CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Big Ten preview: How good is it? Size it up with Big 12

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A guy Tweeted me when it became clear I would rank the Big Ten as the nation's best league.

He said the Big 12's top six is better than the Big Ten's top six.

So I looked at it, and I decided he's wrong. Not only do I believe there are two Big Ten teams (Michigan State and Ohio State) better than any Big 12 team, I concluded that if we did a Big Ten-Big 12 challenge, matched the top six schools from each conference in the order I placed them and played the games on neutral courts, the Big Ten would win four of the six games -- specifically the first two and last two.

Take a look:

 No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas State (Winner: Michigan State)
 No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Baylor (Winner: Ohio State)
 No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 3 Kansas (Winner: Kansas)
 No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Missouri (Winner: Missouri)
 No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 5 Texas (Winner: Purdue)
 No. 6 Minnesota vs. No. 6 Texas A&M (Minnesota)

Do I like the Big 12?

Yes, absolutely.

But I like the Big Ten more.

So here's a look at the nation's best conference.

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

1. Michigan State

LeBron James' declaration that he was taking his "talents to South Beach" ensured Tom Izzo made the right decision to return to Michigan State, and Izzo's decision to remain in East Lansing ensured the Spartans would be -- this stat never ceases to amaze me -- competing for their seventh Final Four in 13 seasons. Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Draymond Green, Delvon Roe, Korie Lucious and Derrick Nix provide a nice and experienced core, and a heralded recruiting class highlighted by Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will minimize the loss of Chris Allen and add a shot-blocking presence to the frontcourt. In other words, if you don't pencil Michigan State into your Final Four, you're dumb. Don't be dumb. NCAA tournament? Yes

2. Ohio State

Losing a National Player of the Year like Evan Turner doesn't hurt as much when a team returns four starters and adds another National Player of the Year candidate like Jared Sullinger, who I suspect will average a double-double and be the Big Ten's best player. There are still concerns at point guard, where the Buckeyes have no experienced naturals. But the roster is too talented to be anything but good, and it's a roster that could take Thad Matta to his second Final Four. NCAA tournament? Yes

3. Illinois

Illinois solidified itself as a preseason top 20 team the day Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis withdrew from the NBA Draft. That development ensured the Illini would return their top six scorers and consequently compete for the Big Ten title. A recruiting class ranked 13th nationally by Rivals.com -- and highlighted by Illinois' Mr. Basketball Jereme Richmond -- serves as another reason to be optimistic, and it suggests Bruce Weber will be a factor in the league for years to come. NCAA tournament? Yes

2011 Tournament:
March 10-13 -- Indianapolis
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champions:
Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue
Defending tournament champion:
Ohio State
Top returning scorer:
Talor Battle (Penn State), 18.5 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Mike Davis (Illinois), 9.2 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Kalin Lucas, Michigan State
G - E'Twaun Moore, Purdue
F - Jon Leuer, Wisconsin
F - JaJuan Johnson, Purdue
F - Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Second team
G - Demetri McCamey, Illinois
G - Talor Battle, Penn State
G - Durrell Summers, Michigan State
G - William Buford, Ohio State
F - John Shurna, Northwestern
Player of the year
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Newcomer of the year
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Breakthrough player
Durrell Summers, Michigan State
Coach on the hot seat
John Beilein, Michigan
Click here for more
conference previews

4. Wisconsin

The next time Bo Ryan finishes lower than fourth in the Big Ten will be the first time, which is why I decided to place the Badgers here, slightly ahead of Purdue. I would feel a little better about things if one-time-recruit Vander Blue had actually enrolled at Wisconsin instead of Marquette, and if I knew exactly how the Badgers were going to replace Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon. But to worry about that would be to overthink it. Ryan has coached Wisconsin nine seasons, and he has finished no worse than fourth all nine seasons. So I'll just play the odds (especially since Jon Leuer remains on campus). NCAA tournament? Yes

