Big Ten Hoops in 2011: Fran's Challenge
Well, Fran McCaffery won the battle of his first press conference. You can call that an upset if you’d like, and judging by the reaction on Sunday to his hiring, juxtaposed against the reaction after Monday’s presser, it certainly was a 180 with regards to how the fans feel about him. So he has already performed beyond expectations for some.
His next challenge will be to get his feet under him and hit the recruiting trails to fill the available scholarship, something he says he plans to do. My hope is he will use that scholarship on a Junior College point guard. I don’t say that with any disrespect to Cully Payne, rather, you need at least two capable point guards and Iowa has one right now.
I think McCaffery will do fine on the x’s and o’s part of the job, but that isn’t going to be the difference in a league where last year’s 10th seeded team was coached by someone that has been to a Final Four; this league, right now, might be at its apex with regards to quality coaching. It comes down to getting players and then it comes down to what other teams have for players, which is what we will look at right now.
PURDUE: The Boilermakers were in the midst of an historic run this year before Robbie Hummel tore his ACL against Minnesota in February. They still made it to the Sweet 16 without him, and had he not gotten hurt Purdue might have been a #1 seed, or a #2 seed at worst. Chris Kramer (6.5ppg) and Keaton Grant (6.6ppg) are seniors who played a lot of minutes this year and Kramer is one of the best defenders in the league. So those are decent losses. Hoewver, the trio of Hummel, JuJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore are juniors and all can return.
What’s uncertain is how quickly Hummel will be able to go on his knee; can he be 100% in nine months, when the regular season starts? Will they need him to be? I think you can assume that he will be a significant factor by the start of the Big Ten season, which is January and that will have been 11 months. Iowa running back Jewel Hampton has been cleared for practice this month, less than nine months after he injured his ACL. Everyone is different, but Hummel should be ready to go for the 18 game Big Ten grind. Purdue shoudln’t be too worried about getting more out of him than that. They will be a preseason favorite if all three return; Moore and Johnson will at least look at the NBA. If they all stay, I think this team gets better play at the point and is at least 14-4 again.
MICHIGAN STATE: Kalin Lucas’ Achilles injury probably means he won’t test the NBA draft waters and will return for his senior year. They will lose Raymar Morgan, a very good player, and guys like Delvon Roe will be healthy. This should be a very good team again next year and 14-4 or better is a possibility; two of their Big Ten losses this year came with Lucas on the bench with an ankle injury, with another having Lucas in the game but he was still recovering from that injury. They add one of the nation’s best centers and two outstanding guards, including the state of Michigan’s Mr. Basketball.
ILLINOIS: They finished 10-8 and on the bubble, but didn’t make the big dance. Every player of note returns for them next years as long as Demetri McCamey comes back, which he should. If he does, Illinois will be one of the contenders for the league title as they welcome one of the nation’s 15 best recruiting classes as well. They could improve by three or four wins next year in league play, in my opinion.
OK, so there are the three teams that I think will be worthy of a preseason Top 25 ranking…obviously Michigan State and Purdue will be closer to the Top 10. Here is the next tier for next year as I see things right now, teams that if they made it to the NCAA tournament (old school 64 tourney) I would not be surprised:
WISCONSIN: The Badgers went 13-5 this season, another great year for Bo Ryan. But they lose Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohanon, 27 points per game in their backcourt, to graduation. It’s not just the points, but the clutch plays those two delivered for the better part of the last three years that will be so difficult to replace. John Leuer and Jordan Taylor are back and the next stars are probably on the bench somewhere…but I don’t see them winning 13 games and they will be a beatable team. However, the system at Wisconsin seems to be better than the individuals, so never count them out…but they take a step back. Guard Josh Gasser (Wisconsin’s Gatorade POTY) will help in the backcourt, but this system doesn’t typically produce lights out freshmen.
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OHIO STATE: Four of the top five leading scorers for Ohio State will likely return next year, along with one of the nation’s five best recruiting classes that includes the best center in the nation and a scoring combo forward who is in the mold of Evan Turner. However, they lose Turner, who will be no worse than the third pick in the NBA draft and might be the top pick, depending on which team wins the NBA’s draft lottery. He is a 6-8 player that can play four positions and he might have the best guard skills of someone of his height since Lebron James came out, or maybe going back to Penny Hardaway. He is one of the best Big Ten players of my lifetime, to be sure. Needless to say, that is a big loss. They went 14-4 this year, and I just don’t see that happening next year. 12-6? Possible. Still a good team and a tough out, but beatable. Depending on the growth of the younger players, they could become a Top 25 team at some point next year.
