With Illinois tipping off its league schedule at Purdue tonight (7:30, BTN), we asked beat writer Marcus Jackson for his thoughts on the conference so far.
1. Is Illinois the league’s biggest surprise?
Yep. In a preseason poll of media covering the Big Ten, Illinois was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten. Right now, the Illini are 11th — in the United States. With the way last season ended, losing 12 of the last 14 games, few expected much from a team learning a new system while returning virtually the same roster, minus a 7-foot lottery pick. But Brandon Paul has NBA folks considering spending a first-round pick on him and Illinois has used the three-point shot (Big Ten-best 9.4 per game) to make up for deficiencies in other areas.
2. OK, who’s the biggest disappointment?
We figured the Boilermakers would take a step back after losing Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith, but few figured Matt Painter’s squad would have six losses to this point and look so ugly in the process. Purdue, which had a top-20 recruiting class, is 10th in the league in scoring, averaging 67.2 points per game and hit a low point in a 47-44 loss at Mid-American Conference opponent Eastern Michigan last month.
3. How many teams are going to make the NCAA tourney?
The six teams ranked in the Top 25 in the country likely will make it, unless one of them goes into a deep slide. That’s the same number of teams the league sent to the Dance last season. Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State should represent the league when pairings are announced on Selection Sunday. Wisconsin could challenge to make it as the seventh team, but the Badgers will likely have to win at least 10 league games to avoid missing the tournament for the first time in Bo Ryan’s 12 seasons.
4. Should we be worried Illinois is going to slump like it did last year?
No, there’s too much optimism permeating through this team, starting at the top with the coaching staff down to the players. The negativity regarding former coach Bruce Weber’s future weighed on that staff. The players felt that, too, and they crumbled. Illinois will take its lumps in the rugged Big Ten, but as we’ve seen through 14 games — the Missouri game especially — this team will fight, and that grit might be the difference in winning and losing a close game.
5. Who’s the best freshman?
Nik Stauskas. The 6-foot-6 swingman from Canada enters Big Ten play leading the country in three-point shooting percentage, making 56.5 percent (39 for 69) of his shots from long range, while averaging 13.8 points per game — tops among league rookies. Stauskas, who has grown 8 inches the last two years, is the only player to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Week three times.
6. Who’s the league MVP?
Michigan point guard Trey Burke. The sophomore was so close to entering the NBA draft last year there were reports he had cleared out his dorm room before the spring semester was over. He came back and is the best player on the nation’s second-ranked team. Burke leads the conference is assists (7.4) and is third in scoring (17.8). The Columbus, Ohio, native is a leading candidate for National Player of the Year and he’ll have competition for the conference’s top honor from Paul, Ohio State’s DeShaun Thomas, Michigan State’s Keith Appling, Minnesota’s Andre Hollins and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
7. How about Coach of the Year?
John Groce. The Illini are the league’s surprise team and the 41-year-old head coach and his staff are a big reason why. Illinois spent some time in the Top 10 this season for the first time since Dee Brown and James Augustine wore orange and blue, and player development can’t be overlooked. Labeled as inconsistent throughout his career, Paul is an All-America candidate, Tyler Griffey’s scoring average is up 6 points from his career average entering the season and Tracy Abrams is blossoming into a complete point guard.
8. Who’s got the toughest Big Ten schedule?
Among the teams expected to contend for the conference championship, Indiana and Michigan appear to have the toughest slate. The Wolverines and Hoosiers are projected by most to be the two teams likely to win the Big Ten title, and they’ll have to earn it. Indiana gets Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota twice each and its one meeting with rival Illinois will be on the road. Michigan gets the Buckeyes, Spartans, Hoosiers and Illini twice. The Wolverines’ only meeting with Minnesota will be on the road at the Barn.
9. What’s been the best nonconference game?
Though it turned out to be a loss for the league, then-No. 1 Indiana’s overtime game against Butler on Dec. 15 in Indianapolis was the highlight of the preconference schedule. It was played on a Saturday afternoon on CBS and the college basketball world buzzed about it on social media throughout. Illini fans were especially happy with the result. They’re always happy when Indiana loses, but even more so when their favorite team already owns a decisive win against the team that felled the Hoosiers.
10. How about the worst?
Unfortunately for the conference and Nebraska basketball fans, the 60-38 loss at Oregon on Dec. 15 was available on television. It was the lowest scoring output by a Big Ten team this season and was the second time in as many games the Cornhuskers failed to score at least 45 points. No one expects Nebraska to be a Big Ten power on the hardwood, but when you go to Oregon to play basketball, it’s not too much to ask for you to score more points than the Ducks’ football team averages (50.8).