Big Ten Men's Basketball Primer

The Big Ten men’s basketball season gets under way tonight with two conference games, including the Big Ten debut of Nebraska.

Indiana's Cody Zeller, OSU's Jared Sullinger and MSU's Draymond Green

It has been a strong preconference schedule for the Big Ten, which leads all conferences across the country in RPI as well as winning percentage (.813). There are eight Big Ten teams in the top 55 in RPI. In terms of the human polls, the Big Ten matches the Big East with five teams in the top 20 of both the Associated Press poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

The Big Ten also continues to lead the nation in the Sagarin ratings this week with an average of 83.51. The Big Ten also leads all conferences with nine teams ranked in the top 55 of the Sagarin ratings.

In late November, the Big Ten won the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the third year in a row. Even more stunning, though, was the margin as the Big Ten won eight of the 12 games, led by Ohio State’s 85-63 blowout of then-No. 3 Duke.

Indiana, which has averaged just nine wins during coach Tom Crean’s first three seasons, remains the only conference unbeaten at 12-0. The Hoosiers, who upset then-No. 1 Kentucky 73-72 on Dec. 10 at Assembly Hall, are among six remaining unbeaten teams nationally. They are joined in that elite club by Syracuse, Louisville, Baylor, Missouri and Murray State.

The Big Ten leads all conferences with nine teams with 10 or more wins entering conference play.

All of this has given rise to speculation that the Big Ten could get as many as eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi predicted just that in his most recent Bracketology installment.

The league also boasts star power. Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan State's Draymond Green, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, Northwestern's John Shurna, Ohio State's William Buford, Aaron Craft and Jared Sullinger, Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor were named to the Wooden and Naismith award preseason watch lists.

Every Big Ten game the rest of the way will be televised nationally by either the Big Ten Network (now available in 80 million homes), ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or CBS.

The Big Ten schedule opens tonight as Illinois hosts Minnesota at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on BTN and Wisconsin visits Nebraska at 9 p.m. on ESPN2. BTN has a tripleheader Wednesday with Northwestern-Ohio State at 5:30 p.m., Indiana-Michigan State at 7:30 p.m. and Purdue-Iowa at 9:30 p.m. On Thursday, Michigan will host Penn State at 7:30 p.m. on BTN.

Play continues with four more games on Saturday (Dec. 31) and two on Sunday (Jan. 1).

During the 18-game conference schedule, teams will vie for seeding for the Big Ten tournament. The tournament will be held March 8-11 at the renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse (formerly Conseco Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis. This marks the fifth straight year the tournament has been held in Indianapolis. (It will return to Indy in 2014 and 2016 and will be played at the United Center in Chicago in 2013 and 2015.)

Keep in mind, with the addition of Nebraska as the Big Ten’s 12th team, only the top four teams at the end of the regular season will get first-round byes in the conference tournament. Teams that finish fifth though 12th will need to win four games in four days to secure the tourney title as well as the coveted automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

I have reshuffled my order of finish. Here is a look at where the Big Ten teams could finish at season’s end (RPI rankings courtesy of CBSSports.com):

1. Ohio State

* My Preseason Pick: First in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: 2nd in AP poll and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 23 RPI, 107 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: Third

* Record: 12-1

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Duke (2 RPI), Florida (33), Lamar (34).

* Losses: at Kansas (25).

* Players To Watch: Jared Sullinger (16.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Deshaun Thomas (15.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), William Buford (15.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.5 apg), Aaron Craft (8.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 2.8 spg).

* Steve Says: Ohio State has had to deal with back and foot injuries with its All-American Sullinger, who missed the lone loss at Kansas (78-67). Poll voters did not hold that defeat against OSU, though, keeping the Buckeyes right where they were in the No. 2 slot. Other than a road game at Indiana, the first half of the conference slate really sets up well for the Buckeyes. OSU is going for a third straight Big Ten title and also a third straight conference tournament title. It seemed like a shoe-in in the preseason and, provided Sullinger is fine, still looks like a strong possibility. Thomas’ emergence has some thinking he will be two-and-done, just like Sullinger will be. Craft is second in the conference in assists and first in steals.

2. Wisconsin

* My Preseason Pick: Second in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: 11th in AP poll and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 28 RPI, 57 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: Fourth

* Record: 11-2

* Top-75 RPI Wins: UNLV (7), BYU (61).

* Losses: Marquette (9), at North Carolina (14).

