Can the Huskers survive an extremely rugged Big Ten slate?
LINCOLN — At Big Ten media day in October, coaches all over the ballroom in downtown Chicago were apologetic.
Nebraska winning 22 games, 13 in the conference, and still not making the NCAA tournament last year was an insult, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. But also, the league’s fault.
“Shame on us,” Izzo said. “That means we all did a bad job, if you ask me.”
Nebraska finished fourth in the conference last year, but it didn’t have many “Quadrant 1” wins thanks in part to the lack of good teams in the Big Ten.
That is not the case this year. If Nebraska finishes fourth in the league in 2018-19, the way it looks right now, the Huskers will waltz into the dance. The conference has followed up a down year with a sharp uptick in play.
Ten teams are receiving votes in the AP Top 25 including No. 4 Michigan, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 15 Ohio State, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 22 Indiana, No. 23 Iowa and No. 25 Nebraska. Maryland, Purdue and Minnesota also are receiving votes.
Teams in the Big Ten have nonconference wins over Villanova, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Iowa State, Florida, Texas and Butler.
There are a few reasons the Big Ten is so good, and Nebraska’s road to 13 conference wins is much, much steeper this year.
The first is the re-emergence of a few teams that had down years in 2017-18. Six teams finished below .500 at the end of the regular season. Four of those teams are projected to win 18 or more games this year on KenPom.
That includes Minnesota (15-17 last year), Iowa (14-19), Northwestern (15-18) and Wisconsin (15-18). Minnesota knocked off Nebraska earlier this month, scoring 20 points in the final five minutes behind Amir Coffey. Wisconsin senior forward Ethan Happ is carrying the Badgers, averaging a double-double with 19.2 points and 10.8 boards per game. Wisconsin is also one of the most efficient offenses in the country, shooting 40.2 percent from the 3-point line and turning the ball over on 13.6 percent of its possessions, good for sixth in the country.
Iowa already has solid wins over Oregon, Connecticut and Iowa State. Northwestern nearly knocked off Indiana and Michigan in back-to-back games, losing both by two points.
That also doesn’t include Indiana, which finished 16-15 last year in Archie Miller’s first season. The Hoosiers have two of the best players in the conference, with freshman Romeo Langford and senior Juwan Morgan, who scored 35 in a win over a very good Butler team last Saturday.
In addition to a resurgence of mediocre teams from a year ago, the main trend running through the Big Ten so far is that everyone is defending.
Big Ten teams held opponents to 34.2 percent shooting from the 3-point line last year. That’s dropped to 31.2 this year so far. Teams had an effective field goal percentage of 49 percent against Big Ten teams a year ago, and that’s down to 46.6 percent. The adjusted defensive efficiency, which tracks points scored per 100 possessions, was 98 last year against teams in the conference. It is 93 this year.
Four teams — Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State — rank in the top 15 of opponent effective field goal percentage. The conference had just one in the top 15 a year ago.
Big Ten play does not start up for Nebraska again until after the new year. First are two winnable games against Cal State Fullerton on Saturday and Southwest Minnesota State on Dec. 29.
But Nebraska begins its Big Ten schedule against 9-2 Maryland, 9-2 Iowa, 6-5 Penn State — a team that beat Virginia Tech and lost to Indiana and Maryland by a combined nine points — 10-2 Indiana and 9-2 Michigan State.
KenPom has Nebraska projected to start 2-3 in those games. And it doesn’t get easier at the end of the year, when Nebraska has to try to impress the committee in late February against Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa to close out conference play.
The Big Ten this year will not be a walk in the park.