Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger is 6'9" and 280 pounds, and while he was in high school, a certain phrase came up again and again: made for the Big Ten. As conference identities go, this label was not entirely complimentary. Sullinger, who hails from Columbus, would have been ideal for any league—he was rated the country's top big man and one of the top three recruits overall—but the power forward's beefiness fit seamlessly into a familiar vision of plodding, blue-collar Midwesterners banging bodies on the block. "With the ACC or Pac-10, you think of teams scoring 100 points a game," Buckeyes senior forward David Lighty explains. "We're seen as a slowdown, half-court kind of league."
But this season, with an eye toward March, the Big Ten warrants another label: the best.
No other league can match the conference's overall 52--11 record through Sunday, and with five teams ranked in the Top 25 (only the 16-team Big East has more), the Big Ten also has seven teams ranked in the top 40 in offensive and defensive efficiency, the most of any conference.
As for that alleged lack of flash? "I don't want to start one of those rap wars, but so much hype comes from the coasts," says Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan of his league's slower tempo. "It's all about points per possession."
Quality extends well beyond No. 2 Ohio State (5--0) and No. 6 Michigan State (5--1), the league's two most likely Final Four contenders. Last week Minnesota (6--0) rode the hot hand of sharpshooter Blake Hoffarber to whip then No. 8 North Carolina and West Virginia to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and move from unranked to No. 9. Illinois (6--1), with point guard Demetri McCamey and center Mike Tisdale, ranks 20th and can challenge for the conference title. Purdue (5--1), despite last Saturday's loss to Richmond, is No. 22 and remains a dangerous team in the aftermath of Robbie Hummel's ACL injury. Wisconsin (4--2) has never missed the NCAA tournament in nine years under Ryan. Then there's Northwestern, off to a 4--0 start on the strength of 48.9% shooting, and Indiana (6--0), which has five starters returning as well as its best player, guard Maurice Creek, who's healthy after fracturing his left knee a year ago.
If those eight teams make the tournament—and they should—it would tie for the most in NCAA history. Says Gophers coach Tubby Smith, "This league is the best I've ever seen it."
Yes, patience and physical play remain conference staples. But it's also true that another of the league's attributes renders Sullinger, the Buckeyes' second-leading scorer (15.2), a bit of an outlier. Nine Big Ten teams start at least three upperclassmen; seven start at least two seniors. Notes Ryan, "We're a league where guys tend to enjoy their college experience and want to stay." These days, more than ever, you can see why.
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JEFF MILLS/ICON SMI (SULLINGER)
BIG IMPACT Sullinger has been dominant through five games, averaging 15.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.