With three of the top five teams in the AP poll, the Big Ten has a great case to make for being NCAA basketball’s best conference in 2013-14. With conference play opening next week, it’s a great time to take stock of where the league stands—and where it will end up by Selection Sunday.
With so many high-powered squads, it should come as no surprise that the Player of the Year race looks to be a tight one. Michigan State SG Gary Harris brings the league’s most intimidating combination of offense and defense, but he’s facing some stiff competition for the top spot.
Read on for a look at the teams, games and individual stars that will write the story of the conference season in the Big Ten.
Ohio State 12-0
Michigan State 10-1
Penn State 9-4
Wisconsin is not going away
Not only did the No. 4 Badgers take down then-No. 11 Florida early in the year, but they’ve also outperformed three of the country’s toughest defenses—Saint Louis, Virginia and Marquette—in head-to-head battles. They’ll hang around the top of the standings all season long.
Iowa's scoring balance is second to none
The Hawkeyes have 80-plus points in both of their losses, despite the fact that only three regulars score in double figures. Fran McCaffery has found a 10-deep rotation that’s getting legitimate contributions from all 10 guys, leaving everyone’s legs fresh for conference play.
Indiana’s offense has some issues
No team could have weathered the Hoosiers’ NBA losses without consequences, and this year’s squad has gotten cold-cocked by the high-powered defenses of UConn and Syracuse. Despite Yogi Ferrell’s best efforts, the team is 222nd in the country in assists and has faltered badly from beyond the arc.
Is the league good enough for two No. 1 seeds?
With three teams in the Top Five as conference play looms, this Big Ten is looking as impressive as the version that earned four Sweet 16 berths a season ago. Indiana made it to the top line of that bracket, and any combination of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State could make a run at a pair of top seeds this time around.
Can anyone win on the road?
Several key matchups within the league—including the great Ohio State-Michigan rivalry—appear just once on this season’s schedule. Even a single loss at home may well be the tipping point that drops a team from league title contention.
Will scorers continue to gain ascendancy?
The physicality that has always defined the league will have to make room for 2013-14’s tighter officiating. Will that help improved offenses at Iowa and Wisconsin outplay the bruising defenses of Ohio State or Michigan State? Wait and see.
What’s going on in Ann Arbor?
The Wolverines snagged a spot in the preseason Top 10, and even their four losses have come against some serious opponents (including No. 1 Arizona). Will Michigan bounce back to contend for the title, or will the lack of a real replacement for Trey Burke doom this team to a season on the bubble?
Michigan at Ohio State (Feb. 11)
The only meeting of these two bitter foes gives the Buckeyes the huge home-court edge, but if Nik Stauskas and Zak Irvin get hot from long range, no defense is safe.
Michigan State at Ohio State (Mar. 9)
The regular-season finale in Columbus has a great chance of deciding both the conference championship and a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance.
Michigan State at Wisconsin (Feb. 9)
The toughest home floor in the conference—site of the only meeting of these two teams—could help Wisconsin survive the Spartans’ huge rebounding edge and get a leg up in the league championship race.
Noah Vonleh, Indiana
He’s only had one truly bad game (against a UConn team that has frustrated many more experienced players), and Noah Vonleh has been anywhere from good to dominant the rest of the time. The 6’10”, 240-lb PF leads the conference at 9.5 rebounds per game.
Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan
Like his team, Derrick Walton Jr. has yet to bounce all the way back after an Iowa State-induced nosedive. Still, his 8.0 points and 2.6 assists a night are more offense than most of the conference is getting from its frosh, and he hasn’t lost his starting role yet.
Troy Williams, Indiana
Overshadowed by starting alongside Vonleh, Troy Williams has provided just the versatility IU needed from its 6’7”, 206-lb combo forward. He’s playing tough D on the perimeter when called upon (1.3 steals per game), rebounding with assertiveness (4.8 boards a night) and chipping in as a scorer (7.9 points per contest).
Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Aaron Craft, the toughest perimeter defender in college hoops, has also managed to keep the Buckeyes offense from imploding without Deshaun Thomas.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Hyper-athletic Adreian Payne is a center with a great shooting touch (33 points on 10-of-13 shooting against Texas) who still controls the glass (8.0 boards a game).
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Battling injury again, Gary Harris is an intimidating scorer (17.8 points per game) and first-class defender when healthy.
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
The motor driving the Badgers’ offensive turnaround is combo forward Sam Dekker, who also leads the team’s rebounding-by-committee approach.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan
If the scuffling Wolverines recover to challenge for league title, sniper-turned-playmaker Nik Stauskas (who leads the team in both scoring and assists) will be the reason why.
Freshman of the Year: Noah Vonleh, Indiana
There’s a surprising dearth of big-time frosh in the conference, making rebounding machine Noah Vonleh stand out all the more.
Coach of the Year: Thad Matta, Ohio State
No Deshaun Thomas? No problem for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes, who keep cobbling together enough offense to support their ironclad D.
Player of the Year: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
While his Michigan State competitors divide the vote between them, Aaron Craft is the undeniable leader of the Buckeyes.
Favorite: Michigan State
An upset loss to North Carolina notwithstanding, the Spartans’ balance of defense and offense makes them the conference’s most dangerous team over the long haul.
Dark Horse: Iowa
Ohio State and Wisconsin are too good to qualify for this designation, but the defending NIT runners-up are NCAA tournament-bound and have the potential to spring a road upset behind their explosive offense.
Shoo-ins: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois
The unranked teams here have already scored quality wins away from home over Florida State and Stanford (Wolverines) or Missouri (Illini).
Hopefuls: Minnesota, Indiana
Nice win totals early for both these programs can’t hide concerns about soft schedules and inconsistency on defense (Gophers) or offense (Hoosiers).
Long shots: Penn State
Among the usual bottom-feeders, only the Nittany Lions (with Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill) have the talent to amass anything like a respectable win total in this deep league.
1. Michigan State
2. Ohio State
9. Penn State