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1/17 Big Ten Roundtable: Title Contenders, NCAA Teams, What’s Wrong With Sparty?

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The BTP staff comes together for a roundtable discussion.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

With conference play zooming along, the BTP staff came together for an in-depth roundtable discussion. The discussion includes a variety of topics, including a detailed discussion on Big Ten title contenders, potential NCAA teams, and Michigan State’s recent woes.

Here’s the full discussion.

1/17 BTPowerhouse Roundtable:

1. Ok, so we’re nearly halfway through Big Ten conference play this season. What has been the biggest surprise for you?

Thomas Beindit: While, admittedly, my surprise didn’t come solely in league play, I think the easy answer here is Ohio State. After a horrendous 2016-’17 season, few were expecting much from the Buckeyes. However, as we approached the final week of January, Ohio State is still undefeated in Big Ten play and is rated 14th nationally by KenPom. It’s something that almost nobody (myself included) saw coming.

And don’t be fooled, either. Ohio State is a legitimately good team. It would have been one thing for the Buckeyes to outperform expectations, but the team is legitimately in contention for a Big Ten title and a really nice seed for March. Chris Holtmann has done a heck of a job.

Josh Stern: I’m going with Ohio State as well. The Buckeyes brought in Chris Holtmann to just steady the ship in year one, and he’s turned this Ohio State team into a legit contender to win the Big Ten. Given the overall mediocrity of the league, it could have been excusable to see the Buckeyes finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. Keita Bates-Diop and co. have this Buckeyes team playing extremely well at the right time.

Eric Leisure: Northwestern’s quick fall from grace. After decades of being the hunter, I was very interested to see how the perennial underdog would fare as the hunted entering 2017-’18. Turns out not so well. Granted, the Wildcats have been hit with some injury problems and having to play home games off campus in Rosemont while Welsh-Ryan Arena is renovated can’t be the easiest of situations. Still, sitting at 2-4 in the conference with losses to Penn State, Nebraska and Indiana has to be a disappointment after last years magical run.

Nolan Schmidt: For me, it has to be the swift fall from grace experienced by the Minnesota Gophers. It was a quick fall, especially due to a rare shoulder injury like the one Amir Coffey and the Reggie Lynch situation.

Due to these predicaments, the Gophers have gone from an NCAA Tournament lock to a that needs a miracle to finish above .500 in Big Ten play. It is so surprising to me because of how fast it has gained steam.

Robert Bondy: The biggest surprise, for me, has been how dominant Purdue has looked so far in league play. Sure, Purdue returned a lot of key pieces and was going to be one of the better teams in the league this year, but not many people expected this kind of domination from the Boilermakers. Part of that was because of how much hype Michigan State received entering this year, but, right now, it’s Purdue and not the Spartans that look like the best team in the Big Ten.

Ohio State’s very impressive start to the year was also something I didn’t see coming, and is right up there with Purdue as the league’s biggest surprise this year. I didn’t expect the Buckeyes to be anything more than an NIT team this year, but so far they look like a conference championship contender.

2. As of now, Purdue and Ohio State remain tied atop the league standings. How do you see things shaking out?

Beindit: A little over a week ago, I wrote about how Purdue was entering one of its most important stretches of the season with Michigan and Minnesota coming up on the road. It was a chance for the Boilermakers to create some separation in the Big Ten standings.

Of course, Purdue ended up winning both games and added onto that by crushing Wisconsin at home on Tuesday night. The Boilermakers are now 7-0 in Big Ten play. And even though Ohio State also remains unbeaten in league play, Purdue has a much easier remaining slate. Add in that Purdue is probably the better team and I think the Boilers are the title frontrunner.

Stern: It’s Purdue and everyone else. Michigan State still has too many pieces to fix and Ohio State will probably lose a few games they’re expected to win. Someone just tell Isaac Haas he needs to dunk the ball instead of fading away three feet from the basket.

Leisure: It’s a fool’s errand to bet against Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans. Sure, things are a little rocky in East Lansing right now, but this is straight out of the standard operating procedure for Sparty. Every year it seems that Michigan State has a few slip ups in January or February which causes everyone in the Midwest to hit the panic button. In the words of Aaron Rodgers, R-E-L-A-X. Relax. The Big Ten is still Tom Izzo’s party and everyone else is just invited for the ride.

Schmidt: Purdue just has no visible weaknesses that could cost them this conference. While their February 10th date with Michigan State should be a good indicator, that isn’t for awhile. However, in a league that is relatively weak this season, the Boilermakers have to be the favorite. Granted, they would be good in any conference, but their shortcomings are less profound in the Big Ten.

Bondy: Purdue is certainly the leader in the clubhouse right now, for me. Ohio State has been extremely impressive so far too, but I worry they’ll drop a few games down the stretch and simply lack the championship winning mindset that Purdue has from winning the league last year.

