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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
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 recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big Ten.
MIDSEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
It’s not hard to draw a parallel to Happ’s success this season and Wisconsin’s return to form after the program’s first season without an NCAA tournament in two decades. Happ put up numbers last year – 17.9 points, 8 rebounds and 3.7 assists – but it was a grind and things never seem to come as easily to him as they appeared two in his first seasons in Madison. He and the Badgers didn’t seem to adapt well to a more usage-heavy role with a supporting cast that was unable to do much supporting.
Now, though, Happ is beasting and the Badgers are rolling. The 6-foot-10 throwback pivot has the look of a National Player of the year, averaging 19.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 56.9 percent from the floor. He’s dominating the game by being excellent in nearly every one of its phases. It’s no accident Wisconsin is now 10-3 with a 2-0 headstart to B1G play. Happ’s game may not endear him to NBA scouts – he’s shot just three 3s this year – but he’s unquestionably one of the best players in college basketball right now.
THE ALL BIG TEN FIRST TEAM
ETHAN HAPP, WISCONSIN
CARSEN EDWARDS, PURDUE: The Boilermaker point guard has a decent argument for the top spot here given the season he’s having. Edwards leads the Big Ten in scoring with 25.8 points per game as he’s moved into a bigger role in West Lafayette and thrived. He’s shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and is dishing out 3.5 assists per game.
JAMES PALMER, NEBRASKA: Palmer’s efforts are a big reason the Cornhuskers look poised to snap a four-year NCAA tournament drought. The 6-foot-6 senior is picking up where he left off following his breakthrough season last year after transferring from Miami, averaging 19.6 points along with 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.8 assists per game.
CASSIUS WINSTON, MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans’ floor general is having a superb season to help power Michigan State to an 11-2 record with a 2-0 B1G mark. He’s doing it all, averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game.
BRUNO FERNANDO, MARYLAND: The sophomore has shown a lot of growth this season, and his game is starting to match his for foreboding 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 70.2 percent from the floor.
We anticipated the Wolverines would be pretty good this season coming off last year’s surprise NCAA tournament title game appearance. It’s never wise to bet against John Beilein, and Michigan, despite losses of Mo Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, still had talent on the roster. What Michigan is doing now, though, well, that’s been a big of a surprise.
The Wolverines are absolutely red-hot, roasting opponents and establishing themselves as a no-doubt, no-argument national title contender. They more than hinted at that fact when they thrashed Villanova in November and then followed it up with wins against Providence, Northwestern, Purdue and North Carolina to head into 2019 with a perfect 13-0 record.
Michigan’s defense is about as good as it gets, with opponents shooting just 41.4 percent on 2-point shots with an effective field goal percentage of 43, good for 11th in the country. The Wolverines also keep opponents off the offensive glass and the free-throw line, a time-tested formula for defensive excellence. Offensively, they’re playing Beilein’s offense methodically, taking care of the ball and making shots. They may not be overloaded with talent ala Duke, but the Wolverines are stacked with the likes of Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and freshman sensation Ignas Brazdeikis.
The Wolverines look to be very much in line for a third title game under Beilein, and this could be the time they’re the last team standing, atop a ladder with cut nets in hand.
2. IT DIDN’T TAKE ARCHIE MILLER LONG TO TURN INDIANA AROUND
It’s not hard to imagine that last year wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of fun for Archie Miller. In his first year as Indiana’s coach, the Hoosiers went 16-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten after Miller spent the previous four years in the NCAA tournament at Dayton. There weren’t a long list of doubters about Miller’s long-term viability in Bloomington, but a difficult year that included Big Ten losing streaks of four and three games maybe made the timeline look a little extended.
Or the Hoosiers would figure it out immediately, like it appears they have.
Landing five-star homegrown talent Romeo Langford was obviously the key as the freshman is averaging 17.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor (though a ghastly 21.3 percent on more than three attempts from 3-point range per game). He hasn’t been alone, though, as Juwan Morgan has been spectacular while the Hoosiers sport a top-20 defense.
3. THE B1G IS BACK
It’s been a couple of years in the wilderness for the Big Ten. The expansion to 14 teams may have been a boon to the league’s coffers, it hasn’t exactly been a success on the hardwood. Since the move in 2014-15, the Big Ten hasn’t ranked in the top-three in KenPom, and they’ve been fifth twice. They’ve averaged six NCAA tournament teams per year and haven’t had a one-seed since Wisconsin’s national runner-up season of 2015. They’ve only had five teams with a three-seed or better in that time frame, too. They’ve also played their conference tournament in Washington, D.C. and reworked the conference schedule into December to play in New York. So it’s been pretty nasty for a league that’s long prided itself on its basketball prowess.
