State Of The Big Ten

Every month of the year seems to be dominated by one particular sport.

April is ruled by the return of baseball and the hope that springs from fans everywhere (except those in the Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Baltimore-Washington, D.C. areas).

May is when the NBA playoffs are at their most compelling. Yes, they start in April and end in June, but the early rounds proceed at a pace slower than the director’s cut of Berlin Alexanderplatz and the Finals are typically as competitive as a Man v. Food episode pitting John Madden against a stack of baby-back ribs.

September-January? While some would say that the horsehide is foremost in their minds until the World Series wraps, it’s hard to argue that the dominance of football – pro and college – is unrivaled from back-to-school time through Groundhog Day (and slightly beyond).

And at least in my house, July and August are all about CBS’s Big Brother, which is as much of a sport as horse racing or Canadian Football.

College basketball has always owned March – they don’t call it “July Madness” – but the game takes center stage one month earlier than that.

Yes, February is undoubtedly the slowest sports month of the year, but that’s easy to forget if you concentrate on college hoops for 28 days, which isn’t hard since anyone with the most basic of cable systems can check out several games a night.

Once again, it would seem that Big Ten followers are seeing some of the best and most competitive games in the country, with the conference boasting more higher-ranked teams outside the perpetually-dominant Big East. (But when you have 43 teams in your conference, you’re bound to have some standouts.)

But that view isn’t shared by all, as the Big Ten is ranked just fifth in recent RPI rankings while ESPN’s Bracketologist extraordinaire Joe Lunardi has just four teams from the Big Ten in his field of 65.

But Lunardi has none of the four – Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State – seeded less than fifth. Could more sneak in as lower seeds – possibly even as much as last year’s seven – with a quality win or two?

Well, if Judas Priest can win a Grammy, I guess anything’s possible. But it doesn’t seem likely.

Let’s take a quick look at the top seven teams in the conference and where they stand heading into the most important month of the regular season.

1. Michigan State (9-0 in conference as of 2/1). The Spartans have been dominating the conference record-wise, but hardly game-by-game: They haven’t won convincingly since a 71-53 win at Iowa on January 9, and since then beat both Minnesota and Michigan by just a point (or as the ubiquitous Wayne Larrivee would annoyingly and repeatedly say, “the slimmest of margins”). The Spartans are obviously going to the tournament, but with their next two games at Wisconsin and at Illinois, they likely won’t survive the first week of February unscathed.

2. Purdue (6-3). Of the four teams currently tied for second in the conference, Purdue has the best chance of catching Michigan State by the simple fact that they still play them twice. Coming off a thrilling home victory over Wisconsin and then a 20-point blowout of outmanned Penn State, Matt Painter’s team has fully rebounded from its three-game slide and seems to be playing its best basketball of the season. With guard Lewis Jackson back, those games against Michigan State become even more intriguing than an episode of Jersey Shore. Assuming those games are competitive, the Boilermakers should be seeded very comparably to the Spartans come tourney time.

3. Wisconsin (6-3). The fact that the Badgers are as winning as many games as they are despite low preseason expectations and despite the loss of Jon Leuer on January 9 means that Bo Ryan might be the best coach in the country. And while Wisconsin’s upcoming schedule is favorable, fans have to be nervous about the team’s continued tendency to go on shooting droughts that seem to last longer than one of Heidi Montag’s marathon plastic surgery sessions. But what keeps the Badgers winning is stifling defense and the uncanny knack for at least one player to bail the team out every game with clutch shooting. With that defense, the Badgers could run the table, but if they don’t start getting more shooting consistency from Jason Bohannon and Jordan Taylor – and something, anything, from Tim Jarmusz – they could drop some close games down the stretch. But it is hard to imagine Bo Ryan not getting this team into the tournament for the twelfth straight season.

4. Ohio State (6-3). Finally at full strength, this is a dangerous team, as they showed with a 22-point beatdown of Minnesota. The main concern: lack of bench production. Still, Thad Matta should be able to ride his starters to a high seed in the men’s tournament.

5. Illinois (6-3). Though tied with Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in conference wins, Illinois has ranked up wins – close wins – against a fairly easy schedule. They still have to play Wisconsin and Ohio State twice, travel to Purdue, and host Michigan State. If they can find a way to win maybe half of those games, they make the tournament. I guessing they can’t – even Wisconsin should be able to feast on their lousy defense – and they won’t.

6. Minnesota (4-5). Tubby Smith’s team started out 11-3 but has now lost six of its last seven. Most discouraging was its defensive performance against Ohio State, where it allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 63 percent en route to a 85-63 loss. The schedule isn’t terrible the rest of the way, but it won’t matter who they play if they don’t improve in a hurry. Disappointed Minnesota Vikings fans looking for solace in their Gophers will have to look elsewhere, unless any comfort can be found in yet another NIT tournament bid.

7. Michigan (4-5). The Wolverines have been one of the most disappointing teams in the Big Ten, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. If their role players could start hitting more shots – especially three-pointers, which they put up too often – it’s not impossible to see Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims carrying this team to an NCAA bid. The Wolverines have two quality wins on their resumé over Connecticut and Ohio State and they’ll have chances in the next month against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and the Badgers again. But they’ll have to shoot better to catch Joe Lunardi’s and – more importantly – the selection committee’s attention.


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