The first few weeks of the college basketball season are always a whirlwind for coaches, teams, and fans. After months of speculation, the teams finally take the floor and we get to see what happens. It’s an exciting time that can turn preseason predictions on their head, even after just a few games.
Given this excitement, the BTPowerhouse got around for a roundtable discussion on Wednesday afternonon to reaction to the first few weeks of conference play. Writers gave some of their biggest surprises and thoughts on the top contenders for the Big Ten and Player of the Year crowns.
Here’s the discussion.
1. By now, every team in the Big Ten has played in a few games and most have played at least one quality opponent. So what’s been the thing you were the most mistaken about in this year’s Big Ten?
-Thomas Beindit: I’m going with Michigan here. I thought the Wolverines were good enough to have a winning season and make the NCAA Tournament, but I didn’t anticipate the team would get off to this fast of a start. While there are probably a lot of people who want to “wait and see” with Michigan, this team has played like a top 10 unit and has arguably been the best team in the Big Ten so far this season. A lot can change, but Michigan has really impressed to date.
-Andrew Holmes: I didn’t see Michigan performing this well early, but I definitely didn’t see Penn State looking so poor. I had them in the top half of the Big Ten (seventh) and while I thought they might drop an early game, I didn’t see them getting run out of the gym by Cincinnati and look iffy in all three of their home games. Worse than all of that though, I thought Rutgers would lose most of their non-conference games and take at least a season to show significant change under Steve Pikiell. Wrong, they already look like a completely different team, they might actually finish ahead of someone in conference if they keep this up.
-Jerome Scherwin Jr.: This is a toss up. Penn State was, of course, my offseason darling. I got sucked into the Philadelphia “phlavor” that Pat Chambers recruited into State College. I was hyped up and ready for the resurgence of Penn State basketball. And then they lost on opening night to Albany. The Duke and Cincinnati losses are little more excusable; after all, playing those two teams at a neutral site isn’t easy for even a senior-laden team. But the exciting brand of basketball I was anticipating just hasn’t been on display yet.
The other team has to be the Fighting Illini. John Groce shouldn’t be losing games to Winthrop, especially when they’re up double digits with a few minutes left on the game clock. The Illini desperately needed to get off on the right foot to start THIS season if they wanted to return to the NCAA Tournament and save Groce’s job. But losing a game that was already penciled in as a “win” five minutes before the final buzzer is inexcusable. Entering their non-conference gauntlet (West Virginia/Florida State or Temple/North Carolina State/VCU) with a big blemish on the books already is less than ideal.
-Ryan Blevins: Going team specific with this one, but definitely Michigan’s size and defensive ability. Everything has been fairly status quo through the first few games with the exception of a few upsets. Look past Indiana’s loss to Fort Wayne and you can’t really say you’ve seen anything glaring so far. While that will likely change, one thing that looks promising is Michigan’s defense and the emergence of D.J. Wilson. Head coach John Beilein put Wilson into the starting lineup during the final game of the 2K Classic and it payed off. The Wolverines dominated the tournament due in large part to Wilson’s ability to protect the rim and provide size running the floor.
-Paul Ferguson: The Depth of talent. I know it is early, but 12 of 14 teams have a winning record this season. Northwestern, who is looking for its first NCAA tournament appearance, had a statement win against Texas, and then came up a little short against Notre Dame. The depth of talent in the Big Ten will surprise people this year, and it certainly has surprised me so far. Conference play will certainly be competitive, with a number of teams looking to secure NCAA Tournament berths.
-Sean Nash: I think the overall strength of the conference in the early season. Penn State has been the worst team so far and like everyone else I thought this would be a season where the Nittany Lions would really lay a foundation for building some success into this program. Certainly, it is way too early to bury Penn State already, as two ranked losses and a loss to Albany doesn’t kill the season, but this is a team i thought would be right on the edge of being in the top half of the conference and now I am not so sure. This team has got to find bench productivity over the next month. Having four guys averaging in double figures typically points to a successful team, but there is a huge dropoff when looking at Penn State’s bench right now.
