Is this the Year of the Big Ten?
With 5 teams currently ranked in the Top 25 and two more just outside of the rankings, the Big Ten is making a strong case for being the toughest conference in America. People always claim that the Big East or in the past the ACC as the best conference by far but this year the Big Ten has to be included in every conversation regarding the best conferences. The Big Ten is headlined by Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue but Illinois and Minnesota have also made some early noise this season adding to the depth of this 11 team league. In my mind this conference will have at least 7 teams make the NCAA field including Northwestern, and the strength of the top 4 makes it the toughest conference in all the land. Here I break down the Big Ten and its best teams, players, coaches and everything else you need to know going into Big Ten Play. I’m on record saying that the Big Ten is the premier conference in America.
Ohio State- From the beginning I picked Ohio State to win this conference based on what they returned and the additions of freshmen Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas. Jared Sullinger has been the most dominant freshman in the country, averaging 18 points and 10 boards a game and would most likely be selected as a 1st team All-America if the season ended today. Ohio State is also very capable from the perimeter with 3 great perimeter options in David Lighty, William Buford and John Diebler. The Buckeyes continue to impress as they have started out 11-0 and have shown no signs of weakness, their closet game being an 11 point win over IUPUI. The Buckeyes may be the best team top to bottom right now in college basketball as 5 players average in double figures for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes. I would keep a close eye on the Buckeyes this year as they have all the pieces in place for an NCAA championship run.
Michigan State- Tom Izzo’s Spartans have not been the dominant force many thought they would be, as State is just 8-3 going into a key match up with 22nd ranked Texas. The Spartans have not received the post contributions they expected from Draymond Green and Delvon Roe, making them more one dimensional on offense and forcing the Spartans to settle for jump shots. I think Michigan State is college basketball’s sleeping giant right now as the three loss Spartans are a lot better than their record may indicate and have the potential to win the entire tournament based on their supreme talent and the school’s recent tournament success under Coach Izzo.
Illinois-The Illini may have been upset in their last game by in-state opponent UIC, but looking at their full body of work, this team has proven their talent and potential and has an opportunity tonight to offset that bad loss with a win against Missouri. Illinois has six players averaging at least 8 points a game, and have the unique potential to have a different leading scorer on any given night. Bruce Weber also has three senior starters in Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and point guard Demetri McCamey, an experienced trio that is playing with a chip on their shoulders after being left out of last year’s NCAA tournament. This Illinois team might be the most talented team Bruce Weber has had since the ’05 season when the team went 37-2 and lost in the National Championship to North Carolina . Contributing alongside the 3 seniors, are two stud sophomores in Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson, as well as explosive freshman Jereme Richmond, giving the Fighting Illini numerous options on the offensive end. The key to how far Illinois goes and how good they can be is Demetri McCamey, who as a point guard must become more unselfish and more protective with the ball as a senior. This team is as talented as any in the nation and is a legitimate darkhorse team in both the Big 10 and beyond, I expect an exciting year in Champaign for the “Orange and Blue”.
Purdue- The Boilermakers would have been ranked higher and maybe even been the favorite to win the Big Ten had Robbie Hummel not been injured prior to the beginning of the season, but even without him they are still an elite team. The Boilermakers still have two stars in E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, but lack a third scoring option that they would have had with a healthy Hummel. All is not lost for the Boilermakers though, as they have started the season 11-1 due to physical defense and the exploits of the two seniors Moore and Johnson. Moore and Johnson have put the team on their shoulders early in the season, accounting for almost 60 percent of Purdue’s points through the first 12 games. Purdue still plays with an unmatched toughness and tenacity but their inability to score, if Moore struggles or Johnson gets in foul trouble make them very vulnerable in an extremely deep Big Ten. Its’ a sad story in Indiana as these three kids turned down the NBA to stay together for one more year, to have one last chance at a National Title but without Robbie Hummel that seems farfetched considering the lack of offensive contributions outside of Johnson and Moore.
Minnesota-The Golden Gophers splashed onto the college basketball scene by winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, defeating North Carolina and West Virginia on their way to the tournament title. Minnesota has not dropped off since starting 10-1 with their only loss coming to Virginia on a night where they were shorthanded because of injury. The Gophers have 5 players averaging at least 9.5ppg led by Blake Hoffarber at 15 a contest. Tubby Smith’s squad also has two of the most improved players in college basketball in Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. Mbakwe who formerly played at Marquette as well as at the juco level is averaging a double double on the season and is one reason Minnesota has surprised so many people early on. Minnesota could end up finishing as high as 3rd in the Big Ten due to their depth and ability to rebound with anyone, making them a tough matchup for Illinois and Purdue, especially Purdue who as I said earlier has very limited depth.
Wisconsin-I said it in my preseason top 25, Wisconsin will be ranked it doesn’t matter if you know the names or who they lost to graduation because the name on the front of the jersey implies two important characteristics for a basketball team fundamentals and defense. Bo Ryan’s teams are always among the most disciplined and consistent in college basketball as year in and year out they win with less talent and athleticism than many of their Big Ten rivals. Ryan has never grabbed the 5 star recruits that Matta and Izzo have been able to get but for some reason every year the Badgers are neck and neck with these teams because of their discipline and defensive mindset. People every year sleep on the Badgers and it always comes back to haunt them and this year is no different as Wisconsin is 9-2 and have a budding star in bigman Jon Leuer(20ppg ,8rpg). You might as well pencil Wisconsin into the NCAA tournament every preseason and this year is no different as Bo Ryan has another good team led by Leuer and Jordan Taylor. Don’t be surprised if this team finishes higher than 6th in the Big Ten because of their pedigree to win close games and their dominance at home in the Kohl Center, where their record is 136-11 under Bo Ryan.
