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Big Ten Bracketology

With Selection Sunday about a month away, let’s do some Big Ten Bracketology:

The Locks

Ohio State (9-2 Big Ten, 21-3 overall)

The Buckeyes have won six in a row, and have lost just twice since Dec. 10. They rolled through a tough stretch that included Michigan, Wisconsin and Purdue, but have a big matchup against Michigan State on Feb. 11. 

Ohio State probably has the best shot of any Big Ten team to go deep in the Tournament. Thad Matta has one of the best teams in the country when sophomore center Jared Sullinger is at his best, and even when is not, the Buckeyes are still dangerous. When senior guard William Buford and sophomore guard Aaron Craft are running on all cylinders with Sullinger, Ohio State has a scary good inside-out combination that is tough to defend.

The Buckeyes are also deep, with nine players averaging over eleven minutes a game, and have experience in March. 

Michigan State (8-3, 19-5)

The Spartans didn’t lose a game from Nov. 18 to Jan. 10, then lost three of their next five before a big test against Michigan at home. Michigan State was in control the whole game, cruising to a 10-point victory.

Senior forward Draymond Green is averaging a double-double (almost 15 points and 11 rebounds a game), but Michigan State hasn’t developed a reliable sidekick for him. Sophomore guard Keith Appling has the ability to score in bunches, but he hasn’t been consistent and is shooting just 27-percent from three.

Perhaps more pressing is that Michigan State doesn’t have a single player averaging more than four assists a game. The Spartans will undoubtedly make the Tournament for the 15th consecutive year, but how far they go will rely heavily on the play of Green and how far he can take this team.

Michigan (8-4, 18-7)

To be frank, the Wolverines are terrible on the road. They look like a completely different team inside Crisler Arena than at every other Big Ten venue — they scored just 22 points in the first half at lowly Nebraska this week.

Early on in the season, it looked like freshman guard Trey Burke and sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. were going to run the show, but Hardaway Jr. has been playing the worst basketball of his young career over the last few weeks. He has attempted the most 3-pointers in the Big Ten, yet is shooting just 27-percent from beyond the arc. He made one field goal against Michigan State last week, and didn’t score in the first half en route to six points against Nebraska.

The Wolverines could potentially sneak into the Elite Eight if they catch fire at the right time, but Hardaway Jr. needs to figure it out first. The road woes could become a major issue come March, when Michigan won’t have the luxury of playing in Ann Arbor. 

Wisconsin (7-4, 18-6)

Since a disastrous loss to Michigan on Jan. 8 — their third loss in a row — the Badgers fired off six wins in a row before losing their last game to Ohio State. Wisconsin is Wisconsin, averaging a hair over 64 points per game while playing truth-or-dare with the shot clock every night.

Indiana (6-6, 18-6)

When Indiana went 16-1 to start the season, the biggest knock on its resume was a lack of a road win. Well, it’s halfway through the Big Ten season, and the Hoosiers still don’t have a signature win away from Assembly Hall.

Indiana has lost to Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan on the road, and has really struggled in 2012, winning just three out of its last eight games.

The Hoosiers' strong start will keep them in the tournament, even if they continue to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the country.

Illinois (5-5, 16-7)

The Fighting Illini have lost four of their last five games. Total margin of defeat in those four games? 15 points.

Illinois has some quality wins, beating then-No. 5 Ohio State and then-No. 10 Michigan State, but it has also lost to Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota. Calling this team a lock might be a stretch, but this team has a very good chance to go dancing. 

On The Bubble 

Minnesota (5-6, 17-7)

The Golden Gophers fell under the radar when they lost their first four Big Ten games, but could sneak into the Tournament with impressive wins over Indiana on the road and Illinois at home.

Two losses to Iowa really hurt, but the next three weeks are where Minnesota makes or breaks its season. Of its next seven games, five are against teams that are currently ranked. A good stretch run, and Minnesota could be in.

Purdue (5-6, 15-9)

For the most part, the Boilermakers have won the games they were expected to compete in (Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota), and lost in the games they weren’t supposed to compete in (Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State).

Purdue has just three games left against current-ranked teams, which means they are going to need to pull off an upset or two to get into consideration.

Northwestern (4-6, 14-8)

The Wildcats have one big win on their resume, a win at home against Michigan State in early January. Directly following that game, they lost three in a row to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue. It’s too early to tell with this team — February is a big month for Northwestern.

The Wildcats have two players averaging more than 17 points a game (John Shurna and Drew Crawford), but then just four other players average more than 5 points a game. The bench is going to play a huge role for Northwestern in the next couple weeks. 

A Major Conference Without One-And-Done Talent

At college basketball programs like Kentucky, one-and-done players are the norm. The roster looks dramatically different year-to-year, to the point where the Wildcats feel like a completely new team altogether. John Calipari recruits guys he knows aren’t going to stick around for more than a year, much less four because they are the most talented players in the country.

