WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue coach Matt Painter first started using his two 7-foot centers together as an experiment.
On Wednesday night, he went with them out of necessity. If Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms continue playing this well in tandem, they could become a big staple for the defending Big Ten champions.
Haas scored 14 points and Harams grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots, leading the 13th-ranked Boilermakers to an 82-51 rout over Rutgers for their 10th straight win.
“I like it because it provides a lot of length on defense,” said Haas, the 7-foot-2 senior. “I think it allows us to get more spread out on defense. On offense, you have guys that are long rebounders that can go high-low. I just can’t wait to see how that develops the rest of the season.”
So far, it’s worked beautifully.
The Boilermakers (14-2, 3-0) have won 17 in a row at Mackey Arena and are the only Big Ten team with three conference wins. No. 1 Michigan State and Ohio State can join them Thursday.
And Haas and the 7-3 Haarms played a huge role in turning the tables on Rutgers, which was ranked No. 3 nationally in total rebounds and No. 4 in scoring defense.
But with Haas and Haarms dominating the middle, Purdue outscored Rutgers 28-14 in the paint and had a 45-27 rebound advantage, giving the Scarlet Knights no chance.
“I think all of their lineups cause problems,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “The two big guys do cause problems though each one is different. Haas is a monster down low and the other one is a good shot blocker.”
And the primary reason Painter went with the pairing was because starting forward Vincent Edwards was in foul trouble most of the night.
It wasn’t just the big men who got the job done for Purdue, which made 7 of 12 3-pointers in the first half and finished 10 of 23.
Geo Baker had 11 points to lead the Scarlet Knights (10-6, 0-3), who have lost three straight. Mike Williams added 10.
But the combination was simply too much for Rutgers’ young team.
The Boilermakers used an 8-0 run to take a 17-7 lead, later extended the margin to 32-17 and headed to the locker room with a 45-24 lead.
Rutgers got as close as 51-37 when Baker made Rutgers’ first 3 of the night with 13:27 left to play. Then Purdue answered with six straight and stretched the lead to as much as 33.
“For me, it’s more about learning how to play the 4 a little more,” Haarms said. “When Coach tells me to go get Vince, I get a big smile on my face.”
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are improving but don’t possess the size, depth or scorers to seriously challenge a team like Purdue. And when things went awry Wednesday, Rutgers even lost its poise. With nine freshmen and sophomores on the roster, brighter days are ahead.
Purdue: Showed everyone why it could repeat this season. The Boilermakers can win games by playing big or small, they can outscore opponents, shut them down defensively and can play through foul trouble.
Rutgers: Freshman Mamadou Doucoure scored eight points before fouling out with 12:55 to go and then picked up a technical on his way to the bench. … The Scarlet Knights allowed their second-highest point total this season (89 at Minnesota). … The last time the Scarlet Knights beat a Top 25 team on the road was Jan. 26, 2008 at Pittsburgh.
Purdue: Carsen Edwards had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists while Ryan Cline had 12 points and Vincent Edwards added 10. … Purdue is 3-0 to start conference play for the first time since 2010-11 and is 13-0 on American soil this season. It went 1-2 in the Bahamas. … The Boilermakers have scored 80 points in six straight games for the first time since Dec. 6-27, 1997.
Purdue honored former star Steve Scheffler by handing out bobble heads before the game and having him speak to the crowd at halftime.
The 1990 Big Ten player of the year, captivated the audience with stories about his playing days and former coach Gene Keady, who also attended the game. But he didn’t mince words.
“I should not be a bobble head, I should be a knucklehead,” Scheffler joked. “If they can make me a bobble head for throwing leather through metal, imagine what they can do with you.”
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Purdue reserve center Isaac Haas scored 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting and the No. 13 Boilermakers crushed Illinois 89-58 Friday in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
Vince Edwards added 14 points, Caleb Swanigan had 11 points and 12 rebounds and Dakota Mathias added 11 for Purdue (25-7), which shot 58.3 percent.
The Boilermakers made 24 of their first 36 shots, including 8 of 14 from 3-point range, taking a 60-27 lead on P.J. Thompson’s 3-pointer with 15:59 left. Consecutive 3-pointers from Edwards pushed the Boilermakers’ lead to 66-30 with 12:13 to play.
Illinois (15-19) got 17 points from Maverick Morgan, 16 from Malcolm Hill and 13 from Kendrick Nunn.
Purdue is trying to win its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2009, the only time the Boilermakers won the event.