-Brian Sonnenberg: I didn’t see Minnesota coming, at least this early. The Gophers are 5-0; they’re winning impressively. Minnesota hasn’t played a ranked opponent, but St. John’s and Arkansas are recent quality wins. Next week, we’ll learn more when they play at ranked Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Incredibly, Richard Pitino has integrated many new, and young, pieces, and they haven’t stumbled yet. Amir Coffey is a revelation (definitely the real deal), and Eric Curry too. Mix in Reggie Lynch, Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Akeem Springs and Dupree McBrayer, the Gophers are very intriguing, and because of the talent, dangerous. Minnesota’s been good in the non-conference before, so it’ll just depend on how they play when the competition gets better. But, the early returns have been quietly very good.
-Gianna Marshall: Penn State. I thought because they’re recruiting heavily out of Roman Catholic High school, even though there are no seniors on the roster, they’d be good in the Big Ten. Freshman Tony Carr has showed spurts of being an All-Big Ten guard and Garner has been great so far. However, I think this team needs one more year before they really make a statement. When Garner is a senior and the freshman have a year of Big Ten play under their belt, they’ll be better.
-Bryan Steedman: Honestly, it’s gone about as I imagined. I didn’t think Indiana would beat Kansas (or lose to Fort Wayne) and I thought Michigan State would have looked a bit better, but it’s early in the season. Sure, teams like Michigan, Rutgers and Minnesota have all looked really good, but two of those teams have done it against suspect competition and I’ll hold off on how good Michigan be until conference play comes around. Honestly if they wouldn’t have blown the Notre Dame game, I think Northwestern’s start to the season has been the most surprising.
2. Conversely, everybody likes to pat themselves on the back when they do get something right. So, here’s your chance. What were you right about that others got wrong?
-Beindit: Two things for me. First, I routinely ranted about how much better I thought Minnesota would be all offseason. Did I think the Gophers would be this good? No, probably not, but I would like to take credit for at least seeing the improvement coming. On the other side, I never bought into the Penn State hype coming into this season and I think that’s been widely validated. Penn State may be heading into the right direction, but the program is still a year away.
-Holmes: Haha, well until last night I was feeling pretty good about Indiana and Purdue being better than Wisconsin. Although, after last night I feel better about saying Robert Johnson might deserve more playing time than James Blackmon. I feel that it has become obvious that while Wisconsin is good, they are not going to walk away with the Big Ten title like some preseason predictions seemed to think. I think they definitely look more like they are even with IU and Purdue and not a step above.
-Scherwin Jr.: I was so, so, so, so right about Tyler Cook. Before even watching him play in an actual collegiate basketball game, I proclaimed that Cook was going to be the most athletic Iowa basketball player we’ve ever seen. And honestly, I think I sold him way short. Tyler (yes, we’re on a first name basis, even if he hasn’t agreed upon it) isn’t just the most athletic basketball player we’ve ever seen in Iowa City, he’s also living proof that there is life on Mars. Iowa might be an NIT team. Iowa might make the tournament. It’s still in the air. But none of that even matters, because the Hawkeyes have a legitimate Monstar on their squad.
-Blevins: Rutgers basketball baby! Like most people outside of New Jersey I had not followed the Scarlet Knights closely until I started writing for BTPowerhouse. I knew I was deep into covering Big Ten basketball when I saw a tweet announcing the Rutgers starting lineup and I knew every player. I cannot say I called it way back that they would get into the tournament. They likely won’t. But I’ve been saying not to sleep on Steve Pikiell for a while. They are staring a very realistic 6-0 start in the face and I think they are going to upset a good team when Big Ten play starts and throw a wrinkle into things early.
-Nash: Robert Johnson becoming a vital piece for IU this season and inheriting a large part of the Hoosiers’ point guard responsibilities. I knew there would be growing pains with this part of the team though trying to follow up Yogi Ferrell. Both Johnson and Josh Newkirk lead the Hoosiers with 3 assists per game, but both also are averaging nearly 2.5 turnovers per as well. Tuesday night’s loss isn’t the end of the world, it just points to what we knew; Indiana is a extremely talented team that has to find an identity with a lot of new pieces.
