Big Ten Basketball Race Comes To Crisler Arena Tonight

Big Ten basketball comes under the ESPN spotlight on Tuesdays and tonight it’s Michigan-Michigan State in Ann Arbor. MSU is tied for first in the conference with Illinois, each with a 4-1 record, while Michigan and Ohio State are each 4-2. The league champion looks all but certain to come out of this quartet—I mean no disrespect to Purdue at 3-2, but the Boilers are rebuilding, while Wisconsin and Indiana each have three league losses. So let’s at the Big Ten’s top four teams and break them down…

Michigan State (15-3, 4-1): It was supposed to a rebuilding year for Tom Izzo’s program too, but the Spartan head coach keeps finding a cadre of players who hit the boards hard and keep the team in games. Draymond Green is the stud in the post, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, but what’s really impressive is the slew of depth Izzo brings off the bench. Adrien Payne and Derrick Nix don’t stand out, but they each grab 4-5 rebounds a game, as does Branden Dawson. That’s called bringing a complete team effort to rebounding the ball and it’s what Izzo has consistently produced through his Hall of Fame-caliber run in East Lansing. Think Izzo’s happy he turned down the “opportunity” to go to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010?

Keith Appling leads a backcourt that isn’t as deep, but can at least provide some offense. Appling is averaging 13 ppg and shoots the ball well from the floor. The same goes for Brandon Wood. What neither does really well is hit from behind the arc, so MSU will be vulnerable in games where an opponent gets heated up.

Illinois (15-3, 4-1): It was a week ago tonight that Illini guard Brandon Paul stunned Ohio State with a 43-point showing and led the way to a win over the Buckeyes that really re-shaped the conference race. It marked Illinois as a contender and pulled preseason favorite Ohio State clearly back to the pack. Bruce Weber still has some concerns to deal with—the defense does not always play at a championship level. Purdue shot 56 percent against Illinois, in the one conference loss, and the Illini also allowed Nebraska to hit 50 percent. It goes without saying you don’t want to be in spots where Paul has to hang 40-plus for the team to beat quality opponents.

Paul has a good running mate in the backcourt with D.J. Richardson, who’s not only a double-digit scorer, but is a solid three-point shooter, making him a perfect foil for 7’1” sophomore center Meyers Leonard who’s averaging 13/8. That’s a good inside-outside combo to put together around Paul, and if third guard Sam Maniscalco can get beyond his nagging ankle injury, Weber will have a deep backcourt, good three-point shooter, solid post option and go-to star. That’s a championship formula, as long as they D it up.

Ohio State (14-4, 4-2): They were the #1 team in the country going into last year’s NCAA Tournament and with sophomore forward Jared Sullinger coming back, this year was supposed to be more of the same. It still might, but the Buckeyes are looking very beatable in the Big Ten. The Notebook broke them down more extensively last week in the lineup, looking at the key foursome of Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, William Buford and Aaron Craft. In looking at the losses to Indiana and Illinois, we can look at the backcourt. They gave up the aforementioned 43 to Paul, and against IU there were 17 turnovers. What the Buckeyes have going for them is a demonstrated ability to blow people out when they’re clicking, with an average victory margin of 27.5 points in their four Big Ten wins. If they can find a way to win close games too, those preseason expectations are still well within reach.

Michigan (14-4, 4-2): The talent doesn’t overwhelm you in Ann Arbor, at least beyond 6’6” sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr, who’s averaging 16 ppg. John Beilein is still looking for consistent production down low. Sophomores Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan are respectable rebounders, but neither has really emerged as a top-flight offensive option at this stage of their careers. In the backcourt, senior Zack Novak is a decent shooter, but won’t wake up memories of Glen Rice anytime soon. The pleasant surprise has been the play of freshman point guard Trey Burke, who’s running the show and doing a good enough job with his shot to make defenses come out and play him.

The Wolverines are the one shaky team among this foursome, with narrow wins over Minnesota and Northwestern and a decisive loss to Iowa. I suspect they’re going to fall back into the group with Purdue, Wisconsin and Indiana that will compete for an NCAA Tournament bid and be a live spoiler, but not a true championship contender. We are about to find out right now. Starting tonight, Michigan’s coming Big Ten schedule is Michigan State, at Purdue, at Ohio State, Indiana and at Michigan State. Plus a non-conference trip to Arkansas comes up this weekend. That schedule stretch will be completed on Super Bowl Sunday and we’ll know beyond a doubt how good Michigan is. The test starts tonight in front of the home crowd at Crisler.