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ROSEMONT, Ill. — Even after nine years, they haven't learned their lesson.
The reporters who cover Big Ten Conference men's basketball again voted on the top three teams to start the season and, as usual, they left the University of Wisconsin off the list.
Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, which finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title last year, were named the preseason favorites (in that order). The Big Ten doesn't release the rest of the vote but, based on the national preseason polls, Illinois would be a strong fourth followed by UW and Minnesota.
The voters reached that conclusion even though the Badgers have never finished lower than fourth during coach Bo Ryan's nine seasons, including last year when they were one game behind the leaders despite losing top scorer Jon Leuer for half of the 18 conference games.
Still, this year the voters might be right about UW. And that comes from someone who thinks the Badgers will be very good despite losing their starting guards. You see, putting UW fifth has little to do with it and everything to do with the strength of the Big Ten.
Last year, the Big Ten had a Final Four team in Michigan State, won the Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the first time and had the national player of the year in Ohio State's Evan Turner. This year, the senior-dominated league could be even better.
"I think we've got a chance to have a special season this year from a conference standpoint," Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
Painter's colleagues were in agreement at the Big Ten media day Thursday. Despite losing two would-be seniors — Turner and Michigan's Manny Harris — to the NBA and one — Purdue's Robbie Hummel — to a knee injury, the Big Ten is cashing in on the great recruiting class of 2007.
Michigan State and Ohio State are in the top five in both national preseason polls, Purdue would be right with them if Hummel hadn't gone down in an early practice, and Illinois isn't far behind.
"I think this year we're head and shoulders above" other conferences, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I think everybody would agree that right now, with the experienced players back and the coaches (we have), that our league is No. 1. ... I look at what I think are going to be six or seven really, really good teams. When we're thinking about Wisconsin, Minnesota, even Northwestern making the (NCAA) tournament, and then we're talking about in the voting that they're in the middle of the league, that's scary."
Scary, indeed. Izzo said the conference "is as good as it's been maybe in all 20-some years I've been in the Big Ten."
Of course, coaches often say those things at media day. But this time it might be true, in large part because players such as Purdue's JuJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and Illinois Demetri McCamey explored their NBA prospects and returned to school. Those four joined Leuer on the preseason all-Big Ten team.
"We've been one of the best (conferences) since I've been here," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "This year we're by far the best conference in the country because we have so many returning players."
The most surprising thing about the Big Ten is that the players who graduated, were injured or left for the NBA were very good.
It just shows that the 2007 recruiting class, which came after the league took heavy criticism nationally for its poor showing in the 2006 NCAA tournament, was so deep it's still going strong.
"I think people probably have stepped it up" in recruiting, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "I don't know if a memo went out or anything like that, but I think everyone said, ‘You have a lot of competitors in this business and this isn't good enough.' "
That attitude still must exist because Ohio State added two McDonald's all-Americans this year and Michigan State and Illinois each brought in one.
"There's probably seven teams in this league right now that could win it by the end of the year," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "I don't think there's nearly enough conversation nationally about what Minnesota's capable of, what Wisconsin's capable of or what Northwestern's capable of. ... They're not getting a ton of the attention around the country and that just goes to show how good this league is."