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2017-’18 Michigan State Spartans Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Michigan State Spartans and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kansas vs Michigan State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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Sometimes in life, you just get lucky.

We often hear about how hard work, dedication, and preparation are the important things in life. If you prepare adequately, you’ll be ready to cash on a big moment when it arrives. Deep down, I think we all like to believe that events have meaning.

And to a large extent, I agree with those ceonpts. Effort and hard work are going to lead to opportunities and preparation will allow you to have success when those opportunities arrive. Learn how to change a tire and you will be prepared for car trouble. Put in effort at work and you will be in line for that promotion. The same applies in sports as well. Prepare in the offseason and the success will come.

But sometimes, you just get lucky.

For Michigan State, the program got lucky this offseason. Yes, hard work and effort on the recruiting trail played some role in Tom Izzo’s good fortunate, but this was, by and large, a lucky bounce. Spartan fans simply pulled out the winning lottery ticket.

That luck, of course, was the shocking decision of Miles Bridges to return for his sophomore season with the Spartans. Let’s be honest, Bridges could (and probably should) have went pro last summer. He was impressive as a true freshman and was projected as a Lottery pick. Conventional wisdom screamed for him to take his talents to the next level and the odds say he will lose money as a result of his decision.

Either way, though, Spartan fans don’t care.

Because Bridges is back and expectations just shot through the roof.

With the return of Bridges and most of his fellow teammates, Michigan State now projects as the Big Ten’s favorite and a clear contender for the Final Four and a national championship. The Spartans will certainly have to work to achieve those goals, but everything is now in play. Bridges is the kind of player that can take a program to the absolute heights of college basketball. He could very well end up being the National Player of the Year.

This also puts Michigan State in the desirable, but often unusual position of having to try and live up to the team’s astronomical expectations. There is no “waiting for next year” this time around. Izzo and his staff don’t get to complain about youth. The team’s sole goal needs to be to win and win big. Every game won’t be perfect, but this is a team that has the capability of raising multiple banners when all’s said and done. Anything else would be underachieving.

Let’s see if the team can get it done.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 20-15 (10-8)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #40
  • RPI Rating: #50
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R32)

It’s been quite some time since Michigan State found itself legitimately on the bubble heading into Selection Sunday. But that’s exactly where the Spartans ended up last March after an underwhelming non-conference performance carried over into mixed results during Big Ten play. The team entered Selection Sunday with 19 wins and an 11-10 record against Big Ten opponents. Far from where Michigan State usually expects to be at that point in the season.

Undoubtedly, the biggest factor that held back last year’s Michigan State squad was the team’s youth. The Spartans ranked 323rd in KenPom’s experience rating and routinely saw three freshmen in the starting lineup. Fans knew that such a young team would be inconsistent and have some growing pains. There just ended up being a few more paints than many experts had anticipated before the season began.

Those growing pains started off early in the season. Michigan State dropped its first two games against Arizona and Kentucky and then (arguably) stole a win from Florida Gulf Coast at home less than a week later. Michigan State scored nice wins against St. John’s and Wichita State, but dropped games against Baylor and Duke in the final week of November. After the loss to Duke, the team sat at an underwhelming 4-4 overall.

And while the Spartans did improve, slip ups were common. A home loss to Northeastern on December 18th and a loss to Penn State in early January particularly stand out. If this Spartan team had been climbing a mountain, it would climb up a few steps and then tumble down a bit later. Not exactly the sign of an elite team. Nonetheless, by January 11th, Michigan State had pushed its record to 12-6 overall and 4-1 in Big Ten play.

Unfortunately, Michigan State followed that trend with another backslide. The Spartans lost the team’s next three games and four of the team’s next six matchups. The struggles also included a loss to a bad Ohio State team and double-digit losses to arch-rival Michigan and Purdue soon thereafter. And even though Michigan State trended back up in February, frustrating losses to Illinois and Maryland to finished off the regular season were big hits to the team’s postseason hopes.

