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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. If Nebraska is to have a successful initial season, senior guard Bo Spence (16 points per game) will have to continue to light up the scoreboard.

Northwestern (10-2): Is this the year the Wildcats finally break through and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history? It’s looking like a strong possibility. Northwestern’s two losses have come to ranked teams, and John Shurna and Drew Crawford are as good of a one-two scoring punch as any Big Ten team has. The key will be holding up in the interior during rugged conference play — with no great wins yet, the Wildcats will have to nab some within the league to nab a spot in the field.

No. 2 Ohio State (12-1): The Buckeyes have looked as strong as expected. Forward Jared Sullinger has been one of the best big men in basketball when healthy, Aaron Craft is one of the best all-around point guards in the nation, William Buford is an NBA talent on the perimeter and Deshaun Thomas has morphed into a scoring threat as well. The only concern — and it’s a big one — is Sullinger’s health. He had to miss two games with back spasms and had to come out of another with a foot injury.

Penn State (8-5): Talor Battle carried the Nittany Lions in recent years, even managing to lead them to the NCAA Tournament a season ago. Now, that mantle has been passed to another guard in Tim Frazier. He’s doing an admirable job, but after former headman Ed DeChellis bolted for Navy, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers was left with a subpar team. Fans have taken to Chambers, but it’s likely going to be a long season for the new coach.

Purdue (10-3): The Boilermakers boast one of the better stories in college basketball, as fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel has returned from consecutive season-ending knee injuries to retake his spot as one of the conference’s best players, leading the team in scoring and rebounding. More importantly, Purdue looks ready to compete in the Big Ten, though it blew some opportunities for big nonconference wins.

No. 11 Wisconsin (11-2): The Badgers still have Jordan Taylor, one of the best point guards in the nation. That’s the biggest reason they’re still on track for a big year. But Wisconsin should be thrilled that Taylor doesn’t even lead the team in scoring, edged out by Jared Berggren, a first-time starter doing an admirable job replacing Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil in the post.

Here's the Daily basketball beat's predicted standings, both the original picks and the new ones:

Original:
1. Ohio State
2. Wisconsin
3. Michigan
4. Purdue
5. Michigan State
6. Minnesota
7. Indiana
8. Northwestern
9. Iowa
10. Illinois
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State

New:
1. Ohio State
2. Wisconsin
3. Michigan
4. Michigan State
5. Indiana
6. Illinois
7. Purdue
8. (tie) Minnesota
8. (tie) Northwestern
10. Iowa
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State


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