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A look ahead: Big Ten basketball preview

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 26, 2011

Back in early November, the Daily basketball beat unveiled its predictions for how the Big Ten season would unfold, knowing full well that, with the unpredictability of college basketball, the four of us could end up looking pretty foolish with our picks.

It’s too early to say just how right or wrong we were, but it’s already clear that the Big Ten landscape is going to be different than anyone thought.

The biggest development is the strength of the conference. Right now, at least, the Big Ten is the strongest conference nationally — which few predicted — with five teams in the top-25 and eight teams projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field in ESPN’s initial Bracketology.

Here’s an updated look at each conference squad’s fortunes, in alphabetical order:

Illinois (11-2): The Fighting Illini have exceeded expectations so far. Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s squad was expected to be solid, but early on it appears it will be able a contender for a top-three finish in the conference. D.J. Richardson has stepped into the scoring void left in the backcourt after the departure of Demetri McCamey, averaging 14.3 points per game. Meanwhile, 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard — who played for U-19 Team USA last summer — has blossomed into one of the best big men in the Big Ten.

No. 13 Indiana (12-0): The biggest shocker of all. Nobody — probably not even the Hoosiers themselves — thought that Indiana would still be undefeated at this point of the season. Freshman stud Tyler Zeller has made an impact from day one in the post, while Victor Oladipo has made gains in his second season. Sharpshooter Jordan Hulls is shooting even more lights out than before. The Hoosiers proved they were no fluke with their recent upset over then-No. 1 Kentucky. We’ll see what they’re really made of in the Big Ten.

Iowa (8-5): Don’t let their winning record fool you — the Hawkeyes haven’t beat anyone of note and have been blown out by Campbell and Northern Iowa. Expectations were high for sophmore forward Melsahn Basabe, but his production is actually down from last year. Iowa seemed to be headed in the right direction after pulling a couple upsets last season, but it looks like the Hawkeyes will battle Penn State for the basement in the Big Ten.

No. 18 Michigan (10-2): The Wolverines have had a relatively uneventful nonconference season, playing to the level of their competition at times. Freshman Trey Burke has played beyond his years at point guard and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz has been a revelation in his last few games, while sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. continues to produce. The biggest concerns for Michigan right now are getting shooters Stu Douglass on Matt Vogrich on track, as well as getting forward Jon Horford healthy after a foot injury.

No. 16 Michigan State (11-2): After dropping its first two games of the season to then-No. 1 North Carolina (on an aircraft carrier, no less) and then-No. 6 Duke, Michigan State has looked strong, pulling off 11 straight wins. Some thought the Spartans may struggle once again this season after barely making the NCAA Tournament last year, but Draymond Green (15.5 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and a team-leading 46 assists) has refused to let that happen in his senior season. It looks like Tom Izzo has another tough team this year.

Minnesota (12-1): It looked like all was lost for Minnesota coach Tubby Smith on Nov. 27. Not only did his team fall to Dayton, but forward Trevor Mbakwe — arguably the best big man in the Big Ten — suffered a knee injury that ended his season. But the Golden Gophers have managed to look just as good, if not better, in his absence. Ralph Sampson III anchors the paint and transfer Julian Welch has added scoring. It remains to be seen if Minnesota can continue to adapt to life without Mbawke, or if the team will be exposed in Big Ten play and fall apart like it did last season.

Nebraska (8-3): The Cornhuskers continue their athletic tour of their new conference. They will play their first-ever Big Ten game on Tuesday against Wisconsin. At Big Ten Media Day, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler talked about how excited he was to be joining the conference, but also how difficult it would be to adjusting to playing a bunch of teams he’d never really seen before.