Big Ten Basketball’s Middle: Wisconsin, Indiana & Purdue

The Big Ten race is competitive top-to-bottom and that means the middle of the conference offers intrigue. Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue all have three or four conference losses apiece. All three have pretty good overall records. Based on current record, they fall into the class of teams that are going to be ‘tweeners—right in between championship level and the NCAA Tournament bubble.

This can make for kind of a dull year for a fan, with nothing to do but wait for the Big Dance. But could any of these three swing one way or another? Every February we see teams rising from the middle to step up and steal a conference championship. We also see teams whose NCAA spot looked beyond question suddenly collapse and play their way to the bubble. Today, TheSportsNotebook delves into Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue to see what they have, what they’ve done and what might lie ahead…

Wisconsin (16-5, 5-3): The Badgers were teetering just a couple short weeks ago, after three straight conference losses—two at home—dropped them to 1-3. Their current four-game winning streak includes victories at Purdue and Illinois, so it’s safe to say the patient is breathing again.

Senior guard Jordan Taylor is the unquestioned leader of this team. A superb floor leader whose production is consistent, Taylor still hasn’t shot the ball as well this season as he has in year’s past, only hitting 33 percent from behind the arc. The three-point gunners for Wisconsin this year are sophomores Ben Brust and Josh Gasser. The latter hits 52 percent from downtown and both are perfect complements for when Taylor wants to play a slash-and-kick game. There’s concerns up front, but the emergence of junior Jarred Berggen as a viable scorer in the post has helped alleviate what was the team’s biggest flaw in preseason. I would still like to see Berggen rebound better and for forwards Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans to be more consistent, but Wisconsin still has more down low than I would have thought after the loss of Jon Leurer to the NBA.

Because Wisconsin gives consistent effort, is well-coached and has a nice non-conference scalp against UNLV, to go with a “good loss” at North Carolina where the game came down to the end, I have a hard time seeing them slumping badly enough to miss the Tournament. But with so much of the load riding on Taylor’s shoulders, I also find it hard to see them making a serious run at the Big Ten title.

Indiana (16-4, 4-4): Tom Crean’s team is slumping right now. A Sunday win at a Penn State in campus in mourning after the passing of Joe Paterno doesn’t chance the fact the Hoosiers had lost three straight prior to that, including games to Minnesota and Nebraska. After a blazing start to the season, where they beat Kentucky, Notre Dame and N.C. State in December, then upset Ohio State and beat Michigan in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers are dealing with adversity.

The biggest concern Crean has is in the backcourt. While Jordan Hulls is a good shooter, including from three-point range, Verdell Jones III doesn’t give a lot of production, and neither is a particularly adept playmaker. IU has a balanced front line, with 6’11” Cody Zeller playing well in the post, Christian Watford able to step outside and hit a three, and small forward Victor Oladipo having a steady jumper. A guard who would beat an opponent off the dribble would have a lot of room to create assists for himself, but the numbers tell us that isn’t happening.

Zeller still crates a big matchup problem for most opponents—tonight in Madison, there’s no one who can guard him, so between him, Hulls and Watford there are enough scoring options to keep the team going.

Overall, I still think that if Indiana is going to swing one way, it would be a continued downward spiral, rather than a bounceback. There aren’t any players here who are used tow winning and leadership is goijg to be an issue. With their December wins, they’ll still make the Dance, but my guess is that it becomes a lot dicier than ever seemed possible in the heady days of early January.

Purdue (14-7, 4-4): We knew this was going to be a rebuilding year for Matt Painter coming in, so the record isn’t a shock, nor is it any kind of disappointment. So far Purdue has mostly won the games they should win and lost the ones they should lose, including in non-conference play.

The Boilermakers are completely lacking in any kind of post game at all. Robbie Hummel has made it al the way back from his knee problems to resume his spot at power forward, but Hummel is much better at circling outside and hitting the outside shot. He fit perfect into this frontline when JaJuan Johnson was blocking shots and patrolling the middle, but Johnson in the NBA means no inside help for Robbie. Purdue, by necessity, is built around the backcourt with Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith and Terone Johnson getting the bulk of the playing time. Jackson is the best playmaker, while Smith is the most consistent shooter.

Purdue isn’t going to play its way into the Big Ten title race, and at 14-7, they’re pretty close to the NCAA bubble as it is. When I look at this team, I don’t see an NCAA Tournament team—not when Temple and Illinois are your only wins of any note, and either were on the road. But there’s plenty of opportunity to fix that and I do believe in Painter as a head coach, so I’m betting he gets Purdue in as the seventh conference team.