There are only a couple of games left before the Big Ten season begins and fans in Midwest, if they are not shoveling snow, are thinking about March and whether their favorite Big Ten team will be receiving an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Currently, there are five teams in the Big Ten ranked among the top 25 teams in the country. The conventional wisdom would indicate that the Big Ten will have at least five teams in the tournament.
Of course, just because your team is ranked in December doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get into the NCAA tournament.
The converse is also true in that just because you aren’t ranked in December doesn’t mean that you have no hope of making the tournament.
This should be a banner year for the Big Ten as seven teams from the Big Ten should make it into the NCAA tournament. In alphabetical order, below are the projected finishes for each Big Ten team.
No. 17 Illinois Fighting Illini, 9-1
The Illini failed to make the NCAA tournament last year, and they appear to be bound to ensure that they don’t fall short this year. First Team All-Big-Ten Guard Demetri McCamey, 7’1" Honorable Mention Center Mike Tisdale and Big Ten Freshman of the Year D.J. Richardson have all returned, and the team has gotten off to a fast start.
No. 17 Illinois will enter the Big Ten season no worse than 11-2 and possibly 12-1 if they beat No. 12 Missouri on Dec. 22. McCamey has played well and may be playing himself into the first round of the NBA draft.
Prediction—20 wins and an NCAA tournament bid seem ensured as the Illini only need to finish 9-9 in the Big Ten.
Indiana Hoosiers, 7-2
The Hoosiers finished last season 10-21 and 4-14 in the Big Ten. Guard Maurice Creek has returned to the team after suffering a terrible knee injury last season. Creek, Verdell Jones III and Christian Watford form a viable triple threat and should give the Hoosiers 10 wins before the Big Ten season begins.
Seven-footer Guy-Marc Marcel was declared ineligible by the NCAA on Dec. 1, and his loss will impact the ability of Indiana to consistently compete with the big boys in the conference for the Big Ten Championship.
Prediction—The Hoosiers will likely finish within a game or two of the .500 mark. One win in the Big Ten tournament might be necessary to secure an NIT bid.
Iowa Hawkeyes, 5-5
Last year, the Hawkeyes finished the season 10-22 and 4-14 in the Big Ten. This year’s squad is better than last year but unfortunately even else in the Big Ten can make the case that they are better as well.
Iowa is a young team and is one of the few teams in the Big Ten that does not have a player that is 6’10" or taller on their roster. The schedule does the Hawkeyes no favors as they play all of the teams expected to finish in the top half of the conference in home and away series.
Prediction—Iowa will likely finish with 10-12 wins on the season and fall just short of making the NIT.
Michigan Wolverines, 7-2
The Wolverines underachieved last year with Second Team All-Big Ten forward DeShawn Sims and Third Team All-Big Ten guard Manny Harris and failed to make the NCAA tournament when they finished 15-17 and 7-11 in the Big Ten.
Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten as there are only two juniors among the seven players getting more than 15 minutes of playing time. Wins in the Big Ten will be difficult as they score primarily from the guard spot and they are shooting just 44 percent from the field and only 68 percent from the free throw line.
Prediction—Michigan will likely be on the NIT bubble with another .500 type season as they will experience growing pains this year and don’t have enough interior size to consistently compete in the Big Ten.
No. 8 Michigan State Spartans, 7-3
Most Big Ten teams would be concerned entering Big Ten play with three losses, but Coach Tom Izzo knows that with former Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas running the show, Darrell Summers providing clutch scoring and Draymond Green providing a tough interior presence his Spartans will be one of the favorites to win the Big Ten Conference title.
The Spartans with their talent, depth and experience are favorites to win the Big Ten Title and should finish no worse than third in the conference.
Prediction—Spartans will be in the NCAA tournament, the question is whether Michigan State can earn a No. 1 or No.2 seed.
No. 20 Minnesota Golden Gophers, 9-1
The Gophers may be the dark horse team in the Big Ten Conference race. The Gophers have the biggest front line in the Big Ten with seven-footers Ralph Sampson III, Colton Iverson and 6’8" 240 power forward Trevor Mbakwe.
