BIG TEN CONFERENCE RESET: Michigan State reigns, questions abound after top three

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big Ten.

BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

Valentine isn’t only the best player in the Big Ten this season, he’s been the best player in college basketball, period. He’s slowed a bit the last two weeks — and he’ll be out for at least another week with a knee injury — but as of today, and with all due respect to the likes of Melo Trimble and Caris LeVert, there really isn’t a discussion to be had. Valentine should be the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year right now.

That certainly doesn’t mean things can’t change by March. If Trimble leads Maryland to an outright Big Ten title he’ll have a strong case, as will LeVert or Jarrod Uthoff if they can find a way to steer their team to a tournament berth and a top 25 ranking come the end of the year. And all of that is assuming Valentine comes back from his knee injury totally healthy. But we’re talking today, and as of today, this is an easy pick.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue

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WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Maryland will be challenged: Entering the season, the Terps were the clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten race. With Melo Trimble returning and getting flanked by newcomers Rasheed Sulaimon, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone, they a trendy pick to be preseason No. 1. And while they haven’t quite been as dominant as many thought, they will head into Big Ten play with their lone loss coming at North Carolina in what was arguably their best game of the season. But here’s the kicker: the Terps are not the favorite to win the Big Ten at this point. Michigan State is. If fact, it’s safe to say that, right now, there is a …
  2. … clear cut top three: Michigan State is the No. 1 team in the country, and deservedly so. Maryland still looks like a team that could end up winning the conference if things break their way. And then there is Purdue, a team with the biggest and best front line in the country and arguably the best defense in college basketball. The Boilermakers were considered, at best, a borderline top 25 team entering the year, but with the way their guards have been able to shoot and the sheer dominance of their front line, it’s not a stretch to call Matt Painter’s club Final Four caliber. But beyond that …
  3. … the drop-off right now is huge: Indiana has not been as good as we thought they would be. The same goes for Michigan. Wisconsin is in full-on rebuilding mode, which has included a midseason coaching change. Ohio State did beat Kentucky, but they also lost at home to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech and are just 7-5 on the season. Iowa has looked really good at times this season, but they also looked like the same old Iowa when they blew a 20-point second half lead at Iowa State. Nebraska? Illinois? Someone is going to emerge from the pack. The question is who?
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

[CONFERENCE RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | American]

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Izzo’s greatest season ever?: Tom Izzo has coached a long time in the collegiate ranks. He’s been the head man at Michigan State for 20 years, long enough to get himself nominated for the Naismith Hall of Fame. And there is a chance that this could end up being the best season that Izzo’s ever had in East Lansing. Not the best team, mind you. The best season. He’s currently sitting at 13-0 and No. 1 in the country in both polls. He will only face a currently ranked team twice during the rest of the regular season. The current favorite for National Player of the Year is on his roster; the only time Izzo has coached a Player of the Year was win the NABC somehow gave their award to Draymond Green over Anthony Davis in 2012. Oh, and he could end up enshrined in the Hall of Fame during Final Four weekend. Can it possibly get any better than that?
  2. Indiana’s defense: This is a drum that has been beaten over and over again, but the bottom line is this: Indiana has one of the nation’s most potent offensive attacks, but their defense has been impressive for a grand total of about five minutes — the comeback against Notre Dame — all season long. It’s not time to throw in the towel on them just yet. Remember, Duke was a disaster on the defensive end of the floor for much of the season prior to last year’s NCAA tournament, and the Blue Devils ended up making a run to the national title because they suddenly started to defend at an elite level. If the Hoosiers can find a way to start stringing together stops on a consistent basis, this is a team with top 15 talent and the ability to make a Final Four if they get hot in March.
  3. Michigan’s health: The issue with the Wolverines entering the season was whether or not they were ever going to get healthy. Through the first month and a half of the season, they haven’t been. Zak Irvin took awhile to get back into a rhythm after September back surgery. Derrick Walton has been dealing with an ankle injury. Spike Albrecht’s Michigan career may have come to an end because of a hip problem. Their second-leading scorer is a kid that played at Division III Williams two seasons ago. Michigan’s issues in the paint — how about this stat: their three leading rebounders are LeVert (5.4), Walton (4.7) and Irvin (3.6) — essentially ensure that they won’t be competing for a Big Ten title, but without a healthy back court, they won’t be making a run at the NCAA tournament regardless of how good Caris LeVert is.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Everyone knows what the issue is with Indiana. Are they going to be able to consistently get enough stops to beat good teams and win enough games to get into the NCAA tournament. I’m of the belief that they’ll figure it out, and the way they were able to defend down the stretch against Notre Dame is what, more than anything, has me convinced. They’re never going to be great on that end of the floor, but with that offense, they don’t need to be to be good.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Slowly but surely, Northwestern is reaching a point where we need to start talking about them. They’re 11-1 on the season. They’ve beaten Columbia, who is one of the better mid-major teams in the country. They’ve beaten Missouri. They’ve won at DePaul. Their only loss is to North Carolina. Chris Collins’ club has gotten our attention. Now they need to go out and beat someone other than a high-major cellar dweller.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tom Crean entered the season as the Big Ten coach with the most on the line, and after a disappointing trip to Maui, an awful performance at Duke on national television and a defense that hasn’t addressed the issues that plagued them last season, the Hoosier faithful have never been more fed up.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Michigan State (13-0): Losing Denzel Valentine might cost them a win or two in January, but getting Eron Harris on track and lighting a fire under Bryn Forbes is going to be better for this team in the long run.
  • 2. Maryland (11-1): Melo Trimble is the best closer in college basketball, but I think they’re one guard away from being the best in the Big Ten. I worry about Trimble and Sulaimon having dead legs come March.
  • 3. Purdue (11-1): The combination of A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan is impossible for just about anyone to matchup with, and their defense will keep them in every game. If their guards are hitting threes, they can beat anyone in the country.
  • 4. Indiana (10-3): I don’t think that the Hoosiers will ever truly be a contender for the league title, but I think they’ll be a top 25 team by the end of the season, one that can get to the Sweet 16.
  • 5. Iowa (9-3): Jarrod Uthoff is awesome and the Hawkeyes have looked great at times this year. But, to be frank, I just don’t trust this team to be able to win games.
  • 6. Michigan (10-3): Getting healthy will make them good. The lack of any presence on the interior keeps them from being anything more than that.

NIT teams

  • 7. Wisconsin (8-5): Yes, Wisconsin has issues. They also have two of the ten best players in the conference in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
  • 8. Ohio State (7-5): The Buckeyes’ win over Kentucky is going to look really good on Selection Sunday, but I’m not convinced this team can add enough filler to their résumé.
  • 9. Illinois (8-5): Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have actually been really good this season, but I just can’t see them overcoming the injuries this season.
  • 10. Northwestern (10-1): The injury to Alex Olah is a tough blow and their record is inflated because of a weak schedule, but I’ll go ahead and buy-in … at least for an NIT bid.

Autobid or bust

  • 11. Nebraska (8-5)
  • 12. Penn State (9-4)
  • 13. Minnesota (6-6)
  • 14. Rutgers (5-7)