I’ve been pondering, much like you all…who should I pick to win a national championship this year? As some of you may know, I have a very elaborate opinion that guard play is what will win you an NCAA championship. My build for an ideal championship team is as follows: Have one or two all conference level big men and mesh that with an explosive offensive All-American guard and you have the formula for a championship. Mind you it’s not a guarantee, but it’s a formula that leaves all teams with that mix to be fairly comfortable come tournament time.
Since this is a Big Ten blog and some of you poor saps may just be inclined to select a Big Ten team to destroy this 20+ year championship drought…what schools should you pick? Who has the best shot? And legitimately….is it even possible?
Wonderful History of Champions and All-Americans
Perhaps the smartest thing you could do would be to wait until Tuesday to pick your champion. Why Tuesday you ask dear reader? Well friend, it’s because that’s when the Associated Press will release their farts and All American Awards list. They’ll give us the 15-16 best players in American College Basketball divided out into 3 teams. I will say upfront that 1st, 2nd, and 3rd team honors don’t seem to matter much in this discussion.
Why is this important? Well dear friends, since the Big Ten’s last title (including that team as well), only 3 NCAA Championship teams have failed to place a player on one of the 3 AP All-American teams. Those three teams were 2006 Florida, 2008 Kansas, and 2016 Villanova. If that gives you hope for a team that may not place an All-American, here is your reminder that; 2006 Florida repeated the next year with 2 All-Americans and had 4 guys (at least) that played in the NBA, 2008 Kansas had 4 guys that played in the NBA, and 2016 Villanova had a handful of future NBA players including Josh Hart and Jaylen Brunson who were All-Americans in the next two years respectively. So unless your team is hording and young guys with big upsides, you ain’t winning with this formula.
So how many of these past champions had an All-American guard/wing? 15. 15 of them did. Granted my time is short and my desire for actually differentiating between the 3 spot now and the 3 spot in 2000 is quite low, it seems that an AP All-American person who doesn’t just post is a good indicator for championship success.
Some of you may be saying, but Buff, what about the metrics? What do the metrics tell us?
Stats are dumb until they aren’t and I’m not covering them. I barely had enough time to scrape together the list of All American and champs and throw them in an article. Go look up stats yourself.
The Leading Candidates From the Big Ten
So given all this meandering about lists, does this help narrow down who from the Big Ten can win a title this season? Actually it does. First off, who’s the projected All American Teams right now? The best list I can find in my limited time is from Bleacher Report. The list is:
- Zach Edey; Purdue
- Trayce Jackson-Davis; Indiana
- Drew Timme; Gonzaga
- Brandon Miller; Alabama
- Jalen Wilson; Kansas
- Oscar Tshiebwe; Kentucky
- Azoulas Tubelis; Arizona
- Jaime Jaquez Jr.; UCLA
- Jalen Pickett; Penn State
- Marcus Sasser; Houston
- Armando Bacot; North Carolina
- Markquis Nowell; Kansas State
- Kendric Davis; Memphis
- Antoine Davis; Detroit Mercy
- Tyler Kolek; Marquette
While this is subject to be wrong because, well it’s Bleacher Report, it’s probably not too far off because, well it’s Bleacher Report. In other words, take this list for what it is…a guess. Now let’s see who this theory eliminates from winning in the tournament this year.
Not in the Field Teams Eliminated: Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan
Bubble Watch Teams Eliminated: Rutgers
In the Field Teams Eliminated: Illinois, Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern
While I’m certain it’s not controversial to eliminate these Big Ten teams from National Championship contention status, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that one or two of them could make runs to the second weekend. I like Michigan State a lot and if Iowa gets hot and Fran stays cool they could shoot well over a couple days and end up on the second weekend. I don’t think you could call them contenders though.
Well friends, this elimination leaves only 3 teams who could win a National Championship: Purdue, Indiana, and….wait…Penn State….yep, Penn State. Let’s go team by team and see the case for each of them.
We’re going to start off on the rockiest contender. Penn State finished the season ranked 51st in Ken Pom. They are 17th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 121 defensively. In other words, they’re pretty good offensively and pretty shit defensively. The name of the game is scoring more than you opponent, so that’s definitely good. They also rank fairly high in 3P% meaning they can always come back.
