December 15, 2013 at 11:06 pm

Rod Beard

Big Ten proves it's a basketball heavyweight

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky is up to 14.6 points, from 4.2 in 2012-13. (Mike McGinnis / Getty Images)

With the nonconference season almost completed, it’s not too early to start making bold predictions about the strength of various leagues. Conference seasons always separate the pretenders from the contenders in preparation for the NCAA Tournament in March.

Through the first five weeks of the season, it’s clear that the Big Ten is one of the nation’s best — and deepest — conferences.

The best evidence is looking at the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge as the two leagues tied with six wins apiece. The Big Ten won four games on the final day to keep the Commissioner’s Cup for the fifth straight season.

The ACC won three of the marquee games, most notably North Carolina’s upset win at No. 1 Michigan State, but the depth of the Big Ten prevailed, with key wins by Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Though the Big Ten lost several key players — notably Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas — those teams have bounced back to preseason rankings and contender status in the conference races.

Last week, the Big Ten boasted three teams among the top five in the Associated Press rankings. Iowa was 23rd before a tough road loss at No. 17 Iowa State. The ACC, likely the other top contender for best conference, had three ranked teams: Syracuse (2nd), Duke (8th) and North Carolina (18th).

“The Big Ten is going to be right up there with the premier conferences,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “I think it’s going to be a deep conference, especially on the road.”

The most surprising Big Ten team, and maybe in the country, is Wisconsin (12-0), which rose to No. 4 in the rankings — but with a few extra practices because of a five-game exhibition trip in Canada. That additional prep time is paying dividends for the Badgers now.

“You know, you have to be fair and look at the fact that we had the summer trip, which I’m glad we had the opportunity to do,” coach Bo Ryan said. “If anything, as I’ve said a hundred times, it (showed) the younger guys, these are the things that we’re going to need to work on.”

Wisconsin is buoyed by the return of junior guard Josh Gasser, who missed all of last season because of an injury, along with the play of big man Frank Kaminsky. Last season, Kaminsky averaged 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds. In 12 games, he’s lifted those averages to 14.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.

“Wisconsin had a good win versus Florida — especially with Florida beating Kansas,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said. “Wisconsin right now can play any way you want: scoring 80 points or slow, like fast, 80 — slow, like a 48-38 win over Virginia.”

Marble leads Iowa

Another surprising team is Iowa, which is putting things together after a promising 25-13 finish last season.

The Hawkeyes (10-2) rank seventh nationally in scoring and fourth in rebounding, with one of the most experienced rosters in the conference, including seniors Roy Devyn Marble (Southfield-Lathrup), Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe. Juniors Aaron White, Josh Oglesby and Gabriel Olaseni make Iowa one of the sleeper teams in the Big Ten as the conference race begins in a few weeks.

“Iowa has two of everything — two point guards that can really play, two off guards, four wing guys, two centers,” Dakich said. “They have a shot to be a good team. Roy Devyn Marble is a good player and everybody looks at him, so they have a good leader.”

After an up-and-down career at Iowa, Marble is again putting in good numbers, with 15.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists. White is adding 13.7 points and Jarrod Uthoff, 10.4.

OSU's Williams a surprise

Although Ohio State is ranked third in the AP poll and second in the coaches’ poll, the Buckeyes somehow are managing to fly under the radar.

Even with the loss of Thomas, their leading scorer, to the NBA, Ohio State is making up for it with Lenzelle Smith Jr. (13.4 points) picking up some of the slack and hitting 54 percent from the field and 49 percent on 3-pointers. LaQuinton Ross, espected to take on a bigger load, is up to 11.8 points and 39 percent from beyond the arc.

Senior point guard Aaron Craft, who broke the school’s career assists mark, has been steady, as well. The surprise, though, is junior Amir Williams (Detroit Country Day), who is contributing 10 points and 7.3 rebounds.

“Ohio State is just Ohio State. Craft and (Shannon) Scott and Smith are a good defensive backcourt,” Dakich said. “The key for them is Amir Williams — he’s making baskets. That’s huge because the kid is big and talented.”

More Rod Beard