HOOSIER DADDY?

Indiana and Purdue will make a run at top-seeded Wisconsin in front of friendly Indianapolis crowds during this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament.

Perception remains that it’s yet another down year in the Big Ten.

But when Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was asked during the Big Ten teleconference a few weeks back if the conference was lacking quality teams, his hasty response indicated just how much offense he took to that accusation.

“Are you asking me a question or are you the one who said it’s not good,” Ryan answered. “(Big Ten teams) are tough to beat, whether you are eighth or you are second or third.”

Just how balanced the conference is will be determined starting today when the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament begins in Indianapolis.

NCAA Tournament locks – Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State – as well as bubble-team Ohio State appear to be the only teams with legitimate chances of leaving Conseco Fieldhouse with a championship trophy.

WISCONSIN : 26-4, 16-2

Bo Ryan didn’t win Big Ten Coach of the Year, but he has definitely coached like a deserving recipient.

How did Ryan go about replacing the face of Wisconsin basketball for the last three seasons – Alando Tucker – and his counterpart Kamron Taylor? With Wisconsin’s first outright Big Ten championship since 2003.

If you didn’t think Ryan could coach after winning four Division III National Championships, you should probably rethink your reasoning. Ryan now has three conference championships in seven years at Wisconsin. Ryan’s latest Badger team to wear the Big Ten crown has done so with the ultimate team effort – only three players scoring in double figures.

A Big Ten Tournament win on top of their surprising regular season would likely mean a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for the Badgers – who can hang with any team in the country because they give up just 54.3 points per game.

PURDUE : 24-7 15-3

At one point in the season, the Boilermakers won 11 straight games and were at the top of the Big Ten for much of the season until a late skid – if that’s what you would call losing two of your last five – ended their title hopes.

But Purdue coach Matt Painter is still likely to be Big Ten Coach of the Year, after guiding a team that lost its best player to the NBA – Carl Landry of the Houston Rockets – and replacing him, and many other significant pieces that led the Boilermakers to the NCAA Tournament last season, with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

Freshman guard E’Twaun Moore averages a team-best 12.4 points per game. Fellow freshman guard Robbie Hummel averages 11.7 points.

Purdue may be young, but the Boilermakers sure don’t play like it. With Painters’ patented in-your-face defense and the scrappy play of Moore, Hummel, Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant, Purdue has as good a chance as any to walk out of Conseco Fieldhouse Big Ten Tournament champions.

INDIANA : 25-6 14-4

A year that was supposed to be joyous, with a potential Final Four squad featuring the dynamic duo of a future lottery pick Eric Gordon and veteran forward D.J. White, has been overshadowed by the buyout of embedded coach Kelvin Sampson.

Sampson was paid $750,000 to go away after it was discovered he committed five major NCAA violations, including more than 100 impermissible calls to potential recruits.

Now, with interim coach Dan Dakich at the helm, the Hoosiers are just trying to stay above water. They lost by 29 at Michigan State two weeks ago and lost in overtime at Penn State to close out the regular season.

Still, despite all the drama, Indiana has arguably the most talent in the conference – Gordon averaging a conference-leading 21.5 pointers per game and White not far behind with 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per contest. Indiana certainly has a legitimate chance of celebrating a Big Ten tournament championship with the plethora of faithful fans that make the drive from Bloomington, Ind.

MICHIGAN ST. : 24-7 12-6

Another Tom Izzo-coached squad filtered with talent appears to be underachieving. The Spartans, who were picked as preseason Big Ten champs, haven’t lived up to the billing.

When Michigan State has lost this season, they’ve lost badly. On Jan. 12, Michigan State scored 36 points in a loss to Iowa in Iowa City.

But as is the case with any talented team, MSU could cause havoc in Indianapolis if the Spartans start clicking.

And although he hasn’t lived up to his preseason Big Ten Player of the Year nomination, senior guard Drew Neitzel seems to make a habit of showing up at crunch time, making MSU a legitimate threat for the Big Ten crown.

OHIO ST. : 19-12 10-8

A year after leading the Buckeyes to the NCAA championship game, coach Thad Matta has a few more gray hairs to his name this season.

Saying Ohio State has had an up-and-down season following the departures of NBA lottery picks Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. would be an understatement.

The Buckeyes went from Big Ten contender to NIT-bound in a two-week stretch during which they lost four games.

Home wins against Purdue and Michigan State in its final two regular season games have put Jamar Butler and company back in NCAA tournament discussion.

However, in order to get an at-large berth into the Big Dance, many, including expert Bracketologists, believe the fifth-seeded Buckeyes need to beat the fourth-seeded Spartans for the second time in five days when the two teams meet Friday.

