MJ: A league of their own
With the Big Ten season about to tip off, college basketball beat writer Marcus Jackson breaks down each team’s nonconference résumé
What went right: The Illini picked up a much-needed signature nonconference win by beating No. 23 Missouri on a neutral court Saturday to go along with an earlier win on the road against UNLV ... Defensively, John Groce’s outfit is one of the best in the country, ranking among the top 15 nationally in points allowed (60.8 per game) ... Junior transfer Rayvonte Rice, once a Big Ten Player of the Week, has been a welcomed addition, ranking fifth in the conference in scoring (17.4).
What went wrong: The last nine minutes of the game at Georgia Tech, where the Illini lost a 12-point lead and the game to a team not expected to contend for an NCAA tournament berth ... The last 10 minutes of the game against No. 15 Oregon, when the Illini lost a seven-point lead as the Ducks closed the game on a 25-12 run ... The NCAA ruled against Chicagoan Ahmad Starks’ appeal to play immediately after transferring from Oregon State, putting added pressure on Tracy Abrams and freshman Jaylon Tate to run the show at point guard.
Big Ten outlook: The Illini were picked to finish eighth in the preseason and remain firmly entrenched in the six-through-eight range among the Big Ten competitors.
What went right: The Hoosiers continue to take care of business at Assembly Hall, having won 38 straight nonconference games at home ... Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell has emerged as a scorer, leading the team in scoring (16.8) after averaging 7.6 last season ... Three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Noah Vonleh has lived up to the preseason hype, averaging close to a double-double with 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds.
What went wrong: In two chances against ranked opponents, Indiana dropped a nail-biter to Connecticut and got blitzed at then-No. 4 Syracuse ... Of the Hoosiers’ 10 wins, Stony Brook, Washington and Oakland are the highlights ... Shooting has been an issue as Indiana ranks last in the Big Ten in three-point percentage (31.5) and threes made per game (4.6).
Big Ten outlook: Tom Crean’s bunch looks to be a middle-of-the-pack squad this season, not on par with this year’s conference heavyweights after struggling with quality competition in the pre-conference schedule.
What went right: The Hawkeyes put the ball in the basket a lot, leading Big Ten teams in scoring (88.7 points per game), twice scoring better than 100 points ... After closing last season on a tear, guard Roy Devyn Marble has carried it over, ranking among the top 10 in the Big Ten in scoring (15.3) and assists (3.5) ... Wins against Xavier, Drake and Notre Dame will look impressive come March.
What went wrong: Iowa is a couple of possessions away from being unbeaten and ranked in the Top 10 with a five-point loss to Villanova, now ranked eighth, on a neutral court and a three-point loss on the road to archrival Iowa State, ranked 14th ... Three-point specialist Josh Oglesby missed the first 12 games with a broken foot, though he appears healthy after a 13-point debut.
Big Ten outlook: The Hawkeyes have the firepower to challenge in the league’s upper division, and a top-four finish looks like a definite possibility.
What went right: Nik Stauskas has become a more complete offensive player. A year after 61 percent of his field goal attempts were three-pointers, the Canadian guard leads the team in scoring (18.4 points) and is getting to the foul line five more times per game than he did last season. He also leads the team in assists (3.2) ... With Tim Hardaway Jr. off to the NBA, sophomore Caris LeVert has stepped up, averaging 12.8 points per game, 10 more than he did as a freshman ... Of the four losses, two were to No. 10 Duke and No. 1 Arizona. A third loss was on the road at Iowa State, which is now ranked in the Top 20.
What went wrong: Preseason All-America big man Mitch McGary has started just four games and he’s still not 100 percent after dealing with a back injury during the offseason ... The Wolverines have lost four nonconference games — with one remaining — for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when they went 15-17 overall and missed the NCAA tournament ... Trey Burke, the National Player of the Year in 2012-13, decided two years of college was enough and entered the NBA Draft.
Big Ten outlook: Judging by the number of NBA scouts at every game, Michigan is talented enough to challenge for one of the top spots in the Big Ten, but inexperience at point guard has the Wolverines looking like they will be just on the outside of finishing inside the top four.
