In between wall to wall bowl games, the final NFL weekend of the season and the overall fun chaos that comes with a four-day weekend, the Big 10 opened their college basketball season. A couple of thoughts with the first week of league action in the books:
Wisconsin is a legit contender
I dont know why we would need proof of this considering the Badgers have averaged 12 Big 10 wins a season during Bo Ryan’s tenure. Keep in mind, those numbers include seven years where teams were only playing a 16-game league slate compared to the 18 games now played. Ryan has three first place finishes and came in second twice and third once. Yet, after last year’s 10-8, fourth place campaign, there was a sense the Badgers were slipping. I saw plenty of preseason bracketologists who excluded them from the field when the season began. One cuplrit? My Sporting News preseason magazine, who picked the Badgers eighth in the league and to miss the Big Dance.
Thats rubbish. The Badgers have more talent than the stereotypical Badger outfit. They have 5 Rivals top-150 recruits in their 8-man regular rotation. Four are starters in either their third and fourth year with the program. Trevan Hughes and Jason Bohannon were both 4-star recruits, have contributed since Day 1 and will spend their entire senior seasons climbing up various Badger all-time lists. Jon Leuer is the league’s best NBA prospect that nobody is talking about. If he could stay out of foul trouble, he could compete for player of the year honors. This team is ready to make a leap from last year’s 10-8 mark. Runing his swing offense with as much talent as he’s ever had, Ryan’s Badgers made quick work dominating PSU and OSU. We’ll find out right away if Wisconsin can make the MSU/PU show a three man race this winter. Four of their next eight games are against either the Boilers or the Spartans, including this week at MSU and at home vs Purdue. I’ll go out on a limb and say they cover three of those four games against the league contenders. Book It.
The Hoosiers will be tough at home
Speaking of Booking It, yes, I am formally sticking with the boast tht IU would have a winning home record in Big 10 play. I begged a bit to get off the hook in the wake of the Creek injury, but watching them take down Michigan tells me they still have a fighting shot at this. They just have so much more firepower than this year. They’ve looked better this year virtually every step of the way, but only seem able to play 30-35 minutes of a 40-minute game. And seeing as how young they are, those minutes that they dont absolutely crush them. I figured with the talent upgrade, combined with the intangible Assembly Court edge, they would be formidable at home in Big 10 play. They came close to winning as many as 4 league home games last year. Against Michigan, they showed the resolve I thought they’d have this year at home. If they can play as mistake free, yet still loose, in front of the home crowd they way they did against Michigan, I dont think this is a big of a stretch. Their leading scorer from a year ago Devan Dumes is their seventh leading scorer this year. In their first game without Creek, he was their fourth leading scorer, putting an effecient 11 points on the board. They can play the game they played last week aaginst Michigan against anybody else in the league. As long as its not against the top couple teams in the league, I favor this team right now at home against everybody else.
Dont print purple dance tickets just yet
I hope Northwestern fans enjoyed their week ranked in the polls for the first time in decades. Its not lasting, not after dropping a pair of games last week, even if they were against good Big 10 clubs. I also wouldnt be putting too big of a deposit down of March Madness tickets either. After the hot start, I bought back into the Cats finally making the Dance and the notion that perhaps they’re better at defending and rebounding with a Kevin Coble-less outfit on the floor. That might still be, but that also doesnt mean it will be good enough to win more Big 10 games. Illinois and Michigan State just shredded the Cats defense. They didnt stop anyone over their first two league games. To the Cats credit, they did showcase the firepower to stay with clubs. Juice Thompson is one of my favorite new players to watch this season. But, despite playing with the lead the whole way, the Cats could not close the deal and let a game slip away at Illinois. Michigan State thrashed the Cats and ran them off the floor at home in the second half, in 20 minutes every bit as one sided as the first 20 minutes was anybody’s ball game.
I wonder if the Cats just arent going to have enough scoring without Coble and eventually will just be outlasted by most Big 10 teams. Then there is the rest of the January schedule. After an OOC layup against Texas Chorpus-Christi, the Wildcats close the month with a gauntlet: at Michigan, Purdue, Wisco, at OSU, Illinois, at Minnesota and at Michigan State. They’re 10-3 and looking good now, but it doesnt take any stretch of the imagination to see them at 12-10 by the end of the month. They’d be in as bad a position as Michigan currently sits in right now, but with a lot less season to play and get back in good stead.
Prognosis Michigan: Not Dead Yet
Michigan got a big win over Ohio State. It’s best win of the season. Even without Evan Turner, the Buckeyes have more physical talent on the floor than Michigan, so make no mistake, this game signals that Michigan is still a threat to win double digit games in league play and steal an NCAA bid in the process. The victory might not have made up for years of Buckeye dominance in the rivalry, but it does recharge their outlook for the postseaason. Look at their upcoming slate: at Penn State and then home games against Northwestern and Indiana. They will be favored in each of those. If they follow through on those expectations and notch W’s, they will be 10-6, 4-1 in league play with a total of 14 games remaining. If they split those games , they will be 17-13 overall with either 10 or 11 wins in league play when the regular season ends. Folks, thats going to put them right in the thick of things, despite how ‘meh’ that record sounds. They would probably be in the 4/5 game of the Big 10 quarterfinals. Perhaps against an Even Turner-equipped OSU, even. Regardless of foe, a 17-13 Michigan team that at least advances a round in the Big 10 sectional would probably be enough to grab a bid considering how well regarded the league is. If you’re a Michigan fan, you know Manny will be there, you hope Sims eventually shakes his season long funk–yesterday’s showing hopefully was a corner turner for him–and you’re pumped that Stu Douglass played his two best games of the season starting Big 10 play. Also, freshmen Vogrich and Morris played really well against OSU. If the Wolverines can use this game to start a run, they’ll be bubble contenders all winter long.
Purdue remains my favorite to win.
Nothing has really changed my mind since preseason that the Boilermakers are the most talented, fundamentally sound combo in the league. Certainly picking apart previously unbeaten West Virginia on New Year’s Day helped proved why this team should be the favorite. I factor Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State as going 1-2-3 with Ohio State a team I would plunge right into the mix if not for the Turner injury which apparently is going to bury them too far back in the standings to contend. But, beware of the Buckeyes in March.
Speaking of March, how many bids will the league get? Right now bracketologists are projecting just five, with those bullish on Northwestern the ones doling out as many six right now. I think six is the floor and seven is the ceiling. Purdue, Wisconsin, MSU, OSU and Minnesota will be in and it’ll be up to Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan to make a charge and get themselves into the mix for the sixth and possibly seventh spot over the next two months.