Michigan junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t fear the known as much as he does the unknown.
Hardaway is aware the Big Ten boasts four men’s basketball teams ranked in the top 14, including his own. It will take a complete effort for any team to win those games, whether it’s at No. 1 Indiana or at home against No. 4 Ohio State. But outside of No. 5 Michigan, No. 14 Michigan State and No. 23 Wisconsin, it’s rest of the Big Ten that gives Hardaway pause.
“It’s not the top five, it’s that middle pack that everybody needs to be worried about,” Hardaway said. “They’re very good, and they’re the ones that set the tone for us top five, top four teams that are ranked.
”Those teams are sleepers. They can beat anybody on any given night. So we have to ready and prepared for it.”
Hardaway is talking about Minnesota, which advanced to the NIT finals last year. There’s Purdue, which nearly advanced to the the Sweet Sixteen last year. Northwestern and Iowa played in the NIT. Illinois competes with as much athletic ability as any team in the league. Plus there’s Penn State and ultra-talented Tim Frazier.
While at the surface the league is stout, it’s the middle group that makes the Big Ten formidable.
“We’re going to have to come prepared to play every night because there’s so much talent and so many good teams in the Big Ten that there’s going to be no games for us to take off,” Michigan State guard Keith Appling said. “Any given night you can get beat by any team in the Big Ten.”
Nine different players were named to the initial Wooden Watch list including Hardaway, Frazier, Appling, Indiana center Cody Zeller, Michigan guard Trey Burke, Illinois guard Brandon Paul, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas, Indiana forward Christian Watford and Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. With that kind of talent and highly ranked teams, this could be one of the Big Ten’s best seasons in a generation.
“We have talent in our league from top to bottom, and I think that’s maybe what separates us,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said.
BIG TEN PREDICTIONS
1. Michigan — Elite Eight
Wolverines feature league’s best scoring PG in Burke and streakiest SG in Hardaway and mix in top talent at forward
2. Indiana — Final Four
Indiana finally is back to national relevance, can it take advantage?
3. Michigan State — Final Four
Tom Izzo has a bona fide scorer in shooting guard Gary Harris
4. Ohio State — Elite Eight
If Buckeyes can find a third consistent scoring threat, Final Four is possible
5. Minnesota — Two and Out
So much talent at forward, and Andre Hollins is a budding star
6. Iowa — Two and Out
Another step forward for Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes
7. Wisconsin — One and Done
Maybe less talented than others but system continues to run on rails
8. Purdue — NIT
Boilermakers take a slight step back this year, but should return to NCAA next season
9. Illinois — NIT
Could go in any direction this year with talent to match
10. Northwestern –NIT
Death, taxes and Northwestern in the NIT
11. Penn State — none
Will be a tough out with Frazier in the back court
12. Nebraska — none
There’s a new arena coming in 2013-14; it won’t help this year
BIG TEN CAPSULES
Iowa's Aaron White (30) draws a foul on Illinois' Brandon Paul (3) during their first-round game in the 2012 B1G Ten basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
ILLINOIS (17-15, 6-12), no postseason
- Games against Iowa – March 5 in Iowa City
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Iowa snapped series-worst 7-game losing streak in Big Ten Tournament. Illinois has won series-record 3 straight in Iowa City
- Who’s Back? – Wings Brandon Paul (14.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and D.J. Richardson (11.6 ppg, 3.0) are explosive, yet inconsistent, playmakers. PG Tracy Abrams is vital to running the offense. G Joseph Bertrand is a terrific athlete. F Tyler Griffey, F Nnanna Egwu
- Who’s Gone? – C Meyers Leonard was an NBA first-round draft pick
- Who’s New? – Coastal Carolina transfer Sam McLaurin (10.0 ppg)
- Projected starters — Abrams, Bertrand, Richardson, McLaurin, Egwu (Paul is sixth man)
- Outlook — The Big Ten’s mystery team. Illini have enough talent to challenge every team, yet fell apart last year in losing nine of its last 10. If new coach John Groce can get the Illini playing consistently, they have NCAA tournament talent.