The thing that makes Penn State and actual threat though is their All-American, Jalen Pickett. While I’m not knowledgeable enough about Penn State’s supporting cast, when a game is close at the end it’s a good bet to bet on the best player on the floor. In most scenarios in the tournament, Picket will be the best guy on the floor.
While we still have to see if Penn State makes it in, it wouldn’t shock me to see them go on a run akin to 2021 UCLA. It also wouldn’t shock me to see them lose in the first four game. Having an All-American helps though.
Here we go. Now I’m clearly biased to Indiana basketball so please understand that. However, Indiana may just be a title contender. Indiana is 30th in Ken Pom, 31st in offensive efficiency and 46th in defensive efficiency. This Indiana team sports the deadly inside 5 feet All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis and a much improved offense from a year ago.
What really makes Indiana a threat to win though isn’t Trayce Jackson-Davis though. It’s their Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jalen Hood-Schifino. Hood-Schifino has become the Robin to TJD’s Batman. If you need an example, see the Purdue game a couple weeks ago. While JHS did not produce at the consistent level required to be an All-American, he has come on late and could prove to be an X factor in the tournament. He’s also a borderline lottery pick in the NBA draft and as a 6’6” point guard he could have stellar matchups in the tournament.
What’s really going to define the Hoosier’s success though is the role players. Can anyone off the bench provide a lift? Can Indiana knock down a few 3’s? Can they defend the 3 point line? If those questions become yeses, Indiana is a title contender. If any of them are no’s, I’d pick a 1st round upset. Matchups will play a HUGE factor for Indiana in the tournament, however if anyone in the Big Ten can win a title, Indiana may be the best positioned to win one.
Let’s see, who’s next…I mean last...oh, Purdue. Jokes aside, Purdue has had a surprisingly great season given where I thought they were in the offseason. They’re 6th in Ken Po, with the number 11th offense and 23rd defense. They come in sporting not only All-American, but probably player of the year Zach Edey. Edey has had a DOMINANT season and has produced in quite literally every game.
And that production is perhaps what makes Purdue the biggest Big Ten threat to win a title. Edey is 7’4” of mountain that is a challenge to guard, let alone push him off the block or get him off the offensive glass. Edey could become a black hole where opposing bigs go to pick up fouls in the tournament and if that happens consistently, Purdue will be a HARD out.
However, what makes Purdue kind of shaky is the reliance not only on Edey to do the bulk of the work but also the reliance on two freshman guards to carry the ball handling load. All year, teams who have had success against Purdue (maybe not won the game but showed the blueprint) hounded the guards and wings in the full court and made it not only hard to bring the ball up, but also throw the ball into Edey. The reliance on freshman who haven’t even finished their first collegiate season also scares me, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. It’s worked literally all season for them. Purdue should also come in sporting at most a 2 seed in the tournament so they could come up with some great matchups en route to a Sweet 16, elite 8, or god forbid a Final Four appearance.
Look, I’m not a huge proponent of betting on anyone in this Big Ten. The problem with the Big Ten (besides officiating) is that there are very few fantastic guards in this league. Everyone seems to have serviceable or reliable guys, but there’s nobody that jumps off the page in the guard spot. Hood-Schifino is perhaps the most explosive guard and explosions are how you win in March. See Carson Edwards, Kemba Walker. However, Indiana is far too inconsistent and it’s way to late to “put things together” now. Teams are what they are now.
Penn State may be able to make run if they tell Pickett to shoot 40 times but they’re fighting for a spot in the tournament in general right now. I’m not sure if they’re up to the task to win at the rate required to make a run to a title.
Purdue has been carrying the Big Ten flag this year. They’ve had the most success out of the conference. They’ve had the most success in conference. They’re just so single threaded this season and relying on freshmen guards really makes me queasy, no matter how well they’ve performed this season.
Overall, I don’t think anyone from the Big Ten will win a title this season. It wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see everyone out by the Sweet 16. It’d honestly shock me if there was a team that made a deep run. If you’re looking for someone from the Big Ten to win though, it’ll come from these three teams most likely. God help us all.