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The Voice: All bets off in wide-open Big Ten race

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgBefore the Big Ten basketball season began, it seemed everyone picked Ohio State to win the conference title, and perhaps win it going away.

On paper, it was hard to select any other team. With Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft and William Buford, among others, the Buckeyes appear to be the most skilled team in the league.

That still could be the case, but through six games, the Buckeyes already have two losses.

Not one team made it through the first five Big Ten games unscathed. Home court has not always been an advantage.

The Badgers have dropped two of their first three conference games at the Kohl Center.

Indiana, which has beaten previously top-ranked Kentucky and then No. 2 Ohio State, lost to Minnesota last week at Assembly Hall. It was the Gophers' first victory in league play.

As Jim Polzin accurately writes in Tuesday's Wisconsin State Journal, "The Big Ten standings already are a mess."

With nine teams in the RPI top 50 and no one rated lower than 145, the Big Ten appears to be incredibly deep -- at least so far.

It makes me wonder. Will Big Ten teams beat up on each other all season and be worn down by March? Or will the best teams in this league be that much tougher and more NCAA tournament ready?

I realize it is early, but right now I tend to believe the answer is the latter.

My guess is Ohio State still has its best basketball ahead of it. Michigan State, led by Draymond Green, is just plain tough. Michigan, despite losing by 16 at Iowa last Saturday, appears to be strong. Freshman guard Trey Burke has been a valuable addition, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. is improving.

Illinois will be interesting to watch. Brandon Paul is coming off a monster 43-point outing against Ohio State, and big man Meyers Leonard is capable of being a difference maker.

It is unwise to look past anyone, including Northwestern. Otherwise neutral observers likely will pull for the Wildcats to make the NCAA field. When the Cats are on their game, they are a very tough out.

The shooting of John Shurna and Drew Crawford, impressive guard play from freshman Dave Sobolewski and the ever-present threat of the backdoor play in the Princeton offense make for a challenging preparation.

So where does this leave the Badgers?  The shooting continues to be up and down, but for the most part, the defense has been quite good.  

On most nights, that should give Wisconsin a chance.

As impressive as they looked at Purdue, perhaps Sunday's grinder with Nebraska said every bit as much about this team's resolve.   When you shoot 31 percent from the floor (21 percent in the second half) and still win the game, you take it and move on.

I would like to believe that the Badgers' best ball is ahead of them too.

Let's face it. Replacing the scoring of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil is no easy task. Opposing teams are doing what they can to make life difficult for Jordan Taylor, and at times they are daring someone else to beat them.

As players such as Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Ben Brust and Mike Bruesewitz continue to grow in their roles, the hope is they can become more consistent threats.

When they are in rhythm, the Badgers are pretty good. When they struggle to score, the Badgers struggle to win.

The one safe assumption about Big Ten basketball this winter is that little if anything will be easy. That is part of what should make it fun to watch, and perhaps it will help this conference make plenty of noise in March.

The Badgers are hoping to get a little winning streak going and be in the middle of all that fun.