The best part of the bowl season hasn't even begun, but Big Ten basketball is upon us. Illinois puts its intriguing 12-1 nonconference start on the line at No. 9 Purdue, the pre-season favorite to win the league, tonight, followed by four more New Year's Eve openers on Wednesday.
There's no doubt that things are looking up in Big Ten hoops, which has five ranked teams and two more, Illinois and Wisconsin, that could enter the top-25 picture. Some new coaches are making strides in their rebuilding efforts, and teams that have known recent success are showing signs they're ready to keep rolling. Even teams that have struggled have given hints they'll be more competitive.
Here are some things Midwestern basketball fans ought to be curious about--I know I am--as the Big Ten heads into what could be a very close, and entertaining, conference race:
* Can Tom Izzo put all those pieces together? Purdue is the more proven commodity, but No. 10 Michigan State, which oozes athleticism and balance, has the biggest upside--if it can find a way to play to its potential.
* Is Purdue ready to handle the burden of expectations? Because they were so good last year, it's easy to forget that E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel are still sophomores. And even if the Boilermakers measure up in the poise department, is that frontline going to hold up?
* Did Wisconsin's nonconference setbacks (Connecticut, Marquette, Texas) expose some serious flaws, or were they more a product of a challenging set of opponents that have toughened up the Badgers for league play?
* With David Lighty out, a reloading No. 24 Ohio State will have one less veteran to lean on. Was that loss to West Virginia a sign of trouble, or just a case of the holiday blahs?
* What's the deal with No. 21 Minnesota and No. 23 Michigan? The 12-0 Gophers have looked awfully good. So have the 9-2 Wolverines, who have beaten UCLA and Duke. Are either, or both, of these nonconference over-achievers going to hold up and become major surprises?
* Penn State and Northwestern have been down so long, they're easy to overlook. Are the Nittany Lions, who have decent depth behind 5-11 sophomore Talor Battle and senior Jamelle Cornley, going to do more than pull off the occasional upset? The same question applies for NU. The Wildcats have a good nucleus in Kevin Coble, Craig Moore and Michael Thompson, if the young big men can contribute.
* Is Iowa on the road back? The Hawkeyes have shown a few signs, but in this improving Big Ten, they face an uphill climb until they prove otherwise.
* Is there any way Indiana can avoid having a miserable season? Seems unlikely. That said, the rest of the league better take advantage of the IU situation now. Because as grim as things look now, Tom Crean is going to have the Hoosiers back on top quickly.
* Is there a bigger mystery team in the league than Illinois? At 12-1, the Illini seem poised to be better than a distant also-ran. They have three seniors who make the most of their talent, and three promising sophomore starters. If Kentucky transfer Alex Legion lives up to his press clippings, Illinois' sophomores will win a lot of games in their careers.
The question is, where does Illinois fit in this year? The suspicion is that it will duel Minnesota and Michigan for an upper-division finish and an NCAA berth. But there are a lot of teams that could move up or down this year, making the Big Ten more wide-open this year than it's been in a long time.
And that means there are a lot of interesting hoops questions swirling around the Big Ten--and the answers will start coming even before the traditional New Year's Day football feast has been served.