Is Illinois on the brink of greatness — or collapse? And is Iowa still the team to beat? Big Ten basketball takeaways from the start of the season.
Every season, every coach in every conference says the same thing. Their conference is the toughest, deepest and most talented.
“This is the best league in the country and it’s not even close,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after beating Northwestern.
But this season is different. Because when Big Ten basketball coaches make statements like that, they’re telling the truth.
Nine of 14 Big Ten teams have been ranked this season, with seven (Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Rutgers, Minnesota and Michigan State) in The Associated Press’ Top 25 in Week 7. Four teams (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin) are in the NET rankings top 10.
The Big Ten — the bruising league traditionally known for its low scores and tenacious defenses — has three teams in the top 26 in scoring nationally. Three players rank in the top 16 nationally for scoring.
Ohio State plays for the football national championship against Alabama on Monday night. And then it’s onto hoops. If you’ve been consumed with college football, you’ll just be turning your attention to college basketball, as Big Ten fans tend to do.
Here are some questions and answers for those of you playing catchup.
1. Is Iowa still expected to win the Big Ten?
They’re certainly playing like champions. Most picked the Hawkeyes in the preseason as the favorite to win the conference, and they haven’t shown many reasons to doubt them.
The Hawkeyes avenged an earlier loss to Minnesota with an 86-71 victory on Sunday. Luka Garza (more on him in a bit) leads the nation with 27.2 points and leads a team full of multitalented contributors.
Few Hawkeyes add to just one statistical category.
Take guard Jordan Bohannon, who averages 9.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Against Minnesota, he scored 19 points with seven rebounds, 14 assists and no turnovers while shooting 4 of 7 on 3-pointers.
Among regular-rotation players, four average at least nine points, three average more than five rebounds, seven players shoot at least 40% and five shoot at least 35% on 3-pointers. Nine players compete at least 10 minutes per game.
But Iowa’s downfall could be its defense.
The Hawkeyes’ strategy relies on strong rebounding and daring opponents to keep pace offensively. Averaging 91.9 points, few opponents can. The Hawkeyes’ two losses came against No. 1 Gonzaga (99-88) and at Minnesota (102-95 in overtime).
It’s far from a runaway for Iowa’s path to a Big Ten title.
Star-powered Illinois and disciplined Wisconsin are popular contenders. Undefeated Michigan, talented Rutgers (yes, Rutgers), deep Minnesota and still-warming up Michigan State could all feasibly hold the trophy at the end of the season.
2. Which team has been the biggest surprise?
Many expected a dropoff at Michigan with the departures of Jon Teske and Zavier Simpson.
Isaiah Livers, a senior forward, was one of only four returning starters, but his decision to forego an attempt at the NBA draft has helped Michigan to a 10-0 start.
Livers has shot nearly 50% from the field, up 5% from last season.
Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been pleasantly supplying the Wolverines. He leads them with 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds, showcasing himself further with a career-high 28-point performance to beat Minnesota.
Naysayers will point out the Wolverines’ slate isn’t the most challenging — Michigan ranks 77th for strength of schedule.
Even with a tough Big Ten, Michigan (5-0) so far has avoided the heaviest of hitters. The toughest games came against then-No. 19 Northwestern, which has now lost three straight, and No. 16 Minnesota, which has lost three of four.
The Wolverines have a chance to prove they’re legitimate on Tuesday against No. 8 Wisconsin.
3. Is Illinois on the brink of greatness or collapse?
After losing its first home game and snapping a six-game win streak Sunday night against Maryland, Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu didn’t sound panicked.
“I love my team,” he said. “I love where we’re at. We will play better. It’s a bump in the road in the journey. (We’re) pretty solid. We have to focus up and finish the month strong and we’ll be right there.”
The pros: Illinois has the most talent it’s had in decades, a true Final Four-caliber roster with Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn leading the way.
Three of the Illini’s losses are to currently ranked opponents, including No. 2 Baylor, so maybe chalking up Maryland as an aberration is fair.
The cons: Illinois has been playing with fire against lesser opponents.
The Illini let Purdue go on a 19-0 run before pulling out a victory. They trailed at Northwestern in one of their worst first halves of the season before playing its best second half of the season.
Illinois tends to wait until teams are breathing down its neck to respond. Playing with their foot on their gas from start to finish hasn’t happened much in Big Ten play.
“It’s something different every game,” Underwood said.
Yet Illinois is one game out of first place in the Big Ten after playing a schedule ranked No. 11 by Kenpom. Not too bad.
4. Which team has been most disappointing?
Michigan State lost Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman from last season, but the Spartans were expected to have enough to build momentum throughout the season.
So far for the Spartans (8-4, 2-4), it isn’t coming together.
They reached a season-low point, blowing a 17-point second-half lead at home in the second half — and a four-point lead in the final 19 seconds — during a 55-54 loss to unranked Purdue on Friday.
“One of the more disappointing losses,” coach Tom Izzo told reporters.
The Spartans have won three consecutive regular-season Big Ten titles and have been to 22 straight NCAA Tournaments. But those streaks look to be in jeopardy.
Joshua Langford and Rocket Watts were expected to make up a solid Big Ten backcourt. Transfer Joey Hauser figured to be a difference maker. Aaron Henry’s shooting percentage is down, and forward Gabe Brown hasn’t taken the step to be a consistent contributor as expected.
But the Spartans have hope.
“There’s no need to hang our heads,” Langford told reporters after losing to Purdue. “It’s still early in the season, and I believe we have a great basketball team. We can do a lot of high-level things. So we just have to stay encouraged.”
According to the Detroit Free Press, only two other Izzo-led teams have started the Big Ten slate 2-4. The 2001-02 and 2002-03 teams both finished the rest of the conference season 8-2, with the 2002 team making the NCAA Tournament (and losing in the first round) and the 2003 squad making it to the Elite Eight.
5. Does anyone but Luka Garza have a shot at conference player of the year?
Probably not. It’s still Luka Garza’s award to lose, as preseason polls predicted. So are national player of the year awards.
Garza, who averages 27.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, makes 93% of his 2-point attempts. His five double-doubles rank fifth in the conference. And his very presence shreds opponent’s defensive schemes.
So if for some reason Garza stops understanding how to shoot the basket, who else could win?
The best bet would be Illinois’ Dosunmu. He ranks eighth nationally with 22.3 points and ranks 12th in the Big Ten with 6.8 rebounds while shooting 51% overall and 42.5% on 3-pointers — significant improvements from last season in each category.
His ability to inspire and motivate teammates can’t be discounted either.
Minnesota junior guard Marcus Carr might be a long shot, but he’s a player to keep an eye on. He leads the Big Ten with 5.6 assists and ranks third with 21.5 points a game, leading a Gophers squad that’s exceeding expectations.
6. What factor will COVID-19 have on the Big Ten schedule?
League coaches credit conference protocols and daily testing for minimizing outbreaks that would cause cancellations for Big Ten games.
But as football has shown us, these are never absolutes.
COVID-19 cases within Penn State’s program caused the program to shut down through at least Jan. 12 with games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Rutgers postponed.
A game between Nebraska and Purdue was also postponed “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a joint news release last week.
It would be foolish to think the Big Ten will not have more cancellations and complications because of the pandemic.