A Big Ten representative won college basketball’s national championship five years ago (Michigan State in 2000) and Indiana got to the title game three years ago against Maryland. Mighty Illinois will be trying to get there this season. Here’s a look at some of the best in the league with the March tournaments on the horizon.
ILLINOIS: It’s been the year of the Fighting Illini in the Big 10 and the nation. Illinois has great balance, with a strong defense and many ways on offense to beat you. Illinois has a terrific frontcourt of 6-foot-10 junior James Augustine and 6-6 senior Roger Powell. Augustine is tops in the Big 10 shooting 64 percent from the field. The backcourt is deep, as well, with senior Luther Head (16.5 ppg) and juniors Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Williams leads the conference in assists.
In the Big Ten, Illinois is first in three-point shooting (39 percent), field goals (49 percent) and points (79 ppg). They also allow opponents just 42.5 percent shooting. Illinois began the season 10-0 SU, 6-4 ATS on the road, outscoring the opposition by +9 points per contest. Coach Bruce Weber’s squad whipped Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Cincinnati, winning by 17, 18 and 22 points!
MICHIGAN ST: A veteran Michigan State club has become more aggressive offensively than recent Tom Izzo teams, which were known for strangling defenses. The Spartans are second in the Big 10 in shooting (49.4 percent) and scoring (78 ppg), and first in free throw shooting (80 percent).
Izzo has a talented group of front line talent in 6-foot-11 junior Paul Davis and 6-6 senior Alan Anderson crashing the boards. Seniors Maurice Ager and Chris Hill run the backcourt. After starting the season 3-2 with losses at Duke and George Washington, the Spartans won 16 of 18. Note that Michigan State started 14-1 SU, 10-5 ATS as a favorite, but 0-3 SU/ATS as a dog. They got popped in their only meeting with Illinois, 81-68 — at home!
WISCONSIN: There’s a ”˜D’ smack in the middle of the word "Badger", which is appropriate. Wisconsin leads the conference in defense, allowing 60 points per game. The offense is slow and patient, with a one-two punch of 6-foot-8 senior Mike Wilkinson and 6-5 sophomore swingman Alando Tucker. The duo each average 14 points and lead the Badgers in scoring and rebounding.
Wisconsin is also second in the Big Ten in three-point shooting (39 percent). While Wisconsin started 13-1 at home averaging 73 ppg, they went 4-5 SU/4-4 ATS on the road where the offense struggled to score 64 ppg. They are in good shape to finish third in the conference, getting Indiana and Purdue at home this final week of the regular season.
OHIO ST: The Buckeyes have a nice frontcourt ace in 6-9 junior Terrance Dials (15 ppg, 8.0 rpg), who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. They also have a fine backcourt with senior Tony Stockman and 6-5 junior J.J. Sullinger. Ohio State plays tough defense, allowing 41 percent shooting by opponents, second best in the Big Ten.
However, they tend to play that tough defense at home but not on the road. Ohio State started 13-1 at home allowing 57 ppg. On the road, the Buckeyes started 3-7 SU, 4-5 ATS, allowing 73 ppg! Another area of concern is that they shoot just 65 percent from the charity stripe, second worst in the conference. Perhaps the good ”˜D’ and bad free throw shooting contributed to their 9-2 "under" the total start at home.
MINNESOTA: The Golden Gophers have an effective one-two punch in 6-5 junior Vincent Grier (17.7 ppg), who leads the team in scoring, and a large frontcourt presence in 7-foot, 275-pound senior Jeff Hagen. They shoot 46 percent from the field as a team, fourth in the Big Ten, and are second in blocked shots.
Brent Lawson, a 6-4 season, averages over two steals per game for the Gophers, who lead the Big 10 in thefts, Minnesota has struggled when stepping up in competition, losing to Alabama, Oklahoma, Illinois and Michigan State (twice). While they have a home win over Wisconsin, they lost to Florida State as a favorite.