Big Ten Outlook for March Madness
The Big Ten has easily been the deepest and strongest conference in college basketball this season. The league also has multiple teams that are legitimate national championship contenders. Let’s take a closer look at some of the teams that are poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
During the season, the Wolverines have slowly but surely separated themselves from the pack, joining the likes of Baylor and Gonzaga as the truly elite teams in college basketball. They’ve done so primarily on the backs of three star players in Hunter Dickinson, Franz Wagner, and Isaiah Livers. Dickinson has provided a surprising post presence and become the team’s leading scorer. Wagner creates mismatches against opposing teams with his 6’9’’ frame and the skill set of a guard. Finally, Livers provides steady scoring from the wing and a player who can create his own shot.
However, what makes Michigan stand out from the rest of the Big Ten is its role players. Mike Smith is one of the most underrated point guards in the country, averaging five assists per game while shooting 46% from three-point range. Fellow seniors Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown give the Wolverines a deep backcourt and players who are capable of picking up the slack scoring-wise if Dickinson, Wagner, and Livers falter. Michigan is also one of the best teams in the country at defending the inside of the arc, forcing teams to beat them from the perimeter and giving the Wolverines multiple ways of beating teams.
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The Fighting Illini might have the best inside-outside tandem in the country. Inside, seven-foot center Kofi Cockburn is an impact player on both ends of the floor. He’s a polished post scorer who has learned how to use his size and is a threat to get a double-double every time he steps onto the court. In the backcourt, Illinois is led by Ayo Dosunmu, who leads the team with 21 points and 5.3 assists per game. He’s also one of the best rebounders Illinois has. Despite missing the end of the regular season with an injury, Dosunmu should be back for the NCAA Tournament and could be one of the most impactful players in the Big Dance.
Meanwhile, the Illini has a solid supporting cast that helps make them a Final Four contender. Junior Giorgi Bezhanishvili could start on a lot of teams and averaged 12.5 points per game two seasons ago as a freshman. However, he now backs up Cockburn, giving Illinois two capable big men. Senior guard Trent Frazier is a nice complement to Dosunmu and can explode for 20-plus points any given night. Meanwhile, freshmen guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo have also come on strong late in the season, giving the Fighting Illini a deep backcourt capable of making a deep tournament run.
With presumed consensus pick for National Player of the Year Luka Garza, the Hawkeyes are a threat to win every game they play. Garza is almost automatic when he gets the ball in the post, as few teams have been able to slow him down this season. However, he also creates trouble by being able to make three-point shots, knocking down 45% of his perimeter shots this season. That versatility is why he’s averaging 24 points per game this year.
Of course, Garza is far from the only capable shooter on Iowa’s roster. The trio of Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon, and EJ Fredrick all shoot over 40% from three-point range. The Hawkeyes also lead the nation in assists per game. That willingness to pass the ball is one of the reasons why Iowa shoots such a high percentage from the perimeter. When the Hawkeyes find the right balance between making shots and feeding Garza inside, there aren’t many teams that can keep pace with them, enabling Iowa to win games despite some deficiencies on the defensive end.
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