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A way too early look at the Big Ten

Being a blogger, it seems I am contractually obligated to take a look at next basketball season while we are still in the wake of this season. I have already laid down my expectations for Purdue: No less than a National Championship. It won't be easy though. Part of the reason I think we are going to win is that we will be tested throughout our non-conference season as well as the conference season.

The truth is, we may never get another chance as good as next year to win it all. Thanks to the research provided yesterday by the Purdue Basketball Blog, there is little question that we are going to be a preseason top 5 team and Final Four favorite. I feel like karma owes us too for all the injuries suffered this year. A tough schedule doesn't necessarily equal a Final Four berth (ask Butler), but it helps you be prepared for the battles ahead. I also think that the pressure of playing so close to home (as it would have been this year) will be off. It is a crossroads of sorts. If we cannot at least make it to Houston next year with an absolutely loaded team, I'll start to wonder if we will ever make it.

Some have even wildly said we might have a chance at being undefeated. While I do think we're going to have a fantastic team, saying we might go undefeated is a huge stretch. Realistically, we're not going to win at Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Illinois, at West Virginia, and possibly at Duke or North Carolina. Can we win most of those? Of course! But to think we win each of those is a stretch even for my optimism.

While I talked about Purdue exclusively last week, let's take a look at the Big Ten. The conference got five teams into the year's tournament, with a sixth right on the edge. I don't think six is a stretch for next season (assuming they have a 65 team field still). If the tournament expands to 96 teams you might even see a record eight. I still think the expansion to 96 is a horrible idea and it cheapens the experience, but whatever. All that matters is what you do once you get there. We're unlikely to be one of the 64 teams that would have to play in the expanded first round, so we would still have to win six games to take the title.

The Big Ten is still going to be a tough conference next year. Few conferences will have our depth and experience, making every game a tough one. That said, here is my predicted order of finish:

1A. Purdue - Right now I think the race begin Michigan State and Purdue is too close to call. We will be experienced and deep, but so will Michigan State. They have an excellent recruiting class coming in, while ours is pretty good. We may not have the instant impact guys that MSU has, but our class will be excellent because it adds the right pieces to the puzzle in terms of support players. Obviously, the big three of JJ, Robbie, and E'Twaun give us incredible experience with two Sweet 16's, a Big Ten title, and a Big Ten Tourney title. The biggest question is JaJuan Johnson. I think he will return. If he doesn't, Purdue will be very, very good and a top 15 team. If he does return, we're a true title contender. UPDATE: GBI posted this afternoon that JJ is still thinking about it. Please join me in sending subliminal messages towards West Lafayette to get him to stay. If anyone is in the School of Aviation and can do one of those signs behind a plane over campus, even better. As for how we match up with the Spartans, my premise from this season stands. Let's just split the regular season and settle things first in Indianapolis for the Big Ten, then in Houston nationally. Postseason: NCAA bid, national title or bust

1B. Michigan State - It is hard to ignore a team that got to the Final Four without Kalin Lucas and with Delvon Roe and Chris Allen banged up for most of the tournament. The bottom line is that no one gets it done during the Big Ten regular season and in the NCAA's right now better than Tom Izzo. In the season wrap from The Only Colors, KJ pointed out MSU's experience over the last two years and how it can carry over. They will be deep and they will be talented. Both games between us should be epic. Postseason: NCAA bid, national title or bust

3. Ohio State - The third champion from this past year is likely losing the National Player of the year in Evan Turner, but they bring in an excellent class. Will it be enough to stay on top? I have heard about DeShaun Thomas for the last four years here in Indiana. He finished 3rd all-time in the state in scoring, becoming only the third player in Indiana High School basketball history to score more than 3,000 points. He was one point out of the #2 spot on the list and within 100 points of Damon Bailey's record. Many people have knocked his defense, however. You need to play defense in this league, and his final performance in high school showed he still has a way to go. Ft. Wayne Luers was heavily favored to win its thread straight 2A championship, but they were knocked out in the first round of the regionals (The sweet 16 game in each class) by Southwood, a team that probably had no business beating a team like Luers. The reason was lazy defense. Had Luers repeated, Thomas may have broken Bailey's record. This translates over the Buckeyes because there is no question they will be talented, but I see Purdue and Michigan State's experience given them an edge. Postseason: Top 4 seed in NCAA's, at least a Sweet 16 appearance.