* Players To Watch: Jared Berggren (12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Jordan Taylor (12.2 ppg, 5.0 apg), Ben Brust (10.8 ppg), Ryan Evans (9.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg).

* Steve Says: Bo Ryan needed some new faces to step forward and, by and large, that has happened with the emergence of Berggren and Brust. The Badgers have excelled even as their star, Taylor, has struggled shooting the ball. He is only hitting 32 percent of his three-point shots after nailing 42.9 percent a year ago. The Badgers are going to be just fine. They will end up around 25 wins and will probably push Ohio State for the title. UW leads the Big Ten in scoring defense at 44.7 ppg. Opponents are shooting just 33.5 percent against the Badgers. Wow.

3. Michigan State

* My Preseason Pick: Third in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: 16th in AP poll and 17th in ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 17 RPI, 35 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 13th

* Record: 11-2

* Top-75 RPI Wins: at Gonzaga (11), Florida State (46).

* Losses: Duke (2), North Carolina (14).

* Players To Watch: Draymond Green (15.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Keith Appling (11.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg), Brandon Wood (10.3 ppg).

* Steve Says: As always, Michigan State was ambitious during the nonconference with trips to San Diego to face UNC, New York to play Duke and Spokane, Wash., to play Gonzaga. The Spartans were competitive in the losses to UNC and Duke and have been spotless ever since. Green, ninth in the conference in scoring and first in rebounding, is one of the most versatile players around. Appling has stepped into his role as a lead guard as a soph. Valparaiso transfer Wood has been a godsend, while freshman Branden Dawson (8.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) has lived up to some high expectations. The Spartans are well traveled and battle-tested headed into Big Ten play. They should be right there at the end.

4. Indiana

* My Preseason Pick: Eighth in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: 13th in AP poll and 15th in ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 51 RPI, 269 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: Fifth

* Record: 12-0

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Kentucky (24), at N.C. State (61).

* Losses: None.

* Players To Watch: Cody Zeller (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Victor Oladipo (12.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jordan Hulls (12.1 ppg, 3.6 apg), Christian Watford (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Will Sheehey (10.7 ppg).

* Steve Says: The Hoosiers are 12-0 for the first time since 1975-76, the year the Hoosiers ended the season with a perfect record. You could make a case for IU to be as high as second or third in Big Ten power rankings. The wins over Butler, N.C. State, Kentucky and Notre Dame are definitely nice. But the other eight wins are over teams ranked 200th and higher in RPI – more than any other Big Ten team. It is great to see Indiana competitive again, though. Zeller has been an instant smash and the missing piece for the Hoosiers, who have struggled inside since D.J. White left four years ago. Sheehey has been sidelined, but Crean has depth and balance. This has been a fun team to watch. They are going to repay some people in the Big Ten this year. IU leads the Big Ten in scoring at 84.8 points per game. They've won their first 12 games by an average of just over 25 points per game.

5. Michigan

* My Preseason Pick: Fourth in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: 18th in AP poll and 16th in ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 49 RPI, 101 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 49th

* Record: 10-2

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Iowa State (63), Memphis (67).

* Losses: Duke (2), at Virginia (31).

* Players To Watch: Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.4 ppg, 2.9 apg), Trey Burke (13.0 ppg, 5.0 apg), Evan Smotrycz (11.7 pppg, 6.7 rpg), Zack Novak (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

* Steve Says: Burke originally verbaled to Penn State, but switched and signed here. He has taken over for early NBA departee Darius Morris at point and has done a nice job as a freshman. Hardaway has taken the next step as a soph. Sophs Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan are holding their own in the paint. This is a young team that should get better as the season goes on. The loss at Virginia (70-58) was a blip. They need to hold serve at home and beat the teams they should beat on the road to finish in the top four and get a coveted first-round bye for the Big Ten tournament. Michigan still has a Jan. 21 date at Arkansas outside the conference.

6. Illinois

* My Preseason Pick: Ninth in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Receiving votes in AP poll and ESPN/USA Today coaches poll

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 53 RPI, 93 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 54th

* Record: 11-2

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Gonzaga (11).

* Losses: UNLV (7), Missouri (52).

* Players To Watch: D.J. Richardson (14.3 ppg), Meyers Leonard (13.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Brandon Paul (11.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Sam Maniscalco (10.6 ppg).

