With roughly a week of college basketball behind us, the BTPowerhouse staff got together for a roundtable discussion about the league and what fans should expect in the coming months.
See the full discussion below.
1. Ok, so we’re a week into the season. What are your early reactions and biggest takeaways?
Thomas Beindit: This probably sounds lame, but the league has largely been about as expected. The top of the Big Ten looks as good as ever and if there’s any takeaway so far, it’s that the top and bottom are even better than I thought. Michigan State’s win over Duke certainly got my attention and Nebraska and Northwestern have solid early returns. We’ll see how things hold up against tougher competition for those two and others, but fans have to be excited.
Additionally, the star power in the Big Ten right now is ridiculous. Luka Garza looks like the National Player of the Year leader and you have at least two or three other contenders as well. Don’t be shocked if there’s a lot of hardware coming to the league in March.
Kevin Knight: The depth of the Big Ten thus far seems to be right where it left off last season. Geo Baker’s and Al Durham’s early ankle injuries are potentially huge for Rutgers and Indiana if they can’t make a speedy recovery for Big Ten play, especially Baker. Nebraska is looking poised to make a huge jump from the basement finish last season in year two of the Hoiberg era, though by no means are going to be a conference title contender.
If you watched the MSU-Duke game in its entirety rather than just the first five to ten minutes, then you are probably reevaluating any shred of skepticism that the Spartans aren’t right there at the top contending for a fourth straight title after all. Overall, it looks to be an incredibly deep league yet again with three to four elite teams and a host of good to great making up the bulk of the rest.
Bryan Steedman: Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Iowa and Illinois looked pretty good, but it’s early. Almost every team has taken care of business and avoided bad losses, but it’s a week into the season and a lot of teams haven’t played much of anyone. Michigan State beating Duke was big, especially because Tom Izzo’s teams typically seem to get off to a somewhat slow start most years. Purdue played sloppy against Clemson, but has enough pieces that they could be improved this year. And of course Indiana has been wildly inconsistent outside of Trayce Jackson-Davis. I think the Big Ten / ACC Challenge will provide a better picture of what we can expect from the conference, but there’s a good chance we won’t learn that much until conference play officially tips off.
2. Who have been the biggest surprises for you? Anyone you’re feeling better about than you thought? Anyone you’re feeling worse about?
Beindit: As noted above, three teams I’ve been encouraged by so far are Michigan State, Nebraska, and Northwestern. The latter two haven’t played anyone great, but their performances at least have me thinking they might be a little better than I anticipated. Michigan State’s win over Duke also deserves plenty of praise.
Two teams I’ve been a bit concerned about so far are Ohio State and Purdue—and yes, I realize my second pick goes against my two colleagues. The Buckeyes are without star forward Seth Towns, but the team’s game against UMass Lowell wasn’t pretty and I’m still waiting to see if there’s a top tier player on the roster. Additionally, Purdue’s loss to Clemson was rough. And while Zach Edey has been awesome out of the gate, some of Purdue’s issues from last season remain. We’ll see what the Boilermakers look like when they get healthy.
Knight: Purdue has performed better than I expected they would. The Boilermakers may be just 2-1, but have an impressive win over a Liberty squad that followed up the loss with two wins over SEC squads and a close loss to TCU. Their lone loss was also to what is looking to be a fairly strong Clemson squad. Minnesota may turn out to be more competitive overall than I expected as well, but hard to tell for sure with the sample size. Anyone I have concerns about to this point, I also revert back to the sample size and odd quirks of 2020 thus far as well.
Steedman: Zach Edey has looked A LOT better than I imagined. Once again Purdue looks like they’ll alternate two bigs that can both legit take over a game, something most people didn’t see happening after Matt Haarms transferred out. Also the Illini have been shooting a lot better through their first three games, which would be huge if Illinois wants to contend for a conference title (or more).
3. Who is your Big Ten favorite?
Beindit: I’m still feeling pretty good about my preseason pick of Illinois and Wisconsin narrowly behind. The Illini haven’t been perfect, but you can clearly see the potential there. And the Badgers have been utterly dominant. Iowa and Michigan State are also going to be in the mix, though I see those two just a notch behind.
Knight: Based on early returns through the first few games, I’m swinging back into the Spartans camp at this point. Illinois and Wisconsin are certainly in contention to split a share, but early results are pointing toward Michigan State’s sheer depth of talent on the bench being enough to find a variety of ways to win more often than not based on the opponent and shortcomings the team endures any given game.
Steedman: Honestly? Toss up between Michigan State and Wisconsin. It’s hard to pick against either team and as good as Iowa and Illinois could be, each of these team had flaws last year that are still lingering in 2020-21. It’s just easier to go with the proven track record and success of Michigan State and Wisconsin, even more so after Michigan State beating Duke this week.
4. A few teams like Illinois and Michigan have struggled against weak competition. Are you reading anything into that?
Beindit: Not a ton. Fans tend to overreact to these types of games in November and December and then forget them later on. We’ve seen so many teams struggle out of the gate and turn things around thereafter that it’s hard to feel like any of these “buy” games mean much in the grand scheme of things, especially in a year as odd as this one.
However, I do think Illinois and Michigan figured out some valuable lessons in those games. More specifically, not overlooking opponents and finding your bread and butter offensive plays. Illinois found Ayo Dosunmu and Michigan found Hunter Dickinson. Those are valuable lessons to learn moving forward.
Knight: While concerning for Illini and Wolverines fans, there is still a lot of season left to go. I think Illinois has the talent to work out the kinks as it gets into conference play, and Michigan has a lot of new pieces to sort out. Anyone thinking that Howard found the magic fix to get into contention for a conference title this season will probably be disappointed, but give it a bit before hitting full panic mode for both teams.
Steedman: Not really. Michigan was a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten last year and there isn’t really anything there to suggest they’ll contend for a Big Ten title. They have the talent and Howard has looked good as a coach, so they’ll likely be a NCAA Tournament team, but if they have a few off nights it’s not worth reading that much into. Illinois is in a weird spot because they have a ton of talent but the flaws they had last year didn’t magically disappear just because Dosunmu and Cockburn came back. Adam Miller has been a big addition so far. I’ll look more into how they play against Baylor (as I’m writing this before Wednesday’s game).
5. Any other thoughts? How have the fanless arenas been for you?
Beindit: I miss the crowds. But because we’ve seen so many other sports return without fans first, it hasn’t felt as weird for college hoops. I’m guessing it’s going to get really weird if and when we get to March and there aren’t fans for the great NCAA Tournament moments. However, it’s been oddly comfortable so far.
Knight: Speaking from experience in-person at the Breslin Center against Notre Dame last Saturday, it wasn’t as weird as you might expect. The experience is not at all like a normal game by any means, but the focus of the players doesn’t seem to be impacted as far as I could tell. If anything, it gives us a single season of getting to more easily hear what players and coaches are saying on the bench during game play. But yeah, let’s not make this a long term trend and let’s all do what we need to so we can have crowds again next season.
Steedman: After the NBA Bubble and empty/partially empty football stadiums, watching college basketball in empty arenas hasn’t been very weird. Outside of watching Purdue play in a gym that was smaller than my high school fieldhouse on national television last week. That was kind of weird, if not oddly entertaining.