I will be deprived of one of my favorite college basketball pastimes this winter: banging on the Big Ten.
The Big Ten is perpetually one of the more overrated basketball conferences in the country. Hey, the Big Ten is top shelf. I'm not arguing whether or not they are an actual Big Boy Basketball Conference like I am with the SEC. But I am saying that members of the bobblehead media and the general betting public seem to suffer an annual delusion about the quality and depth in this league.
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Like a lot of Midwesterners, the Big Ten is kind of bloated mess. The bottom of this league is god awful, and the third tier is often stuffed with recognizable names that routinely get embarrassed by mid-major schools in the nonconference and equivalent programs from the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 come March. There's always two or three really good teams in the Big Ten. But even though they mope around the Top 10 there's never any real National Championship contender in the ranks.
But this year things are a bit different. The Big Ten has four potential Final Four teams this season, and I won't be surprised if they are lugging eight teams into the NCAA Tournament come March. This will be one of the best and most competitive races in the country, and I expect the league to have a new regular-season champ for the fifth straight year.
Here are Doc's Sports 2015-16Big Ten Conference college basketball predictions (with Robert's projected odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: Maryland (+100)
I said in a radio interview last March that Maryland would start this season in the Top 5 in the country. The host laughed when I said it. But here we are, just a few months later, and Maryland starts the season at No. 3 in the coaches poll. Believe it or not, this is one of the best teams in the country. The Terps lost three key pieces from last year's dangerous 28-7 club, including stud guard Dez Wells. But the Terps have the best point guard in the country in Melo Trimble, two other starters back (Jake Layman and Jared Nickens), a one-and-done freshman center who is one of Trimble's best friends (Diamond Stone), and two transfers with All-ACC talent (Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter). The Terps have it all. They have size in the form of Carter, Stone, and 7-footers Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky. They have wing talent with Nickens, Layman and Sulaimon. And they have a star in Trimble to light the way. This is a top-tier team that I think will be No. 1 in the country at some point this season.
The Challenger: Indiana (+250)
Play defense. Any defense. A little defense. That's all Indiana has to do and they could be one of the best teams in the country and a true national title contender. But the Hoosiers don't play defense. And thus they can't be trusted. Last year's team started out 15-4 and looked like a dark horse title contender. They went 5-10 down the stretch, limped into the NCAA Tournament, and were quickly dispatched by Wichita State. They have four starters back from last season's high-flying club, and they added arguably the best big freshman man in the country, Thomas Bryant. The Hoosiers have everything else you could want. They have a four-year starter and future pro named Yogi at the point. They have another NBA talent at the two with James Blackmon. They have three other uber-athletic 6-7 guys and quality bench players that can shoot. Indiana can run and jump and dunk and score and play with anyone in the country. But they can't win if they don't defend. And after watching last season's team finish ranked in the 300's in things like points allowed, field goal defense, steal percentage and blocks, I'm not sure they can overcome their own personal weakness. This team is really, really good. But I don't think it will be great.
The Dark Horse: Michigan State (+500)
Leading scorer Travis Trice and top rebounder Branden Dawson graduated from last year's Final Four team. But somehow Tom Izzo's group could be even better this time around. Outstanding West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and McDonald's All-American Deyonta Davis seem capable of sliding into the roles vacated by Trice and Dawson. And they'll be surrounded by three other starters from last year's club to give Izzo a physically strong, mentally-tough team. Davis will join Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello to give Sparty a rock-solid frontcourt. And Harris will team up with Bryn Forbes, who made a big impact after transferring in prior to last season, and Marvin Clark to give Izzo quality in the backcourt. And the cherry on top is two-guard Denzel Valentine, a guard with an NBA future and one of the best and most versatile games in the Big Ten. This looks like another Final Four-caliber squad for Izzo.
