In case you have been all football all the time and have not paid the least bit of attention to what is going on in College Basketball so far, your old friend and College Hoops Honk is here to get you up to speed with the best conference in America.
My man @ClevTA (a must-follow on Twitter) said it best last night – Big Ten Basketball is the bizarro Big Ten Football right now. We watched all fall as mediocre team after mediocre team played boring, uninspiring football. Yes, your Ohio State Buckeyes came out undefeated under Urban Meyer, but even the most ardent OSU supporter would tell you this was far from a National Title type team. The next best thing in the league was probably either a Michigan team that was throttled by Alabama, scored nine points against a Nebraska team that allowed 70 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, and needed a miracle bomb with less than a minute to go to force OT with Northwestern at home. An argument could be made for four loss Penn State as well, but two of those losses were at home to Ohio (not Ohio State, Ohio) and a bad Virginia team.
The bottom line – in the glorious history of the Big Ten conference, 2012 was as bad of a season as the league has ever had.
On the flip side is the 2012-2013 Men’s Basketball chase, which is as exciting and wide upen as maybe we have ever seen the league. After last night, five teams are either tied or within a game of the league lead. Other than the league’s bottom feeder, Penn State, every team can be a tough out at home. Translation – there are no gimmes in the Big Ten.
And how about this race for the top? With the unbalanced scheduled, not every team gets every opponent twice. However, it seems as though at least twice a week, there are must-see games. Don’t believe me? Just look at what we have seen in the past five days:
Wisconsin went into Champaign and knocked off a once top 10 and now-struggling Illinois team 74-68. This put the Badgers in that top five mix at 6-3. 23rd ranked Minnesota took care of Iowa 62-59 and stayed two games back at 5-5. This is Minnesota’s best team in years, one who was also ranked in the top ten at points this season before the Big Ten gauntlet began.
On Tuesday night, we were treated to one of the best games of the year. In a battle for a share of first place, Michigan and Ohio State went to overtime before things were settled in Ann Arbor. The hot shooting-Wolverines needed 14 three-pointers and a key no-call at the end of OT to knock off the Buckeyes 76-74 in an instant classic. But before we could catch our collective breaths, last night’s Indiana/Illinois game gave us even more dramatics.
The Hoosiers led by 13 with just over nine minutes to go and held a nine point lead with just over three minutes to go. Then the Illini, behind guard D.J. Richardson, started a furious comeback which fueled a crazy Assembly Hall crowd in Champaign. Richardson hit two threes and another two-point jumper that brought the Illini all the way back. With the score tied at 72, Indiana held the ball for the last shot. The Hoosiers super-man Victor Oladipo lost control of the ball with five seconds left and the ball ended up in the hands of Richardson. Oladipo recovered out of nowhere with a SICK block with 0.9 left on the clock. Illinois had one last chance to knock off the number one team in the country. On a side inbounds play, the IU defenders completely lost track of Illini big man Tyler Griffey who darted to the rim, caught a pass and laid the ball in at the buzzer. The court was stormed. The Illini pulled off the 74-72 stunner. Keep in mind, Illinois entered this game 2-7 in conference play, losers of six of seven.
Just an ordinary average week of Big Ten Basketball.
So here is where we stand today with the teams that are in the mix for the title:
Indiana – 20-3, 8-2 - The Hoosiers now have two of those “shouldn’t have” losses on their docket. I’m now saying a loss to Wisconsin at home and one on the road to Illinois are bad losses, but this is supposed to be the number one team in the country and the class of the league. If you plan on winning the Big Ten and looking for that #1 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, where the regionals are played in Indianapolis, then you cannot afford another loss like these. They are still tied for first at 8-2, but their margin for error is a lot smaller than the other contenders. It will not be an easy road for the Hoosiers either. Up next is a road trip to Ohio State on Sunday, who are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Michigan. It is the first of two games they will have against the Buckeyes. Plus, Indiana has road trips remaning at Michigan State, Minnesota, and Michigan. There could be three losses in those five games very easily. That is why the Wisconsin and Illinois losses are so damaging.
