Big Ten strong heading into conference championships


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Six top-25 teams.

Twenty-three automatic qualifiers for the 2011 NCAA indoor championships.

Nine of a possible 14 returning individual 2010 Big Ten indoor champions.

That is the quality of talent looming as this year’s Big Ten indoor championships unfold on Saturday in Champaign, Ill.

“The conference is stronger than it has been for a while,” Minnesota head track and field coach Steve Plasencia said. “There are a lot of top-end, high-quality guys on these teams.”

Heading into the weekend, the Big Ten has just as many top-25 ranked teams as any other conference in Division-I. The league’s 23 automatic qualifiers is second only to the SEC’s 26.

What may be more telling is that the Golden Gophers — the two-time defending indoor champions — aren’t even seen as favorites this year despite returning three individual champions from a year ago.

Penn State head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan pointed to No. 3 Indiana and No. 16 Wisconsin as two teams with legitimate chances of winning a team title.

“Indiana and Wisconsin have been so strong all year,” said Alford-Sullivan, who coaches both the men’s and women’s teams in Happy Valley. “They’ve had great depth this year across all events.”

The Badgers have three runners who have put up strong times in the distance and middle-distance events this season.

Sophomores Maverick Darling and Mohammed Ahmed automatically qualified for the NCAAs in the 5,000 meter at the Wisconsin Husky Classic on Feb. 11. The pair holds the top two times in the conference for the event.

Teammate Zach Mellon also qualified for the NCAAs at the Husky Classic. He posted a time of 1:47.87 in the 800 meters, good for the second-fastest Big Ten time this year.

The distance and middle-distance events should be the most competitive. At least three participants in each of the 800 meters, mile, 3,000 and 5,000 meters have qualified for the NCAAs.

“Traditionally, the Big Ten has been a distance-running conference,” Iowa head coach Larry Wieczorek said. “If you were to look over the last 20 years, one area you know is going to be very difficult to score in is going to be the distance events.”

Indiana’s Andrew Bayer tops the list of dynamic runners in the 3,000 meters. The sophomore holds the nation’s fastest time in the event at 7:48.35.

Five athletes in the 3,000 have qualified for NCAAs — Bayer, fellow Hoosiers Andrew Poore and Ben Hubers, Darling, and Minnesota’s Ben Blankenship. Blankenship won the mile at last year’s Big Tens.

Kind Butler holds the conference’s best 60-meter time at 6.67 seconds, 0.3 seconds better than second place. The Indiana junior will also head into Big Tens with the second fastest 200-meter time of 20.93 seconds. Purdue’s Shane Crawford, who won the 60 meters in 2010, lays claim to the fourth fastest time at 6.75.

Indiana head coach Ron Helmer said he worked out final point totals and projected Wisconsin as a 10-point favorite. Wieczorek’s coaching staff did a similar projection and ended with the Badgers favored as well.

The difference is Wisconsin has eight more athletes who rank in the top eight of their respective events — the top eight finishers at Big Tens score points — than Indiana does.

And then there is Minnesota, which can’t be discounted as it tries for a third-straight title.

“Not too many guys can say they’ve done that,” Plasencia said. “If we’re going to do it, when we come home, I’ll have to say, ‘Wow, I never knew this guy or that guy had it in him.’ ”

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