Among the Big Ten’s title contenders, which one is best built for a deep March run?
Will point guard Trey Burke be the difference for Michigan when the tournaments begin?
Eamonn Brennan: You're really going to make me answer this, huh? Fine: Michigan. Er, Indiana. No, Michigan. No, Indiana. Why are you doing this to me? Here's the thing: Right now, the Wolverines look like the better team. Quite possibly, they are. They are athletic and versatile and incredibly good on the offensive end, and they're led by the best point guard in the country in Trey Burke, who reminds of the cool confidence of Chris Paul more and more every time I watch him play. But Michigan is still just the 39th-best defense in the country, per KenPom.com, and traditionally that kind of D makes it hard to make a deep tournament run. Meanwhile, IU is not only playing top-five offense, but top-15 defense, too. But the Hoosiers have recently allowed a score of opponents to crawl back into games, and have shown themselves not only vulnerable, but even rattled, down the stretch at home and on the road. My head tells me the answer to this question is Indiana. My gut tells me Michigan. Does one of them have to be wrong?
How many losses will the Big Ten champion have -- and who will be that champion?
Myron Medcalf: The Big Ten is the most competitive conference in America. Just check out the past week’s sequence of events. Wisconsin won at Indiana and then lost at Iowa. The Hawkeyes followed that victory with a 72-63 loss at Ohio State. At one point, Iowa was down by 23 points in that game. There’s so much quality and parity in this league that I can’t see the eventual champ earning the Big Ten title without four losses. I think 14-4 will win the conference. With everything that’s transpired, it’s difficult to envision the schools with one loss (Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) escaping with fewer than three more losses in conference play, because the next tier (Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin) has already knocked off every team in that group.
As for the second question, I believe Michigan will ultimately win the championship for reasons that aren’t all quantifiable. Yes, the Wolverines are first in adjusted offensive efficiency and 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. But they also have the best player in the country, Trey Burke, running the show. He’s going to lead them to the title by elevating his play in UM’s toughest games. But I’d like 24 hours to reconsider this choice.
What have you been most surprised by in the Big Ten this season?
Andy Katz: I knew Michigan had the potential to be an elite team, but had no idea the Wolverines had the makeup to win the national title. The backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. is truly exceptional. This duo can definitely lead the Wolverines to the title if they get the right amount of help from the post. Freshman Mitch McGary is getting to be more effective with each passing game. Michigan has also fully bought into John Beilein's system. He truly is enjoying this team, maybe as much as if not more than any other he has coached. You can tell how much he can't wait to teach them the nuances of his system, enhance their fundamentals and tinker during the game to ensure a victory.
Will Illinois turn it back around, or was the first month a bit fluky?
Scott Powers: Illinois has been like a knuckleball this season. At times, the Illini have been untouchable -- in blowouts against Butler and Ohio State and a rare win at Gonzaga. Other times, the Illini have been knocked around no matter the opponent. I believe somewhere in the middle the true Illinois team lies. The Illini are tough when they shoot well outside, and they possess some individual talent, but their rebounding is shaky and their depth is minimal at some positions. They’re not a top-tier Big Ten team, but they also aren’t a bottom-tier one. They’ve undoubtedly dug themselves a hole with a 2-4 start in conference play, and it doesn’t help that their next two games are hosting Michigan and at Michigan State. Yet in the end, I predict Illinois will turn itself around just enough to finish .500 in the conference and put itself in the NCAA tournament discussion.