Purdue made 18 of 29 shots (62.1 percent) in the first half, including a combined 10 of 10 from Hammons and Haas, en route to a 45-25 lead.
The Boilermakers outrebounded the Illini 20-11 in the opening 20 minutes and limited Illinois to 1-of-8 shooting from 3-point range.
Hammons and Haas each scored 10 first-half points, and Davis added nine points and four assists.
Illinois she 38.5 percent in the first half, getting 12 points from Hill, who scored 30 in January when the Illini hosted the Boilermakers and won 84-70.
Illinois: The Illini advanced to the quarterfinals with victories against Minnesota and Iowa, making a combined 24 3-pointers … Illinois’ 27 victories in Big Ten Tournament competition are second-most in the league … The Illini won this tournament in 2003 and 2005.
Purdue: The Boilermakers, along with Michigan State and Maryland, are the only teams to receive double byes in the new 14-team Big Ten Tournament since Maryland and Rutgers joined in 2015 … Including Friday’s victory, Purdue will take a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s semifinals … Before facing Illinois, Purdue’s reserves had outscored the opponent’s bench in 29 of the first 31 games.
Having lost to No. 10 Maryland earlier this month, No. 20 Purdue was looking for some payback Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette. And thanks to their bench and superior effort on the glass, Matt Painter’s Boilermakers accomplished that task. Purdue hung on despite struggling mightily against Maryland’s full court pressure in the second half, winning 83-79 thanks in large part to the work they were able to do during the game’s first 35 minutes.
Purdue dominated in the rebounding department, grabbing 59.4 percent of its available missed shots and converting those 19 offensive rebounds into 24 second-chance points. And it was a group effort on the boards, with seven Boilermakers grabbing at least two offensive rebounds (Johnny Hill led the way with four).
Maryland’s been good defensively when it comes to shooting percentages, as they entered Saturday second in the Big Ten in both overall and three-point field goal percentage defense (conference games only). But where they’ve struggled is completing defensive possessions with a rebound, as they entered the game ranked ninth in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage (70.6). Maryland was even worse than that against Purdue, and that resulted in a deficit that proved to be too much to recover from.
As balanced as Purdue was on the boards, they were just as good in the scoring department. Five players, led by A.J. Hammons’ 19 points, finished in double figures with Dakota Mathias adding 17 points off the bench. Purdue’s reserves outscored Maryland’s 30-10, with 18 of those points coming in the first half. The Boilermakers got out of the gates quickly thanks to their starters, but it was the bench that helped them maintain a working margin for most of the day.
Purdue has some work to do when it comes to dealing with pressure, as was the case Saturday. Maryland used Jake Layman at the head of their press as they looked to change momentum, and Purdue’s guards reacted as if they hadn’t seen a press at all this season. That, even with the improved play of P.J. Thompson, was the question many asked regarding Purdue’s chances in March.
Will they have enough on the perimeter to supplement the efforts of Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas in the post? Purdue’s 15 turnovers were converted into 22 points by the Terrapins, who nearly stole the game as a result. The Boilermakers have turned the ball over on more than 17 percent of their possessions in Big Ten play, and it’s something they’ll have to address heading into the NCAA tournament.
But the Boilermakers also got a lot going for themselves, including their size, depth and the ability to earn extra possessions through offensive rebounds. Purdue took advantage of those attributes against Maryland, picking up a quality win as a result.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) A.J. Hammons scored a career-best 32 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, leading No. 21 Purdue to an 89-74 victory over Nebraska on Saturday.
Rapheal Davis had 17 points and six rebounds, and Isaac Haas scored 13 points for Purdue (19-4, 7-3 Big Ten). Caleb Swanigan contributed six points, 12 rebounds and five assists for the Boilermakers, who improved to 5-0 against Nebraska (12-10, 4-5) in Mackey Arena.
Shavon Shields and Andrew White III each scored 16 to lead the Cornhuskers, who had no answer for 7-footers Hammons and Haas.
Hammons, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in Wednesday’s win at Minnesota, surpassed his previous best of 30, notched in a loss to Indiana on Jan. 30, 2013. He scored the Boilermakers’ first eight points in the second half.
Purdue got a 3-pointer from Davis and a baseline jumper from Swanigan to increase its lead to 76-65 with 6:16 to play. Hammons broke his career high with a dunk with 4:28 remaining for a 78-65 advantage.
Davis’ 3-pointer gave Purdue a 61-51 lead with 12:34 remaining, but back-to-back baskets from Shields and Glynn Watson Jr. trimmed Nebraska’s deficit to 61-55 with 11:49 to play.
