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Big Ten men’s basketball preview: Deep league full of surprising teams that hope to challenge favorite Ohio State

Jim Polzin, The Wisconsin State Journal

The men’s basketball teams in the Big Ten Conference are done being bullies to the rest of the country for a while. It’s time for them to beat up on each other.

What a non-conference season it was for the Big Ten, which is the top-ranked league in the country according to the Sagarin ratings.

“I thought beforehand that we were going to have a lot of surprising teams,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said recently. “A lot of question marks that teams had and the conference had are starting to get answered. But there’s a long way to go, and it should make for a very interesting Big Ten schedule and be very competitive.”

Ohio State has won at least a share of the last two Big Ten titles, and the Buckeyes are a heavy favorite to finish on top again. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 in the country and have the best shot at helping the Big Ten end a national championship drought that dates to Michigan State’s title in 2000.

But there probably won’t be many easy nights for Ohio State on the road to March. Of the top 50 teams in the Sagarin ratings, eight are from the Big Ten and Weber’s Fighting Illini are just outside that group at No. 55. Indiana, the league’s only unbeaten team, is No. 4 in the Sagarin ratings, one spot behind Ohio State, with the University of Wisconsin at No. 7.

“I think we haven’t talked enough about the league,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “The league right now, I think, has taken a few steps forward.”

Here’s a team-by-team look at the Big Ten, which welcomes Nebraska this season:


Record: 11-2.

Coach: Bruce Weber, ninth season (204-88).

Big man on campus: Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot-1 sophomore center, is averaging 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per game. A year ago, he averaged 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds.

Facts, figures: Junior guard D.J. Richardson, who leads the Fighting Illini with 14.3 points per game, has attempted a league-high 87 3-pointers.

Looking back: Illinois limped to the finish of its non-conference schedule, sandwiching losses to UNLV and Missouri around a too-close-for-comfort home victory over Cornell.

Looking ahead: Guard Sam Maniscalco, a transfer from Bradley, is the only senior in Illinois’ rotation.

The No. 25 Illini have a lot of talent, but they’re too young to contend.


Record: 12-0.

Coach: Tom Crean, fourth season (40-66).

Big man on campus: Cody Zeller, a blue-chip recruit from Washington, Ind., and the younger brother of North Carolina star Tyler Zeller, has been as good as advertised. The 6-11 freshman center leads the Hoosiers with 15.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

Facts, figures: Junior guard Jordan Hull is shooting a blistering 56.3 percent from 3-point range (27-for-48) for the No. 17 Hoosiers, who lead the Big Ten in scoring at 84.8 points per game.

Looking back: The Hoosiers already have matched last season’s total of 12 wins, the highest in the Crean era. A last-second victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky was the best win by a Big Ten team in non-conference play and it made Indiana relevant again. But it should be pointed out that the Hoosiers’ schedule to date is ranked No. 313 by Sagarin out of 345 Division I teams.

Looking ahead: Indiana opens Big Ten play at Michigan State on Wednesday followed by home games against Ohio State and Michigan, so the Hoosiers will have plenty of opportunities to prove they’re for real. The program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2008 seems more than realistic at this point and would be a big step in Crean’s rebuilding effort.


Record: 8-5.

Coach: Fran McCaffery, second season (19-25).

Big man on campus: Senior guard Matt Gatens, a four-year starter, leads the Hawkeyes in scoring at 14 points per game.

Facts, figures: The Hawkeyes are last in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (70.2) and field goal percentage defense (44.7).

Looking back: Iowa won its first three games of the season and closed out its non-conference slate with three straight victories. In between, it wasn’t pretty for the Hawkeyes. Included in that 2-5 stretch was a 16-point home loss to Campbell.

Looking ahead: The Hawkeyes went 4-14 in the Big Ten in McCaffery’s first season and likely will be one of the bottom-feeders in the league again this season. But Iowa’s future is bright; after Gatens, the team’s next four top scorers are either freshmen or sophomores.


Record: 10-2.

Coach: John Beilein, fifth season (77-69).

Big man on campus: Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. leads the Wolverines in scoring at 15.4 points per game. He averaged 13.9 as a freshman.

Facts, figures: The Wolverines had the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten, according to the Sagarin ratings.

Looking back: Michigan has won five straight games since a 70-58 loss at Virginia on Nov. 29. The Wolverines’ only other loss was to Duke in the Maui Invitational; one night earlier, Michigan knocked off then-No. 13 Memphis.

Looking ahead: The No. 20 Wolverines haven’t finished with a winning record in Big Ten play under Beilein. That streak should end thanks to the one-two punch of Hardaway Jr. and 5-11 freshman guard Trey Burke, who’s averaging 13 points per game.


Record: 11-2.

Coach: Tom Izzo, 17th season (394‑163).

Big man on campus: Senior forward Draymond Green leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 9.8 per game and leads the Spartans in scoring (15.5), assists (3.5) and steals (1.5).

Facts, figures: Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rebounding margin at plus-10.8 per game.

Looking back: The No. 19 Spartans have won 11 consecutive games since opening the season with back-to-back losses to North Carolina and Duke. By far the most impressive victory during that run was a 74-67 decision at Gonzaga.

Looking ahead: This look likes the type of tough team that Izzo likes. A nine-day stretch in mid-February in which Michigan State plays at Ohio State, at home against UW and at Purdue may decide how much the Spartans will factor into the title race.


