As we here at Busting Brackets gear up for a deep run through March and into April, we’re fortunate enough to have been granted access to the minds of some of the World Wide Leader in Sports and Entertainment’s best college hoops analysts.
For the second straight season I’ve felt like the Big Ten has been the most competitive conference in the nation, which is why I wanted to pick the brain of Dan Dakich, a former player, assistant and interim coach at Indiana, who now does color commentary and studio/radio (he’s the host of “The Dan Dakich Show” on Indianapolis radio station WFNI, ESPN radio affiliate, 1070 The Fan) analysis for the conference for ESPN.
Dakich, surprise, agrees with me that the Big Ten looks as good if not better than anyone – he also loves the Big 12 – heading into the tournament. Read on to see who he likes outside of the Big Ten, his thoughts on what’s going on down in Lexington, and what his predictions are for the Final Four.
Jared Mintz: Who’s looked like the best player in the Big 10 this season?
Dan Dakich: Oh without a doubt Nik Stauskas has been the best player in the conference. He was great…not just great but flat out ridiculous in an opportunity to win the conference out right versus Illionis (Stauskas went 8-11 from the field, including 7-9 from three for 24 points) and he’s just been so consistent aside from a few bad games, but that’ll happen in long season. If you say “give me one guy” I take Stauskas, hands down.
JM: What do you think of Noah Vonleh?
DD: I think he’s really good and that he has a chance to be a dynamite pro. He doesn’t get the ball as much as maybe he should, but he leads the conference in rebounding and you can see what he’s capable of. I like that (Indiana head coach) Tom Crean’s expanded his game, as he can now shoot from three, and has just become a monster on the boards. There are lots of great freshmen this season, and despite him not getting as much attention as others I’m not sure there are many better. He’s going to do nothing but get better, he started his freshman season as a 17-year old, he’s just a tremendous prospect.
JM: Is there any way Michigan is better this season than they were last season?
DD: I’m not sure. They were very good last year, I mean their two starting guards are in the NBA, and they’re very good this year, but I don’t know they’re better. However, this is as close of a group as there is in the country. This is a group that has no ego, and a group that wants each other to do better. They don’t care about credit, they know their roles, and they have more than enough talent. I just don’t know that they’re better than last season though. Right now they’re playing as well as they’ve played all year, which is one of John Beilein’s staples, we’re always seeing him and his teams in the mix of things around March. West Virginia did great, now these guys with their run last year to championship game. I will say this, there have been lots of talented guys at Michigan since 1986, this team has accomplished more than any of them, so in that sense they are better than last season, but we’ll see what they do in the tournament.
JM: What two Big Ten teams have the best chance at making the Final Four?
DD: Michigan and Wisconsin. I just told you why I love Michigan, and Wisconsin is playing so well, they seemingly have no issues and above all else this is a team that can make shots. They’re just a different team than in years past as it’s been documented that they can really score from a variety of places on the court. Also, the unbelievable improvement out of seven-footer Frank Kaminsky makes them incredibly dangerous. To me he’s arguably one of the five most improved players in the country. He was good in the beginning of the season, he had that huge 43 point game against North Dakota, and right now he’s moving and playing so well. Wisconsin just has a great inside-outside game, and the ability to make shots and defend, which when paired with a great coach has “deep tournament run” written all over it.
JM: What conference looks the best heading into the tournament?
DD: I like the Big Ten, but I’m not sure that they’re flat-out the best. There are times when I watch the Big 12 and I just think “look at these guys go!” There’s no dead weight in the Big Ten this year, but I think it’s both the Big Ten and the Big 12 putting themselves above everyone else. Both leagues are just so well coached too.
JM: How do you think Wichita State fairs heading into the tournament?
DD: I think they’re going to do really well. I mean, it’s going to take a team making like ten three’s to beat them. They defend, they have veteran guards who are just amazing. You can talk about whoever you want being the best team in the country, but these guys have experience and are used to making plays. They’re also used to pressure and hype that they’ve had since last year. When you go to the Final Four and play in the Missouri Valley Conference, it’s crazy for them, and they handle the hype well. I don’t think the pressure of the tournament should bother them. They’re quick, they defend, and they’re one of the legit tough guys on the block.
JM: Are there any mid-majors or lower who you think have the capability to make a deep Tournament run?
DD: I think Saint Louis is great but I don’t know that they score enough, which is worrisome to me because you have to be able to shoot and get easy points in the tournament. I also like VCU a lot, which is not a surprise, but they too are a little offensively challenged in the half court. But you have to play 40 minutes and contend. You need great guard play, not good guard play. They got crushed by Michigan in last year’s tournament, but as I mentioned that team had two pro’s in the backcourt. I still think VCU is as good as anyone outside of the big conferences.
JM: Who has been the biggest disappointment this season?
DD: Sheesh, probably Kentucky. I thought they were going to have a good year and all that, but I think they’re fighting their coach and I don’t understand why go to Kentucky and not listen to John Calipari, particularly if you’re a one-and-done guy. When you fight with your coach, bad things happen.
JM: Do you think they have a legitimate shot at making a tournament run?
DD: Sometimes guys – even if they’re freshman – get in a desperate or relaxed moment because they see light at the end of tunnel and they make a run. Talent wise, yes I think they have a shot at making a run. But Brad Stevens always said you have to have everyone in the building moving in the same direction, unless the movement is by the players then a run for this team won’t happen.
JM: Just how far can Creighton go?
DD: Creighton could be a Final Four team because they shoot from so many spots, they’re mature, and they don’t turn ball over. In the tournament those things help a lot. I’m obviously concerned with their recent losses, but when I’ve seen them they look like a Final Four team to me. Aside from Doug McDermott, they have a six-year Senior in Grant Gibbs, and they really do play together.
JM: Who’s the most underrated player in the country?
DD: Arizona guard Nick Johnson is absolutely one of the most under-appreciated. When I watched them losing to Drexel at Madison Square Garden, he just went out and did everything that doesn’t show up in the scoreboard to help his team get a big win. He switches to the hot player on defense, he gets his teammates settled down. Of all guards across the country there’s no one more valuable to their team than Johnson.
JM: Who’s the most underrated team in the country?
DD: If they’re healthy or not suspending guys UCLA is very talented. They’re not necessarily underrated, they just could surprise a lot of people if they get everyone rolling.
JM: Who are your Final Four teams?
DD: Kansas probably has the most talent in the country. Louisville despite some recent struggles. I really like the way Arizona is playing. And if Duke makes shots they can beat anyone in the country. Duke is a team I wouldn’t be surprised to see make a big time run.
JM: Who wins it all?
DD: If i had to make a guess I’d say Kansas. They have more than enough talent, and if Joel Embiid is healthy they’re incredibly tough to beat.