Mar 8, 2012, 9:30 AM EDT
It isn’t exactly going out on a limb to say that the Big Ten is the strongest conference in the country this season.
What’s more debatable, however, is trying to figure out who, exactly, is the best team in the conference.
Heading into the season, the answer was simple: Ohio State. Not only were they returning the popular pick for National Player of the Year in Jared Sullinger, but they had a pair of all-conference guards in Aaron Craft and William Buford to offer as sidekicks. But as the season has worn on, its become clear that the Buckeyes are lacking some consistency to their supporting cast.
Midway through the season, Michigan State hopped up on into the favorite’s chair. They have gotten back to playing Tim Izzo basketball — defending, rebounding, out-muscling — and made a run to get into a commanding position at the top of the league. But after losing two straight games to close out the regular season and seeing star freshman Branden Dawson go down with a torn acl, all of a sudden Sparty looks beatable.
I like Michigan, but they don’t have the same amount of talent as the rest of the teams at the top of the league. And as good as Trey Burke has been, he’s a freshman going through his first-ever March Madness. Indiana has looked equal parts awesome and mediocre at different points in the season. Purdue doesn’t defend this season. Illinois has collapsed. Wisconsin has been very beatable.
What’s it all mean?
Well, this weekend in Indianapolis should be a lot of fun.
When: March 8th-March 11th
Final: March 11th, 3:30 p.m. CBS
Favorite: Ohio State
I’m going to pick the Buckeyes here for a couple of different reasons. First of all, their stars have been through the postseason before. They may have a young roster age-wise, but this group has experienced success in this setting. Second of all, having a defensive presence like Aaron Craft to hound ball-handlers all weekend is a good thing. Thirdly, I think that William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are going to have a big tournament. And, finally, Jared Sullinger. He’s one of the most dominant low-post presences in the country.
And if they lose?: Michigan State
I would have had the Spartans as the favorite, but I think the injury to Dawson is going to be costly. They still have Draymond Green, arguably the most versatile player in the country. There is size up front and capable players in the back court. But what Dawson brought to table no one else can. He’s a big, athletic small forward that crashes the glass and scores hustle points. He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and he certainly played a large role in why the Spartans turned this season around.
Other contenders?: This is where I’ll talk about Michigan. We all know about Burke already, but Michigan is more than just a one man show, especially when Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing the way he did in the last game of the regular season. Throw in the fact that everyone is a good-to-very good three-point threat, and the Wolverines can hang with anyone.
It is kind of hard to label anyone that has done what IU did this season a sleeper. That said, I think that the issues Indiana has defensively could end up biting them.
Deeper sleepers: Illinois has the talent, but talent only gets you so far. I find myself having a tough time putting any kind of faith into Wisconsin. And I think that Purdue is going to end up being overmatched inside. So I’ll take Northwestern, but mainly because I want to see John Shurna make the NCAA Tournament.
– John Shurna, Northwester: Shurna can flat out score the ball. He’s a perfect fit on the perimeter for what Bill Carmody wants to run.
– Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: Trust me, there is a reason he routinely sees double- and triple-teams.
– Draymond Green, Michigan State: Tim Duncan is the last high-major player to average 15 ppg, 10 rpg and 3 apg.
– Trey Burke, Michigan: I wonder if Thad Matta is regretting looking past the Columbus.
– Cody Zeller, Indiana: The freshman has been Indiana’s most important player.
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