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Helwagen: Big Ten Basketball Primer

The Big Ten basketball season begins this afternoon with a pair of games on ESPN2.

Indiana's Cody Zeller, OSU's Deshaun Thomas and UM's Trey Burke all off to fast start

Minnesota will host Michigan State at 2 p.m. and Iowa hosts Indiana at 4 p.m. The rest of the league’s teams will get conference play under way on Wednesday.

The Big Ten has been the nation’s strongest conference to date in terms of RPI. The conference leads the way, followed by the Mountain West, Pac-12, Big East and the ACC. The Big Ten and ACC split their annual 12-game series of Challenge games down the middle at 6-6.

The conference boasts six of the nation’s top 20 teams with Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan State all ranked.

Those six teams are joined by Iowa in the latest NCAA Tournament bracketology by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm. He lists Michigan as a one seed, followed by Indiana (two), Minnesota (three), Illinois (three), Michigan State (four), Ohio State (five) and Iowa (12).

Big Ten teams were busy during the nonconference schedule. Illinois won three games in three days to claim the Maui Invitational title. Indiana won the Legends Classic, Michigan won the NIT Season Tip-Off event and Ohio State won the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic.

Everything in the conference will build toward the Big Ten tournament, scheduled for March 14-17 at Chicago’s United Center. The Windy City hosts the tournament for the first time since 2007.

On Sunday, Bucknuts.com columnist Lee Caryer filed this column on which teams have the hardest and easiest Big Ten schedules.

Below we have a look at the 12 Big Ten basketball teams headed into conference play, listed in order of their overall records with thoughts on how each could fare:

Michigan (13-0)

* Human Poll Rankings: Second in AP poll, second in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: Second in RPI, fourth in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 13th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (4): N.C. State (4), Western Michigan (50), Pittsburgh (57), Kansas State (73).

* Losses (0): None

* Top Scorers: G Trey Burke (17.8 ppg, 7.4 apg), G-F Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), G Nik Stauskas (13.8 ppg), F Glenn Robinson III (12.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

* Steve Says: Michigan is one of four remaining unbeaten teams nationally, joined by Duke, Wyoming and Arizona. The Wolverines are off to the second-best start in school history. John Beilein has won a lot of games with rosters with teams much less talented than this one.

Burke, in particular, has stepped forward and played like one of the nation’s very best point guards so far this year. He decided to stay in school and that decision has and will pay huge dividends for both he and the Wolverines. Burke and Hardaway form one of the nation’s best backcourts. UM’s three stellar freshmen, Stauskas, Robinson and post Mitch McGary, have already mixed in as major contributors. Stauskas is already among the top three-point threats nationally.

On paper, the Big Ten title and tournament could and should come down to Indiana and Michigan. Their two games during the regular season (Feb. 2 and March 10) will be must-see events. The NCAA Tournament has been unkind to Michigan in recent years, but if everything falls right this could be a Final Four team.

Illinois (13-1)

* Human Poll Rankings: 12th in AP poll, 15th in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 11th in RPI, 27th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 27th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (2): Butler (6), at Gonzaga (14).

* Losses (1): Missouri (33).

* Top Scorers: G Brandon Paul (18.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.6 apg), G Tracy Abrams (12.1 ppg),G D.J. Richardson (10.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg).

* Steve Says: Former Ohio State assistant and Ohio U. head coach John Groce and his Fighting Illini have been one of college basketball’s most pleasant surprises. They have put last year’s late-season collapse that cost Bruce Weber his job behind them. Paul, once known for his poor shot selection, has transformed into one of the country’s top guards.

The Illini caught a break by not having to play North Carolina in Maui, although they did beat Butler there (78-61). The lone loss was to No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis (82-73). Suffice to say, the Illini went from afterthought to NCAA Sweet 16 contender overnight. It will be interesting to see how they mix it up with the Big Ten elite over the next couple of months.

Indiana (12-1)

* Human Poll Rankings: Fifth in AP poll, fifth in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 19th in RPI, sixth in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 62nd

* Top-100 RPI Wins (3): North Carolina (24), Georgetown (33), North Dakota State (42).

* Losses (1): Butler (6).

* Top Scorers: C Cody Zeller (16.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg), G Victor Oladipo (13.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F Christian Watford (12.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg), G Will Sheehey (12.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G Jordan Hulls (11.8 ppg).

* Steve Says: The Hoosiers were the preseason No. 1 team nationally and, by and large, they have played like it. The lone loss was an overtime defeat at the hands of Butler in Indianapolis (88-86). IU has impressive wins over Georgetown (82-72) in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a home decimation of North Carolina (83-59).

