Big Ten’s Pre-Christmas Breakdown
You want a laugh, find a copy of Bill Cosby’s “Himself” DVD. You want a chuckle, look at this season’s preseason prognostications, one month later.
Before Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie came out for Kentucky’s Midnight Madness and tried to secure a dozen letters of intent from 8th graders in the crowd and before Tom Izzo turned back the clock and dress in 1970s garb for MSU faithful, the college basketball season seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
North Carolina would run away with the NCAA National Championship; Tyler Hansbrough would cruise toward national player of the year honors; And Purdue and Michigan State were going to dominate the Big Ten.
Just five weeks later, only one of those statements seems true (UNC seems destined to win the title, though Hansbrough has plenty of competition for college basketball’s MOP award).
As for the Big Ten… Well, it doesn’t look like MSU and Purdue received the memo.
A quick peek at the conference standings has Minnesota on top at 10-0 and Ohio State second at 9-0. Even Illinois and Penn State have 10 wins while Iowa has nine. Purdue and Michigan State are near the bottom of the conference because each team has suffered a pair of losses. The standings likely won’t look the same in March, but it is still amusing to see Northwestern, Iowa and Penn State ahead of Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State this late in December.
Here’s a quick look at what each team has (or hasn’t) accomplished up to this point and what the future holds (Teams are listed in order of current Big Ten standings):
Biggest win: 70-64 vs. Louisville (in Glendale, Ariz.)
Breakdown: Before Saturday’s huge win against Louisville, Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers had played such a cupcake schedule that even Hostess would have been jealous. A quick 9-0 start was great, but Saturday’s upset puts Minnesota in a clearer light: The Gophers won’t be a pushover with Tubby Smith on the bench. It still seems Minnesota will have to win some key Big Ten games because getting near near 20 wins is nice, but drawing a reaction from the selection committee will be easier with more than one big win. Right now, Minnesota has one quality wins and a poor strength of schedule.
Ohio State (9-0)
Biggest win: 67-62 vs. Notre Dame (at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis)
Breakdown: A source told me the crowd at Indianapolis’ neutral site could have been mistaken for an Ohio State home game. (This same source also questioned the officiating). This win will likely put Ohio State on top of other bubble teams since Notre Dame is a lock to finish in the top four of the “Mega Conference” known as the Big East. The win at Miami will be disputed since Miami’s Jack McClinton was ejected 10 minutes into the game (Miami was leading 19-7 at the time). But it was a road win against a projected tournament team. The most recent win against Butler – a game the Buckeyes tried to give the Bulldogs with no avail – also might be considered a “lucky” win but it is a victory that will resonate deep into the season.
Biggest win: 69-63 at Vanderbilt (editor’s note: now 73-56 over Missouri)
Breakdown: Bruce Weber, knowing his Illini team is still a year away from really competing in the Big Ten, kept the big boys off his nonconference schedule this year in hopes of sneaking into the Big Ten with a large quantity of wins but no quality to them. Illinois hasn’t been blowing teams out (with the exception of Mizzou) but the defense is the team’s calling card yet again (see the 48-44 win against Tulsa). Illinois still plays defense with the best of ‘em, but scoring, once again, seems to be a major problem.
Biggest win: 73-59 vs. Florida State in ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Breakdown: The Wildcats haven’t been tested thus far but for once Northwestern looks to have a better-than-.500 team. This Saturday’s game against Stanford will tell us more about the Wildcats, but the Big Ten’s perennial doormat isn’t looking so bad this season.
Biggest win: 65-63 vs. Kansas State
Breakdown: Nothing but easy wins so far for Todd Lickliter’s team. There are no tough games on the docket before the Big Ten season kicks off, so Iowa should get that 10th win before conference play begins. In all reality, we won’t be able to validate Iowa’s success until mid-January at the earliest.
Penn State (9-2)
Biggest win: 85-83 at Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Breakdown: I wasn’t putting too much stock in Penn State’s win against the Yellow Jackets as it was. But then I received the following message from a fellow Bracketography colleague: “I went to see the Yellow Jackets play last night and they are terrible.” The truth is, no one was penciling the Nittany Lions in the NCAA Tournament let alone the Final Four after the victory, so there isn’t any reason to get too high on the subject. Regardless, Penn State has looked respectable so far in 2008. There aren’t any big wins yet, but the Nittany Lions are just looking for wins in general. Penn State should be 11-2 heading into conference play. The jury will be out until mid-January on whether Penn State is a contender or pretender.
