Henson: Big Ten basketball freakishly strong
Vander Blue isn’t too impressed with the Big Ten conference, but the same can’t be said for AP voters and college basketball coaches around the country.The newly released AP Top 25 poll features six Big Ten teams in the rankings, while the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll showcases five from the Big Ten. A loaded Michigan State team comes in at No. 2, and the Purdue Boilermakers enter the season at No. 7 in both polls.Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota all have spots in the rankings, and Illinois even snuck into the AP poll at No. 23.To give some perspective, the Big Ten has one more ranked team in the AP poll than the ever-popular Big East, which has five, while the numbers are reversed in the Coaches poll. The Big Ten also boasts more ranked teams than the ACC — a conference that looks pretty weak aside from Duke and UNC.Now preseason rankings are pretty meaningless overall, but in my opinion, they have made one thing very clear — the Big Ten will be one of college basketball’s top conferences.At least in the 2009-10 season.The Big East gets a lot of credit for its depth and style of play, but let’s remember that it was a Big Ten team that squared off against an ACC squad in last year’s championship game.After going through a physical and defensive-minded Big Ten slate, the Spartans were proven on both ends come tournament time. Sparty shut down an uber-explosive Louisville team en route to a championship appearance, and they showed the country just how far Big Ten basketball can go.But that was last year. This time around, the Big Ten is that much tougher.Purdue comes into the 2009 season with a talented and experienced roster that is primed for a deep NCAA run. Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and Chris Kramer are all returning for the Boilermakers.I swear, it seems like these guys have been on this team for a solid decade, but Matt Painter’s team is going to be that much better with another year of experience under its belt.So, MSU and Purdue are clearly the top teams, but teams like Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota also bring back a wealth of talent. The Wolverines are continuing to improve, and Manny Harris has shown signs of promise as a pure scorer. When DeShawn Sims is playing well and establishes a presence inside, this is a tough team to beat.But the conference’s best all-around player doesn’t play for MSU, Michigan or Purdue. The conference’s top player suits up in scarlet and gray.Evan Turner returns to an Ohio State team that looks to bounce back after a disappointing loss in the NCAA Tournament to an upset-minded Sienna team. We saw firsthand how dominant Turner can be last year as Mr. Everything for OSU, and I would expect more of the same from the junior this time around.And as much as it pains me to say it, Minnesota seems to be heading in the right direction under head coach Tubby Smith. The Gophers beat the Badgers twice last year, and they are clearly no longer a pushover. I’m not sold on the Gophers coming in as the No. 18 team in the land (according to the Coaches), but Minnesota’s improvement has made the Big Ten conference that much better.Lastly, it’s the Illini who earned themselves a ranking in the AP poll. Bruce Weber’s team was just barely shut out of the Coaches’ poll, and Illinois has a lot of talent and potential returning alongside a strong incoming freshman class.Now there is a look at the Big Ten’s top teams, according to the preseason polls, but I feel like a team is missing.Oh, yeah. That would be the Wisconsin Badgers.You know, the team that has never had a losing record in the Big Ten under head coach Bo Ryan. The team that constantly frustrates the hell out of opponents and in recent years has always been found near the top of the Big Ten standings.The fact that the Badgers are projected by some to finish seventh in the Big Ten could speak to the depth of this conference.But the experts just don’t expect much from UW this year. They say the losses of Marcus Landry and Joe Krabbenhoft will hurt too much and they say there just aren’t enough proven players on this team. I’ve heard that before.If there is one thing I have learned as a UW sports fan, it’s this: Under Bo Ryan, regardless of who is out on the floor, the Wisconsin Badgers will always have a shot at the Big Ten title. Period.So, I personally expect the Badgers to contend for the conference title this year like they always do, but I know this year’s race is going to be an extremely heated one.Elite squads like MSU and Purdue — mixed in with several improving programs that possess game-changing individuals — make this Big Ten conference one of the deepest I have seen. So say what you want about the Big Ten. Call it slow, call it boring, and if you hate watching legitimate defense played, turn on any random NBA game.But as a Badger fan, I’ll be watching some great college basketball, because this year the Big Ten is one of the most competitive conferences around.Max is a junior majoring in journalism. Think the Big Ten is overrated this year? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.