This figures to be one of the best years for Big Ten basketball in recent memory.
Based on preseason projections, the conference could get a couple of teams into the Final Four – as it did in years like 1989, 1992, 1999 and 2000.
The Big Ten has not produced a national champion since 2000, when Michigan State won it all. Perhaps that changes this year, particularly with three Big Ten teams in the preseason top five in both the AP poll and the USA Today coaches poll.
Indiana leads the way as the No. 1 team in both polls. Next are Louisville and Kentucky with Ohio State fourth and Michigan fifth in both polls. Michigan State (14th in both polls) and Wisconsin (21st in the coaches poll and 23rd in AP) will also be ranked when the season tips off on Friday.
We will have a full preview of Big Ten basketball on the site prior to Friday’s opening games.
Recently, we had a chance to interview a pair of ESPN analysts in Dan Dakich (former Indiana player and coach) and Jimmy Dykes. Below are our interviews with those two analysts on what may lie ahead in the Big Ten this year.
Dakich Bullish On Big Ten
Steve Helwagen: Dan, the Big Ten is all over the preseason polls this year. What are your thoughts about the league as a whole?
Dan Dakich: “I think when you look at the Big Ten this year you have to look at certain teams. Indiana is going to be good. Ohio State is going to be good. You know that Michigan State and Wisconsin, for the most part, are going to be good.
“I think what’s interesting is when you look at a team like Iowa. Last year, they got pretty good by the end of the year. They had some difficulty early in the year. They are the kind of team that will make this league kind of deep. They and Minnesota will make this league pretty good. Iowa has kids like Aaron White. He is terrific. Anybody who has seen him play knows he can shoot it and he can pass it.
“They also have a couple of freshmen coming in, including a big 7-footer named (Adam) Woodbury. If they get as good as they can with (Melsahn) Basabe, (Roy Devyn) Marble and (Josh) Oglesby coming on, that is another good team in the mix.
“I kind of feel the same way about Purdue. (Freshman) Ronnie Johnson, the point guard, is pretty good. He played well for them overseas this summer. If he plays like he can, he can make the other two Johnsons (Anthony and Terone) better. They would have a three Johnson attack.
“Minnesota is the same way. When they lost (Trevor) Mbakwe, they lost a guy who got fouled more than anybody else in the conference. That’s huge. Andre Hollins came on at the end of the year.
“But those three teams, if they can play as well as they can, then this league will be really deep.”
Helwagen: Indiana, obviously, you’ve been there and seen everything that has happened with Tom Crean. One brick after another, he’s built it to where it is now. It’s a mix of old guys and young guys. I don’t know that it’s a pat hand that they will go to the Final Four, but it looks pretty good. What are your impressions?
Dakich: “I liked them when I saw them practice. Every time I’ve seen them practice, I’ve liked them. They go hard. Right now, and even last year, they didn’t have any ego about themselves. There are some young kids. It is a deep team. Yogi Ferrell comes in. Jeremy Hollowell is going to be a pro at some point.
“There are a couple of things with Indiana. Number one, they have to guard better. They gave up about 44 percent from the field. When they lost to Iowa and Nebraska, they really couldn’t sit down and get a stop when they needed it. That’s first and foremost.
“The second thing with them is they have depth and they have real depth. That’s not normal in college basketball. That’s not something we’re used to seeing and we’ll see how they handle that. But across the board, they have as much talent as anybody in the country. Then you have a kid like (Cody) Zeller who may be the best kid in the country and he is your hardest working guy … Coach Crean told me he is their most improved player.
“That team has a real opportunity unless something crazy happens.”
Dakich: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I look at Ohio State I say, ‘Trey McDonald, you’re on scholarship. LaQuinton Ross, you’re on scholarship. Amir Williams, you’re on scholarship. You guys, let’s go. You were good high school players. When Ohio State recruits you, you know you’re really good. Let’s go, it’s time to go.’
“You can mask it. Lenzelle Smith is good. Shannon Scott is going to play well, I’m sure. Aaron Craft is there. Sam Thompson played well and Thomas is going to do his thing. At some point in my opinion, you have to have guys like Williams, McDonald and Ross, with his size and athletic ability, they’ve got to play.