A 3-pointed by Watson with 12:52 to go capped an 8-0 Nebraska run and sliced Purdue’s lead to 58-51, prompting a Boilermaker timeout.
Purdue scored the final five points in the first half – a Ryan Cline 3-pointer and a dunk at the buzzer by Hammons following an offensive rebound – for a 44-35 lead.
The Boilermakers shot 51.7 percent (15 of 29) during the first half. Nebraska shot 43.3 percent (13 of 30).
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers entered Saturday’s game having won three consecutive Big Ten road games. A Nebraska basketball team has not won four consecutive league road games since the 1975-76 season. … The Cornhuskers were playing their first game since an 81-68 loss to Michigan on Jan. 23 in Lincoln, Nebraska. … Nebraska ranks second in the Big Ten in steals, averaging 7.2 per game. … The Cornhuskers have two of the Big Ten’s top eight scorers in No. 6 Andrew White II (16.9) and No. 8 Shavon Shields (15.8).
Purdue: The Boilermakers honored their “Three-Peat” Big Ten championship teams from 1994, `95 and `96, all coached by Gene Keady. … Before playing Nebraska, Purdue had won 19 of 20 home games, losing only to No. 3 Iowa on Jan. 2. … The Boilermakers lead the country in rebounding margin at plus-12.1 and outrebounded each of their first 22 opponents. … Purdue’s non-starters outscored the opposing team’s bench in 21 of the first 22 games.
Nebraska: Hosts No. 7 Maryland on Wednesday night.
Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.
The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.
As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.
2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)
When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.
3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)
On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.
4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)
I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.
5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)
Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?
6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)
I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.
It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.
8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)
I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.
9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)
There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.
There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.
11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)
Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.
12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)
Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.
13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)
Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.
Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.
15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)
This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.
Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke
Big Ten Preview: Can Maryland give the Big Ten a national championship?
Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big Ten.
The Big Ten put both Wisconsin and Michigan State into the Final Four last season, but the league is still searching for its first national championship since 2000. One of the conference’s newest teams gives the Big Ten a decent chance at a title while the rest of the league is littered with question marks after the departure of so many established players.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. Maryland is a legitimate national title contender: Mark Turgeon’s ballclub surprised many last season with a run into the national top 10 and a return to the NCAA tournament. This year, the Terrapins are deeper and even more talented. Established veterans like guard Melo Trimble and forward Jake Layman return, but it’s a group of talented newcomers that gives Maryland an extra gear this season. McDonald’s All-American Diamond Stone and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter form an all-new frontcourt while Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon gives Maryland another option for Trimble to find. The Maryland bench is also nothing to scoff at as center Damonte Dodd was a starter last season and sophomores Michal Cekovsky, Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens had flashes of solid play.
2. It’s a boom-or-bust year for Indiana: The pressure is on Indiana to have a big season as the Hoosiers kept Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and James Blackmon Jr. on the roster. The return of those three players coupled with the addition of high-motor McDonald’s All-American big man Thomas Bryant has Indiana fans clamoring for a deep NCAA tournament run. Nobody is doubting the talent and offensive abilities of Indiana, but defense will continue to be the major question this season for the Hoosiers. The perimeter defense was very porous last season and they have to hope Bryant can protect the rim.
3. Michigan State returns plenty of talent from last season: Michigan State turned an up-and-down regular season into a Final Four run and they’ll actually be a deeper team this season after a litany of bench injuries last season. The real challenge comes in replacing the play of senior starters Travis Trice and Branden Dawson. If Tum Tum Nairn (or someone else) can step up and run the point and McDonald’s All-American Deyonta Davis can replace some of Dawson’s production then Michigan State has even more perimeter weapons this season with West Virginia transfer Eron Harris and freshman Matt McQuaid being eligible. Free-throw shooting will also be something to monitor. The Spartans were a horrid 63 percent from the line last season.
4. The Big Ten added a lot of talented newcomers who could immediately change the conference race: How do replace the loss of Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and the conference’s top five scorers? By bringing in a bevy of All-American freshmen big men and some impact transfers. The Big Ten is filled with difference-making newcomers who could really change things. Already mentioned above are newcomers like Diamond Stone, Robert Carter, Rasheed Sulaimon (Maryland), Thomas Bryant (Indiana), Deyonta Davis and Eron Harris (Michigan State) but even more guys could make an impact. Purdue kept McDonald’s All-American power forward Caleb Swanigan in Indiana after he previously committed to Michigan State while Illinois (Jalen Coleman-Lands) and Ohio State (JaQuan Lyle) brought in some playmaking guards capable of contributing this season.
