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Big Ten Basketball: the roundball SEC

For years, we've heard about the dominance of the SEC in football, and it is rightfully placed. But when it comes to basketball, the Big Ten reigns supreme - for a number of similar reasons.

There is no debate in college football; the SEC is the top league in the nation, and the gap between best and next isn't very narrow, at least not in the last few years. Eventually, that singular dominance will right itself, as other programs (Notre Dame last year, possibly Ohio State next year, Clemson or Oregon one of these days) start to close that gap. But until another conference hoists the crystal football at the end of the year, its the SEC's world, we're just playing for second in it. It is a conference of great recruiting, great coaching, and a conference schedule where any team can beat any other.

In college basketball, however, the dominance is completely different, and for many reasons. For starters, it is much more difficult to be the best team in the country, and win six consecutive games in three weeks to call yourself national champion. But that playing field is also filled with greater parity, as it can only take one person to make a team a title contender. Think Carmelo Anthony for Syracuse in 2003, or Shane Battier for Duke in 2001, or Mateen Cleaves for Michigan State the year before that. We also see teams like VCU or Butler make runs to the Final Four, the latter going to consecutive championship games over the last few years. It is harder to win in basketball because of those factors, and it is equally difficult to be dominant.

For awhile, however, the ACC was the big dog on the basketball scene, and with plenty of reasons. Most notably would be the likes of UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, Maryland and NC State, all very good programs in the 90s and early 2000s. After that, the Big East began to separate itself as the conference to beat, trotting out UConn, Syracuse, Villanova and Pitt as high seeds in the tournament each year. The Big 12 also had a claim to being the best conference, with Kansas, Missouri and even Texas as some of the best programs in the country, at least for a time.

Now, however, the Big Ten is the best conference, and with good reason. The conference features seven likely tournament teams, and as many as nine could end up playing late into March. The teams all recruit well, they are well coached, and they spend the latter half of the season beating each others' brains out. Re-read the first graph and tell me if that sounds familiar.

The Big Ten has become the basketball answer to football's SEC. And the similarities are surprisingly many. Go team by team and you'll see some of them.

Michigan is on top of the conference right now, led by a dynamic young runner, with a core group of talent. John Beilein has grown the program back to the dominant days of decades ago, as his squad sits atop the polls at #1 for the first time since the early 90s. They have a loss to a young power starting to hit it's stride. Michigan is Alabama.

Indiana is the second place team, a program built on years of tradition, surviving scandals of the past and back to national relevance, for the first time since the 1980s. They'll probably lose to Michigan, the better team, and be the conference runners up. Indiana is Georgia.

Michigan State is led by an historically great coach with national titles under his belt. They play a very tough style of defense and are nigh unbeatable at home. They'll lose some games, but they will somehow be in the picture at the end. Michigan State is South Carolina.

Ohio State has only occasionally hit its true stride, and lost some critical games to top talent. But as the second half of the season marches on, Thad Matta's crew will somehow find a way to click, and they'll be there in the end. And probably lose an uninspired postseason game to close the year. Ohio State is Florida.

Wisconsin is plucky, annoying, tough to beat at home and helmed by a coach that everyone loves to hate. Wisconsin is LSU.

Purdue is tougher to place, because while they have been relevant, they have underachieved despite great talent. They sit mid-table in the Big Ten, and could be a lot higher, or could be a lot lower, but their stance is about what you'd expect. Purdue is Texas A&M (lacking the national player of the year, that is).

Minnesota played to a high ranking at the beginning of the year, but have fallen down in conference play. They have a good coach and great talent, but the two never really gel. One of these years they'll get it done, but until then, they'll fail to live up to expectations. Again. Minnesota is Mississippi State.

Northwestern and Illinois. Two teams hard to predict before the season, two teams that played above expectations during the first half, and two teams that are on the bubble now, and probably looking at an NIT bid when it is all said and done. For obvious educational reasons, Northwestern is Vanderbilt, and based on play and expectations, Illinois is Ole Miss.

Iowa sits in a tie for 9th, despite a 13-7 overall record. But they're 2-5 in the conference and the schedule gets harder and harder. Iowa is Tennessee.

Penn State is kind of difficult to classify, given the SEC teams we have left. They're not great this year, but not horrible. They've never been great in basketball, and they've always been overshadowed by their football team, which has a national championship in its trophy case. Given that fact, the safest bet is that Penn State is Arkansas, though only kind of.

Nebraska begins its second year in the Big Ten. They should stick to football. Nebraska is Kentucky.

Now this doesn't mean that the likes of Michigan or Indiana or Sparty or the Buckeyes or anyone are shoe ins for the championship game - far from it. Alabama snuck into the title game in football with the same number of losses as two other teams, but proved to be the best team in the country. It takes a similar combination of luck, skill, ability and luck again to get to the basketball national championship.

But as far as the regular season goes, at least this year, the Big Ten is the Big Man on the NCAA's campus.