I’m not ready to bury Michigan State quite yet, but they probably can’t afford to lose more than two more games with how well Purdue is playing, and they must beat the Boilermakers in their lone matchup on Feb. 10 in East Lansing.

3. Latest bracket projections put roughly six Big Ten teams in NCAA Tournament contention. Who do you think ends up making it and why?

Beindit: At this point, the Big Ten has four teams that are virtual locks to the Tourney. Those teams are Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue. Per T-Rank, the least likely of those teams to make it on Selection Sunday is Ohio State and the Buckeyes still have a 99.2 percent chance to make it. Simply put, expect all four to make the field.

However, everything is up in the air beyond those four. Maryland and Minnesota look like the best bets for the Big Ten outside of the teams above, but both have work to do. Moreover, even though Nebraska and Penn State are alive, neither is close to the field right now. Honestly, I think all four of those teams end up missing the field and the Big Ten only gets four teams into the field on Selection Sunday.

Stern: Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State. Nebraska, Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota all have a slim chance, but they’ll likely beat each other up and there aren’t enough remaining marquee victories on the schedule for any team outside the top four to sneak in.

Leisure: I would put my money on five teams finding its way to the dance. As Thomas pointed out above, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue are basically locks barring some unforeseen freefall. For the fifth team, I’m putting it down as TBA. Someone from the group of Maryland, Nebraska, Penn State, Northwestern and Minnesota is going to have a nice little run through the Big Ten Tournament. They won’t win the whole thing, but will have a good enough showing to impress the committee at the right time, ala Penn State in 2011.

Schmidt: Six teams seems to be a bit of stretch. I mean, ask yourself this question: Are there any NCAA Tournament caliber teams in the Big Ten besides the obvious four? Is Nebraska worthy of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid? What about Indiana? My short answer is no. The idea of five or six Big Ten teams getting in seems like a dream to me at this point.

Bondy: I look at this league and see six teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all are in great spots to make the field, and, as long as none take a complete turn for the worst, they’ll be dancing in March. After that, it’s kind of a cluster you know what.

I’m not ready to give up on Northwestern or Minnesota, and still have confidence they’ll figure things out and make the field. Maryland, Penn State, Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin still have a chance to make it, if they can start reeling off some conference wins.

Poor play outside of the league is going to hurt the Big Ten’s reputation and having so many average teams beating up on each other will also knock many out of tournament contention. I wouldn’t be surprised if only four or five make it, but I’m a glass half full kind of guy so I’ll pick six.

4. Of course, a few Big Ten teams have also disappointed. Specifically, teams like Northwestern, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Did any of these surprise you? And does anybody deserve a little pressure from the fans as a result?

Beindit: This fall for Northwestern was definitely a surprise. While I noted some serious areas for concern in this season’s preview, I did not foresee Northwestern dropping 40 spots on KenPom from last year and being out of NCAA Tournament contention by mid-January. A lot of things have gone wrong for the Wildcats, but this team simply isn’t that great.

The other two aren’t nearly as surprising. I never bought the hype on this year’s Penn State team and Wisconsin entered this season trying to replace nearly its entire starting lineup. As far as pressure from fans, I think Northwestern and Wisconsin’s staffs have proven enough to avoid many complaints. However, Pat Chambers’ seat should be roasting.

Stern: Northwestern, for sure. They came in ranked in the preseason top 25 with most of their guys returning, Aaron Falzon back after a year of injury and a senior leader in Bryant McIntosh. They’ve completely struggled and seem to be out of sorts. Wisconsin is a bit surprising seeing as people expected them to be bad, but not historically bad for the Badgers. Their rotation is a complete mess and walk-ons are getting minutes over scholarship players.

Leisure: I’d be strongly off brand if I didn’t bring up the Nittany Lions here. Patrick Chambers’ entire seven-year tenure at the helm of Penn State had been building up to this year as a major breakthrough season.

But a soft non-conference schedule paired with continued off the court issues has turned a once promising season into an exercise in futility. What makes this even more disappointing is barring some magic happening, the program will most likely be hitting reset next year with a new coach as the process of building something in State College starts all over again.

Schmidt: I do not know if any of them surprise me, in the traditional sense. I was taken back by the inconsistency of Northwestern, who returned almost everyone from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. In their defense, they played some challenging non-conference games this season. People were in awe when they got stomped by a then unranked Texas Tech team, but now look where the Red Raider are, ranked 8th in the nation. That being said, I do not think fans should worry about the Wildcats. Isn’t there some sort of immunity for the coach that leads you to your first ever NCAA Tournament appearance and tournament win?

Bondy: Wisconsin’s fall surprises me, mainly because it’s Wisconsin. The Badgers have gone dancing 19 straight years and it looks like their streak will come to an end this year. It’s not surprising when you dive deeper and see who they lost and look at some of the injuries they’ve endured.

