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2016-17 Big Ten Post-Mortem

August 8, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

There were major questions before the 2016-17 college basketball season about Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan, as well as just how much help he and his stellar frontcourt teammates would get from their backcourt.

Rest assured, there are questions no more.

Swanigan made as big of a leap as any player in the country on his way to consensus first team All-American honors and finishing just shy of national player of the year honors. Purdue’s backcourt also caught up to its frontcourt, playing far more than a supporting role, and the result was the Boilermakers’ first Big Ten regular season title since 2010, as well as its first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance since that year as well.

A former McDonald’s All-American who posted big rebounding numbers but middling offense as a freshman, Swanigan erupted as a sophomore. Virtually an automatic double-double, he averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds and led the country with 28 double-doubles. He was named the Big Ten’s player of the year and was a unanimous first team selection to every major All-American squad.

Purdue has had a strong frontcourt for years, though, and Swanigan was the leader among a group that also included Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards. As much as Purdue was still loaded in the frontcourt, though, Swanigan also helped lead a Boilermakers renaissance of sorts from the perimeter.

Quietly, the Boilermakers were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, shooting better than 40% and hitting nine triples per contest. Six players hit at least 38 three-pointers-including Swanigan, who shot 44.7% from behind the arc. With a faster-paced offense than many might expect, Purdue was right there with regular league scoring leaders Iowa and rival Indiana, averaging just under 80 points per game.

The Boilermakers were the biggest story in what was another good year for the Big Ten, but also one leaving a longing for more. The conference was a solid fourth in the conference RPI (per CBSSports.com data), though its teams finished just 6-23 against the RPI top 25 out of conference.

Minnesota showed Caleb Swanigan-like improvement, going from a disaster the year before to an NCAA tourney 5 seed, and Northwestern finally made its first NCAA appearance. Seven Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament again, and three got to the Sweet 16. Michigan and Wisconsin both defeated higher-seeded teams to get there, including the Badgers knocking out defending champion Villanova.

For the second straight year, though, the regional semifinals were as far as any league team would go, as all three were eliminated there, including the Wolverines and Badgers by the narrowest of margins. All in all, it was a nice year for any conference, but the bar is set high in the Big Ten, as it should be. The league has all the finances and resources it could ever need, and it is peerless when it comes to fan support.

It’s now been 17 years since the Big Ten has won a national title, and it might’ve looked like it will be another 17 years when champion Purdue was knocked out of the NCAAs in the Sweet 16 by Kansas by 32 points. There’s still work to be done.

Final Standings:

Big Ten Overall
Purdue 14-4 27-8
Wisconsin 12-6 27-10
Maryland 12-6 24-9
Minnesota 11-7 24-10
Michigan 10-8 26-12
Northwestern 10-8 24-12
Michigan State 10-8 20-15
Iowa 10-8 19-15
Illinois 8-10 20-15
Ohio State 7-11 17-15
Indiana 7-11 18-16
Penn State 6-12 15-18
Nebraska 6-12 12-19
Rutgers 3-15 15-18

Conference Tournament
Upsets seem to be as regular a part of the Big Ten tournament as that weird kaleidoscope pinwheel rainbow logo. Annually there is a team or two that makes an extended run from, say, one of the opening rounds to the semifinals. Michigan did that and more this year, winning four games in four days as the Number 8 seed to become the lowest seed to win the event in its 20 years.

In all, the lower seed won seven of the 13 games in this year’s event. It started in the first round, when No. 13 Penn State edged 12 seed Nebraska 76-67 in overtime and 14th-seeded Rutgers upended No. 11 Ohio State 66-57. And while both were gone in the next round (PSU fell to No. 5 Michigan State 78-51; sixth-seeded Northwestern romped past Rutgers 83-61), a double-digit seed still remained when No. 10 Indiana rolled over 7 seed Iowa 95-73.

Michigan was the fourth team to advance from the second round, drilling Illinois 75-55 just one day after a runway plane accident and winning while wearing its practice uniforms, while its game threads were left with the plane in their home state. The Wolverines then eliminated top seed Purdue 74-70 in overtime, and they were not the only lower seed to win a quarterfinal game as Northwestern also knocked out 3 seed Maryland 72-64.