Michigan State (10-1)
What went right: Adreian Payne and Gary Harris decided the NBA could wait another year and returned to school, making Tom Izzo’s squad one of the top-three teams in the country ... The veteran Spartans put a spanking on John Calipari’s then-No. 1 Kentucky team composed mainly of freshmen in one of the early-season showcase events on a national stage in Chicago ... The Spartans spent three weeks at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, the longest stint in program history.
What went wrong: Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Harris has missed three games and parts of another with a recurring ankle injury ... A program known for toughness was called out by its coach for a lack of it in the home loss to North Carolina ... Seniors Payne and Keith Appling, along with junior Branden Dawson, were all relegated to reserve duty after being disciplined by Izzo for missing class.
Big Ten outlook: Aside from the one hiccup against the Tar Heels, the Spartans look primed to make a run at the program’s 14th Big Ten title, so long as Harris and the key players remain healthy.
What went right: In their lone true road game of the nonconference schedule, Richard Pitino’s Gophers beat a quality Richmond team by a comfortable 15-point margin ... Guard DeAndre Mathieu, a junior college transfer, has hit the ground running, averaging 12 points per game, making the Minnesota backcourt featuring Andre Hollins (16.0 ppg) and Austin Hollins (13.5) a dangerous one ... Drake transfer Joey King was ruled eligible immediately and he’s made an impact, averaging 8.2 points.
What went wrong: The trip to Maui wasn’t a memorable one for the Gophers, who were beaten by Syracuse and run out of the gym by Arkansas. They left the island without defeating a Division I team ... The NCAA ruled against Rakeem Buckles’ transfer to the Twin Cities from Florida International, where he returned and is averaging 14.7 points and 10.5 boards. Goldy could desperately use him ... Shooting is a problem for the Gophers, whose 43.9 percent accuracy ranks 11th of the 12 Big Ten programs.
Big Ten outlook: Pitino’s first Minnesota team has the look of a team capable of finishing in the second of three tiers in the conference standings, somewhere in the seventh- to eighth-place range.
What went right: The Cornhuskers opened a beautiful $180 million arena in Lincoln that has been sold out for all seven games to date. The state-of-the-art facility could attract some difference-making recruits ... Coach Tim Miles speaks and tweets. The second-year coach tweets halftime thoughts and has a self-deprecating humor that endears him to fans and players ... On the court, the Huskers have shown flashes, beating Miami (Fla.) and hanging tough with No. 23 UMass behind the backcourt duo of Terran Petteway (16.8 ppg) and Shavon Shields (13.6).
What went wrong: The Cornhuskers continue to play second fiddle in the state to Creighton, losing for the third straight season to the Blue Jays in what would have been a momentum-grabbing victory ... Miles’ club has struggled on the boards, ranking last in the Big Ten with
34.1 rebounds per game and being outrebounded by an average of 1.4.
Big Ten outlook: Nebraska is better than it was last year, but Miles still has some work to do to advance a level in the Big Ten, where his team will finish in the bottom third again.
What went right: That video in the preseason of walk-on guard James Montgomery receiving a scholarship went viral and garnered the program some positive PR ... Former Big Ten Freshman of the Year Drew Crawford returned after missing most of last season because of a shoulder injury and is leading the team in scoring (16.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.9) ... In the 51-35 win against Western Michigan, the Wildcats surrendered the fewest points against them since holding TCU to 31 last year.
What went wrong: The Chris Collins era isn’t off to a rousing start as the ’Cats, with a game against DePaul remaining, have lost five games prior to the start of Big Ten play for the first time since the 2004-05 team lost five ... The loss to in-state foe Illinois State was the first win for the Redbirds in nine years against a Big Ten opponent ... In Collins’ debut as the Northwestern coach, 5,182 fans showed up at Welsh-Ryan Arena, which seats 8,117.
Big Ten outlook: No first-year Northwestern coach has finished better than ninth in the Big Ten since Larry Glass’ club tied for sixth in 1963-64. That stat should remain intact after this season is complete.
Ohio State (12-0)
What went right: The last 90 seconds of the game against Notre Dame on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, where the Buckeyes rallied from an eight-point deficit to win by three and remain unbeaten ... As good as Illinois has been defensively, Ohio State might be better, allowing 55.9 points per game, good for fifth in the country ... With Deshaun Thomas now playing professionally, the Buckeyes’ ball movement is more fluid and the scoring is balanced as four players are averaging double figures, led by Lenzelle Smith’s 13.1.
