Don’t look now, but Big Ten college basketball is finally getting some respect. Thanks to some big wins (Michigan alone took out powerhouses Duke and UCLA earlier this season) and overall gaudy standings (Indiana is the only team in the conference with a losing record), the much-maligned Big Ten is back in the good graces of the basketball intelligentsia, earning a number two RPI conference ranking at the end of non-conference play.
Heading into Tuesday night’s Big Ten opener between Illinois and host Purdue (most teams in the conference start Big Ten play Wednesday, when the Badgers will visit Michigan at 1 p.m. CST), the conference appears to be as competitive as its been in years, with as many as six teams realistically vying for the conference title. And that’s not including Northwestern, who currently sit the highest among Big Ten teams in the RPI rankings at nine.
Here’s a brief look at each team’s season so far and where I like them to finish in the conference:
- Michigan State. With center Goran Suton back from a knee injury, this is the best all-around team in the Big Ten, leading the conference in offense, rebounds, and field goal shooting. Their win at Texas on December 20 could be the best Big Ten non-conference win of the season.
- Purdue. A close second to conference champ Wisconsin last year, the Boilermakers returned every starter this season. There are concerns about injured Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer’s availability for the start of the conference season, but this team is loaded with talent. Their 18-point beatdown of Davidson on December 20 was highly impressive.
- Wisconsin. Despite losing Brian Butch and Michael Flowers, last year’s conference champ hasn’t lost the scoring, it’s the defense that has suffered. But Jon Leuer has been a real find coming off the bench, and no one would be surprised to see Bo Ryan take this group to their second straight conference championship.
- Michigan. The most surprising team in the Big Ten; they finished 10-22 last season but have already beaten UCLA and Duke this year. They would love to topple Wisconsin at home in their conference opener.
- Ohio State. Impressive early wins against Miami (FL) and Notre Dame now pale in comparison to the 76-48 beatdown they suffered at the hands of West Virginia to close out their non-conference schedule. With David Lighty sidelined for upwards of two months, suddenly Ohio State looks vulnerable.
- Minnesota. What does a 12-0 team have to do to get respect? Perhaps not play the 228th toughest schedule in the nation. Actually, the Gophers do have one quality win against Louisville, but they’ll have to beat some conference teams to prove that their best start in 60 years is more than a mirage.
- Illinois. The most improved team in the Big Ten already has 12 wins on the season after earning 16 all last year. But can they sustain the remarkable turnaround in conference play? Their big win against Missouri on December 23 hinted that perhaps they can.
- Northwestern. Close losses against Butler and Stanford and a stunning victory against Florida State highlight the non-conference schedule of another vastly improved Big Ten squad. It’s tough to pick a team that hasn’t won a postseason game since 1999 and won only one Big Ten game last year as a conference contender, but the Wildcats have done nothing but impress so far.
- Iowa. The Hawkeyes have struggled to stay with some lesser opponents, and rebounding has proven to be a problem. But they lead the conference in three-point baskets per game and that will help them keep games close.
- Penn State. The only Big Ten team to play an easier schedule than Minnesota. Single-digit wins over Mount St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart aren’t impressive, and this is a team that won just 15 games last year.
- Indiana. Tom Crean knew he would be rebuilding this year. But surely he didn’t foresee a home loss to the Lipscomb Bisons. It will be a very long season for Hoosier fans.