As we approach the ACC-Big Ten challenge, I'm taking a quick look at the various Big Ten basketball squads and review their work so far. I also figure that there are six "probable" Big Ten wins in the challenge (although Michigan & Northwestern have lots of room to disappoint) with two toss-ups. Indiana & Illinois are going to have to prove they can play well in the tough games, and if one of them breaks through, the Big Ten will likely win its third straight challenge.
Team-by-team commentary after the jump:
1. Ohio State (6-0) vs. #4 Duke, 11/29 (probable win)
Pleasant surprise - Pretty much everything has gone to plan with Jared Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, and William Buford all stepping up as expected, Aaron Craft running the point well, and freshmen, redshirts, and transfers all providing depth. Florida has been the only real test for this squad so far, but that'll change with tomorrow's game against Duke and a trip to Kansas on Dec. 10th. The surprise contributor is stil lLenzelle Smith, Jr. who has been racking up assists and steals while shooting decently from the field (although also posting a shockingly bad 27.3% from the free-throw line).
Area of concern - The four true freshmen (Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, and Trey McDonald) are all sitting at the bottom of the statistical categories, and given the preseason chatter that two or three of them could be starting, this is pretty disappointing. Still, Matta can develop these guys slowly as his stars can carry the load for now, and redshirt JD Weatherspoon and transfer Evan Ravenel are filling out the depth decently.
2. Wisconsin (6-0) - at #1 UNC, 11/30 (probable loss)
Pleasant surprise - A couple of guys who never got off the pine last year, Jared Berggren and Ben Brust, are leading the scoring, and the wildly inconsistent Ryan Evans is a rock in the starting line-up. Josh Gasser is shooting an incredible 71.4% from behind the arc. Mike Brueswitz and Jordan Taylor are playing capably enough, even if the only thing they're doing really well at the moment is hitting threes. Freshman Frank Kaminsky is providing depth off the bench, as is senior Rob Wilson.
Area of concern - The schedule has been fairly soft in six home games, with only BYU looking like a postseason team. The Badgers handled them fairly easily though, and the next games should be interesting. UNC (who is coming off a loss) looks to be a good old road-game beat-down, but upcoming games against Marquette and UNLV should give a good gauge as to the Badgers' abilities. Depth will probably continue to be an issue, but Bo Ryan always makes it work.
3. Purdue - (6-1) vs. Miami (Fl), 11/29 (probable win)
Pleasant surprise - The Boilers followed up their narrow win over Iona with a nice victory over Temple, lost a neutral site game to a tough Alabama squad, and then routed a couple gimmes at home. They may not yet fully deserve to be ranked, but they should be win the next two games. They should be able to handle Miami at home pretty easily, but the game at (what I consider to be a bit overrated) Xavier should be interesting. Also, Robbie Hummel has notched 13 blocks so far, to go along with his expected contributions of scoring and rebounding. Freshman Jacob Lawson is developing into a nice presence in the paint, and should continue to develop throughout the season. Ryne Smith is hitting 52% from three, and Lewis Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and Kelsey Barlow are contributing decently in (mostly) starting roles.
Area of concern - Interior depth. Lawson is promising, but he's listed at 6-8, 220- just barely enough to cut it as a D-I center. And frankly, I'm a little suspicious of that listing, given that he was listed at 6-6, 205 last year. I'm sure he's filled out over the summer, but he looks a lot more suited to the power forward spot. To reiterate from the other week, Sandi Marcius and (especially) Travis Carroll need to provide both more minutes and production - the Boilers simply can't have Hummel playing minutes at center.
4. Michigan State (4-2) vs. #20 Florida State, 11/30 (probable win)
Pleasant surprise - Draymond Green is still the team leader, Adriean Payne and Derrick Nix are helping him hold down the paint. Keith Appling appears to be growing into the point guard the team needs while freshman Branden Dawson and transfer Brandon Wood are capably filling out the starting five. Freshman point guard Travis Trice looks like the team's best outside shooter, and walk-on Austin Thornton is getting stops and hit 17 of 19 free-throws.