NORTHWESTERN: This is a program that has never made it to an NCAA tournament, but I think 2010-2011 will be their year. They return everyone of note save guard Jeremy Nash. Kevin Coble will be back, and he is one of my favorite players in the country. He was injured before the season even began and was their best player. John Shurna stepped up in his absence to average 18ppg this year. They cracked the Top 25 for the first time in a long time this year, and they might stick around a little bit longer next year. They will do better than their 7-11 record from this season.
So we now move on to the next tier, teams that I don’t think will qualify for a traditional 64-team tournament field.
MINNESOTA: They lose two of their top three scorers from this year’s team and their recruiting class, as of right now, isn’t great. There are also questions as to whether Tubby Smith will return as coach; is he really interested in leaving, or is he posturing for more money? They finished 9-9 this year and they will be a good defensive team, but I can’t see them finishing any better than 9-9 next year.
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MICHIGAN: The Wolverines started the season ranked in the Top 20 and finished with a record of 15-17, perhaps the most disappointing team in the nation. Deshawn Sims is gone, and I can’t imagine Manny Harris sticks around for another year. You are talking about two of the Top Ten players in the league right there. Everyone else should be back, but again, those two losses are immense. They have a really good recruiting class coming in, but I just don’t see them making the tournament. They went 7-11 this year, and that might be too many for next year.
INDIANA: After suffering through one of the worst seasons in school history, Hoosier fans are hopeful that next year will be better. Keeping Maurice Creek healthy will be a big deal and they do return more than 80% of their scoring. Their recruiting class is nothing to write home about right now, but they didn’t have a lot of rides to hand out. They should be better, but not yet ready to make a move into NCAA tourney consideration. The NIT would probably be a stretch, too.
PENN STATE: They won three league games last year and one of their few bright spots, Chris Babb, is leaving the program. Talor Battle has another year of eligibility and he is a very fun player to watch, and dangerous. But he doesn’t have anything around him and they won’t be much better than three wins.
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So as I see it, the best finish Iowa could hope for next year would be seventh place, and that would mean everyone on the team right now that has eligibility remaining is on next year’s team. We still haven’t heard from the best player on the team, Aaron Fuller. It would also require all four of the recruits to come in and make some kind of impact, plus it wouldn’t hurt if McCaffery can go out and land a Junior College point guard with the one remaining scholarship…he said Monday he plans to fill that ride.
While teams like Wisconsin and Ohio State are beatable, they will be better than Iowa. Minnesota will be stingy, but very beatable and I think Michigan retools, too. Three of Iowa’s four wins this year came against the teams that finished 10th & 11th in the standings, and their other win was against Northwestern at home when the Hawks were raining three point shots; the Cats were up 20 on Iowa by halftime in the return game and they will be a much better team with the return of Kevin Coble.
We’ll have to see the Big Ten schedule come September to see how that sets up for Iowa, but we know the Hawks will have home games against Iowa State and UNI and the road game at Drake. The Cyclones will be devastated by the losses of Craig Brackins, Marques Gillstrap and Justin Hamilton, while UNI will have to face life with Ali Farokmanesh, Adam Koch and Jordan Eglseder. Drake is signing one of the best recruiting classes in the Valley, but loses its all time leading scorer in Josh Young. Iowa has to win the ‘state championship’ next year if it wants to finish at or above .500, something that isn’t far fetched as long as all hands are on deck.
Of course, there are so many unknowns for Iowa with regards to how they’ll take to McCaffery’s changes in style of play, but I certainly expect to see a much better Iowa team next year than the one we saw this season; Iowa’s 14 regular season conference losses came by an average of 14.9 points, with just one of those losses coming by less than eight points (the 2OT game at home vs Michigan).
McCaffery said that he would expect next year’s team to show improvement. While the league was not as good as we initially thought it was going to be this year, it was pretty salty teams one through eight. It will be again next year; perhaps more so, as outside of Penn State, each team could prove to be a tough out on a given night.