It is nearly February and the Big Ten's best remain untested in conference play. That is slated to change however, as co-leader No. 11 Wisconsin (16-2, 6-0) travels to West Lafayette on Saturday to face a feisty Purdue (14-5, 5-1) team that is contending despite their youth. The Badgers then turn around and host the team they are currently locked in a first place tie with, the No. 7 Indiana Hoosiers (17-1, 6-0).
The next week will either separate one team from the rest or clog the top even further. If the home teams hold serve, we could be looking at a four-way one-loss tie between IU, Wisconsin, No. 10 Michigan State, and Purdue.
In fact, the Spartans (16-2, 4-1) appear to be the team that will benefit (or suffer later, possibly) from a soft five game stretch in which they play the basement teams before a Feb. 12 rematch against the Boilermakers, giving them the opportunity to slide into a first place tie or at least keep pace.
However, if Wisconsin or Indiana were to remain unbeaten, it would give one of them the inside track to a league title.
The big question is: Should the college basketball nation care? The Big Ten's annual decimation in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge has left the league looking weak once again, which will certainly hurt come March as they struggle to get five teams into the Tournament.
While the overall talent level is lower than the usual, it's too early to tell if the criticisms are warranted.
Illinois (9-11, 1-6) is the best 1-6 team in conference history and they are sure to pull an upset or two at home. Their defense is smothering but they just can't score. Their performance has initiated more egregious sideline behavior from Bruce Webber; he falls somewhere between "uncomfortable to watch" and "Little League parent who believes the high school kid umping is somehow trying to screw my son and/or his team."
Iowa (9-11, 2-5) and Michigan (5-14, 1-6) are similar mediocre/bad teams that can keep games close at times, while Penn State (10-8, 2-4) was poised to make the jump from terrible to "twice as good as Northwestern (6-9, 0-5)" until All-Big Ten stud Geary Claxton was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Ohio State (13-6, 4-2) and Minnesota (12-5, 2-3) will be bubble teams for most of the year, probably winning most of their home games and losing their fair share of road games.
Purdue will cool off as the schedule gets tougher, but expect them to finish fourth and make the tournament.
So yeah, the Big Ten is top heavy, but I don't see much difference between the non-contenders in the Big Ten and those of the other power leagues. In actuality, the Big Ten standings look very similar to the others—several powerhouses followed by a gaggle of mediocrity, finished off with several cellar-dwellers.
One reason for the perceived uncertainty toward the conference is the untested Hoosiers. They have played TWO games so far against Top 25 teams in the RPI (via the excellent kenpom.com) and their strength of schedule as of today was an eye-rolling 160 (again, kenpom.com). They also have a tendency to show their youth against inferior talent and turn the ball over too frequently (second worst in the conference at around 15/game).
However, they arguably have the best duo in the nation with the phenom freshman guard Eric Gordon and the monster forward D.J. White, who will probably be the league MVP. Their defense is much-improved and their offense appears to be fluid once again. Kelvin Sampson is the kind of coach who doesn't let you get complacent and, considering this team's inexperience (last night they started 3 players new to D1, a sophomore, and senior D.J. White), they should continue to get better as the year progresses.
One thing is for sure, they have the best roster in the conference and will be a dangerous team on a national level come March. We will know exactly where they are next week following games against Connecticut at home and the Badgers on the road.
Bo Ryan has his Badgers playing some very good basketball again despite the loss of the one-man wrecking crew Alando Tucker. They have balanced scoring and they run a patient offense that somehow creates quality shots regardless of the defense being employed. Their defense is the best in the league (54.4/game) and they usually do not turn the ball over. Brian Butch is playing more physical inside, but it would be nice to see him develop a deeper cupboard of post moves. They're a good team, but it is tough to say how good.
They went to Texas and escaped with a huge win, but Duke dismantled them and Marquette came to their home floor and won. Further, they struggled at home against the lowly Wolverines this week—Badger fans hope it was just an aberration. If they can go to Purdue and win and hold home court to beat the Hoosiers next Thursday you can safely say that they are a legit elite team and favorites to win the Big Ten.
Michigan State looks tough at times, but when they struggle, it's ugly. Witness the 43-36 loss to Iowa...36 points, seriously? They are another team that has issues with turning the ball over (around 14/game) and they can inexplicably go ice cold from the field. They have depth but no real force down low and their bigs have a tendency to get their points off of offensive rebounds.
Goran Suton has improved but is not a proven go-to guy. Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan are the backcourt leaders and Chris Allen can knock down the open shot.
The Spartans' other loss was to UCLA early on and their marquee win was against Texas. They defend you and Coach Tom Izzo instills a nasty rebounding streak in his players, both keys in March. This team goes as far as Neitzel and Morgan can take them, and since they only play Wisconsin once, anything less than a 14-4 Big Ten finish would be a disappointment.
One thing that shouldn't get overlooked is the fact that Big Ten teams of late get overrated early then underrated late, followed by strong NCAA tournament showings. This can most likely be attributed to the stable of excellent coaches in the conference. Besides Penn State and Northwestern, the league has extraordinary talent at the head coach position.
Accordingly, Big Ten teams typically go through a large amount of growth as the year progresses. This leads to some early laughers like Wisconsin's performance at Duke, but also to strong showings later in the year.
The Big Ten has three teams that would perform admirably against any team in the country. Now it's time to see which one rises to the top of the pile. After this week's action, we'll have a better idea who that number one contender will be.