Michigan State did, admittedly, have some bright spots. The win over Wichita State in non-conference play was a notable one and the team also ended up beating Michigan, Minnesota (twice), and Wisconsin in league play. The Spartans also blew out Penn State to open up the Big Ten Tournament and Miami (FL) to open up the NCAA Tournament. But every one of those moments was followed by a rough loss soon thereafter. It was a season filled with ups and downs.

All told, Michigan State presented as an above-average team that finished about where it deserved. The Spartans weren’t a great team, but they weren’t terrible either. Michigan State’s defining characteristic was inconsistency and it doomed the program’s Big Ten and postseason hopes. Fans will be hoping that the growing pains of last year can lead toward big things this year.

Individual statistical leaders were Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, and Cassius Winston. Bridges led the team in minutes and rebounds. Ward led the team in points, blocks, usage, and win shares. Winston led the team in assists and steals.

2. Offseason Exits

With one of the youngest rosters in college basketball last season, Michigan State will avoid getting hit too hard by offseason departures this year. The Spartans relied extensively on underclassmen last season and with no early NBA entrants, Michigan State will return virtually every key contributor this fall.

The two players who are departing are Alvin Ellis and Eron Harris. While both did see meaningful playing time over the course of last season, neither was anything close to a star. And that’s great news in a sport where rosters transition at such a breakneck pace. If you don’t believe that statement, go look at the All-Big Ten teams from the 2015-’16 season. Every player on the first, second, and third teams is now gone.

While the two departures are relatively similar, Harris is the more significant of the two. He started 46 games over the last two seasons and averaged 22.9 minutes per game before he was injured last year. Over the course of last season, Harris averaged 10.7 points and 3.0 rebounds per game as well. Harris hit 41.4 percent of his three-point attempts as a Spartan, which is where he will likely be missed most.

Ellis didn’t play as much as Harris, but he did emerge last season and ended up averaging 19.4 minutes, 6.4 points, and 3.1 rebounds per game by season’s end. His playing time was largely dedicated to the two and three spots, where he provided backup minutes behind Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid. However, he was not an efficient player in his time on the floor, finishing with just a 97.8 offensive rating.

Put simply, neither Ellis or Harris is a massive departure. They certainly contributed, but are far from irreplaceable. This is even more true considering that Michigan State is set to return Langford and McQuaid (both underclassmen last year). It’s not exactly difficult to figure out who will be filling in at the two and three spots.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that much of Ellis’ time on the floor only came as the result of Harris getting hurt midway through league play. If Harris had remained healthy, these two departures would look even less significant. Instead of two players around 20 minutes a game, this is more like one at 20 and another at 10 to 15 a night. That’s an important distinction because it’s far easier to find 10 minutes from an unknown than 20.

Either way, Michigan State projects to lose very little from last year’s squad. Virtually all of the key players return and the only departures figure to be replaced relatively easily be the team’s returners.

3. New Additions

This season, the Spartans are adding two new recruits, a transfer, and a walk-on to the program. The two recruits are Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman. Both are listed as power forwards. Jackson is rated as a five-star and Tillman as a four-star prospect by 247Sports. The transfer is Ben Carter out of UNLV and the walk-on is Braden Burke.

The recruit receiving the most attention is certainly Jackson. He arrives on campus as a top 10 prospect nationally and projects to have an immediate impact as a freshman. And this is an important time to note the difference between “really good” recruits and “elite” recruits. The first group are generally pretty good as freshmen and the latter group are almost always good. Jackson certainly falls into the latter category.

Honestly, it’s difficult to pinpoint one particular area of Jackson’s game where he’s the strongest. He’s athletic, can do work on the defensive side of the floor, and can rebound. After all, there’s a reason why he was a McDonald’s All-American. His length and wingspan are also remarkable and give him a tremendously high ceiling. Jackson’s only weaknesses are size, strength, and outside shooting. All told, he’s likely the Big Ten’s best incoming prospect this season.

Tillman isn’t rated anywhere near Jackson, but he’s a nice prospect in his own right. He comes in at 111th nationally per 247Sports and as one of the best players in Michigan. Tillman will draw a lot of comparisons to Michigan State forwards of the past, as he does his dirty work inside the paint. If he can develop his shooting and perimeter game, he could be a really tough player to defend at the college level.

