Big Ten Fans in for a Wild Ride
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by Chris Mackinder
If you've been following the games in the Big Ten recently, you're probably in need of some Dramamine.
The most wide-open race in college basketball is getting hotter and hotter each week and there are no signs that it will slow down between now and Selection Sunday.
Illinois, Michigan and Iowa all top the league at 6-2, but there are seven teams within a game of the conference lead in the loss column. Seven! Indiana and Wisconsin both sit at 5-3 while Ohio State and Michigan State are tied for sixth at 4-3.
Typically, league races are a little clearer at this point. Take the ACC for instance. Duke has a tight hold on the conference, while only N.C. State is expected to challenge the Blue Devils for the crown. But in the teams' only meeting this year, Duke defended its home court with a 13-point win.
In the Big 12, Texas tops the league while a trio of teams - Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas - sit a game behind. Still, only Oklahoma is looking like a serious threat to challenge the Longhorns for the league title.
LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky are the class of the SEC and all four could win the league. The problem is that LSU, arguably the best team of the four, is the only one in a weak West Division so the Tigers are often forgotten. The Vols, Gators and Wildcats all have their flaws and are hit-or-miss on any given night but it's turning into a decent 3-team race in the East Division.
The Pac-10 is slightly more open, but not by much. UCLA's 8-2 mark is best in the Pac-10 but the injury-riddled Bruins are fighting off California and Stanford (both a game back) while USC, Arizona and Washington are two games back. Not much is thought of the Golden Bears or the Trojans - this isn't football - and Stanford has been so inconsistent all year that it's tough to judge the Cardinal. That leaves Washington and Arizona as the main threats, but both teams already are two games back and will have to make serious runs to prevent UCLA's return to glory.
Which brings us back to the wild world of the Big Ten. Look at the seven teams in contention: No. 6 Illinois (National Runner-up last year, 20-2 this season), No. 21 Michigan (filled with upperclassmen, 16-3 record), No. 23 Iowa (wins over Kentucky, N.C. State and Illinois, 17-5 record), No. 22 Indiana (wins over Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State, 13-5 record), Wisconsin (Beat Iowa and Michigan State, 15-6 record), No. 20 Ohio State (Defeated LSU and Wisconsin, 15-3 record) and No. 12 Michigan State (six top 25 RPI wins; still seen as the best team in the conference and a Final Four pick, 16-5 record).
That all adds up to extreme balance. People will immediately look at a team like Michigan State to win the league because the Spartans are through the toughest part of their Big Ten schedule, were a preseason Final Four favorite and have Tom Izzo on their bench. Michigan State also has benefited from a tough nonconference slate that featured Gonzaga and Arizona in the Maui Invitational and neutral-site games against Boston College and Wichita State. Yet the Spartans are still looking up at a herd of teams, not to mention in a four-year Big Ten title drought.
Illinois is the easy choice. The Fighting Illini have the league's best player in Dee Brown, just won at the Kohl Center in Wisconsin and are tied with Duke for the most wins in the country. But Illinois still has trips to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Michigan is the sexy choice as the Wolverines are ranked for the first time since the 1997-98 season and are looking to bring the Maize 'n Blue back into the national spotlight for good. However, Michigan's final four games in the Big Ten are brutal: at Michigan State, vs. Illinois, at Ohio State, vs. Indiana.
Nothing jumps out about Iowa but the Hawkeyes keep winning. The brutal nonconference schedule which featured Kentucky, Texas, N.C. State and Northern Iowa has paid off and other than a 30-point blowout loss at Michigan State, Iowa's experienced club has looked like a conference champion. But let's not forget Iowa hasn't won a Big Ten Championship since it won a share of the crown in the 1978-79 season.
At one point, Indiana's players and coaching staff felt the Hoosiers were a Top 5 team. That was when D.J. White came back from his early-season injury. Now that he's out for the season, the Hoosiers are fighting to find an identity and are still tinkering with their lineup. It seems a little late in the season for a would-be conference winner to be shuffling the lineup. That said, Indiana has played a vicious schedule - Connecticut comes to Bloomington on Saturday - so no one can say Indiana's not battle-tested.
Wisconsin has won a share of three of the last four Big Ten titles so it is no surprise the Badgers are in the mix. But the home loss to North Dakota State is so puzzling and looks to be a sign that Wisconsin's best basketball happened in November and December. Then again, Michigan State won the National Championship in 2000 after losing to Wright State mid-season.
Finally there are the Buckeyes. Ohio State rolled through its nonconference schedule at 11-0 and baffled opponents with its 1-4 offense. The problem with Ohio State is that it relies on the 3-point shot and on a day the triples aren't falling, the Buckeyes won't win. But with Thad Matta leading this squad, don't expect Ohio State to fall off the face of the Earth.
There are the resumes of the seven Big Ten title contenders. You can't separate them. And what makes shuffling through the numbers and projecting the future even more difficult - the conference has proven to have the best home court advantage. In games between the top seven teams, road teams are 2-25 (Michigan State won at Ohio State in double overtime on Jan. 15 and Illinois won at Wisconsin on Tuesday).
There will be plenty of matchups between these teams as we head down the stretch. All seven appear to be solid bets for the NCAA Tournament and it looks like the teams that can steal wins on the road will be in the best position to take home the Big Ten crown. Until then, its best to just sit back and watch the best conference race in the country play itself out.