John Gasaway is a writer for Basketball Prospectus and is a co-author of the upcoming book, The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview. He previously wrote for the Big Ten Wonk. We recently exchanged e-mails with John to help us preview the Big Ten and Indiana because, well, he’s smarter than us. The interview is lengthy, so we’ve split it into two parts. Today: the Big Ten and a little national perspective.
Inside the Hall: The Big Ten is once again being mentioned among the top conferences in the country. From top to bottom, where does the Big Ten stand amongst the major conferences?
John Gasaway: It stands rather confidently in a clean well-lighted place at the center of the room where the league is respected but, alas, not terribly feared. The confidence comes from the exceedingly rare spectacle of a league returning its entire all-conference team (Kalin Lucas, Evan Turner, Manny Harris, Talor Battle, and JaJuan Johnson), not to mention last year’s preseason POY (Robbie Hummel).
On the other hand the Big Ten doesn’t terrify the other major conferences unduly because, even with all those returnees, our beloved glacially-paced league isn’t exactly brimming with lottery picks or even first-rounders. Turner, obviously, is going to be putting on a ball cap and shaking David Stern’s hand very soon here, and assuming Johnson and Mike Davis start consuming protein shakes in bulk I’ve seen them listed on some mocks as late first-rounders for 2011. But Turner notwithstanding there are no Walls or Warrens or Aldriches in the league right now. None of which precludes a Final Four run by a Big Ten team or two this year, of course.
ITH: Most of the preseason publications view Michigan State and Purdue as the top two teams in the Big Ten with Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin in the next tier. Which team, Michigan State or Purdue, do you consider to be the favorite to win the league and why?
JG: Purdue. Effectively they didn’t lose anybody. (OK, Nemanja Calasan. I stand by my earlier statement.) Hummel is said to be healthy and that’s unusually important because he’s actually vital to his team on both offense (threes) and defense (boards). It’s just that people can’t process that intellectually because he happens to be a skinny guy who looks like the kid who bags your groceries. If he looked like a taller Chris Kramer everyone would understand exactly what Hummel does for the Boilers.
Michigan State’s going to be tough too, of course. As always they’re the deepest and most talented team in the Big Ten. I just think Matt Painter’s group will be slightly better.
ITH: And from the second tier of teams, which team has the best shot at unseating the Spartans or Boilermakers?
JG: Ohio State. They’re like an elite commando unit in some ’60s movie with Lee Marvin where each person has a specialty. There’s Turner (cigar-chomping commander), William Buford (spot-up shooter), David Lighty (perimeter defender), Jon Diebler (threes), and, when he gets healthy, Dallas Lauderdale (shot-eraser). If Lighty can pick up where he left off on D in 2008 and if the Buckeyes can just hang on to the rock, people will run around screaming with their hands above their heads about how good this team suddenly is, what a huge surprise they are, etc.
ITH: Are Penn State and Northwestern being sold short by not being included in that second tier of teams? Will either of these teams be in the discussion for a NCAA Tournament bid?
JG: My brother’s a long-suffering Northwestern fan (redundant), so maybe I’m a little biased. But I do think the ‘Cats could be in the discussion if John Shurna or someone else steps into the role Craig Moore had last year, which was giving opposing defenses something to think about besides just Kevin Coble. The leap forward that NU experienced last season was, according to the stuff I track, as large as any improvement recorded by a major-conference team in at least four years. It’s just that, ironically, Missouri, Oregon State, and LSU were also registering the same level of (incredible) improvement last year. So there were turnarounds all around in 2009.
As for Penn State, much as I love what Talor Battle did for the Nittany Lions last year he’s going to need some help to get this team into bubble territory. And by that I specifically mean a teammate is going to have to surprise the heck out of us, like Turner did last year at Ohio State.
ITH: Let’s shift to a national perspective. Who are your top five teams? And who are two teams that could surprise some people with a run to Indianapolis?
JG: There’s Kansas and then there’s everyone else. I’m sure Kentucky’s John Wall and Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors are everything everyone says they are but, until I see them actually play, Cole Aldrich is the best example of a college player that literally could start for an NBA team today, at this instant, just as he is right now. If North Carolina’s Ed Davis can come anywhere close to the season Aldrich had last year, Davis will get five times the pub. Unlike Aldrich he won’t have Blake Griffin hogging the spotlight.
I know everyone’s picking KU to win it all this year, of course, but I still feel like people don’t realize just how good this team was last year. To be sure, losing very late in the year by 19 to Texas Tech, of all teams, didn’t help matters. (The Jayhawks haven’t won in Lubbock since 2003.) But the truth is last year Kansas, with five new starters, came surprisingly close to the level of performance set by the 2008 national championship team. And now they’re all back, with McDonald’s All-American Xavier Henry thrown in for good measure.
Part two of our interview with John — an Indiana preview and a look at his book, The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview — will be published soon on Inside the Hall.