Ranking Big Ten basketball teams after their apples-and-oranges nonconference schedules is a little like trying to find the cashews in the mixed-nut dish or spotting the sesame sticks in the savory mix.
But with conference play beginning in the next few days, it’s time to snack.
This much I know. . . By the time the Jan. 17 birthday I share with Muhammad Ali, Benjaman Franklin, Michelle Obama and Al Capone arrives, we will have a much better handle on Big Ten hoops.
With so many teams facing so many issues, and with home-court advantage often a great equalizer, there are a ton of great barometer games to be played by mid-January. Just cruise down this schedule to see what I mean.
THE HEAVYWEIGHT CONTENDERS
1. WISCONSIN: The emergence of Ethan Happ as one of the nation’s best big men, coupled with veterans Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, gives the Badgers a tremendous core. Hayes, shooting 48 percent after 37 percent last season, needs to stay consistent and Koenig needs to deal with matchups against quicker opponents.
The rest of the Wisconsin roster is very solid. I’m not going to pick the Badgers to reach their third Final Four in four years yet. But it wouldn’t surprise me at this point if it happened.
2. PURDUE: With 6-9, 250-pound sophomore Caleb Swanigan (18.3 points and 12.5 rebounds) on the prowl, don’t mess with the Boilermakers in the paint. Aptly named Matt Painter also has a lot of other hues on his easel.
3. INDIANA: Tom Crean has dealt himself another talent-laden hand. I’m going to give him more credit for playing at Fort Wayne than discredit for losing at Fort Wayne, and I’m not concerned about the loss to ever-pesky Butler.
With an outright Big Ten title and a third-round NCAA loss to North Carolina (following a second-round win over Kentucky), the Hoosiers had a great year last year.
In a year where the other Big Ten heavyweights feature what Al McGuire used to call ``Aircraft Carriers,’’ Thomas Bryant will have to man up. But I expect that to happen. If they stay healthy, the Hoosiers, who have a ton of athletic matchup nightmares, will be a handful.
WELTER-WEIGHT AND SEE.
4. MICHIGAN STATE: Another overly-ambitious nonconference schedule (No. 18 Arizona, No. 6 Kentucky, No. 4 Baylor, No. 5 Duke), combined with some injuries and one head-scratcher (Northeastern) leaves the Green & White with another Blue Christmas.
But it will take a lot more than that before I give up my seat on Tom Izzo’s bandwagon.
Izzo has assembled another team that could win the decathlon or be competitive in the NFC North. Sometimes I think he’d be better off recruiting more basketball players and fewer trackmen and football players. These Spartans may need some time to figure things out. But they’ll be right by March—and ready to atone for last year’s shocking loss to Middle Tennessee in a 2-15 game.
I trust Thad Matta, Mark Turgeon and John Beilein to recruit well and coach well. It may not always work out for them, but they know what they’re doing. At least one of them, and maybe all three, will have pretty good seasons. On the other hand, a stumble or two would not be surprising in a league that has a lot of middle-weight balance.
5, OHIO STATE: Matta has a chronic back problem that left some insiders expecting him to already be out of the coaching business. But he’s still here, even if he’s under the gun to get something done.
Will the Buckeyes close out games? Or will Matta, a really good guy and coach who’s showing his age, be worn down by all the infirmities—his own and his team’s?
6, MARYLAND: I’m a fan of Maryland junior Melo Trimble, who set the bar high early in his career. I’ll need to see more of his teammates, though, before concluding that it’s time to Fear the Turtle.
7, MICHIGAN: A confession. . . When Michigan pulled off the most daring West Virginia raid since John Brown took the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, by hiring Rich Rodriguez and John Beilein, I thought RichRod would turn out to be the better MGoBlue hire.
He’d had a lot of success with the Mountaineers, and I figured he’d only improve with the recruiting advantages he’d have in Ann Arbor. I thought Wolverines basketball needed a coach who would take advantage of Michigan’s abundance of playground super-talents from Detroit and Flint etc. I thought Beilein’s offense needed a different type of talent.
I was wrong on both counts. RichRod was a mess. And Beilein flourished. He cherry-picked the Michigan talent that suited his style. And went everywhere to grab talent.
The number of Beilein-coached Wolverines whose fathers were talented players and coaches speaks volumes. Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., Aubrey (son of Johnny) Dawkins, Andrew (walk-on son of Dan) Dakich.
Beilein coaches ‘em up to shoot the ball. When it goes in, it looks really good. Will it go in this season?
We’ll find out.
Two other reasons to root for Beilein. . . One, he’s humble, smart, appreciative. Two, his uncles/family members were the inspiration for the movie Saving Private Ryan, in which a World War II soldier was pulled from the frontlines because his brothers had perished.
