The Big Ten has been perceived by the national media to be having a “down” year for the entirety of the 2014-15 regular season.
Most college basketball fans can at least understand how the media has come to this conclusion. Big Ten basketball was extremely strong in each of the past three seasons (2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14).
The Big Ten placed a team in the Final Four in each of those years. Ohio St in 2012, Michigan in 2013, and Wisconsin in 2014.
In 2013, the Big Ten had two teams advance to the Elite 8 (Ohio St and Michigan) while in 2014 three teams made it to regional final games (Michigan, Michigan St and Wisconsin).
Aside from the postseason success, the Big Ten saw many elite players declare for the NBA draft.
Players such as Victor Olidipo, Cody Zeller, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Nik Stauskus and Gary Harris all decided to pursue dreams of becoming a professional basketball players before their four years of eligibility were up.
When many elite players from one conference declare for the draft in such a small time frame (3 years) the result is (usually) a talent deficit for the conference as a whole.
It was impossible to expect the Big Ten to keep humming along with so many talented players leaving school before they could reach their potential at the college level, right?
Enter the 2014-15 postseason.
Wisconsin (coming off of Bo Ryan’s first Final Four appearance) was the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten in the preseason. Wisconsin was expected to carry the conference’s banner come tournament time.
Those preseason predictions were pretty darn accurate as Wisconsin did win the Big Ten regular season and tournament championship on its way to earning the school’s first ever No. 1 seed in the big dance.
How did the media see the rest of the Big Ten fairing? Not nearly as well as they did the past three seasons.
Looking back, the media overvalued Nebraska and underrated Maryland and Purdue.
Nebraska certainly disappointed, but it wasn’t all bad as Maryland and Purdue both enjoyed much better season’s than originally anticipated. The Terps finished the regular season second in Big Ten play, while Purdue went from bottom dweller before the season to in to the NCAA tournament.
The Big Ten even won the annual Big Ten/ACC challenge way back in early December.
Things have changed since then (we all have realized that the ACC was certainly the strongest conference in 2014-15), but the Big Ten made sure that no one forget about them, even during this perceived “down year” as Wisconsin has made another convincing run to the Final Four, beating Arizona to win the West regional final.
The biggest surprise of the postseason came from none other than Michigan St. Tom Izzo’s crew capitalized on the weakest region in the tournament, the East region, and making the Final Four for the seventh time under coach Izzo (as a No. 7 seed no less!).
Both Big Ten teams are underdogs for Saturday’s games.
Wisconsin (+5) against 38-0 Kentucky and Michigan St (+5) against Duke both seem fair.
What needs to happen for the Big Ten to make Jim Delany’s wildest dreams come true by seeing an all-Big Ten national championship game? Here is how:
Wisconsin’s 5 keys to defeating Kentucky:
1) Win the turnover battle:
Easier said than done against a surprisingly good team at taking care of the ball in Kentucky.
Wisconsin hasn’t had a game in which they had double-digit turnovers since the non-conference.
Wisconsin shouldn’t shoot for single digit turnovers though, they should try to record less than 5 to give themselves the best chance to maximize possession usage.
2) Win the Free Throw Line:
Wisconsin has been great at this all season. They don’t foul and when they get to the line they make free throws at a high level of efficiency. However, some cause for concern was that UW’s last opponent, Arizona, lived at the foul line against the Badgers, making 28 of 30 from the stripe. UW needs to focus on defending without fouling to keep the athletic Cats off the line on Saturday.
3) Shoot 40% or better from 3 point range:
This goes without saying, but if UW wants to have a chance to knock off Kentucky they will need to shoot it decently well from outside.
4) Get Karl Anthony-Towns in foul trouble:
Towns is the catalyst for this Kentucky team. When he leaves the floor, Kentucky’s offense often does as well. Getting him in early foul trouble (or late foul trouble) would be huge for the Badgers upset chances.
5) Limit offensive rebounds:
Wisconsin only allowed three offensive rebounds against Arizona, who was outstanding at rebounding their own misses. Wisconsin will hope to have a similar performance on the glass against Kentucky, who will miss their share of shots.
Michigan St’s 5 keys to beating Duke:
1) Get Trice going offensively:
When Trice plays well Michigan St is a completely different team. They are nearly impossible to guard when Trice has it going for him offensively. Izzo will no doubt give Trice the green light to shoot early and often against the Dukies.
2) Use transition to your advantage:
When Jahil Okafor is on the court for Duke, it would be in MSU’s best interest to force the tempo. It will create easy basket opportunities, tire Okafor out, and possibly force some uncharacteristic fouls by the Duke big man.
3) Make 70% of your free throws:
For a team that has struggled so much during the season to make free throws it would only make sense for them to finally shoot it well at the charity stripe when it matters most right?
Tom Izzo has always stressed the importance of rebounding but it will be especially important during Saturday’s showdown with Coach K’s club.
5) Utilize 2 for 1 opportunities:
It was painful to watch Mike Brey’s team hold the ball against Kentucky while a 2 for 1 presented itself. It ultimately costed the Irish the game. Tom Izzo (hopefully) won’t make the same mistake.