The X-Factor: Michigan (+500)
John Beilein was able to keep his team above water as long as he could. But three years of major talent defections collided with a massive wave of injuries last year to completely sink the Wolverines. The good news, however, is that the Wolverines now have a rare group in Ann Arbor that is lacking for neither talent nor experience. Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton, and Spike Albrecht are all back and at 100 percent. Zak Irvin is working his way back from offseason back surgery and should be healthy by late November. That quartet should merge with a four-man sophomore class that received a ton of valuable experience last year to make the Wolverines a major player in the Big Ten. A small frontcourt is an ongoing problem for Michigan. But Beilein's been overcoming that one with his quirky offense and shifting defensive schemes for years. This is a quality team that's ready to bounce back in a major way after last season's crash and burn.
The Disappointment: Wisconsin (+800)
Let me go on the record and say this: the 2013-2015 Badgers are one of the best college basketball teams I have ever seen and one of the best teams to have never won a championship. The Badgers went 66-12 over the last two seasons while playing in one of best conferences in the country. They made back-to-back Final Fours only to have their hearts broken - twice - in brutal losses to Kentucky and Duke. But that chapter is over. And now they have to move on without just about every major player that led the two-year run. Wisconsin only played about seven guys a game the past two seasons and five of them are gone. Also, Bo Ryan has announced that this will be his last year of coaching. And it will be sad to watch him and his overmatched team get throttled on a pretty consistent basis as they try to navigate a deep, talented league. Wisconsin has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. Ever. But they will this season. If he can get this group to the NCAA Tournament then that will be one of the most amazing accomplishments of his Hall of Fame career. Don't count on it.
Purdue (+1000) - Things got a little dicey there for a minute in West Lafayette. It was an ugly two-year hangover for Matt Painter's program in the post-Hummel Era and, frankly, I wasn't sure when (or if) he'd recovers. But the Boilermakers snapped out of it last season and became competitive again, sneaking in for a cameo in the NCAA Tournament. This year's team could be even better if star freshman Caleb Swanigan is declared eligible. Even without the freshman forward, the Boilers will still boast a two-headed post monster with Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons. The big question will be on the perimeter, but there are a few options. Raphael Davis is a solid-but-not-spectacular three-year starter. Dakota Mathias, Vince Edwards and frosh Ryan Cline are young options with upside. Kendall Stephens is a solid bench shooter. But the wild card is senior transfer Johnny Hill. The former UTSA starter could slide into the vacant point guard role. And if he excels at running the show and getting everyone working together then Purdue will be a very tough team to beat by the time conference play roles around.
Ohio State (+1500) - Thad Matta has built Ohio State into one of the best programs in the country and is the most successful "Thad" that any of us know. The Buckeyes have won at least 24 games in eight of nine years, topping 30 three times and making it to a pair of Final Fours. So keep that in mind when they stink this year, which they most assuredly will after the loss of amazing frosh D'Angelo Russell. In fact, Ohio State returns just four scholarship players from last year's club, and Matta cleaned house. This year they have six freshmen, four sophomores and a junior on the roster - and that's it. Matta nabbed four Top 100 recruits, so the kids can play. And we all know he can coach. But I expect this group to be all over the map this season; great one minute, terrible the next. But overall it will be very difficult - not impossible, but improbable - for Matta to take this group dancing next year.
Illinois(+1500) - I had been a big fan of John Groce's work. But I have to say that this is a make-or-break year for me. Groce has mismanaged a fair amount of talent the past two years. Last season the Illini regressed on the court and then imploded in the locker room. A second season lost by Tracy Abrams isn't going to help anything. But Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black are serious athletes with untapped potential. Top 40 freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands was a big recruiting get, and the lead guard is the team's wild card. Two nice, veteran graduate transfers (point guard Khalid Lewis and center Mike Thorne) will be counted on for stability. But if this team is going to step up then Nunn, Hill and Black will need to take over as leaders and top performers. And its up to Groce to get it out of them.
