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The Murky Middle: Previewing the Second Tier of B1G Basketball

Previewing the second tier of B1G basketball teams: Which dark horse can rise up?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning! As some of us look to start forgetting this football season, we start previewing the Mens Basketball season that starts later this week.  Today we are looking at that murky middle: can one of these teams rise up to challenge the top tier or will someone fall out to the bottom of the conference?  We've polled the OTE staff for some pre-season predictions and team previews and here they are:

9.  Illinois

Vitals:

Last Year:  20-15, 7-11 B1G

Post Season: NIT

Venue: State Farm Center

Coach: John Groce

OTE Predictions:

Average Projected Record: 19-12, 8-10
High Projection: 23-8, 11-7 || Coach J
Low Projection: 17-14, 7-11 || DJ, Candystripes for Breakfast

Under second year head coach, Illinois regressed from 8 wins in the B1G in 2012 to 7 wins in 2013, leaving the Fighting Illini on the outside looking in for the NCAAs.  They were invited to the NIT, where they lost in the second round of the tournament to Clemson to end the season.  Can they go in the right direction this year?

A quick look at Illinois and you see a lot of guards, which makes sense given that Groce loves to play at a fast pace and is not afraid to take outside shots.  Groce began implementing a fast paced offense last year, which we can expect to continue this year as he transforms this team into his own.  Sophomore Kendrick Dunn will be relied upon to handle more of the scoring while Groce hopes that Rayvonte Rice will ease up on the three's given the sub 30% shooting he displayed from beyond the arc last year.  If Illinois can provide consistent shooting, they have a chance to make some noise in the B1G and make a run at the NCAAs.  If the B1G is going to take 7-8 teams to the NCAAs this year, Illinois is definitely in contention to be one of them.

- DJ

8. Minnesota

Vitals:

Last Year:  25-13, 8-10

Post Season: NIT Champions

Venue: Williams Arena

Coach: Richard Pitino

OTE Predictions:

Average Projected Record: 20-11, 9-9
High Projection: 21-10, 10-8 || Graham Filler, Coach J
Low Projection: 19-12, 8-10 || babaoreally

Minnesota is coming off of an up and down year, highlighted by winning the NIT Championship at the end of the season.  They return four starters, which should give them some solid continuity on the court while letting the backups develop nicely.  Of those starters, they return the leading scorer, rebounder, and assist man, which are always good things.

So what will Minnesota do?  Will they return to the NCAA tournament after missing it last year but winning the NIT Championship?  Many have pegged the Golden Gophers as a dark horse to contend in the B1G, but they've been eerily consistent with their 8-10 marks in the B1G the past few years, winning right around 21 games a year.  Does the younger Pitino in his second year get his team into the tournament?  They certainly gelled last year at the right time in the post-season, so if they can carry that forward, we should certainly see Minnesota contending for an at large bid this year in the NCAAs.

- DJ

7. Maryland

Vitals:

Last Year:  17-15, 9-9 (ACC)

Post Season: None

Venue: Xfinity Center (formerly Comcast Center, yes another instance of us whoring ourselves out for money)

Coach: Mark Turgeon

OTE Predictions:

Average Projected Record: 20-11, 9-9
High Projection: 23-8, 11-7 || DJ Carver
Low Projection: 18-13, 8-10 || Jesse Collins

The Maryland Terrapins enter their first B1G basketball season with similar expectations as the football team: no one thinks that they'll do all that well because they are [arguably] stepping up a tier in terms of league play.  I would say the B1G is definitely top to bottom a better conference than the ACC, but the ACC definitely brought the fire power at the top.  Maryland has some question marks coming in, the largest of all the PG position where freshman Melo Trimble will be expected to take the reigns and run the team from Day 1.  Depth on the inside is also an issue, but between Damonte Dodd and freshman Michael Cekovski, there should at least be height and fouls to give.

So why will Maryland succeed?  Melo Trimble is a freshman, but he is a highly touted Mcdonald's All American who is expected to excel in running Mark Turgeons version of the dribble drive.  Coach Turgeon is stressing ball movement this year, hoping that crisp passing is going to lead to open shots for the plethora of shooters that Maryland will bring.  While this should lead to positive results, it could also lead to disaster in off nights shooting or if a more experienced team is able to cause the young Terrapin backcourt into turnovers.  Maryland's strength is on the wing and they are definitely at a disadvantage inside.  That is to say, they aren't lacking height as much as they are solid any semblence of a solid contributor in the paint until proven otherwise.  I would definitely say that Maryland is the biggest boom or bust team of the middle group of teams, and the high/low predicted above are both definitely within the realm of possible.

