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Conference Reset: Great players, depth make Big Ten strong for March

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Christian Watford's 3-pointer beats the buzzer for Indiana's 73-72 upset of No. 1 Kentucky. (US Presswire)  
Christian Watford's 3-pointer beats the buzzer for Indiana's 73-72 upset of No. 1 Kentucky. (US Presswire)  

How many teams can enter league play these days and legitimately say they have eight teams in the equation for an NCAA tournament bid? Probably just one, and that's the Big Ten.

After Ohio State, there's plenty of depth in this conference, which has established itself as the premiere league in the country this season.

The Buckeyes are the clear front-runner in the Big Ten, but after that it's anyone's guess -- and that's what will make the league so entertaining. Virtually anyone can beat anyone this year.

Maximum teams capable of making the NCAAs (and we're very serious about this): Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern.

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The League's Most Memorable Moment So Far: Christian Watford's 3-pointer at the buzzer that sent Assembly Hall and all of Bloomington, Ind., into a frenzy after it gave the Hoosiers an upset win over then top-ranked Kentucky.

The Storyline You Were Too Busy to Notice: Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, has struggled out of the gate. Taylor is averaging 11.8 points and 5.3 assists, but is shooting just 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc.

Coach Feeling the Heat: Tom Crean was feeling some heat entering the season, but now that's ancient history given the Hoosiers' start. Everyone in the league is safe right now.

Still Unproven: Northwestern. The Wildcats could have made a statement with a win at Creighton, but Bill Carmody's team fell short out in Omaha.

Player of the Year and All-League Team: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State (POY); Cody Zeller, Indiana; Robbie Hummel, Purdue; Aaron Craft, Ohio State; Draymond Green, Michigan State

What I Loved: Robbie Hummel not only staying healthy, but thus far carrying Purdue. The fifth-year senior, who endured a pair of torn ACLs over the past two years, is averaging 17.5 points and 5.9 boards per game.

What I Hated: Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe going down for the season with a torn ACL. With Mbakwe, Tubby Smith would have had an NCAA tournament club. Now it's likely an NIT team.

Here's how the Big Ten currently stacks up.

1. Ohio State

What's Gone Quite Right: The Buckeyes absolutely pummeled Duke into submission when the Blue Devils came to Columbus -- and Thad Matta's team has won every single game in which Jared Sullinger has played. The lone loss was at Kansas, where Sully sat out with back spasms.

New Year's Resolution: Health for Sullinger. The sophomore big man has already missed time with back issues and a foot injury.

MVP: Jared Sullinger. Even though he's been banged up, he's still been the team's Most Valuable Player. Take away the South Carolina game, one in which he barely played, and Sully is averaging 18.2 points and 10.3 boards per contest.

Step Your Game Up: Aaron Craft. Look, there's no bigger fan than me. Craft runs the club, is a lock-down defender and brings all the intangibles to the table. But he needs to shoot better than 32 percent from beyond the arc.

2. Wisconsin

What's Gone Quite Right: Except for the home loss to in-state rival Marquette, Bo Ryan's team has taken care of business. The Badgers even played North Carolina tough in Chapel Hill.

New Year's Resolution: Jordan Taylor needs to get going. Thus far, the guy who many considered the elite point guard in the nation has struggled, especially with his shot. He's shooting 39 percent from the field and 32 percent from beyond the arc.

MVP: Jared Berggren. A year ago, he was a role guy who averaged just 6.9 minutes per game. Now, it's his turn and he leads the team in scoring (12.5) and is second in rebounding (4.8).

Step Your Game Up: Mike Bruesewitz. I think he needs to grow out his hair again. Most anticipated a big season from Bruesweitz, but he's remained a role player, averaging 6.1 points and 5.2 boards per game.

3. Michigan

What's Gone Quite Right: The Wolverines came back from Maui with two wins and played Duke close. The only other setback came against Virginia -- and there's no shame losing in Charlottesville.

New Year's Resolution: Get to the charity stripe with more frequency. I know it's not John Beilein's thing, but these guys need to be more aggressive and less reliant on the three-ball.

MVP: Trey Burke. Everyone was concerned about how Beilein would fill the void left by Darius Morris' early departure, but no one is talking about that now. Not with Burke averaging 13 points and 5 assists.

Step Your Game Up: Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. The Wolverines post guys have improved, but still need to do more in the paint than the 10.5 points and 8.3 boards they combine to average.

4. Michigan State

What's Gone Quite Right: The Spartans began the season with two losses -- against North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and to Duke at MSG in a game that Mike Krzyzewski became the all-time winningest men's coach in Division 1 -- but those defeats were both excusable for a team on which just about everyone is adjusting to new roles. Tom Izzo's team has since beaten everyone -- including Gonzaga on the road and Florida State.

New Year's Resolution: Improved perimeter shooting. Keith Appling is making 32 percent of his 3's, Green is at 31 percent and Branden Dawson isn't a threat from deep. That leaves Brandon Wood, at 40 percent from beyond the arc, as the only knock-down shooter.

