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Monday, February 16, 2009

Mike Bradley: Playing Favorites Has Never Been So Hard, Part 2

Big Ten

Contenders: Michigan State

With the Big Ten showing improvement throughout the conference this year, only one team really sticks out thus far. Despite a hiccup versus an on-fire Northwestern team, Michigan State has asserted their dominance thus far. Losses to ACC teams Maryland and North Carolina also not withstanding, Michigan State has had another very impressive campaign thus far. Led by the big-scoring little man Kalin Lucas and do-it-all forward Raymar Morgan, Michigan State looks to have just enough production out of their role players to make some serious noise in March. With an early season upset over Texas, a big nonconference win over Kansas, as well as impressive conference wins at Minnesota (ranked), Ohio State and Illinois, the resume the Spartans are building should provide a solid seeding and a somewhat favorable route to the Final Four. 

Jury is still out: Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State

From a talent perspective, Purdue can compete with anyone in the Big Ten. Being led by a trio of sophomores, regardless of skill, is still going to be an issue for the Boilermakers. Guard E'Twaun Moore and Forward JaJuan Johnson ooze talent, but when one shows up, the other usually is a no-show. Meanwhile, arguably the most talented player, forward Robbie Hummel, has generally been a literal no-show. Registering DNPs against in losses against Penn State, Ohio State, and Illinois prove that the Boilermakers really struggle when Hummel is MIA. Can a young team really survive in March when they seem to rely heavily on the presence of one man? It's hard to see anything better than a second-round exit, depending on their seeding. Illinois shows a nice blend of veteran leadership and upstart underclassman, but they, too, have question marks. While four double digit scorers is nice to have in March, the Illini have shown they can't beat good teams on the road. Road losses to Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (in which they only managed 36 points, a high school score total) indicate that Illinois isn't ready to win away from Champaign. There's also something when your  7'1'' big man is only pulling down 3.8 boards a game in conference with little-to-no big men. You know it's a goofy year when "Minnesota" and "contender" are even close to being considered, but it's hard to back up their resume. Lawrence Westbrook is a nice player and the Golden Gophers most consistent scorer, but nothing else is too "golden" about this team. Aside from a home upset of Louisville, nothing stands out on their nonconference slate, while conference losses to Northwestern and Penn State show that these Gophers aren't quite ready for the Big Dance. Ohio State's resume might be one of the most intriguing of this bunch. Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Evan Turner is a do-it-all guard-forward who scores in bunches and pulls down rebounds with the best of them. Complimented by guards Will Buford and Jon Diebler, Oden-Conley-era holdover David Lighty, and super frosh B.J. Mullens in the center, the talent is all there. Impressive nonconference wins over the likes of Miami, Notre Dame, and Butler help the Buckeyes overcome two losses to conference powerhouse Michigan State,  road losses to Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and a nonconference loss to the streak West Virginia Mountaineers. If Turner throws his inexperience out the window and takes over this team, noise could be made out of Columbus.

Pretenders: Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State

A team that looked like a solid contender in the Big Ten yet again, the Badgers aren't quite living up to the lofty standards that had them ranked 21st in the country heading into the year. Led by senior forward Marcus Landry and junior guards Trevon Hughes, and Jason Bohannon, Wisconsin has not scored any quality nonconference wins and their significant Big Ten wins are all the product of home court advantage. A six game losing streak which included losses to conference bottom dwellers Iowa and Northwestern, only help the case against the Badgers as a team with any real shot in March. Not many teams have the nonconference resume Michigan has put together. Wins over UCLA and Duke had major hype around the Wolverines for the first time since the Fab Five graced the Ann Arbor campus. Led by fan favorites and Michigan natives Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, the Wolverines started off as one of the surprises in college basketball this season. It didn't take long, however, for the basketball team to take after the kind of season the football team had just wrapped up. Enduring inconsistency throughout the Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines played themselves right out of March Madness talk. Losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State at home, as well as heartbreaking losses to Michigan State and #1 Connecticut have left Michigan playing for their bids. Every game from here on out is a must win, and it's hard to see them running the table and getting an at-large bid. Penn State is in a situation much like Michigan. Lacking the nonconference wins of the same magnitude as Michigan, the Nittany Lions do have some quality in-conference wins to hang their hats on. Beating Purdue and Michigan at home and upsetting Michigan State in Lansing only slightly covers up nonconference losses to Rhode Island and Temple, but it does put them in a decent position to control their own destiny. Seniors Stanley Pringle and Jamelle Cornley will need to team up with super soph Talor Battle if they want any hope at a March Madness experience, but it's an uphill battle.

