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Published: Wednesday, 1/2/2013

Winter is Big Ten’s time to shine on big stage

Conference boasts 5 teams ranked in top 11 in nation

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas defends UNC-Asheville's Will Weeks. OSU is seeking to find a second scoring option after Thomas. Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas defends UNC-Asheville's Will Weeks. OSU is seeking to find a second scoring option after Thomas.
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One more week.

That is when the college football season ends and a new upside-down dynamic overtakes major college sports.

The Big Ten Conference as big cheese.

A punching bag in the fall, it is the lion of winter. Michigan and Ohio State begin play this week in the best basketball league in the country — and, at the moment, it's not particularly close.

The second-ranked Wolverines (13-0), with expectations not seen in Ann Arbor in two decades, and No. 5 Indiana are hailed among the elite national title contenders while No. 8 OSU (10-2) lurks just behind.

Throw in No. 9 Minnesota and No. 11 Illinois and five Big Ten teams tear into league play ranked among the top 11 — a feat unmatched by any conference at this juncture in at least a decade. Expect at least two others, including No. 18 Michigan State, to make the NCAA tournament.

Forget the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference, or Pac-12, which trot out a combined six teams in the top 20. It is as if a map of the United States has been folded in half, and the best basketball has been deposited into Middle America.

How rich is this season for area hoops fans? Half of the nation's eight highest-ranked programs are within 300 miles of Toledo. (Add in fourth-ranked Louisville out of the Big East, for good measure.)

“It's an exciting time,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I think a lot of people will miss the boat on conference play because here in about another week, you'll be hearing people say, 'Oh they're a bubble team, they're this or that.' Big Ten basketball is as good as it gets across the board. From that perspective, it is exciting. But you're also like, strap it on, here we go.”

Matta and Michigan’s John Beilein said they are braced for a grind, though the coaches of the Big Ten’s defending co-champions along with Michigan State are better equipped than most.

UM, which opens at Northwestern on Thursday, looks poised to leap forward in Beilein’s sixth season after finishing 13-5 in the Big Ten last year — its first winning conference record since 2003.

Sophomore Trey Burke leads a team that returns its core, including junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., (15.8 points per game) and is fortified by three blue-chip freshmen. Nik Stauskas stretches the floor with a Big Ten-leading 56.5 percent accuracy rate from beyond the 3-point arc (39 of 69), forward Glenn Robinson III is averaging 12.1 points, and five-star forward Mitch McGary contributes off the bench.

But the Wolverines’ hoard of eeeeeeeoptions begins with Burke, widely billed as the top point guard in the country.

Indiana forward Cody Zeller, left, shoots in front of Iowa center Adam Woodbury. Zeller leads the top scoring offense in the nation. Indiana forward Cody Zeller, left, shoots in front of Iowa center Adam Woodbury. Zeller leads the top scoring offense in the nation.
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A Columbus native passed over by OSU, he’s averaging 17.8 points and 7.4 assists per game.

“He's the most veteran sophomore as far as his poise as I've ever been around,” Beilein said. “I'm looking at him like he's the old man out there running the offense.”

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, continue to face the question that will define their season: Do they have a dependable second scorer behind preseason All-American forward DeShaun Thomas (19.8 points)?

The candidates have struggled with consistency. Junior guard Aaron Craft (9.0 points) is shooting 38 percent from the field, sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross is a natural scorer (9.6) but vulnerable on defense; and junior guard Lenzelle Smith (11.2 points) often sways between extremes. Smith made 1 of 13 3-point attempts against current No. 1 Duke and sixth-ranked Kansas, mirroring the Buckeyes’ shooting woes in their two losses.

OSU, which hosts Nebraska today, needs at least one trusty sidekick to keep up with more balanced teams like Michigan and preseason No. 1 Indiana, which is putting up a national-best 87.9 points per game.

“I think this basketball team has gotten better,” Matta said.

“I honestly do. I think we've lost to the two best teams in college basketball. But we're challenging the guys.”

He knows it begins for real today.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.



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