From mid-November to the first week of March, the Big Ten has earned its title as the best men’s basketball conference in the country.
The Associated Press preseason poll had Indiana No. 1 and four other members in the Top 25. This week, Indiana is No. 2 while those four from the preseason poll are still ranked: No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 14 Ohio State and No. 22 Wisconsin. Also, Illinois and Minnesota are receiving votes.
The NCAA’s RPI listings show the voting isn’t biased as five Big Ten teams are in the top 21.
One knock on the Big Ten in recent years has been a relative lack of individual star power compared to other major conferences.
Say goodbye to that argument.
On Monday, four Big Ten players were among 14 finalists for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association national player of the year award — the Oscar Robertson Trophy. That’s the most of any conference.
The four: Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller of Indiana, Trey Burke of Michigan and Deshaun Thomas of Ohio State.
Oh, and Michigan State’s Gary Harris is one of eight finalists for the Wayman Tisdale Award for the nation’s top freshman.
But like it or not, college basketball is a sport weighted heavily toward the NCAA tournament. And the Big Ten hasn’t won a title since Michigan State in 2000, with title-game losses in 2002 (Indiana), 2005 (lllinois), 2007 (Ohio State) and 2009 (Michigan State).
So how will this seven-bid league fare when March Madness starts? Here are some things to keep in mind for you early bracket browsers:
INDIANA: This looks like the national champion to me. Two national player of the year candidates in Oladipo and Zeller; excellent size with mobility; an unsung point guard in Yogi Ferrell; a coach who has been in the Final Four (Tom Crean when at Marquette); and the inner drive to once and for all bury the wreckage left after the Kelvin Sampson/NCAA penalties mess.
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines are highly talented and play a pleasant-to-the-eye game. But questions about toughness and defensive grit have emerged. UM did bounce back from the loss at Penn State to avenge a 23-point loss to Michigan State. “We knew Michigan State was going to come in and try to bully us,” UM point guard Burke said. “From here on, we’ve all made a vow to play with toughness for 40 minutes.” We’ll be watching.
MICHIGAN STATE: It’s not the three consecutive losses to ranked opponents that have damaged MSU’s hopes as an NCAA tourney Final Four sleeper. It’s the slump that point guard Keith Appling is in. Over the past four games, Appling has shot 23.5 percent (8 of 34) from the field and 5 percent (1 of 20) on 3s. Also, he has more turnovers (13) than assists (12). The pieces are in place for a good run, but Appling must get out of his funk.
OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes have had a very solid season, but leave the feeling there is more to be tapped. OSU has the league’s leading scorer in forward Thomas (19.8), but no one else in the league’s top 30. That failure to identify a certified second scorer may be an obstacle Ohio State can’t overcome to get past the Sweet 16.
WISCONSIN: The Badgers’ off-beat offensive style makes them difficult to prepare for in a tournament setting, especially on a one-day turnaround. But with such a reliance on 3-pointers comes the “clunker effect.” On Sunday, UW missed its final 18 3-point shots and lost at home to below-.500 Purdue.
MINNESOTA: A freakishly athletic team that rose to No. 8 in the polls off a 15-1 start, fell out of the polls after losing six of the next eight, but now is re-creating momentum after an upset of Indiana secured an NCAA bid. This is a team with five players who have posted 20-point games this season. That makes the Gophers dangerous enough to get on a run.
ILLINOIS: The Illini remind me of some Danny Nee teams at Nebraska, having the talent to beat anyone and lacking the focus needed to avoid letdowns. Illinois beat Gonzaga and Indiana, yet scuffled to top Gardner-Webb by one and Auburn by two. Great perimeter scoring could create an upset, but a winning streak in the tourney isn’t likely.
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