Big Ten basketball preview: Is this the year of the Terrapin?
The Big 10 is loaded this season. Here's six questions we can't wait to see answered.
The Big Ten has six teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll. Is it the best conference in college basketball?
Depends on how you look at it. The best conference? It would be hard to go that far considering Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are all ranked in the top six of the AP Poll out of the ACC. But does the Big Ten have the most depth of any conference in college hoops? That’s entirely possible.
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Michigan was down last season but is ranked at No. 25 to start the season, and given a clean bill of health, the Wolverines are certainly talented and well-coached to the point where that ranking is justified. The ‘best depth’ debate for the Big Ten really boils down to two teams: Ohio State and Iowa.
The Hawkeyes won a game in the NCAA tournament last season, and though they lose leading scorer Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff is primed for a breakout campaign that could lead his troops back to the dance.
Ohio State, meanwhile, loses a ton of key ingredients, including D’Angelo Russell. But the Buckeyes have made the NCAA tournament in nine of the last 10 seasons, and they have one of the most accurate shooters in the country returning in Marc Loving (46.1 3 FG% last season). Simply put, if he shoots more often, Ohio State will have an easier time replacing Russell than many anticipate.
The Big Ten could reasonably put eight teams in the NCAA tournament this season. Given the ACC’s star-power, it’s still the best conference in the country. But the gap is narrower than people realize.
Can Thomas Bryant stay out of foul trouble for IU?
This may seem to be a footnote when discussing the Big Ten, but it might be the most important factor of Indiana’s season.
On paper, the Hoosiers’ starting five of Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, Troy Williams and Bryant looks exquisite. There’s shooting, ball-handling, athleticism, rim protection and pristine spacing.
IU was sorely lacking in rim protection in 2014-15, though, and that’s why Bryant fits this Hoosier roster like a glove. Indiana ranked 184th in the nation in blocked shots last season; Bryant possesses plus explosiveness and a 7'5.5" wingspan. His standing reach? 9' 4".
He’s just what the doctor ordered for this Indiana squad, but he needs to stay out of trouble. That can be an issue for freshman centers. Noah Vonleh was superb in his one season in Bloomington, but he only played 26.5 minutes per game – that was primarily because he averaged 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes.
Indiana lacks depth on the front line – there’s a reason Tom Crean’s squad ranked 300th in defensive efficiency last season. If Bryant can stay out of foul trouble but remain disruptive near the goal, the Hoosiers could have a memorable season.
See question above, but apply to Diamond Stone at Maryland
Freshmen centers Stone and Bryant are two of the biggest X-factors in the Big Ten. Luckily for Mark Turgeon, the Terrapins will start Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter alongside Stone, who could shift to center more seamlessly for Maryland than Williams theoretically could for Indiana.
Stone profiles as an offensive big, and his rare combination of size, power and agility is scary for Big Ten foes. He may struggle to defend the pick-and-roll, but people said the same thing about Jahlil Okafor last season. He was able to flip the defensive switch on when it mattered most for Duke.
At the NBA level, sure, Stone could struggle defensively. In college, as long as he stays out of foul trouble, he’ll be fine (a la Okafor) thanks to his brute strength and physical attributes. For the Terps’ sake, he just needs to be disciplined and technically sound enough to stay out of foul trouble.
Maryland has one of the best starting lineups in the nation on paper – but will last year’s good fortune turn around this season?
Maryland was fantastic a year ago, but the Terrapins went 12-1 in games decided by six points or less.
Maryland now 12-1 in games decided by six points or less, undefeated in making beat writers suffer— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) March 20, 2015
That’s remarkable, sure, but likely unsustainable. Maryland is going to look different this season with the additions of Stone, Carter and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon.
But let’s say that good fortune evens out, and the added talent gives Maryland a few more blowout wins than it had last season. Is it really fair to expect the Terps to blow last year’s 28-7 record out of the water?
Time will tell, but there’s a reason Maryland started off as the No. 24 team in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings (well, there are a few. His formula doesn’t include transfers, which is the most obvious reason, but their close game luck is a major factor as well).
Look – Maryland is going to be excellent this season. But expecting a big jump from 28 wins might be a tad ambitious.
Who is going to make outside shots for Purdue?
For NBA fans out there, the Boilermakers are essentially the Memphis Grizzlies of college basketball. It will be interesting to see who Matt Painter chooses to start out of the Hammons/Haas/Swanigan three-headed monster. Pairing Hammons and Swanigan seems to make the most sense at first glance; playing Haas and Hammons together is redundant given their skillsets.
Regardless, the frontcourt is going to be Purdue’s strength. If they can make outside shots at an above average rate, the Boilermakers could be special. Kendall Stephens is Purdue’s best returning shooter (38.4 percent from deep), but he posted the worst defensive rating on the team among regulars last season. Jon Octeus is gone, and Texas-Arlington transfer Johnny Hill has the best chance to replace him at point guard. Hill does many things well, but outside shooting isn’t one of them – he shot 25 percent from 3 last season.
Raphael Davis did improve as a shooter in 2014-15, but he’s still hovering around the 30 percent mark from deep. If sophomore Vince Edwards can vault north of 35 percent and play quality defense, it will be huge for this team.
Will Ethan Happ or Vitto Brown become 75 percent of what Frank Kaminsky meant to the Wisconsin program?
Knowing Bo Ryan? Probably. Happ is a redshirt freshman who figures to take Kaminsky’s spot in the lineup, and there are high hopes for him in Madison. Brown is a junior who played sparingly in his first two seasons, but it’s the Wisconsin Badgers. He’ll probably become a household name soon enough.
Get to know those two names, because if you’re a fan of another Big Ten team, these guys will be hitting clutch shots and frustrating the daylights out of you come January.