The first several weeks of conference play have provided a lot of great action and some big upsets. Take a look at our staffers' early season surprises, frontrunner for B1G Coach of the Year, as well as their explanations for Wisconsin's three-game losing streak.
1. What has been the biggest surprise to this point in conference play, besides Ohio State?
Aaron Yorke - It's Michigan right? Having this much success without Mitch McGary is shocking when you consider how worried we were about the Wolverines back in December. However, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan are filling in adequately as pick-and-rollers while Nik Stauskas has made the transition to star player. Glenn Robinson isn't far behind with the way he's improved his midrange game, and the team has plenty of depth to speak of with Derrick Walton, Spike Albrecht, and Zak Irvin playing well off the bench.
Jeremy Michael Haynes - Michigan has certainly been surprisingly successful without McGary, who I thought would be the big key to their offense, but for my money it's Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were up and down in non-conference play, but escaped with just one bad loss to Arkansas. To this point in conference play, they've only gotten in one big hole on the road against Iowa. Richard Pitino has remade this team on the fly and the players are responding to him. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Golden Gophers win 5 or 6 of their next 7 games.
Drew Hamm - Yo, this is a no brainer. Northwestern having three conference wins and being tied with Ohio State is clearly the biggest surprise so far in conference play. I mean, did you watch any of Northwestern's non-conference games? They were as ugly as the opening ceremony get-ups for the USA (TOPICAL!). But, in their three conference victories Drew Crawford has exhibited his Senior Leadership Skills with an average of 16.3 ppg and Tre Demps has been blisteringly hot coming off the bench, averaging 15 ppg in those same three conference wins. The second biggest surprise has been the amount of beer I've consumed while watching Wisconsin games (jk, everyone knew it would be a lot).
Thomas Beindit - The key word in this question is "conference." This essentially implies that we are comparing the team's performance in conference play to what we already saw in non-conference play. The clear choice here is Northwestern. Michigan is a logical choice considering their improved play, but if you actually look at what they did in non-conference, it was not like they were a bad team, they just had a pretty tough schedule. On the other hand, Northwestern struggled against really, really bad teams. Losing to DePaul at home is an embarrassing loss. What is amazing is that they already have 3 conference wins. Who can honestly say that they saw that coming not only in January, but during the entire year? Collins has done a great job at moving forward with that team and maybe they can even make the CBI.
Jason Dorow - Two teams have stood out in particular in conference play: Michigan and Northwestern. After the loss of Mitch McGary, very few would have picked Michigan to start 6-0 in conference, which included wins against Iowa and Wisconsin. Northwestern has been slightly more surprising though. A team that was slotted for last in the conference with perhaps no B1G wins has won three of its first seven. The ‘Cats are still the least talented team in the conference, yet they stand tied for 7th in the Big Ten.
Clayton Tinkle - If it's biggest surprise overall, Minnesota has my vote. Since we're regulated to conference play, I think it goes to Northwestern. The Wildcats got thumped in non-conference play by the likes of Illinois State, DePaul and a Stanford team whose record was padded by an easier non-conference slate. I think we all expected the Wildcats to be a bottom-dweller after that start and not in a position to possibly make a Cinderella run to March. We'll learn a lot about Northwestern in the coming week. Two top-ten opponents are slated as they host Iowa Saturday and travel to the Kohl Center to take on the struggling Badgers. If the ‘Cats can pull off one of those wins, they'll still be exceeding expectations of nearly everyone.
2. Who is the frontrunner for B1G coach of the year?
Chris Kay- It has to be John Beilein or Fran McCaffery. Both have great supporting arguments for the award, but I'm going to lean Beilein. He lost his PG to the draft, has one of the youngest teams in the B1G and then lost his projected first rounder in Mitch McGary to injury. Some of the credit has to go to players like Stauskas and Levert, but you have to think that Beilein's job of mentoring them and improving them as players is part of why they're doing so great. If someone were to ask you where Michigan would be without McGary I think the consensus would say middle of the pack in the B1G, not at the top.
Aaron Yorke - If it was up to me, I would probably give the award to Tom Izzo every year, but as for who has the best chance to win this year, I would say Fran McCaffery. He's built up his Iowa team from zeroes to heroes in seemingly no time at all, and he's going to get a lot of credit for being a fiery guy and playing a deep rotation. John Beilein arguably deserves the award just as much, but he's going to get less credit than McCaffery because of Michigan making the NCAA final last season. Sure, Beilein is working with essentially a whole new team without Trey Burke or Mitch McGary, but sometimes voters fail to realize such things.
Jeremy Michael Haynes - I love what Fran McCaffery has accomplished with his team. Iowa has talent that needed development, not the ready made stars that some of the coaches around the league have been lucky enough to attract. But I'm going to have to go with John Beilein. His team is young, they've lost players throughout the course of the season, and they survived a bumpy non-conference finish. Now they're 6-0 in the Big Ten and have an unusually good chance to win in East Lansing due to some of the injuries Michigan State will be dealing with. Beilein has done a fantastic job finding another route to create offense in the absence of McGary and his team has improved over the course of the year. I think he's out in front.
Drew Hamm - Right now it's John Beilein. Michigan lost a bunch of dudes to the draft and then they lost another dude (Mitch McGary) to injury after already losing a bunch of non-conference games! Whew, that sounds like a death knell, hell, three death knells, for a young and inexperienced team. HOWEVAH, Coach Beilein has righted the ship and gotten Michigan off to an undefeated start in conference. With MSU players injuring themselves while watching TV and still another day to go before the game, I can see Michigan pulling out a win and cementing themselves as the best team in the conference and Beilein as the best coach in the league this year.
