A New Year's resolution for every B1G basketball team
With the new year arriving, it’s time to set resolutions.
What is each team in the Big Ten looking for as we start 2022? The answers are wide-ranging: Purdue wants a Final Four; Nebraska wants program stability.
Let’s take a look at all 14 teams.
After a rocky start to the season, the Fighting Illini have managed to win 7 of their last 8 games, and they’ve done so without arguably their 2nd-best player in point guard Andre Curbelo. Getting the sophomore back healthy — and playing well — is Priority No. 1 for Brad Underwood and Co. at the start of the new year. Curbelo has played only a couple games, and not well, since suffering a concussion in an exhibition game, with lingering effects keeping him on the sideline. But if he can return, then it makes Illinois the most likely team to upend Purdue’s bid for a Big Ten crown.
Although the Hoosiers are 10-2 through the first dozen games of the season, they are 0-2 vs. Q1 and Q2 teams, making Indiana’s NCAA résumé flawed, to say the least. In the New Year, IU will get plenty of chances for marquee victories, but needs to actually take advantage of those opportunities. Even if the Hoosiers finish .500 in the league, it might not be enough to get into the Big Dance, depending on who the 10 Big Ten wins come against. At least a couple wins against the top-tier of Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan State would solidify the Hoosiers’ standing.
The country needs to see Keegan Murray in an NCAA Tournament, so it’s up to Fran McCaffery’s crew to make sure its star sophomore gets there. The forward is an absolute stud, capable of going off for 30 points on any given night or pulling in a double-double, or both. A big, tall, lanky athlete, he’s a matchup problem for many in the Big Ten and the country too, and is the kind of guy who can put on a show on a national stage.
As strange as this is, Maryland will need to find a new coach in 2022, unless the Terrapin powers decide that interim Danny Manning is the right choice to lead the program into the future. The resignation of Mark Turgeon was an odd one, with the longtime coach deciding he’d had enough of a fanbase that was restless with Maryland’s direction. What’s acceptable for Maryland? Heck, it was only 2 years ago that it won a share of the Big Ten title. A little soul searching (along with the coach searching) might be needed in College Park.
Michigan needs to surround Hunter Dickinson with more offense, particularly from the perimeter, but considering we’re nearly a dozen games into the season, that might not be possible at this point. What is? Hitting some free throws might be a resolution worth pursuing; Michigan ranks 271st in the country in free throw percentage, hitting at a 66.8 clip. Hitting a few more per game might go a long way toward improving a UM offense that ranks only 9th in the Big Ten in points scored, as it averages 73.5 per game.
Max Christie is the kind of player who can carry a team in big games in the second half of the Big Ten season, but only if he can find his shot. The rookie, a 3-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week already, is averaging 9.4 points per game, but is doing shooting only 36.5 percent from the field and less than 31 percent from 3-point range. Considering he scored more than 2,000 points in his Illinois high school career, was a McDonald’s All-American and was one of the top prospects in the 2021 class, the versatile 6-foot-6 guard has tremendous upside. If he starts to pour in shots, Michigan State would become an even more formidable foe.
The Golden Gophers will head into 2022 looking for validation after a surprising non-conference run, plus an early Big Ten victory at Michigan. They’ve positioned themselves for a potential NCAA Tournament berth — already, they have 2 Q1 wins — which would be one of the most shocking in recent Big Ten history. Only a few months ago, Minnesota didn’t have a roster outside of a few players leftover from the Richard Pitino Era. But Ben Johnson found guys, plugged them into the huge voids and has made his team function. Now, a .500 or better finish in league play likely stamps a ticket to the tourney.
In the New Year, Nebraska needs to show its fans that there’s something to hang onto within the program, because the rebuild for Fred Hoiberg is becoming more and more lengthy. Is there light? It’s hard to see. Completely turning over a roster year after year after year isn’t a good formula, as it turns out. And Nebraska might be headed there yet again.
The Wildcats want to recapture the magic of 5 years ago, when Northwestern made a run to its first-ever NCAA Tournament, then validated that by winning a game. Then, Chris Collins didn’t think the program would have to wait this long to get dancing again, but here we are. But the 2021-22 Wildcats have positioned themselves for an opportunity, if they can pick up quality wins in the Big Ten. They might have the personnel to do so, especially if they get big-time play from Pete Nance, Boo Buie and Chase Audige.
There might be no team in the Big Ten that’s been impacted more by illness and injury than Ohio State. Perhaps the Buckeyes can be the illustration for what we all want to happen in 2022: An illness- and injury-free Big Ten season. But as we end 2021, that’s not yet happening. The Buckeyes have canceled 3 straight non-conference games as they deal with a Covid outbreak. Along with that, OSU is waiting for the returns of forward Justice Sueing, who is dealing with a lingering injury, and Seth Towns, a frequently-injured center.
Patience will be needed in Happy Valley, as Micah Shrewsberry essentially builds the program from the ground up. Sure, he’s got a lot of hard-working players right now, but without a star, wins are going to be hard to come by in the Big Ten. But Shrewsberry, the former Purdue and Boston Celtics assistant, knows what he’s doing, and will be able to recruit the personnel to make it happen. It might take a couple years, though, for the picture to start to take shape.
Look, it’s as simple as this: Purdue’s goal is a Final Four. It’s been way too long for the program, which made its last Final Four appearance in 1980. This is the Boilermakers’ best opportunity, with its 2-headed monster at center in Trevion Williams and Zach Edey, plus probably the Big Ten’s most dynamic player in Jaden Ivey. Add in a talented group of secondary players and a deep bench, and Matt Painter has a ton to work with. If he can get Purdue to buy in defensively and take care of the basketball, then a deep NCAA Tournament run is possible, if not likely. Fans are craving it.
In 2022, Rutgers would like more games like the last-second victory over Purdue and less games like all the other ones. But that seems unlikely. The Scarlet Knights need to try to keep Geo Baker as healthy as possible, which hasn’t happened a lot in the last couple years, then hope they can ride him and Ron Harper Jr. to some big victories in the Big Ten. But it’ll be an uphill climb to get back into the NCAA Tournament, because Rutgers has suffered too many duds during the non-conference.
The Badgers have a couple of quality perimeter scorers in Johnny Davis and Brad Davison, but they’re going to need more than the duo if they want to have a chance to stay in the top third of the Big Ten this season. But who could be the third scorer? Only 3 other players have even turned in at least 1 game in double-figures this season, leaving huge doubts about whether one could turn into a consistent scorer. Tyler Wahl might be the best option, because the junior is averaging 8.4 points per game, but he’s shooting only 42 percent from the floor, not good for a 6-9 forward.