By Teddy Gutkin, Max Brill, and Jack Molino
MINNESOTA BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PREVIEW (by Teddy Gutkin):
Record: 14-14 (3-12 in Big Ten)
Tournament Seed: 11
First Round Opponent: #14 Iowa
Season Summary: Heading into the year, the Golden Gophers were widely regarded as a top contender in the Big Ten, and they certainly looked the part after starting the year 13-3. However, the wheels completely fell off after Reggie Lynch, the reigning B1G Defensive Player of the Year, was suspended (and later expelled) from the program amidst sexual assault allegations. Since Lynch’s departure, Minnesota has gone just 1-10, including losses to conference bottom-feeders Iowa and Illinois.
Players to Watch: Jordan Murphy leads the Gophers in both points and rebounds, averaging 17.4 PPG a Big Ten-leading 11.5 RPG, including 4.4 on the offensive end. Nate Mason is easily Minnesota’s best three-point shooter, shooting at a 41% clip from the great beyond and sporting a 16.4 point scoring average, tied with Murphy for the team lead. While Mason is an excellent offensive player, he is very weak on the defensive side of the ball, which has caused the Gophers trouble ever since their defensive flaws have been glaringly exposed after Lynch’s departure.
X-Factor: Isaiah Washington, a freshman from the Bronx, struggled to begin the season, though he has begun to gain the trust of Richard Pitino, recently making his first start against the Indiana Hoosiers and routinely finishing with impressive moves at the rim, reminding fans of the “Jelly” move that made him a viral sensation as a high schooler. Washington is an enticing prospect, though his inconsistency during the first 2/3 of the season make him a huge wild card. If he can replicate the combination of aggressiveness and willingness to find the open man that he did in a 26-point outing against Michigan, Minnesota could be on its way to a potential first round victory and more.
The Verdict: Minnesota has plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense is third to last in the Big Ten, and this instantly spells disaster for a team playing in a tournament filled to the brim with up-tempo offenses. Mason and Murphy figure to play well as they have all year, but ultimately the lack of depth (the Gophers have just one big man on their bench) and struggles on the defensive side of the ball makes it hard to give them a chance. We’re more likely to see a Friends reunion then a Minnesota Big Ten Championship at MSG.
IOWA BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PREVIEW (by Max Brill):
Record: 12-17 (3-13 in Big Ten)
Tournament Seed: 14
First Round Opponent: #11 Minnesota
Season Summary: After posting a 19-15 overall record (10-8 in B1G play) in 2017, the Hawkeyes failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. Senior Peter Jok, who led the 2016-2017 Hawkeyes in points per game, and was second on the team in rebounds, assists, and steals per game graduated and the team has not had anyone to replace his production. Iowa has failed to win back-to-back games in B1G play this season, and dropped two games to non-conference opponents in non-power five conferences earlier in the season. Needless to say, it has been a struggle for Fran McCaffery and his squad this season.
Players to Watch: The sophomore tandem of Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook has been carrying Iowa this season. Bohannon is averaging 13.4 PPG and 43.9% from deep, which places him squarely in the top-10 of B1G players from beyond the arc. Bohannon also ranks second in the conference with 5.3 APG. Cook is the team leader in points per game with a 15.2 PPG mark. He’s shooting just over 56% from the field this season which ranks 7th in the B1G.
X-Factor: Isaiah Moss, the sophomore guard from Chicago, can get hot from deep. He’s shooting just under 40% from three this season, but has made at least three threes in a game on eight different occasions this season. Many saw Moss as next-in-line after the departure of Peter Jok. He hasn’t quite lived up to that billing yet, but the talent is there, and Moss could put it all together at any point in the near future.
The Verdict: It’s going to be hard for Iowa to win any games in the B1G tournament. McCaffery and Co. are allowing the most points per game to opposing teams of any B1G school, and they’re second-to-last in the conference in scoring margin. To compound the scoring issue, the Hawkeyes don’t have any real difference-makers on the offensive side of the ball. This is a young team, which bodes well for the future, but unfortunately future prospects don’t win games today. Expect the Hawkeyes to make an early exit from the tournament.
