It’s not the land of milk and honey, but it’s close. The Big Ten Conference season kicked off last night, and the games reinforced the notion that this league will reprise its status as the nation’s best college basketball conference. The next two months will have plenty of insecure fan bases overreacting to losses, startling performances, and strange results that will be over-analyzed for days. Non-conference play suggests that there are four teams capable of winning the league, but their order of finish is up for debate.
The No. 4 Badgers are going to benefit from imbalanced scheduling, as they play co-favorites Michigan State and Ohio State once each. Both of those meetings are in Madison, where Wisconsin is 188-18 under Bo Ryan. Wisconsin needs to kick its habit of beating the big boys but losing to other teams. Last season the Badgers defeated Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana, but lost to Purdue and Iowa while needing a buzzer-beater from Traevon Jackson to beat Penn State. Wisconsin has its most athletic team in years, and the favorable schedule should lead to a Big Ten record of 14-4 and a regular-season title.
The No. 5 Spartans have spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation this year, and while they’ve only lost one game, they have shown signs of vulnerability. Lead guard Gary Harris has missed time due to injury and the team has played to the level of its competition too often to believe that the Spartans will be the champion of the Big Ten. Michigan State has the best starting lineup in the conference, and if Tom Izzo can find some depth and consistency in this bunch, the Spartans are the conference’s best chance to win the national title in March. Sparty will play a tough combination of league games — they have a front-loaded schedule — and will finish 13-5.
T-2. Ohio State Buckeyes
The No. 3 Buckeyes are currently the highest-ranked Big Ten team because of their defensive prowess and fundamentally sound play. Thad Matta must have been overjoyed when he realized that he would field a veteran team after years of parading McDonald’s All-Americans throughout town only to see them leave Columbus after one or two seasons. The Buckeyes start two seniors and three juniors — they’ve used the same combination in every game — so their experience should make them front-runners for the league title. However, Ohio State is a poor outside-shooting team whose offense is completely mediocre when they don’t get out in transition for layups and easy alley-oops. The Buckeyes will split with Michigan State and finish tied for second with the Spartans at 13-5.
The No. 22 Hawkeyes have a powerful offense and a deep lineup. Iowa is going to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, but last night’s conference opener was disappointing. Yes, Iowa beat Nebraska 67-57 in Iowa City, but the Huskers are expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. The Hawkeyes struggled to put the Cornhuskers away although Nebraska shot a pitiful 30 percent from the field. This team needs to learn how to play on a more even keel before it will begin to close out games with regularity. I worry that disciplined, veteran teams will still take advantage of Iowa mentally. However, the Hawkeyes’ overall talent and hunger will push them to at 12-6 record and a spot within the league’s upper echelon.
There are at least three other teams that could play well enough to end up with a top-four finish in the Big Ten. Right now, the four teams above are the only four ranked teams in the Big Ten because they are the most complete teams in the league. The are the most healthy, disciplined, balanced, and well-coached teams in the league, and their intangibles will allow them to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.