Seldom does a team enter a season with high expectations and then fulfill predictions of greatness in almost every way possible the way Wisconsin did this year.
The Badgers came into 2014-15 with four starters returning from a team that made it to the Final Four, and Bo Ryan’s team was on the short list of favorites to get there again. Wisconsin also was an overwhelming favorite to win the rugged Big Ten and had a pair of players receiving preseason All-America recognition (Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker). While the expectations will never be at a Kentucky or UCLA level in Madison, a run at the national title was a realistic goal.
Any team could’ve easily been overburdened by the possibilities, but the Badgers didn’t show the least bit of wear. Wisconsin spent the entire season in the top 10 of the national polls and most of it in the top 5, never falling lower than seventh.
A glorious season included a Battle 4 Atlantis title, Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the consensus national player of the year in Kaminsky. At the end was another Final Four appearance, with the Badgers ending the undefeated season of vaunted Kentucky in the national semifinals.
The only thing missing was a national championship, as Duke rallied late to end Wisconsin’s magical season on a low note. Regardless, the team’s two-year run will be remembered for a long time in conference circles and nationally.
The Badgers were undeniably THE story of the Big Ten again in 2014-15, but not the only one.
Maryland’s first year in the conference was a surprising smash hit, with the Terrapins a convincing second to Wisconsin and one of just two teams (and the only in the league’s top 13) to knock off the eventual national runners-up.
Michigan State played possum in the regular season, far from the top 25 most of January and February, but then warmed up in March and made another patented run to the Final Four under Tom Izzo. Perhaps not since Jim Valvano has there been a coach who on a more regular basis can take seemingly middling teams and make them postseason powers.
Iowa also shed some of its schizophrenic tendencies to solidly qualify for the NCAA tourney, while Purdue also firmly earned its way in. Ohio State also had arguably the best freshman in the country-D’Angelo Russell-and some might argue perhaps even the best player not named Kaminsky.
The early rounds of the Big Ten tourney were mild, with one notable exception. Per what seems to be a yearly custom, a low seed made a surprising run out of nowhere. No. 13 Penn State played well out of conference before being bogged down by the grind of conference play, but the Nittany Lions flashed their early season prowess in Chicago, first edging No. 12 Nebraska 68-65 and then knocking out No. 5 Iowa 67-58 to move to the quarterfinals. The run ended there, but not quietly as Purdue had to rally from six down with nine minutes left before finally eliminating Penn State 64-59.
No. 11 Minnesota ended the first Big Ten tourney for 14th-seeded Rutgers with an 80-68 first-round win before the Gophers went down 79-73 to 6 seed Ohio State in the second round. Also in the second round, No. 7 Indiana grabbed a 71-56 win over 10th-seeded Northwestern, while No. 9 Michigan blew out Illinois 73-55 in the 8/9 game.
The other quarterfinals were competitive, but all four higher seeds advanced. In addition to Purdue, top-seeded Wisconsin defeated Michigan 71-60, No. 2 Maryland won its tourney debut 75-69 over Indiana and 3 seed Michigan State outlasted Ohio State 76-67.
The semifinals and final included three games with wild ebbs and flows. Wisconsin trailed Purdue by five at halftime but outscored the Boilermakers 41-16 in the second half, a stunning turnaround in a 71-51 win. In the second semi, Michigan State rallied from a 16-point first half deficit, coming all the way back to edge Maryland 62-58. The Spartans then saw the Badgers turn the tables in the final. Wisconsin looked on its way to a rare defeat when it trailed by 11 with 7:45 left in regulation, but the Badgers rallied quickly, fought through a back-and-forth final four minutes to send the game into overtime and then outscored MSU 11-0 in the extra session for an 80-69 win.
Player of the Year: Frank Kaminsky, C, Sr., Wisconsin
Freshman of the Year: D’Angelo Russell, G, Ohio State
Defensive Player of the Year: Rapheal Davis, G, Jr., Purdue
Sixth Man of the Year: Gabe Olaseni, C, Sr., Iowa
Coach of the Year: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Yogi Ferrell, G, Jr., Indiana
Frank Kaminsky, C, Sr., Wisconsin
D’Angelo Russell, G, Fr., Ohio State
Dez Wells, G, Sr., Maryland
Aaron White, F, Sr., Iowa
- Wisconsin and Michigan State made the Final Four, the Big Ten’s fourth straight year with at least one national semifinalist and the first time the conference put two in the national semis since 2005
- Wisconsin’s Kaminsky was the consensus national player of the year, while Ohio State’s Russell also was a consensus All-America pick.
- Michigan State’s Tom Izzo became the eighth coach in the history of the NCAA Tournament to appear in seven or more Final Fours
- Every single team in the conference this year except two received votes at some point of the season in the Associated Press or USA Today top 25 polls. Only Northwestern and Rutgers failed to garner any votes.
- Rutgers’ first season in the conference was as difficult as expected, but the Scarlet Knights pulled one of the upsets of the college basketball season by stunning Wisconsin.
What we expected, and it happened: Wisconsin was pegged before the season as one of the top teams in the nation, a runaway favorite in the conference and a heavy favorite to make a second consecutive trip to the Final Four. Check, check and check.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: With all John Beilein has accomplished at Michigan, we thought he’d find a way to keep his team near the top of the conference. It was hard to imagine the Wolverines dropping off significantly, even with a mostly new lineup, but that’s exactly what happened.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We predicted Maryland would spend the entire season on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Terrapins smacked their new conference foes in the mouth and finished an impressive second.
Teams on the rise: Maryland, Purdue. The hype for the Terps could be almost out of control this year. Last year we had the Boilermakers as a team on the decline, but things change quickly when you have young talent with a lot of size that grows up quickly as Purdue’s did this year.
Teams on the decline: Wisconsin, Nebraska. No, the Badgers aren’t going to fall off the planet, or even into the conference’s second division, but undoubtedly the coming season is one of reloading. The Cornhuskers last year weren’t so much a team in decline as one coming back to their mean. Somewhere between that 19-13 mark and last year’s 13-18 is probably more logical.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Almost certainly, the conference race will look different this year from last year. Wisconsin has to replace a pair of NBA first round draft picks and five important seniors total from a team that, for all its superlatives, was not very deep.
Maryland will be a relatively heavy favorite, though some are questioning if the Terps’ number of close games won this past year (12 wins by six points or less) as well as the league having a year of familiarity now will work against them. Don’t expect Wisconsin to fall too far, because it’s proven by now that Bo Ryan teams find a way. Michigan State will also hang around the top, as usual, while Ohio State will reload again with freshmen playing key roles. Purdue is positioned to stay firmly in the top five, too, with its huge frontline that only gets more formidable with freshman Caleb Swanigan coming on board.
Indiana and Michigan are basically the same teams as last year, with the notable exception of IU adding freshman Thomas Bryant in the front court. The Hoosiers will be able to score, but need to be better defensively to be anything more than an early NCAA tourney flameout. Many are predicting a big bounce back year for Michigan, but the Wolverines were thoroughly underwhelming last year, and Caris LeVert can only do so much. It’s going to take supreme growth from those on hand around LeVert to move up considerably.
All in all, the middle of the pack is a jumble, as Illinois and Minnesota look destined to be right there again, while Iowa will likely take a step back to there. Lest this sound like a death sentence, though, it must be remembered that even a mid-pack finish in the Big Ten puts a team at least near the NCAA Tournament bubble, if not safely on the right side of it. Look no further than Michigan’s four overtime losses for an example of just how thin the line in the conference is between the NCAAs and not even making the NIT.