This season looks to be a return to form.
The league currently has a pair of top-five KenPom teams (Michigan and Michigan State) while a whopping 11 programs are ranked in the top-50. Rutgers and Illinois look the only teams that are truly going to struggle while Minnesota is the third team outside the top-50 at 62 with wins against Washington and Nebraska on the resume.
The Big Ten is back in a big way.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. ONE-SEED PURSUIT
The Big Ten hasn’t had a No. 1 seed in three seasons, but the conference now has a pair of teams that look squarely in the mix to secure one in Michigan and Michigan State. Can the Big Ten go from drought to deluge this season with a pair of top seeds?
It could be tough for the league to get two top seeds with Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Kansas, North Carolina and Nevada all building No. 1 seed resumes through two months, but it’s definitely not out of the realm of possibility. The Wolverines and Spartans will be bolstered by the fact the Big Ten is going to provide a plethora of quadrant-one wins this season, and the conference’s reputation appears to be on the upswing, which can sometimes matter as much as the numbers. If both teams can compile huge win totals – and perhaps split their season series with each other – it’s not hard to envision scenarios with them both on the one-line.
2. COACHING SITUATIONS
There didn’t appear to be any coaches whose seats were absolutely red-hot entering the season, but there were a few situations worth monitoring.
The first is Richard Pitino at Minnesota, where the son of the Hall of Famer has gone to just one NCAA tournament (featuring a first-round loss) in five seasons with an athletic director that didn’t hire him and a new university president on the way in. Pitino seems to have quieted much discussion about his job with a nice 11-2 start to the season, but it remains to be seen if a November loss to Boston College will be viewed as a hiccup or warning light.
Pat Chambers has gone 0-for-7 in his tenure in getting to the NCAA tournament during his tenure in University Park, though the Nittany Lions did take home the NIT title last season. Still, not many coaches can have that be the high-water mark over seven seasons and come to work for an eighth. Chambers has a win over Virginia Tech this season, but losses to DePaul and Bradley along with Ls courtesy of Maryland, Indiana, N.C. State and Alabama suggest trouble remains ahead.
Fran McCaffery has missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes’ best season during his tenure was a seven-seed and a first-weekend exit after being ranked in the top five at one point in 2015-16, but a new contract and huge buyout kept any questions about his job security to a whisper. Their 11-2 start to this season with wins against Oregon and Iowa State are having the same affect.
There’s been just one NCAA tournament in six seasons for Tim Miles at Nebraska, and that came in 2014. With a brand-new arena, the expectations in Lincoln are for more. But after narrowly missing the tournament last year thanks largely to the B1G being down across the board and this year’s strong start, things look to be pointed in the right direction.
3. HOW GOOD IS OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes have just one loss on the season, a home setback to Syracuse, and a bunch of nice-but-not-great wins on their resume with Ws against the likes of Cincinnati, Creighton, Minnesota and UCLA (whose blahness just got their coach canned).
Chris Holtmann’s team’s statistical profile is strong with KenPom rankings in the top-40 in both offense (35) and defense (22) while sophomore Kaleb Wesson is budding into one of the conference’s hardest-to-guard players.
How it all comes together when the schedule ramps up – starting with Michigan State on Saturday – will be one of the more interesting things to watch unfold in the Big Ten.The five game stretch of at Iowa, vs. Maryland, vs. Purdue, at Nebraska and at Mcihigan to finish January is going to tell a lot.
1. ETHAN HAPP IS A FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICAN
The Badgers big man will have stiff competition around the country, but if he keeps putting up numbers like he is now – and his entire career suggests he will – while Wisconsin continues its resurgence, it’s going to be impossible to keep him off a list of the country’s five best players.
2. AT LEAST EIGHT GO DANCING
Just a year removed from having four teams in the NCAA tournament – a 10-year low – the Big Ten is going to get at least eight teams into the Big Dance. Even with the expanded membership, that would be a historic achievement for one of the country’s most storied conferences.
3. THERE WILL BE A SURPRISE TOURNEY CHAMPION
We’re going to spend a ton of the next two-plus months talking about Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin as the premier Big Ten teams, but it’ll be another team from the deep league – here’s looking at Ohio State, Indiana or Nebraska – that will cut down the nets at the United Center in the conference tournament.
NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga
Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
There were only two top-25 teams in action Tuesday night, but there was still plenty of solid hoops action around the country with rematches, youth vs. youth and sterling individual performances. Here’s everything you need to know about what went down.
1. Wisconsin resurgent
The 2017-18 season was as disappointing as any for Wisconsin in some time. The Badgers were under .500, missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years and were just generally uncompetitive in the Big Ten after years of consistently being one of its best programs. Given how Greg Gard inherited the program, that made this season an important one in Madison.
The Badgers look to understand that.
Wisconsin got 30 points from Ethan Happ, 22 from D’Mitrik Trice and 19 from Brad Davidson, who added a little flavor to the victory. The issues last year for Wisconsin were many, but so often the main problem was Happ being left to do everything himself. If the Badgers can consistently get help around Happ – while he continues to reassert himself as one of the country’s best players – Wisconsin should be back in the NCAA tournament and pushing for a spot atop the Big Ten. There’s a long way to go and Wisconsin finishes off November with a difficult slate of games, but the early returns are positive for Gard and Co.
2. Georgetown beats Illinois in fun battle of two young teams
I don’t know that either Georgetown or Illinois will be all that good this season. In fact, I would venture to guess neither is all that great once we hit the middle of winter. They did, however, play a super entertaining game Tuesday night.
Georgetown outlasted the Illini, 88-80, in Champaign as part of the Gavitt Games in a back-and-forth game that featured fun, mistakes, highlight plays, more mistakes, breathless action and, yup, some additional mistakes. Still, it was apparent that both teams have young talent that can take them places, whether it’s this year or in the future.
The Hoyas’ starting backcourt of freshmen James Akinjo and Mac McClung combined to score 31 points and dish out 11 assists while making game-winning plays down the stretch. On the flip side, they also tallied a combined eight turnovers. There was good and bad from the two youngsters, but the positive well outweighed the negative and the potential of both was on major display. Patrick Ewing looks to have this thing pointed in the right direction in D.C.
For Illinois, it was Chicago product Ayo Dosunmu starring. The point guard put up 25 points on 9 of 15 shooting, including 3 of 4 form deep. He was electric and at times unstoppable. Fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili had 12 points, five boards and four assists. Brad Underwood’s four non-senior starters combined for 17 of the Illini’s points on the night while sophomore reserve Da’Monte Williams had 11 of those points. The future look good for Brad Underwood, too.
3. Izundu puts up numbers, Louisville impresses, Mays throws down and Temple knocks off Georgia
Ebuka Izundu had a night that’s not often seen. The Miami big man went for 22 points and 17 rebounds while shooting 11 of 13 from the floor. It was just the 13th time since 2010 that someone put up at least 22 and 17 while shooting 84 percent or better from the floor. So that’s pretty good. So, too, was the Hurricanes’ 96-58 win over Stephen F. Austin to improve to 3-0 on the season.
Louisvillewasn’t all that good in Chris Mack’s debut, but the Cardinal looked significantly stronger Tuesday in a 1014-54 win over Southern. Jordan Nwora scored 20 points off the bench, and Louisville shot 58.2 percent from the floor as a team.
Georgia shot 50 percent from the floor, but turned it over 20 times and lost to Temple in Philadelphia. The story, though, was the Owls’ duo of Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, Jr., who both tallied 25 points as they improved to 3-0 in what will be coach Fran Dunphy’s final season leading them.
Illinois lands four-star 2019 center Antwan January
Illinois has started its 2019 recruiting class with a four-star forward.
Antwan January, a 6-foot-11 center from Hillcrest Academy in Arizona, committed to coach Brad Underwood and the Illini on Tuesday, he announced on social media.
“Thank you to everyone that’s been in my corner,” January wrote. “I would like to give thanks to God, my Mom, my brother/trainer , and all the coaches that recruited me. It’s been a journey & I’m not done yet.”
January becomes the first member of Underwood’s ‘19 group, which figures not to be a large class with a young roster in Champaign. He picked the Illini over Kansas State, Ole Miss and TCU.
“The style of play fits my game,” January told Rivals. “They like to play fast and run the floor which is what I love.
“The relationship that I formed with coach (Chin) Coleman and coach Underwoodwas big and so was the chance to play in the Big 10 Conference. It is one of the best out there and really, it just felt like home.”