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Jeff Eisenberg

Big Ten reset: Ohio State begins as a clear conference favorite

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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With conference play beginning in earnest this week, it's time to revisit our preseason projections. Here's a look back at how the Big Ten fared in non-conference play and an updated forecast for the league season:

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Conference RPI: 3

Record against Big Six opponents: 15-17

Conference favorite: As Michigan State has struggled to live up to its preseason hype, Ohio State has replaced the Spartans as the favorite to win the Big Ten. The undefeated Buckeyes boast comfortable wins over Florida and Florida State thanks to the emergence of Jared Sullinger as the nation's best freshman and consistent production from upperclassmen William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler.

Pleasant surprise: Considering how low expectations were for Michigan following a handful of losses during a summer exhibition tour in Europe, the Wolverines' surprising 9-2 start is worthy of recognition. Sure, Michigan's best wins are over mediocre Clemson or mid-major Oakland, but the stellar backcourt play from sophomore Darius Morris Jr. and freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. bodes well for the future.

Biggest disappointment: Michigan State entered the season as a favorite to return to the Final Four and perhaps win a national championship, so four pre-Christmas losses qualifies as a major disappointment. It would be foolish to write off a Tom Izzo team in December given his track record, but Kalin Lucas looks a step slow, the Spartans have been turnover-prone and they're settling for too many jump shots.

Player of the year: In a league that returned more quality upperclassmen than any other this season, it's ironic that the best player has been a freshman. The 6-foot-9 Sullinger is averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, has six double-doubles and is shooting 59.1 percent from the field.

Best freshman: If the early player of the year front-runner is at least debatable among Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Demetri McCamey, John Shurna and Jon Leuer, the title of best freshman is certainly not. Sullinger has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six out of a possible seven times – and he’s only going to get better.

Three best wins:

1. Minnesota 74, West Virginia 70

Comment: Minnesota's victory over West Virginia capped a five-game stretch in which the Gophers emerged as a Big Ten contender by beating three quality mid-majors, North Carolina and the Mountaineers.

2. Ohio State 93, Florida 75

Comment: Instead of a neck-and-neck battle between two top 15 teams, Ohio State embarrassed Florida on its home floor and announced itself as a potential nationa title contender this season.

3. Illinois 79, North Carolina 67

Comment: Revenge for the 2005 national title game? Nah. A marquee non-conference win in 2010? Absolutely.

Three worst losses:

1. Illinois-Chicago 57, Illinois 54

Comment: The Illini are good for one of these dreadful non-conference stinkers each year, but this one was perplexing even by their standards.

2. St. John's 85, Northwestern 69

Comment: Losing on the road at St. John's was tolerable. Surrendering 80 percent shooting in the second half to fall by 16 points was not.

3. South Dakota State 79, Iowa 69

Comment: Hard to say whether this was worse than the Hawkeyes falling at Wake Forest, but at least the Demon Deacons loss was on the road and was the result of a long three-pointer.

Three fearless predictions:

1. Purdue will win at least one Big Ten game this season in which the Boilermakers score less than 50 points.

2. An ill-timed ankle injury to John Shurna days before a brutal start to league play will put Northwestern in an 0-3 hole and prevent the Wildcats from making a serious push at their first-ever NCAA tournament berth.

3. Michigan State won't win the Big Ten, but the Spartans will be playing well enough by March to finish in the top three and establish themselves yet again as a formidable postseason threat.

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