Photo Credit: John Peterson

Look Around the Big Ten as Nebraska Heads into Conference Play

December 21, 2020

Big Ten play has finally arrived for the Huskers. The league officially tipped off last week, so we already have a handful of intra-league data points to examine, but Nebraska will join the party on Tuesday night.

What are the Huskers getting themselves into?

Four different Big Ten teams have been ranked inside the top five nationally at one point or another so far this season.

It starts with Iowa, which opened the season at No. 5 and has been No. 3 the last three weeks. Led by the National Player of the Year frontrunner in Luka Garza, the Hawkeyes mostly beat up on outmatched competition as they jumped out to a 6-0 start, but that stretch did include an impressive 93-80 win over North Carolina.

The Hawkeyes got a chance to show what they were really made of on Saturday as they met with No. 1 Gonzaga up at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. Fresh off a two-week shutdown, the Zags handled the Hawkeyes 99-88, though Iowa did make a push in the second half after trailing most of the game. Garza went off for 30 and 10, but the shooters around him went 4-for-20 from 3.

Iowa has KenPom’s No. 1 offense and is averaging 98.7 points, but that defense is still a problem as KenPom has it ranked 82nd in the country. Garza has been a monster (29.3 points per game on nearly 70% shooting) and Joe Wieskamp has been a steady No. 2 option at an efficient 15.9 points per game.

Forward Jack Nunge has been a nice spark as a sixth man after sitting out the last two seasons (he redshirted in 2018-19 then tore his ACL before last season) and the Hawkeyes have more depth than a year ago, but the wildcard moving forward will be Jordan Bohannon. Outside of the game against North Carolina (24 points, 7-of-16 from 3), the fifth-year senior has been a shell of himself coming off hip surgery. In the other six games, he’s scored 22 total points 8-of-30 shooting. If he’s hitting, you’re not beating Iowa. But if the Hawkeyes have an off day from the perimeter, some teams might be able to score enough to keep up with Garza inside.

Michigan State made it through the nonconference a perfect 6-0 with wins over Notre Dame and Duke, rising up to No. 4 in the AP Poll. Then they went out and lost their conference-opener at Northwestern and got thoroughly outplayed from start to finish. I have no idea what to make of that. KenPom has the Spartans at No. 27 thanks in large part to a defense ranked 51st.

Marquette transfer Joey Hauser has been the team’s best player (13.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, 42.3% from 3). Second- and third-leading scorers Rocket Watts and junior Aaron Henry have both struggled with their perimeter shooting, but ultimately Michigan State should be fine on offense. They’re going to have to get better on the other end though if they want to stay in the hunt for a conference title.

As soon as Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn withdrew from the NBA Draft, the Illini faithful started thinking Big Ten championship and beyond, and while they’ve looked very impressive at times, they’ve also had some rough outings.

The Illini went 4-2 in the nonconference. The first loss was to No. 2 Baylor; no shame in that, especially considering it was a one-point game at halftime before the Bears pulled away for an 82-69 win. The second loss was harder to overlook as they dropped a rivalry game to Missouri, 81-78. The Tigers have impressed early, but that’s still a game Illinois has to win if it wants to be a top-10 team.

Dosunmu has lived up to the considerable hype early on, averaging better than 22 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists while the 7-foot, 290-pound Cockburn has been a force on the block (16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game). However, the Illini are relying heavily on a pair of freshman guards in starter Adam Miller and sixth man Andre Curbelo. They’ve both been solid overall, but in Illinois’ three losses, Miller has totaled six points on 3-of-20 shooting.

Illinois opened Big Ten play with a 27-point beatdown of Minnesota but then slipped up at Rutgers on Sunday, falling 91-88. Illinois has been relatively strong defensively this season, but the Illini have given up more than 80 points in all three losses. The best teams they’ve played have found a way to exploit their weaknesses. Their best win came against Duke, which has looked less and less impressive as the season has gone on.

The fourth team in that top tier is Wisconsin, but I’ll have more on the Badgers later.

Instead, let’s take a look at that Rutgers win over Illinois, because Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights made a strong case on Sunday that the top tier should include five teams instead of four. Rutgers beat up three bad teams then closed out the nonconference with a 76-69 win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Scarlet Knights opened Big Ten play with a 14-point win over Maryland then controlled play throughout the second half to top Illinois and start out league play 2-0.

Senior point guard Geo Baker suffered an injury in the season-opener and only returned a couple of games ago, so the Scarlet Knights have accomplished all this without him being much of a difference-maker. That is because Ron Harper Jr. has ascended into stardom. He’s second in the Big Ten in scoring behind only Garza and hung 28 points on the Illini.

Senior point guard Jacob Young has also taken a big step forward and filled in admirably at the point guard spot with Baker out, averaging nearly 17.0 points and 6.0 assists. With that kind of perimeter play meshed with the size Rutgers has inside with 4-star recruit Clifford Omoruyi (6-foot-11 and 240 pounds) and senior Myles Johnson (6-foot-10 and 250 pounds), the Scarlet Knights will be a tough out for anyone they play this season. KenPom has them at 17 right now, top-25 in both offense and defense.

Three other teams navigated the nonconference unscathed: Minnesota at 7-0, Michigan at 6-0 and Ohio State at 6-0.

The Gophers’ only nonconference win over another high-major team was Boston College, so that doesn’t say much, but Richard PItino’s squad did bounce back from the Illinois loss to pick up an impressive win over a good St. Louis team on Sunday night. Point guard Marcus Carr is averaging almost 24 points while dishing out 6.0 assists per game. Transfers Both Gach and Liam Robbins are both averaging double figures as instant-impact players.

The Wolverines didn’t face another high-major team in the nonconference and they barely scraped by Penn State to open league play, so I’m in wait-and-see mode with them, but 4-star freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been spectacular to start the season, leading the team at 15.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

Ohio State has wins over Notre Dame and UCLA, but the Buckeyes also dropped their season-opener to a Purdue team that wasn’t great in the nonconference. That being said, they were without second-leading scorer E.J. Liddell against the Boilermakers. Cal transfer Justice Sueing has been really solid after redshirting last season while Liddell made a significant leap from a year ago, filling the void left by Kaleb Wesson’s early departure. Perhaps the coolest part of their win over UCLA was Harvard transfer Seth Towns making his first appearance since March 11, 2018. Injures derailed the former Ivy League star’s career, and although he only played two minutes and didn’t score, getting him back on the court was a big win for Ohio State in itself.

Indiana beat Providence, Stanford and Butler but lost to two top-20 teams in Texas and Florida State. Sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis has been one of the best players in the Big Ten, averaging 21.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

Purdue had a win over Notre Dame and losses to Clemson and Miami during the nonconference, though the Boilermakers haven’t really been totally healthy all season.

Maryland scored four easy nonconference wins before getting smacked by Clemson and then losing to Rutgers to open Big Ten play.

Penn State, under interim head coach Jim Ferry, opened the season with wins over VMI and VCU then sandwiched losses to Seton Hall and Michigan around a 20-point win over Virginia Tech. If the Nittany Lions played only teams from Virginia, they might never lose.

Northwestern beat three bad teams and lost to Pitt before dominating Michigan State. College basketball is weird sometimes.

Nebraska faces a difficult journey through arguably the best conference in the country. There won’t be any easy wins, but I do see a few teams that look susceptible if Nebraska can put everything together and grow together throughout the conference slate.

It all starts on Tuesday night in Madison.

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