Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Big Ten Conference Play Starts Tonight

Well first off, I want to congratulate the University of Michigan Wolverines football team for winning the Capital One Bowl (formerly the Citrus Bowl) in Orlando yesterday, beating the virtual home team, the Florida Gators, 41-35. The win was a great way to send out Coach Lloyd Carr, whose retirement as head football coach begins today, and the senior class led by Jake Long, Mike Hart, Chad Henne, and Shawn Crable. There were many people out there who thought Florida would win by a couple touchdowns but as Michigan's defense showed today, if you pressure Tim Tebow, you can beat the Gators. Tebow is a great college quarterback and deserved the Heisman Trophy but despite what a lot of people think, he is still human. Michigan's victory should bring some much-deserved respect back to the Big Ten, a conference that has been criticized in recent years. As part of the almighty SEC, the Gators were put up on a pedestal and it was great to see them chomped back to size, if you will. Yes, Percy Harvin got his but the Wolverines were able to neutralize Andre Caldwell and Tim Tebow and then got huge performances on the offensive side of the football from Henne, Hart, Adrian Arrington, and "Super" Mario Manningham.

Now let's get back to basketball. We'll start by taking a look at the standings heading into conference play, which begins tonight with three games:

1. Michigan State (12-1)
2. Indiana (11-1)
T3. Minnesota (10-2)
T3. Wisconsin (10-2)
5. Ohio State (9-3)
6. Purdue (9-4)
7. Penn State (8-4)
8. Illinois (8-5)
9. Northwestern (5-4)
10. Iowa (7-6)
11. Michigan (4-8)

I would venture to say that at the end of the 18-game conference season, the standings will look pretty similar to this but with a few minor changes.

Michigan State and Indiana are head and shoulders above the rest of the Big Ten and will fight it out for the #1 seed in the conference tournament. Drew Neitzel (MSU) and Eric Gordon (IU) are the two best players in the league and both players have supporting casts that are more than capable of sharing the load.

The jury is still out on Minnesota, at least for me, because they haven't played anyone of note so far and I'm not sure how good they are yet. The decent teams they did play (Florida State and UNLV), they lost against. They returned a lot of players from last year's 9-22 team and have a much more accomplished coach in Tubby Smith, so we'll see what happens with the Golden Gophers.

Wisconsin should end up ahead of Minnesota this year and will battle with Purdue and Ohio State to finish third in the conference. The Badgers are finally getting the production they thought they would have last season, and even the year before, from their center, Brian Butch. Butch was the Big Ten Player of the Week for the week ending December 31 and is carrying the load with 13.6 ppg and 8.3 rpg. Trevon Hughes is putting up 15 points a night and there is a solid group of role players behind those two guys. Wisconsin almost never loses at home and I would expect that to continue in the conference season.

Purdue and Ohio State are two fairly young teams that should really make some noise next year when Neitzel, Gordon, and Butch have all left their respective schools. Matt Painter is a very talented, up-and-coming coach and has the Boilermakers on the right track and Thad Matta is simply reloading, not rebuilding, at OSU. He's got a big man in Kosta Koufos who has future All-American written all over him and it's a matter of how long he stays with the Buckeyes before moving on to the NBA.

This is a make-it or break-it type year for Penn State and coach Ed DeChellis. He has a surefire all-Big Ten player in Geary Claxton and another player, Jamelle Cornley, who has that kind of talent as well. Claxton is a senior and Cornley a junior and I could see him leaving school early, so PSU really has to get it done this year. These two players are big, strong, and physical; they rebound extremely well and are capable of going for 25 points on any given night. Danny Morrissey and Mike Walker can light it up from behind the arc when they're hot; but when they aren't, PSU is left without much of a perimeter presence. The Nittany Lions are in 7th right now; I can see them maybe pushing for 5th or 6th and I think they're a better team than Minnesota and maybe even Purdue as well.

Illinois have been very disappointing this season for me. This is a team that has a fortress for a home arena in Assembly Hall but have already lost there against Tennessee State and Miami (OH). They have quality experienced big men (a necessity in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten) in Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, a lightning-fast point guard in Chester Taylor, a lights-out three point shooter in Trent Meacham, but are still only 8-5. Depth is Bruce Weber's problem right now; he doesn't have any. He needs a couple players outside that starting five to really step and give him some big, productive minutes this year or else Illinois will be an NIT team at the end of the season.

As for the dregs of the Big Ten right now, I think the current bottom three will finish that way, just maybe not in that order. Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern all have their respective issues but the bottom line is that right now, they simply don't have the talent and depth to compete with the rest of the conference over an 18-game season. Each of these teams is capable of pulling off an upset or two during the year, particularly Michigan, but they can't maintain that level of play for the grueling two and a half months that is the Big Ten conference schedule. Out of these three teams, I'd say Michigan is the best and certainly has the most potential, but like I said, it could be a very long winter and early spring for the Wildcats, Wolverines, and Hawkeyes.

Tonight's conference openers should be OK; we've got Michigan-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Penn State, and Iowa-Indiana. The home team in each of these games is listed first; I'll take the visitors in two of the games and the host Wolverines to pull off the aforementioned upset in the other.

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