Big Ten Basketball: 2011-2012 Preview
College basketball has been in full swing for over a month now, with some division in the conferences already shaping up. Non-conference play isn’t necessarily as important as conference play, but it can still have big implications on seeding come tournament time in March. So before Big Ten conference play kicks off in two weeks, let’s take a look at how the teams are shaping up, and if any surprises are in store as the season progresses.
Ohio State was the odds on favorite to win the conference this season, and with their current rank and #2, they probably have a good chance at winning the NCAA Tournament in March as well. But they’re not unbeatable, as Kansas has already proven. Which should give the other conference teams hope. Even the best can be toppled from their thrones. Look for OSU to keep putting up the wins all season long, but don’t be too surprised if they let their guard down along the way and slip up to a team or two in the conference (especially Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Michigan State).
Michigan State is a perennial powerhouse in the Big Ten, although last year they slipped a little from the top. So much so that they weren’t even ranked to begin the season. But, like always, Tom Izzo has put together a winning program that continues to stay right there in the heat of any basketball conversation. In fact, the Spartans have already fought their way up to a #21 ranking. How will they fare in conference play, though? Last year, they lost both games to Michigan, including a devastating loss at the Breslin Center. While Michigan is lacking Darius Morris this year, Trey Burke seems to be an adequate replacement thus far. Therefore, Michigan may still have its confidence going into this season’s games against their in-state rival. But if John Beilein is smart (and we know he is), then he won’t take the Spartans lightly at any point.
Illinois has really come out of the gate strong this year. They’ve always been a top contender in the Big Ten, but they’ve managed to begin the season undefeated through the first 11 games. That’s impressive, and changes the shape of the conference a bit. Of course, their real challenge will come when they face off against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin later in the season. But putting up an undefeated record through non-conference play (if they manage to continue that) will certainly go a long way to making other teams in the Big Ten think twice about how they’re going to set up their game plans.
An even bigger surprise, however, is Indiana, a team which has struggled in recent years, but seems to finally found their groove again. The Hoosiers have really made a statement early on in non-conference play, which has included a monster win over #1 Kentucky last weekend. Indiana could be the surprise contender for the Big Ten title in March. But to get there, the team will have to go through a very strong conference, and continue to play their A-game to the very end. I’m a Wolverine forever, but it would be pretty interesting to see the Hoosiers take the title. (Unless it comes down to Indiana and Michigan, in which case I hope the Hoosiers go down in flames.)
The Wolverines also surprised a little bit in the non-conference play this season. It’s been a long time since Michigan has started multiple seasons in the same stretch as a ranked team. That is fantastic if you’re a Wolverine fan and are just finally getting the bad taste of NCAA Tournament suspension out of your mouth. Under Beilein, the Wolverines have always played well in nonconference. It wasn’t until last season, though, that they really made a statement within the Big Ten, taking two wins against Michigan State, and beating Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan has already helped its Tournament case for March by beating #8 Memphis (a game that they were supposed to lose) in the Maui Invitational, and taking third place overall in that tournament (with the only loss being to the inevitable champion, Duke). The question remains, though, will the Wolverines be able to compete in the conference? Beilein really stresses the three-point shots, which is fine when you have guys who can make them often (like Tim Hardaway, Jr.). But threes can be so iffy, and making four out of nine is considered a good night. If Michigan wants to continue to compete, they’re going to eventually need to put together an inside game. Jordan Morgan has the potential, but he’s not quite there.
Big Ten Preview – Final Thoughts
I can’t wait to see how the season plays out, and hopefully watch good things happen for the Wolverines. There should be a lot of tough competition, a lot of fierce games, and a season full of surprises ‘til the very end. Expect a much more in-depth preview in the coming weeks, from one of our talented and knowledgeable writers.