The Big Ten had an enjoyable, entertaining, very nice 2015-16 basketball season, but enthusiasts of the conference can easily be forgiven if they were left with just a little bit of a dull taste at the end.
If one takes the larger view of the conference’s overall performance, the good should far outweigh the bad. The league had one of the very best players in all the country (Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine) and two more who were very close to that top layer (Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff). It had five teams who were legitimate top 10-level good at one time or another, from mainstay Michigan State to surprising Iowa.
Michigan State looked to be the best team in the country until a Valentine injury in late December. Indiana rose from an ugly start, firming up defensively while still dazzling on offense to become the team many thought the Hoosiers could be. Iowa surprised in rising to the top five at one point, while Wisconsin was one of the best stories of the second half of the season, with a young team rallying from a sluggish and unpredictable start to make the Sweet 16.
Nine teams won at least 20 games, an impressive number even with ever-expanding schedules and plenty of guarantee games. Seven of them made the NCAA Tournament, and three advanced to the Sweet 16. Competitive with numerous storylines, it was a fun year for the Big Ten.
Still, it all ended in rather sudden fashion in March. For the first time in five years, no conference team made it to the Final Four, and in fact all three Big Ten NCAA tourney teams were dismissed in the regional semifinals-most painfully Wisconsin after leading Notre Dame almost the entire way.
Michigan State and Purdue also lost to upstarts in the first round of the NCAAs, and the Spartans’ loss to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in particular will forever go down as a great disappointment considering MSU was considered in quite a few circles as the favorite to win it all. Meanwhile, Iowa capped its year by being blown out by Villanova in the second round, the last of an unsatisfying 3-7 finish after the Hawkeyes had once been ranked in the top 5.
With the benefit of hindsight, the league’s overall performance in the regular season was a sign that its good-if-not-great NCAA Tournament showing wasn’t all that surprising. The Big Ten finished fifth in conference RPI, ahead of the sixth-rated SEC but well behind the No. 4-ranked Big East.
Most notably, Big Ten teams were just 3-13 out of conference against teams in the RPI top 25, with two of the three wins coming from Michigan State. Eight of those 13 losses came by double-digit margins. While none of that explains Purdue coughing up a 14-point lead late against Arkansas-Little Rock or normally poised Wisconsin suddenly handing out turnovers like candy in the final minute against Notre Dame, it does indicate conference teams had less margin for error than they might have in the past. The result of that being a season that was solid, but short of the lofty standard of some recent seasons when the league was just a little bit stronger, a little bit deeper, than it was this year.
Has it really been nearly 20 years now since the Big Ten started its conference tournament? It has; this year’s event marked the 19th annual league tourney and was once again held in Indianapolis.
Per a nearly annual custom, lower seeds wreaked havoc on the bracket in the early rounds. Winning two games each were double-digit seeds No. 11 Nebraska and No. 12 Illinois, with the Cornhuskers opening with an 89-72 romp over 14th-seeded Rutgers and then whipping sluggish 6 seed Wisconsin 70-58, while the Fighting Illini bombed No. 13 Minnesota 85-52 and then upset No. 5 Iowa 68-66.
Both teams went down in the quarterfinals (No. 3 Maryland outran the Huskers 97-86; 4th-seeded Purdue ripped Illinois 89-58), but it was yet another low seed that really busted the bracket. No. 8 Michigan needed a jumper by Zak Irvin with three seconds left to outlast 9 seed Northwestern 72-70 in overtime, and the Wolverines then dumped top-seeded Indiana 72-69 with more heroics as Kameron Chatman hit a three from the corner as time expired. The Wolverines were dismissed by Purdue 76-59 in the semifinals, but NCAA selection committee had seen enough and charitably gave Michigan an NCAA bid despite poor season-long numbers.
Other than Michigan, the semifinals were made up of higher seeds as they typically are in this tourney. Michigan State entered the event as the favorite even as the 2 seed, and the Spartans held off No. 3 Maryland 64-61 in the second semi and then held off Purdue 66-62 in the final as Denzel Valentine nearly notched another triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Tom Izzo’s Spartans won the tourney for the third time in five years.
Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, G, Sr., Michigan State
Freshman of the Year: Ethan Happ, F, Wisconsin
Defensive Player of the Year: A.J. Hammons, C, Sr., Purdue
Sixth Man of the Year: Max Bielfeldt, F, Sr., Indiana
Coach of the Year: Tom Crean, Indiana
Yogi Ferrell, G, Sr., Indiana
A.J. Hammons, C, Sr., Purdue
Nigel Hayes, F, Jr., Wisconsin
Jarrod Uthoff, F, Sr., Iowa
Denzel Valentine, G, Sr., Michigan State
- Indiana won the Big Ten regular season crown. Count it for what you want as it came in the era of badly unbalanced schedules, but in the conference’s record books it goes down as the Hoosiers’ 22nd title, tied with rival Purdue for most all-time.
- Michigan State’s Valentine was named the Associated Press and National Association of Basketball Coaches national player of the year and was a consensus All-American.
- Michigan State (20 straight appearances) and Wisconsin (19) extended consecutive NCAA Tournament streaks, and the conference as a whole sent seven teams to the Big Dance.
- For the first time in league history, nine teams (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin) recorded at least 20 wins.
- Iowa’s Uthoff was named the 2015-16 Academic All-America of the Year for Division I Men’s Basketball by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
What we expected, and it happened: Purdue stayed on the rise and Michigan State was among the league’s best again. Also, we can’t let go our comment a year ago about Nebraska, suggesting that “somewhere between (2013-14’s) 19-13 mark and (2014-15’s) 13-18” is where the program probably sits. The Cornhuskers finished 16-16.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: He’d done it so many times before that we thought Bo Ryan would find a way to work magic and keep Wisconsin in the top 25. It didn’t happen, and that wasn’t even the biggest surprise by Ryan in the season.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: There was a lot. Bo Ryan retired. Greg Gard dramatically turned a seemingly lost season around. Iowa surprised. Minnesota sunk to the bottom after being a mid-pack team the year before. From here, though, nothing was more notable than Indiana taking almost mostly the same flawed team it had from a year earlier and becoming a solid Sweet 16 squad.
Team on the rise: Wisconsin. Here come the Badgers-again. Bucky’s team takes this category by virtue of returning almost literally everybody from a year ago.
Team on the decline: Minnesota. We had the Gophers in the prior column two years ago, but the wheels came off last year and it looks like it could be a while before they’re back in the mix.
2016-17 Big Ten Outlook
Next year’s prognosis for the Big Ten will depend largely on newcomers and players stepping into bigger roles. Heavy hitters like Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State and Purdue all suffer heavy losses, and the only team that looks obviously equipped to take advantage is Wisconsin. Even in the Badgers’ case, caution should be advised-experience returning doesn’t automatically equal an improved product, and it must be remembered this is much the same team that lost to the likes of Northwestern, Western Illinois and Wisconsin-Milwaukee a year ago. Wisconsin might be a 25-plus win team, but the Badgers also could slot in right around their marks from the past season, too.
Michigan State is always a good place to start, and that’s the case here again even as the Spartans lose most of their firepower. Eron Harris is back, though, and will have the opportunity for plenty of shots. More notable is a top-5 recruiting class that, in Kansas-like fashion, should result in little drop-off even as the names change. Indiana should still be around the top 25, at least, while a darkhorse pick to take the league might be Purdue, the huge caveat being if the Boilermakers can get better guard play.
There is room for upward mobility in the upper-middle portion of the league. A team like Ohio State or Michigan (or maybe, at long last, Northwestern) could move into a top 4-5 finish. Ohio State in particular will be touted by some with five starters returning, but the Buckeyes will need improvement with that experience.
It must be said that, on paper, it looks like a down year for the Big Ten. That’s a relative term in any case, though, and the league could be at least as good as this past year if a number of teams jell faster than might be expected.