Biggest win: 76-58 vs. Davidson (Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis)
Breakdown: The Baby Boilers are still a solid club despite two losses in the team’s two biggest tests (vs. Oklahoma and vs. Duke). This is still one of the nation’s stingiest defenses but the offense will have to play more consistent for this team to play deep into March. I will say Purdue’s performance against a bigger and stronger Oklahoma team, despite the defeat, made me a bigger believer in the Boilermakers’ possible success this season. While many people expected Purdue to win the game, I anticipated Oklahoma not only winning but also dominating the game in the paint. Instead, Purdue’s small-ball style took the Sooners into overtime before Blake Griffin took over. It is one of those losses that will only help Purdue both in confidence and in the eyes of the selection committee. Don’t overlook the win against Davidson. It wasn’t really a neutral site and this Davidson team isn’t nearly as good as last year’s team, but the way Purdue shut down Stephen Curry and held a potent Davidson to 58 points can’t be ignored.
Biggest win: 74-72 at Virginia Tech in ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Breakdown: We all expect Wisconsin to be solid every year given Bo Ryan’s track record. But this Wisconsin team doesn’t seem to have that “it” all of Ryan’s other teams had. Marcus Landry is a nice player, but he’s no Devin Harris or reminiscent of the other Badger greats. Two big games are on tap (vs. Texas and at Michigan – the Big Ten’s surprise team). We’ll get a better read on Wisconsin by New Year’s Day.
Biggest win: 55-52 vs. UCLA (Coaches vs. Cancer)
Breakdown: No team in the country has two better wins than Michigan’s early-season shockers. I’m on record explaining why Michigan wasn’t supposed to reach the NCAA Tournament until the 2009-10 season. I might still be right, but the win over UCLA on a neutral floor and the win, two weeks later, against Duke (Michigan whipped the Blue Devils in a game Duke wasn’t really in for most of the second half) will be hard to ignore come Selection Sunday for a bubble team. The Wolverine’s Big Ten schedule is back loaded with two games against Purdue and the only meeting against Michigan State coming after January 30 (Michigan also travels to Connecticut in February). No one is sure how this story will play out, but if the season ended today, this team is in.
Michigan State (8-2)
Biggest win: 67-63 vs. Texas (in Houston)
Breakdown: Michigan State missed the opportunity to play Gonzaga and either Tennessee or Georgetown early this year and was humiliated by North Carolina. That means MSU’s “brutal” schedule really won’t prove to be that tough in 2008-09. It’s true that Goran Suton, MSU’s senior center, missed nearly three weeks due to injury but a team with that much talent shouldn’t lose to anyone by 35 points, even if that team could likely defeat the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. There was one glimmer of hope Saturday when MSU defeated a really good Texas team. It was a de facto road game and the Spartans, for once, actually played like a Top 10 team. It was a big win for MSU for two reasons: It gave the Spartans a major win before conference play and it helps validate the preseason expectations put upon Tom Izzo’s team. Right now, take away the preseason hype and this team has one big win and a handful of disappointments. Beating Texas in Houston will only get you so far, meaning MSU still has plenty of work to do in order to climb back up the seeding ranks.
Biggest win: 81-79 vs. Chaminade
Breakdown: Ok, maybe the win against Division I-AA Chaminade isn’t Indiana’s best (I suppose a 66-56 win over TCU is better) but does it really matter? This team doesn’t have any good wins and has five good losses. It is basically a team made up of walk-ons who couldn’t win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this season. Tom Crean also inherited a brutal schedule (vs. Notre Dame, at Wake Forest, vs. Gonzaga, at Kentucky). If Indiana wins 15 games, Tom Crean should be named Big Ten Coach of the Year. If he wins 10, that’ll be just about what any good coach would be able to do with this team.
NCAA TOURNAMENT PECKING ORDER
If the tonight was Selection Sunday, this is the order Big Ten teams would be considered for the NCAA Tournament (it eliminated preseason expectations and looks strictly at resumes).
2. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
8. Penn State