Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Six Lanes Full Of Contenders
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
After much preseason hype for its key players and elite teams, lofty habitation in the early polls and several key nonconference wins, everything was set up for the Big Ten to take the bouncing ball and run with it in 2013.
OK, that’s a travel – but you know what I mean.
At this writing, no fewer than a half-dozen Big Ten teams were ranked among the top 20 in the country and it could be argued that anyone in that six-pack could actually win the league crown.
Sure enough, the first set of league games this past week also continued to whet the appetite for what, now more than ever, promises to be a terrific conference race.
No. 9 Minnesota did everything right in the final three minutes of its opener with No. 18 Michigan State and pulled away for a very impressive 76-63 win at Williams Arena on New Year’s Eve. Later that evening, No. 5 Indiana had a fright at Iowa but did what it had to, emerging with its first conference win of the season.
On Wednesday night, No. 8 Ohio State also took care of business, blasting past undermanned Nebraska. And then the first of many upsets occurred as Purdue rose up at home and knocked off No. 11 Illinois.
Undefeated Michigan, the No. 2 team in the country behind top-ranked Duke, joined the Big Ten fray and a topsy-turvy race for the league crown on Thursday by destroying Northwestern. Also, Wisconsin took down Penn State.
So we are off – six teams with a Big Ten victory and six with a loss.
But how many teams will stay within the margin of error as we get halfway through the conference season and deeper still?
Well, let’s start at the bottom and go from there. Penn State and Nebraska tied for last in the league last season at 4-14 and it’s going to be tough sledding for both of those teams again this year.
The punchless Cornhuskers (9-5, 0-1) … let’s just say anybody who saw them lose 70-44 at The Schott can sum up their outlook up in one word: yeesh.
First year- coach Tim Miles is going to have to hold his nose during Nebraska’s league games – and so are we.
The Nittany Lions (8-5, 0-1) are without injured do-everything guard Tim Frazier, which is a crushing blow. He suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in November and is out for the remainder of the season.
Even with him putting up 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game last season they still ranked last or second-to-last in scoring offense, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and three-point percentage. This team will scrap and claw for coach Patrick Chambers but it’s difficult to look at the remaining schedule and find more than a few wins, if any.
Northwestern (9-5, 0-1) is going to be a tough out as usual, and coach Bill Carmody likes the makeup of his team with senior Drew Crawford now at the forefront of a deeper and more balanced team. Still, it appears the Wildcats have missed their window.
In the last four years, all of them offering opportunity for NU to break out and make the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in program history, the Wildcats have failed to get over the hump and even log a break-even Big Ten record. They settled for the NIT each time. They are heading that way again.
If the conference opener made any statement it was that the ’Cats are not ready for prime time once again. So let’s go ahead and scratch them off.
Somewhere in the Middle
Purdue (7-6, 1-0) also is going to have a very difficult time keeping up. Yes, the win over the Illini was encouraging and you won’t find many who think more highly of coach Matt Painter than I do. However, the Boilermakers are undergoing massive roster turnover.
Painter is trying to find roles for six newcomers and only one of his veterans started more than 12 games last season – 6-9 junior forward Travis Carroll. Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd can score but the Boilers don’t shoot much better than 40 percent from the field.
PU isn’t particularly skilled or explosive and is going to have to scrap just to stay in road games. Simply put, this is not the year to expect to see Purdue in the upper half of the league standings.
Iowa (11-3, 0-1) is interesting. The Hawkeyes have added size and backcourt athleticism to an underrated roster that includes post-man Melsahn Basabe, wing Roy Devyn Marble, forwards Aaron White and Zach McCabe and guard Eric May. Plus, Fran McCaffrey knows how to coach and he’s now got enough horses to play the uptempo style he covets.
Iowa was too leaky defensively last season and I am not a big fan of Marble’s shot selection. But I like this team. It’s got “dark horse” written all over it and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Hawkeyes pull off some big wins, hang around in the race and maybe even scrape out an NCAA tourney berth.
But Iowa is not a true contender. Not yet.
Ditto for Wisconsin (10-4, 1-0), and I realize that is a dangerous statement. In that last five years UW has won anywhere from 10 to 16 league games and also won at least once in the NCAA Tournament. Nothing changes under Bo Ryan. This team defends like nobody’s business, sets the hard picks, makes key shots and gets more production from frontliners outside of the lane than any team in the conference. The Badgers also return four starters from a squad that was nipped by Syracuse in the Sweet 16.
So everything on paper points to contention; it’s just that my contention is that Wisconsin is a whole tier below six conference teams.
