Four months ago — I can’t decide whether it feels like yesterday or a year ago — writers across the Big Ten’s ever-widening stretch of earth surveyed the conference landscape and made predictions.
Some of my own predictions still look OK. Although I never would have thought this would be such a down year in the league, I picked Wisconsin to win the league, Ohio State to land second (the Buckeyes could be third) and Michigan State to be fourth (the Spartans are tied for third). Rutgers would be dead last, I thought, and Penn State and Northwestern would sit in the basement, too, although the Wildcats are surging.
Other forecasting was more laughable. Purdue, now in contention to finish second, I had finishing 13th. I also way underestimated Maryland, while overestimating Michigan, which I had sixth; the Gophers, whom I had fifth, and Nebraska, which I had all the way up at third.
Just another reminder none of us can predict the future. We can, however, talk more aptly about the past. Since those fickle estimations, the 14 teams have surged and slumped, towered and toppled. With the Big Ten tournament starting Wednesday, the cards have almost all been laid. Time to cast off preseason predictions and take a gander at the glorious unpredictable season that we’ve been treated to. My Big Ten awards:
Player of the Year: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin. No surprises here, not now, not in October. The versatile 7-footer has put together an even greater senior campaign than was expected of him, and the expectations weren’t low. A candidate for National Player of the Year as well, he has increased his scoring by more than four points a game; is rebounding better; distributing the ball better; hitting better percentages from the field and from three-point range; and has become more of a back-to-the-basket presence. This one is in the bag.
Freshman of the Year: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State. Although the guard has shown some inconsistency in recent weeks, it’s hard to take anything away from a player who has carried Ohio State and is in the conference’s top five in scoring, assists and three-pointers. Russell — displaying a soft outside touch and the ability to completely embarrass defenders on his way to the basket — has proved nearly impossible to guard 1-on-1, and his court vision has kept the Buckeyes offense rolling.
Coach of the Year: Mark Turgeon, Maryland. When the Terrapins joined the Big Ten this summer, many thought this program coming off a 17-15 season and dealing with a stunning five transfers would stutter yet again. Not the case. Despite dealing with a few injuries (star guard Dez Wells missed seven games), Turgeon directed a Big Ten title-contending season and brought new life to a team that likely will land a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament.
Biggest surprise team: Purdue. Media picked the Boilermakers to finish 10th in October, and after an 8-5 nonconference showing that included a three-game losing streak and a loss at home to Gardner-Webb, that seemed appropriate. But Purdue, behind patient coach Matt Painter and a balanced lineup, has rebounded to challenge for second place in the conference and battle for an NCAA tournament invitation.
Biggest flop: Nebraska. After Tim Miles’ bunch surged from a 10th-place finish in 2013 to fourth and the NCAA tournament last year, the expectations for the Cornhuskers grew. Terran Petteway, who led the league in scoring last year, was back as a preseason All-Big Ten pick and looked primed to take the next jump, along with the other three returning starters. But with Petteway pressing under new defensive attention, the Huskers never caught their stride, and then only got worse, with Miles kicking the players out of their state-of-the-art practice facilities. It hasn’t seemed to matter. Heading into Sunday’s finale against Maryland, Nebraska is on a seven-game skid.
Big Ten Power Poll
Wisconsin (27-3, 15-2): The Badgers clinched their first league title since 2008.
Maryland (25-5, 13-4): When Dez Wells is going, jaws drop, and he was going vs. Rutgers.
Iowa (20-10, 11-6): With a five-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes are making the most of their last chances.
Michigan State (20-10, 11-6): Not your typical Tom Izzo team, but the Spartans still have chances to save the season.
Ohio State (22-8, 11-6): Winning Wednesday gave coach Thad Matta a school record-tying 297 victories.
Illinois (19-11, 9-8): The Illini threatened to hand the game to Nebraska on Wednesday but pulled through to stay just on the right side of the bubble.
Northwestern (15-15, 6-11): Tre Demps hit a clutch tying three, and the Wildcats’ eventual double-OT victory over Michigan kept them rolling.
Purdue (19-11, 11-6): The Boilermakers are squandering the gifts they were given in a difficult but opportunity-laden finishing schedule.
Indiana (19-11, 9-8): The Hoosiers are playing like they don’t want to play in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan (14-15, 7-10): Without any reliable go-to scorers thanks to a couple of big injuries, the Wolverines never have gotten over the hump.
Gophers (17-13, 6-11): The huge victory at Michigan State could have been a turnaround, but they let an early hole prove to be too much vs. Wisconsin.
Penn State (15-15, 3-14): At least the Nittany Lions aren’t consistently getting blown out.
Nebraska (13-16, 5-12): What a plunge for the once-ranked Cornhuskers, losers of nine of 10.
Rutgers (10-20, 2-15): The Scarlet Knights’ losing streak is at 13.
Big Ten short takes
Battle of the bubblers: With both Illinois and Purdue on the weak side of the NCAA tournament bubble, whichever team loses Saturday’s matchup (3:30 p.m., BTN) at Purdue’s Mackey Arena could be out of the discussion. The Illini won the first meeting at home 66-57 on Jan. 21.
Finish it the way it started? Northwestern’s unexpected surge began with an overtime victory over Iowa on Feb. 15. Now the Wildcats could put an even more impressive finish on the streak, with a victory in the Hawkeyes’ house in the season finale (11 a.m. Saturday, BTN).
Playing for seeds: Wisconsin has locked up the Big Ten title, but the Badgers could bolster their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a victory at Ohio State (3:30 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 4). The Buckeyes, meanwhile, could boost their No. 8 seed projection substantially by beating the Badgers.
'Big Three' watch
A weekly update on Minnesotans Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Duke), Reid Travis (DeLaSalle, Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (Cooper, UNLV):
Jones is receiving plenty of fanfare, but don’t necessarily expect him to be a first-round pick in the NBA draft this summer. It’s not a lock that he leaves after one season, and although ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has the point guard second on his Statistical Big Board (which looks at wins above replacement player, or WARP), most mock drafts — eyeing his lack of size and NBA-ready athleticism — have him as a borderline first-rounder at this point. … Travis had eight rebounds Thursday in a loss at Oregon State, his most since missing most of January to a stress fracture. … Vaughn remains sidelined by a torn meniscus.