- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the conference season set to get underway on Tuesday night, let's take a look at what's in store for the Big Ten.
The favorite: The Big Fella seems healthy. And with Jared Sullinger in the lineup, Ohio State might be the best team in America -- see November smashing of Duke -- and not only the Big Ten. Plus, William Buford, Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas compose one of the best supporting casts in the country. Their ability to hold teams to 55.2 points per game, No. 2 in the Big Ten, starts with Craft's on-the-ball pressure. He's averaging 2.8 steals per game and is probably the best perimeter defender in the country. Other teams in the Big Ten possess talent in spots, but the Buckeyes are balanced and skilled at every position. Buford would be the top player on most Big Ten teams. He's arguably No. 3 for the Buckeyes, though. A healthy Ohio State will own the league.
Other contenders: Indiana has the frontcourt potential to battle the Buckeyes and crash the league's race. The Hoosiers outplayed No. 1 Kentucky on their best day. And freshman center Cody Zeller (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is IU's antidote to Sullinger.
But the Hoosiers are not alone. Michigan State, winner of 11 straight, is holding teams to a 37 percent shooting from the field. And finally, finally, Draymond Green (15.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.5 apg) is playing up to his potential. But is he doing too much for the Spartans? Green will need more help in league competition. Good thing Branden Dawson is stepping up at the right time.
Wisconsin can silence offenses (44.7 points allowed per game), but the Badgers need The Real Jordan Taylor (32 percent from the 3-point line) to emerge if they're going to compete for the Big Ten title, especially because offensive droughts crushed Wisconsin in the postseason in 2010-11.
Michigan can stretch the floor with its 3-point shooting (37 percent), and freshman Trey Burke is a young star, but his turnovers (2.8 per game) could kill the Wolverines' season. And Illinois is harnessing a growing beast in Meyers Leonard (13.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg). The Illini were better than a solid Gonzaga squad on Dec. 3, but they disappeared in a loss against UNLV days later. So which team are they? They'll find out soon enough. And Robbie Hummel (17.5 ppg) is back. With him, the Boilermakers came within three points of beating a full-strength Xavier team on the road. Can't count them out.
Player of the year (so far): Sullinger has lived up to the hype. He scored 21 points during a lopsided victory over Duke. He put up 16 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists against Florida. It's not just his scoring and rebounding that make him the midseason player of the year. He's constantly drawing defenders away from teammates and creating scoring opportunities simply because he's on the floor. Despite the pressure, he's in the Big Ten's top five in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. Injuries held him out of two games and for a chunk of a third. The Buckeyes lost to Kansas without him. But that was just more proof that a healthy Sullinger is the league's top player.
Freshman of the year (so far): Trey Burke recorded 14 points and four assists in a win over Memphis in the Maui Invitational and dropped 17 points and nine dimes against Duke the next night. That was his introduction. But the freshman has been a consistent threat throughout the nonconference season. The Wolverines lost Darius Morris to the NBA, but Burke has filled the void and preserved Michigan's chances of competing for the Big Ten title. He's that good.
Other contenders: Cody Zeller, Branden Dawson, Aaron White
Wins to brag about: Indiana over Kentucky; Wisconsin over UNLV; Michigan over Memphis; Ohio State over Duke; Ohio State over Florida; Illinois over Gonzaga, Michigan State over Gonzaga
Losses that sting: Dayton over Minnesota; Butler over Purdue; UNLV over Illinois; Campbell over Iowa; Wake Forest over Nebraska; Lafayette over Penn State; Marquette over Wisconsin
Pleasant surprises: Draymond Green is playing like an All-American for the rolling Spartans. Indiana was tougher than Kentucky down the stretch, and that's why the Hoosiers are going to make a push for the conference title. How many players could bounce back physically and mentally the way that Robbie Hummel has for the Boilermakers? Trey Burke is a better fit for Michigan's offense than Darius Morris was. It's scary that the Buckeyes nearly knocked off a nationally ranked Kansas team without Sullinger. Minnesota lost Trevor Mbakwe, its best player, seven games into the season, but somehow, the Gophers haven't lost since. Cody Zeller has finesse, so that must run in the family. Tom Crean is a motivator, but the final minutes of his team's win over Kentucky proved that he's an underrated X's and O's guy, too. Aaron Craft has matured into America's best all-around point guard.
Biggest disappointments: That last-second loss to Butler might really hurt the Boilermakers on Selection Sunday. Fran McCaffery's rebuilding project is going to take some time, judging by Iowa's slow start. Jordan Taylor is shooting 32 percent from beyond the arc a season after shooting 43 percent. Bo Ryan's team can lock up opponents, but like the end of last season, you have to wonder whether the Badgers can score enough to compete for the conference title. Branden Dawson is surging, but what's with seven single-digit efforts for the high school All-American? The Boilermakers are shooting 62 percent from the charity stripe. The Buckeyes are connecting on 33 percent of their 3-point attempts. Penn State is scoring a Big Ten-worst 64 points per game despite its No. 250 strength of schedule ranking.
Can the Buckeyes win the Big Ten without a healthy Sullinger?
Maybe. If the foot and back injuries that hampered Sullinger during the nonconference slate return, the Buckeyes may have to play stretches without him. With Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and William Buford, they're equipped to handle most teams if he has to miss time. But their limited depth inside will become a major problem if Sullinger misses multiple conference games. They can manage without him, but they're not the league's best team if he's off the floor for long stretches.
Is Indiana for real?
Yep. The Hoosiers beat a Kentucky team that possesses as much talent as any squad in America. They have the league's top scoring offense, and they're shooting 51 percent from the field. Cody Zeller is going to become a very popular player soon, just like his coach. Indiana is legit, and the Hoosiers will prove it in Big Ten play.
What's the "must-have" element in the Big Ten?
Size. Everything in this league starts inside. That's why Draymond Green, Jared Sullinger, Meyers Leonard, Cody Zeller and Jared Berggren are the most important players on their respective rosters. And it's also the reason that the teams that lack an inside threat -- I'm talking to you, Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota -- enter league play at a disadvantage. It's going to get feisty in the paint this year, just like every other season in the rugged Big Ten.
1. Ohio State: Sullinger is healthy, so the Buckeyes are the league's best team.
2. Michigan State: Tom Izzo's squad is clicking at the right time.
3. Indiana: Tom Crean is about to complete the best turnaround in the nation.
4. Wisconsin: They can stop teams, but Badgers' offense could become a problem.
5. Illinois: Meyers Leonard will be a handful for the rest of the league.
6. Michigan: Trey Burke can lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament.
7. Purdue: Robbie Hummel is a monster right now.
8. Minnesota: A young team will take its licks but continue to improve.
9. Northwestern: Wildcats aren't bad, just competing in a deep league.
10. Nebraska: Get ready to say, "If only Bo Spencer had more help" a lot this season.
11. Penn State: It's going to get rough in State College, Pa., this season.
12. Iowa: Looks like McCaffery will have to deal with another rebuilding season.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN
With the conference season set to get under way, Myron Medcalf takes a look at what's in store for the Big Ten.