Last year, the Big Ten was maligned as being "down" (deservedly so). But then three teams from the conference made it to the Elite 8 and two got to the Final Four.
This year, the Big Ten will be lauded as one of the top three conferences in the country (deservedly so as well), but might not get a team to the Elite 8 this time around. My point is: tournament success is more a function of matchups than perceived conference strength.
Even though the Elite 8 might not be in the cards, at this point the Big Ten appears to have eight teams that could be tournament-worthy in March. Only Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue seem to be significant long shots to make the field.
Not much separates the top eight teams in the conference, and Indiana and Michigan State are showing the most tournament potential, while Illinois and Ohio State have garnered impressive early-season wins. Thus, I currently put the Big Ten on par with the ACC, with both conferences a notch below the Big East.
The call is too close between Indiana and Michigan State for me to pick a conference winner right now. But since some of you like to call me out when I make the wrong pick, here goes: IU has an advantage inside while the Spartans have the edge on the perimeter, and both teams' benches are works in progress. But since I'm a former inside guy, I'll lean ever so slightly toward the Hoosiers, although I know good guards influence winning or losing at least as much as good big guys do.
D.J. White and Marco Killingsworth will be the top inside pair in the conference (and one of the best duos in the country) once White is fully recovered from a broken foot. Both can score inside, will demand double teams and can make the outside shot. White is also an excellent shot-blocker and will anchor the Hoosiers' inside defense.
Surrounding them are good athletes that are solid on both offense and defense. The way I see it, Mike Davis and his staff have a versatile roster with which to work. The only trouble spots so far for the Hoosiers have been committing too many turnovers and relying a little too much on the three. But White's return to form should help tighten up both areas.
The way I see it, Mike Davis and his staff have a versatile roster to work with. The only trouble spots so far for the Hoosiers have been committing too many turnovers and relying a little too much on the three. But White's return to form should help tighten up both areas.
The Spartans are also poised to have a great year. Senior center Paul Davis is playing terrific basketball. He's a "20/10" guy with a strong presence on offense and defense, and very few big guys can run the floor the way he does.
On the perimeter, Maurice Ager is a splendid shooter, scorer and defender. Shannon Brown continues to get better in all areas and is one of the best athletes in the country. Drew Neitzel is as "efficient as a heat pump" running the high-octane offense, but he is capable of scoring more, and for MSU to become an elite team he'll have to do just that.
The bench is still a work in progress but shows signs of promise. And although, the defense is not yet up to Tom Izzo's standards, it should improve with his prodding. The athleticism and size are there, it's just a matter of mindset and focus for the Spartans.
The Illini have gotten excellent leadership and production from seniors James Augustine and Dee Brown. Augustine is playing with confidence and poise while averaging close to a double-double. Brown's speed and timely scoring keep opponents worried. Brian Randle is a solid and versatile defender and Jamar Smith anchors a productive bench.
Illinois is a very good defensive team that does a good job rebounding, too. It is second to Iowa in field-goal defense and No. 1 in three-point defense. It leads the Big Ten in rebounding margin and offensive rebounds. Offensively, the Illini present a balanced attack with eight players averaging between five and 15 points per game – and they take good care of the ball.
But it's on defense that the Illini really excel. They just don't allow teams to get a lot of good or easy shots, and because of this, Illinois has a chance to win the conference title. But to actually do that, the free-throw shooting must improve and Randle has to become the other double-figure scorer in the starting lineup.
The Buckeyes only have 10 scholarship players and the rotation is tight – just the way Thad Matta likes it. The team's strength is its perimeter game and the inside play of Terence Dials (although he's been a bit inconsistent).
Senior guard Je'Kel Foster, an old-school player, has been superb. He defends, is smart with the ball, scores, makes big shots and is unflappable. Sophomore Jamar Butler is very good at the point, and wingman J.J Sullinger is, so far, the team's most indispensable player
Off the bench Sylvester Mayes brings energy, speed and tough defense, and Ron Lewis provides instant and offense – attacking the hoop, drawing fouls and making big shots.
The Buckeyes are a much-improved free-throw shooting team, but they need to limit their turnovers and keep improving on the glass. And, with no other inside scorer, Dials needs to stay out of foul trouble and finish in the paint.
The Badgers are third in the conference in scoring at 80 points per game and have one of the league's top duos in Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor. Both are excellent at attacking the basket off the dribble and are combining for more than 30 points per game.