Area of concern? The lower depth continues to be very worrisome. While Derrick Nix splits time at center with Adreian Payne, the only other players who have been dependable off the pine are Trice and Thornton. Alex Gauna, Russell Byrd, and Brandan Kearney have all been pretty disappointing so far. Also, as a team they are shooting really poorly from outside of the arc (23.8%) and have posted a 4:5 ratio with assists/turnovers. I'm still guessing they'll beat FSU on Wednesday if they're at home, because they should be able to get to the line enough to make up for their terrible shooting.
5. Michigan (5-1) - at Virginia, 11/29 (probable win).
Pleasant surprise - The 12-point win over Memphis followed by a nice game vs. Duke showed that these Wolverines can play good teams competitively as well as they play the bad teams. Al Horford and Evan Smotrycz are playing well defensively, frosh Trey Burke is establishing himself as the starter at point guard, and Tim Hardaway Jr. has taken over the Manny Harris role as wing/scoring point in the offense.
Area of concern - The depth of this squad is the most concerning thing to me, as the four players mentioned above are playing alonside returnees Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Jordan Morgan for a basic seven-man rotation. Matt Vogrich sees a few minutes a game, but is contributing precious little except missed threes at this point, and noone else looks likely to step up. I'm putting them above Indiana for now based on a nice performance in Maui, but I just worry that the margin for error here is very thin - and given the offense's reliance on the three-point shot, I just foresee some really bad losses on the horizon as well as some surprisingly good wins.
6. Indiana (6-0) at North Carolina State, 11/30 (toss-up)
Pleasant surprise - The Hoosiers have reeled off 6 wins with an average victory margin of 24 points. They've posted their first road win in a while at Evansville and beat Butler at home. On top of all of this, they've looked aggressive, resilient, and balanced, and have posted the 5th best field-goal shooting percentage in the nation. Nice. However, the real tests of true improvement will come on Wednesday when the Hoosiers visit the Wolfpack, who recently beat Texas.
Area of concern - At this point, the turnovers are still a little high and the free-throw percentage (72.6%) could improve a little - yet the real concern is the relatively soft schedule to this point. A loss at NCSU wouldn't prove much, but a win should put the Hoosiers into early contention for a NCAA tournament at-large bid. Non-conference road wins are gold on Selection Sunday, so this game could be really important.
7. Illinois - (6-0) at Maryland, 11/29 (toss-up)
Pleasant surprise - Sam Maniscalo has shaken off an off-season injury to solidify his starting spot at point for the Illini. Meyers Leonard has become a legit center, while pine-sitter Tyler Griffey is filling in capably at the four-spot. Frosh wing Myke Henry has also shown some explosiveness in his limited minutes.
Area of concern - The team's assist-turnover ratio should continue to move into the black with Maniscalo running the offense, but outside shooting - and in fact, shooting in general is a bit worrisome. In their six home games, they've not had a particularly rough slate, really at best on par with Indiana's. I know they just hung 90 on Chicago State, but even with that they're either not getting good looks or not knocking them down when they get them (32.7% from three, 47.1% from the field).
8. Northwestern - (5-0) vs. Georgia Tech, 11/29 (probable win -maybe)
Pleasant surprise - Generally winning, but had to fend off a feisty Stony Brook squad at home (and yes, that's the same team that went down to IU by 30 to open the season). Dave Sobolewski continues to fill it up as he's the third leading scorer on the team while posting a 3:1 assist-turnover ratio. Impressive. Also, a good RPI win over Seton Hall after narrow wins over Tulsa & LSU establish the Wildcats as a possible postseason team again. NCAA's? I'm far from convinced.
Area of concern - Tre Demps hasn't been helpful so far, John Shurna's 3-point and field-goal % shooting have dropped from last year, and most of the returnees have not shown any progress from last season. Centers Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti are off to terrible starts, JerShon Cobb does not appear to be recovered from his injury, and Alex Marcotullio isn't even playing starting minutes. I just look at this personnel and think this defense is going to be in big trouble come conference play.