Can Northwestern finally break through and make its first NCAA tournament appearance? Can John Groce win enough games to win over a skeptical Illini Nation? How far can Peter Jok carry Iowa? What constitutes `good’ in Nebraska basketball? Is the Richard Pitino experiment going to work out in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?
8, NORTHWESTERN: I really like what Chris Collins is doing at Northwestern. He’s officially the best D-I basketball coach in Illinois, and those angst-filled shots of his father, Doug, during games are precious.
He has a bunch of guys who can go off. Bryant McIntosh (12. ppg, 5.5 assists), the pride of Greensburg, Ind., is right out of Hoosiers, Every time I look, Vic Law is having a terrible game. But he’s averaging 13.7 points and shooting 45 percent on three-pointers, so I apparently haven’t looked enough. Leading scorer Scottie Lindsay (14.9), Gavin Skelly and Isiah Brown are unabashed.
The big question for the Wildcats. . . are they big enough?
Dererk (yup, two R’s) Pardon, their 6-8 sophomore center, missed December after undergoing surgery on his left hand.
The good news is three-fold. He’s due back soon. He’s a tough kid. And he’s righthanded.
Is the Collins Crew tough enough? We’ll find out.
If the Cubs can win the World Series, why can’t Northwestern, which hosted the first NCAA tournament in 1939, finally play in it?
9, ILLINOIS: John Groce has a bunch of reasonably talented seniors, some decent sophomores and a big recruiting class on the way.
The question is, can he coach up this year’s squad well enough to win back Illinois fans who are weary of an unprecedented NCAA drought? Illinois has missed three straight Big Dances for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
I know a lot of Illini fans who are chafing at Groce’s shortcomings. And they are not wrong. Up to this point, Groce has under-achieved at a school that ought to be better in basketball.
I don’t know how hot Groce’s seat is. But with his 29-43 record in four Big Ten campaigns, I would think he needs to get something done this season to quiet a restless Illini Nation.
That won’t be easy to do in a league that has a lot of teams who will be tough outs at home. But if Illinois can’t manage a winning season in the league, energetic new athletic director Josh Whitman will face a lot of pressure to make a change.
10, IOWA: The only thing we can be sure of at this point is that Peter Jok can shoot the rock. He leads the Big Ten in scoring (23.5) now—and he will be the league's scoring champ when all is said and done. I expect the 6-6 senior shooter will be a pretty good NBA guy, but that’s in the world of the future.
What Fran McCaffery can conjure up in Iowa City this winter is another story. Four gritty glue guys, notably Jarrod Uthoff and Mike Gesell, are gone. After a nice run of four straight 20-win seasons, and three NCAA trips, it would appear that the Hawkeyes are poised for a rebuild.
Jok’s shooting and McCaffery’s temper remain good reasons to tune in. Don’t be fooled by McCaffery’s professorial appearance. He’s great fun on the sidelines. In his most recent flare-up, he refused to shake hands with the North Dakota team, which enraged him by grabbing the ball with a couple of ticks left. It was very unsportsmanlike, North Dakota’s conduct.
11, NEBRASKA: Here’s my favorite Nebraska basketball story. In 1996, when the Final Four was played at the New Jersey Meadowlands, I got on an elevator at the Marriott Marquis media hotel in Manhattan with Danny Nee, who was then coaching the Cornhuskers, who were playing in the NIT championship game.
``Good luck,’’ said a gushing well-wisher fan who was also in the elevator.
``We won the championship last night,’’ Nee said.
Oops. Two well-intentioned words summed up the world's view of NIT basketball and Nebraska basketball.
Which brings us to this year’s Nebraska hoops squad.
The Cornhuskers generally have a couple of guys who can shoot. They have a really nice, new arena. And Tim Miles is an energetic and smart showman/salesman.
It’s just that the main purpose of Nebraska basketball is to help count down the days until the start of spring football.
12, MINNESOTA: I don’t have a lot of thoughts about Minnesota basketball at this point. There’s more tradition here (Kevin McHale, Lou Hudson) than people realize. But that was a long time ago, and the Big Ten is a tougher place now.
Coming off a 2-16 Big Ten campaign Richard Pitino, who’s only 34, is 16-38 in three years. This year’s 12-1 nonconference start is more a product of scheduling than a portent of success in a rugged league.
No one, including me, is expecting much. But we’ll see.
HUMAN PUNCHING BAGS
Let’s just agree that this is the bottom. Penn State goes to Rutgers on Jan. 1, so one of them will quickly get off the schneid. And when Rutgers visits Penn State on Feb. 4, one of them will be bent on revenge.
There will be upsets; there always are in basketball. But those two meetings are the only sure things.
13, PENN STATE: Nope.
14, RUTGERS: Absolutely not.