5 Things: Early thoughts on the Big Ten

A couple weeks into the Big Ten season, here are five things that have caught my eye.

We're now more than a week into Big Ten play, and it's shaping up to be an interesting year in the conference. Here are some of my early impressions from the Big Ten.

1. IT'S MOSTLY WIDE OPEN: I say mostly because Wisconsin is clearly the class of the league and figures to win the title. That's not to say the Badgers can't be or won't be beat, but they have the best team and should be able to endure the ups and downs of the next couple months.

Other than Wisconsin, though, the league is pretty wide open. There are seven or eight teams, starting with Maryland, that could fight for the next couple of spots in the standings. If a certain team gets hot or finds some consistency, the league is wide open for that team to make a run.

The Big Ten isn't as top heavy as it has been in recent years, but there are still plenty of good teams in the league that figure to be playing better by the time March rolls around. As we saw in football, it was foolish to right off the Big Ten just because it struggled during the non-conference slate.

Here's how I see the conference right now:

TIER ONE: Wisconsin

TIER TWO: Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa

TIER THREE: Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota

TIER FOUR: Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State, Nebraska

2. PURDUE COULD MAKE SOME NOISE: I've been really impressed by the Boilermakers thus far, something I wasn't saying before conference play began. Purdue was terrible down the stretch in the non-conference, losing to Vanderbilt and Gardner-Webb, and getting blown out by Notre Dame by 31 points.

But Purdue has a team that can compete in this conference when big man A.J. Hammons is mentally locked in and ready to play. The two-headed monster of Hammons and 7-foot-2 freshman Isaac Haas will cause problems for every team, including Wisconsin, which narrowly beat the Boilers at home on Wednesday night.

The question for Purdue, as with many teams in the Big Ten, will continue to be: Can it be consistent? If so, the Boilers can make some noise in the conference.

3. IMPORTANCE OF X-FACTORS: For Indiana, Troy Williams is the x-factor. For Ohio State, it's D'Angelo Russell. For Purdue, it's Hammons. Most teams in the conference have one, and they are incredibly important to their team's success.

When Williams is at his best, Indiana is nearly impossible to beat because of the shooters it puts on the floor at all time. When he struggles -- like he did against Michigan State -- things get much harder for the Hoosiers because they don't have another player that can do the things he can.

Similarly, Ohio State has gone as Russell goes this year, even though he's just a freshman. When Russell is making shots, the Buckeyes are tough to beat. But when he's not, they struggle to score. Interestingly enough, those two guys could match up with each other on Saturday afternoon in Bloomington.

4. NOT VINTAGE MICHIGAN STATE, BUT: The Spartans are still very dangerous. It's not one of Tom Izzo's most talented teams, but Michigan State defends as well as any team in the conference, and it has capable scorers that simply haven't produced consistently to this point. Despite having five losses, Michigan State still ranks 17th nationally by KenPom.com. Wisconsin is certainly the favorite, but I wouldn't count out Michigan State.

5. SKEPTICISM ABOUT IOWA: Iowa has looked like an elite team at times this year, but I'm still skeptical. The Hawkeyes had a great start last year, and crumbled late because they couldn't stop anybody. Could that happen again?

To this point, Iowa has been much better defensively, and it has found another scoring option in Jarrod Uthoff. They won at Ohio State and beat Nebraska at home, but are the Hawkeyes for real?


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