-Brian Sonnenberg: Can I also say I sort of saw Minnesota coming? No, I’ll go with something else.
-Marshall: I think everyone knows what I’m going to write here. Bryant McIntosh and Northwestern. I had plenty of preseason conversations involving the question of whether or not McIntosh is the real deal. Sure he still has a lot of room to grow, but Monday night against a ranked team when Vic Law was on the bench in foul trouble, he scored 20 points and had 5 assists. Tuesday his performance was not nearly as good against Notre Dame. However, if he can become a little more consistent and play more games like he did the Texas game in conference play, there’s no reason he can’t be first or second team All Big Ten this year. Northwestern as a whole has showed they can hang with NCAA Tournament teams and should be able to make the NIT this year. Vic Law and Isiah Brown have been fantastic. When Aaron Falzon is healthy again, the extra wing scoring threat and defense will help them tremendously.
Also Amir Coffey. His sister, Nia, is a senior forward at Northwestern. She has a double-double virtually every game. I knew this was a huge get for Pitino. Basketball runs in the Coffey family and it’s amazing to see the success he’s having early.
-Steedman: Never trust Penn State.
3. It’s obviously still early to tell, but the Big Ten field does appear to be taking shape. Who do you think are the title contenders this year?
-Beindit: I see the Big Ten as a four-team race right now. Things can certainly change in the time (four weeks, actually) before conference play begins, but as of now, I think Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, and Wisconsin are your title contenders. While I think Maryland and Michigan State will be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, there are simply too many issues for each of those two squads to put them higher at the moment. However, I should note that Maryland’s conference schedule will likely keep them close, even if the team doesn’t quite match up.
-Holmes: Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland (partially because of a soft conference schedule), and then it is either going to be Michigan or Michigan State. I think one of those last two are going to slip and fall onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. Michigan is playing above where they were expected and MSU is playing below. One of those is an early season fluke and one is not, but we will just have to wait and see which one.
-Scherwin Jr.: Indiana will be fine. Purdue has the look and feel of the collegiate version of the 90’s Knicks. Wisconsin is coached by Greg “Horseshoe and rabbit’s foot” Gard. Michigan State got their faces beat in early, but will be better for it once the conference schedule begins (because of course the will). And Maryland is, well, I don’t really know yet.
But if I’m placing a bet on the Big Ten Roulette wheel right now, I’m throwing my chips on Michigan. The Wolverines continue to impress me the more I watch them; mainly because it looks like they bought into a novel concept called “defense”. We already knew that John Beilein’s team was going to be able to matchup with the Indiana’s of the college basketball world because of the scorers they can put on the floor. But nobody (not even our fearless leader, Thomas Beindit) believed that they would be one of the nastiest defensive teams in the early going. Hail!
-Blevins: I think the clear options are Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan St and Purdue with the Hoosiers as the favourite. I’ve said all along the Hoosiers are a true point guard (Like Yogi Farrell) away from winning the National Championship. The Spartans have a young team which is gaining experience early because Tom Izzo hides from nobody. These freshman will have played better teams in their first 2 weeks then some players see in five-years time. They are my sleeper team.
-Ferguson: Indiana, even with the loss to Fort Wayne last night, has to be the favorite. They simply have too much talent to not be competitive in the Big Ten. Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan should also be in contention for a title as conference play winds down. Michigan St. certainly has the talent to be in the mix at the end of the season, but they will need to limit the “Freshmen mistakes” if they are going to win the Big Ten.
-Connor Sindberg: Early on the contenders are Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Purdue. Indiana and Purdue have gotten off to rocky starts, but both teams are loaded with talent. Indiana is elite offensively, and when future first round pick OG Anunoby gets it going, we will see the Hoosiers tap into their full potential. Wisconsin also hasn’t reached their full potential. Nigel Hayes has struggled to get it going. The Badgers have been careless with the ball, turning it over too much. Once Hayes gets it going and Wisconsin tightens up the offense, they might be the team to beat.