They have two veteran guards who are capable of running the point in Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph. Sprinkle in the best three-point shooter in the conference in Blake Hoffarber, and the Gophers will be a difficult team to beat.
The Gophers pick up a slight break with their schedule in that they only play Wisconsin and Illinois once.
Prediction—The Gophers should finish with a winning record in the Big Ten which should secure them an NCAA bid before the Big Ten postseason conference tournament. A deep run in the Big Ten tournament could give Minnesota a good NCAA tournament seed.
Northwestern Wildcats, 5-0
Most college basketball fans are aware that Northwestern has never been to the NCAA tournament, and the question from Evanston, Ill., is whether this going to be the year that the Wildcats get it done.
Northwestern returns Second Team All-Big Ten forward John Shurna and Honorable Mention guards Michael Thompson and Drew Crawford; Shurna is shooting a ridiculous 59 percent from the field and an even more outrageous 62 percent from beyond the arc.
Northwestern should run the table with their non-conference schedule giving them 10 wins. If the Wildcats can finish .500 in the Big Ten, they should finally get a chance to go dancing in March.
Prediction—Northwestern will have a tough time finishing in the top half of the conference standings, but they should be able to sneak into the NCAA tournament after winning their opening game in the Big Ten postseason tournament.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes, 7-0
Rarely does a team lose the College Player of the Year and come back the next year with a stronger squad with five freshmen, but it appears that the Buckeyes just might have accomplished that feat. Of course the cupboard was not completely bare as the Buckeyes returned Third Team All-Big Ten players David Lighty and William Buford along with key contributors Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale.
The key ingredient to the Buckeyes success is that they have a gem in the post in 6’9" 280 pound freshman Jared Sullinger who is averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game.
Prediction—Ohio State should be 12-0 to begin the Big Ten season, and if they win the Big Ten title or win the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes should find themselves with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Penn State Nittany Lions, 7-3
Penn State finished last year 11-20 overall and 3-15 in the Big Ten and many felt that the problems for the Lions stemmed from relying too much on Talor Battle. The song coming out of Happy Valley sounds very familiar with Battle playing most of the instruments in the band.
Battle, a Second Team All-Big Ten selection last year, is once again leading his team in scoring and the offense too often requires him to make something happen. Senior forward Jeff Brooks has stepped up to become a viable second option, but the Nittany Lions have only one other player on their roster who is averaging at least seven points.
Prediction—In a defensive-minded conference, Penn State’s lack of offensive options will prevent the Nittany Lions having a winning record. The Nittany Lions will likely fall just short of making the NIT tournament.
No. 18 Purdue Boilermakers, 9-1
Yes, the loss of Robbie Hummel is a significant blow to Purdue’s chances to win the Big Ten title, but there is no need to shed any tears for Coach Matt Painter as he still has two stars in JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore.
The 6’10 Johnson poses unique problems for opponents as he is equally adept inside is he is outside on the perimeter. Moore can create scoring opportunities off the dribble, and if you don’t aggressively challenge him, he is comfortable draining the three-point shot as he is shooting 46 percent from behind the arc.
Prediction—The Boilermakers don’t have enough size to make them a favorite to win the Big Ten title. The only players other than Johnson over 6’5" on the roster are two freshmen Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius, who don’t appear to be ready for Big Ten play. However, Purdue should win 20 games and make the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin Badgers, 8-2
The Badgers have very little flash or panache they just simply win year in and year out. Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan has made nine straight trips to the NCAA Tournament; only Coach Izzo with 13 has received more consecutive NCAA bids. This year’s Badgers are led by 6’10" forward Jon Leuer and 6’1" guard Jordan Taylor.
However, don’t fall into a false sense of security if you are able to stop either Leuer or Taylor, as Coach Ryan is very comfortable going eight players deep into his bench to generate just enough offense to beat you.
Prediction—Wisconsin on a paper does not appear to be a team that will finish in the top half of the conference, but it is hard to imagine Coach Ryan not finding a way into the NCAA tournament. I see the Badgers getting into the NCAA tournament but needing a couple of wins during the Big Ten postseason tournament to get it done.