Up front there is good size and mobility with Brian Butch, Jason Chappell and Ray Nixon, and the bench is providing additional offense as well. The Badgers need Butch and Chappell to continue improving as consistent inside players (at both ends), just as they need Taylor to continue to develop as a scoring point guard – his assists need to go up while his turnovers go down. On the upside, Taylor's three-point shooting and speed with the ball keep constant pressure on opposing defenses, and it's just a matter of time before his judgment matches his skill.
Bo Ryan has a team that appears to be a little more explosive than in the past, and being the excellent coach that he is, he will look to maximize that while continuing to emphasize solid defense. I don't think the Badgers will win the Big Ten, but don't be surprised if they're in the hunt late in February.
The Hawkeyes currently lead the conference in field-goal defense and are one of its most experienced teams with four starters returning. Of their top nine players, six are upperclassmen.
Greg Brunner leads the team in scoring and rebounding and is a tough matchup. He's a rugged 6-foot-7 forward with a nice perimeter stroke and good inside moves. Adam Haluska, a junior, is a big, physical guard who does everything well. Erik Hansen provides shot blocking, and Jeff Horner is the quarterback.
Overall, it's defense that will keep the Hawkeyes in almost every game, but better efficiency on offense is needed to join the top dogs in the conference.
Michigan's season was derailed last year by injuries and the late-season suspension of point guard and top scorer Daniel Horton. But this year the Wolverines have a full roster together and are poised to be an NCAA tournament team – and the expectations are certainly there.
Horton is the catalyst. The senior has proven to be a clutch shot-maker and will need to play at a high level for the Wolverines to be their best. He's averaging 15 points per game and his assist-to-turnover ratio is over two-to-one. He also has emerged as a leader on the floor but won't have to carry the load alone.
Courtney Sims leads the team in scoring and blocked shots and can be dominant if he plays with more attitude and improves his passing out of the post. Abram is the other double-figure scorer and is a solid defender, too. Graham is undersized as a center/power forward, but currently leads the team in rebounds. Harris is a versatile defender and better shooter than his numbers indicate.
Minnesota is a very intriguing team. The Gophers have perhaps the most exciting player in the conference in Vincent Grier. The 6-foot-5 senior is a "difference maker" and legitimate player of the year candidate who averages 19 points, five boards and three steals per game. He is a creator and playmaker who can impact the action at both ends.
Dan Monson has 10 players in double-figure minutes and utilizes his team's athleticism and depth to force 18 turnovers per game. The Gophers do a good job scoring off those turnovers, and are also getting solid work in the set offense from Spencer Tollackson and Dan Coleman.
With four senior starters, a young but talented group of reserves and one of the deepest and most athletic rosters in the league, the Gophers could surprise some folks with a top-tier finish.
Northwestern has the conference's top scorer in Vedran Vukusic, but only one other player averages double figures – Mohamed Hachad (he also leads the team in rebounds). Vukusic is a clever passer and a terrific shooter, and Hachad is an athletic all-around player.
But that's not enough in the Big Ten.
Lacking a player to score in the paint struggling to create points off its defense, Northwestern relies heavily on halfcourt execution and perimeter shooting. Almost half of its field-goal attempts are from the three-point line, but the Wildcats are making just 27 percent of them. Because Northwestern plays a very deliberate style and does not pursue offensive rebounds, its defense is always set and is usually solid. However, the lack of outstanding perimeter shooting will keep the Wildcats near the league's bottom.
Penn State is making progress. Ed DeChellis has his undersized team competing hard and is off to its best start in some time. The Nittany Lions don't start a player over 6-foot-6, but everybody rebounds and leading scorers Geary Claxton, Jamelle Cornley and Travis Parker are all athletic and play bigger than their listed height.
Penn State employs a nine-man rotation and eight of those players average between five and 15 points per game. Despite being undersized, they are outrebounding teams by four and doing a solid job on defense.
Winning on the road will be a challenge for such a young team, but enough wins will be had to stay out of last place in the league.
Purdue lost leading-scorer Carl Landry after just five games this season (the senior forward decided to redshirt having not fully recovered from offseason knee surgery). That left first-year coach Matt Painter with three freshmen as his top scorers: Nate Minnoy, Chris Lutz and Korey Spates. All are talented guards who are averaging double figures.
Coach Painter will re-establish a foundation of hard work and unselfishness as his talented freshmen endure growing pains. But unless the Boilermakers get career years from the upperclassmen, it will be a struggle to be competitive.