Iowa (+1200) - One of my least favorite players in the country, Mike Gesell, is one of four senior starters back for Fran McCaffery. This quartet is tasked with trying to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. But they'll have to do so surrounded and supported by a really young, raw, unproven roster. Adam Woodbury gives the Hawkeyes an experienced 7-1 center to lean on, and Jarrod Uthoff is the de facto go-to guy. But I'm not sure where the scoring is going to come from with this group. McCaffery's teams are known for their efficiency on both ends of the floor. And Iowa's experience means they won't be a pushover. But unless a couple of these freshmen are ready to step in and star then this team doesn't have the depth, athleticism, or top-end talent to consistently compete with the big boys in the Big Ten. This is a team at the bottom of the second-tier in this conference, and they'll have to scrap and hustle if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern (+2500) - I think this could be it! This could finally be the season where the Wildcats make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history! The Wildcats bring back all five starters from last year's team, which really started to click in late February with a four-game winning streak. Of course, that followed a 10-game losing streak, but that's neither here nor there. The fact is that coach Chris Collins has been trying to orchestrate a major change in Evanston, taking Northwestern from the Princeton offense to an up-tempo style. After two rocky seasons, Collins finally has familiarity with his players, he has size, he has experience, and he has a rock solid eight-man rotation with everyone knowing their job. The X-factor for this team will be Joey van Zergeren. The Virginia Tech transfer is 6-10 and can pair with 7-footer Alex Olah to give the Cats something they've never had: a frontcourt big and strong enough to bang through a full Big Ten schedule. Northwestern needs to get better defensively. If they do that and consistently knock down shots from the outside then they could - finally - go dancing.
Minnesota (+5000) - I'll give Richard Pitino credit for one thing: he has an idea of how he wants his team to play. Whether his players fit that system or not is a whole other question, and whether or not he can revive the Gophers program is an even larger mystery. Minnesota was a big underachiever last year. And they lost three of their top six scorers and half of their eight-man rotation from last year's squad. Just two starters remain, and Pitino doesn't have a player on the roster taller than 6-9. Pitino wants to "play fast". But he hasn't shown me that he can scout or develop guards so we'll have to see what he does with Carlos Morris and Nate Mason. There aren't any big recruits or major athletic talents here; it's really just a bunch of guys. Young guys. And I don't see this year being any better than last season's postseason-less effort.
Nebraska (+3500) - The Cornhuskers were one of the biggest disappointments in the country in 2014-15, just one season removed from serving as one of the nation's biggest surprises. There will be no surprise this year: Nebraska is going to be bad. Guard Terran Petteway did absolutely everything for the Huskers last year. He is now in the pros. They also lost stretch-four Walter Pitchford, and now Tim Miles will have to build around three-year starter Shavon Shields. Shields is a really good player. But he's not Petteway. Benny Parker and Tai Webster will do what they can in the backcourt. But the Huskers have just one player taller than 6-8, and they have a lot more questions than answers.
Penn State (+3000) - Pat Chambers has seen this movie before: for the third year in a row he'll enter the season trying to replace his one dominant player by hoping that someone else can step up. Last year's stud, D.J. Newbill, has moved on. Now the hope is that forward Brandon Baylor can replace Newbill's 21 points per game. Spoiler alert: he cannot. And it will take a bit for Oak Hill product Josh Reaves to blossom and help out. Penn State has at least been competitive, especially at home, over the past few seasons. But this is Chambers' worst team in his five years here, and it will be a long winter.
Rutgers (+12500) - Yeah, Rutgers sucks. I have no idea if Eddie Jordan can coach or not (I'm thinking not) and no idea how a school this close to so much basketball talent can so consistently fail to produce any halfway decent basketball teams. They're an embarrassment.
Projected Big Ten Standings:
3. Michigan State
6. Ohio State
13. Penn State
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of nine straight winning nonconference seasons and nine straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $12,130 in profit with his sides and totals the last two years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $60,600 in the last nine years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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