Big Ten Weekly Wrap: Jan. 23

The Big Ten needs a better publicist. A hip new slogan. Maybe a new marketing campaign. People just don’t seem to be getting the message. This might be the best conference in America, and some are still unwilling to give it the respect it deserves. What gives?

Stereotypes aimed at coaches, schools and conferences can stretch from harsh realities to half-truths. Often, when a conference in particular gets labeled as being a certain way, it becomes harder for the millions making up the general consensus to alter their preconceived notions. The Big Ten is slow, prodding and boring.

When people generally think of Big Ten hoops, they think of Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois grinding out hard-fought wins, likely on the glass, and likely with a 50-to-40-something final score. Games like this occur all across the country with regularity if you’re inclined enough to peruse a few box scores, but when it happens in the Big Ten, everyone rushes to their keyboard to affirm the stereotype and point a half-hearted finger.

When Arizona State and Utah combine for a 45-42 clunker, or Rutgers and Seton Hall take turns abusing the rim for 40 minutes, rarely does the conference these schools hail from actually suffer in the court of public opinion. In the end it amounts to just another loss or another win for the respective teams. And yet when Wisconsin plays possession-ball and the shots aren’t falling on some random night, it usually incites another round of cheap shots from soapboxes coast-to-coast.

The SEC is the unquestioned star on the gridiron. We know this. Years and years and years of winning has given SEC fans a stubbornness so powerful that they actually believe the past holds more weight than the present. The Big Ten has the opposite problem. Nobody wants to believe it’s the best league in America because of how many times they’ve heard it torn to shreds in the media. How can a conference that plays such boring basketball conceivably be the best at anything?  How, indeed.

So to keep up with this glorious conference until March Madness takes over, the Big Ten Weekly Wrap has been created. Every Monday you’ll be treated to a hodge-podge of information and analysis from the previous week, ranging from downright insightful to borderline ridiculous. Recurring features include a brief Q & A section with fellow college hoops writers, a fans of the week award, a player of the week award, a trio of painfully-biased predictions, momentary lapses of reason and so much more.

Tips, pictures, videos? Email me.

While the rest of the conference spent the last seven days beating up on itself, Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Golden Gophers were quietly making their move in the standings. Paced by 6’7″ junior swingman Rodney Williams, who just happens to be your player of the week, the Gophers upended both Penn State and Northwestern to climb back to 3-4 in Big Ten play.

Williams’ line of 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks in the pair of games against PSU and NU wasn’t exactly hair-raising, but his overall consistency against Big Ten opponents this year makes him deserving of a mention. Quite honestly, if the Gophers were going to do anything worthwhile with their season, then it had to start with Penn State and Northwestern this past week. Williams came out and gave Smith exactly what he needed to see from his star player, reaching the foul line 11 times one game and picking up four steals the next. The versatility that Williams brings to the table has been a serious difference-maker, and the kid has really picked up the slack since Trevor Mbakwe was lost to a season-ending injury.

A picture-worthy court storm it was not (fill the entire floor, please), but Nebraska’s upset victory of No. 13 Indiana on Tuesday was still the mother of all upsets for the now-last place folks in Lincoln. And because of how many times I saw that damn Huskers scarf-sign on TV during this game, the dozen or so nutcases picture above are your unanimous fans of the week. This picture, to be quite honest, tells you everything you needed to know about the magnitude of this win. You get it all. Enthusiasm. Confidence. Relief. Fifty-cent corndog night at Uncle Charlie’s. It’s all captured here beautifully.

But the dude in the cowboy hat is the clear star of this bunch. Because when you think of a what a crazed Nebraska basketball fan should look like, I picture a guy sweating profusely, heavily intoxicated, likely wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses indoors while predictably shirtless. This guy IS the ideal Nebraska fan. He also looks like he’s been through absolute hell, which is pretty darn accurate for anyone following this program. Regardless of how many more times something positive happens this season for the Huskers, at least you had this moment. Relish in it. The corndog, that is.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

This one comes from Mocksession, the mecca of TV-capturing goodness…

Yes, that’s Jimmy Beilein, the king of Ann Arbor, courtesy of some outstanding CBS overlay editing work. The tourney isn’t that far off, guys, we might want to tighten things up a bit, eh? Getting the names of the two coaches correct is about 400x more important than the useless W/L record at the bottom. Those stats could be off by a dozen games and hardly a fraction of the viewing public would notice. At least not near as many people as the hundreds/thousands who are now convinced his name is Jim.

