We'll be working through a much less specific rundown of the Big XII and Mo Valley soon (not to mention a look at Iowa-Texas at the Alamo Bowl), but we've gotta put this Big Ten thing to rest. So, the final three.
3rd Place, Big Ten Conference: ILLINI
So, there's a problem here: I'm completely sold on Bruce Weber the coach. I'm not at all sold on Bruce Weber the recruiter.
The Good News: First, there are the returning players. Specifically, Rich McBride and Jamar Smith in the backcourt, and Brian Randle and Shaun Pruit in the frontcourt, give ILLINI experience and all-around players. All four of these guys play sold defense, see the court well, and can fill it up. So far, Weber has been divvying up playing time among everyone, looking for the guys he can rely on, but it seems apparent that these four will have to be a part of that picture.
Second, the schedule works well. ILLINI avoid road games against both Wisconsin and tOSU and hit what appears to be a low point in their current run during a relatively weak Big Ten year.
Third, there's Weber. He might have a reputation as a disciplinarian and a bit of a jackass, but he's a pretty damn good game coach and always seems to get more than he should from the talent at his disposal.
The Bad News: Well, it's more for the future than the present, but Weber's done it all with Bill Self's guys, and the word from Champaign is that the recent recruiting classes don't have that same level of athleticism or talent. As I said, Weber gets the most of what he has, but the mark of a top-notch program is having talent to go with the coaching. For this season, the biggest concern (and the largest hole in losses to Maryland and Arizona) is the lack of a true point guard. Dee Brown created so much offense with his ability to drive and dish; there doesn't appear to be an heir apparent.
Best Name on the Roster: I guess it's Richard Semrau or Rich McBride, but there's not much here. Does Ron Zook count?
All-Time Great Player: Probably Eddie Johnson.
Program High Point: They went to 3 Final Fours in 4 years in the late '40s-early '50s, but nobody remembers that, so we'll go with their 2005 run to the national title game.
Program Low Point: Their perfect regular season was spoiled by the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Projection: Mizzou might get them this year. If so, they finish 12-3 non-conference. I have them at 11-5 in the Big Ten. That's good for a 23-8 record and a #5 seed in the Big Dance.
2nd Place, Big Ten: WISCONSIN BOOZEHOUNDS
The Good News: Experience, experience, experience. As we saw last year with Iowa, experience and team chemistry can trump raw talent. Well, Kammron "Chris Rock" Taylor, Alando Tucker, Brian Butch, Jason Chappell and Michael Flowers are all back. That's all five starters from the end of last season. And those five have more talent than Brunner/Horner/Hansen/Haluska; in fact, Tucker is probably the best returning player in the conference. There's also plenty of experience on the bench. Throw in the typically huge Wisky homecourt advantage (72-5 since Bo Ryan arrived in 2001) and it's a recipe for success.
The Bad News: Despite dodging a bullet in the Big Ten/ACC Farce, the schedule is brutal. They already dropped one to Missouri State and still have games at Marquette, at Georgia, and against Pitt. Plus, they close with a home-and-home against MSU and at tOSU. Not pretty. But that's the only thing to find wrong about this team.
Best Name on the Roster: Doesn't Brian Butch sound born to play for Wisconsin?
All-Time Great Player: Michael Finley in a landslide.
Program High Point: A miracle 2000 trip to the Final Four
Program Low Point: Well, before Dick Bennett, they were terrible, so it's pretty much everything between 1940 and 1995.
Projection: They'll drop 2 of the aforementioned 3 tough ones and finish 12-3 non-conference. An 11-5 conference record (where they'll be at or tied for the lead heading into the last 2 weeks, then drop 2 of 3) gets them a 23-8 record, the same #5 seed as ILLINI, and an unexpected early exit from the tournament.
The Winner, Big Ten Conference: THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
The Good News: Did you watch the North Carolina game? I don't care that they lost. If Greg Oden is 65% of what has been advertised, they're practically unstoppable. Play the perimeter guys and Oden eats you alive. Pack it in to stop Oden and they shoot you out of the gym. They're faster, quicker, more athletic, and simply better than anyone in the conference. And Thad Matta is no slouch. And the program somehow avoided sanctions stemming from the Jim O'Brien era. Things are looking up, tOSU'ers.
The Bad News: Well, it's all contingent on Oden. His first game against Valpo wasn't on TV, but I've been told he looked pretty good (14-10 in 23 minutes). Still, it's a big leap from Valpo to the Big Ten. Plus, he may be spending too much time dancing with pantsless coeds. Should be OK, so long as he refrains from meeting up with Mo Clarett and getting his Goose on.
Best Name on the Roster: Othello Hunter. Apparently, Othello's parents thought Iago was totally cool.
All-Time Great Player: Sure, they have John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, but is it too soon to say Greg Oden? No!
Program High Point: Forget the program. This is the highest point for the state of Ohio (unless, of course, you include the William Howard Taft administration).
Program Low Point: Jim O'Brien resigned in disgrace after giving $6000 to Serbian center Alexander Radojevic and an undisclosed amount to Boban Savovic, another Serb. O'Brien's apparent goal was to start an ethnic conflict with the Croats playing for Northwestern. Ironically, the moves actually led to a certain amount of reconciliation between the nations, as Savovic and Vedran Vukucic bonded over stories of singlehandedly destroying Iowa.
Projection: They still have to go to Florida, but could win that if Oden is OK to go. I'll say they finish 11-2 non-conference, 13-3 conference (nobody gets through the Big Ten unscathed), take a 24-5 record and get a #2 seed in the Big Dance. The Ohio State University should have a great shot at the Final Four (and they may even be able to keep the banner this time!)