In last week’s stats, Indiana led the Big Ten in scoring (89.1 ppg) and scoring margin (plus-29.8 ppg). This is the year that coach Tom Crean has been building for. He has the nation’s best roster from 1 to 10. Freshman PG Yogi Ferrell has worked out quite well. Zeller is everybody’s All-American at center, but he must continue to work on playing physically in the post.

Anything less than a trip to Atlanta for the Final Four would be a major disappointment for IU’s devoted/long suffering fanbase. But in the meantime, they should just enjoy the ride. I think IU has to be favored to win the Big Ten as well as the conference tournament.

Minnesota (12-1)

* Human Poll Rankings: 11th in AP poll, 14th in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 13th in RPI, eighth in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 29th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (4): North Dakota State (42), Stanford (65), South Dakota State (88), at Florida State (95).

* Losses (1): Duke (1).

* Top Scorers: F Rodney Williams (13.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg), G Andre Hollins (12.9 ppg), G Austin Hollins (10.5 ppg), G Joe Coleman (10.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), F Trevor Mbakwe (8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

* Steve Says: After rolling to the NIT championship game last March, Minnesota has picked right up where it left off. Mbakwe’s return from a knee injury has been overshadowed by the play of the surging Williams as well as the two guards named Hollins.

The Gophers knocked off Memphis in the Battle for Atlantis consolation game (84-75) and also win at Florida State (77-68) and at USC (71-57).

Minnesota is getting efficient guard play and Mbakwe is getting back to form in the paint. This is a team that will be tough to beat in its old barn (Williams Arena) and should be a factor in the conference race.

Iowa (11-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 63rd in RPI, 40th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 224th

* Top-100 RPI Wins: Iowa State (58), Western Kentucky (80).

* Losses (2): Wichita State (17), Virginia Tech (140).

* Top Scorers: F Roy Devyn Marble (15.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg), F Aaron White (13.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg), G Mike Gesell (9.4 ppg).

* Steve Says: Iowa had a tough loss at Virginia Tech (95-79), but the Hawkeyes held serve in their home state with wins over Iowa State (80-71) and Northern Iowa (80-73).

The Hawkeyes haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2006. But if they can go .500 or better in the Big Ten, Iowa should be dancing this March. Winning key home games – like today’s match-up with Indiana – would definitely help the cause.

Michigan State (11-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: 19th in AP poll, 19th in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 25th in RPI, 24th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 84th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (2): Kansas (3), Boise State (35).

* Losses (2): at Miami (Fla.) (15), Connecticut (23).

* Top Scorers: G Keith Appling (14.9 ppg, 4.1 apg), G Gary Harris (12.4 ppg), G Branden Dawson (9.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), F Derrick Nix (8.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg), C Adreian Payne (8.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg).

* Steve Says: Tom Izzo and the Spartans usually lay in the weeds during November and December. He was probably smiling all the way home from Germany after the season-opening loss to Connecticut (66-62) because he knew he could then coach his team. They responded by knocking off then-No. 7 Kansas in Atlanta (67-64).

MSU specializes in defense, holding opponents to a Big Ten-best 56.1 ppg so far this season. Appling is the ring leader at the point, while Harris has been a great find as a freshman. The only thing holding him back was a slight injury that cost him a couple of games. The inside game is solid with the beefy Nix and the lanky Payne.

The Spartans are a gritty bunch that will be hard to beat at the Breslin Center. They look like another MSU Sweet 16 team -- and maybe even better than that -- to me.

Ohio State (10-2)

* Human Poll Rankings: 10th in AP poll, 10th in USA Today coaches poll.

* Computer Poll Rankings: 47th in RPI, 15th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 124th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (1): Washington (90).

* Losses (2): at Duke (1), Kansas (3).

* Top Scorers: F Deshaun Thomas (19.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), G Lenzelle Smith Jr. (11.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), F LaQuinton Ross (9.6 ppg), G Aaron Craft (9.0 ppg, 4.8 apg).

* Steve Says: Ohio State was shortchanged a chance to open its season on a high note when its game against Marquette, scheduled outside on an aircraft carrier in South Carolina, was cancelled due to condensation on the court. The Buckeyes have played two top-50 opponents and lost to both, falling at Duke (73-68) and Kansas (74-66). OSU shot a woeful 31 percent in that Kansas loss, exposing a lack of offensive firepower beyond the explosive Thomas.

The Buckeyes need their four talented sophomores, Ross, Amir Williams, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson, to step up. Craft is finding life a little more difficult without Jared Sullinger to play off of. OSU used to run its offense through Sullinger in the post. Now, the Buckeyes don’t even throw it in there, so if the threes aren’t going it can get ugly in a hurry.