Along with the recruiting additions, Michigan State will also be adding UNLV transfer Ben Carter to the program. He was actually around last season, but went out with injury and got granted a sixth year. Prior to his transfer, Carter spent two years at UNLV and two years at Oregon. Although he didn’t play major minutes at either program, he did average roughly 24 minutes per game during the 2015-’16 season before going out with injury. While on the court, he averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.

While Carter is not a proven star, there’s little debating that his return is a notable one for the Spartans. If he can come anywhere near his numbers at UNLV, he could very well end up being one of the more productive frontcourt players in next year’s Big Ten. Obviously, that’s huge news for Michigan State, especially considering that Carter will likely play off the bench behind Nick Ward. That’s two great options upfront. Michigan State will also be adding a walk-on in Braden Burke. However, he will have to sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.

All told, Michigan State is adding a small, but talented group of newcomers. Jackson should compete for a starting role instantly and the other two should provide valuable frontcourt depth for the Spartans.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to like about this year’s group of Spartans. The team is returning four starters, quality depth options, and is adding a talented group of newcomers. There are multiple options at every position on the floor and multiple players with All-American potential for this season and beyond. Simply put, there’s a reason why Michigan State is a trendy Final Four choice right now.

However, the thing that’s the most encouraging about this year’s team is the sheer talent on the roster. Tom Izzo has done a tremendous job recruiting over the last few years and it’s showing up significantly this season. Talent doesn’t guarantee wins, but it should (at least) put Michigan State in the discussion with the nation’s best teams.

For perspective, just take a look at the team’s potential starting lineup this season. Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford project to start in the backcourt, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson project to start on the wing, and Nick Ward projects to start upfront. Not only were Bridges, Jackson, and Langford all five-star recruits, but Ward and Winston were both top 50 prospects as well. A lot of teams don’t even have one top 50 prospect., let alone an entire starting lineup filled with top-tier prospects.

And that starting lineup doesn’t even account for top 100 prospects in McQuaid and Tum Tum Nairn and Tillman, who ended up just outside the top 100 of this year’s class. Plus, Michigan State also has experienced options like Carter, Kenny Goins, and Gavin Schilling that should provide depth behind the starting lineup.

The point here is pretty simple. Michigan State has the talent to compete with anyone this season. In fact, Verbal Commits lists Michigan State as having the fifth-most talented team in the nation and the Spartans are just barely behind Arizona, Duke, and Kansas. There’s no denying that’s a great spot to be entering this season.

Along with the sheer talent on the roster, Michigan State also returns a bonafide superstar in Bridges. He was outstanding last season and there’s no reason to think he won’t be even better this time around. Most experts believe Bridges will be in the hunt for National Player of the Year and rightfully so. If he can become a little more consistent and improve his free throw shooting, the sky's the limit.

Having a player like Bridges will not only keep the Spartans in contention in every game, but it also cover up for a lot of roster issues. When things break down, having a player of that caliber is a massive boost. He can get that extra bucket or two that so often ends up deciding a game. Few teams have a star of that caliber and Michigan State gets to plug him into a roster that already boasts supreme talent.

Additionally, Michigan State also has another potential star in Ward. He actually led the Spartans in scoring and win shares last season and will likely only be the second-best player on the team this year. Having a second option like that is a huge advantage. It means Izzo can keep a top scoring option on the floor at all times and put out a frontcourt that few teams can matchup against.

5. Points of Concern

Let me begin this section by making a few general comments. A lot of this is going to come off as overly critical and/or nitpicking. Generally speaking, those criticisms are legitimate. Michigan State projects as a top five team and, as such, figures to have few real flaws. Thus, the standard has been raised here. The Spartans are going to be evaluated a lot more harshly than other teams for the next few paragraphs.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s start with the obvious. Michigan State was not a great team last season. The Spartans finished 20-15 overall and went 5-8 against top 100 teams in the two months before the NCAA Tournament. And, but for a stolen win against Florida Gulf Coast and a narrow overtime win over Minnesota in mid-January, Michigan State very likely could have missed the Tournament altogether.

