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updated: 10/25/2012 4:27 PM

Big Ten basketball ready to flex its muscle

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  • With all five starters back from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16, Indiana men's basketball coach Tom Crean's team is ranked No. 1 in the country.

      With all five starters back from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16, Indiana men's basketball coach Tom Crean's team is ranked No. 1 in the country.
    Associated Press

  • Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody will try to find more balanced scoring to replace all-time scoring leader John Shurna from last season's team.

      Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody will try to find more balanced scoring to replace all-time scoring leader John Shurna from last season's team.
    Associated Press

  • Illinois head coach John Groce expects his team to get better every day, but with five Big Ten schools in the Top 25 nationally, the Illini will be facing a big challenge in the conference.

      Illinois head coach John Groce expects his team to get better every day, but with five Big Ten schools in the Top 25 nationally, the Illini will be facing a big challenge in the conference.
    Associated Press

 
 

At best, Big Ten football has been borderline bad this season.

When the Bowl Championship Series rankings first came out, not one Big Ten team was in the Top 25.

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This week, you can find Michigan at No. 22 in the BCS and Wisconsin at No. 25. Thrilling.

Fortunately for Big Ten fans, it's almost time to tip off the basketball season. And unlike football, the conference is not a laughingstock.

"Last year, I felt we had the best league in the country," Purdue coach Matt Painter said Thursday during the Big Ten 2012 Basketball Media Day at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Rosemont. "I think you've got to prove yourself all over again. I think it looks like we could do that again on paper, but you have to go out from a nonconference standpoint and solidify yourself.

"But we have talent in our league from top to bottom and I think that's maybe what separates us. Obviously, those teams that have been voted in the Top 25 are all worthy of those rankings, but I think the teams that are at the bottom in the rankings are teams that can push to the top and put themselves in good position come March."

In the preseason USA Today Coaches' poll, Indiana is ranked No. 1 in the country. Led by star center Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers return all five starters from last year's team that went 27-9 and made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

"I feel like we've embraced it (No. 1 ranking)," said Jordan Hulls, Indiana's sharpshooting senior guard. "There's always pressure playing at a big-time program so we're taking it by strides. It's a good kind of pressure."

The Hoosiers are facing a pressure-packed conference schedule, considering Ohio State is ranked No. 4, Michigan No. 5, Michigan State No. 14 and Wisconsin No. 21.

"One of the biggest things I've seen in my time is the level of player has really increased," said coach Thad Matta, who is entering his ninth season at Ohio State. "You couple all of that with the guys that are coaching, I think that's what makes it a great league. I don't think any of us can walk up there and say: 'I know we're going to win this game.'"

Northwestern and Illinois are expected to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten standings, but both local schools were feeling optimistic on Thursday.

NU posted its fourth straight winning season last year, but the Wildcats are still seeking their first NCAA tourney berth and must find a way to replace Glen Ellyn's John Shurna, their all-time leading scorer.

"Shurna was obviously great for Northwestern for four years," said sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski, a Naperville native and Benet Academy grad. "He's gone, and obviously it's going to hurt us. But we've got a lot of new guys who will help us right away. They'll come step in and play minutes. Not a single person is going to replace what Shurna did. It's going to be a group effort."

Illinois is moving forward without center Miles Leonard, who is now playing for the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers.

John Groce replaces Bruce Weber as head coach, and it looks like the Illini are going to need big scoring from senior guard Brandon Paul if they hope to compete in the rugged Big Ten.

"That's a position I enjoy being in," said Paul, an all-stater at Warren High School in Gurnee. "They're not expecting a lot from us and it gives us a chance to come out and surprise some people. Everyone's pretty much bought into coach Groce's offense and his system. It's been a pretty good transition for us."

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