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Hammer & Rails Big Ten Basketball Preview

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Every night during Big Ten play has the potential for a classic game.

Jamie Squire

It is that time of year again! Big Ten basketball is just around the corner, as the season gets underway next week. The Big Ten should be a juggernaut again, with 11 teams in the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy's initial rankings. That's going to make for some exciting basketball... plus Rutgers.

The Big Ten has never gotten more than seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, but is this the year for eight? It certainly seems possible. The conference is going to be strong enough that, despite my antipathy for teams with losing conference records getting into the dance, 8-10 might be enough to get in. Purdue is one of those teams where it might be enough because of our strong non-conference schedule.

So what are we looking at, exactly? Well, here is a quick look at all 14 teams.

Conference Championship contenders:

Wisconsin - The Badgers are loaded and coming off of a Final Four. They are a well coached team with two outstanding players in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. This team reminds me a lot of Purdue in 2009-10. They are loaded with talent and experience to go with depth. You can't overlook the backcourt of Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, who are both solid college players in their final years of eligibility.

This team is far and away the favorite in the Big Ten and they have a legitimate chance of winning the NCAA title. In fact, I hope they do. I'd love to see a group of juniors and seniors win it all than the next Kentucky flash-in-the-pan freshmen that go on to middling NBA careers. I guess I am old school that way. Prediction: Big Ten Champ, possible Final Four and more.

Michigan State - Never count out Izzo. The Spartans lost three players to the NBA, but still brought in a load of talent to go along with players like Branden Dawson, who have fought a ton of Big Ten wars. Lourawls Nairn Jr. should be a nice replacement for Keith Appling, but Dawson has battled injuries his entire career. As much as he is a leader for this team and prototypical MSU forward, he has to be able to stay on the court.

This team lost a bunch, but that is the nature of college basketball. Izzo has been the most consistent coach in the league for over a decade and will have his team fighting all year long. Their usual tough non-conference slate will pay huge dividends by the end of the year. Prediction: Solid NCAA Tournament Team

Michigan - I know I am in the minority, but the two times I saw them play as high school teammates I thought Zak Irvin was a better player than Gary Harris. That's not to say Harris was terrible, but I have seen what Irvin can do when he takes over a game. He has the ability to be a First-Team all-Big Ten player and keep the Wolverines in the discussion at the top of the conference.

One of the things that could hurt Michigan in the long run was the loss of a ton of talent. They bring in six freshmen, making them about as young of a team overall as Purdue. They still have the one-two punch of Irvin and Caris LaVert, which gives them a chance in every single game they play. Prediction: Solid NCAA Tournament Team

NCAA Teams:

Nebraska - No team was hotter at the end of last season than Nebraska, who came seemingly out of nowhere to make its first NCAA Tournament in 16 years. Shavon Shields and Terran Petteway give them some great options on the wing, but the strength of this team is defense. Tim Miles is building a solid program in Lincoln that is on the rise. They are earning more than a fair amount of respect since joining the league.

Can they score enough though? Last season they averaged under 67 points per game. Yes, this is a defensive league, but you still need to get to 70. Of course, if you hold teams under 70 it becomes a lot easier to win. Prediction: NCAA Tournament team

Ohio State - Normally I don't buy into Ohio State because Thad Matta is ridiculously short on his rotations. He still recruits well, but his teams often lose quite a bit and eventually that will catch up to him. This team is senior dominated with Amir Williams, Sam Thompson, and Shannon Scott leading the way. They should be good, but last year they had many of the same players, plus a senior point guard, and only went 10-8 in the league.

The Buckeyes should be excellent in the post and at getting to the basket, but long-range shooting is a concern. They have the talent to beat anyone, but if they have a bad offensive night they could lose to anyone. Prediction: NCAA Tournament team

The Creamy Middle:

Iowa - The Hawkeyes made the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in awhile, but they lose quite a bit from a team that was solidly in the middle of the Big Ten. What does that mean for this year? Aaron White and Adam Woodbury give them a very strong front court, but losing Roy Devyn Marble really hurts.

This is still a team completely built by Fran McCaffery, so it is going to play hard and it is going to play smart. There is no backcourt depth and scoring could be a problem. Even last year, with a stronger team, Iowa barely made the tournament and was knocked out by Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. Like many teams in the Creamy Middle, they could get beaten up and fallout or they could band together and survive. Prediction: NIT (possible NCAA bubble)

Minnesota - When I was looking at Minnesota during my Purdue season preview I noted how they were almost dead even with Purdue. After playing two games, including one that went three overtimes, with the Boilers both teams were tied, each getting a three-point victory on its home floor. Minnesota is pretty much the essence of a middle Big Ten team: they have some very nice pieces like Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu, but they have enough flaws that they aren't a true contender.

