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B1G check-in: Illinois, Northwestern and Tuesday’s opening day

Last season was humbling, to put it mildly, for the Big Ten, which was considered one of the strongest conferences in college basketball yet fell on its collective rear end in March.

Its postseason flame was extinguished when Indiana, Maryland and Wisconsin all lost in the Sweet 16. We won’t even get into Michigan State’s unthinkable collapse against Middle Tennessee State in the first round.

But a year ago at this time, the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the country. Maryland was right there at No. 4. The Big Ten’s first national title since Michigan State won it all in 2000 seemed distinctly possible.

This season? No, it really doesn’t seem possible. Oh, well, it’s only late December.

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan has been the Big Ten's best player thus far. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

As Big Ten play gets underway Tuesday — with four games, including Northwestern at Penn State and Illinois at Maryland in an ESPN2 doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. — let’s try to watch with an open mind.

The records in the Big Ten look nice enough. Maryland and Minnesota are 12-1; Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers and Wisconsin are 11-2; and Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State all have 10 victories.

The league championship race appears to be wide open. That is, in a glass-half-full sense, a good thing.

Five questions on the table as conference play begins:

1. Which team has the biggest upside? The national rankings — Wisconsin is 14th, Purdue 15th and Indiana 16th — actually paint a pretty accurate picture of the league landscape.

Indiana can outscore anybody, as it did against Kansas in a 103-point overtime opener and North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Hoosiers have holes galore in their defense, but let’s agree that the backcourt of James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson can fill it up.

Purdue will maul many an opponent with its size. The goliath presence of 7-2 center Isaac Haas enables 6-9, 250-pound Caleb Swanigan to destroy smaller defenders, and smooth 6-8 forward Vince Edwards can get his shot off over whoever is left to try to stop him. The guard play is suspect, but nobody’s perfect.

We’ll find out if Wisconsin, with all its experience and doggedness, is able to execute the rest of the league to death. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ — the names are mostly the same from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, and it’ll be a big surprise if the Badgers fail to finish in the top three in the conference.

Yet none of these teams has the look and feel of greatness, at least not yet. Nor is there a clear next-best Big Ten team at this point.

2. But what about all those other 12-, 11- and 10-win teams? Don’t let the records sell you on any of them yet. Maryland isn’t nearly as talented as it was last season. Minnesota hasn’t really beaten anybody. Northwestern has an outside shot at (finally) making the NCAA tourney, which is more than can be said of Rutgers. Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State have much to prove before we should even be discussing them in serious tones.

3. What the heck happened to Michigan State? The five-loss Spartans have failed every big test they’ve had this season. Freshman Miles Bridges is a star, but he didn’t lift his team to victory over Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor or Duke. And with Bridges out of the lineup, the Spartans managed to lose to mighty Northeastern. Tom Izzo doesn’t have much of a team on his hands, it appears, though we’ve all learned by now not to doubt the man.

3. Which teams have true NCAA Tournament potential? History tells us five to seven Big Ten teams will make the tournament. There certainly are more than that many teams in the league for which March Madness is a foremost goal. The aforementioned Badgers, Boilermakers and Hoosiers should be locks. Who else gets there?

In the preseason, I ranked the league’s teams 1-14 as such: Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Maryland, Northwestern, Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Rutgers.

Today I might flip-flop Michigan State and Ohio State, making the Buckeyes fourth and the Spartans sixth, and do the same with Illinois and Northwestern, making the Wildcats seventh and the Illini ninth. The rest of it, I’m pretty good with. That means bubble potential for several teams.

5. Is there a favorite for Big Ten player of the year? Yes, it’s Purdue’s Swanigan; the sophomore is fourth in the league with 18.3 points per game and far out in front with 12.5 rebounds per game.

If I were picking an all-Big Ten team before any league games have been played (because what makes more sense than that?), I’d go with Swanigan, Indiana’s Blackmon, Iowa’s Peter Jok, Maryland’s Melo Trimble and Illinois’ Malcolm Hill. Any of those guys could become player of the year, and there are at least a few other players around the league of whom we could say the same.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

No. 12 Virginia at No. 6 Louisville (Wednesday, 6 p.m., ESPN2): The Cardinals are long and athletic and own impressive victories over Kentucky and Purdue, but Virginia’s defense has been an especially tough nut to crack. Last season, the Cavaliers dominated Louisville by 16 and 22 points in the teams’ two meetings. Which of these teams is a bigger threat to Duke in the ACC?

No. 2 UCLA at No. 21 Oregon (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2): Tough matchup for freshman point guard Lonzo Ball and the Bruins, who have been spectacular to this point. They lead all major-conference teams in three-point shots made, but the Ducks are the best in the Pac-12 at defending the three-point line.

No. 3 Kansas at TCU (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN2): T-C-Who? The Horned Frogs are a preposterously bad 8-64 in Big 12 play since joining the conference, but first-year coach Jamie Dixon has something cooking with his 11-1 squad. When big, bad Kansas lost in Fort Worth in 2013, it was almost like a joke. Bill Self won’t be laughing at this challenge.

No. 5 Duke at Virginia Tech (Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2): The Blue Devils will try to win one for “the Tripper,” assuming star Grayson Allen doesn’t play after being indefinitely suspended for, well, see the nickname. Many believe the 10-1 Hokies out to be ranked. Just ask Michigan, which lost to them earlier this month in Ann Arbor.

No. 1 Villanova at No. 10 Creighton (Saturday, noon, FS1): The defending national champion Wildcats, led by leading national player of the year candidate Josh Hart, haven’t lost since last season’s Big East tournament finale. The 12-0 Bluejays have been outstanding, though, as they were in beating Wisconsin by double digits in November.

TRENDING

Up: No. 4 Baylor. Relative to early expectations, no team in the country has been better. The Bears — unranked out of the starting game — have knocked off a who’s-who of opponents including Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier.

Down: Texas. Shaka Smart, meet Charlie Strong. The Longhorns were one of the real buzz teams of college basketball heading in, but they’ve already been handled with surprising ease by Northwestern, Colorado and Utah and beaten as well by Michigan and Arkansas. Quality wins: There haven’t been any.

Up: No. 22 USC. Crosstown rival UCLA is all the rage, but the Trojans are sporting a natty little record of 13-0. They haven’t really beaten anybody, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com