In the past three years the Big 10 has placed two teams in the NCAA Final (Michigan State won in 2000, Indiana lost in 2002). However, it’s been a down year in the league this season.
Here’s a look at the best of this year’s Big 10.
ILLINOIS: The Fighting Illini are the best defensive team in the Big 10 allowing opponents 37 percent shooting. Dominant low post player, 6-foot-10 Brian Cook (19 ppg, 7.0 rpg), leads the Big 10 in scoring. Cook is the main reason Illinois shoots over 48 percent from the field, best in the conference. Illinois has been outstanding at home (15-0 SU, 6-4 ATS), but began the year struggling on the road (4-5 SU, 3-5-1 ATS).
Head coach Bill Self has two freshmen leading the team in assists in Dee Brown and Deron Williams. The highly touted newcomers were pressed into service after the departure to the NBA of star guard Frank Williams. The Illini lead the Big 10 in assists (over 18 apg) and are second in scoring (75 ppg).
WISCONSIN: The Badgers are about defense, with a capital ”˜D’. Wisconsin leads the conference in that category, allowing 58 points per game. The offense is slow and patient, shooting 46 percent (second in the Big 10), led by senior guard/forward Kirk Penney (16.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Penney leads the team in assists and the defense has been nearly as tough on the road (61 ppg allowed) as at home (57).
Mike Wilkinson, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, has been a big addition. Wilkinson leads the Badgers in rebounds, while sophomore guard Devin Harris and 6-5 swingman Alando Tucker have stepped in and produced at both ends of the court. This young team has surprised a lot of people, including the line-makers. The Badgers began the year 17-6 ATS, topping the GamingToday rankings.
MINNESOTA: The Golden Gophers have a strong all-around team with great balance. Minnesota is tops in the Big 10 in rebounding, thanks to 6-11 sophomore Rick Rickert (16 ppg), 6-10 senior center Jerry Holman and 6-8 junior Michael Bauer. The tall trees are the reason the Gophers lead the conference in scoring (76 ppg) and are third defensively, holding opponents to just 40 percent shooting.
Senior guard Kevin Burleson averages five assists per game and, along with 6-4 sophomore Maurice Hargrow (14 ppg), has helped solidify the backcourt. Hargrow, a strong three-point threat, is the main reason Minnesota leads the Big 10 in that category. The Gophers also force turnovers, leading the league in steals (7.5 ppg). Minnesota was only 2-6 SU and ATS in its first eight road contests.
MICHIGAN: Any Coach of the Year votes for Michigan’s Tommy Amaker? Why not? The Wolverines started 0-6 SU and 1-5 ATS in what looked like a disastrous season. Amaker held the troops together and Michigan responded by winning 16 of the next 20 games, including a remarkable 16-3 ATS run. Michigan lacks height, and is near the bottom of the Big 10 in shooting, steals, assists and defense.
The Wolverines are a gritty bunch with good balance, thanks to star senior forward LaVell Blanchard (16 ppg), 6-6 junior Bernard Robinson Jr. and 6-3 freshman guard Dan Horton. The key is Horton, who leads the team in scoring and assists. The Wolverines, possess a winning spread record both home and away, sink 73 percent of their foul shots.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers lack depth and experience, but has two similarities ”” tough defense and a strong backcourt. The Wolverines hold opponents to 40 percent shooting (second in the Big 10). A strong backcourt paced by 6-2 senior Tom Coverdale (11.5 ppg, 4.3 apg) and freshman Bracey Wright lead the Hoosiers in scoring (16.5 ppg).
Indiana is near the bottom of the Big 10 in rebounding margin per game (—1.4), despite scrappy seniors Jeff Newton and George Leach working the boards. The Hoosiers, one of the league’s worst free throw shooting teams, were 3-9 SU and 2-10 ATS in their first 12 road games. If Indiana could play all its games at home (13-1 SU, 9-5 ATS in first 14 starts) a run in March could happen.