- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before the Big Ten season kicks off in grand fashion with an ESPN2 doubleheader Monday (Michigan State-Minnesota at 2 ET, Indiana-Iowa at 4 ET), let's take a post-nonconference look around the league, and reset our expectations for what's to come. (I am excited. Are you excited? Because you should be excited.)
The favorite: Indiana. You can make the argument for Michigan, and I hear you -- the Wolverines are undefeated, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. might be the the country's most dynamic backcourt, and the freshmen (Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary) are playing like anything but. If you asked me this question 10 times, I'd probably say Michigan four times out of 10. If you disagree, I have no quarrel. You might even be able to convince me.
But I can't go all the way. I can't ditch Indiana, even after the slightly disconcerting loss to Butler. Why? Because random losses happen in college basketball, and Butler is good (and pretty well-coached, in case you hadn't heard), and the Hoosiers have been the best per-possession team in the league by a rather healthy margin to date. Tom Crean boasts the nation's best and most balanced offense -- Jordan Hulls, Yogi Ferrell, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Remy Abell and, oh yeah, Cody Zeller all move the ball, fly down the court and score efficiently -- and last season's issues on the defensive end have been considerably improved.
Yes, the Hoosiers will take their lumps in this loaded Big Ten this season. Yes, they have their warts. But they are still the odds-on favorite to win the league, and one of three or four clear national title favorites, warts and all.
Other contenders: This league isn't the nation's best this season because Indiana is some unchecked power, or because the Wolverines and Hoosiers will wage some two-team clash atop the league. Quite the contrary. The Big Ten has at least six teams you would consider legitimate contenders to win the regular season title:
Indiana, which we've covered already.
Michigan. The Wolverines will score and then some; in Burke, Hardaway, Jr., Robinson, Stauskas, McGary and forward Jordan Morgan, they have weapons galore, and they are conventional, athletic weapons, the kind Beilein has rarely had the luxury of coaching in his career. He has adjusted his style brilliantly and, well, good luck stopping UM. But defense is still a valid question. In the past 10 years, at both Michigan and West Virginia, John Beilein has never coached a team ranked in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency. His teams have always been decent defensively, but never elite, and have often relied more on tricky 1-3-1 trap zones. Thus far this season, Michigan ranks No. 24 in the country, allowing opponents just .888 points per possession. If this keeps up, the Wolverines aren't just a Big Ten contender. They're a very real national title threat.
Minnesota. Provided guard Andre Hollins hasn't decided to go completely bonkers on the basketball court -- and he will do that from time to time -- the Gophers don't overwhelm you with individual talent. But the collective is much more impressive. Rodney Williams is an athletic freak. Trevor Mbakwe -- who just earned his way back into the starting lineup after a rocky offseason -- is the league's oldest player and best rebounder. Both Andre and Austin Hollins are efficient in the backcourt. And Tubby Smith has a nice core of bench and role players to plug and play based on matchups. Minnesota rebounds nearly 50 percent of its offensive misses, the most of any team in the country, and it bruises and batter opposing defenses in the low block with all that size and strength. Do not sleep on this team. You've been forewarned.
Illinois. It is impossible to say enough about what Illinois coach John Groce has done in his first half-season in Champaign. In the matter of a few months, he transformed senior guard Brandon Paul from an inefficient gunner to an All-American, totally revamped not only Illinois' style but its overall approach, made a team of little-used role players into one of the scariest offensive squads in the country, won the Maui Invitational and beat Gonzaga at Gonzaga, and almost single-handedly revived one of the nation's best fan bases out of its previously depressed stupor. Will the Illini -- who live and die by the 3, in every sense of the cliché -- be able to sustain this pace? Maybe not, but I won't bet against them.
Ohio State. Will the Buckeyes find a second go-to offensive player? Do they need one? Is the efficient, versatile brilliance of Deshaun Thomas enough, provided the Buckeyes play sound defense and rebound the basketball on the other end? If the answer is no, what next? As you can see, there are some serious questions about this OSU team. There are also some serious reasons for optimism, among them the fact that Ohio State went toe-to-toe with national title favorite Duke for 40 minutes in Durham. But Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, LaQuinton Ross, Shannon Scott and a cast of talented but underwhelming post-Jared Sullinger characters must step up.
Michigan State. If you've actually watched MSU play this year -- save for maybe the early-season win against Kansas in Atlanta — you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. In other words, the Spartans are ugly. But they play great defense, they're big and versatile up front (Tom Izzo can use Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix together or, as he has come to prefer, use active tweener Branden Dawson at the 4), and the guard play of Keith Appling and Gary Harris is really intriguing. If they can cut down on turnovers just a bit, they can definitely win the league. It is Michigan State, after all.
Player of the year (so far): Trey Burke, Michigan. After a sterling freshman campaign, the Wolverines guard has only improved. He still scores, but he works much more effectively as an opportunistic facilitator; he picks his spots like a collegiate Chris Paul. His 17.4 points and 7.1 assists per game are only made more impressive when you see his offensive rating (130.3) and usage rate (27.2 percent), and when you see him whip defenses around with ball fakes and dribble penetration. With so many new options around him -- Hardaway in particular -- Burke is borderline unstoppable.