Iowa's Andrew Brommer (20) defends Indiana's Cody Zeller (40) during the first half of their Big Ten Conference college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/ The Gazette-KCRG)
INDIANA (27-9, 11-7), NCAA Sweet Sixteen
- Games against Iowa – Dec. 31 in Iowa City; March 2 in Bloomington
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Teams split last year with each winning at home. Iowa has won last 4 in Iowa City and 5 of 6 overall
- Who’s Back? – Sophomore Cody Zeller returns after 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. Zeller, a 7-foot post, was tabbed national preseason player of the year by most publications. The Hoosiers return all five starters including 6-9 F Christian Watford (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg), 6-7 F Will Sheehey (8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg), shutdown defender G Victor Oladipo (10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and G Jordan Hulls (11.7 ppg, 3.3 apg). Tough forwards Derek Elston (4.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and Austin Etherington (1.3 ppg) come off the bench, as does one-time phenom but injury-prone G Maurice Creek.
- Who’s Gone? – G Verdell Jones III, G Matt Roth, F Tim Pritchard
- Who’s New? – Five-star talents PG Yogi Ferrell and F Jeremy Hollowell will contribute immediately. Freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin were handed nine-game suspensions by the NCAA for impermissible benefits.
- Projected starters — Zeller, Watford, Oladipo, Sheehey, Ferrell
- Outlook — Sky’s the limit for Indiana. The preseason No. 1 boasts talent, depth and versatility at every position. The non-conference schedule is challenging, but not overwhelming.
Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. brings the ball down the court under pressure from Iowa's Zach McCabe (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Michigan won the game 75-72. (Brian Ray/SourceMedia Group News)
MICHIGAN (24-10, 13-5), NCAA second round
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 6 at Ann Arbor
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Iowa won last year in Iowa City; Michigan has won last 3 in Ann Arbor and 9 of last 11
- Who’s Back? – Sophomore PG Trey Burke (14.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.5 rpg) spurned the NBA for another season at Michigan and was tabbed a preseason All-American. SG Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is a streaky threat, and C Jordan Morgan (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is a physical force.
- Who’s Gone? – Shooting guards Zach Novak and Stu Douglass provided leadership that Wolverines must replace. SF Evan Smotrycz transferred to Maryland.
- Who’s New? – Forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary were top-30 recruits with different skill sets that should blend in nicely with Burke and Hardaway.
- Projected starters — Burke, Hardaway, Morgan, Robinson, McGary
- Outlook — There’s not a better starting five in the country. But an inexperienced bench combined with a leadership loss will test the No. 5 Wolverines.
MIchigan State's Keith Appling and Matt Gatens of Iowa dive for the ball during the first half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Wednesday on February 2, 2011. (Cliff Jette/Sourcemedia Group)
MICHIGAN STATE (29-8, 13-5), NCAA Sweet Sixteen
- Games against Iowa — Jan. 10 at Iowa City
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Iowa won last meeting in Iowa City; MSU has won last 4 overall and 9 of last 10
- Who’s Back? – PG Keith Appling (11.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) successfully transitioned to the point last year. PF Adreian Payne (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) became a force late in the season. C Derrick Nix (8.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) had an offseason arrest but is a load in the post. SF Branden Dawson suffered a torn ACL in March but is ready to play.
- Who’s Gone? – PF Draymond Green was the team’s all-everything player, the Big Ten MVP and first-team All-American. G Austin Thornton, G Brandon Wood
- Who’s New? – G Gary Harris might be the league’s top freshman, and G Denzel Valentine (a prep teammate of Iowa guard Anthony Clemmons) will provide a lift off the bench. F Kenny Kaminski, F Matt Costello
- Projected starters — Appling, Harris, Dawson, Payne, Nix
- Outlook — Losing Green will hurt, but it might help MSU play more traditionally. Add in four talented freshmen with the hard-nosed holdovers, would you really bet against Tom Izzo?
