Big Ten reset: Michigan, Indiana headline the nation’s strongest league

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections over the next week. Here's a look back at the Dagger's preseason Big Ten forecast and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 1

Record against Top 25 teams: 7-11

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: Going with Wisconsin's Sam Dekker as my newcomer of the year over Michigan State's Gary Harris or one of Michigan's talented freshmen and underestimating Illinois and Minnesota. I may not be completely sold on Illinois as a Big Ten title contender, but the Illini certainly should finish in the upper half of the league and Minnesota has a great chance to end up a notch or two higher than sixth.

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: Projecting Indiana, Michigan State and Michigan to finish above Ohio State. Until more consistent scorers emerge around Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes may struggle against the best teams on their schedule, especially on the road. Also, I certainly wasn't alone in this prediction, but the Big Ten has lived up to its billing as the nation's best conference thus far.

Conference favorite: Choosing between co-favorites Michigan and Indiana is extremely difficult because both are national title contenders, but I'd give the slightest nod to the Wolverines because their stars have been as good as advertised and their freshmen have made an instant impact. Trey Burke has solidified himself as one of the nation's best point guards, Tim Hardaway Jr. has improved his decision-making, Nik Stauskas has provided torrid outside shooting and Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary have bolstered the frontcourt.

Who else could win it: Indiana is the other obvious choice besides Michigan thanks to its ultra-efficient offense and improved defense. Yogi Ferrell has been poised and effective as a freshman point guard, Jordan Hulls remains a premier shooter, Victor Oladipo is an impact player on both ends of the floor and the frontcourt is still strong even if Christian Watford remains erratic and Cody Zeller hasn't been quite as dominant as expected. Besides the Hoosiers and Wolverines, Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota are the most viable league title contenders. Each could crack the top two if Indiana or Michigan faltered.

Biggest surprise: Illinois is not just the biggest surprise in the Big Ten but nationally as well. The Illini routed Butler in the Maui Invitational championship game, upset Gonzaga in Spokane and survived until late December without a loss before falling to Missouri in Saint Louis. It remains to be seen if Illinois can hang with the Big Ten's best, but the play of the Illini backcourt gives them a chance. Brandon Paul has been more efficient in John Groce's up-tempo, guard-oriented system and his fellow guards have stepped up around him.

Biggest disappointment: Wisconsin has been a bit underwhelming so far. The Badgers (9-4) have lost to maybe the four best teams on their schedule, Florida, Creighton, Marquette and Virginia, leaving them in need of a strong Big Ten performance just to make the NCAA tournament. Part of it is the season-ending knee injury to point guard Josh Gasser that forced Traevon Jackson and George Marshall to step into that role before they were ready. Without Gasser, the Badgers are missing their catalyst on offense and their top perimeter defender.

Player of the Year: The top four leading scorers in the conference so far are the top four contenders, but probably not in descending order. While Deshaun Thomas leads the Big Ten at 19.8 points per game and Brandon Paul is just behind him, the co-favorites for player of the year have to be Trey Burke and Cody Zeller. Burke has been the catalyst for Michigan's undefeated start with his scoring and facilitating, while Zeller runs the floor better than any big man in the nation.

Best freshman: Of Michigan's three impact freshmen, the best so far has been the least heralded. Not only is Nik Stauskas shooting a ridiculous 56.5 percent from behind the arc, the 6-foot-6 wing has shown an ability to defend and to get to the rim occasionally too. He is averaging 13.8 points per game, good enough to hold off teammate Glenn Robinson III and Michigan State guard Gary Harris thus far.

Three fearless predictions:

• The Big Ten will assert its strength by putting four teams in the Sweet 16 this March. It would be a surprise if Indiana and Michigan weren't there and Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Illinois all have a chance to join them.

• Northwestern's NCAA tournament drought will continue -- and this year the Wildcats won't be especially close. Any chance of making their first appearance in program history probably vanished when top player Drew Crawford suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

• Wisconsin will sneak into the NCAA tournament but its streak of finishing fourth or better in the Big Ten every year under Bo Ryan will finally come to an end this season. Counting the Badgers out is usually a mistake, but the league is too formidable at the top for Wisconsin to contend.

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