First of all, the one departing player of note is Jordan Taylor, who may be the most effective and clutch guard ever to play for Ryan (apologies to Devin Harris). There is simply no one who can begin to replace Taylor, although freshman George Marshall appears to be an adequate point guard and Ben Brust is off to a decent start.
UW will have to rely on the versatility and smarts of its contingent of forwards, a group led by Jared Berggren. The 6-10, 235-pound senior morphed into Blake Griffin during his hair-raising, spinning throw-down against Penn State and is set for a monster year.
However, classmate Mike Bruesewitz is coming off a very disappointing junior season in which he shot only 39.4 percent from the floor and Ryan Evans, in this scribe’s opinion, is not as good as his stats. Teams dared Evans to shoot from the elbow and baseline last season and he obliged with brick after brick.
Even with the return of veteran guard Josh Gasser and the emergence of freshman forward Sam Dekker – keep an eye on that kid – this team is not going to have quite enough to get to the mountaintop, at least not this year.
So for the sake of this conversation I have cut the field in half, pared this bonsai tree with the precision of Mr. Miyagi.
Six At the Top
That leaves the six teams currently housed in the rankings. Are they all legitimate contenders? Yes, I believe they are.
Indiana opened the campaign atop the rankings and stayed there until being nipped by Butler in a doozy of a contest in downtown Indianapolis. Most of the experts are now on the Michigan bandwagon and the Wolverines were highly impressive during an undefeated preconference season.
Illinois made some offseason waves by hiring John Groce to replace the fired Bruce Weber and the Illini responded with a couple eye-opening wins in the early going. Minnesota still has Tubby Smith (and his new mustache) and now has the attention of national pollsters with Trevor Mbakwe returning to a suddenly loaded-looking roster.
And, of course, Michigan State always garners lots of attention with national pundits raving Tom Izzo is the best coach in the country and the Spartans again displaying an enviable mix of brutish big men and talented guards.
But an overview of the Big Ten race probably should begin with Ohio State. After all, the Buckeyes have won at least a piece of the crown the last three years. Still, Thad Matta has a mysterious team.
When asked recently if the Buckeyes could four-peat, even cerebral point guard Aaron Craft looked around, saw the gaping holes left by Jared Sullinger and William Buford, and wasn’t sure how to answer.
“We have different guys, it’s a different team,” he said. “From our offensive schemes to everything that we do, things have changed because we don’t have a two-time All-American, we don’t have a four-year vet that’s been through the battles. We’re still feeling our way and trying to solidify ourselves and having people understand what their roles are.”
The following is a quick look at the strengths and concerns of the six Big Ten title contenders, in alphabetical order:
Record: 13-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten
Notable wins: 78-61 vs. Butler (Maui, Hawaii); 75-62 vs. Georgia Tech; 85-74 at No. 10 Gonzaga; 81-79 vs. Auburn
Losses: 82-73 vs. No. 12 Missouri (St. Louis); 68-61 at Purdue
Overrated: Illinois’ outside shooting. The Illini have bombers, and guard Brandon Paul is an absolute wonder when he heats up, but UI made just 30.4 percent of its three-point attempts last season, last in the Big Ten.
Underrated: D.J. Richardson quietly averaged 11.6 points per game last season and is at 10.7 ppg so far this season. He rebounds well for a guard and is one of the conference’s better free-throw shooters.
X-factor: Chemistry. Groce has inherited a superstar in Paul and has some other veterans capable of leading and upping their play, but they have got to mesh with newcomers such as forward Sam McLaurin and continue to adapt well to a new coaching style. Groce is intense and will demand the same of the Illini, who were a study in failed concentration last season.
Best name: C Nnanna Egwu
Best early sign: Tracy Abrams is off to a very encouraging start to his sophomore season. A Chicago product and the team’s only natural lead guard, Abrams is averaging 12.1 ppg, 3.8 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game.
Worst early sign: Groce would like to model his teams after the successful ones he helped produce at Xavier and Ohio State, but the Illini are logging just 11.9 assists per game, which ranks 256th in the nation. It’s great to have players like Paul who can break down defenders off the dribble but Illinois still needs better ball movement and trust.
Roughest stretch: A five-game run against Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota from Jan. 27 to Feb. 10.
Jim Delany will hand the Illini a trophy if … Groce can put enough belief in this team for it to win several big road games. Illinois was a dreadful 1-8 in league away games last season.
