggles of late). Only Illinois, a team being led primarily by underclassmen, is currently below .500 at this point in time. This all sets up for an intense two-plus months when the league resumes conference play at the end of the month.
With regards to Maryland, the Terrapins are off to a 9-2 start (1-1 Big Ten) with the two losses coming against Virginia and Purdue. While in a perfect world Mark Turgeon’s team would be 11-0, they acquitted themselves decently in the second half of the Virginia loss after falling behind by 17 early in the second half. At that point Maryland appeared to be on the verge of receiving one of those “blowouts” in which the loser doesn’t reach the 50-point mark that the Cavaliers have seemingly become famous for under Tony Bennett, but they fought back.
They got stops defensively, and on offense Anthony Cowan, Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala stepped forward and combined to score 29 of the team’s 41 second-half points. But while the Terps were able to get back into the game, the hole the team found itself in to start the second half ultimately proved to be too much to overcome.
The same can’t be said of the loss at Purdue, with Maryland’s offense letting it down in crunch time. Part of that can be attributed to the team’s youth, with there being five freshmen in the rotation which has limited just how much of the offense (and inbounds plays) can be installed at this stage in the season. Turnovers were also an issue, with Maryland committing 17 and in a close game in a tough environment those mistakes can be a killer. Cowan (4-of-17 FG, 18 points) didn’t shoot the ball well that night, and he’s struggled from three to start the season, but he should find his way as the Terps finish up non-conference play.
A Big Ten All-Defensive Team performer last season, Cowan’s one of the top perimeter defenders in the league if not the nation. While Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scored 20 points in the Boilermakers’ two-point win he did so shooting 4-of-15 from the field, and a lot of that has to do with the effort put forth by Cowan. The key for Maryland with regard to their junior point guard is finding him opportunities to “rest” within the game, as he isn’t going to be sitting all that often. That’s where Ayala, who can either play off the ball or initiate the offense comes into play. When he’s good at the latter this affords Maryland the luxury of using Cowan off the ball, possibly stealing a brief respite without having to actually take him off the floor. How this dynamic plays out is something to keep an eye on in the final non-conference games, most notably the December 22 matchup with Seton Hall.
Inside the Terps have a tandem in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith that is already held in high regard, and there’s plenty of room for growth with the former being a sophomore and the latter a freshman. Fernando and Smith are averaging a combined 25.4 points and 16.5 rebounds per game, with Fernando also blocking 2.5 shots per game. What would be good to see from this duo is for them to become more comfortable in high-low situations, most notably with Smith in the high post and Fernando around the basket. That would give both a little more room to operate, especially if Smith becomes more comfortable with taking — and consistent in making — that shot at the free throw line if not a little further out.
Overall this is a young group, with sophomore Darryl Morsell and freshmen Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith Jr. all capable of producing on the wings, but it’s a talented one as well. Playing two conference games in early December may ultimately benefit Maryland, especially the loss at Purdue, as the freshmen got a taste of what they’ll experience 18 more times this season. And in order to be a team capable of not only returning to the NCAA tournament but also being a factor in the Big Ten race Maryland will need to tighten things up offensively, especially in the turnover and perimeter shooting areas.
Combine improvements on that end of the floor with the defense, which has been good for much of the season thus far, and Maryland should be in good shape when it comes to the Big Ten.
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A Look at the Big Ten
With the restart of conference play just over two weeks away, while there appears to be a favorite (Michigan) the Big Ten has quality depth. It’s one thing to have a bunch of teams beating up on each other; it’s another to have the majority of those teams having the look of NCAA tournament teams. John Beilein may have the best defensive team of his tenure, with point guard Zavier Simpson setting the tone with his ability to pressure opposing ball-handlers. And in the post Michigan (10-0, 2-0 Big Ten) has a big man in Jon Teske who’s looked like one of the Big Ten’s most improved players over the course of the season’s first month. Iggy Brazdeikis has been one of the best freshmen in college basketball, and returnees Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews are right behind the newcomer in the scoring department.
Michigan may have grabbed the favorite label from Michigan State (8-2, 2-0), but the Spartans will certainly be heard from in league play. Tom Izzo’s team is off to an 8-2 start, with the two losses coming against Kansas and Louisville. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward are the headliners, based upon their current talents and what they’ve produced in the past, but an argument can be made that Joshua Langford is Michigan State’s most important player when it comes to the Spartans hopes within the league and nationally. Langford can slip into the background on occasion, which can be an issue for Michigan State given its need for a consistent scorer on the wing. If Langford can remain in attack mode, as he was during the second half of the season-opening loss to Kansas, Michigan State is a team capable of beating almost anyone. While the Spartans can certainly win games without Langford being at his best, to play deep into March he has to be consistent offensively.
Ohio State (8-1, 2-0), a team that did not look like a Big Ten contender before the season began, is off to an 8-1 start and already has road wins over Cincinnati and Creighton to its credit. Chris Holtmann’s team has been led offensively by senior point guard C.J. Jackson and sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson, and they’ve been aided by five players averaging between 7.7 and 8.8 points per game. Ohio State has gone nine deep at times, but it should be noted that Jaedon Ledee is averaging just 8.1 minutes per game. At 6-foot-9 Wesson is their biggest contributor (Ledee is the same height), so post depth could be an issue should he encounter foul trouble. But Ohio State’s versatility on the perimeter makes them a difficult team to defend, and they’ve been one of the better defensive teams in the country as well.
Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana all currently ranked in the AP Top 25 and Nebraska just three points behind the Hoosiers and Kansas State (which are tied for 25th). Wisconsin (8-2, 2-0), which was hit hard by injuries last season, is healthy for the most part and has one of the nation’s best players in senior forward Ethan Happ. Happ is certainly capable of doing the heavy lifting for the Badgers, just as he did a season ago, but the difference now is that he has an ample amount of help. Brad Davison, who dealt with shoulder issues for much of last season, is healthy as are D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, and Khalil Iverson, Nate Reuvers and Brevin Pritzl are all solid contributors as well. Wisconsin’s an efficient offensive team that also forces opponents to take tough shots on the defensive end, making them a group that has the look of an NCAA tournament team after missing out a season ago.
Iowa (7-2, 0-2) is a year older after taking its lumps last season, with forwards Tyler Cook and Luka Garza leading the way. On the perimeter guards Jordan Bohannon and Joe Wieskamp have been the Hawkeyes’ best players, with Isaiah Moss, Connor McCaffery and Nicholas Baer contributing as well. And Iowa received an unexpected boost of sorts earlier this month as Cordell Pemsl, who was originally believed to be done for the season with a knee injury, returned to action. Pemsl gives the Hawkeyes another physical front court option alongside Cook, Garza and Ryan Kriener. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Iowa, which has generally been the case during Fran McCaffery’s tenure as head coach. What has been an issue is the defense, and the strides Iowa manages to make on that end of the floor will determine their fate in 2018-19. If Iowa can defend at a respectable level, look out.
Indiana (8-2, 2-0) has been led by the freshman/senior tandem of Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan, as they’ve combined to average 33.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. While Langford, one of the nation’s top recruits, and All-Big Ten selection Morgan are the headliners for Archie MIller’s team boasts a solid nine-man rotation that has a combination of talented freshmen and upperclassmen who’ve been around the Big Ten block a few times. Having won their first two conference games, Indiana appears to be well on its way to a return to the NCAA tournament in 2019.
Nebraska (8-2, 1-1) and Minnesota (8-2, 1-1) both have players who should at minimum be in the conversation for all-conference honors. Nebraska senior guard James Palmer Jr. is averaging nearly 19 points per game, with Isaac Copeland, Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby all chipping in with at least 9.7 points per game. This is an important season for Tim Miles’ program, and with the top four scorers all being upperclassmen (three seniors, with Roby being a junior) the time has to be now with regards to the Huskers getting back to the NCAA tournament. As for Minnesota, the Golden Gophers are a year older and the tumult of last season appears to be in the rear-view mirror. Jordan Murphy is one of the nation’s best forwards, and junior guard Amir Coffey is healthy after missing a significant portion of last season due to injury.
Freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu have been solid contributors, and there’s additional experience on the perimeter in the form of senior Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Isaiah Washington. Minnesota needs to be a bit more efficient offensively, with regards to both its shot selection and turnover counts, but this is an improved team that is capable of being a factor on a nightly basis. Those areas in which improvement is needed will determine just how good the Golden Gophers can be, especially when considering just how good the Big Ten appears to be.
Purdue (6-4, 1-1) has a point guard in junior Carsen Edwards who for the most part has lived up to the preseason hype. He has to both be the Boilermakers’ top scoring option and get the ball to his teammates in spots where they can be successful, and he’s capable of getting the job done. How good Matt Painter’s team can be will depend upon whether or not others can step forward and be consistent scorers that can supplement Edwards’ efforts. Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms are three players to keep an eye on as the season wears.
Like the aforementioned Iowa squad, both Penn State (5-4, 0-2) and Northwestern (7-3, 0-2) went winless in their first two conference games. The Nittany Lions are being led by junior forward Lamar Stevens, who’s averaging 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Rasir Bolton and Josh Reaves are also double-digit scorers, but there are some significant adjustments to be made in the aftermath of the departures of Tony Carr and Shep Garner. Talented center Mike Watkins has played in just four games this season, and he’s a player the Nittany Lions will need if they’re to build upon last season’s run to the Postseason NIT title. As for Northwestern, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon are leading the way for a team whose top four scorers are all upperclassmen. Last season, which came on the heels of the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, was a major disappointment. Chris Collins has enough talent at his disposal for a rebound, but that climb’s going to be difficult to make given just how good the league is.
Rounding out the conference pecking order are Rutgers (5-4, 0-2) and Illinois (3-7, 0-2), two programs that appear to be a year away from bigger and better things. While the Scarlet Knights picked up an important win at Miami — the Hurricanes may not be as good as expected, but it’s a nice result for Steve Pikiell as he continues the rebuild — the lack of a true point guard could be their undoing. Sophomore Geo Baker has been entrusted with that task, but the Scarlet Knights would be better served if he was able to work off the more as he did last season. Unfortunately for Rutgers, they may not be able to do this until prized recruit Paul Mulcahy arrives on campus next season.
As for Illinois, Brad Underwood’s young team will compete but the lack of experience may ultimately be their undoing given how “old” most of the Big Ten is. Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu have the look of a backcourt tandem that can be an absolute handful down the line, and maybe they can lead Illinois to an upset or two this season. But that’s going to be tough to do, especially with the team’s lack of size in the post.