-Nash: I certainly don’t think there is a runaway favorite this season, I think half the teams have a realistic shot at the title. Indiana is still my favorite, but Purdue and Wisconsin will be right on its’ heels. Michigan, Michigan State, and Maryland could be right there as well. If the Hoosiers do repeat, it won’t be because they were given the soft schedule. Their trip to Mackey on Feb. 28 could become the defacto Big Ten championship game.
-Marshall: I’m going to go with Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin. I think Maryland and Michigan State are squarely on the bubble. Once conference play starts, we’ll have a better idea about who they are. But, so far, each of them have made a case.
-Steedman: Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and probably Wisconsin. The Badgers have the talent and will likely be there, but a lot of people came into the season assuming Hayes was going to revert to how good he was before last year and we’ll have to see if that actually happens. I still think Maryland could end up here as well. Sure, they haven’t been that impressive in the non-conference slate, but that isn’t exactly a new development for them.
But yeah, Indiana will recover from their loss at Fort Wayne and Purdue should be capable of sticking around in the race as long as they play to their strengths. The Spartans haven’t really gotten up and running yet, but they’re young and going to deal with growing pains, especially since they’ve played Arizona and Kentucky. Miles Bridges looks to be the real deal and once that team comes together, especially in February / March with Tom Izzo as their coach, I think they’ll be in the thick of things.
4. No conference has been better than the Big Ten in recent years in sending teams to the postseason. Does that continue this year and how many teams make it?
-Beindit: Obviously, it’s still early. We still have so many non-conference games left that it’s difficult to project this too well at the moment. However, given what I’ve seen so far, I think six teams are going to be safe bets to make the field and another two to three will be in the hunt. I think Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, and Wisconsin will all lock up bids pretty early and that Maryland and Michigan State will make it in without too much sweating on Selection Sunday. That leaves Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio State competing on the bubble. My gut says just one of those teams will make it, but I could see decent arguments for any of those three making or missing the field.
-Holmes: The Big Ten is likely looking at seven teams in the tournament, and that is going to be less than at least one other league. This feels like one of those seasons where there will be a shocking omission in the tournament. I’m not sure which Big Ten team it will be, but someone is getting left out despite a seemingly-strong resume.
-Scherwin Jr.: I’m going to bounce off of my man AR Holmes here. Not only do I agree with him on the actual number of teams that will make the tournament, but I know who that “seemingly-strong resume” team is going to be.
It’s Iowa. It’s 100% going to be Iowa because I’m not allowed to ever have nice things two years in a row.
-Blevins: I think this year's Big Ten is very veteran. Just about every team returned a lot and many teams have core players with NCAA Tournament experience. I could see as many as eight teams getting in but that would be the most. Six seems more realistic but I have no doubt a team like Iowa or Ohio State can put together an impressive enough resume to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
-Ferguson: I believe the Big Ten will send 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament when March rolls around. The depth of talent in the Big Ten always plays a big part in the Selection Committee's willingness to send a large number of teams to the tournament.
-Nash: Based on what we have seen in the first couple of weeks, I think it is certainly trending that way. The top of the league may not be as strong as we maybe initially thought, but the bottom appears to be so much more competitive than recent years. I’d like to think the Big Ten won’t have a team struggling just to get one or two wins in conference. I expect a lot of parity in the league this season, and so we may not see two or three teams in 1-4 seeds, but instead see Big Ten teams packed in that dangerous 6-10 seed range. I think this is a year where the Big Ten can take advantage of the Selection Committee having to fill 37 non-automatic qualifiers.
-Marshall: I agree with what everyone has said so far. Sean is right, the middle of the Big Ten is looking scary competitive. I think 6 or 7 this year. Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, Maryland and two more from the middle of the conference, however that shakes out. Next year will be The Year and we’ll send 8.