I expected more out of Penn State and Northwestern, but both are still in better spots than Wisconsin as far as making the NCAA Tournament. None of these three coaches should feel too much pressure in my opinion, however, Fran McCaffery should with how terrible Iowa has been this year. They did lose Peter Jok, but I felt entering this year that they had enough returning talent to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid. Fran should feel some heat as Iowa will miss their second straight big dance after qualifying in the previous three years.

5. Who is your Big Ten Player of the Year right now?

Beindit: It’s Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop and I’m not sure it’s even that close. He is averaging 20.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and has been stellar all season. In fact, Bates-Diop has already earned KenPom Game MVP honors on 13 occasions this season. Behind him, I would put some combination of Miles Bridges, Anthony Cowan, Vincent Edwards, and Ethan Happ.

Stern: Has to be Bates-Diop, right? The award needs to go to one of the best four teams in the Big Ten, and since Purdue and Michigan State seem to be doing it across the board, Bates-Diop is the only guy that’s truly carrying his team. More than anything, without him the Buckeyes are a .500 team.

Leisure: I’m not quite sure how you could say anyone besides Keita Bates-Diop. There has been no player more valuable to his individual team this year than KBD, averaging seven more points per game than his closest teammate. And considering what he and Ohio State has already accomplished this year, it’s that much more of a head scratcher that Bates-Diop was left off of the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 watch list, with Miles Bridges and Jordan Murphy being the Big Ten’s only representatives. So while he might be snubbed national, I don’t see that trend continuing in-conference.

Schmidt: Bates-Diop not only because of his nice stats and the success of the Buckeyes this season, but also his vast improvement from his last full season. In 2015-’16, his last season before injury, he only averaged 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Now, look at this stats, they have increased by a wide margin. Not to mention the fact that he raised his shooting percentage from 45 percent in 2015-’16 to nearly 53 percent so far this season. If his team was not in a tailspin, I would vote Jordan Murphy, but Bates-Diop is the guy right now.

Bondy: Bates-Diop is the hands down favorite right now. What he has done this year has been incredible, and is the leading reason why Ohio State is in the Big Ten title hunt. If he continues to put up big numbers and Ohio State stays in the championship race throughout the rest of the year then he’ll win this award. If Ohio State falters down the stretch, then someone like Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Michigan’s Mo Wagner or Michigan State’s Miles Bridges could steal the award if the Boilermakers, Wolverines or Spartans win the league.

6. What is wrong with Michigan State?

Beindit: The simple answer is the backcourt. While Michigan State’s frontcourt has impressed for much of the season and looks as deep as any group in the country, the backcourt continues to be inconsistent and turns over the ball far too often. The Spartans do really well on the defensive side of the court and in transition, but the half court offense needs to improve.

Moreover, it’s important to note that Michigan State is going to have to face some really good defensive backcourts if it’s going to achieve its goals this season. Beating up on inferior opponents is easy, but the Spartans are going to have to go through teams like Kansas, West Virginia, and Virginia to win a title. The backcourt has to improve.

Stern: Cohesion. The Spartans looked so good against inferior teams when they were able to just be bigger, stronger and faster. Against better competition, the Spartans needed to find a way to play good basketball. They haven’t been able to do that, their guard play has been atrocious at times, and Nick Ward can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. Tom Izzo always seems to figure things out, but right now MSU just needs to simply stop turning the ball over so frequently to beat the bottom half of the Big Ten.

Leisure: As I mentioned before, I really don’t think there’s anything to be truly concerned about yet for Michigan State. This is still an incredibly talented roster with a Hall of Fame coach who will get any issues figured out come March. Too much is being made of losses to two of the top four teams in the Big Ten. However, I reserve the right to amend this opinion should the Spartans drop one of its upcoming games to Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin.

Schmidt: One time, I asked myself this question after Michigan State lost 10 games in the regular season. They then proceeded to make it to the Big Ten Tournament title game, only to lose to Wisconsin. Due to their performance in the Big Ten Tournament they went from a bubble team to a sure lock. They received a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, which is good, not the best draw though, usually upset prone. Michigan State made it all the way to the Final Four where they lost to Duke, the eventual National Champions, in the National Semifinal.

They lost 10 games that year, they currently have lost three. Sorry, I got sidetracked, what was the question again?

Bondy: Michigan State is in the middle of a rut and if they don’t snap out of it soon they’ll be out of the league championship race before February hits. I wrote about this the other day, and the three things that stood out to me right now are too many turnovers, poor three-point shooting lately and not enough from the bench.

Those three areas have been issues across this terrible three-game stretch, and answers the question “what is wrong with Michigan State?” Do I think they’ll figure it out and get back on track? Yes, of course they will, but will they do it in time? That’s the big question because they are already two games back of Purdue and Ohio State in league play, and can’t afford to lose any games for awhile. Izzo will get this team back on track, but their chances of winning the Big Ten are quickly slipping through their hands.