Record: 12-1.

Coach: Tubby Smith, fifth season (92-54).

Big man on campus: Junior forward Rodney Williams is averaging 9.8 points per game and is among the Big Ten leaders in field goal percentage, steals and blocked shots.

Facts, figures: The Gophers don’t have any players among the top 30 scorers in the league.

Looking back: Minnesota suffered a devastating blow when it lost fifth-year senior forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury in a loss to Dayton on Nov. 27. The Gophers’ record is sparkling, but they didn’t play a single team in the top 50 in the Sagarin ratings.

Looking ahead: The Gophers were hoping to redeem themselves after losing 10 of their final 11 games last season, but replacing Mbakwe’s 14 points and 9.1 rebounds per game will be difficult.


Record: 8-3.

Coach: Doc Sadler, sixth season (97‑74).

Big man on campus: Senior guard Bo Spencer leads the Cornhuskers with 16 points per game.

Facts, figures: The Cornhuskers have more turnovers (151) than assists (149).

Looking back: Nebraska went through its non-conference slate without a signature victory. The Cornhuskers’ losses were to Oregon and Wake Forest at home and to Creighton on the road.

Looking ahead: The Cornhuskers have been dealing with injuries. Even at full strength, their transition to the Big Ten would have been a difficult one.


Record: 10-2.

Coach: Bill Carmody, 12th season (170-179).

Big man on campus: Senior forward John Shurna leads the league in scoring at 19.4 points per game. He’s second in the league with 2.9 3-pointers per game.

Facts, figures: The Wildcats are the only Big Ten team with fewer rebounds than their opponent this season.

Looking back: Northwestern’s two losses were to good opponents (Baylor and Creighton). The Wildcats’ best win came against Seton Hall on a neutral court. Northwestern also beat Georgia Tech and LSU.

Looking ahead: A .500 record in Big Ten play would probably be enough for the Wildcats to secure their first-ever NCAA tournament bid. Can Northwestern pull it off? Shurna and junior guard Drew Crawford, the No. 2 scorer in the league at 18.1 points per game, give it a fighting chance.


Record: 12-1.

Coach: Thad Matta, eighth season (202-58).

Big man on campus: Sophomore center Jared Sullinger, the Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year, leads the Buckeyes with 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game.

Facts, figures: Ohio State is the only team in the league with three players averaging 15 or more points per game.

Looking back: The second-ranked Buckeyes recorded home wins over top-10 opponents Florida and Duke, beating the Blue Devils by 22 points in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Ohio State’s only loss came at Kansas with Sullinger on the sidelines with back spasms.

Looking ahead: Ohio State was the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the league, and it has done nothing to change that impression. Provided Sullinger stays healthy, the Buckeyes have the talent to run away with the title.


Record: 8-5.

Coach: Patrick Chambers, first season (8-5).

Big man on campus: Tim Frazier, a 6-1 junior guard, leads the league with 7.2 assists per game and is fourth in scoring (17.2 ppg). He also leads the Nittany Lions with 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.

Facts, figures: Penn State is the Big Ten’s worst shooting team at 39.3 percent.

Looking back: The Nittany Lions have played just one game against a Sagarin Top 50 team, and it was a 38-point loss to Kentucky. The stretch that showed just how weak Penn State is came in early December, when the Nittany Lions lost back-to-back home games to Mississippi and Lafayette.

Looking ahead: It’s going to be a long year in State College. Six of the players in the team’s nine-man rotation are either freshmen or sophomores, with just one senior. Frazier’s been fantastic, but he can’t do it alone.


Record: 10-3.

Coach: Matt Painter, seventh season (148-67).

Big man on campus: Fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel, who missed the entire 2010-11 season with a knee injury, is third in the league with 17.5 points per game.

Facts, figures: Senior guard Ryne Smith averages a league-leading three 3-pointers per game.

Looking back: It could have been a great non-conference run for the Boilermakers if they hadn’t stumbled down the stretch in two games. Not only did Purdue waste a 19-point second-half lead in a three-point loss at Xavier, it led Butler by nine points with 3 minutes left yet still walked away with a two-point loss. The Boilermakers’ best win came over Iona in a tournament in Puerto Rico.

Looking ahead: Purdue was picked in every position from second through ninth in a preseason poll of Big Ten media, and it’s still hard to slot the Boilermakers. They’ve proven they can play with good teams; now, they just have to find a way to finish.


Record: 11-2.

Coach: Bo Ryan, 11th season (253-93).

Big man on campus: If there was an All-Big Ten first team for non-conference play, preseason All-American Jordan Taylor likely wouldn’t have been on it. The senior point guard has struggled with his shot as he adjusts to life without veteran big men Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil.

Facts, figures: The No. 13 Badgers have held opponents to 33 or fewer points 10 times since 1950, and four of those games have come this season. The highest field goal percentage by a UW opponent was 43.1 by BYU.

Looking back: UW, which leads the nation in scoring defense, posted impressive victories over BYU and UNLV and gave North Carolina a scare in Chapel Hill. The low point for the Badgers came on Dec. 3, when Marquette exposed some UW weaknesses during a 61-54 Badgers loss at the Kohl Center.

Looking ahead: UW is playing great defense and taking care of the ball, trademarks of a Ryan-coached team. How consistent the streaky-shooting Badgers can be on offense will determine whether they can contend for a league title.

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