On the surface, the Big Ten season has been a march to a mundane tune. Michigan State, one the country's most successful programs since Tom Izzo arrived in East Lansing, Mich., back in 1995, has plowed to a 9-0 start in conference play. The Spartans lead a gaggle of schools by three games. Same old story, right?
It may turn out to be that way. The Spartans had been more of a postseason beast than a conference contender before last season, when MSU won the Big 10 by four games over Purdue and Illinois. It's always the Big Dance that counts the most for Michigan State and, as we wrote in this year's College Basketball Prospectus, no coach has been more succesful at coaxing mayhem out of his team in March than Izzo.
As the Spartans prepare to pay a visit to Madison, Wisc., tonight for a nationally-televised contest against Bo Ryan's scrappy Wisconsin Badgers, you can't help but wonder if there is a tempest brewing beneath those placid Great Lakes waters.
Michigan State currently is tabbed as a No. 2 seed by Joe Lunardi of Bracketology fame. The Sparties are ranked fifth in the wire polls and sport a No. 11 RPI. If Izzo's quest is to land a No. 1 seed and make a run at Kansas for top-dog status in the St. Louis regional, the next eight days will be crucial. After Wisconsin, Michigan State heads to Champaign, Ill., to play an Illinois team that is tied for second in the conference, but is currently out of the NCAA Tournament mix at Bracketology. You'd expect the Illini to be all-in for Saturday's potential resume-builder.
Next Tuesday, the Spartans host Purdue, which has bounced back from a three-game losing streak early in the conference schedule to win its last four games. The Boilermakers looked very much like a Final Four contender for most of the non-conference season and will be a test for a Michigan State team that could well enter the game on a two-game skid. If the next eight days go badly for MSU, the aforementioned gaggle (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue) might be breathing down their proverbial throat. On the flip side, if Michigan State can win all three games in this stretch, the road to No. 1 seed will be that much more clear.
Ken Pomeroy has the Big 10 currently ranked as the fourth-best conference in the land, up one spot from last season because of the Pac 10's down season. Despite that, Lunardi currently projects just four Big 10 teams for March Madness, fewer than not only the power conferences (Big East, ACC, Big 12) but also the SEC and Atlantic 10. Pomeroy has three Big 10 teams in his top 10: Wisconsin (5), Purdue (8) and Ohio State (10).
Notice who is missing?
Michigan State's No. 18 ranking is surprisingly low given its overall record (19-3) and wire service status, if you bother to look at such relics of subjective groupthink. The Spartans' strength of schedule is tepid (50th), which does little to enhance the computer's opinion of MSU's string of close wins. That doesn't mean the Pomeroy's computer is right, it just means we necessarily have to view Michigan State with a healthy degree of skepticism.
So if the jury is still out on Michigan State's elite status, then the four tournament shoo-ins in the Big 10 are much closer in quality than the current standings would suggest. This wouldn't be a surprise to any consumer of tempo-free data, but might startle those who follow the conference in a more timeworn fashion.
Before this season, I paid only tangential attention to the Big 10 because of my location in the heart of Big 12 country. To be honest, I looked at the Big 10 as an overrated conference with style-of-play issues. Yeah, the Big 10 had eight Final Four teams during the last decade, but anything can happen in the one-and-done format of the bloated postseason. This season, I've been forced to become better educated. In Chicago, it's impossible for a college sports fan to ignore the Big 10. It's not quite like using tiny clamps to force open Malcom McDowell's eyes so he has to watch ultraviolence, but it's something like that. The Big 10 is big in this town. You can't escape it. (Meanwhile the Big East which, if you didn't know, has an outlet in Chicago, is just a rumor.)
What I've found is that the Big 10's reputation for physical play is more or less deserved, as is its eye-rolling tendency towards slower-paced, lower-scoring games
. (Hey, I like up-and-down basketball. Sue me.) The overall athleticism in the conference is stronger than I anticipated. Minnesota, for example, is laden with outstanding athletes, even if most of them aren't blessed with ancilliary skills like, say, the ability to make a jump shot. Refamiliarizing myself with a conference I had dismissed for most of my adult life has been what a friend of my would call, 'A kick in the junk from the wayback machine.' I was an Iowa fan growing up and followed the Big 10 with the persistence of a methhead. When I decided to attend college in what was then Big Eight country, my interest in Iowa and its athletic conference fell by the wayside.