“I will guarantee this – if Ohio State is going to be as good as Ohio State has been in the past, one or two of those guys will have to have a breakout year. Look at their roster. Craft is very good. Thomas can really score and his defense got a lot better. He is really committed to it. You’re going to play eight guys. Somebody is going to have to play out of those guys. If they don’t play well, that won’t be good for Ohio State.”
Helwagen: Michigan, they have Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. back. They have some young guys coming in. They have seemed to struggle getting deep into the tournament, but could this be one of the best teams John Beilein is going to have there?
Dakich: “I like Hardaway a lot, especially if he concentrates on both ends of the court. He is a junior now. Trey Burke is a pro. The kids I really like are the freshmen, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. They were two of the best players coming out of Indiana, although I know McGary was at a prep school.
“Everybody talks about (Michigan State signee) Gary Harris, but Glenn Robinson III was better than he was as a high school senior. He’s a talented kid.
“The other thing about Michigan is that John Beilein has won with a lot less talent than he has right now. He’s got guys playing hard. Burke makes everybody play hard. He’s that kind of guy. McGary is the kind of guy who makes everybody play hard. With Hardaway and Robinson on the wings, a guy like (Jordan) Morgan can go down and play on the block. I think they have the pieces to make a run at anybody in the country.
“They’ve got real momentum in their program. I think their fans have a lot of interest. The energy and momentum is all moving forward. You have to have that and Michigan hasn’t had that in a long time. I think it’s a program that is ready to take off. They got a share of the Big Ten championship last year, but I think they are ready for bigger and better things.”
Helwagen: Michigan State loses Draymond Green. But they have some other players there. What do you see with Michigan State? Is this a team that can stay in the hunt?
Dakich: “Anytime Tom Izzo is coaching, you know they can. But there are a couple of things I see with Michigan State. Number one is Branden Dawson. How is his knee? Everybody tells me he has made a remarkable recovery. But then I go and see the guy and it’s not like that. I hope it is the case.
“But the big one is Adreian Payne. Since he’s been there, Izzo has said, ‘I’ve never had a guy like Payne.’ But he has had a lot of guys who averaged seven points a game. It’s time for Payne to be a 17- to 20-point-a-game type guy. The same is true for Derrick Nix. Nix had the problem after the season, but he has apparently slimmed down and learned his lesson. If that’s not real, that can destroy a team. He’s a senior and really their only senior. He’s been given another chance. He can either reward Tom Izzo for helping him or he can screw Tom Izzo. It’s up to him. There’s nobody else. He’s the only senior. He’s got to go.
“I know they like (freshman) Denzel Valentine and (Brandan) Kearney came on late last year. It’s up to Payne to decide, ‘Look, I’m an all-league kid.’ If he does, obviously, that will help.”
Helwagen: Wisconsin loses the guard, Jordan Taylor. But they have Jared Berggren back. It’s like interchangeable drill bits. They just keep putting new guys in that system and Bo Ryan just keeps winning games.
Dakich: “How can you count them out? They told me last year how much they loved (redshirt freshman point guard) George Marshall. They thought he was very good. He will take Taylor’s place.
“Berggren is a little bit like Payne. He has ability with the left hand and the right hand. He can dance around in the post. He can shoot threes. He’s going to play 30 minutes a game, but he has to score more than 10 points a game. And (Mike) Brusewitz, too. He is out with a lacerated leg. He has a perfect stroke when he shoots it and he goes to the offensive boards. But then you look and he only scores five points a game. They have to get more out of him than that.
“Ryan Evans was terrific at the end of the year. He came on from two points a game to 11 points a game. The Big Ten is determined a lot of times by who steps it up at the end of their career and by who comes in and helps early in their career.
“You look at this team and you think Berggren should be an all-league kid. Brusewitz should be really good. Those two guys have to become what seniors in the Big Ten become, as much experience as they have. They have to become all-league guys.”
Helwagen: Illinois with John Groce as the new coach there. What’s it going to take for him to come in do well there? I presume it involves keeping some of the best guys from Chicago at home.
Dakich: “He has to recruit better above I-90 and I-94 going across the city. There are two distinct fan bases in Illinois. North of 90/94 in Chicago and south of 90/94. You have to do a good job there and develop some relationships and John has. Bruce (Weber) had relationships and he did a good job there. But John is a different kind of guy. He is energetic and more outgoing.