Admittedly, it’s a bit unfair to evaluate teams by what could have happened instead of by what did happen, but the point remains for last year’s Spartans. Michigan State just wasn’t all that good. After all, how often does a Tom Izzo team end the season by going 2-4 in the team’s final six games?

And while some of the team’s struggles were due to youth, there were way larger issues than just that. The team was a turnover machine, struggled at the free throw line, and had a lot of trouble defending outside the paint. The Spartans also struggled to find players that could lock down starting roles. The team ranked first nationally in bench minutes and it wasn’t because the bench options were great. Those minutes came as the result of underwhelming starter play.

Now, Michigan State returns the vast majority from that roster that went 20-15 and struggled with consistency. Even if the team will be far more experienced than last season, it’s no guarantee that the same players will be better. And even if the team is better, Michigan State needs to improve significantly if it’s going to meet expectations. Simply expecting players to take substantial steps forward solely because they’re a year older can be a risky practice.

The team also has some major questions in its backcourt. While Langford, McQuaid, and Winston all return, Michigan State needs to find a way to improve its guard play. The team struggled with turnovers last season and relied on a rotating cast of characters to get the job done. If Michigan State is going to take a step forward, the backcourt needs to improve its play. Most eyes will be on Winston as the x-factor for this year’s team.

One other concern about this year’s Michigan State team is the relative imbalance of talent across the roster. While the Spartans are loaded with options upfront, the backcourt is filled with just as many questions. Every spot has at least one talented option, but it’s something that could bite Michigan State as the season unfolds.

6. Top Player

When last season ended, this section figured to be one of the more intriguing parts of this year’s preview. The battle looked like it would be fierce between players like Langford, Ward, and Winston. Michigan State had talented options with a range of possibilities for this season. Some might take off, while others might struggle.

However, with the return of Bridges, this debate ended. He’s going to be the team’s best player heading into this season. There’s really no question about it. That’s what happens when a player is a projected Lottery pick and decides to return to college for another season. He put up huge numbers last year and should be able to replicate those this year. The only question is “how good” will Bridges be this time around.

The most likely challenger to Bridges for the team’s best player will be Ward. The rising sophomore was productive last season and will look to fine tune his game this season. He needs to work on avoiding fouls and his defensive play, in particular. Don’t be surprised if Ward is one of the more underrated players in the league this season.

Two other players to watch will be Winston and true freshman Jaren Jackson. Both have a lot of talent and will look to make a splash this season. Winston was an excellent passer as a freshman and Jackson has the talent to be a first round pick in the NBA Draft. It’s unlikely either of these guys can push Bridges, but they should be able to make a major mark this season if all goes right.

Bridges will be the easy (and obvious) pick as Michigan State’s best player this season. However, Ward should be a really nice player as well and players like Jackson and Winston could make some noise as well.

7. 2017-’18 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/26 - Ferris State (Ex.)
  • 10/29 - vs Georgia (Ex.) (Grand Rapids, MI)
  • 11/3 - Hillsdale (Ex.)
  • 11/10 - North Florida
  • 11/14 - vs Duke (Chicago, IL)
  • 11/19 - Stony Brook
  • 11/23 - vs DePaul (Portland, OR)
  • 11/24 - vs Oregon/UConn (Portland, OR)
  • 11/26 - vs TBA (Portland, OR)
  • 11/30- Notre Dame
  • 12/3 - Nebraska
  • 12/5 - at Rutgers
  • 12/9 - Southern Utah
  • 12/16 - vs Oakland (Detroit, MI)
  • 12/18 - Houston Baptist
  • 12/21 - Long Beach State
  • 12/29 - Cleveland State
  • 12/31 - Savannah State
  • 1/4 - Maryland
  • 1/7 - at Ohio State
  • 1/10 - Rutgers
  • 1/13 - Michigan
  • 1/19 - Indiana
  • 1/22 - at Illinois
  • 1/26 - Wisconsin
  • 1/28 - at Maryland
  • 1/31 - Penn State
  • 2/3 - at Indiana
  • 2/6 - at Iowa
  • 2/10 - Purdue
  • 2/13 - at Minnesota
  • 2/17 - at Northwestern
  • 2/20 - Illinois
  • 2/25 - at Wisconsin

Per usual, Michigan State is set to challenge itself in non-conference play this season. The Spartans have a handful of marquee games and more with potential RPI implications at season’s end. And that’s great news for a Michigan State team that has a chance to be a one seed.

