Looking at the current rankings in college basketball at the halfway point in the season, the Big 10 fan would be shocked that these are the basketball rankings; not the football one. The two most important polls in college basketball are the ESPN/Coaches Poll and the Associated Press. The polls list the top twenty-five basketball teams in the US, and in both of the polls the Big 10 has six representatives from their conference; one more than the next closest conference which is the Big East. While the other “Super Conferences” (ACC, Big 12, Pac 10, and SEC) combined to only have 10 teams in the top 25, compared to the Big East and Big Ten’s 11. Living in the Midwest we are all at least a little biased towards the Big 10, but for once the Midwest sports fan can claim the best basketball conference in America this year.
The Big 10 has two legitimate Final Four contenders in the league, one being Michigan State and the other is THE Ohio State University. The class of the Big 10 this year without a doubt is The Ohio State University led by star center Jared Sullinger. Although Sullinger may be the best player, point guard Aaron Craft is the leader who leads the conference in steals and is second in assists. The Buckeyes will go as far as their streaky shooters carry them, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas, who each average 15 points a game. Unless the Buckeyes play a team to the caliber of Kentucky or Syracuse before the Final Four, the Ohio State fan should feel confident in buying their plane tickets to New Orleans this coming March.
The next team is Michigan State who is led by long-time head coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans have been a staple in the Final Four over the past two decades, in his seventeenth year as coach; Izzo has been to six Final Four’s, fourteen straight tournament appearances, and four times has been named coach of the year. The Spartans are led by senior power forward Draymond Green who is an absolute monster patrolling underneath the basket. The remainder of the team consists mostly of underclassmen that thrive off Izzo’s unselfish philosophy on offense. Every one on the team can rebound and pass, and play a great “team game” that will be necessary to play if they want to beat a team with more talent down the road in the tournament. Do not sleep on the Spartans this year; they will prove your Bracket wrong like they do every year if you bet against them.
The second tier of the conference is led by the young and up-incoming group from Indiana with star freshman center Cody Zeller. The rest of the team is headed by stud athletes who will be a force to be reckoned with next year, but may be too young to make a Final Four run this year. It is undeniable that the Hoosiers have the two best wins in the conference this year at home, defeating Kentucky and Ohio State. However, on the road Indiana does not look like the same team, and the tournament is played on neutral courts, thus, I remain skeptical about IU’s chances this year. Next year will be an entirely different story for this team once they have a year of experience under their belts.
Following the Hoosiers are the Michigan Wolverines, who are the dark horse to win the conference this year if MSU and OSU slip up. The Wolverines are sparked by guard duo Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke who each average around fifteen points per game. The team’s emotional leaders are seniors Zach Novak and Stu Douglass who finally after four years will have a realistic chance to go deep into the tournament. The only problem with Michigan is that they play very inconsistently; their best chance is to hope to get hot in time for the tournament to begin.
Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin each have at least 14 wins and barring a monstrous collapse will all be going to the dance this year. Northwestern (12-5) and Minnesota (14-5) also have decent chances of making the tournament as long as they keep playing consistently, and do not slip up against the poorer teams in the bottom of the conference. Unfortunately for those teams in the bottom: Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State will all have to win the Big 10 conference tournament to advance the NCAA Tournament this year.
The Big 10 has an outside shot of getting an unprecedented nine teams into the tournament, which means 75% of the conference would be in the dance. However, it is more realistic to believe that only seven or eight teams will make it from the Big 10. From top to bottom the Big 10 is stronger than any other conference, in a sport that is usually dominated by the ACC and Big East. Every game in the Big 10 is fun to watch because it is so hard for a visiting team to win a road game in difficult venues. Enjoy the remaining Big 10 conference schedule because it is going to be a bloodbath.