Northwestern- When I broke down the ACC/Big Ten Challenge I proclaimed it “the year” for Northwestern prognosticating their first ever NCAA tournament appearance come March and I am not going to change my mind. The Wildcats are 8-1, losing their last time out against St. John’s, but still have a great opportunity to go dancing for the first time. Northwestern is led by Jon Shurna one of the better 3 point shooters in the country and explosive point guard Michael Thompson(16ppg 5apg). The Wildcats fate this season will most likely be determined by a three game stretch starting at #13 Purdue on New Years eve, home against #12 Michigan State four days later and concluding at Assembly Hall against the 21st ranked Fighting Ilini on January 6th. This week in which Northwestern starts out their Big Ten slate against 3 of the top 4 dogs might indicate where the Wildcats season is going as an 0-3 Big Ten start would most likely spell doom for Bill Carmody and Northwestern’s dream at the NCAA’s.
Indiana-Tom Crean took the Indiana job when the Hoosiers were at their lowest point and after 2 seasons and a combined 5-31 conference record, Indiana looks to be on their way back, which is good news for the people of Bloomington and for college basketball as a whole. The Hoosiers are 9-2 and have two very good players in Verdell Jones III and Christian Watford, who combine for over 31 points a game for Indiana and Tom Crean. The bad news for Indiana is that they have yet to beat anyone of any merit and are a member of the toughest conference in America this season. Indiana will not compete this year for an NCAA birth or Big Ten title but I see them playing considerably better this season and improving on last years 4-14 conference record. Indiana fans are in good hands as Tom Crean has this basketball powerhouse on the rebound and that rebound might come sooner than you think.
Michigan-How bout the Wolverines who currently stand at 9-2 with only their losses coming at the hands of 5th ranked Syracuse(3pts) and upstart UTEP (9pts). This is something considering Michigan lost Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims and Laval Lucas-Perry who averaged a combined 40 points a contest for last year’s “Maize and Blue”. The Wolverines are led by sophomore guard Darius Morris and a pair of freshman Jordan Morgan and Tim Hardaway Jr, son of the former NBA great. There are positive signs of talented youth in Ann Arbor but this season will be a long one unless John Beilein can rekindle some of his West Virginia magic.
Penn State-The Taylor Battle show will continue for one more season as Penn State seems destined for a tough season at State College. Battle the two- time All-Big Ten selection seems poised for another memorable individual season as the senior from Albany is averaging 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists for the 7-4 Nittany Lions. Battle a preseason 1st Team All-Big Ten choice will not have a lot of help as the Nittany Lions look to improve on an 11-20 season under coach Ed DeChellis.
Iowa- Iowa a school rich in basketball tradition, has been down for the past few seasons and have not qualified for the NCAA’s since ’06 . Iowa brought in former Siena coach Fran McCaffery but early on the Hawkeyes have struggled with loses to schools like South Dakota State and Long Beach State. McCaffery is the third Iowa coach in the past 4 seasons as Iowa has struggled to find any continuity since losing former head coach Steve Alford to New Mexico. The Hawkeyes will be led this season by Matt Gatens and Eric May who come in averaging 11 points a piece on the young season. Gatens is a very talented guard who had a great freshman campaign before slumping last year as a sophomore, but if he can return to his freshman form Iowa has a legitimate # 1 scoring option. The Hawkeyes will face an uphill battle this year in a brutally tough Big Ten and it will be interesting to see if McCaffery is the right guy to start to turn this once basketball rich program in the right direction.
Big Ten Awards
Player of the Year- Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
The freshman has taken the college basketball world by storm so far this season averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game for the 2nd ranked Buckeyes. The only thing going against Sullinger is the fact that he is a freshman but when you are this good it usually doesn’t matter.
Also Considered: Kalin Lucas, JaJuan Johnson, Demetri McCamey, Jon Leuer.
Coach of the Year-Bill Carmody, Northwestern
The Wildcats have gotten off to a hot start and have a very talented squad and a chance to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time. I picked the Wildcats to go to the dance and if they do qualify for the dance, Bill Carmody has to be the coach of the year in the conference.
Also Considered: Bo Ryan, Tom Crean, Tubby Smith
Freshman of the Year- Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
(See Above) When the Player of the Year in the conference is a freshman that usually means that player wins the best freshman award and that is the case here. This is a landslide victory for Sullinger who really has no competition in terms of talent or ability in terms of freshmen or anyone else for the matter.
Also Considered: Tim Hardaway III, Jereme Richmond, Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft
Most Improved Player-Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
The former Marquette player, went to junior college and landed at Minnesota this summer and boy has he made the most of his opportunity. The junior forward is averaging a double-double for Tubby Smith and has been the key factor in Minnesota’s surprising 11-1 start.
Also Considered: Ralph Sampson III, D.J. Richardson, Korie Lucious, Darius Morris.
Best Game: February 15th Michigan State @ Ohio State.
The two best teams in the Big Ten face off in what could determine the Big Ten regular season title. Can Tom Izzo and Michigan State be the team to slow down freshman phenom Jared Sullinger?
By Gus Elvin