Last March the Big Ten saw four of its teams enter the NCAA Tournament. Two of those teams made it as far as the Sweet 16, but then quietly went by the wayside. Flashforward nine months and Big Ten fans can justifiably argue that the conference is the most difficult in the land.
As Big Ten play begins--finally--this week, the conference boasts the nation's highest RPI. Our Gophers have defeated top-10 Louisville. Michigan, who many thought were still a couple years away, have beaten UCLA and Duke. Michigan State just knocked off Texas. Ohio State--before David Lighty went down--bested Notre Dame and Miami. There have been other wins too, as the conference is off to its best start in years.
Photo caption break:
Aaron Gleeman, Mark Mangino, Patrick Reusse
taking picture of loved one at the Big Ten Tournament.
The upside to all of this, of course, is that every Big Ten win will now mean more to the poll voters and the computers. The Big Ten's rise also means we could be returning to the times when the Big Ten routinely saw 6 teams make the NCAA Tournament. If the season ended today the conference would get six teams, according to bracketologist Joe Lunardi (what a title!!!). And a seventh team, Illinois, is right on the cusp.
The downside to the Big Ten's rise, of course, is there aren't going to be many easy wins. Winning in Ann Arbor or Evanston won't be sure wins. Even a good team could go on a losing streak and plummet even if they are playing good basketball.
Yes, it's going to be a wild Big Ten basketball season. My predictions for the conference follow the jump. These predictions are based on watching far too much Big Ten basketball and observing the various schedules. I'd also like to point out, if for nothing other than posterity, that I picked Purdue to finish 4th in the conference last season. I was laughed at because most thought the "Baby Boilers" were too young to finish even that high. We know how that turned out.
11. Indiana Hoosiers: It hasn't been often that Big Ten basketball fans entered the conference slate knowing that the storied Indiana Hoosiers were destined for the cellar of the conference. But that is the case in 2008-90 as Tom Crean takes over the reigns of the Hoosier ship Kelvin Sampson did everything he could to sink. For me, I'll be watching almost-Gopher Verdell Jones to see how he progresses as the point man for Indiana.
10. Iowa Hawkeyes: It's been an interesting year already for Todd Lickliter's Hawkeyes. Freshman guard Anthony Tucker, a Minnesota product, has missed three out of the last four Iowa games after being charged with public intoxication (because private intoxication is more appropriate for a teenager!). When he has played, Tucker has been Iowa's most proficient offensive player. With or without Tucker, the Hawkeyes are a team without an offensive identity. Lickliter's team is, however, a team that will beat you with a patient pace of play. They frustrated Michigan State to death last year in an upset. It's because of that style of play, if the Hawekyes are protecting the ball and hitting from the perimeter, they can upset just about anyone in the conference. Through 13 games, the Hawkeyes are allowing just 54 points per game, good for the second best mark in the conference.
9. Penn State Nittany Lions: I really hate doing this because I really like sophomore point guard Talor Battle and senior power forward Jamelle Cornley. But after those two, and three point artist Stanley Pringle, the Nittany Lions are a pedestrian team. Aside from Indiana, the Lions have had the most disappointing non-conference showing. They've lost to Rhode Island and Temple, and struggled with the likes of Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary's. But Battle and Cornley are good enough to take over a game. Through the non-conference slate it's Battle who leads the Big Ten in scoring with 19.2 points per game.
8. Northwestern Wildcats: Here's another team that I'd like to position higher, but I just don't have a place for them. Junior forward Kevin Coble could start for anyone in the conference. Freshman forward John Shurna is being heralded as one of the best first-year players in the conference. He's earned the love with averages that are on the cusp of 10 and 5. Guards Michael Thompson and Craig Moore are more than adequate. Add to the talent level the team's style of play offensively and they can be a tough team to beat, or even prepare for. The Wildcats run a patient version of the Princeton back-door offense. And when they are combining that with a low turnover rate (they are about in the middle of the conference), they can beat many teams that want a faster pace of play.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes: It's been a rough couple weeks for Thad Matta's Buckeyes. First, junior leader David Lightly went down and is out at least the first month (and probably longer) of the Big Ten season. Then, the Buckeyes were crushed by an athletic but vertically-challenged West Virginia Mountaineers team. To cap off the long couple weeks, Matta just released freshman point guard Anthony Crater from his scholarship. Crater was heavily recruited and played in every game this year. The annual turnover in Columbus (think Greg Oden and Kosta Koufos for starters) will take its toll this year. BJ Mullens, the would-be superstar big man, has been OK, but no more impressive than Minnesota's Colton Iverson for instance. With Lighty out and Mullens progressing, Ohio State's success will hinge on sophomores Evan turner, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale, and even freshman William Buford. Because of all of these circumstances, this is the year the Buckeyes take a fall, though seventh in the conference will be good enough for the NCAA bubble.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini: For all of the love the Big Ten is getting around the country early this season, I've been surprised Illinois hasn't received more love. They went to Vanderbilt and won. The Illini went to a neutral court and beat Kansas State, Tulsa and, just last week, Missouri. The team's only loss came by two points in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against still undefeated Clemson. Unlike Matta's Buckeyes, Bruce Weber's Illini is built to win based on teamwork, not individual excellence. Minnesota killer and senior guard Trent Meacham is averaging 30 minutes per game and is shooting 50 percent from three. Scary. Sophomore MIke Tisdale has improved considerably from a season ago. He's went from 10 minutes, 3 points and 1.7 reboudns per game to 23.5 minutes, 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds. That's improvement. Fellow sophomore big man Mike Davis has seen his numbers increase even more dramatically. After averaging 10 minutes, 2.6 points and 1.8 reboudns last season, Davis is at 28.5 minutes, 12.1 points and almost 8 rebounds per game. Add to that the play of Demetri Mccamey and the potential of transfer Alex Legion, and the Illini can be a scary team. I expect to see them dancing.
