Monday, December 29, 2008

Conference Tip-Off

Big Ten conference play begins Dec. 30 with 5 teams in the top 25, and a 6th, the Illini, receiving votes. It's gonna be a tough year, and the conference champs will need to protect their home court and win as many on the road as possible. And although the Illini are looking much, much better than last year, the entire conference appears to be much improved, despite the loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Here's a quick overview...

Illinois: Off to a 12-1 start, the Illini looked great against Mizzou and I was pleasantly surprised by their play in the Clemson loss. Yes, most of the wins are against teams the Illini were expected to beat -- and they did not look good against Eastern Michigan. And although the Illini are hovering just short of the AP Top 25, they open Big Ten play on the road against Purdue and Michigan. Those will be very, very tough games. However, finishing in the top half of the league is a realistic possibility, as is a tourney invite. But expect shooting percentage to drop as the level of defense they face improve.

Indiana: Tom Crean has his work cut out for him in his first year at Indiana. Already at just 5-7, his season will probably look a bit like what Rich Rodriguez just survived in Michigan. But Crean is good, and in a couple years, he will have Indiana back where they expect to be. So enjoy their down time while it lasts -- and expect to see a much better team at the end of February than we've seen in non-conference play. The Illini will face the Hoosiers twice, and should be able to win both games.

Iowa: At 10-3, the Hawkeyes have had a fairly good non-conference run, although the Drake loss was ugly. Todd Lickliter is in his second season in the Big Ten, and is still probably a year or two away from the level of play he would like to reach. But he has the program headed in the right direction, and playing in Iowa City will be a challenge for the rest of the conference. Iowa is only on the schedule once during conference play, and that game will be in Champaign, so the Illini should come out on top.

Michigan: The Wolverines have surprised many so far this year -- especially powerhouses UCLA and Duke. (Although I don't understand how losing to an unranked team caused Duke to fall only from 4 to 7 in the rankings...but that's a whole different topic.) They are now ranked, and John Beilein has his team at 10-2, with his only losses against Maryland and Duke. (Yes, for those just tuning in, the Wolverines have played Duke twice.) The Illini only play the Wolverines once, and that game is in Ann Arbor. That will be an incredibly tough game to win, but hopefully it will help the young starters learn to handle Big Ten road games.

Michigan State: Tom Izzo and the Spartans are 9-2, ranked #10 in the AP poll, and look to be one of the top teams in the conference this year. Their losses, however, were big ones to Maryland and North Carolina. One note of interest -- the 2008-09 Spartans are shooting only 65% from the free throw line. That is very atypical for an Izzo-coached team. The Illini will face Michigan State twice. The road game will be a huge challenge, and the Illini will need to be on their game to protect their home court.

Minnesota: One of the biggest surprises of the young season, Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers are 12-0 as they head into Big Ten play. Their marquis win came over Louisville, and they will be tough all year. And Tubby has some good classes coming to the Twin Cities in the near future. After years of struggling, this program will become one to watch for. The Illini will be doing good to split the season series with the Gophers.

Northwestern: At 8-2, the Wildcats and Bill Carmody are also off to a strong start this year. Their non-conference schedule wasn't that tough, but they still navigated it well, and they won't be a pushover in conference play, either. The Illini will only play the 'Cats once -- in Evanston. This would be a nice game to steal on the road, but that will happen only if the Illini are clicking that night.

Ohio State: Thad Matta has proven to be a master at recruiting freshman that head straight to the draft instead of back to school, but his record impresses. The Buckeyes are 9-1. However, that one loss was a big one to West Virginia just before they tip off conference play. Matta's boys aren't expected to dominate like they have the past couple years, especially with the temporary loss of leader (and upperclassman) David Lighty. But they are in the AP Top 25, and will likely gain steam as the season progresses. The Illini will need to work hard to split the two games against the Buckeyes this year.

Penn State: Ed DeChellis and the Nittany Lions will start the Big Ten season with the most wins ever in their 17 seasons since joining the conference. This program has been slowly improving, and DeChellis, now in his 6th year, is finally seeing his program gain momentum. The Nittany Lions will be one of the many teams fighting in the middle of the conference, but the Illini should be able to split this 2-game series.

Purdue: The Boilermakers are expected to be at the top of the Big Ten, as Matt Painter and company have been the highest ranked Big Ten team throughout most of the non-conference season. Purdue has an experienced, talented team, and at 11-2, their only losses are in overtime to Oklahoma and the Duke loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini open the Big Ten against Purdue in West Lafayette, a game that will be a huge stretch to win. The Illini will need to fight hard late in the season to hold serve at home against Weber's former assistant.

Wisconsin: Bo Ryan and the Badgers are 9-3, and played a top 10 Texas team really tough in Madison. The Badgers also won a close game against Virginia Tech on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also expect to be in the thick of the mid-conference fight, and the Illini will have to play well to split the Badger series this year.

If the Illini play well and come out of conference play with a .500 record or slightly better, they will be doing well. That record, plus respectable play in the Big Ten Tournament, may be enough to get them into the Big Dance. And, that type of play will strengthen the foundation for the 2009-10 team that will welcome a very talented recruting class to Champaign.

If you like college basketball, the Big Ten should be fun to watch this year. Teams will beat each other up, but that should make for a strong showing come March.

Go Illini!

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