Iowa's Devyn Marble (4) puts up a shot over Minnesota's Rodney Williams (33) during the first half of their Big Ten Conference college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)
MINNESOTA (23-15, 6-12), NIT finals
- Games against Iowa – Feb. 3 at Minneapolis; Feb. 17 at Iowa City
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Iowa swept Gophers last year; Minnesota had won 6 straight in series
- Who’s Back? – F Rodney Williams (12.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) became the Gophers’ go-to scorer in the NIT. Andre Hollins (8.7 ppg, 1.8 apg) has grabbed the point guard role. F Elliott Eliason, F Trevor Mbakwe, F Andre Ingram, G Julian Welch, F Joe Coleman, G Austin Hollins
- Who’s Gone? – Ralph Sampson III, Chip Armelin (transfer)
- Who’s New? – F Trevor Mbakwe, the Big Ten’s leading rebounder in 2010-11, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after tearing an ACL early last year. F Charles Buggs, G Wally Ellenson
- Outlook — Gophers have talent at every position. Last year they couldn’t close out wins, which prevented an NCAA tournament appearance. With almost every valuable contributor returning, a sixth year for Mbakwe and ultra-athletic freshman Buggs, Gophers could vault into the top five … or higher.
Nebraska's Brandon Ubel, center, battles for a rebound against Iowa's Melsahn Basabe (1) and Roy Devyn Marble (4) in the first half of their NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
NEBRASKA (12-18, 4-14), no postseason
- Games against Iowa — Feb. 21 at Lincoln; March 9 at Iowa City
- Recent action vs. Iowa — Teams split last year, each winning on the road
- Who’s Back? – F Brandon Ubel (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) is the only primary starter returning this year. G Dylan Talley, C Andre Almeida (injured last year)
- Who’s Gone? — Bo Spencer
- Who’s New? — Juco PG Deverell Biggs, G Benny Parker
- Projected starters — Ubel, Talley, Almeida, Parker, G Ray Gallego
- Outlook – Potentially long season ahead for Huskers with just one returning starter, a new coach in Tim Miles and competing in the nation’s best conference. Bright side, Nebraska moves into new arena next year.
Iowa's Zach McCabe, (15), drives into the paint against Northwesterns Drew Crawford in the first half of their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, March 3, 2012. Northwestern went on to win the game 70-66. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)
NORTHWESTERN (19-14, 8-10), NIT second round
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 13 at Evanston; Feb. 9 at Iowa City
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Northwestern has won last 5, including 4 straight in Evanston and 2 in a row in Iowa City
- Who’s Back? – Third-team all-Big Ten G Drew Crawford (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) ranks second among returnees in scoring from last year. All-freshman pick G Dave Sobolewski (8.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) led the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6-1). G Alex Marcotullio, G Reggie Hearn
- Who’s Gone? – Wildcats lose John Shurna, the school’s all-time points leader and Big Ten’s top scorer. JerShon Cobb was suspended for the season.
- Who’s New? – Transfers F Jared Swopshire (Louisville), F Nikola Cerina (TCU); freshmen C Alex Olah, F Kale Abrahamson, F Sanjay Lumpkin, C Chier Ajou
- Projected starters — Crawford, Sobolewski, Swopshire, Olah, Hearn
- Outlook — Losing Cobb is tough but not a killer. If Swopshire and Olah can produce right away, Northwestern might once again challenge for its first NCAA tournament appearance.
Ohio State's Aaron Craft knocks the ball out of the hands of Matt Gatens of Iowa during the second half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City of Saturday, January 7, 2012. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)
OHIO STATE (31-8, 13-5), NCAA Final Four
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 22 at Columbus
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — OSU has won series record 7 straight against Iowa; Series tied 75-75
- Who’s Back? – Preseason All-American F Deshaun Thomas (15.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) was the team’s go-to scorer in the NCAA tournament. He’s also versatile. PG Aaron Craft (8.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) was the league’s best on-ball defender. G Lenzelle Smith (6.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) quietly became a complementary player. C Amir Williams and SF LaQuinton Ross will move into the starting lineup. PF Evan Ravenel will come off the bench, as will G Sam Thompson.
- Who’s Gone? – Two-time all-Big Ten post Jared Sullinger was an NBA first-round pick. William Buford was a four-year starter.
