Big Ten Conference Basketball Predictions and Betting Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 11/03/2008
Every year when I'm making my college basketball predictions I always make a point to trash the Big Ten. It's nothing personal. I just think that when it comes to college basketball (and college football, for that matter) this is the most overrated conference in the country at the betting window.
So let me start my 2008 Doc's Sports Big Ten preview and predictions article with something different: a compliment. The Big Ten has, by far, the finest collection of college hoops coaching talent of any conference in the country. And it's not even close.
Tom Izzo, Bruce Weber, Bo Ryan, Tom Crean, John Beilein, Tubby Smith, Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter and Matt Painter are as good as it gets. Most of these top minds have been getting it done in the Midwest for years, if not decades, and all are masters at getting the most out of the substandard talent that the Big Ten produces on the court. As a result, I think that this conference is going to hold one of the most interesting league races of any in the country.
The talent level in the Big Ten is still significantly below the caliber of athletes and players that are being pumped through the Big East, Big 12, and ACC. And while I would still take the SEC and the Pac-10 over the B-10 as well, I wouldn't say that either of those BCS leagues is that much better than our friends in the Midwest. Because the talent is lower, and because the disparity between teams in this league is relatively small, that places extra emphasis on the men on the sidelines. That's going to lead to one hell of a chess match through January and February, and as a result the head man that can best maneuver the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
From a betting perspective, I think that the high quality of coaches will make Big Ten teams solid underdog plays in nonconference games against teams with equal talent. The problem is that because the Big Ten schools are such "name" programs, it's difficult to find them in those positions. Yet, don't be shy about backing a coaching matchup that works in your favor in the same way you would go after a mismatch along the 92.
Here's a preview and college basketball predictions for the 2008 Big Ten Conference:
The Favorite: Purdue
Make no mistake about it: Matt Painter is a coaching stud. Over the last three years he has taken Purdue from 3-13 to 9-7 to 15-3 in Big Ten play over the last three years. He also led an incredibly young team - six of the top seven scorers were either freshmen or sophomores - to within a game of the conference title last year. Now, with seven of his top eight players back, Painter's Boilers are the favorites heading into the season. Purdue is a sensational 38-22 ATS over the last two years but I think the word is out. They won't have nearly the value that they had last year. The good news is that they have a ton of shooters, great balance, they are fundamentally sound, and they are well coached. All of those things tell me that they won't beat themselves and with their defensive pressure they can smother weaker teams and cover some big numbers. However, this team just wins. And while that's good in some respects it also means that they will be more worried about locking a 'W' than they will be laying a big number on a foe.
The Challenger: Michigan State
Drew Neitzel is a tough guy to replace, but Michigan State will move on without their All-American guard and I think they will be all the better for it. Neitzel was a great guy and a good teammate. But now that Neitzel is gone some of the younger players will have more freedom to explore their games. The key for this team is getting consistency out of Goran Suton. When he was active and involved on the offensive end this team was tough to top. But too often that wasn't the case, and in a league full of big bodies and gritty perimeter defense you need production from the post. The Spartans were a huge disappointment last year. They are the most athletic team in the conference, but they need someone to fill the leadership void and they have to get better on the road.
The Dark Horse: Wisconsin
The Badgers have managed back-to-back Big Ten titles and posted back-to-back 30-win seasons. They were the No. 1 scoring defense last year, they have four veteran starters, solid senior leadership, a great home court edge, and one of the best in the business in Bo Ryan. However, they will not overtake either of the top two unless one of them falters. But there is something to be said for their consistency. They are going to miss Mike Flowers on both ends of the court, particularly on defense. And Brian Butch has been their most important player in each of the last two years. His absence is tough to overcome. This is a good team. But they are not elite and I don't think they are a national player.