* Steve Says: I have Illinois sixth on this list, but I think spots six through nine are very tight. You could put Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota in a hat and draw them out in any order and not be too far off based on what we’ve seen. The Illini are doing better than I thought they would, given the fact they lost Demetri McCamey and three other key contributors. Richardson and Leonard have really stepped up. Maniscalco, a transfer from Bradley, has been a calming influence as well. They did well by winning at Maryland (71-62) and at home over Gonzaga (82-75). But a couple of neutral site losses to UNLV (64-48, in Chicago) and Missouri (78-74, in St. Louis) aren’t the way to build momentum heading into the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. If the Illini finish 9-9, though, they should be OK for the NCAA.

7. Northwestern

* My Preseason Pick: Sixth in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 37 RPI, 85 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 45th

* Record: 10-2

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Seton Hall (8), LSU (59).

* Losses: Baylor (10), at Creighton (13).

* Players To Watch: John Shurna (19.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.9 apg), Drew Crawford (18.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Luka Mirkovic (8.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg).

* Steve Says: Well, you want this to be the year that Northwestern finally makes the NCAA Tournament. But the Wildcats have already missed a chance or two to cement their case with a home loss to Baylor (69-41, no less) and a loss at Creighton (87-79). Shurna and Crawford are 1-2 in the Big Ten in scoring. My guess is that NU will probably go 7-2 (or maybe better) at home in the conference. If they can just win a few on the road (and they should), the Wildcats should finally reach The Big Dance.

8. Purdue

* My Preseason Pick: Fifth in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 70 RPI, 118 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 51st

* Record: 10-3

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Iona (19), Temple (26), Miami (Fla.) (56).

* Losses: Alabama (20), at Xavier (64), Butler (112).

* Players To Watch: Robbie Hummel (17.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Ryne Smith (11.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg), Lewis Jackson (10.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.2 apg), Kelsey Barlow (8.2 ppg, 4.4).

* Steve Says: Hummel, third in the conference in scoring, has returned to action after missing last season due to a knee injury. But it has not been a smooth transition without JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Something just doesn’t seem to be clicking for the Boilermakers. Smith is hitting 45.9 percent of his threes. Hummel, we know, is a great leader. Lewis sets the tone at the point. Matt Painter has made Purdue a consistent winner. He will have to work his magic, I think, for this team to finish near 9-9 in the Big Ten.

9. Minnesota

* My Preseason Pick: Seventh in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 17 RPI, 59 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 51st

* Record: 12-1

* Top-75 RPI Wins: Indiana State (45), Virginia Tech (55).

* Losses: Dayton (47).

* Players To Watch: Julian Welch (9.9 ppg), Rodney Williams (9.8 ppg), Austin Hollins (8.7 ppg), Ralph Sampson III (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

* Steve Says: Minnesota was off to a good start before losing star power forward Trevor Mbakwe (14.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg) to a season-ending knee injury in Game 7. Tubby Smith has depth and a lot of people contributing. The Gophers have hung in and beaten a raft of mid-level teams so far – everybody but Dayton that they’ve played. But how will they do against the upper echelon of the Big Ten? Still, this has to be the best ninth-place team in any conference.

10. Nebraska

* My Preseason Pick: 11th in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 105 RPI, 176 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 106th

* Record: 8-3

* Top-75 RPI Wins: None.

* Losses: at Creighton (13), Oregon (86), Wake Forest (100).

* Players To Watch: Bo Spencer (16.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.3 apg), Jorge Brian Diaz (10.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Toney McCray (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg), Dylan Talley (9.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

* Steve Says: Doc Sadler and the Huskers are ready for their baptism into the Big Ten. They got off to a nice start with a double overtime win at USC (64-61). But home losses to Oregon and Wake Forest and a loss at Creighton have clouded Nebraska’s long-term prognosis for this season. The Huskers have been an NIT fixture of late and, barring something unforeseen, that’s where they will be again this March. Spencer, an LSU transfer, has stepped in as the star of the team. Nebraska’s best wins are over South Dakota State (72 RPI) and TCU (74).

11. Iowa

* My Preseason Pick: 10th in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 162 RPI, 170 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 146th

* Record: 8-5

* Top-75 RPI Wins: None.

* Losses: at Northern Iowa (5), Creighton (13), at Iowa State (63), Campbell (171), Clemson (231).