A minor gaffe here, sure. But if you take anything from the picture above, realize that Michigan was getting absolutely whipped at this point, and fully deserved to lose this game on Saturday. Fayetteville is a so-so environment when it comes to difficulty level for road teams, and it’s a bad sign for a much more talented UM squad to come out flat like this. Jim Beilein needs to get his guys more prepared.

Three Bold Predictions

1. The last place Big Ten school at year’s end will have at least four conference victories. This seems minor, but it isn’t. With 12 teams in play, it would be astounding for the league to not end up with a prototypical bottom-feeding team. An occurrence like this is still unlikely statistically speaking, but the league has enough depth and talent to do something rare.

2. That Northwestern misses the NCAA Tournament and nobody is surprised. Let’s just get this one out of the way now. It’s not happening this year. Sorry, guys.

3. That some how, some way, Wisconsin will use its Kohl Center witchcraft and upset Indiana on Thursday. The Hoosiers are sliding fast, and look more vulnerable to upstart opponents than earlier in the season. The Badgers just went on the road and halted Illinois to pick up their fourth straight win. Beyond that, Jordan Taylor is starting to get his groove back. I expect Wisconsin to hold serve at home.

Two Questions

This week’s guest is Raphielle Johnson, editor of College Hoops Net and NBE Basketball Report. Go ahead and follow him on Twitter.

1.) Tom Izzo’s track record makes Michigan State one of those impossible teams to count out in March. From what you’ve seen of this current MSU squad, are they Final Four-caliber? Can they win a title?

RJ: I wouldn’t put Michigan State in the group of teams that would be most capable of winning a national title if looking solely at talent, as teams such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State and Syracuse seem to have the edge there. However the Spartans are more than capable of getting to New Orleans and for reasons other than the excellence of Tom Izzo. Draymond Green is an outstanding player who is extremely versatile and a great leader as well, making him a coach on the floor for Michigan State. For them to get to the Final Four two things have to happen: Keith Appling and Travis Trice need to continue to mature, and big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix need to consistently contribute. Neither Payne nor Nix has to be a “20 & 10″ guy, but the have to be dependable in their roles as interior defenders and rebounders. If those things can happen I wouldn’t rule out a trip to New Orleans.

2.) Five schools currently sit below .500 in conference play (Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State, Nebraska). Of that group, who do you think is most likely to threaten for an NCAA bid and/or make noise in the Big Ten Tournament? Basically, who’s stock are you buying?

RJ: Since I have a hard time picking Northwestern to make a run at an NCAA berth since they’ve never been to the tournament, I’ll take Minnesota here. The bigger reason, more than the fact that the Golden Gophers are blowing Northwestern out as I type this, is the improved play of Joe Coleman. He’s reached double figures in three of the last four games (counting Northwestern), giving Minnesota another scorer on the perimeter. They weren’t going to replace the production of Trevor Mbakwe inside as neither Ralph Sampson III or Rodney Williams is the kind of offensive threat you expect approx. 15 points/game from, so the emergence of a player like Coleman should help them out. Northwestern can get hot from deep but their system can also lead to some ugly showings if the threes aren’t falling, and Iowa might be the best equipped across the board but they need Melsahn Basabe to be a consistent factor if they’re to make a run. I can’t buy either Nebraska or Penn State at this point.

One Final Thought

It seems that everyone is finally waking up to Michigan true freshman Trey Burke, and it’s great to see. When I wrote about Burke for SB Nation a few weeks ago, I toyed with the idea of saying he was a more important player for the Wolverines than Darius Morris last season. From where I sit right now though, I can honestly say that Burke might not just be a better fit for Beilein’s team, but he looks like the better pro prospect of the two guards. It really can’t be repeated enough that Morris hardly saw the floor as a freshman. What Burke is doing in year one, regardless of how wide open the positional battle was, is truly remarkable. A look at his tempo-free numbers:

With Michigan currently in a dog-fight atop the league, it’s hard to dismiss Burke as a serious finalist for conference player of the year. He’s already a 15-point, 5-assist, 4-rebound guy right now, but those numbers could easily rise down the stretch in games that have even larger implications. We know Jared Sullinger and Draymond Green are the obvious favorites, and will be extremely hard to unseat, but as long as the Wolverines are in the regular season title picture, Burke’s name belongs in the discussion for the league’s top individual award.