The games that will draw the most attention are the matchups against Duke and Notre Dame and the trip to Portland for the Phil Knight Invitational. Both Duke and Notre Dame will be the top 20 discussion for most of the season and Michigan State could also played a loaded Oregon team in Portland. That’s a chance to add (at least) three huge wins to the resume by December.

However, there are also a few sleeper non-con games that should excite Spartan fans heading into this season. To start, Oakland and DePaul both look like top 100 teams. Many will sleep on those games, but they could be useful for their RPI implications. Games against Cleveland State and Stony Brook could also end up being more significant than they look on paper at the moment.

Big Ten play, of course, also projects to be a challenge. Michigan State gets double-plays against Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin and will get road games against Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern as well. The Spartans should have more than a few opportunities to score big wins.

The good (?) news for Michigan State is that the schedule could have been much tougher. Even though there are some challenging games, Michigan State still gets road games against Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, and Rutgers. While the Indiana and Iowa games will be challenging, all five of those are more than winnable for a loaded Spartan team.

Unfortunately, the tricky part here is that Michigan State is in a situation where playing manageable games isn’t all that helpful. It might help in the Big Ten title race, but the Spartans need quality wins to get in contention for a top seed in March. Moreover, playing underwhelming opponents also increases the chances that Michigan State has a bad loss in league play.

Still, Michigan State has more than enough challenging games to build a resume worthy of a top seed with this schedule. The most important thing will be showing up against the elite opponents. If so, Michigan State could be in great position for March.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Cassius Winston (So.) - 95%
  • SG: Joshua Langford (So.) - 80%
  • SF: Miles Bridges (So.) - 95%
  • PF: Jaren Jackson (Fr.) - 55%
  • C: Nick Ward (So.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

With so many players returning from last year’s team, there shouldn’t be a ton of drama out of Michigan State’s starting lineup. The rising sophomores should lock down four of the team’s starting spots. However, there should be a few interesting battles. Specifically, the battle at power forward and the competition for bench minutes.

At point guard, Winston figures to lock down the starting spot after a respectable freshman season. While Winston had some trouble with turnovers, he finished second nationally in assist rate and averaged 6.7 points and 5.2 assists per game. The major concern for Winston will be how he plays in extended minutes. He only averaged 20.7 minutes a game last season and started in just five contests all season. The Spartans need him to take a step forward.

Alongside Winston should be fellow sophomore Langford. Last season was a relatively disappointing one for Langford, given that he was a five-star prospect out of high school. However, he still averaged 6.9 points and 2.3 rebounds a game in 21 minutes of playing time. Like Winston, his play improved during the course of the season. He wasn’t bad for a true freshman, but underwhelmed given his recruiting profile. This will be his chance to move forward and try to live up to the hype.

Behind Winston and Langford will be Tum Tum Nairn and Matt McQuaid. How many minutes these two get will primarily depend upon how the starters perform. If Winston and Langford are productive, there won’t be much playing time available. Realistically, expect Nairn to get a lot of minutes behind Winston and for McQuaid to seeing playing time at multiple positions. Neither player is a bad option off the bench.

On the wing, Michigan State is going to have a lot of options. The only certain is that Bridges will lock down a starting spot. He’s the best player on the team and will certainly be in the lineup. Bridges is also capable of starting at either the three or four spots, so Izzo and his staff will have some choices available for the lineup.