9. Nebraska- (4-1) vs. Wake Forest (probable win)
Pleasant surprise - Dylan Talley has really stepped up and filled a play-making void that I thought Toney McCray & Caleb Walker would have this year. Bo Spencer is scoring a lot while keeping his turnovers relatively low, and Brandon Richardson is forking out assists while leading the team in steals. Brandon Ubel has seen a resurgence to re-establish himself as a capable starter, but his numbers are still nothing to write home about.
Area of concern - They dropped a game to Oregon, who has an outside chance of making the NCAA tourney, but other than that, the schedule hasn't really been able to reveal how decent this team. A home loss to Wake Forest would confirm that this team isn't very good. I'm most worried about turnovers (there's been improvement, but they still have more TO's than assists) and Bo Spencer's decision-making.
10. Minnesota - (6-1) vs. Virginia Tech (probable loss)
Pleasant surprise - Freshman Andre Hollins and transfer Justin Welch are finding their roles in the backcourt alongside sophomore Austin Hollins and wing Rodney Williams (who is least racking up assists, steals, and blocks - showing he can do more than dunk). Forward Oto Osenieks can really shoot the three, and Elliot Elliason has actually started contributing in the box score on occasion.
Area of concern - Trevor Mbakwe's health! He hurt his knee in the second half, and then the Gophers got torn up by Dayton. Turnovers, outside shooting, and Ralph Sampson's poor start all take a backseat to the concern about Mbakwe's knee - scheduled for a MRI today, but good things do not appear to be forthcoming. I had Minnesota pegged for a win over the Hokies before this, but without Mbakwe - they shouldn't be expected to get over .500 overall this season. Here's hoping for good news for the young man - BREAKING UPDATE - it appears he's torn an ACL and is done for the season. Barring massive improvements from the rest of the personnel here, it would appear Minnesota is likely to stay in the bottom half of the conference standings for the rest of the year.
11. Iowa - (4-2) vs. Clemson, 11/25 (probable loss)
Pleasant surprise - Matt Gatens is posting an awesome line right now: 16.8ppg, 2.7apg, 1.8spg, and only one turnover per game. He's shooting 51.6% from the field, 92.3% from the line, and 39.4% behind the arc. Great to see him having a good senior campaign. Eric May seems a little revitalized, Zach McCabe has improved to become a legit starter, and unheralded freshmen Aaron White and Josh Oglesby are looking solid.
Area of concern - The rest of the veterans are off to a rough start, with Bryce Cartwright still shooting terribly from the field, while Roy Devyn Marble, Andrew Brommer, and Devon Archie don't seem to have progressed so far. The real disapointment has to be Melsahn Basabe, who has lost his starting position, is shooting 42.9% from the field, and just isn't making plays like he did last year. Is he injured? Also, a neutral-site loss to a strong Creighton team might be understandable, but a 77-61 beatdown at home from the hands of Campbell?
12. Penn State (5-2) at Boston College, 11/30 (probable loss)
Pleasant surprise - Even just posting a winning record at this point is a positive, given the personnel Pat Chambers had to work with. Tim Frazier is looking pretty great, and frosh Trey Lewis & Ross Travis seem like they'll be nice pieces for the future. They just got rolled by St. Joe's 65-47, though, who is not expected to contend for the Atlantic-10 title. I figure the game at BC is a likely loss, although a win isn't impossible.
Area of concern - My first concern with this team is its offense - in both losses , the Nittany Lions scored only 47 points (Kentucky dropped 85 on them). Still, Frazier is posting 7 assists a game despite the fact that he doesn't have a lot of shooters or strong finishers (only Sasa Borovnjak is shooting .500, next is Ross Travis 44.1%, and *then* there's a drop off). When conference play rolls around, foes are just going to pack the lane and make someone other than Frazier beat them.