Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Conference Play Primer: The Big Ten

Favorite: Ohio State

The favorite in the Big Ten is pretty easy to identify right now. Ohio State is playing as well as anyone in the country -- in fact, they overtook Duke as the No. 1 team in Kenpom's rankings. Offensively, this group is terrific. Their offense is based around the play of Jared Sullinger, the freshman big man that is on the short list for first team all-american. He's a bully on the block that plays with the strength and the savvy of a veteran. Its not just Sullinger, however. David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler are all capable of going off for 25 points if the situation calls for it. Dallas Lauderdale blocks shots, Aaron Craft has proven to be a solid point guard as a freshman, and DeShaun Thomas is instant offense coming off of the bench. The thing that is so impressive about this team, however, is that every player understands and has bought into their role. The Buckeyes are going to be a tough team to beat.

Player of the Year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

The a Player of the Year thus far is probably Sullinger, but seeing as I just talked about the Buckeyes, let's mix it up a bit, eh? Northwestern's John Shurna has been terrific this season. He's averaging 23.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 3.4 apg. (Those numbers would be better if he didn't miss half of Northwestern's last game against Mt. St. Mary's with an ankle injury.) He's shooting 61.1% from the field and an absurd 62.3% from three, taking more than five per game. He's a huge reason that the Wildcats have gotten off to this 9-1 start. The problem? Northwestern still hasn't beaten anybody. This is a program that has never made the NCAA Tournament, and with guys like Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford around Shurna, this may be the year. We will get a real feel for the legitness (I know that's not a word, but it should be) of Northwestern after their first three Big Ten games -- at Purdue, home for Michigan State, at Illinois.

All-Conference Team:

  • G: Demetri McCamey, Illinois: 15.7 ppg, 7.5 apg, 49.2% 3PT
  • G: E'Twaun Moore, Purdue: 19.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.8 spg
  • F: Jon Leuer, Wisconsin: 19.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 50% 3PT, 1.8 bpg
  • F: John Shurna, Northwestern: 23.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.4 apg
  • C: JaJuan Johnson, Purdue: 19.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg
Biggest Surprise: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota had a bit of hype coming into the season, but not enough to warrant much consideration nationally for the top 25. Boy, did we miss on that. The Gophers blew through the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and, at one point in the season, climbed all the way into the top ten. The biggest reason has been the addition of Trevor Mbakwe, a strong, athletic power forward that is a perfect complement to Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson, as he is averaging 13.3 ppg and 9.8 rpg on the season. Minnesota hit a rough patch in December, dropping a home game to Virginia, as they dealt with their starting point guard Al Nolen, their best perimeter defender and distributor, sitting out. With Nolen in the lineup, and guys like Blake Hoffarber and Rodney Williams having good seasons on the wing, this team can compete with anyone in the conference.

Biggest Disappointment: Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans are currently 8-4 on the season. Not a great start, especially by a team that was considered Duke's biggest challenger in the preseason. MSU has a bad habit of starting a season out slowly, and all of their four losses have come to teams currently ranked in the top 13 nationally. The bigger issue, however, is how the Spartans have looked in those losses. They are not playing like typical Tom Izzo clubs. Their defense is not where it needs to be and they aren't competing on the glass like we've come to expect out of Sparty. I have complete faith that Izzo will turn this thing around. There is just too much talent on that roster not too.

Teams to keep an eye on:
  • Illinois: There is talent up and down this lineup, led by Demetri McCamey, who is arguably the best back court player in this league. But Illinois has been, well, Illinois -- they settle for too many jumpers and are too soft on the interior.
  • Wisconsin: Jon Leuer has been unbelievable early in the season, Jordan Taylor's filled Trevon Hughes' shoes, and Bo Ryan is still coaching this team. The Badgers will always be in the discussion with him at the helm.
  • Purdue: The Boilermakers have arguably the best 1-2 punch in the conference in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. They defend as well as anyone in the country. If they continue to get solid performances out of their role players, this team will make a lot of noise this winter.
Teams to forget about:
  • Indiana: Tom Crean has been cleaning up on the recruiting trail, landing seemingly every high-major talent in the state of Indiana. The problem with that? He is getting commitments from kids in the class of 2014, while his team is losing games at home to Penn State this season. Cean needs results, not recruits.
  • Penn State: I love Talor Battle. Jeff Brooks has been good this season as well. But a team that can lose at home to Maine is not a team that can compete with the big dogs in the Big Ten.
  • Michigan: John Beilein always has teams that are difficult to play against because of the system that he runs. The problem is that this season, he just doesn't have the talent level to be effective with that system. To make matters worse, his best player -- Darius Morris -- was benched at the start of Tuesday's game against Purdue.

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