Charboneau: Big Ten race set for frantic start

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

The new year is approaching quickly and if the remarkably entertaining bowl season has become a bit drawn out for you, never fear, Big Ten basketball is here.

OK, maybe it’s not that dramatic, but after roughly six weeks of nonconference basketball we have a little better idea of what might occur over the next few months — might. That’s because it’s clear there are a handful of teams that could push for the Big Ten title, but deciphering how it will all play out is still going to be difficult.

Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue look like not only conference contenders, but teams that could make a deep run in March. After that, it’s a pretty big group of teams, some with impressive records but not a strong resume as well as teams we think are better than the wins and losses might indicate.

There seems to be only one team that is truly fighting an uphill battle, and that is Nebraska. With that, here’s a look at the teams as Big Ten play tips off this week.

The leaders

Wisconsin: The Badgers are the best defensive team in the Big Ten and are as experienced as any with preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes leading the way along with guard Bronson Koenig. Sophomore big man Ethan Happ will also be counted on to be a big part of the Badgers’ offense. Gauging the nonconference season is a bit tougher for Wisconsin, as it lost its two marquee games against North Carolina and Creighton. However, the Badgers also have wins over Georgetown and Marquette, as well as Oklahoma and Syracuse, two teams that should be much better late in the season.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have the best wins so far of any team in the Big Ten, beating both Kansas and North Carolina. They also have losses to Butler in Indianapolis and to Fort Wayne on the road. The Hoosiers shouldn’t get dinged of either loss, considering Butler is one of the top teams in the country and going on the road to face a mid-major in state is something a lot of programs won’t do. Look to the wins over Kansas and North Carolina as the better judge of a supremely talented group.

Purdue: The Boilermakers lost their only two top-25 games in the RPI ratings, but both proved just how good they might be. The first came in classic battle at home against No. 1 Villanova while the second came on the road against No. 3 Louisville. Purdue had a chance to win both games and proved in December what it is made of by rallying to beat Notre Dame in Indianapolis.

The contenders

Maryland: The Terrapins have one of the Big Ten’s best players in Melo Trimble but they have yet to chalk up a true signature victory. The one-point win over Oklahoma State rates highly in the RPI but the Terps got rolled at home by Pittsburgh in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Terps rank firmly in the group of teams that looks like it can make a run, but will need to prove it on the court.

Michigan: The Wolverines have had their share of ups and downs, trouncing SMU but getting rolled by South Carolina. They did fare well in their trip to UCLA before falling short against one of the top teams in the nation. If Michigan shoots the ball well and continues to get consistent production from Moritz Wagner, it will be a team that makes things happen in the Big Ten.

Michigan State: The Spartans have been especially hard to figure because of injuries, most notably to freshman Miles Bridges. They’ve played a difficult schedule but the loss at home to Northeastern could be critical come selection time. If Bridges comes back soon and the Spartans get more consistency from senior Eron Harris, they’ll be in the Big Ten picture late in the season.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes are young and that will provide its share of frustrations. The nonconference season proved that with a win over Providence coupled with a loss at home to Florida Atlantic. The Buckeyes nearly beat Virginia on the road and stuck with UCLA for almost 35 minutes in Las Vegas, proof they have the players to put together a run in the conference.

Minnesota: The Golden Gophers could be the team to surprise the most this winter, and the flashy 12-1 record is just part of the reason. The Gophers have three top-100 wins, including two in the top 50. They play stingy defense and after losing four of five heading into conference play last season, they have now won six straight as they get set to host Michigan State.

Northwestern: The Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament but this could be the season that changes, and making a push to the top of the Big Ten could be part of it. They’ve got some solid wins already, beating Wake Forest and Dayton while taking Butler to the wire. There’s experience in the backcourt, something that will be crucial in the conference.

Illinois: Malcolm Hill is an impact player and can be the type of guy to put a team on his back and lead it to victories on his own. A home loss to Winthrop was tough, but not that bad when looking at the RPI. If Hill can get some help, watch for the Illini to get an upset or two and put pressure on the top teams.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes have Peter Jok, the leading scorer in the Big Ten, but they have yet to really get rolling. Its win over Northern Iowa is the only top-100 victory against four losses while the Iowa State victory at least provided some momentum as the Hawkeyes have won five straight.

The pretenders

Rutgers: The record looks great for the Scarlet Knights (11-2), but No. 145 Drexel is the highest-rated victory so far this season and a loss to Seton Hall ended a five-game winning streak. The Scarlet Knights should be commended for the fast start, but getting a similar performance in the Big Ten is a bit of a stretch.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions played well in losses to Duke and Pittsburgh but haven’t put it all together, also suffering home losses to George Mason and Albany. Shep Garner is a player that can carry the Lions on some nights, but doing it often enough to finish in the top half of the conference will be difficult.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have played a tough schedule and they even have a win over Dayton to their credit amongst losses to the likes of Kansas, Creighton and UCLA. Tai Webster is a dynamic scorer, but it likely won’t be enough to get the Huskers out of the bottom half of the Big Ten.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau