Is the Big Ten the Best Conference?

Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.

Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.

Athlon's Mitch Light, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions in college basketball each week.

Follow us on twitter: @AthlonMitch / @AthlonRush / @AthlonBraden   

1. Which league do you think will end up being the best?

Mitch Light: The Big East has been very strong, but I still believe the Big Ten will be the best league in the country. The Big Ten has two Final Four-caliber teams in Michigan State and Ohio State and several other Sweet 16-type teams in Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin. I also think Northwestern will be an NCAA Tournament team. The Big East obviously has a lot of top-25-caliber teams as well, but there are more bad teams in the Big East than the Big Ten, which brings the league down a bit.

Nathan Rush: The Big Ten looks pretty tough right now. Michigan State and Tom Izzo are annual national title contenders. Ohio State is powerful with freshman big man Jared Sullinger and athletic wing William Buford leading the way. Purdue is not as good as it would be with a healthy Robbie Hummel, but the Boilermakers are a solid team with Sweet 16 potential. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are a well-coached overachievers. The conference is so deep, I almost left out Illinois, a team with plenty of upside.

Braden Gall: Despite its second straight win the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Big Ten is not the best league in college hoops. The ‘Beast’ conference is simply deeper than any basketball conference ever assembled. But it’s not just a numbers game. UConn beat Michigan State and Kentucky to win Maui. They were picked seventh in the BE. Notre Dame won the underrated Old Spice Classic. They were picked ninth in the preseason. Pitt won the 2K Classic. Georgetown won the Charleston Classic. Villanova and West Virginia were runners-up in the preseason NIT and Puerto Rico Tip-Off, respectively. Louisville, Cincinnati (both picked 10th or worse) and Syracuse are still unbeaten as well.

2. Name a team outside the current AP top 10 that could make the Final Four.

Mitch: I won’t include Georgetown because the Hoyas, currently ranked No. 16, likely will be in the top 10 next after their thrilling OT win at Missouri. How about Illinois? The Illini have a nice blend of experience and youth, and they have a senior point guard in Demetri McCamey who is playing the best ball of his career. This is clearly Bruce Weber’s best team since the 2005 Illini lost in the national title game.

Nathan: Texas is currently ranked No. 19 in the AP poll, but I think the Longhorns have the talent and chemistry to make a run to the Final Four. Rick Barnes’ team will lean heavily on a pair of freshmen in center Tristan Thompson and point guard Cory Joseph. But this is a unique duo. Thompson and Joseph play together on the Canadian Junior National Team and were teammates on a Findlay (Nev.) Prep team that won back-to-back ESPN RISE national titles and ended last year ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll. The winning track record of Thompson and Joseph — plus the surrounding talent of wing scorer Jordan Hamilton, senior forward Gary Johnson and point guards J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas — gives this Horns squad a chance to make a surprise run in March.

Braden: I would be willing to bet that at least one from outside the current top 10 will make the trip to Houston. The finalists for me were Villanova, Florida, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Gonzaga and Illinois. I am going with Nova though. I love Maalik Wayns, but he has some growing up to do — the sky is the limit though. Corey Fisher is a veteran guard who can run the team if need be. They have a humble, hard-working (very talented) big man in Mouphtaou Yarou. Sprinkle in names like Stokes, Armwood, Cheek and Pena and you have quite a deep rotation for the well-dressed Jay Wright. To top if off, most of this group was around for the Final Four run in ‘09.

3. Which current AP top 25 team is the most overrated?

Mitch: This might be a bit hypocritical, but I will go with UConn, who we have ranked No. 4 in the Athlon Sports top 25. UConn, ranked No. 7 in the AP, deserves its top-10 ranking based on its strong early season resume (wins over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky), but I’m not sure the Huskies are one of the 10 best teams in the nation. Kemba Walker has been brilliant, and Alex Oriakhi has been a beast down low, but this is not a roster loaded with talent. They could very well prove me wrong, but I would be surprised if this team remains in the top 10 all season.

Nathan: Just because John Calipari could walk a tightrope with an all freshman lineup at Memphis doesn’t mean that Josh Pastner should follow the same formula. After struggling to beat a one-win Arkansas State team, 78–71 in overtime, on Wednesday night, Pastner’s No. 15-ranked Tigers have a lot of work to do before being considered a lock for the Sweet 16 — as they were when Coach Cal ran the show.

Braden: Minnesota leap into the rankings was way too knee-jerk. They have a nice roster and an excellent coach — and two good wins over North Carolina and West Virginia. But Virginia just went into the Barn and beat them by eight, and watch out come Big Ten play. Their first two games are at Wisconsin and at Michigan State, followed by Indiana at home, at Ohio State and Purdue at home. A 2-3 record to start conference play might be the best they can hope for. My default answer will always be Kansas State, however, until proven otherwise. I am not a Frank Martin believer.

4. Name a team that impressed you during the holiday tournaments.

Mitch: Tennessee looked great against Villanova to win the NIT Season Tip-Off, but the Vols’ road to the finals (Belmont and Missouri State at home, and VCU in New York) wasn’t overly taxing. So I will go with Minnesota, which beat Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia in a four-day period to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Gophers are deep, athletic and have great size. They lost at home to Virginia in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but point guard Al Nolen was out — and this question was about play in a holiday tournament.

Nathan: Duke proved it belongs at No. 1 with a hard-fought 84–79 victory over Michigan State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Freshman point guard Kyrie Irving was particularly impressive with a line of 31 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots, while thriving in the type of leadership role not usually placed on the shoulders of a Coach K rookie. This Duke team could be better than last year’s national title winner — that’s impressive.

Braden: Notre Dame and Tennessee tied. After losing two of the best to ever suit up for the Irish in recent memory, Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody, Mike Brey’s bunch won the Old Spice Classic by beating a disciplined Wisconsin team, an athletic Georgia squad and Cal. Freshman Eric Atkins is contributing 26 minutes per game and distributing the ball well (3.3 apg). Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough offer veteran scoring, and Carleton Scott could emerge very quickly as a star — he leads team in rebounds (7.8) and blocks (2.1). The Vols were very impressive in their NIT tourney win. Melvin Goins played extraordinary defense, Tobias Harris supplies an consistent post threat ,and even Scotty Hopson is showing signs of maturity and growth as a rebounder, defender and leader.

5. Which score was the most surprising this week?

Mitch: Wisconsin 87, NC State 48. It was no surprise that Wisconsin won this game, especially since it was in Madison and the Wolfpack were playing without big man Tracy Smith. But there is no excuse for a team with as much talent as NC State — even if the better players are freshmen — to lose by 39 points. Wisconsin is good — but not that good.

Nathan: Central Florida took down Florida, 57–54, as Marcus Jordan — His Airness’ son — scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting. The win moves the Golden Knights to 6–0 and could drop the Gators out of the top 25 after many predicted coach Billy Donovan’s team would bounce back to contend for an SEC title this season. The win was especially sweet for first-year UCF coach Donnie Jones, who won two national titles during his 11 seasons as Donovan’s right-hand man in Gainesville.

Braden: Kansas 77, UCLA 76. Kansas is a top-5 team that is unbeaten, the favorite to win the conference and make a deep tournament run. UCLA has lost three straight, albeit to good teams, but is in more of a rebuilding mode. The Jayhawks needed a mass of confusion and an “interesting” foul with 0.7 seconds left to get the win. It was athletic wing Tyler Honeycutt’s coming out party as he went for 33 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks. If he could take better care of the ball, he could blossom into a Pac-10 P.O.Y candidate.

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