Big 12

Contenders: Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas

Whenever a National Player of the Year candidate is leading your team, expectations are high. Blake Griffin and Co. are not disappointing. Behind Grffin's ridiculous line of 22.8 PPG and 14.2 RPG, the Sooners look Final Four-bound, even coming out of a notoriously weak conference. Nonconference wins over Stephen Curry and Davidson, then-#9 Purdue, and USC are all impressive resume games to add to their outright dominance of the Big 12's best. A 15-point win over Texas, and 19-point win over Baylor, and a 21-point win over Texas Tech are all a testament to the outright dominance the Sooners display night in and night out. The emergence of guard Willie Warren's outside shooting allow  Blake Griffin a little more space to do his superman act, and it's tough to see anyone slowing down the Boomer Sooners. Almost as surprising as the aforementioned Big Ten teams (albeit without the late season letdown), the Missouri Tigers have shocked the country on their way to an anticipated top-3 finish in the Big 12 this year, as well as a promising March Madness showing. Led by a pair of 6'8'' seniors in DeMarre Carroll and Leon Lyons, the Tigers have been quietly building a solid resume and should receive a great seeding for the tournament. It's already known they can play with the big boys in the regular season (wins over USC, California, Texas, Baylor, and Kansas). It's just a matter of performing under the bright lights in March. Anything less than advancing past the second round would be a resounding failure for this athletic team. Then you have the defending National Champions...sans Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, and Russell Robinson, but defending champs nonetheless. Luckily for them, Cole Aldrich got some valuable experience in the tournament (Right, Tyler Hansbrough?) and Sherron Collins stuck around to be "The Man" for the Jayhawks this year. Meanwhile a solid freshman class led by Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris, as well as sophomore Brady Morningstar are playing their roles just well enough for Kansas to be a real threat come March.

Jury is still out: Texas

First it was Kevin Durant. Then D.J. Augustin. A.J. Abrams was the last man standing. After 2 years of being the 2nd or 3rd fiddle, it was Abrams turn to shine. And shine he did...for a while. Scoring 20+ points ten times so far this year, Abrams is the undeniable leader of the Longhorns. The only problem with that is the Longhorns are 6-4 in the Big 12 this year so far. To put that in perspective, the Longhorns lost only three Big 12 games in each of the last two seasons. Abrams isn't the only one at fault, as he is truthfully playing out of position at the point guard spot. After averaging nearly 10 PPG last year, senior center Connor Atchley seems to be missing a true PG the most, as he is scuffling to get around 5.5 PPG this year. With losses to Kansas State and Nebraska as black eyes on their tournament resume, the Longhorns are looking at a 7 to 10 seed, and a tough road to follow in the tournament. If Durant and Augustin weren't up to the tournament task, something says Abrams won't be any better.

Pretenders: Baylor, Kansas State, Texas A&M

Early season "sleeper status" was endowed upon the Bears of Baylor, and they didn't disappoint. An early season upset over Arizona State was a nice resume builder, and hiccups against the likes of Wake Forest and South Carolina weren't backbreakers to their tournament chances. However, losing six straight conference games, three of which at home, will do the trick. It will take a valiant effort by senior leader Curtis Jerrells and sophomore stud LaceDarius Dunn for Baylor to have any chance at sneaking into the Dance. Kansas State has the best chance of the "pretenders" to actually make into March. Even with Michael Beasley's departure, the Wildcats have put together a pretty solid season behind guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen. However, with no major nonconference wins and a few too many Big 12 losses, it will take a big run of wins for K-State to make another appearance in March. When looking at Texas A&M's 17-8 record, you see an early home win versus and underachieving Arizona team, a home win versus a noncontender from the SEC in LSU, and not much else. Sure the Big 12 win over then-ranked Baylor is nice, but the seven Big 12 losses kind of outweigh everything. Senior guard-forward Josh Carter is nice player, and it's a shame he couldn't get a little bit of help. Texas A&M will have a nice view of the tournament from their living rooms. *

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