5. Purdue

Those suggesting the Boilermakers can still make a Final Four in the absence of Robbie Hummel are being optimistic to a fault. Would I like it to happen? Yes, because Matt Painter is terrific and because what has happened to this program the past two years is cruel considering a healthy Hummel could've led Purdue to back-to-back Final Fours. But the reality is that the odds of a trip to Houston plummeted -- both figuratively and literally -- when Hummel tore is ACL last month, and now E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson will likely finish their careers without achieving the team goals that would've otherwise been achievable. NCAA tournament? Yes

6. Minnesota

Junior college star Trevor Mbakwe, finally eligible after missing last season with legal issues, brings a new level of athleticism to the Minnesota frontcourt, and he showed it when he got 13 points in Tuesday's exhibition. Blake Hoffarber can still shoot it, Devoe Joseph can explode in spurts (when he's healthy), and the absence of Lawrence Westbrook will decrease the number of questionable shots Minnesota takes each game. So don't expect the Gophers to sweat on Selection Sunday this season. They'll make the Field of 68, comfortably. NCAA tournament? Yes

7. Northwestern

Can the Northwestern Wildcats make the NCAA tournament? Yes. Will they? I doubt it, somewhat because it has never happened, mostly because Kevin Coble's decision to quit the team is more damaging than most acknowledge. John Shurna is terrific, sure. But when did Northwestern reach the point where it can lose an all-league player and still achieve greatness? Did I miss that? NCAA tournament? No

8. Indiana

The Hoosiers aren't back yet but will be better thanks to the return of Maurice Creek, who was averaging 16.4 points per game before suffering a season-ending injury last year. More important, IU is getting better on the recruiting trail, proof being how Tom Crean has already secured commitments from three Class of 2012 standouts, among them five-star forward Hanner Perea. So while a finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten is likely this season, IU fans can find solace in the fact that Indiana-caliber prospects are on the way. NCAA tournament? No

9. Penn State

The only thing worse than having no experienced players is having a bunch of experienced players who lose more than they win. That pretty much describes Penn State, which has a special talent in Talor Battle and a supporting cast that helped the Nittany Lions win all of three Big Ten games last season. If you're looking for a positive, consider that most of Penn State's losses were not blowouts. Still, this league's too tough for Penn State to flourish. Ed Dechellis' team won't finish last again, but the Nittany Lions should be a long way from the top. NCAA tournament? No

10. Iowa

Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore might've been illegally recruiting for Iowa in September, but it's obvious the Hollywood stars had nothing to do with the current roster. Or at least I hope not. The Hawkeyes suffered the usual recruiting departures when Todd Lickliter resigned and was replaced by Fran McCaffery, and what's returning isn't all that great. So the goal at Iowa should be to just stay out of the cellar (and to keep Ashton and Demi away from prospective student-athletes). NCAA tournament? No

11. Michigan

John Beilein has a new staff and a roster devoid of Big Ten-caliber talent, which was evident during the Wolverines' offseason trip to Europe that featured one embarrassing loss after another. It's never totally safe to count Beilein out because he's a great basketball mind who has surprised the nation before. But anything other than a terrible record this season would come as a huge surprise, and whether Beilein has this program headed in the right direction is now up for debate. NCAA tournament? No

2010-11 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule
DateFeatureDateFeature
Fri., Oct. 15Preseason Top 25 (and one) Fri., Oct. 29Conference No. 6: Pac-10
Mon., Oct. 18Preseason All-Americans Mon., Nov. 1Conference No. 5: SEC
Wed., Oct. 20Player rankings: Points/Combos Tues., Nov. 2Conference No. 4: ACC
Thurs., Oct. 21Player rankings: Wings Wed., Nov. 3Conference No. 3: Big East
Fri., Oct. 22Player rankings: Big men Thurs., Nov. 4Conference No. 2: Big 12
Mon., Oct. 25Coaches on the Hot Seat Fri., Nov. 5Conference No. 1: Big Ten
Wed., Oct. 27Best of the non-BCS Mon., Nov. 8Projections: Parrish | Palm

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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