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Nebrasketball: B1G Men’s Basketball Preview Part 1-The Basement

It’s Nebrasketball week here during the bye. Get ready for B1G basketball as we prepare you with what to expect this season.

3/7/02- Indianapolis, IN - Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament Minnesota forward Rick Rickert, left, smiles as he sits on the bench next to teammate Travarus bennett with two minutes left to go in the Gopher’s victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions

This is a three-part series that ranks all of Nebraska’s conference foes, and briefly previews their roster and season expectations. I’m not going to include Nebraska in this series, in part, because I simply have no idea where to put them and, in part, because this is more focused on the conference foes the Huskers will face. The goal here is to help you decide what to expect for yourselves of conference opponents going into year 1 of the Hoiberg era. These will all follow the same format of:

  1. Breaking down their results last season, key off-season departures, and expectations coming into the season.
  2. Looking at key returnees and additions to keep an eye on through non-con and conference play.
  3. Breaking down the important non-con games to give us an idea of their talent coming into conference play, the key stretch in their conference schedule that will make or break their season, and what will be my terri-bad guess at their record against the Huskers come Indy.

Please be sure to share in the comments whether you think I have a particular team pegged too high or too low. Also, let me know in the comments where you expect Nebrasketball to end up in the conference standings come Indianapolis time in March. Now onto the B1G 2019-2020 basketball preview!

13. Northwestern Wildcats

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Northwestern
Northwestern Wildcats head coach Chris Collins during the first half against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 record: 13-19, 4-16
Conference: 14th
RPI: 196th
KenPom: 74th
Against Huskers last season: 0-1
Last 4 seasons: 4-2

Well, someone had to be ranked last, and Northwestern is as good of a guess as any. They had their worst season under Coach Collins last year, finishing 13-19 overall and 4-16 in B1G play after the loss of starting PG Bryant McIntosh to graduation. Despite the loss of McIntosh, they still finished 9th in the country in assist rate last year. However they paired their great ball movement with the worst efficiency field goal and two point shooting percentage, along with the second worst three point shooting percentage in the conference. On the other end of the floor, they ranked 19th in KenPom for defensive efficiency and featured a host of long defenders who focused on shutting down the three at all costs. Northwestern lost Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Ryan Taylor to graduation from the roster last season and will sorely miss them. In addition, Barrett Benson and Aaron Falzon have transferred since the start of last season.

While NU has had a program record of two Top 40 recruiting classes coming to campus these last two cycles, this is an incredibly young team. While there is promise with returning sophomores like Pete Nance, Miller Kopp, and Ryan Young (redshirted last year), having only one senior in AJ Turner is not typically a recipe for great success in a conference as deep as the B1G is expected to be this season. Expect this team to have some flashes of success, but their time in making noise in the conference and playing beyond Wednesday in the conference tourney will likely come next season.

Northwestern will face a few tough teams in the non-conference that will be a nice barometer to judge how their season will end up. They face Providence in their second game, then could either face Kansas State (ended 18th in RPI last season) or Pittsburgh in the second round of the Fort Myers Tip-Off. Finally, they also play a “road game” at DePaul, which isn’t exactly a tough opponent, especially given their new sanctions, but noteworthy for me at least as my grand-uncle played for the Blue Demons on their 1945 NIT Championship team with legend George Miken (who “sharpened his elbows” as my grand-uncle would say). The Wildcats face an absolute murderers’ row to close out January with home games against Maryland and aOSU before heading to the Breslin to take on MSU before starting February with a home game against Purdue. The Huskers will travel to Welsh-Ryan on January 11th and get NU in the Vault on March 1st. This should be 2-0 for Hoiberg, though the road trip may be a challenge.

12. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Nebraska vs Rutgers
Nebraska Cornhuskers forward Tanner Borchardt (20) and Rutgers Scarlet Knights Omoruyi (2) go for a rebound during the first half in the Big Ten conference tournament at United Center.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 record: 14-17, 7-13
Conference: T-10th
RPI: 146th
KenPom: 78th
Against Huskers last season: 1-1
Last 4 seasons: 2-6

Rutgers had what amounted to their most successful season in men’s basketball since joining the B1G, a whopping 14-17 overall record with no post-season after a first-round exit from the B1G Tournament at the hands of the Huskers, and a school best 7-13 conference record. I want to throw shade at that, but I suppose the Huskers have only done that twice themselves, so I shouldn’t mock too hard. And to be fair, they were also a young team (330th in experience last season) and Pikiell, unlike Chris Ash, has shown himself to make steady forward progress in Piscataway and be the right man for the job. There was even reason for optimism given their strength at offensive rebounding—which was needed given their 31.2% three point shooting and 47.2% inside the arc—and quick pace of play, ranking fourth in the conference. However, Eugene Omoruyi transferred to Oregon in the off-season, along with his team best 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Prior to this, a repeat top ten finish seemed likely for Rutgers, but without Omoruyi, the outlook becomes far gloomier.

Rutgers did pick up two big transfers themselves that will be important for any success this season. Shooting guard Jacob Young from Texas, who put up 29 points against Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament will challenge returner Montez Mathis for the starting spot, and forward Akwasi Yeboah out of Stony Brook. And also back will be Myles Johnson, who will be a presence down low after being the top offensive rebounder in the conference last season and ninth overall nationally. The needed focus on offensive rebounding will set Hoiberg up nicely to push the ball for easy transition points if the Huskers can compete on the glass and push the outlet.

In the non-con, Rutgers will play a few teams with a pulse. St. Bonaventure finished 125th in RPI and will be on a neutral court, while NJIT 133rd and Seton Hall at 39th will all pose challenges for the win column, but are home at the RAC. At Pittsburgh in the ACC/B1G challenge will be a challenging road game as well. I am going to cheat on my own criteria because their schedule is more like “when do they play a stretch of two games in a row they won’t get murder-death-killed.” The only stretch that truly fits is January where they play at Nebraska, home against Penn St, and at Illinois. Besides that, they never really play any stretch that doesn’t include tough road games or home opponents at the top of the pre-season list for the conference. Nebraska restarts B1G play on January 3rd against Rutgers and travels to the RAC on January 25th. For the conference season to be considered a success, I think Hoiberg needs this series to ebd 2-0 in my opinion.

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Penn State
Penn State Nittany Lions forward Payton Banks (0) shoots the ball past Michigan State Spartans guard Miles Bridges (22) during the second half at Palestra. Where yours truly watched MSU lose while sitting in front of the worst fan a person will ever experience in one’s life.
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 record: 14-18, 7-13
Conference: T-10th
RPI: 94th
KenPom: 43rd
Against Huskers last season: 1-1
Last 4 seasons: 4-4

I’ll try to not let my personal hatred of Pat Chambers (Mr. I complain about the officiating when the other team gets called for more fouls) and the PSU fan base (as if there are more than ten for basketball) bias this too much. Penn State had one heck of a letdown last season under Chambers. After entering the season with perhaps his best roster as head man in Happy Valley and as NIT Champs the prior season, the Nittany Lions sat at 0-10 in conference play at the end of January, and 7-14 overall. While they managed to rattle of 7 wins in their next 10, they proceeded to end their season with an OT loss to Minnesota in the B1G tourney to end 14-18 overall and 7-13 in conference. The Nittany Lions have proceeded to lose B1G defensive player of the year, guard Josh Reaves, to graduation, and their second leading scorer, freshman guard Rasir Bolton, to Iowa State as a transfer.

With my doom and gloom for their lackluster season and attrition out of the way [really it’s more my personal happiness], I must sadly concede Penn State has a lot of their great young talent from last year’s roster returning this season. Leading scorer and rebounder, and one of only two returning players from last year’s first team all B1G list (Cassius Winston is the other), forward Lamar Stevens returns for his senior season, along with his 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. Also returning on the inside is senior Mike Watkins, who has ranked in the top three of the Big Ten in block rate each of the previous three seasons, averaging 1.5 a game last season. Watkins also led the conference in defensive rebounding rate the last two seasons, and made the Big Ten’s all-defensive team for the 2017-18 season. Finally, teams facing Penn State will want to worry about ball control with Jamari Wheeler playing point guard for the Nittany Lions as he was second in steal rate in conference play last season.

