Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin and Iowa are better than you think

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Big Ten is absolutely loaded this year.

They have the best team in the country in Indiana who has the best player in the country in Cody Zeller. Three more top 15 teams reside in the conference, and that’s not including Wisconsin, who, as usual, is underrated heading into the season.

Even Minnesota and Iowa are good enough that they should be in contention for the NCAA tournament this season. The basketball may not be played incredibly fast, but rest assured it will be played at a very high level all season long.

Five Things to Know

1. Everyone’s back: Well, almost everyone that was allowed to be is. Jared Sullinger (correctly) left for the NBA after posting a second straight all-american season. Meyers Leonard joined him and got scooped up in the lottery. But that’s it. Only two players from the conference left for the NBA with eligibility remaining. The rest — Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Deshaun Thomas, Trevor Mbakwe, etc. — are back for another season at the collegiate level.

2. Trevor Mbakwe’s troubles: While we’re on the topic of Mbakwe, his continued to pile up the legal issues over the summer. After being granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA, Mbakwe managed to get a DUI this summer, which violated his probation in Florida from an assault back in 2009. The story is convoluted, but the bottom-line is this: Mbawke only got probation in the case, and according to Minnesota, he won’t miss anymore time with the team.

3. Iowa’s actually good this year: The Hawkeyes are a group that you need to keep an eye on this season. They lose scorer Matt Gatens, but with a young, talented core returning — headlined by juniors Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Besabe and sophomore Aaron White — and a loaded freshmen class that includes top 100 recruits Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury, Fran McCaffery has a team that could legitimately make a run at the NCAA tournament.

4. The Big Ten’s slow: It’s a running joke in college hoops that Big Ten basketball games are ugly, grind-it-out slugfests that are won with elbow grease, physicality and sheer determination. Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but the conference really does play some plodding basketball. Only three Big Ten teams — Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa — were ranked in the top 200 in tempo last season. Four teams — Northwestern, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin (who was dead last) — were ranked below 290.

5a. JerShon Cobb won’t be playing this year: According to Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody, the issue is academics. It’s a big blow for the Wildcats, who are looking to replace John Shurna’s scoring. Cobb was one of the guys that was going to be counted on to fill that void.

5b. But Mike Bruesewitz will: And given how nasty the gash he suffered on his leg sounds, that’s impressive.

Impact Newcomers

1. Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: Michigan’s three high-profile recruits are going to be the guys that are the difference-makers for the Wolverines this season. We all already know how good Trey Burke is, and Tim Hardaway Jr. should be improved as he slides over to his more natural shooting guard spot. But if John Beilein can find a way to make this talented trio fit into his offensive system, the Wolverines go from really good to elite.

2. Mike Gesell and Adam Woodbury, Iowa: What Iowa has returning this season are wings, shooters and power forwards. Some of them are pretty good, too. What are they missing? A point guard and a center, and that’s precisely what Fran McCaffery landed with Gesell, the point guard, and Woodbury, the center. If these guys live up to the hype as freshmen, the Hawkeyes could be looking at a trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. Gary Harris, Michigan State: The Spartans are going to look a little bit like the Michigan State teams of old this season. They’ll be big and strong and physical, thriving on their defense and ability to hit the glass. But what those Michigan State teams of old all had was a scorer on the wing that could get a bucket if things got bogged down offensively. Harris has a chance to be that guy.

4. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: Dekker is the kind of talent that rarely makes his way to Madison, WI. A versatile, 6-foot-7 small forward, Dekker will see major minutes as a freshman for the Badgers, something that rarely happens in Bo Ryan’s program. His size, shooting ability, all-around skill-set and ability to be a matchup nightmare will make Dekker a perfect fit for the swing offense.

5. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: I put Yogi on this list because I think that he’ll end up getting some big minutes for Indiana this season because of his ability to defend. I love Jordy Hulls, but I think I might be able to beat him off the dribble. Not so with Ferrell. Indiana’s biggest concern this season will be their ability to get stops. A back court of Ferrell and Victor Oladipo is a good place to start improving at that end.

Breakout Players

1. Terone Johnson, Jr., Purdue: Over the last eight games in 2012, Johnson averaged 15.1 points, 4.3 boards and 2.9 assists. That included a 22 point performance in a win at Michigan and 21 points, five assists and four boards in a win over St. Mary’s in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. With Robbie Hummel and Lewis Jackson gone, Purdue is going to need someone to step up.

2. Lenzelle Smith, Jr., and LaQuinton Ross, So., Ohio State: You know about Aaron Craft. You know about Deshaun Thomas. You know that the Buckeye’s post players aren’t going to be much more than tall. What Ohio State doesn’t have yet is a proven scoring threat on the wing. Smith showed flashes last season, but was very inconsistent. Ross, at one point in his early high school career, was the No. 1 recruit in the country.