-Steedman: Um, as of right now i feel like six teams should be tournament bound at the end of the season (Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin). Past that, though, it’s hard to say. I think teams like Iowa and Ohio State should be capable of making tournament runs, but if they falter down the stretch it wouldn’t be a huge surprise. Illinois has the talent that they should be making a push for a NCAA appearance, but the way the team routinely implodes, I think they’re more in line for a NIT push. Groce has to be happy that his 2017 recruiting class should likely buy him some extra job security this spring.
5. Who are your early Big Ten Player of the Year contenders?
-Beindit: The players that have impressed me the most so face have been Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig, Peter Jok, Caleb Swanigan and Melo Trimble. Those probably won’t come as surprises considering how all five players last season, but I think those are your frontrunners at the moment. Two other wildcards to keep an eye on will be Amir Coffey and DJ Wilson. Neither looks like a major contender right now, but have shown enough to have an outside shot. At the moment, I think it comes down to Jok and Trimble at the end of the season.
-Holmes: I feel like Caleb Swanigan has looked even better than expected this season, putting him from first team contender to POTY contender. He could very well average a double-double this year. Hayes will get a lot of talk, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggled some during the Big Ten season. Thomas Bryant is going to be in the conversation all year, and deservedly so. Finally, I think Peter Jok gets a look as the number one guy on a bubble team.
-Scherwin Jr.: I’m slowly thinking about jumping off of the Nigel Hayes bandwagon. I just feel like he is what he is at this point (although, I hope I’m wrong). If Thomas Bryant stops dribbling around the perimeter and gets back inside so he can dominate the post, he’ll spark conversations. And then there is Peter Jok. I promise I’m not being a homer here. Jok has added moves to his offensive game. He’s so much more than a catch-and-shoot threat now. He’s the ultimate scorer who can now create for himself just as often as he can off a screen. If he can somehow shoot Iowa into the NCAA Tournament, I’m not sure anyone else in the Big Ten will have meant more to their team’s success than Iowa’s ultimate scorer.
-Blevins: Obviously Nigel Hayes was one of the favourites coming into the season. Assuming we started the season with a fresh slate and everyone started at zero I don’t think he would win it today. It’s hard not to include Melo Trimble and Miles Bridges names when talking Big Ten player of the year. Personally, when it’s all said and done, I think Thomas Bryant will be a household name in college basketball and will be in contention for the award.
-Ferguson: Nigel Hayes has to be the favorite, but Melo Trimble and Miles Bridges both have the talent to earn Player of the Year honors. Eron Harris and Thomas Bryant could also be in the mix when the time comes. There are a few other players who have a chance at this award, but ultimately, I believe Hayes will be the Player of the Year.
-Sindberg: Although Nigel Hayes has struggled early on, I still think this is his award to win. Hayes teammate Bronson Koenig very well could snatch away the award with the way he’s been playing. Other contenders include Trimble, James Blackmon jr and Caleb Swanigan, who are all putting up fantastic numbers early on. Speaking of fantastic numbers, Peter Jok is averaging 24 points per game. He needs to be in this discussion. But can he guide the Hawkeyes to enough wins to be legitimately considered?
-Nash: I really like James Blackmon Jr. in this spot right now. The biggest thing holding back Indiana from being a favorite for the National Championship is point guard play. But if Blackmon continues to average over 20 points a game and shoot at the near 53-percent clip that he is right now, then having a true point guard may not matter for the Hoosiers. Each of the six more realistic Big Ten contenders offers at least one Player of the Year caliber talent. I think we’re going to be spoiled with conference play this season.
-Marshall: I think Hayes is the favorite but Bronson Koenig could quietly take it away from him with his dominance on the floor. James Blackmon Jr., Caleb Swanigan, Peter Jok, and Thomas Bryant are in the conversation.
-Steedman: Miles Bridges is definitely going to be in the running. Then you’ll have the usual suspects (Hayes, Swanigan, Jok, Bryant, Trimble). I think if the player of the year went to the best player from a production standpoint you’d have to include Malcolm Hill, but considering Illinois will probably struggle to win in the conference, I have a feeling he’s going to be overlooked once again.