The X-Factor: Ohio State
Entering last season I had Ohio State pegged as a team to fade. They actually responded with a winning ATS season (18-14-1) but they did miss the Big Dance. I again have the Buckeyes as a team to fade, but I can say that they are a little tricky to get a read on. Their starting frontcourt will be pretty good if freshman center B.J. Mullens is as good as advertised. He is the third-straight potential one-and-done center to roll through Columbus. However, this team brings back just three players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game last year, no double-digit scorers, and zero quality backcourt players. Bet against this team early, because Thad Matta is another great head man that will have his team playing better in February. As a result, they could play a role in determining who wins the conference title.
The Surprise Team: Penn State
Yeah, stop me if you've heard this before. But I actually think that the third time's the charm this year in College Station. Ed DeChellis is on the hot seat, and that is a great motivator. But this was actually a sneaky-good team last year until stud forward and team leader Geary Claxton blew out his knee at Wisconsin. That sent the Lions into a tailspin, but they did recover to win three of four games, including a home win over Indiana. But they have a nice little up-and-coming backcourt led by Talor Battle and a warrior underneath with Jamelle Cornley. They have an insultingly easy nonconference schedule.
The Disappointment: Indiana
Two things I know for certain. First, Tom Crean is a great coach. Second, Indiana is going to be one of the worst teams in Div. I basketball. I mean awful. As in, I-wouldn't-take-them-against-a-lot-of-Conference-USA-teams bad. I don't have time to detail the defections, but the bottom line is that this team lost as much - 11 of 13 players - as any college team I've ever seen. In a lot of ways it's going to be tough to call them a disappointment because everyone expects them to stink. But with their schedule it could get real ugly real quick. And no matter what, this is still Indiana basketball.
The Moneymaker: Northwestern
Keep an eye on the Wildcats this season. They are a team that absolutely no one, anywhere, thinks is any good. Except yours truly, that is. They have some pieces, some experience, low expectations, and they have shaken off some bad karma from last year. All of that makes this a "buy" team in my book. The Wildcats have won just three conference games in the last two years! That is pathetic! But they welcomed back their best player (Kevin Cobble) from sabbatical, they have all five starters, three double-digit scorers, and seven players who played more than 14 minutes per game last year back. Also, NU brought in what is being touted as the best recruiting class in school history this year. If one or two freshmen pan out and can make an impact, this team could have a solid (think CBE) year.
Minnesota - A lot of preseason publications I've seen actually expect the Gophers to be better in Year 2 of the Tubby System. Not me. I thought the Gophers were a dreadful disappointment last year with a very veteran team back. They lost their top three scorers and don't have a returning player taller than 6-7. The freshman class is full of potentially solid Big Ten players but no one that's going to make an impact. I see Minnesota as a bottom-three team in this league.
Illinois - The Illini program is really at a crossroads. There are few better than Bruce Weber, and his motion offense is a thing of beauty when run with the least bit of competence. But last year was a tumultuous one in Champagne and it's questionable how much improved this team will be. Of the 13 players on the roster, 10 of them are freshmen, sophomores, and two JUCOs in their first year with the team. That lack of experience is going to doom this team to another cold, non-profitable winter. They were one of the worst bets in the country last year (14-20 ATS).
Iowa - The Hawkeyes were a real nice surprise at the window last year in Big Ten play. They went 11-7 ATS in the conference regular season despite just a 6-12 SU mark. Todd Lickliter had his club playing hard and they were in a position to be a really, really nice sleeper in the Big Ten. But then leading scorer Tony Freeman decided to transfer and now the Hawkeyes start the year with one of the most inexperienced backcourts in the league. Throw in the loss of both starting big men from last year and I think Iowa takes a step back this season before a step forward next year.
Michigan - In Beilein I trust. John Beilein shuffled through a brutal 10-22 year in 2008 (11-19 ATS) as he struggled to implement his quirky offensive and defensive schemes. However, I expect a significant jump in Year 2. Beilein still doesn't have the personnel that he needs to run at optimum efficiency. But he does have one of the best guards in the conference in Manny Harris, a solid forward option in DeShawn Sims, and all eight returnees played at least 10 minutes per game last year. This program may be at an all-time low in terms of talent. But I see them making some moves and being a nice ATS club for parts of this season.