3. Andre Hollins, So., Minnesota: Hollins is not a natural point guard, but he was forced into the role as a freshman last season. It took him a while to adjust to the position, but he managed to average 16.8 points and 2.8 assists in the final nine games, leading the Gophers to the NIT title game.

4. Brandon Paul, Sr., Illinois: Paul’s got plenty of talent. (Remember this?) New head coach John Groce needs someone to build an offense around. Paul needs a fresh start. Could this be a match made in heaven?

5. Aaron White, So., Iowa: It’s tough to call White a breakout candidate given the fact that Iowa’s front court will be a bit crowded next year. I don’t expect his numbers to be much improved from the 11.1 points and 5.7 boards he averaged last season. I do, however, expect that he’ll end up being a much more well-known name, especially in Big Ten college towns.

Player of the Year: Cody Zeller, So., Indiana

Zeller is going to end up being the National Preseason Player of the Year by the majority of the publications that make such declarations, including us, so it only makes sense that he’s the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year. Zeller is a pleasure to watch on the offensive end of the floor. He’s got great hands, he’s got a variety of low-post moves and he’s a true back-to-the-basket player. My favorite part of his game? How hard he runs the floor in transition. He’ll get a couple of easy buckets every game simply by beating every down the court. As his defense improves, he’ll only get better.

All-Conference Team

G: Trey Burke, So., Michigan
G: Aaron Craft, Jr., Ohio State
F: Deshaun Thomas, Jr., Ohio State
F: Trevor Mbakwe, Sr., Minnesota
C: Cody Zeller, So., Indiana*

Coach under pressure: Tubby Smith, Minnesota

Smith has put together some promising rosters in his time in Minnesota, but it’s been a while since he’s had a team live up to those expectations. For example, remember 2010-2011? The Gophers jumped out to an 11-1 record and a top 15 rankings before ending with losses in 10 of their last 11 games and spending March without any postseason. He’s had players with legal issues and he’s had players transfer mid-season, which can be tolerated when the wins come. But when you’ve made two NCAA tournaments — and lost in the first round both times — it’s a different story. This month, Minnesota has had all kinds of negative publicity, from the issues involving Trevor Mbakwe to the DUI that Tubby’s son Saul, an assistant on the Minnesota staff, got. Smith has a team that can make some noise in the NCAA tournament this season. If they don’t, will those legal issues and losses have piled too high?

Predicted Finish

1. Indiana: They’re the No. 1 team in the country. Defensive issues aside, this team returns basically everyone and adds another loaded recruiting class. Easy pick.

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes and the Wolverines are a coin-flip, but I’m taking the Buckeyes. I love Aaron Craft’s experience, I think Deshaun Thomas is ready to be a star, and this appears to be the season where Thad Matta’s obsessive stockpiling of talent pays off.

3. Michigan: I think the Wolverines have the second-most talent in the conference, but I have concerns about the roster makeup. I go in-depth about them here.

4. Wisconsin: I’m starting to think that I underrated Wisconsin when I did my top 25. The Badgers get four starters back, and a junior that’s started 66 games to replace Jordan Taylor and adds a stud in Sam Dekker.

5. Michigan State: I had Michigan State ranked 12th nationally, which should give you an idea of how strong this league is. I think their lack of offensive power will be an issue.

6. Iowa: I’m taking a risk putting Iowa this high, but, as I’ve said numerous times already, I’m riding with the Hawkeyes.

7. Minnesota: There always seems to be a Gopher in legal turmoil, but with basically everyone returning from last season and a healthy Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers are very good. That said, I need to see proof they can handle distraction and succeed on the court.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers will be without Robbie Hummel this season, but they’ll have a chance to be competitive if Terone Johnson and the rest of that perimeter attack can have a big year.

9. Illinois: The Illini have a lot of talent on their roster and start a bunch of upperclassmen. Will this group buy-in to what new head coach John Groce is selling? If everything comes together, this is a team that could sneak into the tournament. Who’s the point guard?

10. Northwestern: Drew Crawford is as good as anyone in the league, but losing JerShon Cobb is really going to hurt, especially if Jared Swopshire isn’t back to his old form.

11. Penn State: Tim Frazier is awesome. It’s a shame that he’ll spend his career toiling away in Happy Valley.

12. Nebraska: I love Tim Miles, but it is going to be a couple of years, at least, before he’s having fun in Lincoln.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Wednesday’s Three Things to Know: Duke blows out Louisville, Texas Tech falls to Oklahoma State

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1. DUKE PICKED UP ITS FOURTH STRAIGHT WIN IN IMPRESSIVE FASHION (DESPITE MISSING MARVIN BAGLEY III ONCE AGAIN).

