Big Ten Midseason Catchup: There is Wisconsin, and then there is everyone else

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source: AP
AP

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.

MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Frank the Tank keeps rolling in his senior season as the center is eighth in the league in scoring (16.5 points per game) and second in rebounding (7.9 rebounds per game). Even more importantly, though, is Kaminsky’s efficiency and improvement on the defensive end. Kaminsky has improved his field goal percentages to 53 percent shooting and 42 percent three-point shooting even though he’s taking more shots. The 7-footer also averages more blocks per game this season and has committed fewer fouls per game even though he’s seen an increase in his minutes. Kaminsky is the most complete big man in college basketball and a big reason why Wisconsin is once again a major threat to make a Final Four run.

THE ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
  • Rayvonte Rice, Illinois: Rice is tied for fourth in the league in scoring (17.7 points per game), 12th in rebounding (6.5 per game), sixth in steals (1.9 per game) and sixth in 3-point percentage (47 percent). He’s already hit a game-winner against Missouri this season.
  • D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: The freshman is tied with Rice in scoring at 17.7 per game, but fourth in the league in assists (5.3 per game) — despite being the secondary ball handler to Shannon Scott — ninth in steals (1.8 per game) and seventh in 3-point percentage (46 percent). Cool, calm and collected for a freshman being asked to carry the primary scorer’s role.
  • D.J. Newbill, Penn State: The Big Ten’s leader in points (21.4 per game) and minutes (37.5 per game), Newbill has improved his shooting percentages in his senior season to respectable splits (47% FG, 39% 3PT, 78% FT) while leading the team to a 12-1 start. Also owns a buzzer-beater to win a game this season.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Another freshman who has stepped in and played a huge role while shooting great percentages. The McDonald’s All-American is ninth in scoring (15.8 per game), 15th in assists (3.1 per game) and the best free-throw shooter in the conference at 90 percent. He’s also shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Wisconsin is worthy again of Final Four discussion: The Badgers didn’t shy away from legitimate competition before jumping into the Big Ten schedule, as they won the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, played three true road games within its own state and hosted and lost to No. 2 Duke. We know what this team is capable of and it’s another run at a Final Four. By only losing Ben Brust, Wisconsin returns so much experience and this team plays so well together. They move the ball around the perimeter as well as any team in the country and can space at all five positions with legitimate perimeter threats. Bo Ryan’s team loves exploiting mismatches and inverting the floor.

2. The rest of the Big Ten is a question mark (and doesn’t appear very good): Outside of Wisconsin, there isn’t a team in the Big Ten that you can legitimately say would make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament if given the choice today. There probably will be a few when the tournament does commence, but none of these teams are a guarantee. Maryland is off to a great start but still young and unproven in the conference. Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota have played cupcake schedules and beaten nobody good. Illinois and Iowa have no-showed at too many random times. Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska already own bad home losses to lower conference teams. The race for second place — and all other spots in the league — appears to be incredibly wide open.

3. The league’s guards are superior to the front courts: I was having this discussion with some colleagues the other day and we couldn’t think of many legitimate front courts in the Big Ten outside of Madison. Purdue has the tough-to-defend center combination of A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, but Hammons is inconsistent. But outside of that, the league doesn’t have many good and deep front-court units. It’s a league dominated by guards and we’ve even seen three freshmen emerge as legitimate all-conference candidates in James Blackmon Jr., D’Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble. Great guard play also might be the biggest way any team can compete with Wisconsin this season, but good luck matching the Badgers up front.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

source: Getty Images
Melo Trimble (Getty Images)

1. Who is the second best team in the Big Ten?: If you had to make a pick today you might say Maryland because of its 12-1 start, even with injuries, but they’ve never played a Big Ten schedule before, so it’s definitely uncertain. Ohio State hasn’t beaten a legitimate team all year. Maybe one of the teams with early-season struggles like Michigan or Nebraska will turn things around during conference play? Who knows? It’s completely wide open and multiple teams own head-scratching losses.

2. How good is Penn State and Minnesota after easy non-conference schedules?: We’ve already read about the uncertainty of the Big Ten outside of Wisconsin. We also know that the Pac-12 outside of Arizona, the SEC outside of Kentucky and the entire AAC looks weaker this season. So there are potential tournament bids to be poached with high win totals and decent conference records if things go correctly for a few teams. That’s where Penn State and Minnesota become interesting. It’s hard to gauge whether either team is a credible Big Ten (or NCAA Tournament) threat, but they each have gaudy records to start the season. The Nittany Lions are 12-1 and D.J. Newbill is having a monster season while the Golden Gophers are quietly 11-2 and playing team-oriented ball. They lead the nation in assists per game (20.2) and have scored 84 or more points in seven straight games — all wins.

3. Will multiple freshmen make the All-Big Ten team?: It’s certainly looking possible. We’ve already talked about D’Angelo Russell and Melo Trimble as early-season all-league selections, but Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr. is actually the conference’s freshman leader in scoring at 17.9 per game. That’s good enough for third in the league and Indiana has a chance to make a run if Blackmon Jr. continues to play well.  These are three special underclass performers that are all stepping up in primary roles for NCAA Tournament contenders.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Wisconsin will win the league but won’t go unbeaten. And again make the Final Four: The Badgers look like the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten, but they’ll probably lose at some point during the conference schedule. Wisconsin will have an off-night and some team will get hot at home, especially as pressure might mount for the attention an unbeaten conference season. Closing with two consecutive road games at rival Minnesota and Ohio State might do the trick, if it isn’t done by then. As for the Final Four, this Wisconsin team is a matchup nightmare in a tournament setting because it’s hard to prepare for the Badgers’ ability to stretch the floor. Big Ten opponents who have seen Wisconsin multiple times might have better luck., but the Badgers should be able to get to Indianapolis this March.

2. Maryland will finish second in the Big Ten: There’s just something about the way this Maryland team has been playing. They play with confidence and have a lot of players who can score and they’ve played really well despite losing Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz to injury at different points this season. When fully healthy, the Terrapins could be pretty deep, with plenty of shooting options. It also doesn’t hurt Maryland that much of the Big Ten has weak front courts as well to test their unproven interior.

3. The Big Ten will get seven teams in the NCAA Tournament: This is more of a testament to how weak the other conference landscapes are then the strength of the Big Ten. Still, half of the league’s membership making the Big Dance would be a solid year, it just doesn’t seem like any other team is a strong Final Four contender outside of Wisconsin. If the Big Ten teams outside the Badgers don’t beat up on each other too badly I can see seven teams safely making the field, with the potential of even more depending on how bad the AAC, SEC and PAC-12 continue to look.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Indiana

NIT: Penn State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan, Purdue

NO POSTSEASON: Northwestern, Rutgers

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.