5. Purdue has its most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era while Wisconsin is littered with questions: Purdue quickly turned things around last season after a sluggish start in non-conference play and head coach Matt Painter has his most talented roster since the Robbie Hummel era. It will be nearly impossible to replace everything Jon Octeus brought to the table last season, but the Boilers recruited very well to fit needs as they brought in the bruising Swanigan to compliment centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas as well as an in-state floor spacer in guard Ryan Cline. If graduate transfer Johnny Hill can help offset the loss of Octeus at guard, Purdue is deeper and has more shooting than last season’s NCAA tournament team.
On the other hand, Wisconsin lost a bevy of talent this offseason. Kaminsky graduated. Sam Dekker went pro. Trae Jackson and Josh Gasser finished their eligibility. Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are left, but that’s it … outside of Bo Ryan. Bo has had success in situations like this before; remember, before Kaminsky was an all-american he was a sophomore that played 10 minutes a night. I never bet against the Badgers, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered this season.
Favorite: “Maryland made a major leap last season and now they add that talented group of incoming players for this season. They’re deep and won a lot of close games last season, so they already have a lot going for them.”
“Iowa is intriguing to me. Nobody seems to be talking about them.”
“Ohio State is really young, but they have a lot of talent. Thad has won with young and talented teams before.”
Best player: “Melo is cold-blooded. He just gets this confidence about him late in games and it seems to carry over to his teammates.”
Most underrated player:
“No one knew how good Bronson Koenig was until Traevon Jackson got hurt last year. I knew Jackson getting hurt would help Wisconsin. Koenig was better than Jackson to begin with but Bo plays veterans.”
“Jake Layman is talented. Doesn’t get the notoriety of Trimble and some of those other guys but he’s a tough cover.”
PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Melo Trimble, Maryland
As an incoming McDonald’s All-American last season, Trimble was expected to start and contribute immediately, but few could have predicted the All-American caliber year the 6-foot-3 guard put together. Trimble scored, distributed, and most importantly, gave Maryland one of the game’s best closers with his icy demeanor and 86 percent mark from the charity stripe. If Trimble makes an expected leap as a perimeter defender and overall floor leader, he could be in for a huge season and the Terps are counting on him to lead them to glory. Now that Trimble has some legitimate post scoring threats, his assist-to-turnover ratio should improve and it will also open things up for him as a shooter.
THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The in-state product has a chance to cement his legacy at Indiana with one final run and he’s the Big Ten’s returning leader in both points and assists from last season. With the amount of shooters Indiana has, Ferrell will get in the paint on a lot of drives this season.
Caris LeVert, Michigan: Although he was a bit up-and-down before his season-ending leg injury last season, LeVert is still one of the league’s best all-around players. Now healthy, the senior is noted for his scoring acumen but he also had five or more assists in seven of 18 games last season.
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: A jack-of-all-trades wing, the senior can get it done in a number of ways on the floor. With plenty of talented shooters around him this season Valentine can go to work as a scorer or find plenty of assist opportunities if the Spartans space the floor well. If fantasy college basketball was more of a thing, Valentine would be a player to covet.
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: When he isn’t putting on spelling bees and messing with media stenographers, the 6-foot-8 junior can spray shots from all over the floor while displaying some of the best footwork of any big man in the nation. The big-game experience of two Final Four runs should help Hayes become this team’s leader.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
James Blackmon Jr. and Troy Williams, Indiana
Jake Layman, Maryland
A.J. Hammons, Purdue
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
BREAKOUT STAR: Nate Mason, Minnesota
Mason was an unheralded, three-star recruit when he signed with the Golden Gophers out of Arlington Day in Florida, but the freshman turned in an impressive inaugural season in the Twin Cities, averaging 9.8 points and 2.8 assists. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu moving on, this will be Mason’s back court to anchor. Don’t be surprised to see him develop into an all-Big Ten caliber guard before he’s done playing.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Indiana’s Tom Crean led my list of “Coaches on the Hot Seat” this preseason, but with the recent thumb injury to starting guard Kendrick Nunn, even more pressure is on Illinois head coach John Groce to have a good season with an injury-riddled roster.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Maryland gives the Big Ten a credible title contender and don’t be surprised if a handful of other teams advance to the second weekend and beyond.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: How truly wide open most of the Big Ten is entering this season. While it was easy for me to slot Maryland at No. 1 and Rutgers at No. 14, the rest of the conference’s preseason order was up for heavy debate. That should make for a fun season in which a lot of new faces will impact the conference race.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
1. Maryland: Many believed that Maryland’s top-10 national ranking last season was largely in-part to some lucky finishes. This is the year for the Terps to prove their winning ways weren’t a fluke.
