Cody Zeller, Trey Burke

Conference Catchup: Michigan, Indiana headline a loaded Big Ten

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Big Ten Conference Catchup:

Favorites: Michigan and Indiana

At this point, it’s almost impossible to delineate between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. They are unquestionably two of the top five teams in the country — alongside Duke, Louisville and Kansas (sorry, Syracuse and Arizona) — but, for the same reason that it’s tough to pick a title favorite out of that group, it’s tough to make a choice between the Hoosiers and the Wolverines. Both teams do things well. Both teams do some things poorly. Both teams have an all-american anchoring a roster full of talented role players, but neither team has the kind of talent that sets them apart from the rest of the pack.

Gun to my head, I’m picking Michigan to win the conference. Trey Burke has been that good, they have the kind of athleticism and versatility that is perfect in John Beilein’s system, and I think Indiana’s been bolstered by a weak non-conference resume. Then again, the Hoosiers are actually defending this season and have the nation’s best low-post scorer. Bottom-line: the season finale will be played between these two teams — March 10th at Michigan — and could end up being the best game of the year.

Contenders: I have a tough time seeing anyone other than Michigan or Indiana winning the league, but that’s not because of a lack of quality teams. Ohio State and Michigan State are probably going to end up being the Big Ten’s two biggest challengers, but based on the way that Illinois and Minnesota have played this season, it is impossible to count either team out.

Biggest Surprise: Brandon Paul, Illinois

We expected that Minnesota would be competitive this season, and while I doubt that anyone actually thought they could be a top 15 team at the turn of the year, their success is much less of a surprise than that of Illinois. The Illini look like they have fully bought into what John Groce is selling. A number of their wins have been less-than-impressive, but at the end of the day, a win is a win. Paul, however, has been a revelation. After spending three years as a guy with worlds of potential that was unable to put all the pieces together, Paul is playing like an all-american. He’s become deadly in the pick-and-roll and a much more consistent shooter. The problem? He’s so important to this team than they can struggle when he’s not playing well.

Biggest Disappointment: Purdue

We knew there was going to be a gap between the tournament hopefuls and the rest of the Big Ten, but I don’t think that anyone predicted that the Boilermakers would essentially be written off as a tournament team before December came to a close. Matt Painter’s club has dealt with some injury issues this season and their back court hasn’t progressed like many had expected.

Player of the Year: Trey Burke, Michigan

I’m going with Burke in what is probably the tightest player of the year race in the country. There’s no shortage of talent in the Big Ten this season, but Burke has been the best because of his ability to score and create based on what his team needs at the time. He gets his talented teammates involved early and turns into an assassin down the stretch. His numbers — 17.8 points, 7.4 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 53.6/75.7/38.3 shooting splits — aren’t to shabby either.

Best Freshman: Nik Stauskas, Michigan

No one really talked about Stauskas coming into the season, but he’s absolutely been the best freshman in the Big Ten. The kid simply doesn’t miss when he gets his feet set (he’s shooting 39-69, or 56.5%, from three) but he’s also capable of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim, defending and rebounding for a player his size. He’s Zak Novak, only more talented, bigger, and a much better athlete.

Three Predictions

  • The Big Ten gets eight bids to the big dance. I’m not one to bet against Wisconsin. No one should be. Iowa is a young team that is only going to get better. And given how many good teams there are in the league and how many chances both the Badgers and the Hawkeyes are going to have to notch quality (marquee?) wins, I think their resume ends up being strong enough.
  • Shannon Scott becomes Ohio State’s best playmaker by the end of the year. I love Aaron Craft as much as anyone, but Scott is more dynamic and more talented. On a team that needs offensive support for Deshaun Thomas, Scott is a valuable option.
  • Tom Izzo’s team struggles in March. Branden Dawson hasn’t made a jump this season. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have been inconsistent. I’m not convinced Keith Appling and Gary Harris will be able to carry this team offensively. Will Izzo’s Magic March touch wear off again this season?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Indiana*
2. Michigan*
3. Michigan State*
4. Ohio State*
5. Minnesota*
6. Illinois*
7. Wisconsin*
8. Iowa
9. Purdue
10. Northwestern
11. Nebraska
12. Penn State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.