In the Big Ten over the last five years, it’s been different.

The only program that has dealt with a constant barrage of one-and-done players is Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook in 2007, then Kosta Koufas in 2008 and finally B.J. Mullins in 2009.

And Jared Sullinger was expected to leave after his stellar freshman campaign last season, but he surprised a lot of people by sticking around. In a year where the looming NBA lockout wasn’t such a deterrent, the decision might have been different, but regardless, he remained in Columbus.

Besides Ohio State, the last major Big Ten one-and-done was Eric Gordon, who left Indiana and was drafted No. 7 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2008. 

The conference just doesn’t produce very many players who leave after one season, or even early for that matter.

There have been players who have left early, like Darius Morris, who left Michigan last season after his sophomore year. The other big name that comes to mind is Evan Turner, who left Ohio State in 2010 after his junior year, but I don’t really consider leaving after three years leaving early these days.

All in all, players tend to stick around in the Big Ten.

But it’s not because the conference is bad and the players don’t really have anything better to do than finish their four years, like teams in weaker conferences. Michigan State has made the NCAA Tournament 14 consecutive seasons, and went to the Final Four in 2009 and 2010.

Ohio State lost the national championship game in 2007, and won the NIT in 2008. Programs like Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan have had off-and-on success in the last decade, but are usually solid.

The Big Ten is no slouch conference, so why have so many talented players stuck around for more than a year or two over the last five years? 

Look at a program like Wisconsin, and the answer becomes apparent. It’s not that these players don’t have any talent; it’s that that talent hasn’t been translating to the NBA.

The guys who are succeeding in the Big Ten aren’t going to succeed in the NBA, whether it is because they are system guys or because they don’t match up physically.

Wisconsin runs a very regimented offense that doesn’t require freakish athleticism. It spends as much time as possible working the ball around, not forcing anything, until a Badger gets a wide-open shot with less than seven seconds left on the shot clock. Wisconsin’s style of play isn’t flashy or groundbreaking.  

Players like Jon Leuer — solid, rounded out shooters who could pass as dorm RAs (case in point: Mike Bruesewitz) — are the staple of Bo Ryan’s teams. In Leuer’s senior campaign last year, he averaged 18 points per game and finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding. He was one of the best players in the conference.

In the 2011 NBA Draft, Leuer fell into the second round before the Milwaukee Bucks picked him No. 40 overall.

Another big example from Wisconsin is senior point guard Jordan Taylor, who is finishing up a career that named him a preseason First Team All-American and a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award.

Taylor is not expected to hear his name called in the draft next year. His lateral speed is average at best, and he is going to have trouble defending quicker players at the next level.

Taylor is one of the best players in the Big Ten, if not the whole country, but his chances of NBA success are limited.

Even at a program like Michigan State, where the NCAA tournament is the standard, guys stick around. Kalin Lucas — who graduated last season — was the Big Ten Player of the Year in his sophomore season.

He is now playing for Olympiacos in the Greek League.

The Big Ten has talent — that’s not a question. The league just doesn’t have talent that appears early (Turner), or talent that fits a college system but doesn’t covert to the next level (Lucas and Taylor).

But the tide could be turning. Michigan just landed the No. 2 recruit in the country, Mitch McGary, who is a one-and-done candidate. Tim Hardaway Jr. could leave for the 2012 NBA Draft after finishing just two-year in Ann Arbor, and freshman point guard Trey Burke might not be far behind him.

At Ohio State, Sullinger will almost certainly leave after his sophomore campaign. Michigan State commit Gary Harris is ranked as the No. 1 shooting guard on some sites, and could be in the 2013 NBA Draft.

The Big Ten will never have a team like Kentucky, but the number of one-and-done players, or guys who leave after two years, is going to jump in the next couple of years.

But in an age of jumping ship, it’s interesting to see how the conference has been able to buck that trend.

Replacing Darius Morris

Michigan Wolverines went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational to nab third place. Michigan beat Memphis before losing to eventual champion Duke, 82-75. The Wolverines rebounded in the third place game, disposing of UCLA by 16 to make the trip at least somewhat successful.

The most important takeaway from the week was not necessarily how Michigan played, but how they played against certain opponents.

What we learned from Memphis: Freshman point guard Trey Burke is going to be the real deal, almost a lock for All-Big Ten if he decides to stick around. ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford told Daniel Wasserman, a Michigan basketball beat writer, that Burke could be a potential first round pick in next year's draft, for what that's worth.

Burke was a key against Memphis. His driving ability sets up the Wolverines offense much in the same way that Darius Morris did last year. The majority of Michigan's roster is guys who love to spot up and shoot, which fits Burke's style of play perfectly. Against Memphis, he scored 14 points, the second most on the team, along with four assist. He wasn't perfect by any stretch, but he played 35 minutes as a true freshman on a national stage and impressed.