-- DJ

6.Nebraska

Vitals:

Last Year:  19-13, 11-7

Post Season: NCAA Tournament Second Round

Venue: Pinnacle Bank Arena

Coach: Tim Miles

OTE Predictions:

Average Projected Record: 20-11, 9-9
High Projection: 21-10, 11-7 || Coach J
Low Projection: 19-12, 8-10 || Aaron Yorke

If you were to have asked me what was going to happen in year two of the Tim Miles experience, I probably would have said something along the lines of, "well, I don't think we'll be last place." Now, hear me out. I have been a Nebraska basketball fan since I was little. I grew up on watching Danny Nee patrol the Husker sidelines. I lived through Coach Collier. I was just coming out of a bad relationship with Doc Sadler. I have been used to the fun little "Trivia" moment when everyone points out that Nebraska is one of two teams to have not won a NCAA Tournament game. I feel like expecting better than absolute worst was being generous.

Then Tim Miles showed why he is so great. He coached this team to one of the best seasons in its history and coming into the 2014-15 season, he returns four starters, role players, and has infused the bench with some young, raw talent. Nebraska showed some investment in basketball by building beautiful new facilities, a new arena, and real marketing. Fans showed investment by showing up. Oh, and the basketball team decided they would show up to. Last year ended a little short of their goal, but led by Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, the Huskers look for more.

Oh, and as a bonus, look for Sophomore guard Tai Webster to be an x-factor for the Huskers. With a giant target on their back after last year, they'll need more than, "Hey, let's iso for Terran and hope for the best." Tai spent the summer playing for his home country of New Zealand in the FIBA Championships. In the exhibition game against SW Minnesota State, it looked like he found some confidence. Expect a big jump this year from him. If he is as good as coaches are saying, Nebraska could have more of the same and be knocking on the door for their first NCAA Tournament win and more.

-Jesse

5. Iowa

Vitals:

Last Year:  25-13, 9-9

Post Season: NCAA 11 Seed Play-in game

Venue: Carver-Hawkeye Arena

Coach: Fran McCaffery

OTE Predictions:

Average Projected Record: 23-8, 12-6
High Projection: 26-5, 14-4 || Aaron Yorke, Jesse Collins
Low Projection: 20-11, 9-9 || Coach J

The goal for last year's Iowa team was to finally make the NCAA Tournament after an eight year drought. That goal was met, albeit in the most unimpressive way possible. At one point Iowa was 19-6, ranked 16th in the nation and a legitimate lock for the Tournament. They ended up losing six of their final seven games, including an embarrassing Big Ten Tournament loss to Northwestern, a team they'd beaten by 20+ points in their regular season matchups. Suddenly, the NCAA's didn't seem like such a lock.

Fortunately, they were still selected for a play-in game, where they promptly lost to Tennessee in overtime. It's worth noting that Iowa led that game at half. Even worse, Iowa lost three games last season where they led at half BY DOUBLE DIGITS: Villanova, Iowa State and Wisconsin. Iowa's inability to close out close games was sort of microcosm for their season: Started fast, blew it in the end. In the end the Hawkeyes were 4-12 in games that were decided by single digits or went to overtime. That was disheartening, to say the least.

But it's a new year. For the first time in Fran McCaffery's career he's without Roy Devyn Marble and has to find a way to replace his 17 points per game. The obvious candidate for leading scorer in 2014-2014 is All-Big Ten forward Aaron White, who has been a model of consistency throughout this entire career. How consistent? Well, he's never averaged more than 13 points or less than 11 points per game. That's consistent.

While losing Marble obviously hurts the Hawkeyes, they return other starters in White, Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell and Josh Oglesby. Center Adam Woodbury is arguably the most polarizing player on the floor. He was the guy who chose Iowa over North Carolina, had fans buzzing about his potential and apparently had everyone expecting him to average a double double. That hasn't happened. But it is worth noting that Woodbury has shown progression throughout his entire career and his defense towards the end of last season looked vastly improved. Plus, he even dunked once.

Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff will likely get the starting nod at small forward, giving Iowa even more size in the front court. Uthoff showed flashes of brilliance in the non-conference but was terribly exposed they got into the meat of the Big Ten schedule. He was weak going to basket, often lost the ball and couldn't drive to the hoop. Here's to hoping another year under his belt has made him stronger.

At the guard positions will be PG Mike Gesell and SG Josh Oglesby. Gesell enters his senior season being pushed by Anthony Clemmons and highly touted JUCO Trey Dickerson. At SG, the Hawkeyes hope to find a perimeter shooting presence from Ogeslby, who went .403 from behind the arch last season.

McCaffery's team is easily one of the deepest in the Big Ten. Aside from the five starting upperclassmen, Fran can also go to senior Gabe Olaseni, Peter Jok (when he's staying out of trouble), Clemmons, Dickerson, 6'9 freshman Dominique Uhl and Brady Ellingson.

The advantages at depth may also be Iowa's weakness. Can a team be too deep? I thought that at times last year. I felt that Fran was micromanaging and tinkering with the lineup far too often. He was always relying on a different player to take over the game instead of always relying on Marble to take the winning shot. Personally, I think that cost Iowa a few games.

This year, expect Aaron White to become Iowa's leading scorer and captain of the offense. I think he'll be the man taking the final shots when it matters. If the Hawkeyes can rely on White, settle on a lineup that works, play some defense (man, they were bad at defense) and figure out a way to close out the close games, they'll be just fine and another NCAA Tournament appearance will be in store.

- Mike