Big Ten Breakdown: It’s Michigan State and the rest

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 12:06pm

Michigan coach John Beilein’s team has to compete in a conference with four teams in the AP Top 25 poll.

Michigan coach John Beilein’s team has to compete in a conference with four teams in the AP Top 25 poll. Buy this photo
Sam Mousigian/Daily

 

Smash Mouth told the world “all that glitters is gold” in their hit song “All Star.”

Big Ten men’s basketball would beg to differ.

Despite the allure of being a Power Five conference with four teams in the AP preseason Top 25 poll, a litter of Big Ten teams lack identities as they seek to replace the stars of last year with the unproven pieces of today.

Michigan, of course, is no exception. With the departures of Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and DJ Wilson, serious questions have emerged regarding the Wolverines’ depth chart. Eight new faces — including three new starters alongside junior forward Moritz Wagner and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — will see an unfamiliar amount of game time at the college level. A spot in the NCAA Tournament is far from a lock for Michigan in 2017-18.

Whether it be a lack of chemistry or a lack of meaningful experience, the Wolverines are only one of many involved in the conference quagmire. The Daily breaks down the best of the Michigan’s competition this season:

No. 2 Michigan State

There’s one name to know here: Miles Bridges.  

The sophomore star’s decision to return to school surprised everyone but himself. Bridges — who averaged 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season — has made two of his collegiate goals clear for this year: a National Championship and the Naismith Award. The additions of graduate transfer Ben Carter and two highly-touted recruits in Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman make both of those objectives seem well within reach.

Even without the added starpower, Tom Izzo’s team — with another year of experience under its belt — appears primed to easily surpass its unimpressive 20-15 record in 2016-17. If Cassius Winston and Nick Ward can stay healthy at the ‘1’ and the ‘5,’ the Spartans can be lethal.

Like many of its conference counterparts, though, most of Michigan State’s lineup has only one year of, if any, experience playing college basketball. But if the Spartans find chemistry early on, good luck to the rest of the Big Ten.

No. 15 Minnesota

The injury bug hit the Golden Gophers early with the loss of their sixth man, Eric Curry. The backup big man often saw upwards of 20 minutes on the court, averaging 5.5 points and 5.2 boards per game. Due to this loss in the frontcourt, coach Richard Pitino emphasized the extra impact needed from Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald, who has battled injuries in the past and saw limited action for the Aggies. Center Bakary Konate has been a serviceable frontcourt option, but not much more than that.

Nonetheless, Minnesota features one of the most talented backcourts in the country. All-Big Ten first teamer Nate Mason leads the way, averaging 15.2 points and 5.0 assists in nearly 35 minutes a contest as the Golden Gophers’ floor general last season. Shooting guard Amir Coffey trailed slightly behind at 33.2 minutes per game and is also regarded as one of the conferences’ premiere returning scoring threats.

In the absence of Curry, Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy may also see more playing time down low. But more time for the tandem of glass-crashing big men is nothing for Pitino to hang his head about.

No. 19 Northwestern

Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. is getting a makeover, but the Wildcats’ lineup is barely changing. Northwestern — which will instead play at Allstate Arena 16 miles from campus in 2017-18 — lost just two players to graduation, and has adequate replacements in top-150 recruit Anthony Gaines and Boston College transfer A.J. Turner.

Turner and Gaines join a Wildcats team that made program history with their first NCAA Tournament appearance. This year, they will be expected to return.

Senior guard Bryant McIntosh returns as the torchbearer after posting 14.8 points and a conference-leading 5.2 assists per game. McIntosh’s sidekick in the backcourt is Scottie Lindsey, who emerged as a knockdown shooting threat in his first year as a starter. The two comprise one of the most potent offensive combinations in the country.

The Wolverine faithful would surely like to get forward Dererk Pardon out of their memories. Against Michigan, Pardon caught a full-court inbounds pass for an easy layup as time expired to give Northwestern its first winning season in the conference since 1968. The goal has changed now — for 2017-18, it’s about winning the Big Ten for the Wildcats.

No. 20 Purdue

The Boilermakers got an early start to their season, playing as Team USA for the World University Games and finishing in second place after an 85-74 loss to Lithuania in the finals.

Purdue will have to play catch-up, though, as it faces perhaps the toughest challenge in the conference: replacing Caleb Swanigan. While much of the Boilermakers’ foundation remains the same, Swanigan led the Big Ten in rebounding and was second in scoring — production that 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas simply can’t replicate. Haas calls himself the best center in the conference, though he’ll have to prove that statement on the court.

Outside the arc, Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias return as two of the best 3-point shooting talents in the Big Ten. Swanigan’s departure will certainly hurt Purdue’s 79.7 point-per-game average, but the pieces are in place for one of the conference’s most experienced teams to continue to have an elite offense.

Wisconsin (14 votes)

It’s Ethan Happ and then everyone else in Madison this season. The unrecognizable Badgers — who are now without Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown — are the team most likely to fall after a second-place conference finish in 2016-17. Happ put up an impressive 14 points per game in addition to being the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, but Wisconsin will need one of its four high-ranked recruits or last year’s role players to step up to continue to be a college basketball powerhouse.

The player most prepared to do that is D’Mitrik Trice. For Trice, however, an expected increase in production is more of a necessity than an option. The sophomore point guard was the Badgers’ most reliable bench player last year, despite a quiet 5.6 points per game. Happ is the unmistakable leader for this team, but Trice could be relied upon as an emerging offensive playmaker to replace Showalter and Koenig’s production.

Wisconsin hasn’t missed the tournament since 1999, the sixth-longest streak in NCAA history. Seeing that streak come to an end could be a real possibility this season.

Maryland (seven votes)

The Terrapins will be on the same learning curve as Purdue, as they too have lost their unquestioned leader in point guard Melo Trimble. Maryland doesn’t have the same experienced core as the Boilermakers, but does have a trio of sophomores who could take the next step and keep the Terrapins in the spotlight: Justin Jackson, Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan.

Jackson’s freshman campaign was a welcome sight for Maryland; his name was even in the conversation before the NBA Draft. But the 6-foot-7 small forward is back, and was named a preseason All-Big Ten and Julius Erving Award Watch List selection. Huerter and Cowan’s impacts were not as pronounced in their first years, but they did not exhibit glaring flaws in any facets of their game.

The Terrapins perhaps have the most interesting newcomer in the conference in Bruno Fernando. The Angolan center introduces a unique blend of size and athleticism that could position him as a threat to Jaren Jackson’s push for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Maryland’s frontcourt depth appears to be its weakest link, but the speed of Fernando’s adjustment to college ball could change that.