Burke is only 5-foot-11, so his ability to drive is oftentimes directly related to how physical and big the opposing defense is. The Tigers biggest starting player is Wesley Witherspoon, who is 6-foot-9 but weighs just 207 pounds. Memphis has size that is perfectly suited to Burke's style of play, and the freshman was able to capitalize.

Burke also had a mindset--almost a swagger, if you will--that can't be taught. He plays with a confidence that convinces you he has been in college for years. Michigan saw another freshman come into Ann Arbor last year with that kind of mindset, and he turned out pretty well. That player is sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr., who was another key to the game against Memphis.

This will not be an uncommon theme. Hardaway Jr. is going to be the heart of the Wolverines, and when he is on like he was against Memphis, they will be able to compete with very team in the Big Ten, if not every team in the country.

Hardaway Jr. had a game-high 21 points and five assists, and grabbed seven rebounds. Primarily known as a shooter last season, Hardaway Jr. made his presence known near the rim, drawing 10 free throw attempts and converting nine of them. He started off strong, scoring nine of the team's first 18 points, and was absolutely relentless throughout.

For Michigan to contend, Hardaway Jr. will need to have these types of games almost every night. Having another scoring presence like Burke helps, but the load is going to lie on Hardaway Jr.'s shoulders.

What we learned from Duke: Michigan is going to struggle against bigger, physical teams. The Blue Devils start two players over 6-foot-10, and their starting point guard is 6-foot-4. The aspects that propelled Michigan against Memphis were exposed against a bigger, more physical Duke team.

Burke did not have a bad game by any stretch, scoring a career-high 17 points and nine assists, but the offense was limited near the rim. Michigan had two players shoot free throws on the night for just nine total free throws, with six of those coming from Hardaway Jr.

Burke wasn't able to do his thing near the basket, which limited the spot up opportunities on the outside. He played well, but Michigan was never able to really get things going offensively the way they did against Memphis. Drives to the basket were really limited, which messed with the flow of the offense and didn't leave as many open shots from the outside. 

In Big Ten play, teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota are going to play the Wolverines really well. Burke is going to be a player, no doubt, but his height will make things difficult around the net against teams with a big post presence. Duke exploited this, but the play of Hardaway Jr. also threw things out of whack for the Wolverines.

Nineteen points in a game is a good game for most players in college basketball, but not for Hardaway Jr. He was scoreless in the first half, which helped put Michigan in a hole it couldn't climb out of. He also did not have an assist and grabbed only three rebounds.

You can't have your best player and floor general be noticeably absent in the first half against one of the best teams in the country and expect to be successful. The Wolverines got scoring from other players, but Hardaway Jr. can't disappear for halves at a time if Michigan is going to compete.

Other thoughts: The big theme from Michigan's offense is the transition from Darius Morris to Trey Burke, and the role that Hardaway Jr. was going to play. So far, Burke has impressed, to say the least. He won the starting point guard job from senior captain Stu Douglass, and has looked the part so far this season.

But Morris played such a big role in Michigan's offense last year that its impossible not to expect a drop off for the offense. His usage percentage was a little over 27, but his passing ability was what separated him from the rest of the team. His assist percentage easily lead the team at 44-percent, as the next closet Wolverine was Hardaway Jr. at 12-percent.

The most telling stat is Morris' Hands on Buckets (HOB) percentage, which was an absurd 52-percent. Again, the next closet Wolverines was nowhere close to Morris, as Hardaway Jr. finished at 26-percent.

How Michigan is going to replace Morris's production will be paramount throughout the season.

Obviously, no one has fully picked up Morris's HOB this season, but many have shown great improvements. Hardaway Jr. leads the team at 35-percent, and Burke is right behind him at 33-percent. The rest of the Wolverines stay hovered around the teens, but that won't be an issue if Hardaway Jr. and Burke keep it up. Neither of them will come close to the numbers Morris put up last year, but combined, they are sitting pretty.

The statistic that should be a concern fir Michigan is assist percentage. Morris blew everyone else out of the water last year, but unlike HOB, the Wolverines aren't picking up the slack. Burke leads the team at 27-percent, but besides him, just three Wolverines are in double-digits. 

Those numbers are going to have to go up if Michigan wants to sustain production from its entire lineup. Replacing Morris completely is never going to happen, but Hardaway Jr. and Burke also can't be the only guys stepping it up in those categories. Look for players like Douglass, senior Zack Novak and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz to add to the HOB and assist percentage totals as the season goes on.

Michigan can't rely on just two guys to spread the ball around, because replacing Morris will continue to be a task for the entire roster.

 

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