MVP: Draymond Green. He's the leader and is so versatile, averaging 15.5 points, 9.8 boards and also 3.5 assists per game.

Step Your Game Up: Adreian Payne. The sophomore big man is oozing with talent and it's going to take time. But Izzo needs more from him in order for this team to take the next step.

5. Indiana

What's Gone Quite Right: Everything. The Hoosiers were a mystery entering the season, but now they have moved into the top 25 -- largely due to the huge win against Kentucky in Bloomington.

New Year's Resolution: Success in Big Ten play. Remember, this is a program that has won a total of just eight league games over the past three seasons.

MVP: Cody Zeller. The youngest of the trio of brothers may be the best. Cody is putting up 15.1 points and 7.3 boards so far.

Step Your Game Up: Verdell Jones. The senior guard has nearly as many turnovers (32) as assists (42) this season.

6. Illinois

What's Gone Quite Right: No one quite knew what to expect from this team, but the Illini have exceeded expectations -- with their losses coming at UNLV and to Missouri.

New Year's Resolution: Improved point guard play. Bruce Weber and Demetri McCamey didn't always see eye to eye, but I'm betting the Illini coach misses McCamey's ability these days.

MVP: Meyers Leonard. The talented 7-footer has stepped his game up. When he comes to play, there aren't many who can handle him.

Step Your Game Up: Brandon Paul. He appeared primed to have a huge season. Instead, he's averaging a mediocre 11.3 points per game while shooting just 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from deep.

7. Purdue

What's Gone Quite Right: Robbie Hummel's been healthy thus far and has picked up right where he left off before a pair of torn ACLs.

New Year's Resolution: Matt Painter needs something in the paint. The Boilermakers have gotten virtually nothing inside from the trio of Jacob Lawson, Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius.

MVP: Hummel. He leads the team in scoring, at 17.5 points per game, is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc and is averaging nearly six rebounds per game.

Step Your Game Up: Terone Johnson. The sophomore guard was supposed to be the guy to step in and replace E'Twaun Moore. He's averaging 6.8 points -- well below what the Boilermakers need from him.

8. Northwestern

What's Gone Quite Right: The Wildcats are 10-2 -- with the losses coming to Baylor and on the road against Creighton, another top-25 team.

New Year's Resolution: Get on the glass more. Northwestern has been outrebounded by three boards per game over the first dozen games this season.

MVP: John Shurna or Drew Crawford. Take your pick. Both have played extremely well thus far.

Step Your Game Up: Luka Mirkovic. The Wildcats are so dependent on Shurna and Crawford. Mirkovic needs to give Bill Carmody more.

9. Minnesota

What's Gone Quite Right: Somehow Tubby Smith has led the Gophers to a 12-1 record, despite losing their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, in the seventh game of the year to a torn ACL.

New Year's Resolution: Perimeter shooting. Thus far, Minnesota has only made 60 3-pointers -- an average of five per game, the lowest of any Big Ten team.

MVP: Rodney Williams. He can still do even more, but the talented forward has averaged 11.7 points and 7 boards over the past five games.

Step Your Game Up: Ralph Sampson. With Mkabwe out, he needs to be a difference-maker. He's averaging 8.1 points and 4.2 boards per game. That's not enough.

10. Nebraska

What's Gone Quite Right: The Cornhuskers may not be scoring much more than they were a year ago, but they are shooting the ball with more efficiency from the perimeter.

New Year's Resolution: Taking care of the ball. Nebraska has more turnovers than assists this season.

MVP: Bo Spencer. The LSU transfer has been as good as advertised for Doc Sadler. He does everything for the Cornhuskers, including leading the team in scoring.

Step Your Game Up: Jorge Brian Diaz. He's 6-11 and needs to do more work on the glass. The Puerto Rico native averages fewer than five boards per game.

11. Iowa

What's Gone Quite Right: It's been a rough start for a team that many figured might vie for an NCAA tournament berth. The Hawkeyes are 8-5 and have losses to Campbell, Clemson and a pair of in-state schools -- Iowa State and Northern Iowa.

New Year's Resolution: Defend the perimeter. The Hawkeyes are allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from beyond the arc.

MVP: Matt Gatens. The senior leads the team in scoring and also contributes in other ways.

Step Your Game Up: Melsahn Basabe. He had a terrific freshman campaign, but he's suffering a bit of the sophomore slump, even though he's still been productive. His scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage have all dropped.

12. Penn State

What's Gone Quite Right: Penn State has eight wins. Even if the Nittany Lions don't win a Big Ten game, that's still a decent year in Pat Chambers' first season at the helm.

New Year's Resolution: Chambers just needs to get through this season. He inherited a team that lost its top three players from a year ago and needs to bring talent into the program.

MVP: Tim Frazier. The bright spot for the Nittany Lions has been the play of their junior guard, who has been phenomenal this season (17.2 ppg, 7.2 apg, 5.8 rpg).

Step Your Game Up: Billy Oliver. He's finally healthy, which is a great sign, but the 6-8 forward needs to shoot the ball better in league play.

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