Big Ten Basketball Preview: Conference Sleepers

Dan AdamsCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2009

MADISON, WI - JANUARY 15: Trevon Hughes #3 of the Wisconsin Badgers brings the ball upcourt under pressure from Al Nolen #0 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers on January 15, 2009 at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota defeated Wisconsin 78-74 in overtime. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Big Ten Conference season begins in roughly a week for a majority of the teams. A few years back the Big Ten was considered one of the worst major conferences in the country. In 2006-07 only two Big Ten teams finished the season without a double-digit loss total. All of the young players from those losing teams are now upperclassmen. The

Big Ten entered the season with six teams ranked in a majority of the national polls. Currently there are only three, but seven of the 11 teams have received Top 25 votes. The obvious favorites to win a championship are No. 12 Michigan State and No. 4 Purdue.

Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan of Michigan State are prime time players and have the ability to take over a basketball game. And if Robbie Hummel can stay healthy for Purdue, the Boilermakers will possess the best starting five in the conference. They return every starter from a team that finished 11-7 in the conference last year.

Are there any other teams that could challenge at the top of the conference? Maybe, it all depends on the health of each team. The fact that there are also some rebuilding programs going through a bit of losing will likely get at least five teams to 10 wins. Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State will all struggle to win games. Northwestern lost their best player, Kevin Coble, for the season, and that puts them in that group as well.

To be toward the top of the Big Ten, your team will need to play through those soft teams by losing no more than one game. The next section profiles each sleeper team that is currently ranked third through sixth in my Big Ten rankings leading into the  conference season.

Which team could jump above the Spartans or Boilermakers? Can any of them?


Minnesota Golden Gophers:

Current Record: 8-3

Notable Wins: No. 10 Butler

Key Losses: Portland, Texas A&M, Miami (Fla.)

With head coach Tubby Smith steering this ship the Golden Gophers are a team to be reckoned with at home and on the road. Their suffocating pressure defense causes chaos for opposing backcourts.

Junior guard, Al Nolen is one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the conference and belongs in the conversation with Kalin Lucas as the conference's top perimeter defender. Senior guard, Lawrence Westbrook has the ability to take over a game with his three-point shooting and slashing ability in the lane.

The key to Minnesota's success will be the shooting of junior guard, Blake Hoffarber. When he is hitting from downtown the Gophers are good enough to beat any team in the country.  It allows Minnesota to set-up their pressure defense and opens things up on the inside for the sophomore duo of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. Both big men have double-double ability and are good shooters from the free throw line.

Tubby Smith will get this team to double-digit wins within the conference. They definitely have the ability to get to 13 or 14, but it depends on the offensive play. The team tends to fall into lulls where they look like they are standing around and not sure what to do.


Michigan Wolverines:

Current Record: 6-5

Notable Wins: None

Key Losses: Marquette, Alabama, Boston College, Detroit, No. 1 Kansas

Senior Manny Harris may be the best player in the Conference by the end of the season. If he is, the Michigan Wolverines will be playing in the NCAA tournament. His ability to open things up for the shooters on the team will be the key to victory.

Defensively the Wolverines have been pretty good through non-conference play, and played the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks very well. The biggest factor in their losses has been that they can't shoot from beyond the three-point line.

Last year, the Wolverines had nine players who shot better than 30 percent beyond arc. This season has been a different story, as they have only three players who play significant minutes shooting at that level. Four of their players, including Manny Harris, are shooting below 27 percent. That will not cut it, and if it does not change they will struggle to remain .500 within the conference.


Ohio State Buckeyes

Current Record: 10-2

Notable Wins: @ No. 12 California

Key Losses: No. 4 North Carolina, @ No. 20 Butler

The Buckeyes could easily be seen as the most likely candidate to jump into the top two of the Big Ten. With Evan Turner and David Lighty on the team, they can beat anybody.

Defensively they have struggled defending the perimeter in their two losses. If that's the case the better shooting teams in the Big Ten with the ability tor rebound will present problems. Even so, Evan Turner is game-changer. If he is crashing the boards and getting to the free-throw line than your squad is in trouble. Ohio State will be in the top five in the conference as long as Lighty and Turner are healthy all season.


Illinois Fighting Illini

Current Record: 8-3

Notable Wins: @ No. 19 Clemson (Trailed by 23), No. 24 Vanderbilt

Key Losses: Utah, Bradley, @ Georgia

The Illini have become a trendy choice to take that next step in the Big Ten in 2010. Their three losses came against bottom-level competition. The teams that beat them will be lucky to finish in the top halves of their own conferences when all is said and done.

Illinois does boast two victories over ranked opponents though. They were getting trounced by the Clemson Tigers and came back from a 20-point halftime deficit to pull the upset. The question is, which team are they? The team that was losing by 20 at halftime? Or, the team that outscored the Tigers by 22 in the second half?

I tend to think the former, because I do not trust junior guard, Demetri McCamey or upstart freshmen guard, Brandon Paul. The two Mike's in the middle can battle any two big men in the country. The ability to rebound when the guards are not shooting well will be the key to success for this team.

Mike Tisdale is a great baseline jump shooter, he can block shots, and most importantly out-rebound anyone. Mike Davis has fine-tuned his inside post game and his footwork has developed over the past couple seasons. Even so, it will be tough for Illinois because of the talented backcourts on many of the better conference teams this year. If somehow the Illinois backcourt starts shooting the ball very well, this team could have a chance to do some special things this season.


All four of these sleepers in this year's Big Ten Conference are legitimate NCAA tournament teams if they stay healthy. There should be no issues with at least six teams from the conference making the Big Dance.

There are flaws with each and everyone and it will fall on the coaches' shoulders when it comes to masking thewholes that they have or completely fixing them.

I feel the Minnesota Gophers have the best chance to challenge for the Big Ten title this season. Their depth cannot be matched by any other Big Ten team. It almost looks like hockey line changes when you're watching Tubby Smith make his substitutions. He will sub out all five players on the court if they are not playing well. In certain situations, he will sub all five out when they are playing well. 

Of the sleepers, I feel he is the best coach in the bunch and that will give them the advantage in most of their games. Minnesota is undefeated at Williams Arena and has their home-court advantage back for the first time in a long time. The building is old, the court is unique, and it shakes when the team is playing well.

Watch out Spartans and Boilermakers, because there are four other teams with a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten this season.