Commentary

A Big Ten primer for conference season

Originally Published: December 28, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

The Big Ten entered the season as many observers' consensus top conference. After a month and a half of college hoops goodness, does that distinction still hold?

Well, it depends who you ask. Big East fans cite the league's nonconference success and large number of potential NCAA tournament teams. Big Ten fans counter with the league's top-to-bottom strength and higher percentage of tournament probables. Everyone else shrugs, because arguing over which conference is best is sort of silly in the first place.

In any case -- whether it's the best, second-best, or "Who cares?" -- the Big Ten should be a force to be reckoned with come March. It boasts at least one national title contender, a suite of potential Final Four teams and at least seven (and, if Michigan keeps this up, maybe eight) plausible tourney inclusions.

So who's who in the Big Ten? As conference play begins, here's a full rundown:

Team to beat: Ohio State

In case you've been living inside some sort of Armageddon bunker, armed with non-perishable foodstuffs and a store of gold bullion you bought watching late-night cable news, here's a quick update for you: Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger is good at basketball. Sullinger replaced national player of the year Evan Turner in the Buckeyes' starting lineup this season, and a funny thing happened: OSU got even better. (This is the part where yours truly pats himself on the back for predicting this very result in June. I know, I know: I'm brilliant.)

[+] EnlargeOhio State
Kim Klement/US PresswireEvan who? So far, the Buckeyes have been just fine without the national player of the year.

Sullinger has been a dominant force on the interior. He's among the best rebounders in the nation on both ends of the floor and he finishes plays around the rim as well as any player in the country. He's been the perfect centerpiece for OSU's four-out/one-in offensive style. In short order, Sullinger -- buoyed by solid guard play from William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty -- has established himself as a national player of the year candidate while leading his team to an undefeated nonconference record. As a result, the Buckeyes, and not preseason pick Michigan State, are your prohibitive Big Ten title favorites. Even in a conference this tough, there's no close second at the moment.

Player of the year (1A): Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Why? For all the reasons noted above.

Player of the year (1B): Jon Leuer, Wisconsin

No list of likely Big Ten players of the year -- and perhaps no list of prospective national players of the year, too -- is complete without Leuer. The UW forward is averaging 19.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks this season, and he's done so while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. That's impressive enough, but when you consider the lanky forward has done all that despite playing for the second-slowest team in all of college basketball -- lowly Delaware State is the only team slower than Wisconsin this season -- and the numbers jump out at you even more. Imagine if Leuer played for, say, Washington. Actually, don't. Your brain might burst.

Early surprise: Michigan State

OK, so no one expected the Spartans to come out of the gate in high style. That's not really the Spartans' m.o. Tom Izzo's teams usually struggle early before figuring things out during February and March. But no one could have expected them to struggle this much. Michigan State's losses -- to Connecticut in Maui, to Duke at Duke, to Syracuse in New York City and to Texas at home -- aren't the most unforgivable losses in the world, sure. But for a team that began the season ranked No. 2 in the nation and was a popular pick to win the Big Ten and challenge Duke for the national title, the Spartans have been startlingly bad.

Early dud: Indiana

The Hoosiers were never going to contend for the Big Ten crown, and many IU fans are probably just happy to wait a year until program-making recruit Cody Zeller gets to Bloomington next fall. But Tom Crean's third batch of Hoosiers -- a more experienced and talented bunch than in either of his ugly first two seasons -- was expected to improve, and thus far, that doesn't seem to be the case. IU has piled up wins over cupcakes at home but has failed in every nonconference test (Boston College, Kentucky, Northern Iowa and Colorado) it's faced. Worse yet, Indiana kicked off the Big Ten season Monday night with a nine-point home loss to Penn State, the same Penn State that was coming off last week's home loss to Maine. With Maurice Creek still nursing a rehabilitated knee and the rest of the Hoosiers struggling to match up with any sort of size, Indiana's rebuilding project appears stalled for another year.

The big unknown: Minnesota

Which Minnesota team will compete in the Big Ten? The one that began the season with an impressive title in Puerto Rico, a run that comprised wins over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia? Or the one that lost in convincing fashion to Virginia at home, the one that advanced numbers see as barely among the 50 or so best teams in the country? The point is, we don't know. It's too early to indict Minnesota -- especially as guard Al Nolen just begins to return from injury -- based on unimpressive tempo-free stats. It's also too early to consider wins over UNC and West Virginia proof that this team can challenge Ohio State and company for the Big Ten title. We'll just have to wait and see. (And we won't have to wait long: Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Tuesday night.)

[+] EnlargeJon Leuer
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireJon Leuer is averaging 20 points for a Badgers that once again is expected to contend in the Big Ten.

Scrappiest teams: Wisconsin, Purdue

It's hard to pick either of these teams to win the conference, but both of them are better than you think. More importantly, both of them are going to be incredibly difficult outs in nearly every situation. Wisconsin's sluggish pace will make it nearly impossible for teams to build large leads or pull away early in any game. Purdue's offense isn't pretty, but its defense has remained one of the best in the nation despite the loss of former stud perimeter defender Chris Kramer. In a conference known for scrappy, slow, defensive-oriented play, these two programs have perfected the style. Your favorite Big Ten team dreads playing these two, and so should you.

Best of the rest: Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan

Thanks to its combination of experience, young talent and the brilliant guard play of Demetri McCamey, Illinois was picked by many to compete for the Big Ten crown. After a loss to UIC and a late fray last week versus Missouri, that projection looks a little optimistic. The Illini are still too reliant on jump shooting and too soft on the interior to be considered a threat to Ohio State. Those issues aside, though, Illinois is still one of the five or six best teams in the conference, one that has no excuse for disappointing its fans with a late collapse and an NIT appearance this season.

