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Final Pre-Conference Big Ten Basketball Review

There's certainly a lot of folks saying a lot of good things about Indiana basketball going into conference play. Power polls from Inside the Hall, Black Shoe Diaries, Maize & Brew, and ESPN's Myron Medcalf all have the Hoosiers ranked at 2nd or 3rd in the conference (and 3rd is where KenPom & Sagarin both have the Hoosiers). And why not? Crean's team has supplied the most entertaining finish of the young season to knock off Kentucky, and is one of only a handful of undefeated teams. However, I'd like to take a second to warn everyone that while I really do believe the Hoosiers will make noise in the Big Ten this year - this particular squad has not yet convinced me that they are likely to even split the first two games on their conference schedule. I'll be jumping for joy if they knock off MSU on the road or OSU at home - but I currently think both teams will finish higher in the standings than the Hoosiers. If Sheehey & Jones were healthy, I'd feel better about IU's chances at the Spartans, but for now, I'm tempering my enthusiasm. My standings review is beneath the jump.

1. Ohio State (12-1)

The Buckeyes' only loss has been at Kansas, when they rested Sullinger. Sully's back, as is hyped frosh LaQuinton Ross, who had to get his academics up to par during the fall. It hardly seems fair that a national title contender just adds a scoring wing in their 13th game. They'll suffer some losses, but should finish far enough ahead to rest their starters in the final conference game at MSU, making the final standings seem closer than it actually is.

Predicted conference finish (15-3)

2. Wisconsin (11-2)

The Badgers are beloved by the computers, and I'm not sure exactly why. Still, I can't disrespect Bo Ryan or this team, which appears to have all the pieces in place for another winning season. The depth seems a little shaky, but on the other hand, Jordan Taylor has had a pretty mediocre start to the year, and the Badgers haven't really suffered. If Taylor gets rolling again - this is clearly the only team that can wrest the conference title away from the Buckeyes.

Predicted conference finish (13-5)

3. Michigan State (11-2)

The Spartans have an impressive win streak put together after starting the season with totally understandable losses to Duke and UNC. Draymond Green appears to found his lost shooting touch, Keith Appling is rounding into form, and Branden Dawson appears to be wrapping his head around the college game. The worry here is that the bench currently consists of Derrick Nix, frosh point Travis Trice, and walk-on Austin Thornton. I respect Izzo as a coach, and the defense should keep the Spartans in the upper half of the conference, but the starters really need to stay healthy, or problems will pile up in a hurry.

Predicted conference finish (11-7)

4. Indiana (12-0)

I never would have guessed that the Hoosiers would be undefeated at this point in the season. And the schedule has been (mostly) rather easy, but these players have shown both an instinct for attacking on offense and defense *and* have demonstrated that the margin for error is much higher than the last couple of Hoosier basketball squads. That Notre Dame game would've been a loss last year, but Cody Zeller just gives IU more possessions and more stops per game than Pritchard and others were able to provide in the past.

Predicted conference finish (11-7)

5. Purdue (10-3)

Let's just put a stop to any talk about the Boilers not making the NCAA tourney until we see some really bad losses. A last-second loss to an in-state foe who went to the NCAA championship game in each of the last two years is not an embarrassing loss. It just showed that Butler still has teeth, was bound to get someone - and it happened to be Purdue. The Boilers have lacked a killer instinct, however, but perhaps as DJ Byrd regains his form and John Hart starts playing again, Painter's men will get a boost in their mental toughness.

Predicted conference finish (10-8)

6. Michigan (9-2)

I've seen it in print that Trey Burke is B1G Freshman of the Year so far -and no disrespect- but c'mon. He's been shooting threes well and racking up some assists, but his turnovers have been high and are likely to get higher going into conference play. He's good, but he's not a complete replacement for Darius Morris. I do expect Michigan to qualify for an at-large bid to the NCAA's, but I also expect them to rack up some surprising losses in the coming weeks. The Wolverines have just demonstrated too little ability to separate themselves from what should be lesser teams - which tells me that they just have a very thin margin for error.

Predicted conference finish (9-9)

7. Illinois (11-2)

I have to hand to Bruce Weber - he has Tyler Griffey and Meyers Leonard - who were nearly invisible last season- playing like stalwarts in the paint, and his snag of Sam Maniscalco has provided a steady (if currently cold) hand at point. His ballyhooed freshman class has been stuck to the bench, however, and hasn't provided much when called upon. Furthermore, his best bench performance was recently from Joe Bertrand, who hit all 9 of his shots. Weber said the guy hadn't hit anything in practice for weeks, but I'm not sure whether this is a cover or if Weber was really that desperate for bench production. In other news, sophomore Crandall Head fulfilled my preseason prediction by announcing his transfer.

Predicted conference finish (9-9)

8. Northwestern (10-2)

I just don't think that the Wildcats will break through and make the NCAA tournament this season, but they really aren't bad at all. They just went toe-to-toe at Creighton, who has been pretty great so far this season. Drew Crawford and John Shurna are a great one-two scoring punch, and if Luka Mirkovic could shake off whatever is funking up his game, the Wildcats will be dangerous. Shurna's a player, walk-on Reggie Hearn has been a nice surprise, and Dave Sobolewski has run the point stunningly well, posting 48 assists to a mere 10 turnovers! I just wonder if the defense will hold up in conference play (and you should be able to deduce my answer from their ranking).

Predicted conference finish (9-9)

9. Minnesota (12-1)

Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III have indeed fulfilled the necessary "stepping-up" in the paint that is needed for Tubby Smith's squad. Like everyone else, I would guess that this is another bubble team that doesn't get into the NCAA tournament. I'm just not a fan of the uneven backcourt or the soft schedule the Gophers have played so far. Minny could surprise, sure - but I wouldn't put money on it.

Predicted conference finish (8-10)

10. Nebraska (8-3)

The Huskers inaugural season to Big Ten play is looking like a rough one. I expected reserve center Andre Almeida to be one of the top sixth men in the conference, but he's been stuck to the bench with injuries, and now starting center Jorge Brian Diaz has been sitting out, too! The good news is that Bo Spencer, Caleb Walker, and Toney McCray have all stepped up recently, and Brandon Ubel is filling the five-spot. The question mark I have about Doc Sadler's club is whether juco Dylan Talley will ever get a chance to contribute. Talley has been evidently slowed by a deep thigh bruise that refuses to get better. If Talley can return to his early season form and Diaz does indeed come back as well, this is clearly the best of the league's bottom tier. But there's a lot of questions.

Predicted conference finish (6-12)

11. Iowa (8-5)

The Hawkeyes have had a miserable non-conference, and these are the guys that I picked as not significantly worse than Indiana or Michigan at the start of the season. Why are they doing so terribly? First and foremost, the two surprise impact players that Fran McCaffrey unleashed on the league have been mediocre (unheralded Melsahn Basabe) and terrible (juco point Bryce Cartwright). Furthermore, noone has stepped up to provide a steady presence at center, leaving Jarryd Cole's under-rated defensive work noticeably lacking. I do think that now that Roy Devyn Marble has cemented his starting position at point guard, we'll see a noticeable improvement in the Hawkeyes. Still, it's a rough league, so 4-5 wins really is the ceiling for this squad.

Predicted conference finish (5-13)

12. Penn State (8-5)

Tim Frazier has been a baller - no doubt. Just imagine his assist numbers if anyone around him could shoot. I also like coach Pat Chambers feistiness, and I think he will eventually get the Nittany Lions back to the postseason. It won't be this season though, and we'll see how these players deal with long losing streaks.

Predicted conference finish (3-15)