* Players To Watch: Matt Gatens (14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Roy Devyn Marble (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), Melsahn Basabe (9.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Aaron White (9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

* Steve Says: Losing at home to Campbell (from the Big South) and to Clemson (just 7-6 overall) is not what Fran McCaffrey wants to be doing. This reclamation project is coming along very slowly. Marble has doubled his production and the 6-8 White has been a nice find as a freshman. Iowa’s best win is over Drake (99 RPI). Egads.

12. Penn State

* My Preseason Pick: 12th in Big Ten

* Current Rankings: Unranked

* RPI and Strength Of Schedule: 174 RPI, 241 SOS

* Sagarin Ranking: 172nd

* Record: 8-5

* Top-75 RPI Wins: None.

* Losses: at St. Joseph’s (22), Kentucky (24), Mississippi (41), at Duquesne (82), Lafayette (239).

* Players To Watch: Tim Frazier (17.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.2 apg), Jermaine Marshall (9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Cammeron Woodyard (8.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Billy Oliver (7.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg).

* Steve Says: Patrick Chambers is finding it tough and this was all expected after Talor Battle and three other starters departed after the Lions reached the NCAA last year. Frazier has been a one-man dynamo and is doing the best he can to keep PSU in games as a leader, scorer, rebounder, assist man and defender. Penn State has played seven teams ranked 200 or higher in the RPI. The Lions’ best win is over Long Island (138 RPI).

Games To Watch

Here are some games to watch in the Big Ten portion of the schedule:

Wisconsin at Nebraska, Dec. 27 (9 p.m., ESPN2) – The Huskers make their Big Ten debut against the Badgers.

Indiana at Michigan State, Dec. 28 (7:30 p.m., BTN) – We find out right away if the unbeaten Hoosiers can hold up on the road in the conference.

Ohio State at Indiana, Dec. 31 (6 p.m., ESPN2) – The second-ranked Buckeyes face a hostile environment at Assembly Hall, where IU has already toppled No. 1 Kentucky.

Michigan State at Wisconsin, Jan. 3 (7 p.m.) – Contenders meet right away at the Kohl Center.

Indiana at Wisconsin, Jan. 26 (9 p.m.) -- Can Crean's team pluck one off at the Kohl Center?

Ohio State at Wisconsin, Feb. 4 (2 p.m. ET on ESPN or ESPN2) – Wisconsin knocked off No. 1 OSU 71-67 last year at the Kohl Center.

Indiana at Purdue, Feb. 4 (7 p.m.) -- You know Crean would love to get the better of his instate rival, Purdue, at Mackey Arena and serve notice that IU is once again the top basketball school in the state.

Purdue at Ohio State, Feb. 7 (9 p.m.) – The Boilers and Buckeyes have had some barnburners in recent years.

Ohio State at Michigan, Feb. 18 (9 p.m. on ESPN) – College Game Day at Crisler Arena and it could be a big one for the Wolverines.

Ohio State at Michigan State, March 4 (TBA on CBS or ESPN) – The regular season finale could help decide the conference title.

Plans For The Big Dance

The 74th annual NCAA Tournament will be held this March. Here is a look at the sites:

First Round
• Dayton, Ohio, March 13 and 14 (University of Dayton, host)

Second and Third Rounds
• Albuquerque, N.M., March 15 and 17, The Pit (University of New Mexico, host)
• Louisville, Ky., March 15 and 17, KFC Yum! Center (University of Louisville, host)
• Pittsburgh, Pa., March 15 and 17, Consol Energy Center (Duquesne University, host)
• Portland, Ore., March 15 and 17, Rose Garden Arena (University of Oregon, host)
• Columbus, Ohio, March 16 and 18, Nationwide Arena (Ohio State University, host)
• Greensboro, N.C., March 16 and 18, Greensboro Coliseum (Atlantic Coast Conference, host)
• Nashville, Tenn., March 16 and 18, Bridgestone Arena (Ohio Valley Conference, host)
• Omaha, Neb., March 16 and 18, CenturyLink Center Omaha (Creighton University, host)

Regionals
• Boston, Mass., March 22 and 24, TD Garden (Boston College, host)
• Phoenix, Ariz., March 22 and 24, US Airways Center (Arizona State University, host)
• Atlanta, Ga., March 23 and 25, Georgia Dome (Georgia Institute of Technology, host)
• St. Louis, Mo., March 23 and 25, Edward Jones Dome (St. Louis University, host)

Final Four
• New Orleans, March 31 and April 2, Louisiana Superdome (Tulane University, host)

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