Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Conference Catch-ups: The Big Ten

Over the course of this week, we will spend a few minutes catching you up on how some of the best conferences in the country currently look. With conference play starting up, its time to get into the basketball spirit.

You can find the rest of the Conference Catch-ups here.

Favorite: Ohio State

This pick will be as much of a consensus as any league in country with one, absolutely crucial technicality: Jared Sullinger stays healthy. I love Aaron Craft and his ability to control a game without being a scorer. William Buford may be the best wing in the country. DeShaun Thomas can score with the best of them. Hell, even Lenzelle Smith and Evan Ravenel have been impressive at times this season. But without a healthy Jared Sullinger, Ohio State is a different team. His is the single most dominant force in the paint in the country, and his presence makes it so much easier for his teammates to operate.

- And-1: This may not be the popular pick, but I am going to go with Michigan State. They are not the most talented team in the conference, but they have gotten rid of the egos that ruined their chemistry the past couple of seasons. In other words, this is just the kind of blue-collar team that Tom Izzo thrives with, led by the player with the bluest collar in the country in Draymond Green.

Biggest Surprise: Indiana

Everyone thought that Indiana was going to be better this season. With everyone coming back and a star big man entering the fold, it only made sense, right? But next year was supposed to be the year that Indiana vaulted themselves back into the national consciousness, not this season. But here we are hitting Big Ten play and the Hoosiers are still undefeated. How? Well, Zeller has been better than expected, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey have become impact role players and Christian Watford, Verdell Jones and Jordy Hulls have embraced their leadership roles.

- And-1: Minnesota lost Trevor Mbakwe, their star big man, to a torn acl. They've had what seems like six players transfer out of the program in the last few years. They are a young team and have a roster devoid of a point guard. Yet Tubby Smith has this team at 12-1 heading into league play. That's impressive.

Biggest Disappointment: Wisconsin

Well, not the entire Wisconsin team, because the Badgers actually aren't having a bad year. Yes, they lost to Marquette at home. And yes, they lost to UNC on the road by three (which is anything but a bad loss). In fact, the Badgers are currently sitting in first place in the country based on the numbers that Kenpom crunches. But what's scary is to think about how good this team could be if Jordan Taylor was playing like, well, Jordan Taylor. His shooting numbers are way down, his turnover numbers are up and he just isn't the same presence on the floor. The good news? Taylor's going to come around eventually, and in his absence Jared Berggren has developed into a very good big man.

- And-1: Its tough to label anyone in this conference a disappointment considering how good the league, as a whole, has been, but if I have to pick another disappointment I'll go with Purdue. Specifically, Purdue's late-game execution. The Boilermakers could be sitting at 12-1 if they hadn't blown big leads against both Butler and Xavier.

Something left to prove: Michigan and Illinois

I actually like both of these teams. I think Michigan has a chance to be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and I think that Illinois has the pieces to make it to the second weekend of the tournament. But I also think that both teams have some flaws. I'm not yet convinced that Michigan is a good enough defensive team. I think they have some holes in their front line and that, when facing a good team with a smart point guard, will have their defensive weaknesses exposed. With Illinois, I think the issue is that they don't have a closer. There isn't a star on that roster. There is no one that makes me say "he could go for 30 any night". They'll win their fair share of games and they'll be in the mix all year long, but I think that lack of star power will cost them eventually.

- And-1: This could be Northwestern's year. The Big Ten is very strong and very deep. And Northwestern has enough on their roster that they should be able to finish around .500 in league play. If they can get to 9-9 or 10-8 in league play, a tournament berth should be in their future. But I'm not yet convinced they are good enough to make that happen.

Who's dancing?: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan State

Wrong side of the bubble?: Minnesota, Northwestern

Player of the Year: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Sullinger, as I said earlier, is the most dominant force in all of college basketball, not just in the Big Ten. He's a double-double machine with a textbook back to the basket game. His effectiveness goes beyond the numbers that he puts up, however. Defenses have to adjust when he is on the floor. Coaches have to game-plan how they will double in the post and rotate out of it. They have to decide who they are going to leave open. If I were starting a basketball team, it would take a good amount of convincing not to make Sully be the first player that I picked.

All-conference team:

POY: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
G: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
F: Robbie Hummel, Purdue
F: John Shurna, Northwestern
F: Draymond Green, Michigan State
C: Cody Zeller, Indiana

Power Rankings:

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

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