Thad Matta has led OSU to three straight Sweet 16s and last year’s Final Four. This team will have to pick it up to contend for a third straight Big Ten title and a chance to go at least that deep in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Nebraska (9-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 72nd in RPI, 144th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 66th

* Best Wins (1): Southern (93).

* Losses (4): Creighton (16), at Oregon (67), at UTEP (102), Kent State (163).

* Top Scorers: G Dylan Talley (13.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), F Brandon Ubel (13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg), G Ray Gallegos (13.0 ppg).

* Steve Says: First-year coach Tim Miles has done some nice things here considering his roster was a mess coming into the year.

Injuries put NU behind the 8-ball early last year and the Huskers were blown out both home and away in many of their Big Ten battles. They play three of their first four Big Ten games away at Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Maintaining confidence through that stretch will be key.

Talley and Ubel seem to be dependable pieces. There just isn’t enough around them to expect anything close to a .500 finish in Big Ten play.

Northwestern (9-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 113th in RPI, 80th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 94th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (2): at Baylor (38), Illinois State (48).

* Losses (4): Butler (6), Maryland (61), Stanford (65), Illinois-Chicago (68).

* Top Scorers: G Reggie Hearn (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), G Dave Sobolewski (11.3 ppg, 4.3 apg), F Jared Swopshire (8.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

* Steve Says: The Wildcats, never known for having a deep and talented roster, will work two men down without guard Jershon Cobb (suspended for the year) and Drew Crawford (out for the year with a shoulder injury after averaging over 11 ppg early on).

This team will go as far as Hearn and Sobolewski carry it. They will be tough to beat in their bandbox, Welsh-Ryan Arena, but I can’t see them many games on the road in the conference. And, no, NU’s NCAA Tournament drought of 0-for-forever is not in any danger this year.

Wisconsin (9-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 146th in RPI, 62nd in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 236th

* Top-100 RPI Wins (1): California (79).

* Losses (4): at Florida (10), Creighton (16), at Marquette (84), Virginia (158th).

* Top Scorers: F Jared Berggren (13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg), G Ben Brust (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), F Ryan Evans (11.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg), F Sam Dekker (9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg).

* Steve Says: The preseason injury to projected PG Josh Gasser cast a pall over this season and the Badgers still haven’t found an adequate replacement.

Berggren and Wilson get things done in the frontcourt and the Badgers will always be known for their oppressive defense (second in Big Ten at 56.8 ppg allowed this year). The Kohl Center is usually a cemetery for visiting teams, but UW has already lost to Virginia (60-54) there.

Wisconsin has been to every NCAA Tournament since 1998, but that string could be in jeopardy unless Bo Ryan can conjure up some magic.

Penn State (8-4)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 127th in RPI, 169th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 121st

* Top-100 RPI Wins (1): Bucknell (29).

* Losses (4): N.C. State (4), at LaSalle (49), Akron (104), Boston College (124).

* Top Scorers: G D.J. Newbill (15.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.9 apg), G Jermaine Marshall (14.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), F Ross Travis (7.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), F Brandon Taylor (7.3 ppg).

* Steve Says: Penn State’s season took an early turn when All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier (16 ppg) was lost for the year due to an injury. That means coach Patrick Chambers must rely on others.

Quite frankly, it will be a struggle for the Nittany Lions to stay out of the Big Ten basement without Frazier. The good news is he could redshirt and come back next year with an improved nucleus and make a run.

Purdue (6-6)

* Human Poll Rankings: Unranked

* Computer Poll Rankings: 184th in RPI, 134th in Sagarin.

* RPI Strength-Of-Schedule Ranking: 102nd

* Top-100 RPI Wins (0): None

* Losses (6): Bucknell (29), Notre Dame (69), Villanova (98), Xavier (99), at Eastern Michigan (168), Oregon State (211).

* Top Scorers: G Terone Johnson (12.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg), C A.J. Hammons (10.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G-F D.J. Byrd (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G Ronnie Johnson (8.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg).

* Steve Says: The enormous Hammons has been a nice get as a freshman. But the Boilers can’t seem to put the ball in the basket with any kind of consistency.

If the threes aren’t falling, it will be a long season in West Lafayette.

Summing Up

This is how I see the final order of finish:

Indiana – Assembly Hall will be rocking all season long
Michigan – Burke earns his stripes as All-American
Michigan State – Izzo fits these pieces together
Ohio State – Buckeyes will be more than respectable
Minnesota – Gophers tough at home, so-so on road
Illinois – Illini will go as far as Paul can carry them
Iowa – Marble, White lead resurgence in Iowa City
Wisconsin – It’s hard to watch but by season’s end will be effective
Northwestern – Tough break with Crawford injury
Purdue – Roster in transition in West Lafayette
Nebraska – Miles needs to get some players in new arena
Penn State – Frazier injury curtails the hope

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