For awhile, it looked like I had picked the perfect year to get back on board with the Big 10. First, it looked like Northwestern--long a school I've rooted for--was poised to make a serious run at its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. My antenna for Good Stories started beeping and I began going to the Wildcats' games to collect material for a feature that, sadly, appears headed for an unhappy ending. Then, after the college football regular season ended, the Big 10 decided it was going to explore the question of conference expansion. My school--Missouri--was (and is) oft-mentioned as a potential new member, a notion which I wholeheartedly endorse. Somewhere in all of this, I found myself watching Michigan State playing Minnesota, and Purdue taking on Wisconsin and many other Big 10 clashes--the conference was back on my personal radar.
Fickle as I am, I've gone from being a Big 10 critic to a Big 10 apologist and, as such, I'm somewhat appalled by the notion that only four teams appear to have a strong case for the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is engimatic as they come. The Gophers have all those athletes (Damian Johnson, Rodney Williams), a legit big man (Ralph Sampson III) and one of the nation's best pure shooters (Blake Hoffarber). Yet this collection of talent has managed to lose eight games already this season.
Northwestern began its conference slate with a murderous schedule and stands 3-6 against Big 10 opponents. The Wildcats don't have any bad losses in conference play, but have left a trail missed opportunities. With a sagging RPI rating and a suddenly mundane won-loss record, Northwestern is going to have to run off an improbable string of victories to get back onto the bubble. The schedule from here on out is more favorable, but the Wildcats need to go at least 6-3 to have any hope at all. One would think.
Illinois is already on the bubble. Whether it stays there will be determined over the next couple of weeks. The Illini's next five games are against Iowa (away, a likely win), Michigan State (home), Wisconsin (away), Ohio State (home) and Purdue (away). One way or another, the Illini are probably going to play their way off the bubble.
While Michigan State is left in the enviable position of merely trying to live up to a gaudy won-lost record, the Big 10's other top teams all have had issues to work through.
Wisconsin has had to play through the loss of its top player, Jon Leuer, who had surgery on his fractured left wrist, which was injured on Jan. 9. Leuer was the Badgers' top rebounder and offensive player, who took 31 percent of his team's shots while on the floor. Leuer has a nice shooting touch with step-out range and is in fact always looking to drift to the three-point line. But he's very active on the offensive end and isn't afraid to work the lane when the opportunity arises. If he makes it back, the righty-shooting big man will be quite a boost to a team in position for spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, the seed Wisconsin ultimately lands is uncertain. The Badgers have gone 3-2 in Leuer's absence, heading into tonight's clash with Michigan State.
Purdue has had to overcome rebounding problems. The Boilermakers rank a very un-Big-10-like 180th in offensive rebound percentage. The topic raises the hackles of Purdue coach Matt Painter, who told me that at times, "If Robbie Hummel doesn't get it, we don't get it." That offensive rebound percentage is not a function of design. Painter says he often sends four players to the offensive glass. Purdue was beaten soundly on the boards in losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, then was hammered with a 42-23 rebound margin at Northwestern that even John Gasaway couldn't dismiss. During its current four-game streak, the Boilermakers have been much better off the glass, especially in its return match with Wisconsin. In that game, Purdue nabbed 11 of its 29 misses, while allowing the Badgers to retrieve just seven of their 33 misfires.
Ohio State of course played through the absence of box-score-stuffer Evan Turner, injured in a nasty fall back in December that momentarily cast his hoops future in doubt. Turner has been outstanding since returning after the new year and the Buckeyes have gone 7-2 since his return. In fact, Ohio State is 14-3 with Turner in the lineup for the season. The Buckeyes still have road games remaining against Illinois and Michigan State, as well as a home matchup with Purdue.
Purdue and Ohio State both appear to be well-positioned to make a run at Michigan State. Whether or not Wisconsin can jump into the picture will largely depend on if it can defend its homecourt tonight against the Spartans, even with its top player on the sideline.
As we enter the heart of the conference season, the storylines in the Big 10 are plentiful and are only enhanced by the fact that the team everyone is aiming for appears to be vulnerable. There are stories at the top (can anyone catch Michigan State?) and stories in the middle (can Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota make a run?) and probably stories at the bottom, which we'll ignore for now. I'm glad I decided to tune back in.
You can go read my caterwauling and pontificating Tweets at @bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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