Penn State will face more than a few early season challenges, including a road game to Georgetown (88th RPI last year) for the Gavitt games; home games against Bucknell (92nd), NCAA tourney team Yale (45th RPI), and they got ‘Bama (56thRPI); and Ole Miss (67th RPI) in the NIT Tip-Off. I’m tempted to pick their early December gauntlet of at aOSU and home versus Maryland three days as the indicator for the season, but really January 11th to February 4th is just painful scrolling through as they face a home game against Wisconsin with a road trip to the barn at Minnesota, follow that with a home game against aOSU, a road game at Michigan, home against Indiana, at Nebraska, and at the Breslin Center against MSU. If they walk out of that with even two wins, I would call that one hell of a success. As for the February 1st game in Lincoln, bring the noise that Saturday night as this is a must win for the Huskers and I think they get it at home to go 1-0 over the Nittany Lions.

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Minnesota vs Louisville
Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Amir Coffey (5) drives to the basket against Louisville Cardinals guard Darius Perry (2) during the first half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 record: 22-14, 9-11
Conference: 7th
RPI: 41st
KenPom: 46th
Against Huskers last season: 1-1
Last 4 seasons: 2-4

I personally think Pitino, Jr. should be on the hot seat going into this season. Then again, maybe my hatred of his dad factors in a bit given that Minnesota has made the big dance 2 of the last 3 seasons under him and his team has a legitimate injury excuse for the year in between appearances. Minnesota entered the full slate of B1G play last season 11-2 and 1-1 in conference, but proceeded to go 6-9 after that, finishing the regular season 19-12 (9-11 in conference). After beating Penn State in OT and then Purdue in the conference tournament, Minnesota fell to [f***] Michigan in the semi-final. Minnesota still managed a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament and proceeded to upset (not vacated) 7 seed Louisville in the first round before falling to 2 seed and fellow B1G opponent (seriously, what the actual hell here NCAA selection committee, What. The. Actual. Hell!) Michigan State 70-50 while finishing the season 41st in RPI and 46th in KenPom. Following what was an overall successful season, oof does the cupboard become bare. Leading scorer and assists from last season Amir Coffey left early for the NBA. Also gone is last season’s leading rebounder, and in fact the school all-time leading rebounder, second all-time leading scorer, and leader in attempted and made free throws, Jordan Murphy. Finally, backup point guard Isaiah Washington transferred to Iona.

While losing two program keystones will make a return to post-season play dicey for the Gophers, Minnesota does gain or return some key talent that will keep them a threat on a team’s schedule. 6’10” center, sophomore Daniel Oturu returns as the third leading scorer from last season with his 10.8 points, 7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks a game from last season. Joining the team will be former Pitt point guard Marcus Carr after sitting out a year as a transfer, who was 2nd in the ACC in assists and 34th in the country overall his freshman season. Also in the back-court, guard Gabe Kalscheur returns as the leading three point scorer, having shot for over 41% on 188 attempts. Currently, backup PF/C Eric Curry is out indefinitely after injuring his knee in practice in mid-October. Depending on his recovery time this could be a tough blow to Minnesota’s depth in the front-court as the junior was expected to challenge for the starting PF position as the season progressed.

Minnesota faces a respectable non-conference schedule. They face off in Sioux Falls, SD against Oklahoma (RPI 40th last season), at Butler (96th RPI), at Utah (112th RPI), and face Clemson (60th RPI) at home in the B1G/ACC Challenge. As for conference play, the toughest stretch looks to be January 23rd at aOSU, followed by a home game against MSU, a road game at Illinois, and a home game against Wisconsin on February 5th. The rest seems marginally balanced with breaks in between their more challenging games. The Huskers somehow plays through the entire season until finally playing Minnesota as their final game of the regular season for both teams in the barn in Minneapolis on March 8th. Bright white, raised playing floor aside, this will be a tough game following a road trip to Ann Arbor only three days prior. The Huskers will struggle with this one as a result, and while I want to predict a win to close a successful first season under Coach Hoiberg, I think this series ends 0-1 for the regular season given the venue and closing stretch for Nebraska.

That’s a wrap for the B1G basement. Laud my wisdom and knowledge in the comments, and come back on Wednesday for the mushy middle of the conference!