College basketball's early season conference review: Big Ten

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College basketball league play is nearing. Here is where the Big Ten stands so far.

<p> The Big Ten looks to be the deepest league in the country as Illinois and Minnesota have joined Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State as top contenders.</p>

Entering the season, Athlon ranked the Big Ten the nation’s top conference.

Despite a loss by its top team Saturday, the league has done nothing to change that notion. If anything, the league looks more formidable than we projected.

Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State all checked into our top 20 in the preseason, but that crowd is bigger with undefeated Illinois in the mix as well as surprising Minnesota. With leagues like the Big 12 and SEC experiencing down years, the question for the coming months is how many teams the Big Ten could send to the NCAA Tournament.

As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon has examined the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.

Here’s our look at the scene so far in the Big Ten.

EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: BIG TEN
Other conferences: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Non-Big Six

Illinois guard Brandon Paul

Surprise team: Illinois
In the final seasons under Bruce Weber, Illinois had a tendency to raise expectations only to fade during the season. John Groce’s first team is doing the opposite. Athlon picked Illinois eighth in the Big Ten, but now the Illini are one of eight undefeated teams. Brandon Paul (18.8 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists) is in contention for Big Ten player of the year. Groce is allowing his star guard to play with more freedom. How this plays out over the course of the season will be an intriguing storyline, but Illinois has already proven it will be a contender in the nation’s deepest conference.

Disappointing team: Wisconsin
The Badgers have never finished lower than fourth in the Big Ten in 11 seasons under Bo Ryan. That’s going to be put to the test this season. The voids left by the departure of Jordan Taylor and the injury to Josh Gasser has cut into the Badgers’ playmaking abilities. The Badgers may be a postseason team again, but cracking the top part of a Big Ten that includes Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and now Illinois and Minnesota seems like too tall an order.

Where’d he come from? Victor Oladipo, Indiana
A year ago, Oladipo was known more as a ferocious defender who could get to the rim. Though he’s still playing that role, his efficiency numbers have been markedly improved, making him one of Indiana’s top players. Taking roughly the same amount of shots as last season, Oladipo is has improved from 47.1 percent shooting to 65.8. His true shooting percentage (which gives added weight to 3-point shots and includes free throws) has improved from 55.3 percent to 69.6. And he remains just as effective a dunker and defensive pest.

Where’d he go? Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
Minnesota has been one of the Big Ten’s pleasant surprises without Mbakwe at full strength, so it will be interesting if he continues his recovery from a torn ACL. For now, Mbakwe has been coming off the bench for 18.5 minutes per game. He’s played more the last two weeks and grabbed 18 rebounds against North Dakota State. Thanks to Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams, Minnesota has thrived despite modest contributions from Mbakwe, who is an All-America-caliber player when healthy.

Key stat: Michigan is no longer 3-point dependent
The Wolverines are scoring 53.7 percent of their points off two-pointers, compared to 47.3 percent a year ago. Under John Beilein, Michigan has never scored more than 50 percent of the their points off two-point field goals. Michigan still has a small lineup with 6-foot-6 freshman Glenn Robinson III starting at power forward, but it’s less dependent on the perimeter, which may pay dividends down the stretch.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY

Indiana guard Victor Oladipo

Indiana on the road. Athlon picked Indiana to win the national title in the preseason, so we believe the Hoosiers will solve last season’s road woes. Indiana went 3-6 in Big Ten road games last season, and the Hoosiers have yet to play a true road game this year. Indiana may wait until February to have a truly stout test in an opponent’s gym. The Hoosiers will visit Illinois, Ohio State,  Michigan State and Minnesota in February before finishing the regular season at Michigan.

Can Michigan State solve its turnover woes? Michigan State is one of the worst teams in the Big Ten in terms of turnovers, coughing up the ball on 22.7 percent of its possessions. The Spartans are last in the Big Ten in turnover by a pretty wide margin (minus-1.5 per game) and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Michigan State could be among the top contenders in the Big Ten if it can be more secure with the ball. Despite this deficiency. Michigan State is 10-2 with a win over Kansas this season.

Can Illinois keep this up all season? Illinois was here just last season, winning its first 10 games before finishing on a 7-15 slide. Brandon Paul has been the top guy all season, either leading or tying for the team lead in scoring in all but two games this season, but the Illini may need others to take some of the burden off his shoulders. Illinois has had a couple of close calls, but the Illinois sandwiched the Maui Invitational title in between. Illinois won by one at Hawaii in overtime two days before the Maui Invitational, and defeated Gardner-Webb by only one point four days after returning from Hawaii.

BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS

Player of the year watch
Cody Zeller, Indiana
Trey Burke, Michigan
Brandon Paul, Illinois
Freshman of the year watch
Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Coach of the year watch
John Beilein, Michigan
Tubby Smith, Minnesota
John Groce, Illinois

1. Michigan (11-0)
The Wolverines had a standout signing class, but one of the least-heralded incoming freshmen has been Michigan’s best. Nike Stauskas is averaging 13.2 points per game and is a 90 percent free throw shooter.

2. Indiana (10-1)
Hoosiers will bounce back from overtime loss to Butler. Indiana has five players averaging double-figure scoring per game.

3. Ohio State (9-1)
Aside from a 73-68 loss at Duke, Ohio State has played only one other team with a winning record (9-2 Albany) and one other team from a major conference (Washington). That changes against Kansas on Saturday.

4. Illinois (12-0)
The Illini’s great start in non-conference play will have one more test at Missouri on Saturday. Illinois has lost the last three in the series.

5. Michigan State (10-2)
Keith Appling is still working into his role of being the Spartans’ go-to guy. Michigan State gets Texas before opening Big Ten play on the road at Minnesota on New Year’s Eve.

6. Minnesota (11-1)
The hot finish through the NIT was no fluke. The Gophers lost big to Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis but continued with wins over Memphis and Stanford then road wins at Florida State and USC.

7. Iowa (10-2)
The Hawkeyes look capable of surprising teams in the Big Ten, but that opening conference slate is brutal: Indiana, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Northwestern, Wisconsin, at Ohio State.

8. Wisconsin (7-4)
Huh? Three-point specialist Ben Brust is sixth in the Big Ten in rebounding (7.4 per game).

9. Northwestern (8-3)
Leading scorer Reggie Hearn may be one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. The Wildcats need more of that with Drew Crawford out for the season.

10. Nebraska (7-3)
Cornhuskers scored 80 points combined in two-game swing against Creighton and Oregon. Welcome to Nebraska basketball, Tim Miles.

11. Purdue (5-6)
We thought it would be a rebuilding year in West Lafayette, and it is. Boilermakers have played tough schedule, but a 47-44 loss to Eastern Michigan is the pinnacle of ugly basketball.

12. Penn State (6-4)
D.J. Newbill is playing well, but the Nittany Lions are going to struggle to win games in the Big Ten with Tim Frazier out for the year.

CBK Conferences: 

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