B1G basketball Q&A: Who are the biggest conference surprises?
The Big Ten has — already — proven to be as unpredictable as ever, maybe more so.
Michigan and Purdue, the 2 favorites in the preseason, are a combined 2-4. Penn State, which many predicted as the last-place team, has equaled that number of victories. Michigan State has claimed an early spot as a team to beat, with a 4-0 record, joining Illinois.
Following, Big Ten experts Kyle Charters and Alex Hickey go back and forth with the biggest questions facing the Big Ten right now.
As we now get into the bulk of the Big Ten season, what have been the biggest surprises — one positive, one negative — that you’ve seen so far?
Alex: The biggest surprise overall — and it’s a negative one — is Michigan. In the preseason we were viewing the Wolverines as the best team in the country other than Gonzaga, and that feels laughable now. This team is not good. The only Final Four Michigan is capable of making is in the NIT. I feel like the football team’s run to the CFP probably saved Juwan Howard’s squad from a negative glare, but now it’s here, baby. And it’s glaring.
My positive surprise is that Penn State might be an average to above-average basketball team! That seems backhanded, but I figured 10 wins would be a heck of a first season for Micah Shrewsberry. The Nittany Lions are already 7-5 with a couple months to go. And one of those losses was in overtime to a really good LSU team.
What are your biggest surprises? And since we likely share one: Is Michigan even going to make the tournament?
Kyle: The concern about Michigan isn’t only centered around this season. There has to be some question about Juwan Howard’s coaching ability, because some of the concerns from when he took the job — that he would be a good recruiter, but that perhaps he wouldn’t be a solid strategist and game-day coach — are looking more and more like a possibility. Why isn’t he connecting with what appears to be a talented roster? Why are the Wolverines so bad defensively? Why has Hunter Dickinson regressed (or at least not taken a step forward)?
I don’t think the situation is that dire. But that we’re talking about Howard in such a way isn’t a glowing review. As it stands now, I don’t think Michigan makes the NCAA Tournament; it’s only 1-6 vs. Quad 1 and 2 teams and that trend won’t be good enough come Selection Sunday.
On the positive side, I think the league is better at the top than what we anticipated. Before the season started, I thought Purdue and Michigan would be light years ahead of everyone else — perhaps they’d finish a couple games ahead of others in the Big Ten standings — but that’s not the case. Michigan State, Illinois and Ohio State are right there, and Wisconsin isn’t far behind. Plus, Michigan (obviously) and Purdue have shown vulnerability. It’s going to be a great season.
Speaking of the Tournament … break it down for us. As of right now, at the start of the calendar year, who is in the Big Dance, who has work to do and who is out?
Alex: This message better self-destruct in 30 seconds, because this is Mission Impossible. I don’t envy the committee this year with COVID wreaking havoc on scheduling. In some ways I think it’s harder than last year, because it felt more like everybody was on the same page. This season there are pockets of cancellations that are hitting some far worse than others.
That said, I’ll give it a crack.
Definitely in: Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin
Probably in: Iowa, Indiana
Work to do: Rutgers, Michigan, Northwestern
Of that group, which team(s) do you feel are most likely to slip out and who do you see sneaking in?
Kyle: Indiana earned a huge victory Thursday night to jump into that category. Had the Hoosiers not done so, I’m not sure their NCAA place was all that secure. The W over Ohio State gave IU a Quad 1 win, improving it to 2-3 vs. Q1 and Q2. The Hoosiers probably still need to win outside the state of Indiana — they’re 0-3 on the road — but Thursday over OSU was a good start.
I thought from those lower-tier teams, Northwestern was the one to keep an eye on. Then, the Wildcats go out and completely fall apart in the last few minutes of a home loss to Penn State. Inexcusable, particularly for a veteran team.
And the other team probably worth at least a mention is Minnesota. The Gophers had a great non-conference, but one does have to wonder if it was built only hollow victories. It’s not so much that Illinois beat Minnesota in the Barn, but the Fighting Illinois just crushed the Gophers. And with Minnesota’s penchant for the second-half-of-the-season fade, there’s not much confidence in Minneapolis.
I’ve got Johnny Davis as the Big Ten Player of the Year. Of course, I saw him beat up Purdue in Mackey Arena a few days ago, just an incredible performance, so maybe I’ve got some recency bias. What do you say?
Alex: Davis is on fire, but I’d have him third on my list at the moment.
I would vote Iowa’s Keegan Murray as my player of the year. There were a ton of questions as to who would pick up Luka Garza’s scoring load, and Murray is here leading the country with 24.5 points per game. Of course, it says a lot about the overall talent in the conference that the top 3 scorers nationally all play in the Big Ten.
That includes my No. 2 choice in the POY race, Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, who is also the league’s leading rebounder.
And since we’re 3/5ths of the way there …
Who is on your midseason all-Big Ten team? And unlike the league office, you’re not allowed to name 11 first-team players.
Kyle: No kidding. What kind of joke is that? A team consists of 5 players, not 6, not 9, not 11. Five!
And so that makes this extremely difficult, because there are at least 7 guys who are deserving of first-team mention. Maybe this will shake itself out before the end of the season in a couple months, but if anything, it seems a greater likelihood to expand. Because even a list of 7 leaves off some really, really good players.
So the 7: Davis, Murray and Cockburn, the 3 you mentioned, are definitely in the group of 5. The next 4: EJ Liddell, Jaden Ivey, Trayce Jackson-Davis and I’ll take Hunter Dickinson to edge out the last spot.
Since you’re making me go with 5, I’ll take a group that would actually make one hell of a starting lineup, with Davis and Ivey at guards, Murray and Liddell at forwards and the big man, Cockburn, in the middle.
Give me an outlandish prediction that is absolutely certain to go wrong (but that we wish could be true).
Alex: Rutgers will either play in the Big Ten championship game or reach the Sweet 16. Possibly the Elite 8, much in the manner Oregon State came out of nowhere to do so last year. I can just feel it in my bones. Now, the Scarlet Knights have yet to show they can be half the team they are on their home floor when forced to leave Jersey. But I love how they play. It screams March chaos to me.
What is yours?
Kyle: I’d love to see Geo Baker recapture the magic (and stay healthy) and get Rutgers going again. But the Scarlet Knights will probably need to win away from home, as you point out, to even make the tournament. That’s been rare, to say the least, over the last few seasons.
I think one of the also-rans — a double-digit seed (or near there) — will make a run from Wednesday (or Thursday) to Sunday in the Big Ten Tournament and turn the championship game upside down to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But who? Let’s go with Maryland. Man, what a weird season the Terrapins have had so far, starting with the resignation of a coach who was just fed up with the fan base. Danny Manning inherited a talented squad and if it gets hot, then it can beat people.