Record: 13-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten
Notable wins: 66-53 vs. Georgia and 82-72 (OT) vs. Georgetown (Brooklyn, N.Y.); 83-59 vs. No. 14 North Carolina; 69-65 at Iowa
Loss: 88-86 (OT) vs. Butler (Indianapolis)
Overrated: Head coach Tom Crean. Seriously, does anybody preen for the cameras more than this guy? He needed four full years to bring the program back to respectability and entered the season with a not-so-wonderful career winning percentage of .600.
Underrated: The IU fans perk up when youngsters such as Yogi Ferrell and Jeremy Hollowell enter the game, and with good reason. However, forward Will Sheehey has been the Hoosiers best role player for a couple years now. He’s an outstanding shooter, heady and produces. He’s averaging 12.4 ppg and 4.1 rpg.
X-factor: This is Victor Oladipo, without any question. In fact, Oladipo is perhaps the most important X-factor in the country. No longer just an athlete and streaky shooter, Oladipo is outstanding defensively as well as transition and makes the plays the mold IU together. He’s also the team’s second-leading scorer behind center Cody Zeller at 13.6 ppg.
Best name: C Peter Jurkin
Best early sign: The Hoosiers are putting up 87.9 points per game, which is tops in the nation. Scoring is not going to be an issue with this team. Finding enough court time and basketballs for everybody is the bigger concern. Indiana also ranks in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage, rebounds and assists.
Worst early sign: Christian Watford still seems to be in a funk. The senior forward shot 41.6 percent from the field last year despite making a better percentage from deep and he’s at 41.7 this season.
Roughest stretch: A five-game run from Jan. 27 to Feb. 10 with home games with Michigan State and Michigan and roadies at Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State.
Jim Delany will hand the Hoosiers a trophy if … Crean doesn’t screw this up. He has the most firepower and best center in the country in Zeller but it remains to be seen how IU will hold up over the course of an 18-game pressure cooker.
Record: 14-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten
Notable wins: 67-62 vs. Pittsburgh and 71-57 vs. Kansas State (New York City); 79-72 vs. No. 18 N.C. State; 80-67 vs. Arkansas; 81-66 vs. West Virginia (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Overrated: After center Jordan Morgan logged perhaps his best game of his career in a home win over Ohio State last year, onlookers raved that he was ready for stardom. The truth is he’s still a limited post player who predicates his defense on taking charges. Let’s not act like this guy has a reservation in the NBA.
Underrated: Point guard Trey Burke is a featured attraction but he still doesn’t get his just due because of the weaponry around him. He can take over a game if necessary and is one of the best pure point guards in the country.
X-factor: Freshman guard Nik Stauskas is just what the doctor ordered – or at least what coach John Beilein ordered. The svelte 6-6 Canadian is emerging as one of the best spot-up shooters in college basketball and is a perfect fit for Beilein’s system. Stauskas is hitting 53.9 percent of his threes this season and is third on the team in scoring at 13.6 ppg.
Best name: G Spike Albrecht
Best early sign: The Wolverines played in just one true road environment in the preconference but flogged Northwestern 94-66 in the Big Ten opener at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Worst early sign: Michigan doesn’t have a single player who is averaging at least six rebounds per game.
Roughest stretch: When the calendar flips to February, UM will need to gird up. The Wolverines open the month with a trip to Indiana, return home to face rival Ohio State and then head back to the road to stare down Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Jim Delany will hand the Wolverines a trophy if … Morgan becomes a reliable rebounder and freshmen Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III are as good as they appear to be.
Record: 11-3 overall, 0-1 Big Ten
Notable wins: 67-64 vs. Kansas (Atlanta); 63-60 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette; 67-56 vs. Texas
Losses: 66-62 vs. No. 23 Connecticut; 67-59 at Miami (Fla.); 76-63 at No. 9 Minnesota
Overrated: MSU’s homecourt advantage. Sparty hasn’t been as untouchable at the Breslin Center as the media would have you believe.
Underrated: Wing Branden Dawson is back after suffering a torn ACL late last season against Ohio State, and that’s very good news for Izzo and company. Dawson is a willing defender and outstanding offensive rebounder who provides extra possessions. He’s also averaging a solid 9.6 ppg and 5.9 rpg.
X-factor: This has to be Adreian Payne, right? A physical wonder at a springy 6-10, Payne can look like a pro on one possession and a bum on the next. He’s capable of sending the season in either direction almost on his own.
Best name: G Denzel Valentine
Best early sign: Point guard Keith Appling and his new running mate, Gary Harris, quickly are becoming a dynamic duo. They’ve not only loaded up the highlight reel, they are shooting respectable percentages
Worst early sign: MSU lost to a tattered UConn team out of the gate and scraped by the likes of Bowling Green and Boise State at home.