- Who’s New? – SG Amedeo Della Valle
- Projected starters — Craft, Ross, Thomas, Smith, Williams
- Outlook — No. 4 Ohio State should compete once again for the Big Ten and national titles, if Thompson or Ross can become the scorers that most expect.
Penn State's Tim Frazier, center, shoots for a basket past Iowa defenders Aaron White, left, and Melsahn Basabe on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Abby Drey)
PENN STATE (12-20, 4-14), no postseason
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 31 at Iowa City; Feb. 14 at State College
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Teams have split last 10 meetings, each time holding serve on home court
- Who’s Back? – G Tim Frazier (18.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 6.2 apg) finished second in scoring and first in assists last year in Big Ten play. G Jermaine Marshall (10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Ross Travis (4.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
- Who’s Gone? – G Cammeron Woodyward, 3 players elected to transfer after the season (Trey Lewis, Matt Glover, Peter Alexis), Billy Oliver (retired)
- Who’s New? – G D.J. Newbill (transfer from Southern Miss), F Brandon Taylor, G Akosa Maduegbunam
- Projected starters — Frazier, Marshall, Newbill, Travis, F Sasa Borovnjak
- Outlook — Frazier might be the league’s most complete playmaker, so Penn State could knock off a team or team this year. But the league is too deep for the Nittany Lions to make a serious run at the Big Ten’s top half.
Iowa's Melsahn Basabe goes up for a rebound surrounded by D. J. Byrd (21), Lewis Jackson (23), Jacob Lawson (34) and Terone Johnson (0) of Purdue during the second half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Wednesday, December 28, 2011. (Cliff Jette/SourceMedia Group)
PURDUE (22-13, 10-8), NCAA third round
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 27 at Purdue; Feb. 27 at Iowa City
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Purdue swept series last year and has won 10 of last 11
- Who’s Back? – Versatile F D.J. Byrd (8.9 ppg) and G Terone Johnson (9.2 ppg) were key cogs in last year’s NCAA tournament run. C Travis Carroll, F Sandi Marcius, F Jacob Lawson
- Who’s Gone? – F Robbie Hummel, G Lewis Jackson
- Who’s New? – Boilermakers brought in one of the nation’s top classes with G/F Rapheal Davis, F Donnie Hale, PG Ronnie Johnson, C A.J. Hammons
- Projected starters — R Johnson, T Johnson, Marcius, Byrd, Hale
- Outlook — Big test for Coach Matt Painter now that his prime class of Hummel, Jackson, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson has faded into the history books. Team appears a year away from challenging for top-four spot, but if youth materializes, Purdue could reach the NCAA tournament.
Iowa's Aaron White (30) puts up a shot over Wisconsin's Jared Berggren (40) during the first half of their Big Ten game Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/ The Gazette-KCRG)
WISCONSIN (26-10, 13-5), NCAA Sweet Sixteen
- Games against Iowa – Jan. 19 at Iowa City; Feb. 6 at Madison
- Recent Action vs. Iowa — Iowa swept series last year for first time since 1995; Iowa leads all-time 78-77
- Who’s Back? – PF Mike Bruesewitz (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and C Jared Berggren (10.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) form a solid post combination. SF Ryan Evans (11.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg) was a dependable do-it-all player, and SG Ben Brust (7.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg) is one of the league’s best 3-point shooters. F Frank Kaminsky
- Who’s Gone? – All-Big Ten PG Jordan Taylor graduated after setting the NCAA record for assist-to-turnover ratio (3.01-1). Josh Gasser (7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who moved from SG to PG, suffered a torn ACL in an early practice and is lost for the season.
- Who’s New? – Freshman F Sam Dekker likely will become one of the team’s top scoring threats and his inside-outside game makes him tough to defend. George Marshall is likely to step in at point guard.
- Projected starters — Marshall, Brust, Berggren, Evans, Kaminsky (Bruesewitz after returning from injury)
- Outlook — Losing Gasser is tough for the No. 23 Badgers, but there’s enough of a surrounding cast that will help Wisconsin win their fair share of games.