2. Michigan State: If Michigan State continues its free-throw shooting and is able to replace Trice and Dawson, there are plenty of playmakers and perimeter shooters on the roster to form a dangerous roster.
3. Indiana: Indiana returned most of its top players, but its bench is also better this season as graduate transfer big man Max Bielfeldt came over from Michigan. Bielfeldt, senior shooter Nick Zeisloft and junior forward Collin Hartman are all upperclassmen and give the Hoosiers a bit more versatility off the bench than last season.
4. Purdue: Purdue has arguably the deepest frontcourt in the country now that Swanigan is aboard and it’ll be intriguing to see how their interior offense looks this season. While 3-point shooting and turnovers was a bit of a struggle for Purdue last season, the hope is that Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and Cline will have even more room to let it fly now that more post scoring is in the equation.
5. Wisconsin: Wisconsin has never finished worse than tied for fourth during the Big Ten regular season under Bo Ryan, so this feels like the perfect spot for the “rebuilding” Badgers. No, this team is not nearly as talented as the memorable back-to-back Final Four teams, but Hayes and Koenig are back and Ryan has a way of having his players immediately ready to play. Wisconsin won’t beat themselves, that’s for sure. Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ has drawn solid reviews this fall.
6. Michigan: Finally healthy, John Beilein’s team is still very dangerous as long as the core nucleus stays on the floor and the big men are up to par. Derrick Walton Jr., Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert were all recovering from various injuries this offseason and Zak Irvin is also back. That core four is still lethal on the offensive end and the Wolverines added some bigger floor spacers in transfer Duncan Robinson and German freshman Moritz Wagner.
7. Ohio State: College basketball will miss the creative flair that D’Angelo Russell brought to the game but the Buckeyes brought in talented guard JaQuan Lyle to help replace him. This will be a very young team for Thad Matta as most of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The versatility of the frontcourt could be key as Marc Loving, Virginia Tech transfer Trevor Thompson, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate all bring unique skills.
8. Iowa: It’ll be interesting to watch old and new mesh in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes bring back four starters and surround them with mostly newcomers. Iowa’s returning backcourt of senior point guard Mike Gesell and Peter Jok and Anthony Clemmons can be counted on but returning frontcourt starters like Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury face additional pressure now that Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni are gone.
9. Illinois: Illinois is undoubtedly talented, but they’ve been smoked by the injury bug under Groce as they’ll begin this season shorthanded. Point guard Tracy Abrams is once again done for the year while talented guards Jalen Coleman-Lands and Kendrick Nunn are battling injuries that could force them to miss time. Graduate transfers could be huge for Illinois as they brought in center Mike Thorne and point guard Khalid Lewis to provide immediate assistance.
10. Northwestern: Northwestern is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams after a bevy of close losses and returning all of last season’s roster minus one player. Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh are a formidable backcourt while senior center Alex Olah has developed into on of the league’s better big men. The question comes with the next step for the rest of the team as sophomores like Vic Law and Scottie Lindsay will be expected to take positive steps this season.
11. Minnesota: There are plenty of questions surrounding Minnesota this season outside returning starters like Nate Mason, Joey King and Carlos Morris. The Golden Gophers are going to rely on a lot of unproven players to provide scoring while the defense has to get better after finishing 13th in scoring defense in the league last season.
12. Penn State: I’m a firm believer in head coach Pat Chambers after watching Penn State run through a wall for him at last year’s Big Ten tournament. He just has to bring in the proper talent to compete with the big dogs of the Big Ten. Sophomore Shep Garner had a solid inaugural Big Ten campaign and senior Brandon Taylor is back as well. A lot of young talent is on the roster at Penn State and a potential top-10 recruiting class looms
13. Nebraska: Nebraska had a disastrous campaign last season and there isn’t much talent back from that team. Senior Shavon Shields could have a monster year, but he’s the only proven returning player for the Huskers. Freshmen like Edward Morrow Jr. and Glynn Watson could be expected to contribute immediately along with Kansas transfer Andrew White.
14. Rutgers: Eddie Jordan’s team will certainly have more length and athleticism but they’re going to lean heavily on the talented duo of newcomers Corey Sanders and junior college forward Deshawn Freeman. Outside of Sanders, Freeman and senior guard Bishop Daniels, Rutgers doesn’t have a lot of proven Big Ten talents.