Next to Bridges is where things get interesting. The team’s best option will be to play one of its forwards at the four and move Bridges to the three. However, that’s prefaced on one of the forwards being productive. The most likely options will be Goins and Jackson. The two will certainly play and should compete for minutes all season. Another player to keep an eye on will be UNLV transfer Ben Carter. Where does he fit into the team’s frontcourt.

However, if Michigan State doesn’t want to put Goins or Jackson into the lineup, the team can also push McQuaid into the lineup in the backcourt, move Langford to the three, and move Bridges to the three. That’s the beauty of having depth and talent like the Spartans this season. There will always be multiple options for the team.

The final position in the starting lineup will be locked down by Ward. He was productive for the Spartans upfront last season and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue ot improve this year. Staying on the floor, however, needs to be a major goal for Ward this season. He didn’t even play 50 percent of the team’s minutes last season.

Behind Ward will be a plethora of viable options. As mentioned, Carter and Goins will be available and the team will also have senior Gavin Schilling available. That’s three players with a boatload of experience between them. Plus, the two incoming freshmen are both big enough to play at the five, if needed. This is going to be a meritocracy.

9. Team Perspective From Adam Biggers

“Get ready for a change of pace this year with Michigan State basketball. Typically guard-driven, the Spartans will now rely upon what could be one of the strongest front courts in college hoops: With 5-star freshman forward Jaren Jackson and sophomore Nick Ward, coach Tom Izzo will have plenty of athleticism and strength to complement sophomore Miles Bridges, who'll serve as a Denzel Valentine-type do-all in 2017. True freshman Xavier Tillman, a power forward, could enter the mix too.

Experience was an issue in 2016-17, as Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter -- two seniors -- were plagued by injury. So was Kenny Goins. Now all healthy, they'll be counted on to add quality minutes, giving Izzo his deepest front court.

While the front court, and Bridges, will serve as the backbone of the Spartans, don't forget about the scoring capability of sophomore Cassius Winston and the leadership of senior Tum-Tum Nairn, one of the greatest leaders in team history. Josh Langford, a sophomore, should evolve into more of a scoring threat. The same could be said for Matt McQuaid, a dangerous 3-point threat who's ripe for a breakout junior season.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

Every year, fans like to think that the upcoming season will be special. Everything is finally going to break the right way and the team will finally hoist the crown. Anyone who disagrees with that projection is just a “hater” who can’t accept reality.

We’ve all heard these arguments. Everybody likes to be optimistic about their team coming into a new season. They like to assume that x-factor is going to turn our well and that glaring issue will resolve itself. The last month or two of the offseason is an optimistic time for the nation. Everybody is undefeated.

Most of the time, those fans are wrong. Their team may end up doing well, but they rarely end up winning anything big. And many times, those teams do even worse. Indiana, Minnesota, and Syracuse fans can attest well to those events.

But for this year’s Michigan State team, it’s true.

Whether fans are comfortable with it or not, this is the year for the Spartans. They have the star (Bridges), the starting lineup, the roster, and the coach to get the job done. This is a team capable of winning a championship. And not a Big Ten title, but a legitimate national championship.

That may sound like a lot to say in November, but it’s reality.

This year’s Michigan State team is the league’s best national championship hopeful since Frank Kaminsky’s senior season and has one of the Big Ten’s best rosters of the last decade. Expectations may be high, but rightfully so. With this much talent, a lot is going to be asked of this year’s Spartans.

Naturally, the question is whether the team is good enough to deliver on the hype. Michigan State has received plenty of preseason accolades before and underachieved. In fact, the last two times the Spartans were ranked in the top five in the preseason polls, they failed to make the Final Four or win the Big Ten.

The concerns are there too. Michigan State still needs to find a reliable backcourt and Ward needs to show he can be productive in extended playing time. Even if Bridges is a monster, Michigan State won’t win without the rest of the roster stepping up. After all, he was good last year and the team only went 20-15 overall.

But, even with the concerns, Michigan State looks loaded heading into this season. This team should win the Big Ten and be in position to make the Final Four. And if the team can overcome its issues, it can win the national championship at season’s end.

Big Ten Prediction: 1st Place