Other contenders: Brandon Paul, Illinois; Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State; Tim Hardaway, Michigan; Cody Zeller, Indiana; Jordan Hulls, Indiana; Victor Oladipo, Indiana; Aaron White, Iowa.
Freshman of the year (so far): Nik Stauskas, Michigan. Stauskas makes shots. This is what he does. So far this season, he has shot 69 3s, and made 39 of them, good for (carry the one) 56.5 percent from beyond the arc. (Those 34 makes are just one fewer than all of Stauskas' 2-point field goal attempts.) He has crazy, dare-I-say-Jimmer-esque range, and a little bit of swagger to go along with it, and he is one of those players that can hurt you in a huge way any time he's on the floor. And trust me: The Big Ten's coaches know all of this already.
Wins to brag about: Illinois at Gonzaga and over Butler; Michigan over Pittsburgh and NC State; Michigan State over Kansas; Minnesota over Memphis; Indiana over Georgetown; Northwestern at Baylor.
Losses that sting: Wisconsin to Virginia at home; Iowa at Virginia Tech; Purdue at Eastern Michigan; Penn State to BC at home; Nebraska to Kent State at home; Northwestern to UIC at home.
Pleasant surprises: Illinois heads this list; even if you thought the Illini would improve under a coach they hadn't quit on, you couldn't have pictured a 12-1 start. Minnesota's only loss came to Duke in the Bahamas. The Gophers then rebounded by beating Memphis and Stanford and then popping over to Florida State for a solid road win, and are 12-1 heading into conference play. Iowa swept both of its quality in-state foes, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and it's been a while since the Hawkeyes, now 11-2, have been in a position to do that.
Biggest disappointments: On a statistical basis, Wisconsin looks pretty much as it has in recent seasons, so it's a bit baffling to see the Badgers sitting at 8-4 before the start of Big Ten play. All four losses -- at Florida, versus Creighton, at home to Virginia and at Marquette -- are forgivable offenses, but they're nonetheless unlike Bo Ryan's program. And they put the team in an NCAA tournament bubble hole if it comes to that in March. Ohio State's losses to Kansas and Duke make sense; Kansas and Duke are really good. But it's clear the Buckeyes miss Sullinger 's interior work in a big way, and have yet to replace that core attribute of their recent success. The last two aren't disappointing in the typical underwhelming sense. Mostly, they're just sad: Northwestern guard Drew Crawford lost the rest of his season to a shoulder injury, and do-everything Penn State star Tim Frazier had his cut short before it even began. Both teams are left in a lurch as a result.
Three questions going forward
1. Can Illinois keep making shots?
It's been said ad nauseum, but the biggest secret to the Illini's success this season has been 3-point shooting. If it tails off -- and signs are that it already has, including last week's 8-for-32 performance in a loss to Missouri, the first of the season -- can the Illini adjust?
2. Is Wisconsin better than its record?
Ryan has never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten at Wisconsin. Predicting otherwise has become laughable. But after 12 games, UW does seem to have some issues, and in a league this tough, we might just see Ryan's remarkable streak of standings consistency come to an end.
3. Is Cody Zeller overrated?
The easy answer, of course, is no. The dude's really good. But he has been suspect on the defensive end thus far, and he was physically overpowered by Butler's Andrew Smith in Indiana's only loss of the season. If Zeller isn't an anchor on both ends of the floor, IU's flaws -- namely, defensive rebounding and physicality -- become vastly more noticeable.
1. Indiana: Takes more than a few losses in the Big Ten season, but emerges from the league better for the struggle.
2. Michigan: Pushes IU to the Big Ten title brink; it might even take a share. And it earns a No. 2 seed at worst in the process.
3. Minnesota: Physicality and experience define Tubby Smith's best Gophers team to date.
4. Ohio State: Isn't the dominant force of recent seasons, but Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Co. are still awfully tough to beat.
5. Michigan State: Defends like crazy and rebounds well, and Gary Harris emerges as a perimeter star.
6. Illinois: Doesn't stay this hot all season, as the rest of the league scouts John Groce and his staff. But an efficient Brandon Paul is still worth the price of admission.
7. Wisconsin: The Badgers are still a tournament team, even if a tougher Big Ten takes its toll.
8. Iowa: Also a tournament team, with a lot of young, intriguing players, and very tough to beat at home.
9. Northwestern: The loss of Drew Crawford is a downer, but Jared Swopshire and freshman Alex Olah give the Wildcats a plausible interior.
10. Purdue: The Boilermakers are young and pretty ugly on the offensive end, but they'll still be a bear in Mackey Arena.
11. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers, under Tim Miles' new management, are only better than Penn State thanks to Tim Frazier's injury.
12. Penn State: Tough season for the Nittany Lions, but energetic coach Pat Chambers will keep them playing hard.