5. Wisconsin Badgers: Brian Butch? Gone. Michael Flowers? Gone. That's not easy to replace, even if you're Bo Ryan and Wisconsin. Sure, Trevon Hughes still does everything you ask of him. Yes, Marcus Landry is playing well. Jason Bohannon has stepped up and Minnesota product Jon Leuer has seen his minutes double this season. And, of course, that Joe Krabbenhoft is still around. But something seems to be missing from this year's Badgers. Maybe it's Flowers' ability to be a stopper on anyone on the defensive end of the floor. Maybe it's Butch's girth in the middle. Whatever the reason is, the Badgers aren't ranked in the top 25 nationally, while five other teams in the conference are. When was the last time that happened? Nothing really to be ashamed of in the non-conference slate despite the team's 9-3 mark. Losses to Connecticut on a neutral floor, at Marquette and at home against Texas are quality losses all. I might regret this pick, but I think this is the year the Badgers fall back in the conference.
4. Michigan Wolverines: You don't beat UCLA and Duke by accident. In his second year, John Beilein has his team playing the type of basketball he became known for at West Virginia. His Wolverines are playing the 1-3-1 on defense, and with that set have been making it difficult on opponents' desire to shoot from the outside--the Wolverines are second in the conference in 3-point defense. Beilein's quick turnaround has been possible in large part to junior DeShawn Sims and sophomore Manny Harris. Harris and Sims might be the best one-two punch in the conference. Add to that combination the recent eligibility of Arizona transfer Laval Lucas-Perry--a true point guard type that is promoted as a defender--and a decent supporting cast, and the Wolverineswill be in the upper half of the Big Ten.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers: Ahh, yes, I'm an overly positive homer at times. But I think this isn't far fetched. The Gophers might be the best defensive team in the conference. Because of a quick rotating ball-line defense, length and athleticism on the interior and timely full-court pressure, the Gophers lead the conference in blocks and steals. The Gophers are third in the conference in field goal percentage on offense (shooting 48 percent as a team) and third in the conference in field goal defense (holding opponents to 38 percent from the floor). While much of that offense has come off of turnovers, that is a deadly combination in Big Ten play. Al Nolen leads the team as, arguably, the best point guard in the conference. Damian Johnson is a stat-stuffer and has shut down the likes of Raymar Morgan, Earl Clark and Eric Gordon over the last two years. Add to that the outside shooting of Blake Hoffarber, pure offensive ability of Lawrence Westbrook and young Twin Towers in Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson, and the 2008-09 Gophers can jump to the upper echelon this season.
2. Michigan State Spartans: Tom Izzo's team looked quite average in its early season losses to Maryland and North Carolina. But both of those losses were without senior big man Goran Suton. Without the 6'10, 245 pound Suton, the Spartans were forced to ask freshman Delvon Roe and Draymond Green to step up earlier than anticipated. It might seem inappropriate to pin MSU's early season struggles on the absence of one player, but Suton averaged more than 8 rebounds per game last year and his tough-minded play was something the Spartans missed. Now healthy, Suton is the perfect puzzle piece to add play in the middle while one of the conference's most superb athletes, Raymar Morgan, does just about everything else. Second-year point guard Kalin Lucas--who is filling the big shoes of the departed Drew Neitzel, has more than filled in offensively. It's not so much his 11.4 points per game (up just slightly from 10.3 last season) that has impressed, but it's his assists (6.5 up from 3.8) and turnovers (has decrased from 2 to 1 per game this season). Izzo has role players as well, ranging from the capable Roe in the middle to senior Travis Walton and sophomore Chris Allen in the back court. Big Ten fans would be wise to forget the rocky start to the season for Michigan State, they are every bit as talented as any other team in the conference.
1. Purdue Boilermakers: In their upstart run to the conference crown last season, Matt Painter's Boilermakers won with a balanced offense, stout defense, athleticism and poise. Painter has pretty much his entire roster returning--sans Scott Martin who transferred to Notre Dame . Those who return are skilled and have the experience their detractors said they needed last year. Sophomores Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson are back. The Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, Chris Kramer, returns. He doesn't do much other than play defense and play hard-nosed basketball, but with the talent around him, that's all he's asked to do. If I have a concern about the Boilers, it's depth. Painter is only playing about eight players deep through the non-conference slate and injuries or foul trouble could significantly hurt the Boilers. But so long as this team stays healthy, it is the team to beat in the conference. And after a quiet end to 2007-08, I think the Boilers have something to prove.