“I’m from that area and I understand that people there want that and they expect that. We’ll see what happens. I think they hired a good guy, but I think it’s going to take a minute. They have two seniors in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. They have to be all-league guys. If they’re not doing that, they’re a detriment. If they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do as leaders, that team will not be as good as it can be.”
Helwagen: Purdue had that great team a couple of years ago. I don’t know if it’s hard to replace those guys, but Indiana is coming on and Ohio State has recruited some top Indiana guys. With Coach Painter is he hitting a lull here or what will it take to get them back in the top four or five?
Dakich: “No, I will never say they are hitting a lull. I don’t know where they finished last year. I remember when he had a bunch of freshmen and they struggled, but then you come back and they went 15-3 in the league in the year when we had Eric Gordon. I don’t worry about him. The thing Matt has to continue to do is recruit.
“He has a really good class coming in, led by the point guard Ronnie Johnson. It will be fascinating watching he and Yogi Ferrell go up against each other for four years. Purdue has to rebound. They had no inside game or anybody who could go get the ball off the backboard. They were 267th or something like that in rebound margin. When you stress toughness and that’s what you’re program is built on, you have to rebound and they didn’t do it. And I’m not sure they can.
“(Freshman) A.J. Hammons is a kid to look out for. He is a 7-foot kid with great hands. He’s heavy, but he has good hands and good feet. He can rebound. But that is a big issue for them.”
Helwagen: Last thing I want to ask is about the Final Four. Does the Big Ten have some serious prospects this year to get one or two teams to Atlanta?
Dakich: “I honestly don’t know. I think Indiana has a good enough team to make it to Atlanta. If you discount Tom Izzo’s team out from making it, then you’re crazy. Until further notice, John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky keep rolling it out there. Then you also have Louisville. They just have guys.
“If you asked me the one team from the Big Ten built to play for a Final Four, I would say it was Indiana.”
Dykes On Big Ten: ‘It’s loaded’
Steve Helwagen: Jimmy, what do you see in general with the Big Ten this year?
Jimmy Dykes: “Well, it’s loaded. You have three or four teams there that I think would be a threat to make it to the Final Four. That speaks volumes to have three or four teams in one league that are viewed like that in the preseason.
“Indiana is at the top of the polls and then you also have Michigan and Ohio State in the top 10 and Michigan State in the top 15. When was the last time Wisconsin and Bo Ryan didn’t finish in the top three or four in that league, which equates to the top 25. Ohio State has Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, who are two of the better players at their position that we have in college ball.
“There is no easy league. But, certainly, the Big Ten this year will be a test. The champion of that league will be well tested and well prepared for the NCAA Tournament.”
Helwagen: Indiana, what do you say about what Tom Crean has done? They were as low as they’ve been in just about any of our lifetimes when he got there and he’s built it up piece by piece.
Dykes: “What Tom Crean did was he kept his nose down and he kept working and he kept grinding when they were only winning six games, 10 games, 12 games. He never wavered in how he was going to build that program. He never let outside voices influence how he was going to do his job.
“Then the game changer was Cody Zeller. Without him, they are not the preseason No. 1. In fact, they may be at the bottom of the top 25 if they’re in the top 25 at all. This is a kid going in who could be a national player of the year. He’s the one guy who hardly anybody else right now. He is a 7-footer who the offense can run through him. He can score, he can run like a gazelle, he’s got great hands. He does have to get better defensively. He changed the program. He got the program back. That’s how big that signing was. I think Tom Crean would be the first to admit that.
“Now it looks like he will keep it going with the likes of Yogi Ferrell. Indiana was 11-7 in the Big Ten last year and they lost (to Kentucky) in the Sweet 16. They know their weakness. They weren’t good enough defensively. Their defensive efficiency was 64th in the country. That’s not good enough to win at a Final Four level. They have made a great emphasis to improve that.”
Helwagen: What are your thoughts on Ohio State? I repeat Final Four may seem a little bit out of reach, but if those young guys come together you never what could happen in March.
Dykes: “The pieces are there for a fourth straight Big Ten title. That’s the first thing you try and check off. It looks like they will be a long, athletic team that will try and get out in the open floor and score off their defense. One issue is whether they can finish off defensive possessions by getting the ball off the backboard. Without Jared Sullinger, they are losing a high rate rebounder.