4. Illinois - I see the Fighting Illini as being one of those teams that defends its home court very well, but can't get the big road win they need to get the conference crown. Virtually everyone returns from a team that had some agonizingly close losses that cost them an NCAA bid. They have an Illinois Mr. Basketball coming in that should fit in quite nicely. This can be a Big Ten championship team with a few breaks. I think to do so they will need to hold serve at home while getting two of three from the above three teams on the road. In my opinion, Mike Tisdale is right up there with JJ in terms of being a versatile center in this league. Postseason: Top 5 seed in NCAA's, Sweet 16 threat.

5. Wisconsin - The Badgers lose Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes, but Bo Ryan doesn't know how to finish lower than fifth in the Big Ten. They plug some guys in their spots, most likely Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson. We know they will defend the Kohl Center like the Japanese on Iwo Jima. We know Keaton Nankivil is good for five three pointers when he comes to Mackey Arena. Beating them will not be easy for anyone in the league. Postseason: NCAA bid, Sweet 16 threat.

6. Minnesota - I'm not sure what to think about the Golden Gophers. Only they and Illinois were so up and down this year. Minnesota took our Purdue and Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament, but lost at Indiana and was swept convincingly by Michigan. One of the top recruits in the country is still considering them, but he is undecided.  Ralph Sampson III, when he decides he wants to be an offensive threat, is a mismatch for most teams. This is a talented team, but they still lack consistency. Postseason: NCAA bid

7. Northwestern - If Northwestern does not break the NCAA drought next season they never will. The Wildcats were still a threat this year even without Kevin Coble. If the tournament expands to 96 teams I don't see how Northwestern doesn't make it next season unless Bill Carmody does the worst coaching job in NCAA history. A 65 team field might be difficult, but not impossible. The truth is that Northwestern would have made it each of the last two years if they simply could have taken care of business against the teams below them. This year it was getting swept by Penn State and losing at Indiana and Iowa. Think about it. Even against a weak schedule, they are 24-9 and 11-7 in Big Ten play with a win over a completely healthy Purdue team if they win those four very winnable games. How do they not get in in that scenario? Two years ago a loss at Iowa was crushing. The talent is clearly there and the schedule will be tough in Big Ten play. I'm not sure what the non-conference schedule will bring, but If they are above .500 in conference play they should be in. They have more than enough talent to do that. Postseason: NCAA Bid.

8. Penn State - To me, there is a huge gap between the Wildcats and Nittany Lions at this point. Penn State has a chance against anyone because of Talor Battle, but there needs to be something else around him if they are going to be above .500 overall. Still, battle gives them a proven stud and that is more than the three teams below them. This team had no seniors this year, so you can read that one of two ways. Either some experience will carry over and make them better, or the same crappy roster will produce nothing. Postseason: NIT bid at best, if it still exists.

9. Indiana - So now we get to the Hoosiers. A healthy Maurice Creek makes them better. The Big Ten did not get to see him, but he is clearly a solid player. They don't lose anybody of grave importance except Devan Dumes. Where they will struggle is in the frontcourt. Every team in this conference has a serviceable post presence except Indiana. Tom Pritchard took about 17 steps back this year (minus the first half of the Purdue game in Bloomington). Christian Watford and Bobby Capobianco never truly asserted themselves. This is still not a team that has proven it can't avoid shooting itself in the foot yet. Until Indiana proves that it won't turn the ball over and develops a true post presence they will not get better. Postseason: None

10. Michigan - You can probably flip a coin here for last place, because I think both Iowa and the Wolverines  are going to be awful. Michigan was bad this year with two possible NBA players. Both will be gone next year. I give them a slight edge over Iowa because at least they have the same coach. Iowa is starting over (again). Postseason: None

11. Iowa - I like Fran McCaffery as a coach. He did some very nice things at Siena. He has virtually nothing in Iowa City and there still could be rampant transfers. It could be very ugly considering that Iowa's only win over a team that played in any postseason tournament was Northwestern. At least this hiring would have been entertaining for next year. Postseason: None