Illinois BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PREVIEW (by Jack Molino):
Record: 13-15 (3-12 in Big Ten)
Tournament Seed: 12
First Round Opponent: #13 Rutgers
Season Summary: You know it’s going to be a tough season when you drop your exhibition match to Eastern Illinois 67-80. Brad Underwood took over at the helm in Champaign this year after Illinois parted ways with John Groce (95-75 overall through 5 seasons with the Fightin’ Illini). Underwood came from Oklahoma State, where he only spent one year, leading the Cowboys to a 20-13 record. At Illinois, Brad Underwood’s hasn’t seen much success in his first season. In fact, the Figthin’ Illini did not see their first conference win of the 2017-2018 season until January 24th, when they defeated Indiana. Not only was this the first conference win in basketball for Illinois, it was the first conference win in football OR basketball with Lovie Smith leading the football team to a 0-9 defeated season in Big Ten play. Ouch.
Players to Watch: It’s always hard for a new coach to come into a program a first year and develop players, especially because the players he has to work with are not his own recruits. Also, some of John Groce’s top recruits decommitted (Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon) after the news of the coaching change, making it even harder for Underwood with less talent to work with. Nonetheless, Underwood has developed a few young players that are players not only to watch next week in Manhattan, but in the near future as rising stars. As of now, their main player to watch is junior, Leron Black. He’s averaging just over 14 PPG, putting up a career high 28 points in their most recent, and probably season best, win against Nebraska. At 6’7, he shoots over 50 percent from the field, but can also be a three point threat from the outside.
X-Factor: Without a doubt, the x-factor is freshman guard, Trent Frazier. He is averaging the second most points on the team this year with 12.3 PPG. Frazier, a 6’1 guard from Florida, seems to be involved on every play for the Illini, and when he goes the team goes. He leads the teams in multiple categories including turnovers, steals, assists, FG and 3 point FG attempts. Frazier is extremely quick in transition and not afraid to push the pace.
The Verdict: This young and inexperienced Illinois team has shown that it can play good basketball, but not consistently. Especially at a conference tournament when you have to play back-to-back games, consistency and experience are vital in March, and Illinois just doesn’t have it. Illinois likes to pressure the basketball on defense, but if a team has good guard play that can take care of the basketball and then take advantage of Illinois’ awful post presence (their best post player being Michael Finke, who cut off the man bun hair but still hasn’t seen improvement in his post game), Underwood’s squad will probably will have a tough time leaving MSG with a win.
Rutgers BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PREVIEW (by Jack Molino):
Record: 13-16 (3-13 in Big Ten)
Tournament Seed: 13
First Round Opponent: #12 Illinois
Season Summary: Since joining the Big Ten in 2014-2015, Rutgers has yet to garner more than 3 wins in the Big Ten in one season. In fact, they have yet to have an above .500 conference record since 1990-1991 season, the last time they made the NCAA tournament. The 1990-1991 season, they were in the Atlantic 10. Since then, they have tried the AAC, the Big East, and now the Big Ten. In their fourth season in the Big Ten, they sit at 3-13 in conference with second year head coach Steve Pikiell. Pikiell comes from Stony Brook, where he won 4 regular season American East conference championships and made the dance in 2016. This season, it hasn’t been easy for the Scarlet Knights. Their only ranked win came against Seton Hall in December. Since then, however, it has been a tough road for Rutgers in conference play, winning only 3 games and losing 9 out of their 13 losses by double digits. They have Ohio State and Illinois left to play before they head to MSG next week.
Players to Watch: Corey Sanders, a 6’2 Junior Guard, is undoubtedly their best player. In fact, he has been one of their best players in the backcourt all three years he has been there. He is shifty, quick, and has the ability to catch fire (scoring 30 and 31 points against Northwestern and Purdue recently). However, he also has the ability to be careless with the basketball. He leads the team with 65 turnovers on the season. Another player to watch is 6’7 senior forward, Deshawn Freeman. He, like Sanders, is extremely active everywhere on the court. Not only is he a post presence, but he averages 1.5 steals per game (5th best in the conference).
X-Factor: The x-factor for Rutgers next week in NYC is if they can get their offense going. They rank last in the Big Ten almost EVERY category offensively. They are last in total offense, FG %, 3 point FG %, and FT %. It’s hard to win basketball games if you have to rely on defense and rebounding that much. They are second in rebounds per game (behind MSU) and third in steals per game, but it doesn’t like they can do too much with these strengths as far as capitalizing on the offense of end.
The Verdict: Similar to a lot of teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten, they are inexperienced on the floor and on the sideline. Rutgers will have relied a lot this season on their two main guys, Sanders and Freeman, and I don’t see this tournament being any different. If Sanders can catch fire against an Illinois team, they can maybe get past Wednesday, but don’t be expecting this Rutgers team to be making it much further.
Thanks for reading our first preview for the Big Ten Tournament. Check back Monday for our Wisconsin Badgers preview, and be sure to check the website all week long to get your fix on all things Big Ten!