Duke was, once again, missing freshman star Marvin Bagley III with a knee injury, but it didn’t seem to matter too much as the Blue Devils ran past Louisville for an 82-56 win. Grayson Allen had 28 points to pace the Duke offense while Wendell Carter Jr. continued to look strong on the interior without Bagley.

CBT’s Rob Dauster explores Duke’s recent stretch without Bagley and wonders if the team might have a better defense without the All-American big man.

2. OKLAHOMA STATE UPSET NO. 6 TEXAS TECH AS KANSAS NOW HAS A ONE-GAME BIG 12 LEAD.

The Cowboys dropped the Red Raiders in Stillwater to earn a Big 12 upset win in this one. But the bigger story is Kansas assuming sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with another Texas Tech loss. The two Big 12 leaders are still scheduled to meet in Lubbock on Saturday as the Red Raiders will get a chance to even things up with the Jayhawks in the conference race.

First, Texas Tech has to get senior guard Keenan Evans healthy again. Hampered by a toe injury the past two games, Evans didn’t look close to 100 percent on Wednesday night. An unhealthy Evans is a big reason for Texas Tech dropping a few games.

3. VIRGINIA TECH GETS THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

On a busy Wednesday night for bubble teams, no team did more for its case than Virginia Tech. The Hokies took advantage of a depleted No. 15 Clemson in picking up an ACC home win.

While Virginia Tech has looked like a safe bet to make the field thanks to some big wins, the win on Wednesday gives the Hokies a fifth Quadrant 1 win — a huge safety net for a team trying to get in the field.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament hopes while he also breaks down the rest of Wednesday’s bubble action in Bubble Banter.

No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Williams helps No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Grant Williams bounced back from one of his worst performances of the season to score 23 points and No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57 on Wednesday night to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss.

Williams had a season-low five points Saturday in a 73-62 loss at Georgia. The Tennessee scoring leader responded Wednesday by shooting 8 of 13 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the foul line.

Florida trailed nearly the whole way, but threatened in the final minute.

Chris Chiozza made a basket to cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-57 with 24.5 seconds left, and he got fouled by Williams in the process. But Chiozza missed the ensuing free throw and couldn’t get Florida any closer.

Jordan Bowden made a pair of clinching free throws with 14 seconds left.

Admiral Schofield had 16 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee (20-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference).

Jalen Hudson had 13 points for Florida (17-11, 8-7), and Chiozza and Keith Stone each added 11. Chiozza also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Florida was seeking a quality road win that could boost its NCAA Tournament credentials.

The Gators entered the night 65th in the RPI and have a demanding schedule the rest of the way. Florida hosts No. 12 Auburn, visits Alabama and hosts Kentucky in its final three regular-season games.

The offensive struggles that have hindered Florida lately carried over. Florida had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (seven) during a first half in which it shot 26.9 percent overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Tennessee closed the first half on an 11-1 run to go into the locker room with a 27-18 advantage.

The Vols extended the lead to 10 early in the second half, but Florida crept back into the game while Williams was on the bench with three fouls.

Florida was trailing by just one point when it had two chances midway through the second half to regain the lead, but Deaundrae Ballard missed a 3-pointer on one possession and Dontay Bassett missed a baseline jumper the net time the Gators had the ball.

Tennessee then created some distance by going on a 7-0 run that included a Jordan Bowden dunk and five points from Schofield.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators continually misfired from 3-point range for most of the night. They missed 15 of their first 17 3-point attempts before making four of their last seven. By the time they finally started to heat up, they already had dug themselves too deep a hole.

Tennessee: The Vols got big efforts from their two top players — Williams and Schofield — and didn’t back down when Florida finally started making its shots down the stretch. Tennessee preserved its lead by going 13 of 15 from the foul line, including 9 of 11 in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida: Hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday.

Tennessee: At Mississippi on Saturday.

VIDEO: George Mason stuns Saint Joseph’s with second buzzer-beating win this season

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George Mason knocked off Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s with a ridiculous buzzer-beater for the second time this season on Wednesday night as Ian Boyd was the hero this time.

The Patriots went the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot as a loose ball ended up in Boyd’s hands at the top of the key just before the game ended. Boyd launched a quick prayer and knocked it down to give George Mason the unlikely win.

Earlier this season, the Patriots won on another buzzer-beater over the Hawks when Otis Livingston II buried a contested 30-footer to win that one. By this point, Saint Joe’s is probably hoping to avoid George Mason in the Atlantic 10 Tournament after the two devastating losses they’ve already endured.

Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.