Dienhart: Lining Up My Big Ten Three-Pointers

For now, football is in my rear view window and the road for me ahead has plenty of Big Ten hoops. In my first installment of my Big Ten Three-Pointers, my aim is to fire up 3-pointers from around the Big Ten as I look back at the previous week’s news and then ahead to what’s coming. Ready, set, shoot …

3 Things I Learned
1. The Big Ten may be the nation’s top league, if you believe the RPI and Sagarin Ratings. They rate the conference No. 1 in the country. In fact, nine Big Ten teams are in the RPI Top 50. No doubt, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and Michigan look like elite teams. Who else will step up? Wisconsin? Illinois? Purdue? Iowa?

2. Purdue may have issues. The Boilermakers looked to be hitting their stride after a 2-0 start in the Big Ten, easing fears over blowing double-digit second-half leads against Xavier and Butler in December. But Purdue’s 20-point loss at Penn State casts doubt on ability and leadership. Where have you gone, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore?

3. Iowa is a dark horse. Yes, there were early-season losses to Northern Iowa, Iowa State and—gulp—Campbell. But the Hawkeyes are coming along, winning back-to-back Big Ten road games for the first time in five years. The players know how to execute Fran McCaffery’s up-tempo attack that pushes the pace in transition. Remember: The Hawkeyes haven’t been to the tourney since 2006.

3 Truths
1. Ohio State is the team to beat. I know, I know. No shock there. The big key will be for the Buckeyes to keep Jared Sullinger healthy. The big fellas is a mismatch for anyone in the nation. Combined with Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, William Buford et al., Ohio State has the most talented roster in the conference.

2. Indiana is legit. The Hoosiers’ turnaround under Tom Crean looks complete in his fourth season in Bloomington. Indiana already has beaten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation—a rare feat. This is a squad that has a nice blend of youth and experience led by the deadly duo of Christian Watford and Cody Zeller.

3. Michigan State lurks. After opening with losses to Duke and North Carolina, the Spartans have reeled off 14 wins in a row and look poised to challenge for the Big Ten title. Per usual, the Spartans are playing suffocating defense and rebounding with ferocity and look to have that drive and desire that was missing last season. Scary.

3 Impressive wins
1. Michigan State 80, Indiana 65. The last thing missing from the Hoosiers’ resume is an impressive Big Ten road win. Still missing.

2. Michigan State 63, Wisconsin 60 OT. Now we all know: Only pay attention to the clock on top of the basket.

3. Indiana 73, Michigan 71. Don’t you wonder how good the Wolverines would be if Darius Morris had not turned pro?

3 Lines of the week
1. Christian Watford, F, Indiana: 25 points; 7 rebounds; 4 assists; 8-of-11 from the field; 3-4 from 3-point range; 6-8 from line in win vs. Michigan.

2. Matt Gatens, G, Iowa: 19 points; 6 rebounds; 3 steals in win at Minnesota.

3. Billy Oliver, F, Penn State: career-high 21 points; 2 rebounds; 7-11 from 3-point range.

3 Games to Look Forward To
1. Ohio State at Iowa, Jan. 7. The Buckeyes’ depth and athletic ability will be a severe test for the surging Hawkeyes.

2. Wisconsin at Michigan, Jan. 8. This is no way for an ailing Badger team to get better. But after already suffering a stunning three home losses, maybe Wisconsin can find solace on the road. Maybe not.

3. Iowa at Michigan State, Jan. 10. How much will the Hawkeyes have left in the tank after playing host to the Buckeyes three days earlier?

3 Big Predictions
1. The Big Ten champ will have four losses. The league is too strong at the top, with many big games left. Michigan State still has to play Michigan twice and play at Ohio State and at Indiana; Michigan has to play Ohio State twice and Indiana; Indiana has to play at Wisconsin and at Ohio State. Throw in what are sure to be some upsets we don’t see coming, and you can see how the Big Ten champ could have four blemishes.

2. Keith Appling will end up being the top guard in the Big Ten. Love the guy. In the win at Wisconsin, Appling took over at key moments down the stretch to help the Spartans score a huge victory. The 6-1 sophomore is a triple threat as a scorer, passer and rebounder—yes, a rebounder.

3. Wisconsin will have no shot to win the Big Ten unless is straightens out its shooting. The Badgers have been in a recent 8-of-50 funk from 3-point range, relying too much on wayward long-distance shooting. No doubt, Wisconsin misses Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Tim Jarmusz.

3 little guys to love
1. Michigan’s Trey Burke. The freshman has been a revelation running the Wolverines attack and pushing the pace. Burke has shown maturity beyond his years and a knack for knowing when to drive and when to dish.

2. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. His numbers may not always make you say “Wow,” but Craft maintains a steady pace and never panics in running the Buckeye offense. Craft also is an intense defender who impacts the game on many levels.

3. Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor. The consummate point man, Taylor has deferred to his teammates for most of the season so they could adapt to their roles and gain confidence. Taylor treasures the ball, rarely committing turnovers and is great rebounder, but he needs to regain his shooting stroke. It will come.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart’s Big Ten Three-Pointers appear every Friday during the basketball season. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow him on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and  subscribe to his RSS feed.

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