Michigan – 21-2, 8-2 - The biggest winner in last night’s Indiana loss may be the Wolverines, who have the easiest road remaning of the top Big Ten teams. Not that it is simple by any means. They still have two games with rival Michigan State, and Saturday’s trip to Wisconsin, along with the season finale March 10th tilt with Indiana at the Crisler Center. In between though, Michigan gets two games with the horrific Penn State Nittany Lions, Illinois at home, and a soft Purdue team on the road. The key for Michigan is to hold serve at home. With the way their schedule lays out, if they take care of business at the Crisler Center, they will most likely win at least a share of the regular season title. Something important to watch for here – the health of big man Jordan Morgan. Ohio State destroyed them on the offensive glass Tuesday night as Morgan sat on the bench with an ankle injury. He has been badly missed as their most experienced and polished big man.
Michigan State – 19-4, 8-2 - Ho hum, just another year where Tom Izzo takes a group of kids that don’t look as talented as the rest and has them right at the top of the league and looking like a Final Four club. The Spartans have won eight of nine and should continue the hot streak as they go to Purdue over the weekend. But then they enter their toughest stretch of the season. Starting with the February 12th game against Michigan, they play four of their next five against top ten teams – Michigan twice, Indiana, and Ohio State. They close with two very winnable home games against Wisconsin and Northwestern. With his key reserve guard Travis Trice still out with his second concussion of the season, Izzo has had to rely on his starters more than he would like to. However, he is getting quality minutes off the bench from freshman guard Denzel Valentine. The emergence of PF Adrien Payne, who is coming into his own on the offensive end, has been a big boost.
Ohio State 17-5, 7-3 - Like Izzo, Thad Matta teams are noted for their toughness. This season has been no exception. Early on, especially after the home loss to Kansas, I think people started to question how good this particular group could be, but over the past month, they have shown they are still a force to be reckoned with. While the loss at Michigan was tough, they played their hearts out and certainly had their chances. You have to be encouraged by the play of LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams, two huge keys to this teams success. With that said, you can’t have your best player, Deshaun Thomas, taking zero shots in overtime. The remaning schedule for the Bucks is daunting. Two games remain with #1 Indiana, including Sunday’s matchup in Columbus. They also have two games left with Northwestern, one of the league’s worst teams. Travelling to Madison is never an easy place to play, and the Buckeyes have Michigan State, Minnesota, and Illinois at home, a game which will probably be the last in Columbus for Thomas. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least bit if the Bucks end up with a share of the Big Ten crown. It also would shock me if they lose four more games.
Wisconsin – 16-7, 7-3 - Bo Ball can be a bore. Coach Bo Ryan loves to slow the pace down, take good shots, and play rugged defense. This season had the look of perhaps the worst team in his tenure at Wisconsin, especially with the preseason loss of starting point guard Josh Gasser. But something just kicked in and here they are, right at the top of league once again. I cannot see this team hanging around all year, but stranger things have happened. In their last game, they needed double OT to beat Iowa at home, yet they own perhaps the most impressive league win of the year, at Indiana. They now enter a brutal three-game stretch with games against Michigan (home), Minnesota (road), and Ohio State (home). Yet four of their last five are meetings with the leagues worst teams – Nebraska, Purdue, Penn State, and Northwestern. Sandwiched in-between is a March 7th road tilt with Michigan State.
Minnesota 17-6, 5-5 - Yes, the Gophers are two games back of the top five teams, but they have the talent to go on a big winning streak and the schedule to match. Very few teams in the conference can matchup athlete for athlete with the Gophs, especially up front with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Austin Hollins can go for 30 on anyone. Plus, the Barn is one of the toughest places to win in the Big Ten. Back to their schedule. They still have to go to Ohio State, but other than that, their road games are all winnable – Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue. At home, they get Indiana, Illinois, Wiscconsin, and Penn State. This at worst has 5-3 written all over it. At worst.
As I said before, the Big Ten has never been this good, deep, and exciting. The race for the title is going to be very interesting. If the rest of the way is anything like this past week, we are all in for a treat.