Roughest stretch: The Spartans will face the other five so-called contenders – Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota – in succession from Jan. 19 to Feb. 6. Ouch.
Jim Delany will hand the Spartans a trophy if … Michigan State’s guards can take over at the end of critical games. Appling and Harris have the skill set and temerity to take big shots. If they make them, look out.
Record: 13-1 overall, 1-0 Big Ten
Notable wins: 72-57 vs. Richmond; 84-75 vs. No. 19 Memphis and 66-63 vs. Stanford (Nassau, Bahamas); 77-68 at Florida State; 88-64 vs. San Diego State; 76-63 vs. No. 18 Michigan State
Loss: 89-71 vs. No. 5 Duke (Nassau, Bahamas)
Overrated: Smith’s run at Minnesota. Announcers love to rave about the “great job” Tubby has done in his five years in Minneapolis but in truth he has not led the Gophers to a single NCAA Tournament win.
Underrated: Andre Hollins, but that is about to change. A sophomore from Memphis, Hollins is a headache to guard and quickly is becoming a topflight college point guard. He leads a balanced attack with 13.6 ppg and also doles out 3.7 apg.
X-factor: Senior forward Rodney Williams sometimes forgets how effective he can be and loses his aggression. Still he’s a terrific all-around player who can defend, rebound and score when needed. Williams is second to Hollins in scoring at 13.1 and complements Trevor Mbakwe on the boards with 6.1 rpg.
Best name: G Maverick Ahanmisi
Best early sign: Pulling away from Michigan State in the league opener. There’s no telling what it did for the confidence of the Gophers to overwhelm a team the caliber of the Spartans as it did. An ideal start.
Worst early sign: Minnesota’s reserves provide more bodies for defensive pressure but aren’t very good scoring options. Smith may have to tighten his rotation very soon.
Roughest stretch: The Gophers have back-to-back road games against Iowa and Ohio State in February and then return home for a huge contest with Indiana.
Jim Delany will hand the Gophers a trophy if … they continue to improve as the season wears on. Smith has the pieces in place and is sitting in position to steal this thing if Indiana and Michigan falter. Seriously, Minnesota can win the regular-season crown.
Record: 11-2 overall, 1-0 Big Ten
Notable wins: 77-66 vs. Washington (Uncasville, Conn.); 89-55 vs. Long Beach State; 65-55 vs. Winthrop; 70-44 vs. Nebraska
Losses: 73-68 at No. 2 Duke; 74-66 vs. No. 9 Kansas
Overrated: Every time Amir Williams makes a play, Buckeye fans hope it’s a sign that he’s ready to break out. In actuality, he has subpar hands and post moves and has struggled with consistency throughout his young playing career. In high school and on the AAU circuit, Williams was capable to pulling disappearing act despite his size and athleticism. Matta will get what he can out of him and keep developing him, but don’t look for an All-Big Ten season from the youngster.
Underrated: Lenzelle Smith Jr. wins the off-guard spot last year. Yawn. He comes through with several huge shots in the regional final and no one talks about him leading up to the Final Four. He shoots 44.6 percent from deep, averages 11.6 ppg and 5.1 rpg this season while playing his normal stellar defense and we keep asking when the Buckeyes are going to develop a reliable player behind Deshaun Thomas. Hello?
X-factor: This was the self-proclaimed Thomas in the past but the wand has been passed to forward LaQuinton Ross, OSU’s third-leading scorer despite coming off the bench. The Buckeyes have the defensive toughness to hang in games with elite teams but they are going to have to hit important three-balls, especially on the road. Ross can aid this quest greatly.
Best name: G Amedeo Della Valle
Best early sign: Even though the Buckeyes lost to the only two ranked teams they have faced they came close against perhaps the top two teams in the country. Plus, OSU led much of the way at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They can build off the experience now that conference play has arrived.
Worst early sign: The inside game is nearly vacant at times. Evan Ravenel is doing what he can and Thomas will post up when the need arises but the Buckeyes have spent long stretches of games chucking threes off of perimeter passes, not inside-out actions.
Roughest stretch: The Buckeyes’ five-game run from Feb. 17 to March 5 – at Wisconsin, home against Minnesota and Michigan State, and road games at Northwestern and Indiana. Matta’s teams always find themselves in a fight at NU; the others speak for themselves.
Jim Delany will hand the Buckeyes a trophy if … Craft and Sam Thompson can burn defenses set up to slow down Thomas, and the Buckeyes can continue to take a group approach to rebounding. Matta knows what he needs and knows how to win a league title. It’s up to this particular Ohio State team to prove it has the chops – and it won’t be easy playing in the best conference in the country.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.