Northwestern is looking for its first NCAA tournament bid in school history. This season, thanks to John Shurna, who might be the best shooter in the country, the Wildcats have a realistic chance of finally getting over that storied hump. And Michigan has proved those who saw the Wolverines as a possible last-place Big Ten team wrong. While Indiana, Penn State and Iowa struggle, the Darius Morris-led Wolverines played Syracuse to a three-point loss in November and at 10-2 appear to be considerably better than anyone would have expected.

Grading the preseason picks (based on official media poll)

1. Michigan State: It's not hard to see why MSU was picked to win the league, but the Spartans haven't lived up to expectations. Ohio State is the clear favorite now.
2. Ohio State: The media had the foresight to pick OSU second. They didn't go far enough.
3. Illinois: The Illini still have a chance to finish the season this high, but they have to sort out some disconcerting stylistic issues first.
4. Purdue: Not unfair, given how well the Boilermakers have defended thus far.
5. Wisconsin: Bo Ryan has never coached a Wisconsin team to a finish worse than fourth place. This season won't be any different -- this pick was too low.
T-6. Minnesota: About right, though the Gophers' November success threw them into the upper tier early.
T-6. Northwestern: Perfect, actually. The Wildcats are the sixth- or seventh-best team in this conference, which should still be good enough for an NCAA tournament draw.
8. Indiana: Too high. The Hoosiers might be the worst team in the Big Ten.
9. Penn State: Arguably too high. The win at Indiana on Monday looks good, but Penn State will battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
10. Michigan: Too low. Michigan exceeded these very low expectations in the nonconference slate.
11. Iowa: Fine. The Hawkeyes might be slightly better than Indiana and Penn State, but that's not exactly saying much.

Rookie of the year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Pretty easy call, this. Sullinger is the best freshman in the country, the best player in his conference and arguably the best player in all the land. So I'd say he gets the rookie honors, too.

Best place to watch a game this season: Assembly Hall, Champaign, Ill.

The Big Ten has plenty of intense venues; you don't want to play on the road in this conference, period. And sure, Assembly Hall is a big, ugly, spaceship-looking thing that would benefit from about 20 years worth of interior renovations. But there are few sights quite as impressive -- and intimidating, if you're charged with playing there -- as a rowdy Illinois crowd drenched in bright orange from the sidelines to the rafters. Kudos to the Krush.

(Honorable mention: Michigan State's Breslin Center, Wisconsin's Kohl Center, Purdue's Mackey Arena, Minnesota's Williams Arena)

Worst venue: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.

Penn State's arena isn't the oldest in the conference. It isn't the smallest. It isn't the dreariest, or the ugliest, or the most in need of a facelift. But thanks to the Nittany Lions' ongoing program-wide struggles and their fans' widespread apathy, it might be the most depressing. Carver-Hawkeye Arena gets special consideration here, too, but at least Iowa is refurbishing the building in the hopes that the Hawk's Nest -- Iowa's abandoned student section -- doesn't look so empty in the years to come. (Get it? Empty nest? OK, I'll stop.)

(Honorable mention: Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, Michigan's Crisler Arena)

[+] EnlargeTalor Battle
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTalor Battle (20.5 ppg) scored 19 in the Big Ten Conference opener, Penn State's 69-60 win at IU.

Best player toiling in obscurity: Talor Battle, Penn State

Another year, another impressive all-around performance for Battle, who does a little bit of everything and does it well. The senior guard takes and makes a big percentage of his team's shots, he dishes assists, he protects the ball, he gets to the foul line. He even rebounds, no small feat for a point guard generously listed at 6-foot-nothing. But Battle plays for Penn State, and after a string of bad nonconference losses, the Nittany Lions won't sniff the NCAA tournament again this season. If only for Battle's sake, that's a shame.

Coach you want drawing up a last-second play: Tom Izzo

The Big Ten is a conference full of intelligent coaches, but Izzo's pure X's and O's ability -- not to mention his strange skill at turning apparently so-so teams into Final Four attendees -- stands above the rest of the league.

Best mascot: Michigan State's Sparty

Special honors go to Brutus the Buckeye, the victim of a ruthless mascot attack in a football game against Ohio this fall and one of the most recognizable mascots in all of sports. But in terms of sheer comedic creepiness -- which is what all great mascots must achieve, really -- Michigan State's stern-eyed, muscle-bound Spartan takes the cake.

Most entertaining team: Minnesota

The Big Ten is a brutally slow league; it takes a special breed to find this brand of ugliness entertaining. But one team -- Minnesota -- has played far faster than most of its conference brethren this season. The Gophers are the only team to crack the top 100 in adjusted tempo in 2010-11 through Tuesday. (Minnesota is ranked No. 86 nationwide.) Combine that, ahem, "speed" with the high-flying play of athletic forward Trevor Mbakwe, and you get a brief respite from the typical grinders this conference serves up on a weekly basis.

Must-see games

1. Michigan State at Ohio State, Feb. 15
2. Ohio State at Wisconsin, Feb. 12
3. Wisconsin at Purdue, Feb. 16
4. Wisconsin at Ohio State, March 6
5. Michigan State at Illinois, Jan. 18

Predictions

NCAA-bound (7): Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern
NCAA top-four seeds: Ohio State
Sweet 16 teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue
NIT: Michigan

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.