Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is famous for preparing his Spartan teams for March. It never matters how many regular season losses they have – the book on Michigan State is, watch out at tournament time. Now it seems the rest of the coaches in the Big Ten are following his lead. When they began conference play in late December, only Penn St. and Nebraska were untested by top 25 teams, and the absolute unpredictability that has been the Big Ten Conference slate so far shows it.
Long known more for bruises than ball handling, The Big Ten has turned itself into one of the top leagues in the country, perennially rivalling the ACC, Big 12 and the league formerly known as the Big East as the country’s best. Nine of the twelve teams in the Big Ten are currently at .500 or lower in league play, yet only the Big Ten, of the six major conferences, can brag that all of its teams are at or above .500 overall. Northwestern is the only school at .500, and they’re still in the middle of the conference standings, having recently knocked off Wisconsin in Madison. This has truly proven to be a league where anybody can beat anybody, more often than not each other.
I have no trouble remembering the days when non-conference schedules consisted of patsy after patsy. Pre-Jud Heathcote, Michigan State barely left their home state before Big Ten play commenced. It wasn’t until the mid-70’s that top teams agreed to play each other in December, and those games were not common. The esteem and recruiting power that flows from the NCAA tournament has turned that completely around, and the Big Ten is leading the way. The Big Ten – ACC Challenge, the first depth test between major conferences in NCAA history, is now 15 years old, with the Big Ten winning or tying the last five. The word is out there – Big Ten schools are afraid of no one, and this season’s results are showing the country why.
Monday’s AP poll is the first all season to include less than four Big Ten teams in the top 25. Wisconsin and Ohio St. currently sit 26th and 27th. Indiana and Illinois have both occupied the 26th slot at one time this year as well. Big Ten fans have long suffered the disdain of the national media as step-sisters to the vaunted ACC and Big East, but this year’s conference depth is second to none.
Now that the Big East has been basically disassembled, the days of leagues placing eight teams in the NCAA tournament are probably over. With nine games and the Conference Tournament remaining, however, seven Big Ten teams making the Dance is not a stretch at all. Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin each must go into the tank to miss, while Minnesota and Indiana are holding strong cards as well. An eighth team is unlikely, but look out for the league’s bottom five in the NIT. Every one of them will be well-tested.
Arizona’s loss to Cal, alongside Duke scaring the daylights out of still-undefeated Syracuse, has re-opened popular thought at the top of college basketball. Nobody will ever go undefeated again – you heard it here first. Stronger non-conference schedules and the ridiculously tough NCAA tournament have pretty much guaranteed that. If Michigan State gets healthy, if Ohio State and Wisconsin can right their ships; if Michigan and Iowa continue their take-no-prisoners play, the Big Ten Tournament will be but a prelude to late March’s fireworks.
And it all started with December’s tough schedule.