Northwestern could be an elite member of the Big Ten

There are no games for a few days as teams take off for the
holidays. Happy holidays to everyone. This is the second in a series of
conference previews for each of the 4 conferences that the 5 Chicago
College Basketball teams play in. Thursday was the Big East, Sunday I'll look at the Horizon League and Monday it's the Great West.

The Big Te(leve)n is one of the best conferences in college basketball this season. It is deep and competitive and there aren't going to be very many easy games. Is it the best? Well, that's certainly up for debate, but for now the answer is probably no.

The conference does have nine teams that are still thinking about playing in the NCAA Tournament come March. Seven of those seem very realistic at the moment. On the other hand, Penn State and Michigan will have to take big strides during conference play to get into the dance.

Part of the story early this season has been the loss of superstars to injury. Northwestern lost Kevin Coble before the season even began, Purdue lost defensive stopper Chris Kramer and Ohio State lost Evan Turner to a back injury.

The bottom two teams in the league, Indiana and Iowa are on a different level than the rest of the Big Ten. They're not ready to compete, though the Hoosiers might be only a year or two away, whereas the Hawkeyes fans must be wondering what happened.

Full power rankings and predictions after the break.
 
1. Purdue - Being perfect at this point in the season is hard. Give respect to the Boilermakers who are 11-0 with victories over Tennessee, Wake Forest and Alabama. Most of the wins aren't that impressive, but besides the one against the Volunteers the games haven't been close. The loss of Kramer will be worth monitoring, but the defense has been excellent thus far this season. Last season Purdue sometimes had problems getting up for some of the lower ranked teams in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers can't let up this season.

2. Michigan State - Is this team still coached by Tom Izzo? That's what fans must be asking themselves as they see opponents like Texas and North Carolina running past the Spartans. Michigan State has one good victory thus far this season, against Gonzaga. This team might not be as good they've looked thus far this season. If there's a team that could slip during Big Ten play this is it.

3. Wisconsin - Bo Ryan is a genius. He lost a ton of players from last season's Badger team and has come back with a team that is better than ever. Besides Trevon Hughes though this is a young team. That showed in Wisconsin's only true road game of the season at instate rival Green Bay. A stretch in conference from January 3 to January 16 that includes 4 road games in 5 games could be rough.

4. Minnesota - This is a strange team. The Gophers lost players that were expected to contribute before the season even began. Then they suffered a three-game losing streak in the 76 Classic and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Miami and then everyone forgot about them. Quietly though Tubby Smith has been molding a team that is ready to compete with the big boys. The Gophers have rocked their last 5 opponents, winning by an average of 32 points per game. How will Minnesota respond when they have to play a close game? We probably won't find out until January 5 against Purdue.

5. Northwestern - This is not a hometown ranking in the last. In fact, you could make an arguement that Northwestern deserves to be third. Still, in an attempt to temper expectations a bit I've ranked the Wildcats here. Northwestern has good victories over Notre Dame, Stanford, North Carolina State and Iowa State. The thing that worries me is that the Wildcats have only played one Top 50 Pomeroy team, Butler, and they looked absolutely out of place at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Maybe it was just the shock of losing Coble, but Northwestern will be facing some tough competition early against Illinois and Michigan State. We'll learn everything we need to know pretty fast.

6. Illinois - This is a young, but very talented Illini team. Bruce Weber has his young team playing very well on offense. Sometimes the defense slips though and it's led to head-shaking losses to Bradley, Utah and Georgia. Expect Illinois to continue to be up-and-down as its youth dictates how the season goes. The two main guys are Chicago locals Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Junior guard Demetri McCamey needs to stay on the court to captain the ship.
 
7. Ohio State - This might be way too low for the Buckeyes. If Turner returns sooner than expected, he wants to be ready by January 9 to play at Minnesota, then Ohio State will be tough to beat. If he returns to play the Gophers Turner will have missed three conference games. The Buckeyes lost to their only decent competition since Turner's injury, Butler, so his return is imperative to their success.

8. Michigan - The Wolverines were expected to be one of the best teams in the country, let alone the Big Ten. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims were returning, the team had another season in John Belein's offense and things were looking up. Then Michigan went on what must've been the longest shooting slump in the history of college basketball. Is it really a slump or are the Wolverines just not a good shooting team? That's the big question. The Wolverines' best win is over Creighton on a netural court. They'll have to get the marquee wins in Big Ten play.

9. Penn State - This team is Taylor Battle and a bunch of guys that would be on the bench for most Big Ten teams. It is tough to make one superstar win every game. Will freshman step up, or are the Nittany Lions in for a long season in conference play? Probably the latter. If not it'll be because Bill Edwards and Tim Frazier have made incredible strides.
 
10. Indiana - This team can be competitive against anyone. The Hoosiers proved that with a victory over Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. This team can also lose to anyone. Indiana proved that its last time out at home against Loyola (MD). Tom Crean's team is going to pull off at least one big surprise this season during Big Ten play. Beware every team that heads to Bloomington.

11. Iowa - The Hawkeyes would struggle in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, let alone the Big Ten. Their has been a huge talent drain and Iowa has lost to every decent team it has played during the non-conference season. Not even Indiana is bad enough for Iowa to reasonably expect to pull an upset on the road. (Still, check that one out on January 24.) If an NCAA Tournament wannabe loses to Iowa it'll be seen as a BAD loss. The Hawkeyes though will find at least one win in conference.

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  • Great Big Ten coverage in the article, John. Notable correction on the Purdue comments, I believe Chris Kramer is not injured and has started in every Purdue game this year. PG Lewis Jackson was a projected starter this year that has been sidelined so far with an ankle injury. After reading your blog and getting myself up off the ground I did some checks to the JC Online and Indianapolis Star and no reports of any Kramer injury reported since Kramer started and played 12/22...

    With respect to the Jackson injury, the void so far has been filled with some solid play by freshmen Kelsey Barlow, and DJ Byrd.

  • Oh, shoot. I confused my Purdue guards. I could've sworn it was Kramer, but double-checking the stats it does appear that he's played in every game. That's not good for Juice Thompson. Kramer is quite the defensive player.

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