What went wrong: It hasn’t been an issue yet, but the Buckeyes’ woes at the free throw line could cost them in a tight game as they rank last in the Big Ten, shooting at a 67.5 percent clip from the foul line ... 6-foot-11 junior Amir Williams has been inconsistent, drawing the ire of Thad Matta at times as he’s had five games of scoring fewer than six points.
Big Ten outlook: Knock on the Buckeyes’ soft schedule all you want, but it’s the way Matta does his business. That being said, in his first nine years in Columbus, the Buckeyes failed to finish in the top four just twice, and one of those was his first season. Ohio State will challenge Michigan State and Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship this season.
Penn State (9-4)
What went right: Tim Frazier, the former All-Big Ten guard who missed last season with a torn Achilles, returned and looks every bit the player he was before. He’s third in the league in scoring (18.2), first in assists (7.5) and fifth in steals (1.8) while playing 35.6 minutes a night ... The overtime win against St. John’s in Brooklyn goes down as a quality win and helps make that loss to Bucknell easier to swallow ... Guard John Johnson, a Pittsburgh transfer, became eligible on Sunday and scored 20 points in the win against Mount
What went wrong: For some reason, Jermaine Marshall left early after averaging 15.3 points last year to turn pro, then decided against that and instead transferred to Arizona State, where he’s averaging 16 points for the Sun Devils ... Though Princeton is 9-2, losing at home to an Ivy League foe isn’t a good look ... We know Penn State is a football school, but the Nittany Lions are averaging 5,242 fans per game, last in the league, even behind Northwestern.
Big Ten outlook: With Johnson in the fold, the Nittany Lions will be better than people think, with the chance to finish as high as eighth, but will likely wind up in the bottom third.
What went right: The win Sunday at West Virginia was not only a confidence-builder, it’s a resume-builder for a team that figures to be on the NCAA tournament bubble ... Freshman guard Kendall Stephens (7.3 ppg) has started 10 games for Purdue and has joined forces with brothers Terone (14.0) and Ronnie Johnson (10.8) in a talented backcourt of scorers ... Champaign’s Jay Simpson is holding his own after sitting out his freshman season with a foot injury, averaging 5.5 points and 4.5 boards, having played all 13 games with six starts.
What went wrong: Boilers started the season without their best player as 7-footer A.J. Hammons was suspended for two exhibition games and the season opener for violating team rules. The talented big man has been inconsistent, failing to reach double figures in eight of the 12 games he’s played ... Neutral-court wins are huge with the NCAA selection committee and the Boilers are 1-3 in those games, with the lone win coming against Siena ... The loss to Butler at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indy hurts in-state recruiting.
Big Ten outlook: Since the four-year stretch when Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson led the Boilers to one Big Ten title and three second-place finishes, Matt Painter’s squad has finished sixth and seventh. It figures to be somewhere between seventh and 10th this season depending largely on how Hammons matures.
What went right: Just about everything has for Bo Ryan’s club. Josh Gasser is back after missing last season with a torn ACL and he’s teamed up with Traevon Jackson and Ben Brust to create the most dynamic backcourt Ryan’s ever had ... A season after failing to score at least 55 points 11 times, the Badgers are averaging 74.7 points per game and eclipsed 100 against North Dakota, thanks to Frank Kaminsky’s 43-point outburst ... Wisconsin is averaging only two more possessions per game than last season, but the Badgers are scoring more because the ball is going in the basket 47 percent of the time, compared with
42 percent a year ago.
What went wrong: The 48-38 win against Virginia happened, and as good as they’ve been this season, we can’t forgive the Badgers for that ... If we’re nit-picking, Wisconsin is last in the Big Ten in rebounds, grabbing an average of 9.2 per game. Ryan’s probably OK with that.
Big Ten outlook: Ryan has never finished lower than fourth in 12 Big Ten seasons, and with Sam Dekker leading the way for the talented Badgers, that streak should run to 13 with Wisconsin challenging to win Ryan’s fourth Big Ten championship.