Well this was kind of a rough weekend for the Big Ten, even more so if you're a Michigan fan (especially when you factor in their football program). With the conference rolling and keeping losses to a minimum, the three losses this weekend was a bit more than we've come to expect.
I can understand Nebraska losing to UAB, that's not a huge surprise. And either is Indiana losing to Connecticut, especially in a one point loss when the Hoosiers are still very young out there. But the biggest question is what's going on with Michigan? The Wolverines wrapped up last season with a surging NCAA Tourney run that saw them almost win the entire thing. Even with the loss of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., a lot of people figured Michigan would find a way to replace them or rely more heavily on a suddenly emerging Mitch McGary.
Well it's six games into the season and we have a Michigan team that is 4-2 and very well could have been a measly 3-3. The Wolverines played poorly in the first half of their game Friday versus Florida State and had to win in overtime to beat the Seminoles. The team overall was relatively lifeless outside of Nik Stauskas, who led the team with 26 points. Michigan was looking to rebound in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Championship game against Conference USA opponent UAB. The end result was more of the same for the recently disappointing Wolverines.
After the teams struggles against Florida State, Michigan followed up their Friday performance with a poor shooting performance that hovered just above 30% from the field and only 21.7% from beyond the arc. The team saw very little from Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Walton Jr., while even Mitch McGary looked extremely limited coming off the bench. Their lack of production was probably better than Zak Irvin's performance, with the guard hitting on 3 of 14 shots from the field. Stauskas once again tried to lead the team, adding a team-high 20 points, but even Nik struggled shooting 1 of 5 from beyond the arc. Oh, and the team had a total of 8 assists and was outrebounded. Michigan didn't look good tonight, not even close.
Overall it wasn't pretty, but one has to wonder how we should read into this. You could make the case that the team is struggling without a healthy Mitch McGary, arguably their best player. On the flip side, you could point out that McGary wasn't a major factor earlier last season and everyone was reading too much into a tourney run that could have been McGary simply catching fire at the right time. The same could be said for Michigan as well, as you could easily paint the team out as over achieving in the tournament last season, potentially increasing expectations unfairly. This of course might look even more accurate when you factor in the loss of Burke and Hardaway Jr.
Without the teams main offensive weapons, Michigan still seems to lack an offensive identity. The team will obviously benefit from the return of a healthy McGary, but they're still going to need to see some production in the backcourt. Stauskas is a three point specialist and can change games on a whim, but the reliance on shooting from outside means his consistency will suffer as he shoots more lower percentage shots. The team will need production from it's guards and so far the production from Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr., and Zak Irvin seems a bit inconsistent (at best). If these guys can't piece it together quickly Michigan will lose more games like this and the thought of the team contending for a Big Ten title could start to become irrelevant. It won't get any easier as well, with Michigan still facing Duke, Arizona and Stanford before conference play begins. Michigan could easily be 7-5 come January.
All the doom and gloom over Michigan hides the strong starts from most of the teams in the conference. Not every team has been perfect, though, with Nebraska being another team with two early losses. Tim Miles' Cornhuskers lost Friday to UAB by double digits on a day where they were simply outshot by the Blazers. Miles has more talent than he had last year, but the team's inexperience will likely rear it's ugly head this season. Rome wasn't built in a day and while Nebraska is vastly improved, they still need time. On the other side of things, we have a Hoosiers team that is quickly getting it together. They may have lost to Connecticut on Friday, but the talent is definitely coming together. The team will obviously need Noah Vonleh to stay out of foul trouble with his four fouls keeping his playing time limited, which was detrimental to a Hoosier squad that lost by a point. The duo of Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell, especially if guys like Troy Williams continue to improve, will make Indiana a deadly team this season in the Big Ten.
The top of the conference has been looking as strong as it's ever been, with Michigan State taking care of business versus Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, winning both by double digits. Adreian Payne and Gary Harris are the real deal for the Spartans, but if Keith Appling and Branden Dawson can make major contributions to the team than Michigan State will be nearly unbeatable. I do find it funny that this team has struggled versus their cupcake opponents but then comes out to play versus the marquee teams. This of course is something Tom Izzo will likely want to curtail as it's an easy way for his team to lose unnecessary games in the Big Ten and could cost them the Big Ten, though one has to wonder who will challenge them. While every team seemingly has question marks throughout their roster, Michigan State feels like one of the most complete teams in the nation.
While not as talented as Sparty, Wisconsin has been looking great so far. Sam Dekker is expected to be great once again this year and it looks like John Gasser is fully healthy from his injury last season, but I'm not sure anyone expected the explosive start from Frank Kaminsky. If he can keep it up he'll help solidify the Badgers frontcourt and Wisconsin could easily trend upwards over the likes of teams like Michigan. Even freshman Nigel Hayes has shown signs he could be a solid contributor to the team. Bo Ryan once again has another Wisconsin team that will create headaches for opponents in the Big Ten, leading to more inevitable message board hate and obscenities.
The middle of the field has been relatively quiet, but it's been taking care of business. Iowa may benefit from an easy non-conference schedule, but they've been dominating their overmatched opponents. It'll be interesting to see how they play versus better teams, but if you're a Hawkeye fan you'll take this because it's better to wreck bad teams than to sleepwalk through them. Illinois has done more of the same and has seen quite a bit of production from it's fresh faces, including freshman Jaylon Tate, who may be the first freshman to crack the starting rotation if he can keep it up. Tracy Abrams hasn't been bad either, which would be a plus for an Illini team that would benefit from him increasing his assists and keeping his turnovers down. Both Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand have been relatively effective as well and if Jon Ekey can play more like he did versus Chicago State than the team's starting rotation could be good enough to contend for a NCAA Tournament appearance.
Rounding out the weekend was Penn State and Purdue, with Penn State blowing out Longwood and Purdue doing enough to get by against Siena. Penn State's seen some production out of Ross Travis and Brandon Taylor and will look for the forwards to keep it up if they want to climb up the Big Ten ladder. The Nittany Lions have a deadly backcourt with D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier, but need to improve down low. Penn State had no issue with Longwood today and benefited from shooting over 57% from the field.
Purdue's team seems interesting to say the least. There's decidedly more talent and experience here this year than last and it's shown with the team finally overcoming adversity and pulling out close wins, something they struggled greatly with last season. Also, the depth has allowed the team to essentially run through whoever is hot at the time and has balanced out the offensive production across the entire roster. The ability to shoot from outside has also improved as well, though the team is still making too many mistakes on defense and allowing teams to hit enough shots from outside to keep pace. Siena struggled today from outside, though, but lucked out thanks to Purdue shooting 22 of 37 from the free throw line. And with that being said, if free throws don't improve (especially if officiating remains the same), Purdue will lose games because of it. Painter needs improvement here and the guys who've struggled in the past have put in the effort to improve, it just seems to be a work in progress that hasn't panned out for quite some time.
So this weekend had some ups and downs but it was a good weekend for most of the teams as long as you aren't a Nebraska or Michigan fan. The Nebraska loss was more or less expected, or at least not a major surprise, but some people are likely starting to feel concerned in Ann Arbor. It'll be interesting to see how things play out for the Wolverines throughout the rest of the month and December, as the team could put itself in a bit of a pickle if they can't get it together quickly. If Michigan falters next month and slides into conference play at 7-5 (or even 8-4), it'd require a very good season in the Big Ten or else things could get a bit hairy up north.
Tomorrow will be a major challenge for the conference as Minnesota faces their first test playing against Syracuse. Ohio State will host Wyoming and Northwestern hosts Gardner-Webb in tomorrow's remaining games.