Thomas Beindit - John Beilein. What he has done with Michigan is simply incredible. They had the roster to be good this season, but pieces would have to click and young guys would have to step up and make an impact. Getting them to reach their potential would have been impressive by itself, but losing McGary pushed it to another level. He is missing 3 starters from last year's Final Four team (including arguably the 3 best players) and Michigan is arguably playing better in conference season than they did last year.
Jason Dorow- The newcomer, Chris Collins. NU's new head coach has designed one of the most ingenious schemes college basketball will see this season. The focus on defensive help and slowing the pace has negated the ‘Cats lack of talent on the floor. The gameplan has equated to three conference wins already, including a big upset at Indiana. Several weeks ago few expected Northwestern to even win another game. If Collins can keep the pace and accrue 6 or 7 conference wins, he should definitely be B1G Coach of the Year.
Clayton Tinkle - As much as a like what Fran McCaffery has done in Iowa City, Beilein losing 60% of your would-be starting lineup and managing to be undefeated in the Big Ten six games down is pretty tough to top. Let's not forget that Michigan lost to still undefeated Arizona by just two, and was very competitive with Duke in Durham. Beilein has shown that coaching means more than once though, developing Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert into key players all the while bringing the previously struggling Jordan Morgan out of his slump that seemed never ending. Michigan is playing with champion like confidence, and that is all channeled through Beilein.
3. Explain Wisconsin's three game losing streak.
Aaron Yorke - Wisconsin's losing streak is the opposite of Ohio State's losing streak. Just like how the Buckeyes finally stopped playing defense well enough to make up for an offense that lacks consistent scoring, the Badgers stopped shooting well enough to cover for a defense that is vulnerable to guard penetration. Wisconsin lacks athleticism on the perimeter as well as an intimidating shot blocker. That has led to opponents driving to the hoop and scoring at will in recent games. It would be cool if UW could swap Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky for OSU's Aaron Craft and Amir Williams -- such a trade would help both teams -- but I'm pretty sure that's against NCAA rules.
Jeremy Michael Haynes - I don't think trades were approved in the last revision of the rules, but it's an interesting thought. Remember though, these guys are students first! Anyway, I think Wisconsin's slump has everything to do with one thing: defense. The Badgers need to find a way to play some. They haven't kept anyone out of the lane throughout their skid, opponents now understand how to attack them, and their defensive woes have only gotten worse. In their first loss against Indiana, the Badgers allowed the Hoosiers to shoot 51.6% from the floor. Michigan converted 54.7% of their attempts in the Kohl Center for the Badgers' second loss. And in their most recent loss the Badgers allowed Minnesota to shoot a scorching 58.9% from the field. Wisconsin has not been able to keep anyone out of the lane, at all, and they're trending in the wrong direction defensively. Until they figure out how to cut off the drive, teams are going to work the Badgers off the bounce and score with ease around the basket.
Drew Hamm - What can I say about Wisconsin's interior defense that hasn't already been said about Afghanistan? It's bombed out and depleted. I don't think trading for 1995 Dikembe Mutombo would be enough for this Badgers team. We're allowing trades now, right? An underrated problem the Badgers have is Sam Dekker's three-point shooting (3-of-12 in the three losses) and inability to get to the free throw line (eight attempts in the three games, all against Minnesota). Not that his FT% is super good. Now I'm all worked up, I need to go for a walk. HATE! HATE! HATE! HATE!
Thomas Beindit - There are two things that have led to this losing streak for the Badgers. First, let's recognize that all 3 opponents are at least decent teams and two of them (Michigan, Minnesota) are actually pretty good. Add in that only 1 of these 3 games was at home and that's a pretty tough stretch. Anybody who says a game any of these games were "gimmes" are just fooling themselves. Every game was tough and had unique challenges. Having said that, the Badgers have not been nearly impressive as they look earlier this season and the biggest part is a weak defensive showing. Some of it has been great shooting (Michigan tore them up from long range), but letting guys walk into the lane and get good looks at the basket just isn't something that you usually see from a Bo Ryan team. Until they can start closing out on guys and fighting off screens well enough, they are going to be a middle Big Ten team.
Jason Dorow - Wisconsin's three-game losing streak came as a result of a very tough stretch in their schedule. Going to Assembly Hall is never easy, especially when Yogi Ferrell gets hot. Michigan has proven they are among the B1G elite, and they shot the lights out against the Badgers, going 7-13 from three and 29-53 from the field. Of course, opponents are shooting so well because the Badgers' defense has been so poor recently, often allowing men right into the lane and leaving perimeter shooters open. Minnesota shot even better than Michigan in their victory against UW, shooting 58.9% on the day. Bo Ryan's team has to step up defensively, especially in the paint, to get out of this slump.
Clayton Tinkle - One part tough schedule, one part "Put me in coach!" Wisconsin started Big Ten play on fire, rattling off a win in Evanston and then protecting the Kohl Center with a close game against Iowa against a bludgeoning of the Fighting Illini. It's not like they've fallen apart against terrible teams, the Michigan and Minnesota losses both come against teams that are top four in the conference. Also, let's not kid ourselves, there's never a guaranteed victory in Assembly Hall. During this stretch, I've never seen worse on ball defense from a Bo Ryan coached team. I might be able to get a few stops, but the refs would have to let me be pretty physical. Look for Wisconsin to rebound, no pun intended, against Purdue and Northwestern this week, who don't have the caliber of guards that Michigan or Minnesota do.