I guess one of your biggest arguments is how much experience can the NIT bring? This team won the NIT a year ago, so it did get some solid postseason experience, but it was still the NIT. Prediction: NCAA team

Illinois - The Illini could be a team on the rise after only making the NIT second round last season. Nnanna Egwu is a solid defensive presence in the middle and Rayvonte Rice should be an even better scorer in 2014-15. This is a deep team. Only two major players were lost, but one was Tracy Abrams. Kendrick Nunn needs to have a bigger role, but this will be a stout defensive team and an offensive team that could surprise people.

Can they get over losing so many close games? It seems like Illinois has been a team lately that can beat anyone, but then inevitably gacks up a game or two before going into a spiral. The Illini must break that. Prediction: NCAA Team

Purdue - I am riding high on the Boilers and what coach Painter has said about this group of freshmen being his most mature since 2007. That maturity is sorely needed, as Purdue has missed its Purdue edge for some time. There is definitely some talent here and both A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas can dominate the post, but if Purdue doesn't get back to playing hard-nosed basketball like it used to it means nothing.

The Boilers can definitely be an NCAA team. I outlined how in my extensive preview earlier when I looked at every game. They have to show the unselfishness and team unity they showed in the exhibition opener, however. Prediction: NCAA Team

Maryland - Dez Wells is expected to be one of the top players in the Big Ten, but this was still a middling team in a far weaker ACC last season. They struggled to shoot the basketball and really have not been good at all under Mark Turgeon. This used to be an NCAA lock of a program, but they have fallen quite a bit in recent years. What could help them is a new conference, but of the Creamy Middle teams they could get beaten up the most.

One bonus is four 4-star recruits coming in that could make an immediate impact. Prediction: NIT

Indiana - No team in the conference is off to a worse start than the Hoosiers. One player is injured indefinitely, three more are suspended for four games, and the front court is extremely thin. I like the backcourt of Kevin Farrell as a solid point guard and James Blackmon as a shooter, but Blackmon is looking to be a one-and-done out for his own stats. I only have to look at his team's performance in the last seasons Indiana HS tournament. Much was expected from him and Marion, but he tried to do it all himself and a more unified team in Kokomo took them out in the first round. Blackmon is nothing more than Eric Gordon 2.0: a great individual player that doesn't necessarily make his team better.

There is still a lot of individual talent on this team, more than enough to compete in the league. Can coach Crean get them to play as a team, however? Prediction: NIT

Not an NCAA threat, but a very tough out every night

Northwestern - The Alex Olah led Wildcats would have been a tournament team last year if they had gotten to play the Indiana schools. Northwestern swept Purdue and split with Indiana, but didn't do a whole lot the rest of the time. This is not quite a Bill Carmody type of Northwestern team. They actually brought in a four-star recruit with small forward Victor Law. The return of Jershon Cobb and Bryant McIntosh, a damn good point guard from two-time class 3A Indiana State Champ Greensburg will make Northwestern a tough team.

McIntosh is legit too. Purdue tried to get him when he was still committed to Indiana State. His teams went 77-3 the last three seasons with a pair of Class 3A state titles, so the kid is just a winner. The Big Ten is not going to be happy he landed at Northwestern. Prediction: Possible NIT, Nasty out every night.

Penn State - They play in a morgue with absolutely no character, which allows them to lull opponents to sleep and spring an upset. They always have a Talor Battle-type of guard that can single-handedly takeover a game and Tim Frazier passed that baton over to D.J. Newbill. Donovan Jack and Ross Travis give them an experienced front court so they can definitely play with most teams.

Unfortunately, they do not have the depth and overall talent that the rest of the league. This is a team that would be very good in many other conferences, but in the Big Ten they don't have as much as everyone else. Prediction: Possible NIT

And then there is Rutgers

Rutgers - Could the Scarlet Knights go through the entire season without a Big Ten victory? This is a team that was 12-21 last year in the American, a conference that had Louisville and UConn, but not a lot else. They lost a regular season game to something called a Fairleigh Dickenson and Kadeem Jackson is about the only serviceable Big Ten player. They are a young team that lost a bunch of their top players and now they are jumping into the best basketball conference in the country.

Purdue got a major gift by playing them twice. It is hard to see them winning more than three conference games, if that much. Prediction: Pain