“They only made five three-point shots a game last year and now they’ve lost William Buford. Defensive rebounding and three-point shooting would be a concern. But when you start with Aaron Craft … he is an ultimate winner on the floor, off the floor, as a person and in the classroom. This kid carries it with him 24 hours a day in everything he does. He is the best perimeter defender in college basketball. Offensively, they will get more out of him this year as well.
“Deshaun Thomas may be one of the most difficult guys to defend this year in college basketball. I know the offense will run through him. He will get more shots and will also be a willing passer this year. You could make an argument for Aaron Craft to be the best point guard and for Deshaun Thomas to be the best small forward in college ball. At those two positions, no one will have better players, so that is a good starting point.”
Helwagen: Michigan has some talented players coming in to join the returning players. For Coach Beilein will it come down to getting that group of young and old to play together. How good they can be?
Dykes: “I think for every coach the challenge is when they bring in a guy or two that they are counting on being in the rotation. The last two years, a high percentage of their field goal attempts – maybe 43 or 44 percent – has been behind the three-point line. Does that continue with guys like Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan inside. Do they continue to fire away from three? They have some inside guys who are weapons.
“They don’t get a lot of offensive rebounds or free throw attempts because of their style. I think that will change. Trey Burke has a much better understanding of the offense this year than he did last year. Tim Hardaway Jr. took 190 three-point shots and only made 28 percent of them. That percentage has to go up. He will get shots off, but he has to make them at a higher rate than he has in the past.”
Helwagen: Michigan State loses Draymond Green. Do they have enough pieces to be a championship caliber team?
Dykes: “The number one question is who will be their next Spartan. We all knew who that was before. It was Draymond Green. He was the pulse of the team. He was a guy Tom Izzo had ultimate trust in, like Mateen Cleaves. Who gets close to being that next guy for Izzo? He’s always been at his best when he’s had a guy like that.
“The other thing is scoring. Keith Appling at 11 points a game is their only returning scorer in double figures. You know they will be a physical defensive team and they are going to rebound. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix inside are probably the keys. Is Nix in better shape? Where is Payne? Can he become a scorer.
“The other guys in Keith Appling, Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, if he’s back from that torn ACL, those guys can play. Russell Byrd is a shooter. Brandan Kearney is a long kid who can make shots. I loved what I saw of Gary Harris last year in an all-star game. He’s a tough kid and a former wide receiver in football. Izzo likes those kind of guys.
“It will be a typical Tom Izzo team, especially early. They are going to grind on people defensively and rebound at a high rate. Then, the key is how good they become offensively and who scores.”
Helwagen: Minnesota, with Trevor Mbakwe back, can this be Tubby Smith’s best team there?
Dykes: “I saw those guys last year in the NIT. They were playing really well. Their size on the perimeter is hard to deal with. Those guys are big, physical guards. The addition of Mbakwe is something we might not talk enough about. If he is back to where he was prior to the injury, you’re talking about a monster rebounder and a double-double guy. At 6-8, he could lead the league in rebounding. That’s a big thing to watch early. Where is his health?
“Rodney Williams, a double-figure scorer, is 6-7 and he’s an older kid. He’s been through a lot. He’s been through some highs and lows. He had a good run in the NIT last year.
“The two Hollins kids, I really liked them last year. Andre as a freshman really held up well. Austin Hollins gives you more size. Those are two guys you trust. Tubby’s teams will always defend their tail off and have good shot selection. They will play a winning brand of basketball.
“We will find out where they are right off the bat. They are in that Atlantis tournament and it is loaded.”
Helwagen: Wisconsin goes on without Jordan Taylor. What can they expect? It seems like Bo Ryan always finds some guys to build around.
Dykes: “I see a really good team. Bo Ryan has averaged 23 wins in 28 years as a head coach. I don’t think that will change. Two of the last three years, they’ve led the nation in scoring defense. They only allowed 53 points a game last year. All of those things will continue. That’s who they are. They don’t turn the ball over.
“They won’t beat themselves. But this is a team. Jared Berggren is a big kid inside. He has played a lot of minutes and understands how to play in that system. They don’t have a star like you saw last year. But they have guys who have been there and know how Wisconsin plays in that offense. It won’t be easy to beat them.
“If this Sam Dekker kid is as good as everybody says he is, he could step in and be a double-figure scorer right away. That’s something they are going to need.”
Stay tuned for our weekly Big Ten Blast football notes column as well as a full Big Ten basketball preview and our picks for Week 11 in college football.