With conference play beginning across the nation next week, one pressing question applies to much of the Midwest: When did the Big Ten become the “Mediocre 13 and Wisconsin?”
Outside of the Badgers, nearly every other team has fallen to a lesser opponent or otherwise faces serious issues coming into Big Ten play. However, it is conference competition where the separation is made and the boys become men. Some teams will see this, but most of the conference will have a long 2014-’15 season.
The Badgers are clearly the class of the league. Outside of a competitive loss to Duke at the beginning of the month, the Badgers boast neutral court wins over Georgetown and Oklahoma, along with road victories over Marquette and California. When accounting for size, experience, toughness, and defense, Wisconsin is one of the strongest teams in the country. Bo Ryan’s team should use its overall strength to play deep into March and maybe even into April. The only question is whether Wisconsin will lose more than one or two games in the conference.
Other than Wisconsin, Maryland has as close to a clean non-conference schedule as anyone in the Big Ten. The Terrapins’ lone loss is to a strong Virginia team, and they played the Cavaliers within nine points. Maryland also boasts wins over Iowa State in Kansas City and Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Much of this was done without Dez Wells, who makes a huge difference for Mark Turgeon’s squad. Wells is set to return soon and will provide an even larger infusion for the Terrapins just in time for conference play.
While Penn State sits at 12-1 with only an overtime loss to Charlotte, the Nittany Lions bear the question: Who have they played? Penn State has won by a combined 12 points in victories over Cornell (6-5), Marshall (4-8), Duquesne (4-5), and Drexel (2-8). The only wins that may carry any quality at all are December victories over ACC filler Virginia Tech and an average George Washington team. The honeymoon will be over soon for the Nittany Lions, as they travel to Wisconsin on Dec. 31 to open conference action.
Based on non-conference games, the Buckeyes find themselves somewhere in between Penn State and Maryland on the confidence barometer. While Ohio State does have a victory over Marquette, it also owns a road loss to Louisville and a neutral-court loss to North Carolina. It has to be said that the jury is still out on whether the Tar Heels are even a national contender. Outside of those three games, the Buckeyes have a lot of unimpressive home wins that prove next to nothing.
The success of the Buckeyes comes down to how quickly the squad gels on the court, but one thing is clear from the non-conference portion of the season: D’Angelo Russell can play. However, Russell shot a combined 10-of-37 against Louisville and North Carolina. That has to improve against good competition if the Buckeyes want to achieve at a high level.
While the Illini have shown flashes, like the win at Baylor, December was not easy on Illinois with losses to Miami (FL), Villanova, and Oregon.
Solely due to the Illini playing better teams out of conference, they will be more prepared for Big Ten play. While Illinois will not compete for the title, it has 0the look of a team that will be there in March and may get a couple of quality conference wins.
Those three teams round out the contenders in the Big Ten. Other squads either have an awful loss (most on the home court) or serious questions.
There are also several teams in the middle tier of the conference:
Similar to Illinois, Iowa did not make its non-conference schedule a cakewalk. Unlike the Illini, the only thing they Hawkeyes have to boast about is a victory in Chapel Hill. But, again, we do not know if North Carolina is really any good or just a traditional name. Iowa’s four losses to Syracuse, Texas, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa are by a combined 44 points, with only Syracuse being a close game. While it’s clear that the Hawkeyes will win some conference games, it’s hard to believe they will be anywhere but the middle of the conference.
The Gophers have many issues to address, despite just avoiding a terrible home loss by escaping 2-8 Furman in their most recent contest. The Gophers have run the table so far in December, but the combined record of their opponents is 25-45. All those games, except Wake Forest, were at home. While November did feature a neutral-court victory over Georgia, it is hard putting much stock in the SEC and in Richard Pitino’s squad as a whole.
Similar to Minnesota, the Hoosiers appear to be in the middle tier of the conference. Unlike the Gophers, Indiana does have a couple of quality wins. In December, the Hoosiers beat Pittsburgh at home and Butler in Indianapolis. While the loss to Eastern Washington looked bad on the surface, the Eagles may turn out to not be that bad. However, if you’re Indiana, you cannot lose to Eastern Washington at home. Indiana appears to be a team that has to outscore its opponents and run the floor. Not having the ability to score in the halfcourt or defend at a high level could be serious issues for the Hoosiers.
While the Spartans showed some flashes in non-conference play that they may be better than preseason predictions, they also showed that they could be due for a big drop-off. Michigan State beat Marquette on a neutral floor and nearly beat Notre Dame on the road, but the Spartans also lost to two-win Texas Southern in East Lansing. While there is typically about as much of a chance that Tom Izzo will fail in a given season as Urban Meyer will in football, it is tough having much confidence that this particular group at Michigan State can be much above a seven or eight seed at best in March.
Now to the worst of the worst:
The Wildcats do not typically carry a lot of expectations, and 2014-’15 looks to be nothing new. A 13-point home loss to Central Michigan is the most recent of these losses. Though Central Michigan appears to be a fairly strong squad, it has to be said that when you combine that result with a close overtime win over Elon just after a two-point win over North Florida, it looks like a long season in Evanston.
The Cornhuskers have three losses to Rhode Island, Incarnate Word (yes, that Incarnate Word), and at Hawaii. This will continue into the Big Ten, as Nebraska may be lucky to win two or three conference games. The one bright spot was a win at Florida State, which makes one ponder if Florida State is one of the most disappointing teams in the nation.
After a close loss to Kansas State on a neutral floor, some were wondering if Purdue was going to be better than expected this season. However, after four losses in the last six games, including North Florida and Gardner-Webb in West Lafayette, the heat on the seat for Matt Painter is starting to simmer. While there is some improvement in evidence for the Boilermakers this year, it will take an awful lot to save their season and likely Painter’s employment.
Two Big Ten failures that slightly flew under the radar were Rutgers’ home losses to St. Francis (PA) and St. Peter’s. Mostly, that is due to the low expectations for the Scarlet Knights. Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers, it’s going to be another long one in 2015.
And last, but not … well, let’s not lie… probably least, it’s Michigan. After lofty preseason expectations, the Wolverines had to rely on a win over Coppin State to break a four-game losing streak which included New Jersey Institute of Technology, Eastern Michigan, and SMU… all at home. After being ranked No. 23 in the preseason Coaches’ Poll, Michigan has dropped farther than a rock, or being tied to Brady Hoke. You thought football was long, Wolverines? Just wait.