Big Ten preview: MSU leads pack of title contenders

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Big Ten has had plenty of representation in the national title game, like Wisconsin last season, Michigan in 2013, Michigan State in 2009, Ohio State in 2007, Illinois in 2005 and Indiana in 2002, but the conference continues to look for its first national championship since Michigan State in 2000.

Is this finally the year the Big Ten breaks back through?

Of course, it’s too early to tell, but the picture will begin to come more into focus starting tonight when Michigan State starts Big Ten play at Iowa.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Wednesday at Illinois.

Eighteen conference games await 14 schools, 10 or more of them seeing the NCAA Tournament as a possibility, if the stars align.

That’s how deep the conference is, talent-wise.

“The league is as good as it’s been,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was saying back in October, before his team started a school-record 13-0.

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Time will tell if that holds true, but Michigan State — one of five unbeaten teams left, joining Xavier (which beat Michigan), Oklahoma, South Carolina and SMU, which is ineligible for postseason play —just might be the best it has been since winning that national title in 2000, an accomplishment the school celebrated 15 years later at Breslin Center a few weeks back.

MSU has risen to the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls, thanks to a litany of marquee victories, including against Kansas (ranked No. 4 at the time), Providence (ranked No. 12 now), Louisville (ranked No. 18), Florida and even overlooked Oakland, which took the Spartans’ to overtime at The Palace last week before finally falling.

The Spartans are not without concerns, first and foremost being the health of Denzel Valentine, who scored a career high in points earlier this season and had a pair of triple-doubles before having to undergo a knee scope. He’s out for a few more games, but there’s plenty of talent behind him, notably Bryn Forbes, freshman big man Deyonta Davis and transfer Eron Harris, who’s coming around more and more with every game and came up huge in the first game after Valentine’s injury.

Injuries are incredibly important. Michigan, after a national championship appearance in 2013 and an Elite Eight showing in 2014, fell off the map last season because of all those injuries.

Maryland had the first blow, when guard Dion Wiley was lost for the season in early November following knee surgery. Still, the Terrapins figure to be among the big boys in just their second year in the conference.

Big Ten preview: Tony Paul's team-by-team breakdown

Right up there with Maryland, and perhaps a tick above (at least if you’re going by roster height) is Purdue, which is led by a pair of 7-footers, A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, as well as a great supporting cast, including freshman Caleb Swanigan.

Purdue’s lone loss came to No. 9 Butler, and Maryland, ranked No. 1 at the time, lost only to No. 7 North Carolina.

“It’s a talented league, and if I say one name or two names that pop out, then I’ve gotta say more,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “There’s so many good teams in our league, and it’s very difficult to beat them anywhere.”

In the latest AP poll, the Big Ten has just three ranked teams — MSU No. 1, Maryland No. 4 and Purdue No. 14 — but it’s tough to sleep on a number of others, including Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota and even Ohio State, which did manhandle now-No. 10 Kentucky earlier this month.

Some teams have harder nonconference schedules than others, and others simply take a little longer to get going.

Wisconsin might be one of those teams. The Badgers have had their share of bad losses so far, but the Bo Ryan saga finally is behind them — he quit Dec. 15 — and Greg Gard will coach the rest of the season. Now Wisconsin can finally start putting Gard’s system in place, and seeing if they can’t make up for the losses of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.

And then, of course, there’s Michigan, which is off to a 10-3 start — a start that has highlights and lowlights.

The win over Texas in the Bahamas could prove a good one, especially after Texas knocked off then-No. 4 North Carolina. Michigan’s win over North Carolina State, without the injured Derrick Walton Jr., was no slouch either.

But against the biggest and most physical teams, like Xavier, Connecticut and SMU, Michigan was trounced, particularly by SMU.

That SMU loss had the Michigan coaching staff befuddled, and back to the drawing board before the plane left Dallas. The Wolverines used their next four nonconference games to figure some things out.

Walton is healthy, Zak Irvin is heating up after offseason back surgery, Duncan Robinson has emerged as a 3-point machine, and Caris LeVert is healthy and playing like a senior star should play. Spike Albrecht also is gone, deciding the pain in his hips was too much to overcome. The Wolverines still lack a consistent big man, a big problem in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

“I think we saw a lot of progress in our nonconference,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Now we’ve gotta try and carry that over.”

That’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy given the depth and talent of a conference that’s ready — for the first time since 2000 — to be last man standing again.

Big Ten openers

MSU at Iowa

Tip-off: 9 Tuesday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa

TV/radio: BTN/WJR

Records: MSU 13-0; Iowa 9-3

Outlook: Rebounding is an issue for Iowa, which has barely outrebounded its nonconference foes this season (39.9-37.8). That could be problematic against a Michigan State team that grabs everything in sight. ... Jarrod Uthoff (18.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Peter Jok (13.3 ppg) lead the Hawkeyes.

UM at Illinois

Tip-off: 3 Wednesday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Illinois

TV/radio: ESPN2/WWJ

Records: UM 10-3; Illinois 8-5

Outlook: Illinois’ 8-5 record is probably as impressive as Michigan’s 10-3 record, given the quality of the opponents. ... A lot of things set up well for Michigan in this one, starting with the fact the Illini don’t rebound every well. Illinois has issues defending the 3-pointer, too.