The semifinals featured seeds 2, 4, 6 and 8, and Michigan kept its run going with an 84-77 win over Minnesota, leading almost the entire way and pulling away late after the Golden Gophers rallied from a 16-point deficit to tie. No. 2 Wisconsin also blew out Northwestern 76-48 to set up Sunday’s final, and the Wolverines played from the front again virtually the entire way and asserted control in the second half for a 71-56 win. Michigan won its first Big Ten tourney title since claiming the first ever in 1998, and did so by winning four straight games for just the second time all season and the first time since November.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Caleb Swanigan, F, So., Purdue
Defensive Player of the Year: Reggie Lynch, C, Jr., Minnesota
Freshman of the Year: Miles Bridges, G, Michigan State
Sixth Man of the Year: Nicholas Baer, F, So., Iowa
Coach of the Year: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

All-Conference Team
Ethan Happ, F, So., Wisconsin
Peter Jok, G, Sr., Iowa
Nate Mason, G, Jr., Minnesota
Caleb Swanigan, F, So., Purdue
Melo Trimble, G, Jr., Maryland

Season Highlights

  • Michigan State and Wisconsin extended consecutive NCAA Tournament streaks to 20 and 19 years, respectively. The conference as a whole sent seven teams to the Big Dance for the third straight year.
  • Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan was a unanimous first team All-American, while Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ also was named a third team All-American by the Associated Press.
  • Swanigan led NCAA Division I with 28 double-doubles and also ranked second nationally in rebounding at 12.5 boards per game.
  • Minnesota was one of the stoutest defensive teams in the country and led Division I with 6.7 blocked shots per game. Reggie Lynch was second in the nation individually with 3.5 blocks per game.
  • Purdue (18.3 apg, 2nd) and Iowa (17.7 apg, 5th) also ranked in the top five nationally in assists per game, while Rutgers was third in the country with 14.6 offensive rebounds per game.

What we expected, and it happened: Not a lot, but we did note there was room for upward mobility in the conference, and indeed teams like Minnesota and Northwestern took advantage of it to get to the NCAA Tournament.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We had Minnesota listed as a team on the decline coming into the season. Wrong. The Golden Gophers were the league’s biggest surprise and went from eight wins to 24 as arguably the most improved team in the country. We also thought Indiana would remain a top 25 level team, and while the Hoosiers looked like a top-five team early in the season, a turnover-prone squad eventually slipped towards the bottom of the Big Ten and cost Tom Crean his job.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Maybe it was brand name bias, but we assumed Michigan State would be Michigan State, at the least a heavy contender for the conference title. The Spartans were not a contender, though, and while injuries certainly played a part in that, only two early Big Ten wins over Minnesota put MSU safely in the NCAA Tournament in an otherwise middling season.

Teams on the rise: Minnesota, Northwestern. Back up with the Golden Gophers, who we had in this category two years ago, but the category below last year. The Wildcats, meanwhile, finally have that first NCAA Tournament appearance barrier cleared, and are well set up to remain a contender for the foreseeable future.

Team on the decline: Ohio State. The Buckeyes’ slide has been well-documented, and it likely will take Chris Holtmann at least a year to replenish a talent level that for a number of reasons (transfers, recruiting misses) had slipped considerably.

2017-18 Big Ten Outlook
At least in the summer, next season in the Big Ten will be as notable for who isn’t there as who is. Gone are Crean and Thad Matta, two of the crème de la crème of college coaches at one time. Gone are four senior starters at Wisconsin who were a part of a pair of Final Four teams and a total of 13 NCAA Tournament wins over the last four years. Gone is Melo Trimble, who will forever be the player most identified with Maryland’s first years in the conference. And gone is Swanigan, who headed to the NBA after his fantastic sophomore year.

Teams like Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State and Wisconsin will certainly have a different look. With all that said, there’s still plenty of familiar on hand. For one, there’s Tom Izzo at Michigan State. For another, there’s Miles Bridges, the rare hot pro prospect who decided to stay another year in college by choice and someone who could make a Swanigan-like rise in the national conscious. The Spartans are young but talented and will be the league favorites; in fact, recent Vegas odds released in July had MSU as the bookies’ choice to win the national title (they also had Missouri with the eighth-best odds, so take that for what it’s worth).

Don’t dismiss Purdue; the Boilermakers lose Swanigan, but little else. Minnesota and Northwestern both will be very experienced teams, and Iowa will be too with the exception of losing Peter Jok. The Gophers in particular will be a chic top-15 and maybe even darkhorse Final Four pick, though an athletic team will need to shoot it better and also won’t catch anyone by surprise this year.

Maryland loses Trimble, but little else; the young Terrapins should again be in NCAA tourney contention. Wisconsin will be a fascinating study; this is now unequivocally Greg Gard’s program. Something else to watch: look for the bottom of the league to be better. Rutgers showed considerable progress in Steve Pikiell’s first year, and new coaches at Illinois (Brad Underwood), Indiana (Archie Miller) and Ohio State (Chris Holtmann) certainly could have teams in surprising contention if they can start hot and build some confidence. This past season saw nine teams finish within four games of each other in conference, and such a scenario wouldn’t be a surprise again as the coaching depth in this conference gets only stronger.

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