MINNESOTA : 18-12 8-10

In year one, Tubby Smith has done what Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi brought him to Minneapolis to do – re-energize a Gophers fan base that was once on life support.

Smith inherited a team that went a program-worst 9-22 last season and has doubled the Gophers’ win total (18) with relatively the same group that struggled mightily last season.

Minnesota has made great strides under Smith, but unless the Gophers can win four games in four days, Smith won’t be going to the Big Dance for the first time since 1993.

Unless senior guard Lawrence McKenzie or freshman guard Blake Hoffarber can get hot from the perimeter, it’s not likely that the Gophers will be spending the weekend in Indianapolis.

The National Invitational Tournament or the newly constructed College Basketball Invitational look to be likely postseason destinations for the maroon and gold.

PENN STATE : 15-15 7-11

By averaging 17.5 points per game and pulling down 8.4 rebounds, Lions forward Geary Claxton looked like a lock for a spot on the First-Team All Big Ten squad through 16 regular season games.

But Claxton tore his ACL seven minutes in to a mid-January loss to Wisconsin, ending his season.

Talk about a reversal in fortune.

Penn State, which entered Jan. 15’s 80-55 home loss to the Badgers by winning seven of its last eight, proceeded to lose seven-of-eight following Claxton’s absence.

Coach Ed DeChellis deserves some credit, though. Even without their best player, the Lions haven’t given up. They beat at the time No. 8 Michigan State on Feb. 2 and have won three of four to close the regular season, including a 68-64 win over 18th-ranked Indiana on Sunday.

Penn State shouldn’t be an easy out for anyone in the conference tournament.

IOWA : 13-18 6-12

If you can’t score, it’s tough to win. The Hawkeyes have found that out the hard way under the guidance of first-year coach Todd Lickliter.

Iowa, which has struggled all year to find viable scoring threats to replace last years’ scoring duo of Adam Haluska and Tyler Smith, averages a league-worst 56.4 points per game.

Lickliter, who for so many years decided to stay at Butler despite offers from major conference teams, must be questioning his decision right now, as Butler sits at 10th in the country with a 28-3 record.

The only way the Hawkeyes make it to the weekend in Indianapolis is by relying on their defense, which gives up 58.1 points per game, good for second in the conference.

ILLINOIS : 13-18 5-13

The Illini may be the best 13-18 team in the country.

Illinois and its loyal faithful, Assembly Hall, has now recorded 60 consecutive sellouts but have had to endure the awkwardness of combining a rebuilding year with the final swan song for a few key contributors over the years – senior center Shaun Pruitt and senior forward Brian Randle.

Perhaps no game was more fitting to the kind of season it has been for coach Bruce Weber’s squad than the one played in Champaign, Ill. on Feb. 7.

Led by Pruitt, who was 6-of-8 from the field, the Illini looked poised to upset the then 13th-ranked Hoosiers. But Illinois, which shoots a league-worst 61 percent from the free throw line, couldn’t seal the game. Pruitt went 1-of-7 from the line, including three late misses and the Illini fell in double-overtime.

Unlike their female counterpart which made a run all the way to the women’s Big Ten tournament final, the Illinois men probably won’t be playing Sunday, but they do have enough talent to win a round, if not two.

MICHIGAN : 9-21 5-13

After building up West Virginia and looking for a new project, John Beilein decided to tryout the Big Ten.

A project is certainly what he has been dealt in year one at the helm of the Wolverines.

Beilein, who inherited a team recruited by former coach Tommy Amaker, is still waiting for the correct pieces to run his perimeter-based offense.

One player who has had little trouble adapting to Beilein’s offensive system has been freshman shooting guard Manny Harris. The bright spot in a disappointing season in Ann Arbor, Harris is fourth in the conference in scoring with 16.4 points per game.

Unless the Wolverines find a way to stop their opponents – they enter tournament play giving up 68.8 points per game – their season will come to an end on Friday.

NORTHWESTERN : 8-21 1-17

The Wildcats’ problems stretch much further than the fact they are grabbing a league-worst 27.2 rebounds a game.

After another season in the Big Ten cellar, coach Bill Carmody is on the hot seat.

Carmody, considered by many as one of the gurus of the Princeton style offense, has done little since taking over at the helm of NU in 2000.

Not to mention the fact that fans are growing tiresome that Carmody hasn’t recruited top 100 level players to a Big Ten university.

There is always the chance Northwestern gets hot from the perimeter and can pull a first round upset against sixth-seeded Minnesota, but the chances of the Wildcats going any further are as good as slim-to-none.